The Lion Mistress: Book 1 — Chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 5: Lion-Boy

KATHRAEL APPROACHED THE LION CAGE without realizing she was doing it, getting close enough to confirm that the animal really wasn’t inside.

“You were at the performance this evening,” said the young man, his voice pitched low. “What are you doing here?”

His features were angular—pleasing to the eye in the faint illumination, though with a heavy northern cast to the brow and chin. His nose had been broken at some point. Whoever set it had done a better job than Hameen had done with Vesh’s nose, but there was still a decided lump about a third of the way down its length. His tangled mane of wavy hair was dark in the moonlight, but not black. Brown, perhaps. His lean, sinewy body was covered in a patchwork of scars, visible as thin silver lines against his darker skin.

His eyes were piercing and strangely intense.

“Where is the lion?” Kathrael blurted.

“It’s around,” the stranger said, still seeming strangely relaxed for someone crouched naked in a dangerous animal’s cage and talking to an intruder in the middle of the night.

With a sudden flash of mortification, Kathrael realized that her shawl had fallen to her shoulders, leaving her face uncovered. The man hadn’t even reacted.

“Why are you here?” he asked again, still watching her with those strange, faintly glowing eyes.

Once again, words came out of Kathrael’s mouth before she consciously decided to speak them. “I’m going to steal money from the men who own you.”

The young man’s eyes widened, his expression caught between amusement and offense. “They don’t own me!”

“You’re naked and locked in a cage,” Kathrael pointed out, though it seemed highly unlikely he could have missed those two facts.

The stranger’s smile was sharp, dangerous, and short-lived. “Locking me in a cage helps them sleep better at night. Anyway, I can’t leave this place quite yet.” His gaze turned assessing. “You could do something for me, though.”

Kathrael’s own expression turned wary. “You’re not going to raise the alarm?”

“Not now, certainly. Maybe in a bit.”

By rights, Kathrael should have run at that point. Instead, she glared at him through her good eye.

He ignored her sour look and continued, “You won’t be able to get anywhere near Turvick’s money stash, you know. He keeps it under his mattress… and he’s a light sleeper.”

“Then I’ll knock him out first,” Kathrael said.

“You could try that, I guess,” the man agreed. “Of course, then you’d still have to deal with Laronzo. They sleep in the same caravan.”

A bush rustled nearby. Kathrael jumped, but it was only some small night creature, probably looking for scraps. Her heart began to sink as she cast around for ways to get a bag of money away from two men twice her size within the enclosed space of a caravan… and came up empty.

“So, will you help me?” the stranger asked.

“You want me to let you out? Why should I help you?”

He looked at her oddly. “No, I told you, I can’t leave just yet. And, well, to be more accurate, it wouldn’t actually be me you’d be helping. You’d be helping the twins. They need to get away from here—the sooner, the better.”

Kathrael had no idea why she was still standing around talking. And yet… “What twins?”

“You saw them earlier. The two children. This place isn’t good for them.”

She remembered the very young boy and girl who had clung fearlessly to the lion. Remembered their huge, sad eyes. “What can I do for a couple of children barely off the breast?” she asked sharply. “I can’t even keep myself fed and clothed!”

The man didn’t react to her sudden anger. “The boy reads minds,” he said in a quiet voice. “Thoughts, emotions, intentions. Turvick and Laronzo are cold-hearted thugs, driven by greed. The others here are frightened. Trapped. Humiliated at being forced to display their differences for people’s entertainment, day in and day out; locked up like animals at night.”

Instinctive, superstitious wonder flooded Kathrael, followed closely by nausea at the idea of someone so young constantly having such ugliness forced into his mind.

The stranger continued. “Laronzo drags the boy through the crowd during performances, telling the rubes what they’re thinking. It hurts Dex to be surrounded by strangers like that, but if he resists, they separate him from his sister.” His eyes grew hard and dangerous. “I don’t know the nature of her gift. I don’t know if anyone does. She never speaks—not that I’ve heard, at least. But if she and her brother are forcibly parted by more than a few dozen paces, they scream in agony as though they’re both being burned by flames.”

