The faeries were human-sized: tall and slender, wearing lightweight silver chainmail that caught the sunbeams like something out of a movie. The first man and woman held jewel-encrusted swords, while a second man brought up the rear with a long bow aimed and ready to fire. They were all beautiful.
None of them were smiling.
Donna leaned toward Xan, lowering her voice. “They don’t look very welcoming.”
The dark-haired woman among them stepped forward and spoke for the group. “Alexander, son of Cathal, why have you brought an enemy into our home?”
She looked young, but her deep blue eyes held knowledge far beyond the years she apparently wore. Donna knew enough not to trust faery appearances: this one could be twenty or two-hundred.
Xan folded his arms and Gull settled on his shoulder again. “This is Donna Underwood, and she is no longer our enemy. You know that as well as I do, Peri.”
Peri tossed her long black plait and narrowed her flashing eyes. “She is hardly what I would call a friend. She is a walking weapon against the fey.”
The other swordsman spoke up, eyeing her tattoos. “Perhaps we should… disarm her.”
Donna’s stomach lurched. Why did faeries have such a bloodthirsty sense of humor? If they even were joking.
Xan turned back to her. “Don’t worry. If they were serious about hurting you, they would have sent more guards.”
Peri smirked. “You think it will take more than three of us to subdue the Iron Witch?”
Xan rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. “There are also three of us. Perhaps you spend too many hours polishing that sword of yours, and not enough time exercising your brains.”
Gull shrieked with high-pitched laughter from her new perch, and Peri scowled at her.
The bowman shifted position until the wicked-sharp arrow was pointing directly at Xan’s chest.
“Don’t threaten us, boy,” the man said. “Your father isn’t around to protect you now.”
“Because you imprisoned him!”
Peri had the grace to look ashamed. “We’re all under orders, Alexander. You know things are never quite what they seem when her Majesty wants something done.”
“Anyway,” the bowman said, “it won’t take him long to break out of there if he really wants to. It is not the cell that holds him prisoner.”
No, Donna thought. Queen Isolde’s enchantment—whatever it was—was more than enough to ensure Cathal’s loyalty. If Isolde had instructed him not to directly interfere with the Tithe, then he had no choice. Apart from the Gull-shaped loophole he’d found.
The female knight slashed her sword through the air in an impressive display of skill, circling them as she did so. “Go back to your rooms until tonight.”
“I’m not under house arrest, or has that changed now?”
“Why can’t you just do what I’m asking? You’re making this harder for everyone,” Peri said. She sounded truly sorry, and Donna wondered who she really was. Not just some guard, that was for sure. “Please don’t make me hurt you. I taught you better than this, but you’re not good enough to best me yet.”
Donna processed that admission for a moment. So, Cathal wasn’t the only one teaching Xan to use the sword he now wore at his side.
“Why not?” Xan retorted, drawing his own sword. “Isn’t that the whole point of this charade? To hurt me?”
Peri’s face tensed. “We must obey the Queen, you know that. The Tithe is sacred.”
“The Tithe is a barbaric, outdated ritual that has no place in any of the worlds—especially since we defeated the demons. The Tithe was their invention.”
“And it is our legacy,” the faery knight replied. “Who knows how long the demon realm will remain sealed this time? Balance must be maintained, and an alliance with the Silver Fey would be a powerful thing indeed. One death in every seven years is not so high a price.”
“If you’re so supportive of the whole idea,” Donna cut in, “why don’t you just volunteer your own life?”
Peri spared her a glance. “It must be a mortal sacrifice. Are you volunteering, Donna Underwood?”
Donna ignored the implied threat. “Xan’s half fey.”
“A halfling will make a worthy Tithe. That is our Queen’s belief.”
“You think there’s something worthy about this whole thing?”
Peri shrugged. “It is not my place to say. But perhaps Alexander has found the champion he needs…”
The bowman glared at his companion. “That is not your place, either. Do not tell the alchemist such things.”
Donna tried to make sense of this cryptic exchange, and all the while Xan and Peri continued to circle each other like cats. The knight jabbed at him experimentally. Teasing him—or perhaps testing him.
Xan took the bait, lunging forward. If he had hoped to surprise her, he was out of luck. His opponent was too experienced, sidestepping with the kind of fluid grace that Donna could only dream of.
Peri spun her sword, letting the fading light play across the blade. “Give this up, Alexander. You cannot win.”
“Maybe not,” Xan said, “but maybe you’ll slip up and injure me badly enough that I don’t have to participate in tonight’s… festivities. Our beloved Queen won’t take too kindly to that.”
Before Donna could stop things from going any further, the two blades clashed and all she could do was hope that Xan was better with the weapon now than he had been the last time she’d seen him with a sword in his hand.
The sword fight did not last long.
