“I am waiting.”
Three hours earlier, I had not expected to end my night talking to—with?—a cat. Yet here I was in the early blackness of midwinter morning staring into the orange eyes of a tabby-colored creature, arched whiskers and arch expression eyeing me intently from across the bar, short tail tucked neatly along its haunches. It yawned, and I looked away from the cavern of its throat to seek the source of my current discomfort in the pitch of my pint of bitter.
I am Eionn Rankin, itinerant scholar, calligrapher, teacher, and this is not my story. I am a jack of relatively few trades (though, I would say, the most useful ones): time to time, I’ve made camp on cliff faces and in barrows; ate with princes and then slept soundly in their dungeons; shoed horses and milked the occasional goat; reinforced bulwarks and bridges; loved women—and the occasional feminine creature of mystery; in short, all a man could ask to do in the wide world. Such vagabond activities lend themselves to peregrinations of both the local and the transcontinental kind, and I’ve found myself in a variety of positions comfortable and less than so in just about every clime known to those who go on two feet.
So it was that I found myself one cold Ember day in the Dew-Drop Inn, my personal favorite haunt on the dock-side of Kynnsport; the drollery of the name (and barkeep) along with the bitterness of its brews (and that of its servers) brought out rather than snuffed the warm, sweet notes of its cinnamon bread, its fresh-churned butter, and its hearth. That same hearth was what sent me in search of the Dew-Drop’s worn benches and the warmth of the atmosphere. It’s certainly not any warmer than any of the other fine institutions familiar to Kynnsport inhabitants—the slate-shingled roof of the Bear and Maiden, the leaded windows of the smugly fashionable Smulley’s, or any of the room and board claphouses avoided by the more respectable gentry.
No; it’s the proximity to the docks—to the river, more specifically—that made and makes the Dew-Drop so very tempting. On these wet, chill nights at the falling of the year, sheep are slow to break apart from their mates, sailors clutch their sodden woolies with greater appreciation, men cling to their wives in beds too small a month ago, the drifters begin to feel the frosty nip of Asha’s icy lips at their heels and begin the proper calculations necessary for survival, and the odd traveler walking down the mist-choked rickety dockways of Kynnsport feels a great and sudden need to dry out his clothes in a space inhabited by others like him—those who want warm food and warm beds and warm beer to chase away the clutching clammy fogs that creep up and down the Kynning this time of year.
And such a traveler I was (and have often been). So, at the end of a long Reaping’s walking down the wide, silvery serpent of the Kynning’s length from, I stopped in Kynnsport to rest my weary feet and—gods willing—find some honest business. The flat, smooth silver of the river on my right, the coal-red sun setting behind the walls and roofs of the town on my left, the river-fog already tickling at my boots, the Dew-Drop Inn was just the haven I needed for the night. And who knows? Perhaps I’d find more than an open bench or bar; a warm bed seemed just the thing, and Deila knows it had been long enough by half.
And so it was that, cloaked by the misty-moisty evening and hurried on by the chill of Ember’s endings, I found myself seeking shelter and camaraderie against the cold.
Soon enough I was ensconced in the warm cocoon of my favorite friendly dive. It was quiet—a few longshoremen and scullery drudges gathered at tables, mingled with tradesmen and working women, the stout figure of Connaugh Dougherty moving from bar to table to bar again with a grace and efficiency that belied both his size and efficiency. Most expensive about the place was the old bar—real mahogany!—and the lanterns which even now burned brightly to lend cheer to the evening. A few pennies passed hands, and a fully belly and continued warmth were assured for the evening. I slid myself over to the far end of the bar and tucked into a bowl of unobjectionable things—a stew of some variety, filled with shreds of what once had been some kind of meaty beast and indistinguishable vegetables leeched of nearly all color or resistance to my hungry palate. The bread was the thing here: sweet, firm, warm, still moist—you tore it open and a steamy burst of tangible freshness and tastiness wreathed your face like some holy beard of deliciousness. Simply indescribable; my words don’t do it justice. The interplay of cinnamon! The buttery innards! The crispy crust! No physical form—male or female—baits my lust like Dew-Drop bread.
A few pints later, and the outside world was all a-dark. I’m sure from the outside the inn must have presented will-o’-the-wisp promise; glowing amber in the wet air, I’m surprised more creatures of ill-repute didn’t crawl on in the same track I did. I was quaffing my fifth (or sixth) mug—for, in such an environment, even a gentleperson such as myself can shed the cloak of false civility that we all wear in polite society—when a rattle at a window caught my ear. Even as I turned around Connaugh had come from behind the bar and, with a casual flip of his wrist, flung open the leaded pane; a substantial furry form dropped to the floor, and he closed it again.
