Outrunning a winter storm in the north, Captain Faran of the King's Guard leads his men and a young mage named Meric to shelter at Bitterwood Manor, the ancestral home of the Daenes. Faran and his troops have been searching for weeks for a mysterious, lion-like beast that reportedly haunts the uncharted northern woods. For Meric, finding that prophesied cat is a matter of life and death.
Though Faran is deeply focused on their mission, the enigmatic Joss Daene, Lord of Bitterwood, fascinates him. Strong and proud, Joss is everything Faran wants in a lover. More, if he were honest. But Joss belongs to Bitterwood, and Faran to his duty.
Together they will need to brave the oldest, darkest part of the Bitterwood in the coldest, deepest snows of winter to find the legendary cat. But time is running out—for Meric, for the kingdom, and for Faran and Joss’s fledgling love.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, previously published elsewhere.)
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The manor was typical for a backwoods holding: a wooden structure built over a high stone undercroft, the arches closed with heavy oak doors, a wooden staircase leading to a gallery above the undercroft. It looked small against the great dark forest at its back—mountainous pines and leafless oaks loomed black against the lowering sky. A long, low building off to the left had the high, wide doors of stables; beside it stood an empty smithy. Across the barren farmyard were other smaller outbuildings, all within the log palisade wall. Smoke curled from two stone chimneys at either end of the manor building, but there was no other sign of life—no animals in the yard, no men posted on the long wooden gallery above the stone croft, no smoke from the smithy.
It had been a long, difficult journey, in the bitterest part of winter, with no certainty that what they searched for even existed. The prophesy about their young mage was such a vague prognostication that Captain Faran would have tossed it off as nonsense under normal circumstances.
But these were far from normal circumstances. Why else would ten of the king’s troops, including their skeptical captain, be sent off to chase wild geese—particularly in company with such a frail, precious guide? The wild goose being a mysterious golden beast. And a master mage. Somewhere in the north.
And time was running out.
Faran glanced at Meric. Behind them, horses’ feet stamped impatiently on packed snow, the jingle of harness oddly muted in the heavy silence under the leaden sky.
“They’re here,” Meric said in a low voice that rasped with weariness. “Watching. Hail them—we’ve not much time before the storm hits, and we need to be under cover.”
“Aye,” Faran said, then stood in his stirrups and shouted, “Ho the house!” He let his mount take a stride or two forward. Meric followed. Faran said, “You should stay back, milord.”
“Why?” Meric said dryly. “I’m only a mage.”
Faran gave him a quick glance, to see his drawn, pale face calm, with no sign of the bitterness Faran himself would have felt in the same situation. “For now,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t change what you are in truth.”
“What is truth, Captain?” Meric said with a chuckle. He drew his wool cloak closer around his shoulders and waited patiently.
Not for long—a smaller door opened in one of the large wood doors and a man came out. Alone, with a short sword in one hand, a heavy fur cloak around his shoulders. Beneath the cloak he wore a leather brigandine stitched with metal plates. He walked toward them with a steady pace, his gait relaxed and his sword pointed at the ground. Faran watched him stop a few yards away and push back the hood of the cloak.
“Gentlemen?” he said.
The neat goatee framing his mouth was flecked with silver, and there were laugh lines at the corners of the dark eyes. A handsome man, tall and hawkish, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties. The lord of this manor? A chief man-at-arms? There was nothing in his dress to say one thing or another, but the assurance in his step made Faran think it was probably the former.
“Milord,” Faran said, “I beg shelter for my troop. We are king’s men out of Nabaranth on a mission for his majesty, and our mage warns us of bad weather approaching.”
The man glanced at the heavy clouds overhead and said dryly, “One need not be a mage to warn you of that.”
Movement in the corner of Faran’s eye caught his attention, and he looked up at the gallery of the house before him. Where the gallery had once been empty, a pair of archers, one at either end, now stood, their arrows nocked but the bows undrawn.
“That is true,” Faran said, “but does not lessen the urgency.”
“No,” the man agreed.
“My name is Captain Faran, and I carry the king’s writ.” Faran fumbled at the strings of the leather tube that held his documents. “It requests all necessary aid from his subjects to advance our quest. We require immediate assistance on an urgent mission of vital importance.” He stripped off his glove, his fingers tingling in the bitter air, and drew out the rolled parchment. He held it toward the man.
