Chapter Five

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(Photo source: Janusz | on Flickr)

THE SAND WAS coarse against the nymph's silken flesh, her body melted into its contours, and her bones soaked in the offered heat, storing the memory of bliss for the long winter to come. Her fingers and toes curled with the hypnotic rhythm of the lazy tide, and Isiilde sighed, content, at peace, opening her eyes to an unabashed sun. It was in a rare mood today. The sun was victorious for the first and probably the last day of the year, burning back the misty battlements of the isle, exposing ancient stone and thick forests.

She purred with languid pleasure and rose to her elbows, squinting at the endless waters. A small army of little lugsail fishing boats drifted off-shore. Sails of white linen hung limp on their rigs.

On a day as calm as this, she was surprised the boats were staying so close to shore—not that they seemed very eager to be about their business. The salty fishermen were no more immune to the effects of the sweltering heat than Isiilde, and it had lulled them into a slothful daze. Their nets hung against the tiny hulls, mostly ignored and rarely gathered up.

A throaty bark disturbed the ebbing tide. Isiilde turned a lazy eye on a herd of walruses who shared her beach. Two of the bulls were arguing over a swath of sand, completely oblivious to the fact that a mile of vacant beach stretched in either direction. Their barking grated on her sensitive ears and she pressed her lips together while they settled their posturing conflict.

Earlier in the day, when she had tried to pet one of their pups, they had charged after her with throaty bellows and bared molars. She was still annoyed with the tiresome beasts. In her opinion, they were being rude—she had only wanted to pet the fuzzy white pup.

"Put some clothes on, Isiilde!" Another, familiar bark interrupted her peace, and Isiilde rolled onto her stomach, sweeping ears twitching in irritation, as she sought out the source of the order. Oenghus stood by the wood pile of their cottage. And although a significant amount of distance separated them, she could feel his disapproval by the way his hands were planted firmly on his kilted hips. But he wasn't alone—a rangy vagabond stood in his shadow. Her irritation was forgotten in a breathless moment.

"Marsais," she breathed, hopping to her feet.

"Not without your bloody clothes!" Oenghus bellowed his exasperation over the grassy dunes. Isiilde cast about, searching for her wrap, and found it laying some paces down the beach in a sandy heap. She wound it about her waist, tucked it in place, and darted towards the cottage as flitting and graceful as a hummingbird.

The day had been perfect a moment before, and now it was exquisite. If the Feast of Fools and the Sylph's Fortnight were put together—although amusing—it couldn't have excited her more. The Archlord of the Isle, her master and friend, had finally returned. The nymph's feet barely touched the sand as she raced across the beach, over the dunes, and through the tall grass to stand before Marsais, brimming with pure, simple delight.

"Hello, my dear," Marsais greeted, gracious and gentle as the sun's caress. His smile warmed her from the inside out, and she had to stop herself from throwing her arms around him. The Archlord did not give hugs, at least not to her knowledge, but for her alone he stepped back and favored her with a flourishing bow. Despite his tattered white hair and travel worn clothes, he seemed as elegant as a court minstrel.

Isiilde returned his bow with a bobbing curtsy and a large, stupid grin, staring up at him in disbelief. A myriad of questions warred on the tip of her tongue, but the tumult of emotion rolling in her gut robbed her of the ability to articulate any of them.

"How many times have I told you to keep your blasted clothes on?" Oenghus brought her back to reality with a weighty gaze.

"No one else was on the beach, Oen," she defended. Marsais' grey eyes glittered down at her in amusement.

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