Stealing the Wind #1
Taren Laxley has never known anything but life as a slave. When a lusty pirate kidnaps him and holds him prisoner on his ship, Taren embraces the chance to realize his dream of a seagoing life. Not only does the pirate captain offer him freedom in exchange for three years of labor and sexual servitude, but the pleasures Taren finds when he joins the captain and first mate in bed far surpass his greatest fantasies.
Then, during a storm, Taren dives overboard to save another sailor and is lost at sea. He’s rescued by Ian Dunaidh, the enigmatic and seemingly ageless captain of a rival ship, the Phantom, and Taren feels an overwhelming attraction to Ian that Ian appears to share. Soon Taren learns a secret that will change his life forever: Ian and his people are Ea, shape-shifting merfolk… and Taren is one of them too. Bound to each other by a fierce passion neither can explain or deny, Taren and Ian are soon embroiled in a war and forced to fight for a future—not only for themselves but for all their kind.
Into the Wind #2
Since learning of his merman shifter heritage, Taren has begun building a life with Ian Dunaidh among the mainland Ea. But memories of his past life still haunt him, and as the threat of war with the hostile island merfolk looms ever closer, Taren fears he will lose Ian the same way he lost his beloved centuries before. Together they sail to the Gateway Islands in search of the fabled rune stone—a weapon of great power the Ea believe will protect them—and Odhrán, the pirate rumored to possess it.
After humans attack the Phantom, Taren finds himself washed up on an island, faced with a mysterious boy named Brynn who promises to lead him to Odhrán. But Taren isn’t sure if he can trust Brynn, and Odhrán is rumored to enslave Ea to protect his stronghold. Taren will have to put his life on the line to find his way back to Ian and attempt to recover the stone. Even if he does find it, his troubles are far from over: he and Ian are being stalked by an enemy who wants them dead at all costs.
(Previous combined review for 1 & 2)
I have to say that I never thought I would get so involved with the characters in a series about merman. I've always been interested in myth and legends but just never once thought about reading a story revolving around merman. But, I love this series! The characters grabbed me from the get go. My heart went out to Taren from the minute his master gave him away in place of his debt. I won't lie that my heart was torn when meeting Ian for the first time but eventually, he too wormed his way into the good side of my heart. I do no spoilers so I'll say no more in regards to the plot.
I will say that I owe my reading this series to some friends and I thank them for the recommendation because I am the first to admit I would probably never have given these titles a second look had it not been for them. Having said that, I mean no negativity towards the author, it's just merman as a fictional topic never would have even crossed my mind. Thankfully, it crossed my friends' minds because without their recommendations, I would have missed some well written story telling.
Running with the Wind #3
With the final confrontation between the island and mainland Ea factions looming, Taren and Ian sail with Odhrán to investigate a lost colony of merfolk in the Eastern Lands. Upon their arrival, the King of Astenya welcomes them as friends. Odhrán, however, isn’t so quick to trust the descendent of the man who held him prisoner for nearly a decade, especially now that he has someone to cherish and protect—the mysterious winged boy he rescued from the depths.
Armed with the knowledge he believes will save the Ea, Taren returns to the mainland. With Ian at his side, Taren convinces Vurin that their people must unite with their island brethren before it’s too late. When Seria and his men attack, Taren must call upon the ancient power of the rune stone to protect his comrades. But using the stone’s immeasurable power commands a hefty price—and Ian fears that price is Taren’s life.
I am so torn about Running with the Wind, on one hand I couldn't wait to jump in the minute it showed up on my kindle but then I also knew it was the finale and that it would be the end of Taren and Ian, so I wanted to take it slow. Who am I kidding? I jumped in and read until I swiped the final page. To see Taren come into his own and realize that he is so much more than the slave he saw himself as at the beginning of Stealing the Wind really made my heart burst with complete and utter "Yay!" and of course Ian hasn't exactly stayed stagnate either. As individuals they have come far but because of the other they also became stronger. Not because they needed the other to be who they were but because the strength and passion they recognized in each other spoke to their own levels of passion and created a determination that not only helped themselves but also their friends, shipmates, and fellow merfolk find a place in the world. This is truly a trilogy for those who love fantasy and for those who love an all around well written story.
THE sound of thundering hooves outside the door of their one-room hut caused the wooden table to shake and the lamplight to flicker. Surprised, Taren met Borstan’s wide, fearful eyes over the top of the book he’d been reading.
Borstan jumped up from the bench. “Hide, boy! Quickly, now!” he hissed as he shooed Taren up and away from the table.
“Go! Now! And not a word from you!” Borstan shoved Taren hard, and he scrambled behind the stores of rope and flour.
The heavy thud of a battle-axe nearly shook their wooden door from its ancient hinges. “Rigger Borstan Laxley! By order of Lord Grell, we seek recompense for your gambling debts!”
Taren peered around a flour sack. Borstan stood next to the door, his back flat to the wall, his eyes squeezed shut.
“Who are they?” Taren whispered loudly.
Borstan put a finger to his lips to silence Taren just as the men broke through the door. Only Borstan’s body kept it from banging against the wall. Borstan yelped as four ironclad giants stormed the room.
“Borstan Laxley!” the leader shouted as he dragged a terrified Borstan from behind the door. Another man pulled the bench, their only bench, from the table and aligned it in front of the fireplace. “Tie him!” the leader commanded.
“No, please. No! I told his lordship I’d have the money to pay in a fortnight,” Borstan shouted as they lashed him, face up, to the bench with his own finely crafted cordage.
Taren started when the first blow landed. He huddled in the corner, trembling like a newborn leaf, and buried his head beneath his arms. He couldn’t bear to hear Borstan’s mewling cries with each successive blow. On his cheeks quavered hot tears for the only master he’d ever known.
“Use the tar!” the leader shouted.
Taren snapped his head up. No. The cauldron over the fire held the boiling tar they used to coat the rigging they made. Borstan began to scream in earnest, and Taren, no longer able to contain himself, shot to his feet with a shriek, his voice cracking with emotion and youth. “No!”
The four soldiers turned to Taren in unison, one holding the dripping tar swab in his hand.
“Y-y-you… you cannot do that to him!” Taren forced out in terrified effort, fists balled at his sides.
