Whoohoo! I remembered before the end of the week!
“Another mug of meeng?” Neeka grinned at the shake of Kendall’s head. “Let me guess. You’re not a drinker.”
He smiled. “Not today.” He had to admit the drink was just as good as sloan, maybe even a bit better; just a bit more bitter. He looked toward the band on the small stage. The music was fun and very upbeat. He tapped his foot to the rhythm.
“Do you dance?”
He blinked, his foot mid-beat. He did dance. In fact, he quite enjoyed dancing. In Quelondain. He had no idea if he danced in Thistendal, however.
“Come on, I’ll show you how.” Neeka took his hand and pulled him up before he could object.
Kendall smiled down at Neeka as she showed him a series of steps, slowly speeding up the sequence until they were moving to the same beat as the music. This wasn’t so bad, he thought.
Neeka’s light brown eyes met his. She raised an eyebrow.
“You’re hiding something.”
He grunted. “You’d know this because you know me so well?”
“I’ve been with you all day and something you said when we met stuck with me. You’re one of those who thinks shifters aren’t evil, aren’t you?” She whispered the question, making sure none of the other dancers could hear.
Kendall missed a beat, effectively managing to step on her toes. She stopped, counted the beat out loud, and the pair resumed their dance.
“And if I was?”
“If you were, I’d make sure not to voice your opinion in this town.” She offered him a small smile. “It was when you’d asked if I’d met one. You talk about them as though they’re people. Here, in this town, they’re animals and nothing more. Don’t get caught making comments like that.”
He gave a small nod. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The music stopped and a slower song started. Kendall pulled her closer so they could keep talking.
“And what about you?” he inquired.
She shrugged. “I’ve never seen one.”
When she didn’t offer any more of an explanation, he changed the subject. “How far from the coast are we?”
“It’s a good two weeks on horseback.”
“And the nearest port?”
He hesitated then decided to go ahead with his next question. “This might sound extremely strange, but you don’t happen to know of any magic wielders in the area?”
It was her turn to miss a step. She stared up at him, shocked. Neeka clenched her jaw, took his hand and pulled him outside.
“Who are you?” She whirled on him and kept walking until he was forced to step back.
“Yeah, I got that! What do you want with a magic wielder? You know that to use magic is to put a death sentence on your head!”
Kendall hung his head back in frustration. “By the moons, what is wrong this continent?”
Neeka’s eyes were saucers in her head.
“Neeka! Are you alright? What’s going on?” Brian appeared outside with three more men.
Kendall swore under his breath.
Neeka looked back and forth between Brian and Kendall. Her gaze met Kendall’s.
“I… I’m fine, Brian. Kendall said his head was spinning. I thought he could use some fresh air.”
Kendall cocked his head at Neeka in question and relaxed at her small nod. He needed information. He needed to get home. Getting himself killed wasn’t going to help anything.
“Brian, you were about to tell me how you got the boar you have on the wall.” One of Brian’s friends put his arm around the man and herded him back inside, but not before raising an eyebrow at Kendall.
The door closed and Neeka glared at him.
“I want the truth.”
Kendall ran through his options. He wasn’t the best of liars and he knew it. Neeka had already guessed something was off. Did he keep lying and hope to throw her off or did he simply tell her the truth?
“I’m not a fisherman.” There. That was the truth.
She grunted. “And?”
He ran a hand over his face. “First, tell me this. What do you think of me?”
She frowned. “I barely know you.”
“I know. But you read people. You can get a sense of who they are by what they say. Like that bit about me thinking of shifters as people. You got that. What else did you get?”
Neeka took a minute to arrange her thoughts.
“You’re a liar, for one, and a bad one at that.”
“I don’t know, Kendall. You seem like a good man. But why lie if you have nothing to hide?”
“Because I have plenty to hide.” He held his hand out to her. “Is there somewhere we can go talk where no one will barge out to your defense?”
She hesitated before taking his hand and nodding. She led him to a small clearing just outside of the town. Kendall glanced up into the sky and smiled at the two moons appearing over the tree tops. At least something here was familiar.
“I’m not from here,” he stated, giving her hand a squeeze.
She nodded. “You’re not from down south, either.”
He shook his head. “By the moons, you’ll think I’m crazy and you’ll hate me.” He paused. “Look, just… can you promise me something? Can you promise me that before you start screaming for help you’ll take a minute and think about what I tell you?”
Neeka’s eyes widened and she swallowed nervously. “Are you going to hurt me?”
Kendall gazed into her eyes. “No. Absolutely not. I promise that whatever happens, I will not hurt you.” He waited until the words sank in. “Am I telling the truth?”
“Alright. I’m from Quelondain.”
“No one but the Gysps cross the sea.”
“Up until this morning, I’d have agreed with you. However, here I am.” He shrugged.
“Magic.” When she looked like she was about to run, he took her other hand in his. “Neeka, where I come from, magic is an everyday thing. Magic wielders help beings with their skills. A good friend of mine, Hayden, is a magic wielder. She was working on her displacement spell and the next thing I knew, I was here.”
