Rhys found the boy at night, huddled against the stone wall of the hut, half-naked and so skinny that his ribs jutted out against his skin, looking for all the world as though they might punch through. It was the boy’s skinniness that saved him, at least at first. Rhys pulled up short in the doorway of the hut, staring around at the broken table, the torn straw mattress, the general disarray of a place that had not been exactly neat to begin with. But it had been a while since he had made the rounds of this side of his territory, and the hut, once serving as a rough hunting lodge, had fallen into the disrepair that came with disuse. Much of the thatching in the roof was gone. The packed dirt floor was stirred and damp in places.
And there was the boy. Rhys’s eyes gleamed green in the darkness, and the boy cowered away from him, moving back though he must know on some level that there was nowhere to run. At the moment the moonlight struck his young body, Rhys saw the delicate quality of it. Not exactly feminine but still gracefully formed, as were the bones under the white parchment of his skin. His appetite disappeared completely.
“What are you doing here?” he asked instead, his voice low and gruff. He was in the midst of the change, caught between forms, but he was still human enough to speak. He wondered if the boy could see him.
“I needed shelter. A place to sleep.” The boy was trying to push himself up against the wall. Trying to be brave. In spite of himself, Rhys smiled. “I didn’t mean … Is this your land?”
“It’s my family’s, yes.” It seemed easiest to say that much. It was the land of the Free People, the land of the shepherds among the sheep, the blessed children of the Blessed Mother, but Rhys was certain that the boy would not know that. He wouldn’t know how well the People hid themselves after long years of learning, and he wasn’t sure how to explain it all at the moment, or if it was even worth explaining. The boy might still be dead in the span of a breath. One didn’t always kill for food alone, and though there would be no sport in such weak prey, Rhys was weighing his options. “We punish trespassers.”
“I’m no thief,” the boy insisted. “I’m no poacher, either. I take no other man’s game.” He was trying to force steadiness into his voice. Even … authority. No other man.
Rhys was still smiling. If the moonlight had fallen on his face, it would have looked like a dog’s snarl.
“I’ve only your word for it. Though, if I’m honest, you could hardly poach an ailing hare from the looks of you.”
“I’m stronger than I look,” said the boy, in something like an attempt at a growl. “I’m eighteen this past month, and the sole heir to my father’s holdings. I can ride, and I can shoot. So who are you to speak to me that way?”
“I’m the master of this land, boy,” Rhys replied, and it truly was a growl, deep and rich and threatening. It felt good in his throat. If he found no more game tonight, this might be game aplenty. “And everything on it. If I’m feeling kind, all I’ll do is chase you off for using the hut without leave. If I’m not … maybe you’ll suffer for my displeasure.”
“I’m—” The boy began again, more strident, edging into belligerence, but he stopped then and seemed to be mulling something over. He crossed his bare arms over his pale chest and chewed at his full bottom lip.
“I apologize,” he said finally, slowly, as though the words took some effort. A proud lad, Rhys was sure of it, and it made his claim of inheritance all the more believable. “I know I’m in the wrong. If you’ll be lenient, I’ll go and trouble you no further.”
Rhys was silent for a moment or two, and the boy watched him with uneasy eyes. Even half-shifted, Rhys was preternaturally aware of his surroundings and his place in them, the ground under his bare feet, the wind at his back, the fall of light around him. He knew he was in the shadow. He also knew that at least the outline of his shape was visible in the doorway, hulked and massive and blocking it entirely. If he completed the change now, the boy would see.
Or he could simply kill him and solve all problems at once.
But it was something about the boy’s delicate frailty, about the way the moonlight made his skin gleam, the way it caught the proud angles of his upturned face, the way it turned his blond hair silver. Rhys felt something in him stirring, hunger that had nothing at all to do with his belly and a reluctance to shed blood that caught his attention simply by virtue of how unusual it was. Perhaps it was plain, ordinary physical desire. Perhaps it was something more like curiosity. Perhaps it was something in between.
Perhaps it was something else entirely.
“If you come back to my house,” Rhys said, finally and slowly, “I’ll feed you and clothe you and give you a bed, and send you on your way in the morning, if you’re so inclined.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Why? A moment ago you were threatening me.”
