James in Boots, part 2 - Tinnean

After the field of hay, James passed an apiary, where he informed the terrified beekeepers they were to tell King Simon the many hives belonged to the Marquis of Carabas.

Further along was an orchard, its branches heavy with ripening fruit. The nurserymen quaked under James' fierce mien, and readily agreed the trees were indeed the property of their master, the Marquis of Carabas.

The last field he came upon was covered with rippling stalks of golden wheat. Laborers were walking through the rows, studying the wheat to determine if it was ripe enough to harvest.

Overseeing them all was a man on horseback. A whip was curled in his fist, which rested on his thigh.

"Ho!" cried the overseer. "Did you ever see anything so ridiculous as this? A cat wearing boots and a hat and a cape?"

The serfs eyed James cautiously, then eyed the overseer even more cautiously. "No, sir," they agreed sullenly.

The horse, apparently, had more sense than the man on its back, James noted. Its eyes rolled white with fear, it neighed in distress. Sweat lathered its hide, and it sidled and attempted to back away.

"Damme, what's got into you?" The man cursed and struck its head with the coiled whip.

The words were scarcely out of his mouth before James sprang on him, taking him to the ground. A loud crunch, and then James raised his head, calmly observing the serfs. His muzzle was red with the blood of the overseer.

"Do I still look ridiculous?"

"N-no, master!"

"King Simon will be passing by soon. You will inform him this field belongs to your master, the Marquis of Carabas!"

"Oh, but sir!" one of the bolder ones dared whisper. "The Lord of Spalding is our master, and a harsh one at that! It would be worth our lives if he were to learn we lied!"

James bared his teeth. "It will be worth your lives if you don't lie, for I will know, and I assure you, I will come back and eat you!"

"What, all of us?"

"All of you, and your wives and your children and your parents!"

They gulped and glanced fearfully at the man who seemed to speak for them all.

"Very well, sire. We will do as you ask."

James nodded curtly and loped off.

Once out of sight of the serfs, he slowed his gait to a trot, then a pace, finally coming to a halt. He sat and began grooming the blood from his face.

Now was not the time to feel pity for the families under an evil man's rule.

'There is dark magic at work here, Enqueri.' Incacha had discovered that Lord Spalding had been involved in some way with James' transformation, but he hadn't been able to learn how. 'More than ever you will need your shaman!'

James had known Lord Gerald when he'd still been Sir Gerald, a mercenary knight, skillful enough, but ambitious, and lacking in scruples. They'd clashed a time or two on the tourney circuit. He hadn't liked him then, and with the passing of time liked him even less.

It hadn't entirely surprised James when word reached him that Spalding had been given a barony.

What did surprise him was that the barony consisted of the demesne of Prospect.

James had had a nodding acquaintance with Lord Edward Massingberd, the baron whose lands these had been. Massingberd was a quiet man who'd been destined for the priesthood, but then his eldest brother had died during a tourney when a lance had splintered and pierced his armor. Edward had not only stepped into his brother's shoes, but into his bed as well, marrying the girl Everard had been betrothed to. She and Edward had seven children - all girls, but from what James could ascertain, they'd all been happy.

And they'd all been slaughtered by a band of rogue knights who'd been raiding throughout Cascade and the neighboring kingdoms.

It had been Sir Gerald and his men who had tracked them down. In the ensuing battle, the renegades were all killed.

James hadn't yet arrived in Cascade, but he'd heard the tale shortly after he offered his services to the King.

As little as King Simon admired Spalding the man, James knew he'd had no choice but to raise the knight to a baron, and award him Massingberd's lands.

For the most part, James didn't have much contact with the Baron of Prospect, but a little more than a year ago he'd crossed paths with Spalding.

Before he could look into the rumors that had begun surfacing, he'd been sent to resolve the problem attacks on Lord Torin's demesne.

And that had resulted in this present state of affairs with him in this body.

The fur of James' ruff bristled. King Simon and his knights had yet to realize the extent of Spalding's villainy. It was only after James had been trapped in the form of the jaguar that he'd come to learn that Spalding himself was behind the attack on the previous baron's family.

For which James fully intended to see him pay.

With a final swipe of his big paw, he rose to his feet and scented the air.

The odor of fresh blood filled his nostrils, along with the stench of fear.

There was no time to lose. He shook back the cape and made sure the hat was settled firmly on his head, and began making his way down the final strip of road to confront Lord Spalding and secure Blair's fortune.

**

James sat on the crest of the hill that overlooked a small, neat manor house. Unlike King Simon's castle, this hadn't been built with an eye to defending the surrounding land - it was simply a lord's home.

Another scent tickled his nostrils, and his whiskers twitched and his ears cocked forward. This was... It was such an enticing aroma. He'd never smelled anything quite like it.

Instead of skulking down the hill and across the manicured lawns to the manor, he jogged down, loped across the lush green sward, and right up to the heavy oak door, his head up, inhaling deeply.

A shove with his shoulder saw the door swinging wide. No servants were in the great hall, to stare in shocked dismay at the large black cat that entered. No one cried out in fear.

No one was there at all.

James followed his nose into the dining hall, only then coming to an abrupt halt. A man was sprawled in the lord's chair at the head of the table. His tongue, purple in color, protruded obscenely.

Another man was on the floor, his throat torn open, blood pooling on the fine rug under him.

"My, my, my," a female voice purred. "Aren't you a handsome puss!"

James wheeled around. How could anyone have come up behind him without his being aware?

Her eyes widened. "Could it be? Sir James?" She began to laugh, and it wasn't a pleasant sound. "Oh, this is without price!"

"Who... " The word came out hoarsely, as if his vocal chords were rusty and his mouth and lips unfamiliar with framing that word... any word.

"Who am I? When last we met, it was in Lord Torin's hall." She sneered at the body on the floor.

"Xandra?"

"Lady Alexandra!" she corrected sharply.

His senses were becoming muddled, and he found himself floundering as the jaguar's sensibilities, for the first time, began overpowering his human ones.

"I want you to meet my pet." A spotted feline appeared from behind her skirts.

She was beautiful, not quite as large as he, the rich cream of her coat mottled with deep brown spots. Her eyes were blue, but not as blue as... as...

Try as he might, it proved elusive. He couldn't recall who had eyes bluer than the ones observing him with such heat, but it didn't matter. The scent he had followed was coming from the female in waves to engulf him, and suddenly all he wanted to know was if her coat was as sleek and soft as it looked.

Growling low in his throat, he stalked toward the female, completely ignoring the woman who leaned against the table and laughed and laughed.

**

All the servants had fled once they'd seen Spalding was dead. As for Torin, he hadn't had the brains god gave a flea to realize he was in danger, thinking she had poisoned her lord so Torin and she could be together.

And then he, also, was dead.

Alex didn't bother containing her laughter. As a mage - she sneered at those who might label her a witch - she had learned to insert her spirit into the body of her familiar, and indeed, some of the best coupling she'd ever enjoyed had been in that form, but for an ordinary man to be so transformed -

Of course she had known the potion she'd brewed was powerful, but that it should turn a man into a beast- that was a side effect she hasn't anticipated.

How very amusing this was.

Abruptly she stopped laughing and frowned, realizing something was amiss. This shouldn't have been so difficult. The man within the beast was very strong, and he was battling to free himself of the leopard's thrall. Alex could count on her spirit guide to keep him contained for a while longer, but for how much longer she was uncertain.

Having the jaguar under her control would greatly aid in her disposing the present royal family and gaining Cascade for her own. The beast would kill the King and his son, and there would be a very tidy ending.

For if Sir James regained his human form, he would be so filled with remorse over what he had done that he would surely fall upon his sword, and if he remained as the jaguar, she herself would cut its throat and have a fine cape made from its hide.

And as a reward for her service to the kingdom, the grateful populace would crown her queen.

Of course she'd recognized the big black cat as Sir James. It wasn't likely that she would ever forget the one-time Protector of the Realm, and the cool blue of his eyes. The fact that the potion she'd brewed had somehow resulted in him turning into a jaguar was simply an added benefit. It would have been entertaining if she could have bedded him before giving him the wine with the potion that would render him unconscious, but she'd realized almost immediately that none of her very feminine blandishments would have aroused him.

The jaguar, on the other hand - He was another matter entirely. He was drawn to her spirit animal, but...

She had no doubt the man would eventually overcome the lusts of the beast.

Before that happened, she had to find another way to keep him subservient to her. "Remove those ridiculous clothes!"

He shook himself free of them.

The further she removed him from his humanity, the better chance she would have of keeping him in this form.

She tapped her lower lip with a manicured fingernail. She'd need to cast the runes to see the best way to go about keeping him under her control.

"Keep him distracted!" The she cat looked at her quizzically, and Alex huffed with impatience and snapped, "Do whatever you need to do!"

Her spirit animal's jaws parted in a shameless grin, and she sidled up to the jaguar, rubbing the length of her body against the length of his.

**

Daryl slanted a glance at the man riding beside him.

"Carabas, are you attending to my words at all?" He wasn't used to having his bon mots greeted with little more than half-hearted pleasure, but he found that made him all the more desirous of bedding the marquis. Although the man was in his early twenties, he had to be a virgin. No experienced man of the world would be so skittish.

"Of course I am, your Highness!" Carabas flushed, and the added color made the blue of his eyes all the more vivid. Obviously he was thinking of other things... of them in bed, perhaps?

Daryl decided he wouldn't really mind if that was where the marquis' mind was wandering. He himself recalled how Carabas had looked as he emerged, dripping and naked, from the river, and was in fact more interested in envisioning once more what lay beneath the borrowed clothes.

However, he was the Prince, and as such, needed to show restraint

Nevertheless, he couldn't resist teasing his companion.

"Then what did I just say?"

The marquis turned his amazing blue eyes on Daryl and smiled, but it was a distracted smile at best. What was going on in his mind?

"You said that you thought we should practice my being your consort."

"And so we should!" He had been listening. Daryl was pleased. He didn't require his companions to be scholars, or to hang on his every word, but if Carabas were to become his consort, it would be nice. "What say you?"

"I'm afraid I can't give it the consideration it deserves, Highness."

"I beg your pardon?!"

"I'm sorry, Highness." Carabas' smile was rueful, and Daryl couldn't help staring at the lush fullness of his lower lip. His britches were suddenly very constrictive over his cock.

And he realized he'd missed what the marquis had just said. "Excuse me?"

Carabas gave him a quizzical smile. "I said it's just that I'm having trouble controlling this beast, Highness."

"Ambler?" Daryl regarded the palfrey, puzzled. "This mare is the most gentle in my father's stables!"

"I'm not much of a horseman."

Unfortunately, that seemed to be true. Once he'd seen that the marquis was having a difficult time keeping up, he'd reined Little John in and kept him to a decorous trot. After all, the palfrey hadn't been bred for the stamina of his destrier.

But this really wasn't good. Daryl loved riding, and as Prince of Cascade, he was required to be involved in all manner of hunting and tourney events, not to mention training in the art of war.

"But truly, sir," Carabas continued, "I think we should return to the castle. We need to be on the road. M- Master Puss has had more than enough time to inform my servants we'll be along."

Ambler fidgeted beneath the marquis.

"Ah. Anxious for our joining, are you? Very well. After all, once my father sees in what excellent condition your lands and people are kept, he'll give his immediate consent to our union."

"But you don't know if I'm a good master!"

"You are. I can tell just by looking at you." Daryl had Little John sidle closer, and he reached over to stroke Blair's hair, letting the russet locks drift through his fingers. "I look forward to feeling this wrapped around my cock."

Before Carabas could respond to Daryl's hopeful words, Sir Rafe came riding up. Botheration, the man always seemed to arrive at the most inappropriate of times!

Still, Daryl supposed he was fortunate Sir Rafe had agreed to stay some distance away, sparing both him and Carabas the... the snide, cutting remarks the knight was wont to make to any of the men or women who enjoyed Daryl's favor.

It hadn't always been thus. There had been a time when he'd been desirous of having Sir Rafe as more than his bodyguard, and indeed had spent a single, wild night in bed with him. Afterwards, however, the knight had grown distant and had given as cold a shoulder as he dared to the King's son. Never again had that wondrous experience been repeated.

