Home > Shifter Made (Shifters Unbound 0.5)

Shifter Made (Shifters Unbound 0.5)
Jennifer Ashley

Chapter One

Baile Icin, near Dingle, Ciarrai, 1400


Niall knew without looking up from his anvil that the woman who addressed him was Fae--Sidhe, the villagers called them. He could smell her, a bright, sticky-sweet stench that humans found irresistible.

He kept his head bent over his task. Mending a cooking crane for a village woman was far more important than speaking to a Fae. Besides, his name wasn’t Smith, and if she couldn’t call Niall by his real name he saw no need to answer.

"Shifter, I command you," she said.

Niall continued hammering. Wind poured through the open doors, carrying the scent of brine, fish, and clean air, which still could not cover the stench of Fae.


"This forge is filled with iron, lass," Niall cut her off. "And Shifters don’t obey Fae anymore. Did you not hear that news a hundred and fifty years ago?"

"I have a spell that keeps my aversion of iron at bay. For a time. Long enough to deal with you."

She had a voice like clearest water, and Niall finally looked up, curiosity winning over animosity. A tall woman in flowing silk stood on his threshold, her body haloed by the setting sun. Her pale hair hung to her knees in a score of thin braids, and she had the dark eyes and slender, pointed ears common to her kind. She was beautiful in an ethereal sort of way. But then all Fae were beautiful, the evil bastards.

The wind boiling up from the sea cliffs cut through the doorway, and the woman shivered. Niall raised his brows; he’d never caught a Fae doing a thing so normal as shiver.

He thrust the end of the crane into the fire, sending sparks into the darkness. "Come in out of the weather, girl. You’ll be freezing in those flimsy clothes."

"My name is Alanna, and I’m hardly a girl."

She had to be young if she responded to Niall’s condescension, or at least naïve. Fae lived so long and never changed much once they were fully grown that it was difficult to tell what age they were. She could be twenty-five or four hundred and fifty.

Alanna stepped all the way into the forge, darting nervous glances at the iron--the anvil, his tools, the piece of crane he was mending. "I’ve been sent to give you a commission."

"You were sent, were you? Poor lass. You must have offended someone high up to be handed the thankless task of entering the mortal world to speak to a Shifter."

Her cheeks colored but her tone remained haughty. "I’ve come to ask you to forge a sword. I believe you were once a sword maker of some repute."

"In days gone by. Now I’m a humble blacksmith, making practical things for villagers here and on the Great Island."

"Nonetheless, I am certain you retained your skill. The sword is to have a blade three feet in length, made of silver. The hilt to be of bronze."

Niall drew the crane from the fire, set it on his anvil, and quickly hammered the glowing end into shape. "No," he said.


He enunciated each word. "No, I will not make such a damn fool weapon for a Fae. For anyone."

Alanna regarded him, slack-jawed, a very un-Fae like expression. Fae were cold beings, barely bringing themselves to speak civilly to anything non-Fae. Fae had once bred Shifters to hunt and fight for them, and they regarded Shifters as animals, one step below humans.

This woman looked troubled, confused, even embarrassed. "You will do this."

"I will not."

"You must."

Was that panic now? Niall thrust the iron crane back into the fire and got to his feet.

The Fae woman stepped back, and Niall fought a grin. Niall was big, even for a Shifter. His arms were strong from a lifetime of smithy work, and he’d always been tall. Alanna would come up to his chin if he stood next to her; her slender hands would get lost in his big ones. He could break her like a twig if he chose, and by the fear in her black eyes, she thought he’d choose to.

"Listen to me, lass. Go back to wherever you came from, and tell them that Shifters take orders no more. We are no longer your slaves, or your hunters, or your pets. We are finished." He turned back to pump the bellows, sweat trickling down his bare back. "Besides, silver won’t make a decent sword. The metal’s too soft."

"Spells have been woven through the metal to make it as strong as steel. You will work it the same as you would any other sword."

"I will, will I? Fae don’t like swords in any case--your preferred weapon is the bow. Not to mention the copper knife for gouging out other beings’ hearts, usually while the heart is still beating."

"That is only the priests, and only when we need to make a sacrifice."

"Sacrifice, you call it? Seems like it’s not much of a sacrifice for you but hard on the one who’s losing his heart."

