It was the vernal equinox – the Planting Festival; another winter was fading, and crops were in the ground in preparation for a rich harvest in later months. Irishal Mastrieth, though not directly concerned with the planting, found himself with much more to celebrate than usual: he, the youngest of Master Farion’s students in the arcane arts, was also the only one deemed fit to graduate – not only was he no longer an apprentice, he was leaving that state before people who’d been studying for twice as long! Master Farion had said this and that about talent, but inwardly, Irishal wasn’t sure that a good portion of that wasn’t merely focus; he’d spent more time concentrating on his studies than had some of his fellow pupils, and this was his reward for it. Now, instead of a bunk in the cramped apprentice quarters, he had a house of his own, with a yet-largely-vacant workshop to call his.

And he was going there with a beautiful woman and dear friend, one who hadn’t minded his indulgence in the no-longer-forbidden pleasure of wine. One who’d seemed eager for a bit of privacy with him.

Who could yet say? Perhaps the farmers wouldn’t be the only ones sowing seed today.

Not that he was so far in his cups as to forget the “dear friend” aspect of his relationship with Rhystia. He’d known the healer-in-training for three years now, and fancied her for two of them; despite her playful teasing, he had no wish to imperil that friendship by pushing too hard for more. No, they could take their time; lounging on his mostly-new couch, him curled in the crook of her arm, trading stories of other apprentices they’d known and laughing, alternately trading swallows of cool water and warm, mulled wine.

Tigers tended to be large, and she was a large woman among them, buxom but otherwise sleekly athletic; clouded felines like him were smaller, and as men went, he was tiny. A mismatched couple they made, leaning against each other; just by virtue of slouching a little between tales, Irishal found himself letting a breath out over the swell of a breast. But when he started to sit up straighter, to turn his head upwards, she brought a hand up behind his head and tucked it right in.

Who was he to complain? He nuzzled against that warm softness, and over a little, into the valley of her bosom. Her fingers danced along his spine, her breath sighing out over his ears; she brought her hands around to tug at the laces of his shirt, and he lifted his arms to let her draw it free. Then she took hold of his jaw, tilting his head up, her muzzle meeting his in a kiss – soft at first, tentative, but deepening as each found the other appealing. Her hand slid over his cheek, cupping behind his neck, keeping the kiss close; her other hand traced the markings on his stomach, more or less, working its way downward.

When her fingertips slid over the warm ridge in his trousers, his breath caught. Then she tugged his belt open and eased her hand right in, curling around the rigid warmth of his manhood, and that breath slipped out of him in a low groan.

He fancied himself a fair lover – not great, he didn’t have nearly enough experience for that; but he was eager, vigorous, and attentive. So it was something of a shock when, just as he let his hands start to wander in turn, Rhystia drew back from the kiss and took hold of his wrist. “Iri… I can’t do this.”

His head was still clouded enough by the wine that his manners weren’t quite as quick to reassert themselves as they ought to have been; he blinked up at her, uttering a plaintive murmur of, “Rhys?” Suddenly anxious, he fidgeted, and shivered as the motion made his shaft slide against her fingers.

Then those fingers, too, drew away. “I’m sorry, Irishal. I shouldn’t have… shouldn’t have started this. But I can’t. I’m high-born, I can’t just turn my back on my father’s will… and… and he doesn’t want me married anytime soon; he’s set my bride-price… high.”

For one brief moment, Irishal wanted to protest; he wanted to say that nobody needed to know, that there was plenty they could do that wouldn’t risk a child, wouldn’t visibly tie them together. But he swallowed it. Her word was important to her; how could he begrudge that?

He took a measured breath, and managed to give her a crooked smile. “Should I be encouraged that you were tempted this much?” he asked, trying to go back to the light, playful tone that had dominated the evening previously.

Nothing doing; she looked aside, ears going flat. “I don’t know, curse it. I don’t… don’t want to lead you along when I can’t promise anything for it. You deserve better than that.”

Curses. He shook his head, reaching down to refasten his belt, trying to ignore the tightness around his stubborn member. “What’s the price, then? What would it take, to… to do this right?” If he needed to win her father’s favour to woo her, by all the gods, she was worth it…

But Rhystia was shaking her head. “He wants the hide of a mire lurker. Fresh.”

Irishal swore.

Mire lurkers were the most dangerous predators known – creatures of magic, largely immune to its touch themselves, they used their own innate power to shroud their own images, to appear as though they were somewhere other than they really were. To bring one down was the deed of the mightiest of hunters. But they were rare – he wasn’t sure sign of one had been reported in the area since he started his apprenticeship!

“Exactly,” she sighed. She started to reach for him; the gesture changed midway through, and she gave him a chaste squeeze on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Iri. I got… caught up in the moment. But I think I should go.”

Irishal felt himself droop. Even if there’d not been a hint of sex, he wouldn’t have wanted her to leave like this… But he forced himself upright, up to his feet; offered her his hand, and stood firm as she took it and stood. “You’re easy for a man to lose himself in, that’s for sure,” he said, and his smile, if a bit wan, at least felt natural on his face; and he bowed her out the front door with an exchange of farewells.

And then he trudged into his bedroom and sat down at the edge of the bed.

A mire lurker. Hells. And he was no hunter – he was a sorcerer, and the things were immune to sorcery.

Still – he wasn’t only a sorcerer…

As the moonlight streamed in the window, he sat there on the edge of his bed, and he planned.

First, he thought, was there a simple way around this – a way to get around the price entirely? He considered what he knew of the concept. Rhystia was the daughter of Count Sharval Dentiar – and this was his county seat; he could name such a price for his offspring if anyone could. He could forbid her to marry anyone who didn’t meet his price. He couldn’t compel her to marry, not these days, and that was some mild comfort – but only some; she took her family obligations seriously, quite plainly, and if someone did manage to produce a fresh lurker hide, she might not refuse to marry him unless the man in question was truly repugnant.

It was supposed to ensure an advantageous match for a prominent family. Most such families didn’t even set a price, anymore; most that did, only specified that any suitors be of a certain rank. But nothing kept a patriarch from choosing other means for a suitor to prove his worth – or hers; Count Dentiar’s own groom-price had been a grand work of art, the tapestry that now hung in the great hall of his manor. Still others had specified, usually with other conditions, that the suitors could not be of more than a certain rank – an effort to bring new blood into the noble lineages.

