Hihi! Long time coming…this is a short story, and completed, which is a plus. I've had a long dry spell, block and personal junk that made it hard to get here. So, I know it's not the best but it's a start to writing again, I hope.
The details, this is a shonen ai more than a yaoi fic, and even the shonen ai is just a whiff. If I bring the characters back in another story things will progress farther.
Hope it's enjoyable.
"Are you sure you have everything?"
"Mom, I'm sure. I've checked ten times!"
"Well, once more wouldn't hurt. Books? Coat? Extra quills? "
"Change of clothes? I do hope the things we sent ahead arrived, if they haven't write at once and we'll see what we can do. I'll not have you starting school with naught but the clothes on your back and one set of second best."
Tori met his older brothers eyes over his mothers shoulder and they shared a smile.
Bri put his hand on her shoulder.
"He'll be fine, you worry too much."
"I know. But truly, it's the first time one of my boys has left home and the youngest at that, it's only natural for me to fuss a bit. Humor me."
"He's hardly a baby and of course we'll humor you, we wouldn't dare not to. So, Tori, have you everything you need? A kings ransom? A crystal ball? Seven league boots? Because you'll need them to make up time if you miss the caravan departure."
"Oh, I should go! I don't want to be late!"
His mother hugged him tightly.
"Be safe, make us proud and write!"
"I will. I love you."
Both brothers gave him a quick hug and watched him race off toward the caravan where the wagons were beginning to roll.
His mother sighed.
"I can't believe it, off to the big city and university! Who would have thought it?"
" Anyone and everyone. He's had his nose in one book or another since the cradle. He'll be fine and do well. Don't worry overmuch about him."
Tori made it in time, finding his allotted space and stowing his pack. Lucky for him that MasterShar had been kind enough to transport the bulk of his clothes for him, the least space used the cheaper the trip.
Not that his family was poor but neither were they rich, they worked hard at their inn and had spent enough and more than enough on his school fee for the year. And the books, the books alone had cost a fortune. Still, they'd never grudged the coin and he was grateful.
He glanced about at the company as they started off on the long journey. A large number of guards which was all to the good, the way led through some chancy territory and travelers had been known to fail to arrive at their destination. Bandits were a real threat and the numbers of the caravan were a comfort.
This one even had a mage along, another hedge against danger. He hoped to be bold enough to meet her and strike up a conversation; he'd never met a mage before.
They were hardly thick on the ground and had a reputation for eccentricity but it seemed a shame to let the chance to meet one pass due to timidity. Besides, he was not overlyshy with strangers, growing up in an inn made meeting new people an everyday occurrence.
In fact, it was the inn that had set him on the road to school. The students that occasionally stayed there had intrigued him and encouraged his questions. They had been kind enough to leave the occasional book for him. He'd grown to watch for them, to trade books and listen to them converse and debate with each other with fascinated pleasure.
How wonderful, he had thought, to know so much. To explore the world in a ship of words. His family had seen and approved. While none of them really loved words the way he did they respected book learning. And to have one of their own in the academy would be a fine thing indeed. They'd set him up with tutors and done extra work to free him for study.
He missed them already.
Still, his excitement and interest in the people around him kept him from too much sadness.
Most travelers were merchants or craftspeople, their colorful carts filled with items for sale and trade along their route. There were also some like him though, single travelers with no cart or horse, simply walking along the track with the group for the safety of the thing.
The mage's wagon was easy to pick out, dark and ornate and drawn by fine horses. Also dark. Tori drew up near it to get a better look.
It was as garish as something in one color could get and the mage matched it well. She was all in black down to the many rings, bracelets and beads that liberally adorned her. There were draperies of black rolled up from the end of the cart, exposing a large cage. And in the cage a large cat. Black, Tori noted, he was sensing a theme.
The cat was of a type he'd not seen, even in his bestiaries. It might have been an impressive beast had it been in better health, as it was it's dull fur was drawn tight over a bony frame and it's tongue lolled out as it panted weakly. Tori walked quicker, drawing even with the cage and was rewardedfor his interest by a blank stare from the beast's amber eyes.
He slowed, letting the cart move on without him. He hated the thought that the animal was ill, one of the jobs he'd done at home was to help tend the traveler's horses and he liked animals. He settled his mind on taking the matter up with the mage as soon as they stopped for the night, perhaps she could set his mind to rest.
"Ah, you are concerned for my pet? Don't be, he's a stubborn brute with only himself to blame for his condition. He can end his suffering whenever he wishes and if he's too proud to do so that is hardly my fault."
She walked off to join the more wealthy travelers at their dinner fire, leaving Tori speechless by the cat. He went off to grab a bite himself as meals were included with the price of his place and returned with his bowl and cup.
He stood at the rear of the wagon and cleared his throat, feeling foolish. The cat turned his head and then his body, eyeing him steadily.
"I did try, I'm sorry. I don't understand what the trouble is but I can't leave you here with out food and water. So, I'd truly appreciate it if you'd not take my arm off."