Scary-looking reinforcements soon arrived to break things up, which helped Donna to decide that now might be a good time to wait. She was finally learning the art of patience and when not to rush into a situation, all guns blazing. She wanted to see what would happen next—an opportunity to speak to the Queen could come sooner than she’d hoped, if she let the fey believe they had her in their power.
Which, let’s face it, she thought wryly, they kind of do.
Xan was eventually taken to his chambers in Cathal’s house—relatively unscathed thanks to Peri’s expertise, and her clear desire not to do him permanent harm—and Donna was led by a group of soldiers in the opposite direction, to Queen Isolde’s palace.
She soon found herself marching through corridors lined with many-hued crystals that cast rainbow lights all around them as they passed. She walked through endless doors—some were made of an indeterminate type of burnished wood, while others seemed carved from polished bone. She wondered what kind of being those bones belonged to, once upon a time. It must have been something pretty big…
Everywhere they went—Donna and her heavily-armed entourage—she felt the eyes of the fey on her. Most were hidden gazes glittering from shadowed corners, but some watched her openly. Curious eyes. Hostile eyes.
They finally entered a huge chamber filled with floor-to-ceiling windows, but before Donna could take full stock of her surroundings she was pushed roughly to the ground. She pressed her burning cheek against the marble floor, trying not to care about the rumble of laughter that surrounded her. Let them laugh.
Cruel hands grabbed hold of her hair, pulling her head back so far that she thought her neck might snap. She could hardly breathe. Bodies crowded her, creatures of all shapes and sizes, some with wings and other without. It made Donna think of Gull, whose final whispered words to her had been a promise to find her later. She was amazed to realize that she already missed the tiny faery.
Donna wondered if the gathered crowd would simply kill her now. Perhaps they didn’t care about what the four alchemical Orders might do in response. Perhaps they remembered how depleted the alchemists’ ranks were, and how truly weak they had become.
Gulping against the urge to vomit, Donna reached one hand behind her and latched onto a bony wrist. She squeezed with every bit of her strength, for once not mindful of the damage she could do. She heard flesh sizzle and the crunch of narrow bones, but she barely flinched.
Something shrieked and tried to pull away, and the pressure on Donna’s neck relaxed as her hair was released with a jerk that probably ripped out a handful.
And then she found herself in the presence of the Queen of Faerie for the second time in her life, and all the strength left her in the face of such cold beauty. It was no longer a perfect beauty, thanks to a demon-dealt scar on her cheek, but the effect was no less overwhelming.
Donna tried to stand, but the bowman from earlier was at her shoulder. He pushed her back down.
“You will kneel before her Majesty and the Court of Air.”
Resisting the instinct to snarl in his face, Donna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her knees hurt and her head was sore from all the hair-pulling. Also, her hip still ached. She was beginning to get seriously annoyed.
“You may rise, Donna Underwood,” said a musical voice that Donna recognized only too well.
An audience with the Faerie Queen didn’t come along too often, but it was immediately apparent that this was merely an exercise in humiliation. There would be no bargaining today, Donna realized. If Isolde had been aloof before, since losing Taran she had become so distant that she might as well have been on another planet.
Donna tried to make a case for reason, but it was a losing battle even before she’d gotten started. It didn’t help that a large contingent of the gathered court giggled after pretty much everything she said.
“What about Cathal,” Donna pleaded, switching tactics. “Don’t you at least care about what he will feel, losing the son he has only just been reunited with?”
“I care only about the future of my Court and my realm,” Isolde said. “The Silver Fey expect a grand gesture from me. If they are to return to us, I am willing to give it to them. I hear that Shahade, their leader, enjoys tradition.”
“You mean he enjoys the oh-so-wonderful tradition of killing an innocent?”
“Cathal is not so innocent.”
Donna scowled. “I’m not talking about Cathal now, and you know it.”
“I cannot sacrifice Cathal in the Tithe,” continued the Queen, “but his half-human son makes the perfect alternative.”
“Wait.” Donna stepped forward despite the threatening rattle of swords from the gathered knights. “You want to punish Cathal… That’s what this is about? What did he do, Majesty? Is he too fond of mortals? Has he hurt your precious pride in some way? Maybe he—”
“Silence!” Isolde stood for the first time, her emerald gown sweeping behind her. “You will not speak to me like this. Not if you wish to leave my realm… intact.” Here she paused and looked meaningfully at Donna’s exposed arms.
“I think you’ll regret this,” Donna said, trying to pretend that her voice wasn’t shaking as badly as her legs. “Cathal believes in you. Even now he won’t speak against you!”
“Because he cannot. I made sure of that.”
“No, it’s more than that. You underestimate his strength… and his loyalty.”
“I underestimate nothing.” The Faerie Queen gestured toward her guards. “Take her away, but make sure she is freed at nightfall. I want the Iron Witch to attend the Tithe. Let her witness the coming of a new era for our realm.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Donna cried, trying to struggle against the strong hands that held her. A blade cut into her side, but even then she didn’t stop. “Your Majesty, it doesn’t have to end like this!”
