Written for one of my best buds, CK, for her birthday.
Of Wolves and Witches
Henry sat inside the stone circle with no small amount of trepidation. His father's advisors had insisted on it, and his brother had reinforced the thought with the threat of his fists. Since Edward's favorite pastime was catching him alone and seeing how much harm he could inflict without actually incapacitating Henry in some fashion, Henry had jumped at the chance to not be where Edward was.
That he was here to subdue the barbarian clan and groom them to be ruled by his supposedly more superior and more civilized people, seemed absurd. But he wasn't about to question his good fortune.
Of course, he'd been the one sent for a reason. In a royal family composed of six sons, there was only so much splintering of lands that could occur and for the power to be consolidated in his oldest brother's hands, then something had be done to subjugate and distract the younger boys.
And out of all his brothers, he'd been deemed the weakest.
His lack of interest in skewering people with swords like his brother William or sentencing people to death like his brother Charles reflected badly on the family. They'd sent him out here to this barren place to both get him out of the public eye, away from opportunistic grasping at the throne, and to toughen him up.
A trial by fire as it were.
Funny, but he'd never felt so ridiculous in his entire life. He was in a country peopled mostly by sheep, sitting on a crude rock throne in the middle of a fairy ring in the center of a stone circle.
"Bring forth the next lord," he tried to say with authority, but managed with only a squeak instead. To be honest, the mists curling around the stone pillars were unnerving in their otherworldliness and in spite of the overcast skies, the grass seemed overly green for such an early date in spring.
He decided not to even dwell on the thought that this far north the snows should be covering this particular hill the same way that it covered the rest of the village below.
"His lordship, the Wolf of Moray," Daniel practically bellowed in his ear. Shooting him a half-hearted glare, Henry watched the knight smirk in return. The handful of knights and noblemen who had come with him on this expedition and not done so for the glory and fortune involved, but because they'd known Henry since he'd been a babe. It wasn't so much that they viewed him as their lord and master as they delighted in ribbing him and came out of concern and affection.
And since the vast majority of them were as old, if not older than his father, they'd come with him only because they were too elderly to stay and serve his father or his brothers.
"So, you're the whelp that they've sent to pacify us."
Henry jerked himself out of his thoughts to face the clansman in front of him. "Lord Wolf," he managed somewhat awkwardly. The man before him was tall--a great deal taller than Henry--but unlike some of the other men milling about with suspicious glares and sour expressions, he did not have an overly stocky build to go with the height. He wasn't exactly thin, but he failed to radiate the rigid inflexibility of Henry's brothers or the unyielding severity of Henry's father.
Of course, Charles and William would not have bothered with an appearance at the enemy's court, as bizarre a court as it might have been. They would have slain the infidel first, and thought of the consequences only when faced with them. And Edward…well, Edward would have delighted in capturing and then slowly torturing the enemy until they were as good as dead. Henry suppressed a shiver as the mists curled in around his feet.
Lord Wolf's blue eyes sparked with intelligence, however, and Henry was familiar enough with smirks like the one that graced his thin lips to know that what he lacked in bulk and mindless brutality, Lord Wolf would more than make up for in wily unpredictability and sharp cunning. His hair was black and prone to waves, unlike Henry's straw straight blond hair. He also looked a great deal more comfortable than Henry, not to mention warmer, with his plaid draped around him, clasped together at one shoulder.
"So, you're the witch they've sent from the South to come and rule us all," Lord Wolf said scornfully, gesturing around at the crowd of clansmen around them that far out numbered the beleaguered and elderly troops Henry had standing protectively around him.
In all honesty, Henry had been expecting this confrontation to occur long before now. That the villagers had bought into the idea that he possessed the art of witchcraft merely because his eyes did not match each other in color had worked in his favor. Daniel had seen to it, as well, that all sorts of outlandish rumors had been spread amongst the populace, assuring them that Henry was capable of great and wicked acts of unnaturalness.
"I am he," Henry returned carefully, ignoring Daniel's snort and jab to the back of the ribs that was supposed to be a reminder to sound more authoritative. To be honest, Henry didn't see much of a purpose in antagonizing these people. They lived simply and as far as his eldest brother had conquered these lands, there hadn't been much of a point in acquiring them past the fact that these same simple people were rumored invincible due to their dark alliance with the Devil.
That Edward had conquered them was merely a nod to Edward's utter ruthlessness.
Ruling the conquered lands, however, was merely a technicality to his family.
Turning to the crowd the Wolf of Moray raised his arms to address them, and Henry wanted to pound his head against one of the stone pillars that surrounded him for giving the man the opportunity. "I see no fiery red eyes, no dripping fangs. With all due respect, your highness," the man scorned, "you do not look capable of raising the dead or chewing off the heads of rats to brew potions to frighten my people. In fact, I'd have to say that a stiff breeze very well might do you in. Why, it's positively warm outside, and you're shivering in that thing you barbarians have insisted on placing in the midst of our holy grounds." Wolf gestured to the crude throne that the oldest (and most senile) of his knights, Hansel, had insisted that they erect and Henry hadn't had the patience to reason him out of constructing.
He was sure it was only the ice cold winds whipping around his cheeks that kept them from coloring in embarrassment.
