Rosa Elizar halted uncertainly on a trail she’d known all her life. What her eyes told her just couldn’t be. She was only half a mile from the Tree of Dubhros, her ward as Guardian of Dubhros, and she knew every inch of the surrounding forest. This world’s bland gray shades couldn’t hide the richness of the forest life from her eye. That was her duty.
Rosa flicked a blade from its scabbard, just in case. The knife she’d chosen was only four inches long, suitable for close-up contact. It was one of a dozen blades she had on her person today. A Guardian had to be prepared. You never knew what you’d come across in Echtge – this shadowy forest dimension that Rosa tried to protect along with her ward.
Case in point…Rosa examined her alarming find for the day.
The creature before her hadn’t been seen since times of legend. She moved cautiously, unsure what to expect from the being that used to be a pixie. Now it was llaiadian, the dark pixie. She’d never seen one – not even a picture, as she hadn’t learned the lore from books – but she knew what it was.
It stared at her, dark eyes unblinking, skin rippling with shadow. Creepy. Losing patience, she flung her short blade without warning. The creature skittered off, and Rosa lost sight of it. She retrieved her knife and slipped it into its accustomed place.
Rosa watched for signs of more of them as she hiked closer to her ward, but she didn’t see any. As she neared the spot where the Tree of Dubhros stood, her heart thumped in her chest, faster and faster as anxiety gripped her–
The Tree of Dubhros stood unmolested at the edge of the clearing.
Rosa allowed herself a single breath of relief, of wonder that this being should depend so wholly on her, faulty and half-human as she was.
“Are you alright, child?” The Tree of Dubhros spoke, a creaking sound like a loud whisper that seemed to fill the clearing.
Rosa smiled. “As always, I am happy to see you, my friend.”
“And I, you, Rosa.” Du’s limbs shuddered, as though he were stretching after waking from a doze.
She nodded. “All is well here?”
A deep rumble she knew for his chuckle sounded around her. “Little changes here. Yes. All is well.”
“Some things do change.”
“What do you mean?” Now his tone was curious. She worried she’d hear fear there next.
“I saw a llaiadian.”
A hush fell all around. Rosa hadn’t realized how much chatter was going on in the underbrush among the small creatures of Echtge. After all, the Tree of Dubhros only had one home. A tree can’t travel portals. It has deep roots.
That was something Rosa knew about. Her mother had fostered deep roots. She’d been human, with a half-Fomorii daughter, and the future Guardian of Dubhros at that. She prayed for Rosa every day, clutching her rosary beads in the local cathedral. She lavished her only daughter with love, games and laughter. Rosa had it good as a kid, despite her differences from others. She’d never had a real human friend as a child. As a kid she was strong. Very strong. And quicker than she should have been. Enough that it alarmed other kids, not to mention their parents. Her friends had been trees. It was probably for the best.
“What is it?” she finally asked, breaking the eerie silence.
“Where did you see this creature? And are you sure it is llaiadian?”
“It is exactly as you have described to me. Small body, wingless, mottled and bluish-gray. It looked as though a storm cloud crept under its skin – like a pixie, yet not at all like a pixie. It is llaiadian. And it was close. About a half-mile from here.”
The hush deepened, if that was possible, and then the creepy silence was broken as chatter erupted in the forest.
“Yes. The creatures of Echtge confirm it. The llaiadian has stepped from legend into reality.” A sadness deep as his ancient roots filled the tree’s voice.
“What does it mean?” Rosa knew if Du was this upset, it was not good.
“A time of darkness is coming. The dark pixies are a sign…that all is not right between the worlds.”
Mikhail Anndrais itched to wring his hands together, a nervous gesture he’d given up long ago. He hadn’t felt nerves like this for a long time. Not since he found his purpose with the Sidhe Authority Guard. Now that purpose was in jeopardy, and his career hung in the balance as he prepared to tell his superiors everything.
But it wasn’t only that. He was also preparing to go beyond the veil and fetch the family he never should have left.
The door opened, and Ian ducked to get through the doorway without knocking the antlers that crowned him the chosen of Cernunnos, Lord of the Forest, and their leader by birthright. He gave Mikhail a tight smile, and stalked to the far corner, crossing his arms and obviously wondering what had caused Mikhail to pull them all together at such short notice.
Drake followed, with Alise right behind him. Drake shot Mikhail a warning glance, and Mikhail choked back a laugh. He had his hands full with that woman. No doubt she’d invited herself when Drake got the call.
Gareth joined them, too, with a dark look in his eyes as he watched Mikhail. “So we’re here. What’s this about?”
Mikhail glowered back. “I have information to share with you, and then I’m going beyond the veil for reasons that will be obvious in a moment.” He gathered his resolve and set his shoulders, then spoke the words that would change his life forever. “I have a daughter. She’s three years old. Her mother is half-human, and half-Fomorii.”
He’d expected gasps, and other signs of shock. What he hadn’t expected was the silence, and the wide eyes as if none of them were completely sure he was serious.
It wasn’t a joke.
Ian was the first to speak. “I presume you’re telling us because Abarta has caught wind of the girl?”
“Exactly. He’s attempting to blackmail my sister and me into switching sides.”
