Fire and Ice Young Adult and New Adult Books

Brenna Morgan & The Iron Key

by Katie Masters



"Trail of Secrets" by Laura WolfeWhen sixteen year-old Brenna Morgan arrived in Ireland with her travel-writer mother she had expected the usual—a couple of months in a country that wasn’t her home. What she hadn’t anticipated was making a promise to a dying faerie who saves her life. Armed with only her wits and a strange iron key given to her by the faerie, Brenna is pulled into a world where myth and legend cross all too often into reality, in search for a child hidden away in their world.

Knowing nothing of the faerie realm, she is aided in her search by her new found friend Patrick and a reluctant faerie named Roibhilin with a grudge against humans. But the more she uncovers the more she realizes that not all is as it seems, that danger comes in the most unassuming of guises, and that the child she is sworn to protect could destroy not only the faerie world but her own as well.


 

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Teens



Chapter One

“I don’t see a sign, mom. Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

Brenna narrowed her green eyes and pressed her nose against the window, trying to see past the rivers of water streaming along the glass. All she could really make out was a ditch backed by a low, rock wall that had been with them since they’d left the bustling Irish city of Cork.

“Of course I am! Have I ever gotten us lost before?”

“Well, there was that one time in Peru...” she began.

“Really, that was one time four years ago.” Brenna’s mother punched her shoulder lightly, smiling. “C’mon, we’re almost there, Bren. And where is that sense of humor I gave you at the time of birth?”

“Somewhere between India and the Cork airport.”

“I’m sure it’ll catch up to you by tomorrow.”

The windshield wipers her mother had turned on were almost useless, and the pounding wind and water against the car had her wondering how long it would be until the roof caved in. Brenna wrinkled her nose. If this was what the weather was going to be like all the time, her sneakers were done for.

“Oh look, there it is—Kerry Lane!”

Her mother made a sharp right, and Brenna gripped the side of the car with both hands against the force. In back, several bags tumbled along the seat as her mother laughed. It was times like these that Brenna was sure the woman was a little nuts. Her dad’s nickname for her mom was ‘Rocket Rachel’, and she thought it suited the woman perfectly. The road became bumpy then, and Brenna had to hold onto the doorframe just to keep from hitting her head on the low ceiling of the rental car. The rain continued to pour down around them, and the tires skidded every once and a while on the slick mud.

“Don’t the Irish believe in paving their driveways?!” Brenna exclaimed through gritted teeth.

“Now where’s the fun in that, Bren? There’s the cottage up ahead, and it looks like someone’s there. I heard the people in this country are really hospitable. Isn’t Ireland wonderful?”

Brenna wasn’t sure if “wonderful” was the correct term. Muddy, cold, and miserable seemed a better description. The cottage, however, really did look like something from out of a magazine with its whitewashed walls and thatched roof. Smoke curled out from a chimney to join the mist that snaked its way through the air, and colorful flowers peeked out from boxes nestled against windows sheltered by the roof’s sloping eve. A blue door was the only other splash of color in the mist and gloom. Her mother gave a sigh of contentment before she turned off the ignition and leaned back in her seat.

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, listening to the rain beat against the car as they took in the view of their new home. The cottage door swung open then, and a thin woman waved at them from the doorway. Together they straightened from their slumped positions.

“Well,” said her mother as she reached around and picked up two duffel bags from the floor, “I guess that’s the signal to get moving, kiddo!”

“Mom, I’m sixteen, you can’t really call me that anymore.”

“Oh? I hate to break it to you honey, but since you’re not as old as I am, you’re going to remain ‘kiddo’ until you catch up to me.”

“Somehow, I don’t think the math is working out very well...”

“Less talking, more moving. And,” her mother’s smile widened as she continued, “since you want to be so grown up, you can carry two duffel bags like the rest of us adults!”

With a small shriek of laughter, Brenna’s mother made a mad and very slippery dash to the door where the woman took a bag before going back into the house. Brenna sighed, taking the last two bags as she followed after her. Like her mother, her head barely missed hitting the top of the door frame when she entered, an occurrence she’d had to suffer with for the last few years thanks to a growth spurt and her father’s Viking genetics. By the time she got inside both she and the bags were soaking wet.

“Brenna, isn’t this place adorable?!”

Dropping the waterlogged duffel bags to the floor, she looked around as her mother disappeared down a short hall directly across from the front door. The cottage was cute but snug. To the left, the living room and kitchen were jumbled together in a mash of faded, mismatched couches, wingback chairs, and a narrow counter that worked as both a stove-top and table to separate the cramped space. Across from the stove rested an ancient, heavy sink under an equally old window while the rest of the narrow kitchen was taken up by a 1950s fridge that barely avoided blocking the entrance.

