James in Boots - Tinnean
Notes: Minor character death. Well, if you're familiar with the fairy tale, you have to expect some people to die. I've taken liberties in the forms of address, since obviously a Marquis would not be called 'your grace.' Equally obviously, Daryl isn't as young as on the show. Of course Alex Barnes' name was Alexis, but I've changed her name to remain in keeping with the time, which is roughly the first quarter of the 16th century. Destriers and coursers were prized war horses, chosen by royalty and nobility. A rouncey was an all-purpose horse of the Middle Ages, used by poorer knights, squires, and men-at-arms. Frombork is the town on the coast of the Baltic Sea where Copernicus had a home from 1512 until his death in 1543. A hand is four inches, therefore the destrier James is given is six feet at the shoulder. He's a big boy. ~~g~~ These are the links for Stone Soup and Puss in Boots.
Once upon a time, many, many, many years ago there was a valiant King who found his people and country besieged by evil. He gathered a stalwart band of knights to fight this evil, Sir Henri, Sir Joel, Sir Rafe, but in spite of all they could do, evil continued to stalk the land of Cascade.
One day, Lord Gerald Spalding, a newly-created baron, came to him.
"Sire," he said, "if you will but proclaim me your heir, I will see this evil is swept from the land."
Now, not only did King Simon already have an heir to whom he intended to leave his kingdom, but he didn't trust Lord Spalding, for the man's eyes were small and set close together, and so he sent him on his way.
Things became worse, and King Simon was at his wits' end, but at this darkest of times, a handsome knight from far, far, far away came riding into the county.
Sir James was a man of valor and honor. He defeated the darkness at every turn, also saving Prince Daryl a number of times, earning King Simon's deepest gratitude. His many daring deeds, as well as his keen hearing and eyesight, so impressed King Simon that he gave the knight a very special title, Protector of the Realm.
Lord Spalding was furious, for he saw his ambitions dissolving to nothingness. He gathered his minions and ordered them to devise a way to destroy Sir James. No one saw the men enter his manor, for if they were caught, he didn't want suspicion to fall back on him.
They would dine on his mutton, drink his next to best wines, and try to come up with plots that would bring about the downfall of the handsome knight.
Nothing worked, not stealthy attacks - no matter how silent his henchmen were, the man seemed aware of their approach - not food or drink that had had a little something extra added.
"Did you even remember to add anything, dolt?" Lord Spalding growled
"Aye, my lord!" the curiously unremarkable-looking man whined. "Sir James would be about to take a bite or a swallow, but then he would stop. You'd think he could smell what I'd added!"
"How could that be possible?"
The man hunched a shoulder. "I don't know, I tell you! I just know that's how it seemed!"
A tinkling laugh came from the doorway. "You're an idiot, Lash."
Lash reared back, an unbecoming flush coloring his thin face. "What do you know of it, Alex?"
"More than you, obviously."
Lord Gerald turned to face the vision who stood there, his cock starting to rise. Alexandra Barnes was tall for a woman, and slender, with luxurious golden locks piled high on her head. She was dressed in the height of fashion, and Lord Spalding found her very much to his taste. He had asked her to become his mistress, but she was holding out for marriage.
As if he would marry a woman without connections. She was useful enough, though, and his fortunes had indeed been on the rise since she'd come into his household.
Now he observed her intently. "Do you have any suggestions, Mistress Barnes?"
"Of course, I do, milord." She came toward him, a saucy sway to her hips. "But I will not reveal my plans before this motley crew you've put together."
Lord Spalding waved a hand and the men left. They weren't pleased, but they wouldn't object, not to his face, and not if they wanted to keep their places in his employ. Even if they couldn't think of a way to destroy Sir James, Lord Spalding was still paying them.
"Very well, Alex," his lordship said with as much patience as he could spare, "we're alone now."
"You know, Gerald, you're the only man I'll permit to call me that name. I would urge you not to do so too often."
"Yes, yes. Whatever you say." He discounted her words. After all, what could she really do? She was naught but a woman. "Now what are these plans of yours?"
"You need a woman's fine hand in this, for only a woman will be able to get close enough to Sir Knight to carry out the plan I have in mind."
"And yours is just the hand for the task?"
"Of course." Her ruby lips curled in a smile that on any other woman would have been pleasant. On Mistress Barnes, however, it was dangerous, and Lord Spalding found himself even more aroused, heat streaking through him like a wildfire. "It will come at a price, however."
"If you can engineer this upstart's downfall, I'll gladly pay whatever fee you name."
"Even if it should be your name?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Come, come, my lord. You know very well the price of my continued cooperation."
He frowned. He detested it when she called him 'my lord' in that almost mocking tone of voice. "Very well, Alex-andra." Tit for tat. He knew she loathed being called by a man's name almost as much. "Very well, I will wed you," he agreed reluctantly, for he'd had his eye on Lady Megan, who was not only beauteous but was connected to King Simon through his wife's brother's marriage to Lady Megan's sister. "If you succeed." After all, it wasn't as if they'd be married for long. Women were such delicate creatures, and the world was such a harsh place.
"There is no question about it, my lord. I will succeed! Now. I will need you to provide me with these herbs." She handed him a list. "I will brew me a potion. And once that is done... "
He rapidly read over the list. His eyebrow rose, but he concealed his satisfaction. This was even better. Possession of these herbs could get her burned at the stake as a witch. He pictured himself, filled with regret, nobly doing his duty and turning the witch over to the Church.
"Of course, my dear."
And she smiled at him, the flash of her dimple assuring him she was unaware of his thoughts.
James was tired. He'd just decimated a contingent of rogue knights, who'd been laying waste to the land, and all he wanted was a quiet place in which to sleep, and a pallet supplied with linens that didn't scratch his skin raw.
That wasn't likely to happen, though. Richard Torin, the lord of this manor was so pleased with James that he intended to fete him throughout the evening and into the night, and to that end, he'd brought in a number of the local ladies.
From the men's whispers and appreciative leers, James had a feeling that none of the women who tittered and preened were ladies in the accepted sense of the word. He flinched at the sounds of their laughter, for it hurt his ears.
It hadn't escaped his notice that Lord Richard had sent his own women away. Not that he could blame Lord Richard. James was a skilled knight, but aside from the title King Simon had bestowed upon him, all he had was his horse and his shield, and a baron would expect a prospective husband to bring more to the family.
More than one of the women had cast come hither glances his way. He'd turned down offers of a walk in the gardens, a tour of the grounds, or a visit to the upper floors with their bedchambers, and he knew he was drawing questioning gazes. For how long, he wondered, could he plead exhaustion?
Just as James was steeling himself to accept the next random offer, another woman appeared, seeming from out of nowhere.
"I give you good even, my lord." Her voice was low and husky, and she was beautiful; he was willing to admit that. And the fact that she was so beautiful, so womanly, made her perfect, for no one must ever come to suspect that he found the male form far more attractive than the female form.
"I'm Sir James."
She chuckled softly. "Yes. I know." And although she was dressed as a lady, he knew she was anything but, for her scent was rife with the aroma of a female in heat. She rested her palm on his cheek, and her voice became even more sensuous. "You are weary, sir. Come, go with me, and I will soothe you." She leaned forward, pressing her breasts against his chest, and whispered in his ear, "I will give you such pleasure as you've never known!"
Others were watching him, and he knew it had been noted that he hadn't taken any of the wenches to his bed; he could only plead weariness from his exploits for so long. Unless he took steps, rumors would soon start that one of his enemies had unmanned him, and while that wasn't quite as bad as the truth, neither would it do his reputation any good.
Perhaps if he went with this wench, he would have some peace from their sly looks and seemingly innocent questions.
Well, what had he to lose?
He eased an arm around her waist and pulled her onto his lap. She wiggled her bottom against his groin, but her movements did nothing to tempt his wayward flesh.
"Is aught wrong, my lord?"
"I'm not a lord," he reminded her. "I'm a knight." He called to mind something that was sure to rouse his cock, and the memory, replete with the taste, touch, and smell of that single experience with another knight, worked as he'd hoped - dreaded -and his cock swelled and hardened. He set her on her feet and stood, sliding an arm around her. "All right - What's your name?" He could hardly spend the night calling her 'wench.'
"Xandra." The consonant was slightly slurred.
"All right, Xandra. Let's to bed!" he said loudly enough for those around him to hear, and ribald cheers followed their departure.
She led him outside, through the courtyard, to a small cottage.
"I don't recall seeing this cottage before."
"Why should such an important man be concerned with such mundane things as a serving woman's home?"
He didn't tell her such seemingly mundane things could mean the difference between life and death - she was a woman, and things of that nature weren't of any consequence to them.
Something about her words nagged at him, but he couldn't pinpoint what it was.
And then she threw open her door, and he dismissed it.
"Enter, kind sir."
He stepped across the threshold and looked around curiously. The room was larger than he'd expected, and it was clean and comfortable, a fire blazing on the hearth.
"It's rather warm in here, isn't it?"
"The nights are often chill, and a fire is most welcome." She went to the wall, took down a wineskin, and filled a goblet. "Pray, sir, have a sip of this wine! It is most refreshing, and will cool you."
James didn't want the wine, but perhaps if he drank enough, this time he would be able to perform.
He took the goblet and swallowed the contents before he could question the wisdom of this act.
It was only as he took the goblet from his lips that the taste and smell of it caused all his senses to cry out a warning.
Too late though. The goblet fell from benumbed fingers, and he pitched to the floor.
Alexandra Barnes smiled down grimly at the senseless body before her. The man was comely enough, she thought with passing regret, but he would never succumb to her charms. There were men like that. When they crossed her path, she didn't regard them in any manner at all, simply disposed of them and never thought of them again.
About to summon the men Spalding had grudgingly agreed to let her have, she paused in the doorway. A pity Lord Spalding didn't value her talents.
But he would, soon enough, when she presented him this kingdom on a silver salver. And once it was theirs... well, the world was a dangerous place.
"Kincade! Brackett!" she called softly. It wouldn't do for anyone to know of her connection to Lord Spalding. Not yet.
The men appeared "What would you, Lady?"
Her smile became approving. It was good to know some men appreciated her. 'Lady.' She savored that title. Yes, soon enough it would be hers. And afterwards, 'your Majesty' wouldn't be far behind. "He is in the cottage. Take him into the forest."
"Do with him as you will. Just see he isn't alive by the time the sun rises."
Their smiles rapacious, they stepped around her to enter the cottage. When they emerged, they each had an arm of the poor fool who had gotten in the way of her ambitions.
She watched until she could see them no more, then entered the cottage, closed the door, and began to revel in the future that would soon be hers.
"What do you mean, he vanished?" she screeched. It was not more than two hours later. How could things go so wrong in just two hours? "Men don't just vanish!"
The two men before her shifted uneasily, cleared their throats, and exchanged wary glances that clearly said, 'I knew this wasn't a good idea!'
"I swear to you, Lady, that's exactly what happened! One minute we were pulling off his breeches- "
"They were of fine quality, and what need would a dead man have of them?" Brackettt hastened to add.
"And the next minute?" Her bosom heaved as she struggled to contain her fury.
Kincade's eyes became shrouded, and he shrugged. "He was gone. We searched the entire forest, but Sir James was nowhere to be found."
"Very well. If he is gone, then he is gone. It was what I planned for him anyway." Wolves hunted that forest, and a man who'd imbibed as much of the potion as she'd mixed with the wine would be no match for the beasts. She eyed Brackettt and Kincade thoughtfully. "It might be a good idea if you were to vanish as well."
"Of course, Lady. However, we are poor men."
She gave an inelegant snort, went to a chest, and withdrew a pouch that jingled merrily. "Of course you are."
Brackett took the pouch and opened it. Smiling, he showed the gold coins to Kincade, who gave a single nod. Brackett pulled tight the drawstrings and tucked the pouch into his breeches.
After a brief bow, both men left.
Alexandra Barnes waited until she could no longer hear them. She didn't know what had happened to Sir James, but she did know what would become of those two.
They would open the pouch, and with her no longer there to control what they saw and heard, they would realize what they held.
Only by that time it would be too late, for the golden vipers in the pouch would be exceedingly angry, and they would strike at the first thing that came near them.
She began to laugh, abruptly forcing herself to stop only as she realized the out of control sound of it. It wouldn't do for the neighbors to hear her and wonder. Many a woman who lived alone faced the threat of being declared a witch, especially if she kept a cat.
Fortunately, the animal Alexandra Barnes kept, a large, spotted feline, was never seen by her neighbors.
She allowed herself a few more chuckles, then banked the fire and prepared for bed.
"You are with us once more, Enqueri," Incacha told James when he woke from the latest attempt to help him recover his human form.
There had been other times when his dreams had been filled with jungles and jaguars... and wolves, but this time there was no awakening from it. This time he remained a jaguar.
"The sorcerer who cast this spell on you is very powerful."
James' most vivid memories of that night were of a vile-tasting drink and a midnight blue nightmare world, and when he'd emerged, it had been as the black jaguar.
'He is your spirit animal,' Incacha had informed him.