“Everything ends, mortal,” Isolde said. “Everything dies. Even the fey.”
“In time, yes. Of course. All in good time.”
“And what happens then, Majesty? To Faerie, I mean, after your passing?”
“As I said: everything ends.”
Donna was led away with those words still ringing in her ears.
Night fell across Faerie.
The sky was indigo-dark except for a generous sprinkling of impossibly silver stars. Trees closed in like many-armed shadows, cold and jagged as the heart of the woman who ruled this place.
Donna shivered and waited on the very edge of the clearing, trying to catch a glimpse of the procession that she knew must be approaching at any moment. Gull tugged at Donna’s hair as she landed on her shoulder.
“They’re coming,” she whispered, her iridescent butterfly wings buzzing with excitement. “The Silver Fey are coming!”
Almost unconsciously, Donna squeezed her hands into fists. Open, closed. Open, closed. She didn’t know if she was ready for this, but the time for making plans was long past.
The sky was dark, but it was the kind of darkness filled with the threat of thunder. Shadows shifted between narrow trees, and she watched as the impressive royal cavalcade of Faerie approached. The Silver Fey rode near the front, just behind Queen Isolde. Their shining horses varied in color, but they all wore silver bells that jingled as they trotted along the winding path.
Faeries, many of them tall and wide-shouldered, their long hair flying, rode their horses toward the site of the sacrifice. The Tithe. Donna nibbled her lower lip and tried to find Xan among the riders, but there were so many of them that she feared she would miss him—miss her chance to save him.
It felt like being stuck in a fairy tale—the real kind. The kind that were distinctly unkind. A handsome prince. A curse that needed to be broken. A… champion? Donna shook her head. No time to get caught up in folklore, not when the horses were even now almost level with her hiding place.
And then she saw it—the white horse that carried Xan upon its back. Xan had been stripped of his shirt, revealing the familiar scars on his shoulder blades. His hands were bound behind him. Donna didn’t think, not anymore. She imagined a door closing in her mind, shutting off the stream of doubt and fear.
She ran from her hiding place and the white horse startled. Earth flew up from kicks of its massive hooves, and she was forced to duck as she made a grab for the bridle. She felt the bite of sharp metal as the silver bells cut her palm, but still she did not let go.
The noble beast raised up on its hind legs, and Donna held on and prayed she was not about to be trampled. The horse behind Xan’s made a startled sound as its rider tried to force it back onto the path.
Xan was staring at her, shock and something like hope in his eyes. Then his expression snapped shut like a trap.
“Get out of here!” he shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You can’t stop this. None of us can.”
“I can,” Donna said, pulling him down from the saddle. “And I will.”
The horse had settled, shifting nervously but she held the bridle firmly in her other hand, using the strength that came too easily to her.
“What is the meaning of this?” Queen Isolde’s voice broke through the confused muttering of the Court and the snorts of distressed horses.
Peri hovered on the sidelines, but she caught Donna’s eye and nodded.
Still not fully understanding, Donna turned to meet the Queen’s furious stare. “I declare myself Alexander Grayson’s champion!”
Isolde’s eyes flashed. “Remember to whom you address yourself, girl—and also where you are. You have no power here.”
“You’re wrong,” Donna replied, her voice rising. “I have power enough to save Xan from your cruelty. He is worth so much more than this! Why throw his life away in the name of tradition? Why throw his life away as petty revenge because his father has displeased you.”
Bright spots of color appeared high on the Queen’s angular cheeks. “How dare you! Guards, take her!”
Peri approached, flanked by two male faeries carrying impressive looking swords. Peri didn’t have her own weapon drawn, and Donna swallowed as she met the faery’s eyes once again.
“Majesty,” Peri said, her voice low. “This does not follow protocol—”
“You question me, Pericles Thorn? Have a care, soldier. If you place so little importance on your own life, perhaps you should think on your family.”
Peri’s face drained of color, but she stood firm. “I cannot just watch you destroy everything our people fought for—against the demons, and against all those who would subjugate us. Things my father fought at your side for. You freed us! Please, your Majesty… Please do not let it have been only to enslave us in new ways. Don’t let my father’s death have been in vain.”
Isolde’s face was a mask of fury, but she slid from the back of her silver mare and straightened her shoulders. She refused the helping hand of a hovering attendant.
Two of the visiting faery nobles had ridden closer to the scene. One of them, the man called Shahade, jumped to the ground with long-limbed grace. He carelessly threw the reins of his horse to a waiting servant. His rich brown hair was loose, reaching almost to his waist. He wore a silver crown woven with leaves.
“Radiant Majesty,” he said, bowing his head a fraction. “We are grateful for the offer of this Tithe, a ritual that will seal the joining of our two families, but we would not wish it to be a union born out of… bad feeling.”
