Journey with Joe (Middlemarch Capture Book 5)

1 – The Coos Are Stolen

Caimbeulach Clan, Scothage Highlands, Tiraq Mainland, Planet Tiraq

Mungo Caimbeulach glared through the dusty window of her chamber, fury quivering through her muscles as her gaze settled on the commotion in the courtyard below. The knot in her throat reined back her scream of frustration and nothing but a birdlike croak squeezed free. With the stout wooden door locked, she could do nothing. Tears shrouded her vision as she watched her youngest brother Adair laugh with the four strangers.

Her brother was selling her coos.

Animals she’d raised when no one had given them a chance of living. She’d persisted, tending the creatures in the wee hours, and now they made her father’s herd appear puny in comparison. Her coos bore glossy chestnut coats with shaggy protective hair. Their eyes were clear while their horns curved in graceful arcs above their heads. The cheese mistress sought milk from her coos because of its richness.

The coos belonged to her, and her brother had no right to sell them.

Determined steps across faded floor coverings took her to the door. She pounded her fists on the thick wood and demanded someone—anyone—to slide aside the lock and release her.

Nothing happened.

Ignored again.

The story of her life.

Plaintive moos drew her past her narrow bed to the window again, and her nails dug into her palms as she watched the strangers drive her herd of thirty coos away from the Caimbeulach keep.

Four men and one dog.

Mungo knuckled away the annoying moisture at her eyes. Nay, not a dog. It was a big black cat behaving like a canine. Her coos were so docile they trotted in the direction the men urged them without hesitation. With her throat and chest so tight she could scarcely draw breath, she watched her coos disappear around a bend in the track.

Disappointment flooded her. Betrayed by her father. He’d organized this treachery. Mayhap it was the reason he’d left Adair to watch over the clan instead of taking his youngest son with him as usual. Instead, Aengus had ridden off with his two oldest sons Raibert and Cinead on a mystery excursion. Unusually, he hadn’t taken Reilynn, her stepmother, into his confidence, but Mungo suspected they’d gone reaving and would return with coos stolen from their neighboring clans. Such was the way in the Highlands of Scothage.

The lock on the outside of her chamber slid aside with a clunk. The door squeaked open, and her stepmother stood there, her bonny face pale, her smile tentative. Diminutive but with a core of inner strength, Reilynn carried a grace and dark beauty Mungo had no hope of emulating. From her lustrous ebony curls, confined in an intricate coil around her head, to her pristine green gown, her stepmother was everything Mungo was not.

“Adair told me to release ye now that the strangers have gone. I expect ye’re hungry. Yer brother ate the last of the porridge, but Janeet is baking bread. ’Tis almost done. I’ll make ye a platter so ye can break your fast.” She scanned Mungo’s appearance. Her tunic and leather trews. “Mayhap, ye should change into a gown first.”

“Did ye ken Father intended to sell my coos?” Mungo ignored her stepmother’s chiding tone as anger swept her anew. She balled her fists and gritted her teeth. Fury consumed her mind in a red haze, and it wouldnae have surprised her if smoke poured from her ears.

Reilynn flinched under her rage.

“Ye kenned.” Mungo’s jaw ached with tension. “Why did Father do this? Why dinnae ye warn me?”

Reilynn shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mungo. My suspicion is yer father expects ye to learn how to run a home and behave in a more feminine manner. Raising coos is for the lads, my sweet lass.”

“Mayhap he should’ve considered that when he gave me a boy’s name,” Mungo spat. “He ignores me. Why does it matter what I do?”

“Ach, Mungo. Aengus was out of his head with grief when yer mother died during yer birth. He loved her verra much.”

“He cannae even look at me,” Mungo said. “I am twenty-two rotations. His oldest child and he still ignores my presence.” She’d do almost anything for her father to notice her, to acknowledge her for once instead of sending his gaze past her left ear or over her head. “Surely he owes me forgiveness all these rotations later.”

