There was lively music in the long room, several men with instruments, some rising to dance with each other. Hawthe threw the die, coming up with the red dot, the bells ringing from the main plateau, but he was delayed talking to Gunn. Hawthe went upstairs. Only a few moments later, a knock came at the door. Hawthe walked and opened it, already naked.
The woman came in, long brown hair, pretty. They were all pretty. He closed the door behind himself. She pulled off the cloak. He got a chair, setting it down in the center of the parlor. He sat, gesturing to himself.
She got down on her hands and knees and crawled to him. Hawthe watched impassively. It wasn’t something that aroused him, but she could choose whatever means of getting here that made sense to her as long as she sucked his cock when she arrived. She finally did, kneeling between his legs, touching his cock. He was leaving her free of rope because he had other plans. He sometimes liked to chase them and pin them down to spank them and then fuck them. She’d understand what he wanted.
She licked up his length as he hardened, taking him into her mouth. Hawthe released his breath, the sensations pleasurable, his hand resting on her head, then behind her head to grasp her hair, bringing her down on himself. The woman gagged the way he liked, soft pressure, his sex large. He began to thrust into her mouth, the woman trying to breathe, gagging again.
He flinched when something raked his shoulder, turning. He had forgotten. Whenever he’d thrown the red dot for a woman, he’d put the little animal on the plateau with some food. He would let her back in later and she would growl as soon as she got into the parlor, jealous, probably scenting the women, stiff with him until she got over it.
The small creature was hovering, snarling at the woman, the ridge of fur on the animal’s back standing up, nothing he’d ever seen her do before. The woman drew his cock out of her mouth and looked up, surprised.
Hawthe winced as the animal screamed high and swooped, grabbing at the woman’s hair with her claws, who ducked, the woman’s hand coming up, both of them screaming now. Hawthe leaned back and watched, his cock still hard, not bothering to try to stop it. He wasn’t allowed to speak to the woman and the little animal wouldn’t be able to hear him over her own snarling.
“Fuck’s sake,” he muttered, watching.
The woman grabbed her cloak, putting it around herself, his little menace still swooping on her. Hawthe shook his head and rose, turning and walking into his bedchamber to escape the chaos, hearing the door slam. He sat on his bed and turned his head, looking at his shoulder as the small animal returned and landed beside him, still growling, her wings out, her fur standing up in the ridge down her back.
“You clawed me, fearsome,” Hawthe said, his fingers coming back bloody, the area stinging. The scratches weren’t deep, but still.
Her ridge immediately came down, her wings coming to her sides. Her long neck extended, looking at his fingers and then peering at his back. She made a distressed sound, rushing over to him, her front paws bracing on his leg, looking at his face. She looked so dismayed. He kept his face stern—she couldn’t be encouraged to hurt him—but he forgave her in a moment. She looked at his face again and ran to the edge of the bed and dropped to the ground, turning around and going under it. His mouth twitched. Too stern, maybe.
Hawthe got up and followed. He went down on one knee, lifting the bedcover, looking. She was curled up in a tight ball with her back to him.
“Come out, fearsome,” he said. “I’m not angry.” When she didn’t move, he returned to sit on the bed. “But since you can’t pleasure me, next time I have a guest, I’m going to put you in the storage room.”
She made an indignant, choked noise. Hawthe stretched out, leaning back, crooking his leg, touching himself idly, his fingers running up his cock. He had wanted a woman’s mouth on him. It was his own fault. He’d just forgotten. The little animal was too smart. He’d throw the die tomorrow.
Hawthe woke, deeply aroused. It was completely dark in the room and his cock was being pleasured, a mouth taking him. He released his breath, the sensations too good, his cock sensitive. It had been going on for a while.
His hands came down, finding soft hair, long, so much of it, silky, a fragile shoulder and then a breast, firm and very round, the softest skin, his hands withdrawing and his hips lifting. It was a woman, but she wasn’t supposed to be here. Hawthe was trying to think past the pleasure. She suddenly took him deeply into her throat.
Hawthe grunted as she swallowed around him. He began to thrust sharply, the urge uncontrollable. His hand reached for her head to keep her there, to fuck her throat, but he dropped it because it wasn’t necessary. She was taking him, not seeming to have any difficulty, her lips touching the hair at the bottom of his shaft firmly. His cock convulsed with pleasure, moving in her throat, his thrusts becoming urgent and irregular, his hands clutching the bedclothes. He would deal with who she was in a fucking moment.