He could see her rolling what he’d said through her mind.
“You’re not lying.” It wasn’t a question.
He shook his head. “I need to find a way to get home.”
“Couldn’t your magic wielding friend bring you back?”
Kendall smiled. She was trying to help him. “I don’t think so. Hayden has issues with that spell.”
“So, the way you talk about shifters…” She looked at him closely. “Do you have some there?”
He nodded. “We do.”
“Are they hunted there as well?”
“They were. The thing about the shifters in Quelondain is that they outnumber the humans there. There are two kinds; the Namaels and the Majs. The Namaels turn into cats like tigers, lions, and leopards while the Majs turn into dogs. Wolves, coyotes, and that sort of things. In Quelondain, humans and shifters live side by side. They’re allies.”
“So, you have seen some.”
He ran a hand over his face. What was the best way to reveal he wasn’t human? Simply shifting was definitely the easiest, though the whole ordeal might be a bit much for her to handle.
“How do you tell shifters apart from humans here?” he inquired.
“They’ve a mark behind their ear. Some say three spots, others swear it’s two lines, while others argue it’s a half moon.”
Kendall unconsciously reached over and smoothed the lines on her brow. “Three different types of shifters and none of them Namaels or Majs. Did you know you frowned a lot?”
“Only since I’ve met you.” The frown returned. “What mark do your shifters carry?”
“The Majs, the dog shifters, have a crescent.”
“And the cats? The Nam….”
“Namaels.” He leaned down, brushed the hair from his neck, and let her look behind his ear at the straight line that marked him.
Instead of running for all she was worth, Neeka took a deep breath to calm herself. He’d promised he wouldn’t hurt her. Had he been the evil thing she’d been brought up to believe, he would have killed her and Hanna as soon as they’d seen him.
Kendall jumped at the feel of her finger running along the mark lightly.
“Does it hurt when your elders brand you?”
He straightened and couldn’t help laughing. “What?”
“When you’re small, you’re branded, yeah?”
“By the moons, who told you that? Of course not! We’re born with them.” He cocked his head to the side. “You’re alright?”
“I… I don’t know. You just seem so human. I pictured animals and teeth and bloodlust.”
He smiled. “I’m very human, Neeka. I just happen to turn into a cat when I hunt.”
“What kind of cat,” she whispered.
The sound of voices coming near made him think of something.
“If you’re caught with a shifter, what happens to you?”
“Any human found helping a shifter or is found out to have known of a shifter’s whereabouts but hasn’t reported it to the authorities is hung.”
“Bloody hell.” He fought the urge to shift so he could better hear. “You’d better go. Someone’s coming.”
“But they think you’re human.”
“I’m not willing to take that chance.” He pulled her into a hug. “Thank you.”
“For what?” She looked up at him.
“For not running away screaming.” He pressed his lips to her never ending frown.
“Get away from her, you bastard!”
“Brian! Get away! We were just talking!” She stepped around Kendall and put herself between him and the four men.
“That’s not what it looks like from here!” Brian’s gaze left hers and moved to Kendall. “She’s already intended to a good man. Back off!”
Kendall held his hands up to show he meant to harm. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble, chum. I was just thanking the lady for listening to me while I babbled on about my troubles.”
“You’ve a funny way of thanking ladies,” accused Brian’s friend. He pulled his dagger and the other three men followed suit.
“Brian!” Neeka took a step toward her guardian.
“And you!” Brian’s face was crimson with anger. “It looks like you need a reminder of how a lady should behave.”
Whatever feelings were crashing into each other within Kendall, they completely disappeared at Brian’s words.
“You won’t touch a hair on her head.” It was his turn to step between the pair.
“Yeah? And what are you going to do about it?”
Kendall took two seconds to make a decision. He wouldn’t have her get in trouble for something she hadn’t done.
“How about this. A fight. I win, I leave tonight and whatever lesson you feel Neeka needs to learn is forgotten. If I lose, I’ll take her punishment.”
Kendall watched as Brian took a step forward. What he hadn’t quite anticipated was the fact that his challenge would bring all four men after him. By the moons, these people were crazy! He didn’t even have a dagger! He dodged to the left to avoid Brian’s blade, all the while grabbing the blond man’s arm and tripping him.
Neeka screamed as the third man’s dagger slid across Kendall’s forearm, drawing blood. Kendall’s instincts took over and he felt his bones rearrange as he shifted into a tiger. The men surrounding him stood still with shock. He noticed two of them looking angrily between the tiger and Neeka who was gawking at him. They knew she knew!
Neeka’s eyes widened as he leapt at her, effectively knocking her to the ground. They had to believe she had no clue. Her eyes were filled with fear as he bared teeth and growled. One of the men rammed his shoulder into his side and Kendall used the momentum to turn and leap off into the woods.
The last image to burn itself into his mind was that of Neeka, standing with the help of her guardian, tears streaming down her face, while another three men ran into the clearing.