Kathrael choked on a gasp, and swallowed it down harshly. “What are you asking of me? I told you, I’m barely keeping my own body and spirit together.”

“I’m asking you to rescue them and take them back to their family. Turvick stole them from the village of Darveen a little over a week ago. It’s east of here—only two days’ walk from Penth.”

She was silent for a long moment, listening to the tiny night noises around the camp. “I don’t have enough food left for a two-day journey with children,” she said eventually.

The stranger raised a sardonic eyebrow, his expression turning wry. “The money stash is well-guarded, but the provision wagon—not so much.” He jerked his chin toward a cart off to their left. “It’s right over there. It’s not locked. Help yourself, just leave enough for the rest of us for a day or two. Food’s scarce around Penth.”

Kathrael’s eyes widened and she hurried over to the wagon. As promised, it was laden with wooden boxes—none of them secured. Her stomach growled, and she immediately set about stuffing as much food as she could carry into her leather satchel. When it was full, she slung a second wineskin over her shoulder, and rearranged everything as best she could in the boxes to hide the pilferage.

“The twins are in the caravan behind you,” came the quiet voice from the lion’s cage.

She stilled. There was nothing to stop her leaving with the food and never looking back. It was madness to try to take children with her through the wilderness to Darveen. The twins were, what? Three, perhaps four years of age?

She thought of frantic toddlers screaming as they were ripped away from mothers, from siblings—families torn from each other and dragged onto the auction block. Sold and shipped across the land like cattle. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest and she had to stand still for a long moment and just breathe.

It was madness, yes. But Kathrael had been mad for some time now. She opened her eyes and went to examine the twins’ caravan. It was not nearly as sturdy-looking as most of the other wagons, or the lion cage. There were bars on the small windows and a lock on the door, true, but the wood around the lock was cracked with age and riddled with woodworm. She supposed that it didn’t take much to keep a couple of small, frightened children from escaping during the night.

After exploring the warded locking mechanism with her fingers, she returned to the lion cage and its mysterious occupant. “I’ll have to break the lock,” she said. “It will make noise.”

The sharp smile returned. “You’ll need a distraction, in that case. I’ve got just the thing.” He sobered. “Do you know how to get to Darveen?”

“Go east?” she offered dryly.

“The main road from Penth splits beyond the bridge over the river. You’ll need to take the south fork, and then turn east again at the crossroads beyond the forest.”

“All right,” she said. “But what about you?”

“Turvick is heading north to the towns along the west coast, on the other side of the mountains. He thinks it will be safer to exhibit his show there, and he’s probably right,” said the man. “I need to head north anyway—might as well get free food and transportation for the journey. He’s supposedly got a ship booked for our passage in a few days.”

With the hysteria in Rhyth and the surrounding lands over people who showed evidence of magic, Turvick was smart to run. Sooner or later, someone would start the wrong kind of talk about his human exhibits, and a mob would show up, baying for blood. In fact, that probably explained why they were camped away from town.

“I’m heading north as well,” Kathrael said, apropos of nothing. She couldn’t explain her odd fascination with the strange young man. He seemed a little bent in the head, to be perfectly honest, and yet she couldn’t stop herself from drawing out the conversation. Perhaps it was merely a case of like calling to like, she thought wryly.

He smiled again, and there was less of a manic edge to it this time. “Perhaps I’ll see you there, in that case. Now, though, you’d better get a move on. Try to break the lock. If Turvick or Laronzo wake up, I’ll make sure their focus stays on me while you get the twins away.”

“How?” she asked, still not liking the element of risk involved in such a half-baked plan.

“Easy,” he said, the sharp grin returning. “Safe journey, Little Cat.”

With that, he stretched and shook himself, and suddenly there was a skinny lion with a scruffy mane lounging against the bars of the cage where a lean, crazy-eyed man had crouched a moment before.

Kathrael staggered back in shock, nearly falling to the ground as she tripped over her own feet. A moment later, though, she was creeping back up to the bars as if drawn by an invisible cord.

Of course.

Even though she was dizzy with reaction, she could barely hold back the harsh laughter that wanted to rise up. How many people could say they’d met not one shape-shifter, but two? She only hoped this meeting would not herald the same kind of turmoil that had turned her life upside down six years ago.

