Lord Avhonari was reading a missive from a colleague of his when he heard a knock at his study door. He glanced up as he said: “Enter.” A guard opened the door, followed by four others carrying a limp naked body between them. Lord Avhonari frowned as he set the letter down on his desk. “What is this?” he asked.
The guard who’d opened the door saluted smartly, as he was the only one with a free hand. “My Lord! We found this man sneaking around the garden. It’s odd though – he’s not like a regular intruder at all. For one thing, he wasn’t wearing any clothing when we caught him. For another, it looked like he was trying to get into the walled garden.”
Lord Avhonari’s brows rose slightly at this news. Had the intruder intended to try to free his new pet? Observers had reported that the leopard was doing well, hunting for himself and putting on weight. Had someone wanted to acquire the beast for themselves? But if so, why wasn’t the intruder wearing any clothes? Even if he’d gone in to drug the leopard, he should have been wearing heavy protective clothes. Not no clothing at all. Puzzling.
He rose to his feet and walked over to a wide table that he used for spreading out charts and maps on. He removed everything from its surface and waved for his guards to bring the unconscious naked man over. “Lay him down here,” Lord Avhonari said, pointing to the table. “I wish to look at him.”
They did as he bid, carrying the man over and draping his nude form on top of the table. His Lordship stood looking down on the intruder thoughtfully. He saw a pale, exotic-looking beauty, a man with a lithely-muscular body and a face that wouldn’t have been out of place in a harem somewhere. The man was foreign-looking – Lord Avhonari had never seen one of his own people with hair that color before. It was a reddish-gold, and looked soft and silky. His fingers itched to reach out and find if that were really the case. But he kept his hands to himself for the moment, even though that delectable pale skin also begged to be touched. Who was this naked beauty? And why had he been trying to break into Lord Avhonari’s garden?
His ebony eyes roved over the intruder’s body and face, looking for some clues as to the man’s origins and intentions both. Then they came to a halt, as he noticed something that startled him into stillness. His eyes were fastened on the intruder’s crotch. Not because of the well-formed organ lying against the naked man’s thigh, or the pair of tight balls that ornamented the nice-looking penis. No, what had attracted Lord Avhonari’s sharp eyes was the intruder’s pubic hair. It was soft and curly, and the same color as the hair atop his head. But there were darker patches in the hair – he leaned over the table to look even closer. Not patches…spots. Light-brown spots were scattered over the reddish-gold hair. Spots almost like those…on the coat of a certain leopard who just happened to live in his walled garden…
His breath left him in a gasp as he realized the implications. Could it be? Was the man lying naked on the table in his study not a man at all? He straightened up slowly, not letting his eyes or face give him away. “Please leave the room,” he told the guards. “I wish to examine him further in private.”
His men exchanged glances. Clearly they thought that Lord Avhonari was going to molest his unconscious captive. He didn’t care what they thought, however. “My Lord,” one of them said. “At least let us put some restraints on him in case he wakes up. We don’t want him to hurt you.”
The genuine concern in his voice made Lord Avhonari smile slightly. “Very well,” he remarked, stepping back. “Do so.”
The guards fitted the captive with cuffs around his slender wrists, and anklets around his ankles so that he wouldn’t be able to attack Lord Avhonari if he came to. His Lordship watched them coolly, and nodded at the guards when they finally retreated out of the study. Then he approached the table once more, his ebony eyes running over the naked body as he looked for more signs to corroborate the wild hypothesis he’d come up with. It didn’t take much time for him to see that the fingers on the slim hands were long and came to a distinct point, more like claws than fingernails. And the hair atop the man’s head also sported spots, much like his pubic hair. Lord Avhonari peeled back the intruder’s lips, and saw that the man’s teeth were pointed as well. When he lifted the man's eyelids, the eyes revealed under them were pure molten gold, just like the leopard’s.
