"We shouldn't be here...."
As if to echo Owen MacDonald's misgivings, a low rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. He looked over at his fellow kinsmen in the faint hope that someone else would also show uneasiness at this journey in Dun Liath, but all he got from his two cousins was grim silence. Even his own daughter Colleen (still a child in his eyes at sixteen years) seemed to share that stony-faced determination.
"We should be takin' care o' this ourselves. Within the family." Shaking his head, Owen tried again. "If the others in the Clan find out what we're doin'--"
"They won't." Moira MacDonald's voice rang clear and steady, belying her aged body. "So long as they aren't told. An' none o' us have any reason to be tellin' them anythin', do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, mum." Owen sighed in frustration. His mother would brook no further discussion on the matter, that much was certain. "Colleen shoulda stayed at home though! This is no place for a girl!"
"I'm no girl, father! I'm practically a woman now!" Colleen snapped, patting the two pistols holstered at her side. "I want to help Gran an' to help restore our family's honour."
"Aye, an' help ye will, lass," Moira smiled, cutting in before Owen could say anything. "It does this old heart good to hear that. That the young still care to know about our history...an' our pain. Such determination an' courage will serve our family well."
Another rumble of thunder shot through the sky. Nearby, their destination loomed: Stag's Head, the ancestral home of the Clan MacFayden. Owen shivered, then fingered the dirk strapped to his side, trying to reassure himself that everything would be all right.
"Theus, be with us..." he muttered.
It was cousin Robert who approached the heavy wooden door first. He grabbed the knocker, turning first towards Moira, who only nodded. Owen thought he could see him hesitate briefly before he raised it...
...then brought it down with a sharp rap.
Though they were outside, the silence was claustrophobic as the small family waited. Finally, a small panel opened in the door and two eyes clear as water peered out at the MacDonalds.
"State your business."
"We seek an audience with the master o' the house," said Robert.
"My master, the Lord MacFayden, is away on the hunt and won't return until the mood strikes him, I am sorry to say. Another time perhaps..." The panel began to slide back shut.
"Och, but we asked for the master o' the house, we did!" This time it was Cedric who spoke up, sneering. "The one who holds MacFayden's leash. Him we seek an' him we'll speak with. We'll not be turned away on this!"
Owen could feel the lump hit his throat as he caught sight of the eyes narrowing angrily. "For Theus' sake, mind your words, Cedric! Are you tryin' to get us all kill--"
The door suddenly swung open and Owen's words died in his throat. Before them stood a man, tall and lean, with skin pale as alabaster and gleaming white hair. His body was enveloped in a long black cloak with only the tips of his brick-red boots peeking out from beneath the fabric. Upon his head was a matching wide-brimmed hat, one lone black feather from some unknown raptor jutting out from it. Idly, his fingers tapped the hilt of the silver sword strapped to his side. Every movement, every gesture hinted at inhuman grace and coldness.
Swallowing, Owen stepped in front of his daughter, trying to make sure that he was between her and the Sidhe. The creature only looked over at each member of the family, contemplating them as if they were fish in a net.
"Your colours mark you as MacDonald..." His lips curled into a cold, tight smile. "One of your kin did my master a rather unpleasant turn some four and twenty years ago or so he claims. And with your tongues clucking so coarse and foolish now, whyever should I permit you the chance to speak with me?!"
Owen opened his mouth to try to stammer out an apology, but Moira spoke first. "You think the actions o' one speak for all in this Clan? Whatever may have happened then was not our business nor our knowin', whatever it was. We come to parley with our own matters in the present today."
"With cold iron?" Sniffing the air, he shot a glare towards Owen. Owen gripped the handle of the dirk, but didn't draw it.
"Only if we need to defend ourselves." Owen forced himself to stay calm.
The Sidhe smirked, turning back towards Moira. "Your Clan isn't particularly well-disposed towards those of my ilk, MacDonald."
"As I said," Moira shrugged. "the actions o' one don't speak for the actions o' all. Best you remember that."
"And yet here you are, asking to parley with me. Whatever for?"