The lion blinked glowing eyes at her. She lifted a hand, reaching through the bars to cradle the animal’s jaw. It rubbed its head against her palm like an overgrown mouser in the granary, its eyes never leaving hers.

“Well, lion-boy,” she said. “Aren’t you just full of surprises?”

The beast shoved her hand playfully with its blocky head, a low rumble that might have been amusement—or encouragement for her to get a move-on—rising from its chest.

“Yes, yes—fine,” she groused. “I’m going. You should know, though, that the last person I met who was like you ruined my life. If your crazy plan ends up with me locked in a caravan and being exhibited to gawping crowds as the Wax-faced Girl or some such, I’m going to take it very personally.”

At least you’d have food, said the voice that sounded like Vesh. And you could learn more about the lion-boy.

And I’d be a slave again, in all but name, she thought, before shaking herself free of the argument.

“Right,” she said decisively. After a final scratch of the lion’s soft cheek, she pivoted and moved toward the burned-out remains of the campfire with steady deliberation. One of the stones from the fire ring would do nicely to break the half-rotted wood around the lock. She selected a rounded stone that fit easily in her hand. It was still warm from the earlier fire, and the deep heat against her palm was soothing.

The lion tracked her movement as she crept over to the twins’ caravan. “Dex?” she called in a quiet voice, hoping it would be enough to wake the children. “Dex, wake up. You don’t know me, but I’ve come to take you and your sister back to Darveen. To your home. I’m going to break the lock on your door, and then we have to sneak away very quietly. Do you understand?”

There was only silence from within. Kathrael sighed.

“Well, stay back from the door if you can hear me.” With a final glance back at the lion, who was still watching with interest, she hauled off and slammed the heavy stone into the soft wood around the lock. There was a loud cracking noise as it hit, and she held her breath. There was no time to worry, though, so she hit the lock a second time, and a third, her sore joints and aching muscles already protesting the effort.

Eventually, the aged wood gave way, and the splintered door creaked open on abused hinges. By this time, there was a commotion coming from the largest and finest of the caravans, as the owners awoke and scrambled out to see what was causing the noise. Desperate not to be seen, Kathrael clambered into the twins’ wagon and pulled the ruined door shut behind her as best she could.

It was dark inside except for a square of moonlight coming through the bars of the small, east-facing window. However, she could sense two small bodies nearby, huddled together in a corner.

“Shh,” she whispered. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you. We need to hide for a minute. The lion-boy said he would cause a distraction. Then we can run.”

The nature of the distraction became clear an instant later, when a deafening roar came from the direction of the lion’s cage, followed by the rattle of wood and metal as a heavy body slammed against the bars repeatedly. Kathrael risked a glance through the window. Across the camp, the owners were hurrying toward the animal’s cage, half-dressed in sleeping robes and carrying wooden staves, shouting to each other in confusion.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s gone crazy—he’ll break out! Stop him!”

She caught her breath in a gasp as the men started flailing their staves at the lion through the bars, trying to beat it off before it damaged the sturdy cage with its apparent escape attempt. The lion only fought harder, ignoring the blows.

A small hand closed around Kathrael’s forearm, startling her, and then she was looking into Dex’s large sad eyes, his face pale in the square of moonlight.

“They won’t kill him,” said the child. “They need him. For the show.”

She swallowed, unwilling to acknowledge the depth of her worry for the crazy lion-boy she’d only just met. “We should go,” she said instead. “Will you come with me back to Darveen?”

Dex’s sister crawled forward to join her brother. The tiny girl stared at Kathrael’s face for a long moment. Then, she and her brother shared a quick look, and she nodded.

“We can go home?” Dex asked.

“I’ll do my best to get you there,” Kathrael replied, unwilling to promise what she wasn’t at all sure she could deliver. “Quick—get anything you need. We have to leave now.”

“We only have our clothes,” Dex said. “Well, our clothes, and Fish.”

The little girl nodded, and clutched a lump of stuffed burlap to her chest that might, at a stretch, be described as fish-shaped.

