It's been a long road, but both Hunted by Fae and its prequel, Badb Catha: Betrayal of the Tuatha are ready. Hunted by Fae is on Amazon for e-book preorder (Paperback coming soon). But the back story of the main villain in the series will be available free to subscribers 4/24/2021! But you can read the first three chapters below.
The battle between the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomorians had raged more than a week. The first time my people fought on this grassy plain, we vanquished the Fir Bolg in a matter of days. With their mother Domnu’s aid, the Fomorians had developed from sea raiders into formidable warriors. Their strategy proved more subtle too. Where the Fir Bolg had relied on the brute force allowed by their bulk, the Fomorians used strategy, trickery, even espionage. When we started this war, we hadn’t foreseen the same easy triumph as the First Battle of Moytura, but neither had we expected to be teetering on the brink of defeat.
Years of oppressive taxation and forced labor under Fomorian rule had weakened us. And the Fomorians possessed a superior weapon: the enormous eye of their King Balor. When levered open by the long poles of his attendants, blinding, fiery light arced from the iris, consuming everything in its abhorrent glare. Anything Balor’s gaze touched, it burned. Trees. Wildlife.
Until two nights ago, we’d held our own, for we had a secret. Each night, we solemnly collected our dead from the battlefield and placed them in the Dagdha’s marvelous cauldron. One by one we let them lie for a moment coiled around the bottom, then we lifted them free and stretched them out side by side. By morning they were awake. Ready to fight again. Resurrection was how we pushed the Fomorian lines back each day because we never truly lost our warriors.
Until two nights ago. Domnu’s children discovered our secret, crept into our encampment under cover of night, and cracked the cauldron.
The Eye of Balor incinerated more and more of us, while others fell to Fomorian weapons. And now our dead stayed dead. Just forty-eight hours without the cauldron and the children of Domnu outnumbered us two to one. If we didn’t end this quickly . . . The thought too ghastly to complete.
My sisters and I deployed the Tuatha. Anand and Macha commanded our ranks at opposite ends of the arena. As the eldest of the Morrigna, it fell to me to develop our overall strategy. To do that, I required a better vantage.
Summoning my last magical reserves, I melted into the shape for which I was named, Badb Catha. Battle Crow. I dashed into the sky for a literal bird’s-eye view of the battlefield.
A shiver raced along my feathers. From up here, our prospects looked bleak. The last eruption from Balor’s eye had split our ranks. Too many children of Danu littered the ground, bloodied and broken. Instead of a united line forcing the Fomorian scum back into the sea, three clusters of fighters strove just to hold their positions. And they weakened with each arrow fired or each swipe of an enemy blade.
Black wings beating, I flew a broader circle over Moytura, searching for an opening, an advantage the Tuatha could use to regain ground.
A ragged caw choked from my beak. Beneath me lay my youngest sister, Macha, and her husband, our former king, Nuada. She sprawled across him, strawberry hair spilling around her, sightless eyes staring up at me. An enemy spear had pierced her golden armor. Beneath her, Nuada lay crumpled on his side, hand still curled around the Sword of Light. Both dead.
If the damage to the Dagdha’s cauldron proved irreparable, my sister’s death became permanent. Forever this time. No one I knew had ever died as plants or animals did. Death was a stranger where we came from, and here, in the Green World, the cauldron returned our loved ones to us if their hearts stilled. It had never occurred to me any of us could forever perish.
A new grief fell on my heart like a blow from a hammer. Harsh, icy, and final in a way I couldn’t comprehend. But sorrow was a luxury. Battle rage shoved aside my mourning.
From my elevated viewpoint, I discovered the trundling wooden platform bearing the enormous Balor clattering toward our weak left flank. If the Fomorians punched through there, we’d lack the numbers to keep their backs to the sea.
The near-gelatinous king swayed atop his vehicle while a small army of misshapen attendants trudged, ropes biting into stooped shoulders. Bent backs and shaky knees betrayed the strain of moving the drooling bulk of their king over the stone-dotted plane.
My beak opened and I retched. The sight of the enemy king raised my gorge every time.
A few Tuatha took shots at the Eye. Their arrows and spears bounced off the lumpy pink flesh of the lid, harmless as leaves in the wind.