"Your Highness, Geoffrey has brought word from your father. King Simon is desirous of making an immediate start." Sir Rafe gestured toward the young squire who sat atop his mount, mopping his brow.

"Indeed, your Highness! I've been searching high and low for you, and I fear the King with be quite wroth with me!"

"No need to worry, young Geoffrey," Sir Rafe assured him. "His Majesty knows that when the Prince goes a-wooing he loses all track of time!"

Was Rafe smirking at him? Daryl scowled at the knight. It seemed to him that whenever he came close to making a conquest, Sir Rafe showed up to interfere. It just wasn't fair. Sir Rafe didn't want to be in his bed, but he didn't want anyone else in his bed either.

Daryl scowled more deeply. The last thing he wanted was for Carabas to think he might be frivolous and inconstant.

"Well, Carabas, I regret our... " coupling "... getting to know each other better will have to wait." And blister it, Rafe was smirking!

"Pity." The marquis offered him a strained smile, then suddenly swore as the palfrey took to her heels and raced away, his cloak billowing behind him.

"He doesn't seem to be a very good horseman, Highness."

Daryl had no choice but to agree with Rafe, however reluctantly that might be, and although he would have preferred not to. Carabas was reeling in the saddle and clutching at the reins, and frantic cries of, 'Whoa! Whoa!' drifted back to them.

"Well, at least the mare knows the way home." But Rafe looked concerned.

Daryl gathered the reins in his hands, ready to send Little John after the palfrey.

"I'll make sure he stays safe, your Highness!" Geoffrey clapped his heels to his rouncey's side, and the gelding leapt into a gallop.

Daryl gazed after the squire until he disappeared into the distance, but from the corner of his eye he was watching Rafe. At any moment now, he would say something snide and canter after his squire.

"If you'll forgive me for saying, this doesn't bode well for your future together, Prince."

Daryl concealed his sigh. That was only too true.

However, the last thing he wanted was for Rafe to realize he'd struck close to home, so he said brightly, "That's why we have litters!"

Rafe's courser came to an abrupt halt, and Daryl glanced at him over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised.

"So you mean to have him?"

"Of course! Why shouldn't I? "

"Indeed. He's easy to look at, I'll admit that. And his conversation is quite edifying."

"Edifying? What do you mean?"

"I can see why you're drawn to him." Rafe's smile was rueful. "He's got the most wonderful tales to tell of the East Indies and the Holy Land- "

"The Holy Land?" The marquis hadn't spoken to him about much. But then, Daryl thought, he'd been the one doing most of the talking.

"Oh, aye! It makes one wish the Crusades weren't ended so one could have a valid reason for journeying there."

"You'd... you'd leave Cascade?"

Rafe hesitated for a moment. "No, although I think it might be for the best if I did."

"Why?"

"The Marquis of Carabas. You're going to take him as your consort."

"It's always been my destiny to take a consort. You know that."

"Yes, but until the marquis, you were just playing with them." He turned his head. "As you would have played with me."

"Rafe, I never- " How could Rafe think he would have toyed with his affections? Daryl lo-

Oh, my.

"I must apologize, your Highness."

Daryl felt his eyes widen. Rafe had never, in all the time Daryl had known him, apologized to anyone.

"I know I've disrupted many a romance for you, but I won't disrupt this one. I can see how much the marquis means to you."

"Rafe, you're a dolt!"

"Yes, I know. I've always wanted the best for you. I wished it could be me, but I know it never will be. So whether you choose the marquis as your consort or not, I promise I won't ever interfere again."

"You don't understand! It was you, Rafe. It was always you! But I thought you didn't want me, that our night together disappointed you, that I'd failed to please you."

"Daryl- You pleased me very well."

"Well, how was I to know that? You left my bed before dawn, and afterwards you made it very clear you didn't want a repeat experience."

"I knew you deserved better than I."

"There is none better than you. You were what I wanted."

"You hid that very well. The very next night you tumbled that widow!"

"What would you have me do? Mope about the castle and let everyone know my heart was broken? Besides... " He didn't want to tell Rafe his member hadn't been able to rise to the occasion, and he'd had no choice but to pleasure the woman with his mouth. At first she'd been shocked, but his very skillful tongue soon had her purring in pleasure, and she never even cared he'd taken their coupling no further.

"I broke your heart?" Was Rafe sounding hopeful? The ass!

Daryl glowered at him, exasperated. Why, of all the handsome men and beautiful women who would like nothing better than to be his consort, did he have to choose this stubborn, honorable man?

"I'm not a prince."

"I don't need a prince. I need someone who'll love me and who'll guard my back." He held his breath, waiting to see how Rafe would respond to that.

Rafe nudged his courser closer to Daryl's destrier. "With your permission, Prince?"

Daryl stripped off his gauntlet, wrapped his hand around Rafe's neck, and brought their faces close together. "Permission granted."

"Thank- "

Daryl silenced him with his lips.

**

Blair was becoming more and more anxious; something was very, very wrong! He didn't know how he could be aware of that, but he was, and it had only a little to do with the fact that the Prince seemed to have forgotten he was a gentleman - he appeared to have grown additional arms, reminding Blair of an octopus he'd seen when he'd sailed in the Mediterranean, and at every opportunity he touched Blair.

Well, not Blair, but the marquis, and how was Prince Daryl going to react when he realized the man he was courting was naught but a miller's son?

No matter how many times Blair asked if they might return to the castle, Prince Daryl would continue to insist just a little farther, to the end of this meadow, to the top of that rise.

Blair wasn't certain how much more jouncing his backside could stand. The palfrey he'd been mounted on persisted in breaking into a jog when he least expected it. Really, he much preferred riding in a cart.

To his great relief, Sir Rafe, who'd kept a discreet distance, came galloping up, followed by a squire Blair didn't recognize. "Your Highness, Geoffrey has brought word from your father. King Simon is desirous of making an immediate start."

That was all Blair needed to hear. Surreptitiously he kicked the palfrey, who gave a disgruntled snort and bolted, and he was away, giving his impression of the worst rider imaginable.

Once Ambler was out of sight of the Prince, he glanced at the sky, taking note of the sun's position. It would be more convenient if he had the compass his friend Nicolaus had given him, but that was in his belt pouch, and god alone knew where that was. Although he had a feeling that along with god, perhaps James also knew.

He sighed, shook his head, and took a bearing, then tugged gently on the reins and sent the palfrey in an easterly direction.

He might not be a good rider, but he was an excellent navigator, even on land.

**

He was just passing a field of hay when a serf hailed him. "This field belongs to our master, the Marquis of Carabas!"

"Oh- " Blair blinked in confusion. "Thank you for telling me this."

Another serf drove his elbow into the side of the first man and glowered at him. "Ned, Master Puss told us to tell the King, not everyone who passes by!" He turned to smile weakly at Blair. "And a very excellent master he is, too!

"Tell me. Would Master Puss be a jaguar?"

"Eh?"

"A very large black cat."

"Oh, aye!" Ned exclaimed. "Do you know him?"

"You might say that."

"There, you see?" Ned turned to the other man in triumph. "It's all right that we told this lord that the field belongs to the Marquis of Carabas! You'll be sure to tell Master Puss we got it right, won't you?"

"Yes, of course I will, but first I must find him. Can you tell me in which direction he went?"

"Aye, my lord! He went east, toward Prospect. That's the manor of Lord- "

"It's the Marquis' manor! Don't pay any mind to Ned here. He was born with but two thoughts to rub together, and they often get lost in that empty noggin of his!"

"Oi!" It was easy to see that Ned was affronted, and Blair couldn't help smiling.

But there was no time for further conversation. The urge to find James was growing stronger. He had to be off.

"Thank you! Here's for your trouble!" The Prince had pressed a purse on him with some silver and copper coins, and he handed a farthing to each man.

"Thank you, your grace!" They both tugged their forelocks.

"You're welcome."

The palfrey was quickly past the field. Her gait had slowed to the amble she'd been named for, but she was still covering the ground at a goodly pace.

Blair couldn't help but notice the condition of the road. Lords were required to see the roads through their lands were kept in good repair, and whoever was the true master of this land kept it in very good repair.

Before too long, he passed an apiary, with its numerous beehives. A serf ran to the edge of the road. "These bees are the property of the Marquis of Carabas, your Excellency!"

Blair waved to signal he had heard the man, but rode on without stopping. This had to be the work of James as well, and when King Simon came by, he would be told they belonged to him!

Well, to the marquis.

Riding past an orchard and then another field, he was greeted with much the same words, and while he was gratified to know James had done this for him, he was becoming more and more annoyed. This was all well and good, but Blair had no desire to pass himself off as the Marquis of Carabas, and even less desire to become Prince Daryl's consort.

And what would happen when Lord Spalding, who did indeed own all these lands, stepped forward and denounced the marquis - Blair - as a fraud and an imposter? He shivered. That was not something he wished to be privy to.

Still, James had promised to see to his fortune. He couldn't let anyone harm Blair.

Blair trusted.

He finally topped a rise, and the palfrey stopped so abruptly that he nearly went top over tail over her head. She began shivering and backing away. The journey over the countryside hadn't seemed to discommode her in the least, and her coat, while warm, had been dry. But now, for some reason, she'd broken out all over in a nervous sweat.

"Don't stop, Ambler!" He tapped his heels against her sides. "James has need of me, and we can't be dawdling here!"

But although she stopped moving backwards, she stood fast and continued to shiver.

"Bloody, buggering hell! All right, have it your own way! I'll go first and lead the way." He swung down from her back.

She tugged free the reins, and like a bolt of lightning, she was gone.

"Well, I truly hope James is here and won't have need of me elsewhere, for it seems I've no other means of getting there then by foot." He jogged down the hill and across the lawn to the front door, which stood ajar. "Hello?"

There was no answer.

He pushed the door open wider and entered the great hall.

"Hellooo."

A growl came from farther within the manor house, and he swallowed. Perhaps this wasn't the best of ideas?

But no, that growl sounded familiar, and if James were here and in need of him, then he had no choice but to see his friend was safe.

Above the grand fireplace in the hall was a huge sword. Blair crossed to it and took it down carefully. The heavy weight in his hand gave him a feeling of security, even though it took both hands for him to hold it.

"J-James?" he called. He made his way deeper into the manor, following the occasional growls. The rooms were empty, and a chill hung in them in spite of the fires in the hearths.

Finally he walked through a doorway. "Oh, my god!" The tableau at the head of the room shocked him to a standstill.

He'd last seen Lord Spalding at King Simon's castle. The baron's eyes, the lone time Blair had caught them, had been filled with displeasure. Blair had assumed he was of the following that clung to the Church's dictates and didn't approve of King Simon's law permitting men to love men.

Now he could barely recognize Lord Spalding's features, frozen as they were in the rictus of death.

On the floor, in a vast pool of blood, was the body of another man, and Blair swallowed repeatedly, trying to contain his gorge.

The odor of death was almost overpowering, and he stared at it in reluctant fascination.

From the corner of his eye he caught a flash of movement, and he whirled to confront a new threat - a spotted cat the size of a wild boar.

A leopard? How had this exotic animal come to be in Cascade?

And why am I asking myself such a useless question, when in fact I'm about to die?

In a single leap, the leopard sent him sprawling onto his back, the heavy sword flying from his grasp to slide across the wood plank floor and into the fireplace. If the opportunity had afforded itself, he would have curled into a fetal position, tucking his head down and seeking to protect his vulnerable neck by covering it with his arms.

But the opportunity didn't afford itself. The leopard straddled his body, its teeth bared and its breath hot and fetid in his nostrils.

He was certain that this was the end, and he couldn't watch. As foolish as he knew it was, he covered his eyes with his hands.

Oh, James. I'm sorry I never told you-

There was a low, deep growl, but it was drowned out by an outraged roar, and the weight of the animal was knocked from him. He peeked through his fingers to see an even larger cat, a black jaguar, its massive paw raised to strike the leopard.

"James!" Blair breathed a sigh of relief. Of course he was without the boots, cape, and hat Blair had last seen him in, but what other jaguar was in Cascade?

Before he could rise and heap words of gratitude on his savior, an annoyed voice commanded,

"Cease this, the two of you!"

James' ears were flat and his fangs gleamed in the firelight, bared by his curled muzzle. He snarled and batted at the leopard, but backed away.

