In Trial by Song, Jack Sorley stumbles through a portal into Faerie where a destiny waits for him that he never could have imagined. But long before Jack embarks on his harrowing journey, his father, Tadgh makes a discovery that sets everything in motion. Enjoy this sneak peek into the world of Trial by Song!

***

Thorn Kept

May 13, 1975

Tadgh Sorley slammed a long stick over his knee and pretended it was Bill Farrow’s neck. No matter how he manhandled it, the damn thing wouldn’t break. Thwarted for the second time that day, he flung it into the trees. His Irish Setter, Linn, tore after it barking in delight.

He tried to jam his fists into his pockets, but the slim fit of his new flared brown, orange, and yellow plaid slacks meant there wasn’t enough room for his hands. Tadgh looked down at his ensemble. The itch from the mustard-colored, wool, belted sweater crawled up his neck into his face. When he got home, he was going to burn the Columbia Minerva leaflet he’d stolen from his mother’s coffee table. The pants alone had cost a full week’s pay.

Linn returned, displaying the indestructible stick in her jaws. Tadgh sighed and patted her head for her efforts.

“I am such a square.”

At least Bill spoke up before he could make a total goon of himself by asking out Bill’s daughter, Edna, who ran the register. “What self-respecting man dresses up like a canary just to stick his nose in a book when he should be working?”

With one sentence Bill reduced Tadgh’s college education to nothing more than an excuse to avoid real work. So, humiliated and demoralized, Tadgh tucked tail and slithered out the door before Edna could look up to see where the ‘canary’ was that had everyone laughing.

Linn’s head whipped around, and she lifted her front paw in an unmistakable point. Tadgh squinted into the underbrush. A smoky-gray rabbit sat tucked beneath a cascade of honeysuckle. For a moment Tadgh thought he saw a flicker of red flames in its round, black eye.

The rabbit blurred into motion. Barking, Linn gave chase. Tadgh whistled and smacked his thigh, but she was too distracted to come to heel. He ran after her, hoping he could distract her with the stick once he got close enough to throw it.

The sun was sinking into its downy bed of rolling hills along the horizon, and his sweater provided a thin defense against a blade of wind that changed abruptly from a wide, flat, cleaver into a thin, serrated knife.

Winded after cresting a steep hill behind his dog, Tadgh leaned on the stick and tried whistling for her again. She didn’t come.

The dying light stretched the shadows, and the light-headedness from the climb swirled the leaves in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of reds and browns.

He blinked. He didn’t recognize where he was even though he’d come this way several times before. Why did he hear running water? There were no creeks back here.

“Linn!” Frustration whittled at his patience. The last thing he wanted to do was leave her in the woods overnight, especially if the temperature dropped below freezing again.

From the corner of his eye he saw the rabbit shoot across the trail. Linn skidded after it, all scrambling feet and wagging tail.

Tadgh dove for her collar. He managed to catch her haunches, but she kicked and twisted like a fish on a line. His pants were too tight, and he couldn’t squat low enough to gain control.

She wriggled free and went racing away faster than Tadgh had ever seen her run. Fortunately, after he jogged a few steps the animals doubled back, cutting a wide circle he was forced to follow.

An unnatural chill stole into his chest as the familiar surroundings grew even more foreign on the second pass. He should’ve been standing at the top of the hill, but instead of a steep slope a rocky ravine gaped before him like a wound in the earth. He twisted, thinking he’d gotten turned around, but the distant hills visible only seconds ago were no longer there. All he could see was a night sky wringing the last splashes of sunset into a black sea of trees.

“Linn!” He tripped when his right foot uprooted a spotted red mushroom and broke the circle of a wide, fungal ring. When he looked back, the mushroom and its fellows weren’t there. The swish of nettles and leaves kicked up by Linn in her mad pursuit faded into the distance, and the forest stood dark and silent, watching him.

A warm breeze fanned across his face. The smell of honeysuckle was so strong he could practically slurp it from the air. Tadgh closed his eyes, savoring the taste of spring. When he opened his eyes the rabbit sat motionless in the center of the path. There was no sign of Linn.

Tadgh jumped.

The rabbit’s long shadow distorted across the uneven ground, hinting at a form more sinister than a small, gray, bunny. It fixed him with a red eye, and Tadgh swayed as another rush of vertigo nearly dropped him to his knees.

A spray of dirt kicked up and the rabbit vanished. Tadgh blinked. Where did it go? He brushed aside a low dogwood branch bulging with pale, pink flowers and found himself standing in a wide dell he’d never seen before.

The grass was thicker than his mother’s shag carpet, sloping toward a stream that gleamed like a new vinyl record. Violets crowded along the bank, tucked beneath bowing daffodils and clusters of Queen Anne’s lace. Even though the sun was sinking beyond the horizon, morning glories lifted their white trumpets alongside spears of lavender in a steadfast salute to the figure lying under an overhang beneath a hawthorn so massive and gnarled it could have been planted at the beginning of the world.