Henry didn't know whether to agree with this Lord Wolf or give into the nausea climbing up his throat. "I never claimed to be any of those things," he returned with more calm than he was feeling, knowing that his knights were mentally groaning over the fact that he hadn't outright ordered the man in front of him hung at such traitorous slander. "I am not here to conquer," he continued steadily. "My brother has already seen to that, and will most likely see to it again if he thinks it's necessary. I am here to bridge the gap between our peoples and to ensure that there is less bloodshed now than there has been in the past."
It only irked him slightly that both his knights and every lord in attendance looked at him as if he'd just announced he was going to fly around on a broom naked whilst reciting spells to the devil.
"Do you take us for fools?" Wolf bit out sardonically. "Your brother," he spat, "butchered a third of my people so that he could claim to be supreme ruler of this land and here you come to affirm that those men, women and children died for nothing but so that he could claim us as another jewel in his crown? Unacceptable. You're free to try and talk to those lords left who will deign to be seen in your glorious presence, but I, for one, feel undeserving of the talks."
The Wolf of Moray bowed mockingly before turning sharply on his heel, marching confidently away from the stone circle. For that alone, Henry envied him. Being in the blasted circle unnerved him to sickness.
It was a pity too, that they were already enemies, because Henry might not have minded getting to know a lord so young who'd obviously gained a great deal of power, and yet managed to do what none of his brothers had been able to in the same position.
Wolf sat down and cradled his aching head in his hands. His hall was currently empty. Not that it would have been particularly full if everyone were here with him. They hadn't been a very numerous people before this, and the soon to be King Edward's carnage had whittled them down even farther. The men he had left were out helping with repairs and helping what peasants were left prepare to plant their crops and tend the flocks.
He knew what had inspired Edward to turn his hateful eyes in their direction. He'd warned the youngsters about stealing lovers away from their homes in the lower lands. It was all fine and dandy when it worked. They needed new blood to reinvigorate the clan from time to time. When it didn't, however, there were usually repercussions. Most of the time, it was an angry father railing at them to do well by a daughter or a wayward son attempting to drag a girl out of Moray to join him.
The last failed acquisition to their clan, however, had been a silly little slip of a thing that, when Beo's son lost interest in her, had started spreading rumors about the town. Since everyone was well aware of Huyt's fire producing spirit, no one was particularly shocked at her accusations of witchcraft and deviltry. If anything, it had been a source of amusement and entertainment for a good many weeks.
And instead of managing to set the girl up with one of the dozen or so other single men in the clan, Wolf had let her leave.
From there she'd started the seeds of rumor that, once they'd reached Edward's ears, had been blown so far from their original origins; they bore little resemblance to reality.
Wolf had learned from his mistake, and he was determined that his actions would never again have such bloody ramifications. In the spirit of that though, he had to devise a way to keep the runt of a lord that Edward had sent to 'rule' them from leaving. Preferably without this Lord Henry having any real power over them.
Grumbling, Wolf pushed back from the table, he needed some fresh air to clear his head on the matter. Moping inside the hall wasn't going to solve this. He needed to talk to the root of the problem, as it were.
Walking outside, he saw some men and women working on the battlements, piecing them back together and patching up the weak spots. Beo was amongst them, finally. It had taken a great deal of talking and maybe a little bit of tricking to get the man out of his home and away from his thoughts of grief for his son, who had been counted amongst the dead, and shame for what had befallen them all. He gave them all a wave as he walked by, noting from Beo's wry expression that the man had caught on to his trickery at least in some small way.
Now, if only he could manage the same feat with Lord Henry. The man bore a faint resemblance to his demon of a brother. There was the blond hair and the fair complexion. That he lacked his brother's beefy muscular build most likely had more to do with the whispers of a weak constitution than with any lack of attempt to train.
More than a few of his clansman had managed to sneak a view of the young lord attempting bizarre and unusual training with his knights.
Still, the matter remained that Henry was a foreigner with no stake in their lives or reason to have their best interests in mind. He had spirit, yes, almost as much as Wolf himself had. But it was untrained and undisciplined. The clan would never accept such a raw power as their laird. That Lord Henry wasn't aware of this only spoke to how inadequately prepared he was for the position he was attempting to take.
Wolf stumbled to a stop, jarred out of his thoughts as he caught a glimpse of three rather familiar looking boys by the pond a few leagues out from the battlements. Normally, such a sight would not be cause for alarm, but with these three, anything they did was cause for alarm. For all that they'd lost, Wolf regretted most that they'd lost those who would keep youngsters like this in check and occupied in the training that they so richly needed and deserved.
"I dare say I'll regret asking, but what are you three doing?" Sidling up to Dragos, a dark haired boy with a cowlick, Wolf took a moment to look down at where Lohr was shoving Jokano's head under the water.
"Ah! Laird! So unexpected to see you around here," Dragos tried to distract him to no avail.
"Lohr, I do believe that Jokano is having some difficulty drawing breath, what with the way you have him shoved under water like that," he attempted calmly, shaking off Dragos's attempt to physically drag him away. In a few years, the lad might actually manage the feat too, what with the way he was growing. He already towered over the slight boned Lohr and poor pudgy Jokano.