“I’m feeling generous.” Rhys grinned. “And my generosity does not bear testing.” He stood aside from the doorway. As he stepped deeper into the shadows, he let the change slip out of the stasis he had locked it into and complete itself. He bit back a groan as his muscles ached and his bones creaked, his teeth pulling back into his gums. His clothes were ripped and torn. Thankfully, this time, he hadn’t bothered to remove them before the shift had swelled his muscles and wrenched his bones. But the boy might see.
Let him see.
The boy stepped out of the hut and into the chill of the night air, wrapping his arms around himself and immediately beginning to shiver. Rhys watched him dispassionately. There was a faint red line showing on the horizon, the dawn bleeding into the night. A night of hunting, and Rhys was still hungry. There was food in the house, but food long-dead and cured didn’t fill the belly like food fresh-caught and still bleeding. So he would have to make do.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“James,” said the boy. “James Canning.”
“I’m Rhys. Come with me, then, James Canning.” Rhys stepped away, and he could feel the boy’s eyes moving over him, his torn clothing and altered size. He could practically smell his confusion and the continuing thread of unease. He wondered if the boy might turn and run, tearing and stumbling off over the pastures, but there was the promise of shelter and a meal. After a moment’s hesitation, the boy followed him.
“How far is your house?”
Rhys pointed. “Less than half a mile over that hill. It’s small, but I’ve room enough for company.”
“I hope you won’t take this as discourtesy,” said the boy, his voice low in the dimness and faintly breathless as they began to climb the hill. “But I wonder a little at your generosity. If you’re planning to rob me … you can see for yourself, I have nothing to steal.”
Rhys threw back his head and laughed. The sound of it rolled away over the hills that stood colorless in the pre-dawn light, though in the day they were a rich and lovely green. From close by, his laughter was rich and pleasant. Echoing from a distance, it sounded like the baying of dogs.
“I wouldn’t rob you, boy.” There was a touch of fine scorn in his voice. “You have nothing I need.”
This was a half-truth, at any rate.
The house was low, stone, and it was not large, but it loomed all the same with the dawn a bloody red behind it. James paused before it, and Rhys paused with him. He could feel the boy’s puzzlement, now directed at something besides his torn garments.
“What is it?” he growled.
James turned to him, and even in the dimness he was almost sure that he could see the boy blushing a fine pink, almost to match the tops of the sky. “You said … forgive me. You said your family owned the land, so I suppose I expected something…”
“Bigger? Grander?” Rhys shrugged his broad shoulders. He had lived out on the land for too long to care what anyone thought about him and his. When you were raised as one of the People, you were taught young that anyone who wasn’t of the People was of little significance. “This is my house, boy, and mine alone. My family lives in grander quarters, if you wish so badly for luxury. Though…” He looked James over, slowly, and licked his lips, no longer caring how it looked. “For my part, I wonder what they would think of you, looking like that.”
“I was robbed once already,” James said stiffly. He crossed his arms over his bare chest again, this time out of a badly hidden embarrassment. “They took my shirt, my money, all my food. That’s why I was in the hut.”
“Then the job’s been done for me, in any case.” Rhys stepped forward and pushed the heavy wooden door open with a slow creak. “Inside, boy, unless you’d prefer to sleep in the grass after all.”
“I told you my name,” James said irritably, but he stepped inside with all the forced bravado of his eighteen years. “You might use it.” Rhys’s only answer was another rich laugh.
Inside, the house still held the night’s darkness, but even in this form, Rhys’s eyes were keen, and he lit lamps with no difficulty. James stood in the center of the front room, casting his gaze around. Rhys watched him take in the fireplace, the nearby chairs, the table and two benches, the small stringed instrument in the corner, and the hanging bundles of herbs and strips of dried meat. The animal pelts on the floor, and on the wall over the fireplace, the head of a great buck. Rhys had brought that buck down, down with his teeth and his claws. He followed James’s wide-eyed gaze, and he remembered the hot, sweet taste of its blood as it burst into his mouth, the gush when he had torn open its throat.
