Our collection features Elizabeth Schechter’s novel Princes of Air; Lambda Literary Award finalist Charming, which collects gay fairy tales in a contemporary setting; plus short story collections focusing on gay, lesbian, and BDSM sexuality.
It was a bright summer afternoon, and I was in my raven-form, sitting on my accustomed perch. We each of us had one; mine was a ledge high over Dun-Morrigan, from which I could see the entire baile, and the village below. From this vantage point, I could see Maelan and Niall practicing sword-play on the urla, to the delight of Cormac, who watched from a safe distance. The boy had a stick clutched in one hand and was mimicking his father’s movements. I heard his clear laughter as he saw his mother coming towards them, saw him run towards her and hug her enthusiastically. She knelt and said something to him, and he ran off towards the feast-hall. Maelan must have seen her, too, because he signaled for the bout to end. Niall fell back, picked up the feather cloak that was never far from his side, and walked off to claim a kiss from his wife. Their passion was clear even at this distance, and I felt as if I was intruding on something private. It was uncomfortable enough that I took wing and flew off to spend a few quiet hours alone with my thoughts. As usual, the thinking I did turned to marriage, and I wondered if there was a mate for me anywhere in the world. I wondered how I’d know, and resolved to ask Niall how he’d known Sorcha was the one.
By the time the sun was setting, I’d actually decided on one thing. My mate was out there, and since she wasn’t going to come to me, I’d have to go looking for her. I knew where my search would start.
* * * *
“I’m going to spend some time at Dun-Righ,” I announced as the servants cleared away the remains our evening meal that night. “A month, perhaps two.”
Conversation stopped, and my brothers stared at me.
“This is sudden, Diarmuid,” Oscar murmured from his place at my left.
I’d actually given some thought to my supposed reason, wanting to save myself from the inevitable teasing from my brothers. “I’ve been doing some thinking,” I answered. “We’ve been remiss in our duty to the High King. I should remedy that lapse before people start to forget who and what we are.”
Oscar leaned back and smiled mockingly at me, “Oh? And is that the only reason?”
Damn the sorcerer! I looked away, and was surprised to see amusement on all the faces around our table. Niall was actually grinning at me.
“Diarmuid, you’ve been a little… obvious. We all know,” Petran said gently. “You’re going to the High King’s fortress to hunt for a mate.”
“There’s something in the air,” Ronan added. “All this marrying going on.”
I frowned, “What marrying? Ronan, did you actually find someone who’d put up with you?”
Ronan snorted as the others laughed. Oscar was the one who answered, “There was a messenger this evening. Eogan’s marrying in a month’s time. We’re all invited. This might turn out well for you, brother.”
I nodded, seeing what he meant. This very well might at that. When the High King wed, every high-born woman in the kingdom would be in attendance. My chances of finding my mate would be better than I previously hoped.
“We were debating this afternoon, who was going to go on ahead with the messenger, to guard the wedding gifts and the luggage,” Cuanu told me. “If you’re the one to go ahead, then you’ll be there when most of the guests arrive. It will give you more time.”
I nodded, “That makes sense. When would you join me?”
“It’s not that long a flight. Say… three weeks time?” Oscar said.
Niall coughed, looking oddly tense. He looked at Sorcha, who nodded and smiled at him. He didn’t smile back at her, instead drawing out of his pouch a metal case. It was a cunning device–inside the case were a stylus and a hollow space that he’d filled with beeswax. Niall might not have a voice, but he could still let us know what he was thinking. He wrote something, closed the case and passed it to Maelan, who opened it, coughed once, then passed the case down the table to me. I looked at Niall, then opened the case and read: Sorcha is pregnant and doesn’t want to fly so far right now. We’ll be staying here.
I burst out laughing, “Congratulations! We’ve another nestling on the way, brothers.”
When the waves of congratulations were over, Maelan yawned and rested his elbows on the table. “I’m thinking I don’t really want to make the flight either. The High King’s hall bores me to tears. If it’s all right with you, brother, I’ll stay behind as well, and we’ll keep Fergus here with us.”