Donna snorted a laugh, then realized that everyone had turned to look at her. “Sorry,” she said, not making any effort to actually sound apologetic. “Bad feeling is the least of your worries. You’re killing an innocent! Xan has his whole life ahead of him and—”
Isolde waved her hand, as though swatting an irritating insect. “His whole mortal life. His human life. It is nothing to us. A blink of an eye. His sacrifice will be a worthy one.”
“You keep using that word.” Donna turned her attention on Shahade. “There is nothing worthy about this, sir.” Sir? She didn’t know how to address him, but couldn’t worry about that now. “I am sorry to cause all this trouble, but not sorry about trying to save my friend.”
Shahade clasped his hands behind his back, examining her as though for the first time. “You are an alchemist, are you not?”
Donna sighed. “Not exactly. My parents were… are alchemists. But—”
Isolde swept between them. “She is the Iron Witch, born of the Dragon alchemists. Donna Underwood has been nothing but a curse to the fey since the moment she was born. And really,” here she directed a particularly nasty look at Donna, “I have no idea why you would pay her any mind at all, Shahade. She is nothing to us.”
Shahade glanced at his companion as though for guidance, the other man still seated on a huge black horse. “I know not what to make of this. I came here in the name of love, and yet—”
“Love?” Donna took a step toward the leader of the Silver Fey, ignoring the swords that pointed toward her from all sides. “You speak of such a thing? Would you really take an innocent life in the name of love?”
Shahade’s eyes narrowed. “Careful, young alchemist. You are not among friends here. You may have power, but you cannot stand against so many.”
Donna lifted her chin. “I thought we had a truce! We all worked together to end the demon threat. What happened to that?”
Isolde gestured at Xan. “But Alexander Grayson is neither fey nor alchemist. He is… irrelevant to the terms of our truce.”
Donna scowled. “A loophole, Majesty? He is fey. He’s half faery—his father is a pureblood knight. Cathal is now your first knight, I might add. He deserves better than this.”
“Cathal betrayed me, on more than one occasion. Once to help you—without my knowledge and in blatant opposition to my wishes—and, again, more recently after Taran’s passing.”
Donna wondered about Cathal’s most recent ‘betrayal.’ She was beginning to suspect that the position of First Knight carried an automatic promotion to Queen’s consort, and that perhaps Isolde’s injured pride was playing more than a small part in this charade. She might not understand Faery politics or the social structure of the Court, but she didn’t really need to. Not all cultures were the same, and the fey were about as far from humanity as it was possible to get. Some of them might look human enough, but it was all on the surface. It might as well be nothing but glamour, because a faery could be more deadly than even the most vicious monster imaginable.
Peri had survived the scuffle with her fellow guards and approached the visiting dignitaries. “Your Grace,” she said.
Ah, Donna thought. ‘Your Grace.’ That’s what she should have called him.
“Soldier?” Shahade said. “You have something to say?”
“I do,” came the reply. She pushed her hair away from her face, smearing blood in the process. “My name is Pericles Thorn. My father was Taran Thorn, the Queen’s first knight and consort. He was killed during the Battle of Ironwood.”
Shahade inclined his head. “I have heard of him. Your loss is our loss.”
Donna drew in a sharp breath. Taran had been Peri’s father. Now things were falling into place. She swallowed as she watched the stalled cavalcade talking among themselves. Nobody seemed to know what to do, and all eyes were on the central drama of Isolde, Shahade, Peri, Donna… and Xan.
Xan edged close enough to whisper in Donna’s ear. “It seems you have, at the very least, delayed my fate.”
She couldn’t help a tiny smile. “I’ll do more than delay it if I can.”
His expression turned suddenly serious. “Cathal… is he okay?”
“Yes. Gull is helping him to escape right now. At least, that’s the plan.” Donna looked up at the sky, wondering what was taking the faery so long. Perhaps that part of the plan had come unstuck.
It didn’t matter. She would do this herself if she had to. Donna was used to taking things into her own hands—and luckily they were particularly strong hands.
She reached behind Xan and snapped his bonds with a flick of her wrist.
He nodded his gratitude, but before they could speak a small group of knights—this time not including Peri—surrounded them.
“The prisoner is free, Majesty!” one of them shouted.
Isolde narrowed her eyes. “It matters not.” She turned toward Donna. “Pericles has clarified your request, and I have decided to honor it.”
Peri shifted her feet, mysteriously refusing to meet Donna’s eyes.
Xan watched the guards with a wary expression on his face. There was no way they could fight such large numbers, not just the two of them. Not even if Peri joined them.
Donna swallowed, almost regretting her outburst about being a ‘champion.’ Especially when she didn’t fully understand the terms of such things. “What exactly have I just agreed to?”
“I have given you a chance to save the one you love,” Queen Isolde said. “Your request to be Alexander Grayson’s champion is granted.”