The leader advanced on Taren, a wicked grin of rotted teeth filling his rat’s nest of a beard. “What have we here?”
Taren backed up quickly. His heels met a flour sack and he fell on his ass, the sack bursting and caking him in fine white powder.
The brutes roared in laughter as the leader claimed the front of Taren’s cotton shirt in one beefy hand and hauled him into the air with a single powerful arm. The man’s odor was an acrid stench in Taren’s nostrils as his feet left the floor. “Who are ye?” Taren’s shirt pinched his throat as the man shook him violently.
Taren desperately batted at the man’s mighty forearm in an effort to loosen the grip on his shirt. “Taren.” The single word was a strangled breath on the air.
The leader leered at him. “Yer a right pretty one, boy.”
“Leave ’im be! He’s mine!” Borstan mewled.
“Yer what?” he demanded with another suffocating shake to Taren. Spots of gray filled Taren’s vision. His tongue felt thick from the lack of oxygen. The soldier who had held him put Taren back on his feet. Taren struggled to stay standing.
“He’s my apprentice! Leave ’im be. Leave ’im be.” Borstan struggled against his bonds. Taren saw the red marks where the soldiers had beaten the old man begin to blossom into purple.
The soldier who’d held him now looked Taren over head to toe. “He’s yer pretty little slave, ye mean to say!” All four soldiers roared in laughter.
“He’s mine.” Borstan’s voice was less forceful this time. His gaze darted between Taren and the men, as if he were considering something.
“He’s a bit spare, but he’d be an extra pair of hands for Lord Grell,” said one of the other men. “No doubt he’ll grow.” In two big strides, Taren found himself thrown over one of the men’s shoulders like the sack of flour he resembled. Blood rushed to his face as he gulped air into his lungs.
“Aye,” Borstan agreed. Taren looked at his master with a dawning sense of horror. Surely Borstan wouldn’t let them take him away?
The leader strode back over to Borstan. “Yer debt is ten silver coins, Laxley. Ye willing to trade ’im?”
“He’s worth more than ten,” Borstan replied.
“Master?” Taren looked to Borstan, but the old man would not meet his eyes.
“Fair recompense, I’d say. Will ye sell the lad or not?” The leader made a fist and covered it with his other hand. “Or perhaps we should talk some more.”
Borstan’s eyes widened and he nodded quickly. He did not look at Taren. “Aye. Fair recompense.”
Cold terror clawed at Taren’s gut, and he fought the powerful arms that held him fast. “No! No! You can’t sell me! I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve done all you’ve asked of me. Please, Borstan, no!”
The leader nodded to one of the other men, who untied the bloodied and beaten Borstan. A moment later, the soldiers walked out the doorway with Taren, who continued to fight to free himself. “Borstan, no! No! No! Borstan, please! I beg you! Don’t do this! Please, I beg you!”
Two years later
TAREN huddled beneath a tattered blanket as an icy wind blew through the cracks of the ramshackle dormitory. The mortar between the bricks had crumbled and the fire was a good twenty feet away, providing him little warmth. He didn’t dare move closer—he had been beaten more times than he cared to remember by the other, bigger men with whom he shared the drafty sleeping quarters of Lord Grell’s Inn.
He’d lost track of time since he had come to this place. The living quarters at the inn were far less comfortable than Borstan’s hut on the edge of the docks, but the work wasn’t nearly as strenuous. Still, Taren longed for the freedom of climbing the ropes of incoming vessels and standing atop their masts with the wind in his face. More than a warm place to sleep, he wished to work at the harbor once more, where he could pretend he was a sailor or, better, that he captained one of the great ships.
More than anything, Taren dreamed of the ocean. He closed his eyes and imagined the spray against his face, the rocking of the vessel beneath his bare feet. He imagined crouching on the masthead, looking out through the telescope, trying to spot approaching boats. He imagined hoisting the sails, watching them billow and fill, and feeling the vibrations of the deck beneath his feet as the ship caught the wind.
Sometimes he dreamed his parents’ home had been one of the far-flung islands, or that he’d been born at sea aboard a great vessel. Sometimes he dreamed he was a creature who lived under the waves, chasing schools of fish and watching the waves overhead as he lay in the sand at the bottom. Sometimes he dreamed he was an admiral in the king’s navy, ordering his men to fire their guns at an enemy vessel as he defended the Kingdom of Derryth. But whatever Taren dreamed, he always dreamed of the ocean.
Dreams were all they were, for Taren had never been to sea.
“You, boy,” a sturdy woman called from the doorway. “What’s your name?”
“Taren, ma’am.” He got to his feet and repressed a shiver. It would do him no good to irritate Madame Marcus at such an ungodly hour—she would see his weakness as a complaint, and he didn’t want another whipping.
“Cook’s needing you in the dining room. A new ship’s put into port. He wants an extra pair of hands.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Taren said, dropping the threadbare blanket by the wall.
Dining room duty was better than some chores. Cook might even let him scrape the dregs from the pots as they cleaned up. Taren’s empty belly growled at the prospect and he followed the woman across the open courtyard, past an angry rooster who pecked at him when he strayed too close, and into the warmth of the kitchens.
“Cook, sir,” he said to the large man standing at the ovens, his face dirtied with soot from the fires. “What do you need?”
“Grab the soup from off the counter, boy, and ask the gentlemen if they would like more.”
Taren nodded and pulled a potholder from a hook beside the smallest of the ovens. The fabric of the potholder was, as with everything else, worn thin, and he felt the heat from the iron handle as he reached for the pot. A few months before, he’d have struggled to lift it, but his arms had grown stronger and he lifted it with ease. He ignored the pain as the metal burned his palm and scurried out into the dining room, retrieving a large ladle hanging near the doorway along the way.
THE light in the dining hall was far more subdued than in the kitchen. The candles burned a warm yellow and made the faded red fabric wall coverings appear less tawdry than in the daylight. Men crowded around the long wooden tables that ran the length of the room laughed and shouted, some singing off-key, most with large tankards of ale in their hands. The warm smell of sawdust and the sour tang of sweat mingled with the scent of the stew. At first, Taren had found the odors overwhelming. Now they comforted him.
