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A sample from TWO RAVENS AND ONE CROW by Kevin Hearne

Enjoy the beginning of Two Ravens and One Crow, a novella set in the world of the Iron Druid Chronicles series, described by SFF World as ‘Neil Gaiman’s American Gods meets Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden’

What would it be like, I wonder, if humans could slobber as freely as dogs? There’s no social stigma for dogs when they slobber and it looks like a lot of fun, so I envy them that freedom. I’ve certainly wanted to slobber at various times—there are situations where nothing else makes sense—but despite having lived for 2,100 years and in many countries around the world, I have yet to find a culture where it’s even mildly acceptable, much less looked upon with approval.

I guess some things will never change.

Despite the universe’s refusal to change enduring truths according to my will, lately I’ve been wishing I could train a Druid in a five-minute karate-movie montage rather than the necessary twelve years. After ten seconds of futile effort trying to solve a problem, the initiate would abruptly improve or learn the lesson and her expression would fill with wonder, and I would award said initiate a cookie or a tight nod of approval. The initiate would bask in the glory of an achievement and then move on to the next difficult challenge for another ten seconds, and so on, until a triumphant swell of music and a slow-motion high-five signaled victory and completion. We would smile the radiant smiles of actors in fast-food commercials, merrily chuckling as we ate enough grease to make our hearts explode like meat grenades.

But training my apprentice, Granuaile, wasn’t like that at all. Shaping her mind for Druidry was rough and monotonous for both of us, yet shaping her body was fraught with peril. The peril was the sort Sir Galahad had faced at Castle Anthrax: stupefying sexual tension.

Every winter solstice, I gave my apprentice an entire wardrobe of loose, shapeless sweats, and she kept buying herself tight, form-fitting outfits to wear in the summer months. I had trained my Irish wolfhound, Oberon, to help me through it and be my Lancelot whenever Granuaile made my jaw drop, which was more often than I would care to admit. She’d go through her kicks and lunges and various stances and build up a sweat, then I’d start thinking about other ways to get sweaty, and shortly thereafter I’d need to be rescued.

Can’t I have just a little bit of peril? I would ask Oberon through our mental link.

<No, it’s too perilous,> he’d say, and then I’d have to give him a snack, which would force me to tear my eyes away from Granuaile and redirect my thoughts into less prurient channels. It might sound silly, but it was self-preservation.

Granuaile picked up on the pattern after a while, unfortunately.

“Sensei?” she asked.

“Yes?”

“Why are you always leaving about halfway through a workout to give Oberon a snack?”

<To hide the evidence of his BLISTERING PASSION—>

“What? Well, he’s a good dog.”

<To sequester the sight of his UNTRAMMELED LUST—>

“Granted, but he’s a good dog all the time, and the only times you interrupt what you’re doing to give him a snack are during workouts.”

<To conceal the tower of his CARNAL DESIRE—>

“I reward him sometimes for using big words. And sometimes I reward him for shutting up.”

<To delay the dawning of his ENORMOUS LONGING—>

Now would be a good time to shut up.

<I’d better get a snack.>

Deal.

“So what did he say just now?” Granuaile asked.

“I’m sorry, but that’s classified information.”

Oberon chuffed, and Granuaile’s eyes narrowed. She knew the dog was laughing, blast him, and now she’d be determined to find out what he thought was so funny.

I was saved by the arrival of an extremely large crow. It spat out “Caw!” at Klaxon-level volume, landing on top of our trailer. It startled us all, including Oberon, who barked at it a couple of times. The bird’s eyes glowed red and he stopped, tucking his head down and retracting his tail between his legs.

“Morrigan?” I said.

The red glow faded from the crow’s eyes as she tilted her head and spoke in a throaty rasp, “Surprise, Siodhachan.” The Celtic Chooser of the Slain would never call me Atticus. The head bobbed once at my apprentice. “Granuaile.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked, because the Morrigan did not make social calls. I belatedly realized that I should have offered her refreshment or adhered to some standard of hospitality, but thankfully the Morrigan was too focused on her mission to notice my awful manners.

