“I have my limits,” said Gorlen Vizenfirthe, hooking a full mug of cheap brew toward him with one of the petrified fingers of his stony right hand. A coarse black strand of beard-hair poked up from the foamy head like a sick fern’s frond. “And you, sir, are quickly approaching several of them at the same time.”
“The question is, how bad do you need the money?” The man whose beard had gone a long way toward sopping up Gorlen’s drink possessed but one eye in a scarred socket; the rest of his face was no prettier. “Two hundred fifty auricles for a day’s walk.” He lifted his beard to his lips and sucked noisily. “More than enough to buy seafare out of Nagahast without engaging in your illegal profession.”
Gorlen absently began a thoughtful pinxing of his eduldamer, which sat unwrapped on the tavern bench beside him. One-eye’s hand landed warningly on his wrist, silencing him, but not before numerous heads had turned fearfully in his direction. To strum more than a few notes in succession was to risk a steep fine under the Nagahast Nuisance-Noise Ordinances. Considering that he was down to his last few pents, he would more likely end up working off the fine in the sewers. Nagahast was a curse to a traveling bard; the sooner he abandoned it, the better. But he could hardly swim the Snool, and he hadn’t enough to pay a traveler’s fare. One-eye must have overheard him asking some sailors about crewman’s work. They had laughed him off: A man with one stone hand was worse than useless among ropes. But two hundred and fifty auris would take him across ten inland seas like the Snool, in luxurious first-class cabins.
“Aren’t you drinking this?” the man asked, eyeing the mug that Gorlen had pushed aside.
“Be my guest.” He looked away from the toothless mouth, but could not so easily avoid the loud slurping. It was a relief when he heard the mug slammed down again on the wooden table.
“Ah . . . for that, my friend, I thank you. And in return I extend the offer of easy money.” One-eye scratched an eczematous patch beneath his beard.
“If it’s so easy, why don’t you earn it yourself?”
“Well, now, for me it would be dangerous. But it’d be a childish task for you. Simply deliver a sealed parcel to old Dog, the wizard in the mountains. Run up, hand over the goods, hop back down. There you have it.”
“And who would pay me for this task?”
“Why, Dog himself. It’s half on delivery, you see.”
“What of the other half?”
“I already spent that. Oh, but I earned it, getting what he needed. I’ve already done the hard work. Now old Dog wants his wants in the worst way, but I daren’t go up to deliver them.”
“That’s the part that interests me,” Gorlen said. “Why ever not?”
“Because I’d be recognized. You, you’re a stranger. They won’t bother you, I’m sure of it.”
“They?” Gorlen said.
So much for easy money.
The plains rose gently toward the peaks above Nagahast, green giving way to rocky brown and then to solid grey heights. He looked back at the Snool, fog adrift over the bays and peninsulas, veiling the distant shores. Tomorrow he would sail into that mist, but for now he had a long climb ahead of him, among gigantic sharpnesses of rock. He moved up a grating trail, rock rattling and sliding constantly underfoot. The walls looked blacker pace by pace, while the whiteness of clouds that cross the gap intensified. Even this late in the morning, the granite gave off a chill more suited to midnight.
He hiked until his legs and his lungs did more than merely protest, then he sagged onto a flat slab of stone near a dripping spring. Swallowing a mouthful of dried fruit, he filled his cup from a rivulet tasting of ice, moss, and iron. As he sat contemplating the trail ahead, a warm body brushed against his ankles.
Gorlen jumped at the touch, recoiling onto the stone. A large grey cat with jade green eyes leapt up beside him. “Prrt,” it said.
Chuckling, Gorlen stroked the cat’s head. It was sleek-furred, strong, plump from a diet of mice and marmots; it seemed glad enough for human company to have been a housecat. Wondering if he had a spare bit of jerky, he started to unknot his travelsack. Suddenly the cat began to hiss at the other sack—the one he’d been hired to carry. It stood with arched back, hackles high, one paw poised defensively with claws extended.
“Now, kitty,” he said amiably. “That’s naught to do with you.”
He reached to stroke the cat again, but this time it rounded on him, spitting and yowling. One wicked claw tore into his sleeve; he gave thanks he’d worn a padded jacket for the climb. Leaping from the slab, he snatched the bag and held it out in case the cat decided to leap. But the beast shrank back growling, ears lowered, head pressed to the rock, staring up at him venomously.
“I was going to feed you,” Gorlen said reprovingly. The cat took another swipe at him. He let out a shout, feigning an attack, and the cat sprang from the far side of the rock. He heard no further sound.
