Long ago, when the wind blew from one corner of Danach to another without ever coming across a house higher than a tree, the faery folk lived upon the land and were called the Daoine Sithe, the Men of Peace. They loved the land well and shepherded its flocks, and never a thing did they build that couldn't be dismantled in a single night or put up again in a single day.
But then human folk came to the isles and scoured them with their rough shoeing. Before long both rock and tree were in the use of men; the land was filled with forts and houses, cathairs and keeps. Boats plowed the seas and netted the fish, even conquering the mighty hunterfish. Stones were piled up for fences between neighbors.
The Daoine Sithe were not pleased. A proclamation went out from the faery chief: Have nothing to do with this humankind.
For year after year it was as such.
One day, the young laird of the Loed KeepAnache was his namewalked out beyond his Keep seeking a brachet hound lost outside in the night. It was his favorite hound, as old as he was, which--since he was just past fifteen years--was quite old indeed.
He called its name, "Leod, Leeeeeod!" The wind slapped the name back against his face but the dog never answered.
The day was chilly, the wind was a spiteful nip, and haar swirled about the young laird. But many days in parts of Danach are such, and he thought less about the chill and the cold than that he must find his old hound, lest it die.
Anache paid no heed to where his feet led him, through the bogs and over the hummocks. This was his land, and he knew it well. He could not see the towering crags of Noir Bannan, though he knew they were there. He could not hear the chen crying from the bay. Leod was all he cared about--a Loed took care of his own.
Without knowing it, Anache crossed over a strange, low, stone drochit, a bridge the likes of which he would never have found on a sunny day, for it was the bridge into Faerie.
As he crossed over, he heard his old dog barking. He would have known that sound were there a hundred howling hounds.
"Leod!" he called. And the dog ran up to him, its hind end wagging, as eager as a pup, so happy was it to see him. Leod had been made young again in the Faerie land.
Anache took the dog in his arms and was just turning to go home when he heard a girl calling from behind him.
"Leod. Leod." Her voice was as full of longing as his own had been just moments before.
He turned back, the dog still in his arms, and the haar lifted. Running toward him was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her dark hair was wild with curls, her black eyes wide, her mouth generous and smiling.
"Boy, you have found my dog. Give it to me."
Although that was no way to speak to a young laird of the Loed Keep, but the girl didn't seem to know him, and he did not know the girl, although Anache was sure he knew of everyone near the Loed Keep.
"This is my dog," said Anache.
The girl came closer and put out her hand, touching him on his bare arm. Where her hand touched, Anache felt such a shock, he thought he would dieof love, not fear. Yet he did not.
"It is my dog now, Anache of Loed," she said in a crooning voice. "It has crossed over the bridge. It has eaten the food of the Daoine Sithe and drunk our nectar wine. If you bring it back to your world, it will die at once and become nothing but dust."
The young laird set the dog down and it frolicked around their feet. He put his hand into the girl's but was not shocked again.
"I will give it back to you for your name--and a kiss," he said.
"Be warned," answered the girl in a low tone.
"I know about faery kisses," said Anache, "but I am not afraid. And as you know my name, it is only fair that I should know yours."
"What we consider fair, you do not, young laird," she said. But she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the brow. "Do not come back across the bridge, or you will break your parents' hearts."
He handed her the sprig of juniper from his cap, and she kissed it as well and put it in her hair. "My name is Aizel and, like the red hot cinder, I burn what I touch." Then she whistled for the dog and they disappeared at once into the haar.
Anache put his fingertips to his brow where Aizel had kissed him, and indeed she had kissed him; it was still warm and sweet to his touch.
Despite the faery girl's warning, Anache searched for the bridge not once but many times. He left of fishing to look for it, and interrupted his hunting to look for it; often he left his sleep when the haar was thick to seek it. Even in the haar and the rain and the fog he could not find it. Yet he never stopped longing for the bridge to the girl.
His mother and father grew worried. They had guessed by the mark on his brow what had occurred, and to occupy him they gave great parties and threw magnificent balls in the hope that he might meet a human girl and forget Aizel.
But never was there a girl that he danced with that he danced with again. Never a girl did he hold for long. Never a girl he kissed that he did not remember Aizel at the bridge. As time went on, his parents grew so desperate for a grandchild that they would have let him marry any young maid, even one of fae.
On the eve of Anache's twenty-first birthday, there was a great festival at the Utopian Cathair. All the lights were set out along the walls and they twined through the branches of trees and bushes as well. Lights also flickered, bound between shining braided plaits, in the hair of a young woman who watched through the haar.
Anache walked the ramparts and stared out across the land. "Och, Aizel," he said with a great sigh, "if I could but see you one more time. Once more, and I'd be content."
And then he thought he heard the barking of a dog.
There were hounds in the cathairs and hounds in the town and hounds who ran wild. But he knew that particular call.
"Leod!" he whispered to himself. He raced down the stairs and out the great doors with a torch in his hand, following the barking across the bog.
It was a misty, moisty evening, but Anache felt he knew the way. He came quite soon to the cobbled bridge he had so long sought. For a moment, he hesitated, then went on.
There, in the middle, looking not a day older than when he had seen her last, stood Aizel in her green gown. Leod was by her side.