They had tried everything the shaman could think of to restore him to his human body, to no avail.
"But you're a powerful shaman, Incacha!" James sat up. The taste of blood and raw flesh was in his mouth. A sneeze caught him unaware, and mottled feathers fluttered around his face, and he wrinkled his lips. He flexed the pads of his huge paws, and long, razor-sharp claws appeared, to vanish almost immediately as he brought a paw to his muzzle and cleaned off the feathers.
"And if this sorcerer were Chopec, I would have reversed the spell in the blink of an eye. But because he is not of my land, his magic differs from mine." They both knew it was black magic. Incacha rested his hand on the big cat's shoulder. "I am sorry, Enqueri."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Perhaps not." Incacha had explained how he hadn't even intended to go on a vision quest, but his spirit guide, a black-winged eagle, had roused him suddenly and brought him to a land he'd never before seen, to a forest filled with trees that were unfamiliar to him.
And there he had found James, who he'd immediately recognized as a protector, one whose task it was to watch over and safeguard the weak and helpless of the tribe.
"There is no 'perhaps' about it, Incacha." He had regained his senses in the forest, had been aware but incapable of movement, and so was unable to defend himself against the two men who were about to assault him.
He didn't know who the men were, but he would know them if they ever crossed his path again, and then there would be a reckoning.
"You are a shaman, and as you've told me, it's the shaman's duty to protect the protector. You could not have let them hurt me."
"No." But Incacha sighed.
James had seen the whole thing. In spite of what the men might have thought, they weren't very clever, and it hadn't taken Incacha much magic to dazzle their eyes, making them see what he wanted them to see, and they'd run screaming from the fearsome beasts they thought had sprung out of the night.
"I always counsel those who would walk this path to tread it carefully, for dangers lurk for the unwary, and yet I went forward without a single thought."
"I couldn't walk, couldn't move, and it would be death for us both if we stayed there. You told me my only chance to throw off the effects of whatever it was that was holding me in thrall was to merge my spirit with my own spirit guide, and you showed me the way of it. I was grateful. I still am."
"Grateful for condemning you to a life as a beast that walks on four legs instead of a man who walks on two?"
"Grateful to be alive."
Incacha shook his head. "I should have taken the time to test the charm."
"Time we didn't have. While I live, you have the opportunity to discover why this happened. If I were dead... " The big cat cocked his head. "It might have been that you could have learned the spell that kept me immobile would also keep me trapped in the body of my spirit guide. Could you know beyond a doubt?"
"If you had had a shaman, this would not have happened." Incacha sighed again.
"You've stayed with me." He glanced at the damp, fog-shrouded terrain beyond the cave they sheltered in. He knew they were in a far corner of the country, miles and miles from the forest of Rainier, and they would remain there until Incacha told him otherwise. "You could have returned to your own home... "
"No, this I could not do, my friend. Not until you find a shaman of your own to guide you."
That startled James. "But I thought you were my shaman." His ears were pointed toward Incacha, and they twitched, but Incacha didn't touch them, as James had half-hoped he would.
"No." Incacha had spent the long nights telling him of the ways of the protectors, and the role the shaman played in their lives.
James had simply assumed that once he was a man again, he would find a way to reach Incacha's homeland, which was on the other side of the great ocean. He would miss his friends and the people of King Simon's kingdom, but he knew, somehow, that his home would be with his shaman.
"She... " Incacha studied James carefully, and he would have fidgeted, but knights, even knights who were now in the body of a large cat, didn't do that. "He will guide you back before you are drawn too deeply into this form."
Deep down he was relieved, knowing he wouldn't be going off to a far distant country, knowing he'd be staying in Cascade.
"How am I to know this shaman?" He didn't question that it was to be a man. After all, wasn't his squire male?
"Listen carefully, Enqueri, and I will tell you just that!"
Naomi Sandburg's father was a miller. So was his father before him, and his father's father, who had traveled the civilized world and then chose Liddleton in which to settle and ply his trade.
She wanted more than that, more than some man who would marry her only to get her father's mill: she wanted to go to university.
But girls weren't permitted in those hallowed halls, so instead she seduced a professor, learned all he had to teach, and then returned home, her mind filled with the wonders of the ages, and her womb filled with his seed.
Her father took her back with no questions, loving her in spite of the fact that she was not only with child, but she was unmarried as well.
And when her son Blair was born, the old man loved him as well.
When he died, he left the mill to Naomi. It was an unusual trade for a woman, but she refused to let anyone tell her she couldn't do it.
She was that way, going her own road, doing what she wanted to do, and she wanted that for her son also.
The local vicar, who'd tutored Blair until her young son had outstripped his learning, assured her Blair was a brilliant student, and regretted that he wouldn't be able to go to university.
"And why shouldn't he go?" she demanded.
"My dear Naomi." The vicar's voice was so condescending she was tempted to strike him, and only the fact that her father had reared her never to raise her hand to a man of god kept her from acting on that temptation. "Even if he should be awarded a scholarship, it would still cost a great sum of money."
Naomi intended to see that her son went where she couldn't go, and to that end, she worked so that the wheat ground in her mill produced the finest flour in the land. The cakes and breads produced from it were not only so light they almost rose from the pans on their own, but they were easy on the digestion as well. It was in demand by the local gentry, and the king himself had heard of it; he would send his chief cook to make sure there was a constant supply of it.
"Mama, you're working too hard," Blair protested. "I don't need to go to university. I can find a craft. I'm a good cook, you've said so yourself."
She smiled. He made a meat pie that was mouth-wateringly tender.
But her smile vanished when he announced, "I could apprentice myself to the cook at the Hare and Hound."
"That hovel? No!"
"Well, then, you could take me as your apprentice!" He smiled cheekily, and she felt her heart lift. Her son was such a charmer.
"You have a keen mind, Blair, and it would be wasted if I kept you here."
"But Mama- "
"No. You deserve more than wheat dust in your hair and lungs."
The neighbors would talk, saying she'd got above herself, but let them. Her hard work and perseverance would pay off!
She stood at the door to the mill, watching as her handsome son sat in the back of Farmer Chard's cart, smiling and waving until she couldn't see him any longer for the tears in her eyes. He was only twelve, but she was sure this was the start of a journey that would see he left his mark on the world.
In spite of the fact that he was younger than a good many of the other students; in spite of the fact that his mother was unmarried and a miller - something the others never let him forget - Blair reveled in his studies. His mind was very keen, and he intended to make Naomi proud of him, but to do that, he had to become a professor himself. He set about that task with a single-minded intensity that his professors found intriguing, although Dr. Stoddard, the chancellor of Rainier University, had assured him that he had never been one to scoff at the thought of a miller's son becoming a scholar.
As he grew to young manhood, the lasses of the university town would flutter their lashes and toss their heads, their hair rippling around their shoulders, letting him know they found his mahogany curls and blue eyes pleasing to look upon, and some of the lads did as well.
But Blair always kept in mind the sacrifices his mother made for him, and so he kept his cock tucked in his breeches, and concentrated on his studies.
The years passed, and Blair began gaining a reputation as a man who would go far in the world of academia. Frequently, Dr. Stoddard would take him to the continent, and Blair met exceptionally brilliant and interesting men - Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, and Michelangelo among them - who questioned what the professors of his university accepted as written in stone.
He was a dedicated and voracious correspondent, and missives came to him from all over the civilized world, Italy, France, Germany, even the Holy Land and the East Indies. He often wrote to Naomi about what he had learned, who he had met, and his own thoughts on it all.
Blair returned to his room after the last of the morning classes Dr. Stoddard had given him to teach. He found a letter from Liddleton waiting in his room, and he smiled happily. It was always a pleasure to receive a message from his mother - she would comment on something he had written, sparking a lively debate and a flurry of letters.
He studied the writing, and his smile faded. Her script, usually so bold and confident that it would never be taken for the hand of a woman, had an almost fragile appearance to it.
Worrying his lip, Blair broke the seal, unfolded the page, and began to read.
My dear son,
There's no easy way of saying this, so I'll just tell you outright. I'm dying. Grinding the wheat so fine has come with a price. Often I breathed in the chaff, and I fear that after years of this, it has taken a toll on my lungs.
You have been the light of my life, Blair, and I won't have you thinking I begrudge for one single instant providing for your education in whatever manner I could.
However, my illness has also come with a price. I was forced to deed the mill to Alvar Milne.
Blair swore. The man had a mill in the next county, but it produced nothing so fine as the Sandburgs' mill. He'd often come around, seeking to woo Naomi, but she would send him away. She must have been desperate for help if she'd turned to him. But how could she have been so ill and yet have kept it from him?
I regret to tell you this, but with my passing, there will be nothing for me to leave you - no coins to further your education-
"Oh, Mama, as if I cared about that!"
- no mill or cottage, nothing save a very large black cat that appeared from out of nowhere a little less than a year ago.
A cat? He didn't like cats very much, not because they were Satan's minions as the superstitious believed, but simply because they were so independent. They were good at keeping the population of mice and rats in check, but he preferred a pet who wouldn't present him with the fruits of his hunting expeditions.
However, if Naomi wanted him to have this cat...
A funny little man was with him, but he's since gone, left for home I imagine. I've been calling the cat Sir James. Fanciful, I know, but it just seemed to suit him. At first I was frightened of him - he's such a large animal! - but he reassured me, never raised a paw or wrinkled his muzzle at me, and truthfully, I felt safer with him in the cottage. We had long comfortable conversations. And the mill has never been so free of vermin! You never were particularly fond of cats, and I know that when a belly cramps from hunger, even rats begin to look tasty, but I hope you won't be tempted to eat Sir James and make a muff of his coat.
Blair swallowed heavily. He'd come across much in his travels, and knew that people had resorted to eating the most unappetizing of things, but he hoped he never had to resort to that!
I need you to come home, sweetling. I don't have much time left, and I want to see you once more before I leave this mortal coil.
Please grant me this one request, my son.
Your Loving Mother,
Blair's fingers were shaking as he folded the letter. As if he'd even think of denying her request! A glance at the clock told him it wanted but a quarter hour to the noonday meal. He packed his belongings quickly, then went to see Dr. Stoddard.
"Blair! You're home!" Naomi struggled up onto her elbow, joy flooding her. She had worried he wouldn't arrive in time. She could tell he was shocked at how gaunt and pale she was, at how the strands of gray threaded through her hair, which had been so much like his, and she sighed, then coughed as that slight exhalation brought pressure on her lungs.
There was a rumbling from the shadows. "Behave, Sir James! This is Blair! I've spoken to you about him!"
A form seemed to coalesce from the dimness.
"Good god, Mama! Is this what you considered a large cat? The animal's immense!"
Naomi chuckled. "This is- "
"Not a large cat, Mama!" Blair interrupted, turning so pale she feared for a moment he might have an attack of vapors. "This is a jaguar!"
Her son was such an educated man, she thought proudly. He must have recognized Sir James from pictures he'd seen in very old books, or possibly in the menageries wealthy men on the continent kept on their estates.
"Whatever he is, he's been a godsend, and you will treat him well, if only for my sake." She hoped he wouldn't think her silly for calling a cat, no matter how big, by a human name. No, of course he wouldn't. He was her beloved son, and he loved her almost as much as she loved him. She blinked back tears and smiled as she watched him.
"Yes, Mama." But Blair kept a cautious eye on the animal.
The jaguar came to stand before him. Large wasn't the proper term for him, as Naomi was quite aware. His head came midway up Blair's chest, and if he stretched his head up just a bit, his jaws would easily reach Blair's throat.
Of course, she trusted Sir James not to hurt her son, and he didn't. He sat, his tail curled neatly around his hocks. "How do you do, Blair?" he asked, in a deep, rumbling voice.
Blair fell backwards onto his backside. "He talks!"
"Of course he does, sweetling. What did you think I meant when I wrote we'd had long conversations?"
Blair gave her a disgruntled look. "I thought you meant you talked and he listened."
Sir James laughed. There was no other word for the sound that emerged from his throat.
"Naomi's told me a good deal about you, Blair. I'm sorry you'll have to leave university- "
"I resent that! I'd never put learning above Naomi's wellbeing!"
Sir James continued as if Blair hadn't interrupted him. "- but if you promise not to eat me, I'll see your fortune is made."
"I'm sure." Blair looked down his nose at him, and Naomi couldn't help but be amused. Only her son would dare to be impudent to a jaguar. "Well, I'd like to talk to my mother, so if you don't mind?" Sir James grinned at him but stayed put, and Blair frowned. "Go on, shoo! Go catch some mice!"
"All right." Sir James rose and left, his tail twitching in what could only be construed as a rude gesture.
Naomi chuckled, then coughed again, and this time she knew by the coppery taste in her mouth that she'd coughed up blood. Surreptitiously she wiped her lips clean.
Her son rushed to her side. "Mama! What can I do for you? What can I get for you?"
"Nothing, sweetling. My time is short, and it really has been a blessing having Sir James here. Alvar Milne stopped coming around the first time he encountered him."