"We're seeing if one can be taught to breathe under water," Lohr smiled up at him, blond hair shining to full affect in the afternoon sun. There was a very good reason that the clan called him the land siren. He drew people in with his good looks and then charmed them into doing incredibly stupid things. As Jokano was probably learning first hand. At times, Wolf wondered if maybe the boy had the spirit of mischievousness instead of one that allowed him to play with the fabric of time.
"Ah, as nice as that is, how do you suppose it is that he's getting enough air as I don't remember him being terribly good at breathing under water?"
"Oh, Lohr's stopping time for him after every few seconds. We've had him like that for about half the morning, but it's only been a few seconds to him." Dragos interceded with a huge grin. Much to Wolf's eternal relief, Dragos hadn't displayed much of a spirit in the three times he'd been tested for it. Bad enough that his counterparts were imbued with magic, having all three mucking about with powers they incompletely understood would have been the death of Wolf's patience.
Rolling his eyes, Wolf shoved Lohr aside and pulled up a drenched Jokano. Sure enough, he was frozen in place as Lohr had effectively stopped time for him. Given that he was a water spirit, Wolf imagined that maybe, someday down the line when Jokano matured into his skills, he might be able to manage the feat. But it was too early and Jokano had too little control over himself and his spirit.
"Unfreeze him," Wolf sighed.
Jokano gasped loudly as Lohr did so.
"Ooh, you almost had it, Jokano," Dragos cheered, and Wolf wanted to cheerfully strangle him for encouraging the pair. "The laird stopped by though, and wanted to know what we were up to."
"I almost had it, too," Jokano fixed the saddest, most woebegone eyes he could manage on Wolf.
Fortunately for Wolf, it was not the first time he'd seen such an expression on Jokano's face. "What have I told you boys about exercising your spirits?"
They all looked back at him in various shades of confusion.
"You need to--"
"--have a master spirit present so that fatal accidents do not occur. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should," the three boys chorused back promptly. Funny how they could manage to remember that, but not actually remember to follow through on the rule itself.
"The new lord though, whatshisface, he does undisciplined spiriting without the help of a master," Dragos chose to argue.
"Lord Henry," Wolf managed between gritted teeth, "and he's different. Obviously he's one of those barbarian foreigners. God knows what his training is actually done for." Obviously, Lord Henry's inadvertent displays had not gone unnoticed by the clan. He should have realized they wouldn't have missed it, but he'd hoped to have had a little room to maneuver without anyone realizing what he was up to. Wolf just hoped that no one had spread the rumor to the geriatric knights who guarded Henry.
"I could train him," Lohr piped in eagerly. "He's awfully easy on the eyes."
"You will do no such thing," Wolf countered irritably. "You're barely half trained yourself. And if you spent less time looking at your reflection in the pond and more time at your studies, you'd be better at wielding your spirit." Although, how the heavens one who loved so much being the center of attention had ended up with a spirit that gave him the potential to be invisible confused Wolf. Was it any wonder Lohr didn't pay as much attention at his lessons as he should?
"He does have a point though, the new lord is pretty," Dragos interjected. Jokano nodded in agreement.
"He's too old for the likes of you, so keep it in your trews," he snapped, feeling like Old lady Morag in his prudishness.
"Oh, someone's already noticed the new lord's winsome appearance," Lohr chuckled.
"Stay. Out. Of. Trouble." Wolf bit off and then made a strategic retreat.
Sometimes, it was best to know when to nobly turn tail and flee.
"No, lad, you're doing it all wrong," Hansel barked, swatting Henry on the ass with the flat of his sword. Reminding himself, yet again, that Hansel spent a great deal of life confused in general, he drew a deep breath to calm himself.
"You said to run around in a circle three times and lunge. What am I doing wrong?" Of course, he realized his mistake the minute he told Hansel what he'd heard Hansel say.
"I said no such thing, you silly boy. Run around in a circle three times? What are you? A chicken? A dignified knight must first learn to confuse his opponent. So, feint five times and then dodge widely to the side and thrust."
He caught a glimpse of Daniel, in the corner of his eye, trying not to laugh at the spectacle that Henry was making of himself. The problem was that each of his knights had a definite idea of what it was about Henry's constitution that made him weak and each had his own solution to the predicament. In the interest of keeping the peace between them all, Henry had taken to giving them turns to 'train' the weakness out of him.
And while they weren't all as bad as his sessions with Hansel, none of them so far had seemed to do a thing for his slim build or his short unimpressive stature.
Feeling completely ridiculous, Henry went ahead and followed the current set of instructions that Hansel had given him. The man would no doubt not remember a word of them when Henry finished the exercise, but it at least passed the time. "Like that?" he panted slightly, trying to regain his breath after dancing around the scarecrow Daniel had so kindly set up in the middle of the field for them.
"What? What are you doing?" Hansel wanted to know as his rheumy eyes practically popped out of his skull. "Go for the kill, boy! Stop dancing about and pecking worthlessly at the foe. Skewer them! Thrust and then let your blade taste flesh!"
Henry knew his complexion was turning three shades of green at the words. Hansel meant well, and rationally, Henry knew that in a real fight, it was life or death. Making the killing blow meant he got to leave the battlefield alive.
But he had deep scars on both shoulders from where Edward and William had tried to pound home the advice by pinning him to the castle cellar walls with two swords.
Henry was almost thankful to see Lord Wolf walking towards them. Almost.