“Yer mother had a weak heart. Her death was not yer fault,” Reilynn said.

“So ye’ve told me. If that is the truth, then why does Father treat me like the manure on the soles of his boots? Just once, I’d like him to meet my gaze and smile. Just once.”

“Mungo, I love ye as if ye were of my flesh. Ye ken that, aye?”

Mungo sighed and bowed her head in defeat. Her stepmother loved her and showed this strong regard every cycle. If it weren’t for Reilynn’s presence her life…

Mungo shuddered, hating the vision sliding stealthily into her mind. The older clanswomen told her she resembled her mother with her red hair, brown eyes and tan skin. She’d been lucky her father hadn’t slit her throat in the same way he butchered his coos when they became too old for breeding.

“I wish ye’d told me about my coos.”

“The knowledge wouldnae have helped ye, lass. Change into a gown before Adair or one of the other men tattle to yer father. Come to the kitchen when ye’re ready.” Reilynn bustled from Mungo’s chamber with a swish of green skirts.

Listless, Mungo closed her door and trudged to her clothing press. Before he’d departed on his mystery trip, her father had bid the maids to seize and burn her trews and tunics. She grabbed the nearest of her three gowns and tossed it on her bed in a quick burst of pique. Obviously, he had a plan, but Mungo couldnae fathom the whole of it. She removed her tunic, her trews, and folded them carefully to prevent creases before hiding them behind a loose stone in the wall. Her sole surviving pair, they’d escaped destruction since they’d been on her person at the time. A faded, insect-eaten tapestry covered this wall, and she doubted anyone kenned her hidey-hole.

Worry creased her brow as she donned the loathsome blue gown. She prayed the men responsible for her coos now treated them well. During this season, with the rapid growth of grass, her coos wouldnae lack for food. But where were the strangers taking them? What did they intend to do with them? Adair might answer her questions if she phrased them carefully.

Mungo laced the front of her gown and wrapped a thin shawl in the Caimbeulach navy and red over her shoulders to hide the fact she was almost spilling over the bodice. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she’d missed the evening meal because Adair had ordered her to her chamber. Her misdemeanor—speaking back to him instead of remaining silent about the way he’d eaten the last of the stew from the bowl before it reached her. And now, he’d sold her coos. She doubted she’d see the gold he’d received in trade, even though she’d paid for the calves with her own meager allowance.

Renewed anger pumped through her as she navigated the steep stone steps of the spiral staircase leading to the lower floor of the keep. She strode past the communal hall. Her brother’s guffaw drifted to her as she neared the kitchen, and her steps slowed. Despite the gurgling of her belly, she ducked back into the hall. Mungo slipped behind the navy synvelvet curtains that dressed the windows, and instead of taking in the view of the valley below, she eavesdropped.

“Mungo had no idea Father intended to sell her coos,” Adair said, his voice cheerful.

She gritted her teeth to bite back a snarled curse. Her three brothers took their lead from Aengus, and they, too, treated her with contempt.

“And the stupid foreigners have no inkling we’ll be reclaiming the coos during a blacklight raid.” Adair’s two best friends chuckled along with him, their hilarity echoing in the cavernous hall. “Father will be proud of me for thinking of it. He’s decided to arrange marriages to strengthen our clan ties. The lassies will line up for my attention once they learn of my additional coos and coin.”

Mungo frowned. Adair had ordered the sale rather than her father? No, that couldnae be right. Reilynn had kenned of the sale, so Father must’ve discussed it before his departure.

“When do we reave?” one of Adair’s friends asked. It sounded like Archie of the wandering hands and stinky breath.

“Before they reach the coast. Give them one cycle to settle and grow complacent then we’ll strike,” Adair said.

Mungo’s scowl deepened until her forehead wrinkled. They were taking her coos to the coast, which meant Adair hadn’t sold the herd to another clan. What if she followed the strangers and retrieved her coos? For once she might make her father proud. Mayhap, he’d see her value. Finding the herd would present no problems, but stealing her coos back might offer a challenge.

