Author’s Note: Outlines and character studies are ramping up for Distant Horizon. I have to admit a certain impatience to begin the next part of the saga. Like Swimming and Far Reach, it will be written to allow a reader to start there and not feel lost, although reading through the other parts would give more background to characters and their possible motivations.
I am honored that my lovely beta readers, Breathesgirl and Ms Buffy are sticking with me. Their time and feedback are gifts to me, and I am most grateful.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
During the day while Sookie had been visiting Niall, Sandy Seacrest and her retinue had arrived. Sookie hadn’t seen the coffins, but she assumed they rested either in the vampires’ rooms or down below in storage. Eric and Thalia’s travel coffins were in the basement and Thalia had visited the area last night, making certain they were safe.
As she and Eric walked down the stairs, Sookie could hear the sound of talking, and then the Nebraska King’s loud, infectious laugh. They entered the front room to find the Oklahoma Queen sitting in front of that beautiful fireplace with Finn. Sandy’s face was flustered and Finn was grinning broadly as they rose. Formal bows were exchanged all around and then Eric stepped forward. He seemed awkward, but Sandy knew what to do, and she stepped into the Viking and hugged him. “I am touching your husband,” she told Sookie. To Northman she said, “I am very happy to see you again, Eric.”
“And I am happy to see you too, Sandy,” Eric sighed and wrapped his arms around the Oklahoma monarch as well. He stepped back and winked at Sookie, “I suppose you will have to devise a punishment for this offense later, Lover.”
“I suppose you’d just love that,” Sookie snapped back and stepped in for a hug of her own. “I was real happy to hear you were coming,” she told Sandy. Sookie knew full well that Eric and Sandy Seacrest hadn’t always been friends. Shortly after the takeover of Louisiana by Felipe de Castro, Sandy had been brought into Eric’s territory to manage him. She had stepped into his duties, keeping him tied to his desk for months. It had been a tense, unhappy time, and Sandy had been used by her King to cause Eric, and by extension Sookie, no end of trouble.
It was only later when Felipe de Castro sent the grey-haired vampire to Oklahoma in the days following Freyda’s death that things had changed. Sookie was sure she still hadn’t heard the whole story of that time. She had been living in Jackson by then. Eric was trying to find a way to get free of De Castro, a way that wouldn’t require turning Sookie over to the Nevada King. Sookie had been pretty sure that being delivered to De Castro would have meant being ‘secured’ in Las Vegas, never to be heard from again. There had been moments they had both despaired, but in the end, both Sookie and Eric had been freed by vampire tribunals. Pam told the telepath that Sandy Seacrest had provided the key that had set both Sookie and Eric free.
It was mind-boggling, really, the way things shifted. Felipe De Castro had been such a large part of what was wrong with their lives. He was the danger that lurked around every corner, and now? The telepath found it hard to believe that just a few weeks ago she had been dancing with De Castro who was now the Clan Chief of Narayana. Instead of threatening her, he was flirting and talking about alliances.
Daniel appeared at the door, and Finn rose, inviting the party to move into the dining room. The table was set with plates that held goblets of blood and one place setting with silverware. They all sat down and Finn asked Sandy if she would be willing to share the story she had just been telling him.
“You seemed to find it a little too amusing,” Oklahoma squinted at Nebraska, but resumed the story anyway. It involved her mate, Rafe of Kansas. Apparently he had been entertaining local businessmen and he found himself caught in a religious debate with one of their wives. The conversation had gone rapidly downhill and in his confusion, the monarch had slipped into downtime, leaving the flustered woman winding herself up into a screaming fit and accusing Rafe of being just like her husband. It was in the way Sandy told it, imitating a Midwestern twang and then her husband’s mild lisp. Eric was snickering and Finn laughed out loud again. Sandy was shaking her head at both of them, but although she protested that their reaction was unkind, she seemed perfectly happy to continue her tale, adding embellishments as she went.
Sookie found she was staring more than eating. After all this time living among vampires, she was generally comfortable with being the only one at the table eating food, but there were times, like tonight, when it caught her and she felt self-conscious. The presentation of the food on the plate was better than she saw in most vampire residences, but it didn’t stop her from feeling like a fish in a glass bowl every time she brought a forkful to her mouth. She kept her Crazy Sookie smile in place and moved her rice around the plate with her fork, keeping her eyes on Sandy.
Within minutes, Sookie could feel her husband’s annoyance. She didn’t need to turn around to know Eric was staring at her. He was projecting that flavor of displeasure that set her teeth on edge, the ‘you are being a balky child’ flavor. She refused to look at him, and the smile pulled at the corner of her mouth as she remembered behaving the same way when her Gran gave her this exact same look.
“Then why do you keep doing it, Lover?” he asked reasonably. Sookie’s eyebrows drew together and she did look at him.
“Why did you say that?”
“Say what?” and Eric shrugged.
Sookie thought about whether she had said her thoughts out loud, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t. Eric leaned forward, “You need to eat, Sookie. Please!” and then he turned his attention back to Sandy, asking her a question about a wind farm they were co-developing in her state’s panhandle.