"We'll continue this later, Hansel," he said quietly, giving a slight nod towards Lord Wolf. Predictably, Hansel couldn't leave it at that.
"Eh? Who's he? Little upstart wants to try some fancy new training, eh? Well, it won't work, you!" Hansel stabbed at the ground for emphasis with the sword he pretty much used as a crutch. Shooting a pleading glance towards Daniel, Henry hefted up the thrice damned broadsword they made him train with and handed it to his squire. Since the boy was only four, he barely managed to carry it to another knight who helped him carry it back to the castle.
The youngster was the only one younger than him of his people here. And even then, he'd only taken Patrick with him because Edward had been looking for a scapegoat to replace Henry. That Patrick was Edward's bastard and motherless son just made him a more excellent target than most.
"Lord Henry," the man smirked. Trying not to grind his teeth in irritation, Henry nodded.
"Let's discuss things in my rooms," he turned abruptly, leading them both away from the scene Hansel was making trying to outwit Daniel with what few and rattled wits he had left. Daniel, most likely, would win in the end, but it would be ages before Hansel grew bored with the argument and conceded defeat.
By the time that they'd reached his rooms and he'd gently asked Fieria to bring them up something to drink, Henry had realized the error in his particular choice of locations. The last place he wanted to troublemaker of the clan to be was in his inner sanctum. However, since it was done, it was best to make what he could of it.
He gestured Lord Wolf to sit and then sat himself, feeling only marginally less awkward sitting than he had standing. "I think, between us, we have a mutual goal," he started out slowly, watching Lord Wolf with a small amount of nervousness as the man smirked back.
"And how did you come to such a conclusion?"
"Edward thrives on the tales of his conquests. He has bards he's coerced into following him around, praising his bloody and entirely pointless battles. The greater the appearance of the threat, the more he wants to squash them beneath his boot heels." That he'd spent so much effort and time in squashing Henry beneath his boot heels had merely been for fun and entertainment. "In the interest of keeping Moray from falling to him once more, I think we need to make sure that he doesn't think it a threat. Better even, if he doesn't think of it at all."
"And just how do you propose we do that?" Lord Wolf arched a slender eyebrow.
"Maybe," Henry started somewhat hesitantly, knowing how strange the idea sounded, "maybe if we made Moray invisible to those outside of the clan."
He waited with baited breath as Lord Wolf fixed blue eyes on him and simply stared. And then before he could barely blink, the man had vaulted out of his chair to tower over him, hands clasped on the sides of Henry's chair, boxing him in and invading his personal space. "You want us to make Moray disappear from the maps?" He was so close, and Henry swallowed hard. It was hard not to just stare back stupidly. In any other circumstance, Henry would have happily sought the man's friendship gladly.
Lord Wolf wasn't exactly ugly either. At the very least he didn't have Henry's repulsive body or stature, and Henry couldn't help but want to watch him. Just a little.
"Yes," Henry managed. "Outsiders, my brother included, cannot attack and conquer what they cannot find. It might take some hard work, but if we fortify the land just right, it would be easy to confuse those who don't know it well. With added patrols and a little bit of trickery, we should be able to confound anyone attempting to draw close."
Lord Wolf frowned at him, and Henry willed himself to not look away. "I could easily kill you here and now, put this plan into action, and none of my people would feel a shred of remorse for the act."
Of course they wouldn't. Why would they, when Edward had caused them so much grief?
Lord Wolf's frown deepened before he blew out a sigh and rolled his eyes at Henry. "But I won't. I will take this suggestion back to discuss with the clan. In a week's time, I'll come to your throne," Lord Wolf mocked, "and you'll know our mind on the matter."
"Fair enough," Henry said quietly, breathing in a small sigh of relief himself as Lord Wolf stepped back and then walked out of the room.
Lohr was innocently trying to coax some sweets out of Fieria when the oldster knight approached him. Dragos had claimed that they were all as stupid as the one that screamed a lot about nothing that made a bit of sense, but Lohr had his doubts.
This one in particular, he'd seen out and about. He'd been the one to tell Lohr that the new Lord's different eye colors meant he was blessed by the devil and capable of raising the dead and killing people with a mere glance. Since Lord Henry's spirit was obviously imbued with power over plants, Lohr sincerely doubted that Lord Henry was capable of either, even if for some reason he did have the ability. Someone so in tune with life rarely killed others so trivially or treated death with such frivolity.
Lohr had spread the rumors anyway, of course. They were damned hilarious. Like any of the clan was going to believe that the sweet faced foreign lord was capable of biting the heads off rats.
"I have a proposition for you," Sir Daniel whispered in a hushed voice. Turning towards him, Lohr frowned. He didn't know what the clan had told the man, but he wasn't that kind of person.
"To do what?" he whispered back equally suspicious. Not that it really mattered if they whispered or not, Fieria's spirit was wind and she often listened in on conversations that way. It didn't matter that she was on the other side of the kitchen currently ignoring him; she was fascinated by the foreigners.
"I need to capture you and haul you up in front of the court, accusing you of witchcraft."
Lohr's eyebrows shot straight up. "But--"
"I've heard rumors about you playing with the fabric of time. Utter nonsense, of course," the knight scoffed and Lohr bit back a snicker. He wondered what the poor knight would think when Laird Wolf finally displayed his prowess for the people. "But it presents the perfect opportunity to show that Lord Henry isn't the monster his brother is. The trial won't be real."
