Monday, October 2, 2017

A Brand New Short Read from Jenna Elizabeth Johnson!

Hello Readers!  It's been a long time since I posted anything new, but I hope this will brighten up our day.  I entered this short tale into a writing competition, but alas, it did not win.  Good news is I can now share it with you.  My goal is to eventually write a collection of faerie tales set in the Otherworld and starring new characters from Eile.  Soot and Stone (featured in the Once Upon A Kiss anthology) is one of those faerie tales and The Curse of Inis Seacht is another.  Now, without further ado, here is your faerie tale!  Happy reading!
- J.E. Johnson

Once a year, Aneira's village is visited by the Collector, a man tasked with gathering an annual tithe from the people of Inis Seisear.   Always hidden beneath a heavy, hooded cloak, it is common knowledge that this unwelcome stranger hides a hideous visage.  Not that it matters to Aneira.  She is blind, and despite the unquestionable love of her parents, she is tired of their overprotective ways.  When her family's tithe goes missing, she volunteers herself as payment instead, unsure of who this Collector really is or if he is as kind as his unusual glamour suggests.  What Aneira discovers on the island of Inis Seacht, however, is more than her chance at freedom, but a terrible curse she may or may not have the power to break.


A Fae Tale of Eile

by Jenna Elizabeth Johnson
Aneira stood her ground as the rest of the villagers scattered like mice disturbed from their nests.  It was mid-afternoon on Samhain, and that evening they would light the great bonfire at the stone circle and offer up their thanks for a bountiful harvest.  But not before the tithe was paid to the creature who had come to collect his goods.  Just as he’d done every year before, the Collector had arrived at sunset, crossing the dark waters of Lake Ohll in his sturdy boat to demand payment from the poor villagers.  Aneira had never feared him, even as a girl, even when the cloak he wore covered his entire body, face and all, sending all the other girls into fits of hysteria as they imagined what gruesome visage might lie beneath that hood.  She did not fear him, perhaps, because she had never feared anything.  Even when her eyesight began to fade away at the age of five, and even when her own glamour did not begin to manifest until two years ago.
Aneira’s glamour was different than that of her peers, being both a gift and a curse.  Although her blindness caused her to walk in a constant fog, her natural Faelorehn glamour offered her a different perspective of her world.  In her mind, people, animals, plants and even objects appeared as blossoms of glorious color in her head.  And the kinder of heart, the more pure of spirit the person or being, the brighter their aura appeared to her.   So, perhaps that was the true reason behind her lack of horror regarding the Collector.  This creature, this mangled and disfigured stranger who was feared by all, had the brightest essence she had ever seen in a living thing.  Despite his outward appearance, and his harsh words, true goodness burned within.
It was Aneira’s father who stepped forth when it was their turn to pay the tithe.
“P-please, sir.  We had a wealth of honey set aside for you, collected from our own hives, but this morning when I went to gather the jars to bring into town ...”
His voice trailed off, his throat closing around the words.
“They were gone, sir,” Aneira’s mother cried.  “We searched everywhere.”
The Collector growled in response, “All must give payment.  No exceptions.”
The crowd passed around hushed exclamations, backing away from this creature.  They had paid their tithes and only remained to see what became of Aneira’s family.
Aneira squared her shoulders and stepped forward.
“You must take me, as payment.  I am my parents’ only child, truly more valuable to them than any trinket or harvested crop.  We cannot afford to give you any of our extra stores in place of the honey, or my family will go hungry come the winter.”
The young woman’s voice trembled as she spoke, but she refused to back down.  She sensed the man standing before her, tall, strong, oozing menace.  But that part of her mind that could see into the hearts of others painted an entirely different picture.  A soul as brilliant as the sun, as multicolored as a spring day in Eile, radiated past all the layers of darkness and menace.
“Very well,” the man replied.  “My boat awaits on the shore.  Let us leave before true dark sets in.”
Aneira’s mother rushed forth.  “No!  Aneira!  You mustn’t go with him!”
“I will not allow it!” her father added, anger and disbelief tainting his voice.
Aneira turned to them and clasped their hands.  “I must.  The creature says we must pay a price, and we have no other thing of value to offer.”