"Because..." The old woman paused, grimacing. "...because we seek your aid."
The Sidhe's eyes widened incredulously as he let out a sharp bark of laughter. "My aid?!" He laughed again, shaking his head. "Oh, I must hear more of this if a MacDonald of all things comes crawling to succor one of the Fair Folke for aid! Enter then, mortals, for I, Thalo, will hear more of this pathetic plea for my amusement!" With a curt nod to follow him, Thalo turned and entered the keep.
Owen grabbed Moira by the arm as she started to followed after. "Mother, please...we can't be doin' this!"
She only shrugged him off. "We've come too far now."
Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor, though Owen was certain that the Sidhe made no sound as he walked. Thalo led the party to a sitting room, where a fire was already crackling in the hearth. With another smirk, he offered the MacDonalds whisky, but they declined, all sides knowing the warnings of ever accepting any food or drink from the Sidhe. The formalities out of the way, Thalo plopped himself into a large leather-backed chair and motioned for them to be seated.
MacFayden's own chair, I'd wager... Owen thought. An' he sits in it like he's the Lord himself. He may well be. The stories I've heard about MacFayden...his madness, his curse...
"Your tale, crone. Curiosity gnaws at me to know why, out of every boggan and sprite, every elf and spirit, it is me you come to. Moreso still, what payment you would offer to sway me to render any service." Thalo looked over at Colleen, a hungry smile slowly spreading across his terrible, beautiful face. The young woman's cheeks flashed hotly as her eyes widened in anger and disgust. Owen felt the sweat rising on his palms, trying to fight every urge to draw his blade and plunge it into Thalo's chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cedric and Robert glaring at the Sidhe, each thinking similar thoughts of violence. Only his mother stayed controlled and focused.
"They call you 'The Birdcatcher', for no prey is too swift or too hidden to ever escape your grasp..." Moira began coolly. "Redcap an' all his goblins will bend their knee to you an' the Queen o' the Sky herself lets you roam free because you could lead her to the Holly King should you ever so choose to do it."
"You flatter me." Thalo nodded, a smug look on his face. "That is wise."
"And yet, for all your skills an' cunning, one target still eludes you."
Thalo's eyes suddenly narrowed and he hissed softly as the barest trace of a smirk now appeared on Moira's face.
"The things we've heard, Sidhe..." Moira continued. "Your 'master'...your thrall, MacFayden, hunts one particular doe. An Explorer. Now, whatever purpose he has for her, I leave you two to it. That's your own business. But yon bonny bitch an' her friends made the mistake o' buttin' in where she didn't belong in me an' my kin's affairs."
"Get to the point, woman." Thalo's tone was terse.
Moira shrugged. "I've come across news o' where her whereabouts will be. Travelin' to some sort o' secret dig. I can give you the time an' the route. All I ask for in return is one simple task..."
"Oh, a simple task?" Thalo rolled his eyes. "Yet not so simple if you cannot accomplish it yourself, I sense. Tell me then what sort of fool's errand you think I'd deign to waste my time on, especially for payment so feeble..." His voice now was both flippant and irritated, but Owen was sure that the Sidhe's eyes betrayed his eagerness for his mother's information all too easily.
"I need a hunter..." Moira sighed, looking tired all of a sudden. "I'm old, Sidhe. Such a thing may mean little to your kind, but this black mark has hung over me for all my life. An' I'll be damned if I die without seein' it extinguished first! My mother...dishonoured the family. Dishonoured my father an' my brother. Dishonoured us." Her eyes were blazing with anger now. "She flaunted her affairs. Lorded them over my father. After my oldest brother Ian but before me was the bastard between us. An' she didn't care. The way she fawned over it...that maggot..."
"Your mother was loose with her charms...so what?" Thalo sniffed dismissively. "Mortal, your family would not be the first to suffer from a straying eye and wandering loins. Your kind think you're all so pure and sainted in that way..." His face twisted into an ugly grin. "...but you're little better than animals rutting in the dark. What's one more old, dying bastard in this world? Is this some petty inheritance thing or are you just still bitter about him getting an extra biscuit now and then for supper? If you want him dead, time has probably done my work for me already."
