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A Wing and A PrayerThe First Book of Gabriel
By Ernest Oglesby
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Ernest Oglesby
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom a distance, they looked like large birds, playfully swooping and soaring together in the skies, disappearing one minute behind the clouds before reappearing and darting here and there in the heavens as though playing a game of tag.
Close up, it was apparent that these were not birds, but humans, albeit with wings. The Celts knew them as Elohim and feared them, their strange screeching tongue and their unnatural physiognomy. They kept to the mountains and high places, except when they foraged for food, sometimes brave enough to steal from the Celt villages.
Such beings were not natural to these shores, but the memory of their arrival was beyond generations, and only the passed-on history of the Druids revealed their full history. They flocked to these shores in advance of the Roman armies, as if fleeing before them.
The Druids instilled such hatred in the Celts for these creatures, and since the early days of their coming, some few of them had been captured and sacrificed to grim gods of the wood. During those sacrifices and ingestion of their spilt blood as part of the old rites, the Druids had quickly learnt of the regenerative powers of that blood and valued it highly. Revered by the rest of the Celtic tribes, Druids held sway and were venerated for their knowledge and leadership.
The Elohim were relatively few in number and grew more cautious of the numerous Celts, yet as the Celts watched and studied, some of these winged creatures grew careless and overconfident.
Lucifer soared, enjoying the wind through his hair, as natural in this environment as any real bird. He swooped, laughing as he raced the frightened smaller-sized birds faster than the fastest hawk; his friend Gabriel was laughing alongside him as they soared through the valleys. The wind in his feathers—was there a better feeling to be had anywhere on this planet?
The snow was light, and yet it obscured their view of the landscape, all white and covered beneath them. Treetops bowed with the weight of the snow. Strangely, the two angels hardly felt the cold when they were flying like this, muscles powering their wings as they strove to outdo each other.
Gabriel taunted him as he plummeted like a stone past him, using gravity to assist his dive, and Lucifer did the same, whooping and screeching after him, eager not to be outdone on their daily exercise. The woods, the dark woods, suddenly so close, as they sought to pull out of their incredibly steep dives to just brush the treetops, out of bravado, as they did most days, unaware their habits had been noted by the Celts.
All of a sudden, the snow-covered treetops shook, and the air was filled with hot rain, and Lucifer fell from the sky screaming, one wing pierced by one of the sharp javelins thrown by the humans hiding in the uppermost of the treetops.
Gabriel swooped lower to aid him, when the stones, hurled with accuracy by the many slingshots, began to fill the air around him, zinging around him and stinging, like bees swarming. Crying out as he was hit again and again, Gabriel fell, his wings clipping the branches as the whooping savages celebrated their catch, the weighted nets cast eagerly and skillfully to trap the two angels and heavy clubs quickly used to beat them unconscious.
Lucifer was afraid. The smoke from the fires assailed his nostrils, and the Celts busied themselves at the direction of the white-robed Druids, preparing the clearing for the ceremony to come.
He lay there groaning, wrapped in the nets with Gabriel, who was still unconscious. He nudged him discreetly. "Gabriel, wake up." They were both going to die, he was sure. The ground beneath them was wet and coppery with their blood, which still leaked from their wounds. Gabriel woke and tried to stand, gasping with the effort, but the nets and Lucifer's weight kept him on his knees. Scarcely an hour ago, the two of them had been soaring through the heavens as only the Elohim could, performing the sort of maneuvers that every other feathered creature on this planet could only envy. They were as one with the winds, which gave them lift, and flight was as second nature to them as breathing.
Careless, they had descended close to the forest, swooping close to the trees in their abandoned play, when the humans closed their trap. It had been long months since the last of their number had fallen prey to the humans. The majority of the aerie had dispersed, seeking relative safety by avoiding the lowlands.
The wounds were not fatal but would need time to heal, time the humans were not going to give them. Gabriel gritted his teeth as he strained to tear open the nets with his sharp nails, feathers and blood making his hands sticky. "Help me. We must break free of these nets." Lucifer fought not to scream as he tried to pull at the thick nets.
Around them, the woods were filled with the humans, mostly naked bodies covered in that grotesque blue mud. A few wore rough leggings. The Druids were the only ones among them to wear robes, pristine white long beards, wild and unkempt, crowns of holly in their long hair, their eyes wild with the potent drugs they knew and guarded closely unto themselves.
The drums beat loudly, sending a wild rhythm up into the night. The watch fires lit the wood, the tall hazels thick, guarding the sky. The Druids had learnt well from past mistakes, the stone altar open to the sky only in the small clearing and overshadowed by the mighty sacred oak. The Druids drew their strength from the wood, the dark cruel wood.