Before her parents could protest any further, Aneira broke free of their hold and hurried after the Collector, his brilliant soul a guiding light along the dark road.
* * *
“What is your name?” Aneira dared to ask from her corner of the boat.
They had reached the dock ten minutes after leaving the village square, the Collector climbing in and waiting for her to join him.  Aneira, although feeling a little nervous, carefully navigated her way into the unsteady structure before finding her seat.  Now, they were on their way to his island, or so she presumed, and the silence between them was more awkward than she liked.  Only the lap of the water against the boat’s sides and the breathy gust of wind greeted her ears.
“Quinlan,” the man finally said.  “My name is Quinlan.”
Aneira tried the name out on her tongue.  She liked it.
“I am Aneira,” she replied with a smile, her eyes narrowing as she attempted to bring the stranger’s form into view.   Sometimes, if she tried hard enough, she could make out the physical shapes of people and things with her eyes.  Ah, and there he was.  A dark blur of cold solitude.  Like a storm cloud brewing over the lake.  Before Aneira could think of any other questions, the boat came to an abrupt stop, nearly unseating her.
“Your island was the last one I visited,” Quinlan said, standing and stepping out of the boat.  “It is the smallest, besides my own.  Now, what can you do to earn your keep here?”
Aneira made to stand and almost fell into the water.   If not for Quinlan’s quick reflexes, she would have.
“Be careful,” he snapped, his voice low and gruff.
Aneira felt herself being jerked forward and she let out a small yelp of protest before her feet crunched against the gravel below.  Icy water lapped at her boots and the hem of her skirts, but before she could grumble a complaint, Quinlan was pulling her forward, his movements jerky and rough.
“You’re hurting me!” she hissed, yanking her arm free.  “Have you no manners?”
“No,  I do not.  I would think, having lived in the island chain all your life, you would’ve caught on to this fact long before now,” Quinlan replied bitterly.
Aneira glared toward the bright source of light taking up all the space in her foggy mind.  What in Eile made this man’s spirit shine so brightly?
“Perhaps that is what I can provide for you.  Lessons on how to behave in a civil manner.  You clearly lack in that area,” she quipped, unafraid of what ire she might be calling down upon herself.
Quinlan merely snarled and took her arm again.  Aneira made to resist, but his grip was gentle now, and he didn’t drag her along, only guided her.  They walked for about a mile, leaving behind the shoreline and finding sturdier ground.
Aneira drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Would you mind describing the scenery for me?”
The Collector’s steady stride faltered, and his steps slowed.  Good.  Aneira was growing weary of his relentless pace.
What he said next surprised her.
“How long have you been blind?”
His gentle tone was unexpected, a crack in that menacing wall surrounding him.
“I started losing my eyesight almost fifteen years ago, when I was five, just after my parents and I moved to Inis Seisear,” she admitted.  “My glamour manifested very late, much later than most Faelorehn, and when my sight began to fade, my parents thought I’d been cursed with a geis by someone.”
She grinned a little, then went on, “I was a headstrong girl.  The older children who liked to torment me and the others soon learned that I tolerated none of their nonsense, so I’ve gained a few enemies over the years.”
Quinlan stopped and turned to face her.  She couldn’t see it, but she could feel his focus shifting toward her.
“So, you’ve always been a brave woman, then?  Standing in the face of fear and daring it to defeat you?”
“No.  I’ve just never had much patience for intolerance, cruelty, or bullies.”
Quinlan’s bright aura pulsed before her, not enough to cause alarm, but just enough for Aneira to take note.  She wondered what it meant.  Before she could voice her concern, however, Quinlan was leading her away once more.
“Heather and holly and hawthorn grow mostly on my island.  We will climb a short hill to my home, then you can rest.”
It took Aneira a few moments to recall the start of their conversation, and she smiled as that hairline crack widened just a bit more.  Before she could press Quinlan with any more questions, he was leading her up the hill and into the welcoming darkness of his home.  Her home now, at least for the next year.
* * *
Aneira didn’t know what to make of the inside of Quinlan’s home.  The darkness that enveloped her soon disappeared as he brought a banked fire back to life, the delicious scent of wood smoke quickly overpowering the hints of dust, leather, sandalwood, and lavender tainting the air.  The floor beneath her boots was stone, but as she stepped carefully about the room, she detected rugs spread upon the ground like autumn leaves peppering a forest floor.
