The Heart Is Not Home
A curse ripped from Aiden’s throat as he slid down the mountainside. The heels of his boots caught then slipped. His hands clawed dirt, yet he skidded down, down, down toward the ragged edge.
Pray Caillech! Hold tight.
Stones loosened under his boots. He hooked his fingers over a rock, lost his grip, slid farther. His feet went over the edge. Calves. Knees.
A tree root ripped his thumb. He latched on.
The weight of his legs dragged like anchors as he dangled in the air. Heart racing, he tilted his head over his shoulder to peer down. The sheer cliff fell in a concave swoop to a jagged plateau eighty feet below. He tightened his hold on the root.
The pain prickling his hands, the strain tightening his muscles, the air sucking down into his lungs were all acute signs, if he harbored any doubt, that he was human once again.
He’d be damned if his return to Earth lasted a mere minute.
With a deep inhale, he swung his foot toward the mountain and tried to find purchase. The toe of his boot slipped.
Muscles bunched and pulled across his shoulders as he struggled to keep hold. Muscles of a man in his prime—a small blessing at the moment.
I didn’t come this great distance to fail.
Sweat dripped into his eye. He blinked and locked his gaze on a toehold in the wall of the cliff. Again he swung. Slipped. Scrabbled. Held. With his foot planted, the strain on his arms eased slightly. Grunting like a damn hog, he pulled his forearms back onto the ledge. When his elbows touched ground, he drew another breath and pulled his body to safety.
Collapsed on the ground, he waited for the pressure that squeezed his ribcage to ease. The last words he’d heard before Taranis sent him back to the human dimension still rang in his ears, the tone sharp, heartless and unexpected—”you’ll not survive to save them.”
Shutting it out for now, he scanned the woods.
The vista from the mountain panned out over endless layers of rippling wilderness where he could almost imagine the lilting tune of a Scottish flute calling him home to the Isle of Skye. Now, that was a fine realization. He was home. The resinous scents of the mountain were a balm to a soul that had constantly ached to draw a breath of Highland air.
It was both a treasure and a tragedy to have knowledge of the wife and child he’d left behind, to know they’d died without him, and to know the only family he had left was in danger.
Unease hit him as he took in the rounded mountaintops brushed in soft green woods. The scents, the look, the feel of the mountains wasn’t right. He listened for the call of the curlew and heard nothing but the ra-ta-tat of a woodpecker.
And then he knew.
Taranis had not sent him to the Isle of Skye as promised.
Where the hell was he?
He stood and raked his hand through his thick, damp hair. Two hawks circled overhead, swooping with an easy grace that taunted him. To conjure a pair of wings would be a blessed skill.
His skin cooled as he scanned the side of the mountain. There, far below, a flash of red in the valley—a roof perhaps. Promising.
As good as the earth felt beneath his feet, his legs carried him with all the gusto of a sinking ship. Hours passed as he descended and trudged through the woods, bemoaning the fact that while he should be rejoicing at his return, he was nowhere near his beloved home.
When he paused to check his bearings, the wind ruffled his hair and raised gooseflesh on his neck. He turned and braced, seeing the ripple of air he never would have noticed had he not spent the greatest portion of his life amongst the Alfar.
A tall, lean, white-haired male materialized in front of him. At first glance, this man looked human, but Aiden wasn’t fooled. This was no mortal.
The iridescent, upswept eyes of the elf burned into Aiden like wildfire. He shifted his weight to the balls of his feet and rooted himself to the ground. His fingers flexed, although the dirk strapped to his belt was no defense against an elf. “Who the hell are you?”
The elf’s eyes flashed with amusement, not a promising sign. “I am Finn. I came to see how the infamous Aiden MacAuley was managing his return to the mortal realm. How is it then? Just as you remembered? I suppose you’ve not had time to take in the wonders of the twenty-first century. Things have changed since you left one hundred years ago.”