Donna looked first at Xan—trying not to think about the Queen’s words about love—then at Peri. “You mean I have to fight someone?”
“Not exactly,” the Queen replied with an unpleasant smile. “Not exactly.”
“Then… what? What are you talking about?” Donna tried to calm the flutter of panic in her chest, but it was impossible. Cathal still wasn’t here and she was way out of her depth.
It was Shahade who spoke. “You will find out soon enough, young alchemist. Let us prepare the grove.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Xan said.
They both stood in the center of the clearing, surrounded by a ring of trees and curious fey. The silver moon looked down upon them, lending an otherworldly light to the proceedings.
Donna shook her head. “We don’t even know what ‘this’ is. But whatever it is I want to do it, so you might as well save your breath.”
He pulled her against him, hard enough to make her lose her balance. His expression was as fierce as she had ever seen it. “I don’t want you to get hurt because of me. I never wanted that.”
She placed her fingers against his lips, silencing him. “Let’s just see what happens, okay?”
He spoke softly against her fingers, and to Donna it felt like a kiss. She wondered what he had just said, but there was no time for that now.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Donna said, looking from face to face in the tree-lined circle of earth. “How is this a fair test?”
How could she be Xan’s champion when there was nobody to fight? Peri had clearly intended for this to happen, and Taran’s daughter certainly seemed to want to help, but how was Donna supposed to—
A terrible sound filled the clearing and she crouched on instinct, clenching her fists as she tried to focus. She mustn’t let fear or anger overtake her; simply use those things as a resource to give her strength. But the sound—that scream—almost drove her to her knees before anything had even happened.
And then she realized that it was Xan who was screaming. He was convulsing on the ground, as though he were having some kind of fit. But Xan wasn’t epileptic or anything like that. Was this magic? Was this the Test?
Donna ran to him. The surrounding fey murmured as she knelt beside his pain-wracked body. They almost sounded like they approved. What was she supposed to do? She tried to remember the basics of her first aid training, but panic threatened to cloud her mind beyond all hope.
Xan’s face creased with what looked like pure agony, and he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. He was trying to stop himself screaming, and Donna thought that she might have to do a little screaming of her own—anything to ease the impotent terror that gripped her stomach and twisted.
“Xan,” she cried, grabbing his shoulders and trying to stop his violent convulsions. She looked over her shoulder at the waiting fey. “Is this some kind of a trick?”
And then a small figure flew into the clearing and landed on her shoulder. Gull grabbed a handful of Donna’s hair to steady herself, but this time Donna didn’t care about the corresponding pain. She was so happy to see the tiny faery that she wished she could hug her without crushing her tiny body.
“Donna,” Gull panted, shaking all over with adrenaline. She must have been in a terrible hurry to get here. Donna remembered that she had been afraid to come into the grove, which might also explain the look of terror on her animated face.
“Gull,” Donna said, searching those huge eyes for reassurance. “Help me!”
“What are you waiting for?” Gull asked, her tone sharp. “It’s started!”
“What’s started? Nobody has explained anything to me!”
Queen Isolde’s voice rose above the excited murmurs of the crowd. “Somebody remove that faery. Gulliver! Come here, immediately!”
Donna shot Gull a look. “Gulliver?”
The little mouth burst into a jagged grin. “My mother loved Jonathan Swift’s work. He spent some time in Faerie, once upon a time.”
Donna wanted to ask about Cathal, but there was no time. No time for any of this. No time for anything but saving Xan.
“You’re his champion!” Gull declared. “Start acting like it.”
Donna’s mind raced. She tried to remember something that she thought she should already know. Something itched at the back of her mind. A memory… a story. What had Cathal said? Remember your folklore.
She looked down at Gull, an expression of triumph making her heart lighter. “A song! That’s it, isn’t it? Tam Lin.”
Gull frowned her disapproval. “A ballad. It was a ballad.”
“You’re going to argue semantics with me?” Donna shook her head. “Whatever. Tam Lin… Xan is playing the part of Tam Lin, right? Which means that I have to be…”
Her mind stretched back, remembering the books of her childhood.
Gull pinched Donna’s ear, forcing her to focus. “You’re Janet,” she hissed. “You must hold him and, whatever happens—whatever magic they throw at you—don’t let go.”
She flew straight up and then looked down at Donna as she hovered for a moment, buzzing like a multicolored bird. “Hold him!” she shouted, her tiny voice suddenly loud and shrill in the clearing. “Remember, no matter what!”
Gull flew like a little rocket, dodging the hands of larger faeries as she headed back into the trees. Donna didn’t hesitate a moment longer.
“I’m Janet,” she whispered aloud, trying not to let the pain on Xan’s face scare her. “I’m Janet, and I have to save the boy I love.”
She flung her arms around his waist and pressed her face against his heaving chest. Donna held on with all the strength she possessed.
Almost immediately, she knew that it might not be enough.