"That’s really none of your affair. You need to make the sword for me. What we use it for doesn’t concern you."

"You are wrong about that." Niall lifted the crane again, quickly hammered it into its final shape, and thrust it into his cooling barrel. Water and metal met with a hiss, and steam boiled into the air. "Anything I make has a little part of meself in it. I’m not putting that into a sacrificial weapon you’ll stick it into helpless animals or humans or Shifters who never did any harm to you."

Her brow clouded. "A piece of yourself? Blood or a bit of skin . . .?"

"Not literally, you ignorant woman. I don’t christen it with blood, like some Fae priest. I mean I put a bit of my soul in everything I craft. Gods know I wouldn’t want Fae touching anything that’s come close to my soul."

Her face flamed, and her look was now . . . ashamed? "Shifter, I must take this sword back with me at first light."

Last light was now streaming through the door, the spring air turning even more frigid. "And where would I be getting time to craft such a thing before morning? Sword-working is a long business, and I have sons to look after. I’m not doing it, lass. Go on home and tell them you couldn’t bully the big, mean Shifter."

"Damn you." Alanna clenched her fists, eyes sparkling. "Are all Shifters this bloody stubborn? I thought I could do this without hurting you."

Niall looked her up and down. Fae could work powerful magic, without doubt, but not much in the human world. They’d given up that power to retreat to the safety of their own realm, while Shifters had learned to adapt and remain in the world of humans. Fae still had magic out here--minor spells, glamour, and misdirection, not that they didn’t use those to lure human beings to their deaths.

"Could you hurt me, lass? In this forge full of iron? I lost my mate ten years ago. That hurt me more than anything in the world ever could. I doubt you could match that pain, no matter how many spells you can throw at me."

"No?" Alanna asked, her voice ringing. "What about if you lost your cubs?"

Niall was across the room and had her pinned against the wall before the echo of her words died, the iron bar he’d just cooled in the water pressed across the her pale throat.

Chapter Two

The Shifter was stronger than she’d imagined, and the iron against Alanna’s skin burned. The spell that her brother had grudgingly let his chief magician chant over her kept the worst at bay, but the bar felt white hot.

Odors of sweat, fire, smoke, and metal poured off the Shifter called Niall. He’d scraped his black hair into a tight braid, the style emphasizing his high cheekbones and sharp nose, the touch of Fae ancestry that had never disappeared from Shifters. His hard jaw was studded with dark whiskers, wet with sweat from his labors. The whiskers and sweat made him seem so raw, so animal-like. Fae men were beardless, their skin paper smooth, and she’d never seen one do anything so gauche as sweat.

Studying the Shifter’s stubbled chin kept Alanna from having to look into his eyes. Those eyes had been deep green when she’d entered the forge; now they were nearly white, his pupils slitted like a cat’s. He was a cat, a predatory cat bred from several species of ancient wildcats, and any second now he’d tear her apart.

And then his two sons would die.

Niall’s towering rage held her as firmly as the iron bar. "You touch my cubs, bitch, and you’ll be learning what pain truly is."

"If you do as I say, they won’t be hurt at all."

"You’ll not go near them."

"It’s too late for that. They’ve already been taken. Make the sword, and you’ll get them back."

The Shifter roared. His face elongated, and animal lips pulled back from fangs. He didn’t shift all the way, but the hand that held the bar sprouted finger-long claws.

At the moment Alanna hated all Shifters and all Fae, especially her brother Kieran, who’d told her that subduing the Shifter would be simple. They will do anything to protect their whelps. We carry them off, and he’ll whimper at your feet.

Niall O’Connell, master sword maker of the old Kingdom of Ciarrai, wasn’t whimpering, or anywhere near her feet. His fury could tear down the forge and crumble the cliff face into the sea.

"Make the sword." Now Alanna was the one pleading. "Craft the sword, and the little ones go free."

Niall’s face shifted back into his human one, but his eyes remained white. "Where are they?"

"They will be released when you complete the sword."

Niall shoved her into the wall. "Damn you, woman, where are they?"

"In the realm of Faerie."

The Shifter’s pupils returned to human shape, his eye color darkening to jade as grief filled them. Niall’s shoulders slumped, but the iron never moved from Alanna’s throat. "Gone, then," he whispered.

