Happy New Year! And to start things off with a bang, here’s the first chapter of Trueheart for your entertainment! Pre-order links are at the bottom of the chapter, just in case you find this little taste to your liking and want to read more. Trueheart is available starting January 12, 2016.

Trueheart Copyright © 2015 Mel Sterling

CHAPTER ONE

Murder, mayhem. Torture and titillation.

Thomas would do, and had done, anything she asked.

He bowed his head enough to be respectful, though he kept his eyes on the Queen’s. The band circling his left arm below his biceps grew warmer, as it always did in her presence. When she was displeased with him, it burned and throbbed like the stings of a hundred wasps. When she wished him before her, it tightened until he came to her side. As a motivator, it was effective. After two centuries, it was appreciably thinner than it had been when she first wound the filaments of gold-laced bone around his arm. Each strand represented a task, the Queen’s bidding to be done. Only when every strand had snapped and curled away like a broken harp string would Thomas be free again.

He had never dared to ask what kind of bone it was. He wasn’t sure, even now, that he wanted to know. Knowledge wouldn’t change a thing as far as Thomas’s bondage was concerned.

“Those are my possessions. I will not have them taken from me.”

Thomas knew he could not ask the question the Queen’s statements begged. Why was she keeping precious things at the goblin market? Why not somewhere here at court, safe from thieves? The Queen had her reasons, and it was not his place to question them.

But it was appropriate to ask what had been stolen.

“What do they look like, these possessions, my Lady, so I may guard them properly?”

Her lips curved, a smile Thomas remembered well from the decades when his Lady the Queen had kept him for his human beauty and sensual prowess. He clenched his teeth in his closed mouth and stifled the shudder that threatened to fracture the glamour keeping his human form uppermost. He detested his trow form, despite its tremendous strength and endurance. It was hideous and reminded him only of his enslavement. The Queen had set him as her barrowguard, finding him skilled at brawling and protecting valuables and treasure. She called him her knight, but Thomas knew it was merely a glamoured word for “thug.”

“Every one is different. Unique and precious to me.” The Queen rose from the bone and thistle throne, her shimmering train dragging along the shallow steps of the dais. Her form began to flicker. Thomas could not hide his dislike at the catlike tail-twitch of something hidden beneath the viper green drift of her clothing. Her excited strides brought her to the center of her chamber where he stood.

He swallowed. His armband prickled in the presence of her eager hunger. She reached out to stroke his cheek with a fingertip whose nail changed from claw to talon and back to nail as it trailed over his skin. He kept his gaze neutral. His Lady was aroused and hungry. Time he left, before she summoned him to her bed. Again he repressed a shudder, straightening to stand tall and thus distance himself from her hungers. She was in no mood to answer his questions about her possessions, either because she was hungry, or perhaps because she wished him to fail in his task.

“Once upon a time I loved you enough to keep you, my Thomas.” Her pout was delicious and beautifully sad, but Thomas knew from experience that the edges of her teeth had slit the tender inner flesh of her cheeks and filled her mouth with her own blood. “Young men are not what they were.”

But on the other hand, were he to please her—and he knew he could—it would mean one less strand on his armband. Bedding the Queen was less onerous than killing a traitor or criminal, though no less dangerous. He shifted his weight, indecisive, feeling his obsidian blade move at his hip. Behind him, one of the kelpies guarding the door cleared its throat. Thomas heard the irregular plink of water droplets falling from the kelpie’s body onto the stone floor.

The Queen’s gaze flicked up to the kelpie. “Judge me not, you mess of waterweed.”

The kelpie stared at the floor, large horselike teeth bared. “No, my Lady. But I hear your huntsman coming.”

Thomas bowed his head once again. “I should go, my Lady.”

“Will you not stay and feast, Thomas?” Her tongue flicked out, forked and glistening. “What will Hunter have brought us today? Think on it, meat savory with terror and plump with blood.”

Do not show weakness. “The moon is dark and the market is busy. I should return to safeguard your interests.”

Her head turned, and though Thomas knew she was thinking about Hunter’s prey, her hunger had not yet overwhelmed her control. “See that you do, my Thomas. See that you do.”

The kelpies, wearing their glamoured forms of handsome human men, stood one at each side of the tall, narrow wooden doors, so churchlike in form. What would have been crosses of brass or iron in the human world were strange angles of bone and gold, hinges made of the tough cloth of woven nettles. Like mirror images, the kelpies moved as one and flung open the doors.