“There is an extra bed in the attic upstairs.  It should be large enough for you.  I reside in the room down the narrow hallway.”
Aneira found her room without trouble, following the stairs up into the small attic.  She also discovered a bay window with a bench, her fingertips sinking into soft cushions and brushing up against cool glass.  With nothing else to occupy her time, she collapsed onto the narrow bed and tried not to think about her parents crying after her.  She loved them dearly, but they had never once given her the chance to prove she could be independent.  This was her chance, even though she was at the mercy of the Collector.  Some deep-seated instinct, her glamour perhaps, convinced her she would find what she was looking for here, with a man whom all the others despised.
Aneira drew in a deep breath and curled beneath the soft blankets.  Not such a bad place after all, this secluded stone cabin.  In a few minutes, she was fast asleep and dreaming of waves and monsters, and brave maidens defying them both.
* * *
Aneira woke the next morning to the muffled sound of voices.  Two, no, three deep, masculine voices.  At first, her heart thudded in her throat, and then she remembered where she was: On Inis Seacht, the Collector’s island.
Stretching out of bed, she crept downstairs, using her hands to guide the way.  A soft breeze wafted in through a window somewhere, and as Aneira drew nearer, the voices became more clear.
“There should be more,” one man groused.
“What I have supplemented should suffice.  It should be more than enough,” the Collector replied gruffly.
“That is not what we’ve come to expect.  Not what the Morrigan has come to expect,” a second man added.
“It is all the goddess will get this year.  Good day, gentleman.”
Quinlan’s sharp rebuke surprised Aneira.
The crunch of boots on gravel and barely discernible muttering drifted away just before the door squeaked open.
Aneira gasped and whirled around to face the opposite wall.
The Collector’s bright essence filled the room, and she squinted her eyes, even though it did nothing to dim his light.
“Spying on me?  Is that why you insisted on taking the place of your parents’ tithe?”
“I wasn’t spying!  I heard voices and came downstairs.”
“Never mind,” Quinlan bit out.  “Do you know how to cook?”
Aneira squared her shoulders and faced the brilliant light that was the Collector.
“No.  My mother refused to teach me.  She feared I might injure myself around the fire and hot stove.”
Before Quinlan could make a reply, she hurried on, “I wish to learn, though.  I’m sure I will learn fast if you would just show me.”
A long, terrifying pause, and then the Collector spoke.
“Very well.  We’ll start with building a fire in the stove, then move on to boiling water and making simple broths.”
Aneira almost cried with joy, but quickly tamped down her delight so as not to appear too eager.  For the rest of that day, Quinlan patiently walked her through the process of preparing a simple meal and by mid-afternoon, she had even managed to brew a fresh pot of tea for them to share.
The days passed by quickly this way, with Aneira learning how to prepare the daily meals and picking up new skills along the way.  Besides cooking, Quinlan taught her how to mend tears in clothing, light and bank the fire in the hearth, and keep the stone cottage neat and tidy.  With her fingertips and the speck of vision she had left, Aneira learned her way around the cabin and took pride in helping keep it organized.  The autumn days grew shorter, and if the weather was mild, Quinlan would take her with him to harvest mushrooms, berries, and chestnuts from the grove on the northern side of the island.
“I miss seeing the autumn colors the most,” Aneira admitted, as they began their trek back to the cabin one afternoon.
“Then, let me describe them to you,” Quinlan offered.
Aneira listened intently as he painted a brilliant image of gold, crimson, and ochre within her mind.  Despite the chill weather and being away from the village she’d called home for many years, her heart was light and happy.  Free.
As they neared the base of the hill, the Collector reached back to take her hand so she might not trip on the walk up.  And for the first time since coming to this place to live with him, she appreciated, and savored, that small contact.
When they reached the garden and stepped through the stone gate, Aneira slowed her steps, causing Quinlan to pause with her.
Like always, she could not see his face, but she studied that bright spirit burning before her.  Aneira reached out to touch his face, craving more than that comforting grip on her hand, but Quinlan hissed and pulled away.
“Do not touch me!” he growled, whipping his cloak aside and leaving her in a hurry.