Awe raced through him when Lord Avhonari realized that he was looking at a wereleopard. It had to be! But he had to be really sure, so he went to the door and told the guard standing outside to send a man to look into the walled garden from atop the long ladder, to see if the cat was still in the garden. The man saluted and moved off quickly, as Lord Avhonari shut the door of his study and stood there trying to contain himself until he heard back from his man. Perhaps there was a creature of legend lying on his study table; but perhaps it was just pure coincidence. Although if this man weren’t the leopard from his garden, could he perhaps be some kin to the leopard, come to try to save the beast from his captivity? He might not know the answer to that until the captive awoke and could talk to him.
The guard returned twenty minutes later, to report that they could find hide nor hair of the leopard in the walled garden. He looked scared, clearly thinking that Lord Avhonari was going to be angry. But to his surprise, His Lordship looked pleased and thanked him before retreating into his study once more. Baffled, the guard shrugged and returned to his post outside the study door. It was not his place to question the ways of his employer.
Lord Avhonari saw that the man lying on the table had begun to jerk and murmur a little. He turned and went to a cabinet against one wall, opening it. There were many interesting and curious things in this cabinet, including a long piece of smooth rose quartz that he’d gotten from a wizard. He picked this up and carried it over to the table where the intruder lay. Lord Avhonari murmured the words of the activation spell, and then placed the crystal against his own forehead over his third eye. He felt a jolt of energy, as the translation spell took a hold of him. Then he reached out and laid the crystal against the forehead of the wereleopard. Now they’d be able to speak to one another, even if the man-beast only spoke a foreign language. The crystal was a useful device for when he spoke to foreign dignitaries as part of his duties as an advisor to the king. It made sure that there were no misunderstandings between them. Human translators often fostered such misunderstandings because they had agendas of their own.
The wereman stirred and arched his back off the wood of the table, growling in the back of his throat. The golden eyes flickered slowly open, and he squinted up at Lord Avhonari. Clearly he had a headache from being hit on the head by the guards when they’d subdued him. His Lordship moved away briefly to fetch something else from the cabinet – this time a healing drink that would help with the headache, and a concussion if there was one. He took the bottle back to the table and spoke slowly and clearly to the man squirming there against his bonds. “Drink this, please; it will help with your headache.”
He saw the startlement on the creature’s face at hearing his own language seemingly falling from the lips of a foreigner. Lord Avhonari cupped the back of his head and tilted it up a bit, holding the bottle to his lips. “Drink,” he said again, more firmly.
The wereman drank as ordered, grimacing at the horrible taste. Lord Avhonari smiled slightly. He’d never come across a healing drink yet that didn’t taste like cow dung mixed with slime from a swamp. But he managed to gulp down three swallows before Lord Avhonari pulled the cup back. “We’ll wait for that to take effect,” he remarked, carefully lowering the man’s head to the tabletop before taking the bottle back to the cabinet.
Puzzled, wary golden eyes stared up at him when he returned. The creature was just realizing that he was in chains, and clearly he assumed that something awful was going to be done to him. Lord Avhonari’s first words to him were not reassuring at all: “I know what you are,” he told the wereman. “You’re the leopard that I bought from the exotic pet seller last month. You’ve been living in my walled garden. I must admit to being amazed. I thought tales of werefolk were just stories told to children to frighten them.”
The wereman stiffened and went still, his face a mask to conceal terror. He looked like someone waiting for the axe to fall. Lord Avhonari felt another flash of pity, just as he had when he’d first seen the creature dying in that cage. “I won’t hurt you,” he told the wereman quietly.
The golden eyes fell silently to the chains around his wrists and ankles. A dubious looked crossed the exotically-pretty face. His thoughts were clear to Lord Avhonari, who chuckled a little. “My men insisted on those, since they were afraid that you’d try to hurt me when you woke up. I insisted on being alone with you, since I don’t want them to know about your nature. If the king finds out about you, he will want you for his own. He would display you at Court in a gilded cage. I don’t think you’d like that,” he added.
A quick shake of the spotted head, along with an expression of desperation and fear. “I will make sure that does not happen, if you will speak to me and answer all of my questions truthfully. You have my word of honor on that.” Lord Avhonari told his reluctant guest.
The golden eyes searched his face, then the wereman nodded slightly to show that he understood and agreed. “Very well. What are you called, beautiful creature?”