Blair stared up to behold the most unusual woman he'd ever seen. At first glance she appeared beautiful, her blonde hair in an elegant coil around her head and her eyes a pale, icy blue, but at second glance, he was able to see her beauty was like that of an apple about to go bad - the outside appeared ripe and luscious, but a single bite would reveal the inside to be rotten.

He didn't ask how he was able to discern that; his friend Michel had once told him there was more to him than met the eye.

Of course Blair had thought Michel was simply being kind, as friends were wont to be, but perhaps there was more to those prophetic words than flattery.

"What are you doing here in my home, sirrah?"

"Your home?"

"I am Lady Alexandra Spalding, and this is my manor, my lands!"

"Oh, I see." He scrambled to his feet and sketched a bow. "I believe I had heard that Lord Spalding had taken a wife."

She scowled at the body in the chair. "We won't discuss that puny excuse for a wizard."

"Of course not, Lady." Here in the western world, the mere hint of witchcraft could result in being burned at the stake. "What did you wish to discuss?"

However, she was still regarding the body with less than fondness. "I gave him Prospect!"

"But Prospect belonged to Lord Massingberd. How could you give it to Lord Spalding?"

Her lip curled in disdain. "He would have been content to go from country to country, selling his sword to the lord who offered the highest bounty. It was I who convinced him that his fortune could be made in Cascade. Those rogue knights who attacked Lord Massingberd and his puling family? They were Spalding's knights!"

"He was willing to sacrifice his men for a title?" Blair was appalled. What had become of honor and chivalry?

"What were those men but pawns to be used to aid us in our rise to the highest position in the land?"

There was a hint of madness in her eyes, and Blair tried to edge away without drawing her attention.

"I would have made him king! I would have given him Cascade on a silver salver, but was that enough for him? No! He thought to dispose of me, me, who gave him riches and power beyond the dreams of avarice!"

"How inconsiderate of him!"

Blue eyes glowered at him frigidly. "How do you know the jaguar?"

Blair didn't blink at the rapid turn of the conversation. He was used to talking with scholars, and their exchanges tended to range over a wide variety of topics, some even within the same breath.

"He's mine." It wouldn't do to try to deny he knew James; she'd heard him address the jaguar by name. However, if she didn't know he was Sir James, then Blair wasn't about to enlighten her. In fact, he was going to give her as little information as he could.

"Indeed." That single word chilled him to the core. "The Protector of the Realm belongs to you?"

"You know the jaguar is Sir James?" Surely the King would have started the journey to the lands of the Marquis of Carabas by now? Blair just needed to keep this woman talking. "How do you know?"

"It's because of me he's in this body."

"But I thought it was-"

"Yes?" she asked smoothly.

"I thought it was a very skilled mage who transformed Sir James."

"How dare you? I am a very skilled mage! I'm more skilled than any man! Who do you think you are, to say such a thing to me?"

Blair swallowed and backed up a step. Her fingers suddenly resembled claws, and when she followed his gaze to see what he was staring at, she hastened to smooth them out.

She cleared her throat and moderated her tone. "As I was saying, I am a very skilled mage. Who do you think has been behind all the mayhem in this country?"

"You?"

"Me." She smiled. "Alexandra Barnes, bastard offspring of a noblewoman who couldn't keep her legs together."

Blair made a conciliatory sound, encouraging the woman to continue.

"Of course she couldn't keep me with her, forever reminding her of her slip from grace. I was given to a crone, along with a purse filled with gold and jewels. She was told to take me wherever she chose, as long as it was out of my lady mother's sight. In sooth, the crone was a witch who passed all her knowledge on to me."

"That was... that was kind of her."

"Kindness had nothing to do with it. She worked me from dawn until dusk, and into the hours of the night beyond."

Blair knew only too well how children fared, male as well as female, when they had no family to have a care for them. His expression must have given him away.

"Oh, no, she didn't whore me, although that was what she intended in the end. My virginity was too valuable."

"Poor little girl!"

"You needn't feel sorry for me, little man! She taught me well, and indeed was the first I exercised my powers on." Lady Spalding's smile was so cold and so cruel, Blair felt his bowels turn to water.

"Who- " Blair listened in horrified fascination. "Who was the second?"

"Why, the bitch who gave birth to me!" She turned her ice blue eyes on him. "I've never spoken of that time to anyone. Just who might you be, little man?"

"I'm... " He truly meant to say, 'Blair Sandburg, the miller's son,' but he was so nonplussed by her statement that he spoke without giving a thought to the words that passed his lips. "... the Marquis of Carabas."

Her eyes narrowed. "So you're the one the Prince will take for his consort?"

"That's not exactly true."

"Indeed?" The woman had a way with that word that had Blair afraid he was about to piss his breeches. "Suppose you tell me what the truth of the matter is."

"Well, he's chosen me, but I haven't chosen him."

"But you will."

"I will?"

The woman gave him a disgusted look. "You nobles are too stupid to be allowed to live. Of course you will. It will be in your own best interest to be linked with the royal family. Not that being linked with this royal family will do you any good."

"And why is that, Lady?"

She bared her teeth in a very unpleasant grin. "Because they won't be the ruling family of Cascade for very much longer! This fine gentleman will see to that for me!" James had come to stand beside her, and she ran her palm over the fur of his head and neck.

"James? He'd never- "

"He will!" Her voice had become strident. "He'll do whatever I tell him!"

"He won't!" As soon as the words were out of Blair's mouth, he wished he could recall them. The woman seemed to be dangling on the edge of madness.

"He will! He'll even kill you if I tell him to, and you can be sure I intend to tell him to!"

Why was James just standing there, his tail lashing, his eyes...

His eyes were those of a wild beast, without a hint of humanity in them!

Oh, good god, she'd ensorcelled him!

**

"I thought you intended to have the marquis as your consort." Simon frowned at his son, ready to despair. He'd changed the law, willing to put his country at odds with the Church in order that Daryl would be happy. He'd seen the looks exchanged by Daryl and Sir Rafe and had hoped something might come of it; the older man would have been a steadying influence, but Daryl had flitted on to another lover. With the arrival of the Marquis of Carabas, Simon had thought perhaps he was ready to settle down, and now, for this to happen, for Daryl to carelessly lose the man...

"I did, Father! But then I realized what I felt for Carabas was nothing compared to what I feel for Rafe."

"I see. And when, exactly, did it occur to you that perhaps we might have a problem?" he roared.

Daryl swallowed, and Simon was pleased to note that his son was not taking this matter lightly. Of course it could also be that Simon rarely raised his voice, and that made it all the more alarming when he did.

"It's my fault, Sire." Sir Rafe stepped forward. "I saw that the marquis was headed in the direction of the castle. My squire followed, and I... " His words faltered. "I knew Geoffrey would keep him out of danger. I persuaded his Highness there was no need to go racing after them."

"No! It was my idea to encourage Rafe to linger. It had been so long since we'd... talked... "

"ENOUGH! Your disregard of our guest's safety could well have put him in danger."

"But how... ?"

"You've made no secret of your attraction to Carabas, Daryl." Simon loved his son, but sometimes he found his care-for-naught-but-the-moment attitude toward either sex annoying. "The forces of evil that have been plaguing our kingdom could well have kidnapped him, knowing we would not sit quietly by. We're going after him, and Geoffrey also, since he hasn't returned to the castle. Sir Rafe, you will come with us as well."

Daryl looked smugly pleased, and Simon frowned at him once again.

"Would you prefer Sir Rafe to find employment with another king?" Now it was Simon who was pleased. His son had turned as pale as his dark complexion would allow.

Good. Perhaps he'd be less impetuous if he feared his precipitous actions put the man he loved at risk of being sent from court in disgrace.

Simon turned back to Sir Rafe. "You will accompany us on this journey," he repeated.

"Thank you, Sire. I promise you won't regret it!" He lowered his voice. "And I promise I'll keep my distance from your son."

"Oh, no!" his son cried in protest, and Simon's hopes were raised even higher.

"That isn't necessary, Rafe, but we can discuss this further once this crisis has been dealt with. If you don't wish to be involved with my son, I'll see to it he doesn't pressure you."

"Father!" Daryl looked affronted.

"We can't always get what we desire."

"Sire, I'd like nothing better than to serve my Prince in any way he chose, but although my line is a venerable one, he deserves at the very least a marquis."

"Rafe, you're a dolt!" Simon exclaimed. He wondered why Rafe looked startled and Daryl amused. "If you're willing to take my rapscallion son, then I have no objections. However, as I said, we'll discuss this later. And we'll need to consider the amount of gold it will take to soothe the marquis' sensibilities for being cast off in this manner," he growled under his breath. Anyone who'd come within a hairsbreadth of wedding into the royal family would require a great deal of soothing, of this he had no doubt.

"I'm sorry, Father." Daryl brightened. "I can still take the marquis as my consort, and have Rafe as my paramour!"

"I. Think. Not! "

"I was only funning, Rafe."

His son's words were cajoling, and Simon smiled. Rafe was definitely going to give his headstrong son a run for his money.

But there was no time for this now. He turned to the Protector of the Realm. Sir Henri was a good man, but Simon missed Sir James greatly. One might almost think him a wizard, so keen were his eyesight and hearing.

Well, no need to make mention of that, with the Church looking for witches under every bush and rock.

"Henri, rally the bowmen and the men-at-arms. Joel, I'm trusting you to keep this castle and my people safe. Rafe, see the squires are armed as well. This could very well be a trap."

"Sire, wouldn't it be safer if you remained here?"

"And let our enemies think I haven't the courage to rescue a man who they believe will be my son's consort? Daryl, you'll come with us also. You may no longer wish to bed the marquis, but it would look odd if you didn't make an effort to rescue him. If he needs rescuing."

"He might, Father, if only from Ambler. He really isn't a good horseman. Rafe, a moment, if you please, before you gather the squires." He drew Sir Rafe aside and began speaking in an earnest undertone.

Simon observed them, a faint smile on his lips. Perhaps his son was ready to settle down after all.

**

"That wasn't bad, now was it, Will?"

"No, Ned. Just one nobleman and he was in too much of a rush to pay us much heed."

"Aye. And he gave us each a farthing!"

"Aye!" Will's eyes grew unfocused as he dreamed of the things they could buy with such largess.

"I reckon the King decided not to come this way today." Ned paused in his scything and gazed up at the sky. "Is that thunder? I don't see any clouds."

"No." Drawn out of his pleasant thoughts, Will frowned at Ned. "It's... " His eyes widened, and he swallowed heavily as around the bend in the road came what looked like a wall of mounted men. "... horses!"

At their head was a man who was obviously the King. Will sank to his knees, his head bowed. From the corner of his eye he could see his friend still standing.

"It's the King!" he hissed, tugging on Ned's jerkin. "Kneel!"

Ned's drop to his own knees was so abrupt that Will winced.

The King drew his giant steed to a halt. "Has anyone passed by, mounted, perchance, on a dappled gray horse."

"A dappled gray?" Will began cautiously.

"Aye, your Kingship," Ned cried."A very fine-looking lord!"

"Which way did the lord travel?"

"Oh, he rode east."

The King tossed them a coin. "For your trouble."

"Oh, 'tis no trouble, your Kingship!"

The King smiled and turned his horse's head, and Will blew out a breath. The men wouldn't linger - they were obviously searching for this lord, for whatever reason. They would pass on, and that would be that.

That was what he thought, until Ned continued, "He hardly gave us the chance to tell him that this field belongs to our master, the Marquis of Carabas!"

Will stifled a groan.

"Oh, it does, does it?" The King glanced over the sheaves of hay and nodded in approval. "You've done well with it. It looks like it will yield a fine crop."

Will couldn't help preening. He thought it was a very fine field, and his Majesty should be impressed.

The sound of thunder filled the air again as the King and his men rode off, in search of the nobleman who rode a dappled gray.

"I wonder why the King wants him?" Will mused.

But Ned had other things on his mind. "What did the King give us, Will?"

"It's a shilling, Ned! A whole shilling!"

"That's a fortune!" Ned stared at him, his eyes huge. "We're rich! Two farthings and a shilling! What will we buy with it all?"