“Brenna, this is Kathleen Fergus. She lives next door. Kathleen, this is my daughter.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Brenna stuck out her hand, realizing too late that it was wet and cold. The elderly woman paid no mind, however, and shook her hand. Kathleen’s smile was kind and her pale blue eyes were sharp and piercing, reminding Brenna of a gypsy she’d met once who could tell fortunes with unnerving accuracy. A brown, tweed jacket covered her short, slender frame, and a skirt of pink roses seemed at odds with a pair of thick leather boots.

“It’s nice to meet you as well, Brenna. My grandson is around here somewhere, probably after some turf. We’ve got the fire going, as you can see.” Kathleen gestured to the large stone fireplace in the living room. “’Tis bad luck to come home to a cold hearth, you know.”

Rachel clapped a hand on Brenna’s shoulders then quickly pulled it off when she realized how wet her daughter’s clothes were.

“We’re very grateful for the welcome, Mrs. Fergus. Will you stay for dinner?” She gave a small kick and Brenna echoed the offer, feeling like she was five again. Kathleen laughed.

“Well and sure a warm meal is always something to say yes to. I’m sure Patrick will be glad for the food as well. And please, call me Kate—all my friends do.”

“This is so much better than the hut we rented in Columbia, huh Bren?” Her mother laughed. “Your bedroom is the last one down the hall on the left. Why don’t you get comfortable and I’ll make us all some dinner?

“Sure.”

After readjusting the dripping bags on her shoulders, Brenna teetered down the short hallway to the room that would be hers for the next four months. It was small, and the ceiling was slanted with wooden beams that held up the thatched roof. She wondered if the straw was really thick enough to keep out the rain that beat mercilessly upon it. Setting her bags down on the floor with a wet thud, she sat down on the bed, wincing when it creaked under her weight. It was a small, wrought iron contraption that sunk in the middle, but the quilts on top were thick and the mattress seemed pretty sturdy.

Standing with a stretch, she quickly changed into jeans and a dry shirt before taking a towel to her wet hair. A small dresser table with a round mirror was opposite her bed, and Brenna eyed her reflection as she combed her long, blonde hair. Her face was pale as usual—save for a smattering of light freckles on her nose and cheeks—and her green eyes were fringed by thick, black lashes that her mother often said just weren’t natural or fair. She wrinkled her nose at her spare figure, wishing that she weren’t quite so thin or tall. At five feet eleven, she often stood out in a crowd and imagined that it was how a scarecrow in a field must feel.

Slipping on a pair of socks and a knitted wool sweater, Brenna headed back to the living room. The smell of cooking pasta made her feel at home and eased the anxiety that the car ride had brought on. Her mother always made spaghetti the first night they stayed anywhere; it was one of the few things that stayed constant in her life. A few feet in front of the counter where her mother stood cooking was a large, overstuffed couch that faced the fireplace and a trunk used in place of a coffee table. The couch was soft and warm when Brenna sank into it, and she peeked over the edge at her mother who was draining the noodles while Mrs. Fergus stirred the sauce.

“Need any help, mom?”

“If you could make sure you’re starving, that’d be helpful.”

“Ha, ha.” Rolling her eyes, Brenna snuggled back into the cushions and looked around. There was no TV or radio, but she was used to that. Tugging on a lock of hair, she looked up. The ceiling above was crisscrossed by heavy beams like the ones in her bedroom, hosting dusty spider webs. She wondered just how many spiders were up there then decided that she didn’t want to know.

“Brenna, I have to go to Tralee tomorrow to meet with the publisher there. Do you want to come with me?”

Her mother handed her a bowl of pasta with this announcement and made sure Kathleen had the seat of her choice between the two wingback chairs on opposite sides of the trunk before joining her daughter on the couch. Brenna took a bite of the noodles, mulling the question over. They’d been traveling for three days straight, and she was pretty sure that if she had to go down one more bumpy road she’d throw up.

“I think I’ll stay here. I can go exploring or something, if it’s not raining.”

“It’s Ireland, Bren. It always rains.” Her mother laughed again and twirled the spaghetti on her fork. The homey atmosphere suddenly changed as the door slammed open, ushering in wind, rain, and a dark figure whose face was hidden in shadow. Kathleen smiled.

“Ah, Patrick, I wondered where you’d gone off to! Come in boy, and meet our new neighbors.”

Patrick stepped through the door, pushing a rain cap off with one hand and carrying a bundle of something large and earthy-smelling in the other. As he shut the door, Brenna eyed him covertly over her bowl of pasta, trying not to appear interested. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and his frame—athletic, Brenna assumed—took on some bulk thanks to the thick, wool sweater he was wearing. His hair was damp from the rain and brushed his neck in dark-brown waves. She wasn’t sure given the dim lighting, but she thought that his eyes looked green.

For a moment, his eyes caught hers before slowly looking her over from head to toe in a way that made her feel as if he could see every thought she had in her head, much like his grandmother. Brenna felt heat creep up her neck and spread to her cheeks, anger rising at his slow once-over. Neither her mother nor Kathleen appeared to notice the tension, though, and her mother happily offered Patrick a bowl as he set down his load next to the fireplace. He nodded his head in thanks and took his seat in the last wingback chair but remained wordless.