He’d heard of Finn. The elf had a reputation for playing games with humans and had been exiled by his king. “It was one hundred and five years, seven months, and fourteen days ago.” With that said, he immediately vowed to end his obsession with time. “You’ve come to gawk at me? What’s your intent, Finn? Do you mean to impede my progress, or are you intending to be of assistance?” No longer enchanted by the exotic Alfarian elves, Aiden wished he could wash his hands of them. But that was not to be.
“That depends.” Finn’s eyes, in contrast, gave nothing away. “You’ll begin to age again, you know.”
He knew. Although he’d been trapped in Alfheim for over a century, his body had not aged past thirty human years.
By the Alfarian King’s decree, Aiden had finally been granted his return home to Scotland with the expectation he would resume the position as gatekeeper between Earth and Alfheim, a role currently filled by his descendant, Rabbie MacAuley.
But this wasn’t Coineanach Castle, nor MacAuley land.
Best be direct with Finn and discover where his allegiances lay. “The king ordered Taranis, the Councilor for Other Worlds, to send me to the Isle of Skye to be guardian of the gate between our worlds. Instead, Tarainis sent me nearly to my death. I must get word to the king that Taranis didn’t do his bidding.”
Finn gazed into the thick bush before turning his attention back to Aiden. “Indeed, you are nowhere near your castle. You give fealty to a king who has kept you from home and kin for one hundred and five years, seven months, and fourteen days? You counted. It must have been difficult to keep track of Earth time in Alfheim, where days run on in endless perfection.”
Yes, he’d counted, and he’d cursed the Alfarians for a good portion of his time amongst them, until he’d realized who was responsible for his entrapment—himself.
At the moment, though, he had a much more pressing issue to solve. A hike through the mountains would challenge a hale and hearty man. Aiden had survived thus far, but he was neither hale nor hearty, hence the other reason he’d been sent home.
Finn, like all Alfarians, could move through space and time, an ability they called trekking. Finn could trek Aiden to MacAuley land in a precious heartbeat. He must give Finn reason to do so. “You may not be aware of the aberration in Alfarian powers,” Aiden said. “It started with simple conjuring spells going awry, but it’s gotten more serious now. A fortnight ago, a low-caste elf mistakenly trekked into the bed of a council member. Your own powers may fail next, Finn. In this regard, I must get to Skye to be sure the gate between our worlds is secure.”
Finn looked out over the mountains. “I am aware that King Oberon deems Alfheim far too superior a world to be affected by the energy of a few billion humans, present company included.”
Aiden remained silent. He’d said nothing about humans upsetting Alfheim’s energetic balance.
“Do you think you’ll do a better job balancing your duties as gatekeeper with your family this time?”
That stung. Badly. He would never have a wife or children again. After what he’d done, he didn’t deserve them.
“If you send me to Coineanach Castle, I will get word to the king of how you aided my return.”
Finn’s silver brows darted. “Is that so? You will reach out to the king in Alfheim when you have only just escaped them?”
“I said I would, did I not?”
Finn scoffed. “The king you seek is the one who ordered me exiled from Alfheim, so I’ll not be sending you to MacAuley land to please him. Still, I respect men like you. Men who rise above their past to forgive and forget. Continue through the woods and you’ll find a croft. A storm is coming on the day. I’d suggest you fortify and rest while you can—you mustn’t stress your heart, you know. It wouldn’t serve us. Soon, we’ll determine how we might help each other. Unlike my brethren, I don’t lack empathy for you humans.” Finn laughed, an unaccountably amused sound. “One hundred years without a woman? That can’t be good for a man. Hearts don’t grow strong without love, you know. You could likely use a good human climax.”
Aiden felt an unexpected pulse through his cock at the mention of sex. Not a distraction he needed. Besides, what woman would have him when she discovered his past? At the moment, he didn’t care. He was beginning to feel something he’d not felt in one hundred years—exhaustion. A croft with a bed was as good as a beckon with a curled finger.
The glint was back in Finn’s eyes. “I’ll see what I can do. You may find an opportunity to redeem yourself after all.”
