As was tradition, Mila walked the boundaries of the family land on Midsummer’s Day. She’d never been quite sure which set she was meant to walk; the original, stretching several miles to encompass what were now three neighbouring farms and an artists’ retreat, or the current, which involved a quick turn around a generous back garden, dotted with the remains of an orchard.
In the end, she did both. As she’d done every year since inheriting the old place from her Grandpa. Her cousins laughed at her choice in keeping to the old ways, and didn’t envy her the place. He’d left other things for them, better suited to their high-octane city lives.
She never told them of the conversations she had, every afternoon of Midsummer’s Day, when a person, sometimes seen, sometimes shadowed, always unknown; asked her about the boundaries.
This time, the fifth time she’d done the Midsummer Walk on her own, she felt bold enough to ask the two questions that had been burning on her tongue since her first patrol, marching beside Grandpa, aged nine.
This year the voice was deeply male, and the speaker hidden in the shifting shade of the old oak by the bridge. A shade far deeper than that beneath any of the other trees.
“You’ve walked the boundary?”
“Yes. Both of them.”
The figure shifted. “Both?”
Mila dug her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Grandpa never said which was the correct boundary to follow, the original one for the property when the family was first awarded it, or the current one.”
He moved forward half a step, not enough to leave the shadows. “And those boundaries are different?”
Mila snorted. “Just a little. One takes hours to walk, the other, minutes.”
So she was exaggerating a little, but not much.
She got the impression he was frowning, but more importantly, listening, so she pressed on to her second question.
“And what am I supposed to be doing, or looking for on these walks? I mean, I do them because it’s what Grandpa always did and it’s what he wanted. But he never told me why.”
The figure jerked. “What?”
Mila shrugged. “It’s tradition, that’s all I know.”
The voice deepened further. “This is concerning.”
He stepped out of the shadow and Mila fought a gasp. He was gorgeous. Tall, and powerfully built, with dark eyes and hair, worn long enough to curl, in a warm shade of brown that reminded her of polished wood.
“Do you have a map?”
Mila’s mind took a little while to process his question. She stammered, then realised what he was asking.
“Um, not on me, other than on my phone but Grandpa’s old ordinance survey maps are in the study.”
He inclined his head. “The old ones will be better. May I see them?”
Mila flushed and gestured back towards the house. “Of course, I’ll just go get them. Or did you want to come in and look at them there? Or, I mean, um…”
Mila forcibly swallowed her babbling and gave the man a chance to answer.
He sighed. “If I go into your home, Mila, more will happen than a review of the maps. Best to bring them to me.”
He gave her a flirtatious grin. “How about you bring them to the pub, I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll look over them out in the beer garden.”
Mila’s cheeks were flaming, she could feel it. “I don’t even know your name.”
He paused long enough for her to remember the rules of faerie, she added. “You know mine, and I don’t know how.”
He replied. “I’ll explain what I can at the pub but you can call me Ciaran.”
“Okay, I’ll just go get them and meet you there.”
She hurried away, pausing as he called after her. “What drink should I order, Mila?”
She sent him a flirtatious smile of her own. “Surprise me.”
She didn’t look back, but still felt him watching her all the way to her front gate. Stepping through and closing it behind her, she felt the tension ease.
She frowned as she walked up the path and let herself into the house. That was more than a ‘relax now I’m home’ feel. There was some sort of tension building beyond her front gate and she was fairly sure her patrol of the boundaries was connected to it.
She headed through to the study and pulled out the folder of ordinance maps. May as well take the whole thing, who knew what he might want to look at.
She frowned at a loose thread of a memory. Something about a man under an oak. It was in one of Grandpa’s books…
She scanned the shelves. There, that one with the old leather cover, the title worn off and the corners bent and tattered.
She put the map folder on the desk and pulled the book off the shelf, scanning through the pages.
There, it was an old print, a picture of a man half hidden in the shade of a mighty oak. The caption read Encountering the Greene Kinge on Midsummer’s Day.
She gulped. No time to read the rest now. If Ciaran really was the Green King, or some representative of his, it would be best not to keep him waiting.
She snorted at her thoughts. This, of course, was why she’d got the country house, she actually gave time to the old superstitions. Either one of her cousins would have rolled their eyes at the very thought. Although they’d probably still turn up for that drink.