Taren met Verita’s gaze. She was one of the other servants and old enough to be his mother, but her inclinations were hardly maternal. Still, she had always been kind to him—as kind as could be expected in a place such as this. She nodded and got back to filling tankards, leaning over as she poured the men’s drinks so they could easily see her full breasts and cackling when the men fondled her ample bottom. Later, he guessed, she would offer her services in their rooms, as many of his fellow servants did for the paltry coins they might receive in return. The master never complained about such activities, but Taren knew he expected half of what Verita and the others earned with their bodies. Taren had never been tempted to follow a guest to his or her bedroom, although he had been presented with the opportunity on many an occasion.
He felt a rough hand on his forearm and nearly lost his grip on the pot. “You’re a pretty one,” the owner of the hand said in a low voice. “Ain’t he, Captain?”
Pirates, thought Taren, judging by their looks and their rough manner.
“Please,” Taren said in a trembling voice. “I must serve the soup.” Another hand grabbed his buttocks and squeezed. He couldn’t pull away or he’d spill the hot soup on himself and possibly the man seated to the left of his antagonist.
The man seated at the head of the table—the “captain”—pursed his lips in appreciation. He raked his gaze over the open collar of Taren’s shirt and the tight fit of his too-small britches; Taren felt hotter than he had under the blanket only minutes before.
In the past year, Taren had begun to grow from a boy to a man. He now stood taller than Verita and the other women at the inn, and although most of the male servants were larger than he, Taren guessed it was only a matter of time before he reached and perhaps surpassed their stature. This transformation had come as an enormous relief. He had no idea how old he was—eighteen or nineteen, perhaps?—and he didn’t know his parents. For as long as he could remember, he had been the smallest of all the boys at the inn, and he had been given no reason to expect that it would ever be otherwise.
One of the men at the other end of the table laughed as he squeezed Verita’s bottom. “Nice ’n’ meaty,” one of the men said as Verita cackled and wiggled her hips. “Nice tail on ye’, woman.”
“I want me a mermaid,” another man interjected. “Now that would be a nice tail. Hear you have a few ’round these parts.”
“Only a fool believes those stories,” the first man said. “Don’t you think we’d’ve seen ’em if there were any?”
The captain, whose eyes hadn’t strayed from Taren, shook his head. “Something so beautiful wouldn’t go near the likes of you, Charlie.”
“They’d’ve swum away from you!” shouted another man.
Taren had long heard the stories of mermaids here in Raice Harbor. One of the other boys at the inn swore there had been a woman with a tail like a fish found near the water’s edge. Taren spent enough time down at the docks to know that if the merfolk existed, they would hardly be whiling away their days in the filthy water of the harbor. Still, he often imagined what it might be like to swim beneath the water without having to surface.
“I heard tell of a mermaid who led a pirate ship full o’ gold to wreck upon a reef,” Charlie said as he emptied his tankard of ale. “They say the pirate Odhrán keeps merfolk as pets. Like dogs. Uses ’em to lure ships.”
“Come here, boy!” the captain shouted, interrupting the men.
Taren did as he was told, trying to ignore the lecherous gaze of several of the men seated nearby. “What can I get for you, sir?” he asked as he’d been taught.
The captain, middle-aged with a coarse beard peppered with gray, was a broad-chested bear of a man whose relaxed manner and intense gaze spoke of confidence and power. Taren had to admit he was attractive. His skin was weathered from the sun and the wind; his eyes were a piercing blue. The weight of that gaze and the raw desire in his eyes frightened Taren and made him dizzy. The master won’t abide a servant taken without consent.
Taren began to ladle the fragrant soup into the captain’s bowl. He would endure the wanton looks and the fondling in silence, as he had done in the past. Then he would retreat to his duties in the kitchen, safe once more behind the wall that separated servant and guest.
“What’s your name, boy?” The captain’s voice was a deep rumble that seemed to work its way through Taren’s ears and into his body.
“Taren, sir,” he answered as he did his best to control the trembling of his hand. “Taren Laxley.”
“Charlie’s right. You are a pretty one.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The captain rubbed Taren’s ass before Taren realized what was happening. He couldn’t move away or he’d spill the soup, and he couldn’t put the pot down on the table and risk Cook’s wrath either. The captain pulled Taren’s shirt from the waistband of his trousers before he could protest, and moved his hand from Taren’s ass to Taren’s hardening cock.
“Now there’s a tempting treat,” the captain rumbled appreciatively.
Taren’s legs shook at the contact. The touch of the captain’s hand was practiced, sensual. Taren tried to repress the moan that escaped from his lips. Taren was surprised that the captain’s musky scent aroused him even more.
“You like that, don’t you, Taren Laxley?” The pirate let him go and Taren sighed in disappointment. “Don’t worry,” the captain added, “I just wanted to make this a bit easier for you.” He took the pot from Taren’s hands and set it on the table, then pulled Taren closer to him by his shirt.
Taren looked around the room. No one seemed to notice that he now stood in front of the pirate with his back against the table, or that his cheeks were surely now as bright red as the feathers of the rooster in the courtyard. Whereas before he’d have tried to escape the touch if given the chance, his own growing desire to experience the captain’s touch once more had him frozen in place. He swallowed hard and trembled not out of fear but with desire.
What is wrong with me?
“I won’t hurt you,” the captain said, his voice low, his expression unfathomable.
“I know,” Taren whispered. He shuddered in anticipation as the captain reached around him and slid his large hand under Taren’s trousers and over his buttocks. This time, however, his hand was slippery. Taren caught the faint whiff of butter from the table and saw the smile on the pirate’s face.
“Better like that, isn’t it?”
Taren nodded, too overcome to speak.
The captain found the soft flesh of Taren’s sac with his free hand and rolled it around. Taren gasped as he pushed back the foreskin with his large finger and swept over the crown. Taren nearly fell forward, but the captain held him upright with his muscular thighs.
He had never known such pleasure. The captain’s scent was powerful, adding to the intensity of the sensations that ran through Taren’s body like fire. The man’s eyes held him captive as much as his hand. Taren fought the urge to reach out and touch the captain’s rough jaw, to feel it beneath his fingertips.