Xan screamed again and again, his body thrashing wildly against the ground, flinging Donna from one side to another, but she held on—and held her breath—trying to hold him without breaking his ribs. Wondering whether that would even be possible.
And then Donna found herself holding something truly Other. Not Xan, not a young man who she had come to care for despite her naturally cautious nature when it came to trust. Despite his own often secretive nature that held her at arm’s length. Donna did love him, she supposed. That was why she’d been so angry that he had, once again, drifted away without a word. This time when he had gone to Faerie to be with his father.
Xan’s body grew warmer—it became hot enough to burn—and Donna gasped as she pushed rational thought aside and held him with all the strength she could find in her iron-clad arms. Thick fur sprouted on his sweat-soaked torso, and she almost let go in shock.
Impossible. The word echoed around inside her head, but she paid it no mind. ‘Impossible’ didn’t exist for people like her and Xan. Donna tightened her grip and did her best to avoid the claws that extended from Xan’s fingertips. Razor-sharp claws that came close to slicing her as he writhed and growled.
Whatever he had become, he was no longer the Alexander Grayson that Donna knew, but that didn’t stop her from holding him. If she let go, then he would be lost forever. It would most likely suit the Queen of Faerie’s rather twisted sensibilities to re-enact (or relive?) the Tithe as depicted in an ancient story. A ballad, passed down through the ages. There were a number of versions of Tam Lin, of course, but at heart it was always about a girl holding onto a handsome faery as he went through punishing transformations.
Xan’s growls became something else, then. First an inhuman scream, followed by a hiss that sent shivers through Donna’s entire being. His muscular torso became smooth, smoother than human flesh. The earlier heat faded and cool scales covered what she could see of him. They rolled together on the ground and Donna gasped as her back hit sharp rocks, and then they rolled again and she had the upper hand once more, holding a thrashing half-human, half-snake… No longer a body that she could recognize, but with a long thick tail, whipping from side to side as she tried to regain her grip on his slick torso.
Donna looked up and caught a flash of jagged teeth and slitted black eyes. That’s Xan, she told herself. It’s still Xan. It’s still Xan. She wrapped her legs around him, trying not to scream as she was lifted, with effortless strength, and smashed into the hard ground.
Xan’s body shifted again, even before Donna could get her breath back. Before she could figure out what he was becoming next and adjust her grip. The scales melted away, warm flesh reappeared, but not human flesh. Still not human.
It wasn’t over.
Perhaps it will never end, Donna thought, wondering if it was possible to scream inside your own head. Perhaps she would die holding the shape-changing remains of Xan. Die, because she was too stubborn to let go. Because she was always too damn stubborn to admit when was beaten.
This was a test. Donna knew that, and she knew that she could not fail it. She did not trust the Queen to let her go free, even if she survived and Xan did not. Isolde had cooperated once, but that was only because of the greater risk to Faerie. Now that order had been restored to the worlds, she had returned to her old ways. Perhaps she had been changed because of losing the man she loved, but Donna wouldn’t cut her too much slack for that. Not when the Faery Queen was threatening someone that she, Donna Underwood, loved.
Xan’s skin was tough now, like leather. Like the hide of a great beast that she had no name for—rather like the clearing they were in. No name. Nothing to anchor herself. Horns sprouted from his forehead and he screamed. This time Donna screamed with him, but she kept her arms locked around his back and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
And she prayed. She didn’t know who she prayed to, because the alchemists didn’t teach those things. But she prayed, all the same, that she would be strong enough to save him. That she could find the strength to save them both.
And then she heard the Queen’s voice inside her mind, and she thought that meant she really had lost it. Everything sliding away into oblivion, including her sanity:
“Why hold on so tightly, child?” the Queen’s voice said. “You must be tired.”
“Shut up,” Donna said, through gritted teeth. “Shut up.”
“Let go,” whispered Isolde in her mind. “Just be at peace and let him go. Your arms cannot be strong enough to hold him much longer.”
Shut. Up. Donna said that inside her head, saving her breath and hoping that the Queen would hear.
“I will give you safe passage from my realm,” Isolde continued. “I will free Cathal. I will—”
“I am already free,” Cathal said, his voice ringing out clearly.
Donna opened her eyes. Cathal! Was he here? She tried to see, but her vision was blurred by tears of pain and effort, and Xan was now some kind of giant bird—like something out of a book about dinosaurs. He was made of bone and oily black feathers, and his green eyes spat fire as he tried to fly away from her.
Donna gave up searching for Cathal among the onlookers, gripping the creature (the creature that was still Xan, she reminded herself) with her arms and legs, trying to make herself heavy enough to anchor them both against the ground.
Xan shrieked, his voice ragged, and he shifted again. More fur. Then claws. A tail with spikes that dripped with something that might have been poison. Pincers threatened her face, her eyes. Then scales again, and finally… finally… he was just Xan. A boy who had become a man in the relatively short time she’d known him. Someone who tried so hard to hide how much his past had hurt him. Someone she was glad to know, and who she would do anything to save.