Adair and his friends left the hall, their ribald laughter fading, telling her they’d gone to the courtyard. Still, Mungo waited a fraction longer before she slipped from hiding.

Deep in thought, she ambled to the kitchen. She’d take her coos to the secret valley she’d discovered. Aye, that might work. The valley offered a refuge from sudden storms and had plenty of feed and water. Unfortunately, Adair’s tracking skills were unsurpassed, and she’d need to take her normal precautions when she entered the concealed portal.

“Ah, lass. There ye are.” Janeet, their chubby cook, bustled over to Mungo and squeezed her forearm. “Reilynn prepared a platter for ye. Sit, lass, and break yer fast.”

“Thank ye, Janeet.” Mungo dodged the three kitchen maids busily preparing vegetables and made her way to the wooden table at the far end of the big kitchen. The meaty scents drifting from the huge pots on the range had her stomach rumbling again. Whenever she wasn’t tending to her coos or locked in her chamber, she hid here in the kitchen to avoid her family.

She sat on a wooden stool. Hunger drove her to tear a piece of bread off the loaf. She spread tangy cheese over the hunk and stuffed it into her mouth, moaning aloud her appreciation.

The kitchen maids—three sisters—giggled.

Janeet tsked. “Don’t eat too fast, lass. I dinnae have time to fix ye if ye choke.”

“Yer bread is the best.”

“Go away with ye, lass,” Janeet said, flapping her hand in dismissal, but her cheeks pinked with pleasure at the compliment.

Mungo forced herself to eat with less haste and smiled her thanks when a fourth kitchen maid placed a mug of hot ale in front of her.

Relaxed in the familiar confines of the kitchen, Mungo allowed her mind to wander to her coos. The clink of a spoon against a pot, the firm cutting motion of a knife against a vegetable and the low chatter of the maids fell away as Mungo finessed and refined her plan.

She refused to fail.

For once, she’d make her father proud. He’d gaze at her and smile.

He’d see her.

* * * * *

A series of moos filled the air, echoing through the wooded valley. Joe Mitchell released an exuberant shout. His cousins Sam and Duncan echoed his holler while his friends Max and Kenan loped alongside in feline form. Their herd of thirty head of cattle trotted along the track winding beneath the trees, uneasy after being separated from a larger group but responding to their guidance.

With rapid strides, Joe and his helpers urged the shaggy chestnut-brown cattle deeper into the forest, the starting leg of their journey back to the island of Ione.

The only thing that could make this adventure to the Tiraq mainland better was if his twin brother Sly had come with them. Sly had considered the trip, but he had a new mate, and the day before they’d left Middlemarch Resort, word had come from the neighboring kingdom of Seelie. King Liam had sent a message to say he thought he’d discovered a new spell that might aid Sly.

So his twin had remained with his mate. It pleased Joe his brother had found Cinnabar. Their mother and his oldest brother, Saber, were even more thrilled at the new family addition. He prayed for the king’s success with a cure for Sly’s blindness. Each day, he ached for his twin. While his brother still had his sight as a feline, his blindness in human form brought a raft of difficulties. Sly never complained, but the loss of vision hindered him and took him away from the land they farmed during their spare hours.

Joe sighed as his gaze swept their new herd. Even though his brother’s relationship pleased him, part of him missed the hours he and Sly used to spend together. It seemed now Joe drifted on a sea of loneliness. Not that he’d ever admit that sappy thought aloud. Together, they worked on their land whenever they could spare the time away from resort duties. They’d dreamed of a future when their savings grew large enough to buy cattle.

With their ambitions coming true, it didn’t seem right without Sly along to share the sweetness.

“Joe! Watch out. They’re breaking right,” Sam shouted.

Joe reacted automatically, swinging off the track to meet the shaggy cow intent on escape. He waved his hands in the air. “Huh! Huh!”