The conditions could be voided, but only by one of higher station who could convince a magistrate that the price was improper, or if the price was so clearly impossible that it was plainly a bid to keep the child in question from ever marrying. If a marquis set a price for his daughter that would beggar a grand duke… That wasn’t much help to Irishal, though. Count Dentiar had set a high price, yes, but in demanding a fresh hide, he’d made it a matter of skill, not of wealth. Irishal ought to check the exact wording; if the price demanded that the hide be recovered by the one who offered it, then it could not be a matter of wealth at all, and no magistrate would intervene. It wasn’t as though the man had demanded that his suitors steal fire from the gods or something similarly impossible; people had slain mire lurkers before and would again.

No, if Irishal wanted a chance to pursue Rhystia further – and he most certainly did want that chance – he’d need to find, slay, and skin a mire lurker. Somehow.

Still. Hunter he wasn’t, he reflected, rising up to his feet and going into the bathing-room. But he wasn’t a complete shut-in, either. He’d often been outside the city walls, searching the jungle for this component or that reagent. He knew the rudiments of tracking; he could wield a skinning knife. He just hadn’t brought down anything more challenging than a hare – and that with sorcery.

But he was an enchanter, and in the course of proving himself as such, he’d made a few items which just might be useful…

Most people, should they wish to bathe, would need to pump water or otherwise move it by hand from some reservoir, heat it – on the stove, likely – and only then pour it into the tub; Irishal, however hadn’t bothered to get a new pump installed. He opened a valve; a brief effort of will, and water was drawn from the cistern below, through the pipes, to pour straight into the tub. Once it was started, the water pulled itself along adequately; cold, of course, but he could deal with that presently. While the tub filled, he slipped off his sandals and wiggled out of his trousers.

Yes, he could enhance himself. Strength, stamina… above all, he could enhance his perception; those tricky pieces he’d planned to sell for a considerable sum, to give his fledgling business some opportunity and capital, but he could use them himself, too… The main problem was that he wasn’t skilled with weapons, and it would take years to learn a weapon to the point that he could hope to stand up to a lurker. Years in which someone just might move in first.

But he was quite skilled, too, in more active sorts of transmutation. Transformation… he wasn’t so far off from being a two-legged equivalent of the nimble tree-climbing cats native to the jungle. And as the mind could dictate how the body grew, so too could the body give shape to the mind. He was not a hunter, but he could turn himself into something that was. Between the reflexes of such a form and the assistance of those enchanted items… it might be months, a mere season, before he was ready to go hunting for dangerous game.

He closed the valve, and poured the full force of his will into the cold water that rested in the tub. Even slightly tipsy as he was, that force was considerable; within moments, water that had been cold was instead gently steaming. He lowered himself into it with a sigh.

In the morning, he’d take stock and do some research. For now, it was time to rest.


Noon found Irishal heading out through the west gate, garbed for a short trek. Actually, he was far better-equipped than he looked, but it was all small things, things that weren’t readily apparent to an observer who didn’t know exactly what to look for. His cloak was decent but not fancy; the leather vest he wore under it, adorned with pockets, was a little bit finer but largely obscured by that cloak. He wore sandals and simple trousers, and had no weapon in evidence but the hunting knife at his belt.

He did, however, have a few other things with him. Some of them he already wore – the patterned leather bracelet on his left arm, woven with careful spellwork to grant resilience and a measure of strength to its wearer. It wasn’t the sort of thing that warriors tended to crave, the sort that gave one man the strength of five or hardened his skin like well-tanned leather; but with it, he could fairly readily carry his own weight if need be, and a day’s walking would prove no particular hardship. Similarly, the bronze torc about his right upper arm, almost hidden beneath the fur, lent quickness to his limbs and springy flexibility to his tendons and joints; an acrobat in his prime might match Irishal’s agility now through conditioning alone, but only through very dedicated practise.

He had no special weapons – no flaming sword, no mace that would swing with supernatural force, no bow shooting self-guiding arrows, not even a shield that would turn any blow yet hang light on his arm. His knife bore a modest enchantment, yes, but nothing beyond keeping its edge – and that was an edge that any patient man who was reasonably familiar with a whetstone could apply to it. Most of what he had brought was subtle in nature, and the more so for enhancing his body, rather than having direct effect.

Some distance away from the city, he came upon a likely-looking grove, a place where an ancient tree had fallen and opened a gap in the canopy; the remains of the trunk still kept new growth from springing up at the centre of it, though around its borders smaller trees had long since thrust upward. Irishal sat on that ancient trunk, fishing a small box out of his vest pocket.

Two earrings nestled there. One was silver and clutched a tiny cabochon onyx; the other was a hoop, braided out of five different metals, save for the post where it would pierce through an ear – that was just gold.

These would be his most potent tools, from a hunter’s standpoint.

He brought the hoop up first, up to his left ear. That ear had no place to receive it; a quick shaping remedied that, though the process stung somewhat. He worked the hoop into place, closed it, and then the world came alive. He could hear every rustle of leaves, every bird’s call, every tiny thing scurrying about in the brush; nothing moved but that it caught his eyes; a panoply of scents rushed into his nose.

He’d worked this one a little too well; the rush of sensation was nigh overwhelming. But that was where the stud came in; he shaped another piercing through his ear, right near the first, and pinched the stud in place. Again, magic swept through him, touching his mind – and much of the new keenness of his senses became easier to ignore. The stud didn’t amplify anything; all it gave him was clarity – but that was itself potent. His senses were still heightened; now, it was simply far easier to focus on things that were actually significant. Which, currently, was not much beyond whatever he was paying attention to at the moment. Anything he focused on, he perceived in newly-rich detail; but he wasn’t being overwhelmed by it anymore.

He took a deep breath, drawing in the rich scents of damp soil, foliage, and more flowers and plants than had ever been named. A glance around confirmed that he was alone save for the tiny creatures of the forest; still, it was with some measure of self-consciousness that he shrugged out of his vest and doffed his sandals, and rather more of it that he loosened his belt and slid off his trousers.