Kathleen smiled at her grandson, pride showing clearly in her eyes. “Patrick’s a bit of a shy one by times. He’s about your age I’m thinking, Brenna.”

Brenna studied him briefly, not quite sure what to say. He seemed to be older than her, but she didn’t want to come across as rude to their new neighbors by pointing out the wrong age. Her mother patted her shoulder, her smile wide.

“Brenna’s sixteen.”

“She is the same age, then! Is Brenna to be going to school?”

“We hadn’t really discussed it yet.”

Rachel’s pleasant demeanor faltered for a moment as she glanced at her daughter, and Brenna hunched her shoulders slightly, gripping her fork a little tighter. School was something her mother almost never put her in. Why bother? she’d asked when Brenna had suggested going to a junior high in Hong Kong. You won’t stay long enough to go through the whole process.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Kathleen spoke up again, her voice cheerful. “Well, if you do go, Brenna, my Patrick here will be more than happy to show you ’round the school. ’Tisn’t very big, but it’s bigger than some. Here now, Patrick, put the sod on.”

He leaned down, took a fat strip of what appeared to be dirt, and threw it onto the fire. Smoke and the unmistakable smell of earth rose, drowning out the scent of pasta.

“Ah,” said Kathleen as she held her hands up to the flames, “There’s nothing a good peat fire won’t cure. It’s pleased I am to have you here in this house. It’s been a wee bit sad to see it sitting empty. Have you seen any of the Good Folk since your visit, Brenna?”

“Good Folk?” Brenna’s curiosity piqued, and it must have shown on her face, for Kathleen smiled and leaned back in what was obviously a story-telling position.

“Fairies. We don’t often call them that; t’would be an insult to call them as such. But I’m sure they won’t mind this once. They’ve been known to wander the roads this way quite often.”

“That reminds me!” Setting down her bowl, Rachel rummaged through her large bag slumped against the couch before handing Brenna a heavy, slightly damp book.

“I got this for you while we were waiting at the bus stop in Limerick.”

“A fairy-tale book?” Brenna accepted the gift eagerly and Rachel smiled. Like her father, Brenna’s love for cultures and stories of the magical variety knew no bounds.

“It’s not just a fairy-tale book. It’s about the different fairies of Ireland. It’s folklore. True stories, if you will.” Her mother’s green eyes glowed warmly in the firelight, and she leaned forward as she often did when she was about to speak passionately about something.

“Did you know that a long time ago houses were built so that the doors all led into each other? They did it so that the fairies could troop through them. If they didn’t, the fairies were likely to knock the house down for blocking their path.”

“Cool.” Brenna flipped through the pages before setting it down, realizing that it was probably rude to read in the middle of a conversation. She smiled shyly at Kathleen.

“I love mythology,” she explained, somewhat embarrassed. “But it’s probably pretty dumb to believe in things like fairies, huh?”

“You ought to.” Kathleen’s voice was quiet, but the force behind it was strong. “There are many a strange things as happens in this country, Brenna. Folklore and history have a way of winding ’round each other in Ireland, and its best to believe it all than to be punished for not heeding the words in the first place.”

Patrick stared into the fire, but Brenna could tell from the way his body tensed that he was listening intently. She wondered why he didn’t speak up or have an opinion; he certainly looked like he wanted to. Brenna started slightly when her mother put an arm around her shoulder.

“Maybe you’ll see some fairie—I mean, some Good Folk around here. That’d make for a killer story, huh?”

A strong wind suddenly howled around the house, causing the wooden beams to creak as it blew open a window above the kitchen sink that hadn’t been properly latched. The sound of flutes seemed to fill the whole room, and Brenna blinked in surprise, trying to catch which direction the sound was coming from.

“It’s the wind,” said Kathleen. “When it whistles through the trees behind the house like that, it sounds a bit like flutes, doesn’t it?”

Brenna went to close the window, frowning when she realized that all the world had gone quiet and still outside, save for the sound of flutes that continued on like an elusive echo.

“Are you sure? The wind’s not blowing now, but—”

“’Tis just the wind, child,” Kathleen said a bit sharply, her blue eyes narrowing. “Have you gone into the woods yet?”

Patrick’s body jerked slightly, and Brenna paused on her way back to the couch. The musical sound had died away almost as quickly as it had come.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He nodded his head but didn’t quite look her in the eye. She felt the stirrings of unease rise and slowly sat down next to her mother who had just finished her dinner. Picking up her bowl of pasta, Brenna looked to Kathleen.

“No, I haven’t. Why?”

“I would warn against it. They aren’t always safe around here. There are…animals that aren’t always friendly.”

“Like snakes?” Brenna gave a small laugh and Kathleen smiled back, but it seemed a bit strained.

