Baile Icin, near Dingle, Ciarrai, 1400
Niall knew without looking up from his anvil that the woman who addressed him was Fae--Sidhe, the villagers called them. He could smell her, a bright, sticky-sweet stench that humans found irresistible.
He kept his head bent over his task. Mending a cooking crane for a village woman was far more important than speaking to a Fae. Besides, his name wasn’t Smith, and if she couldn’t call Niall by his real name he saw no need to answer.
"Shifter, I command you," she said.
Niall continued hammering. Wind poured through the open doors, carrying the scent of brine, fish, and clean air, which still could not cover the stench of Fae.
"This forge is filled with iron, lass," Niall cut her off. "And Shifters don’t obey Fae anymore. Did you not hear that news a hundred and fifty years ago?"
"I have a spell that keeps my aversion of iron at bay. For a time. Long enough to deal with you."
She had a voice like clearest water, and Niall finally looked up, curiosity winning over animosity. A tall woman in flowing silk stood on his threshold, her body haloed by the setting sun. Her pale hair hung to her knees in a score of thin braids, and she had the dark eyes and slender, pointed ears common to her kind. She was beautiful in an ethereal sort of way. But then all Fae were beautiful, the evil bastards.
The wind boiling up from the sea cliffs cut through the doorway, and the woman shivered. Niall raised his brows; he’d never caught a Fae doing a thing so normal as shiver.
He thrust the end of the crane into the fire, sending sparks into the darkness. "Come in out of the weather, girl. You’ll be freezing in those flimsy clothes."
"My name is Alanna, and I’m hardly a girl."
She had to be young if she responded to Niall’s condescension, or at least naïve. Fae lived so long and never changed much once they were fully grown that it was difficult to tell what age they were. She could be twenty-five or four hundred and fifty.
Alanna stepped all the way into the forge, darting nervous glances at the iron--the anvil, his tools, the piece of crane he was mending. "I’ve been sent to give you a commission."
"You were sent, were you? Poor lass. You must have offended someone high up to be handed the thankless task of entering the mortal world to speak to a Shifter."
Her cheeks colored but her tone remained haughty. "I’ve come to ask you to forge a sword. I believe you were once a sword maker of some repute."
"In days gone by. Now I’m a humble blacksmith, making practical things for villagers here and on the Great Island."
"Nonetheless, I am certain you retained your skill. The sword is to have a blade three feet in length, made of silver. The hilt to be of bronze."
Niall drew the crane from the fire, set it on his anvil, and quickly hammered the glowing end into shape. "No," he said.
He enunciated each word. "No, I will not make such a damn fool weapon for a Fae. For anyone."
Alanna regarded him, slack-jawed, a very un-Fae like expression. Fae were cold beings, barely bringing themselves to speak civilly to anything non-Fae. Fae had once bred Shifters to hunt and fight for them, and they regarded Shifters as animals, one step below humans.
This woman looked troubled, confused, even embarrassed. "You will do this."
"I will not."
Was that panic now? Niall thrust the iron crane back into the fire and got to his feet.
The Fae woman stepped back, and Niall fought a grin. Niall was big, even for a Shifter. His arms were strong from a lifetime of smithy work, and he’d always been tall. Alanna would come up to his chin if he stood next to her; her slender hands would get lost in his big ones. He could break her like a twig if he chose, and by the fear in her black eyes, she thought he’d choose to.
"Listen to me, lass. Go back to wherever you came from, and tell them that Shifters take orders no more. We are no longer your slaves, or your hunters, or your pets. We are finished." He turned back to pump the bellows, sweat trickling down his bare back. "Besides, silver won’t make a decent sword. The metal’s too soft."
"Spells have been woven through the metal to make it as strong as steel. You will work it the same as you would any other sword."
"I will, will I? Fae don’t like swords in any case--your preferred weapon is the bow. Not to mention the copper knife for gouging out other beings’ hearts, usually while the heart is still beating."
"That is only the priests, and only when we need to make a sacrifice."
"Sacrifice, you call it? Seems like it’s not much of a sacrifice for you but hard on the one who’s losing his heart."
"That’s really none of your affair. You need to make the sword for me. What we use it for doesn’t concern you."
"You are wrong about that." Niall lifted the crane again, quickly hammered it into its final shape, and thrust it into his cooling barrel. Water and metal met with a hiss, and steam boiled into the air. "Anything I make has a little part of meself in it. I’m not putting that into a sacrificial weapon you’ll stick it into helpless animals or humans or Shifters who never did any harm to you."
Her brow clouded. "A piece of yourself? Blood or a bit of skin . . .?"
"Not literally, you ignorant woman. I don’t christen it with blood, like some Fae priest. I mean I put a bit of my soul in everything I craft. Gods know I wouldn’t want Fae touching anything that’s come close to my soul."
Her face flamed, and her look was now . . . ashamed? "Shifter, I must take this sword back with me at first light."
Last light was now streaming through the door, the spring air turning even more frigid. "And where would I be getting time to craft such a thing before morning? Sword-working is a long business, and I have sons to look after. I’m not doing it, lass. Go on home and tell them you couldn’t bully the big, mean Shifter."
"Damn you." Alanna clenched her fists, eyes sparkling. "Are all Shifters this bloody stubborn? I thought I could do this without hurting you."
Niall looked her up and down. Fae could work powerful magic, without doubt, but not much in the human world. They’d given up that power to retreat to the safety of their own realm, while Shifters had learned to adapt and remain in the world of humans. Fae still had magic out here--minor spells, glamour, and misdirection, not that they didn’t use those to lure human beings to their deaths.