The captain continued to play with Taren’s balls, caressing the sensitive skin behind them and straying close to the hidden opening between his ass cheeks. Taren moaned and shuddered with each slippery tug on his cock. The captain pulled and stroked until Taren bit his tongue to keep from crying out. Taren no longer saw the room or the other men as the captain rubbed his hand up over Taren’s tip and probed the slit.
“Ahhh,” Taren groaned. He didn’t care if anyone else heard. He couldn’t hold back anymore. The captain found the tight ring of muscle with a buttery finger, not breaching it but stroking it tenderly.
“Lovely,” the pirate captain said. “You please me well, boy.”
Taren relaxed at the man’s appreciative smile and reassuring words. He closed his eyes and gave in to the heady sensations, spellbound by the touch. He wouldn’t have moved if he could have stayed there; he didn’t want this pleasure to end. And when the pirate pressed his finger so that it barely breached Taren’s opening, Taren came hard, his body shuddering with his release, his head reeling from the intensity of it.
“Thank you, sir,” he managed to croak as he came back to his senses.
The captain chuckled and licked his hand as if it were covered in honey. “No need to thank me, boy,” he said. “The pleasure was all mine.”
Taren tucked himself back into his trousers, escaped from between the captain and the table, and picked up the soup. Thank goodness his long shirt hid the evidence of his release! He walked back toward the kitchen with a heated flush still on his cheeks, and he stood at the entrance, trying to calm his racing heart as his breath came in stuttered gasps.
Oh gods! Had Verita witnessed the entire sordid act? And what of himself? Had he enjoyed it?
No. Anyone would respond to such a touch. The thought didn’t comfort him. And yet the warmth he had felt, having been satisfied by a hand other than his own—a man’s hand, no less—still lingered.
He set the soup down on the fire to keep it warm and glanced over at Cook, who was happily tasting an aromatic stew in large spoonfuls, oblivious to Taren’s return.
“I’ve finished, sir.” Taren set about washing the dishes while he awaited further instruction. Perhaps he might be able to explain away the embarrassing stain as water from the sink.
He needn’t have been concerned. Verita returned a short while later with a stack of bowls for washing, then left with the stew on her arm. She didn’t say a word; she didn’t even attempt to catch his eye.
MORE than an hour later, the dishes dried and replaced on the shelves, Cook gave Taren leave to return to the sleeping area. Taren had avoided any further contact with the pirates, and Verita had vanished after the tables were cleared, most likely to spend what remained of the night with a guest.
The faint color of dawn lit the horizon as Taren stepped into the courtyard. The rooster who had scolded him before crowed from atop a stone wall. Taren yawned deeply and strode with purpose across the dirt, taking care to steer clear of the other birds that were already pecking the ground in anticipation of breakfast.
He was nearly to the doorway of the building when he heard footsteps from behind him. He turned in surprise, confused as to why any other servants were up before the morning call. But it was not a servant he saw—it was one of the men from before.
“What can I get for—” he began to say, but a hand clamped tightly over his mouth from behind, cutting short his words. His heart pounded with fear as the hand pressed a piece of cloth against his mouth and nose and he inhaled a pungent odor. The world seemed to dim, and he remembered nothing more.
Inherit the Wind #2
DEAFENING CANNON fire rang out from the port side of the ship. Ian braced himself against the stair railing to keep from falling backward as the ship leaned deep and heeled hard to starboard. He heaved himself upward and crested the stairwell to the deck as the ship pitched again, forcing him to grab one of the barrels lashed to the deck to remain upright. Cannon shot landed off the bow, sending water over the forecastle and cascading down the already sodden deck. The acrid smell of gunpowder stung his nostrils and burned his eyes, and the familiar scent caused his adrenaline to skyrocket and set his mind racing.
“Renda! What the hell is happening?”
“She’s fired on us with no warning shot, Captain!” Renda, the ship’s quartermaster, barely looked at him as he struggled to steer the Phantom out of the line of fire.
“What colors does she fly?” Ian shouted as he ran toward the helm and lifted a spyglass to one eye.
“None, Captain! Her crew’s human! Navy ship!” Renda shouted above the cannon fire.
Ian felt it too. There were no Ea aboard the attacking ship. An entirely human crew? Only the Derryth navy sailed brigantines. But if he and the crew of the Phantom were fair game for the king and his navy, why didn’t they fly Derryth’s colors? They’d appeared out of nowhere. Had the mist been so thick that the men on watch had missed her?
Renda ceded the helm before Ian could think much more about it. For now, he needed to focus on their attackers and on gaining the upper hand. It had been more than twenty years since Ian had taken his ship into battle, but his crew was well seasoned. He prayed silently to his goddess that the winds would favor them.
“Derryth?” he asked Renda as he steered to avoid another blast from the enemy’s cannons. “Aligned with the Council? Or is this just a coincidence?” He’d expected to face the island Ea in battle eventually, but never had he expected them to use humans to chase them down.
Renda scowled. “No coincidence. Magic, seeing as the fog cleared just in time for them to attack. They had help tracking us down. A mage, no doubt.”
Humans did not possess magic. When had the island Ea recruited the humans to their cause? The thought made Ian’s blood boil. Humans had nearly wiped out their kind hundreds of years before, looking for the fabled rune stone, a weapon more powerful than the Derryth Kingdom’s largest cannons. Had someone told the humans they were heading to the Gateway Islands to find the reclusive pirate, Odhrán, and recover the very weapon that had nearly been the cause of their destruction?
No. He mustn’t think about that now. He needed his wits about him to keep his ship safe. Then he could think more about the implications. He focused once again on the ship and her crew. The feel of the wood beneath his hands and the stiff wind against his cheek always warmed Ian’s soul, even in the midst of battle. The bright, crisp scent of the salt spray awakened his senses and mind. He’d been born for this command, although he’d paid a stiff price for it. His father before him had been a sailor, although he’d long given up the seafaring life by the time Ian had learned to sail in the Derryth navy. Sailing was in his bones and his blood. The only thing he loved more than sailing on the water was swimming in it.
Renda shouted more commands to the men manning the ropes, then turned back to Ian and scowled. “Their ship is fast. She’s shooting the sun and she has the weather beam.”