Aneira stood out in the garden until the light of the world dimmed around her.  Long enough for the tears to dry from her face.
* * *
The winter months soon nipped at the heels of autumn, the ice and snow and cold winds from the mountains to the north blowing their frosty breath down upon the lowlands and over the black surface of Lake Ohll.  Aneira spent most of her time cooped up in the cottage with Quinlan, continuing her various lessons.  The enigmatic Faelorehn man never mentioned her attempt to brush her fingers against his face, and she kept it tucked away as well.  It did not do to dwell on disappointment, and the last thing Aneira wished to do was broach a subject that would only drive a wedge between them.
Eventually, winter melted away into spring, and Quinlan started his wanderings again.  Aneira was able to follow him with her glamour, stretching her magic out far enough to find his, a firefly flickering on the edge of her consciousness.  While he was gone, she would practice all the new tasks she’d learned, or wander out into his walled garden and tend to the young plants there.
One afternoon, Quinlan returned to find her kneeling in the onion beds pulling weeds.
“What are you doing!?” he shouted, crashing through the gate in his haste to reach her.
Shocked, Aneira fell back, her muddied hands held up before her.
“I’m taking out the weeds!” she insisted, her sightless eyes wide.
Before Quinlan could roar at her again, she added, “I can tell them apart from the vegetables, I swear it.  Their spark is different from the onions, cabbages, and turnips.  See for yourself.”
She groped around on the ground, scooping up the discarded plants she had pulled free of the earth.
Quinlan took her hands in his, his touch gentle despite his earlier outrage.  Aneira was reminded of the day he pulled away from her and tried not to shiver.  His fingers were rough, his palms scarred.  She allowed her glamour to flow free, and the blazing torch that was his soul flared before her.  Warm, brilliant, and blinding, in its own way.
“Forgive me,” was all the Faelorehn man said, before dropping her hands and disappearing into the cabin.
Aneira stared at the spot where he had been standing, wondering if he would ever see her the way she saw him.
* * *
Quinlan did not protest Aneira’s time spent in the garden from that day forth, and Aneira found the small patch of earth to be a place of healing solitude.  She could breathe in the scent of wildflowers, listen to the trickling of a small stream somewhere on the other side of the wall, revel in the sound of birdsong filling the mighty oak that offered shade on particularly warm days.
During those long evenings, after the meal was prepared, Quinlan would sit in his large chair and select a book from his collection.  He most often chose the fae tales to read, and upon Aneira’s insistence, he would read them aloud.
“I never learned how to read,” she told him as she prepared the fire, for the nights were still chilly.  “That was the one thing I never insisted on learning to do.”
There had been no point, after all.  Her eyes were not strong enough to discern the words on a page.
“Then, I shall read every story aloud, so that no matter where you are in the cottage, you will hear them,” Quinlan replied before beginning.
Aneira paused in her chore, the kindling she’d been arranging in the hearth dropping into the ash below.  Quinlan’s words made her smile, but before she could linger over them, he delved into a story of adventure and intrigue.
When he finished the tale, Aneira took a deep breath and said,  “Tell me another story, Quinlan.  Tell me why you live alone on this island.  Why you travel to the others once a year to strip us of our surplus of food and goods.  I have seen your soul.  I have been here nearly a year, and you’ve made a valiant effort to hide your true nature from me.  But I have seen your goodness, despite my blindness.”
She touched a hand to the corner of one eye, smiling despite the tightness in her throat, hoping he watched her face.  Praying he could read her emotions as well as she had learned to read his.
“I can see everything that matters, because I do not have my sight to distract me.  I can feel everything.  So, tell me.  What curse has befallen you?”
Quinlan was quiet for a very long time, the only sound in the room being the crackle of the fire.
The whisper-soft sound of the Collector rising from his chair was swiftly followed by a curt, “The evening grows late.  I bid you good night, Aneira.”
Before she could formulate a reply, the overpowering glimmer of her reluctant captor’s aura faded away down the hall before finally blinking out behind his bedroom door.
* * *
“Autumn has come to greet us once again,” Quinlan said absentmindedly one late afternoon as he and Aneira tended to the small garden behind the stone house.
