For those of you keeping track, I'm even earlier in the week with this one. lol Happy reading, Sweetlings!
“Grow up,” he mumbled to himself. “You’re thirty and a bit old to be thinking the bad people are after you.”
But then again, it fit, didn’t it? The men that were after him were definitely not good people. By the moons, how had he managed find himself in this situation, though it served him right; he’d been the one daft enough to shift in front of them after knowing it was a bad idea to do so. It had just been a reflex, really. When a man comes at you with a dagger, it’s just easier to deal with when you’re a tiger. Most bad people are scared of tigers.
He glanced at his surroundings. It truly was beautiful here, in a strange and different kind of way. He looked up at the starlit sky, searching for the moons to help lighten his mood. Not able to find them behind the clouds, he closed his eyes. The surprise on Neeka’s face when he’d shifted filled his thoughts.
Of course, that surprise hadn’t lasted long. Had she really thought he’d meant to hurt her? He wasn’t sure why it bothered him that she’d been so scared. It had been the right thing to do, he argued with himself. They’d never suspect she might have known what he was. He growled. What was wrong with these beings?
His train of thought was interrupted by a noise to his left. He froze. The sound came again and he crouched low before making his way closer.
Kendall stared. It was a child. Should he leave? Maybe it was a trap. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, careful not to reveal his position behind the bush. He ran a hand through his shaggy black hair and turned to leave then stopped as another small sob shook the child’s tiny frame. He growled.
“Damn it.” He took another look around the woods, his light blue eyes processing anything that might be a threat before stepping out from behind the bush. “Hello, there, Sweetling. What seems to be the problem?”
The little girl jumped to her feet and pulled a dagger from her belt. It was almost bigger than her. Her own blue eyes were narrowed with suspicion and still full of tears. Kendall held his hands up. From the way she was holding her weapon in front of her he was sure she didn’t know how to use it.
“There, there, now. No worries. How old are you, Sweetling?”
“Seven.” Kendall had to strain to hear the answer.
“What’s your name?” He squatted so he could look her in the eyes.
Kendall fought the urge to gawk. That was quite a name for a small girl. “Nice to meet you, Rein…” He smirked and was glad to hear her giggle. “Can I call you Rein?”
“I’m Kendall.” He glanced around once more. “Where are your mum and dad, Rein?”
A fresh stream of tears spilled down her face. He patted the shoulder length, curly blond hair awkwardly. Rein pointed and he walked in that general direction.
“Mind if I borrow that dagger?”
She handed it over willingly and he stuck it in his belt.
He looked down as a small hand took his and was about to tell her to let go when he noticed the scared look on her face.
“Take my other hand, Sweetling. I’ll need this one if I have to pull my dagger.” He reached around and pulled her to his other side.
“Over there.” Rein’s voice was just a whisper. Kendall motioned for her to stay put and be quiet, then crouched low and made his way so that he was hidden behind a fallen tree. Careful not to be seen, he peeked into the clearing. His heart sank. In the center of the clearing was a tree. Scattered around the base of the tree lay ten beings, young and old, all of them slaughtered. He swore under his breath.
“I want you to stay right here, do you understand, Sweetling?”
Rein nodded and he made his way cautiously toward the tree and the bodies it seemed to be watching over. He knelt down and peered at the injuries. Whatever had killed them hadn’t been an animal. The cuts were too deep and too clean. He noticed that all of them, men and women, had light to dark blond hair. The ones who had died with their eyes opened all had eyes in varying shades of blue.
Kendall jumped back as an arrow planted into the body of an old man he’d been inspecting. He pivoted and shifted, his long tiger stride getting him out of the clearing before another of the arrows managed to get lucky. Rein’s eyes bugged out of her head at the sight of the big cat jumping over the fallen tree.
Kendall shifted back and picked her up under one arm. He never stopped running. An arrow thudded into a tree not too far from where he had just been.
“By the moons, Rein, I can’t run fast enough carrying you.” He stopped and put her down. He looked up at the sound of screaming and yelling coming from the direction of the clearing. He ran a hand over his face and his weeklong stubble scratched at his palm. Could he take them on? He growled. They’d just taken out ten beings and he was just one.
Rein was staring at him, her eyes wide with fear.
“No worries, Sweetling. I won’t be leaving you.”
“We need to run?” Her voice was just a whisper. “Away from the herd?” Her tiny nostrils flared.
Kendall nodded. He wasn’t sure where the herd was, but if it was close to where they were, then away from it was the option of choice.
“Where is the herd?”
She gestured toward the clearing. “My herd.”
He frowned. He hadn’t heard anyone talk like this unless they were talking about packs.
Rein looked back toward the sound of the men coming closer. She stomped her foot. Kendall watched confounded as she shifted into a cream colored filly with long graceful legs. Had she been a regular horse he’d have guessed her to be a yearling. She blew out of her nose and shook out her short mane. An arrow thudded into the tree ten feet from them.
