Blurb: Nineteenth century Ireland. Blacksmith Gavin O’Malley is a bitter man, with a heart as hard as the iron he forges. He wants his life back—the one that was stolen from him the day his wife died in childbirth—taking their firstborn son with her.
When Aislinn Deirbhile, an immortal, shape-shifting fae, arrives on his doorstep, he knows he’s in luck. For Aislinn can give Gavin everything he’s been missing: A devoted-seeming wife in the image of his beloved Mairead, and children who are sure to outlive their father. Now, all he has to do is find a way to keep her—without losing his immortal soul in the process.
But Aislinn has an agenda of her own. On the run from a vengeful fae lord who’s vowed to either make her his or end her existence, she knows the iron that allows Gavin to take her captive will also keep her pursuers at bay. In order to put herself permanently beyond her enemy’s reach, however, Aislinn will need something more. She’ll need to win Gavin’s heart and convince him to willingly part with a piece of the very soul he’s trying to save.
It was just past midwinter, at the tail end of yet another cold, December day when Aislinn Deirbhile rode up from Killbanning. She halted her mount on the rutted, dirt track and surveyed the situation before her. O’Malley’s forge, and the smith’s cottage which was situated across the yard from it, stood all alone in a quiet hollow, just down the road from where Aislinn sat, steeped in thought. The horse on which she was riding, being of a breed perhaps more perceptive than most, was clearly as nervous as she at the prospect; he tossed his head and whinnied softly causing the silver bells on his harness to jingle.
“Milady,” pleaded the small man who rode at Aislinn’s side. “Will you not reconsider? Come away from this place—now, before it’s too late. My people are still willing to offer you shelter, as we have done ere these months past, and ye have yet to come to any harm with us.”
“Nay, Eoghan.” Aislinn smiled sadly at her companion. Though slight in stature, quite dwarfed, in fact, by the tall, silver-white steed upon which he sat, the spriggan’s courage was that of a giant. “You and your people are true friends indeed, but my enemy is at his strongest now. None can hope to stand against Annwn’s full might.” She turned her gaze back toward the small, stone buildings at the end of the lane and sighed. “If there is any shelter to be had against Winter, or if I’ve any hope of surviving the geasa that have been laid upon me, I must find them here.”
“But, Lady,” the little man implored, his distress evident in every line of his face. “How can there be any help for you here? A blacksmith. A worker in iron. The very ether is contaminated with its foul essence! Can you not smell it on the wind? Can you not almost taste it?”
“Oh, aye.” Aislinn grinned in reply. “And can you not imagine the look it will put on Tiernan’s face when first he tracks me here? How I wish I could see it!” But just thinking about Tiernan ap Annwn, her would-be husband—nay, her would-be jailer—wiped the smile from her lips in a hurry. She urged her horse forward. “Come. Let us make haste. Night is upon us.”
As they picked their way between the rocks and mud of the rutted boreen, Eoghan continued his litany of complaints. “Are ye still after putting your faith in that oracle you consulted this past Samhain? You canna be serous. You know as well as I that most of what occurs in the realm of the Fae is well outside the druid’s ken.”
“Indeed, my friend.” Aislinn inclined her head. “But, as I am banished from the Realm ’til Summer’s return, ’twas for information pertaining to this dimension that I sought out the Oracle of Death; as well as for advice on how I might best survive in this world.”
“Sure and that Druid must have imbibed a cup too much of the nawglan,” Eoghan said in tones of disgust. “To have bid you find shelter with a blacksmith.”
Aislinn sighed. “Ah, my friend, can you not at least enjoy the irony with me? Is not the plan elegant in its subtlety? Sure and ’tis the last thing Tiernan will be expecting me to do; and once I am safe behind yon walls even you must admit I will be beyond his reach for as long as I choose to stay there.”
“Aye, Lady.” Eoghan’s voice was grim. “And beyond the reach of any help such as I or mine might wish to offer you, as well. But why talk ye of choosing? Methinks you will not be safe once you are locked behind the walls of such a place. My Lord Tiernan is not the only one whose plans may be thwarted thus. That same iron you trust now to keep your too-ardent suitor out, may very well serve to keep you in.”