The man looked at the roll, then at him, then finally stepped forward to take it. Before Faran could hand it to him, though, Meric made a soft sound and pitched slowly forward off his mount.
The man on foot was already sheathing his sword, and he drew off his cloak in one smooth movement, swirling it around to wrap Meric as he caught him mid-fall, and hoisted him into his arms as if he were a small child and not a man grown. “Your mage needs shelter, right enough,” the man said. “I am called Joss Daene, and this is Bitterwood Manor. Your men may stay in the stable with their horses—it is empty, but there is a hearth at the smithy end and wood enough for two or three days. Water they’ll have plenty of in a few hours, but for now the trough is full. Settle them, then come up to the house. I would talk to you more.” He turned and walked away, back toward the undercroft, Meric in his arms.
Faran slid from his saddle and tossed the reins to his sergeant. “Settle the men. I’ll check with you shortly,” he said, and followed Daene. He caught up with them a few strides away; the man glanced at him but said nothing, merely continued to walk. The door Daene had come through swung open again, and a man-at-arms held it for him. He gave Faran a suspicious look, but Daene merely said, “Let him in, Orin,” and kept going into the surprisingly large space.
Inside, it was crowded with horses and sheep among the crates and barrels of a well-stocked storage place, and redolent of animal smells and the sharp, dusty tang of hay. Several men-at-arms sat on barrels, pikes and halberds at hand, and watched Faran with the same suspicious look as the one at the door. A half-dozen shaggy wolfhounds lay at their sides, wearing the same expression.
Daene led the way to a stone staircase at the back end of the undercroft, still carrying Meric, who seemed to have recovered from his swoon and was muttering in an undertone.
“Shut up,” Daene said in an amused tone. “You’ll only fall down if I let you go, and I’ve no wish to have you cluttering up this place—it’s already too crowded.”
“Sir,” one of the halberds-men said, “I can carry him for you . . .”
“You shut up, too. Captain, this is my sergeant-at-arms, Wuluf. Wuluf, Captain Faran of the king’s service. His men are resident in the stables. Looks like we’ll need that guide rope from here to there after all. Go check and see that they are properly provisioned.” Daene started up the steps.
“My sergeant’s name is Aldin,” Faran told Wuluf. “They should have sufficient provisions for three or four days, but if there is anything you need to confirm with them, please do. I shall be with my mage.” He nodded at the sergeant and followed Daene.
The stone steps ended at a heavy oak door, much like the ones that barricaded the outside entrance. Faran approved. Thick, old oak like this would be like iron—nearly as difficult to penetrate as stone would be and less likely to crack on impact. Even should an attacker breach the stone walls of the lower level, this door would bar further incursion; there was too little room for a battering ram. And the wooden stairs on the outside would be easy enough to tear down before an intruder could climb them, leaving the upper croft inaccessible.
“Slate roof?” he asked Daene curiously. A slate roof would repel fire arrows, so with the iron oak the building looked to be made of, the place was well-nigh unbreachable.
The lord glanced over his shoulder as the oak door opened for him. “Of course. Snows are too heavy this far north for anything but.”
Faran shouldered through the door into the upper hall, an open area full of people and furnishings. It made the hall seem small, but the manor was far larger than he had thought. Up against the ancient woods it had appeared tiny and fragile, like a dolls’ house, but it was nearly the size of the viceroy’s house in Nabaranth. There had to be near a hundred people in the hall alone—men, women, and children, all busy with some task or other. The nearest glanced up at them as they entered, but the rest went about their business.
An older woman rose from her place at a loom and followed Daene and Faran to another door, this one smaller, more human-sized. She skirted around them to open it, and followed them in.
Two younger men with Daene’s features were sitting at a table playing dice. They both started up with guilty expressions on their handsome faces, but Daene ignored them and went to one of the two beds in the room—a broad, heavily built one with a thick mattress and rich hangings. He laid Meric on the bed and drew blankets up over him, tossing the fur cloak to the younger of the two men.
“Hang that up,” he said curtly.
“Aye, Father,” the young man replied, and took it to a hook on the far wall.
“Who is that?” the other asked. He appeared to be a handful of years older than his brother—by their resemblance, they could be nothing but brothers. And sons to the lord of this manor, no doubt; they’d yet to grow into his lean hawkishness, but the resemblance was true enough. “Where did they come from at this time of year?”