“What a beast,” said James, taking a step forward. “Your kill?”
“Mine.” Almost against his will, Rhys felt a surge of warmth at the obvious and unguarded admiration. He turned, looking for the kettle. “Come. We’ll eat.”
There was some stew from the day before, kept warm by the banked-down coals of the fire, and fresh bread and cheese. James ate ravenously, so fast in fact that Rhys began to wonder just how this boy, the heir of a free landholder, had become so hungry.
“You’ve an appetite,” he observed gruffly. James nodded, still chewing.
“I told you,” he said when he had swallowed enough to speak again, “I was robbed. It was over a day ago.”
“Why didn’t you return to your father’s house? Are you far from home?”
James paused and looked distinctly uncomfortable, turning his face into the shadows. The light was still dim and wavering, but outside, through the windows, the sky was brightening and everything was coming into better view. “I didn’t want to go home,” he said simply, and took another bite of cheese.
There’s something in this, Rhys thought. “And why would that be?”
“I just don’t.” James looked up at him, and the look on his face was equal parts annoyed and pleading. “Can’t we talk about something else?” He looked Rhys over and seemed to seize on something, and his chin took on a faintly challenging tilt. “How did your clothes come to be so torn?”
Rhys frowned and raked a hand through his shaggy hair. There was no reason to keep it to himself; the worst that could happen would be that he would have to kill the boy, which was an option that he hadn’t even entirely ruled out. Or James would simply take fright and run, and if he took it into his head to tell people about the wild man who lived out among the hills, who would believe his story?
But he didn’t want James to run. He speared a piece of meat with his knife. “That’s my business.”
“So we both have things we don’t wish to discuss. Fair is fair.”
Rhys only grunted, and silence fell over the rough wooden table until James pushed his chair back, getting to his feet. “I’d like to wash now,” he said. He was still shirtless, still dirty, but for Rhys that was familiar enough that he had largely forgotten it until it was spoken of. He looked James over, faintly speculative.
“There’s a well and a washtub out in the side yard,” he said. “Be free with it.”
James nodded, a little stiffly, and Rhys watched his retreating back, the skinny lines of him, the thin wire of his muscles and the smooth movement of the bones beneath. Again he felt hungry, in spite of the meat in his belly, and again the hunger felt more general, more vague, and a little bit confused. He got up and went to the little window that looked out into the side yard. He stood in the shadows to watch James strip down to nothing, naively sure of his own privacy, standing and filling the bucket from the washtub and emptying it over his skinny body, which shivered and glistened in the morning sunlight. He opened his mouth, gulped down the water and shook himself like a dog, droplets flying from the ends of his blond hair and shining until they fell into the dirt and scrubby grass and were gone.
“Boy,” Rhys murmured, but James wasn’t just a boy. He was close to manhood, by law already there, and Rhys, at twenty-six, was not so much older than he.
Boy. Well, perhaps. Rhys licked his lips and tasted the grease of the meat, and a faint, sweet edge of blood. He should turn away and try to forget it, and send James on his way as soon as he was able to go.
There were things that one simply did not do.
When James came back inside, still damp with his skin faintly, slickly shining and his pants pressed in against his skin, Rhys had clothes waiting for him. They were clean, though a bit big. A pallet had been set on the floor near the fire. James looked at it and back at Rhys again, and there was an unspoken question in his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the clothing. “You’re kind.” His gaze drifted once down Rhys’s powerful body, his own torn clothing, spotted here and there with blood. “I’m glad,” he started, shifting where he stood and clearly hesitant. “I’m glad that … whatever happened to you, you’re all right.”
Rhys only grunted again. To that, he wasn’t sure what to say. There were things here that didn’t fit, that he was unsure how to make fit, and weariness was making an already difficult job more difficult. He brushed it all out of his mind and nodded to the pallet.
“Get some sleep,” he said gruffly. “You must be tired, and I am for sure, so that’s what I’ll be doing.” He started toward the back room and paused, looking back over his shoulder. Frowning, trying to think. Nothing about this really felt like something he could explain.
“I’ll wake you for the midday meal,” he said, and vanished into the darkness of the room.
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