She left the book on the desk, open at the intriguing picture, and closed the house up behind her.
She felt the tension as she closed the front gate, like a change in air pressure. Something else to ask, if an answer didn’t reveal itself in the response to her earlier queries.
It was only as she walked down the road to the pub that she began to wonder about the significance of its name. The King of the Forest wasn’t that far from the Green King, for all it showed a picture of a stag on its sign, rather than a man. But that was part of the old legend as well wasn’t it? She needed to brush up on her British Isles mythology.
She walked down the side of the building, rather than risk being waylaid by the regulars in the main bar.
As she rounded the corner into the beer garden, she bit her lip on a smile. Every woman, and certain of the men, were checking out her new drinking buddy.
Even as she watched, Evelyn – the new teacher at the local primary school, fresh to the area and jarringly glamorous against the rest of the crowd – ‘accidentally’ bumped his table, jostling the two drinks he guarded.
She apologised profusely, flicking her blonde mane back over one perfectly tanned shoulder and leaning into his space.
Ciaran spotted Mila, grinned and stood. Evelyn spun, smile frozen in shock at his lack of response to her.
Her lips pinched when she saw Mila walking towards them but stayed where she was. Evelyn was not one to be easily routed.
Mila walked up to Ciaran, ignoring Evelyn standing on his other side. She bit back a smug, satisfied smile when he bent to kiss her on the cheek. She drifted into the caress and rested a casual but proprietary hand on his bicep.
Yes, they’d only just met. Yes, they’d barely exchanged ten words. That didn’t matter, he was here for her and she was staking her claim.
Keeping her hand on his arm, Mila leaned around Ciaran to smile a bright, innocent greeting at Evelyn. “Hi. I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you settling in?”
Evelyn gave her a sour milk smile in return. “Very well, everyone’s so kind and welcoming.”
Mila leaned in to Ciaran, who smiled and slipped an arm around her waist. “That’s good to hear. Have you met Ciaran?”
She turned her attention to the man watching her with dancing eyes. “Evelyn is the new primary school teacher. She’s fitted in to the community so well, and the children simply adore her.”
Ciaran shifted, tucking Mila into his side as he held out a hand to Evelyn. “Lovely to meet you. I’m not around as much as I’d like to be these days, business commitments in London. Hopefully I’ll be able to get more involved in local activities again soon.”
Evelyn’s smile grew as she shook his hand. “I look forward to it.”
Ciaran ended the handshake and was about to say something when the pub’s owner came outside and spotted him.
He hurried over. “Thought our Rosie was seeing things when she said you’d come in. Good to see you, good to see you.”
He grasped Ciaran’s hand and shook it enthusiastically.
Ciaran laughed and freed his hand, this time to grip the other man’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you too, Gregor. I’ve just been saying I’m hoping to be around a little more in the future.”
Gregor blinked when he saw Mila, still wrapped in Ciaran’s other arm, then watched Evelyn’s departure and smirked. “Rescuing His Lordship from our newest dragon then Mila?”
Mila jerked, as Ciaran’s arm tightened around her for an instant, but she managed to keep a calm face and give a non-committal response.
Gregor laughed at whatever it was she’d said and began moving from table to table, collecting glasses and chatting with the people enjoying the fine afternoon.
Ciaran guided her onto the bench next to him, then put a drink in front of her. “G&T, light on the G, long on the T. Rosie said it was your favourite in summer.”
She smiled sweetly for the crowd and took a sip. “She’s absolutely right, thank you, Your Lordship.”
He huffed. “And when, exactly would I have had the time to tell you? Introducing myself straight up as the Count of Andover is pretentious as all hell.”
Her smile turned real. “Fair call, I’ll forgive you this once.”
His answering smile sent a delighted shiver through her.
He moved his gaze to the folder now sitting on the table in front of her. “Those are the maps?”
“All of Grandpa’s ordinance survey maps. I haven’t looked at them in years.”
She handed him the folder and looked on with interest as he started going through the sheaf of folded papers inside.
Tucked into the middle of the bundle was something very different. Something drawn in faded ink on thick, old parchment. It looked drastically out of place against the clean, laser-printed lines on bright, white paper of the maps it was sandwiched between.