“Nabaranth,” Faran said, and the boys both looked at him wide-eyed.
“Eidar, go check with Wuluf and see that a rope is tied between the stables and the door. Don’t go into the stables—let Wuluf deal with the strangers.” Daene glanced at Faran. “No offense meant.”
“None taken,” Faran said. To the older boy, he said, “We’re King’s Guard on a mission, be-weathered. I’m grateful for your hospitality. I’ll come with you. I just wanted to see Meric settled before returning to my men.”
“You’re welcome to bunk here with your mage if your sergeant is up to dealing with your troops,” Daene said. “I’m sure we’ll all enjoy hearing about life in the big city. Winter is tedious at the best of times.”
“And brutal at the worst.” Faran nodded.
“This is Captain Faran. Eidar, my eldest,” Daene said. “And Eissa, my younger. And this is my sister, Senna.”
The woman, who had begun concocting something in a pitcher from ingredients taken from jars lining the mantel, flapped a hand at him in greeting, her attention on her work.
“Who’s this?” Eissa asked, crouching beside the bed.
Meric turned his head to look at the boy. Faran watched as the young mage’s eyes widened. “Who are you?” he whispered, his face dazed.
“My name is Eissa,” the boy whispered back. From where Faran stood, he could see Eissa’s expression—just as dazed and astounded as Meric’s. “And I’m going to take care of you.”
Senna glanced up, startled. Daene froze, his hand on the bed-curtain he was about to draw on the opposite side of the bed to shut out any drafts from the outside wall.
“Yes,” Meric said in a low voice, “I know.”
Eidar said, “Father?”
“You and the captain go deal with his men,” Daene said curtly. He shot Faran a look. “I’ll speak to you later, Captain.”
Faran hesitated, but Meric tore his gaze from the young man crouched at his bedside and said, “Go. It will be fine.”
Senna said, “He will be fine, Captain.”
With a last sharp glance at Meric, Faran followed Eidar from the room.
* * * * * * *
“I’ve never seen that happen before,” Eidar said as they made their way back down the steps into the undercroft. “It was amazing.”
“You saw. That boy and Eissa. They just knew. Father said that sometimes happens with us Daenes, when we meet our true loves, but Eissa had a girl he liked. Or used to. Anyway, I didn’t even know he liked men. I don’t think he knew. And that boy—”
“Meric,” Faran supplied.
“—he knew, too! I’ve never heard of that happening. But he’s a mage, isn’t he? He has the look of it. Is he your battle-mage? He seems a bit frail for that.”
“He’s not our battle-mage. We’re not out for a fight—our mission is relatively peaceful.”
“Too bad,” Eidar said with all the innocence of youth. “I’ve never seen a battle-mage in action.”
“I wish I had not,” Faran said dryly. “Enjoy your youth, boy, while you can.”
They went out a side door nearer the stables, where the man Wuluf was tying a thick cord to a stone post at shoulder height. There were perhaps only a dozen yards between the stable door and manor, but the wind had already begun to bite, and a few flakes were starting to circle down from the lowering sky. Wuluf finished, then looked up at them. “Another quarter hour, I’m guessing, before she starts. You can check with your sergeant, but when I left them a moment ago they were settling in snugly.”
“I will. Thank you for setting the rope out.”
Wuluf grunted in lieu of thanks, but went on to say, “Animals can’t tend themselves, but men can. Your troops will be safe enough for three days, and the gale will blow itself out by then. So says me lord, and he’s never wrong.”
“You’d best go quickly,” Eidar said, shivering. “Father wants you to come back in. I’ll wait inside. Pull the bell rope when you’re back.” He pointed to a loop of cord hanging beneath the eaves.
“Fool,” Wuluf said, “not wearin’ a cloak. Get your arse indoors, boy, before you catch your death.”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” Faran said, and left them to their bickering.
Wuluf was right. The men were settled in. The stable boasted loose boxes rather than smaller stalls, which were filled with clean hay, and their horses were happily crunching on the grain in the mangers. The men were gathered around a small fire in the hearth on the far wall.
Sergeant Aldin rose when he saw Faran approaching down the long corridor between the stalls. “Sir. All settled, as ordered. That man-at-arms brought over fresh supplies—enough for a week.”