His skin was slick with sweat and moss, and he groaned as she loosened her hold. Just a little. Just enough to ensure that he really was breathing. But Donna didn’t let go. Not yet. She didn’t trust the fey, and she knew that she never would.
But, at least for now, this much was true: it was over.
Silence descended on the grove. It was a restless silence, though; one filled with the buzzing energy of expectation.
Xan lay sprawled in the dirt, gasping and shuddering. Donna rested her face against the golden skin of his back. She pressed her cheek against his old, old scars, where the dark elves had taken away his wings—ripped them out in idle cruelty when he was just a child.
She felt her own heart pounding. Her arms felt ready to drop off and her fingers were like ice, but she was afraid to let go after holding on for so long. She wasn’t going to stop being Xan’s champion until she knew for sure she had really won.
Peri flashed them a grudging smile. “It seems your champion was well chosen, Alexander.”
Xan was still on his knees, but at least had begun to breathe normally again. “I didn’t choose her,” he replied. “My father did. And you helped him.”
Cathal’s eyes glinted in the twilight, but he said nothing.
Donna supported Xan as he pushed himself to his feet. “Take it easy,” she said. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“I’ve been through a lot?” He shook his head, an expression of wonder on his face. “I don’t know how you held on. I could have killed you.”
“But you didn’t,” she said.
“You held me, through all of that. Through everything.”
“Yes,” she said, wondering at his disbelief. “Of course I did.”
Queen Isolde stepped forward, a line between her golden brows marring the perfection of her beauty. “You mortals are so dramatic. It would almost be amusing, if you weren’t so troublesome.”
Donna folded her arms across her chest. “Troublesome? You were willing to sacrifice him! You’d happily see me dead, too.”
“A glamour, even one of this power, cannot truly cause harm.”
Donna fixed her gaze on the Queen. “Don’t tell me it was all just glamour. An illusion. I have bruises.” She pointed at her torn shirt, the blood that seeped from a gash just beneath her collarbone. “I’m bleeding. Yes, it was faery magic—but it was also real.”
Shahade was standing at the Queen’s shoulder with his eyebrows raised. Clearly he’d never encountered anyone quite like Donna before; someone who dared to speak to the Queen of Faerie in such a manner.
Cathal—with Gull standing on his shoulder looking proud and fierce—faced his Queen. “Where do we go from here, Majesty?”
Donna watched Isolde calculating her next move. She’d been beaten, fairly and in front of witnesses. An audience that included, not only a significant number of her royal court, but also a potential consort and partner in Shahade. At the very least, an impressive ally in consolidating power in Faerie. The Silver Fey had finally come out of their self-imposed exile, and Isolde would not want them to disappear again.
Especially not considering how smoking hot their leader was. Donna suppressed a smile as she thought that part.
The Queen surveyed all who stood before her in the place without a name—the place where Donna Underwood of the alchemists had saved a halfblood from the Tithe. Isolde did the only thing she possibly could.
She lied through her teeth.
“We congratulate you, young alchemist, on the strength and determination you have shown this night.” Her lips curved into a dazzling, and yet wholly insincere smile. “The love between Donna and Alexander must surely rival that of Janet and her own Tam Lin.”
Perhaps the myth that said faeries couldn’t lie really was just a myth, after all. Donna suppressed a triumphant smile.
She risked a quick glance at Xan, but he was watching the Queen like she was a particularly poisonous creature. He didn’t trust her for a moment, and who could blame him? But Donna knew that Isolde would keep to her word and let them go free. She also knew that Cathal would be given another chance, mostly because the Queen needed him and his sword. Everyone knew it.
Queen Isolde swept her arm in a gracious arc. “Let us return to my palace to celebrate the arrival of Shahade and his people. We have much to look forward to!”
And that, as they say, Donna thought, was that.
Except that Shahade bent his dark head toward the Queen’s, whispering something in her ear. Her face remained impassive, but something in the set of her shoulders made Donna realize that, yet again, she was displeased.
“Of course,” she said, her tone all smooth honey. “Shahade is impressed with your strength in overcoming the Testing. He would offer you a boon. It would be my pleasure to offer it to you myself.”
Xan leaned toward Donna so he could whisper in her ear. “Only because she doesn’t have a choice,” he said. “She has to save face somehow.”
A boon? Donna already thought they’d gotten just about everything they were going to get—by saving Xan’s life, ensuring Cathal’s freedom, and securing safe passage back to the human world for Donna.
Shahade nodded his encouragement. “What would you ask, Donna of the alchemists?”
What would she ask? That was the big question, wasn’t it? Donna found it hard to be too smug in that moment, considering that she felt like her arms were about to fall off and her back cracked ominously every time she tried to stand up entirely straight. Still… a boon. A wish. And not just any faery wish, but one from a Queen. The Queen.