It was just like Ned not to think to save for a rainy day, but in this case, Will couldn't blame him. "The wheat will be harvested soon. It's going to make a fine flour, which will make a fine loaf of bread. We'll buy the very best jelly to be had and put it on our bread."

"And I can make us a posset!" Ned had a way with the beverage, heating the milk just to boiling, and then adding ale and spices. "We'll dine finer than the King himself!"

"That we will, Ned!" Will slung his arm around his friend's shoulder. "That we will!"

**

Blair had spent long years studying, not only with learned men at the university at Rainier, but with learned men on the continent as well. He knew mathematics, astronomy, and anatomy, he not only spoke, but could read and write Greek and Latin, and he was ever questioning the hows and whys of the way of the world.

One of the things Dr. Stoddard had been pleased to find in him was that he was not only very clever, but he had a good deal of common sense as well.

It shattered Blair to think of his James trapped in that body, not even a fragment of his humanity visible. He would need to call on all his cleverness, all his common sense, to get them both out of this.

"Why do you wish me dead, Lady? Truly, I've done nothing to harm you."

She shrugged. "You're of no consequence, beyond being the beloved of the Prince- "

"I keep telling everyone I am not his beloved! We hardly know each other!"

"Still, he wishes you to be his consort."

"And for that I must die?"

"Yes."

Well, indeed, the least she could do was look as if she regretted that fact! Blair certainly did!

"Suppose I leave the country? You could lend me a horse- " His words petered out. She was shaking her head, looking bored. How much longer could he divert her with his words? "Very well, then. How... how are you going to... to see to my demise?"

"The jaguar. He'll rip your throat out. Perhaps he'll even sup upon your flesh." She laughed, apparently finding that thought riotously funny.

"I- I see. But the King will question my death, especially by an animal not commonly found in Cascade."

"And that will make it all the more simple for me to get rid of him and his whelp of a son as well. I'll go to him, prostrate with grief over the death of my beloved husband... " She sent a mocking glance toward the body in the chair, even now beginning to stiffen. "... and once I have entry into his castle, I'll loose the beast on him and whoever dares stand in my way."

The jaguar roared - it almost sounded like an anguished 'No!' - and started to bound toward the woman.

Lady Alexandra gestured sharply to the leopard, and the she cat pounced on James, distracting him by tumbling him to the floor and brushing up against him.

"For too long men have stood between me and my desires. No longer!"

"Yes, Lady. I can see you're a woman not to be taken lightly." Blair needed to count on every ounce of cunning he possessed. "And although I must say I don't look forward to dying, I can see why I must. I will not quarrel with you over it." He watched her from under his lashes. Did she believe his fulsome words?

"Ah, you're not quite as lack-witted as most men!"

"Thank you, Lady. Your approval- " If he said it pleased him, he would choke on the lie. Instead he gave her a smile. "If I must die, would you grant me a simple request?"

She stared at him suspiciously. "What is this request?"

"I've traveled through France and Italy, stayed for a season at Frombork, and sat at the feet of the wise men of the East. I've heard of the many astonishing things these men could do. I was wondering... "

"You were wondering what, little man?"

"No, it's too much. As powerful as you are, you're still naught but a - " He straightened and shook out his cloak. If Naomi had ever heard him denigrating a woman in such a manner, she would have cuffed him soundly about the head. Still, he had no doubt in an instance such as this she would forgive him. "I don't believe I'll ask for a blindfold- "

Lady Alexandra was before him before he realized it, her hand around his throat, squeezing.

How could she be so powerful? He clawed at her fingers to no avail, and his movements became more ineffectual as he struggled futilely to draw air into his lungs.

"I would suggest you not try my patience, little man! I can do anything a man can do, and more!" She squeezed once more, pausing to glare at James, who was on his feet, the fur of his neck bristling. "Sit!"

James seemed to fight the order, but the leopard rubbed up against him, and after a moment, he sank back in defeat.

Lady Alexandra nodded in satisfaction, then turned back to Blair and released him. "Now, tell me!"

He rubbed his abused throat and swallowed a time or two. "I should like to see if you can transform yourself- "

"Of course I can!" In the blink of an eye, she filled the room, her head almost hitting the ceiling, her body concealing an entire wall with its roaring hearth.

In spite of himself, Blair ducked under the table, and a booming, mocking laugh shook the very rafters of the dining hall.

"I trust that proves I can outdo any man!"

"As to that, Lady... " He peeked out cautiously. Becoming a giantess made her even less attractive than her glowers and grimaces.

"What? Have you seen any man who can grow as large as I have?"

"Oh, no, but I'm sure becoming large isn't as difficult as becoming tiny."

"Tiny?" She spoke the word as if tasting it. "How tiny do you mean? A roe deer?" She resumed her normal size.

"If that is as small as you can become." He came out from under the table. "Although, I've heard of mages from the East who can make themselves smaller. A rabbit? Or perhaps an ermine?"

"That large?" she scoffed and took a step toward Blair. "What say you to a hummingbird?"

"If you can do that, then you will have done something no one has ever done!"

"Very well, little man. Prepare to be dazzled. And then prepare to meet your doom!" The air around her shimmered and in place of the woman was a tiny bird. Its wings were a jeweled blur, and the light glittered on its golden feathers. The hummingbird was so tiny it could nestle comfortably in the palm of Blair's hand with space to spare.

But Blair had no intention of nestling it anywhere. He reached surreptitiously for a trencher, to swat the bird. He'd never been cruel to any living thing, but in the instance of Lady Alexandra, he was more than happy to make an exception.

The hummingbird moved too quickly though, flitting about the hall.

"Bloody buggering hell!" he muttered. He was going to lose his chance!

"Foolish, foolish little man!" the bird twittered, a high-pitched, fluting sound, and it dipped and dived, easily keeping a safe distance from Blair, and obviously considering the two large cats no threat. "Now you must concede that there is no mage as great as- "

An abrupt squawk ended the bird's words as James snatched it from the air with a single smooth move. Time seemed to stand still, and the only sound in the hall was the crunch of tiny bones being ground to even tinier bits.

James licked a few lingering feathers from his lips.

"NO!" The howl of shock and rage came from the leopard. Her blue eyes fastened on Blair. "This was not supposed to happen, not to me! I will not permit it to happen!"

Blair swallowed and began edging toward the fireplace. If he could reach the sword, if he could get it out of the fire, if he could have it in place before the leopard leaped upon him... So many 'ifs'. Was he was still going to meet his end at the claws and teeth of a big cat?

Madness was in the leopard's eyes. Her ears flattened, her muzzle drew back to reveal sharp white fangs, and she leaped toward Blair.

He scrambled backwards, reaching for the sword. Too much space between him and his goal, not enough time, this would indeed be the end...

A flash of black, and the jaguar crashed into the leopard, sending her toppling to the side and skidding across the floor and into the body of the lord lying there.

Her roar of anguish filled the great hall once again, then slowly grew fainter, and Blair's eyes grew huge as the she cat began to fade to nothingness.

"Well done, James!" Blair was almost giddy with relief. "Uh... James? Is that you?"

The jaguar turned his head to glare at Blair, but before Blair's heart could fail him, James answered, "Of course it's me!" He shook his head and batted at it.

"Oh, thank god!" And Blair flung himself at James. "I was so afraid you wouldn't be able to free yourself of her influence."

"I would have eventually, but I... " He shook his head again. "... I feared it wouldn't be... "

"James, what's wrong?"

"... in time to prevent her... from killing you."

"James?" To Blair's shocked dismay, James crumpled to the floor, shivers wracking his body. "James!"

**

Geoffrey d'Espadrilles was the youngest of so many sons that his father had been hard-pressed to find a knight to take him into service. Lord d'Espadrilles had turned to his boyhood friend, who, as it turned out, was in need of a page for his own son.

And so Geoffrey had left home at the age of seven and had been with Sir Rafe ever since, cleaning his armor and weapons, running whatever errands Sir Rafe might decree, and even learning the rudiments of combat.

On his fourteenth birthday, he had risen to the position of squire and now carried Sir Rafe's shield and, as when they'd ridden recently into a skirmish with knights from neighboring Oregonia, his flag.

He was very proud that the King had taken note of him on that occasion, and that had made Sir Rafe equally proud. Sir Rafe had presented Geoffrey with the short sword he now wore at his side.

And instead of giving the task of taking a message to Prince Daryl to John I or John II, on this day, the King had given it to him! Perhaps, if things continued at this rate, he would be knighted before his twenty-first birthday.

So when the Marquis of Carabas' mount suddenly broke into a gallop, Geoffrey cried, "I'll make sure he stays safe, your Highness!" and raced after him.

Geoffrey had almost caught up with the runaway when the marquis appeared to gain enough control to slow the palfrey. He gazed up at the sun, and then turned the mare's head and set off in an easterly direction.

Geoffrey smiled as he watched the marquis bounce in the saddle. He liked what he'd seen of him, but the man truly couldn't ride. Although he would have liked him better if the Prince hadn't made it obvious that he planned to take the marquis as his consort.

It wasn't that he objected to the Prince choosing a man for that role. It was just that he wished it might have been Sir Rafe.

Well, Geoffrey sighed, that was probably what happened when you didn't tell the one you loved that you loved him.

He looked around. Prince Daryl and Sir Rafe were nowhere to be seen, not that it mattered. He was certain both of them would want him to keep a discreet eye on the marquis.

So Geoffrey headed in an easterly direction as well, keeping just out of sight the entire time.

His rouncey cantered past fields of wheat, meadows of sheep, and orchards whose trees were heavy with fruit, and he observed the serfs who worked there, who all took the time to tell him the crops belonged to their master, the Marquis of Carabas.

The marquis was indeed well thought of by his people, and Geoffrey only hoped that when he gained his own lands, he would be as good a master.

The sound of hooves approached, jolting him out of his pleasurable reverie, and he nudged his horse away from the middle of the road.

"By the rood!" Geoffrey shocked to see the marquis' clearly frightened palfrey dash past him, the reins loose and stirrups flying. Froth dripped from her mouth and her eyes rolled white with terror.

He was only minutes behind the marquis. What could have possibly happened?

There was no knight to look into it, to defend the marquis; it would have to be him riding to the rescue. He clapped heels to his horse's side and set him galloping toward the rise.

Shortly before reaching it, the rouncey skidded to a halt. Shudders coursed through him, he broke out in a sweat, and began backing away.

"What's got into you, Swift?" No matter how many times Geoffrey drove his heels against his horse's side, the animal refused to move forward. Swearing - and he knew that would cost him countless Aves and Paters when he went to confession - his dismounted and hurried to the edge of the rise.

He was in time to see the marquis enter the manor. A loud roar shattered the silence of the surrounding area.

Swift was well-trained. He stood where Geoffrey had left him, but he clearly wasn't happy.

"Something's wrong here. I'm sorry I didn't trust you." Geoffrey knotted the reins and fastened them to the saddle. He patted the sweat-soaked shoulder. "Go find Sir Rafe!"

A swat of his cap sent the rouncey galloping back the way they had come.

Taking a deep breath, Geoffrey drew his short sword and made his way cautiously down to the manor house. He let himself in, coming to a halt at the sound of more roaring.

What manner of place was this?

He swallowed and tightened his grip on his sword. If he hoped to win his spurs as a knight, he would need to prove his mettle.

Now he heard voices, and he realized it was the marquis speaking. "Why do you wish me dead, Lady? Truly, I've done nothing to harm you."

What? What was going on here?

"You're of no consequence, beyond being the beloved of the Prince- "

Geoffrey didn't recognize the woman's voice, but her tone was positively chilling.

"... But the King will question my death, especially by an animal not commonly found in Cascade."

"And that will make it all the more simple for me to get rid of him and his whelp of a son as well. I'll go to him, prostrate with grief over the death of my beloved husband, and once I have entry into his castle, I'll loose the beast on him and whoever dares stand in my way."

Treason!

Geoffrey was about to rush into the room, but then he espied the two large cats, one black and one spotted. The black's tail lashed restlessly. Its muzzle was wrinkled back to reveal very sharp teeth. This animal was deadly.

Geoffrey's eyes were drawn to the body on the floor. It had been disemboweled and the throat torn out. His gorge rose, and he swallowed. If he vomited now, he would draw attention to himself, doing no good for either the marquis or himself.