A single hope remained: our king, our savior. When Lugh first appeared to the Tuatha, his brow gleamed so brightly we believed the sun was rising in the west. His light brought hope to a battered people and emboldened us to end the Fomorian occupation.
Right now, Lugh was our only hope. Ancient prophecy predicted the Fomorian king’s death at the hand of his grandson. Lugh was that grandson, and his hefty spear, forged in the Undying Lands, never missed. If we killed their king, we likely won the war. Lugh came to free us by fulfilling his destiny. The sense that our victory had been preordained would normally be of great comfort, but here in the Green World, even prophecy didn’t often end as originally foretold.
It was my task to get Lugh an opening to slay his grandfather.
I spotted Lugh, clad in red and gold, blond hair streaming behind him. He fought back to back with Ogma. Both men swung their spears and jabbed at a battalion of one-legged Fomorians. Not far away, my sister Anand whirled and slashed with her sword. Even from up here I caught the glint in her deep brown eyes, her raven hair plastered to her face, wet with exertion. Deformed bodies piled around her.
If the Eye of Balor opened, defeat loomed. Throngs of Fomorian soldiers packed the battlefield, blocking Lugh’s shot. His spear might never miss, but it still required an unobstructed path.
If I wrung the last dregs of my magical energy to clear the way, Anand and I might break through and create a clear shot for Lugh. But that was a gamble. Exhaustion weighed my every movement. If I burned myself out clearing a path, and it failed, I’d not have the power to cover us in a retreat. This time, the children of Domnu would outright make us their slaves.
The other possibility was even worse. If that Eye opened again, we were lost. A hundred or more could burn before the lid snapped closed, leaving us with too few soldiers to prevail. The Fomorians would wipe the Tuatha out.
Death or slavery.
My breath rasped from my beak in rapid pants. The weight of this decision paralyzed me. The choice was akin to picking between bleeding out or starving to death. A question of how long we wished to linger in agony.
Then I remembered the crushing weight of Fomorian tyranny. How we’d wept when they sold our children. How we collapsed of exhaustion, sometimes amid our labors. How our stomachs growled in the night. Better to fight to the death here than return to that oppression.
My spine steeled. It was up to us, the remaining two Morrigna, to turn the tide. Wings pressed tight against my body, I dove for Anand.
I dropped beside her in my authentic form once more. Sword poised to strike. The clang of blades rushed in my ears.
“Lugh is behind us, just past the next rise, in striking distance of Balor. Cover me. I’ll clear a path for his spear.”
“Consider it done.” Anand leapt over me, then plunged her blade into a towering Fomorian who had but a single arm.
I pooled tingling magic in my throat to carry my voice to Lugh. “My King, make me some room, I’ll give you an opening.” I trusted the king heard me. The enemy certainly did.
A Fomorian with stringy green hair lunged for me. From a crouch, I swung out a leg. He slammed onto his back. I leapt up, my blade slicing into his neck.
Behind us, Lugh swung his spear in a low arc. A dozen Fomorian warriors flew backward and slammed to the ground, sending dozens of bodies tumbling out of the way. Here was my moment.
This close, the enormity of Balor threatened to sap my strength. He towered over the tallest tree, the single gigantic Eye half his height. His attendants wedged poles thrice the height of a man beneath the lid, ready to lever the eyelid upward and end the battle. Seconds remained before they shoved the lid open and fried us all.
I needed more magical power than I had left to obliterate the throng of bodies between Lugh and his target. To borrow life force from other living things repulsed me, but our plight was dire. Besides, the creatures of the earth had a stake in our war. If we lost, the Fomorians would plunder this land and destroy them too.
I plunged my consciousness deep into the earth, sensing the humming life in the trees, deer, mice, and smaller things, and drained energy from each. Not enough to kill them, but they’d feel it. The life force poured through the soles of my feet like warm sunlight. I coiled the wild, pulsating magic of the earth into a ball of raw power deep in my chest. As more and more of it pooled there, it burned.
Every fiber of my body blazed as though I stood in a fire. I gritted my teeth to keep from crying out, unsure I could bear the pain long enough to carry out my task. My heart thrashed like a caged beast, whether from fear of failure or the exhilaration of war, I wasn’t sure.