The light breeze ruffled his tawny pelt, making the brown-black cloud-markings waver; the feeling was as fine as a lover’s caress, and in spite of himself, he dallied for a moment to enjoy it. But only for a moment. He folded his clothes, tucked them under a mossy hunk of wood, and eased that impromptu cover back in place. It was heavy – nobody would be moving it by mere accident – and outwardly, it looked like he’d managed to make it inconspicuous; still, he took a few minutes to weave a minor abjuration about the thing. A weave that would make it uninteresting to anyone else, would make them turn their attention away from it.

Just in case, he did mark it with the usual discreet sign of a hunter’s supply cache. If someone did notice and pierce the abjuration, best that he be frank about what he was concealing with it – which was to say, not much of note.

All told, his final preparations had taken him an hour and a half past noon. Now it was time.

He crouched down amidst the brush, taking deep, measured breaths. The change he was working was easier on his body than some he’d done before; it wouldn’t need his ongoing attention as changing into a bird, say, or a bat, had done. Even if millennia beyond counting separated him from wild felines, there was still some kinship there – and he was similar in aspect to a variety that lived here; that would help to anchor him, help to ensure that the transformation was sound and that his reflexes in his new shape were good. Still, he was expending the effort to make the change “permanent,” at least until he specifically reversed it; he took his time to be sure he was doing it right.

Only when he was very, very sure of the weave did he let it sink into him.

Piercing his ear had stung as his body resisted the change. This, though… this was as smooth as flowing water, and, indeed, felt like a warm cascade of it over every inch of him. It was gentle, pleasant, almost erotic.

And then it was done. Instead of crouching on hands and knees, he stood now on four paws. Scents were stronger still than they had been; his eyes had lost some measure of acuity, but were still enhanced to better than his usual, and they were very keen on even slight motion. His whiskers, normally not much good for anything more than telling him which way the wind was coming from, now gave him subtle details about how the air was moving, and that in turn helped him focus scents and sounds in a way he’d never been able to before.

The torc and bracelet had reshaped themselves to fit his new form, the former covered even more thoroughly by the fur on his right foreleg. The earrings had needed no such adjustment; he could still feel the weight of them on his right ear.

He took a step, then another; then he bent down slightly and leaped up to the top of the fallen trunk. It was all so easy; motion that was as smooth as courtly dancing came so naturally. Oh, he still had to mind where he put his feet; he could still slip and fall if he wasn’t careful. But he didn’t have to stare down at his paws to do so, not for anything but the finest control; he needed only be aware of where he wanted them to go, and reflex would do the rest. Walking was no harder than it had ever been – even easier for having more paws to balance on.

So far, everything seemed quite wonderfully successful. But merely being able to change his shape wasn’t going to get anything done, not unless he could do something with it. He loped up the slanted trunk, jumped to a still-growing tree, and, sinking claws into the bark, scaled it until he came to a broad branch; that he padded along until it crossed by a similar branch from another tree, and he leaped with ease from one to the other.

On he went, away from the grove where he’d stored his things; what he was searching for, he didn’t truly know, but he ached to wander, to cast about until he found something interesting. And as an hour went by, “interesting” came to mean “edible.” His peregrinations brought him to the course of a stream; he ran head-first down a tree trunk, claws keeping him right up against the bark until he was good and ready to jump down to the loam.

A muskrat would make a decent snack. He could smell one, just along the stream…

His first hunt wasn’t nearly so successful as his preparations had been; too focused on his goal, he wasn’t watching where he put his paws, and a snapped twig sent the rodent dashing into its burrow well before he could get into pouncing range.

It was just as well that he was doing this alone, really. That would have been embarrassing if anybody else had been watching. Humbled, but undaunted, he stalked onward – a little more carefully, now.

The next thing to catch his attention, after some hours of wandering and halfhearted coursing, was rather more substantial: a six-legged lizard-like thing, its body almost three feet long, sunning itself on a rock that overlooked a bend in the river.

A lesser emerald monitor, according to the studies he’d done over the years. Edible, even healthy, but the flesh went rubbery when cooked, so people generally didn’t bother if there was anything else available. Like chameleons, they could mimic the colour of their surroundings; this one was doing a fair job of looking like the mossy rock it rested on, but its profile was too distinct for his enhanced eyes to miss, and every slight motion it made just made it that much easier to spot. “Emerald” came from its vivid green eyes, currently not turned in Irishal’s direction.

They had a poisonous bite, which they generally used to bring down prey that came a little too close. They weren’t particularly fast or nimble, though they could climb in a hurry with those six legs, and could fit into places he couldn’t. If it bit him, it’d be painful and leave him too stiff to do much, but on its own it wouldn’t be life-threatening.

His current shape wasn’t much concerned with cooking his meals.

After the debacle with the muskrat, this one was almost insultingly easy. He crept closer, ever alert for any sign that the monitor was looking his way; it never did, never showed any sign of making ready to move at all. The scent of it filled his lungs, strong, musky, and above all, appetizing.

He leaped.

The motion finally made the monitor spot him, but before it could pick itself up, his paws connected with its sides, bowling it over. Its jaws snapped, its clawed feet flailed, but he had it pinned down in an instant, and dipped his head in under its bite. His teeth punctured scale and pierced flesh, and warm blood rushed over his tongue; still he tightened his jaws, crushing the monitor’s windpipe between them.

He held the thing down until its last throes stilled, and then he tore a mouthful from its belly and set in to eat his fill.

His body coloured his tastes; though he was aware of finer meals by far, lurking in his memory, and doubted he’d ever compare this favourably to them, in the moment it was delicious – all the more so for the satisfaction of having brought it down entirely on his own.

There was plenty of meat left on the carcass when he’d sated his hunger; he groomed himself, and then went downstream, leaving the rest for the scavengers. He had a full stomach and he’d been on his feet for some hours; a proper cat would’ve long since found a tree to nap in, and even with his magical reinforcement, he was starting to have a longing for such himself. But he wasn’t really tired, not yet; so he followed the stream’s course, away from the city, away from the dense forest, into sparser and wetter woodlands. He wasn’t daft enough to go searching for a lurker, but he did want to feel the wetlands going by under his paws. Just enough for a quick look around, enough to get a feel for the place. Then he could find a place to sleep, and in the morning, he could reclaim his clothing and his normal body, and go back home.

Just as he was starting to cast about for a likely tree, a new scent reached his nose. Enticing, intoxicating, compelling. He couldn’t place it at first, but one thing he knew: he needed to find its source.