It had been several weeks since Aneira had asked after his geis, his curse, and although he had been polite and continued to teach her and guide her in the many tasks around the cottage, he had been careful to keep his distance.  And now Samhain was a day away.  She’d been with him so long, and yet, she still had no idea what he looked like.  And that had nothing to do with her blindness.  Feeling bold, Aneira stood from the flower bed she’d been weeding.
“May I touch you?” she asked, her voice strong, her spine straight as she lifted both her arms.
The request shocked Quinlan, and he jerked back slightly, away from Aneira’s reaching hands.
“Why?” was his gruff reply.
“It’s how I see things, well, the physical aspect of things,” she answered, her mouth cut in a stubborn line.
“Very well,” Quinlan finally conceded, standing absolutely still, his hands balled at his sides.
Aneira smiled, her beautiful gray eyes bright as silver, despite their malady.
She reached out, running her fingers along Quinlan’s rough cheek.  The first brush of Aneira’s touch against his face had Quinlan’s eyes drifting shut.  His heart pounded in his chest, and his breathing deepened.  He had never been touched before, not like this, and it took everything in him to keep from reaching out to her and doing the same.
Her fingers traced the various scars marring his face, ran along the ridges of his cheekbones, and traced the bridge of his nose before coming to rest upon his lips.
Aneira released a deep sigh, and Quinlan tensed, ready for the disgust, or worse, the kind words of pity to fall on his ears.  But that was not what happened.
“You are beautiful, Quinlan.  I know you feel your face and your body have been ruined and made hideous, and I know that is what the islanders say about you, but it isn’t true.  I may not be able to see you with my eyes, but I can see you with my glamour.  It has this uncanny ability to reveal a person’s true worth to me.  Since that first day you came to my village and took me away in place of my parents’ offering, I could see your soul.  I don’t know why, but I do know that you are not the monster the villagers have always painted you to be.”
A hot tear spilled from Quinlan’s eye and trailed down his mangled face.  In that moment, he wished he had Aneira’s gift.  He wished he could see her spirit the way she saw his.  He imagined it shone like the brightest star in the winter sky.  The thought, to his surprise, wasn’t all that daunting.  But the sentiment behind it frightened him.
“You cannot stay here any longer, Aneira.  You’ve paid off your family’s debt.”
Quinlan’s voice was clipped, though it shook ever so slightly.
When Aneira answered, her own tone wavered.  “What about for this coming year?  And the next?  Surely my parents are in the same situation as last year.  How will they pay their tithe if I do not stay?”
“Then, I will not ask it of them,” Quinlan replied, his tone hard, unyielding.
Aneira drew breath to argue, but the Collector snarled, “Enough!  I leave to gather what is owed to me in the morning.  When I return, you will not be here.”
With a swift flick of his cloak, Quinlan turned on his heel and walked back to the cottage, leaving Aneira to shiver in the cold shadow of his absence.
* * *
The next morning, Aneira woke to the sound of frantic voices.
“She must be here somewhere,” someone said.
“Locked up in that ramshackle cabin, or perhaps tied to that sickly oak tree.”
Tears spilled down Aneira’s face.  The cabin was not ramshackle, and the oak was not sickly.
“We must get her out of here before that monster returns,” a third voice hissed.
“What is it he said, Harold?  That the girl had outlived her welcome?  More of a drain on his resources than any help?  Disgusting, that beast.  Perhaps he is as blind as our Aneira to not be able to see her beauty.”
Pain lanced Aneira’s heart, but she had no other choice but to meet these villagers, her old friends.  Quinlan wanted her gone.  With a heavy heart, she stepped from the cabin and walked down to them.  She could sense their sparks of life, nothing compared to the blazing inferno that burned beside Quinlan’s heart.
He is tired of your chatter and nonsense, girl.  It is time to return home.
The village of Inis Seisear was overjoyed upon seeing Aneira’s safe return.  Her parents rushed out to greet her, her mother raining down kisses and her father checking her arms and neck for any injuries.
“You are unhurt?” he asked, disbelief in his voice.
“I’m not hurt,” she replied.
Except for my heart.
That evening, the Collector of Inis Seacht returned, demanding his tithe.  This time, more than required was brought forth, for the villagers feared the creature might make off with their sons or daughters since Aneira had been returned.
Aneira stood at the back of the crowd, her father all but demanding she remain home for the event.