“How do you like your Britlingen?” Finn inquired, interrupting any further investigating the telepath wished to consider about what had just happened.
“Aife? I’m wondering if her name would more rightly be ‘Oaf,’” Sookie snarked, and then blushed. She shrugged, then tried to arrange her face in a kinder expression, “She seems very capable. Grandfather went to a great deal of trouble, and I am grateful.”
“They are expensive,” Nebraska agreed, “And it was a bit of difficulty to arrange. The Prince had to contract with witches to initiate the negotiations, and you have to know how your Grandfather feels about witches!”
“Thinks they’re dirt under his feet?” She was interrupted by Eric’s growl, so she rolled her eyes and lifted another forkful of food to her mouth.
Finn was laughing, “Aye, like every other creature under God’s good sky except his own self and those others he gets into his head to believe are worthy.” He raised his eyebrows, “He thinks you are, so he does get some things right.”
“He has always been interested in me,” Sookie nodded, warming to Nebraska’s teasing. “I guess… I just wish I felt as if he liked me for myself alone, but there are days I’m not so sure.”
Thalia walked into the dining room and rather uncharacteristically sat down on a chair set across from Eric at the table. Daniel, Finn’s butler, rushed from the room and returned within moments. He walked forward, setting a cup of warmed blood in front of the dark vampire. “From the Master’s own stock,” he murmured, then lingered a moment too long. Thalia’s head turned slowly until she met his eyes. Daniel smiled and Sookie could ‘hear’ he was thrilled to have captured the great Thalia’s attention. Of course, the smile slipped, and he quickly stepped back when she bared her fangs and hissed at him, but he didn’t retreat far.
Sookie looked back at her plate to hide the grin. “It’s true,” Finn whispered conspiratorially, “Daniel is a great fan. It was all I could do to discourage him from wearing his ‘Thalia Rocks’ button when you arrived.” Of course, all the vampires heard him, including Thalia, who sneered. Finn was unperturbed, instead, smiling broadly, he turned his whole head and winked at the surly vampire. “Well, you invite this kind of worship, now, don’t you?” he said to Thalia. “Being yourself, the way you are!” and he laughed again.
When Thalia refused to trade words, Nebraska resumed his conversation with Sookie, “You might as well eat a bit more of what’s on your plate or your Viking will have it sent to the kitchen and re-warmed for you. He’s looking this way so often; I’m thinking of installing a stoplight for him.”
“Or a fence, so he can mind his own business,” Sookie sighed, which prompted Finn’s laughter to roll from him and Sookie found herself joining in. Finn was truly the most joyous vampire she had ever met.
“Now, that’s a thought as well,” he said as he leaned back. “I have an idea. Why don’t you eat and I’ll tell you what I know of Britlingens?”
“You’ve had experience?” Sookie found she was curious. She had only met two, Clovache and Batanya. It was during the trip to Rhodes where she had bonded with Eric the first time and so many dreams had ended with the explosion of the hotel. Sookie remembered those Britlingens as seeming nicer than Aife. It wasn’t that either of them had given her the impression of being warm or friendly, far from it, but they had let her know they respected her.
“Not a great deal,” the King was shrugging, “But I did spend some months around them. You recall Isaiah?”
“The Kentucky King?” Sookie nodded. She knew Isaiah fairly well, and she had spent some time with him, working as a consultant for contract negotiations before she pledged to Eric. “I think I met the same ones,” and Sookie told Finn her story.
“Aye, they were the very same,” the King confirmed. “Isaiah came here after the troubles in Rhodes. He was fortunate not to have been injured and he was feeling that luck. He returned to his kingdom long enough to be seen, and then he left things with Thomas to come here. A vacation, you might say.” Finn looked at the telepath in a particular way, and Sookie considered whether Finn had heard something about the recent events between Kentucky and herself.
Sookie still wasn’t sure she believed Eric when he told her the Kentucky King was attracted to her or ever had been, but she knew that even mentioning Isaiah’s name compelled Eric to do something possessive. Sookie glanced toward her Viking and ate another forkful before turning her attention back to Finn. Nebraska continued, “We hunted, you know. Isaiah is a great one for hunting, and the forest here is extensive. Those guards were great hunters as well, though they viewed anything other than running their prey to ground on their own two feet as cheating. Of course, when you hunt as a vampire, it’s more about catch and release. We like the chase. For the sake of the Britlingens, we made it more serious. They were very fond of deer.”
Sookie looked back at the meat on her plate and raised her eyebrows. “Pronghorn medallions,” Finn nodded. “Pan fried with teriyaki. I’m told it’s a great delicacy.” He settled back as she sliced a bit, then smiled when she made a noise of appreciation. “Aye, then!” he encouraged her to try more. While she ate, he said, “They are great warriors, but you know that. I assume there’re men among them, but I’ve never seen them. It’s only the females who leave their world. Of course, as flinty as they are, it could be there are no mates and they just spring up out of the rocks of the ground. Harder women I’ve never met. It’s a code with them. Fight to their dying breath. They train from the time they can hold a thing in their hand. There is no greater shame for them than to return to their home world having lost a person in their charge. There is a rumor that to do that carries a sentence of death or exile.”