“I’m not unmindful of the risk, Eoghan. But, think you, how much trouble is one mortal man likely to present me? In any case, I’m sure and I’d rather take my chances with one such as he than fall prey to Tiernan’s tender mercies. I fear my actions these past months have not increased his lordship’s affection for me.”
Eoghan chuckled. “Nay. ‘Tis not likely he took it well—all his great plans laid bare aforetime and himself made to look foolish before both courts. Have a care, Lady. Even an you make it past this winter, there is still likely to be a reckoning between ye.”
“I know it,” she said as she sighed again. “But, hush, my friend. No more talk now. Even in this desolate place, the Night may have ears.”
The sound of their horses’ hooves, clattering against the cobbles, echoed loudly on the still, evening air as they entered the smith’s yard. Light spilled out onto the stones when the cottage door swung open and a man appeared in the doorway. Even with his face in shadow, Aislinn’s sight was such she could still detect the frown on his visage as he looked them over. His gaze swept her with barely a pause, seemed hardly to touch at all on Eoghan, who had cloaked his true form, and lingered longest on the horses.
He was an exceedingly well formed man, she observed; eyeing him back with interest for, after all, this was the man, or so the druid insisted, on whom her safety—nay, her very life—might well depend. She estimated his age at about three dozen summers, maybe a couple less. He stood well over six foot; strong and fit and fairly muscled, with hair dark as a raven’s wing and thick, straight brows which almost met above an equally straight nose. Several days’ worth of stubble darkened his cheeks and softened the angles of his jaw. She thought his face would have been quite pleasing, overall, were it not for the scowl that sat too comfortably upon his features, as though it had found a permanent home there.
“Well, then?” he asked, at last, and something about the deep timbre of his voice caused a shiver to run down Aislinn’s spine. “And what would you two be wanting?”
“Is it Mr. O’Malley to whom I’m speaking?” she inquired, still trying to determine, in the failing light, whether his eyes were as deep a blue as she suspected. “Mr. Gavin O’Malley? The blacksmith?”
“Aye. ’Tis my name,” he said. “Might I know yours?”
“Milady,” Eoghan whispered urgently as Aislinn threw him her reins and slid to the ground. “Have a care!”
“It is well,” she replied, amused by the spriggan’s concern. Did he think her so far gone in her fear as to forget herself and make a present of her name to the whole outdoors? Still shaking her head at his foolishness, she turned toward the mortal and smiled. “My name need not concern you, for now, sir smith. But, lo, the day grows late. Will you not invite me indoors that we might discuss our business in greater comfort?”
The smith folded his arms across his broad chest. “If we have any business to discuss, you and I, sure and we can do it here. But, as you say, ’tis late, and I am past wanting my supper. So, if your business has aught to do with shoeing your horses, you’d best come back on the morrow. For they’re decent looking creatures and ‘tis not a job I’d wish to hurry.”
At this, Eoghan uttered a muffled oath and the two coomlaen stamped restlessly. It was all Aislinn could do to keep from laughing at the suggestion. “Nay, it has naught to do with that.” She took a step closer, subtly altering her appearance, as she did. “But, are you so cruel hearted, then, you’d deny a lady the chance to warm herself at your hearth this bitter eve?”
The blacksmith’s eyes widened as he looked her over once again. “By the saints,” he said, his voice suddenly thick with concern. “Are you addled, lass? To be dressed as you are, and out on a night like this? Sure and it’s a wonder you’ve not caught your death already.”
“Might I not come in then?” she inquired again.
He nodded, still frowning. “Aye, to be sure. In with ye. Quick now, before your very feet freeze to the stones.”
Eoghan heaved a worried sigh as Aislinn flashed him one last glance. “Slán agat,” he whispered for her ears alone. “Farewell, Milady. And may your trip succeed with ye.”
“Slán leat, my friend,” she replied just as softly, lifting her hand in farewell. “And the same to you. Go raibh míle maith agat.” May you have a thousand good things. Then she turned her smile once again on the bemused blacksmith and took his arm and, together, they entered the cottage.
