Or, the “Story behind the Story” of Heart of the Oak
My first published series, the SoulShares, and the upcoming Broken Pattern series, are at least as much urban fantasy as they are m/m erotic romance â€“ I grew up on fantasy and science fiction as my first literary loves. But I also love what I call, for want of a better term, â€œmythic fictionâ€ â€“ fantasy, but disconnected from a specific timeline, going back to ancient archetypes. If youâ€™ve ever read Tanith Lee, you know what Iâ€™m talking about. The Tales of the Grove let me scratch that particular writing itch. Heart of the Oak (and the upcoming Tempted from the Oak) are stories of the Gille Dubh, the Dark Men, tree spirits out of Scottish myth. Theyâ€™re set in the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland; theyâ€™re set in the present day, but in my world the Gille Dubh and their daragin, the oak trees in which they live, have been in a state of nonexistence for over two thousand years, ever since the magick which gave them life was stolen from the world. The modern world makes guest appearances, but for the most part the world of the Grove is a timeless one. One Iâ€™d move into in a heartbeat.
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Darach relaxed into the embrace of his darag. Even on an overcast day, the oakâ€™s leaves drank in the Sunâ€™s power, and as it flowed through the ancient tree, so also it flowed through him. Humans ate, and drank, and seemed to enjoy it, but the Gille Dubh needed to do neither. Not that he was unable to, heâ€™d shared loverâ€™s cups with many a comely young male before the long oblivion, and laughed at the way the world spun and danced. But there was no need to. The darag gave him all he needed.
He closed his eyes, and tried to shut away thoughts of his human. The male had left in the middle of the day, the racket from his odd wheeled shell waking Darach from sun-caressed basking. He would have known if the peculiar blue thing had returned. Everything from here to the loch and up to the slopes of Sgurr na Stri would have known it. Anticipation was sweet, and made sweeter when one could walk away from thoughts of the one anticipated, and then discover them anew, over and over. So he tried to walk away.
Of course, walking anywhere, physically, was impossible for him until the Sun went down. Or at least unwise. The World Grove had held stories of some who had tried to walk in daylight. If one of his kind forced a hand out of his darag in daylight, the hand simply vanished. No matter how many times the Gille Dubh might take physical form again, outside of his tree, that hand was gone.
Was that what he had felt, when the magick was taken away? He didnâ€™t remember. He didnâ€™t want to remember.
Instead, he sent his thoughts down. Down, into the roots of the darag, they slid like raindrops down branches. The bracing tingle of magick was stronger here; he thought he could feel the source of it, below and within the roots, there and not-there in the strange way of living magick. Welling up from wherever it had gone, hundreds or thousands of years ago. The oak was still not sure how exactly long it had been, only that it had been many centuries since it had been able to think, to feel.
For now, his darag was drawing all the magick into itself. Magick permeated the whole tree, and Darach himself, but there was still need of more. The drawing was slow, and for now the magick only extended to the tips of the treeâ€™s leaves, and the tips of its roots. Once the darag had had its fill, though, it could let the magick flow outward, let the power transform everything around it, freeing him to roam beyond the sphere sketched by leaves and roots.
If the magick continued to flow, if it wasnâ€™t taken away again.
One more thing to turn his thoughts away from.
He wanted his human back, with a force and a possessiveness that surprised him. The only attachment his kind usually had any interest in was the bond with the darag. It made no sense to become attached to anything else. Everything else died, eventually. Even the slaidearan, the magick-thieves.
Yet there was no way he could deny his feelings. It never occurred to him to try. Desire was part of his nature, and this strange new thing was born of desire, or cousin to it, so he would embrace it.
Was it the blood-bonding that had done this? Such a little thing, to change him so profoundly.
No. It was more than that. Darach called up the memory of his emergence from the tree and lived in it, re-experienced it. The sense of wonder took his breath again, as he took his first tentative steps in the moonlight, toward the loch. His first sight of the Moon, his first sight of himself. The touch of his hands on his own flesh, the breeze lifting his hair.
