Princes of Air by Elizabeth Schechter

ebook $5.99
ISBN 9781613900383
62,710 words

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Long ago, the Raven-Goddess Morrigan bore nine sons; each of them was gifted by their mother with the ability to change their shape and fly as ravens. Their mother charged them with the task of protecting the people of Eire, and gave them each another gift — the ability to recognize their one true mate.

Niall, the youngest of the nine, believes his mate lost forever, and discovers how wrong he is when he is taken captive by Arlaith, a power-mad woman who seeks to overthrow the High King. Arlaith’s plans unleash an ancient evil that threatens the people, the land itself, and any hope of happiness that Niall and his brothers might have.

The path to finding a mate isn’t always easy. The brothers soon discover that if they want to find the ones with whom they’ll spend the rest of forever, they’re going to need more than their mother’s gift — that is, assuming that they can manage to survive long enough to defeat an undead monster with a taste for immortal blood.

And now, an excerpt from PRINCES OF AIR:

In ages past, the gods and goddesses of ancient Eire walked the wide world, dallying with mortals and meddling in their affairs, causing wars and ending them, making alliances and breaking them, playing fidchell with living pieces. Some of these immortals, for amusement or out of boredom, chose to procreate with their especially favored mortals. Thus there came to be in Eire a race of demigods, who lived as part of the world and yet apart from it.

Such it was with the Morrigan, the Great Queen, Goddess of War and of Fertility. Nine Princes of Air there were, nine sons of the Morrigan, each gifted by their mother with the mortal magics of their unknown fathers, and with the power to take on human form or a raven’s wings, as it pleased them. When they took on their human guises, they walked as princes among men, each one a warrior, and each wearing a cloak of raven feathers that clearly marked them as Other. The Raven Boys, the old folks called them, those who remembered the days when the Morrigan brought the first of her sons to live in their mountain home. They remembered, and they warned the foolhardy against testing the mettle of the children of the gods.

Despite the warnings, there were those who never listened…

Part One: Raven Boy

My name is Niall. I am called Niall Gobha, Niall the smith, and I am the youngest of the Raven Boys, having seen only nineteen summers come and go. Youngest and most foolish, I admit that now. I’m told that there are others like my brothers and me, other children of foreign gods, who also wear their seemings in their skins, and who can take those skins off and walk among men as we do. There are swan girls, I’ve heard, daughters of some river god whose name is unknown to me, who live far to the south and west, and who act as guardians for some treasure hidden beneath the waters. To the north, there are the great gray seals who live in the wild northern sea and only come on land once every seven years to mate with mortal kind, and with whom my oldest brother Diarmuid claims to have spoken in his travels. I wonder now if any of them have fallen as I have done?

As I said, I was a fool. Never did it occur to me that the men who live in the lands that surround Dun-Morrigan, our mountain baile, would learn that there was a secret that we hid in the folds of our raven-feather cloaks. Never did I dream that there could be anyone even half so clever as one of the Morrigan’s sons. Never did I ever think that there would be a mortal so daring, or perhaps so foolish, that they would think they could challenge the child of a goddess and win. And if my brothers, older than I and wise in their years, had ever thought to warn me of such things, then that warning was lost in the reckless arrogance of youth.

Yes, I was arrogant as well as foolish. I admit that, too. I will also admit to being blind, but for that blindness, there was a reason that had its roots in more than my age and my inexperience. Ravens dally where they will, but when they mate, they mate for life, and the woman who would have been my mate had died two years before. It was a harsh thing, to know at seventeen that you were doomed to spend the rest of your life alone, with neither wife nor children to warm your autumn years. The pain of that loss still haunted me, for I’d lived with Sorcha and her father, the smith Cormac, for three years while I’d learned the smith’s craft and the ways of forge magic. Somehow, in all that time, I never realized what Sorcha meant to me, never knew that somehow, some instinct had pinned all of my future happiness on her crooked smile. It was half a year before I understood the meanings behind the ever-increasing erotic dreams that had kept me from sleeping since I’d left Cormac’s forge, before I took wing to return to my red-haired beauty and make her my own. But by then, it was too late; when I landed on the hill overlooking Cormac’s forge, the ashes had already been cold for weeks. To this day, I’ve no memory of how I returned to Dun-Morrigan. All I know is that I spent the next six days hiding in the rafters of my forge, refusing to take my human form, barely eating, sleeping only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. My brothers eventually puzzled out what had happened, and I heard them whispering as they watched me, murmuring “inadvertent mating” and “pining away” in tones that made me want to scream. Somewhere in the middle of the sixth night, I slipped from my feathers and slept as a human in my own bed for the first time in a week; and woke the next morning howling with pain and sorrow, my dreams haunted by the image of Sorcha dying in flames.

There are, I’ve found, benefits to taking my human form over my raven one. Thumbs, for one. And that morning, I discovered another: ravens cannot cry. I wept for what felt like hours in Diarmuid’s arms, until at last there was nothing left inside me, save only an emptiness that I knew would never be filled.