The wereman blinked at him, then spoke in a low, somewhat growling voice gone hoarse with disuse. “I am Z’sharan,” he said.
“Z’sharan. A very pretty name. It suits you. I am Lord Avhonari. You are in my home. For the last few weeks you lived in my garden.”
A careful nod of the aching head. “Yes, I remember. I remember you buying me at that horrible place of the cages. You brought me to your garden and left me there,” Z’sharan replied. “I was close to departing for the Spirit Lands. You saved me.”
“I’m glad to have been of service,” Lord Avhonari replied. “I felt sorry for you, trapped in that cage while people came and gawked at you. No wonder you didn’t want to live anymore.”
A hissing sigh. “It was the iron,” the wereman explained. “I couldn’t Change while in an iron cage. I would have had to live as a beast for the rest of my life, always knowing that there was a man trapped inside of me. I hated it. Since I couldn’t Change or escape, I meant to die instead.”
“Understandable,” Lord Avhonari said. “But I am glad that you did not die. If you had, I wouldn’t have been able to meet a creature of fantasy. It's fascinating to me to see someone of your kind. Werefolk have always been just stories, hinted at but never seen. Although perhaps,” he added with a grimace, “We have brought others of your kind in animal form to our kingdom who remained trapped in those forms because of the iron cages they were put into. Makes me want to go and look the King’s Menagerie over and see if any other werefolk have ended up there.”
The wereman shifted on the table, clanking his chains. “What of me?” he asked. “What will you do with me?”
Lord Avhonari thought about this as he looked his captive over. Much as he would have liked to keep the wereleopard, he was sure that the creature would waste away eventually from loneliness and homesickness. He did not want that to happen. He could not bear to watch such a beautiful, exquisite creature turn into a hollow-eyed skeleton again. “I will make a bargain with you,” he began slowly after a moment’s thought. “If you will remain here as my guest for a short time, long enough for me to learn about your people and your lands, then I will take you home myself. You will answer every question I put to you honestly and without reservation, and will refrain from attacking any of my men during your stay here. Do you accept this bargain, Z’sharan? Or must I keep you in chains while I decide what to do with you?”
The golden eyes stared up at him. “You would…take me home?” the wereman said after a moment, sounding incredulous.
Lord Avhonari nodded. “I will keep my word to you, if you keep yours to me. Have we a bargain?” he repeated.
Z’sharan stirred on the table topagain. “Very well,” he said. His mouth tightened. “I have no choice, anyway,” he added rather despondently. “If you choose to keep me captive, there is no way that I can escape.”
“I know. But I would prefer you to be a guest rather than a captive. I am being eaten up by curiosity, and the only way that I can get my questions answered is to make this bargain with you. I highly doubt that you would answer anything I asked you if I kept you in chains or a cage.”
Lord Avhonari produced a key from his belt pouch as he spoke, and began to remove the cuffs and anklets. Z’sharan watched him with those amazing golden eyes, rubbing at his wrists when His Lordship had removed the cuffs at last. He sat up slowly on the table, looking around curiously. “I will have some clothes brought for you,” Lord Avhonari remarked. “Or do your people not wear clothing?” he asked.
Z’sharan snorted. “We do. It’s just that I was taken in animal form, and I can’t very well carry clothing with me when I’m like that.”
“Ah. Very well. I will have to come up with a good story for the disappearance of the leopard in the garden for my household. I think that I’ll tell them that you helped the beast to escape, and were then captured. And because of this fact, I have forced you to become my bondservant for a time to make up for the loss of the beast. His buying price was only four gold, so you should work that off in no time. Then I can ‘let you go’, and I will take you home to your own lands. The king has been urging me to take a holiday anyway; he says I work too hard. I will simply take that holiday in the direction of your lands rather than to some more well known holiday destination. You can slip away during the night when we reach your home and return to your people.”
Z’sharan stared up at him in puzzled awe. “You are…kind,” he said, sounding disbelieving.
Lord Avhonari’s lips quirked in a wry smile. “Not exactly,” he replied. “This is actually quite selfish of me, since if I were really kind I would let you go now without forcing you to stay here as my companion for any length of time. But this is a good compromise, one we can both live with.”
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