Moira MacDonald only glared in silent rage. The Sidhe paused, looking carefully at the old woman, his eyes now bright in thought.
"Changeling." A statement, not a question.
"My father never knew who she slept with. He told me he first suspected some Montaigne fop that had been passin' through our village. Later on, he thought it might have been one o' those accursed MacLeods. The bitch took that secret to the grave..." Moira's voice was low and bitter. "I was eight when she died. Consumption, they said. We knew better. She willingly embraced it in a mockery o' motherhood even as it slowly sucked her dry o' life. As soon as she breathed her last, my father an' uncle an' brother went after it, but that accursed spawn managed to flee into the night with Legion's grace. Do you know it even had the audacity to pretend to grieve? And to beg for mercy... My father, my uncle an' Ian...they searched for years in vain for the coward. The others in the Clan were no help to us. Thought too we were on a fool's errand, they did."
The old woman paused, her face set in anger. "All those years lookin' an' turnin' up empty-handed...Ian's lads an' my son Owen, we kept up the hunt. We thought we had a lead only just a few months ago! Noticed someone had dared to lay fresh roses on that whore's grave. The maggot was mocking us an' our family's shame again! Rubbin' it in our faces. But we were finally going to catch it...or so we thought."
She looked over at Cedric and Robert, both glaring at the memory. Owen shifted uncomfortably. He had been away at Connickmoor when all this had happened, but he had heard his mother and cousins rant and rail about the story far too many times afterwards.
"Rigby..." Robert spat. "...the damn vicar himself was doin' it! It had gotten in touch with him somehow. Bewitched him or bribed him, maybe both, but he wouldn't be swayed from followin' its orders."
"We were lookin' to...'convince' Rigby the error o' his ways an' to tell us everything he knew about the bastard. What names it had been usin', how an' when they communicated an' where it could be hidin' now," growled Cedric. He shot a look over at Thalo. "But that's when your master's strumpet showed up in town with her two idiots in tow. Long story short, we're now banned from attendin' our own town's bloody church!"
Thalo smiled, thin and mirthless. "So now the story is told. And such scandal it is! A MacDonald running about with the touch of the fey in him...how galling it must be to know your family line isn't so pure and clean after all, woman. Or is it the fact that your mother might have enjoyed the affair of his conception more than she ever did with any night with your father?" The Sidhe looked over at Moira glaring silently at him. "No matter. So, what is it you wish of me, MacDonald? The bastard's head? His heart? Or his entire corpse?"
"Bring him to me alive, hunter..." Moira said. "...for I wish to kill him myself. We will burn him at the stake an' scatter his thrice-damned ashes to the winds afterwards! But drag him back to us an' you'll get your precious information on your Lord's girl."
"Say 'please' first, crone."
Moira swallowed a look of disgust. "...please..."
The Sidhe just grinned. "Give me leave to walk your lands while on this hunt."
Owen's eyes widened at that request. "We can't--!"
Moira shot a harsh look at her son, then turned back to Thalo. "Only if you swear to perform no harm nor malice to us an' our kin while you do so, Sidhe."
"By the Three Queens, I will swear to that then, MacDonald..." Thalo bowed his head. "But before I engage in this hunt, preparations must be made. Return to your home. When next we meet, I will require three items from you: a needle, a spool of red thread and a walnut still in its shell. The last item I need, I will gather myself."
"'Next we meet'...what do you mean by that?" Confusion was on Owen's face. "Where an' when will that be?"
"You will know when the crow lands on your doorstep. Follow it then to me."
"An' why do you need these items from us?" Colleen, silent since entering the keep, finally spoke up. "Why are you stallin' your hunt to make us get these things first?!"
The Sidhe only shook his head and laughed. "Oh, child...how little you know of this world and the next! But it's really all quite simple. Before I go hunting..." A slow grin spread across his face, sharp and white. "...I need bait."