He was going to come. He went rigid, his hips lifting and tilting, feeling the delicious gentle suction, softness and warmth, and then he went over the edge, the sensations taking him. He cried out and thrust, trying to get deeper as she swallowed again around him. Pleasure washed through him, going on as he pulsed. His thighs strained as she drew the last of it from him and then she released him.
He was panting, staring into the darkness, feeling her withdrawal. No woman had ever taken him in her throat that well. He reached for her, but his hands only found air. He sat up quickly, still panting, reaching again. Nothing. He found the lamp. He finally lit the wick, picking it up and raising it, looking at the room.
It was empty. He looked around himself. Nobody.
Hawthe stood up, making a noise of disbelief, walking and looking in his wardrobe. He went down the short tunnel, but the door to the plateau was locked. He came back and looked in the parlor, behind the desk. There was nowhere to hide. He went down on a knee, looking under the bed.
The little animal was in the same place, still curled up against the wall, her back to him, asleep. She usually slept on his chest. She looked up at him, sleepy and blinking. He straightened. She hadn’t reacted to a stranger, and she would. The window was closed, the door locked. There was nowhere to hide. He could feel the after-effects of strong pleasure in his body, his spine relaxed.
He couldn’t exactly complain. But he didn’t believe in shades, and certainly not ones that went around sucking the cocks of the men they haunted. He slowly got back in bed, lying down again on his back. “Come here, fearsome,” he said, inviting her.
He waited and then he saw her as she jumped onto the bed soundlessly, her wings tucked to her sides, her horns arcing, soft white fur. She walked to him and he reached for her, lifting her onto his chest. She curled up, drawing her wing over her face like she did. He put his hand on her, her fur soft, how she liked it, the little animal sighing, and reached to douse the lamp.
He looked up into blackness, feeling the little animal breathing slower under his hand, his own breathing getting more even. She smelled good tonight, that clean scent that was always so strangely pleasurable. He was abruptly asleep again.
Hawthe woke in the morning. The little animal was still asleep on his chest. He thought about the night before and decided he wouldn’t mind a few more dreams like that, definitely. There was nothing else it could have been. He raised his head as the animal raised hers, looking at him. She leaned and put her forehead against his, his favorite thing she did, staring into his eyes, hers green. He slowly smiled.
It occurred to him. He pulled away. “Did you turn into a woman last night and suck my cock until I came, fearsome?”
Her green eyes studied him and then she turned, jumping off him and then lightly onto the window recess. He got up and opened it. She spread her wings and leaped off, gliding, moving in dipping circles down into the forest far below to hunt her breakfast.
Hawthe got into the large tub, sitting, leaning back, letting it soak him for a time. The bath, fed by a spring and heated in the stove kept there, was another thing he appreciated about being legatus. It was hot, clean water in a deep rock pool, drained by pulling aside the rock at the bottom that held the water back, released outside. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw the small animal on the edge of the slippery rock across from him, uncanny balance, staring at him, her green eyes unblinking. She was so quiet sometimes.
“Well?” he said. “Get in.”
She looked down at the water, shifting her weight and he saw it, surging forward, his hands reaching for her too late as one foot went out from under her. Her wings fluttered open in a vain attempt at a last save and she went straight in, face-first and ass-end-up, a large plume of water rising, one of the clumsiest things he’d ever seen her do. It had that exquisitely comic quality that comes from a misstep of the truly graceful. He burst out laughing.
She immediately came up, swimming furiously, her face wet and her fur plastered to her. She growled and went under, streaking toward him. She could swim, definitely. Her head broke the water right in front of him, all her limbs moving as he leaned back again in the large tub.
“Remember the claws,” he said, but she was as careful as she always was, crawling onto his bare chest, slipping again, unable to get any purchase without using them. He supported her until she was on him. Her head came up on her long neck and she slowly leaned forward and put her forehead against his, staring into his eyes intently, still his favorite thing she did.
Hawthe grinned again as she pulled back. He’d never met a more intelligent animal. He couldn’t believe how attached to her he was. She was a pain in the ass sometimes, but he didn’t care even a little. She wouldn’t be so fun if she wasn’t. “Happy to help, fearsome. Here, then. Let’s get you clean,” he said, getting the soap, rubbing it on his hands and beginning to wash her fur.