“Failure is death for them,” Thalia joined their conversation. “They are raised to believe their life is worthwhile only if it is spent in duty. To succeed earns their place. You are not counted a citizen until you do. If you are able to survive, and the test is to face three true dangers, then you have earned your honor. If you serve without facing your tests, then you wait for your opportunity again. You hope fate will be swift. If the situation is not right, you could find yourself serving a long time before your test presents itself.” Thalia smirked, “I suspect your Britlingen is worried that she may find herself in this world for a very long time.”
“You think she’s mad because I’m not in more danger?” Sookie asked.
“You are safely bonded and pledged to one of the great warriors of our age. There are no direct threats to your life. You are surrounded by fighters and allies. You are not a likely candidate for a Britlingen to earn a stripe,” Finn agreed. His smile fell a bit, and he resolved to pull Niall aside to speak with him about the Britlingen.
Finn glanced down and then across the table to catch Eric’s eye, “There, now. You can stop your fussing. Your lady wife has cleaned her plate without any scolding from yourself!”
“I enjoy scolding her,” Eric smirked in return, “She reacts in the most pleasant way.”
“Guess so, if you think me telling you how high-handed you are is pleasant. Cheese and rice, Eric! Don’t you have something better to do!” and Sookie was rewarded by Eric’s rumble of laughter.
“I do, Lover,” he stood up, stretched, and prowled around the table in that predatory way he had, stopping beside her chair to offer her his hand. He met her eyes, looking for all the world like a great, tawny lion. “Come with me, Sookie,” he said in that same tone he used in the days when he had stalked her, his voice promising all kinds of dark, wonderful things.
“If you’re asking if I’ll come to wave you on your way for your big old hunt, the answer is ‘sure,’ but if you think I’m getting on some horse and galloping through the dark? Not on your life, Northman!” and dark Eric dissolved into laughing Eric who pulled her out of her chair and wrapped his arm around her.
“The Prince has sent clothing,” Finn informed them. “Your things are in your rooms, awaiting you.”
Eric looked skeptical, but Sookie shrugged, “We were warned he’d be playing dress up dolls when we got here.” Sandy chuckled and Sookie headed for the stairs. She had quite enjoyed the lovely outfit she’d worn yesterday, and she was looking forward to seeing what was next on the list of ‘appropriate wear.’
When they reached the stairs, Eric turned to her, “Go up. I’ll join you shortly.” He turned toward Sandy and gestured back toward the front room. It was on the tip of Sookie’s tongue to challenge him. What could he have to say that she couldn’t hear? Her husband turned back, leaning low, “Trust me,” he sighed in her ear, then kissed her cheek.
Sookie pasted a smile on her face, “Fine. I’ll see you in a minute.”
Finn watched the telepath make her way upstairs, then turned to Thalia, “You might as well come to the kitchen and give Daniel a good dressing down. He’ll be a nuisance until you do.”
“I would be sorry to maim him,” Thalia replied as casually as if she was mentioning the weather.
“I’d appreciate it if you could restrict the bruising to his feelings,” the red-haired monarch replied and, with a nod to the Viking, they retreated back through the dining room, leaving Eric and Sandy Seacrest alone.
“I’m assuming you want to discuss Felipe,” Sandy said lightly, leading the way to the chairs near the fire.
“You have heard he wishes to form an alliance with me.” Eric had agreed to work with De Castro at his pledging, but if the tentative alliance would cause problems with Oklahoma, the Viking was prepared to renege. Sandy had his first loyalty, and it was a tie built on obligation and respect. “I would make clear that any partnership includes you, if that is your desire. Felipe knows we are business partners. He wanted to resume use of your services as his vassal. He was late to understand it, but he did come to appreciate your value. I know he would welcome you as an ally.”
“I’m not sure the snake has it in him to forgive my betrayal,” Sandy shrugged. “I was his for far longer than you, and I joined him willingly. You were never more than a vassal through duress. He understood that.”
Eric smirked, “We could always blame Horst.”
Sandy laughed, “I’m not sure how that that will help. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and from what I hear, Felipe has decided to feel differently about his old friend. You might say Horst’s history is being revised.”
“Let me guess? From dirty betrayer to martyr?”
“For a vampire, Felipe has a rather flexible memory,” Sandy sighed. “He was really very fond of Horst. Angie is his number two now, but it’s not the same for all she’s his child. I think it’s making Angie anxious.”
“For a woman in exile, you are remarkably well-informed,” Eric raised his eyebrow.
“I pay well for the privilege,” Sandy replied. It was a remark that let Eric know she had paid spies in the De Castro camp. Sandy smiled warmly at the Viking, “I have no problem with your alliance with Felipe. For myself, I would welcome a reconciliation, if it can be arranged. We are not so strong that we can afford to be squabbling among ourselves, and there are business opportunities that would be possible. Nevada and alternate energy is a given. California is an untapped goldmine.”
“And we trust him?” Eric could barely say the words before they were both laughing.