“Feral dogs sometimes roam about, hunt the sheep and sometimes people, too. Be sure not to go into the woods.”

In the fireplace, a log snapped loudly as it cracked in two, and Brenna gave a small jump at the noise. The tension in the room and Kathleen’s intense gaze was almost as unnerving as the wind that had blown through only a minute ago.

Rachel smiled, patting her daughter’s leg. “I’m sure Brenna will be having too much fun exploring the town and running down the lanes to go through the woods, anyway.”

“Oh, are you going to the village, then?” Kathleen directed this question to Brenna who set her bowl of spaghetti on the trunk, no longer feeling hungry.

“I was thinking of taking a walk to the village tomorrow.”

“All that way?” came the incredulous reply along with raised brows. Brenna’s smile was large and genuine for what felt like the first time in days.

“It’s only three miles, Mrs. Fergus.”

“Three miles in mud, moss, and cars driving by at such paces it would turn your head.” Kathleen tutted. “The very idea. Here now, you come to my house ’round noon and I’ll drive you there meself.”

“Really?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it. Come tomorrow at noon, ’tisn’t a problem at all.” Kathleen stood then, and Patrick followed suit. “Well, it’s getting late, and you look ready for sleep, the pair of you. Come on then, Patrick.”

With a few last waves and good-byes, Brenna shut the door and sighed. Her mother smiled and ruffled her daughter’s hair.

“What a trooper you are, Bren. Here.” Handing her a mug of tea, Rachel guided Brenna to the couch.

“I know this place is smaller—and colder—than the places we’ve gone to before, but it’s a new experience, right?”

“Yeah…” Brenna stared down into her cup. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think…could I please go to school here? We’re staying around here for four months, right? So couldn’t I go? Please?”

“Oh, Brenna…” Her mother sighed. “Don’t you like being homeschooled? I’m sure you’re in your second year of college, book-wise.”

“Yeah, but what about life-wise? Mom, I’m sixteen and I’ve never been to anything remotely normal.” Brenna squeezed the warm cup between her hands, tears brimming her eyes.

“Let me think about it, all right?”

“Fine.”

As the night wore on, the rain calmed down to a steady pitter-patter, and Brenna trudged her way into her bedroom. Her body longed for rest, but her mind wouldn’t slow down. Picking up the book her mother had given her, she thumbed through the pages until the story of a fairie that played a bagpipe caught her attention. Snuggling into the soft but creaky bed, she found herself drawn into the world the words painted and devoured one story after another, heedless of the time going by. Magic and myth—and somewhere in them truth—filled the pages. Eventually, Brenna found herself struggling to keep her eyes open, and she set the book down before turning off the lamp atop a small night stand at the side of her bed.

As sleep descended upon her, she wondered how much longer her family was going to travel. She loved the exotic places they had lived in and the people she’d met, but sometimes she wished that she could actually get to know the people and towns better than a few quick hellos and good-byes. Brenna smiled as the rain tapped against her window and the wind whistled through the cracks in the frames, and she could swear that she heard the sound of bagpipes being played outside. Perhaps Ireland would look better to her in the morning, when the rain was gone.

 

* * * *

 

After three days of rain that caused roads to become temporary rivers and forced people to stay to the safety and warmth of their homes, Brenna was ready to scream. She spent her time absorbed in the fairy-tale book her mother had given her, and she read every story at least twice, captivated by the heroes and heroines within. She found herself recalling Kathleen’s words of how Irish folklore was often mixed with history and wondered how many of the stories were true. To think that people of the past lived alongside fairies on a daily basis was something nice to imagine as real, and it kept Brenna’s mind entertained during the long days spent indoors. By Wednesday, though, she was beginning to realize how her mother must have felt whenever they were forced to stay in one place for too long.

On the fourth morning came a nearly cloud-free sky, and Brenna awoke to sunlight streaming into her room and onto her face. Groaning, she sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes before stretching. Half asleep, she stumbled her way into the cottage’s one bathroom. It was small and narrow like the rest of the house, and she had to hunch over just to get her head under the showerhead. Muttering under her breath about the injustice of her height, Brenna twisted the knob and screamed as a blast of cold water hit her.

Frantic, she tried to twist the knob to ‘hot’ only to have it break off in her hand. Grimly, she backed away and considered the ice-cold water streaming from the shower head. Brenna sniffed her clothes and wrinkled her nose. She had to take one. As quickly as she could, she washed herself and leapt from the small tub, breathing a sigh of relief when she managed to put the knob on long enough to turn the water off.

Throwing on a robe and letting her hair down to air dry, Brenna made her way into the living room. On the counter, a hot pot of coffee waited for her along with a note from her mother telling her she’d gone to Tralee for the day followed by a reminder to go to Kathleen’s. She’d also left her some money. Brenna stirred several spoons of sugar and a dash of milk into her mug and took a sip of coffee before going to the window in front of the kitchen sink. A small hill stood before her, and on the ground was grass so green it was hard to believe the color could even exist. Tiny white and yellow flowers that seemed not to have been affected by the rain dappled the hillside, and Brenna felt her feet itching for a run after all of the days spent trapped inside.