“Good,” Faran said. “I’ve been told it will be three days. Don’t gamble away your savings in the meantime.”
Faran regarded them all in the warm light from the hearth. “Ah, lads, I’d stay with you and enjoy it more, but Lord Meric is my primary responsibility this time.”
“Aye, sir. We’ve known that all along. And time’s precious.”
“True enough,” Faran said. “Good e’en, men. Rest well.” He hated to leave the warm circle of light. Most of the men had been with him five or more years, some since his first posting, and they’d all become friends on the various missions they’d undertaken for the king: first the true king, then his brutish successor, and now again for the true heir. There wasn’t one among them he wouldn’t trust with his life and, more importantly, with Meric’s life.
Thank all the gods that they’d found this place in time to take shelter and had Meric’s assurances that the folk here would be hospitable. Most of these outlying manors were, but he’d had some frightening experiences with some that weren’t. Here, though, the provender would be fresh and healthy and the shelter safe.
He found his mount in a loose box, along with his saddlebags and the important leather tube that held his writ. It wore a strange horse blanket with a yellow cat in rampant position stitched on one side. He stared at the cat a long moment, wondering if that was a sign or just a coincidence. Then with a sigh, he flung the bags over his shoulder and picked up the rest of his gear to carry back with him.
When he opened the door, the wind nearly took it from his hand, slamming it back against the wall and straining the hinges. With an effort, he shoved it closed and staggered against the wind to the side door.
It opened before he could reach for the cord, and hands drew him into the warmth of the undercroft. He looked up to thank Eidar, but it was Daene’s warm dark eyes that met his, and his strong hands that had pulled him in out of the wind. They stood wordless a moment in the dimness, then Daene pushed the heavy door closed and dropped the latch.
“I was beginning to worry,” Daene said. “The storm’s rising.”
“So I see,” Faran said.
“You’ll bunk with us, in our quarters,” his host said with a curt nod. “Eidar will sleep with the guards—you’ll share with Meric and I with Eissa.”
“Eissa and Meric,” Faran began, but Daene just shook his head.
“We’ll talk later. Let’s get you settled and fed. Your men are comfortable?”
Faran nodded. “In finer surroundings than many a man this night. Your stables are some of the best I’ve seen and well provisioned. My man said you sent over fresh food for them. I’m grateful.”
“Good. Come, then.”
Daene or someone had taken time in Faran’s absence to strip Meric down to his shirt and roll him snugly up in a thick, warm-looking robe and blankets. The bed-curtains were drawn on three sides, the side nearest the fire left open. His clothes were folded and set neatly on a bench by the bed, his boots placed on the floor beneath. He was awake, though, and gave Faran a faint smile as he, Daene, and Eidar came back into the room.
“Well tended, as you see,” Meric said to Faran. “And quite nearly warm.”
“Not warm enough,” Eissa said sternly from his perch on the side of the bed.
Daene smiled indulgently, then said to his patient, “You’ll be warmer once you get something inside you. You’ve not been eating well enough.”
Stung, Faran objected, “He eats the same food as the rest of us!”
“But not enough. It does no good on the outside, milord mage.” He put the pitcher Senna had been messing with earlier on the hearth to warm, and then stood, unbuckling the brigandine he wore and pulling it over his head. Faran tried not to notice the way the linen shirt, compressed by the weight of the leather and steel, clung to his broad chest and slim hips. Then Daene set the brigandine on the wooden armor stand in the corner and shook out the linen so the shirt belled out over his hips. He hooked the baldric with his sword over a peg and then went to a chest set against the brick wall beside the fireplace and took out a quilted coat and put it on. It came to below his knees, and was a rich, warm red. A second quilted coat, in blue, came out and was tossed to Faran, who caught it with a blink. “You’re cold, and that mail isn’t making you warmer. You’re safe enough for now—it’s not likely the manor will be attacked in a snowstorm.”
“The manor hasn’t been attacked in years,” Eissa assured Meric. “People are afraid of Father’s temper.”
“And wisely so,” Daene said.
Gratefully, Faran unlaced the sides of the chain mail shirt he wore and took it off, followed by the heavy canvas gambeson. Beneath, his shirt was grimy with days’ worth of sweat.