He turned his head this way and that, padding about, until he found which way made that scent grow stronger. Quickly as he could while staying silent, he padded forward.

As the scent grew in his nose, it sent a thrill of urgent need down his spine, kindling an ache in his loins. It was that very ache which clued him in to what he was smelling – another cat; a female in season.

His need redoubling, Irishal tracked that alluring scent to its source.

She was easy enough to find – she wasn’t hiding, at least not from him. A tiger, sleek and powerful… something about that nudged at his conscious mind, but that part of him was barely a whisper, now. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t exactly like him. She was feline, she needed a mate, and he was here.

He strode through the reeds, stealth abandoned, and prowled toward her, looking her over, inhaling her aroma. She saw him, of course, and took the chance to consider him in turn, from one end right to the other.

They were of a length, more or less; but where he was slender and wiry, she was compact, strong. She probably had twice his heft. Certainly, if she wanted him gone, he’d not have any hope of fighting her.

But the way she sniffed under his tail, the warmth of her breath on his loins… no, she didn’t want him gone, not now. She needed him just as he needed her.

He sniffed at her in turn, huffing softly. She paused, hunkering down somewhat, her tail shifting.

That was all the invitation he needed. He turned and hopped forward, forepaws planting to either side of her powerful form. His hindquarters nestled against hers, and she yowled under him as his member pushed into her, squirming back against him.

In a matter of seconds – just a few squirming shoves together – a spike of pleasure raced through him, a gout of warm seed passing from his body to hers.

He lurched back, panting, tail a-twitch as he paced around her. Bringing his snout near her hindquarters again, he could smell, so very vividly, the seed he’d just placed in her. No other male’s had rested there before; there was just his, now. He wasn’t sure if it was his civilized side or the feral that uttered a contented rumble.

Well, maybe “contented” wasn’t quite the right word. His need was undiminished, his member still very much at the ready. He lunged forward again; again, she cried out as he entered her; again, a few squirming seconds coaxed a fresh jolt of pleasure, of seed, out of him.

When he drew back this time, she shifted as well; they paced around each other, inhaling each other’s scents – those they’d brought, and those their coupling was making. Irishal trembled with ever-higher need. The next time the tigress invited him to mount, he wrapped his forelegs around the barrel of her body and clung to her, panting over her shoulders. When his climax struck again, he stayed in place, shuddering through it, churning against her; and even as that jolt of pleasure faded, a new one struck, soaring higher still.

That portion of him which could still think rationally marvelled. Not two minutes since he’d first touched her and he’d already come four times, and was still very ready for more. There might be advantages to this sort of life…

He didn’t have any opportunity to think on it further, because the tigress took charge of matters; turning with a growl, bearing him down back-first against the sod. But for all her growls and the weight of her paws on his chest, she still wasn’t exactly fighting him; she squirmed down against him, snarling out loud as she pushed onto his barbed phallus. Orgasm struck almost instantly; still she kept him under her, holding him pinned until she’d drawn another burst of seed out of him, and then another still. Only then did she pull away, prowling around him as he got back up to his feet, both their tails a-flicker.

One more opening she gave him, and he took it – he lunged onto her back, stretching out to bite down at the nape of her neck, ramming himself against her, into her. His hindquarters churned hard and fast; another frisson of pleasure swept through him, and another, and another. His paws slipped forward on the wet grass as he pressed down atop her, her breath quick and hot on his toes.

Even as still another rush coursed over him, she demonstrated quite clearly that she was still in command: she threw him off, sending him tumbling over the sod.

He was still shivering from his most recent climax as he picked himself up; specks of white marked the grass under him, and he could feel some stickiness on his belly, too. This time, though, it was plain that the tigress had had enough; she was crouched down now, not presenting, but facing him, coiled to spring, claws showing, fangs bared in a full-on snarl.

Even in the grip of animal lust, he was no fool. He’d worn out his welcome; if she fought him, he would lose. But he’d done what they both had needed, so even if he would have quite gladly lingered, it wasn’t so hard to force those urges down and lope into the grass.

He set a brisk pace, giving her no cause to think he was failing to vacate her territory. Somewhat away from the water, he scurried up the trunk of a spreading tree, and from there made his way up and over; tigers could climb, yes, but not so well as the clouded cats, not nearly. A glance back told him that she had not followed, though; and the only traces he could smell of her were those he had brought with him.

Well, this had been a long and interesting day. And this was as secure a perch as any. He draped himself over the crook of a branch and let his eyes slide shut.

With the feral need waning, he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of shame. The first bit of sex offered to him, and he’d taken it, not only almost a dozen times without hesitation, but if their proportions had been reversed – if he’d been a tiger and she a smaller cat – he’d have gladly taken it by force. Hells. What did that say about him and his prospects as a suitor?

Well, he reflected just before sleep claimed him, at least it proved he was a good enchanter. He’d never lost himself so much in lust while he walked on two legs, no matter how much teasing he got.

He didn’t have time to think on it further. With the full suddenness of a cat’s slumber, the world faded away.


A noise woke him – soft, but somehow out of place.

Blinking his way to wakefulness, the sense grew stronger that something was… wrong. He glanced down. The ground wasn’t too far off; abandoning subtlety, he just rolled out of the boughs and dropped.

Before his paws hit soil, there was a crack of wood above him. That riveted his attention; he bolted forward, casting about for cover, but there was little to be had. Trees all around, but nothing that’d give him much in the way of new options.

His gaze turned back up to his erstwhile perch, just in time to see a shadow slip away from it. Not the shadow of something – it looked for all the world like a shadow made flesh; black, indistinct, barely-there.

Oh, hells. He’d thought it would be months before this, at least.

Apparently there was, in fact, a mire lurker in the area. And it had decided that he would make a tasty meal.

A half-dozen dark forms fanned out around him, and he considered his options. Lurkers were quick, and above all they were tenacious; he might be able to outrun one for a short distance, but it would eventually run him down. He’d have a better chance if he stood and fought, if he could tell which image was…


Only one of them, the second from his left, bent the grass as it crept forward.

That might save him: the ability to see the tiny, subtle details that marked his true target, and parse them in an instant.