“Come along, then. Quiet as you can.” She eased the battered door open just enough to help the two children down from the wagon and follow them out before shutting it as best she could with the doorframe bent. With one of their hands in each of hers, she guided them back so that the bulk of the caravan was between them and the lion’s cage. She was unable to control her flinch at the sound of wood hitting flesh, followed by a yowl of pain.

“Hurry,” she hissed urgently, and led the twins away from the camp and into the brush where she had been hiding earlier. They struggled to keep up on their short legs.

With luck, the pair would not be missed until morning. Luck had not been a friend to Kathrael over the years, however, so she kept the children moving. When they began to flag, she carried them, ignoring the protests of her own abused body. She had toiled under sacks of grain as a girl working in the fields, so the weight—and the pain of an aching back as she bore it—was no stranger to her.

Now, though, she was barely recovered from her collapse on the road north of Rhyth. When she could go no further, she found the first sheltered spot among the trees and bushes that seemed to offer a temporary haven, and sank to the ground gratefully.

She had been following the rising moon, but with the moon now overhead, it would be too easy to lose her sense of direction. Better to lie low until sunrise started to paint the east. It was hard to see details in the shadow of the rustling leaves above them, but the two siblings both seemed very quiet and pale.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, rummaging in her pack for something to give them.

The girl nodded, and reached for the unleavened bread Kathrael handed her.

“I’m thirsty,” said the boy.

“Here.” She handed him the heavy waterskin and helped him hold it so he could drink his fill. “Better?”

He nodded.

“So,” she said, addressing the girl. “I know your brother is called Dex. What’s your name? I’m Kathrael.”

The girl only shook her head and looked away. Kathrael wondered if she truly could not speak, or if she merely chose not to as the result of some trauma or fear.

“She pretends she doesn’t have a name,” said Dex. “But she does. She just doesn’t like it.”

Kathrael gave her an assessing look. “Well, then… what would you like to be called?”

“She wants to be called Petra,” Dex said, leaving the mystery of Petra’s speaking ability—or lack thereof—unsolved.

“Is that right, Petra?” Kathrael asked. The girl nodded, still silent.

“All right, you two,” she continued. “We’re staying here tonight. I have a blanket if you’re cold. Do you think you can sleep while I keep watch?”

“I don’t know,” said Dex.

“Try,” Kathrael said in a dry voice. “Tomorrow will be a very long day.”

Petra took the blanket when she offered it. Kathrael felt around until she found a hollow at the base of a tree where she could lean back to listen to the night sounds around them. She was fairly confident that the twins would fall asleep within moments of lying down, even in such unfamiliar surroundings. They had to be exhausted—she certainly was.

An edge of surprise cut through the gray fog of weariness shrouding her mind when Petra crawled half into her lap and curled up to sleep there, rather than lying down nearby. Dex snuggled up against them a moment later, and as she had suspected, their breathing evened out into sleep within minutes.

She sat still as a statue, unwilling to risk waking them. The little girl’s warm, trusting weight in her arms was a stark might-have-been that made her heart ache.

* * *

When Kathrael jerked awake some time later, it was light. She had not intended to sleep, although that had probably been unrealistic. Their hiding place hadn’t been discovered—not that there was truly much risk of it without a fire or anything else to mark their presence.

Petra was watching her with large, liquid eyes.

Kathrael stared back, realizing with a sudden jolt that she had not given her scars a single thought since last night when she’d been talking to the lion-boy. Neither he nor the twins had reacted to her disfigurement in any way. She would have put it down to the nighttime darkness and the stressful situation, but even now in the dappled morning sunlight, Petra was watching her without a hint of fear or repulsion.

“They don’t matter,” Dex said from where he was sitting nearby, tousle-haired, and with a smudge of dirt on his cheek.

He reads thoughts, she reminded herself, feeling a wash of superstitious unease.

“‘M sorry,” he muttered. “I can’t help it. It’s all right, though. You’re a good person. It doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m really not, you know,” Kathrael said, the words slipping out without conscious thought.

“Petra needs to pee,” Dex said, in the disconnected way that young children often seemed to converse. Petra nodded agreement, still staring at Kathrael’s face from inches away.