That diverted Blair's attention, as she'd hoped it would. The miller from the next county had always wanted her and the mill that would come with her, but once she'd returned from the city with a by-blow, he'd determined to have her without benefit of marriage. While she'd been healthy it had been no problem keeping the odious man at arm's length, but once she'd become ill, it had grown more and more difficult.
As it was, because she'd needed money for Blair's tuition, as well as for her own care, she'd had to bargain away her beloved son's birthright. Now she had nothing to leave him beyond the big cat that had come to her as if from a dream, appearing one day when Alvar Milne was attempting to force his attentions on her. What a perverse little man he was, to want to make love to a woman who clung to life only by the tips of her fingers.
But now Blair was here, with her once more, and when she died, he would not be left entirely alone.
Naomi patted the bed beside her. "Tell me what you've been up to."
Blair brought a chair to her bedside, took her hand, and began talking.
She gave a sigh of relief and let the sound of her beloved son's voice soothe her. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to breathe. She murmured a time or two in response, and gradually she sank into a slumber that she knew would be her last.
It was just as Incacha had promised, although James hadn't really allowed himself to believe. It had been more than a year, after all.
But he'd known, as soon as Blair had walked into the cottage. The air had suddenly felt charged, much like the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and the fur on the nape of his neck had risen up, electrified.
Blair had been startled when he'd seen James, even more startled when James spoke for the first time, but he hadn't remained startled for long. In fact, once he'd got over his obvious surprise, he'd been accepting. Almost blase in fact, as if coming across a jaguar that could talk like a man was the most commonplace thing in the world.
He'd found his shaman!
Blair would need to eat, though. Grief took a good deal from a man, and there would still be the task of preparing Naomi's body for burial, for he recognized how close she was to death.
There was a husk of hares just beyond Farmer Chard's land. James would slip down there and find the choicest one for his shaman.
Blair clung tightly to Naomi's hand, brushing impatiently at the tears that spilled down his cheeks. His many studies had encompassed a wide variety of disciplines, medicine among them, but he didn't need that knowledge to know she was gone.
She had lived the kind of life she'd wanted, although there was much she hadn't been able to do, because she'd had to take care of him. Well, he would see her sacrifices weren't in vain.
A soft grunt brought his attention back to the other occupant of the room.
The jaguar - Sir James - had returned from his hunt, laying a plump hare at Blair's feet. "You must eat."
"Yes, I know." He sighed, pressed a kiss to the back of his mother's hand, and placed it gently on her chest. "I won't be able to stay here for long. According to what Naomi told me, Alvar Milne will be here before she's in the ground, wanting to take possession of the mill. And the cottage." He looked around, at a loss. This had been his home for all the years when he'd been a child, and he realized he still considered it home. Signs of his mother were all around it - needlepoint, vases of flowers that grew for her when they'd grow for no one else, books the professor who was his father had given her when she'd left him.
There were also the things he'd made when he was small - a sampler, which was how Naomi had taught him his letters. 'Just because you're a boy, Blair, is no reason why you shouldn't know how to thread a needle.'
'But Mama... '
'If I'm not here, who will darn your socks or your breeches? Do you want to go around with great gaping holes in them?' She'd laughed merrily and pinched his chin, and he'd laughed with her.
Had she already been anticipating her death?
There were also things he'd brought for her from the continent: a tiny Greek urn, a Roman amphora, a piece of papyrus with neat rows of hieroglyphs, a vial containing volcanic ash from Monte Vesuvio, a set of apothecary scales given him by his friend Michel.
A sob shuddered through Blair, and his vision blurred as he also observed the first letter he'd written to Naomi from Rainier University. It was in a frame hanging on the wall, and as expensive as glass was, Naomi had somehow obtained a sheet of it to protect the words he had written.
He turned away and picked up the hare. Naomi had often told him that life was for the living, and he wouldn't disappoint her. He drew in a deep, shuddering breath, then took the large knife his mother always saw had a razor edge. With neat, efficient movements, he skinned and gutted the hare, then set aside the offal for the jaguar.
"Why do people think this is what I eat?" Sir James complained.
"Because you do."
"Jaguars and wolves might... " Blair started at the mention of wolves - he'd dreamt of a big wolf with blue eyes from time to time all his life, but in the last year those dreams had been almost constant. "... but I prefer a nice joint of beef or leg of mutton."
"Well, I'm sorry, but this is all I have. If you wanted beef or mutton, you should have brought me that instead."
"And have the farmers question why their cows or sheep have disappeared? No. Besides, you still would have given me this." James nosed the internal organs of the hare.
Blair chuckled as he rubbed the carcass with herbs, humming softly under his breath. Abruptly he looked stricken. "How can I be happy? I... I must fetch Mother Grey. She'll wash and dress Naomi for... " He swallowed heavily. "... for burial... " Blindly he spitted the hare and set it to roast in the fireplace.
The jaguar came to him and bumped his head against Blair's hip. "Go."
"Will you still be here when I return?"
"I'll be here."
Blair worried his lower lip. "How will the villagers react to you?"
"They won't see me."
"How can they not? It wouldn't be easy for them to miss you. You're a fairly large animal, you know."
"Trust me, Blair."
Oddly enough, he did. "All right. If you're sure."
"I'm sure. Now, go."
Poor young man, James mused to himself as he raised his muzzle and sniffed the appetizing aroma that was filling the tiny cottage.. He would see to it Blair's fortune was made. And perhaps once that was done, together they would find a way for him to regain his human form.
Naomi was wrong, Blair discovered. Alvar Milne waited until she was buried before he appeared.
"The cottage and the mill are mine now, Sandburg!" There was a hateful, gloating tone to his voice as he took in the meager contents of the room. "Now, be gone, bastard, or I will have you charged with trespassing!"
Blair refused to let himself flinch at the reminder that his birth hadn't been legitimate. He'd long since stopped wondering who his father might be. Naomi had said he was a brilliant scholar, who had his head in the clouds more often than not.
'Did he love you, Mama?'
'For as much as he was capable, yes, sweetling, he did.'
He didn't ask why, if that was the case, they didn't marry. She had told him, often and often, that marriage was a form of enslavement promulgated by the Church to keep women from achieving their rightful places in the world.
He knew if he remained here much longer, he would be tempted to harm the officious man, so he settled his cloak about his shoulders. He had already packed the few things he wanted as reminders of his mother, and as for the rest... He sighed. Naomi had had to sell or barter off so much.
"I'll return one day, Master Milne, and then you'll regret all the cruelties you showed my mother!"
"Fine words for the son of a trollop!" he sneered, and Blair wished that Sir James was still here. But the jaguar had told him he'd wait for him a few miles outside of Liddleton.
"My mother was not a trollop!" An idea occurred to him, and he stared intently at the miller. "And this mill will bring you nothing but disappointment."
"I... what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that it will be overrun with vermin, and the flour will be filled with weevils and flour beetles. I'm saying the stones will crack and crumble! This mill will fail, your own mill will fail, and you'll never have another day's good fortune! Remember that, Alvar Milne, when you again think to call Naomi Sandburg a trollop!" Blair swung his pack over his shoulder and with a swirl of his cloak, left the cottage that had been the source of so many happy memories when he'd been a child.
Milne's laugh followed him, but there was a hollow sound to it, and Blair knew he had frightened the man. He had to be satisfied with that. His words were just words, and he would never return to this spot, not even to lay flowers on his mother's grave.
Neighbors stopped him.
"We're going to miss Naomi, Blair."
"The mill won't be the same without her."
"Liddleton won't be the same without her!"
"Come back to see us if you can."
The women hugged him, the men shook his hand and patted his back, the smallest children watched with big eyes and thumbs in their mouths.
Naomi had brought renown to their village, and with the renown had come coins that enriched their coffers. Much could be forgiven or overlooked in someone who did that.
Blair gave a final sad smile and a wave, then turned and began to walk. Soon he became lost in thought.
Although he was very learned, he didn't have his testimonium, which he'd need to be accepted as a scholar, and it seemed now he would never have it. Dr. Stoddard might allow him to instruct some of the younger students in Greek and Latin, but it didn't take his friend Michel scribbling a quatrain to show him what his future would entail: trying to instill knowledge into the brains of the spoiled sons of the nobility.
He shifted the pack to a more comfortable position. In it was the remains of the hare, not as much as there might have been, since he'd wound up sharing it with Sir James. He was starting to feel hungry, but he'd wait until catching up with the jaguar before dining.
With a start he realized the light had been fading for some time, and he hurried on. The land here was wooded, and while the trees were not so dense as Rainier Forest, they were dense enough, and housed wild beasts that didn't take kindly to humans invading their territory.
There was a crackle in the underbrush behind him, stealthy footfalls, and his heart leaped into his throat. He whirled to face whatever was there. "He-hello?"
Nothing answered him, but he knew something was there. He could swear he heard it breathing. Saliva dried up in his mouth, and his sphincter clenched.
"Show yourself!" It wouldn't be wise to show fear, so he stiffened his spine, all the while facing whatever was coming toward him and taking cautious steps backward. "I'm not afraid of you!"
"Well, I would hope not!"
"Sir James?" Blair's knees became weak, and he sat down heavily in the middle of the road.
"Of course, it's Sir James. Who else did you think it would be?" The jaguar, almost invisible in the dark of the night, paced to a halt beside him.
"But you came from the wrong direction!"
"What do you mean the wrong direction? I came from the direction you were going."
"But the sound was from the other direction!"
"Well, there's nothing there."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure!"
Sir James was clearly affronted by his doubt, but Blair was so shaken he couldn't get out the words to apologize. His heart, which had been gradually slowing in its wild beating, suddenly jumped up into his throat again. He was certain he'd heard the sounds coming from behind him.
Moonlight broke through the boughs of the trees. Sir James came to him and nudged him with his head, urging him to his feet. "I found a good spot to camp for the night. Let's go."
"Tyrannical animal! Domineering, overbearing- " Blair muttered under his breath. He rose and dusted off his seat.
"Tell me something, Blair. Do you make a habit of falling down?"
"What are you talking about? I never fall down!"
"No? You landed on your backside when we first met, and again just now."
Blair scowled at the black jaguar. "Did you ever stop to think it might be you?"
"No. I don't have that effect on people."
"Hah." Blair looked around. "Where's this camp you're so anxious to reach?"
Sir James tilted his head back, the blue of his eyes glowing silver in the moonlight. "Put your hand on my shoulder. I don't want to lose you."
Tentatively, Blair put out his hand. The fur was thick and luxurious, and warm with the animal's body heat.
Feeling more reassured, he walked along beside the big cat, and only looked back over his shoulder two or three times.
James knew Blair needed time to grieve for the loss of his mother. He also knew they didn't have time to spare. He led his shaman to a small spot he had found earlier, under a large pine tree. The lowest branches dipped down to the ground, forming a sort of grotto.
"No fire," he insisted, when Blair began to gather twigs and fallen pine needles.
"It would be nice to be able to make coffee. The night is getting very cold."
Blair opened his mouth, and James expected a lengthy diatribe in protest, but then that mouth closed, and he glowered at James. "I intend to use these to form a bed."
"Very well." James' eyes never left Blair, although his ears were up and every muscle was tense. There had been something out there, a wolf that had been following almost from the time Blair had left Liddleton, which was why he'd come to meet him.
"It would be nice to be able to make coffee." Blair was shaking out his cloak and spreading it over the pine needles, and he peeked at James from under his lashes.
They were sinfully luxurious, James noted. And he found himself wanting to tumble the young man down onto the bed of pine needles that he'd made.
Good god, where was his mind wandering? "No," he said curtly.
"All right, but you didn't have to bite my head off!" Blair turned away and unwrapped the remainder of the hare. "Would you care for a piece?" He offered it to James.
"No, thank you. I've already eaten." He'd grown restless waiting for Blair, and a quail hadn't been paying attention. He licked his chops. It would have tasted better roasted - Blair had a surprising talent for cooking - but that could wait for another time.
"Ale? I'm sorry, I have no water."
"Ale will be fine, although how I'm to drink it... " He thought of licking it from Blair's hands, and suddenly found his cock sliding out of its sheath. Of all the times to become interested in another person. That Blair was another man didn't disturb him as much as it might once have. No, what bothered him now was the fact that if he approached Blair in a sexual manner, he'd probably run off screaming into the night.
And he didn't want Blair running anywhere if it was away from him.
He lay down so his arousal wouldn't be obvious, and then was sorry he had. The feel of the soft ground cover against his cock was so good he almost moaned.
"Oh, that's all right. I'm prepared," Blair said, unaware of James' problem with his unruly flesh. He took a small leather bowl from his pack, filled it with ale, and placed it in front of James' muzzle.
"Thank you." He pushed aside the illicit pleasure and lapped at the ale in penance. He'd never developed a taste for it, much preferring wine, but look at the predicament drinking wine had gotten him into.
"So tell me," Blair mumbled around a mouthful of hare, "how did a jaguar come to be in Cascade, much less be able to talk?"
James yawned. "A long and uninteresting story."
"If you didn't want to talk to me, all you had to do was say so." Blair was clearly annoyed.
"I want to talk to you. I just don't want to talk about that particular subject."