All wrapped around in that wonder, he saw again for the first time the human who watched him from downslope. The perfection of his form, the chiseled planes of his face, the tousled hair catching the moonlight. His eyes, gone wide with an astonishment nearly as great as Darachâ€™s own.
This new feeling had started then, in that moment, when the human became a part of his rebirth. Yearning. Some of his human lovers had used that word. Some had wept when they used it. But he had never been able to ask them why they wept. None of them understood the language of wind and leaf, moonlight and desire. His language. This human understood. He could ask.
The sound of the wheeled shell startled Darach from his contemplation. Nothing moved around him, the thing was still some ways off, but there was no mistaking the sound. He tried to settle back into his quiet union with the darag, the better to wait, but quiet was impossible, now.
The Sun was still some way above the horizon, and no matter how much he glared at her, she refused to set any faster. Finally he gave up glaring, and turned his attention back to the croft. Even if the Sun were fully set, the little building was still well out of his reach. Someday, if the magick kept flowing, it would return to the land and set him free, at least by night. But not yet. For now, he had to wait.
For an immortal spirit who shared an essence with an ancient and venerable tree, Darach was very bad at waiting.
At last, sunset light winked off the shining front of the shell. The noise stopped, and a moment later the human emerged, only to disappear into the croft. Darach barely had time to clench his fists in frustration, though, before he re-emerged, carrying something in each hand. He stood in silence, looking downslope, down toward the loch. Toward the darag.
Please. The leaves of the oak echoed his whisper, though there was no breeze. Come to me. Watch the sunset with me.
A blackbird fluttered to a perch in the daragâ€™s branches, singing its brief and beautiful evensong. The human looked up at the sound, and a smile lit his face from within.
Yes. It seemed to Darach that he could feel the humanâ€™s footsteps, or at least their echoes in the earth as they reached the tips of the oakâ€™s roots. Come and be with me. Give me back the wonder.
The bird took flight as the human came under the shelter of the darag. The human watched it swoop away, still smiling; he set his burdens — a bottle and a glass, Darach now saw — beside the trunk of the oak. Then he dropped to sit beside them, long legs stretched out in front of him, pointing toward the loch.
Darach fell to his knees, within the trunk of the ancient tree, looking out over the humanâ€™s shoulder at the merciless Sun. Cursing her, again, because the urge to simply rest a hand on the broad shoulder so close to him was so powerful as to be torment. To share this time, to let the human know that someone else watched the sunset with him.
When he finally conquered the dangerous urge, he looked down at the dark gold hair, so close, but out of reach; studied the long-fingered hand holding the nearly empty glass, forearm resting on a knee now drawn up. Every line of his humanâ€™s body was fascinating, even clothed.
Maybe itâ€™s not wise to think of him as mine —
The human turned, his hand lightly skimming the bark of the oak. Darach shivered, feeling the touch on his own body.
â€œYou feel like time.â€ The humanâ€™s voice was slightly slurred, but his eyes were bright and noticing. â€œI wonder how long youâ€™ve been here, looking out over this lake. You could tell me stories.â€ His head rested against the trunk. â€œI could almost believe you really have a spirit, living in you. Last night could almost have been real.â€
He remembers! The leaves whispered with Darachâ€™s joy. The magickal energy had left the human his memories. I will not let that happen again. I will not take that chance twice. Next time, he would remain grounded, and if he found himself unable to avoid releasing magick along with pleasure, he would send it back into the darag where it belonged.
The human turned away again, with a sigh. Darach echoed it, silently, and raised his head to follow the line of the humanâ€™s gaze, out over the water, to the hills beyond.
â€œI wish it had been real.â€ The humanâ€™s whisper was tight, choked.
The last sliver of sun slipped below the hill.
Darach stepped out of the tree and knelt beside the human.
It was real.
Leaf and wind and rain, shaped to language in the humanâ€™s mind.
It is real.
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Lawyer, editor, mother, cabaret singer, dance teacher, and author of smoking hot m/m urban fantasy erotic romance.