Brigit ignored the sweat trickling down her spine and pursed her lips to blow a strand of copper hair out of her face. The shouts of dying humans were a low buzz as their blood stained the rock and scree on the mountain slope, scant feet above the tree line. Carrion birds circled overhead as they waited for their feast, their black forms casting shadows on the bodies below them as they rode thermals rising from the valley below. She stroked the gut of her bowstring, caressing it as she might touch a lover. The fingerless glove on her right hand was stained with use, but supple and giving. It smelled like leather, her own sweat, and of powdery rosin as she drew her ash bow, drawing a bead on the chest of her target.
He brought war. His brothers brought pestilence and famine. And death. Death came for everyone and she’d danced with that particular brother many times. Sometimes they danced a joyful reel like one might do around a maypole. Occasionally, they shared a sensual waltz between lovers as they stalked each other. Most often, she twirled in a flippant jig as she escaped him.
She inhaled and held her wind for a few seconds as she watched War fight. He was magnificent. Sweat gilded his muscled body as he raised his claymore above his head to deliver a blow to an unworthy opponent. Blond hair darkened with perspiration flew into otherworldly blue eyes and his teeth, bared in a feral grin, gleamed white in the afternoon sunlight. She hated that he enjoyed his grisly task.
She could smell him from her perch deep within the sheltering arms of a rowan tree. Spice, adrenaline, and something male and musky that made her guts twist. She ignored the uncomfortable sensation and loosed the taut string. The arrow flew from her bow like a hound seeking prey. Shaft of yew, hand fletched with the most perfect of goose feathers, it flew straight and true into the breast of her people’s foe.
And she ran like a hare when she realized she’d missed his thrice damned heart.
Prince Mordred stared down at the arrow shaft lodged in his chest. It wouldn’t kill him but damnation, it hurt! He tugged it out, wincing as it pulled free of his flesh. The bronze point was exceptionally well crafted, as was the shaft.
Dying humans littered the ground around him and his brothers stood sentinel over the mess on the field. A good war was a fine thing, but this was slaughter; an offering meant only to appease the mad king and the thirst of the Wild Hunt.
His breath came in short bursts of air as he tried to catch the archer’s unique scent. Ignoring his brothers’ taunts he cast about on the wind but found only the fragrance of rosin and heather.
Reykard, otherwise known as Death, chuckled under his breath. “I know that one, brother. She’s led me a merry chase for years. You won’t find Brigit unless she wants to be found.”
“Excuse me?” He scowled at his brother and kicked a human out of the way as he stomped across the clearing to reach him.
Reykard laughed heartily and pointed toward an aged rowan nestled in the tree line. “She went that way.”
“Brigit, the archer.” Reykard slapped him on the back. “Pretty little thing with red hair and green eyes. No taller than your elbow. You’ll know her if you see her.” He placed no particular emphasis on the word ‘if’ and Mordred scowled.
“You think I can’t find a single human female?”
Reykard chuckled. “I marked her almost five hundred years ago, brother. A very long time to exist under a death mark.”
His brother’s words explained much. “She’s not human,” Mordred said.
“No. I wonder why she’s decided to turn her bow in your direction, though.”
Mordred straightened and the flesh on his chest sealed as if he’d never been wounded. “Perhaps death isn’t what the fair Brigit wants.” He sheathed his sword and strode into the forest.
She didn’t run. Running only served to leave a scent trail and careless sign. Brigit was smarter than that, and the day was too fine for running. The sun touched the tips of the trees as it set, lending its warmth to the early highland fall. She loved sunset, the colors, the settling of the birds and animals into their rest, the promise of dawn. Tomorrow would likely be her final dawn. Death in the form of the Prince of War would come soon. She knew he hunted her, but he would have to work for it, and she swore to the ancient gods that she’d take him with her.
Life was hard enough for the scattered humans and the few remaining Faerie who hid from the Wild Hunt. She didn’t know why Oberon and his wretched sons brought their petty squabbles here and she didn’t care. They’d driven the Sidhe into the Summerlands and the highlands suffered for the loss. Against her mother’s wishes, she’d stayed behind to rid Caledonia of their presence, knowing she could never rejoin her people.
He would seek her. And they would both dance with the Prince of Death one last time. She smiled as she drifted off to sleep, nestled deep within the concealing branches of her forest.