And still more power surged into my body, so much I feared I’d burst. When my agony reached a crescendo, I shoved my borrowed energy along my arms and out from my extended fingertips. Lightning the color of a sunset lanced from my hands, arcing to the chests of my enemies but sparing my people.
Dozens of Fomorian bodies blasted back, sizzling, slamming into their own lines and transferring the magical blaze to all they touched. They crackled, burned, and fell screaming.
So did I. The spell turned my blood to liquid metal, searing my veins with every heartbeat. But my magic had done its work. Lugh’s path was clear.
Crouched on my knees, I laughed. The chorus of Fomorian screams mixed with the clang of weapons, playing the symphony of righteous war, and my heart sang.
My head dropped forward. My hands resting on my knees, I panted. Lugh strode forward, chest thrust out, flanked by Ogma and a handful of others. The king’s icy eyes narrowed at the Fomorian king.
Poles wedged in the giant eyelid, Balor’s attendants heaved, backs bowed under the strain. The eye edged open, revealing for a second the bright orange of the iris. A trio of Tuatha in its sight line fell to the earth, mouths contorted in agony, and then were still.
Lugh took two jogging steps, his golden hair a halo of fire. With a howl, he drew his arm back and loosed his magical spear.
The entire battlefield paused, attention riveted on the spinning shaft arcing for the Eye. Anand pulled me into an embrace just as the spear lodged itself in the oculus, dead center.
A plume of flame erupted from the hole in the enemy king’s eyelid. Balor lurched backward. The Fomorian king’s knobby limbs flailed as he fell while his servants scattered to escape his falling bulk. The impact of the giant shook the ground. A final gurgling cry oozed from Balor’s mouth and the enemy king lay dead.
Anand pounded me on the back to the sound of my people cheering. “We did it, sister. The day is ours.”
I soaked in her smiling face and my heart expanded. Clutching her to me, I had never loved her more than I did in that moment. The Morrigna leading the children of Danu to their freedom. Never again would the weight of Fomorian taxes and forced labor fall on our shoulders.
Anand drew back from me and lifted her face, brow furrowed above pursed lips. On her tiptoes, she swiveled her head this way and that.
“If you’re looking for Macha, she’s dead.” The last word caught in my throat when my breath hitched.
“But the cauldron,” Anand said and clasped her hand over her mouth. Tears spattered the gray furred ruff that peeked out above her silver breastplate.
The shock evaporated from the faces of the Fomorians, replaced by confusion and fury. They gnashed their teeth and clenched their fists. Instead of fleeing, they pounded their weapons against their shields while they regrouped. Combat wasn’t finished.
I placed my hands on Anand’s shoulders. “We will mourn Macha and Nuada later, but now we fight. We’re still outnumbered. We must crush them before they reorganize,” I said, shoving down the lump in my throat.
Anand nodded, ferocity rekindling in her bearing. “I’ll make them pay,” she growled and dashed into the fray. I bounded behind her, lips pulled into a grimace.
“Drive them back under the sea!” Lugh tossed the words over his shoulder to deliver his command to our front line. Our armies roared their assent.
Though their king and greatest weapon lay dead, the children of Domnu fought like cornered beasts and our formations faltered. Momentarily lacking a foe, I watched Anand as she spun on her heel and swept her broadsword low, cutting through a Fomorian soldier’s single leg. She continued her revolution and embedded her blade in his exposed neck.
“Behind you, Badb!” Anand shouted.
The club-footed slapping of feet behind me snapped my focus back to battle. Flap-kerflap, flap-kerflap, flap-kerflap. I reeled around. The heap of mismatched body parts shambling toward me brandished a spear in a three-fingered hand, its reach longer than my sword’s. My shoulders tensed, I held my weapon across my body and charged him.
His eye widened. Residual magic I’d borrowed surged through my veins, and I popped into the shape of a crow. I flapped straight up, banked, and dropped behind him. Midway down I changed my shape, landing on solid legs, my sword buried in his back. I tossed my red braid over my shoulder and kicked his torso free from my blade.
My momentary flight had afforded me a view of the battleground that worried me. The Tuatha’s movements had slowed. Slumped postures betrayed their exhaustion. If we didn’t end the battle, we might yet lose.