Stealing our wind! Ian cursed beneath his breath. With the enemy positioned between them and the wind, the Phantom could do little to maneuver. If he hadn’t been forced to stay within the Council’s reach, tied to the island, he’d have long before found the best clockmaker in Derryth and purchased a sextant. He was tired of others sighting guns upon the Phantom so easily. Their ancient astrolabe might have sufficed twenty years ago, during the civil war that cleaved his people in two, but it was useless against a better-equipped navy. As things stood, Ian could only guess at the angle of the enemy’s guns and what direction he might be able to steer the Phantom to avoid them.
He glanced skyward and was momentarily blinded by the sun’s brilliant reflection in the lookout’s spyglass. He moved his gaze to the mainsail and the seagulls that rode thermals alongside it. It had been a calm day until the enemy appeared. Now the wind raced the heavens. The telltales on the sails fluttered frantically with each powerful gust of the wind, making it difficult for Ian to determine the wind’s direction. He fought the helm in an effort to maintain their course as the sea swelled and the ship bucked. Worse yet, the Phantom was poorly situated in the wind on a close reach that placed the ship at a crucial disadvantage.
The enemy’s guns belched again and cannonballs spun past, spitting fiery tar and narrowly missing the main mast. The flames that licked from the metal nearly set the mainsail afire.
“They’re using pitch!” Renda shouted as the pungent smell of burning pine reached Ian’s nostrils.
Ian heard his father’s words echo in his mind. “There is nothing as deadly as fire at sea.” If one of those cannon blasts hit the Phantom, she’d go up in flames.
Heeling starboard as the Phantom was, her portside guns aimed high above the waterline. Each cannon shot fired was nothing more than wasted ammunition. They were outmanned, outgunned, and out-positioned in the wind. Damn. Ian considered his options quickly, mulling their position relative to the enemy and eyeing the wind in the sails. He had no choice but to bring the ship about and take aim with the starboard cannons. Yet if he turned and lost the wind, they’d end up in irons and stalled in the water.
“Are the starboard gun ports open?” Ian shouted.
Another blast from the enemy ship’s cannons landed within a yard of the Phantom. The ship shook with the impact, and several crewmembers scrambled to better tie down some of the supplies on deck.
“Aye, Captain! Ports open, guns loaded!”
A quick glance around the deck told Ian that his beloved Taren was not there. He reached out first with his innate senses and was relieved to feel Taren’s strong heartbeat as if it beat within his own chest. Their connection had continued to grow stronger over the past few months. Among Ea, a bond like theirs—what their people called soulbound—was rare. Where most Ea could only sense that one of their brethren was near, Ian and Taren could sense each other’s presence in particular. Sometimes Taren’s fear became Ian’s, and although Taren had not spoken of it, Ian guessed his own anger and frustration sometimes became Taren’s.
Ian looked up, searching the mastheads and rigging with his eyes, and found Taren atop the main mast. He worked furiously, tying Turk’s heads in the rigging as fast as he could and adjusting the sails to compensate for the heeling Phantom.
“Trim the sails! Man the starboard cannons and tell the gunners to fire when I come about!” Ian knew it would do little good. If they headed farther into the wind, they’d lose speed and stall. “Tell the gunners to fire when they can!”
“Aye, sir!” Renda barked commands and the boatswains flew into action with whistles and hand signals. When Ian saw that Taren had acknowledged his orders, he brought the Phantom hard about. She bucked the squall and swell as Ian fought the wheel to turn her, and she listed her worst yet, her masts lying but thirty degrees off the water.
At midturn, a volley of cannon fire caught the Phantom’s bow, causing her to shudder angrily as wood splintered and flew, mortally wounding one of the crew in the chest. Bright red blood splashed the deck to mingle with salt water and run past the smoldering pitch.
Crian! Renda ran to help the injured sailor. Perhaps he could help the man long enough that he might transform and heal his wounds. But Renda’s slight shake of his head and icy expression told Ian there was nothing to be done. Crian was dead.
Ian’s gut clenched when he thought of Crian’s family. Why was he so surprised that he’d lost a man? Had he really believed this voyage would be anything but risky? He’d naively hoped their mission would be a simple one: find Odhrán, retrieve the rune stone, and return it to Vurin, the leader of Ea’s mainland colony, so he might better protect their people.
He searched the rigging for Taren again and couldn’t find him. He’d felt Taren’s steady presence only moments ago, but he’d been too preoccupied with the battle to keep track of him. At least he could still feel the steady beat of Taren’s heart. He finally spotted Taren aft, now atop the mizzenmast, clinging to guy ropes and swinging wildly with each turn of the helm.
Taren had left their cabin at dawn to work on the sails with the intention of increasing the ship’s speed. He loved to toil on the rigging, and Ian knew how his spirits soared with the feel of the wind on his face. Taren’s acrobatics never ceased to amaze Ian, but they nonetheless left him cold with fear. Taren was nothing short of a long-tailed monkey in the rigging.
Ian’s shouts went unheeded—Taren couldn’t hear him over the chaos of the battle. Ian only hoped Taren had guessed what his next maneuver might be, and had good purchase on the ropes to keep him from falling.
The navy ship tacked in tandem with the Phantom and now aimed its sights at her stern. Ian couldn’t risk a blow to the most vulnerable part of the ship and had no choice but to adjust course again to avoid a hit. He spun the wheel the hardest yet to starboard.
Hold on, Taren!
The ship protested the quick maneuver, her teak wood groaning and creaking under the strain as she stalled in irons. In his quick decision to turn hard, he’d been reckless. They were headed directly into the wind now and were dead in the water.
Ian looked up and found Taren as he kicked out like lightning and baffled the aft sail to back the ship. An eerie silence descended, and they waited to see if the Phantom would catch her wind speed. Not a whisper of wind touched the sail. Taren reached for the rigging and swung out hard, kicking angrily at the sail once again. The sail billowed once, twice, and Ian’s breath stuttered, his warning shout lodged in his throat. He knew precisely what the aft sail would do. With a whoosh and an earsplitting snap, she filled and the Phantom regained her air once again, leaping to top speed.