“I will go,” she insisted, still as stubborn and headstrong as ever.  She would see him again, even if it was only that bright, burning soul of his, and even if he had no desire to see her.
And so, she accompanied her parents into town.  She had watched the pale glowing bits of light that represented her friends and family, and had drawn in her breath when Quinlan’s brilliant burst of luminosity outshone them all.  It seemed brighter now, more vibrant.  A happy essence glad to be rid of her, perhaps.
The bounties were given over, and the townsfolk retreated to their own bonfire to celebrate the Samhain festival.  While she watched the bright flames glow within her fuzzy vision, Aneira realized she’d never gotten Quinlan’s story from him.  When she mentioned this to her mother, the other Faelorehn woman quickly rattled off the tale to her curious daughter.
“Oh, the story goes that he got onto the wrong side of things with the Morrigan, and not only did she disfigure him, but she placed a geis on him to remain on that island for all his days, only allowed to leave once a year to pester us for our goods.”
That night, as Aneira lay awake in her own bed, her mother’s words and her own observations over the past year tumbled around in her head.  If Quinlan was a selfish person, his glamour would not burn so brightly.  A memory, a year old now, surfaced in her mind.  The sound of voices outside the Collector’s cabin.  Their complaint that there hadn’t been enough . . . enough what?  And then Quinlan’s own words joined the others: “What I have supplemented should suffice.”
Aneira’s mind churned as she recalled other details: How Quinlan spent most of his days wandering about the island, how he kept a garden and harvested wild nuts, fruits, and other goods.  How he worked the way her fellow neighbors did, growing crops and storing them away.  Why would he make the effort if the tithe provided him with all he needed throughout the year?
Aneira threw aside the sheets and bolted to her wardrobe.  With deft fingers, she laced up her bodice and tied her skirts in place.  Grabbing a shawl, she crept to the door, opening it and closing it as quietly as she could.  She slinked downstairs and out the kitchen door into the freezing night.  Cold air stung her cheeks and coated her lungs, but she did not turn back.  Gradually, she picked her way through the sleeping village, reaching the docks ten minutes after leaving her home.
She felt for a sturdy boat, then climbed in, unlooping the rope along the way.  She picked up a paddle and closed her eyes, letting her glamour flood her senses and stretch out far beyond her body.  There, across the icy, black lake, she detected a tiny, but brilliant, spark of light.  Quinlan.  With dogged determination, she dipped the single paddle of the boat into the water and pushed off from the dock.
* * *
Quinlan was just about to retire for the night when a tentative knock sounded on his front door.  He had been reclining in his favorite chair, a book of fae tales opened on his lap, when the interruption came.  It was probably a good thing, because his thoughts weren’t lost in the story like they ought to be.  No, he was too busy thinking about the delivery of the goods he’d made to the Morrigan’s soldiers, the fuel that kept the geis burning, the payment that kept the greedy goddess away.  The battle-worn Faelorehn men had been waiting at his cabin when he’d arrived earlier that evening from collecting the tithes, and relief so strong it had nearly brought him to his knees had washed over him.  Aneira was gone.  Her people had answered his summons and had come to take her away.  These horrible men and the goddess they served would never learn of Aneira and her gifted glamour.  They would never be able to harm her as they’d harmed him.
The knock came again, and Quinlan frowned.  Perhaps these were the soldiers returning to demand more payment.  He would give them whatever they asked, so long as it got them away from his islands and the secrets they held.
The Collector rose and crossed to the door.  But the face that greeted him on the other side sent both a wave of shock and joy through him.
“I wanted you to know,” Aneira said, her tone slightly breathless, “that it was my choice to leave my village last year and mine alone.”
Bewilderment soon outshone the Collector’s other emotions.
“You sent me away because you thought I was being punished, but I wasn’t.  If I hadn’t wanted to leave with you last Samhain, nothing could have compelled me to do so.  I am a stubborn young woman, if you recall.”
Quinlan’s brow pinched in puzzlement, but as he stood there turning Aneira’s words over in his head, it grew suddenly clear to him.
“Your parents did not misplace their tithe,” he said, his voice soft and level.
Aneira nodded, smiling with the first signs of shyness Quinlan had ever seen in her.