“Anand, our forces are drained.” Killing the Fomorian ruler had given me a rush of energy, plenty for one last spell. “Let’s finish this. I will fly low over our people singing steel into the hearts of our warriors.”
My sister snarled. “And I will rain terror over our enemies, drain the vigor from their backs.” Anand’s dark eyes glittered.
My gaze fell to Macha’s broken body, and the sight stoked my fury. When every inch of me hummed with righteous rage, I threw myself at the sky, a black bird once more. My wings beat the air. Anand rose beside me and we shot high over the front line.
Anand broke from me and strafed our adversary’s battalions. Her magic shrieks rained over the Fomorians and lodged deep in their minds. The strength went out of their legs and their eyes rolled with panic.
I sailed over the lines of my people, cawing a battle song that brought vitality back to their hearts. The fatigue evaporated, replaced by iron determination. As I passed, fists pumped the air.
Even without Macha to complete our triad, our war magic worked. The enemy’s jabs weakened. They hesitated, but the Tuatha’s spines had straightened and the vigor returned to their steps. Shields splintered under my people’s renewed assault, causing our adversaries to falter. Across Moytura, cheers roared. The Fomorians fled.
“Anand, look, they—” My words died in my mouth. Poised above our legion, Anand rose, spiraling high. Her arms dangled and her black hair covered her face. Once she stopped her ascent, the gray clouds dissipated, revealing the blazing sun, and the air stilled.
Her body jerked and her head whipped back. Wisps of green flame flicked along her extremities and blazed in her eyes. Her grey furred shirt fluttered, buffeted by a wind emanating from the sorcery controlling her. I hovered beside her, still in avian shape. Far below, on both sides, soldiers became statues, faces tilted to the clearing sky.
Anand’s voice rang out, reaching every corner of Inisfáil. This same enchantment had seized me many times in the past. I gazed at my sister and waited for her to speak a revelation. The highest gift from our Great Mother Danu.
* * *
“Beneath the heavens lies the earth.
Divine waters flow to the land.
Here we will build our forts.
Here we will turn the earth.
Here we will stay.
To this land will come abundance.
Wealth for our children to come.
This shall be the story of the land and our people.
We shall have peace beneath the heavens.”
* * *
The oracle spoken, the holy fire faded from her, Anand slumped to the side and plummeted.
My black wings tucked tight against my frame, I dove, materializing underneath her. Bracing my legs, I caught her in my outstretched arms just in time. The impact shoved me to my knees, and I lowered my sister. When I stood, I aimed my sword at the motley clusters of our former oppressors.
Not even the Fomorians can argue with the prognostication of Danu. This land was ours. Our opponents had one question left to answer. How much more Fomorian blood would the Tuatha spill today?
“To victory!” I whipped my weapon over my head, urging the Tuatha to one last push.
The cheers of my warriors swelled at my sides. Boots thundered as we sprinted for the enemy. In seconds we crashed into retreating Fomorian armies like a wave breaking over rocks.
For several moments I paused, savoring the sight of triumph. Only when the last Fomorian body disappeared under the waves did I pivot and join my sister and Lugh.
Tuatha cheered, sang, and danced on every side of me, reveling in their well-deserved success. With our return to freedom fully realized, we could focus on our task of shaping this land for the new race to come.
Anand had regained consciousness, though her shaking hands suggested her ordeal had weakened her more than she’d ever admit. I dragged her to her feet beside me and joined the assembly gathered around the king.
“You need rest,” I said, smoothing a stray raven hair from her forehead.
Anand grinned. “We won. I won’t sleep for days.”
A dry scrape like something heavy dragged over soil caught my attention. A haggard man slumped between two warriors. He didn’t even try to walk, seeming to enjoy making his transit harder on the guards. Why had this odious coward survived the battle? Oh, how I’d hoped he’d met a painful death in the war his own actions wrought.
The prisoner’s head lolled to the side, his self-satisfied grin rankling me. The guards hurled our half-Fomorian and former king at Lugh’s feet.
“Let me help you into the sea behind your people, treacherous dog.” My blade slipped free, pointed at the throat of Breas the Beautiful.