Donna smiled. “I ask that Alexander Grayson be given the freedom to come and go between Faerie and the human world, whenever he wishes. And that you will not… meddle with the passage of time while he is here, so that one week becomes a month or a year, or any of that nonsense. It is not for myself that I ask, Majesty, but for Xan. He has a foot in each world, and it is unfair to make him choose when he has a life on either side of the veil. Why can’t he have both? Why can’t he have a blood family and the friends he has made back home?”
Isolde looked as though she’d eaten something sour, but she made a valiant attempt at grace. “It is a worthy request,” she said.
“Indeed!” Shahade boomed. “Very noble of you, gifting your boon to another.”
For a moment everyone held their breaths, almost fearing that perhaps the Silver Fey’s leader would insist that Donna have another wish of her own… But, no. That was all he had to say on the matter.
If she was honest, Donna would have to admit that she was relieved. She didn’t think she could handle any more faery negotiations. She just wanted to get home. Home to Navin and home to her mother.
The swoosh of tiny wings and a thud on her left shoulder reminded her that Gull was still around. “You should have wished for his wings,” she hissed. “Then he could fly with me.”
Gull gazed wistfully across at Xan.
He shook his head. “I don’t want that. Not anymore. This is who I am, and who I’ve been for most of the life that I remember. It would change things too much.”
“But… to fly!” Gull cried, swooping from Donna’s shoulder to his. Her tiny hand gripped his hair for balance. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
Xan glanced at Donna and smiled. “I’ve flown before. It was… enough.”
The tiny faery shook her head as though he’d gone totally crazy, but she didn’t argue any further. Instead she leapt into the air once more, spinning in widening circles above their heads; flying so fast that it seemed as though a purple and silver rainbow followed every graceful movement.
Donna leaned into Xan’s shoulder. “Did I ask for the right thing?”
“You know you did,” he replied, putting his arms around her and pulling her against his chest. “Thank you.”
“Now you can come and go as you please,” Donna said brightly. She felt sad, all of a sudden, which was strange considering that they’d won.
Xan traced her cheek with warm fingertips. “I wasn’t just thanking you for that. You saved my life.”
Donna swallowed the lump that had inconveniently appeared in her throat. “That’s my job,” she said. “To save the ones I love.”
“Do you?” Xan asked. “Love me?”
Donna gazed into those suddenly vulnerable green eyes and tried to smile. “I suppose I must do,” she said. “Though I think it’s pretty rude of you to make me say it first.”
Xan’s face lit up with one of his rare, open smiles. “Well, you didn’t quite say it. ‘I suppose I must do,’ doesn’t exactly fill me with romantic delusions.”
Laughter bubbled up in her, making her head feel light. “Did you really think you’d only been gone for two weeks?”
“Yes.” Xan placed his other hand on her cheek. His thumbs traced gentle patterns on her skin. “I really did. You can ask Cathal if you still don’t believe me.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I will.”
Xan laughed, and then he kissed her before she could make any more smart comments. It was the sweetest kiss they had ever shared, perhaps because it was, for the first time, filled with hope. The future lay before them—before both of them—and it seemed as though the possibilities really were endless. As they should be. Donna kissed Xan back with every bit of energy she could muster, which was a surprising amount considering what they’d just been through. She imagined that she could feel his kiss all the way down to her toes, curling inside her like smoke. All the way into her soul—to that place deep within her that had once held magic, but was now empty and quiet at last.
When Xan finally pulled away, they were both restless. Donna’s lips tingled and she wondered if they could just avoid the crowds and stay out here all night. The stars were so beautiful.
“Xan!” Peri called from the edge of the grove. “Your father is waiting for you.”
Xan looked at the young knight and quirked an eyebrow at her. “That’s the first time you’ve ever called me Xan, and not Alexander.”
“Well,” she replied. “I suppose I should make an effort to use that ridiculous name you prefer, considering how you have always offered me the same courtesy.”
“Yes, Pericles,” Donna said, unable to hold back her grin. “And don’t you forget it.”
The three of them headed back through the trees, following the path that would return them to Queen Isolde’s palace. To a celebration that none of them particularly wanted to participate in. But it was just one night, and then… freedom.
Gull trailed impressive sparkles behind her as she flew above their heads, and Donna smiled again, this time thinking of the look on Navin’s face when they came home. She thought about the Test she had just undergone: a test of strength. But not just of the iron in her hands and arms. It has been a true test of her heart’s strength.
“How did you do it?” Xan interrupted her thoughts, and she knew without asking what he meant.
How did you hold on?
“Because I believe in you,” she said. “I have from that very first night. Even when I didn’t really know you, I always believed the best of you.”
Xan squeezed her hand. “You believed in me way more than I ever did in myself.”
She squeezed back. “It’s about time you started then, isn’t it?”