The crow rustled her wings and announced, “We have business to attend to. You will be gone for at least a week but perhaps two. You won’t need to bring anything, not even a weapon. Shift to your bird form and let us be gone.”

“Wait, wait. I’m going to need more of an explanation than that. Can’t my apprentice come, or my hound?”

“No. Definitely not. Our business does not concern them.”

<That’s fine with me. I’ll happily stay behind,> Oberon said.

I glanced uncertainly at Granuaile, and she shrugged.

“You say we’ll be gone two weeks?”

“At the most. But we must begin immediately. Make haste.”

Arguing with the Morrigan would be unwise. Spending at least a week with her—maybe two—would not be any wiser.

I’m doomed, aren’t I?

<Yep. It was good to be your hound.>

“You’re not doomed,” the Morrigan said, and I belatedly remembered that she could read my mind now—or at least hear thoughts that I projected. “But you will be if you don’t hurry up.”

I turned to Granuaile. “Take a few days off if you wish. You’ve earned it. But continue to practice your languages and work out every day.”

“Okay, sensei. Maybe Oberon and I will head up to Durango.” Our place in Many Farms was just over a hundred miles southwest of there. She fingered her hair, dyed a brown so dark it might as well be black. “I can get this mess fixed up. It’s time.”

Her roots were beginning to show again, which meant mine were too. Our ridiculous fake identities had served us well in this remote location; we kept to ourselves and no one really gave a damn about us. Aside from the embarrassment of our assumed names—the trickster, Coyote, had fixed it so we had to call ourselves Sterling Silver and Betty Baker in public—we liked living and training in Many Farms. Taken all around, Coyote had done us a solid, and he in turn was mighty pleased about the way his renewable-energy projects were coming along, thanks to my help. Six years had done him and the tribe a world of good; the coal mine was shut down forever now that Coyote’s ventures were creating lots of jobs.

“All right. You know the drill, right? If I don’t come back—”

“I’m supposed to call Hal Hauk, I know,” Granuaile said. “He’s got your will. But you won’t make me do that.”

“I sure hope not. See you later.” I ducked into the trailer to undress before I shifted, and the Morrigan squawked impatiently.

<Hey, Atticus, bring back some wildebeest flanks, will you?>

Where do you think I’m going? I said as I threw my shirt into the hamper.

<I don’t know. I’ve just always wanted to say that. It makes me sound like a boss when I can casually order up some wildebeest.  Or it sounds like something Dr. Seuss might say: We’re going to have a feast. A feast! On some wonderfully succulent wildebeest.>

If you wanted to go hunting for wildebeest, you should have said so. Listen, watch Granuaile for me, will you?

<I always do.>

Divested of my clothes, I triggered the charm on my necklace that bound my form to a great horned owl and hopped over to the door.

Thanks, buddy. I’ll have to owe you that snack. Though I’m sure Granuaile will completely spoil you while I’m gone.

<She always does.>

I hopped down from the trailer doorway and hooted a good-bye to Granuaile. The Morrigan flapped her wings noisily and launched herself to the southeast.

Come, Siodhachan, her voice said in my mind. I shuddered and took wing after her. I didn’t like having her in my head, though at the moment I had to admit it was convenient. Unlike the Morrigan, I couldn’t speak like a human while in bird form.

<So what’s the emergency?> I asked her. We were flying toward Canyon de Chelly, where we could find a tree bound to Tír na nÓg and shift out of the state.

You need to repair your tattoo, the Morrigan replied.

<You mean the back of my hand? That’s been messed up for six years.> Ever since I’d been chewed on by a giant locust—courtesy of Coyote’s attempt to save the world—my ability to heal myself had been damaged. Colorado (the elemental, not the state) had taken care of what few needs I’d had since then, because I’d known all along that at some point the Morrigan would have to be the one who doctored my tats. The problem with that was that, unlike most doctors, the Morrigan didn’t agree with the credo of “First, do no harm.” The rest of the Tuatha Dé Danann thought I was dead—at least, I hoped they did—so I was stuck with the Morrigan as my ink slinger.

You have procrastinated long enough.