He turned his attention to the spotted cat. It was lying on the blood-soaked rushes, licking its paw, its tail wound around the black's near leg.

The black suddenly surged to its feet.

"Sit!" the woman snarled, and after a moment, it did.

Somehow she was controlling the animals, and Geoffrey knew that if he attempted anything just now, it would be the death of both himself and the marquis.

But he would not permit this woman to harm his King. He would willingly give up his life before he allowed that to happen.

Geoffrey stepped back further into the shadows of the doorway, and waited and watched.

**

Henri de Brun rode close beside King Simon, his hand resting comfortably on the hilt of his sword. He was proud to have been elevated to the rank of Protector of the Realm the year before, but he would have preferred that he'd been given the position because of his abilities and not because Sir James had vanished.

The King had suspected foul play from the start of the miserable affair, and persisted in believing that with just a trifle more endeavor, his favored knight would be found.

Henri had hoped so as well, simply because he'd liked Sir James, but with the passage of each day, week, month, the likelihood of Sir James being found alive grew less and less.

And no matter what they did, the evil continued to sweep over the land.

**

"The marquis seems to be well liked," King Simon murmured to Henri as they passed yet another field where the peasants had hurried forward to tell them the lands belonged to their master, the Marquis of Carabas. "And yet the marquis hasn't had ownership of these lands for very long."

"Yes, Sire." Henri gazed at the sheaves of wheat that dotted this field. He wondered if the King saw what he saw. The peasants here seemed more than eager to praise their master, even more so than any of the others.

"It says much to the way Spalding treated his people." On the King's other side rode Rafe, who kept one eye on the road ahead and the other on Prince Daryl.

"You mean the way they've turned so readily to their new master, Sire?" Henri leaned in closer. "I've heard tales of Lord Spalding. And indeed I looked into them," he assured the King at his sharp look, "but they were all hearsay. Among his peers he isn't well liked - I was able to ascertain that much, but no one was willing to tell me aught but that he was letting himself be led by his cock."

"In these worrisome times, all I require of my lords is that they be skilled warriors." The King sighed and gazed ahead. "It isn't necessary that they be liked."

Henri frowned. When word had reached King Simon of the devastation wrought by the rogue knights, he'd sent his most senior knights, Henri and Joel, along with a coterie of fighting men to deal with the matter. But Spalding had been settled in and claimed to have already done so, and he dismissed the silence and sullenness of the servants as their reaction to the sudden loss of their lord and lady. 'I haven't had time to get things in order, but I'll soon have them whipped into shape.'

Henri didn't know whether Spalding meant the situation or the servants.

He hadn't cared for Spalding's manner or demeanor, but there was little he could do. He hadn't been Protector of the Realm at that time - well, there hadn't been a Protector of the Realm at that time. He'd simply given a curt nod and returned to the castle to inform King Simon of the outcome.

With the knights responsible for the slaughter dead and Massingberd and his family avenged, King Simon had given the barony to Spalding.

"But what's this about him being led by his cock?"

"He married a wench who was beneath him because she wouldn't let him bed her otherwise."

"How is this? I have heard the Lady Alexandra is of noble birth!"

"And who told you that, Sire?"

"Spalding... Ah, I see what you mean. But isn't he worried I'll see his lie for what it is when he brings her to court?"

"Thus far he's found excuses aplenty to keep her at home."

"Perhaps he's bitten off more than he can chew." King Simon tugged on his lower lip.

"He's never given women credit for anything save what they can do in bed," Henri mused, "and it would be fitting. Spalding is an encroaching worm, if you'll forgive me, Sire."

King Simon waved aside his apology. "The only creatures you need to cry pardon to are worms, Sir Henri."

Rafe snorted. "I must say that once your Majesty passed that law permitting men to wed where they chose, even if they chose another man, I feared Spalding would come courting Prince Daryl."

"Think you he didn't try?" The Prince had joined them.

King Simon shook his head. "I was biting my tongue to keep from howling a protest."

"Did you fear that telling his Highness 'no' would make him determined to say 'yes'?" Rafe asked drolly.

"Rafe, you're supposed to love me!" the Prince protested.

"That doesn't make me blind to your faults, Highness."

The Prince nudged his destrier closer to Rafe's mount and spoke in an urgent undertone; Henri couldn't distinguish his words, but Rafe was smiling as he rested a hand on the Prince's.

The King ignored their interaction and said to Henri, "If Daryl wanted Spalding, how could I deny him?"

"Please, Father!" The Prince glanced over his shoulder at his father and pulled a face. and Henri wasn't the only one who couldn't help laughing. "If I had the poor taste to want him, I hope you would have given my whipping boy a sound thrashing! Yes, you can laugh, but the man had the colossal gall to tell me that although bedding a man wasn't his bent, he was willing to do it for the good of Cascade! 'For the good of Cascade!'" he repeated, his lip curling.

"The least he could have done was pretend it was you he wanted, Highness, and not simply the crown!" Rafe was not only appalled but disgruntled as well.

Henri had known from the moment the knight had rested eyes on the Prince when the Prince had returned from a stay with the late Queen Johanna's people some years before that he was hopelessly smitten. He'd watched with pleasure as they grew closer, then shook his head in dismay as they seemed to grow apart.

"Well, as it turned out- "

A sudden shout interrupted what the Prince was about to say. "It's the palfrey!"

The mare's gait was a shambling imitation of her usual elegant amble. Sweat darkened the dapples on her hide, and she was limping badly. When she saw the troop of men, she came to a halt and stood in the middle of the road, her head down, her sides heaving like a bellows, and shudders rippling her hide.

Henri brought his gelding up beside her and leaped lightly to the ground. She flinched, but was obviously too fatigued and distressed to run any farther. He caught up the reins and ran his palm over her shoulder and down her foreleg.

"It's hot and swollen. She must have strained something. This was not well done of the marquis!"

"Might she have thrown him?" Rafe asked.

"Ambler? Even a babe could stay on her back!"

"Well, the marquis is no babe, but that doesn't say much for his riding abilities."

The sound of hooves saw everyone turning to look up the road. A brown gelding appeared.

"Sir Rafe! That's Geoffrey's Swift!" one of the squires cried.

The marquis might have fallen from his horse, or might have left the reins hanging loose so she was able to run away, but Rafe's squire was an excellent rider, and he would never do something so lack-witted.

"John II, come take Ambler's reins. Take her home, and go gently with her."

"Yes, Sir Henri!"

"John I, take Swift and follow us," Henri ordered. He glanced at Rafe, whose mouth was a grim line. He was fond of his squire, and he would not take it well if something had happened to him. "Geoffrey is going to need his horse."

"Lead on, Sir Henri," the King said.

Henri gave a curt nod and swung back into the saddle. He was Protector of the Realm. Protecting was his task.

"En avant!"

**

They heard the roar of some beast while they were still a distance away.

"What in god's name was that?" the King demanded.

"I've never heard its like, Sire!"

The knights drew their swords, the archers nocked their arrows, and the men-at-arms had their pikes and maces at the ready.

The destriers and coursers, all trained warhorses, flattened their ears and pawed the ground restlessly. They tossed their heads, sending their manes rippling, and neighed a challenge.

Henri sent out scouts, and the remainder of the troop moved forward cautiously. It wouldn't pay to rush headlong into a danger they were unfamiliar with.

Within minutes, one of the scouts returned. He bowed to the King, but gave his report to Henri.

"The door to Prospect Manor stands open, sir. There are no servants to be seen anywhere."

"What, none?"

"Not a one, sir!"

Henri split his forces, sending half to go 'round to the back of the manor, and the other half to ride boldly to the front door.

The King and Prince Daryl would be in that group. Henri knew better than to ask them to stay out of harm's way. King Simon hadn't gotten to be king by staying behind, and Prince Daryl was his father's son.

Henri gave the signal, and they were all on their way.

**

Blair had known - well, he'd been fairly certain - that with the death of the woman who was somehow responsible for James turning into a jaguar, James would become a man once more.

And now, James was transforming before his eyes, and that it was painful was obvious. The muzzle flattened and forehead broadened. Muscle and bone elongated or compacted. Sinews and tendons popped.

Blair stripped off his cloak and wrapped it around the body that was half human, half animal. He stroked his palm over the black head, feeling it change under his fingertips.

"James. Don't leave me, James." He clung to the shivering body, stroking the black fur where it met with human flesh and murmuring soothing words, trying to keep the razor-sharp claws from tearing at hide and flesh. "Please, come back to me!"

"My lord?"

He gave a start and looked up. What new threat was this? He tightened his grip around the body in his arms.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Geoffrey, my lord. Sir Rafe's squire."

"Oh, yes." Blair recognized him through the tears that clouded his vision. "What are you doing here? Is the King here?"

"Not yet. I followed you to make sure you stayed safe."

"I'm safe," he said, his tone dull even to his own ears. What did his safety matter if James didn't make the transition successfully?

It was taking too long!

"My lord, is there aught I can do to help?"

"Build up the fire." His cloak wasn't enough to stop James from shivering.

The squire followed his orders, although he cast cautious glances over his shoulder a time or two.

When the fire was burning to Blair's satisfaction, he said, "Help me get him closer to the hearth."

The cloak slid aside, revealing the pale limbs in its folds.

"It- He's a man!"

"Of course." Oh, thank god! All trace of the jaguar was gone. "What did you think he was?"

"Oh! Ah... "

As Blair hoped, the look he gave the squire persuaded him to refrain from making further comments. Dr. Stoddard had asked Blair to instruct some of the younger students from time to time, and he knew how to raise an eyebrow or stare unblinkingly to quell the most encroaching of the boys.

"Blair?"

"Yes! You're with me again!"

"C-c-cold," James whispered through clenched teeth. "I'm so cold!"

Blair wrapped the cloak around James more snugly.

There was a gasp behind them. "Sir James?"

James peered at the squire. "Geoffrey? What- " He ran his tongue over his lips. "Th-thirsty."

"I'll fetch you a goblet of wine, sir."

"Not from the table," Blair ordered sharply. "Lord Spalding drank poisoned wine. Safest to use what you've got in your flask." The squire gave him a blank look. "On your saddle?"

"I sent Swift away. The King is sure to be coming, and I thought he'd arrive all the more quickly if he saw my riderless horse." Geoffrey looked miserable.

"No, you did the right thing," James told him.

The praise cheered Geoffrey, but he still looked worried. "What should I- " He brightened. "I'll see if there's any ale in the kitchen, shall I, my lord?"

"Excellent idea!"

Geoffrey beamed.

"If you'll hurry?"

"Oh, yes, my lord!"

"It won't be as fine as you're used to, James, but it will soothe your thirst."

Geoffrey was back almost immediately, bearing a jug and a goblet. "I wasn't certain how much Sir James would want, so I brought the entire jug." He filled the goblet and handed it to Blair. "It should be safe, my lord. It's from the cook's own store."

James' nostrils flared, and he gave a minute nod.

"Good lad." Blair held the goblet to James' lips, letting him drink his fill. "Pray go to the entrance of the manor. I have a feeling the King will be arriving shortly. "

The squire gave a short bow and ran out.

"Do you really think King Simon will be here soon?"

"Well, the King is going to want to see my lands - by the way, how did you persuade all those workers to say those fields and herds and meadows belonged to the Marquis of Carabas?"

James regarded him steadily, the blue of his eyes that of the jaguar, and Blair shivered.

"Never mind, I don't think I want to know." They would need to talk about what had happened here in this manor, but not just yet. "You made me sound so... so... " He sighed. "Daryl will want to find me."

James pushed aside the goblet and leaned back against him. "She was going to use me to kill the King and the Prince." He looked up at him, the expression in his eyes bleak.

Apparently they were going to talk about it now.

"She was going to try," Blair corrected gently. He stroked James' hair, relishing the tiny, forbidden pleasure. "You never would have- "

"There's no guarantee of that."

"You fought off her hold- "

"For the barest instant, and then I was under it again."

"Well, it's all moot- "

"You don't understand. She was going to have me kill you!"

"Oh, I understood that very well. That was why I- "

"I can never trust myself again!"

"James, if you interrupt me one more time, I'm going to beat you about the head and shoulders! Together we stopped her! Can't you see that?"

