Three mottled red-white knuckles—and a scarred divet where the smallest was collected then cauterized to pay gambling debts—rocketed toward my head. You know what? For missing a knuckle in the sandwich, that motherfucker still packed quite the punch. My left ear gave up the fight, sound imploding until all I heard from that side was my panicked gasps. The blessed bonus was an end to Mick’s ranting.
I should’ve never messed with this side of the family.
Irish blood burned hot as lit whiskey. Mick’s blood was ninety-proof uisce beatha and one-hundred percent from dear Éire. He never let anyone forget. God help the man who did.
That’d be me. The man Mick mistook for a punching bag. I didn’t forget jack shit. He won’t remember it that way.
Blood filled my mouth. I spat, rubbing what dribbled across my numb bottom lip with my left thumb. The pink glob splatted on the tip of Mick’s work boot. My face followed, pushed with help from a hammer blow expertly delivered by my second cousin. Thrice removed. Or some dumb shit like that. I tuned out any time my aunt bullied me into a corner to “explain how things go in the family.”
Her advice didn’t cover handling a drunk Mick before the cops heard him ranting. If they could hear him over the meaty thwak—his fist testing the strength of my ribcage. So far, so good.
I never signed up to babysit the groom on his stag night. I’d come into town to talk sense into his betrothed.
And take a dip in a pool I hadn’t enjoyed since we grew up across the street with each other. Maggie had a way about her that’d calm the wildest beast. Mick’s beast couldn’t be tamed. But it could be distracted.
“Mick” —blood slipped over my bottom lip and I caught it before he noticed the first stain on his boot— “There’s another bar down the street.”
“This is me pub, Dennis. They can’t kick me out of me own pub. Tyrants.” At least he spoke into my good ear. Mick’s club-like fist took a break from tenderizing my flesh and thumped the locked door beside us. Great. No calvary coming to my aid from there. They washed their hands of us the second Mick’s shadow hit the sidewalk.
“Looks like they’re closed for the night.” The curtain three windows down the pub’s storefront fluttered. I raised my voice. “Probably a gas leak. Never trust these old buildings. They’ll come right down on your head if you’re not paying any mind.”
The curtain stilled. Seconds later, the gas lamps inside died.
“How dare they endanger me by opening with faulty gas.” Shaking a leg—possibly a threat to kick the reportedly derelict building—Mick spat a curse. “I want to see me lass.”
I wanted to, as well, but without the audience. There was no ditching Mick. He’d bonded with me. I was stuck until he passed out.
Oh, that’s a thought.
“Mick, buddy. A birdie told me the lasses at Sean Tarbh are something to behold tonight. Their wash went missing.” Mick took it five hours ago, convinced he could use the skirts as fae traps. He wouldn’t remember that. Shouldn’t, at least. Not with the amount of beer in his gut and what I planned to dump on top. When he passed out, I’d be free.
“I know that place. I’ll lead the way to the bull.” Pausing, Mick snatched a discarded ratty green skirt. “In case the fae get wily and try ta take me before the big day.”
All Mick could catch in that skirt was a scratch on his cock bad enough to drive a saint to wish the pox on God himself. The fae weren’t real. If they were, they sure as hell weren’t camped in this piss-bucket village. I paused long enough to grab a torch before following the drunk on his next adventure.
Half a kilometer down the road, Mick paused to feed the sprouting wildflowers. The stench killed the grass fifty meters around us. I waited far upwind, letting Mick and his fae catcher handle their business. Maybe the wee folk favored previously-tasted spirits.
Maybe I could leave him here . . . .
I stepped back two paces. Mick gave another rendition of Huu-oh-God-I’ll-never-drink-again, but paid me no mind. A cow murmurred from the field behind me. Three fields over, Maggie would be sitting at the fire, wicked fingers occupied with her knitting. If I made it out of sight by the time Mick emptied his gut, he’d have no chance of finding me in the dark.
“About time you showed up,” Mick slurred.
I froze. Mick didn’t raise his head. The damned fae-trap-slash-skirt blocked his view of me. “Been here the whole time, cousin.”
“Not you, stupid git. Her.”
A nude woman passed from the shaded tree line fifteen meters back from the road. With a nod, she accepted the ratty green skirt and wrapped it around her torso. Her sun-kissed skin glowed from within, as though she’d swallowed a portion of the glowing orb.
“You’ve had too much again,” the woman said, no sound of reproach in her voice. Only fact.
“Sorry, Gran. Big day tomorrow.” Mick unloaded another pint, missing his mostly-nude guest by a hair’s breadth.
Wait, did he call her . . . “Gran?”
A trip of blonde curls tumbled over the woman’s shoulder as she looked my way. “Dennis, you should pay more attention to the family history.” She set her hand on Mick’s head and continued, “Your mother’s line has devoted one pairing in every generation to sealing the pact between our kind. Humans utilize the land here where it is richest. Fae stick to the river and the forest.”
“I’m never missing a family gathering again.”
“Actually,” Mick said around a dry heave. “You are.”
Rough green fabric flew into my face, wrapped around my head. Someone ripped the torch out of my left hand. The light bounded away. My blunted nails broke even shorter digging at the skirt. It wouldn’t budge, though no hands held it in place.
Sour breath invaded the musty air trapped against my nose. “Gran said someone has to seal the pact.”
I’d assumed she meant Mick or Luke, his equally useless younger brother.
Soft fingers brushed over my shoulder. The beer-and-vomit smell faded. “When Mick found his true love, he bargained with me–his birthright given to another before the night of his wedding. If he could not secure an acceptable replacement, he’d go with me tonight.”
“Told you I know how to pick ’em, Gran.”
A rock skitted off the side of my left boot. Soft breaths pushed the fabric locked around my head. I had the impression our fae ancestor sized me up like a cow at market.
“He can’t enter the wild lands like this.”
Of course not, I couldn’t see a fucking thing.
White-hot agony raced up my forearms. A release pulled my shoulders down until I toppled over. The fabric over my eyes darkened, becoming brown-red in the torch light. My wrists blazed with pain. Blood caked with dirt coated my hands as I fought to free myself from the makeshift blindfold.
“Hush, Dennis. It won’t take much longer.”
Why kill me if I’m to meet the other side of the family?
A chuckle by my ear. “If you’d listened to your aunt, you’d know that there’s been a long line of missing first-children. She sacrificed her eldest for the previous generation and fully understood the sacrifice. Humans cannot enter our lands. Spirits, however, can be channeled into fae bodies.”
Shimmering grey light swallowed what little I saw within the blindfold. It wouldn’t be too bad, dying and being popped into whatever fae guy drew the short stick.
“And in fifty years when you’ve matured as our kind do, then you shall take your bride as thanks for bringing you into our world.”
Ah, shit. This was the reason why I never wanted to deal with my mother’s side of the family. As the sound around me sucked into oblivion, I wondered if my mother was hot.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be all bad meeting the new in-laws.