At the last second, the cow screeched to a halt. She tossed her head, sharp horns slashing the air.

Joe stepped fearlessly forward and waved his arms again. Challenge foiled, the cow mooed and lumbered back to join the herd.

“How long will it take us to reach the beach?” Sam asked.

“Three days at most,” Joe said.

“That’s what I thought.” Sam frowned, his brow furrowed above light green eyes. “During your initial visit with Leo, you took five days to get to the Scothage village.”

“It took longer because we scouted the route and decided on the best place to purchase stock. Remember Kelvin warned us to take care with the Scothage people. Due diligence and all that.”

Sam snorted. “Pot. Kettle. The Seelie and the Unseelie kings aren’t choir boys when they’re away from their courts. Liam and Kelvin fitted right in with our people.”

Joe grinned in memory. “Kelvin’s suggestion to make a research trip first worked well. I used the opportunity to collect wood and brush we can fashion into pens to keep the cattle contained during the night. We need sleep. Three days should see us at the beach, ready for the crossing to Ione, barring any accidents or problems. We also explored a valley we found, which might come in handy if we have to hide our herd for any reason.”

“Sweet,” Sam said. “To tell the truth, I’m glad to leave the resort. You’d think a diet of hot women wouldn’t get old, but it does. I’m sick of the guests pawing me and treating me no better than a slab of meat. Most of my friends are too.”

Joe sighed. “I hear you. But I get Saber’s point of view. The women pay for a fun vacation, and their money allows us to survive. At the start, we had nothing. Now we have more security, and Sly and I saved enough to purchase our cattle.”

“Duncan and I want a piece of land too,” Sam said. “Do you think that will be all right with Saber?”

“What do you want to grow?”

“Similar crops to those we grew at home in New Zealand.”

“Speak with Eva. She deals with the kitchens and has the restaurants on Dalcon. She’ll help you with the perfect crops to grow. Then, once you get that info, approach Saber with a well-thought-out proposal of how to grow the in-demand crops. Saber respects plans and careful thought.”

Sam nodded, his expression contemplative. “Duncan and I have a few ideas. We’ll run them past Eva when we seek her advice.”

Duncan joined them as the path narrowed. “The cattle are settling well. Not even our felines seem to rattle them, although Max and Kenan are not getting too close.” Like his family and cousins, he bore the Mitchell black hair and green eyes, and he shifted to a leopard shapeshifter whenever the urge struck.

“Early days,” Joe said. “I’ll relax once they’re on Ione. Adair Caimbeulach didn’t strike me as trustworthy. Kelvin told me and Sly tales of the reaving between the clans. Hold. Something moved in that bush. Did you see it?”

“It’s not bothering the cattle,” Sam said.

Joe approached the bush, caution keeping his steps stealthy. This planet contained some interesting flora and fauna, some of which held hidden dangers. Humongous birds capable of carrying off an unwary man. Zylons—cute, fluffy creatures with a lethal bite. Cannibals who wore bones in their noses and tossed captives into cooking pots. Then, Sly had tangled with the princess from Seelie who had turned him blind. And that was a fraction of the dangers they’d faced so far since arriving.

The hot-pink bushes rustled again. Something else that was so different from Earth. The plants didn’t come in shades of green. The flora on the planet of Tiraq grew in bright, blinding colors that didn’t go well with hangovers. Joe eased closer. Two big eyes stared at him. He moved a fraction nearer.

“It’s a bird of some sort. An owl,” he said in surprise. He reached for it and the owl scooted out of hiding, one of its wings dragging.

“A broken wing,” Sam said. “Aw, he’s a baby. Check out his pink down.”

Sam had trained as a vet before they’d left Earth because of the virus.

“Can you fix it?” Joe asked. A pink owl. Weird.

“I can try.” Sam crouched and scooped up the pink bird while speaking soothing baby talk.

Duncan smirked. “If that’s a sample of your repertoire it’s no wonder you have women troubles.”