“By what right do you speak—” Before Aiden could finish his demand, the elf disappeared. His hands clenched into fists. Damn Finn. What did he want? Why had he delved into Aiden’s past?
And why the hell, with a threat against the forces holding their powers in place, did Finn think Aiden needed a woman?
Now You See Her, Now You Don’t
“I would never suggest there’s anything wrong with homosexuality,” Jessica Stirling said to her neighbor in apartment 106, a man whose nose hair needed a good weed whack. “My brother is gay. My comment during that interview was taken out of context.”
He unlocked his door and turned to give her a fatherly look—a look that questioned her inexperience and recklessness. “Oh, now you probably regret speaking out since you lost your job for it.”
Her blood began to simmer. It seemed like the whole world had listened to her radio interview. She hadn’t even mentioned homosexuals, yet Jessica had almost become as much of a sensation as the blockbuster movie she’d discussed on her show—the biography of Aiden MacAuley, a suspiciously prolific Scottish painter who’d died in the early nineteen hundreds.
She wished she’d never heard of the man. “I was referring to faeries, as in Celtic folklore. I suggested that MacAuley believed his genius came from faeries, which was a sign the man was not mentally stable, not that being a faery is a sign of mental illness.” Except her words had been taken out of context to make her sound homophobic. One day Clarissa would pay for this utter humiliation.
He winked at her. “You have the support of my church. Should you take any more flak, you just let us know.”
She let her breath out in a huff. “You said my mail was delivered to your box by mistake. Would you please fetch my letter? I’m in a hurry.” She fought the urge to retreat to her apartment and hibernate through the spring. How long would it take for this catastrophe to pass? One month? Two? At least by that time, she’d have moved into her new condo and escaped the sideways glances of the tenants in this building.
Her neighbor gave her a sympathetic look, but retrieved her mail without further comment. With her frustration not quite under control, she snapped the letter from his hands, slipped it into her purse, and ordered her legs not to run from the building.
The only way to get on your feet was to get off your arse, Jessica’s grandfather had often told her. She would honor his memory by heeding his advice, and after four days of brooding, she was ready to face the world, to find the rainbow after the storm.
Okay, Grandpa, I’m on my feet again. She held her head up high. She’d survived worse than a career setback. And she hadn’t been fired from her job, just asked to take a few days off until the media found someone else to bully. And to step down from Let’s Talk Entertainment, but she still had a job. So it was the midnight shift. She could learn to sleep during the day.
With the Arizona wind on her face and the sun’s heat warming the top of her head, she began to feel her spirit brighten.
Then she walked by the bus stop where her gaze landed on a bold advertisement. She froze like a lamppost. Her mood took a dark tumble.
An ad for the Aiden MacAuley movie blazed from a signpost like a finger-pointing reminder of Jessica’s downfall. If she was bombarded with any more reminders of that nineteenth-century, Scottish, folk-hero—aka the bane of her existence, the blight on her career, the curse that wouldn’t let go—she’d lose her delicate hope for an optimistic future.
But she refused to face her apartment walls again until dinnertime.
Twenty minutes later, Jessica gritted her teeth while her stylist trimmed her hair with a pitiful apology in his eyes that said, “too bad you’ve suffered public humiliation.” Only when he complimented the natural shine in her chestnut hair, her perfect eyebrows, and clear, glowing skin, did she feel a little blessed. Truly, she had much to be thankful for.
As she left the salon, she even managed a smile for an oddly dressed man who gave her the once-over as she passed. The smile felt like a long-lost friend on her lips.
“You, princess, are our lucky winner today!” The man on the sidewalk handed her a ticket. “The one-hundred and fifth person to walk by the theatre wins free entrance to our afternoon matinee performance.”
Jessica scanned the street and counted three people. “One hundred and five? How long have you been standing here?”