“Like a frog trusts a scorpion,” Sandy nodded. “But this I do know. De Castro is worried about New York. He is competing head to head on entertainment deals, and Mikhail controls a lot of money; money Felipe has used. Felipe learned his lesson the last time and he would rather sleep in the ground than face another round of having his loans called. I’d say old Mischa has our former boss by the short ones and only has to flex his wrist to have De Castro on his knees.”
“Then why bail him out?” Eric stared into the fire, but he knew the answer before Sandy gave it.
“Because facing the snake in the East on both coasts is more dangerous than being sandwiched between rivals.”
Eric texted Thalia, asking her to set up a meeting with De Castro when they returned from Nebraska. “It will be as you say, my friend,” he told Sandy.
“Well, I think you should head upstairs before your Queen comes to collect you,” Sandy’s smile was knowing. “You’ve mated well, Northman. I’ve put Rafe on a short leash when it comes to you. He’s figuring out just how much he needs me, and it’s bringing him to heel nicely.”
“You deserve better,” Eric said the words. It was not polite, but he knew Sandy would understand he meant them as an interested friend.
“Well, who knows, maybe I’ll petition for you in two hundred years,” and Sandy winked.
Eric loped up the stairs to find Sookie fingering the shirt that lay on the bed. She was wearing a dress of sorts. It had long sleeves and it fell to the middle of her calves. She had on soft, black boots and Eric could see the tops of her legs as she turned. He pulled his attention from her and started pulling off his own clothing.
The pants the Fae provided could have been painted on him. They stretched over his long legs, encasing him like a snug glove, but they did not cut him in any way. He was also provided boots. They were a soft, black leather like his wife’s, but cut higher to protect his knees. The shirt his wife had been touching was a soft linen and there was a jacket that fell to his waist. As he turned to look at his reflection, Sookie moaned. He caught her reflection over his shoulder. He could see her eyes fastened on his butt and he smirked, but then his feelings changed. With a few steps he was before her. He leaned down, pulled up the edge of her skirt, and ran his hand up her bare thigh. When he reached her underwear, he ripped the side, then pulled it, so it fell toward her boots. Without a word, he stepped back and extended his hand. Sookie gave him her own, understanding what he wanted. She used him for balance, pulling the ruined panties over one boot and then the other. “Don’t replace them!” he ordered.
It was a long drive. Sookie found herself looking at each pillar of rock they passed, wondering which was the one that stood over the Fae hold. The land stretched far and away, and then, slowly, the dark smudge Sookie knew was the forest, became visible ahead. The driver turned off the main road and then stopped to open a wide metal cattle gate. They drove over a grate sunk in the road, and then stopped again so the driver could close the gate behind them. The pavement turned to gravel and they bounced over ruts and gullies for many minutes before the driver stopped.
They got out in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. There was the sound of a coyote barking somewhere nearby. Eric led Sookie a short distance from the car and then stopped on a circle of hard-packed earth. In front of them was a wall of stone, but Finn walked beside them, leading them into an opening in the rock that Sookie thought was a shadow.
It was odd, the feeling she had walking among the vampires. She could feel their tension. It was the first time in a long time she noticed their low glow. It wasn’t surprising. It had been some time since she had found herself in a truly dark place. She noticed that she was glowing as well, and she wondered if it was a result of Eric’s blood, or if she had become so Fae that the glow was now her own.
The rock walls to either side seemed to close in on them. Sookie looked up and could barely see glimpses of the night sky through the overhangs. When Finn slowed, her eyes had adjusted enough to see more clearly. The wall in front of her looked solid, but somehow she knew it wasn’t. Sure enough, Finn stepped forward and then into the rock. It was a ward of some sort. She could see the shimmer, and she took Eric’s hand as they stepped through, finding themselves standing in a clearing.
All around them the plants and air were still high desert, but now there were trees scattered around them as well. What was more, they were no longer alone, four vampires and a woman stood in the night. They were surrounded by many creatures. There was no other way to describe them, and Sookie stared around her in wonder.
Sookie glanced back at the rock they had stepped through and noticed a warm light coming from the wall some little ways away. There were people moving in and out of the light, and Sookie realized these people were leading horses. As she glanced around, she could see more creatures coming to join those already surrounding her. Creatures walked out from under the trees and from the great open space of darkness. As she looked back toward the stable, Sookie saw her Grandfather.
Like her, Niall, Prince of the Sky Fae, was shining with his own luminescence. The Prince’s white hair was loose over his shoulders and seemed to float in a breeze that Sookie couldn’t feel. He wore soft white pants tucked into matching boots. His shirt was a fine white fabric and he wore a long-sleeved open jacket. He moved as if walking through water, his steps graceful.
“Granddaughter!” and the Prince raised his hands in what looked like a benediction of some kind. When he lowered his hand, he advanced to stand before her, and then wrapped her up in his embrace, breathing in her breath and exhaling to allow her to do the same.
Sookie felt that amazing sense of well-being she gained when making close contact with the Fae. It was as if things inside of her sat up and took notice. She wondered if her hair grew an extra inch or if her fingernails miraculously mended. After a few moments, the Prince stepped back, but left one arm wrapped around her waist. Somehow making it look regal, he angled them so they were facing Eric. “Northman,” Niall said in a loud, formal voice.