“If that’s what you want, Maelan. Try to stay out of the tavern,” I answered lightly, pretending not to see the tension in Niall’s shoulders ease or Sorcha take his hand and run her thumb over his fingers in a comforting gesture. The others ignored it as well, knowing that to notice was to invite a fight. Even after five years, Niall still rarely left our walls, and could not bear to be alone, the lasting legacy of the ordeal that had cost him his voice. I knew that he could protect himself and his family–he had turned himself into one of the best fighters I’d ever seen, which was the reason none of us wanted to fight him. But not even a good sword and a strong arm could turn back the memories that still haunted him, and I was grateful to Maelan for stepping forward to stand between our youngest brother and those shadows.
Conversations trailed off in different directions, and before long, so did my brothers, each to his respective house and bed. I crossed the urla without really paying attention, my thoughts on my upcoming journey and what I hoped to find at the end of it. So intent was I on my planning that I nearly ran Niall down. He jumped back and laughed, eerily silent, then nodded towards my house and turned to go inside. Intrigued, I followed him.
“What is it?” I asked as he set the long, flat chest he was carrying down on my bed.
He shrugged one shoulder and opened the box, taking from it a bundle that he handed to me. I unwrapped it and found myself holding a sword, beautifully worked and balanced, with an amethyst the size of a raven’s egg set into the hilt. I admired it for a moment, then looked at Niall.
“I have a sword, Niall.”
He grinned and took out his wax tablet, writing something and handing it to me. I set the sword down and read: It’s a wedding present for Eogan.
“Oh. Niall, it’s a wonderful gift.”
He smiled and drew other things out of the box–a pair of finely worked armbands in silver and gold; a pair of matching torcs set with amethysts; an amethyst brooch in silver and gold, with ornate patterns of filigree and granulation; fine bronze and silver fibulae for a woman’s gown; delicate gold bracelets and filigree earrings; and matching rings bearing the emblem of a boar–the High King’s clan symbol. Niall laid them all out on my bed and stood back, waiting for my reaction. I looked at each piece in turn, then realized what this treasure trove meant and stared at my youngest brother in shock.
“You’ve accepted the offer?” I asked. “You’re going to serve as the High King’s smith?”
He grinned and nodded, and I could see the color rising in his face. Then he waved his hand over the treasures spread out on my bed, and I understood the other question he was asking. Was it enough? Was this a fitting tribute for the High King from his sworn man?
“Niall, it’s perfect. Eogan chose well. When will you go to court to…” I stopped. The question I wasn’t going to ask was just how Niall was going to swear allegiance to the High King? He shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair, then took up his tablet again, writing for a long time before handing the tablet to me.
When Eogan asked, he told me he was willing to take my oath in writing. So I wrote it up and Oscar witnessed for me. He’ll be taking it with him to the wedding. And Eogan understands that my forge will be here, and not at Dun-Righ. I know I should go to the wedding. But I’m not ready to deal with that many people staring at me. Will you carry this to Eogan for me?
I smiled and handed the tablet back to Niall. “Brother, I’d be happy to.”
* * * *
The next day was spent in preparations, making certain that everything was ready, packing clothing and gifts for the High King and his new bride, as well as a selection of pretty baubles that Niall insisted I take with me. For courting gifts, he informed me with a sly grin. I also met with the messenger, a slightly-built young man with gingery curls and a sharp face, who reminded me of a young fox, and who introduced himself as Turlach. I had always flown to the High King’s baile, so I wanted to know more about what to expect on the road. From Turlach, I learned that we would be on the road for nearly three days. This information fascinated me–in my raven form, I could cover the distance between Dun-Morrigan and Dun-Righ in a day. When I mentioned that to him, he laughed and pointed out that there was no straight road from the one to the other. I had flown over hills that a chariot could not pass through. Our way would take us away from Dun-Righ at first, towards the coast where we would pass our first night. The second day would take us along the coast and then inland through the bogs, camping that night in the shadow of the great forest of Uragh. We would pass through the forest and reach Dun-Righ near sunset on the third day. I found myself eager to leave, curious about this new way of traveling and looking forward to the trip and what I might find waiting at the end for me.