With a smile, she rushed to her room; a quick exploration of the area seemed like a good option for her wandering feet before she headed into town. As quickly as she could, she changed into sweatpants and the white, cabled wool sweater she had taken off sometime during the night and thrown onto the floor. Grabbing her cell phone from the table, she checked the time, wrinkling her nose. She could go for a run as long as it was fast and still make it to Kathleen’s in time. She braided her blonde, waist-length hair with a few quick twists and then stepped outside. Her running sneakers sank a little into the damp earth, and she grinned as she saw her breath hang in the air for a moment like a small, crystalline cloud. The sun was on its journey across the sky, and a smattering of white clouds billowed slowly along in the light, cool breeze.

The grass was springy beneath her shoes as she scrambled up the hill that led to a level field, and Brenna’s excitement grew. The crisp air and wind that smelled of sea and earth made her want to fling her arms out and run wild across the vast field like the Celtic Finnian warriors she’d read about in her book. Her feet began to pick up speed, and she gave a shout of laughter as she ran full force across the land. A small, black bird circled above her and seemed to feel her jubilation, for it gave a small trill and darted here and there, sticking close to Brenna. To her far left was the main road bordered by a gray stone wall, and from there a stretch of land only a few hundred feet long leading to a cliff that gave way to the glittering, blue ocean which met and mingled with the sky.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Brenna asked a sheep grazing nearby. It blinked sleepy, golden eyes at her, its mouth full of grass. Smiling wide, she waved at it and continued her jog, going around the other sheep that nibbled on the grass and paid her little to no mind.

The wind that had been gentle abruptly picked up speed in a harsh burst, slowing her down. Brenna welcomed the extra weight and was about to lengthen her stride when she heard the sound of flutes again. It was elusive, as if the instruments were being played from far away, and she strained her ears as she stopped to catch hold of the melody. The music disappeared as suddenly as it had started, and she wondered if perhaps she really was imagining it. Shading her forehead, Brenna surveyed her surroundings and noticed that the sheep didn’t seem to be pricking their ears up to listen to the high notes, and there wasn’t a soul for as far as she could see. The story of a changeling fairie that had learned to play bagpipes came to mind and made her laugh.

“C’mon Bren, fairies playing bagpipes. That’ll be the day!”

Her musings were cut short when the bird that had been her running companion suddenly gave a small, sharp trill as if it were in pain and swooped down toward her, it’s chattering becoming angry. Ducking, Brenna shouted in surprise.

“What gives?!”

She tried to wave the bird away, stopping when she tripped over a rock and landed on the ground. The black bird gave one final cry before it flew off toward the forest that lined the field to her right. Wincing, Brenna stood up and dusted herself off.

“What’s that bird’s problem?”

As she lowered her hands from her legs to follow the bird’s flight, she felt her breath catch. It had gone to join hundreds of other small, black birds darting in and out of the forest like a massive black cloud, screeching and raising such a noise of anger and fear that it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Birds never acted like that unless their nests were threatened. What if, Brenna thought as she watched the birds begin to cry louder, an animal has been wounded and they’re attacking it? Biting her lip, she looked back to where the cottage’s roof was still visible and wondered if she should just ignore them. The memory of how Kathleen had looked so serious about not going into the woods crossed her mind, but the thought of a wounded animal worried her more. With a nod to herself, she began jogging toward the birds. If there was an injured animal, she could always use her cell phone to call for help, and surely a farmer lived nearby who would be able to aid her if she ran into any major problems.

As she approached the towering trees that bent and waved in the wind, she used her arms and hands to shield her face and head in case the birds tried to attack her, as well. She didn’t have to protect herself for very long. They ignored her for the most part, darting and diving around her in an unmistakable sign of panic. Frowning, she plunged deeper into the forest where the birds weren’t massing so closely together, hoping that she’d be able to see the wounded animal. The forest smelled of damp, rotting leaves while shafts of light filtered weakly through the tangled branches above. Behind her, Brenna could still hear the screeching birds, but their chattering grew fainter as she jogged farther away from them. She stumbled several times over rocks that had been hidden by the dead foliage, and patches of moss caused her to slip and almost lose her footing more than once. A sense of urgency started to grow in her, and an instinct deep within urged her away from the panicked birds.

Brenna began to run then—almost against her will—and fought her way through trees and small streams until her lungs felt like they were on fire and her feet were lead weights. Her mind yelled for her to stop, that she would get lost, but her legs seemed to have a mind of their own and pushed her on at an even faster pace. It was only when she reached a clearing that they finally gave out, and her ragged, gasping breath was the only noise she could hear aside from her wild heartbeat.