"Hmmph." He rewrapped everything, including the bones, and put it back into his pack.
"Aren't you going to eat more?"
"I've lost my appetite."
"Why are you keeping the bones?" James hoped the change of subject would lighten Blair's mood. He found he didn't like it when Blair wasn't happy.
"I can crack the bones for the marrow, or use them as a base to make soup."
"You're very clever."
"I'm also very tired." Apparently he hadn't forgiven James for not being willing to reveal the secrets behind his transformation from man to beast.
But Blair didn't realize how dangerous that knowledge could be. Sorcery was involved...
"Where are you going?"
"To take a piss, if you have no objection. What are you doing?" There was alarm in his voice as James also rose.
"I'm going with you."
"I assure you I don't need someone to hold my cock while I relieve myself!"
James had to conceal how enticing the image of holding Blair's cock was. "Did it ever strike you that I might have a similar need?"
"Oh. No." Blair's blush was so heated that even in the darkness of their shelter, James could feel the fiery waves of it. "I'm sorry."
"Apology unnecessary. Just make sure you don't go too far."
"Yes, Mother." His sudden gasp told James how his own incautious words had cut at him. Before James could say anything, he spun around and ducked out of the haven of the drooping branches.
Although the moon was once again behind the clouds, James had no problem tracking Blair with his vision. Even before he'd been trapped in the body of a jaguar, James had had exceptionally keen eyesight.
He followed for about six feet before circling the pine tree, marking the ground with his scent. Jaguars weren't native to Cascade, and the unfamiliar, feral odor of his urine would warn off any animal that came too close.
Once that was done, he turned and paced toward the wolf that had been concealed in the underbrush.
Who are you? James had never seen such a large wolf. Oddly enough, although its coat was a reddish brown, its eyes were a startling blue.
You know who I am. Mind to mind, they spoke.
Do I? Suppose we pretend I don't.
The wolf sighed. I'm Blair's spirit guide.
Why have you turned up now?
I've always been with him. He just never saw me. Although saddened, the wolf appeared to be reconciled to the circumstance.
But he sees you now.
The wolf dipped his head, and something slid from around his neck, but his next words distracted James. Because you call to the animal spirit in him. The blue eyes glittered. It remains to be seen if you'll be good for him.
I promised to make his fortune. He'll be able to return to Rainier University and complete his studies.
That was his mother's dream, not his.
James was intrigued by that. What was his dream?
To be an adventurer. To sail the seas and see the many wonders this world contains.
Then that is what he shall have!
The wolf studied him carefully. You're not as you appear.
No, I'm not.
Here. A pouch - it had been that which the wolf carried around his neck - flew through the air to land at his feet with the jingle of metal against metal.
You'll have need of coins, I believe.
How do you know this? James stared at the wolf, but the wolf just grinned at him, his tongue lolling to the side. He shook his head and picked up the pouch by its drawstring, able to judge by the weight that it would be enough to get what he needed, but beyond that they would be surviving by their wits.
Not that he was alarmed. He had a plan, and he intended to carry it out to the letter. Once he was back in human form...
Uncertain if the wolf could read his thoughts, he quickly masked them.
You look puzzled.
I have to ask myself how a wolf could obtain this.
Let's just say Alvar Milne's purse isn't quite a weighty as it once was.
How am I to carry this?
I don't believe there are pockets in your hide. Between your teeth, how else?
It has wolf spit on it!
The wolf looked at him with disgust, and if James had been in human form, he would have blushed. He picked up the pouch carefully. The taste of the wolf clung to it, but he didn't find that as distasteful as he'd thought.
Don't harm him.
The wolf rose and shook himself, and his thick coat rippled and then settled. It was clear he was about to leave.
The wolf waited.
Why did you choose to communicate with me in this fashion rather than in the speech of men?
What makes you think I can use the speech of men?
If I can, you certainly can!
This is true. However, did you want Blair to overhear this conversation?
Well, no. There was no need to distress him. And besides, James was used to keeping his own counsel.
The wolf started off down the road, back the way he had come. I will always be nearby should he have need of me, came drifting back.
He won't. He has me.
The wolf made a huffing sound and vanished into the night.
James had never known that wolves could laugh. He just wondered if the wolf had intended the laugh to be as derisive as it sounded.
Blair returned, not sparing James a glance, and ducked under the branches. He was already wrapped in his cloak by the time James joined him and set the pouch down by Blair's pack.
"I... I can't believe she's gone." Blair's voice in the darkness was a thread of sound. "We were often separated by many miles in the last years, but I knew she was there, that she'd always be there."
"And you knew that while she was there, you would never be alone." James was a good commander, and there had been times when his men had needed someone to listen to their thoughts and worries. He lay at a distance and gave Blair his full attention.
"You won't be alone now, Blair. I promise you."
"How can you promise? I've studied many things." Blair's words became musing. "I've seen many things."
Blair was a scholar, and James knew scholars were content to live in their ivory towers, letting the world pass them by. He dismissed the wolf's assertion that Blair's dream had been to go adventuring. Many young boys had that desire, but as they grew older, it faded into the distant realms of childhood, and they were content to have it so.
James decided to humor him. "What things have you seen?"
Blair rolled over. It was dark as the pit under the pine, but James could feel his eyes on him. "I've seen people who can't survive in the light of day. I've seen others who believe they can transform themselves into animals. Mostly that's due to ingesting certain plants, and they really don't change. Some, however... "
James lost all trace of humor. "What do you mean?" Incacha had told him that he himself would chew the leaves of a certain plant when he wanted to go on a spirit walk. How could Blair know of this?
"I mean I know you've been enchanted- "
"How did you know?" James was on all four feet, his tail thrashing restlessly.
"Animals don't suddenly walk up to a man and say, 'How do you do?' They just don't." Blair pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders and hugged himself, but he couldn't seem to stop shivering. "For some reason you need me to break the enchantment. And I know that once the enchantment is broken, there will be no reason for you to stay with me." His voice became lower, softer. "And I'll have nothing left of Mama at all."
"I won't leave you."
"But why would you stay?"
"Because I've... All these months, Naomi spoke to me of you, telling me stories of when you were a boy, reading me the letters you sent her, and then when you came home as soon as she asked, not evading your responsibility to her, making no excuses... I realized you were a good man, Blair, and I've... " James found he couldn't say the words.
Incacha had told him it would be safer for him to keep his shaman close by, and once Blair realized that was the reason James had originally sought him out, he would never believe James had genuine feelings for him beyond what Blair could do for him.
But he also knew that once he regained his human form, once he became Sir James again, he would move heaven and hell to keep Blair at his side.
"What are we going to do?" Blair was shivering so hard now that his teeth rattled.
James settled himself against Blair's back and was pleased when Blair made a relieved sound and burrowed back against him without hesitation. He ordered his cock to stay in its sheath.
"Listen to me, Blair. In the morning, we're going to come to a small village. I won't be able to enter, but you will. You will go to the cobbler who lives across from the blacksmith. Order a pair of boots made for me- "
"Where will we get the coin to pay for these boots?"
"Let me worry about that." He found himself reluctant to admit the wolf had gotten the coins. "Now, you'll have the boots made, and you'll ask that they be placed in a bag."
"A bag?" Blair's voice was getting drowsy, the warmth James radiated relaxing his muscles.
"A bag." James couldn't resist drawing his tongue along the back of Blair's neck. There was a faint taste of salt, and the slightest tang of sweat, for he'd learned Blair liked to keep himself clean. "And I promise you, with these things, I will make your fortune!"
Blair mumbled something, but it was obvious he was asleep now.
No matter. James would keep that promise.
Although the cobbler requested two weeks, Blair had the boots within two days.
"How did you do that?" James never had any dealings with tradespeople, leaving that to his squire, who had often told him delivery of his armor or his horse's trappings was going to be delayed for one reason or another.
"I persuaded him. I can be very persuasive when I want to be, you know."
"I can imagine." He remembered the story Naomi had told him of the letter Blair had written to Dr. Stoddard when he was eleven. Dr. Stoddard had been so impressed he'd come to Liddleton to question Blair, and when he'd left, he'd assured Naomi that there would be a place for Blair at the university within the year. Most students weren't accepted until they were at least sixteen.
Her face had been alight with her pride in her son.
"Are you mocking me?" Blair scowled at him.
"No." James turned his head to groom his shoulder, hiding his smile.
"All right, then. Now, give me your left hind foot. Your other left," when James offered him the wrong leg. Blair took it gently, easing the boot up and over James' paw.
James found he liked the feel of Blair's fingers as they trailed through his fur.
"Are you purring?"
The sound caught in James' throat and turned to a cough. "I never purr!"
"Why not? All cats purr, even the large predators."
"How do you know that?"
Blair's expression became exasperated. "Cats purr. Lions and tigers and... and jaguars are cats. Therefore- "
James growled. "Never mind, you're giving me a headache."
"Do jaguars have headaches?"
"I have no idea, but I assure you, I do."
"Yes, of course," Blair murmured. "You were a man before. Were you handsome?" He blushed bright red. "Never mind, that's inconsequential."
"Well, a number of women thought so." He frowned when he recalled Xandra. It was in her cottage that he'd become incapacitated, and he had no doubt she was behind it. But why?
He realized his growls had deepened, and the last thing he wanted to do was alarm the young man who was beside him. A change of subject was called for.
"They're very handsome boots." He turned his leg this way and that, admiring the fit.
"I have this for you as well." He held up a plumed hat and an elegant blue cape. "I thought the cape was the color of your eyes. You'll look very dashing, I think."
"Thank you." James forgot his anger. "This is very fine!"
"I'm so pleased you like them. I wasn't sure, but the seamstress thought they would suit perfectly with the boots.
"They do." James was touched by the kindness of the act. No one had ever done anything like that for him before.
"They cost all the coins in the pouch." A frown tugged at the corners of Blair's mouth, and this obvious regret puzzled James. Blair sighed and shook his head. "I should have bargained harder."
"You bargained just fine." For a moment James wished he had hands again, so he could stroke the curls back off Blair's face.
"How can you say that? We have no food... " They'd eaten the last of the hare for dinner the night before. "... and now we have no money to purchase any."
James smiled at him. It should have frightened Blair, that display of large, white teeth, sharp white teeth, but apparently it didn't. "Put the drawstring of the bag around my neck. No, keep the hat and the cape here for now," when Blair would have added his finery. He tipped his head back and sniffed the air. "No need in getting them soiled. I'm going hunting. Remain here."
He left before Blair could protest.
That went well, James thought somewhat smugly as he swung the now-filled bag over his shoulder.
He'd put bran and sow-thistle into the bag, and had easily found a warren with a wealth of rabbits - does, bucks, and kits in vast profusion.
After placing the bag temptingly near the mouth of a burrow, James leaped into a tree, out of the range of any stray breezes, and settled down to wait.
It wasn't long before a pair of young rabbits, their curiosity overcoming whatever common sense they might have, hopped into the bag, drawn by the enticing aroma of the grain.
James dropped down, his huge paw landing on the opening of the bag. He pulled the drawstring closed with his teeth, gave the bag a vicious shake, and broke the necks of both rabbits.
He would have liked to try for a few more, so he'd have something to bring home to Blair - and how odd that he would think of Blair and home in the same thought.
He chose not to give it more consideration. There was still much to do. King Simon liked to dine early, and he needed to get his prize to the castle.
Time was when he would have entered boldly through the portcullis, but those times were in the past, and now he needed to use caution.
Trees and brush had been cut back yards beyond the bottom of the hill where the castle sat, so there was no way to approach unseen, for that would have made it easy for an enemy to attack.
However, James was an excellent tactician, even in the form of a jaguar. He skulked around to a likely spot, then gathered his haunches under him and sprang up, clearing the moat and landing neatly on the top of the wall.
He made his way to the rear of the castle, taking care not to be seen, and slipped into the kitchen. The cook was bemoaning the fact that King Simon's guests were demanding to be fed, and the King and his men off and away from home.
"Perhaps this will help you, my good man."
The cook was made of stern stuff, and although he turned pale when he saw the huge black animal sitting in his doorway, his fingers tightened on his cleaver and he didn't back away.
"Who... who are you?"
"I am the servant of my lord, the Marquis of Carabas."
"The Marquis of Carabas? You must have heard of my lord?" James was enjoying himself. "Everyone who is anyone has!"
Not wanting to be thought 'no one,' the cook hastily agreed, "Well... well, now that I think on it, of course I have! It was just your way of pronouncing his name that threw me off for a second."
"Of course." James nodded agreeably. He noted the cook was eyeing the elegant boots he was wearing, and remarked, as if it were the most logical thing in the world, "My master insists all his servants be properly outfitted."
"Of course," the cook echoed in a dazed tone of voice.
"Now," James ordered him briskly, "empty the bag, if you please."
The cook took the bag from him, keeping as safe a distance as he could between them. He undid the drawstring, and gasped in amazement as the contents spilled out at his feet.
"Oh! As fine a pair of rabbits as I have ever seen!"
"They are. Compliments of my master, the Marquis of Carabas. Please inform King Simon."