Rocking back on his heels, Lohr looked closely at the knight. A part of him was sincerely tempted to simply display his spirit right here and make a believer of the man. The more rational part won out though, and he grinned mischievously back at the man. "I might be inclined, if the offer was enticing enough." Although, honestly, the majority of the clan already knew that Lord Henry was vastly different from his brother. They just didn't trust him to know how to lead the clan, which made perfect sense as he wasn't clan. Edward might have killed a third of them in order to conquer, but Edward wasn't here.
Sir Daniel sighed with a grin. "Thought you might say something of the like." And then he pulled something out from under his tunic and handed it to Lohr. At first he thought it was some kind of ornamental plate or a fancy shallow pot, but when he held it up closer to him, he was astounded to see his own reflection looking back at him.
"Ooh," he stared at himself, transfixed.
"Figured you'd like that," Sir Daniel chuckled. "So, will you do it?"
"Yes," Lohr said absently, brushing his fingers through his hair to fix it.
Henry was beginning to loathe the stone circle.
All around it, there was a foot of snow on the ground and there was snow falling even now as the clan gathered around the outer pillars. Inside the stone circle, however, a veritable garden of flowers was blooming. Heather on the outer edges, tulips here and there, a rose bush whose buds were beginning to pop out behind the crude throne, and marigolds at his feet. For all the talk of his unnatural ways, Henry was beginning to believe the rumors himself.
If only because sitting in the circle made him so incredibly sick. Even now, he was having trouble trying to keep his breakfast down where it belonged.
He started the session, calling for grievances from the clan that they might wish to have addressed in public. Predictably, no one stepped forward. If anything, Henry was starting to wonder if maybe they thought him some fascinating type of sheep and came to these public hearing simply to stare at the strange creature on display. Certainly, Lord Wolf was standing just at the edge of his line of sight, his impenetrable gaze locked on Henry.
Shivering slightly, and not exactly from fear, Henry forced himself to look somewhere else. It would do no good to ogle the one person who had the potential to crush him and his presence here.
"Milord," Daniel about startled him off the silly throne, coming up behind him and barking straight in his ear.
"I want to bring forward this man, accused of witchcraft." Daniel pushed forward one of the clan boys. It was Lohr, if Henry remembered right. He was fairly certain the boy had pinched his ass the last time their paths had crossed, but Lohr had moved so fast he wasn't sure if he'd imagined the pinch or not.
As it was though, the boy was dragged in front of him, hands tied behind his back and naked from the waist up.
"What is the meaning of this?" He asked softly, looking straight at Daniel, who scarily enough, refused to meet his gaze.
"We bring this man before the court, to await your judgment and decision on his fate. He has been witnessed engaging in several unnatural acts which must be punished to the full extent of our laws." Just what was Daniel babbling about? Those were Edward's laws. And as much as he feared his brother, Henry refused to do his dirty work when Edward wasn't there to beat him into submitting. Besides that, Edward's obsession with conquering and defeating those of the Dark Arts was what had defeated these people to begin with and Henry didn't want to continue in the same vien. Maybe it was wrong of him, but he wanted this place to be as much a sanctuary from Edward for them as he wanted it to be for him.
Henry's brow knit in confusion.
"What witnesses?" And was it really smart to accuse a clan member—and a beautiful youth at that—of being a witch when Daniel had already done everything in his power to convince these people that Henry was the witch?
"Um, we, er, saw him engage in unnatural acts." Two boys stepped forward. One was tall, and looked well on his way to being as huge as Edward, while the other was round and rather innocent looking.
"What kind of unnatural acts?"
"Too terrible to speak of Lord," the dark haired giant shuddered without really being terribly convincing.
"In light of that," he started to say only to have Daniel interrupt him.
"You cannot let this sort of behavior go unpunished, milord! The laws demand punishment. Death, even."
Okay, now this was just getting out of hand. Glaring at Daniel, Henry ground his teeth together and then took a deep calming breath before replying. "Death? We're not putting anyone to death, and certainly not for something like this."
"Public flogging it is, then," Daniel agreed, forcing Lohr to his knees and pulling a switch out. Henry could only gape. He'd known Daniel from the moment he'd been old enough to crawl. The knight had never been anything but unfailingly kind to him, patching him up when Edward had done his worst, hiding him when his brothers were on the warpath, or defending him to his father.
That he'd even threaten this, shocked Henry. Daniel raised the switch and Henry didn't wait for him to finish the movement, he dived between Daniel and Lohr, taking the swat that had been intended for Lohr. Given that it didn't hurt too much, Henry felt a little faith in Daniel come trickling back. By the time the swat would have actually hit Lohr, it would have been a tap at best.
Still, he couldn't keep from shaking as he stood up, keeping Lohr behind him as he regarded his knight. "Yes, my brother's laws call for things like this. What's more, he likes enforcing them. As someone who has lived his entire life accused falsely of witchcraft, I find it unacceptable. And if I find that anyone is being punished for it, they can face my wrath. If you are opposed to that, then I suggest you send your fastest runner out to find my brother and hound him into coming here to rule," he said coldly.
