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At the garden archway, he slipped her hand into his and entered first to ensure naught was awry. He’d vowed to keep her safe.
“Oh, this is lovely,” she said as they traversed the path through the garden beds filled with vegetables and herbs to the rose garden, where he seated her on the turf bench, abloom with small, fragrant white flowers. The gentle scent was heady. As was her beauty.
“I owe you an apology,” she said.
He frowned. “Whatever for?”
“For not believing your story about the pixies.”
“I guess ’tis hard to believe in something you have never seen.”
“I saw one last night.”
Her admission made his brows rise. “You did?”
“Yeah. In my room, while I was bathing. Before you came. She wore a purple gown and had sheer lavender wings. Like that one there.” Emily pointed to a dragonfly-like creature perched on a shiny rose leaf.
He held out a hand and the ebony-haired pixie jounced onto his palm.
Tee teehee hee. Tee teehee hee. Tee teehee hee.
The wee creature’s voice tinkled like the sweetest chimes.
“Here is another!” Emily leapt to her feet and held out a hand. A blonde pixie with green wings landed on an outstretched finger. “This one has iridescent peridot wings.”
Gregor brought his hand closer to his face for a better look at the one he held.
Emily did the same with hers. “Hello,” she murmured.
Tee teehee hee. The pixies giggled again, before blowing dust into their faces. Then with more giggles, they flew away, high over the garden wall.
Emily and Gregor sneezed in unison, and then dropped onto the bench, overcome with laughter. Tears of merriment streamed from both their eyes.
“They are so cute,” Emily said, when she sobered.
Dugaid stared at the compromised hidey-hole, a snarl curling his lip. How dare his mother remove her protection from the lost bairns? Oonagh was a beautiful woman, sought after by many a man, both fae and mortal, but she lacked even an iota of motherly tendencies. Had the Fae Queen put the bairns in harm’s way?
His pointed ears perked at a commotion deeper in the wood. A lad cried out as if in pain. Cloaked in the glamour of invisibility, Dugaid followed the scuffling sounds.
Two of the woodland bairns huddled together on the ground, faces battered and bruised. Dugaid fisted his hands. No one had the right to hurt children.
An explosive outburst of nature heralded his anger to the world. Lightning sliced the darkening sky. Thunder reverberated over mountains, hills, and glens. Hail pounded the earth. The pungent smell of ozone sharpened the air, making his nostrils flare.
Maclay’s gaze shot to the ominous sky, and the man frowned. Returning attention to the third bairn, the one he held by the shoulders, he shook the battered lad. “Tell me!”
When the bairn didn’t answer, Maclay knuckle-slapped him hard across the face.
The lad cried out. Blood spewed from a broken nose.
Red also wept through a rag wrapped around Maclay’s wrist, but didn’t hinder the man from inflicting pain on those weaker. “Tell me what you ken of the lass traveling with MacEwen, unless you wish for more of a thrashing.”
“Nae. Dinnae hurt me anymore,” the lad pleaded. “She is from the future. ’Tis all I ken.”
Maclay thrust the lad away, grabbed the backpack from the ground, and strode away from the whimpering bairns. Dugaid’s rage boiled. The storm intensified. One especially jagged streak of vertical lightning pierced the ground at Maclay’s feet.
The villain leapt back, tossing weight from leg to leg, attempting to find balance as the ground rolled and splintered around him. Spider cracks spread from long narrow slits. Trees and rocks tumbled into deep crevasses. The backpack Jillian had brought through the time gate slipped from Maclay’s nerveless fingers. It tumbled into a fissure, got caught by the strap on a branch, and dangled just within reach.
He dove to retrieve it, but the earth pitched with a violent shudder. The pack dropped into the hole while the vibration joggled Maclay precariously close to the edge. He crabbed backward scarcely in time. One more quake closed the opening.
In a flash, Dugaid placed a vanishing blanket over the bairns, making them invisible.
Maclay stood, paced in a small circle, and punched a fist in the air. “Where are those cursed changelings?”
Unable to release his frustration on the bairns, the nasty devil strode away from the scene of destruction, muttering obscenities. Dugaid hated allowing the man to leave, but there were certain covenants to which he must adhere. As much as he so desired, he mustn’t kill a human.
Dugaid waited until the man had traveled a great distance before uncloaking himself and the lads. “Can you all walk?”
“Aye.” The lad with the mismatched eyes helped the older, pudgy fellow, who’d taken the worst beating, rise to his feet.
“Hie tail to the Caves of the Gray Women and use the pool to heal your injuries.”
“Many thanks for coming to our aid,” said the lad with a head too large for his child-sized body.
“You are verra welcome. Now run along and forget you saw me.” Dugaid watched them leave, chanting a spell of protection to keep them safe.
Then he, too, vanished, traveling through the nether in search of Caitrina. She would never win the challenge if she didn’t keep her mind on the task at hand. He was more than ready to give her a lengthy scolding.
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