Lugh’s hand gripped my forearm like a vice. I jerked my head around to stare at him. He lifted a hand to pause me, his lips drawn into a thin line below icy blue eyes. Reluctantly, my sword slid home to its scabbard. When I rounded on Breas, Eriu had positioned herself between us, her arms stretched back to defend him from me.
“You would protect him after everything he did to us?” My nose wrinkled. “A quick death on this beach is what he deserves.”
“My son is of Domnu, but he is likewise a child of Danu. He merits the same fair judgment any Tuatha would receive.” Eriu’s eyes sought only Lugh’s. Wise, for only our magnanimous king would entertain sparing his life.
“See, Your Supreme Highness, Master of All Arts, some of our people haven’t abandoned reason.”
Breas’s smile was wide, unctuous, and directed at me, though I was neither the one who spoke to him, nor, it would appear, the one who would ultimately judge him. If he believed he’d find an advocate in me, he was sorely mistaken. My blade thirsted for the simple justice of a quick death.
Anand spat. “He acts upon his Fomorian blood.”
“Am I not likewise of both Tuatha and Fomorian lineage? Would you also judge me so harshly?” Lugh said.
“I judge you both based on your actions, not your descent.” My eyes narrowed at Breas. “Was it not you who worked us to the bone to pay tribute to your Fomorian forebears? Was it not you who taxed us into poverty to send them gold? Was it not you who sold them every third child born to us as slave labor?”
Breas waved a dismissive hand at me, blue eyes never leaving my own. “Bygones.”
“Bygones? Bygones!” My fist clenched the grip of my sword again. Below me, Breas chuckled and drew his legs beneath him. His army gone, and lying at the feet of our king, he seemed blissfully unaware of the gravity of his predicament. He brushed his golden hair from his face and spoke only to me. What game did he play?
“All I’m saying is that the battle is over and you collectively must decide if you are the merciful children of the light your Mother Danu commands. Or whether you are more akin to Fomorians than you care to admit. Will you spare my life or put me to death without trial as the more barbarous among you would prefer?” His lips crept up into a one-sided smirk.
Before I could stop myself, my hand flew out and smacked it from his face.
The sting of the blow crackled on my palm, while a blazing light exploded across my eyes that same instant. My palms clasped my temples, eyes pressed shut, but the gesture failed to block the light because it came from inside my head. It faded in a few seconds and I no longer stood at Moytura with my people. Instead, before me wound a serpentine river bathed in flame. A black film floated on the water, fueling the blaze. It reeked of a scent I had no precedent for and burned my lungs with every inhale.
In the distance, crowds in undergarments idly watched the waters burn while metal chariots without horses clogged a pathway of black stone painted with yellow lines. The wheeled boxes rolled along on either side of another line, this one white and dashed. The honking and roaring of their passage forced me to wince and cover my ears. Strange the din elicited no response from the onlookers, as though such cacophony was normal.
Why was no one trying to stop the river from burning? More disturbing, what dark sorcery could cause the very water to combust?
I coughed and spun in a circle, eyes darting in every direction, searching for Tuatha. The stinging fumes from the smoke forced my eyelids closed, and I pushed my fists into the sockets.
When I opened them again, the nightmare scene had vanished and I was still on the battlefield at Moytura. My people circled me, concern etched on their faces. I reeled from what I had experienced. The shock of it froze my thoughts like a pond in winter.
“Badb, what are you doing?” Anand rubbed a hand between my shoulder blades. “You look as though the Eye of Balor rose from the dead behind you.”
I had no good explanation for what I had witnessed. My heart pounded with the horror of it. I squeezed my eyes shut, swallowed hard, and opened them again, willing my breathing to slow and forcing my muscles to uncoil. It had to be a Fomorian trick.
“I think I’m merely weak from the battle.” The only answer I could conjure. The sight of my enemy at my feet anchored me to the present and refocused me on my task.
Breas narrowed his eyes at me, a half-smile creeping over his face. He drew his legs up and tried to rise before our king. Insolent cur. I closed the gap between us in a heartbeat while shoving the last remnants of the strange experience away, jammed my palm onto his shoulder, and shoved him back down.
The moment I made contact, the white light flashed once more. When it faded, I was hunched on a beach. A rhythmic rat-tat-tat as loud as thunder flared from all directions. My hands clapped over my ears on instinct and I staggered to the shelter of a nearby boulder.