"I- What?"

"Really, James! I'm not some damsel in distress who stands to the side, weeping and wringing her hands! It was my taunting that persuaded her to change into something small enough to be disposed of expeditiously."

"But what of her familiar?"

"The leopard was tied to her spirit. When she escaped from the bird to the leopard, it was a futile attempt to survive, but she was already a dead woman. Her spirit, her soul if you will, could not live on with her body destroyed."

He had no intention of telling James he'd seen where the leopard's eyes were resting, and that the lady was going to try to inhabit his body. If she'd had a bit more time...

Fortunately, she hadn't had the time.

"Well." James seemed unable to find anything more to say. "Well."

The sound of running footsteps alerted them to the fact that they were soon to have company. Sure enough, Geoffrey burst into the room.

"His Majesty has arrived!"

"Help me stand," James murmured in Blair's ear. "I can't meet my King lounging on the floor."

Blair did as he was bid, and adjusted the cloak around James. On Blair it fell to just above his heels, but on James it barely reached his knees.

"Sir James, I found these boots. Perhaps they will fit you?" The squire held up the boots Blair had had made for the jaguar.

James eyed them dubiously and started to say, "I don't know- "

"Give them to me." Blair took them. "Now, give me your left foot. Your other left foot."

James chuckled, which pleased Blair. He knew they didn't have much time left together. Soon the King would arrive, and his displeasure would be great when Blair told him he wasn't going to become Prince Daryl's consort.

Blair would have to leave Cascade, which he didn't mind too much. He'd have to leave James, which he minded a great deal.

"It fits!" James was surprised.

"Of course it fits. The man who crafted them was quite skilled!"

The sound of many booted feet disturbed the silence of the manor, and then the King appeared, followed closely by his son and his knights.

King Simon came to an abrupt halt, his jaw dropping and his eyes widening. "Sir James?! Is it truly you?"

"Your Majesty." James dropped to a knee, and Blair hastily followed suit.

"By the rood, it is true! Oh, James, how I've missed you!" The King strode forward, raised James to his feet, and embraced him.

"We've all missed you, James."

"Henri!"

So this was the man who had succeeded to James' title.

Sir Henri looked ashen. "With your permission, Sire, I'll see the manor is secured."

"Yes, yes. Thank you, Henri." The King barely paid him any heed and didn't seem to notice when the knight left the room.

Was King Simon going to take away Sir Henri's position and return it to James? Blair sighed. Not that it mattered. Kings did as they chose, and common men were left to simply watch in wonder.

"But... " The King took in the sight of the dead men. "... what has happened here? Did Spalding attempt not to honor his gaming debts?"

"It might seem that way, Sire, but the fact of the matter is that Lady Spalding decided she would prefer to be a widow."

"Indeed, your Majesty," the young squire exclaimed. "She was behind it all! I heard while I was hiding- I mean concealed in yon doorway."

"And what did you hear, Geoffrey?"

"She was a witch! I know because she had a big spotted cat that was her familiar! She poisoned Lord Spalding, and she was going to set... " His eyes slid toward James, and Blair stiffened.

Was the boy about to reveal that Lady Spalding intended to have James do her dirty work?

"... to have you and Prince Daryl killed as well!" Apparently he wasn't going to make known everything that he'd overheard, and Blair breathed out a sigh of relief.

Kings were notorious for not reacting well when their lives were at risk, not that Blair could blame them. He wouldn't look kindly on anyone trying to dispatch him or James to the netherworld either.

"These are very grave charges," King Simon said. "Where is she now? I would have her answer them."

"She turned herself into a hummingbird and... " Geoffrey swallowed. "... and she got eaten! By Master Puss, Sire!"

"Master Puss was here? And where is he now?"

"I... I don't know. He just... he just vanished!"

"Hmmm. Well, that can wait. James, I'm so relieved to have finally found you! Although... Why are you naked under that cloak?"

"Forgive me, Sire. I've been deprived of my clothing all this time. I've been kept a prisoner this year and more, here in Spalding's manor."

"How could this be?"

"Spalding and Torin," James nodded toward the body on the floor, "were in this together. Lady Spalding gave me a potion while I was in Torin's manor, and when I regained my senses, I was here in Prospect."

Blair listened in awe as James spun his tale.

"But how was it the servants didn't say anything?"

"I was kept in a hidden room, deep within the cellars of this manor, and I doubt the servants knew. If they did, they'd be too frightened of their lord to say anything."

"Why did they keep you alive? Surely it would have been more to their advantage to have you dead."

"As to that, your Majesty, who can say?" James was starting to look weary.

Blair interjected, "It's obvious they weren't in their right minds, Sire. What sane person would think they could manipulate their way to a throne?"

"And of course, once the marquis won Prospect, Spalding and Torin were forced to alter their plans."

"Of course," the King said dryly. "Well, this has been a day of many remarkable occurrences, the most gratifying of which is the return of my Protector of the Realm." He embraced James again.

"I'm not that any longer, your Majesty." It was a trifle awkward for James, returning the embrace and holding onto the cloak to preserve his modesty, and Blair had to bite back a grin. "Sir Henri has held that position for these past months, and he's done an excellent job. I would not take it from him."

"We'll discuss this at a later time. Meanwhile, let's see about getting you some clothing. I imagine it's getting a bit drafty under that cloak."

"Indeed, Sire." James smiled, and Blair felt his heart lurch. Very soon now he would never hear that voice, see that smile again.

Well, best to get it over with sooner rather than later, although either way it would hurt just as much. "Spalding's clothes are in the master's chamber. If you would escort Sir James there, Geoffrey? I believe it's the first floor."

"You believe?"

Blair swore under his breath. That had intrigued the King. "Lord Spalding hadn't relinquished the manor just yet."

James regarded him thoughtfully. "I won't be gone long."

Blair made shooing motions with his hands. All he needed was a few minutes to inform the King he had no interest in becoming the Prince's consort... Of course, he'd need to phrase it more diplomatically than that.

"Do you think he was trying to renege on his debt?"

"I beg your pardon? Oh, Spalding? I couldn't say, your Majesty. I didn't know the man well."

"Yet you played cards with him."

"Strangers meeting at an inn during vile weather," he shrugged, "a way to while away the hours until the roads were passable."

"Hmm."

Blair felt the Prince's eyes on him, and he knew the time had come for him to take a firm stand on Prince Daryl's offer. "Your Majesty, if I might have a word with you?"

"I'd like to speak with you as well, Carabas."

"If you'll permit me to speak first, Sire?" Blair gnawed on his lower lip. One didn't lightly disregard the attentions of royalty, and this could well cost him his life, but he couldn't bear the thought of being in the Prince's bed, not when he'd much rather be in James'. And that was another fantasy that was unlikely to come true, considering James was a highly favored knight who could have whoever he wanted now that he was back in his human form.

"Yes?"

He realized the King was waiting, none-too-patiently, for him to speak.

"I beg your pardon, your Majesty." He drew in a deep breath. "I regret that I cannot become Prince Daryl's consort. I'm fully aware of the honor he does me, but I think- "

"You don't want me?" Daryl was clearly affronted.

"Daryl- " Sir Rafe started to say.

"You don't want me?"

"Daryl, what are you doing?" the King demanded. "You told me earlier that you intended to release Carabas from your agreement- "

"What agreement?" Blair demanded.

"No one denies the Prince when he asks!"

"But you didn't ask! You simply assumed I would be agreeable, and I'm not. Truly, your Highness, we wouldn't suit in the least! I... I snore. And talk in my sleep. And I have a miserable temper!"

"Daryl, have you forgotten that only this morning you asked me to pledge myself to you?"

Blair felt his jaw drop, and he turned to stare at Sir Rafe. "I beg your pardon?"

The Prince scowled at him. "You would do well to. You're going to become my consort!"

"Your Majesty... "

"The Prince has selected you, Carabas."

"I see." But it wasn't Blair who said those words in such a cold tone. "And it matters not that earlier this day he claimed to want me? I knew I was being a fool!" Sir Rafe stood with his hands clenched. "If it pleases your Majesty, I'll return to the castle, gather my belongings, and be gone from Cascade within the week."

"Gone?" The Prince looked stunned. "Where will you go? What will you do?"

"I hardly see how that matters to you, but I'll seek to serve another king."

"You're... you're leaving me?"

"You've chosen the marquis. You prefer him. Why would I stay?"

"I could have you both." The Prince sounded hopeful. "You could be my paramour, and the marquis could be my consort."

"I think not, Prince." The knight was so furious he almost seemed to vibrate with his anger.

"Very well. You can be my consort, and Carabas can be my paramour " The Prince obviously felt he was being imminently reasonable.

"This is nonsense," Sir Rafe snarled. "I'm- "

"Hold one moment, Sir Rafe." The King turned to his knights. "Leave us." When they were alone, he glowered at his son. "You want to make the marquis your consort, but then perhaps you think he'll suit just as well as a paramour? You don't treat a member of the nobility that way, Daryl! I'm appalled by your behavior!"

"I'm sorry, Father. It's just that he looked so good stepping out of the river- "

"I looked good? I was freezing my- " He bit back the inelegant word. "I was freezing! The last thing I looked was good!" He clutched at straws. "I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere for a consort. Or a paramour."

"Rafe?"

"Thank you, no!" The knight appeared anything but pleased to have been so cavalierly given to the Prince. "I'm not some wench who's grateful for a kind word or a bauble. If you can't remain faithful to me, then there's an end to it, and I'm away!"

"I do not believe I've given you leave to depart." The King's words were mild, but it was obvious that he was put out.

For the moment it seemed that Sir Rafe might leave the dining hall anyway, but then his lips tightened.

"Your pardon, your Majesty."

The King turned to his son. "As for you, Daryl, you are going to cost me dear in this affair, I can clearly see it."

"Father?"

"I am going to have to pay the marquis a great sum to induce him to become your consort, and on top of that I will lose a skilled knight I can ill afford to part with."

"Why do you have to pay the marquis anything?" The Prince's expression was sullen, and he glared at Sir Rafe. "Some think I'm quite a catch."

"But not the marquis, or haven't you been paying attention? He claims not to want you."

"I'm not claiming anything! I don't want him!" All thoughts of diplomacy fled as he felt more and more pressured to take the Prince. "And no amount of gold will persuade me to change my mind! Really, your Highness, why you persist in desiring me is beyond me! It's obvious to anyone with an eye in his head that Sir Rafe is just the man for you!"

"Your Majesty, if I might have a word with you?" James had returned to the dining hall and had been listening, his face growing more and more flushed. He waited somewhat impatiently for the King to give his assent.

"Very well, James. What have you to add to the matter?"

James stepped closer to the King, and try as Blair might, he couldn't hear a word of the exchange.

He did hear Prince Daryl wail, "But... I saw him first!"

Blair stared from one to the other, growing more and more wroth. They were arguing over him as if he were a... a...

A woman!

Well, he was having none of this.

No one was paying any attention to him. Cautiously he backed out of the room. The hall was empty; no doubt all the knights were gathered at the front of the manor. He'd make his way to the kitchen, find a bag and pack it with food, and leave.

He hoped the new Lord of Prospect wouldn't begrudge him the flask of ale he took, and the buttered bread and slices of mutton he wrapped in cheesecloth. And for protection, he tucked a knife in his waistband.

He thought regretfully of his pack and its contents, but it was lost to him, and there was no point crying over spilt milk.

He slipped out the kitchen door, only realizing someone was blocking the way when he walked into a broad, hard chest.

"Going somewhere, my lord?"

"Sir Rafe! Oh, er... "

"Do you truly not want the Prince, or are you just playing hard to get?"

"Why would I do something so cork-brained?"

"To make him want you more? As you can no doubt see, Prince Daryl isn't used to being denied anything. The mere thought that he couldn't have you made him want you all the more. And the King would pay anything - within reason - if he thought it would make his son happy."

"If King Simon is so desperate for Prince Daryl to be happy, why doesn't he make the Prince take you as his consort? You, at least, love the Prince!"

"How do you know that?"

"I'm not blind! I have the eyes in my head that god gave me, and it's as plain as the nose on my face that you- "

"And you, my lord?"

"Me?" That brought Blair up short. "What do you mean?"