For that, Daniel beamed at him.
And as Henry looked at him, then the rest of his knights, and finally the rest of the clan surrounding them, he realized that he'd been tricked. It was also the point in which he realized that as good as his intentions might be, he'd never be able to do what his family had sent him here for, what his knights expected him to accomplish.
He'd never be a ruler to these people.
And maybe that was for the best. They'd never see him that way, and why should they when he couldn't he keep his own knights under control? It didn't matter if he did the actually ruling—or even if he was alive to do it, as Wolf had pointed out—as long as his family believed him alive and the one in authority. So, in some very funny way, he was stuck. He couldn't go home, not that he'd want to, but he couldn't stay here as he was either.
He nodded briskly to Daniel and the rest of his knights, and then bowed to the clan members present. And without looking back, he briskly walked away from them all.
Wolf sniffed the wind for a moment, getting his bearings again and picking up the scent of the one he was searching for so ardently. It wasn't often that he used his spirit like this. Most of the time, he did simple things, like move a particularly stubborn sheep or calm an overly anxious ewe as she gave birth. Occasionally, he shifted shapes like this to scare off other would be predators from their flocks.
Very rarely did he stay shifted like this, though, and he never before had used it to actually go in search of someone else. But given that Lord Henry had left the stone circle, and hadn't been seen in the last two days was cause for worry. The man's knights were practically beside themselves. Even the one who seemed to have trouble remembering his own name.
If the clan had been uncertain of the man's character before now, the knights' behavior would have convinced them. That kind of loyalty couldn't be bought or coerced. Those men genuinely cared for and worried about their lord. The one who had orchestrated the whole 'trial' as it were had upset himself into a sickbed.
If nothing else, the clan understood that kind of fealty. Since one never knew who the new laird would be, rank by birth mattered little. Spirit dictated authority, and even then, one had to be able to wield it appropriately. And without the support of the clan, it didn't matter how much spirit you had or how well you could control it.
While Lord Henry didn't have the control now, he very well might with time. Heavens, the man had practically turned their stone circle into its own meadow. And it was barely spring.
Gingerly placing paws in between drifts, he took another whiff of the wind and decided to head a little farther north. Henry's scent was there, getting stronger as the wind blew it his way. Letting his tongue loll out to the side, he loped gracefully through a small valley created by one of the many streams running through the land and then jumped over it to wander through the outer edges of the forest. Of course, Henry couldn't be obliging and remain right there were it would be easy to get to him.
Picking his way through dead vegetation, old trees that mingled with new ones and over rotting fallen logs, Wolf kept his nose trained on Henry's scent. It was a good thing, too, that he'd stayed shifted, or he would have blindly stumbled past Henry without ever having seen him. As it was, he stumbled upon him only when the scent had gotten so strong that he'd pawed at a couple of vines, which had moved aside to reveal Henry hidden underneath them.
Blond hair was plastered to Henry's face with sweat, and his cheeks were a flushed red. Nosing Henry's chin with his snout, he watched as Henry regarded him with confused and glassy eyes. Given how hard Henry was shivering as he rubbed his eyes, Wolf knew he was feverish. Of course, given the temperature and the snow surrounding them, Henry was lucky he hadn't died for taking such ill care of himself.
Sighing, he shifted back to his human self, noting with some amusement that Henry's eyes widened comically at the act.
It had been his intention to inquire to Henry's health, maybe talk him calmly into coming back to the main hall without incident, and explain that no one honestly thought he would have done anything to Lohr and that his knights had meant well, even if they'd been a bit misguided.
Unfortunately, that wasn't what came out. "What the hell were you thinking?! Do you think these woods are void of life all together? What if I'd been a real wolf? You didn't so much as take a knife with you, let alone a sword."
"Didn't think of it."
"Obviously," he snarled, pulling back vines to get a better hold on Henry. Even if he'd been in the peak of health, Henry had used enough spirit to have depleted his reserves. That he had grown so many vines to surround him and protect him from the elements was a nod to his power, but it had brought on the fever. And as he pulled him back from the tree he'd been leaning against, Wolf caught a glimpse of a soft carpet of moss beneath him. "You're soaked to the bone."
"Sorry," Henry murmured softly, pushing hair out of his eyes and dragging in ragged breaths.
Grumbling, Wolf cursed himself. In all actuality, he was as much responsible as Henry. He should have approached the man the first moment he'd seen Henry inadvertently using spirit. And since he'd placed his 'court' in the middle of the stone circle they used to amplify power, Henry had to have been feeling sick and drained long before now. He'd taken an oath to his clan when they'd made him laird that he would protect the clan, respect their spirits, and help train those who found themselves overwhelmed by what they were capable of doing. It didn't matter that Henry wasn't clan, he needed training, and Wolf had let politics get in the way.
Henry curled arms protectively around his middle as Wolf sat him down on a rock beside the snarled vines. Making quick work of his plaid, Wolf pulled it off and then went for Henry's clothes.
"What are you doing?" Henry fought him, but given how feverish he was, it wasn't much of a fight.
"Getting you out of those wet clothes. What possessed you to run like that?"