Ian watched in admiration as Taren swung down on the ropes just in time to avoid the snap of the sail. He landed gracefully on the deck a dozen feet away.
“Ian!” Taren shouted as he ran over to the wheel. Another shot from their attackers landed close to the Phantom, causing Taren to grab a hold of one of the nearby rails.
“Excellent work,” Ian said as he adjusted the ship’s heading. “Now if we can only make some headway—”
“Why don’t you send a few men down?” Taren panted hard, clearly winded. Ian sensed his excitement and his fear. No. Sensing wasn’t quite right. Ian felt Taren’s emotions as if they were his own.
“Send them down with axes. Crowbars. Something. Anything. Have them transform and attack from below.”
Ian frowned. “It won’t work.”
“Why not?” Taren demanded. “If we could—”
Taren’s words were cut short by a volley that landed even closer to the ship. Ian fought to maintain his course. “It doesn’t work that way,” he shouted over the din of the waves crashing over the bow. “It’s far more—”
But Taren was already halfway toward the bow before Ian could finish.
“No! Taren! You don’t understand! You can’t just—” Ian had no one to blame but himself for Taren’s lack of knowledge of Ea battle tactics. He glanced around, hoping to find someone to take the wheel. He needed to stop Taren before he did something dangerous, but before he could call out to Barra, the Phantom’s guns fired and missed. The navy ship returned fire, and a loud crack sounded from overhead as the shot hit the mizzenmast and the aft sail caught fire. The mast shattered, sending beam and splinter out at light speed. The sound of the mast breaking into smithereens was the last thing Ian remembered before his world grayed, then faded to black.
TAREN TRANSFORMED as he entered the warm tropical water with a splash. He’d grabbed an ax as he’d run, ignoring Ian’s shouts. He didn’t need Ian to lecture him about the danger of attacking the brigantine from below. But if this worked…. He’d barely caught his breath when he had to dive deep to avoid a deadly blow to the head from the enemy ship’s keel as she passed over him. Pumping his powerful tail, he swam after the Phantom’s challenger. He knew Ian would be angry with him for taking such a risk—he could almost feel that anger burn hot within his own heart. He’d face Ian’s wrath later. Had the Ea become so complacent in their human forms that they’d forgotten what they were?
The enemy brigantine was sleek and faster than the Phantom. They’d been nearing the Gateways, the chain of islands just west of Ea’nu, looking for Odhrán, the pirate rumored to possess the rune stone, when they’d been set upon. Taren surmised the brigantine’s captain knew the Phantom would be in the vicinity, and had waited in the mist until she could gain the weather beam over them. Strange. Stranger yet, he’d sensed that the ship held humans when it passed over him. Why would humans pursue them? Had they learned of the existence of merfolk, or did they believe them to be pirates?
No. It’s more than that. This all felt so familiar, as if he’d dreamed it. Expected it. Sensed something he hadn’t understood until just now.
Several more cannon blasts narrowly missed the Phantom and landed in the water nearby, bringing Taren back to himself. He fought the rising swells and powerful current as the wind picked up speed, echoing his own growing apprehension and worry for Ian and the Phantom’s crew. He dove, pumping and flexing the powerful flukes of his tail to propel him toward the enemy ship.
He reached her rudder a minute later. As fast as she was, he fought to keep up with her as he swung the ax at the place where the pintles and gudgeons met to hold the rudder in place. He’d expected resistance when the axe struck the metal of the hinges. He didn’t expect the force that threw him backward and knocked the ax from his hand.
Magic? Vurin had taught him to sense it, but he’d been too distracted by his work on the sails to feel it before. But how would a human ship use magic? What a fool he’d been to assume Ian and the other Ea wouldn’t have sensed it as well.
Taren heard another explosion right before it reverberated through the sea, and he watched beneath the water as the Phantom’s keel turned sharply and she suddenly lost speed. Even with her crew’s skill, without the wind, the Phantom would have no chance of outrunning the enemy. Would Ian surrender to the humans? Could he? If the humans knew what they were….
Of course they know! They’re using magic. He needed to get back to the ship. Help them fight the humans. On the ropes, he could do something. Here in the water, he was helpless.
He broke the surface of the water and glided easily over a swell using his tail to keep his head above the waves. He couldn’t remain above the surface long. His Ea lungs protested the air, created as they were to breathe oxygen through water. But he needed to see the plight of the Phantom for himself.
He watched as half a dozen men climbed the brigantine’s masts. They were readying to raft alongside the Phantom and board her. In a minute, perhaps two, they’d swing from the masts and land on the Phantom’s deck. Taren’s heart grew cold with fear, and the air whipped around him as he prayed the wind would change direction. If the Phantom could gain even a modicum of speed, her crew might outmaneuver the humans.
The reverberation of multiple volleys of cannon fire radiated through the water and sent fear through Taren. The first missed its mark, but the second shattered the mizzenmast. Pain seared Taren’s heart and he knew Ian had been hit. Panic shot up his spine as he felt Ian lose consciousness. No! Goddess, no! Please, you can’t take him! Not when I’ve just found him again!
Taren prayed once more that the winds would shift. If the Phantom could gain some speed, he had faith their ship could outmaneuver the humans even with the damage to the mizzen—Barra, their navigator, knew these waters well, knew the reefs well enough to navigate between them, whereas the humans might not. If he isn’t too badly hurt.
The surface of the water rippled, although this time it was not on account of the battling ships. The wind. Had the goddess heard his prayer? He closed his eyes and imagined the goddess’s hand coaxing the wind to shift to favor Ian and his crew. He felt the wind stroke his cheeks, felt its fingers stir the water. Imagined the Phantom’s sails filling and the feel of the helm as it pulled against the rudder.
Taren felt the zing of magic caress his skin—a familiar sensation he tried to place—but his attention was drawn upward by the sound of an explosion. He looked up in time to see something dark speed toward him: another volley of cannon fire. He flexed his tail and swam down. The cannonball missed him by inches. As he sank beneath the water with a heavy heart, a flash of movement filled his peripheral vision, the outline of a tail. Before he could turn to get a better look, something hit him hard in the back of the head.
He valiantly fought the urge to surrender to the darkness, but his eyes fluttered closed.