"Young laird," murmured Aizel, "I came to wish you the best."
"It is the best, now that I see you," Anache said, smiling. "And my old dog."
Aizel smiled back. "No older than when last you saw us."
"I have thought of you every day since you kissed me," said Anache, "and longed for you every night. Your brand still burns on my brow."
"I warned you of faery kisses," said Aizel.
Anache lifted his cap and pushed away his ruddy hair to show her the mark.
"I have thought of you too, young laird," said Aizel, "and how your people have kept peace in this unpeaceful land. My chief says I may bide with you for a while."
"How long a while?" asked Anache.
"A faery while," replied Aizel. "A year or an heir, whichever comes first."
"A year is such a short time," Anache said.
"I can make it be forever," Aizel answered.
With that riddle Anache was content. They walked back to Cathair Utopia hand in hand, though they left the dog behind.
If Aizel seemed less fey in the starlight, Anache did not mind. If he was only human, she did not seem to care. Nothing really mattered but his hand in hers, her hand is his, all the way back to his home.
Anache's parents were not pleased with the match. But that Anache smiled and was content made them hold their tongues. So the young laird and the faery maid were married that night and bedded before day.
In the evening Aizel came to them and said, "The Loeds shall have an heir."
The days went fast and slow, warm and cold, and longer than a human it took for the faery girl to bear a child. But on the last day of the year she had lived with them, Aizel was brought to labor till with a great happy sigh she birthed a beautiful babe.
"A boy!" the midwife cried out, standing on a chair and showing all of Loed Keep. A great cheer rippled through the Keep then. Anache was happy for that, but happier still that his faery wife was well. He bent to kiss her brow.
"A year or an heir, that was all I could promise. But I have given you forever," she said. "Loed Keep will prosper and never fall."
Before he could say a word in return, she had vanished and the bed was bare, though her outline could still be seen for a moment more.
The cheer was still echoing along the stone passageways as the midwife carried the babe from room to room. But the young laird put his head in his hands and wept.
Later that night, when the fires were high in every hearth and blaeberry wine filled every cup; when the harp and fiddle rang throughout Loed with their tunes; when the bards' mouths swilled with whisky and swelled with old songs; and even the nurse was dancing with her man, the young laird Anache walked through Loed seven times round, mourning for his lost faery wife.
The youngest laird of Loed lay in his cradle all alone. So great was the celebration that no one was watching him. And in the deepest part of the night, he kicked off his blankets and cried out with the cold. But no one came to cover him. Not the nurse dancing with her man, nor his grandam listening to the tunes, nor his grandfather drinking with his men, nor his father pacing the halls. No one heard the poor wee babe crying with the cold.
It was a tiny cry, a thin bit of sound threaded out into the dark. It wound its way into Faerie itself.
Now they were celebrating in the faery world as well, not for the birth of the child but for the return of their own. There was feasting and dancing and the singing of tunes. There was nectar wine and faery pipes and high, sweet laughter of the fey.
But in all that fine company, Aizel alone did not sing and dance. She sat in her great chair with her arms around her brachet hound. If there were tears in her eyes, you would not have known it, for the fey do not cry, and besides the hound had licked away every one. But she heard that tiny sound as any mother would. Distracted, she stood.
"What is it, my daughter?" the great chief asked when he saw her stand, when he saw a single tear upon her cheek, glittering, that Leod had not had time to lick away.
But before any of the fey could tell her no, Aizel ran from the faery hall, the dog at her heels. She raced across the bridge, herself as insubstantial as the haar. Aizel reached the edge of the bridge and left it, but as soon as the dog's legs had touched the ground on the other side than it crumbled into dust. Aizel hesitated not a moment, but followed that thread of sound, winding her way back into the world of men, through the great wooden doors and up the stairs.
When she entered the baby's room, he was between one breath and another.
"There, there," Aizel said, leaning over the cradle and covering him with her shawl, "thy Mama's here." She rocked him till he fell back asleep, warm and content. Then she kissed him on the brow, leaving a tiny mark there for all to see, and vanished in the morning light.
The nurse found the babe sleeping soundly well into the day. He was wrapped in a cloth of stranger's weave, and his thumb was in his mouth. None of the Loed Keep could guess how the cloth got there.
But the young laird Anache knew. He knew that Aizel had been drawn back across the bridge by her son's crying, as surely he had first been led to her by the barking of his hound.
"Love calls to love," he whispered softly to his infant son as he held him close, "and the fey, like the Loeds, take care of their own."
In the morning, there was a great outcry of voices about the Keep. Anache woke up, gazed for a moment at his son to make sure he was alright, and finding that he was, stood and left the Keep.
Outside, a large green dragon stood calmly as a flock of people clustered about her. Equally calm, a ruby-tressed woman stood next to her dragon, arms folded, a grin on her face. She beckoned to Anache.
"Hey there, stranger," the woman said, "the name's Rubiae, and this is my dragon Maoith." Anache stared in wonder, for although he knew of dragons and they were common enough, they were awesomely powerful when that close.
"Maoith seems to be attracted to you," Rubiae continued, "so I wondered if you'd do me the pleasure of coming with me to the Healing Den." From on top of Maoith's massive emerald back, Aizel waved and smiled, flowers woven into her shining hair. Anache smiled and nodded.