“My Prince,” Eric replied and bowed, and to Sookie’s surprise, her Grandfather released her and bowed back.
“You are riding with the host?” the Prince asked.
“As I have in past,” Eric replied, “And I am honored to be included.” Sookie glanced up at her Grandfather. He seemed pleased by Eric’s responses. She noticed there were many faces turned their way, most of them nodding their approval.
“You will be waiting here for our return, Granddaughter?” the Prince asked. Sookie knew he already knew the answer, so she figured he was making a point so everyone else would know this was the agreement.
“Well, I hope you’ll let me wait inside,” Sookie shivered. “It’s a little chilly out here for me.”
“Of course, Granddaughter. There will be music and dancing on our return. There is food and drink awaiting you inside. You won’t be alone,” and he glanced to where the Britlingen waited near the lighted door. Beside her, Eric growled. The Prince scowled, but before he could say anything, Finn placed his hand on Eric’s arm.
“I can explain, My Lord,” he bowed. “Perhaps after the hunt.”
Niall didn’t say anything. He stared down his nose for a minute before giving one sharp nod. With one last sour look in Sookie and Eric’s direction, he raised his hand in a gesture.
Sookie recognized Tamsin stepping forward. The tall, dark-haired Fae was leading a tall horse. She handed the reins to Finn, and there was something in the way their eyes met that had Sookie wondering what they were to each other. “Are you hunting?” the telepath asked her new trainer.
“Of course,” Tamsin’s face was different, and Sookie could see her otherness sliding just below the skin before a truly feline face emerged. The Fae’s thin, pointed ears seemed to round and sit more closely to the top of her head. Her nose broadened and her eyes were larger with slitted pupils. Sookie was now looking at a Fae who was also a panther. “What about you, Niall’s kin?” Tamsin asked, her consonants gaining a sibilant quality.
“No, I don’t know how,” Sookie pasted her Crazy Sookie smile in place. “Maybe riding is something I’ll learn, and then I can join in next time.”
Niall was watching her closely and Sookie could feel a tension all around her. She glanced away to see another Fae approaching. He was leading two horses, one white and another tall and black as night. Niall almost seemed to float as he mounted the white horse. Once he was settled, he leaned down and extended his hand toward her.
Sookie licked her lips, took a deep breath, and stepped forward to place her hand in the Prince’s. Niall looked into her eyes, and in spite of the darkness, Sookie had the impression of looking into the depths of a dense forest. She could see dark green with flashes of light. “Hand me the stirrup cup,” Niall told her, although she couldn’t see his lips move. She turned as if in a dream. Another Fae stood at her elbow. He was almost as tall as Eric and his long hair looked purple in the moonlight. He had a tray with goblets, and Sookie released the Prince’s hand, and swaying just a bit, took a goblet in both hands, and extended it to her Grandfather.
“Thank you, Sookie,” Niall smiled down at her. Sookie seemed unable to look away from him. Her Grandfather’s teeth looked very sharp and his tilted eyes burned bright as they stared at her. She felt a buzzing all around her as if the very air was magic. She heard Niall’s voice say, “Go to stand with your mate now, Granddaughter,” and Sookie turned and walked to Eric, although she couldn’t feel her legs.
Eric Northman sat on the black horse as if he’d been born to be there. His legs gripped the steed’s sides and he sat tall and confident in the saddle. Sookie looked up, feeling short of breath, her eyes latching onto her vampire’s. From his place so high above her, Eric extended her his hand. Sookie could see his eyes burning, and she glanced away, feeling light-headed. The same Fae was beside her, a tray of goblets in his hand. Sookie took one and held it toward Eric. “No,” he said from what seemed a long way away, “Give me your hand.”
Without hesitation, Sookie placed her hand in his and in a moment, she was sitting across the saddle in front of him, the goblet still in her hand. “Sip the mead,” Eric growled softly. Catching herself, Sookie raised the goblet to her lips and she sipped. It was the same warming brew she had had earlier with her Grandfather, but this time, when she lowered the cup, Eric captured her lips under his own, teasing her tongue into his mouth and then sucking it. He groaned into her mouth. “Again,” he sighed.
Sookie stared at him. His pupils were blown, and she felt her heart pounding in her chest. Sookie took a couple breaths to steady herself, and then raised the goblet to drink again. Eric barely waited for her to lower the cup before he dipped to her mouth again, sharing the liquid with her. The kiss deepened and his arm pulled her up against him so he could more fully plunder her mouth. When he released her, she was gasping for breath. Trying to center herself, she said, “Eric, you shouldn’t! You’ll make yourself sick.”
“It tastes of my youth,” he shook his head briefly, then licked a drop from her cheek, bringing his mouth along her jaw to suck her lower lip. When her released her, he grasped the hand with the goblet and raised it.