Ciaran paused, then continued, pulling out a map of the entire county, then another that focused on the area around the village. This one had Mila’s family property, both old and new, outlined in bold, red ink and Ciaran held it up as he carefully slid the much older map out of its place and unfolded it under the protective cover of the newer one.
Mila kept her voice low. “Why the cloak-and-dagger?”
“First to protect the map from the table and the sun and second because we’re about to be interrupted.”
Mila sent a casual glance around the area and groaned under her breath at the sight of Peter trying to look casual as he walked towards their table.
Ciaran carefully smoothed the new map over the old and asked. “Friend of yours?”
Mila muttered back. “Think male version of your friend Evelyn. He thinks I’ll make a lovely little farmer’s wife.”
“You don’t agree?”
Mila snorted but grinned. “I’ll make a kick-ass wife to the right man one day. He’s most definitely not it.”
He grinned back, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in for an affectionate kiss on her temple. Out of the corner of her eye, Mila saw Peter speed up.
“Mila. What a lovely surprise, I thought you said you couldn’t make it to the pub today.”
Mila looked around, treating Peter to a cool stare. “No, I said I wasn’t going to have a drink with you this afternoon.”
She turned towards Ciaran. “This is Peter Gransome. He recently moved here to manage the estate’s home farm.”
Ciaran’s eyebrows raised. “Ah, good to finally meet you. I trust everything is in order with the house?”
Peter frowned, confused. “And you are…?”
Ciaran laughed and stood, somehow still keeping a warm hand on Mila’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I should have said. I’m Ciaran Fitzkirk, I own the estate.”
He offered his other hand and Peter gulped, his gaze ping-ponging between Ciaran, Mila, and that hand on her shoulder. He had the presence of mind to accept and return the handshake, but couldn’t seem to muster up any further response.
Eventually, Mila prompted. “Was there anything else Peter? It’s just that we’re in the middle of something.”
Peter jerked. “Um, oh, no, of course. Lovely to see you Mila and meet you Mr, um Lord, Fitzkirk.”
He looked at Mila. “Maybe dinner on Wednesday?”
Mila replied. “No, sorry, busy.”
At that Ciaran sat down again and returned his attention to the topmost map. Mila joined him and Peter, after hovering awkwardly for a moment, wandered off.
“I hope he’s better at farming than flirting.” Ciaran murmured.
Mila fought a grin. “By all accounts that matter, he’s very good. General gossip also says he and Evelyn should pair up.”
Ciaran sat back, a slight frown on his face as he thought about it. A strange green shadow rolled over him and he nodded. “I’d say general gossip may just be right. For all they’re at odds on the surface, their cores are deeply compatible.”
Mila eyed him suspiciously. “Where did that come from?”
He looked at her seriously. “It’s Midsummer’s Day and I’m the closest thing Kingswell has to a King these days. It gives me access to certain … perceptions.”
“Is that why it’s not always you who checks I’ve walked the boundary?”
“If I’m here, it’s me. Unfortunately, I’ve been away a great deal since even before your grandfather died, so whoever is the most suitable candidate is given the task of checking all is well.”
“And my boundaries are part of that because…?”
Ciaran bent to the top map. “The well of course.”
“The King’s Well is on your land. I just don’t know if it’s within the old or the new boundaries.”
Mila answered immediately. “New.”
“You know where it is?”
“There’s a natural spring in the orchard. None of the farms, or the retreat, have anything. All their water is piped in.”
She propped her face on one hand, and frowned up at him. “But how does that relate to me walking around the property lines once a year?”
Ciaran frowned. “First, let’s make absolutely sure it’s the right well. There is an off chance it was elsewhere and has been blocked or something.”
Mila rolled her eyes. “Fine, avoid the question. But I’m going to ask it again as soon as you confirm my spring is your well.”
He simply smiled and turned his attention to the two maps in front of him, making sure Mila could see both of them as well.
She leaned over, intrigued in spite of herself. “I know the ink on the old one is faded, but is the new map’s paper thin enough to be able to see the lines of the old one under it?”
Ciaran tucked one under the other. “They may not be to the same scale. Old maps are often symbolic rather than a true representation.”
Despite his words, he shuffled and angled the two pieces until the faint shadow of the old ink could just be seen behind the red lines of the new one.