“No.  As much as it pained me to do so, I took our year’s supply of honey and dropped it in the lake.  I was tired of being looked over, tired of being pitied and treated as if I might break into a thousand pieces if I so much as tripped over a stray stone in the street.  I felt trapped in that village, Quinlan.  I had to get out, by any means necessary.”
“Even if it meant spending a year of solitude on an island with the likes of me?” the Collector asked.
Aneira shook her head again, her pale gray eyes brimming with tears.
“And what of you, Quinlan?  I heard you the morning after Samhain.  I heard you speaking with those men, the Morrigan’s soldiers.  The tithe you collected from all the islands, you handed it over to them, didn’t you?”
Quinlan remained silent.
“This is why you still farm and harvest from the land.  It is because you still need to provide for yourself.  The tithe was not for you, it was for them.  I think it is time for you to tell me your story, Quinlan.  No more excuses.”
 With a heavy sigh, the Collector stepped aside, inviting Aneira into his cottage.  When they were both comfortably seated, he began his tale.
“Many years ago, the Morrigan sent scouts to these islands to recruit soldiers for her armies.  I was young then, about your age, and fancied myself brave.  I was trying to impress the young women of my village, so I told the soldiers to look elsewhere.  My glamour was strong, and I was able to resist their attempts to make off with the men and women old enough to serve the goddess of war and strife.  Twice more they returned, each time warning me the Morrigan would curse me with a geis should I not comply.  Feeling confident in my magic, I sent them away again.  The next time someone came for us, it was the Morrigan herself.”
Quinlan paused to take a breath before he continued.
“She flew into the village square in her raven form, transforming into a woman before touching the ground.  Her dark glamour was terrible and stronger than anything I had ever felt.  In that moment, I realized what a fool I had been.  Before I could beg for mercy, she swept her magic over me, scarring my face, arms, and hands, claiming that if not for my pride, I would have listened to sense and joined her cause without a fight.  She left me there, damaged and screaming, unable to break free of the hold her glamour had on me, as she took not only those old enough to fight, but all the people of our islands.  She told me that I would be left to guard this place, and if people decided to move in again, she would come and take them, like cattle to the slaughter.”
Quinlan paused for a moment, but Aneira didn’t dare speak.
“But the goddess of war is cruel, and she told me that I could stop this from happening.  I could continue to refuse and resist her, if I wished, but she would take her payment in one form or another.  I was disfigured now, she reminded me, and I could use that to my advantage.
“You can continue to protect your flock, little shepherd, but in order to do so, you must take from them every year something of value.  They will fear you, because of what you have become.  They will grow to despise you and they will cast you out.  And every year, on Samhain, you will visit these islands and demand payment from them for my sake.  Or, you can let me recruit from their number each year.”
“I chose to ostracize myself, for it was because of my pride that my family and friends were torn from me to be used in the Morrigan’s bloody battles.  I deserved to be set apart, and I would take on the role of the cruel monster who demanded payment from them every year because I didn’t want them to suffer the same fate as those before them.  And because I deserved to be hated and despised.”
Silence, dark and heavy, fell over the room, and it took a long while for Aneira to find her voice.
“You’ve saved us all, Quinlan.  You resisted the Morrigan’s demand and because of it, we remain safe from her evil grasp.”
“And I remain cursed, destined to live out my mortal existence alone on this island.”
His tone held bitterness, but not regret.
“You do not have to be alone anymore, Quinlan.  I can see past that wall of anger and bitterness you have built up around yourself.  My glamour can see you, and you are one of the most selfless men I have ever known.”
Aneira reached out to touch his face, and for once, he did not protest; he did not pull away.  His skin was rough and smooth and warm, just as she remembered.  Aneira smiled, tears forming in her eyes.
“I do not deserve you,” Quinlan murmured, his voice rough, as he turned his face into her touch.  “I could never deserve you.”
“Perhaps not, but you need me, and I need you.  It’s time we stop fighting what brings us the most joy.”
She leaned into him, encircling his waist with her arms, pressing her ear to his chest.  His heart thrummed strongly beneath his tunic and when he stood from his chair, his arms tightening about her to pull her close, happiness radiated from her in brilliant waves.  And that beautiful light that made up his soul shone so bright, it encompassed them both.