Apparently the manor’s lord noticed his grimace, and opened the chest again, taking out a linen shirt like the one he was wearing and handing it to him. “Leave that one,” he said, “and we’ll have it washed. No sense in being uncomfortable.”
Was it his imagination, or did Daene watch him strip with the same interest as Faran had watched him? He flicked his eyes upward, but the lord of the manor had turned back to the hearth, lifting the pitcher and pouring the contents into a cup. He moved past Faran to sit on the bed beside Meric.
Faran pulled the borrowed shirt over his head. The linen smelled like lemongrass and some spice, clean and fresh. The quilted coat, too, smelled crisply clean, and was warm from the brickwork of the wall behind the chest. It was clever, the construction of the wall the hearth was built into: brick was just as fireproof as stone but transferred heat much more efficiently. The hearth itself shared a back wall and chimney with the one in the room outside, so even if the fire died, the room would still be warmed by the fireplace on the other side. A sensible arrangement for a cold climate.
“I’m grateful for your generosity in giving us shelter.” Faran knelt by the hearth to warm his hands while his host fed the contents of the cup to Meric. Eissa sat beside Meric on the bed, his arm behind his shoulders to support him.
“The day Bitterwood can’t shelter a paltry ten men . . .”
“Eleven,” Faran corrected.
“. . . ten, and a boy,” Daene said sharply. He eased Meric back onto the pillows and poured another cup from a clay jug on the table. “The day that happens, I’ll give it over to my son and be damned to it. Two or three days, no more, and the weather will clear so you can go about your business. Whatever it is.”
“No secret,” Faran said, only marginally untruthful. The mission was no secret, just the purpose behind it. He took the cup Daene handed him and sipped at it. It was merely cider, but spiced with a warm, tangy scent. “What taste is this?”
“Cinnamon. It’s a spice from the western islands. I discovered it when I was in the capital years ago and still have friends who’ll keep me well stocked. So what is your mission, then?”
“We’re hunting,” Meric said weakly.
“Shh,” both men said to him, then exchanged a wry glance. Meric chuckled.
“Hunting what?” Daene asked.
“Rumors, mostly,” Faran sighed. “Of a great golden beast that ravages the countryside, and a ferocious mage that either controls him or holds the key to capturing him.”
The fire popped in the sudden silence. Eidar and Daene shared glances. Eissa stared at Faran with his mouth open. “I take it you’ve heard of them, then?” Faran said wryly.
“Aye, you might say that. The beast, at least,” Daene said. “The golden cat is the family device. There have been tales of it in the Bitterwood since White Andurel’s time.”
“A myth, then?” Faran demanded, disappointed. He’d hoped this place would hold more answers than they had already.
“No,” Meric said. He struggled to sit up. Eissa put his arm around him again and held him. “It’s not a myth. It’s real.”
“Many have tried to hunt it,” Daene said neutrally, “and failed to find it. I doubt you’ll be any more successful in capturing its pelt.”
“I don’t want its pelt!” Meric said. “It cannot be injured—I won’t permit it! It must not be hurt!”
“Shh,” Eissa said urgently.
Daene walked over to the fireplace. Leaning an arm on the mantel, he said into the flames, “What need have you to hunt it, if not for sport or fame?”
“That,” Faran said, “is the business of my troop and my king.”
His host whirled around, his eyes hot. “What happens in the Bitterwood is my business, and as for your king . . .” He snorted in disdain.
Faran glanced hurriedly at Meric, who seemed amused. Relieved, he turned back to Daene. “Your tone treads close to treason, coming from a man who holds this fief from the king’s hand.”
“I hold this fief not by the will of that vile, buggering bastard Baliesta, but from the hand of White Andurel himself,” Daene shot back.
“You’re older than you look,” Faran said with a grin.
After a moment, Daene laughed unwillingly. “All right, then,” he said. “Not me personally. But the whole of the north was put into my ancestor’s care centuries ago, and the Daene family takes that charge seriously, no matter who sits the throne in Ildelion. Were we to be stripped of our lands and exiled, we would find our way back here and would take up the responsibility once again.” He folded his arms and regarded Faran levelly. “In the Old Tongue, ‘daene’ means ‘bitter.’ Once the whole north country was known as the Daenewood. The name came from us, not the other way around.”