Kathrael blinked, and forced her mind back to the practical. “Right. I imagine we all do. Then we’ll eat something and be on our way. The sooner we start, the sooner you two can get home.”

And the sooner I can get moving in the right direction again.

The three of them prepared for the day as best they could with their limited resources. Kathrael had to fight the urge to gorge on the food she had stolen from the provisions cart, knowing that not only would they need it for the rest of the trip, but also that it would probably make her sick. She ate a reasonable portion and tried her best to ignore the way her hands itched to grab more and stuff it into her face like some kind of savage.

After making sure that the children’s needs were seen to as far as was possible, Kathrael readied them to set off.

“I need one of you to walk while I carry the other one,” she said. “When you get tired, let me know and we’ll switch.”

“I can walk,” said Dex.

“Very well. Tell me if I’m going too fast, though.”

Dex nodded, and followed her as she hitched Petra against her hip and settled the satchel, skins, and blanket over her shoulders.

The day seemed to creep by, and Kathrael had the constant feeling that they were barely making progress. It didn’t help that she was keeping them away from the road as much as possible, unwilling to risk being seen while they were still so close to Penth. When the river appeared through gaps between the trees with the fork in the road visible beyond, it was a relief. At least they were following the correct route, if nothing else.

Kathrael took a chance and quickly crossed the bridge before returning to the cover of the trees and brush. It was too dangerous to risk ruining the food if the river turned out to be deeper than expected, and she probably would have had to take the twins across one at a time.

She cursed silently when a farmer saw them from a distance, but the odds of the brief sighting coming to anything were negligible. No doubt the farmer had more important things to attend to than immediately running to Penth and gossiping about a woman in a tattered dress with two small children. He was almost certainly too far away to see her scars.

As the day wore on, they had to stop more and more frequently to rest. Even carrying one of the youngsters, such travel was too much to ask of children so young. She tried carrying both of them again for a while, but her own strength was simply not up to the task. When Kathrael finally admitted defeat for the day, they still had not reached the crossroads.

That night, she tried once more to keep watch, and once more fell asleep. A nightmare woke her, accompanied by the sound of stifled sobs from the blanket next to her. It took a few moments to get her bearings and remember where she was, but then she was leaning over to check Petra, who was still crying.

“You dreamed,” Dex said, making the simple words sound like an accusation. His own voice was a little quivery around the edges.

“Oh, gods,” Kathrael said softly. They could see into her mind. Feel what she felt. They were so young. “—I’m sorry.”

“You can’t stop dreams,” the boy said.

She ground her teeth together. “Oh, yes, I can. Go back to sleep. It won’t happen again tonight, I promise.”

Dex gave her a skeptical look, but went back to soothing his sister. Before too long had passed, they were both asleep once more. Kathrael leaned her back against a rough patch of bark, determined not to sleep any more before morning.

At first, she thought about the lion-boy. She hoped he was all right after being beaten by his captors. She still couldn’t explain her fascination with him. By rights, she should be wary of shifters, to say the least. They certainly seemed to have a knack for thrusting her into dangerous circumstances with little thought for the consequences to her life.

As the dawn slowly lightened the east to reveal a sky heavy with slate-gray clouds, her thoughts naturally turned to the Wolf Patron, and what she had planned for him. Sometimes it seemed that her desire for revenge was all that kept her from collapsing in a heap by the side of the road somewhere and never getting up again. The idea of a slave rebellion was too big—too distant—to truly seem real. For all that she had vowed to make such a rebellion happen, there were so many obstacles to overcome, she fully expected to be dead before it ever came to be.

There was only one obstacle between her and Senovo of Draebard, though—the mountains. And people crossed the mountains all the time. The sharp little ceremonial dagger still nestled in Kathrael’s sash, and all it would take was a single thrust.

What would it feel like to kill a man?

Would the blade slide in easily, or would she have to force it with all her strength? Where would be the best place to strike? He would probably be facing her. The heart? Would his ribs get in the way, though? Maybe the stomach? Or a slashing cut to the throat? She pictured the way the blood would spray out, coating her as he clutched at his neck and collapsed to the ground.