Tadgh’s breath caught in his throat. The woman lay on her side, hands folded beneath her cheek. Exposed roots formed a cage around her, as if she was being held hostage by the ancient tree.

Tadgh sank to his knees beside her prison and peered in. His stomach writhed with an exotic terror that was both awe of what she was and certainty that beings like her couldn’t—shouldn’t—exist. Each strand of her white-blonde hair gleamed like polished steel. Her complexion matched the delicate palette of a Tiffany rose. He wished he could see her eyes.

Inexplicably, he thought of Edna—pretty Edna Farrow, the cattle farmer’s daughter, dark-haired and athletic, reared on a diet of red meat and dairy. Next to this goddess she could almost be considered plain, but Tadgh wished for the sweaty-palmed panic he felt next to Edna rather than the mind-bending fear that gripped him at the sight of this lady.

Ropes of pearls crisscrossed her narrow waist and draped along the folds between her bent legs. Sheer fabric trailed from the clusters of primroses that connected the front of the gown to the back at her shoulders. A golden cuff encircled her upper arm, and not even for a second did he suspect it might be costume jewelry. The motif of swans done in mother-of-pearl was too delicate compared to the crass, gaudy pieces sold in stores.

Though he held his breath and waited for her to draw hers, her chest never rose or fell. She wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be and still smell like a field of wild roses. Stretching his arm full-length, he reached between the roots to clasp her wrist. Her skin was warm, but her lashes didn’t so much as flicker when he shook her.

“Hey, can you hear me? You need to wake up. It’s gonna be dark soon.” Talking to her made him feel awkward, like he’d lost the line between reality and a game of make-believe. Her expression was so serene he half-expected her to crack her eye open at any moment to tell him to buzz off and stop bothering her.

Tadgh sat back on his heels. Regardless of whether she was sleeping or in some kind of coma, once she came to there was no way for her to get out. He patted his pockets, but apart from his wallet the only thing small enough to cram in them was his Swiss Army Knife. Normally when he got bored he’d find a piece of wood and whittle it into a figurine for one of his nieces or nephews, but eying the roots that were as thick as his wrist, he didn’t think it would be very useful now. The only other thing with him was the stick. It was nearly three feet long and already proven durable.

He glanced over his shoulder, unnerved by the clearing that was only growing more unfamiliar as the gathering shadows forming a barrier between him and everything he thought he knew. If he went to get help he suspected he’d never find this place again.

Tadgh dug his knife from his pocket and sawed at the thick root by her head. He was halfway through the second root when the blade broke. His hand jerked and a line of blood welled along his palm before the pain sank in. Hissing, he hugged his hand against his chest. Blood seeped into his new sweater. By then the sun had set, and it was too dark to see the inevitable stain.

From his right, Linn bounded into the clearing, licking him madly until he pushed her aside. Tadgh looked around, debating whether to give up and go for help after all. Lost and bleeding, clearly he wasn’t cut out to be a hero.

Linn sniffed the opening Tadgh had cut. She scratched, and the soft dirt kicked up as she widened the hole.

Taking a cue from the dog, Tadgh grabbed the walking stick in his left hand and started digging.

The soil was crumbly and moist, so his makeshift tool proved more effective than the manufactured one. The roots ripped from the earth with no more effort than pulling a tooth at the first sign of a wiggle. Once he had enough room to pull the lady out he found himself reluctant to touch her. His hand still dripped blood, and despite lying on a bed of moss, her gown was so white and pristine it appeared to radiate a soft light of its own.

With no alternative, Tadgh leaned in and wrapped his dirty fingers around her wrist.

The moment their skin met, a warm electric current hummed through him. It made the hair along his arms rise. Magic. The word flashed through his mind, too true to be ignored.

For all her delicate appearance Sleeping Beauty was heavier than he expected. Huffing and grunting, he dragged her out. His blood smeared along her arm and across her rib cage where he supported her into a sitting position before laying her down on the grass. Belatedly, he realizing that he didn’t have a plan for what to do with her now.

Linn shuffled forward to lick her cheek.

Black lashes fluttered, lifted, and Tadgh Sorley gazed into a pair of iridescent pools the color of a dragonfly’s wing. Her initial confusion gave way to shock, fear, and then a boiling rage that made him want to seal her away again and take off running for town. Faster than he would  have thought possible, she flew up to seize his throat.

“Who are you? Where have you taken me?”

Even without the crushing pressure on his vocal cords, his voice withered to nothing. Lightning streaks of impatience lit her fascinating eyes, but she released him and stood up. She took in his dirty, torn, lurid clothing with a dismissive glance. The tension eased from her face. It was painfully obvious he posed no threat to her now that she was awake.

“Who are you?” Her eyes bore into him, and his mouth opened without his consent.

“My name is Tadgh Sorley.” Her nostrils flared. He shivered at the predatory gleam in her eyes.