He slid his mug through the bars, using his off hand just in case. The cat blinked at him and then began to lap up the water. When he'd drunk his fill he moved back, leaving Tori some room to snag the mug back and replace it with the bowl of stew.
This gift too was accepted and when it was gone the cat lay down, rumbling happily and blinking slit eyes at Tori.
The mage spent her night on watch which was fine with Tori and he was pretty sure fine with the cat. He stayed near the cage for some time, admiring the cat and day dreaming of the future.
The pattern was set.
Each evening he fed and watered the cat from his own share and lingered to keep it company. He wove stories about them, in some hazy future when he'd heroically gained the cat's freedom and they went off to school together and he told them to the cat. The cat didn't comment but he did seem interested in the sound of Tori's voice and watched himclosely from honey colored eyes.
The cat plumped out some but not nearly enough, his eyes were brighter though and he seemed to enjoy Tori's company, although it might have been the much needed rations that he welcomed. The mage must have known but she didn't seem concerned, perhaps the late night watches and the long trip were taking the bulk of her concentration.
The caravan continued through the hills, occasionally the way narrowed to the point where carts had to go single file. It was when they got into the higher country that the rains started, day after day of drizzle. Just enough to fray tempers and add an air of misery to those who slogged through on foot.
Tori was sick and tired of wet feet, sleeping damp and waking cold. The cat seemed no more upset by the rain than by anything else. He peered through the gloomy mist with stoic unconcern. Tori couldn't cultivate the same attitude and finally in an excess of disgust with the thought of another night on the wet ground he slipped into the narrow place between the cage and side of the cart.
The cat stared at him and he stared back.
"I'm going to sleep dry, if you plan to kill or maul me or drag bits of me into the cage to lunch on later at least wait for me to doze off, will you?"
The cat seemed to be considering this and at last edged close to Tori's side and settled down with his back to the boy, pressed close to the bars between them.
Tori slept like a rock.
He woke in a panic, slapping off a wet, rough object that had been dragged obscenely over his cheek.
"Ugh! Oh! What the… Oh, it's you."
The cat looked down his nose at him and huffed.
"Sorry. Hmm, well, all limbs present and accounted for, that's to the good. It's almost dawn, lucky I woke."
"You woke me? Well, I'd like to think so and I'll try to bring you something extra this evening!"
He snuck off before the mage returned and was true to his word, lifting an extra helping of dinner for the cat that evening.
He slept there again that night and again the next. Each morning the cat lapped at his face to wake him, unless it was coincidence. He lost his last remnant of fear of being eaten and woke often with one arm thrust though the bars, his hand buried in the thick fur of the cats shoulder or neck.
He spent most days pondering what he could offer the mage for the cat. He had little spending money and less to trade with. Unless she was deeply interested in used textbooks. Which didn't seem likely.
He wondered if he could somehow steal the cat. This also seemed unlikely. He couldn't dream of lifting, let alone moving, the cage any distance and if he could he had no idea what to do next. There was aheavy lock on the cage and lock picking had never figured in his studies.
He was deep in such thoughts as the group threaded it's way through a narrow spot in the path and missed the first sign of danger. The second, the man ahead of him suddenly growing feathered shafts in profusion and lurching about blindly before pitching to the muddy ground was a bit harder to miss.
Tori froze, riveted by the sight of the man dying before his eyes. He'd never seen death and at first he couldn't grasp the reality of it. He stared, while about him people screamed, arrows flew, horses bolted and in general all hell broke loose.
He woke to his own danger and spun about, catching confused glimpses of men on horseback with swords drawn and of guards locked in combat with strangers. He struggled with the panic urge to flee blindly and instead hugged the side of the nearest cart, searching for a path out of danger.
And then he caught himself looking instead for the mage's cart. He seemed to remember it toward the front and cursed himself quietly as he dodged and darted towards it, trying not to cringe in anticipation of an arrow between the shoulder blades.
He found the mage before he found the cart; she looked vaguely surprised and very dead, an arrow lanced neatly through her throat. He murmured a brief apology as he fumbled through her pockets, hands closing finally on a large key. He took it and ran on, slipping in blood slick mud time and again.
He didn't pause to think when he arrived at the cage, the cat was pacing as best he could in the confines of the cage and his ears were flat to his head.
"Hold on, I'm working on it, oh, goddess if I drop this key one more time…there."
He stepped back, swinging the door open as he went. The cat gathered himself for a leap and then froze, eyes locked with Tori's.
"I don't suppose you'll stay with me?"
The cat leapt, landing lightly at his side. He made no move to run, although he growled low in his chest and his tail lashed nervously.
"Right then, maybe this way?"
Tori pointed, felt a sharp pain in his arm and had one moment of severe nausea before everything went dark.
He woke slowly, eyes trying to make sense of the close green ceiling above him.
Pine. Pine boughs. He was buried under a tent of pine boughs.
It smelled nice, soothing enough that he almost let his eyes close again.
Then his mind let a trickle of ice cold memory thread across him consciousness.
He rolled and gasped as his arm came in contact with the ground.