"Who do you love?"

Blair's mouth gaped. How could he answer that, when it made no kind of sense for him to say he loved James? After all, they were only supposed to have met this day.

He gathered his wits about him and assumed a mantle of dignity. "That's none of your affair, Sir Rafe. Now, if you'll step aside, I'll be on my way."

"But Prospect is yours."

"I don't want it!" Remain in Cascade, where he would no doubt hear of James eventually marrying and begetting a bunch of little Jameses?

No, he'd rather drink hemlock!

"Where will you go, my lord?"

"As far from Cascade as I can get. And stop calling me 'my lord.' My name is Blair." He pushed past the knight and stalked away, aware of the eyes that watched him thoughtfully.

**

Rafe returned to the dining hall, where Sir James was still trying to persuade the King that he no longer wished the title of Protector of the Realm.

Sir James stopped in mid-sentence. He seemed to be listening, and then snapped, "Where's Blair?"

"Who?" The Prince looked confused.

"The Marquis of Carabas."

"He's gone." Rafe was pleased. If Daryl didn't even know the marquis' given name, perhaps there was hope that the Prince really didn't love Carabas. He watched with interest as Sir James' eyes abruptly turned an icy blue.

"Gone where?"

Rafe shrugged. "He didn't say. Although he did mention his plans included getting far, far away from Cascade."

"But Prospect belongs to him!" The King seemed astounded that anyone could walk away from such a prosperous estate.

As well he should. The marquis was no doubt mad.

"According to him, Sire, he doesn't want it."

"Your Majesty, forgive me, but I must go after him."

"One moment, James. You're quite certain you no longer wish to be Protector of the Realm? Sir Henri would step down- "

"It wouldn't be fair to ask that of him. But yes, I'm quite certain. This past year has made me realize much. The marquis- Blair- is who I've been searching for all my life." James turned to the Prince. "So you see, your Highness, I never could have permitted you to have him. Take Rafe. As Blair pointed out, he loves you."

"Very well, James," the King conceded. "Go, with my blessing, for what it's worth. Oh, and take a mount from Spalding's stable. He had an eye for decent horseflesh, if nothing else."

"Thank you, your Majesty."

Sir James strode out. In a lesser man, one who hadn't once been given the title Protector of the Realm, it might have been construed as a rushed gait.

Perhaps the marquis had been too hasty in wanting to put some distance between himself and Sir James.

Perhaps it should be he who was putting distance between himself and the man who left his heart in tatters.

Still, this wasn't the time to worry about it. Rafe gazed around the room.

"Well, I imagine we'll need to clean this dining hall," he murmured. "I'll get some of the men in here on burial detail." He turned and started for the door.

"Rafe?"

"Yes, your Highness?"

"You truly do love me?"

"Yes, your Highness." What was the point in trying to hide it? "If you want a consort, I'm afraid you'll have to settle for me." Although god alone knew why he would be willing to take Daryl after what the Prince put him through this day.

"Well... "

"Excellent!" the King said heartily. "While you're seeing the dining hall is cleared out and aired, send one of the men to find Spalding's priest. You two are getting married immediately."

"What, I don't even get courted?" Daryl demanded in a huff.

"Rafe can court you after you're wed. I've had more than enough of your here-and-thereian behavior!"

Rafe went to Daryl. "If you truly don't want this, say so now. I was serious about leaving Cascade if perchance you would rather have someone else. I couldn't bear to see you with another, knowing you're giving your love to him."

"You're the only one I could give my love to."

Rafe sighed in relief. Finally!

"Although you know I'll need to marry and have children to secure the succession."

"I know. I can accept that."

Daryl rested his head on Rafe's chest for a moment, then straightened. "Very well, sir. But don't think that just because I've given in to you on this matter, that I always will."

"Of course not." Rafe leaned forward and whispered in his Prince's - his love's - ear. "Think how boring life would be otherwise."

**

Simon watched in amusement as the two men sealed their betrothal with a kiss that quickly grew heated. Ah, Johanna, perhaps our son will find the happiness we shared all-too-briefly.

"Oh!" The young squire entered, coming to a stunned halt as he found his Prince and his master embracing.

Simon bit back a smile. "Exactly. Geoffrey?"

He snapped out of his befuddlement. "Sire?"

"Since Sir Rafe is otherwise occupied, perhaps you'll find Sir Henri and inform him we need a detail of men to see to the burial of Lord Spalding and Lord Torin."

"Yes, your Majesty!"

"And a priest!"

"Yes, your Majesty!" Grinning widely, Geoffrey sketched a bow and raced out.

Perhaps James would return, Simon mused as he went to the table. Prospect would need a good master, and both James and the Marquis of Carabas seemed quite capable.

He picked up a goblet, then stared at Spalding and thought better of it. There was wine in a flask fastened to his saddle.

He put the goblet down and walked out of the manor.

**

"Bloody, buggering hell!"

Blair had walked for quite some time and a goodly distance. Night would be falling soon, and with it the temperature would also fall. He reached over his shoulder to pull up the hood of his cloak, only to find he didn't have it.

"Bloody, buggering hell!" he said once more for good measure. He'd given it to James. "For all the thanks it got me."

"You really expected thanks from that... that- "

Blair wheeled to find a wolf standing in the road behind him. He gasped and took an incautious step backwards, and landed on his backside.

"You do that quite a bit, don't you?" the wolf remarked.

"I never fall down!" Blair was distracted by the cloak the wolf wore. The light was fading, and it was too dim to make out the details of it, but it reminded him of the cloak James wore in his jaguar guise.

"You did the day you left Liddleton."

"How do you know that? Wait! You- you speak!"

"And that surprises you?"

"Well, yes. Animals don't speak." He frowned. "And they don't wear cloaks or carry packs!" For the wolf also had a pack upon its back.

"And yet the jaguar spoke, and you had no difficulty accepting that. He also wore not only a cloak but boots and a cap!"

Blair could tell that displeased the wolf. "But the jaguar was really a man. Are you telling me you're a man?" For Blair could see now the wolf was male. "Have you been bewitched also?"

"No, I am not a man, and no, I haven't been bewitched."

"Wait a moment! How did you know about that jaguar?"

"I know many things, not the least of which is that you're infatuated with him."

"With an animal?" Blair scoffed in an effort to deny the possibility of any truth being in the wolf's statement.

"With the man who resides within the animal. You're obviously willing to believe whatever impossible things he tells you before breakfast, and yet me... " The wolf was clearly put out.

"Are you... " Blair inched to his feet and began to back away, step by cautious step. He swallowed, and it was louder than he'd anticipated in the silence of the growing dusk. "Are you going to eat me?"

The wolf sank into a crouch. He stalked toward Blair, his head low and his teeth bared. The cloak fluttered behind him in the evening breeze.

For a moment Blair froze. He swallowed again, then managed to get out the words, "I'm not afraid of you!"

"Yes, you said that to me once before." The wolf sat, tucked his tail neatly around his paws, and woofed a laugh. All trace of the savage beast was gone.

"When?"

"At the start of this adventure. In the forest."

Blair recalled the time. "Why didn't you answer me then?"

"The knight distracted you."

"Would you have answered me if he hadn't been there?" The scholar in Blair was curious.

"Perhaps. If there had been need."

"And what was the reason for this recent big bad wolf charade?"

The wolf raised a paw to brush over his nose, for all the world as if he were hiding a grin.

"You were mocking me?" It was Blair's turn to be put out.

"You were being ridiculous."

"That's unfair! An attack by a wolf was a very real possibility!"

"I would never have harmed you."

"Why should I believe you?"

"And we're back to where we started." The wolf sighed. "Look into my eyes."

"Are you trying to hypnotize me?" Blair asked suspiciously.

"Are you sure you're a scholar? You're behaving like the most superstitious of peasants. Look at me carefully."

Blair took in the shaggy coat with its reddish-brown highlights and the blue eyes that somehow looked familiar. He frowned. "Wolves don't have blue eyes!"

"Well, neither do jaguars!" The wolf was not only disgruntled but affronted as well. "You believed in Sir James, but you won't believe in me?"

"I beg your pardon."

"And well you should! Is that all you notice? Don't you recognize me?"

"You..." Now that the wolf called it to his attention... "There is something familiar about you."

"Finally!" the wolf muttered under his breath. "Think back to when you were a lad, Blair. Don't you- "

"How do you know my name?"

The wolf sighed again, which was becoming irksome. Blair was a scholar, after all, and to have a wolf becoming impatient with him seemed to cast aspersions upon his intelligence.

"Well, you never told me how you knew." He knew his words were sulky, but he didn't care. It was getting dark, and he was growing cold, while the wolf not only had his thick coat, but a fine cloak as well.

"Something I was trying to do. Now, if you'll think back? Do you remember playing with- "

"The puppy!"

The wolf looked pained. "Cub," he corrected.

"Oh. I beg your pardon. But yes, I do remember! Naomi thought I'd made up a playmate." Memories of that time came flooding back to him. He had been shunned by the children of Liddleton, because they'd heard their parents self-righteously condemning his mother for not having a husband and him for not having a father. He would often wander off to explore the woods or to visit with the gypsies, but there had also been times when the children, who should have been his friends, surrounded him, tormented him by throwing sticks and stones at him. He'd quickly learned to give as good as he got, and they'd learned just as quickly that it wasn't as enjoyable attacking someone who had no qualms about striking back.

He couldn't tell Naomi. Those people brought their wheat to be ground in her mill, and if she alienated them, she and Blair would both starve.

And so, many times the only creature to console him had been the wolf cub.

"It's truly you?" He flung himself at the wolf, embracing the thick, soft fur. "Oh, it is you!"

"Now that that's settled, perhaps you'd like to take your cloak? I certainly have no need of it, but the night air is growing chill."

Blair took it. "But this is my cloak!"

"Indeed. And your pack as well."

"My pack?" He'd been steadfastly refusing to think of the things it held, the memories of Naomi and the life they'd shared, and how now it was truly gone. "Oh, thank you!"

"You're welcome. Have you any idea how difficult it was trying to persuade some passerby to climb a tree to retrieve them?''

"Um...no?"

The wolf glared at him. "That was a rhetorical question."

Blair hugged him and kissed the side of his head. "Thank you with all my heart!"

"You're not going to weep, are you?"

"Of course not! Do you think I'm a woman?"

"I know you're not a woman." He licked the side of Blair's face.

"How did you persuade someone to climb a tree?"

"I didn't. They all took one look at me and ran away. In the end I had to climb it myself."

"But wolves don't climb trees."

"They don't speak either, do they?"

"I see your point."

The wolf nudged his hip, an action so reminiscent of James that the memory of it caught Blair by surprise, and he gasped at the anguish he knew was waiting to ambush him.

"What is it?" the wolf demanded, alarmed.

"Nothing. It's nothing. I... I stepped on a pebble." Was this how it would be for the rest of his life? The pain and the loneliness?

"No," said the wolf as if Blair had spoken, "for I will be with you always. Now come. We must find a spot to camp for the night."

**

I knew that jaguar would be no good for him! The wolf was curled up around Blair, watching as his human slept. In spite of the cloak, in spite of his own body heat, which he willingly shared, shivers racked the sturdy body. I should never have let Blair go with him!

The sound of galloping hooves in the distance had him raising his head. He scented the air, and a wolfish grin parted his jaws.

So, the knight does care. He lowered his head. Well, let him fret for a while. Let him think Blair is truly gone, out of his reach. Let him-

"Did you really think to keep him from me, Wolf?"

The wolf frowned. How did you find us? And how had the knight approached without him being aware?

"I spent days on the road with him. I spent the nights beside him, much as you're doing." The knight scowled at him. "I know his scent as if it were my own. Do you think there's anywhere you could take him that I couldn't find him?"

Hmm. I will grant you that for the moment. However, now that you're here, I want to know why?

"'Why' what?"

Why did you follow him? Is it to return him to Prince Daryl?

"What do you know of the Prince?"

Blair mumbled in his sleep and turned over, causing the cloak to fall aside. The knight's eyes seemed to burn with a blue fire.

The wolf's muzzle wrinkled in a savage expression that would have frightened any man who possessed an ounce of common sense. I know he wants to possess my human.

"He can't have him. I've already told him so."