“Shut up,” Sam murmured, his fingers gentle on the bird’s wing. “Yeah, it’s broken all right. Joe, can you ask Max and Kenan to hunt for me? I’m assuming he eats small rodents. Two micelets should do the trick.”

Joe left Sam to fuss over the owl while he and Duncan pushed the cattle from the wooded valley onto open moorland.

Joe appraised the cattle. He’d purchased one bull and twenty-nine cows. The cattle were in prime condition, and he suspected most of the cows were in-calf. He frowned as he recalled the other cattle he’d seen. Each had been leaner, and an educated guess told him they suffered from worms or a similar parasite. Although happy with his purchase, he didn’t understand the discrepancies between the cattle, and why Adair Caimbeulach had sold him their prime stock. His cattle had chewed their cud in a separate pen, more docile, healthier and magnificent compared to the other animals he’d seen. None of this had made sense, and he abhorred ambiguities of this nature. It made him suspicious. It made him wary. It made him wonder why.

Still, if he managed to get the entire herd back to the resort without loss, he and Sly would end up the winners in this scenario.

After heading off a meandering cow, Duncan joined Joe at the back of the herd. Max and Kenan had taken a side each, keeping the cattle on a straight path across the open pastel pink-green grassland.

“Problem?” Duncan asked.

“Did you notice the disparity in the cattle?”

“Your new cattle are far superior,” Duncan said. “Bigger and healthier.”

“Why would they sell us their best cattle?”

“You think they’re up to something? That Adair bloke bore a shifty eye. He never met your gaze during the entire transaction.”

Joe nodded. “I didn’t trust him. Something in his manner brushed my fur the wrong way. And, they never had these cattle when Joe and I visited the region earlier.”

“You think they’re stolen?”

“Possibly.”

“Which means we might have irate visitors other than Adair trying to liberate their cattle.”

“Yes,” Joe said, his tone grim. “The thought occurred.” He scanned a second herd of cattle grazing in the distance, noted the herdsman studying them. He waved, and the man returned the greeting.

Sam caught up with them, the baby owl snugged against his chest in a makeshift sling made from his shirt.

“Max and Kenan will hunt for you once we’ve crossed the moor,” Joe said. “The cattle can only move one direction once we enter the canyon on the other side.”

The day passed without drama, and Joe relaxed with more distance between his herd and the nearest Scothage clan. He and his friends pushed the cattle until twilight huddled over the landscape, muting the bright pink foliage, the iridescent red scrub, and the emerald green buds.

Instinct bade Joe to push onward, but he’d hate the cattle to lose condition. They needed to eat and rest, especially if they were in-calf. “We’ll stop in a clearing near to here. It’s one place where I’ve stashed wood and brush to make an enclosure.”

“I hear water,” Duncan said.

“Yes, I thought we’d let them drink their fill before pushing them on to our stop. The stream is through that stand of trees.” Joe pointed to their right, the gloom of the early evening no barrier to a feline shapeshifter’s range of sight.

“Let’s do it,” Sam said. “I’ll tell Max.”

Joe turned to check the area behind them. “I’ll tell Kenan.”

A howl rang through the air. Joe tensed as he shared a glance with his cousins.

“I didn’t realize there were wolves in the area,” Sam said.

“Leo and I saw nor heard any sign of wolves during our research trip.” Joe scowled when another mournful howl echoed across the landscape. The cattle ceased their amble. Each animal increased its pace. Several snorted and one beast bellowed, the herd uneasy with the foreign cries.

Duncan cocked his head, listening. “The wolves are heading in this direction.”

Disquiet slid through Joe’s belly. He’d heard at least two wolves, and he agreed with Duncan’s assessment. The wolves were traveling their way. Should they hole up as he’d intended or push the cattle onward? No, he needed to stick with his original plan and keep his and Sly’s animals healthy.

Joe sighed as the wolves howled again. “Guess we won’t be getting much sleep tonight.”