Weaving in and underneath the tables that littered the room asymmetrically was the most magnificent tomcat I’d ever laid eyes on. He was four feet long if he was an inch, and brindled all over with gray and tawny stripey bits. Quicker than a Kynning salmon he made his way to the bar; Connaugh trailed behind him, touching a shoulder here and picking up a mug there, ever the congenial (if silent) host.
I lost sight of the beast for a moment, and then—wonder of wonders—he was beside me, springing to the bartop with a weighty thud. A good forty pounds he was, all tufted ears and golden eyes glaring ferociously about him. I near shat myself with surprise; a tribute, perhaps, to the bitter than I didn’t. Connaugh’s scuffling steps creaked pleasantly behind me, and the giant found his way behind the bar again.
Up close as I was, even his girth seemed dwarfed by the great cat. Had I been sober by half sure I would have been a bit more anxious—claws like those could flay a face if I pricked his fish away from him, or came across a she-beast in an alley at the wrong moment—but pleasantly addled as I was, the thing to do seemed to me to give him a scratch ‘hind the ears.
And so I did. You never heard such a purr—a mighty bellows he was, all rumbling and slanted contented eyes. I swear the glasses themselves knocked together with the vibration.
Not much was said ‘twixt the three of us: Connaugh tended his bar, refilled my drink; I drank my drink, hence the refilling, drawing down more of that warming black bitter to help me sleep a’nights; our furry friend, offering the silent mouth and open ear of a cloistered priest, played the part of the sympathetic confessor.
Dark came on in full, and as it grew progressively darker outside the patient glow of the coal-strewn hearth seemed ever more delightful. At this point my tufted feline companion had reclined fully along the end of the bar, short tail twitching occasionally as the weights of a clock patiently swing away the minutes, slow and effortless but full of hefty portent. He had his own meal, too—a saucer of cream. It did my heart good to see such a patently wild creature—sure more bob than cat, half lynx and two dashes of cougar in him—looking so dignified and stately with a splotch of cream upon his nose and styled whiskers.
“Cat,” I says, for the brew was working its own wondrous magic, and I was waxing verbose, “cat, sure as is you are a fine example of gentry in these parts. Serious, but not too serious; dignified, but not above the simpler pleasures.”
He looked up from his cream, pink rag of a tongue sponging his muzzle, and I had that distinct impression unique to the cat that I was being most critically evaluated and (therefore) must remain on the very best of behavior.
“O cat,” says I, “for cat-kin you be, think you can teach my lumbering friend here some gentle ways? For he is in sore need of wife and home to still be waiting on vagabonds like myself.” I jerked my thumb in Connaugh’s direction, but the oaf took no notice. Warm enough in person, but smileless like a hearty tree that cannot dance in the breeze any more. More the pity; my long acquaintance with him as provider of shelter, protector of the innocent (me), upholder of justice (me again), and solver of disputes had revealed a keen sense of humor. You just had to know where to look.
The cat returned my stare, blinked once, and proceeded to wash itself on the bar.
I sighed, leaning back from my empty bowl. “Cat, if you don’t know how, then I can’t either.” Tentatively, I reached over the bartop and gave him a gentle scratching behind his tufted ears. You never know when a beast as wild as this can turn on you, quick as that, but I was rewarded with a hearty rhythmic rumbling from within his furry chest.
Connaugh put the last of his glasses away and caught my eye. A pointed finger made his question clear, and I took my final refill with a happy face and happier hands. He made his way up the narrow stairs to the left with deceptive quiet; if there’s ever a man who knows how to handle his bulk surreptitiously, it’s Connaugh Daugherty.
Cat-kin and I kept company, myself waxing ever more open and loose at the tongue (the bitter working its magic still), he as silent and self-absorbed as ever.
“Well, here’s to a profitable voyage. May I find honest work waiting for me, with honest trusting people along with it; and, if the gods be kind, an honest open-hearted widow to welcome me to her hearth for a while—” I cocked an eye at my feline friend as I tilted the glass, draining another hearty bite of black brew. Swallowing, smiling, fuzzy-headed, I said, “—for it’s the widows that are most open to itinerant bachelors. You know that, kitty-kin?”
He seemed to take offense at the familiar moniker, for abruptly he straightened himself from his curled pose of felinity and sat upright, luminous orange eyes catching the firelight like mirrored disks. Under those haughty brows and piercing pupils, dark slits of daggerlike judgment, I felt the sudden imposition of guilt—and the need to expiate sins not yet consummated.