What madness is this? Gavin wondered, shaking his head like a man trying to awaken himself from a dream. Am I possessed, then? Or fallen into a dream?
It might well be a dream, he thought, given the woman’s appearance, for she was like none he’d ever seen in waking life. Tall and slim, she wore a filmy green gown that well displayed her narrow waist and ample breasts but was far more suitable for a summer’s day than the depths of winter. She had waves of bright hair that rippled down her back, eyes like a gray mist, and a voice whose spell you’d be glad to fall under, time and again. As for the rest of her—no, he’d not think on that.
He watched, bemused, as the creature boldly made herself at home in his cottage, tossing off the light cloak that was all she’d worn against the cold; going directly to his hearth and seating herself there beside his fire. She moved with confidence and grace and, indeed, there was such an air of nobility about her he was surprised when she chose the low sugan chair with its slatted back and seat of woven rope. He’d half expected her to claim the padded, wooden armchair for herself for it was larger and more comfortable looking, its leather coverings secured in place with rows of nails he’d fashioned himself.
“So, what is this business—?” he’d started to ask when a clatter of hooves on the stones outside reclaimed his attention. He turned in time to see the lady’s companion riding out past his gate, with her horse tied behind. Starlight shimmered on the horses’ white flanks, and the bells on their harnesses jingled softly as they jogged along.
“Hi,” Gavin called out to the man, though it seemed a great effort to speak at all. “Where the devil are you going then? Hi! Hi! Come back here.”
The rider made him no answer, but the look he gave, turning briefly in his saddle to gaze sternly over his shoulder at the smith, was chill and unearthly and Gavin felt his blood run cold. The rider’s eyes were pale, his face even paler, and his long, white hair outshone the moon. Gavin found himself suddenly speechless, marveling that he had not remarked the man’s strange appearance before; and he was reminded, all at once, of a daydream he’d had as a boy, whilst out walking in the woods one evening. Just such horses and riders he’d thought he’d seen then, through the shadows and the mist and the twilight; and though his father had pronounced it nonsense, his mother and grandmother had been sore troubled by his story.
Now, he stood in the doorway struck dumb by the sight, leaning out into his yard with one hand on the door and the other on the lintel, quite unable to gather the pieces of his thoughts together, ‘til the woman at his hearth called out, “Hurry, now. Come inside and latch the door before the Night crowds in on us.”
Barely aware of what he was about, Gavin stepped back into the cottage and closed the door behind him. The heavy clank of the latch as it dropped into place seemed to clear his head a little, but the green-clad woman shuddered at the sound.
“The windows too,” she urged impatiently, rubbing her hands up and down her arms as though she’d only now realized she was cold. “Lock them. Hurry.”
Gavin frowned. “I’ll thank ye to leave me the task of deciding for myself how my own household is to be run,” he replied, much annoyed, for he was not used to being ordered about in his own home. “As it happens, the windows have already been latched. Now, as to this business—”
“Truly? All of them? With iron locks and iron hinges?”
“Aye, iron, what else would they be made of, woman? What would you be expecting to find in a blacksmith’s house, then—tin?”
At that, the woman laughed; a sound as soft as a summer breeze lofting through green branches and just as sure to lift the hearts of those that heard it. Gavin had to shake himself awake again. “Ah, no,” she said, smiling at him. “The tinker’s art would in no wise serve me tonight. But this…” She looked around her, seemingly pleased. “Four walls with iron bound. This will do quite nicely.” She nodded at the hearth. “Now, you, sir, have a care, for I judge your supper is just about burnt.”
“Ah, the devil,” Gavin cursed as he rushed forward immediately to pull his bacon from the fire before the rashers were ruined. The rest of the meal he’d removed from the heat before he’d gone to the door so that all of it was ready now to eat; though most of it was colder than he’d have liked and the rest of it was overdone. He frowned at the woman who was the cause of all his troubles tonight and grudgingly asked, “I don’t suppose you’d be wanting some, now would ya?”
“Aye, I would indeed,” she said getting up at once and seating herself at his table. “And I thank you most kindly for the hospitality.”