"I will! Oh, I will! Thank you, and please thank your master, for indeed, without his generous gift, things would not have gone well with us here in the kitchen!"
"King Simon was ever a good master. Why would you fear him?"
"Never him, for you're right, he's a very good master, and all within these walls would lay down their lives for him and for Prince Daryl. But his guests... They're a different story! Lord Torin and that wife of Lord Spalding- "
"Lord Gerald has married?" James frowned, a fearsome wrinkling of his muzzle and brow.
"Oh, aye! And she no better than she should be. With His Majesty away, that pair come strutting in like they - " He bit back the rest of his words and looks around as if fearing he might be overheard.
"Will King Simon return soon?"
"I imagine so. He'd had word Sir James was seen at St. Sebastian's monastery. It'll be a wild goose chase. It always is."
"King Simon has done this before?"
"Aye. He valued Sir James very highly, and truthfully, it broke his heart when his favorite knight was rumored to have been killed. But no body was ever found, and so he doesn't give up hope."
James was stunned. He knew King Simon thought well of him, but that he'd actually mourn his loss... "His Majesty is a good man. I'm sure Sir James will return sooner or later."
"Pray god, it be sooner! The evil grows stronger, and we need Sir James more than ever!"
Bloody buggering hell! He thought he had more time, but it seemed time was running out.
James retrieved the now-empty bag, dipped his head, and flipped the drawstring to settle around his neck. "I will return soon with more game. Please remember to tell King Simon this gift of rabbits is from the Marquis of Carabas."
"I will, Master Puss, and thank you."
He was in a rush to get back to Blair, but still he took the time to hunt.
Due to the late hour, however, all creatures had gone to ground and there was nothing to be had. He found some acorns and chestnuts, a few apples that were just starting to ripen.
He hadn't intended to be gone this long, and as he grew closer to the spot where they were encamped, he became more and more worried.
He knew Blair had wanted to go with him, hadn't wanted to remain behind. Had he spent the day sulking? Blair wasn't a soldier and wouldn't know the proper soldier's behavior.
James envisioned the camp in disarray, and a very hungry, very cross Blair awaiting him, and he sighed. One of the reasons he'd preferred the company of men to that of women was because of their pouting and megrims, and to think of Blair whining because he'd been left alone gave James a sour feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with the fact that he hadn't eaten all day.
An even worse scenario struck him. Could Blair have spent the day mourning his mother? There would have been nothing else for him to do. Once they reached adulthood, most men didn't remain close to their families. He himself had done naught beyond sending his lady mother gifts on occasion to show he was doing well.
His sire, Lord William of Ellison, was a cold man who'd thought his eldest son would amount to nothing, and it had given James great pleasure to make sure word of how he basked in the King's favor reached him.
James raised his head and scented the air, seeking a hint of the salt of tears, or perhaps the acrid odor of a body in a temper. One of the things Lord William found... odd... about him was his ability to detect things through sight or taste or smell.
However, the only scent he could discern was a very appetizing one. His belly cramped with hunger and his mouth watered, but he told himself sternly he would not frighten some peasant who'd been caught out in the forest after dark. He would not steal a poor man's dinner.
The scent grew stronger as he approached the spot where he'd left Blair earlier in the day, and he began to fear for the worst. Could Blair have been taken captive by a wandering band of thieves? God knew Cascade was awash in them, especially with James not there to keep them in check
But a wandering band of thieves who knew how to cook?
He flattened himself, and staying low to the ground, he began to creep forward silently, swallowing the angry growls that threatened to burst forth in a frightening roar. It wouldn't do to give his enemy the slightest edge.
Nothing was between him and the camp now except a large bush.
Soft humming and the snatch of a verse here and there tickled his ears.
James made his way around the bush, using all the skills he'd learned both as a knight and as a jaguar.
The sight before him was so astonishing that his jaw dropped and he forgot all about being stealthy.
"Sir James! You're home! I was worried you wouldn't be back in time for supper."
He gazed around their camp, at the cape and hat which hung from a branch, at Blair... "Supper?" he asked, diverted.
"Yes, you know, the meal after nooning?" Blair was standing before a pot, which was balanced over a fire. The delicious aroma emanating from the pot distracted him from the fact that he'd told Blair there was not to be a fire under any circumstances.
"I'm very aware what supper is. What I'd like to know is how you managed to put it together?"
"Oh, I was pretty sure that you would be hungry when you returned... You are hungry, aren't you?"
"Yes," James answered gruffly.
"I thought so. That's why you're so out of reason cross."
"I? Cross?" James had been called many things, but 'cross' was not one of them.
"I understand." Blair tugged gently at James' ear. "Here, get some of this inside you. You'll feel much better." He set some of the stew onto a broad piece of bark. "Now, as I was saying, after you left I went into the village- "
"You should have waited for me to go with you. It isn't safe."
Blair paused. "You would have frightened them."
"No, I wouldn't! I can look harmless. Well, I can!" he insisted at Blair's clearly disbelieving expression. He decided this was a fruitless topic to pursue, since Blair had returned unhurt. He nosed the bark platter Blair had placed in front of him. "You don't mean to tell me they willing gave you this stew?"
"Of course not. They gave me the pot. I'll need to return it tomorrow, by the way. That is, unless you're planning on going off and doing whatever it was you did today?"
"I'll need to. I thought I had more time, but as it turns out, I don't. I'll have to move things forward much faster."
"We have to move things faster," Blair corrected gently. "Let me help."
"I'll think about it. Now tell me how you came to have this fine meal?"
"You think it's fine? Truly?" In the firelight his face was flushed with pleasure.
"Didn't I say so? Now stop beating about the bush and tell me how it is that we're eating so well tonight."
"If you'll stop interrupting me? Very well, then. As I was saying, I went into the village." Blair became very serious. "Things are in a bad way in this land, Sir James. They were suspicious of me, and would have stoned me out of the village if one of the women hadn't remembered seeing me when I was visiting with Naomi." His mouth turned down even more, and James wished he had arms to embrace him, to offer him a measure of comfort.
"It's as well they didn't hurt you. I would have seen they paid for it."
"Thank you, Sir James, but as it turned out, it wasn't necessary. Mistress Sparrow asked after Naomi, and was saddened to hear of her passing."
James left his meal and went to Blair, placing his head on Blair's thighs. Blair's scent was intoxicating, but James held himself sternly in check. This was not the time for randy thoughts. Or actions.
"What happened then?"
"I told her I was willing to purchase a meal if they had food to spare." Blair's fingers combed through the fur of James' head, curling around to rub under his chin. James' eyes slitted, and he purred. "She told me they had none, but the way she shifted and looked away - I knew she wasn't telling me the truth... "
"Well, I can understand that," Blair had said. "Times are very hard. Might you have a pot I could borrow?"
"I've already told you we have no food!"
"No, but surely you have some water?"
Mistress Sparrow frowned at him. "Of course we have water!"
"Then you wouldn't begrudge me a pot of it, would you?"
"No. We have often had to go to bed with nothing in our bellies but hot water."
"Ah, then I've a treat for you!" He drew a rock from a pouch at this waist. It was round and porous, and mottled in color. "Let me have the use of a pot, and I'll make you a stew the likes you've never had before!"
"With a rock?!"
"Didn't Naomi tell you that I was often on the continent, visiting wise men? They taught me many things, and one of them was how to make stone stew."
"Stone stew? I never heard of such balderdash!"
"Ah, then you are in for a treat! If I may have a pot and some water?"
Taking it for granted they would comply with his request, Blair set about gathering stones to form a fire ring, and then twigs and kindling, and by the time he had a fire blazing within the ring, other villagers had drawn near, one bringing him a pot and others large jugs filled with water.
"Excellent!" He stared intently at the stone, murmured a few words in Italian, which was basically a prayer that his wits not desert him now, and put the stone in the water. "This is going to be so tasty!" He rubbed his hands together and watched from the corner of his eye as the villagers began sniffing the air. "Of course, it would be even better with a pinch of salt, but... " He shrugged as if that truly wasn't necessary, with such a fine stone as he had.
"Oh, I have some salt!" One of the women gathered up her skirts and ran to her cottage, returning with a goodly pinch.
"Thank you, fair mistress! And into the pot with it!"
The woman giggled and followed Blair's instructions.
"It does smell rather good," Mistress Sparrow murmured.
"Oh, yes. It would smell even better with an onion, but... " Again he shrugged.
Another woman hastened off, to return with an onion.
And so it went. Blair had but to mention that a stalk of celery, or a carrot, or a potato would indeed make the stone stew even more delicious, and a woman would slip away, to return with a few stalks of celery, or a bunch of carrots, or a double handful of potatoes.
And then the village butcher sidled up to him. "I have a few scraps of veal. Might that be useful?"
Only the butcher returned with a fine haunch, and into the pot it went.
The final touch was some flour added to thicken the stew, and then Blair served it out to the villagers.
"This is truly delicious!" Mistress Sparrow announced. "And to think it was made with just a stone!"
James laughed. "She actually said that?"
"Yes. When I told her that I needed to return to my camp, she offered to let me stay in the loft of her barn."
"And?" Irritation ran through him, and James was startled by how the notion of Blair sleeping away from him made him feel. Sir James was never jealous, which was why the few women he'd had soon wound up in the arms of other men.
"I declined, of course. Her cattle would not take kindly to a jaguar sleeping above their heads."
Pleasure flooded through him, and James took himself sternly to task. Just because Blair was willing to stay with him now didn't mean he would be willing to stay once James was back in his human form. Although he was considered a handsome man, he hadn't proved lucky when it came to love.
Love? Where had that notion come from?
He forced the thought from his mind and stared into the pot. "Where is this famous stone? Am I going to break a tooth on it?"
"Don't be silly, Sir James. As if I'd allow that to happen!" He flung an arm over James' shoulder. "I removed it from the stew before I added the flour."
Touched by Blair's thoughtfulness, he said gruffly, "I thought I told you no fire."
"Well, I had to keep the stew warm for you."
"Thank you." James' voice was even more gruff. And here he'd worried that Blair would remain in the forest, twiddling his thumbs and sulking.
"Now, will you tell me how you spent your day?"
"Hunting. I brought a brace of rabbits to the King's cook. I told him they were courtesy of my master, the Marquis of Carabas."
"You. Oh, and call me 'James,' would you?"
"Now, let's finish dinner. Tomorrow is going to be just as busy as today."
"So what's our plan?" Blair asked as he wrapped himself in his cloak. As he'd hoped, Sir- James settled himself behind him, the warmth of the big body even better than a fire for keeping the chill of the night at bay.
"What do you mean our plan? My plan is to bring you to King Simon's notice."
"Why?" Blair was truly puzzled. Of course, it would be interesting to meet the King, especially if he was looking for a tutor for the Prince, his son. A thought occurred to him. There were many learned men in the king's court, and perhaps James needed him to confer with them. "Will that help break the enchantment?"
"Well, no." James' breath was warm on the back of Blair's neck, and he shivered. "You're cold. Move closer to me."
"Thank you. It is a little chilly tonight." Blair didn't correct James' misinterpretation of his action, just wriggled backward. A large black paw held him in place, and for some strange reason, that pleased him. "Now, if my meeting with the King won't help you, why are we doing it?"
"I promised to make your fortune. A promise is a promise."
"Oh. I see." Of course, James would want to make sure he was settled before he went on with his own life. Blair pulled the hood of the cloak up around his ears and tried to edge away from the big body behind him.
The paw tightened around him. "Stop squirming and go to sleep."
Feeling oddly relieved, Blair did just that.
It was their fourth night in the forest. They'd finished their evening meal, and now they sat by the fire while Blair roasted the chestnuts James had brought him.
He peeled the skin off a nut and offered the flesh in the palm of his hand to James, who took it without marking the skin of his palm.
James' tongue rasped over his palm, gathering the last stray bits of the chestnut, and Blair chuckled at the feel of it.
James turned his head and began grooming his fur.
Blair watched as the rough tongue rhythmically tidied the black coat, and his mouth went dry at the thought of it stroking over his body as it had stroked over the palm of his hand.
During the day, he'd thought much of James. What might he look like in his human form? The jaguar was all sleek muscles - would James be also? Would his eyes be as blue? Would his hair be as black as the jaguar's fur?
And how might James treat a lover in bed? Blair's cock had risen, and he'd blushed at the image of the two of them in a passionate embrace. He'd never shared a bed with his fellow scholars, at first because Dr. Stoddard had deemed him too young to be left amongst them, and later because it had simply grown to be a habit. Even when he'd traveled to the continent, he had slept alone.
He slipped his fingers into his breeches, grasped his hard, hot cock, and gasped at the forbidden thrill. Would James be a tender lover, nuzzling his throat, breathing in the scent of his hair, touching him with patient fingers until he went spinning off the pinnacle? Or would he be a demanding one, holding Blair's hands imprisoned while he explored his body with mouth and teeth and tongue, leaving Blair writhing with heretofore unknown pleasure?
Blair had freed his cock in time to spill his seed on the ground. Once he'd caught his breath, he'd replaced his cock in his breeches and covered the telltale evidence of his unruly thoughts with dirt. It wouldn't do for James to think he was unable to control his wayward passion.