Lucifer looked around the clearing. Close to the large overhanging oak was a Faery ring comprised of small uneven stones, polished by the elements, seeming so natural and yet equally so sinister, avoided by all except the Druid as though the Celts were afraid to step within. Then his eyes were drawn to the roughly hewn stone of the altar, the dark stains that were still visible there. Men had died here, angels too, he knew. "It's no use," he groaned.
"Shut up, Lucifer. Just shut up and help me. Help me, damn you!" Gabriel swore, pulling at the crude nets with the last vestiges of his strength. Lucifer started to help once more, but the humans soon noticed their efforts and, with loud cries, descended upon them, wielding heavy wooden clubs and raining down blow after blow until both of them slumped almost unconscious to the ground.
When they finally regained consciousness once more, they noticed the Celts standing in close attendance to forestall any further attempts to free themselves from the nets. A tall figure in white robes and holly crown came to address them.
"Bring them food," he addressed some of the other Celts. "Mead too. I would not have them weak from their wounds."
"Why show such concern?" Gabriel asked. "Why have you captured us, if not to put us to death?"
"Your death is of little consequence to me, birdman. I would keep you alive to take from you the secret of your long life. Once done, I leave your final fate to others. Make the most of your time. Tomorrow night, the moon is full, and the altar awaits," He flourished his hand, gesturing towards the cold grey slab of stone in the centre of the clearing.
The Celts were true to their word, bringing them food and mead. Some of their strength was restored, but the nets still weighed them down, and their guards remained in close attendance. Lucifer and Gabriel eventually managed to sleep, despite the cold chill of the evening air. More snow was coming to these lands and not too far away.
Chapter TwoThe next day, preparations continued for the evening's planned ceremony. Watch fires around the clearing were tended to, and a perimeter guard of sorts was posted. A light flurry of snow began around midday as the two captured angels were brought more food, which they accepted gratefully. "Eat and be strong, Lucifer," advised Gabriel as he passed the food onto his companion.
The immediate area around the stone altar was open to the skies, and yet the Celts avoided it. Gabriel was quick to notice the shadows, which occasionally flitted across the ground and heard once or twice the keening cries of their fellow angels in the heavens as they sought for their missing comrades. Lucifer tried to call out once in response, but one of the Celts cruelly bludgeoned him to the ground before the cry could leave his lips. The two angels were then bound and gagged to forestall any further attempts at freedom and left to lie in their nets till evening.
At the Druids' command, the nets were removed. The two angels were finally dragged to where the cold stone altar awaited. Death had not been promised, yet what further end could that grim grey stone promise? Struggling once more, they found their bonds too constricting, and the two angels could do nothing as many men pulled on the ropes that bound them to force them facedown across the chiseled stone. The chanting began—cruel, guttural—as the Celts worked themselves into a bloodlust.
Ifys, the High Druid came forward, pulling the sickle-shaped knife from his sash. The sharp metal glinted in the firelight. Lucifer watched, helpless, as the knife was used on Gabriel, his friend's screams almost louder than the obscene chanting. Blood ran red as cartilage and feathers were cut, removed, the coarsely cut channel in the stone funneling the blood flow to where a clay urn waited to be filled.
Relishing the pain he was causing, the Druid cut deep, enjoying the screams as Gabriel lost consciousness once more. Other Druids held up the amputated wings to display to the crowd as they roared their approval. Then the Druid cast the amputated wings next to the Faery ring. Then it was Lucifer's turn to scream.
The two butchered angels lay unconscious across the stone altar, their wounds deep. The High Druid ordered that tar be spread on their wounds, and he used a burning torch himself to light it. The burning flesh awakened both Gabriel and Lucifer, screaming as they found themselves still alive and suffering more agony. Their cries echoed up into the night.
At a signal from the High Druid, soil was thrown over the burning tar, smothering the flames, and they lay face down, panting and sweating, gasping for breath and an escape from such torment. Acolytes were quick to remove the blood-filled urns, careful not to spill a drop as they vanished into the woods. Ifys came up to the altar, stroking Lucifer's golden hair lightly. "We will not make the same mistake with you two," he said cruelly. "Without your wings, you will be easily tamed. Rebuild your strength and your blood, for we will have more of it," he promised.
As Gabriel lay there, trying to ignore the pain of the emasculation and the burning tar, Ifys turned away from the stone altar and raised one of the dismembered wings over to the Faery ring. "Lord Malevar, accept my offering, and aid us against our Roman foes!" the Druid spoke aloud to his followers. Then he began chanting in an unknown tongue, forming sounds Gabriel had not known a human throat could utter. The Druid made invocation to unknown deities, allowing the droplets of blood to spatter the small stones that formed the circumference of the ring itself, and a hushed awe fell upon the whooping Celts as the air itself slowly began to distort.
