Aengus grinned. “You’re a few minutes early.”
“Patience is not one of my virtues.”
He chuckled. “Well, your wait is over. First, let’s shift into the Otherworld.”
Once we did, he reached out his hands, palms up. “Your hands, milady.”
I placed them in his and smiled as our fingers curled together. “I’m all yours.”
He stared into my eyes. “Promise?”
My heart raced. The power of speech deserted me.
He cleared his throat. “Right. Away we go.”
The next instant, we were standing in a wide, open field at the mouth of a cave. The entry was small, about three feet high and four feet wide.
I scanned the surrounding farmland. “Where are we?”
“Oweynagat in Cruachan, the ancient capital of Connacht.” He released my hands and motioned toward the cave’s entrance. “The opening is narrow, but it’s like a cathedral inside. In the Otherworld, at least.”
“Are we going in?”
“Then why did we come?”
“We’re here in honor of your birthday and in the spirit of your favorite holiday.”
“This cave has something to do with Halloween?”
He nodded. “It’s an important mythological site, and it’s been called the hell-mouth of Ireland.”
I twisted my lips. “Well, that sounds ominous.”
He clasped my hands and closed his eyes. Abruptly, our position changed. We now stood a good twenty yards from Oweynagat and viewed it from the side. A waist-high, dry stone wall served as a barrier between us and the cave, and it stretched for miles in either direction. Somehow, a tree had grown through the side of the wall and flourished.
Aengus smiled. “There. Close but not too close.”
“What do you mean?”
He laid his hand on one of the stones. “This wall is only visible in the Otherworld. The entire thing is infused with the protective energy of that hawthorn tree.”
“Do we need protection?”
“But we’re not going into the cave.”
“There’s no need. We’ve only to wait and watch what comes out at midnight.”
I glanced at Oweynagat. “What’s gonna come out?”
He grinned. “You’re about to witness something few have ever seen: the Wild Hunt.”
“A group of phantom huntsmen and other creatures who ride out into the night. They do it every year as All Hallow’s Eve shifts into November.”
A sudden, resounding chime pierced the silence. Then another rang out, and another. It sounded like the peal of a gigantic grandfather clock. The wind began to howl.
“Midnight.” He turned and pointed. “Look!”
From the mouth of the cave burst a symphony of specters. There were hunters on horseback and wailing hounds. Flying above and behind them were hundreds of nocturnal creatures. Living gargoyles. Gray ghosts. Copper red birds. Dark angels with massive, black-feather wings.
I suppose I should’ve been scared. But for someone like me, who’d embraced the magic and mystery of Halloween from day one, the Wild Hunt was a glorious sight. The stroke of midnight, the rushing wind, the mad pursuit across land and sky: all stirred my soul.
I craved freedom. I wanted Aengus.
I turned to him. The spectacle held him rapt. Between his roused expression and wind-ruffled hair, he was irresistible. And he was mine.
He turned to me. Our gazes locked. Our souls connected.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. My entire life had led me to this moment, this man.
We came together in a surge of passion. His arms locked me in a powerful embrace as his lips captured mine. I gave myself to the kiss. It was wild, sweet, filled with longing. He ran his fingers through my hair and down my back. My hands slid to his shoulders, his chest, the small of his back. I pressed my hips against him.
He moaned. His tongue strained to deepen the kiss. Every inch of my body tingled. All thought was lost in a haze of desire.
High atop the farmhouse, we had a good view of the surrounding area. A throng of undulating shadows encircled the house at a distance of maybe 100 yards. As they slithered closer, distinguishing features emerged.
Dark clothing. Pale skin. Stringy hair the color of pitch. Piercing eyes and glossy, feather wings.
Deirdre gasped. “Holy hell! Who are they?”
Brow furrowed, Hugh crossed his arms. “The dark sidhe.”
There were hundreds of them! Slowly, they encroached on the farmhouse like a black ring of dread.
“Sidhe,” Deirdre repeated. “Like fairies?”
“Fallen ones.” I grabbed Aengus’s hand. “I wish I didn’t know about the poison darts.”
Her head whipped in my direction. “Poison darts?!”
“Never fear.” Robin put a hand on her back. “I’ll protect you.”
Brigit exchanged a meaningful look with Hugh. “Rather, my father will.”
Unblinking, The Dagda gave a nod and eyed the prowlers. “Almost here. Just a bit closer.”
With a frown, she threw her red hair over her shoulder. “Do you think Aoife sent them?”
“I’d bet my life on it.” Slowly, he unfolded his arms.
“But why? To infect the whole house? To distract us?”
He stood preternaturally still; only his lips moved. “Perhaps as a test.”
“What indeed? I’ve never seen so many amassed in the Middleworld…except during the Wild Hunt.”
Aengus regarded his father. “She must know you’ll stop them. Sure, they know it too. So why did they come?”
The dark horde had almost gained the house. The smell of sulfur crept into my nostrils, and panic seized my throat. I trusted Hugh, but how could he deal with so many entities at once?
“Oh hell no!” Deirdre declared.
I swallowed hard. “Um…guys, they’re getting pretty close.”
“Good.” Hugh sounded downright calm.
Brigit’s gaze swept over us all. “Let’s give him space. Leap high into the air and stay there.”