“Alright, Sweetling. Let’s run.” He shifted.
Kendall kept looking back to make sure he wasn’t leaving the filly behind. He had to admit he was amazed at the stamina Rein was demonstrating.
He heard hoof beats catching up to them. Rein glanced back and she managed to run faster than she was already going. Her eyes were wild with fear. The sound of metal being released from a scabbard touched his ears and he growled. He slowed slightly, letting Rein get ahead of him.
The man on the horse laughed. “I’ve got you now, freak.”
Kendall maneuvered so that he was on the opposite side of the horse the man’s sword was on. He stopped abruptly then launched himself sideways so that his shoulder connected with the horse’s. The man screamed as the three of them went down in a tangle of legs and bodies. The tiger stood swiftly and clamped his jaws down on the back of the man’s neck. The screaming stopped abruptly. A quick glance back confirmed that none of the other humans were on horseback and Kendall leaped off after Rein who had been smart enough to keep moving.
When he was sure they had put enough distance between themselves and whoever had eliminated Rein’s herd, he stopped and shifted back. He had a hundred questions to ask and bit them all back as the filly turned into a scared seven-year-old girl once again. Her chest was heaving from the run and the sobs she couldn’t hold back.
“Come here, Sweetling.” He held out his arm and Rein buried herself against his chest. “Shush, now, it’s alright.”
She shook her head. “Dad told me to hide.” She ran a hand over her face to wipe her tears away. “We were far. Why did they come?”
“I don’t know, Rein.” He smoothed down her hair. “What did your dad call you when he talked about your herd?”
“Cremels. What are you?”
“Are there bad people there, too?”
“There are, Sweetling.” He noticed her shiver as the breeze picked up. “Let’s get some rest, alright? Tomorrow we’ll try to figure out what to do. If I can find a magic wielder…” It occurred to him that Rein was probably too young to know much about where she should go or who might care for her. “Are there other Cremel herds?”
Rein’s eyes widened and filled with tears.
“It’s alright, Sweetling. We’ll figure it out. I don’t want to light a fire in case someone sees. Here,” he reached back and pulled off his tunic. “Put this on.” He rolled up the sleeves for her and smiled. He could barely tell there was a girl under the shirt. He pulled ferns from the ground, laying them over the dead leaves and made a bed for her. “There you are.
Rein settled under a particularly large fern. “Kendall?”
“Will the bad people find us?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Why don’t they like us?”
He frowned. “Well, umm, what did your dad tell you when you asked him?”
“He didn’t. He said when he knew he would tell me.”
Kendall raised an eyebrow in the direction of the clearing. He supposed it was as good of an answer as any, but he was sure that Rein deserved a bit more of an explanation after watching her whole herd slaughtered just for being able to turn into horses. “Do you know, Sweetling, I think that the main reason the bad people don’t like us is because they are scared.” He tried to remember the conversation with his father on the subject.
“Is that what makes them bad?”
“I think so. I think that because they don’t understand, they get scared. That makes them want to get rid of us. Maybe someone they knew had a bad experience with a shifter and so word got around we were bad…” He reminded himself he was speaking to a seven-year-old. “I’m not sure, Sweetling, though I’m sure that fear is a big part of it. Things that are different are scary. The difference between the good and bad people is how they deal with that fear. Does that make sense?”
“I think so.” She yawned and settled deeper into the ferns.
“Alright. Go to sleep, now.”
“Goodnight, Sweetling.” Kendall leaned back against a tree. Was it safe to head back to the town he’d just left? Probably not. He’d been seen supposedly trying to eat a woman. Not to mention that there was Neeka. He didn’t want to see the fear in her eyes.
He frowned. Supposing he didn’t run into anyone he’d met and he managed to ask someone about Neeka, would anyone suspect what Rein was? He could claim she was his daughter. Their eyes almost matched but the contrast in hair color was immense. Tomorrow he would find a way to turn her hair black. That should also keep anyone from suspecting she was a Cremel.
Rein whimpered in her sleep and Kendall looked down at the small bump under the fern. He felt his anger rise. Whatever else happened while he was stuck here he would make sure to find another herd for her to live with. He growled low in his throat. Though he didn’t want to sympathize with the humans back home, he could see how beings that could shift into wolves and tigers might be a frightening thing. But horses? What in the world did the humans here think a herd of horse shifters was going to do to them? He saw Rein shiver and lay down beside her.
“Shush, Sweetling. It’s alright. I’m here.” He shifted into his tiger so he could keep her warmer and pulled her and the ferns against him with a paw that almost covered the span of her little torso. All his military training kicked in. His ears heard the slightest sound; his eyes captured the smallest movement in the dim light of the moons. His tail twitched.
Tomorrow, he’d have a plan. Tomorrow, he’d decide what he needed to do.