Straightening from her bent position, Brenna looked around and took in deep, steadying breaths. She could no longer hear the birds—or any animal, for that matter. It seemed as if not even a leaf dared move, and when she looked back toward the way she had come, she was surprised to discover that the leaves that should have been ruffled by her mad dash were undisturbed. Fear began to claw at her stomach, but she forced it down. She had to be ready for anything; trouble in an Egyptian alleyway had taught her that lesson all too well two years ago. She shook the dark memory away and concentrated on breathing slowly while she listened for the sounds of any agitated animals, but an eerie silence was all that greeted her ears.

She knew when animals went quiet that meant something big was around. Like a bear. But Ireland didn’t have bears. Frowning, she looked up into the canopy of trees. The sunlight seemed different, weaker, and even cold where it fell on her skin. Stillness permeated the air all around her, and she realized with sudden clarity that she had gone somewhere she shouldn’t have.

“Maybe this was a bad idea…” Brenna’s voice seemed hollow, and she noted with some surprise that there was no echo to it. Without warning, the smell of blood suddenly hit her so strongly that she could almost taste the metallic bitterness of it. Why hadn’t she noticed it before? The snapping of twigs behind her had her spinning around, and Brenna felt the world stop. What looked to be an elderly woman lay face down on the ground only a few feet away. She wore a long, green gown, and the hair that fanned out from her head and trailed down to her knees was a brilliant, shining white. The white tresses hid her face, and blood so red it looked black pooled out from beneath the middle of her body and oozed onto the leaves beneath. Were it not for her twitching hands and the slight groan emanating from her lips, Brenna would have thought that she was dead.

Shaking from head to toe, Brenna cautiously inched her way over to the elderly woman, her voice wobbling almost as much as her body as she asked, “A-are you a-all right, ma’am?”

The old woman groaned in reply as she pressed the palms of her hands heavily onto the bloody leaves, trying and failing to rise.

Anbhféadfácuidiúathabhairtdom?

“W-what?”

The woman raised her head then, and Brenna blinked hard in surprise. Staring up at her wasn’t the wrinkled face of the elderly but the flawless features of a beautiful, young woman in her early twenties or so, with eyes so intensely blue that Brenna thought she might be wearing colored contact lenses. Her voice was soft and melodic, but the words were spoken in a commanding tone, and Brenna was under the impression that she was much older than she appeared.

“Will you help me? Come quickly, we haven’t much time.”

Brenna did as she was instructed, too shocked and scared to do anything else. The woman’s lips were set in a grim line as she struggled to her knees with Brenna’s help, and she quickly pressed a hand to a large gash on her stomach from which the blood was flowing heavily. Brenna quickly pulled her sleeve over her hand and pressed it to a part of the wound that wasn’t covered, receiving a tight, pained smile as thanks.

“You are a kind one, aren’t you?”

“I’m just doing what anyone would do, but my sleeve isn’t enough. We need to get you something thicker to slow it down, and you should probably lie down.”

The dark-blue eyes studied her intently, and she felt as if the woman could see into her very soul. Brenna offered a small smile, trying not to show her fear, and the woman gave a hoarse laugh, blood trickling down the corner of her lip.

“You have bravery and stubbornness, Brenna Morgan. You will do nicely.”

“How did you know my name?”

“How is not important, child. Listen and do as I say.”

The woman leaned against her, and Brenna tried not to gag when dark blood fell onto her pants and scented the air even more strongly.

“Take this.”

The woman pulled out a slender, black object from a fold in her dress before pressing it into Brenna’s free hand, her face twisting in pain as though the object physically hurt her. It landed heavily in her palm, and Brenna held it up. A key made of black iron rested in her hand, and it looked like it was more than a few hundred years old.

“Is this to your house? Should I call a doctor? I... I think that I should.” Brenna tried to stand, but the woman grabbed her wrist so hard that she was sure she was going to leave a bruise.

“No, I do not need a doctor. I need your promise.”

“‘Promise’?”

“Aye.” The woman licked her dry lips, and her breath began to grow haggard. “You must promise me you will protect the leanbh.”

“The what?”

“The leanbh. Brenna Morgan, this is a great task I ask of you, but you are the only one I can trust now. You were sent to me for a reason, or you would not be here.” The woman gave a shuddering breath that ended with a hiss, and her body doubled over as she coughed. Brenna gripped the key, not sure of what to do.

“What is your name? I... I think you’re in shock right now and—”

“I am not in shock. Listen, please.” She pressed the key harder into Brenna’s hand, and the iron felt abnormally hot to the touch.

“You must promise me you will keep this key safe, that you will find the leanbh and protect…” She gasped now, and dark blood trickled rapidly from her lips as she gave Brenna’s shoulders a firm shake, her eyes bright and feverish.

“You must promise me. It is the only way I can protect you, child. Promise me now!”