Outlandish iron birds roared overhead, dropping huge metal eggs from a door in their abdomens. Not truly avian. They couldn’t be. No, they were something more akin to chariots, but they flew with spinning blades instead of fluttering wings. I reached out with my magic to get a sense of what sorcery powered them, but they were blank. Not enchanted. Not alive themselves, though each housed a person.
The metallic ovules slammed the earth with a thunderclap and the force of a hurricane. Bodies, dirt, and debris lanced outward from the impact in a vast sphere.
I recognized a battlefield when I saw one, but this was apocalypse. Destruction for destruction’s sake, not honorable battle, for even children lay dead in the blast’s wake.
Something sailed toward my head, at the corner of my vision. A hand whipped up to protect my face. Overbalanced, I flopped backward onto the beach.
But it wasn’t sand. Cool grass met my palm, and I collapsed to the chill ground of Moytura. I squeezed my eyes shut again. If I opened them, there was no telling whether another hellscape would assail me.
Murmurs bubbled around me, and I inched an eye open just enough to realize I was back at Inisfáil. From above, a circle of my people’s faces each wore the same pinched expression. I gasped. Breas knelt next to me, peering from the tops of his eyes with that defiant smirk.
“Badb. Badb, what happened?” Anand’s brows were knitted with concern.
“I’m fine.” I was not fine. I barely contained the tingle of panic racing up my spine. The alien scenes already replayed, and my reality unraveled thread by thread. Where had I gone? It felt too real to be a delusion, and yet the dystopia of those places was too twisted to be real.
I reached for my sister, and she pulled me to her side. The feel of her chilly hand reassured me I had returned from wherever I’d gone, giving me the strength to clutch my last sliver of sanity.
“What happened, Badb? One moment you were yourself, the next you staggered around like a drunkard,” Lugh said, brow furrowed, stroking his golden beard.
I had no words to describe the experience that wouldn’t sound mad. “I think—”
“We’re both already reliving the terror of this battle. I’m disoriented, too.” Anand thumped me again on the back. “I feel like I might drop over right next to my sister. Let us finish this so we can all have some well-deserved rest.”
Her words saved me from stumbling through some half-baked story no one would have believed. Most of the crowd looked appeased. Only a few continued to stare, no doubt thinking me mad.
My sister’s steadying arm never left my shoulder, and Breas’s icy blue eyes lingered on my face. He knew something. He certainly seemed the only person not surprised by my actions.
Lugh nodded and his features relaxed. With a clap of his hands, he turned back to our prisoner. Lugh drew himself to his full height and addressed his subjects. “Breas was right when he said we are unlike the Fomorians. We are a merciful people. Still, he has proven himself to be dangerous. We will together decide his fate at the next full moon in three days’ time. Until then, he can enjoy the accommodation of our keep.”
“Still better than the hospitality he showed as king,” someone said in the crowd. They were correct. To welcome a guest with the best you had to offer was a high honor, one Breas had never indulged in. For a fleeting second, the arrogance slipped from the half-breed’s face. His brow creased while he scanned the ring of warriors. The momentary lapse vanished as fast as it had begun and the self-assurance returned to the set of his jaw.
“And who will protect me from your subjects while I await my trial?” Breas inclined his head toward my sister and me.
I rolled my eyes. “Why didn’t you flee with your borrowed army if you’re so afraid?” I spat the words like venom.
Breas shrugged. “With Balor dead, my father rules them. He hates me as much as you do, but in Fomorian culture they would sentence me to death.”
Anand scoffed. “Sounds about right.”
A pair of guards hoisted Breas to his feet. They guided him toward an opening next to me. Just as the trio neared, Breas reached out a filthy hand, ripped up my sleeve, and clamped my wrist with a grin more predatory than his usual haughtiness. The contact lasted merely an instant. The crowd pressed close. No one saw it happen, but the effect of his touch was far worse than before.
“Give her some space.”
My eyes rolled back into my head. The blinding light was back. What Fomorian sorcery was this? A fuzzy, distant sensation descended. Like a drunk, I swayed on my feet.
Please no. I don’t want to return. Real or a trick, I never wish to see those places again.
But prophecy had its own agenda.
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Molly J Stanton
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