“You want more?” she asked and he nodded. As she drank for a third time, she felt the warmth of the alcohol curling in the pit of her stomach and then spreading, warming her all the way to her toes. Eric was running his tongue along the inside of her mouth and she moaned. She was kissing him now like she meant it. It didn’t matter that they were surrounded by people, including plenty she knew. She pulled her head back, and took the last of the liquid into her mouth, holding it for him. When the last of it had slipped down her throat, she pulled back from him and demanded, “Bite me!”
Her Viking was rubbing his head against her cheek and he barely glanced at her before running his thumbnail low along his shoulder blade, leaving a blood trail. Sookie latched on, lapping at him, and he sank his fangs into her neck. It was a very intimate thing to do, but somehow here, in the moonlight and surrounded by Fae, feral and wild, it was the right thing. Eric pulled his head back before she did. Her blood was on his mouth and she kissed him, wishing to taste them both.
Behind her, she heard her Grandfather call out, “To my Granddaughter and her mate! May their joining be fruitful!” Around her was cheering and something that sounded like a song, triumphant and driving. Sookie felt drunk and something else. Her head was foggy and her body felt heavy and dream-like. Eric opened his mouth, his fangs extended, then nodded at someone behind her. He lowered her down to the ground and Sandy Seacrest was there. Even though the Oklahoma Queen encircled her with strong arms, Sookie staggered a bit before catching herself.
Sookie remembered a night at Club Dead when she had been stabbed and it triggered the Weres and shifters who were all around her to change. The very air had been fraught with shimmering, simmering energy. It was what she was feeling now.
Horses were all around her, tossing their heads, pawing and screaming into the night, but instead of horses, they looked like skeletal monsters, blowing steam through their nostrils. Tamsin was a great panther standing on two legs, her tail whipping around her sleek body. Sookie saw men with stag heads and women who were half horse. Thalia was nearby, her arms bare. She was wearing some kind of kilt, her legs free, and she carried a short, vicious spear. She looked fiercer than Sookie had ever seen her, the smaller vampire’s dark hair was flowing freely over her shoulders. There were Weres too, making that awful gloppy sound as they transformed into great, grey wolves.
A horn sounded, thin and spectral. The air reminded Sookie of standing outside just before a thunderstorm let loose, and then, the host seemed to surge forward, moving in a ghostly light. Eric gave her one last smirk, then touched his heels to his horse and was gone, the wind of him whipping her skirt around her legs. Sookie realized there were no sounds from the horses’ hooves, and within a short time it was as though everyone the telepath had seen had disappeared into a ghostly glow that was lost under the eaves of the trees.
The tension that had been pressing on her was gone as well, as though a great hand had opened, and Sookie sagged, only to have Sandy’s arms tighten around her. “Come on,” the Oklahoma Queen said, “We’ll find you a place to sit down.”
Sookie could see Aife standing tall and still in the stable’s light. “We can ask my guard,” and she jerked her chin, directing Sandy toward the tall, tattooed woman.
When they got closer, Aife walked forward and scooped up Sookie, carrying her as if she weighed nothing at all. The inside of the stable seemed even warmer than when Sookie had visited it earlier that day with her Grandfather. The smell of horse and leather hung close in the air. “I just need to sit for a minute,” Sookie told her guard. With the Fae host gone, Sookie’s head was clearing. She could see a hay bale on the floor near the stall of the horse that would be her own. As her guard walked in that direction, the grey mare’s head appeared over the half door and she made a welcoming noise.
Sookie couldn’t help the ‘oof’ that escaped her when Aife dropped her to the straw. The telepath quickly rearranged her skirt, wondering if she’d given her Grandfather’s kingdom more of a peep show than she’d wished. ‘Eric!’ she thought. It was fun, the games they played, until they were caught out, and then Sookie would feel embarrassed until the next time.
Sandy sat down next to her on the hay bale and Aife moved off, positioning herself where the hall crossed the entrance to the outside and the corridor into the mountain. Sookie took a couple of deep breaths, running her foot over the smooth rock of the stable floor. The telepath noticed there was electric lighting here which struck her as oddly out of place. She swallowed one last time, and then turned to thank Sandy for her help.
“You look more like yourself,” Sandy was smiling in that older, wiser way she had.
“I feel more like myself,” the telepath nodded. “I can’t explain what happened, but I think I’m going to be glad Pam wasn’t there to take a picture. I’d be on the walk of shame from Facebook to YouTube. I feel kind of embarrassed.”
“Don’t be,” and Sandy looked unconcerned. “I don’t think it was your fault. I’ve never been to a hunt before, but it lived up to its reputation. It really is like a blast from the past. Every myth and legend from antiquity come to life, isn’t it?”
“I guess!” and Sookie sighed. “I half expected to see my Greek mythology book walking past me. I’m pretty sure I saw a Minotaur out there.”
“And a dragon. It’s said that all supernaturals are descended from some branch of the Fae, and that there are races still developing that will splinter from them yet. The only species I’ve heard that claims no kinship are humans and witches.”
“Even vampires?” Sookie found herself interested.
“Even vampires,” Sandy nodded, then cocked her head, “Do you need anything? You still look very pale, and Northman won’t be happy to return and find you ill.”