“But—”

A sound pierced the air—a screeching so loud and high-pitched that Brenna had to cover her ears, blood marring her cheeks.

“We do not have enough time.” The woman’s voice was laced with fear, and she took Brenna’s hand, trying to gentle her tone. “Brenna Morgan, you do not understand how important you are right now. There is a strength in you that most mortals can only dream of. You have until Samha—”

The screams began to get louder, drowning out the strange woman’s sentence, and Brenna only caught the last of her words as the noise grew faint and then finally stopped.

“—take the key and promise me before he comes. Promise!”

“I-I-I promise,” she stuttered.

“Do you swear it on your mortal soul?” The blue eyes blazed like glowing orbs, and Brenna felt the world around her turn gray in comparison.

“I do.”

From the very marrow of her bones, Brenna felt that her answer was the right one. The woman’s tense face relaxed into a smile that seemed to say that she saw Brenna’s every flaw yet did not care.

“You have promised. Now you must be brave, Brenna Morgan. Very brave. I will protect you as I would my own flesh.”

“But…you don’t even know me. I-I don’t even know your name!”

“My name is Nuala.” She brushed a strand of hair from Brenna’s face, tucking it behind her ear with a cold, shaking hand. “You remind me much of the great ones that came before you. I could not ask for a better champion.”

Nuala’s hand slipped from her ear to cup her cheek, filling her with a kindness so warm that tears sprang to the girl’s eyes. Abruptly, the motherly smile vanished, her body stiffened, and with a strength Brenna wasn’t sure a nearly dead person should have, she stood up. Blood rushed over her fingers and down her dress, a sound that was more animal than human emanating from deep in her throat. Every hair on Brenna’s body stood on end as the air was filled with electricity. Nuala stood in front of her, so tall that Brenna actually had to tilt her head back a bit to look up.

“Run, Brenna Morgan.”

“But... but what about you? You’re bleeding, and—”

“If you do not wish to die, mortal, you will do as I say and run.”

There was a loud cracking sound then, as if a dozen trees had been struck by lightning, and a blast of wind hit them so hard that Brenna almost dropped to her knees. The black birds that had been swarming the edge of the forest rushed toward them like a dark cloud, swirling in a strange pattern before they started to clump together. Wings, legs, and small bodies melted together in an oddly liquid way, massing and bubbling to form a solid figure. Brenna’s mouth fell open as a human shape snapped into focus, and the darkness slipped from the figure as if it were water to reveal a man who looked like he’d stepped straight from the pages of her fairy-tale book. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen—and the most terrifying.

His waving, black hair spilled over his shoulders and framed his perfectly sculpted face. Eyes so intensely blue that she almost couldn’t look at them glared at her coldly. A green velvet tunic fell impeccably down his tall, slender body, and calf-length leather boots sewn with silver threading in intricate knot work adorned his feet, though somehow no leaves were crushed beneath his boots. A smile that should have been beautiful looked ugly as he stared down at them with contempt. When he spoke, his voice was filled with mockery.

“Did you think you could run so far, Nuala?”

Brenna’s companion said something in her strange language—Gaelic, she guessed—and the man growled something back. The hatred that poured from him almost made her flinch, but Nuala stood still and calm. Squaring her shoulders, Brenna edged closer to her, wanting to show the same courage. The man paid her actions no mind, keeping his full attention on the other woman as they exchanged words in a musical-sounding dialogue.

“Give me the key!”

Brenna jumped as his voice roared painfully loud in English, filling the woods but somehow lacking an echo.

“I do not have the key.” Nuala said in an almost amused tone.

“You lie! I can smell it.” The man narrowed his eyes before looking to Brenna, and the fury she saw there was more than enough to make her take a step back as she quickly hid the key behind her back.

“Mortal!” His words came out as a command, his eyes piercing hers as he drew a bloodied sword. “Come!”

“I-I—” Brenna’s mouth seemed to stop working as she watched dark blood drip from the weapon aimed at her.

“Stay away from her, Treasach. She is protected.”

“By whom?” He smirked and pointed the sword at the woman. “You, Nuala? That is a laugh. Give me the mortal, then, if you will not give me the key. She looks to be a fine addition to our court, and it may ease my temper enough to merely kill you.”

Run, and do not look back, Brenna. Nuala’s voice filled Brenna’s head, and she darted her eyes toward the woman in front of her, trying to understand how she could possibly be talking without moving her lips.

“You will not touch her, Treasach.”

“Give me the mortal, you cursed woman!”

The man raised his sword, and the weak sunlight seemed pale in comparison to the light reflected by the blade. Brenna realized he was going to strike Nuala, and she stepped forward, wanting to protect the woman who was so courageously defending her life.

Nuala’s voice filled her head once more, and Brenna cried out, jumping back as she felt something hot and searing press against her chest like a hot hand. She looked down and saw that nothing was there, but the pain continued.