For the moment, he backed off. Even knowing which one was real, he still wasn’t a skilled fighter; he’d have to do this carefully. The lurker was smaller than he, but quick, and armed with deadly claws and teeth that could sap the very life force from their victims, leaving them defenceless to the next attack. He might endure a glancing blow, a graze; but if that thing inflicted any injury of note on him, he was as good as dead.

So he kept stepping back, glancing all around in front of him, ignoring the phantasmal images and instead looking past them. What he needed was a way to feint – a way to change direction in such a hurry that the lurker wouldn’t be able to react in time. And until he had such, he needed to keep moving.

He sprang, a momentary chill sweeping over him as he charged through one of the phantoms, and then he leaped. All four paws struck the trunk of a tree; immediately he pushed off, leaping in a new direction.

It was hard to tell just where the thing was; the sounds of its movement echoed oddly – he could still make out more or less which direction they were coming from, which was better than most could expect – and it wasn’t easy to keep his eyes on the true image and the ground in front of him at the same time. He ran along boughs, bounced off a few more trunks, and then threw himself to the side as the lurker came bearing down atop him.

Hells! The thing was anticipating him!

On the other hand, that just might be what let him win…

He kept it up for a few minutes more. Each time, the lurker’s claws marked ground or wood a little closer to him. Once they grazed his flank; the next, they drew a slash along his side. He was running out of time.

And then, instead of jumping off a fallen trunk, Irishal clung for a moment – then leaped.

His paws met not wood, not soil, but flesh; his jaws darted in, closing around the lurker’s neck, and they tumbled together over the damp peat. It flailed against him, struggling to pull free, to claw and bite, but he held his grip. Its hot, dark blood ran over and into his muzzle, salty and pungent, and still he clamped his jaws tighter.

Bit by bit, the lurker’s struggles ebbed; then, with a final shudder, it was still. Irishal stayed there for a minute or so, panting around his mouthful of flesh and blood, until he was certain that it couldn’t be a ruse, that the beast had bled out or choked to death. Certainly he couldn’t feel its heartbeat – only his own, pounding hard and fast.

Sweet gods. He’d actually challenged a mire lurker, been hunted by one, and still he lived; that wasn’t something many could say. And he’d brought it down! He, Irishal Mastrieth, bookbinder’s son and enchanter, had slain a mire lurker with nothing but claws, teeth, and wits!

Giddy, he clambered up to his feet.

Getting the thing somewhere wasn’t going to be easy; in time he’d have needed to think that far ahead, but he hadn’t thought himself nearly ready. Even dead, it was impervious to sorcery. The vines that draped over the trees, however, were not; it took a bit of doing, but he managed to will some of them into a very crude harness, binding the carcass over his shoulders. It was a significant burden, but not a horrendous one.

He trotted back toward the city; to firmer ground, to the banks of the stream that had guided him here, and, once he had his bearings a little better, he cut through the forest, following meandering game trails… and then, just as dawn was breaking, he came to the glade where he’d hidden his things and transformed, the day before.

Had it only been that long? It seemed like so much had happened…

His cache was still there; the abjuration was fading but yet intact. He unwove it, shoved the log over somewhat, and there his clothes waited.

A quick effort of will shredded the net of vines and let the carcass fall to the turf; another, more tightly focused, separated the dark blood from his pelt. Another look around confirmed that he was alone.

He reversed the transformation; he was a man again, though he still bore the injuries he’d sustained toward the end of that scrabble. Nothing major, though; the marks on his side took some bandaging, and that was moderately awkward to do alone, but those on his thigh were so shallow as to not be worth fussing over. That done, he dressed.

And then, as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do of a morning, he slung the lurker carcass over his shoulders, rose, and headed home.

He attracted some stares as he went through the west gate; even if they weren’t nearly so physically imposing as their reputation might suggest, mire lurkers weren’t that hard to recognize. Nobody addressed him, though, and he came to his home without incident.

His workroom-to-be was still mostly vacant; there was plenty of space for him to deal with the carcass. He wasn’t the most skilled person ever with a skinning knife, but he was competent; he took his time, careful to keep the hide pristine even as he separated it from the underlying flesh. A week’s ration of firewood became a rack on which he could stretch the hide as it dried; he wouldn’t leave it there long, since the stipulation was for a fresh hide, but at least he could make it be a little less… gruesomely messy. He scraped the back of the hide as best he could when it was hung, collected a few exotic components from other bits of the beast, drew a small flask of its blood, and then bundled up what was left.

The mouthful of blood he’d got in his mouth wouldn’t do him harm, but mire lurkers were not edible; there was only so much of the thing that could be in any way useful, and so far as he was aware, he’d got most or all of it. Disposing of the carcass involved another quick trip out of the city; by the time he returned, it was almost noon, and he swung by the market for a skewer of spiced meat.

He was chewing on the last chunk as he came back to his home, and found that he had a visitor. Tall, clad in a long, plain cloak, there was still enough of her face visible that he could recognize Rhystia, and felt his brows lift in mild surprise. “Rhys? What brings you here?”

She whirled to face him, eyes wide. “There you are! I came by early this morning, but there were was no light burning – I didn’t mean to pry, but I could see you weren’t in – where were you? No, never mind that. Irishal, I think I may have done something very foolish, and I need your help – gods, it’s not fair to you, not with what I’ve done, but I don’t know who else to ask…”

She was talking so fast, he could barely make out the words; he held up a hand. “Slow down, Rhys, you’re not making sense. Come inside, relax a little, and tell me what you need, all right?” It was a mystery why she thought she’d wronged him – at least, he didn’t think she was referring to their aborted encounter night before last – but one that he’d have to trust her to illuminate; for now, he waved her inside.

Once the door was shut, Rhys pushed back her hood, drawing a deep breath. “Irishal, I… need to be sure I don’t conceive. Before it happens, my abilities aren’t of use.”

Conceive? All right, that was something he could think was unfair to him, for certain – she turned him down, and then a day and a half later she needed his help to ensure she didn’t bear some other man’s child? That… stung. He took a deep breath of his own and clamped down on it; self-righteous anger wouldn’t be any help right now. “What happened?” He was aware that his voice sounded flat, but couldn’t quite bring himself to make it otherwise.

She sighed, rubbing her temples. “I was out of the city last night. I’m Wildkin, Irishal – I can’t stay in the city when it’s my time, I’d not have the sense the gods gave a gnat. So I’ve always left the city, stayed away from everyone, kept myself pure that way. But this time… someone followed me.”