I stopped flapping my wings out of shock and dropped like a stone for a second before I recovered. The Morrigan was not a type A personality who worried about procrastination—hers or anyone else’s.

<What’s really going on? Have you seen something coming? Some reason I’ll need to heal?>

One thing at a time, Siodhachan.

<Fine. What’s really going on? You’re not worried about procrastination.>

She didn’t answer. She kept flying as if I hadn’t said anything and allowed me time to realize that she wasn’t going to answer any more questions, whether I asked them one at a time or not. This was highly unusual behavior for the Morrigan. Usually she couldn’t wait to tell me about all the dire shit that was about to befall me. Pronouncing my imminent doom held a certain relish for her. I couldn’t understand why she was being so closemouthed now, but my curiosity was piqued.

We shifted from Canyon de Chelly to a deserted patch of Tír na nÓg, where no Fae would see us, and then from there to a damp gray fen in Ireland, surrounded by yew trees, that the Morrigan called her own. She led me to a barrow that I suppose I should call her home or estate or perhaps a simple dwelling, but those words don’t really fit the feel of the place so much as the word lair. The Morrigan was a bit too savage to live in a home; she could rock a lair like nobody else, though. Bones, I noticed, were a strong decorative motif. Skulls too. Perhaps that subconsciously tilted me toward the word lair instead of home; few homes are so abundantly adorned with bones—especially ones that the owner has quite probably gnawed on.

We flew straight through an open portal into a longish tunnel lit by torches, until we emerged in a large chamber with a table and a single chair. It had a pitcher resting on it and a lone goblet made of carved and polished wood. Clearly the Morrigan was unaccustomed to entertaining visitors.

The Morrigan shifted in midair so that her feet touched down lightly and gracefully next to the table. I tried to do the same thing and discovered that the graceful bit was something that one achieves only after much practice. My momentum was far greater than I had judged it to be, and I stumbled toward the table. I panicked as I realized that some very vulnerable body parts were about to be squashed into the edge of the table, so I twisted as best as I could and instead smashed my hip against it. Did I mention the table was stone? My entire leg went numb and I crumpled to the ground at the Morrigan’s feet with a pained groan.

The Morrigan laughed hysterically. I’d heard her laugh before, but it had always been evil-genius laughter, not genuine mirth.

It really was ground that we lay on, and not tile or marble or anything else. There was nothing to prevent us from contacting the earth here. And nothing to prevent me from blushing, because the Morrigan was laughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes. She sounded almost girlish, but I carefully refrained from noting this out loud and did my best to banish it from my thoughts as well.

Seeing that she would be at it for some time, I took the opportunity to examine my surroundings a bit better; it would distract me while I waited for the pain in my hip to subside. (If I drew any power to smoosh the pain, the Morrigan would feel it and laugh all the more.)

There were two other entrances to the chamber, equidistant from the one we had used. They were lit similarly and lined with bones on the walls. A wrought-iron chandelier with candles in it blazed above our heads.

The chamber was circular, I now realized, the very center of a barrow-mound with three entrances. It seemed like an awful lot of effort had gone into building such a plain room. There wasn’t even a hearth with some questionable stew bubbling in a cauldron.

“What is this place?”

The Morrigan took her time in answering. Once she had wound down, she said, “It is a place for rituals. For mortals it is a place of mystery and dread. Now, thanks to you, it is a place for laughter.”

I chose to ignore that last bit. “I see no thorn bush here.” The tattoos that bound us to the earth had to be made with a living plant; Gaia would be present in our minds and direct the process.

“The ritual spaces are all hidden. Come.” She rose to her feet and brushed dust off her body. I rose too, limping a little, and followed her down the passageway to our left. After maybe ten yards she paused and faced the bony wall to her right. “The doors are easily seen with your magical sight. Mortals would never find them.”

Before I could shift my sight to the magical spectrum, she touched an inconspicuous knob of bone, which pushed in like a button, and a section of the bone wall sank backward and then shifted left with a hiss of air. Pneumatics. The Morrigan must have seen the surprise register on my face.