The stag in front of him shook his antlered head, trying to entice him from his path. Mordred refused the invitation, focusing instead on the ephemeral scent of heather and rosin. Who was this woman who could tempt wild creatures to her bidding?
It disturbed him that a female Reykard had marked for death still walked the earth. He would have to end her. That went without saying. No one could go long under his brother’s mark and it would please him to succeed where his brother had failed so spectacularly.
Yet she’d made him bleed. His chest still ached from her arrow though no wound remained. When was the last time anyone had drawn blood from one of the Brothers? He considered asking Titania, but his mother was too remote to converse with her sons.
Asking Oberon wasn’t an option. Nobody got within a hundred leagues of him if they could help it. Not even his wife and sons. He shuddered at the thought of meeting the mad king of the dark elves.
He continued to track long through the gloaming and well after the moon shone bright over the forest, peeking shyly at him through the fecund branches of the oaks and spruce. He caught her scent on the breeze, but it came from all directions, making him want to howl in frustration.
He’d already killed two boars and a stag for their temerity. Imagine the dumb beasts crossing his path! Him! A blood Prince of Avalon! Birds harried him; sparrows and starlings through the day and owls once the moon rose. Incessantly pecking and driving him away from his path. Insufferable creatures, the lot! He’d half a mind to set the wood to flame.
The lone wolf gave him pause, grinning at him, fangs bared as it perched atop a boulder resting at the precipice of a steep escarpment. Tempting him to attack and fall to tooth and claw. Its feral howl was answered by the cries of its pack and Mordred turned away, knowing he was being herded. He allowed it but grudgingly. They wouldn’t be able to harm him, but he had no real quarrel with the pack.
Her enticing perfume maddened him. It was tantalizing and delicious, that mixture of heather and bowstrings. He imagined that he’d caught the fragrance of the woman a few times during his hunt, yet it was ephemeral and made him doubt his senses.
Howling sounded once again behind him and he trudged forward, knowing the archer lay in the other direction. Branches rustled in front of him and Reykard stepped out from the concealment of a bramble thicket, his eyes glinting in the moonlight. “You haven’t found her.”
He didn’t bother raising his voice at the end of his words to make the statement into a question and Mordred scowled. “No. The animals protect her.”
His brother nodded commiseratively. “They always have, though she chides them for it.” He followed along behind Mordred, humming under his breath. “She’s very beautiful.”
“Brigit, the archer.” He chuckled and sighed, placing a hand over his heart like a bard. “Eyes like spring grass, hair of beaten copper, and lips like the reddest of fall apples.”
Mordred snorted, His brother was ever fond of the fairer sex, though they never returned his interest. “Are you trying to sell her at the market? What does it matter what she looks like? You’ve already marked her for death.”
“You don’t even remember, do you?”
“What are you talking about?” He stomped forward, irritated with his brother and wanting to escape.
Reykard moved to cut him off, his smile replaced by a sober grimace. “The words of the curse placed upon us for our folly. You don’t remember the words.”
I damn you four, brothers in sin,
Brothers in arms, my unfortunate kin.
I curse you live without peace,
You will want without cease.
No home to bide,
Run from the sire you can’t outsmart,
Until you find a willing heart.
One for each treasonous son,
Find the heart, and the battle might be won.
Until you learn, you will all yearn,
For that which makes you burn.
“No, I remember every single word that mad bastard said.” He scowled and rubbed the mark on his shoulder. His brothers all bore such a brand, visual proof of their sire’s curse. “I’m not likely to forget.”
Reykard nodded and shifted his massive bulk, his footsteps making no sound on the mossy ground. “I wondered if Brigit might be one of those willing hearts and I sought to catch her.”
“Willing to do what?” Mordred snapped. “None of us know what mad King Oberon was saying half the time, and Titania has been in hiding for almost two thousand years.” He frowned and added, “Not that I blame her.”
“Think about the words, brother,” Reykard whispered. “Father said the battle might be won if we found the heart.”
Mordred snorted. “You know the mad king was feeding us pap and gruel with that silly verse.” He couldn’t fathom why his younger sibling still insisted on calling that old bastard father.
“What if he wasn’t? Ask yourself if fair Brigit makes you burn.” Reykard shouldered his pike and disappeared into the nascent dawn mist.