“I would stand for all time to meet the likes of you, a woman aching to escape the mundane and do with an afternoon of magic, fantasy, and adventure.” Silver, shimmering hair hung nearly to his waist, under a black leprechaun-like hat that revealed his appealing face—and not a wrinkle in sight. His eyes swept up at the corners, and his irises sparkled with iridescent blue. Must be contact lenses. The sun glinted off a brass belt buckle peeking out from his long, emerald waistcoat, worn over a crisp, wing-collared white shirt. Black knee-high boots were polished to a shine.
“Unfortunately an adventure isn’t in my budget.” She glanced at the ticket he’d handed her. Markus Productions: Magician and Illusionist. “You’re a magician?”
The glint in his eyes was like a schoolboy’s. “No, not me. I only dabble. T’would be a shame to let a free ticket go to waste. It’s just about to begin and you have my guarantee, there’s no other show like it on Earth.”
She checked her watch—1:55. “No surprise fees?”
“Not another cent.” The exotic looking man opened the door to the theatre and gave her shoulder a little nudge toward the entrance.
“Then, yes, I’ll take your offer. Thank you.” She’d watch the magic show because entertainment that wasn’t Hollywood and had nothing to do with Aiden MacAuley was just what she needed to nourish her budding good spirits.
Inside the small theatre, she was surprised to see nearly every seat occupied. She scanned the top rows for an empty spot and saw nothing, so she settled for an aisle seat three rows back from the stage. The woman spilling over the next seat didn’t look up when Jessica sat down, but continued to fan herself with a flyer and talk to her neighbor.
The show was supposed to begin at 2:00. It was 2:15. If she was rating this performance, she’d question if Markus Productions valued their audience’s time.
Four minutes later, the silver-haired man who’d pulled her off the street appeared on the stage. She was mildly impressed, since he’d confessed he merely dabbled in magic, yet seemed to have materialized out of thin air.
Sitting up straighter, she listened as the performer introduced himself simply as Finn. The audience hushed and the lights dimmed as Finn welcomed everyone and announced he would start the show with a quick illusion. “I’ll need a volunteer from the audience.” A few hands went up. Finn’s feet seemed to glide along the stage and down the front stairs.
“It’s that Michael Jackson thing,” the woman beside her said. “How do they walk like that?”
Jessica must have been distracted because suddenly Finn stood in front of her on the stairs. The audience gasped.
“I don’t believe there’s another soul on the planet more perfectly suited for my game. Would you kindly be my assistant today?” Finn took her hand in his.
His game? That sounded more interesting than a disappearing trick. She slung her purse over her shoulder and followed him down the stairs toward the stage.
The lights dimmed in the auditorium and music began to play—”Do You Believe in Magic,” by Lovin’ Spoonful. Interesting song choice. Did she believe in magic? In pixie dust and faeries and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow? The media had certainly formed an opinion on that. An ironic smile pressed her lips tight.
Finn raised her hand to twirl her around to the music, dancing her toward a box that looked like a cupboard, about six feet tall and three feet wide. He opened the door, and with dramatic flair advised her to grasp the handles on the side walls so she didn’t slip when he spun her around.
The handles were cool in her hands. She leaned forward and asked in a whisper, “Am I supposed to slip out the back door when you cue me?”
“Just wait and follow your guide.” His smile was a mischievous thing. “You don’t have a weak heart, do you?”
She gave him a wry smile and decided to play along. “I just got a clean bill of health.”
“Very good. Are you ready to play my game? I promise to give you that adventure you’ve been craving. All you need to remember is there’s nothing to fear in magic.”
“The last thing I crave is adventure, and it’s already been publicly established that I don’t believe in magic.”
“So few of your kind do believe. Perhaps you’ll soon have reason to convince them otherwise. Are you ready?”
She was part of a kind? She could only imagine what kind he meant. “Yes, I’m ready. Just close the door and let’s get this trick over with.”
As she stood in the dark, she decided this wasn’t exactly the pick-me-up she’d been hoping for. Finn’s voice was muffled outside as he talked to the audience. When he approached the box again, she heard him more clearly. “When I open this door, you’ll see that Jessica Stirling has truly disappeared. We’ll not be seeing her again. Let’s all wish her a pleasurable journey.”
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