“I wouldn’t turn down some water. Or coffee would be even better.” There was a noise and Aife was gone, loping into the mountain with that long, rangy gait of hers. “You don’t suppose they have a Starbucks down here, do you?” Sookie giggled.
“Somehow I don’t think the Fae drink lattes,” Sandy shrugged.
Sookie settled her back against the wall before asking, “What were you and Eric talking about?” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Sookie blushed. She was sure her Grandmother was rolling over in her grave, wondering what had happened to her Granddaughter’s manners, but there was something telling Sookie that in vampire terms, she had a right to know.
The telepath knew she had done the right thing when Sandy nodded at her, “You are learning our ways. That is good. It will help you in taking your place next to him.” Then the Oklahoma vampire chuckled, “Your mate was asking my permission to play games with Felipe.”
“But…” and Sookie stopped. Eric had already agreed, but to say it out loud felt like a betrayal.
“You don’t have to tell me, Sookie,” Sandy smiled, “I know. Felipe would have positioned his request in a public way so that refusal was not really an option. If Eric reneges now, it calls his honor into question. Those who question him already will question further. It may even cause a blood rift between Felipe and Eric. By excluding you from the conversation, he shields you from being a party to his betrayal. You could rightly claim not to know, and I would confirm you weren’t there.”
“Oh,” Sookie let her breath out. “And, did he? I mean, why wouldn’t you…”
“Like the Viking, I betrayed my King. Felipe extended his hand to Northman, but not to me. We vampires aren’t like humans. In our world you take sides. You can’t be allies with vampires who are at war with each other. To take that position is a quick way to find your final death. Neither side will trust you.” Sookie let out a small sound and Sandy patted her hand, “Don’t worry! I have asked the Viking to broker a reconciliation with De Castro. Felipe is a businessman, and right now he feels the need for as many allies as he can gather. We will all be on the same side in this.”
There was a sound from the corridor and Aife reappeared with several Fae following her. Like the Britlingen, the Fae seemed comfortable running. They approached and one held out a cup. Sookie looked at is suspiciously, but it turned out to be water. The other bowed as the telepath drank, and said, “My Lord Dermot has returned. He begs that you wait with him in the great hall.”
Sookie rose and brushed some straw from her skirt. She handed the glass back and shrugged to Sandy, “What do you say? Interested?” and together, the woman and the vampire followed their escort into the mountain.
“I am pleased you like the house,” Dermot was dressed more simply than most of those around them. Sookie had known there were Fae here, but seeing them gathered as they were now, she was impressed by the numbers. Of course, it could just be that they were all in one place, but if you added those who were hunting, it meant there was a large settlement here. “I find pleasure in using my hands in building,” her uncle continued, his eyes traveling to the wood arches above them.
“You look happy,” Sookie told him, and it was true.
“I am more comfortable than I’ve been in many ages,” he agreed. His eyes watched the Fae who were dancing. Sometimes their dances were in long lines, and other times circling the long fire. Sookie recognized drums and fiddles, but there were other instruments that were new to her. Those making the music seemed to rotate in and out. There was food served from trays, and many groupings of chairs with small tables beside them, like the place she, Sandy and Dermot now sat. “Of course, Niall and I get along best when we aren’t in the same place for too long,” the Fae said waggishly.
“Grandfather is sure pulling out all the stops,” Sookie looked around them again. The hall was beautifully decorated. There were branches gilt in silver and gold hanging from the ceiling and lights twinkled amongst them. The walls were hung with tapestries and ribbons of gold floated as if caught in some ghostly breeze. The overall effect was otherworldly, but then again, Sookie supposed that it had been the Fae that created the word.
“He is very fond of you,” Dermot agreed, then turned to Sandy, “Are you also pleased with your time here with the Fae?”
“It is everything I imagined,” Sandy’s tone was cordial. “You are kind to allow me to rest within your walls.”
“You have never been known to attack our kind,” Dermot nodded. “It was a mark in your favor. Also, it is known that you did the Princess,” and he inclined his head toward Sookie, “and her mate a great service. They would not be here now had it not been for your actions.”
“I think you give me too much credit,” Sandy said politely.
Dermot nodded, but Sookie could see Sandy was pleased. She turned back to her uncle, “So, ruling the Fae, huh?”
The look on her uncle’s face reminded her of when he lived with her. There was that hint of being lost that she had found so comforting, having felt lost herself from time to time. “It is a large responsibility and I am flattered by my father’s trust in me.” Dermot settled back, his eyes drifting around him once more, “It is not what I thought, and yet more than I imagined.” He smiled at Sookie again, his eyes sharp, and she noticed for the first time that there were gold flashes of light shining through, just like Niall, “The first thing I learned was that my life was no longer my own.” He leaned forward then, “It will be a lesson you will learn too as a Queen.”
“I am starting to learn that lesson,” it was Sookie’s turn to look around her. “I know I have just started to figure it all out, what being Queen means, but not getting to do what I want to do? I already know how that goes.”
“But then, there are also benefits,” Dermot winked. “You don’t lack funds to purchase what you wish. There is no juggling between repairs and taxes and bills.”