Abruptly James began speaking, breaking into his reverie. "In the year that I've been in this form, I learned that Spalding," he said the name as if it were a nasty taste in his mouth, "has been behind much of the mischief that's plagued the kingdom."
"I don't know. In the normal course of events, it wouldn't be easy to incite discontent in King Simon's barons and earls - he's a good king - but the random, vicious attacks, the strange things that have been happening, that's instilling fear in the people, and that could well rouse the barons and earls to an action they normally wouldn't take."
"I find that interesting." Even in the ivory towers of the university of Rainier he and his fellow scholars had heard of the 'strange things' that had occurred over the last few years. They'd talked of it in their rooms at night, and for the most part, they agreed this was the work of the devil. And if not directly attributed to him, then his minions, witches and warlocks, were the ones involved.
Blair had listened in silence. While he didn't necessarily challenge the existence of Satan, he believed more in the evil men were all too capable of doing to one another.
But he had no intention of discussing religion with James. "No, I mean how did you learn this? I thought you were with Naomi for that time."
"Not all of it. Incacha kept me grounded while my spirit walked."
"Who's Incacha?" Blair cringed at the jealous note in his voice. Perhaps James hadn't noticed?
"Incacha is a shaman from across the great ocean. He... " James seemed reluctant to continue, and Blair leaped to the conclusion that he'd been emotionally attached to the shaman.
"He cared for you? Did you... did you care for him?"
"I thought- hoped- that he was my shaman. He told me that I needed a shaman to help me keep my senses under control, to keep from lapsing into the jaguar form. I'd need to go with him when he returned to his land, but I was willing to do that."
James leaving Cascade? To go with another man? He didn't think he could bear it. Blair's heart began racing at an uncomfortable rate, and he breathed as the old monk in India had taught him.
He hadn't expected James to keep him close by once James regained his human form, but at least Blair would have known he was on the same continent.
"Blair, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Did you want any more chestnuts?" Without waiting for a response, Blair set about banking the fire. "So... " He kept his face turned away. "So you'll be leaving Cascade as... as soon as you've dealt with Lord Spalding and regained your human form?"
"No. Incacha told me he wasn't my shaman; I would find my shaman here, in Cascade."
"Then you aren't leaving!"
"Of course not!"
Blair threw himself at the jaguar, hugging the furry neck with an enthusiasm he was sure James didn't understand. But that was all right. James might not be staying with him, but he wasn't leaving Cascade.
"Tell me what you plan to do with Lord Spalding."
"I'm going to destroy him."
"Are you thinking to change my mind?"
"Of course not! If the man deserves to die, then he deserves to die. I'm just interested in knowing how I may assist you."
"You'll assist me by staying behind in the cart."
"What cart? And why must I stay behind? I'm not a woman, you know! I can help!"
"You're the shaman I've been searching for, Blair. I won't risk losing you!"
A huge smile bloomed on Blair's face. "Truly?"
James' ears flattened and his lips curled.
"You scowl very well in this form, I'll have you know. But I'm not frightened of you!"
"I don't want you frightened of me. I just don't want to chance losing you!"
"Not if you remain in the cart! Now, go to sleep."
"Yes, James." Still grinning with pleasure, Blair lay down on his cloak and pulled it around him. He was James' shaman! James wasn't leaving him!
James, still rumbling his irritation, settled himself behind Blair.
He frowned as James disappeared into the forest once more. This was the seventh day in a row that he had gone out to bring the fruits of his hunting to King Simon's kitchen. Blair was getting the feeling that things would soon be coming to a head, and he knew he could be of help, if only James would let him, but the stubborn animal... man... being wouldn't let him come along, insisting he stay behind.
Did James see him as a woman, who couldn't do more than prepare a good meal? He scowled down at the quail in his lap, and plucked off more feathers. Hadn't he shown James he could do more than that?
Well, no, perhaps not. James had heard the story of his encounter with the villagers, but Blair hadn't told him that the reason he felt it was safe enough to light a fire was because rumors were getting around that the forest was under the protection of a wild, fierce beast that might have been a wolf, but that might just as well have been a dragon.
He finished cleaning the bird that would be their dinner, stuffed it with one of the small apples and some of the chestnuts James had sheepishly offered him - "A jaguar is a better hunter than that!" - wrapped it in damp leaves, and buried it in the ashes of their fire. It would roast slowly and be perfect by the time James returned that night.
With that done, he gathered some green twigs, sank down cross-legged, and began weaving another snare while he gave some thought to the jaguar's predicament.
If James were under enchantment, how might be the best way to undo the curse?
Blair had been as far east as the Indies, and now he called to mind the many tales he had been told.
Turning over one possible solution after another, he lost track of time. Suddenly James was there before him. "Surely it's not supper time!" But no, the sun was barely overhead. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing!" James seized the fold of Blair's cloak between his teeth and tugged him to his feet.
"But supper- "
"It can wait! We must hurry!" He seized the hat and cape and dropped them at Blair's feet. "Put these on me."
Odd that James would finally want to wear them - they had been a whim Blair had regretted afterwards, but at the time he'd been unable to overcome the notion that the jaguar would look perfect in them. He settled the hat at a jaunty angle and fastened the chain at the cape's throat.
"All right!" James exclaimed. "Come with me! Quickly!"
"Very well." Blair didn't question the need for haste. He might have been studying to be a scholar, but he'd been in the company of soldiers a time or two and knew when it behooved him to move with all speed.
James led him out of the forest and some miles down the road, to the bend of a river that formed a quiet pool. "Remove your clothes and get in the water!
"What?! Do you realize how cold that water is?"
"Bloody buggering hell! Why must you be forever questioning my orders?"
"I never question your orders!" Blair was much affronted.
"Hah!" James' ears swiveled back and forth, then flattened, and his brow furrowed in a fiercesome frown. "Do as I say!"
Muttering angrily under his breath, Blair did as he was bid. "My John Thomas is going to shrivel and fall off! Where shall I leave my clothes?"
"I'll take care of them. Hurry!"
"Very well, but I fail to see the urgency." He stepped forward cautiously, keeping a sharp eye on the ground lest something unsavory be there.
"I hope you realize how much I trust you."
"Really?" James sounded distracted though, and not quite as near as he should have, but he kept urging, "Hurry!"
"I wouldn't be doing this for just any jaguar, I'll have you know!" The sound of horses' hooves on the road had him looking around frantically for his clothes, but they were nowhere to be seen. "James? James!" he hissed.
But the jaguar was nowhere to be seen either!
"Bloody buggering hell!" Blair bolted for the river and splashed in, not daring to dive lest it be too shallow and he cracked his crown.
The water was as cold as he'd feared it would be, but the sound of horses approaching was closer now, and he struggled to get out further.
Suddenly the bottom was gone from under his feet, and he found himself under the water. He came up sputtering and shivering.
"Hold fast, my lord!" He recognized James' voice. "Help is on the way!"
"What?" He brushed the hair out of his eyes, which widened as he saw the troop of knights on the bank.
Seated on a horse a few yards back was... the King!
Blair groaned and sank down until the water rose to his chin. Of course it was the wish of every one of King Simon's people to be in the vicinity of their valiant King, but not while they were naked!
Two squires plunged in and swam out to him. "Forgive me for saying this, my lord," one said through chattering teeth, "but this wasn't the best day to decide to bathe!"
Fortunately no reply seemed to be expected.
They helped him to the bank, and once he set foot upon it, a warm cloak, woven of the finest wool, was wrapped around him.
"Th-th-thank you, Sire." He clutched the cloak tight to his wet body and rubbed vigorously in an attempt to dry off as quickly as possible.
"You're welcome, Carabas."
Blair started. That was the name James had told him he was to be known by. "H-h-how did you come to know- "
"Of your predicament? Your cat stopped us. Master Puss?"
James stepped forward. "It was the least I could do for my master, your Majesty." The plume on his hat nodded with each movement, and his cape unfurled in the gentle breeze. Oh, he did look elegant! "My lord, while you were admiring this lovely countryside, I went on ahead to make sure the servants at your country estate had everything in readiness for your arrival. Our master is well-loved, and his comfort is our primary concern."
A country estate? Servants who loved him? He had neither, as James well knew. What was he talking about? And what did he hope to gain by it? Blair opened his mouth to ask, but a voice seemed to whisper in his ear, Trust him.
Well, of course he did! He kept the words between his teeth, deciding to wait and see where this course of events might take him.
James turned to the King. "I returned in time to hear a mighty splash, and to see the thieves running away with his clothing while my poor master floundered in the river. Since I cannot swim, I ran to get help, and it was by the grace of god that your Majesty happened along!"
"These thieves grow bolder with each passing day! If only Sir James were here."
"Sir James?" But that was the jaguar's name!
James bounded to him as if his joy in his master's being safe had overwhelmed him, but he murmured in Blair's ear, "Refer to me only as Master Puss!"
"Aye." Fortunately the King was unaware of the exchange. "He was Protector of the Realm," he informed Blair, "and I miss him very much."
"We all do, Sire." A young man rode up beside the King. By his carriage, by the style and cut of his clothing, Blair knew he must be Prince Daryl.
"What happened to him?"
"We don't know. He had just defeated a band of knights who were tormenting the people in the northernmost portion of my father's lands, and there was a joyous celebration. Sir James went out of Lord Torin's hall with some wench, and that was the last anyone saw him."
"Did Lord Torin have aught to say?" Blair asked.
"He was devastated, of course, and turned his demesne upside down in an effort to discover the whereabouts of Sir James."
"And my father has searched high and low for him, dropping everything when word comes that he'd been seen, but to no avail."
"We'll find him! This I vow!"
"We will, Sire. We were returning from another search when we came upon you, which was truly the most fortuitous thing." Prince Daryl angled a look at Blair and murmured, "I'd like to see you when you aren't so chilled." Then he spoke in a normal tone of voice. "My lord Marquis looks to be about my size. I'll lend him some clothes."
"Thank you, your Highness." Blair was dry by now, but his hair was still wet. He bent forward and caught it in his hands, wringing it to get out as much river water as he could. "Ugh!" A clump of river grass was caught in the long strands.
King Simon chuckled. "In that case, we'd better get you home. Mount him behind you, Daryl."
James watched, a green tinge to his eyes, as the squires helped Blair from the river.
Blair's body was pale. A thatch of hair slightly darker than that on his head covered his chest and loins. His John Thomas hadn't shriveled off, and for all the cold it had withstood, it was still a proud member.
James would have preferred if Blair had worn some undergarment, but when he'd ordered Blair to undress, it was to discover that he wore nothing beneath his breeches.
King Simon's men stared at his shaman in appreciation, and a steady stream of growls spilled from James' lips, causing the men to keep a wary eye on him and a safe distance between them.
When he'd learned that the King would be traveling this way, he hadn't had much time to come up with a plan. The best he could do was have Blair be the victim of a robbery. Although the quality of his clothing was good, it would never appear to match that of the Marquis of Carabas.
He'd admired the sight of Blair's naked backside as he made his way to the riverbank, and only the sound of the approach of King Simon and his men made him gather Blair's clothing and hide them away in a tree where they would be safe but not found.
Now Blair was mounted behind the Prince, who was a handsome young man, James had to admit.
Still, Blair was his shaman, and no one else was going to have him!
Why wasn't James with him? Blair had finally shaken off the chill, and he sat in front of a blazing fire, relishing its warmth. King Simon's Master of the House had assigned two squires, both named John and referred to as I and II, to help him dress.
"I assure you, I know how to dress myself. I've been doing it since I was a lad."
"Of course, your grace." John I, the taller of them, continued to run a brush over Blair's hair, plucking out the occasional river grass, and once even a very tiny fish, which he'd flung into the fire.
Blair shuddered. He'd never liked the idea of something alive in his hair, and while many of the young men who'd been at university with him had mocked him for it, he had bathed and washed his hair regularly
"That's a very interesting pet you have, your grace," John II murmured. "I don't think I've ever seen an animal with such blue eyes."
"J- "Blair caught himself in time. He wasn't certain why James didn't want his name known, but he would honor his request. "Master Puss isn't a pet."
"I've never seen a cat that size before either," the second squire admitted. His eyes were on Blair's boots, and he sighed. "No, this will never do. There's a smudge. Take them off, please."
"They look fine to me."
"Not fine enough. If you don't look perfect, it will reflect on us, and his Majesty will never permit us to have knights of our own." He knelt before Blair.
Reluctantly, Blair let him remove the boots.
"I don't remember ever hearing of the title of Carabas."
"It's... " Blair thought quickly. "It's Italian."
"But you're Cascadian, surely?"
"Yes. I did a small service for the Duke of Brindisi, and he bestowed the title on me in gratitude."
"A small service? It must have been magnificent if you were rewarded with a title!"
"Well... " Blair smiled deprecatingly. Where was James?
There was a scratching at the door, and when John I went to see who was there, it proved to be none other than James.
Blair bounded to his feet. "Oh, thank- I mean, I've been wondering where you were. Where were you, Master Puss?"