Time to move on.
Now that was a changeable beast, he thought as he walked. Of course, many cats are fey that way. One moment they’re in purring ecstasy as you pet them—the next instant, you’ve got fangs sunk deep in the meat of your hand.
The jolt of adrenaline refreshed him marvelously, and he settled into a pace he imagined would carry him to Dog’s house well before sunset. He had not reckoned on the ascent’s increasing steepness. He came to crude stairs hewn from the rock; although he gained altitude quickly, the climbing was hard on his knees. By the time he sighted a landing above, he was once more in dire need of rest.
Then he saw the second cat.
It was a beautiful beast, thickly furred with spotless white, suited for hunting in the mountain snows. One eye was gold, the other green; both gleamed like stars. It seemed no more fearful of him than the first had been, but Gorlen was wary now, remembering the mercurial nature of most cats.
His wariness changed to pity as he climbed close enough to see that the poor cat was missing a limb, and sat propped unevenly on a single forepaw. He expected it either to flee or to greet him with a growl, but it betrayed nothing and sat immobile. He paused several steps below the landing. There was no way to skirt around the beast.
“Hello, puss,” he said.
The white cat lowered its lids. He mounted a step closer.
“Poor puss,” he said. “Little hoppy. How’d you lose your leg?”
The cat watched him intently, ears cocked. Their eyes were now at a level.
“Caught under a boulder, in a rock slide?” he said. “Nice kitty?”
Gorlen put out his right hand, the gargoyle-kissed limb of solid black stone. The cat merely sniffed. “Friends?” he said. It arched its back to rub against him. “Good kitty.”
As he leaned to pet the cat, his bags swung forward from his shoulder. The cat reared back and struck at his stone fingers, screeching. Gorlen lashed out, clubbing the beast in the head. The cat lost its uneven footing and toppled off the landing. Gorlen hurried up the trail as the cat tumbled some distance down the steps. He looked back to see it sitting up dazed, shaking its head. Then he turned a sharp angle and all was hidden.
Gorlen kept his pace for perhaps an hour, even past the point where the stairs finally came to an end. It was not hunger that finally made him stop and throw down his bags. There was something in the sorcerous sack that frightened, angered, or repelled the cats. Anti-feline amulets, for instance. If the wizard Dog ever wished to come down this trail, he must have needed such items to repulse this couple of ferocious cats.
Gorlen looked at the light, lumpy sack for some time. The mouth of the bag was intricately knotted, and the knots were sealed with brittle wax. It was none of his business what he carried, and he couldn’t consider jeopardizing his pay in order to satisfy a niggling curiosity. Nonetheless, he wished he could have access to the magic if it would ease his journey.
Stones rattled on the trail above. A dwarfish figure advanced slowly, with a peculiar and uncomfortable gait. Its growl was loud enough to echo in the confining chasm. Gorlen wished—not for the first time since taking his bardic oath—that he had not foresworn the carrying of weapons. He should have at least taken the time to select a sturdy walking stick that morning.
He sagged when he saw that the gnomelike creature was an orange tabby with orange eyes, its pupils gleaming like cut black jewels. He noted with more shock than pity that this aggressive beast lacked both forelegs. Having no other option, it walked on its hind feet, like a monkey or a man. Lacking arms, it also lacked an aura of real menace. Gorlen chuckled, his sense of bizarre irony overriding his instinctive distaste.
As the cat approached, Gorlen slung the magic sack over his shoulder. He did not find the cat particularly threatening, but he had learned discretion.
No sooner had he lifted the sack than the walking cat let out a wail and charged him. Gorlen screamed like a cat himself when the tabby sank its fangs into his calf. He threw it off at once, but it landed on its feet and came after him, hissing and howling.
Flight, and not discretion, now seemed the wisest course.
The cat gave a spirited chase, but they soon reached a place where the gorge widened slightly and the trail was heaped with broken boulders. It was hard enough for Gorlen to hop from stone to stone; but the pursuing cat immediately lost its footing and vanished into a chink.
After that, loose rock was everywhere, an unnerving symptom of frequent avalanches. Old snow lay between the rocks and dirty ice crusted the walls. Gorlen stooped with his cup to catch meltwater and drank it without breaking his erratic stride. He dug into his sack for nuts, fuelling himself without pausing. Inevitably, his pace slowed. He thought about the cats he’d passed, contemplating the progression of their mutilations, and it was thus with very little surprise that he spotted cat number four up ahead. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw that this once-handsome calico retained but a single limb—her left hind leg.