Run. I will stall him, but I cannot do so for long. Keep the key safe. Find the leanbh and keep it safe, too. Run to your home and do not come back to the forest. It knows you now and will not protect you. Run, Brenna—run!

Invisible hands pushed her hard, propelling her forward. She found herself sprinting through the woods at a speed she had never run before. Tears trailed down her face and her breath came out in sobs as the trees blurred together. She had just made it to the edge of the forest when a scream filled her headit reverberated throughout the entire forestand she echoed the cry as pain lanced across her stomach. Somehow, she knew that Nuala had died. Brenna tore through the trees, throwing her hands up as branches scratched at her face and neck before she fell through a bush, landing onto the field’s soft grass. A few sheep looked her way but continued to amble by unbothered, and Brenna clutched the key to her chest, her body shaking and her scream still echoing in the woods.

With gasping breaths, she scrambled to her feet, her voice so hoarse that when she tried to call for help nothing came out. All thoughts fled her mind, and her body took charge, her hand clasping the iron key against her chest as she stumbled back toward the cottage. She was aware of screeching birds somewhere behind her, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. The sight of the cottage’s roof snapped Brenna out of her stupor, and with a cry she ran as fast as her flagging body could go. She flew down the steep embankment, going too fast to stop herself from slamming into the door. Her hands still wet and slippery with Nuala’s dark blood, it took her several desperate attempts to get a good grip on the knob and fling the door open. Slamming it closed once she was inside, she leaned against the rough wood, clutching the key tightly as she caught her breath. Once her lungs stopped burning, she went to the kitchen, setting the key on the counter before grabbing a glass to fill with water from the faucet

Her hands shook so badly that half of the glass’s contents spilled onto the floor, and Brenna’s eyes widened when she saw the blood marring the cup’s exterior. It wasn’t dark-red like she had initially thought, but black. Trying not to wretch, Brenna stuck her hands under the still-running facet. She felt laughter, hysterical and harsh, bubble forth before turning into shallow gasps.

“Okay. Okay, let’s not panic. Think.” Common sense told her that having blood all over her clothes wasn’t helping, and she hurried to the bathroom. Picking up a washcloth and soap, she scrubbed the blood from her face, the fear that had threatened to take over receding with the normalcy of her actions. As she changed into new clothes, Brenna glanced at the clock positioned on a shelf near the mirror and then did a double take. It was noon, and she was supposed to be at Kathleen’s.

“No way... I... I left at ten.” Brenna took her phone from her pocket, frowning when she saw that it only read ten thirty.

“Maybe the clock’s broken.”

Brenna hurried to go check the clock in the living room, bewildered to find that it read twelve o’clock, as well. Biting her lip, debated whether or not to go outside. She would have liked to think this was all a horrible dream, that perhaps the cold air and all of the fairy-tales she’d been reading had caused her to hallucinate, but the key on the kitchen counter was a rather physical reminder of reality. For some reason, she couldn’t quite fathom or rationalize away, the fairy-tales had become real, and she was pretty sure that she was dealing with…with…

“Fairies.” The word seemed silly to say out loud, and she nearly laughed again because it sounded so ridiculous. But she hadn’t been asleep, and she was pretty sure that seeing dying fairies wasn’t a side effect of too much coffee. Running a hand through her hair, she began to pace the small living room.

“All right Brenna, you’re not crazy. That woman was definitely a fairie. That man,or whatever he was, was probably one, too. No one has black blood... or a body made out of birds.” Feeling a little ill, she took the key from the counter and examined it. It was simple looking with a half-moon for a tooth and an oval at the hilt where a chain could easily go through it. It was heavy and cold but didn’t feel unordinary, and it certainly didn’t seem like an object to kill someone over.

She wanted to throw the key out the window and never worry about it again, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Nuala’s words played over and over in her head, as did her own promise. Brenna gripped the key harder. She’d promised, and she’d never broken a promise in her life. She sat down hard on the couch. Nuala had wanted her to find a leanbh—whatever that wasand protect it. Maybe it was a plant or a tree. The word sounded like it might mean that sort of thing. She could protect a plant. Tucking the key into the pocket of her jean’s, Brenna frowned. It felt warmer than it had a moment ago. Before she could pull it out, something slammed against the window. Smothering a scream, she glanced through the glass. Outside, the black birds that had once somehow been Treasach were throwing themselves at the panes like bullets. Brenna dodged behind the couch.

“Go away.” Her voice came out small and scared, and she cleared her throat. This was her home for the time being, and here she was afraid of a flock of birds. The memory of Nuala’s death fueled her rising anger, and her voice rose as high as it could.

Go away!”

Her words bounced off the wooden beams and, with a trill and a flurrying of wings, the birds departed. Brenna remained kneeled on the floor, holding her breath for several moments. When nothing happened and the only noise that could be heard was the antique clock ticking away on the mantel, she stood up, releasing the breath she’d been holding. Then the knocking started.