She loved baths, and a hot bath was her idea of a wondrous thing, like she’d never imagined anyone could come up with an invention so brilliant. The first time he’d filled it and she’d realized the water was heated, she’d let loose with a series of sounds that had him laughing so hard, running from him to the pool and back.
She stayed still for it as he got all of her. When it was time to rinse, she turned around, dunking under repeatedly, swimming, and then came back to him. He finally grabbed her and stood up with her in his arms, dripping, getting a towel. He got out, putting her on the towel to dry her, moving her to the bed, careful not to rub her feathers.
She straightened her wings, flapping to get water off, Hawthe leaning back and squinting, her fur mussed and sticking up and going everywhere. He straightened and laughed down at her.
She growled, sitting on her haunches, her claws beginning to rake through her fur busily, preening. He tossed the towel over a chair and got back in the bath. He watched as she finished setting herself to rights, a neat animal, and curled up on his Shapper bedcover, which she adored and had entirely claimed for herself. She blended into it, her own fur still damp.
Hawthe stood and washed himself, rinsing, finally getting out, glancing to see her watching him from between slitted eyes, a gleam of green. She closed them. He combed his hair, sitting on the bed next to her. “Come here, fearsome,” he said, gesturing.
She came to him, her front paws braced on his leg. He ran the comb through her fur, soft like down, another thing she liked. She moved with it, helping him, seeming to enjoy it.
When he was tired, he lay back, his leg crooked. She came to him and he lifted her onto his chest. It was where she liked to sleep, right over his heart. If he didn’t put here there, she’d be there anyway when he woke, and he admitted he liked it. She pulled her wing over her eyes, the way she always slept. This close, he could smell the soap and her. She just had the most pleasing scent, like cool wind and fresh water and high places with delicate wildflowers. His hand landed on her where he liked to put it. She gave a deep sigh, raising his hand briefly.
Hawthe came into the long room, pissed. The little animal didn’t bother him when he was like this, following him flying. She swept into the long room from the window and flew to the perch the men had made her. They’d had her for a little over a year now, the men pleased when she didn’t appear to want to leave them. She was watching Hawthe, growling low in general, upset.
He turned to Gunn, pulling him aside as two of his men were carried in, the long room serving as a makeshift infirmary, the healer on her way. He and Gunn both turned to watch as the little animal flowed to the litters and up to Fossie, who had an arrow in his leg. She stood beside him and looked at his face. He turned his head. She chirped, putting her front paws on his chest, touching his cheek with her nose. Fossie’s mouth crooked for all he was in pain.
She moved on to Pritas, who had a bandage on his face, the best they could do in the field. She tutted at him and his good eye shifted to her, his hand coming up. She climbed onto his chest and he touched her fur, stroking her side, the first Hawthe had seen her allow something like that.
“Don’t fear, Dove,” Pritas said, his hand dropping, his name for her. “I’ll be fine.”
Hawthe pulled Gunn aside. “They knew the patrol would be there,” Hawthe said, speaking to him low. “That wasn’t luck. The Scathians anticipated our movement. That was an ambush that shouldn’t have been able to happen. Pritas will lose the eye, fuck’s sake.”
“You know what you’re saying?” Gunn said, grim.
“None of the servants or the trainers knew. Only the men.”
“I don’t believe one of The Fifty would betray his brothers.”
“Maybe it wasn’t done on purpose,” Hawthe said, running his hand through his hair. “Go talk to the Citadel Mesdame, see if anyone’s been blathering during sex. If he talks to one, he probably tends to talk to all of them.”
Hawthe turned away, frustrated, the little animal flying to his shoulder, quiet and still, her weight welcome. A Scathian spy at Anwen Citadel. He didn’t want to believe it.
Six days later, the Scathian raiders attacked Imber while they were on deep patrol, his men spotting the smoke rising. By the time they got there, eight Carthusians were dead and a part of the city was on fire. Three days after that, one of his patrols was ambushed again, Mers with a broken arm that would leave him down for a couple of months.
Hawthe no longer thought anything was an accident, and regardless of whether or not he wanted to believe it, he was increasingly certain he was going to be the first legatus to have a traitor in The Fifty.
The next morning, Hawthe raised his fist, looking up, his black hair across his eyes before he shook it back. Summer was waning again, autumn on its way, the wind up and the leaves turning colors, a pretty time. They were on patrol, all of them alert.