Rest now, a voice in his mind commanded, and he knew no more.
IAN LAY flat on his back, looking up at the mizzenmast—what was left of it. The mast itself was cleaved in two, the upper topsail was missing, and the lower hung from the ropes over the mizzen sail. With the help of a strong arm, he pulled himself up to a sitting position.
“Damn him! I should chain him to the ship.”
Renda frowned at him with concern. “Are you all right?”
“Of course,” Ian growled as he ignored the pounding in his head and the warmth of the blood that trickled from his scalp. “It’s Taren I’m worried about.”
“You’re not all right.”
“And what would you have me do about it?” Ian stood, swayed, then steadied himself on Renda’s shoulder.
“At least let me stop the bleeding.”
Ian ignored Renda and stumbled back to the wheel. He’d expected to see Barra there, since he’d been shouting commands to the other men while Ian steered, but instead saw Keral, one of the other hands. At least he’d the sense to take over the helm while Renda fussed over Ian like a mother hen. The ship bucked and shuddered as Keral turned sharply to avoid another cannon blast. Ian gritted his teeth and grabbed Renda’s arm, thankful that he was nearby.
They were out of options. Even with the mizzen sails intact, they’d been outpaced by the smaller ship. With the mizzenmast destroyed, they would be far slower and the Phantom would be more difficult to steer. Ian was just about to tell Keral to give the order for all but his officers to abandon ship when a gust of air brushed his cheek. For a split second, he sensed something familiar about the wind, as if it had stirred a memory buried deep in his soul. Then the feeling fled and he realized the wind had shifted to the northeast. A moment later, he felt the Phantom’s remaining sails catch the wind. The ship began to pick up speed, moving away from the enemy ship, which had slowed so its crew might board.
“Hard to starboard,” Ian ordered. “Now!”
Keral spun the wheel and the ship heeled dangerously close to the waves. “Fire!” Ian shouted to the men manning the guns.
The pain in Ian’s head, which had until then been just a dull ache, lanced with reverberations from the cannon blast. At nearly the same time, he felt another pain at the back of his head.
Ian dropped to his knees and clutched his head as his heart beat so hard against his ribs that it hurt. Goddess! Taren!
“Let me help you.” There was none of the usual chiding in Renda’s voice as he gently pulled Ian’s hand from his left temple. Ian felt the warmth of Renda’s healing against his skull. With the touch, Ian’s pain abated.
“Taren,” he moaned when he came back to himself. He reached out with his mind and felt the beat of Taren’s heart. Slower than before, but steady. Knocked out, perhaps, by the last volley?
“You felt his pain?” Renda asked, clearly surprised.
Ian nodded. “He’s alive. But he’s unconscious. Injured. I must find—”
“A hit, sir!” one of the men shouted over the howling wind.
With Renda’s help, Ian got back to his feet. He saw it now—the smoking wound in the enemy ship’s stern. She floundered, her rudder damaged and no longer able to control her course. Even if she used her sails to steer, the Phantom would be long gone. Ian murmured a prayer of thanksgiving to the goddess. Now, if he could find Taren, he’d rest easy.
Running with the Wind #3
IAN LEANED over the railing as the morning sunlight warmed his shoulders. A few feet away, Taren wrapped a blanket around the shivering boy, who sat with his knees hugged to his chest. He tenderly ruffled the boy’s fiery red hair. The boy leaned into Taren’s touch and made a satisfied sound much like the purr of a cat.
Not a boy, Ian reminded himself. Bastian. An Anuki. The heavenly brethren of the Ea. A dragon shifter reborn from the ashes. True, this freckle-faced dragon child looked nothing like the full-fledged beast who’d nearly killed them the day before, but they knew little of the Anuki. Had it only been a day since Seria’s men had attacked them and they’d lost Rider to Seria’s bullet?
Ian met Taren’s gaze and his grief eased slightly. Taren smiled back, his warm brown eyes hooded with exhaustion and grief, his shoulder-length hair having dried in a tumble of waves. From where he sat on the deck, Bastian watched Odhrán, keenly interested. The sphere they’d discovered not long after the destruction of the Sea Witch—an egg, Ian now knew—had dissolved beneath the water. Bastian had been choking and spluttering when Odhrán had carried him aboard. Since then, Bastian had done little but watch Odhrán with rapt attention.
Like a baby bird watches its mother. Ian frowned at his folly. How easy it was to forget this pathetic creature had destroyed the Sea Witch and nearly killed them all. If Odhrán hadn’t killed the dragon Bastian had become, they’d all have died. And yet Bastian had been reborn.
Bastian glanced up at Taren, blinked several times, then shifted his gaze back to Odhrán, who spoke in hushed tones to one of his crew. The long blond braid down Odhrán’s back dripped onto the deck and left the back of his woolen jacket sodden. Despite the bright blue of his eyes and his youthful features, Odhrán appeared as exhausted as Ian felt.
“A moment of your time?” Ian said after the crewmember trotted off toward the stairs, leaving the four of them alone on the foredeck.
Odhrán nodded and followed Ian amidships, far enough away that Bastian wouldn’t hear.
“Do you think this is wise?” Ian asked with a quick glance back at Taren and Bastian.
“What would you have me do? Leave him to drown?” Odhrán, too, appeared weary. Ian knew he still regretted having killed the fully transformed Bastian.
“He couldn’t live without Rider.” Taren’s words echoed in Ian’s mind. Rider—Ian’s oldest friend—had taken a bullet in Ian’s stead. There’d been no time to grieve.
“No.” Ian sighed. “Rider would have wanted us to care for him.” Taren would never have forgiven him for suggesting they leave Bastian to drown, and they’d lost too much to even consider it.
Odhrán nodded curtly and turned his gaze eastward. Now calm in the wake of the storm, the water sparkled with sunlight. Nothing remained of the Sea Witch but a few bits of broken timbers floating restlessly on the waves. Later, all of the men now aboard the Chimera would gather on the deck to remember the Witch’s captain, but for just a moment, Ian could almost imagine Rider at the wheel of his beloved ship.
I’ll miss you, old friend. More than you’ll ever know.