Mordred sat down under a tree, his arms resting on bent knees. The time between night and day had always been his favorite. Lasting only a scant few minutes, it was as if the world held its breath as it waited for dawn to bring wakefulness to the creatures of the sun and sleep to those who obeyed the moon’s tenets. His brother’s words ate at him, and he wondered if there had been some wisdom in them. Brigit did make him burn, but he didn’t know if it was from anger or lust. It was often hard to tell the two apart. He sighed and got to his feet. His prey would soon be on the move.
The light of false dawn cast the wood in silver as the scent of her filled his lungs and his mouth watered as a flash of beaten copper hair appeared in the distance. Not rosin and heather, but spice and flowers. He opened his mouth to catch more of her enticing fragrance, drawing the aroma of warm female over his palate.
The stench of wild boar fouled the alluring scent of his prey and he turned, snarling viciously, to face the threat. The snarl became a feral smile as the beast launched itself at him, tusks bared to rend his chest. He would give fair Brigit one last meal, a fine repast to celebrate her skill before he defeated her. Blood poured from the wound in his gut as he slit the beast’s throat. He let the boar bleed out, giving its essence back to the forest as the wound on his belly sealed itself.
The trees kept their distance as he laid a fire, striking a spark with flint and the blade of his knife and soon he had a haunch roasting on a spit over the coals. Warming his hands over the fire, he turned the meat. He would continue his hunt for Brigit once it was ready for her.
“Why did you kill the boar? It did you no harm.”
Mordred leaped to his feet and spun around to face her. She had that deadly bow leveled at his chest as she waited for his answer. Pointed ears twitched as the breeze ruffled her hair. Her scent washed over him, the sweet fragrance making him close his eyes in pleasure, overcoming the odor of roasting meat.
“It’s for you.”
She shook her head, the movement dislodging copper hair tucked behind one ear. Mossy eyes flashed as she chuckled. “You shouldn’t have.”
He heard the twang of her bowstring an instant before the arrow lodged itself in his heart. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he tugged the arrow free. He wiped it on his breeches and bowing low, presented it to her on outstretched palms.
“What will you give me to spare your life?”
Her eyes never left his face as she chewed on her lower lip. “Will my sacrifice make you and your brothers leave Caledonia in peace?”
He led her to the fire and pressed a kiss to the middle of her callused palm. “Let’s talk about that over our meal.”
Nodding, she accepted a bite of warm meat from his outstretched fingers. The meat was rich with fat and delicious. “Why do you make the humans war?” she asked.
He sucked a bite of meat off his knife blade and gazed at her as he chewed. “You’re Sidhe. I thought you’d all gone to the Summerlands.”
“I am.” She didn’t offer any other information. “Why do you create wars here, Prince Mordred?” she asked, irritated that she’d had to repeat the question.
“If there is peace, King Oberon will send the Wild Hunt.” He cut into the spitted haunch and pressed the bit of flesh to her lips. “You may consider it a cull of sorts, or an offering to appease the mad king.”
She turned her face away in disgust. “Humans are not cattle. They are not on earth for your amusement.”
“They are not Faerie.” He licked the bit of meat from his fingers. “No more self-aware than the boar we share.” He straightened and tossed his knife between her feet. The blade landed point down and sunk deep into the earth. “What is your heart’s desire, fair Brigit? You asked if your sacrifice would bring peace, and I would like to know what sacrifice you would give to rid this place of the threat of the Wild Hunt.”
She chewed her lip and looked at the knife quivering in the dirt at her feet. Such a small thing, representing so much. Her dear mother had told her to leave the humans to their fate, but she’d wanted them to grow and learn to tend the earth as the Sidhe had done for so many eons. So far, she’d failed in that task. She got to her feet and cast an illusion of what she might have looked like in the Sidhe courts.
He saw her as she should be. Gown of gossamer spider silk woven by tree sprites, diadem upon her brow. Hair combed by the water elementals who had once served as her bathing attendants. The mark of her station would have hung from her neck, the acorn sized opal milky between her breasts. The princess in the glory of youth, long before the weight of rule bowed her shoulders.
Prince Mordred expelled air in a hiss of breath. “Princess, well met.”
“Princess no longer,” she whispered. “Long live the queen.” She brushed the illusion away, leaving the forest garb of a huntress. “You asked what I would do to rid this place of the Hunt. I would rid all places of the hunt. I would rid this world of your father’s madness.”
“What would you do, majesty?” Mordred stared up at her, his gaze muddied, yet wanting.