Gabriel thought he was swooning, imagining things, as his vision blurred. It was as though he was peering through water. He could see but not clearly. The air above the Faery ring of stones looked more liquid than actual air, and the falling snow seemed to disappear when it came to touch it. A voice both grim and yet distant now spoke, cowering the painted Celts, and even the High Druid himself bowed as the voice rang out. "Your offering pleases me. But it is not enough." The words came as though from a mouth unused to speaking such a tongue.
"The wings I give unto you now. You will have the angels themselves by the next full moon. Surely you would not begrudge us some of their blood for ourselves? You know its properties to my kind." The High Druid made his excuses, only too aware of who it was with whom he was speaking.
"My kind has aided yours for centuries. If you wish that aid to continue, then hold true to your word, Druid. You know of my interest in these creatures. The next full moon. No later. Now, give unto me the wings," the voice commanded. Ifys thrust the first severed wing forward, the air obscuring it as though he were immersing it in a stream. Then it just seemed to disappear altogether as the rest of the Celts gasped in awe. The other severed wings followed, all of them disappearing before Gabriel's hazed eyes. He was as awestruck as any of the Celts. This was true magic indeed ... The ethereal voice rang out once more. "Be true to your word, Druid. At the next full moon, the angels must cross over."
"As you will, Lord Malevar. I will keep my word," the Druid was quick to reassure the unknown entity.
"Be sure you do. The Dark Elves are not known for their compassion," he warned. The Druid bowed his head in supplication, and the swirling air began to return to normal. The gateway to wherever else had closed. The night was no longer charged with eldritch energy.
Gabriel swallowed hard and turned to where Lucifer lay bound with him on the altar, but his friend was unconscious again and had not witnessed any of this. Hope of some sorts then ... They were not to be killed out of hand but given over to what?
He had heard the legends of the "little people" who were supposed to haunt this land since before the coming of mankind, though he had never witnessed anything like that which he had seen this night. Were they aiding the Celts against the Roman persecution?
Automatically, his hands flexed against his bonds, but the ropes held him too tightly, and he was still weakened from his ordeal. In time, his sharpened hard nails would cut through such bonds, but he was not going to get that time. The Druid then nodded to one of the humans, who smiled eagerly as he tore the loincloths from the two wingless angels, leaving them naked. The Druids stepped back to allow the rest of the evening's anticipated entertainment to continue. Gabriel felt the hands running over his buttocks, harsh, cruel laughter behind him. He looked across to where Lucifer was being similarly tormented, one human pulling his head up by his golden locks and spitting in his face.
Then, all at once, above the noise of the drums came a deafening screeching and a tremendous rush of air, which made the trees themselves shiver in their roots. Flames flickered and some torches were blown out. Lucifer looked up. Like a giant eagle come to earth, Michael was there!
Wings flaring wide, causing flurries of snow as he forced the surrounding humans back away from them, Michael, beloved Michael, first among the Elohim, mighty spear held before him as he swooped down into the clearing, bellowing out his hate for these cursed humans, skewered the High Druid fully through, pinning him to the sacred oak which overshadowed the altar before he could react.
It happened in seconds only, the rest of the humans so stunned they just stood frozen as Michael turned his wrath upon them. Mighty wings, some thirty feet from tip to tip, beat the humans back as he grabbed one of the buckets of molten tar and used one of the torches to set it afire before showering them with it.
Screams rang out amid the panic as more flesh burned, and Michael roared as he pulled free his mighty spear and lashed out at the terrified rabble, scattering them like chaff as they sought to flee his wrath. Tears filled his eyes as he saw what had been done to Lucifer and Michael, and his blows literally cut men in two as he wielded the huge spear. Half conscious, Gabriel and Lucifer saw more angels descending as Michael held the humans at bay, their bonds released, and helping hands carried them aloft into the night sky.
Chapter ThreeStolen wine was used to refresh Gabriel and Lucifer as they sought to recover from their wounds, as a conclave of sorts was held amongst the Elohim. Michael, his eyes wet with tears, was leading the debate.
"The time has come to move on. We have lost too many of our brethren to these humans. We must go north, to the wild lands, and hope the Picts are not as numerous."
"And if they breed like the rest of these humans, then where do we go?" asked Uriel.
"Farther north, across the western ocean? We cannot live in peace with these creatures. Some of us have learnt to speak their tongue in part, but we are looked upon as monsters. They fear what is different to themselves. Everywhere these creatures breed, they eventually treat us with fear and hunt us down. We are too few to fight them. We have no womenfolk of our own, and our unions with human women are fraught with danger. We must forever move on, in hope of finding a homeland of our own," Raphael pointed out.
Excerpted from A Wing and A Prayer by Ernest Oglesby Copyright © 2011 by Ernest Oglesby. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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