"No," Alanna said quickly. "If you give me the sword, they will be set free. He assured me they would not be harmed."

"Who did? Who is this Fae bastard who’s taken my children?"

"My brother. Kieran."

"Kieran . . ."

"Prince Kieran of Donegal."

"There was a Kieran of Donegal in Shifter stories of long ago. A vicious bastard that a pack of Lupines finally hunted and killed. Only decent thing the bloody dogs have ever done."

"My brother is his grandson."

"Which makes you his granddaughter." Niall peered at her. "You don’t seem all that pleased to be running this errand for your royal brother. Why did he send you?"

"None of your affair." Enemies saw your compassion as weakness and used that against you, Kieran had told her. Kieran certainly used every advantage over his enemies--and his friends as well.

"Back to that, are you, lass? What assurance do I have that you’ll not simply kill my boys whether I make the sword for you or not?"

Alanna shifted the tiniest bit, trying to ease the pain of the bar on her throat. "You have my pledge."

"And what worth is that to me?"

"My pledge that if your children are harmed, you may take my life. I wasn’t just sent as the messenger, Shifter. I was sent to be your hostage."


Even through his pain, his grief, and his gut-wrenching fear, Niall couldn’t deny that the Fae woman had courage. He could kill her right now, and she knew it. She offered her life in exchange for his sons with a steady voice, even though she obviously knew that a Shifter whose cubs were threatened was more dangerous than an erupting volcano. And even though she’d said she’d been given a protective spell against iron, Niall knew the cold bar hurt her.

Slowly he lifted it from her throat. Alanna rubbed her neck, though the bar had left no mark.

Niall stopped himself having any sympathy. She and her brother had taken his boys, Marcus and Piers, who were ten and twelve as humans counted years.

He looked past her to the darkening night, to the mists gathering on the cliff path, to the Great Island silhouetted by the blood-red sky. "My youngest, Marcus, he likes to fish," he said. "The human way with a pole and hook. Will he be able to fish where he is?"

Alanna shook her head. "The game and the fish in the rivers are for Kieran only."

"My mate died of bringing him in, poor love. She was a beautiful woman, was Caitlin, so tall and strong." Niall looked Alanna up and down. "Nothing like you."

"No, I don’t suppose she was."

Shifter women tended to be as tall as the males. They were fast runners, wild in bed, and laughed a lot. Caitlin had laughed all the time.

"Piers, now. He likes to craft things. He’ll be a smith like me. He likes to watch the iron get red hot and bend into whatever shape he tells it. He’d love to have watched me make this sword."

Alanna said nothing, only looked at him.

Niall knew why he was saying these things. He was letting himself start to grieve.

Deep in his heart, he didn’t believe Prince Kieran would agree to release his sons. Fae didn’t play fair. Niall might be allowed to take Alanna’s life in vengeance for his sons’ death, but it would be an empty vengeance. He would have no one left. No mate, no cubs, no one left in his pride.

Niall lived here on the edge of this human village called Baile Icin, because the other members of his pride and clan had died out. Shifters married into other clans, but there weren’t as many females as males anymore, and other clans were few and far between. The Shifter race was diminishing.

"You’ll make the sword then?" Alanna asked, breaking his thoughts.

She didn’t have to sound so eager. "I don’t have much bloody choice, do I?"

Her eyes softened. "I am sorry."

Sympathy, from a Fae? Had the world gone mad today?

"You will be, lass. If my cubs are hurt in any way, you’ll be the first to be very, very sorry. Your brother, now, he’ll be even sorrier still. So show me this damned silver and let’s be getting on with it."

Chapter Three

Forging a sword was a different thing entirely from the usual practical ironworks Niall produced for the humans of the village. Niall never asked Alanna why he’d been chosen for this task, because he already knew.

Once upon a time, Niall O’Connell had been a master sword maker, before Ciarrai had been made an Earldom by the bloody English. He’d created beautiful weapons used for deadly purpose in the last Fae-Shifter war. The Shifters had won that war, though Niall knew much of their victory had been due to luck--the Fae had already been losing power in the mortal world, and the Shifters had only made their retreat into the Faerie realms inevitable.

It wasn’t often that Shifters from different clans and species worked together, but at that point, Lupine, Feline, and Bear had fought side by side. The Fae had conceded defeat and vanished into their realm behind the mists.

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