She bared her teeth, wrinkling her nose as she towered over his seated form. “I would set my bow on his heart, princeling. I would put him down like a sickened dog and watch him bleed out at my feet.”
She knelt next to him and touched his face, her spring green eyes meeting his. “What would you ask of me for such a boon?”
Resting his hand over hers, he said, “Sit next to me, and I’ll tell you a tale of woe, treason, and curses.”
Lifting an eyebrow, she asked, “Are you a bard now, princeling?”
“Sit with me and I’ll sing you a sad tale that will make you weep and give an old bard a copper penny for his trouble.” He tugged her down and settled her on his lap. She let out a breath as he nestled her firmly against his chest. She thought about struggling, but he wasn’t hurting her.
“A copper penny, you say? Even an exiled queen deserves a better bard than that.”
“Hush and listen, bonny lass.” He cleared his throat and looked away. “My brothers and I…”
“War, Death, Pestilence, and Famine. I know you all.”
“Mordred, Reykard, Ulfur, and Janek.” He tipped her chin up to make her look at him. “We had names, once.”
Heat rose in her face, though she couldn’t say why she was embarrassed. She licked her lips and he tugged a bit of meat free of the haunch to feed her. She accepted the offering and licked the salt from his thumb. “What happened?”
“King Oberon happened.” He tapped her lips, silencing her next question. “We attempted a coup and failed. He cursed us to bring death to any in our path unless we found a heart. If we don’t fight, he sends the Hunt.”
Sniffing, she turned her face away. “Oberon doesn’t know what a heart is, having none of his own.”
“He does, but it’s skewed.” Slapping her hip, he added, “Hush and listen.”
“You’re a horrible bard.” She scowled and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I am no bard, majesty. I am but a humble prince.”
“You asked for copper pennies.” To her surprise, he brushed a kiss over her lips, teasing the seam with the tip of his tongue. She nipped him for his temerity and he jerked away.
“Save your kisses for the maids, princeling. Tell me about the coup and the curse.”
“Of course. When Oberon began to show signs of madness, we colluded with others in the court to neutralize him. Our magic wasn’t enough, and he cursed us as punishment.”
“When did this happen?”
“A bit less than two thousand winters ago. It started when Titania left him.” Her brow wrinkled and he smoothed the folded skin between her eyebrows.
She pulled his hand away and asked, “Why did she leave?”
“Oberon used his magic to deny her heart’s desire. She wanted a daughter, and Oberon wanted only sons.”
“One should not tamper with the natural order of things.” The very thought was sickening and she felt immediate sympathy for the queen of the Drow.
“Do the Sidhe not practice such arts?”
“To deny nature is a sin. We would not do such a thing.” She was silent for a moment as she worried at a thumbnail. “What did he mean by finding a heart?”
Mordred chuckled. “Reykard believes that we must find mates, though he hasn’t said it in such words.” Her thumb drifted toward her mouth again and he tugged it away, clutching her hand in his larger one. “Maybe he was right,” he whispered.
She pulled her hand free and scowled. “That is the sacrifice you ask of me?” Shaking her head, she added, “Stranger things have happened, I suppose, than a Drow as prince consort to the Sidhe queen. I can’t think of such an event right now, but I’m sure one will come to me.”
He scowled at the insult. “Would you sacrifice yourself to a marriage to keep this place free of the mad king?”
She pulled away from him and stood, her contemplative gaze taking in the forest surrounding them. Curses were tricky things. The nature of the magic binding them together demanded an escape route, though the intent could be ambiguous and mired in half-truth and misdirection. She could see Oberon demanding such a thing, knowing few races of Faerie would accept a Drow to mate.
“If I agree, will you cease battle in Caledonia and leave the humans to fend for themselves?”
“Yes. No battle will be fought on this soil, save that which the humans start themselves.”
Hoping she made the right choice, she nodded. “Then I accept.”
He let out a breathy sigh and retrieved his knife from the ground. After slicing a long cut in his palm, he held the knife to her, hilt first. She took it and opened the meat of her hand, offering the wound to him.
The earth trembled as their hands met.
In the dark of a stone chamber, the mad king woke as the earth shuddered around him. He waved his hand over his scrying bowl, smiling as he watched the rippling water resolve itself into the image of his eldest son and Queen Brigit. That one might cause problems, but like all Sidhe, she was weak and foolish. The hearts chosen by his remaining sons would be the same, and they would reap the full reward for their folly, as would his disobedient wife.