“I know you think me old-fashioned and resistant to change,” she said. “And that is probably not without merit. I still prefer the sword to the firearm. But I think I may have learned something from you. Many somethings. Come.”

She stepped through the door into a humid indoor garden ripe with oxygen and floral scents that tickled the nose. A glass ceiling turned the chamber into a sort of conservatory; along the top of the walls, near the ceiling, bindings carved into the surface spoke of abundance, fertility, and harmony. And, underneath those, bindings that meant the above were to apply liberally to all living things in the room. It was the sort of general, nontargeted binding that my cold iron aura had difficulty suppressing; I’d have to ward specifically against it if I didn’t want to fall prey to it, but, honestly, why would I bother?

Wait. As Hamlet said, That would be scanned. Harmony with the Morrigan?

More alarming: abundance and fertility . . . with the Morrigan?

I needed to change the subject quickly, even though the subject was only in my head. The Morrigan might spot it there.

“You know, Morrigan, I’ve been meaning to speak with you about how I got this wound,” I said, gesturing to my scarred right hand. “You were nearby at the time. You could have stepped in and prevented it, yet you didn’t. I could have died, and you would have broken your word.”

The Morrigan blew air through her nose in a sort of halfhearted snort, and a corner of her mouth turned up. “Why are you paying attention to what might have happened? Tell me what did happen.”

“I suffered unnecessarily.”

The mention of suffering caused the Morrigan to close her eyes in pleasure and make a yummy noise. “The necessity can be debated. But you lived. I never broke my word.”

“But it was an awfully close thing, Morrigan. A skinwalker tore out my throat—”

“And you healed,” she finished. “I have been faithful in my promise to you. I never promised that you would remain free from injury or suffering. For one thing, that would have interfered with my sex life.”

I flinched and took a step back. The Morrigan noticed and laughed. “Speaking of which, Siodhachan, how is yours of late? Do you even have one?”

“Yes, I have one,” I replied. I did my best to keep my tone matter-of-fact rather than sullen. It was more difficult than I thought it would be.

Her disbelief was clear. “You keep a mistress in that tiny town?”

“No. We head into Farmington or Durango on the weekends, or Gallup and Flagstaff on occasion. We both have various partners in these places willing to, uh, spend time with us.”

“Your gift for euphemism continues to thrive. But I think I have heard of such modern relationships. There is a colloquialism for them, yes? They are boogie calls.”

“Boogie? Oh! Nice try. You were very close. They’re known as booty calls.”

“That’s what I said. Booty calls.”

“You said boogie—” The Morrigan’s eyes flashed red for the briefest moment, and I cleared my throat. “Pardon me. I must have misheard you. Quite right.”

“So your apprentice has these booty calls as well?”

I shrugged. “As far as I know. It’s not really my business. She’s had a steady boyfriend or five over the years. She got a marriage proposal, too, which she rejected.”

“And you were not jealous?”

“It’s not my place to be jealous, because I have made it very clear to her that we cannot have a relationship beyond that of master and apprentice.”

“I didn’t ask about your place or anything regarding propriety. I want to know how you feel about her dalliances. Are you jealous?”

I considered. To claim I was completely indifferent would be dishonest. And there were times, perhaps, when Granuaile was a bit too eager to share her conquests with me. After she first met her boyfriend in Durango, she reported that “he was so hot that he damn near made my ovaries explode.” But that was as it should be; there was no reason for Granuaile to settle for anything less than hotness. Neither should she settle for anything less than joy. I hoped she would find someone to provide that for her since I couldn’t. For my part, I had not been trying very hard lately, and despite the general truth of what I’d told the Morrigan, I hadn’t made a booty call in quite some time. There were many beautiful, delightful, intelligent women in the area, especially in the college towns, but somehow they all fell short of Granuaile in my eyes, and I had been choosing to do without rather than settle for a sort of surrogate. It wasn’t celibacy, I told myself. It was high standards.

“No,” I finally said. “She is my apprentice but isn’t mine in any other sense. I am a tad envious of her partners, perhaps, but nothing more. I am happy for her happiness.”