Ian smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. “You’re a good man, to bring it straight to us. So you go beyond the veil to fetch them?”
Gareth cleared his throat. “You’re not going to say anything about her parentage? She’s a Fomorii brat? And the mother is coming here?”
Ian spun to face him, lightning in his yes. “Do you have something you want to say?” The two were old friends, and it was surprising to see Ian turn on Gareth so, but there had been a lot of tension around these issues in past months, and Ian was getting it from all sides. Who could blame him if he expected his closest friends to be with him, not questioning him? “I will welcome the children of my friends. They are Sidhe above all, and their home is Tir Nan Og.”
Mikhail cleared his throat. “There is more you should know.”
Ian frowned, pinning Mikhail with a stare that said he’d better not have misplaced his trust. Mikhail glowered back. He wasn’t used to answering to Ian yet, and that stare wasn’t warranted.
“The mother, Rosa, is the Guardian of Dubhros.”
“What?” Ian sputtered. “A half-human woman is the Guardian of Dubhros?”
“Her father’s only daughter. And he died before he could train her. She’s been Guardian since the age of twelve. She is fit for the role, believe me.”
Gareth laughed suddenly, a mean-spirited cackle. “When did you get so desperate, Mikhail? Did she catch you drunk or something?”
Mikhail ignored him, watching Ian as his mind worked over the complications here. Rosa was an impartial Guardian, mother of a Sidhe child, a three-year-old girl.
Ian shook his head, “I’m not sure what to make of that, but it doesn’t change things. All the more reason the girl needs to be protected. Your kid is the future Guardian of Dubhros?”
Mikhail felt a shiver run through him. He had tried not to think about that. Ian’s appraising gaze reminded him it was a matter of some importance. The Tree of Dubhros was a source of near ultimate power for a Fomorii. If you had the Guardian in your pocket, you had access to the tree. In this time of turmoil among the Fomorii, Rosa and the child might be in even more danger than he’d assumed.
“Did you have a fun day, mija?” Rosa asked three-year-old Sirena when she found her in their small back yard. Her dark-haired little darling was turning over rocks to find bugs, among the flowers and the blueberry bushes that were her favorites.
“Oh, we had fun. I went to the park with Edith, and the library. And we ate lunch outside, like a picnic.” She struggled for a second, a frown furrowing her small brow. “Can you turn this one over for me, Mom?”
“I bet you can do it, babe.”
“Oh! That’s right.” She concentrated for a second, and then nudged the rock with a single finger, sending it flipping twice to land askew in the flower garden. She giggled, the sound a shooting star to Rosa’s soul.
Sirena’s Sidhe side had begun to show through as Rosa trained her on what little Fomorii strength and speed had emerged. It was as though if she thought about it, she could give herself a boost wherever her attention was focused. Her drawings were ridiculously advanced for a three-year-old, as though her Sidhe magic allowed her to transfer the images directly from her brain onto the page, so precisely they evoked the emotional intensity of childhood.
While Sirena went back to her bug hunting, Rosa went inside to grab a bite to eat. Edith had dished up a plate for her while she was outside, and it was waiting in front of her seat at the round kitchen table. Edith was cleaning up the dishes from her meal earlier with Sirena.
On the days Rosa went into the forest, she didn’t get home until it was nearly Sirena’s bedtime. It was a full day, but she only had to do it once a week, because time moved so much more slowly in Echtge. That was good, because otherwise Rosa didn’t know how she’d handle the commitments of parenthood and being the tree’s Guardian. Edith made everything possible, but she wasn’t going to overtax her kind friend. Thank God she didn’t have to.
“You are too nice, cooking me dinner this way,” Rosa put her arm around Edith’s shoulders. “Thank you for taking such good care of us.”
Rosa couldn’t guess how she’d been so blessed, only by the grace of God. When she’d moved into this house, pregnant and alone, Edith had brought cookies over the very next day. She was retired, and her children had moved away for jobs, the last one recently. They’d become friends and been through a lot together in the nearly four years since that day.
“What’s bothering you, Rosa? You’re not right tonight.”
Rosa looked her friend in the eye. This was a woman she could trust. Hell, she trusted her with Sirena, her baby, so what wouldn’t she trust her with? “I’m worried. I saw signs today that change is afoot in Echtge. I don’t know what to make of it. The place is eternal, unchanging. And my forebears have guarded it millennia upon millennia. But I’ve always known what to expect there. All it takes is one mistake–”
“You will not think that way. It doesn’t help to feel out of control. My dear, you need to remember what you’ve accomplished. You learned your role without the benefit of a mentor, and you’ve told me that’s unheard of before you. Give yourself some credit – you deserve it. Now sit down and eat.”
Edith’s no-nonsense style was the perfect counter to Rosa’s occasional self-doubt. She was usually the confident, competent woman Edith described. But that occasional doubt could be a killer.
Rosa sat down as Edith asked, and breathed in the aroma of roasted chicken with sauteed veggies served with creamy polenta. It was heaven after a day in the gray forest of Echtge.
“Are you sure you’re okay with staying over tonight? I could call Sherek and cancel.”