Wildkin? A natural shapechanger? Irishal blinked. He’d read of them, but he had no idea any were living in the city – certainly not someone so prominent, nor so close to him! “I wish you’d told me, Rhys,” he confessed, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder; he’d thought they were close enough to share any secrets that essential, not that he had any such of his own. “But…” Go on, he was going to say; but she seized his arm, holding it up, staring at his wrist and the beaded bracelet there. The words died in his throat.

“It was you?” The agitation had slid away from her voice – or rather, changed character; it was rapidly simmering into something far more perilous. “By Yasha’s lash, that was you?

Irishal had just enough time to put the pieces together before she twisted his arm.

Hard. And farther than it ought to go.

In one motion, she wrenched his shoulder out of place. Agony stole his breath away; he couldn’t scream, could barely get air back in his lungs at all. He crumpled.

She crouched down over him, still gripping his useless arm, snarling into his ear, “Is this your repayment, then? For trying to keep my honour, for not telling you my greatest shame? You found out somehow, and followed me, so I wouldn’t be able to refuse again?”

Even through the pain, he felt a sudden wave of nausea. Or maybe the shock was making him sick; it didn’t matter. “No!” he croaked, barely audible even to himself. “I didn’t, didn’t know!”

“Oh, truly?” she growled, angrier still. “And I’m supposed to believe that you just happened to come the same way I did? In a shape that mocks my curse? You’re no Wildkin yourself, I’d have known. I thought an actual wildcat had found me – bad enough. Then I saw the bracelet and earrings, and knew it had to be an actual man, and I might actually be at risk conceiving – I dreaded telling you, but it was you all along!

“No,” he whimpered. “Didn’t know. Was… h-hunting. Wanted to… to do right by you.” He tried to shift under her, to ease the pressure on his wrenched arm, but nothing he did made the pain any less.

Gods. He’d been trying to do things right. Had he, instead, ruined everything?

“Hunting? Hunting? You’re no hunter – what were trying to hunt, then, if not me? Tell me that!

“Just some food, first,” he gasped out. “Trying to… get better… win your price… court you properly.”

“Oh, really? And what did you hunt, then?”

“A monitor…”

She suddenly went very still.

“And more,” he went on, and managed to lift his uninjured hand, pointing to his workroom. “It… found me.”

There was a brief pause; then, “Stay there.” Her voice was cold, distrustful, but there was a note of doubt that hadn’t been there before. She let go of his arm, pushed upright, and crossed over to the workroom door.

And then she jumped back. “Mikala’s tears!” she gasped.

Moments later, she was beside him again, grasping his dislocated shoulder. Warmth flowed from her touch – a warmth that spread down his arm, blunting the pain, then soothing it. “Hold still,” she instructed – and this was her healer-voice, if somewhat more ragged than usual. “I just need to…”

And then she pushed his shoulder back into place.

His vision swam, his cheek sinking to the floor. Even through the numbing, putting his arm back in had been a moment of unspeakable pain.

Strong fingers gripped his jaw, lifting his head back off the floor. “Stay with me, Irishal. Keep your eyes open, stay awake – don’t slip away on me. Oh, gods, what have I done?”

He blinked stars out of his vision, giving his head a bit of a shake against her fingers in an effort to clear it. It was like the pain had been all that was keeping him conscious; after hat brief spike, the sudden lessening of it had almost taken his senses away. But for her sake, he held on, kept going.

Gods, that had hurt.

“Rhys…” He tried to get his good hand – well, the one that hadn’t recently been bad, anyway – under him, tried to rise.

She was still holding his shoulder, still pouring power into it. Woodenly, she said, “For the next few days, your shoulder will be weak. Try not to put strain on it. After that, it should be as strong as before. There… there shouldn’t be any lasting harm from… from this.” And then she started to rise. “I should go…”

He clutched at her arm. “Rhys, wait.”

She paused, but kept her eyes averted from him. “Gods, Irishal. I’m… hells, it’s not enough, but I’m sorry. I just… I just thought…”

“You thought I’d done something horrible,” he supplied. “Anger is understandable.”

“But I know you better than that!” Her hands balled up into fists at her sides. “I should’ve known you’d never do anything of the kind, should have at least asked why. And now…”

“Now,” he supplied when she faltered, “we have a chance to make things work. Even if I didn’t think it’d happen for a season or more.”

Now she looked his way, disbelieving. “You’d hand over a lord’s ransom for my sake, after that?

“It was just a great ugly mess of a situation,” he soothed, squeezing her arm. “If you can believe that I didn’t follow you, that I didn’t know it was you out there, that I just got caught up in the moment… gods, Rhys, I felt horrible for not being able to control myself. I certainly can’t blame you for the same thing. I wanted our first to be special…” He shrugged. “But what’s done is done. And,” he thought back to why she’d sought him out, “I can still my own seed easily enough. It shouldn’t have had time to quicken yet.” A light brush of his fingers over her stomach, and it was done; he recalled his essence. He didn’t need to sense it in her to do something so simple – in that, it was much easier than if it had been another man’s.

She set a hand atop his, but didn’t stop him; she just let out another sigh. “Do you know, Irishal, I can’t think many men would think so… ‘lightly’ isn’t the best word, but it’ll do… of forfeiting their own chances at children?”

“I want to do this right,” he repeated. “Present my offering, be recognized. Romance you. Know you better, deeper. If all goes well there as I think it may, wed you. Then pursue children – together.”

“Well.” She chuckled; a bit bleakly, but a chuckle all the same. “We’ve already been together once, unconventional though it was. If you…. still wish to do all that, we don’t need to wait all that time to know each other very closely indeed…”

He shivered. “Like the other night, but without needing to stop?” he suggested, smiling up at her.

Wanly, she smiled back. “Something very like.”

He turned his hand over, squeezing around hers. “Tonight I’ll seek audience with your lord father, then,” he promised. “And then… we shall see.”

“Bless you, Irishal,” the tigress sighed over his ears, nuzzling at one of them. “I should go, before I’m missed at lessons.”

“Go,” he agreed, releasing her hand. “I need to prepare. Perhaps I’ll see you tonight?”

“I look forward to it,” she said, with a shyer smile than he’d ever seen on her muzzle; and then she departed.