Some, faced with that emptiness, try to fill it with their craft, but working at my forge brought me no peace. There were too many memories there, memories of my lessons with Cormac, and of Sorcha working at my side. She had not a drop of forge-magic, but her skill at fine-work, at delicate filigree and the excruciatingly painstaking art of granulation that I never mastered, was unsurpassed. After a month of seeing ghosts in the shadows, I cleaned my forge and then left it to gather dust, moving to sleep on the floor of the house belonging to my next oldest brother, Maelan. It was he who first brought me down to Scath, the village below Dun-Morrigan, and to the tavern there. There, I learned that mortal men sometimes attempt to fill the void with wine or strong ale, but I also soon found that ravens have no head for drink. I succeeded only in making myself shamefully ill, and in losing my virginity to a sweet girl named Bride, who listened to my ravings, heard the pain beneath them, and tried to offer healing the best way she knew. In her arms, I found something approaching the peace that I craved, and she and I were lovers for months. She taught me with a gentle hand, urged me to tell her about Sorcha, and helped me mourn. When she eventually married the miller’s son, I fired my forge and gifted her and her new husband with every piece of metalwork that they could possibly need for their new home. They named their first son Niall, an honor I wish I deserved.

After Bride came Maeve, a bard as wild and intoxicating as the warrior queen for whom she was named. From her I relearned passion, and I learned again how to laugh. She knew I would never truly love her, and she didn’t care–she lived for the moment, and when she tired of me, she left, leaving me with a kiss, a song that she had written for me, and a lighter heart than I’d had in a very long while. And yet, as the snow faded to a memory and the trees all turned to green, I could feel the old, familiar despair start to creep back into my soul. That was what drove me into the skies, and into the arms of the woman who would prove to be my downfall.

* * * *

It was a spring so new that it was still raw around the edges, and I had taken wing to dance among the clouds, once again trying to flee from my memories. I hoped to find a maiden in the fields, one whom I could entice into my arms for an afternoon with promises of pleasure and a golden trinket or two, and who might find me pleasing enough to want more than an afternoon. In one of the hidden pools that dot the hills, I thought I found what I was seeking: a woman, bathing in the cold, clear water. She was graceful as a willow, with full breasts and long, nut-brown hair that streamed past her waist. Not as beautiful as Sorcha had been, but pretty in her own way. I perched on a branch above the pool and watched her, trying to decide how best to approach her without causing her any alarm. That was when I saw a man creeping through the high grass towards the water’s edge. I saw the sunlight shining off the blade in his hand, and called a low warning to the woman in the water. She looked up at me and laughed, then turned and waded towards the shore, where I could see her clothing waiting. As she reached the water’s edge, the man rose, a cruel look on his scarred face, his knife ready. I forsook discretion and was on the wing before the woman had a chance to scream, changing forms in mid-air and landing in front of her with my sword bared and ready. The would-be rapist gaped at me for a moment, then took to his heels and ran.

At any other time, I’d have followed him, done more than simply frighten him into flight, but I was unwilling to leave the woman alone after her fright. My lust cooled, my thoughts turned instead to protecting an innocent, and I sheathed my sword and turned to face her. Up close, she was prettier than I’d previously thought, with a spray of freckles like gold dust across her nose, and rich, hazel eyes. And, to my surprise and amusement, she was a full three fingers taller than I was.

She stared at me for a moment, then her eyes flickered over my shoulder towards the distant mountain and she sank gracefully to her knees. “My lord, thank you,” she said as she slowly looked up; I was startled to see her gaze lingering just below my belt. When she finally met my eyes again, she smiled. “May I know the name of my rescuer, oh Prince of Air?”

Intrigued, I held my hand out to help her to stand. “Niall. Niall Gobha mac Morrigan. What’s your name? And where do you live?”

Her smile grew wider as she took my hand. As she got to her feet, she ran one hand up my arm in a firm caress that left goose-flesh in its wake. “A smith. I should have guessed that,” she murmured. “You’re so strong. My name is Arlaith inghean Eochada.” She gestured towards the south, “My home is on the other side of that hill. It’s not far.”

I nodded and stepped back, feeling the heat of her touch as sharply as if it was the flames of my own forge, and trying very hard to ignore it. She’d nearly been attacked–the last thing she would want was my attentions. I stooped, picked up her gown, and held it out to her, “Here, dress yourself. I’ll see you safely home.” She took the gown, and I turned away to allow her privacy to dress.

“You were watching me,” she said, and I couldn’t tell if she was amused or angry.

“Yes, I was. I apologize,” I admitted, feeling a flush of embarrassment. I’d never been caught spying on someone before.

To my surprise, she took my arm again, turning me to face her. I could see her gown abandoned on the ground behind her. “You saved my life. How can I offer any complaint?” She moved closer to me, a small smile on her face, a flush growing on her cheeks. “Tell me, my hero. Is there no way I can repay your kindness?” She took another step, pressed her body against mine, wrapped her arms around my neck, and kissed me.

I swear, by Mother’s tail feathers, until that moment I had put aside all thoughts of a tryst. I was fully intending to bring this woman back to her home and then take wing back to Dun-Morrigan. That was before I found myself with a lovely naked woman in my arms, her lips on mine, her hands sliding down my chest to work at my belt. Her skin was cool from the waters of the pool, warming under my touch as I ran my hands down her back, pulling her closer, feeling her wet hair tangling through my fingers. With quick motions she stripped me of my cloak of feathers and my leather jerkin, loosened the waist of my trews, and drew me down to lie with her, hidden in the sun-warmed grass…

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Princes of Air
by Elizabeth Schechter

The Raven-Goddess Morrigan granted two gifts to her nine sons: the ability to shift from raven to human form and to recognize their soulmates. Even for demi-gods, the path to true love is never smooth. The brothers have drawn the attention of a family of mages who will stop at nothing to gain power. Each brother will make sacrifices to keep his mate alive and protect their land from harm.

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