“You go out seldom enough as it is. You’re going. I’m fine in the guest room. It’s practically my room anyway.” She shot Rosa a big grin. She was an abuela in the making, that was for sure, and she loved Sirena like her own blood. If Sirena couldn’t have her own grandmother, she was blessed to have Edith.
“Thank you, Edith. Sherek would murder me if I cancelled now, anyway.” Her friend would have left the Fomorii homeland of Domnu already to reach their favorite meeting spot.
Rosa took a greater interest in her plate. After Sirena went to bed, she would get dressed up and go meet her only Fomorii girlfriend for a drink. She sniffed. Better shower first. It had already been a long day.
“Mom? I’m getting tired,” Sirena yawned.
“Let’s go brush those pearly whites and read your books.”
They had the usual squabble over how many stories, and Rosa gave in, as she always did. When it came to bedtime, Rosa always treasured these quiet moments together.
Rosa crept from Sirena’s room when the little girl was fast asleep, after the requisite three bedtime stories. She smiled.
When she got to their favorite watering hole, Sherek had taken a table in the back corner, near the pinball machines and posters of sport cars. Rosa wasn’t sure why they liked this place, except that the guys knew they were far outclassed and didn’t bother approaching them, and they’d never seen anyone use those pinball machines. It was a quiet corner in an otherwise busy world. With cocktails.
“I ordered your rum and coke. Take a load off.” Sherek wasn’t bad looking for Fomorii, but here she cloaked her appearance so the humans wouldn’t know she was something else. She looked like a college girl, a grown-up version of the girl next door. In reality, it would only take a couple of days of malnourishment before she’d eat the girl next door. But that didn’t matter to Rosa. Despite her petite frame, Rosa could beat the crap out of Sherek any day. Guardian strength.
“How are you?” Rosa gave her friend a hug before taking the seat across from her. She was just in time to relieve the waitress of that rum and coke.
“Oh, I’ve been better. This war is taking its toll on everyone.”
Rosa managed not to sputter around the fist sip of her drink. “War?”
Sherek looked at her like she’d suddenly grown two heads. “Yeah. The Aphrodisiac War? It’s ripping Domnu apart, Rosa. Are you so sheltered here that you didn’t even know what takes place in the Fomorii realm?” Sherek flushed with anger, her glamour slipping to reveal a heart-shaped face with huge eyes, a flat nose, and sharp, pointed teeth.
“You’re showing your true face, hon. Want to cool it?” Rosa gave her friend a few seconds to compose herself before she went on. Sherek was obviously distressed. “No, I haven’t heard of a Fomorii war. What’s going on?”
“The Ajma ran out weeks ago. It usually keeps us under a good degree of control, you know. Soothes the beast, so to speak. Now it’s gone, and the ingredients no longer exist. Everything is changing. And our natural aggression is showing.” Sherek shot her a feral smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“That’s tough.” Rosa didn’t want to come off as callous, but the troubles of the Fomorii weren’t her problem.
“I’m surprised you didn’t know. There’s talk of the berries from the Tree of Dubhros providing a suitable replacement for Ajma, at least partially. Maybe enough so we can live together.”
Rosa didn’t speak. If Sherek had heard talk of this, it was widespread. Sherek wasn’t in a position of power. She was an artisan, a weaver. If this talk was on the streets, what were the Fomorii leaders considering behind closed doors?
Mikhail stood outside the small, tidy house, gathering his nerve. Rosa had never appreciated attempts to control her. She made her own decisions. So how was he to convince her that she needed him now, when he’d left years ago?
He knew he had to do this. But facing the woman he left when she wouldn’t abort her pregnancy was beyond difficult. He had changed since then. Just knowing he had a daughter had fostered a maturity, a different viewpoint on the world, that he hadn’t anticipated.
But why should Rosa believe it? He’d left her alone, knowing she had no family to turn to. With his child. Sure, he’d given her money, but that was worth nothing to him, and Rosa knew it. He’d cut her out of his life, and had never even met his daughter.
A slamming car door brought Mikhail out of his thoughts, and he turned.
There stood Rosa, her cheeks flushed and dark eyes sparkling in challenge.
As had always happened with Rosa, his body responded to her instantly. Of course he wanted her. At one time, she’d been his.
Then another woman stepped from the car, coming around to Rosa’s side to face off with him. Her glamour rippled, and revealed her monstrous visage.
“Rosa? What’s he doing here?” the Fomorii woman asked his ex.
“I have no idea. But he won’t be here long, I can tell you that much.”
Mikhail held his hands up in mock surrender. He didn’t provoke her with a smile. “I need to talk to you, Rosa. It’s important.”
“So you just show up?”
“I should have said urgent.”
Rosa said nothing, she just watched him, and Mikhail could see her surprise giving way to rage.
“Do you need me to stay?” her friend asked.
“No. I’ll call you.” They hugged, Rosa stiffly as she continued to stare him down. The friend got back in her car and drove away.
Mikhail repressed the urge to shudder, though he wasn’t sure if he was thankful the creature had departed, or afraid to be alone in the dark with the woman he had utterly betrayed.
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***Series intended for an adult audience due to some smokin' hot scenes.***