After taking a few moments to groom somewhat, Irishal went out as well, briefly; he informed the count seneschal that he would have an offering to present in the evening, and ensured that the count would indeed be around to receive him. While there, he looked over the count’s standing proclamations. Rhystia’s bride-price was still among them; whoever could find and slay a mire lurker and present its still-fresh hide as proof would be granted permission to court her. There were others as well – if he’d had any wish to continue as a hunter, he could make a good living; there was nothing, though, that would fit life as an enchanter.

After that, he had the afternoon free to prepare: to look over his clothing, ensure that his best finery was in good order, finish readying the hide, conduct a more thorough grooming, and then, finally, dress.

His finery was in an old, local style, rarely seen anymore, not least because it was rather fiddly to make: it involved a great many beads. The sandals mostly avoided such; the wrap around his legs, however, had beads sewn into a wave of browns and golds all the way around. His upper body was draped in a shawl that hung down as low as his stomach and the small of his back, fine webs of cloth creeping down his arms, the fringes of each hung with larger, brighter glass beads; bronze bracers closed about his wrists. He also still wore his enchanted torc, now with the fur tucked under it to keep it prominently on display; he’d newly polished the earrings, too. Over the lot he clasped a red silk cloak, cinched by a silver brooch inlaid with a pearl scroll and turquoise quill.

Much too elaborate for him to be comfortable wearing on a daily basis, but it made for a striking presentation, and that was what he wanted tonight.

The lurker hide, dry now, he bundled up in plain grey linen. The guards had seen him bring in the carcass that morning, so word might have already reached the count; if it had not, though, a bit more of a dramatic presentation might be in order than simply walking in with the thing over his shoulder.

And so he went, and this time he didn’t merely stay in the foyer, but requested admittance to the great hall.

The foyer had been impressive enough, though Irishal’s mind had been buzzing so much with his own thoughts that he hadn’t been very much aware of it. Now, though… now, he couldn’t help but pause. The great hall certainly lived up to its name; the vaulted ceiling was easily three storeys up, banners hung from the upper galleries, torches burned in sconces and a great fire in the hearth at the room’s far end, and the flickering flames glimmered off of the mosaics in the floor.

In his enhanced vision, the shifting light made for an almost dizzying sight.

The seneschal announced him by name as an enchanter, and conversation stilled. Nor did it pick up again as he strode down the central aisle, trying not to feel out of place. With so many well-dressed people looking at him with disdain, all of them in more modern fashions than his, some of whom he could recognize as barons or otherwise noteworthy… this was not an easy thing.

But he kept his head high until he was before the dais.

It was probably just as well that he wasn’t of high enough station to get away with a mere bow. He didn’t know courtly bows, and would probably have done it wrong. But it didn’t take all that much practise to drop down to one knee, head bowed. “Your Grace,” he said to the floor.

“Rise,” said the Count, wary and uncertain. As Irishal was complying, Count Dentiar went on, “I understand you have something to present?”

Not that that wouldn’t be obvious from the fact that he was carrying a bundle. “So I do, Your Grace,” Irishal confirmed, tugging at the cords that bound it. “I come to claim the promised reward for this prize,” the cords came free; he gripped the edge of the hide and let it tumble into view as the linen slipped free, and went on, “the hide of a mire lurker, slain this very morning. I seek to court Rhystia your daughter.”


The Count hadn’t expected anybody to pay his price; that much was plain. He’d been struck dumb for several moments, and even when he’d recovered his voice, it had been much more hesitant than his guarded greeting. But with so many eyes on him, he’d been as good as his word – better, even; he’d sworn to give Rhystia free judgement in her pursuit of a husband. And then he’d made that official.

And so it was that, an hour or so later, she followed him out of the palace, and walked with him toward his home.

“A written proclamation that he’ll leave my love life to me – even in the event, I think unlikely, that nothing comes of us,” Rhystia shook her head, “I think I owe you, Iri. I was starting to think I’d be a… ineligible… until he finally changed his mind.”

Irishal noticed that little pause, that bit of quick editing, but he was too uncomfortable with its cause, himself, to dare comment. “If things don’t work out, I’ll try to be comforted by that,” he managed.

“No need to be so dour,” she murmured, reaching over to stroke behind his ear. “Unless you’re harbouring some truly dark secret – worse than mine you already know – I should think we get along quite splendidly.”

“I’ve a simple life, for the most part,” he said, shaking his head in turn, as he unlocked his door. “And you’re perceptive. What you see, I’m sure, is what I am.”

“Well, obviously I don’t know everything about you,” she said with a peal of laughter, hooking a finger under his cloak. “I had no idea you were hiding something like this. It sits well on you.”

In spite of the kind words, Irishal felt a surge of self-consciousness flatten his ears. “Forgive me if I don’t favour wearing it more than very rarely,” he muttered.

“Oh, that’s quite fine,” she purred, and that finger slid toward his brooch, her other hand pressed against his thigh, slipping inward and upward. “I’d sooner feel you without it, after all.”

That made his ears burn. “I hadn’t expected to be more than courting you yet, Rhys,” he admitted.

“For better or worse, we’ve already done more, hmm?” Her hand slid around behind his neck, and she drew him in close, up against her. Embracing him with a soft sigh, she murmured into his ear, “I’m still… rather close to my time, Iri. I could still Change if the need grows great – I don’t think I would if we were already, well…”

Still blushing, he nonetheless managed to rally. “So if I wish to do it right,” he said against her collarbone, “I shouldn’t delay, hmm?”

“I’d rather you didn’t, indeed,” was her whispered reply.

Still embracing, they made their way into his bedroom, and there she took charge. Layer by layer, she undid his fine clothing, slid it off of him, folded it, and set it aside; he could put it into proper storage later. By the time she removed his wrap, there was already a firm ridge rising in his breechcloth, and of course it only grew more prominent as she traced its outline.

Her exploring touch was a flattering sort of thrill. She knew the living body quite well indeed, yes; but that was a very technical sort of knowledge, and now she was using him to learn a rather different way of looking at a man, feeling him, knowing him. Being aware of what parts were where wasn’t the same as feeling a lover’s growing need.

Or, to put it plainly as had one of his old classmates who’d been interested in other men, there was nothing quite like feeling a man harden under one’s fingers, especially for the first time.