"I wasn't needed, so I left," Henry shrugged awkwardly, looking away as Wolf clumsily undid the ties at his shirt. "My knights have absolutely no faith in my ability to lead anything more threatening than a baby lamb, and the clan most certainly has no desire to see my face let alone accept that I'm trying to help. And who could blame them? Edward was ruthless. He enjoys gutting the helpless and slaying those who oppose them. The clan doesn't want to be reminded of what he did, and they most certainly do not want to be ordered about by the coward of a brother Edward's sent to rule them in his stead," Henry snorted self deprecatingly.
"So you ran away to pout like a spoiled child? You'll never become a leader if you do that," Wolf chided, pulling Henry's tunic up over his head.
"I'm not strong enough to be a leader," Henry stated baldly, staring back at Wolf. Looking at Henry's chest however, Wolf barely heard him. There was a macabre map of scars that varied from stripes that could have been caused by a whip, to deep smooth scars of injuries left by a sword or a heavy knife. Wolf was almost afraid to see what Henry's back looked like, given his chest. However, in spite of the scars, Henry was well muscled. Not overly so in that he looked stocky by any stretch, but enough so that the looked natural on his wiry frame, showing the resilience Henry had in spite of his height.
And maybe in a different set of circumstances, Wolf would not have objected in the least to exploring Henry's body with his fingertips, now was not the time or the place.
"Who told you that you weren't strong enough to lead?" Wolf asked mildly, wrapping his plaid around Henry's shaking shoulders.
"Who hasn't?" Henry shot back sardonically. "And why do you care? Far be it for me to be the one to point this out, but you've the perfect opportunity here. All you have to do is not attract Edward's attention, and he'll never realize that he's lost his hold over you. Given how far north and how isolated the clan is, that shouldn't be that difficult. You don't need me to do that as you've already pointed out."
"No," Wolf admitted honestly, "you're right. We don't. But the situation is easier to negotiate if you are there." Henry frowned and stared back with disbelieving eyes. Wolf sighed. "You're stronger than you think."
"Not likely," Henry mumbled.
"I think you're fever is getting worse," Wolf decided to finally interject diplomatically. "Time to get you home."
How indeed. Wolf didn't particularly like shifting into a horse. Ornery beasts as a whole, they were, but a wolf certainly wasn't going to be able to carry Henry back the distance between them and the clan.
Henry woke to someone shaking him. Cracking an eye, he got a glimpse of long blond hair and a pretty face. Lohr. He struggled to sit up in the bed he found himself in, but Lohr pushed him back down easily. Frowning, he glared.
"The laird says you're on bed rest for the next day or two. Serves you right too, using your spirit like that." Lohr grinned at him benignly, confusing Henry all the more.
"Spirit?" He vaguely recalled Lord Wolf having said something similar, but it made as little sense now as it had then.
"Sure, spirit. All those flowers you grew in the amplifying circle? The clan's pretty impressed by it, but I've heard a couple of them say that you could probably put it to better use helping them out with the crops."
"The flowers? But I didn't do that," Henry protested, noting distantly, that for a peasant, Lohr certainly was not afraid to speak his mind.
"Of course you did," Lohr laughed. "For certain no one else did. Plant spirits are rare. Water spirits like my friend Jokano are pretty common. I can muck about with the fabric of time, and that usually comes about once a generation, but plants? We don't get too many of those. You're the first I've ever seen and heard of with that particular spirit."
Maybe Daniel hadn't been terribly off accusing the boy of witchcraft? In any matter, it didn't mean that the boy needed to be punished unduly for it. Heavens knew Hansel made less sense on a regular basis. "Sure," he said slowly.
"You don't believe me," Lohr said flatly.
"Not really, no."
"Then the laird didn't turn into a horse and you didn't ride him all the way back to this hall?"
And then it all came flooding back. Henry colored as he remembered the wolf finding him, the wolf actually turning into Lord Wolf and then Lord Wolf turning into a horse. He'd thought it an elaborate hallucination, but if Lohr was aware of it, then it was looking less likely.
"There you are lad!" Daniel stumbled in through the doorway, covered in some kind of scum and looking all the world as if he wanted to strangle Lohr within an inch of his life. "What kind of trickery did you play on me to push me in the pond?!"
"I used my witchcraft," Lohr grinned back impishly.
"There's no such thing!" Daniel roared, and Henry tried to hide a smile as Lohr rolled his eyes, obviously unimpressed with Daniel's noise.
"Okay, you big old oaf, move aside," a female voice demanded, elbowing Daniel aside. Fieria carried a tray of food in with practiced ease, and she ignored Daniel's aggrieved looks as she set it on the table beside Henry's bed. Trailing after her like a little puppy was Patrick who solemnly offered Henry a biscuit once he was close enough.
"Thank you," he whispered, accepting the crumbled and somewhat soggy food graciously while Fieria told Daniel and Lohr under no uncertain terms to quit bothering her patient with meaningless prattle. Of course, then he couldn't not eat the cookie with Patrick looking at him expectantly. Nibbling on it, he smiled at the boy who grinned widely back.
"All right, the laird's on his way up, milord," Fieria informed him briskly before reaching down and grabbing Patrick by the hand. "Say good bye to your Papa, Patrick."
"Bye Papa," Patrick repeated dutifully. Henry practically choked on the biscuit before noting Fieria's mischievous expression. It was not exactly a stretch to believe that the clan delighted in teasing. That he honestly didn't mind assuming that particular role in Patrick's life was irrelevant. Fieria had seen the need and made sure that it was met.
