This story continues a series of short fiction exploring some of the Faerie Shepherds and Shepherdesses within my fantasy world. Read below the story for further explanation and head over to the Tales of the Faerie Shepherds if you’d like to read more!

Montana’s eyes swept the charred scars of her mountain. She shed tears liberally across its blackened expanse, urging each droplet to multiply and spread, farther and farther until they dripped beneath and around her, cascading from her favorite peak.

After waking earlier from a blaze-induced slumber, Montana had visited her deeply sleeping creatures, all tucked safely away as promised by the Fire Faeries’ Shepherd. At the remembrance of Mac Teàrlach, Montana narrowed her eyes and flared her nostrils. The man was infuriating and more volatile than the flames he rode.

Still …

She recalled the soothing warmth of his touch and the healing in his scarred skin as he extinguished the flame on her arm. She also revisited the intoxication with which his scent filled her. 

Montana inhaled, sucking in the air around her as a breeze whipped her hair into a whirlwind. Her own redolence of earth, pine, cloud and sky merged with allspice, clove, pine and ash—the mingling so clear, he could’ve been …

“Mornin’, Lass.”

Mac Teàrlach’s greeting calmed the wind but ruffled Montana’s heart.

“You …” Her word, more spat than spoke, did nothing to unnerve the man and left the Shepherdess searching for more to add.

Mac Teàrlach’s scars shone, startling, beneath the sun’s radiance. The previous night’s fiery glow had made those same marks dull yet distinguished as it cast their bearer as stunning. Certainly not ugly, nor homely, nor forgettable, he remained nothing short of remarkable, even in the glare of day.

“Indeed. Tis me.”

The Shepherd’s eyes danced, reminding Montana of the flames he carried her through the night before. If he noticed the blush that painted her cheeks at the memory of how his sturdy arms carried her as if she weighed no more than a feather, Mac Teàrlach didn’t let on. Instead, he began a conversation as if they’d been in the midst of it all their lives.

“Lass, you’re clearly needin’ a guide. Lucky for you, I’m just the merchant you need. I’ve been a Shepherd long enough to be a wee specialist in the art of we leaders’ callings and purposes and such. Last night, you stood fearless and bold against me and my Fire Faeries. Unfortunately, you did so with nae pow’r. Dae ye ken why?”

Montana’s eyes widened at the accusation that she was without power. Impossible! She had been called and chosen. She accepted the charge. This mountain belonged to her.

Didn’t it?

More softly, he responded to her thoughts. “Nae, Lass. It’ll nae be yers til it contains yer heart.”

His hand resting above the frantically beating organ in her chest, Mac Teàrlach said, “As long as this beats here, ye’ve no command. Until it beats within here—” he crouched to rest his hand on the crown of the mountain “—it’s nae safe from those who wish it or this mount ill. Yer full pow’r against others can only come through union with the mountain.”

Montana gasped as her lungs demanded air. His touch had left her incapable of the involuntary motions of life, but it wasn’t fear that caused her lapse.

Mac Teàrlach rose to her height. Eye to eye, he cupped her chin and whispered. “Tis good for you—and it—I ne’er wished it ill.”

He brushed her lips with a calloused thumb before sliding away and surveying their surroundings.

What had—moments before—been black as soot, the mountaintop grew green again. The rapidly expanding grass looked cleaner, deeper and brighter than before the fire’s rejuvenating powers. Montana neither understood nor believed the growth occurring beneath her bare feet. She ambled toward the cliff’s edge, running her toes through the lengthening blades of grass with each step.

Looking down, she watched the emerald hue spread until she lost sight of its brilliance behind the flowering and greening leaves in the trees guarding her mountain’s edges.

“Yon’s some right bonny pow’r.” Mac Teàrlach turned to Montana, eyes shimmering with wonder as he assayed the Shepherdess and considered the powers she could wield. “Imagine how much greater you could dae.”

She tucked her chin before he could see the scarlet spread and pondered the wonders of the past twenty-four hours—his, hers, the unfolding before her eyes. As she sifted together the events with Mac Teàrlach’s words, she felt her eyebrows knit and raised to him with a question.

“How? What possible way on earth could make my heart leap from my chest and nestle inside this glorious mountain?” As she patted the fresh grass carpet with her foot, she revealed a grin that grew as she reflected on the absurdity of the notion of a union between woman and earth.

Mac Teàrlach remained somber, the twinkle in his eye replaced by a glint of … uncertainty, pity, concern.

“Each Shepherd and Shepherdess must sacrifice to embrace and unleash the pow’r within to wholly command and protect. Yer mountain’ll ask you when it’s time. Ye’ll know when it does, for you’ll have never felt fear like that afore.”

“What if I cannot do what it asks?”

Mac Teàrlach’s glint disappeared into the darkness of sorrow. “Ye’ll have a choice.”

“Choose my mountain,” Montana guided their conversation, slowly, uncertain she’d like the end. “Or choose …?”

With a connection stronger than a simple gaze, Mac Teàrlach explored her eyes and finished her sentence. “To lose yer heart … and yer soul.”

Montana’s Choice” Copyright © 2023 by Joy E. Rancatore. All Rights Reserved.

What do you think about this world of mine that I’m building? If you enjoyed this story, please head over to my site to read the entire Tales of the Faerie Shepherds series.

This month’s story flowed from the inspiration of a delightful monthly online writing prompt, #BlogBattle. As you will read on their site, “Blog Battle is a monthly writing prompt meant to inspire writers and entertain readers.” To read several outstanding stories inspired by February’s prompt, “Merchant,” head on over to the BlogBattlers site!

You may just find a new favorite author to follow!

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