You're a brave man, the wolf conceded gracelessly.

"You're too kind." The knight was equally graceless, and the wolf was forced to admit to a grudging sense of amusement.

Do you plan to return Blair to court? You've given him the title of Marquis of Carabas, and the King believes he won the estate of Prospect from Lord Spalding. He spat. The deceased baron's name was like a vile taste on his tongue.

"No. He wants to go adventuring, so that's what we'll do."

For how long? Until you tire of it?

"Until he tires of it!"

And if he never does?

The knight shrugged. "Then he never does. We'll travel the world from one end of the equator to the other, from one pole to the other. It doesn't matter. As long as we're together - that, wolf. That's all that means anything."

"You really mean that, James?"

The wolf had known for some time that Blair was awake and listening. The question was, had the knight known?

Yes, I knew, but that doesn't make what I said any less true! He needed to hear that from my lips. The knight turned to Blair and crouched down beside him. "Yes, I mean it. I need you."

"What he means is that he needs your ability as a shaman," the wolf snarled, abandoning the mind talk. "He needs your aid to guide him- "

"And of course I wouldn't want him for his wit and his intelligence and his... " The knight threaded his fingers through Blair's hair and brought their lips together. "... his eyes and his mouth and his beautiful body that I refuse to allow the Prince to have."

"Really, James?" Blair looked as enthralled as the knight had when the witch had him under her spell.

Oh, yes, the wolf had been there, had seen it all, and had been prepared to battle them all to the death to save Blair.

However, the knight had managed to free himself of the witch's hold, and had then destroyed her.

Although it was Blair's cleverness that gave him that opportunity.

But if Blair truly wanted the knight...

**

James stormed out of Prospect Manor, and made his way around the stately house and to the mews with its stables.

He came to an abrupt halt at the sight of all the men standing about, listening avidly while Geoffrey, Sir Rafe's squire, spoke.

So this was where the lad had got to once he'd seen James dressed.

At the sight of him, a great shout went up: "Sir James!"

"James!" Henri seemed to hesitate for a moment, then came toward him, his arms outstretched. "I truly am glad to see you alive after all this time!"

"Thank you, Henri. It's good to be alive." He suffered the embrace and patted Henri's shoulder awkwardly, then eased away.

"And is it true Lord Spalding is dead?" one of the other knights demanded.

Henri scowled at him and muttered beneath his breath, "As I informed you!"

James didn't question his ability to hear the words. It was something he'd long been able to do, and since it had saved him and the men who rode with him countless times, he had ceased questioning it.

But Henri... Did he fear his control of his men was slipping away due to James' return? Well, he would soon see he had no cause to worry about that.

"Yes. I think most of Cascade's worries will be at an end now."

"And that bitch he married?"

Geoffrey piped up. "Oh, she's- "

"Geoffrey, Sir Rafe is looking for you." When Geoffrey had been helping James find clothing that would fit, that didn't have the scent of Spalding on them, he had chattered on and on about what he'd seen in the dining hall. The last thing James wanted was for the squire to announce to all the world that Lady Spalding had turned herself into a bird and a jaguar had eaten her.

"Oh! Yes, sir! Pray, excuse me!" And he hurried back to the manor.

"Of course the King will want you to resume your position as Protector of the Realm." Henri was trying to look as if he was nothing but pleased about that.

"He knows what a valiant Protector Cascade has in you," James evaded. "With you here, he has no need of me."

"But it's a prestigious title- "

James just shook his head. He could discern the faint easing of Henri's brow. Henri was relieved the former Protector of the Realm was not about to demand his title and position back.

"Well then, will you remain here in Cascade?"

"No. But I am in need of a mount, and then I must be off."

"So soon?" Henri called to his squire, "Edward, find a suitable steed for Sir James!" He turned back to James. "Whither away, sir?"

How could he tell anyone he went in search of one who meant more than his life to him? Knights rarely said anything of the sort, even about the ladies in their lives. He cleared his throat and shrugged. "It's been more than a year, and I would feel a feisty mount beneath me."

"Ah!" A broad grin split Henri's face, and he dug his elbow into James' side. "You rogue!"

He forced a smile, determined to ignore the innuendo. "Did you, by chance, happen to see a young man riding away?"

"No."

Bloody buggering hell! How could Blair have just disappeared? "No one left the manor?"

"Oh, as to that, indeed! The Marquis of Carabas was- "

"You said you saw no one." James held onto his temper by a thread.

"And you said someone riding. My lord the marquis was on foot."

"Bloody buggering hell!" Night would soon be falling. Did the man even have the forethought to take a cloak with him? The cloak Blair had covered him with was secured at James' throat.

Henri's squire led up a black destrier. The stallion was easily eighteen hands at the withers, with a broad back, deep chest, and strong legs. He would have no trouble carrying two.

James thought for a moment of riding off with Blair before him in the saddle, and he smiled. "Well, my fine fellow. Shall we be away?" He patted the curved neck.

"I've... I've taken the liberty of preparing a pack for you, Sir James," the squire said shyly. "A bedroll, a flask of wine, victuals."

James had once come across the words of a Persian Poet, and his thoughts drifted to them now, A jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness -

"Thank you, Edward. That was most kind of you."

Edward ducked his head, and Henri squeezed his squire's shoulder. "Good work, lad."

The stallion shook his head, sending his mane rippling and the metal bits on his bridle jingling, and James set his boot into the stirrup.

Settled into the saddle, James gazed around him, at the men he would never see again, at Henri, who'd been a friend. He leaned down and offered him his hand.

"Goodbye, Henri."

"Goodbye, James. Godspeed."

**

James leaned forward in the saddle and studied the road. He could easily make out the footprints in the dust, and he knew beyond a doubt they were his shaman's. He was about to ride on when he suddenly noticed another set of prints following Blair. He could tell by their shape that they belonged to a wolf.

Just beyond the wolf's spoor he espied the imprint of a male backside in the dust, and started to chuckle. Blair had had much the same reaction to him when they'd first met.

But then his nostrils twitched. Lingering in the air was the scent of fear. His heart turned over with dread, James searched the ground ahead of him frantically, expecting to find blood and gore and parts of Blair's body scattered across the road.

To his astonishment, what he saw was two sets of prints continuing on as if the owners were bosom companions.

Growling low in his throat, he touched his heels to the stallion's side and headed him in the direction of the prints.

**

Night had fallen, but there was a moon. Even if there hadn't been, James would have had little trouble following the trail left by Blair and the wolf.

Having a nose that could sort the various scents on the cool night breeze also helped.

He reined the stallion off the road and headed him through the trees and toward the northeast.

And there the camp was. Blair lay curled on his side, wrapped in a cloak. At his back was a wolf.

No, not a wolf, but rather the wolf - the one he'd assured he would help Blair make his fortune. The wolf hadn't seemed to believe he would or could keep that promise.

James swung down from the saddle and wrapped the reins around a low branch.

Well, they'd see who had the last laugh now.

"Did you really think to keep him from me, Wolf?"

How did you find us? The wolf was not pleased, and that pleased James. Did the animal think he was the only one with the ability to keep Blair safe?

"I know his scent as if it were my own. Do you think there's anywhere you could take him that I couldn't find him?"

Do you plan to return Blair to court?

"No. He wants to go adventuring, so that's what we'll do."

For how long? Until you tire of it?

"Until he tires of it!"

And if he never does?

"Then he never does. We'll travel the world from one end of the equator to the other, from one pole to the other. It doesn't matter. As long as we're together - that, wolf. That's all that means anything."

"You really mean that, James?" Blair had been awake for some time. James had been able to tell by the subtle change in his breathing. Now Blair's heart was beating with rapid thuds, and surely that must be painful.

"Yes, I mean it," James hastened to assure him. "I need you."

"What he means is that he needs your ability as a shaman." So the wolf could use human speech as well as the jaguar. It was deep and guttural, but there was no possibility of misunderstanding his mocking words. "He needs your aid to guide him- "

"And of course I wouldn't want him for his wit and his intelligence and his eyes and his mouth and his beautiful body that I refuse to allow the Prince to have." James glowered at the wolf. Of course it would be helpful to have Blair beside him, making sure he was in control of the things he saw and heard, but he needed him for so much more. And that need was greater than food and water for sustenance, or air for his life's breath. Without Blair...

He shuddered. He couldn't bear thinking what his life would be like without Blair.

"Really, James?" Blair sounded so hopeful it almost broke James' heart.

The mere thought of Prince Daryl touching Blair had James growling and flexing his fingers as if unsheathing the jaguar's claws, but Blair didn't seem alarmed. His lips parted and he raised his face.

James had managed to keep his distance, but now he found himself running his fingers through the soft, thick strands of Blair's hair, and he lowered his head to meet Blair's lips.

James reserved kissing for ladies, and even then it was their hands or their fingertips. The women he'd bedded hadn't expected it; it wasn't what they were getting paid for, and both parties preferred to get down to the business of fucking.

With Blair - James trembled, feeling almost as if he were a virgin, walking an unknown path.

Blair's lips, soft and warm, molded to his, and Blair's palm rested on James' cheek, both holding him close and refusing to allow him to distance himself from the act.

"Blair!" he whispered against those lips.

"James!" was the whispered reply.

And somehow, James knew it was more than enough.

**

The wolf sighed. Yes, Blair truly wanted the knight. And that meant there was no place for him here. He was just in the way.

Head down, tail down, ears drooping, the wolf turned from the two lovers and began to walk away.

Where are you going, Wolf?

He raised his head. Standing before him, blocking his path, was the jaguar. Away.

Why?

I'm no longer needed. Blair has someone to care for him, to protect him. To love him.

And just because they've finally found each other, do you think that means they need us any the less?

Doesn't it?

The jaguar growled at him. Don't be maudlin!

"Wolf!" Blair rushed toward him. "Where are you going?" He didn't wait for a response. "You can't leave!"

"I can't?"

"No! I need you!"

"For what?" The jaguar was right, he was being maudlin, but he'd kept watch over Blair for so many years, had protected him from much that he hadn't even been aware of. It was going to be a painful wrench no longer having the miller's son to look after.

"Well, for one thing, who'll climb a tree to fetch my things when the jaguar hides them in its branches?"

"Who, indeed?" The damned jaguar was laughing at him!

"The jaguar is right, Wolf." The knight came to stand beside Blair. He slid an arm around his shoulder and drew him closer. "You're part of us. We'll always need you."

Say 'yes' so they can get on with it!

"Well... In that case... I suppose... "

Blair threw his arms around the wolf's neck and kissed him just below his ear. "Thank you!" he whispered.

"Now why don't you two vanish for the night?" James drew Blair back against his side and urged him toward the bed Blair had made.

And do what? The jaguar's tone was put upon, but since he was aiming the mind talk at the wolf, the wolf knew he was just attempting to get a rise from him.

You can hunt. I'm going to take a nap. The wolf walked some distance until he found a spot that suited him. There were leaves on the ground, and he scraped them together. That would make a suitable bed, and he was near enough to Blair and James to come to their aid if they needed him, but far enough to offer them some privacy.

He turned around a few times, and then lowered himself to his bed, rested his head on his paws, and closed his eyes.

A nap sounds good. Was the jaguar flirting with him? It's been a long year.

Year?! He opened an eye and scowled at the jaguar. It's been a long twenty of them!

You have a point. Lord, I'm tired! The jaguar settled down beside him with a little grunt. They've found each other now, which is what matters the most. Things will go well. You'll see. They'll live happily ever after.

Perhaps. The wolf closed his eye. He could be just as difficult as the jaguar.

The jaguar gave a huff of laughter and nipped his ear. There's no 'perhaps.'

And what makes you so sure?

Well, this is a fairy tale, isn't it?

And all fairy tales have a happy ending?

Precisely! Now go to sleep. We're going to have a busy life ahead of us!

~End~

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Acknowledgements: There are numerous people I'd like to thank: Patt, for wanting this story, Debbie, for the amazing art, Tracy, for catching various goofs and gaffes, Tim Mead, who looked it over with a professor's eye, Trish, who answered those questions from left field, Gail, who helped wrangle those wayward commas and periods into submission, Kelly, who spotted errors made because I can't resist fiddling, and most of all, my good friend Tony for his enthusiasm and the brainstorming.