"I had told them that you needed your rest as well as some peace and quiet, but I doubt you'll ever find much of that surrounding any of them." Lord Wolf's voice startled Henry out of his thoughts.
"Er, Daniel's not one to sit and do nothing," he offered a little uncertainly as Lord Wolf came to sit beside him on the bed.
"From the way he worried himself sick at your disappearance, I don't doubt it," Wolf smirked, before reaching over and sliding the hair off Henry's forehead. Holding stock still, Henry watched as Lord Wolf moved in closer, pressing their foreheads together for a moment. "Seems like you're fever has gone down."
Feeling his face heat up, Henry ducked his head and averted his gaze. He felt stupid for having expected the man to kiss him when there wasn't a reason in all the heavens for Lord Wolf to even contemplate the idea let alone act on it. Add to the fact that Lord Wolf had seen his mess of a body, not to mention seen every incompetent thing he'd done so far in attempting to bring everyone together, well, more the fool him for having even entertained the idea that Lord Wolf might find him attractive.
Lord Wolf opened his mouth to say something, but Henry didn't want him commenting on it. "You turned into a wolf and a horse," he blurted out awkwardly.
Blinking, Lord Wolf's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before it broke out in a grin. "It's as much a part of my spirit as part of yours is growing plants."
"Lohr said something to the same effect," he murmured doubtfully.
Nodding, Lord Wolf reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a seed, holding it palm up in front of Henry. "Imagine this sprouting."
"Just do it and you'll see why."
Frowning, Henry did as he asked, imagining the seed sprouting and growing into maturity. Without really knowing why, he pictured a carrot growing quickly in the palm of Lord Wolf's hands and was startled when Lord Wolf barked at him. "Okay, okay, stop. You'll over extend yourself again."
Blinking, he looked at where the seed had been and saw a carrot. "Where did that--"
"You grew it. The intention was just to make it sprout though," Lord Wolf chided gently. "If you work things too much too fast, you'll make yourself sick. I imagine that any time you went into the amplifying circle, you felt rather queasy."
Glancing sharply at the man, Henry nodded slowly. "So, you're saying that I actually can do witchcraft."
Lord Wolf threw back his head and laughed, to which Henry felt his face heating up again. "You're adorable," he mumbled, the words barely audible to Henry's ears as Lord Wolf ruffled his hair. "If that's what you choose to call it. The clan calls it spirit, however, and if you wish to be a part of it, they'll probably expect you to call it such."
"I couldn't be a part of the clan," he mumbled.
"Because," Henry started only to stop. Did the man just not understand how obvious the answer was? "Because I'm Henry. Because I'm Edward's brother. Because I'm an outsider. Because I don't belong."
Lord Wolf smiled at him softly. "I doubt that. In fact, I think you'll find that you belong here more than you ever belonged back in your own country. The clan's wary of you and your knights, yes. They have reason to be. And that's partly my fault. We've never been forced to defend ourselves from invaders before as no one has ever felt the need to invade. We were unprepared and we suffered for it. But they'll come around eventually. And I think you had the right of it. We can make Moray disappear from the maps. Even better, probably, than you originally intended as we have our spirits in addition to hard work."
"But you could do that all without my help."
"Some of it, yes. But not all of it. You might not be able to lead right now as you are, but with just a little training, they'd accept you as laird without question."
"But you're laird."
Lord Wolf laughed. "Yes, but do you want to rule over the clan?"
Frowning, Henry chewed on his lip in thought. Actually? Not particularly. He just assumed it was the only way to carve a spot out for himself in this strange land. He certainly was not going back home. "No."
"Ah?" Lord Wolf looked confused by the answer, and Henry released his lip in favor of grinning at the man.
"Can I still stay here and become a part of the clan without having to become laird?"
"Yes," Lord Wolf said hesitantly. Henry couldn't stop himself from smiling broadly at that. Impulsively, he reached up and grabbed the sides of Wolf's face, pulling him down and kissing him soundly on the lips.
Of course, once he did so, he immediately let go again, blushing a deep red. "Sorry."
"You kissed me."
"Yes?" He was going to throw himself out the window next, because of all the stupid things to do; this had to be the worst. He squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for the blow that would come for daring to force his ugly self on someone like Lord Wolf.
Feeling hands on his face, Henry jumped, eyes flying open as he found Lord Wolf's face incredibly close to his. "You kissed me," Lord Wolf repeated.
"Yes," he whispered back softly, watching as Lord Wolf moved in closer, angling his head slightly before sealing his lips over Henry's. The gentleness of Wolf's lips sliding over his stole his breath away for a second, and then he kissed back with just as much enthusiasm while Wolf stroked his cheeks with his thumbs.
"You belong here," Wolf whispered softly after he broke the kiss. Reaching up, Henry hesitantly slid his hand along Wolf's arm up to the hand that was cupping his cheek. "Even your strange knights belong here. Give it time, and the clan will make you all theirs."
"Wolf," he sounded out the name experimentally before reaching up to give the man another soft kiss on the lips.
"Actually, my name's Alex. The clan just calls me Wolf as a practical joke." Wolf grinned impishly.
Blinking, Henry threw back his head and laughed.