Through the opening roiled Hunter’s hounds, lean, slavering fae beasts yelping with excitement and hunger, their hands and claws flexing. Hungry, always hungry, and frantic with it, eager for scraps from Hunter’s spoils. Behind them rode Hunter himself, mounted on a collection of bones and hide and lathered froth that had once been a stallion, before Hunter took it for a mount. Thomas pressed himself against the wall and tried not to look at the bloody, sobbing creature thrown across the saddle in front of Hunter’s thorn-spiked knees. Now the Queen had eyes only for the prey—Thomas thought it had been a brownie—and appetite only for its blood and terror.

Thomas turned his head away and waited for the doorway to empty of Hunter’s gibbering host. He wondered why the Queen permitted Hunter and his fae beasts in her chambers, but here it was nothing unusual. The tearing sounds of hunger filled the throne room, and the smell of blood rose. The sobbing ceased and Thomas drew a long breath.

He eased past Hunter’s horse, halting when a hunk of bloody flesh was shoved before his eyes. He knew the silver gauntlet holding the meat, knew its fabulous smithery and the dried dark blood caked in its fanciful chasings. Fresh crimson marked them now. “You should clean your gloves, Hunter.”

“Still squeamish, I see. Will you join us, Half-made?” Hunter’s rough voice was like old hinges or the screech of stone on stone. “Be rewarded for your service to our Queen? A taste in friendship and peace.”

Thomas tried to ignore Hunter’s red-eyed gaze, speculative from behind the antlered deer-skull mask. A long history lay between Thomas and the Queen’s huntsman. Hunter believed the Queen should not admit a human into the world of the fae—humans were amusements and pawns and, occasionally, meals, but never equals. The Queen encouraged their mutual dislike. In two hundred years of interaction, Thomas had never managed to best Hunter, but neither had Hunter quite managed to best Thomas. It was a studied detente.

One day, Thomas knew, that would change, and he wasn’t sure an iron-edged blade would turn aside Hunter’s ferocity. The more fae Thomas became, the less he was able to tolerate the iron that had won through for him in the past. As Thomas edged around the fist clutching the chunk of flesh, Hunter leaned down and whispered. “Those who will not Hunt will be Hunted in the end, human.”

“Vanity ill becomes you,” Thomas replied, and put out a hand to deflect the kick Hunter’s mount aimed at him as he passed its flank.

The kelpie nearest Thomas gave a wet chuckle like beach stones tumbled by waves. “Coward,” it said. “Once a human, always a craven fool.”

Thomas smiled as his knife—obsidian fringed with iron—slid from its sheath into his hand. Though the iron made his skin buzz and tingle, it would burn the fully-fae kelpie. Thomas swiftly pinched the kelpie’s least finger between blade and thumb, and with a squeeze the digit popped to the floor like a chopped carrot. A rancid-smelling smoke trailed upward. “Judge me not, you mess of waterweed,” Thomas mocked softly, and pushed past the bleeding kelpie as it stared dumbfounded. “Make a hoof of that now, if you can.”

Likely the Queen would punish him for this, but Thomas couldn’t bring himself to care. He’d grown hard and bitter under her brutal tutelage.

A long tunnel led through the rocks and dirt, roots and mud, to the surface. Glowworms lit the way, leaving behind confounding, lacy traceries of luminous slime. A carnivorous pixie fluttered through and pounced on a worm with thin cries.

It seemed the entire mound was ravenous tonight.

At the tunnel’s mouth, Thomas nodded to the troll who sealed the entrance with its broad, mossy back. To the humans traveling through Forest Park it looked for all the world like a gray, weather-split boulder. The troll looked over its shoulder to check the area before it grumbled aside, and Thomas stepped into the rainy autumn night.

This particular tunnel exited Portland’s Forest Park at its easternmost bulge, a mile upslope from the river and the Burnside Bridge. He settled into his stride, a long-legged human gait. Had he been in more of a hurry, the trow-form would have sped the trip, but tonight he needed time to think. He was to prevent the theft of the Queen’s possessions from the market, which meant that at least one had already been taken. But what? Thomas had no idea.

He’d just have to ask around. It was fortunate that most of the vendors and denizens knew him of old. Thomas had built his trow-hold inside the bridge’s western pier nearly a hundred years before, as the bridge itself was birthed. The goblin market ran year-round beneath the bridge deck on the western shore of the Willamette River where it flowed through downtown Portland. Everything a fae could want, and some things best left unnamed or unlooked for, was sold in Underbridge.