Deirdre raised her eyebrows. “Hover in the air? We can do that?”
Aengus nodded. “We can, and you’d want to do it now.”
His grip on my hand tightened, and we jumped into the air, together with Brigit, Deirdre, and Robin. Roughly 30 feet below us, Hugh stood his ground on the rooftop.
I turned to Aengus. “What’s he gonna do?”
“Send them back to the Netherworld.”
Up ʼtil then, I’d seen only one creature at a time sent packing. “All of them?”
Robin glanced my way. “Well, he is the Dagda.”
He was and no mistaking it. The embodiment of poise and power. As his hands formed the úath symbol, music filled the air. Not a melody, but the sound of a thousand violin strings playing in unison—their pitch sliding from high to low—as if the vast energy of the Otherworld condensed to a single purpose, to be used by one sentient being.
“Úath!” Light emanated from Hugh’s entire frame. It grew whiter, brighter, then exploded, rippling out from his body as a seismic wave that shocked the air, the land, and everything in its path. The force reverberated inside me and with a sonic boom, it blasted the dark sidhe back where they belonged.
“Close your eyes, and don’t open them until I tell you.”
Nerves atwitter, I did as Aengus asked. A brief, subtle tingling sensation swept through my body as we slipped into the Otherworld.
A moment later, he released one of my hands but held fast to the other. “All right. You can look now.”
I opened my eyes. We stood before an immense, grass-topped mound surrounded by a multitude of tightly-packed, white stones.
It looked familiar. “Wait a minute. This is a famous prehistoric tomb. What’s it called? Newgrange?”
Aengus nodded. “I call it Sí in Bhrú, and it’s part of Brú na Bóinne, or the ‘Palace of the Boyne’ in County Meath. We’re in the valley of the River Boyne.”
I gave him a sideways glance. “Did you say ‘palace’?”
“In the physical world, this is an ancient temple and passage tomb, more than five thousand years old. Here in the Otherworld…well, it’s best to show you.”
The next instant, we stood inside a grand, circular hall, far larger than the mound we’d viewed outside, with a high, domed ceiling. Tri-spiral designs covered the walls, but the space was empty except for a five-tiered fountain at its center.
My gaze locked onto the trickling, golden liquid. A feeling of déjà vu overwhelmed me, and I shivered. “Is that…mead?”
I turned to him. “Remember what exactly?”
“This fountain flows eternally with mead. My parents gave it to us as a wedding gift.”
“To you and Caer, you mean.”
He squeezed my hand. “Does anything else spark your memory?”
“The spirals seem familiar.”
His blue eyes shone. “They should. We lived here for centuries.”
“Caer lived here, not me.”
“But you were Caer.”
My insecurities ganged up on me and knotted my stomach. Is that the only reason why you want me? Because of who I once was?
Could I ask that out loud? What if he said yes?
Yes or no, I had to know. A lasting relationship required honesty and communication. My parents’ love had taught me that, and I wanted nothing less.
I pulled my hand from his grasp and took a step back. “Maybe you wish I still was Caer.”
His blissful expression devolved into a frown. After a heart-stopping moment, he found his voice. “What?”
“Sometimes I wonder whether you like me or just who I used to be.”
“You can’t fight your soul’s history.”
“Especially when everyone keeps shoving it down my throat.” My gut tightened further.
I huffed. “Kian. Robin. Deirdre. Lorcan. And now—”
“Lorcan?” There was an edge to his voice.
“Yes, Lorcan. I’ve seen him a couple of times, but not because I went looking…” I couldn’t finish that sentence. My soul had obviously sought Lorcan the night I traveled to Dun Aengus.
“Ashling, you know how I feel about him.”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t around to stop me, were you?”
His frown deepened. “What do you mean?”
“It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s never around.”
“And Lorcan is around. Is that what you’re saying?”
“He’s always there, waiting in the wings, ready to take your place.”
Aengus slammed a fist into his other hand. “It’s time I showed him—”
“No! It’s time you showed me whether you want me or Caer, because I’ve had it with ghosts from the past messing up my—”
He grasped my arms and pulled me close. His mouth came down on mine in a searing kiss. Releasing my arms, he stole his own around me, and I responded in kind. Bodies and tongues entwined, we rode the wave of the kiss for a blissful moment that seemed as eternal as the bubbling fountain beside us. Nothing else mattered.
When at last he pulled back, he gave me a tender smile. “Does that answer your question?”
“Um…” My head still spun from the kiss.
“I kissed you, not Caer. I brought you here tonight because I wanted to share a piece of myself with you. It’s only natural I wondered if you’d remember it. After all, a part of your soul lived here for ages.”
I scanned the vacant, cavernous space. “If we lived here so long, where’s all the furniture?”
The light in his eyes dimmed. “Once upon a time, this place brimmed with beauty…with rare treasures, music, poetry, and the laughter of friends and courtiers. But when you left…when Caer left…nothing was the same. I couldn’t stay.” He squeezed his eyes shut, as if to block out painful memories.
Thick tentacles of worry and guilt wrapped around my heart as though a legendary kraken sought to drown me in a sea of regret. I placed a hand on Aengus’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”
His eyes opened, and he covered my hand with his. “Don’t be.”