Though she had kept her promise not to sleep and dream, her eyes had still fallen shut as she sat thinking. So it came as a shock when a small, soft hand cradled her unscarred cheek. She opened her eyes with a gasp to find Petra looking at her from barely a hands’ width away.

“Don’t,” said the little girl, very distinctly. She sounded unutterably sad.

Kathrael quashed the small stab of guilt that threatened to pierce her righteous indignation over the Wolf Patron’s actions all those long years ago.

“So you do speak, then,” she said instead.

Petra just looked at her with brown eyes that seemed far too old for her young face.

* * *

Their final day of travel grew terribly hot and humid as the morning wore on. They came upon the crossroads fairly early on. Dex perked up as they looked out from a copse of trees nearby. He pointed one chubby finger toward a monument stone sitting like a sentinel at the corner where the two tracks met.

“I’ve been here before!” he said with some excitement.

“Home is that way,” Kathrael told them, indicating the road that disappeared into the woods in the direction of the mid-morning sun.

Dex tugged at her hand, the familiar landmark lending him new energy. “Let’s go!”

Kathrael hitched Petra higher onto her hip and surveyed their surroundings. There was a cart pulled by oxen approaching from the west, and a man carrying a large sheaf of grain on his back to the south, though he was moving away from them. Neither had much reason to pay attention to them, and they were quite some distance from Penth by now.

Judging it was worth the risk, she let go of Dex’s hand long enough to pull her shawl over the scarred side of her face. When she was certain that she was well covered, she led the way onto the road and headed east. They were able to make good progress for perhaps half an hour before the road grew busier and she took them back into the trees.

Shortly after midday, the skies opened. There was no shelter even in the woods, and all she could do was take the blanket from her back and tell the twins to hold it over their heads as they walked. The ground grew muddy and treacherous, so she took them back onto the road, confident that few other people would be out and about in the storm.

The rain continued into the afternoon, until all three of them were soaked to the bone. Though unpleasant, it was at least still fairly warm. Only when the skies cleared did a brisk breeze from the north begin to cool things off and make her shiver.

They walked on, and Kathrael was starting to worry that she would deliver the children to Darveen only for them to succumb to the coughing sickness, when the village appeared in the distance.

“Home!” Dex cried, and shoved at her until she let him down from her arms. He grabbed Petra’s hand and they ran forward, their weariness and discomfort forgotten.

“It’s still quite a distance,” Kathrael called to them, but their childish excitement was too great for such practicalities to move them. Instead, she let them wear themselves out, and caught up when they had covered perhaps a third of the remaining distance.

The sun was slanting toward evening and their clothing was finally beginning to dry on their bodies when the bedraggled trio got close enough to the modest village to attract attention.

“Dex? Lalla?” said a middle-aged woman standing in front of a hut at the edge of the settlement. “Gods above! Is that really you?” The basket she was carrying sagged in her grip as her attention turned to Kathrael. “Who are you, girl? What are you doing with these children? And why are you hiding your face?” Without giving Kathrael a chance to answer, she turned back toward the hut and yelled, “Boys! Come here! I’ve caught the girl who kidnapped Shayla’s twins! Hurry!”

Chapter 6: Playing the Part

ITHRIC STAYED IN THE FORM of the lion for nearly two days after the twins’ escape. In many ways, it was easier to bear the pain of his newly acquired bruises and aches that way. The lion lived only in the moment, nursing its hurts with slow swipes of its tongue, but with no concerns about what was happening outside of the confines of the camp and its immediate surroundings. No worries about the twins, or the girl who had helped them.

The troupe was still traveling toward the coast, and Ithric could smell the distant tang of salt in the air. They were far away from Penth now, traveling in the opposite direction from where he’d sent the twins and their unlikely rescuer. After a few fruitless hours spent riding around on two of the draft horses, searching for the children the morning after Ithric’s distraction, Turvick and Laronzo had apparently given up on recapturing them.

It was time to put the second part of his admittedly hare-brained scheme into play.

He waited until his two captors were puttering around the fire, getting things in the camp ready for evening, before shifting back to human form with a piteous groan.

Ahh,” he cried, rolling over onto his side in the dirty straw and clutching his ribs. “It hurts! Turvick, is that you? Laronzo? Why did you beat me?”