Once the Queen’s Unseelie court settled in Portland, they bewitched and pixie-led countless city fathers and planners until the long series of hills along the western flank of the Willamette was made a park, to be left free of human habitation. As far as Thomas knew, it was the largest fairy mound in existence, and all ruled by his Lady, the Queen. Thomas himself remembered when much of Portland was a wild, wet place, filled with trout streams and moss and the peculiar magical resonance of a land at the confluence of two large rivers and studded with volcanoes both dead and alive. Over decades of human time, the city grew and changed, and under the Queen’s unflinching guidance, so did the Unseelie court. The Unseelie were an unquestionable success, living boldly among so many humans, iron, and concrete.

Thomas’s feet led him to Burnside Street and the gradual slope toward the river. As he neared the Willamette, he could feel its power inside him, and sense the flow of an underground stream encased in concrete beneath his feet. The Unseelie had their problems with flowing water, but humans had locked most of the water away in culverts and pipes, and made paths across the river. These the Unseelie could travel, though not without a certain discomfort. Thomas, with his human blood and fae senses, fared better than most. The water spoke to him, but did not make him ill.

He passed Chinatown, careful to avoid its borders, marked by its red lampposts, and crossed Burnside to Old Town, where the goblin market clattered and gibbered beneath the bridge at all hours. Thomas had never understood how so large a presence of fae could go unremarked among humans, but the market was even home to a colony of human artisans on the weekends. They sold their bright trinkets and tasty food, unaware of the sulfurous shimmer of goblin taint everywhere.

This was one way the Queen found her human lovers. In the old days, she’d had to seek for them as she had sought out Thomas, whose voice caught her ear in a rowdy midnight tavern, and whose human beauty caught her eye by lantern light. She had beckoned him into the mound of Forest Park and plied him with sweetmeats and sex. Afterward, he had never been the same. Nowadays it was all too easy. The artisans came of their own accord, drawn by the lures of the human market, then slid all unknowing into the world of the fae. Like fish to a worm sheathing a barbed and bloody hook.

He lingered on the fringes of the market, where the Skidmore Fountain played. The human market had closed at sunset, but the goblin market was building to a frenzy. Amongst the fae vendors, a few humans lingered, wandering dazedly. The night was blurred by the rain, but lit by streetlights, headlights of cars, and the spill of fluorescent light from the surrounding buildings.

In the dark it was harder to suppress his trow nature. The bulky, bunchy form wanted to push itself forth, coarsen his fingers and lessen his dexterity. Where his human form was a hand, all deftness and skill, his trow form was a fist. The loose, flapping oilskin coat he wore fit both his bodies and shed much of the wet and dirt of the world. When he was human, as now, he wore it belted snug. But it required much effort to hold his humanity, despite two centuries of practice. Here in the market, though most of the vendors knew him on sight, he would be less remarked if he were fae.

Thomas tugged at the coat’s belt and opened a few buttons. Beneath the oilskin, his thin shirt stretched tight as he closed his eyes and gave in to the ever-present itch, the need to relinquish his humanity. He was fortunate that his legs and hips stayed more or less the same length and girth whether man or trow, though his waist thickened. As long as there was a little room in the seat of his jeans and a hole or two left in his belt, he was comfortable enough.

The Queen had once told him if he would only give up his chance at returning to normal—to his former humanity—she would end his servitude then and there. The band around his arm would drop away.

But he would be a trow forever. Broad-shouldered, rough-fingered, with large ears and a nose to match. Hair like the spiky stripe down a hyena’s spine and a mouth with almost as many teeth. A tail with a lion’s tuft at the end.

It wasn’t the looks that bothered Thomas and kept him clinging with bitter desperation to his former life. As the Queen pointed out one chilly midnight, her sharp teeth mouthing and scoring the sensitive places on his body with each word, everyone he’d ever loved was worm’s meat by now. None were left to call him Thomas, lover, brother, son.

None but the Queen.

No. He welcomed the power and strength of his trow form, used it as a tool. But he couldn’t set aside the knowledge of what had been taken from him, taken without permission or explanation. He would, one day, be human again, cost what it might.

It was only time, the one thing he had in abundance. Trows lived exceedingly long lives, usually finding death only through murder, misadventure or a particularly noxious meal.

The Queen had reminded him, too, that regaining his human form meant regaining his human lifespan.

Thomas scowled and let his human self fritter away like the dust from a moth’s wings. He took a deep breath and shook all over like a wet dog, feeling the trow muscles filling out the spare corners of his flesh and skin, and the cramped coiling of his tail in the back of his jeans. The trow eyes saw the market better, showing him the fae taint that smeared the bricks and concrete and seeped down the plywood of the closed stalls left from the humans’ day.

Thomas dunked his hand in the fountain and splashed a palmful of water over his head to slick down the spiky stripe of head-fur, then he strolled into the market. Might as well get a little dinner while he watched for a nobody stealing nothings.

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