“And where are we, Tadgh Sorley?” The way she pronounced his name turned it into a spell, a beautiful haunting spell that would hang over him the rest of his days.

“We’re just outside Cormoran.” When she continued to glare he added, “About an hour south of Cleveland.”

“You mean I’m not in Annwyn?” The color fled her face until it was wan as wax paper. “I’m in the world beyond?” He didn’t know how to answer, but she didn’t force him to speak.

Rippling waves of heat rolled off her as she surveyed the clearing, raising the temperature of the night several degrees. She whirled around to smile at him, and for one fuzzy moment he was so entranced by her dazzling eyes he forgot to be afraid.

“Forgive me, Tadgh Sorley. You have done me an immeasurable service. When last I remember, I was in Annwyn with my lord, Winterthorn, on the eve of the battle in which he intended to face Darragh for the claim he believed he held over me. I thought I could talk him out of fighting, but I see I have his answer. If Winterthorn thinks he can hide me in a box when he is displeased then let him tremble at what breaks free!”

If Winterthorn didn’t tremble, Tadgh did.

“He will be aware his spell is broken. I cannot hide my presence here long. If he was slain, Darragh will come in his stead. For the sake of your world I must fly before either comes searching. But first, I must reward you for what you have done.”

Tadgh’s eyes glazed trying to make sense of her words. It didn’t help that her lilting accent tempted his mind to daydream.

She looked at her former tomb and storm clouds gathered overhead.

“How did you find me?”

“The rabbit.” This time she didn’t compel him to speak. “I was chasing a rabbit and it led me to you.” He sounded like an imbecile, but her petal mouth blossomed into a genuine smile.

“The rabbit was my only means of attracting aid. Forgive me. Mortals, I understand, grow quite distressed when they become pixie-led.” He didn’t know how to respond to that either. She knelt and picked up the stick he’d used as a shovel.

“I was unaware your kind remembered the old lore. This is elder wood, capable of breaking even some of our most powerful spells. Though your dress is strange to me I take it you are a woodsman?”

“I only go hiking when I need to clear my head.” He was grateful it was dark so she couldn’t get a real look at his ‘strange dress.’ More and more he longed for his t-shirt and jeans.

“And what drove you to the trees on this occasion?”

“I made a fool of myself in front of the girl I like.” He spoke without thinking, but once he started he felt obliged to continue. “Everyone thinks I’m wasting my money on college. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my dad works in a cabinet factory. I’m studying architecture so I can design homes as well as build them. Nobody gets it. They all just think I’m a dork. I guess today I proved them right.”

“Woodworking runs in your blood then. Very well, Tadgh Sorley. Henceforth, wood shall be your element. You can fashion anything your mind can imagine. And, as a symbol of my eternal gratitude, any children you sire shall inherit a mastery of their own so that no one may look down on them for not possessing a trade when they come of age.”

A glittering, silver cloud rose from her shoulders to descend upon him. Magic sank into his skin until it tingled as if his whole body had fallen sleep and finally begun to wake.

Tadgh gaped.

“Are you saying that I can do magic?” Everything she said sounded too far out to be real, but his eyes were still dazzled by her incredible display of power.

“You need only think it to guide the wood into the shape you desire.” She waved her arm in a sweeping arc. “I leave you this glade. It is a sliver of my world transported to yours. It was meant to conceal me from those who hunt me. While you are here the fae cannot find you. Take care when you step off this land. Waking me won you powerful enemies. Forgive me, I dare not tarry further. If Winterthorn cast me out I will have to travel the hidden pathways to return. Farewell, Tadgh Sorley.”

She vanished as if she’d been sucked into the space between molecules. Tadgh held up a hand to call her back, but she was already gone.

Blinking suddenly dry eyes, he looked around and thought he recognized where he was. Though the stream and hawthorn remained, on the opposite bank he saw the hiking trail he’d been trying to follow.

Linn pressed her wet nose against his hand. He jumped. She dropped the walking stick at his feet. Tadgh looked down. Through one final trick, the encounter faded in his mind to little more than a daydream. He looked down at Linn’s expectant face. She wagged her tail. He picked up the stick and squinted along its length.

“What do you say, girl? This would make a nice flute, don’t you think? I could hollow it out, carve some flowers along the side and make a nice gift for Edna. No? You think it’s just a stick? I thought so too. Alright, fetch!”

He threw it end over end, but ten feet away it struck a tree and broke in two. Bits of bark flew off and skittered into a patch of bluebells. Linn ran to retrieve it. Tadgh started for home, picking his way in the dark.

Soon she caught up with him and dropped the stick onto the path—only it wasn’t a stick. A pale wooden flute gleamed on the forest floor. Along one side was carved a neat pattern of roses, just like he’d envisioned. Tadgh gulped and looked back at the hawthorn, the towering sentinel of the Otherworld.

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The Hawthorn Queen by Alicia Gaile
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