A large hand descended through the boughs and pressed him gently back into place.
A bandit would hardly attempt to imprison him in a jail of pine needles. At least a sane one.
He raised his good arm and moved some of the cover aside.
A man. A tall man. A tall, slim, naked man.
The man cocked his head slightly, meeting his gaze.
"I seem to have lost my mind. And my books. And my cat. You seem to have lost your clothes."
The man picked up a familiar satchel and placed it closer to Tori.
"I didn't find your mind."
The voice was odd, a slight raspy quality to it.
"I could go look again."
A face wide at the cheekbones, narrow at the chin. An unruly mop of black hair.
"Umm, I don't think that will be necessary. I don't suppose, look, I wonder…have I lost my cat?"
"Ah. Perhaps I'm delirious."
Tori sat up and pulled his books closer for comfort.
"Any number of reasons, hunger, shock, injury…injury! I hurt my arm!"
He looked first at the remnant of his sleeve and then at the fabric tied in a neat bandage about his forearm.
"Arrow. I took it out."
"Is this a venture?"
"Excuse me? Look, do you have a name?"
"Cat. Is this a venture?"
"A what? Cat? That's hardly a real name."
"A venture. You called me Cat. My real name is coughgrowlyodleyodlehiss. And you said we'd have ventures so I wondered if this was one."
"Adventures. We'd have Adventures. This is …not quite what I had in mind as an adventure no."
He sounded downcast.
"I wonder if you could tell me, why were you in that cage? Why did the mage call you stubborn?"
"She trapped me and then she tried to eat me. So I changed and wouldn't change back."
"She trapped you in this form? And tried to eat you? Are you sure?"
"She trapped me with a spell and then pawed me and grabbed me with her mouth. I was too weak to fight but I thought changing might scare her off."
Tori tried to grasp the thread. True, mages might be eccentric but cannibalism seemed a bit beyond the pale.
"She bit you?"
"I changed before she got the teeth in."
"She, um, mouthed you?"
Tori followed the finger and blushed.
"I think there may have been a bit of misunderstanding on your part."
Cat's brows lowered and his lips pulled back, revealing sharp white teeth.
"She tried to eat me and then she put me in a cage."
"Fair enough. She's dead now."
"They're mostly dead now."
He didn't sound particularly concerned.
Tori felt tears start; it wasn't that he had close friends among the group but they were alive then and now they were dead and it mattered. Cat watched him closely for a bit and then moved closer.
"Are you sick?"
He shook his head, throat closed with crying.
He felt the solid bump of Cat's head meeting his chest and flailed his arms a bit before dropping them to Cat's back. They stayed in that awkward position until Tori sniffed shakily and wiped his eyes.
Cat sat back, anxiously watching Tori's face for signs of further outbursts.
"I'm okay. It's just, it's sad that they died. Are there any alive? Can we help them? Have the bandits gone?"
"Some people are there with the carts. Help them how?"
"Like you helped me! You didn't just walk in, take my books and walk off while they lay there bleeding?"
Cat fidgeted a little and then shrugged.
Tori wanted to hit him and settled for a glare instead.
"Come on, lead me back there and we'll see what we can do. And maybe you could find some clothes."
"It's a long way."
He sounded sulky.
"Then just point the direction and I'll go. You go wherever you want."
"You said I'd go to school. With you. And have adventures. And you'd feed me six times a day. You said. You said you'd feed me peasants under glass."
"Pheasant! Pheasant under glass."
A sickening thought occurred.
"You went in this form?"
"No, four legged. It's faster."
"You didn't…Cat, you didn't eat anyone did you?"
"No. I ran there and found the bundle that smelled like you and ran right back. To you."
He sounded sorely aggrieved and Tori took a deep breath and counted to ten.
"And I thank you. And we will go to school and have pheasant and adventures. After we try to help the people of the caravan. Okay?"
Cat nodded and the air blurred around him as he changed.
Things are fine here and my belongings were waiting for me upon my arrival. I'm sorry I didn't write sooner but we arrived later than expected. I hope you weren't worried.
I have already made some friends, one of whom will be joining me for the summer holidays if it's okay with you.
He is a foreigner and takes some getting used to but we're very close, I hope you will like him.
My classes are quite interesting, except rhetoric and math but even they are bearable.
All my love, Tori.
"Did you tell her about me?"
"Of course. A little."
Cat rolled over and gave him a look.
"A little? Did you say I'm beautiful? Did you tell her how I rid the room of mice? Did you tell her how I saved you from that horrible girl in the alley? Did you…"
"No. She'll meet you soon and she can decide if you're beautiful for herself. And the mice …I'm grateful but the smashed furniture and shredded drapes were hard to explain and harder to pay for. And the girl was not horrible. Well, not nice perhaps but she was simply offering …a deal I suppose. Of sorts. You scared her witless, I'm surprised she didn't die of the fright."
"She tried to bite you. I saved you."
"And I am beautiful."
"Yes. And Mom will love you. And feed you."
"Six times a day."