The Morrigan scoffed openly. “Happiness? Neither of you is happy. Your auras scream of repression.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“It is not. Sexual repression is conduct unbecoming a Celt.”

I shrugged. “Better that than having to deal with guilt ferrets.”

“What are guilt ferrets?”

“They’re bastards. They cling to your neck and tickle and bite and generally make you miserable, which is a pretty good trick for a metaphor.” They were also impervious to logic—perhaps their most diabolical power. There was no cause for me to feel guilty about any liaisons with other women, since Granuaile and I were not in a relationship and monogamy was not required, but the guilt ferrets attacked me anyway every time.

“I dislike guilt,” the Morrigan said. “It is regret and recrimination and despair over that which cannot be changed. It is like eating ashes for breakfast. It is the whip that clerics use on the laity, making the sheep slaves to whatever moral code the shepherds espouse. It is a catalyst for suicide and untold other acts of selfishness and stupidity. I cannot think of a more poisonous emotion.”

“I don’t like it either,” I admitted.

“So why do you bother to feel it?” the Morrigan asked.

“Because an inability to feel guilt points to sociopathic tendencies.”

The Morrigan made a purring noise deep in her throat, and her hands rose to pinch her nipples. “Oh, Siodhachan. Are you suggesting I’m a sociopath? You always say the sweetest things.”

I took a step back and raised my own hands defensively. “No. No, that wasn’t meant to be sweet or flirtatious or anything.”

“What’s the matter, Siodhachan?”

“Nothing. I’m just not being sweet.”

The Morrigan’s eyes dropped. “Fair enough. Looks to me like you’re scared stiff.”

I looked down and discovered that the sodding abundance and fertility bindings weren’t messing around.

“Ignore that guy,” I said, pointing down. “He’s always intruding on my conversations and poking his head in where he’s not wanted.”

“But what if I want him?” The Morrigan had an expression on her face that was almost playful; it humanized her, and for a moment I forgot she was a bloodthirsty harbinger of death and realized how stunningly attractive she was. She reminded me of one of those old Patrick Nagel prints, except very much in three dimensions and far more sexy. I found it difficult to come up with a clever reply, perhaps because most of the blood that used to keep my brain functioning well had relocated elsewhere.

“Well, um. Uh. Pretend I’m saying something witty right now. Also: nnnn—” I couldn’t say no. I wanted to, but I was physically unable to say it. I kept trying. “Nnnn…”

The Morrigan laughed and drew closer, taking me into her hand. I tensed up, expecting pain. She chuckled a bit more about that and leaned forward to whisper in my ear.

“Relax, Siodhachan. You have nothing to fear. You saw the bindings for harmony in this room. They work on me too. There can’t be harmony if you’re terrified, now, can there? So we will do it your way. This once.”

Harmony, I discovered, could be horrifying. That was what kept me from saying no. There couldn’t be open disagreement in the presence of these bindings. Combined with fertility and abundance, what the Morrigan currently wanted was precisely what the bindings wanted. I was the one out of harmony, so I felt the force of it. I thought of simply exiting the room, and managed a single step before my legs refused to move any farther in that direction. “Do we have to do it at all?” I said, desperately.

“You need it. So do I. And I can play nice when I want to.” Her words fell on my ear in soft warm puffs of breath, and she stroked me gently to prove she spoke the truth. My eyes closed and then snapped back open as I realized what was happening.

“But . . .”

“Shh.”

“Weren’t we supposed to be in a hurry?”

“I allowed for some wiggle room.”

She kissed me, preventing any other protest, and played nice. But the physical pleasure didn’t come with a side of emotional fulfillment. A zoo full of guilt ferrets bit me the whole time.

About the Author

Kevin Hearne is a native of Arizona and really appreciates whoever invented air-conditioning. He graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and now teaches high school English. When he’s not grading essays or writing novels, he tends to his basil plants and paints landscapes with his daughter. He has been known to obsess over fonts, frolic unreservedly with dogs and stop whatever he’s doing in the rare event of rain to commune with the precipitation. He enjoys hiking, the guilty pleasure of comic books and living with his wife and daughter in a wee, snug cottage.