She hovered and then dropped straight down like a rock, her wings tucked. At the last moment, she reversed, opening them, landing on her back feet first, weightless and then heavy, her front feet landing between them, her claws digging into his vambrace.
The horses had been skittish of her at first, but they were used to her by now and didn’t react. She crawled up Hawthe’s arm to his shoulder, crouching, her tail wrapping around his neck. She had remarkable balance, a graceful animal. She pressed her nose against his ear, a sharp tug on his earlobe with her teeth, although she never broke the skin.
“Don’t gnaw on my ear, fearsome,” Hawthe said, pulling away, what he always said. He turned his head, meeting green eyes. “Did you find something good to eat?”
The animal’s tongue came out, licking her lips, and he grinned. She understood him when he spoke, he swore she did. He turned his head and watched as she began to preen, smoothing her fur with her claws, so curiously feminine when she did that.
“You look very pretty today, fearsome,” he assured her, earning him a sidelong glance from under those lashes and another affectionate tug on his ear with her teeth. He dug into his pouch, getting dried meat. He held it out and she took it in a claw, sitting up on her hind legs to eat it, effortless. “Nice to have food you don’t have to work for, I imagine, although I appreciate it that you earn your keep.”
She warbled, agreeing, content.
Gunn came up on his right, riding his horse next to Hawthe. “I don’t know where she’s putting it. Dow said he saw her take down a fat rabbit,” Gunn said, stretching out his fist. “The little beast got hold of it, took it up high enough, and dropped it.”
She had all sorts of nicknames his men had given her. Hawthe had never named her, not that way. Who knew what her real name was? She immediately leaned far and stretched her long neck, touching her nose to Gunn’s knuckles and returning, stuttering at him, greeting him. She liked the men and they liked her.
But she was clearly Hawthe’s.
Hawthe moved ahead of his men, scouting. She moved out onto his arm and began to flap, getting what she needed. He stiffened his arm and heaved upward, his arm dipping under her weight as she pushed off at the same moment, how they’d worked it out, graceful. He watched with a small smile as she flapped, her wings powerful, catching wind, climbing until she was smaller above him. He liked her very much. She just pleased him, everything about her.
Something big went across his vision and hit her fast. Hawthe sat up in the saddle, stopping the horse, hearing his men cry out behind him. His eyes swept the sky, trying to track her, seeing movement. He found her. His gut sank.
An eagle had her. It was about the only thing in the sky big enough to take her down, and it had come out of nowhere. It was huge.
Hawthe ran the horse in that direction, his men behind as the two figures plummeted down in a struggling tangle and at a sharp angle. He slowed, watching so he didn’t lose her. He could hear the little animal snarling at the huge eagle even from here, giving it all she had, fighting with everything in her.
But the eagle was many times her size, much heavier, and its beak and claws were deadly.
They hit somewhere he couldn’t see, just past the ridge. He was already throwing himself off his horse and running. It had happened so fast, Hawthe feeling a keen wave of loss, knowing there was no way she had made it. Knowing he was probably going to be just in time to see her being torn apart and eaten like a rabbit, her soft white fur and pretty horns. He raced uphill and topped the ridge.
He slowed as he saw two forms on the ground. He reached them, not noticing he was breathing fast. He stopped over them, staring.
Neither one was the little animal. The eagle was there, a wingspan as wide as he was tall, its beak open and its head flung back, rigid, its tongue black, very obviously dead.
Next to the dead bird was a very beautiful, very naked woman, lying on her back.
Her face was turned to the side, her eyes closed, long dark lashes, her full lips parted and pink. He tried to take her in, shaking his head. He’d never seen a more beautiful woman. Her skin was creamy, her hair so blonde it was white. It was long, silky, falling all over her and around her. Her leg was scored with claw marks, not deep, his eyes darting. Round breasts, large nipples, dark pink tips, just curvy all over.
She suddenly sat up, drawing air in and coughing. He realized she’d had the wind knocked out of her. From the fall, he thought a little distractedly. Her hips were round and turned to the side under a little waist, her feet tucking underneath her gracefully, sweet thighs and white hair even between her legs, her breasts jiggling. He felt it in his gut, looking at her, aroused by her. She was just all feminine, soft skin and her little pussy and that pink in her nipples. He heard his men coming and swept off his cloak, putting it over her.
She looked up. Hawthe froze. He knew those green eyes, the black center of them round now. She coughed again.
“Hawthe,” she said, looking up at him, recognition in her face, breathing fast. “I fell.”