He wondered how long she had been watching him with her calm, meditative blue eyes. Perched at the edge of a rock-strewn ledge, her single leg stretched out behind her in a rare spot of sunlight, she licked her chops, presiding over a heap of small cracked bones.
“Now you,” he said, mainly to himself, “don’t frighten me at all.”
She gave him a look as if to say, Oh, really?
Stretching languorously, she extended her hind leg until her toe pads brushed an enormous granite boulder that teetered on the ledge. It was the lightest of touches, but the boulder began perceptibly to shift.
“Now, now,” Gorlen said. “Nice kitty.”
The cat yawned, ribcage stretching under the fur, hind leg reaching still further. The enormous rock grated, tipping. Gorlen skipped a few steps up the trail, nervously shooing at the cat. The calico rolled onto her back, a kitten’s playful move, and gave the boulder an unimpaired rabbit-kick.
Gorlen darted sideways, though there was nowhere really to dart. He found himself on the wall of the ravine, trying desperately to climb, like a spider trapped in a basin. The huge stone crashed from the ledge. Looking up at the oncoming rock, now seemingly afloat on a clattering tide of lesser fragments, he knew he could never climb high enough. Resting his weight on his stone hand, he threw his body higher. The boulder crunched over his arm and went on, carrying the storm of thunder, dust and gravel away down the gorge.
Gorlen looked down at his unscathed black stone hand, which knew nothing of pain. He had never been so grateful for the gargoyle affliction.
On her ledge, the cat no longer looked so haughty. As Gorlen strode angrily through settling rock dust, she slunk back as best she could. The thought scarcely penetrated his anger that it might be unwise to confront a pussycat that had only just now, ever so casually, kicked off an avalanche in his honor. He leapt onto the ledge, prepared to deliver a powerful block to the cripple’s frail-looking ribs.
But the cat looked so pathetic . . . One-legged, she regarded him with a bitter hatred that for a moment he could almost understand. Anger vanished.
He kept an eye on her as he climbed past, but she made no further move.
It occurred to him to wonder how the sorry cats had lost their limbs. Did they owe the losses to some improbable chain of natural events—rock falls, fights with vicious predators . . . or even with each other. But the wounds were cleanly healed, as if sewn and tended; the fur grew thick with no sign of scarring. And there was something ritualistic about the injuries. The cumulative amputations suggested a human agent. No wonder then they hated men, and lay in wait for any who might mount this path.
The sky grew purple, the clouds showed orange edges. Now came occasional promising glimpses of peaks above, which suggested that he was near the end of his climb. He would be out of here by nightfall, if his luck held.
He had become gradually aware, as the ravine darkened further, of soft rattling sounds somewhere near him on the trail. He could not be sure if the noises were above or behind him—signs of pursuit or of ambush. He softened his own steps, although he could be only so quiet on the loose rock.
It occurred to him that he was waiting for cat number five.
The very thought of such a creature filled him with horror, though he could not imagine how it might possibly harm him. Still, he had underestimated cat number four, to his peril.
It was a relief when his view of the evening sky continued to expand. He could feel wind now, blowing down from snowy peaks that became clearly visible above. But he felt no less vulnerable on the open slopes, where in the dusky light every twisted bit of blown, weathered wood looked like a snaky figure lying in wait. Due to fatigue and eyestrain, each of these shapes seemed to writhe and wriggle toward him in the gray light, moving sinuously, furtively through the stones.
Shortly after sunset, the slope leveled out in a forest of ancient dwarf pines. The trail continued into the clutching trees. I’m safe, Gorlen thought, for he had come to associate danger exclusively with the rocky defile and its denizens.
Yet, several minutes’ fast walk into the bleak woods, he recognized his relief as premature. It was far darker here than on the slopes; a scant few miserly stars blinked through the black needles. His eyes swarmed with weird lights and shapes, symptoms of hunger and exhaustion. Worst of all, the sounds he’d heard on the last part of the climb seemed still with him, though altered in character to suit the changed terrain, muffled now by mulch and moss.
It’s weariness, he told himself, but all the same he grabbed a shattered branch—and not for use as a walking stick. He was crossing an icy creek where darkness gathered like cold air when he heard a slithering crash behind him. He leapt to the far bank and spun back with a cry, brandishing the stick.
There was nothing behind him but the fading trail, and a sense of unseen danger drawing near. He searched the stunted trees, flinching from a dark ropy shape until he realized it was a beard of hanging moss. Shaking off his nervousness, he devoted himself to the trail.