"I was speaking with King Simon." He eyed the two squires with displeasure, and especially the one on his knees. "I want to speak with you. Alone."
The two Johns looked as if they were about to protest, but when James yawned widely, displaying his teeth, they both scuttled out of the room.
"Really, James, that was hardly kind in you. They're only boys."
"Perhaps, but they weren't looking at you like boys!"
Nonplussed, Blair asked, "How were they looking at me?"
"As if they'd like nothing better than to eat you. And... Damme, Blair, if anyone is going to eat you, it's going to be me!" James groaned and struck his head against the armoire that contained the clothes Prince Daryl had given to Blair. "I promised myself I wouldn't do this!"
Blair flushed with pleasure, until the last of James's words struck him. "Oh." He felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his world. He'd fallen in love with the sound of James' voice, with the way he'd lie against Blair's back at night, keeping him warm, making him feel safe and valued. Of course he knew nothing would come of it - it had become obvious to him that in his human form, James had been a great man - but he'd hoped...
He should have recalled that great men didn't fall in love with scholars. James needed him to break the enchantment and for nothing else.
"John II has done a brilliant job with my boots, don't you think? He was right, you know. They were smudged. They look a hundred percent better now."
"Blair, stop babbling."
"Sorry. Sorry. You wanted to talk to me about something." He sank down again in the tall-backed chair. "I'm listening."
Dammit. The pleasure that had been on Blair's face when he'd first walked in was gone. James knew better than to admit to feelings for another, but he'd gone ahead, and now Blair was no longer comfortable with him. Well truthfully, what man wanted a jaguar in love with him? Aside from the fact that the church didn't look kindly on the mating of man and animal, jaguars had barbs on their cocks which had to make mating painful.
Not that he'd tried it. He might look like a jaguar, but inside he was still a man.
James drew in a deep breath to calm himself. And then another and another. "You talked for a while with Prince Daryl."
"Yes. He was very kind to me, and spoke of many things while he picked out clothes for me."
"Apparently you spoke of many things too. Prince Daryl was fascinated. He requested his father's permission to take you as his consort."
"That's very- He what?" Blair's eyes were huge. "But I thought that wasn't allowed!"
"It wasn't more than a year ago when I- Never mind, that isn't important. Prince Daryl enjoys the company of both women and men, and his Majesty will see there is no longer a stigma attached to those who feel the same way as his son. The King is pleased with you. You've got brains and can converse on any topic, unlike many of the Prince's previous companions. Of course he'll need to marry eventually, to insure the line, but in the meantime... "
"He wants to play with me."
"Yes. NO! He wants you to share your- "
"Body," Blair interrupted mercilessly.
"Your gifts and your knowledge. Why are you being so illogical about this?"
"I'll be illogical if I want to, and don't you tell me otherwise!"
Why were they even arguing? He'd had to tell Blair, but he was also going to tell him how he felt about him, in hopes that perhaps, once he'd regained his human form, Blair might be willing to become his companion. "I know this is a great honor, but- "
"Well, I say no. A large, resounding NO."
"No? What do you mean 'no'?" James had intended to be rational about this. He'd kept himself from leaping over the table and shredding Prince Daryl's handsome face from his head, but he'd known the Prince since he was a lad, and a position like that- the unwelcome image of Blair under Daryl filled his mind, and the people standing near him began edging away from the clearly agitated animal.
James had regained control of his emotions. Being Prince Daryl's consort would secure Blair's future.
James had just thought Blair's future would be secured with him.
He stared at Blair, at the flushed cheeks and the flashing eyes, and his cock began sliding from its sheath. He dropped down onto his belly to conceal it.
Blair peered at him suspiciously. Oh god, did he know arguing with him aroused James to the point he wanted to pounce upon him, rip the breeches from his body, and swallow down his cock?
"You're making sport of me, aren't you?" He looked relieved, and then began chuckling. "Oh, James, that was very bad of you! You had me so- "
"I'm not making sport of you, and I'm entirely serious. Prince Daryl wants to have you for his consort, and King Simon has agreed."
"On the condition that the Marquis of Carabas can support his own lands and won't be a drain on the kingdom."
"I'm not the Marquis of Carabas. I have no lands." Blair turned as white as his linens, and he swallowed heavily. "Am I going to lose my head over this, James?"
"No!" If it even seemed as if that might be a possibility, James would get him out of Cascade. And he'd stay with him, whether the enchantment was broken or not. "I'll see to it that you don't."
Blair's emotions were on a see-saw, up one minute, down the next. He'd been sure James was going to make a declaration. James had certainly seemed unhappy to see John II on his knees before Blair.
But instead, James had blithely informed him that he was to be Prince Daryl's consort. Prince Daryl was a nice enough young man, but Blair didn't want to stay here in Cascade. He wanted to sail the seven seas as John Cabot and Christopher Columbus had done, wanted to see the lands where Marco Polo had walked, wanted to learn the ways of new people as others had.
Now, to top it off, King Simon wanted to inspect his lands. Well, the Marquis of Carabas' lands.
"You're not eating, Carabas. Is there nothing to your liking?" King Simon asked. He was a gracious host, and had suggested the quail stuffed with wild mushrooms or the partridge with a sherry sauce if Blair preferred them over the venison.
"Indeed, it is all delicious, Sire." He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced around, but although it felt as if someone was staring at him, no one seemed to be regarding him with any particular intent.
"Try this, Blair." Prince Daryl offered him a morsel on his own fork.
Blair forced a smile and took it with his fingers. "Thank you, your Highness."
"I thought it was agreed you would call me Daryl."
"Your Highness, until King Simon is satisfied that I am a suitable candidate for your- " The last thing he wanted to bring up was the subject of beds and who would occupy them, and so hastily changed his words. "- that my lands can well support the manner of life here at court, I think it would be best not to get too familiar."
King Simon nodded in satisfaction, but Prince Daryl frowned.
Blair hastened to add, "After all, think how sorrowed I would be to fall in love with you, only to find I couldn't be part of your life." There. That should be diplomatic enough. He picked up his goblet. He needed a drink.
Abruptly the Prince leaned forward and whispered, "Are you a virgin? If you're worried about the first time I take you, you needn't be. All my lovers have enjoyed their time in my bed."
Blair was in the act of taking a sip of wine. At those words, however, he swallowed wrong and began choking.
Prince Daryl pounded his back.
Tears streaming down him cheeks, Blair held up a hand. "Enough, Highness! I'm fine." He dried his cheeks on his sleeve. "I'm sure you're a very considerate lover. As to whether or not I'm a... you know... that is my business alone."
"And the business of the man who claims you as his consort."
"Your Majesty." James appeared from the lower tables. "My lord has had a trying day."
Blair breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, I have. Being robbed, almost drowning. If your Majesty will excuse me? Prince Daryl?"
Both men nodded, the King in commiseration, the Prince in reluctance, and Blair rose and started to leave the room. James' hiss stopped him.
"Don't turn you back to them," he ordered softly.
"Why? Are they going to kill me now?" Blair asked just as softly. He would have sworn James rolled his eyes.
"Out of respect. You don't turn your back to a king or a prince."
Blair bowed himself out of the room, then wheeled on James. "And how was I supposed to know that?" He'd been in the company of many learned men, but he'd never mingled with royalty. "And come to think of it, how do you know that? What were you before, James?"
"Don't act cagey with me! Before you were enchanted!"
"I was a knight."
"A knight? Sir James?" If James were a common man, Blair had been certain he stood a chance of winning him, but as a knight... Blair's eyes grew huge as things fell into place. "The King's Sir James?"
"We can't talk about this in the hall. Come to bed."
Blair forced his heart not to leap at those words. After all, that wasn't what Sir James meant.
James sat at a table at the bottom of the room, and he was fortunate to have that. As the Marquis of Carabas' servant, by rights he should have been fed in the kitchen, but Blair had insisted.
Time was he would have sat at the King's right hand. Sir Henri sat there now, not that James begrudged him the seat. It was the seat beside Blair where the Prince sat that he begrudged.
He gnawed on a joint of beef, tearing off the flesh in single-minded ferocity, and the men and women who sat nearest him inched back more and more until there was an obvious space around him.
Blair saw, and his blue eyes lit with amusement. But then he grew harried as Prince Daryl offered him sips from his goblet and bites of dinner from his plate.
Finally, James had had enough. He approached the head of the table. "Your Majesty, my lord has had a trying day."
He wasn't sure if Blair would be willing to leave - there was still the promise of dancing after they'd finished dining - but Blair was on his feet so fast he almost toppled his chair back.
King Simon gazed at Blair with considering eyes, but gave him permission to retire.
Simon had had the suspicion that his Protector of the Realm might look with more interest on men then on women, but Sir James had never acted on it, to Simon's knowledge, and so he was never forced to confront the issue.
Therefore, he wasn't prepared when his son Daryl had first come to him and told him his current favorite was not Mistress Vera, as he'd thought, but Master Nolan. He'd done nothing at first, hoping it was just a passing fancy, but when it proved Daryl wouldn't change, he'd written into the law that such was no longer forbidden.
He could do no less for his son.
Of course he hadn't been best pleased to learn the Prince enjoyed both sexes in his bed, but history hinted that Longshanks' treatment of his own son contributed to Edward II's disastrous reign. Simon was having none of that for Cascade.
He studied the Marquis who sat at his son's left hand. Carabas wasn't an empty headed do-nothing, and what was more, he appeared to be honorable. Hadn't he insisted the servant who had aided in his rescue be allowed to dine with them? Granted Master Puss was an unusual servant, but didn't that say much about his master, to inspire such loyalty?
Carabas also wasn't handsome in the accepted sense, but his looks were more than passable, and no one would mistake him for a woman, especially after seeing him naked. That led Simon to worry, for previously Daryl had only taken pretty, ethereal men to his bed.
Simon could see Daryl's attentions discomfited the Marquis, which was unheard of. Anyone who caught his son's eye was gratified.
Master Puss was suddenly there before the king's table. "Your Majesty, my lord has had a trying day."
He gave permission for Carabas and his servant to retire for the night, noting that Daryl wasn't looking happy to lose the object of his desire.
He'd need to keep an eye on Carabas.
The baron further to the right of King Simon said something, and he turned to the man. "What was that, Spalding?"
James and Blair were on their way to the bedchamber Blair had been assigned. He seemed to be taking the news of James being King Simon's Sir James fairly well, although something appeared to have disturbed him. His heart was beating so loudly James had little problem hearing it.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, thank you. Why do you ask?"
"Your heart- "
"What's the matter with my heart?"
"It's beating- "
"That's what hearts do. We would die if they didn't."
James couldn't help being amused. "Yes, but yours is beating so hard and so fast I'm afraid you're going to fall in a faint."
"Well, I'm not. I'm not a woman. In spite of what everyone appears to think."
"No one thinks that."
"Oh no? I could see the way they were all regarding me. They were picturing the Prince on top of me, rutting me... " Blair shuddered.
That disturbed James. "You don't fancy a bit of rutting?"
"Of course I do. Only I'd like to choose the man I- " His cheeks flamed.
James rubbed his head against Blair's hip. "You will get to choose. I promised I'd make your fortune, didn't I? If you don't want to be the Prince's consort, then I'll find another way for you to be settled."
"Prince Daryl is going to what?"
Spalding glared at the woman whom he had deigned to marry. He'd just spent the last few weeks dancing attendance on King Simon, joining him on another futile search for Sir James. He'd hoped to return earlier, but there had been that banquet he'd been required to attend...
And if Alexandra ever learned he had attended a banquet by invitation of the King, and had kept the knowledge of that invitation from her, she would not be pleased.
Who would have thought a mere woman could possess the ability to make a man's life so wretched?
He brushed aside that- not worry, for a woman would never give him cause to worry. No, it was more a niggling possibility.
And why was he even thinking about that? The more pressing concern was the young man who sat beside the Prince at the head table. The young man who the Prince couldn't seem to take his eyes from.
Spalding had shredded his trencher and downed goblet after goblet of wine, waking the following morning with a sour taste in his mouth, a pounding in his head, and a wench in his bed who thought he was going to take her back to Prospect with him.
He would have wanted to remain at the castle longer, learning more about this Marquis of Carabas, but instead he'd had no choice but to take a hasty leave of the King and return home to Prospect.
Damn all women everywhere!
"You heard me," he snarled. "He's planning on taking a male consort." One of the things Spalding had planned, if the former Mistress Barnes hadn't been able to remove Sir James from the jousting field, was to put it about that the Protector of the Realm liked cock. But if the laws were to be changed...
Lady Alexandra gazed at him coolly. "We'll just have to remove him as well. What I don't understand is how King Simon could allow this."
"Prince Daryl can do no wrong in his Majesty's eyes, and he won't allow his son to be harmed in any way."
"Hmm." She tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. "If Prince Daryl is to take a consort that will mean another in the way of our taking over the country."
"And in that case, what do we do?"