Ian shrugged off his dark thoughts and walked back to Taren. “You should get some sleep.” He squeezed Taren’s shoulder. “Odhrán and I will not let Bastian out of our sight.”
Taren pressed his lips together and nodded. How tired Taren must be that he didn’t even argue!
“I’ll join you in a bit.” Ian pressed his lips to Taren’s warm cheek.
Taren retrieved the blanket that had fallen off Bastian’s shoulders and wrapped it around him again. Naked as Bastian was beneath, Ian caught a glimpse of the wings they’d seen when they’d discovered him on the ocean floor. No longer scaled as they’d been when they’d first pulled Bastian from the water, Bastian’s wings were now covered with feathers and shimmered red, yellow, orange, and fuchsia, iridescent in the sunlight.
“I’ll be back later,” Taren told Bastian with a barely repressed yawn. “I promise.”
Bastian’s eyes revealed little understanding. Had he forgotten everything of his former life? Perhaps he was still too overwhelmed from the shock of the past day’s events to fully comprehend his situation. He’d not uttered a word since they’d brought him aboard.
Taren kissed Ian—a fleeting kiss, but one Ian needed to reassure himself that all had not changed—before heading belowdecks to rest.
Ian met Odhrán at the bow. “He’s like a fledgling,” Ian said, inclining his head in Bastian’s direction, “watching you like a bird might his mother.”
Odhrán’s brow knitted. He’d clearly noticed it as well. “I’ve asked Garan to reinforce the enchantments on the ship’s masts and sails. There’s nothing more to be done.”
“Aye. But if Bastian threatens the ship—”
“Then I’ll be forced to subdue him. Not a prospect I relish, although in his current state, he appears far less powerful than before.” Odhrán studied Bastian once again. “For now, at least, he’s content to be in our company.”
“What do you know of the Anuki?”
“They’re much like the Ea in their ability to shift to human form. I met one centuries ago, but he was nothing like this. Not a child. But what happened with Bastian….”
“Reborn from the ashes.” Ian’s heart ached once again for the loss of Rider.
“My time with one of their kind was brief.” Odhrán stared past Ian as if remembering.
Ian didn’t press the issue. Later, perhaps, he’d ask Odhrán about that encounter. “And his memories of his life with Rider?”
Odhrán shook his head. “I don’t know. I suppose only time will tell.”
Ian clenched his jaw. The realization that Bastian might not remember anything of his love for Rider made Ian’s grief that much greater.
“You wish to speak to me about Taren,” Odhrán said.
“Aye.” Ian still dreaded the conversation. “I had hoped that now that you’ve seen my thoughts, you might be more inclined to discuss his future. That you might trust my motivations.”
Ian chuckled and shook his head. Much as Odhrán could read Ian’s thoughts now, Ian had been able to hear Odhrán’s thoughts when Odhrán had transformed. Then Ian had sensed nothing other than Odhrán’s concern for Taren’s well-being and his hope for the same deep friendship with Taren that he’d shared with Treande centuries before.
“What do you find so amusing?” Odhrán asked irritably.
“Your belief that either of us have any say in Taren’s future.” Ian drew a long breath and ran a hand through his hair. “If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this ordeal, it’s that much as I might wish to direct his actions, Taren will do what he feels is right. I underestimated his strength and his conviction. I won’t do that again.”
“Aye. In that way he is much like Treande was.” The hint of a smile played on Odhrán’s lips, and he relaxed visibly. “It seems I underestimated you too, Captain.”
Ian shrugged. “It’s a lesson I’ve been slow to learn.” He saw nothing lost in the admission. “I’m fortunate he has a forgiving heart.”
“What do you know of Taren’s abilities?”
“Other than his gift of sight, I know very little.” Ian suspected Taren’s gifts stretched far beyond his ability to sense the past, although he’d tried to push those thoughts aside.
“But you’ve sensed his command of the wind.”
“Aye.” Ian’s gut clenched as it often did when he thought of Taren’s powers. He drew a long breath and imagined his fear floating away on the waves.
Odhrán glanced over at Bastian, then back at Ian once more. “Taren was meant to recover the stone and wield it.”
Odhrán spoke the truth Ian already knew in his heart. Still, the words left him cold. “And what of it?” he demanded, more out of fear and exhaustion than out of anger.
“If we’re to reach the Eastern Lands ahead of the storms, we may need his help.”
“The Eastern Lands? You intend to sail there?” Ian had all but expected Odhrán would deposit them on the mainland and return to his island stronghold.
“I have no need to return now.” Odhrán offered Ian a smile, and Ian realized he’d underestimated Odhrán yet again. “Taren believes the answers you seek are in the lands where the dragons once ruled. I’m inclined to agree. Besides, it’s high time I returned to face my past.”
BY THE time Ian headed belowdecks a short time later, Bastian was curled up asleep in a pile of blankets not far from Odhrán’s side, his head tucked beneath a wing like a bird. “I will keep watch,” Odhrán said stiffly. “Should he speak or need Taren’s attentions,” he added as he shifted from one foot to the other and rubbed the back of his neck, “I’ll have one of my men wake you both.”
Ian undressed and slipped naked between the blankets. Taren rolled over and wrapped his arms around Ian, murmuring in his sleep. It was not Owyn’s name Taren spoke, as he had on many an occasion, but Ian’s. Ian sighed and kissed Taren’s forehead.
“We will do this together, love,” he whispered. “You and I.”
Shira Anthony is a complete sucker for a happily-ever-after, and rarely reads or writes a story without one. Never a fan of instalove, Shira likes to write stories about real men with real issues making real relationships work.
In her last incarnation, Shira was a professional opera singer, performing roles in such operas as “Tosca,” “Pagliacci,” and “La Traviata,” among others. Her Blue Notes Series is loosely based upon her own experiences as a professional musician.
Shira is married with two children and two insane dogs and when she’s not writing, she is usually in a courtroom trying to make the world safer for children. When she’s not working, she can be found aboard a 36’ catamaran at the Carolina coast with her favorite sexy captain at the wheel. She’s given up TV for evenings spent with her laptop, and she never goes anywhere without a pile of unread M/M romance on her Kindle.
Stealing the Wind #1
Into the Wind #2
Running with the Wind #3