The royal witch had lied.
Cat’s breath hissed out between clenched teeth. At her sides her fingers curled until her nails pricked her palms. She fought to bring her emotions under control so Princess Hagatha’s black spell could not force The Change upon her. Rational thought would rule this night. She and Archimedes must win back her little sister from the witch as planned, as well as their own humanity.
Despite her current human form, Cat’s eyes missed nothing in the dimly-lit room. One torch placed in a wall sconce cast a pattern of flickering light and shadows on the stone walls of the chamber. No small child cowered in a corner. Where was Ivy?
“Well?” the princess said to Archimedes. She raised one delicate, dark brow like a bored courtesan, but her ample bosom rose and fell at a speed more often evidenced by a message runner.
“Need I remind you of our bargain, Princess?” Archimedes said.
The fluting note in the nobleman’s baritone told Cat he, too, fought The Change. She caught a whiff of his familiar masculine scent. A tugging sensation deep in her belly hitched her breath.
When Hagatha snorted, he continued. “We used our cursed animal abilities to steal the Elder Wand from your sister, the queen. Reverse the joining spells and return the child as you promised. We will leave the Storm Isles forever, taking your secret with us.”
Archie pulled out the long, crooked twig that was the Elder Wand. Light sparkled on its polished surface like fairy dust. Over his muscled shoulder Cat glimpsed movement. Her attention riveted on a blue-eyed monkey perched on the sill of the single high, barred window—no doubt another shifter enthralled by the witch. Cat’s heart hiccupped. Her little sister’s eyes were the same shade of blue as the monkey’s bright orbs. Had Hagatha broken her promise not to be-spell Ivy?
The tip of Hagatha’s pink tongue circled her lips. “Give me the wand!”
Archie inclined his dark head. “First, show us the child, unharmed. Then reverse the spells joining us to beasts.”
Glowering, the witch pulled a short, straight rod from the pocket of her skirt. Cat recognized Hagatha’s wand. One quick flourish of the witch’s wand shot the Elder Wand into Hagatha’s grasp. A scowl twisted the witch’s lovely features. “I magicked that thieving brat to the Far Isles after she tried to steal my wand.”
Shivers raced through Cat’s chest like an internal earthquake. The witch had stranded her five-year-old sister alone in a foreign land. How could anyone be so heartless? She blinked back tears. Ivy must have intended to reverse the witch’s spell.
Hagatha’s voice rose an octave. “There is no way to reverse the joining spell, Archimedes. I can, however, force your human spirits to live out your days in the bodies of your chosen beasts.”
Muscles at the base of Cat’s spine twitched. Her fingertips ached as the witch raised her wand to strengthen the spell. The Change overtook her in mid-air as she sprang at Hagatha. Outstretched hands changed into orange-striped paws that clawed the magical rod from the witch’s fingers.
Hagatha screeched like a banshee. The little monkey at the window joined in, giving off the sour smell of fear. Cat swatted the short wand into a corner and spun around, muscles in her haunches bunching for another long leap.
Archie’s tall, dark frame had disappeared. A big barn owl attacked Hagatha’s head in a flurry of apricot, silvery blue and white feathers, his curved talons extended. The witch threw up her arms to protect her face from beak and claw. The Elder Wand flew across the room. Cat ignored an agonizing scream and a spray of what smelled like human blood. She streaked over the rough stone floor and caught the Elder Wand in her jaws.
Hagatha screamed and screamed and screamed. Cat spotted the little monkey jumping up and down beside the door. The owl swiveled his blood-spattered head to pin Cat with his dark gaze. What looked like an eyeball dangled from his strong, sharp beak. He launched into the air, dropped his horrible souvenir and then circled the room.
The heavy oak door burst open and armored guards swarmed the chamber. The owl skimmed over their heads and down the hallway. Jaws clamped tight on her prize, Cat dodged through a forest of booted feet and followed Archie through the castle and out into the welcoming night.
An hour later, Archie glided to a landing beside the lithe orange tabby in a secluded alley near the docks. After listening for hidden heartbeats and finding none, he forced himself back into his true form. He accepted the Elder Wand from Cat and then tucked the unprepossessing instrument into his large inside coat pocket. Then he enjoyed watching Cat’s transformation into an auburn-haired young woman with big green eyes and a guarded expression. His gaze settled on the swell of her bosom. Too bad the magic returned the clothes they’d been wearing at the time of The Change.
“I must hide on a ship bound for the Far Isles,” Cat said without missing a beat.
Archie grabbed her by the elbow to detain her. He had to convince the little spitfire to listen to reason. He couldn’t let her put herself in certain peril. The thought of anyone hurting her made him want to rip something apart. Preferably something with a heartbeat. “When the sailors discover you, one of two things will happen, neither of which is pleasant, and neither of which will allow you to achieve your goal of finding Ivy.”
She set her stubborn jaw. “What do you care? I’m no lady, as you so kindly pointed out the first night of our quest. I’m a monster, remember?”
He inwardly cursed the rich, spoiled, self-centered idiot he’d been when his life had intersected Cat’s. In one short month, everything had changed. He had changed. He’d finally grown up.
He smiled and brushed her long, wild hair off her shoulder. “I was wrong.”
She scowled up at him, but hope seemed to glitter in her eyes. His keen latent owl sense of smell detected the honeyed odor of feminine desire. Archie pulled her close, so close that he heard her heart flutter like a butterfly wing. The delicate rhythm heated his blood as though it were not fall, but the mating season. I must hunt down fat mice to gift her with so that she will welcome my advances.
Spellbound I may be, but I’m a man, by God! A man in love with an enchanting woman. Cat deserved a gold ring on her finger and all the good things of life. Damned if he didn’t want to be the one to love and cherish her for as long as he lived.
“You are clever, Cat,” he murmured, rubbing her hair with his cheek as he savored the moment. Silky strands tugged at his stubble. His face tingled. “You are brave. You are the strongest woman I have ever known. You are good and beautiful and loving and loyal. I trust you with my life.”
She buried her face in his shirtfront and a sob shook her. Her hair was goose-down-soft under his lips. “In spite of Hagatha’s evil spell, you hold onto your humanity, while mine seems to slip through my fingers when I shift into owl form.”
He lifted her chin and peered into her glistening eyes. “You give me hope. You are not a monster. You’re a miracle.”
Her gaze fell to his chest. Her throat moved in a swallow. Then her cat’s eyes smiled up at him and he lost his breath.
“You’ll help me save Ivy, then?” she said, sounding breathless. “Because you love me and all?”
He answered with a kiss that was also a promise.
© 2012 Sarah Raplee
© 2012 Sarah Raplee