“That’s true,” Sookie smiled, “But not because I’m a Queen. Had a few days there when I thought we might have to sell the palace,” and then Sookie blushed and shut her lips tight. She was pretty sure Sandy Seacrest knew that she and Eric had been in some financial hardship, but it was foolish to be blabbing about it so openly in a room full of Fae. Sookie reached down and took another sip of the cold water beside her, hoping to chase away the last of the cobwebs that golden drink had placed in her head. Looking to change the subject, Sookie said, “I hope you don’t mind that I sent away that bed you made.”
Dermot laughed, “No, niece. It was yours to do with as you wished, although,” and he gave her an arch look, “I think you may have the wrong idea about the magic the bed possessed.”
“Magic?” Sandy asked.
“Like big, neon sign magic!” Sookie exclaimed. “You could have run the house off the electricity that bed was throwing out!”
Dermot laughed again, “You are exaggerating, niece! It did have spells in place, as do all Fae things. It is not possible for us to make anything without giving it a bit of ourselves, but that bed was meant to channel the natural healing properties of your land, nothing more. I wanted you to be able to rejuvenate yourself as you had when we were together. Of course, you will have your trainer, Tamsin, there, but with your vampire in residence, you will not be able to find the comfort of your kin as we once did.”
Sookie pasted her Crazy Sookie smile in place. There had been more than one night she had fallen asleep sandwiched between her uncle and cousin, Claude, on her bed, and she had felt much better each time. She knew there was very little likelihood that she would do that again, not being married to Eric Northman. “That was real kind of you,” Sookie told Dermot, and even though she was embarrassed, she was also feeling as if she had been wrong to demand the bed be removed from the house in Bon Temps. She wasn’t quite ready to ask for its return, but she figured she probably would.
There was a noise and the music paused. Heads turned and with a pulse of light, the Fae of the hunt poured into the room. Sookie stood and took a step forward. She saw Niall first. He seemed to move within his own light. He turned his head toward her and nodded, his face serene and his hair floating as if he was surrounded by static electricity. Behind him, she saw Eric, and her feet were moving. His clothes were dappled with something dark and she knew it was blood. His head was high and he watched her with hooded eyes. “Have fun?” she asked.
“Dance with me,” he replied. She could see he was struggling, and she figured he had given in to his bloodlust. She placed her hand in his and found herself standing across from him to one side of a line of dancers.
“I don’t really know how to do this,” she said softly.
“I do,” he told her. “I will help you.”
It was a kind of couples dance. It seemed to be a combination of square dancing, line dancing, and two-step all thrown into one with some really old music driving their movements. It was a complicated figure, but after the first couple times, Sookie remembered the steps well enough to only turn the wrong way a couple of times. Her favorite part was when they would find themselves at the end of the pattern and Eric would place his arm around her waist and lift her off the ground, turning her around in a full circle before setting her down and turning away to start the steps again. One dance led to another. Eric seemed to know them all.
They had danced for some time before Sookie found herself breathless, “Eric! I need to sit down for a minute!” Her Viking smiled his predatory smile, which told her he was still not totally in control of himself yet. He swooped her up and into her arms, twirling her around to the cheers of those around them. He sat down in a high-backed chair set next to Niall, keeping her in his lap. Niall was smiling at her and before she could say another word, Eric was holding a goblet with that sweet smelling liquor to her lips.
“Sip, Sookie,” he intoned, watching her with hooded eyes.
Sookie pushed against him, her hand against his chest, “Eric! I don’t think this is such a good idea!”
“Please, Älskade, for me,” he asked, but his tone was less tense.
Sookie rolled her eyes and sipped as he asked, and with a growl, Eric was on her, plundering her mouth, sharing the drink. She could feel his fangs, so she grabbed his earlobe and pulled until he lifted away from her. He had that puzzled look he didn’t get often, and with his fangs descended he looked younger than he was. “That’s enough for now!” she announced and extricated herself from his grasp. There was a chair on the other side of her Grandfather and she walked over to it and deliberately sat down, scolding Eric with her look.
Between them, her Grandfather chuckled, “You remind me of your Great Grandmother, Sookie. She, too, was more modest than I would have wished.” The Prince turned to Eric, “It was a pleasure hunting with you this evening, Northman. Finn has invited your friends to return to his residence, but it would be my pleasure to have you and my Granddaughter rest under my roof this evening.”
“It would be my honor to accept the hospitality of the Fae,” Eric said rather formally. Sookie thought it was a terrible idea, but there was something in the back of her head that kept her mouth shut.
Vampires were likely to react badly if their possessiveness was triggered, but Sookie recalled Eric telling her that the fastest way to make a Fae your enemy was to insult their hospitality. Sookie managed to pull her mouth up at the corners and say, “It is most kind of you to offer, Grandfather.”
Niall smiled, first one way and then the other, “The night is still young, children,” he nodded. “Dance and enjoy yourselves. The pleasures of my hall are your own!”
Sookie found herself back on her feet, dancing first with Eric, and then with Dermot, and finally Niall himself, twirling and whirling amid the lights.