By the end of the first day, I was convinced that I should have flown. Roads are dusty and bumpy, chariots are unstable, and horses are slow. By the time we set our camp that night, I was tired and irritable, feeling as if the rough road had jarred loose every tooth in my mouth and rattled every bone in my body. At least Turlach wasn’t laughing at me. Or if he was, he wasn’t doing it where I could see him. Once we had made camp, I shifted form and took to the skies, stretching my wings for the first time since we’d left Dun-Morrigan. I didn’t go far–I was the guard, after all–but I could see nothing beneath me but sand and rocks, scrubby bushes and stunted trees, and the rolling vastness of the sea. I soared higher and higher, until my breath grew thin and I could go no further, imagining that I could just barely see over the edge of the world. Then I laughed and spiraled slowly back to earth, shifting to human form and landing a few feet from where Turlach was ladling fragrant stew into bowls. He smiled as he handed a bowl to me.
“Feel better?” he asked. “You seemed… uncomfortable the last few miles.”
I smiled in return, “Yes, I do. Thank you.” We ate in silence, passing a skin of mead back and forth across the fire and watching the stars appear one by one over our heads. Once we were finished, I cleaned the bowls and the pot while Turlach rolled himself in his cloak and went to sleep. When the moon set, I would wake him to guard while I slept, but for now I sat with my back against a large rock, staring up at the skies and thinking.
Night watches are long and boring, and even more so when an aerial inspection has already showed that there are no humans for miles in any direction. I sighed and listened to Turlach snore, letting my thoughts wander. Wondering what it would be like, to mate. I was no stranger to bed-play, but I thought that there must be something different to it when it was with your mate. Something more. I tried to think what it might be, what it possibly could be. Perhaps it was the mead, or the moonlight, or my own fertile imagination, but I found myself growing aroused. I tried to ignore it, tried to turn my thoughts to other, more mundane, things, until at last the torment grew too great for me to bear.
Moving as quietly as I could, I stood and walked a short way down the beach, making certain that I could still see the camp and the fire. I made short work of my clothes, stripping out of my feather cloak, my shirt and trews before lying down on the water-smoothed rocks that were still warm from the sun. Slowly, I ran my fingers over my cock, humming softly under my breath as a shiver of pleasure raced through me. Pausing to spit into my hand, I resumed my play, tightening my fingers around my shaft, running my thumb over the head, pumping slowly at first, letting my mind range and call forth memories of some of the women I’d bedded, thinking especially of one in particular: Nuala.
Our brief tryst was doomed to failure from the start–for some reason she never explained, she disliked children. She could barely tolerate the then five-year-old twins, and she’d left me when Mother had brought two-year-old Cuanu to the baile. Despite that, I still remembered her fondly, and she often featured in my late-night fantasies. She’d been a lively one, willing to do or try anything having to do with sex, and she’d delighted in pinning me to the bed and playing with my cock until I begged for her to mount me. Having a lover who didn’t defer to me was a new experience, and having someone who took such immense pleasure in dominating me in bed was intensely arousing.
I remembered her laughing as she sat on my stomach with her back to me, rolling my cock between her warm, greased hands before she started playing. Then it was one hand on my cock, pumping hard, and the other hand playing with my testicles before dipping lower to slide her long, clever fingers into my arse. When I could no longer bear her toying with me, and when she finally deigned to listen to my pleas, she turned to face me and slowly lowered herself down onto my cock, taking me deep inside. Then, unbelievably, she sat there, her arms folded across her chest, her eyes sparkling, daring me to do something. Anything. I closed my eyes, biting down on a moan as I started pumping harder, remembering how I ran my hands up Nuala’s sides, pulling her down onto my chest and then rolling onto my side so that we were facing each other, her leg thrown over my hip. Holding her like that, I started to move, slowly at first, watching the high color bloom on her face as she moaned. I cut off her moans with a kiss, and she ran her nails over my ribs and up my back, her leg on my hip tightening as she started moving faster against me, urging me on. That was all the encouragement I needed–I pushed her onto her back and braced myself on my arms so that I could thrust as hard as I knew she liked. At the first stroke, she yowled and locked her legs around my hips, pushing up against me and raking her nails down my chest. Moving as one, we neither of us lasted for very long, and fell together to lay in a sated, sweaty tangle in the middle of the ruin that had been my bed.
On the beach, I gasped as I came, biting down on my lip so that my moans would not wake Turlach. My seed splattered all over the cool evening sand, and I lay there on the slowly-chilling rock and once again wondered what had ever become of Nuala…
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