Finally, as the last trace of light leached from the air, he saw a house ahead of him. Flames were kindling in the thick, bubbled windows; a thin drift of smoke uncoiled from the chimney. Gorlen raced himself to the door, and hammered till he heard an answer.
The fellow who opened the door was naked, but patched all over with so much hair that at first Gorlen thought he wore a moldering hide. The wizard Dog, who looked part dog himself, peered at Gorlen, then one furry finger darted out and snatched the sack from his shoulder.
“This—” Gorlen started.
The gruff Dog danced gleefully toward the fire, hugging his sack without a backward glance. Gorlen stepped in and shut the door behind him. The sorcerer continued to ignore him as he laid the bag on a table spread with stuffed birds, crushed powders, and less identifiable oddments.
“Took long enough,” he mumbled. “How many months has it been sine I sent you out?”
“That wasn’t me,” Gorlen said.
Dog craned around to peer at him. “I thought you looked too good to have weathered all the spells I’ve been slinging to draw you back here.”
“Yes, I still retain both my eyes.”
“Well, I’ve got my wands, and that’s what matters.” He busied himself examining the seals; satisfied with their virginity, he snapped them to bits and began to unknot the ties.
Gorlen cleared his throat loudly. “There is one more thing that matters,” he said. “My payment. Two hundred and fifty auricles.”
The magician rounded on him. “Payment? After all this time? After you delayed my work for how long? I wouldn’t give you half a green pentacle! You’ll be lucky if I don’t extract payment from you! I’ll find uses for your parts if you persist in pestering me!”
Gorlen was rarely dumbstruck, except in matters of money.
“No answer to that, eh? Wise fellow. Now leave the way you came, make no fuss, and I just might let you go unharmed. Off with you now, off-off, before I send something to snap at your heels!”
Gorlen did not move, but Dog must have thought that an order from him was congruent with the deed. He upended the sack, sending its contents tumbling over the table. Gorlen’s shock at being swindled gave way to a graver dismay when he learned what he had carried up the pass.
Ten furry wands lay scattered on the scarred, charred tabletop like jointed jackstraws. Chuckling, still oblivious to Gorlen, Dog arranged the wands in an obvious order: first the white one, then the pair of striped gold, followed by three of dappled calico, and the final four of purest shiny black.
Angry disgust swept through him like a fever. He nearly leapt on Dog’s repulsive back, but it was scabbed and matted from louse and flea infestations, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to touch the mage.
At that moment he heard soft scratching at the door.
“About that payment,” Gorlen said.
Dog remained bent over his workbench, doting on his treasure. “Are you still here?”
“I’ll consider the debt paid when some others have collected what they’re owed.”
“This is my last word on the matter: Be gone!”
“Gladly,” Gorlen said, and opened the door.
The grey cat sat on the stoop, blinking up at him. Gorlen stepped outside and pushed the door wide, bowing low. The cat gave a soft meow of recognition, then stepped quietly—as only a cat can step—into the cottage. Behind it came the white cat, pointedly ignoring him as it limped up the steps and went in. “I do apologize,” Gorlen whispered. Next came the orange tabby, skipping eagerly forward on its hind legs, rushing through the door. And then the potent calico, thrusting herself along with her sole limb, leaping more agilely than he might have suspected in a kind of pouncing pogo motion.
There was a moment when Gorlen thought the fifth cat would never appear; then he realized that he was looking at it, so black that it appeared of a piece with the darkness. It slithered snakelike up the trail, its sad shoulder blades digging rapidly into the earth like blunt little spades under the folds of furry skin. Its whiskers were frayed and twisted; its bony frame and dusty black coat suggested an unimaginably hard life. The kinked tail had been severed midway and crushed at several points along its remaining length. Even so, the cat impressed Gorlen with reserves of unguessable strength. He received the distinct impression that it had been waiting for this moment.
The cat, in sliding up the steps, suddenly swerved toward Gorlen. He leapt back fearfully, but there was nowhere to go. It darted toward his feet, and he nearly shrieked when it touched him.
But all the poor beast did was twine betwixt his ankles, emitting one loud purr, like a contented puss on its way to a full saucer.
Once all were inside, Gorlen eased the door shut. The last thing he saw was the five cats advancing slowly, each in its own unique fashion, toward the preoccupied Dog. Their utter silence inspired his own retreat.
© 1996 by Marc Laidlaw.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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