Certainly Rhystia’s eyes were wide and full of wonder as she stroked him, from the summit of that ridge down to its other end and even a little beyond. And when she undid his breechcloth and let it fall, baring him, at last, to her sight, she – steady, confident Rhystia – shuddered in anticipation, caressing his rigid length.

For all it had felt annoyingly elaborate when he was donning it, his outfit had come off swiftly enough; her coppery gown needed much more undoing before he could even start to remove it, and then there was the linen shift she wore underneath to slide off of her. The rest of their ornaments, though – his bracers, torc, and earrings, her own more numerous earrings and bracelets and the jewels woven into her hair – those stayed where they were.

She was first to lie on his bed; he knelt astride her, ignoring for the moment the demands of his upright arousal, instead just letting his hands explore her. From her neck, down over the fullness of her breasts – as his hands moved on, outward, he nuzzled at and between them, and this time she just sighed and pulled him in all the more. Still his hands moved on, wandering, feeling her all over. He had no intention to rush this.

On the other hand, he didn’t truly want to dally, either. Presently, he slid onto the sheets beside her, and his hand, thus given a bit more room to work, slid down between her thighs. As he stroked over her folds, she shivered, let out a soft moan, and turned her muzzle towards his, cupping a hand under his chin to tilt it upwards in turn. Lips brushed lips; rough tongues darted forth and slid against one another; hot breaths mingled. He stretched his other arm up to curl around her neck, and one of her hands, in turn, slid down along his side as the kiss grew deeper and more heated.

Once her hand had progressed that far down, she fondled him – not quite so thoroughly as he was fingering her, one of his fingers curling slightly into her, pressing against her nub, while its neighbours kept sliding against her folds; she curled her hand around his manhood, yes, and stroked along it, but it was more a gesture of fondness than one of real urgency. That was just as well; he wouldn’t need anything more than thrusting in her to reach his peak. And even if he was young and vigorous, in this shape he couldn’t expect to perform again and again, and the richness of sensation meant he couldn’t expect to last too long.

Indeed, it was a guilty relief when her moans grew more urgent against her muzzle, when she squirmed under his fingers, when her hand clenched tight around his shaft and a long, keening whine slid from her mouth to his.

Even as her peak was subsiding, she tugged at him, pulling him atop her. Well, then; the fur on his hand was wet down with her nectar, the scent of her need mingled with his to fill every breath he took and eclipse the general her-ness, and her touch had left him trembling with his own need. He swung into place over her, leaning on one arm against the bed beside her, the other drawing away from her sex to steady his own member.

For one moment, their eyes met, in spite of the difference in height between them. But he didn’t pause, didn’t give her time to protest the lessening of attention. He slid the plump crown of his member along her folds, hips rolling with the motion, and felt his tail twitching a little harder behind him; he nudged that crown forward, drawing a sharp gasp of breath and trembling as it slipped into place; then he planted that hand, too, on the sheets beside her, closed his eyes, and, with a deep groan low in his throat, savoured every inch as he plunged his slender rod into her.

Maybe leaving his earrings on hadn’t been wise. He’d thought it would give him a fuller experience of the act, but there was so much of it, the enchantment of clarity just couldn’t keep up with the rising tension inside him. Every breath he drew was dizzying; the feel of her under him, of her hand sliding against his stomach as it slid between them to take up the duties his own had recently fulfilled, a vivid pleasure in its own right. Even the subtle tug of her heartbeat in the walls of her sex felt like he was being milked. And then, when she started fingering herself and did clench around him…

He whimpered against her bosom, shuddering atop her.

Her other hand was perhaps surprisingly gentle. It slid along his spine, stroking him, gently encouraging. She crooned praise and urging over his ears, rocking a little under him; and he couldn’t help but start moving in response to that motion, drawing back a few inches, then plunging in again. Again. Again…

“Do it, Iri,” she hissed over his ears. “Fill me. And leave it this time, healthy and quick.”

Gods. Did approval get any stronger than an invitation to sire a child? He moaned, his thrusts quickening even as their rhythm started to fall apart.

Then she shuddered under him, clenching around his manhood with a sharp gasp, panting, clutching at his rump and twining her tail around his…

A mere twenty-eight strokes inside her, and something snapped inside him. He plunged in as deep as he could, gasping for every breath as his pleasure seized him. This was no quick spike of satisfaction like he’d known out on the marsh – this was a shattering barrage of ecstasy that sent shuddering waves from whiskers to tail-tip. With his heightened senses, he could feel, so very clearly, each pulse of his seed as it rushed down his manhood, out of him, into her; rapidly at first, each one a little slower to follow – six, seven, eight of them before he was spent; and still he shivered and writhed atop her, still each breath he took was a desperate gasp. Still she rocked under him, her hand gliding along his trembling body.

He lay atop her a few moments more in the wake of his orgasm, nuzzling at a plump breast, still straining to catch his breath. Her tail stayed twined around his, her hand settling again on his rear. But she didn’t hold him there when he moved to draw his spent length out of her; her tail loosened, her hand gently following his body along.

Just as well he hadn’t waited any longer; already his member was sensitive enough that that quick motion sent a burst of intense sensation through him, not entirely pleasant. He gasped, tensing… then he was out, and he fell face-up onto the sheets beside her, still breathing fast and hard.

That,” she hissed into his ear, fingers sliding over his ribs and up his breastbone, “I will treasure. Thank you, Irishal. That was… quite lovely indeed.” Her other arm curled around his shoulders.

He obliged that touch by wiggling in against her side, turning his head to nuzzle at her shoulder with a soft sigh. “As will I,” he assured her. “Whatever happens.” And he rested one hand on her belly.

He couldn’t sense his seed inside her, not beyond the very obvious smell of his semen. But for a moment, he fancied he could feel it there, straining deeper into her, seeking a place to quicken.

Maybe they’d need to wed in a hurry. But he wasn’t one for a great deal of ceremony anyway; that wouldn’t be such a bad thing in his mind. No, despite his guarded words, this, he thought, was a woman he could live beside. Charming, intelligent, beautiful as a flame, just as hot and dangerous to the careless… and here she was, lying beside him, his lover. Only a fool wouldn’t be content with that.

But it had been a long and trying day. At some point, with her fingers tracing the clouds on his pelt, he drifted off to sleep.