Both men had looked up at his words, and Turvick approached the cage with cautious steps. “Finally decided to shift back, boy?” he asked. “You’re lucky I didn’t cut my losses in Penth and put a spear through your heart. What the hell possessed you? Did you help the twins escape somehow?”

Ithric glared at him through the bars, still cradling his bruised torso. “How could I have helped anyone do anything when I’m stuck in this cage? I was trying to warn you, you morons!”

“Mind your tongue, boy!” Turvick snapped.

“If you wanted to warn us of something, why didn’t you just change back to human and tell us?” Laronzo asked, still hanging back a few paces as if he expected Ithric to shift back to animal form and attack at any moment.

“Because of the witch, of course!” Ithric said, as if it was obvious.

“Because of the what?” Laronzo said, taken aback.

Ithric stared at him as if he was an idiot—no great feat of acting.

“The crone. The old woman who snuck into camp and spirited the children away! I asked her what she was doing and she put a curse on me. I shifted into animal form and couldn’t shift back—I’ve been stuck as the lion for nearly two days now! She must have been a witch. The gods only know what she wanted with those poor children.” He shuddered theatrically and touched his fingers to his forehead and heart in a superstitious gesture. “I tried to get your attention so you could stop her, but then you started hitting me for no reason!”

Laronzo looked at Turvick. “I guess that sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?” he said in an uncertain tone. “He seems all right now, at any rate…”

“Shut up, Laronzo,” said the other man, before turning his attention back to Ithric. “What did this supposed witch look like, boy? How did she break the lock?”

Ithric met Turvick’s gaze with wide, innocent eyes. “She was tall and stooped, with long hair that was nearly white. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone that old before. She pointed at the lock and muttered something, and it just kind of exploded. That was when I started making noise, trying to wake you.”

Turvick glared at him for long moments, as if hoping to make him look away. When Ithric did not flinch or look down, he eventually growled, “Fine. There’s nothing to be done about it now—not if we want to reach the ship on time for our passage north.”

Ithric shrugged his agreement.

“The witch stole a bunch of our food, though,” Laronzo said. “We’ve barely got enough now to make it to the coast.”

“I know,” said Ithric. “I saw. It’s not like I could do anything to stop her, though, was it?”

Turvick regarded him with a sneer. “Maybe not, but I’m still inclined to take it out of your rations, not ours. Lions don’t need to eat all that often anyway, right?”

As he had not been given any food since the night of the twins’ escape, this came as no great surprise—even though the mere talk of food was making his stomach rumble and growl audibly.

“Fuck you, Turvick,” he said in a tired voice. “You’re a real bastard sometimes, you know that? Isn’t he a real bastard sometimes, Laronzo?”

Laronzo looked startled, like he hadn’t expected to be drawn into the conversation in such a way. His mouth opened, but no words came out. Ithric hid a smirk at the sight, taking his amusement wherever he could find it these days.

“Think you’re funny, boy?” Turvick asked, unperturbed. “Just you remember—if the lion takes a step wrong, it won’t be your flea-bitten hide I take it out on, it’ll be the others. And if you shift into human form where the rubes can see you, your fellow freaks will be the ones to suffer for it. Clear?”

“Very,” Ithric said. “Unlike some people here, I’m not mentally deficient.”

Turvick stared at him like one might stare at a smear of manure on one’s boot sole. “You think? Makes you wonder why you’re the one in the cage, then, doesn’t it?”

“Not really,” Ithric replied, and gave his captors the too-wide smile that Favian had once told him people found deeply disconcerting.

Turvick only made a noise of disgust and stalked away, gesturing sharply for Laronzo to follow him.

When they were gone, Ithric slumped back against the bars and gave in to the ache of an empty belly, the throb of slow-healing bruises, and the carefully hidden pang of worry for his fellow captives… for the escaped twins… for the angry, desperate girl who had risked herself to rescue them on the strength of a complete stranger’s request.

Despite his bravado, he was finally beginning to realize just how far in over his head he’d ended up. Ithric sighed. He’d always hated swimming.

Continue to Chapter 7-8

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