"You aren't growing deaf, are you? I just told you what we must do. The same as we would do if the Prince chose to wed. We will destroy both the Prince and his bride or his consort"
He ground his teeth. His wife - good god, what had he been thinking? - was becoming entirely too above herself, and he was going to have to deal with her soon.
Granted her idea of having reports of Sir James being seen at various distant parts of the country made it easy for him to undermine the King's rule while he was away, but she seemed to think that it was she who was in charge of this and not he.
"You're right, of course." He removed all trace of ill-humor from his countenance and handed her a goblet. "Some wine, my dear?"
She smiled at him and brought the goblet to her lips. "Thank you, my love."
Did he really think it would be that easy to poison her? Lady Alexandra was well aware that she'd no sooner had his ring on her finger than he'd begun planning her demise.
The fool. Didn't he realize how indispensable she was to him? It was she who'd come up with one successful plan after another, and more importantly, if they chanced to fail, seeing the blame was placed squarely on another's head.
She'd taken to wearing gowns with long sleeves, and of course he never questioned it. If he had, she would have told him she was starting a new fashion, but in truth it would be to hide the poisoned wine she would send flowing down her arm with a practiced flick of her wrist.
"A very refreshing vintage, my love. Thank you."
He stared at her intently.
Perhaps the next time she would switch the goblets. She was very good at legerdemain, and Spalding, being Spalding, would never notice until he fell to the floor, grasping his throat.
"I'm expecting Lord Torin to join us for a day or so," he was saying, trying to hide his irritation. "The hunting is good this time of year."
"Will he be here for dinner?"
"I imagine so, although he didn't say. You'll dine with us, of course."
She rarely dined with her husband. Unless there were others present, she took her meals in her apartments, feeding the first bites to the small, brown dog she kept there. There were dogs aplenty, and if one died, she could replace it easily enough.
She glanced at the hourglass on the mantle. "I'll speak to Cook, and then see about having rooms prepared for my lord."
She dipped a curtsy and strolled out of the room.
This was becoming tiresome.
A low growl came from the shadows. "Patience, my pet," she murmured. "Our time is coming very soon now."
Spalding glared at the slim back. Why hadn't the poison in the wine done its work? Disquiet tiptoed up his spine. Could she, in truth, be a witch? He'd thought she was simply a very clever woman, but this was the... He closed his eyes and considered carefully. The fourth time he had tried and she had survived.
Could she have some sort of immunity to the power of the poison? He'd heard it could be possible. But no. She was a woman, and everyone knew that while they were skillful enough when it came to running a man's home, things of the world were beyond them.
And for that very reason, she could have no idea of his plans.
All right, poison was obviously not an option. There were always accidents. A loosened tread on a stair, a runaway carriage or bolting mount...
He reached for his own goblet and tossed it back, and began calling to mind all the lovely young women who would vie for the position as his wife once he was a widower.
"Sire, I've come to take my leave of you."
Simon observed the large, black jaguar that stood before him. The animal should have looked ridiculous wearing boots, a plumed hat, and an embroidered cape, but instead, Master Puss looked sleek and deadly, capable of any manner of mayhem and destruction. There was something familiar as well in the blue eyes regarding him that struck a chord-
Which was nonsense.
The jaguar was just an animal, after all.
Although Sir James had eyes that color...
Simon shook his head. It was simply that the Protector of the Realm had been his best knight, and he missed him greatly, even after all this time. Perhaps especially after all this time. Sir Henri was a good man, as were Sir Joel and Sir Rafe, but they could only do so much, be in just so many places at any given time.
Things were not going well in Cascade, and he feared there might soon come a day when there would be no kingdom at all for him to bequeath his son.
"I know you wish to see my master's lands, Sire," Master Puss was saying. "I ask but a few hours' start to see all is in preparation."
"A logical request, and one I grant with pleasure. I look forward to seeing Carabas' estates."
"I think you'll be impressed, if I may make so bold."
"I'm going with you." Carabas stood before Simon and made a low bow. "Sire."
"Bloody buggering hell!"
Simon couldn't help chuckling. Whenever James was exasperated...
The jaguar coughed. "I beg your pardon, my lord. I didn't hear you come up behind me."
Carabas stared at Master Puss in obvious confusion. "You always hear me."
"That's what I thought!" He coughed again. "If your Majesty will give me leave?"
"Thank you, Sire." Carabas began backing away as well.
"Oh, not you, Marquis. I'll need you to lead the way."
Oddly enough, Carabas turned pale.
"It's good of your Majesty to want me to remain with you, but truly, the path is quite simple. Isn't it, Master Puss?"
"Yes." The jaguar grinned, and Simon found himself swallowing, relieved that the big cat was some distance from him. "All you need do is follow the road due east."
"I thought that led to Lord Spalding's barony." Simon had never particularly liked the man, but Spalding was a skilled warrior, and after the original baron and his family had died in an unexpected attack, he'd been grateful to have a strong man to take over those lands.
"Actually, that was Lord Spalding's barony. He lost it by a toss of the dice."
"I myself enjoy games of chance on occasion, but I cannot approve of my lords wagering away their properties." And if he'd know of this while Spalding was still here, he would have taken him severely to task over the matter.
"I'm sure Lord Spalding is aware of that, your Majesty, which is probably why he neglected to tell you." The jaguar's grin was guileless. "You'll find that my master is an excellent landlord."
"I should like to see my lands!"
The jaguar turned to his master. "You already have, my lord. It's only courteous for you to remain with his Majesty."
"Still, the servants will obey me more readily than you."
"Do you really think so?" Master Puss' jaws parted, revealing a set of sharp, white teeth.
"I must agree, Carabas. If I were your servants, I would be more intimidated by Master Puss than by you."
The Marquis looked put out, and when he realized it, he quickly wiped his expression clear.
Simon couldn't help smiling. "And I assure you I don't mean to cast aspersions on the manner in which you deal with your people."
"Of course not, your Majesty." Was Carabas glowering at his servant? "Very well, I'll stay behind with you."
"And with Prince Daryl!" Simon reminded him sharply of his prime reason for staying behind - Daryl courting him.
Master Puss curled his lip, swept his plumed hat off with a flourish, then replaced it and left the chamber.
"Really, Sire. It would have been better if I went with him. He... he tends to lose his way!"
"Indeed? That strikes me as highly unlikely. Cats are good at finding their way home, are they not? It seems to me you're desirous of putting some distance between yourself and my son. Many of the lords and ladies of my kingdom would have no objection to spending time with the Prince."
"I didn't mean to offend you, your Majesty." Carabas chewed on his lower lip.
"But still, you would rather be off with your cat than become better acquainted with Prince Daryl."
"J- Master Puss was bequeathed to me at the passing of my mother. It's for her sake alone that I value the beast."
"Truly, Sire. What use would I have otherwise for a brute of an animal who pays not a jot of heed to what I say?"
"Yet you are his master, are you not?" Simon was beginning to think the Marquis was protesting a bit too much.
"I... I... "
Simon was interested in seeing how the young man would extricate himself from the quandary in which he found himself, but just then his son came in.
"There you are, Carabas! I've been looking all over for you! You weren't trying to steal him away from me, were you, Father?"
"Hardly," Simon said dryly. "Master Puss has gone ahead to see the Marquis' properties are in readiness. We'll set out after the noon meal."
"Splendid! We'll have time to go for a ride!" Daryl knew many young ladies, and quite a few young men also, sighed over how dashing he looked mounted on his chestnut destrier.
If his son had his heart set upon the Marquis of Carabas, and if the Marquis' lands were as in order as they should be, Simon would have no reason to stand in the way.
"Very well. You have my permission to join the Prince, Carabas."
"Thank you, Sire."
Simon had a feeling his son would have his work cut out to win the young man - the Marquis was looking anything but grateful.
Simon stared after the two young men thoughtfully. There were two possible reasons for that. The first was that the Marquis was not of the same inclination as his son. That could be easily overcome. Money and position were great persuaders.
The second, though - if Carabas were already in love with someone else - male or female was immaterial - then the likelihood of his being amenable to a royal liaison was nil.
"Yes, Sir Henri?" Simon set aside thoughts of his son and his son's possible consort. He had a kingdom to rule.
Blair watched cautiously as a groom led up two horses, a large chestnut destrier and a dainty, dappled gray palfrey. Prince Daryl went up to the chestnut stallion and slapped his neck appreciatively.
"And how is my Little John this fine day?"
"He's in fine fettle, your Highness," the groom told him, grinning broadly.
"Excellent!" Prince Daryl stepped into the stirrup, swung up into the saddle, and nodded toward the mare. "Come, Carabas. Mount her!" His dark eyes danced with merriment and his voice was rife with innuendo.
Blair conceded the Prince was passing fine to look at, but he would much rather have been with James.
He sighed and turned his gaze to the dappled mare. He was at best an indifferent horseman, and he much preferred his own two legs to a horse's four, but he also knew that in this instance he had no choice.
"As you wish, Highness." At the least this would keep the prince an arm's length from him. And it would give him time to marshal the arguments necessary to convince King Simon that the lands the King would recognize as Spalding's were indeed his.
"Hold, your Highness!" A knight Blair recognized as Sir Rafe came jogging up.
"What do you want, sir?" The Prince's words were less than gracious.
"You know the King, your father, is concerned for your safety. I'm to accompany you."
Prince Daryl scowled at him. "Very well, but you'll keep a goodly distance between us. I don't need you overhearing my wooing and mocking me afterwards!"
"Mocking you is the last thing I would ever do, Highness." Sir Rafe brought his hand to his heart and bowed.
Blair listened with interest. Was there something between these two?
"Humph!" The Prince reined his stallion around and touched his heels to the gleaming sides. "Come, Carabas. Let's away!"
Before he could raise the reins and signal the mare to proceed, she broke into a canter and followed the stallion.
Blair gritted his teeth and took hold of her mane.
He would not cry out. He would not cry out. He would not...
Rafe stared after the pair. It was obvious that the Marquis wasn't an expert horseman. What sort of a land was Carabas, where its lord couldn't sit a horse like a proper warrior?
He shook his head. He'd known when he'd decided to put a halt to whatever might have grown between them that it would be in his Prince's best interest. Daryl deserved nothing less than a prince or a princess, not a knight, who while his line was an ancient and venerable one, was himself merely the second son of a second son.
He sighed and touched his heels to his stallion's sides. "No point in us sitting here fretting, Dextarius. Our Prince will have the marquis, and whether we like it or not, it's not for us to hinder his wooing."
The courser shook his head, setting the metal pieces on his bridle to jingling merrily.
"At least one of us will be happy."
They quickly caught up with the Prince and the marquis, but Rafe made sure he was out of earshot. He might wish for Daryl to be happy, but since it would never be with him, he saw no need to have to listen.
"Bess is a comely lass." The serf paused in swinging his scythe and pulled out a kerchief to mop his brow.
"Aye, Ned," his companion agreed, "but she's a temper on her. Now Moll - there's a lass who's not only sweet-tempered but pretty to boot."
Ned gasped and fell back onto his bum, and Will frowned down at him.
"Oh, come now. That remark didn't merit such a reaction!"
"Another one who falls down!" a voice growled. "Bloody buggering hell!"
Will spun around, and it was his turn to gasp. He tightened his hands on his scythe.
"I'm- I'm not afraid of you!" he declared, his voice hoarse with the fear he denied. Behind him, Ned whimpered.
"At least this one didn't land on his backside." The beast seemed to be talking to itself, but then it turned startlingly blue eyes to Will. "And there's no reason you should be."
"Blessed saints, it talks!"
"Of course I talk, and I'll thank you not to refer to me as 'it'!" It scowled at him, and Will was afraid he was going to piss himself. "I am a jaguar, and you may call me S- Master Puss."
"What- what do you want of us, M-Master Puss?" Will wondered where he'd found the courage to utter a word.
"His Majesty, King Simon, will be riding by soon. You will make sure you are working near the road. When he asks you whose field this is, you will answer it belongs to your master, the Marquis of Carabas."
"All right." Ned seemed willing to do whatever the... the jaguar wanted of them. Will glared at him, then turned to Master Puss.
"Why are we doing that?"
Sharp white teeth were suddenly revealed. "Because if you don't, I will find you and eat you."
Ned curled into a ball and went back to whimpering. Will gulped.
"Now, whose field is this?"
"The Marquis of Carabas'!"
"Excellent. Now don't forget. Good day to you." And like that, the jaguar was gone.
Will whirled on Ned. "'All right?' Do you have any idea what Lord Spalding will do to us if he learns of this?!"
Ned stared up at him with big eyes. "Yeah, but Lord Spalding ain't here."
Will worried his lower lip. That was true. Lord Spalding was never here.
"I've... I've got to change my breeches."
"I'll go with you."
"You don't have to, Will."
"I have to. I'm not going to be here alone when King Simon comes by!"
"But he's not supposed to come by for a while yet."
"That's all right. I... I need a dipper of water."
"Let's go, then. And if we take our time, mayhap King Simon will have been and gone by the time we get back!"
Odd, Will thought as the two hurried to the cottage they shared. He'd always thought of Ned as being a little dim-witted. "That's a bloody good idea!"
Continue to Part 2