“You don’t understand, whiskers! So long on the road, a man gets lonely.” I paused. “And he should find someone alike in loneliness, what a pity it were not to remediate this tragedy? What a sorry state of affairs to keep kindness from one who would return it. I would not be such a fool for all the world!”
Still the unblinking eye of reproach. Half to the cat, half to myself, and perhaps half to the women waiting down the roads time, destiny, and chance braid together in indistinguishable murk, I muttered, “For it’s a sorry heart that keeps its sorrow to itself. It’s in the sharing that we lose half our burdens, and in the keeping them to ourselves that we make them.”
A weighty touch like a glove finger brought my eyes back up. The massive tom was closer, clawed paw carefully but full pressed on my forearm. A quizzical chirp, like some Kynnish knave roguishly curling his Rs, rolled from his throat.
“Aye, cat.” I murmured. “A fine beast like you knows the sorrow that comes from loneliness.” I glanced around the now-deserted inn. “For what else do you seek shelter from the fog-ridden night?”
His tail wrapped around him, my friend posed the perfect captive audience. It is not true what they say of cats and hounds and the occasional falcon; they hear, and they judge well. A man whose witty words might otherwise soothe the sullen sheep of his constituency will find the keen nose of the dog or the eye of the hawkish judge a better measure of his insincerity. Thus, as the gods and men know, beasts, though dumb, measure character like a confessor. Or something along those lines.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Sliding backwards off my stool with what little grace was left to me, I turned a stumbling slide of the foot into a graceful bow of the northern courts.
“And you, oh cat-kin! What patience! What magnificent solitude! To thee, I offer my salute!” Imagined hat in hand, invisible cloak peeled back delicately, I gave my most respectful leg. He blinked once, slowly—a sure sign of respect returned.
“And what, O cat, dost thou here? Do you slake your thirst with me and the rest of the miserable shufflers? The hard-handed farmers and gilded-throated merchants? The working women with their callused feet and hands and harder hearts?”
Leaning forward, I cradled the slight remains of my pint in one hand before draining it. “What are you doing here, cat?”
“I am waiting.”
I swallowed again, sucking down foamy remnants, nodding reflexively. It wasn’t ‘til I put my foam-laced glass down and slid my way back on to my stool that I realized my erring.
There was no one else in the main room.
No one but me, for Connaugh had long since gone to bed. And the cat.
I looked at him sharply, and gave in to the giggles. With as much time as I’ve had between bouts of thirst and monsoons of quenching, I have no steady compass of appetites. When it pours, I glut myself; when a dry season happens along, I tighten my belt and think pure thoughts. Pure thoughts, of course, are weak opponents for the filthy thinkings that any and many a man is prey too (me being no different); yet I find that pure thoughts help to starve an appetite. Thoughts of… other varieties tend to fuel it, feed it all ablaze again until! the mind is frustrated, embittered, unable to follow its natural desires.
Such a state must I be in. I looked at the glass with a friendly glare.
“My friend, you do me wrong. Interrupting me mid-phrase—and we were talking so pleasantly! Poor kitty, the drink has quite gone to my head. You were waiting, yes? Have you found what your royal paddy-paws was looking for?
This time, there was no denying it. As I smiled at my whiskered companion, wide-toothed and rosy-cheeked, I saw his whited muzzle nod, and his pink tongue flicker and maw move in undeniable speech.
Oh no. You’ve done it again. Ale-cats and dream women speak with magnificent volume, nearly louder than the rumbling of carts of market day after a night of drinking.
“I think I have found what I was waiting for.”
What else is there to do when faced with madness? Either run or comply, and running off into sleep or insanity has never been especially attractive. I am only a coward in the practical sense. Magic and fae foolery are unavoidable. I swallowed hard, blinked, and did the only reasonable thing I could think of:
Continue the conversation.
“What were you waiting for?” I sputtered, hands hard-knuckled on the stool and edge of the bartop.
His tail, curled about him like a winding rug, twitched once at the tail. “A companion.”
I looked at the glass again. Surely Connaugh hadn’t drugged me. Surely this was all a dream. Better to play along, yes?
“A companion?” A pause; just a tail-twitch and a slow wink.
“What does a cat need a companion for?” I wondered aloud, then shot a guilty glance at him. He still hadn’t moved, hadn’t reacted at all.
Best to play along with the fantasy. If this was an ale-dream, all the better to enjoy it now before the morning came. I looked down, then back up at the cat.
His silence made me bold. “Perhaps… adventures among the gutters? Hunting the king of rats down for crimes against kitten-hood?” Nothing.
“Or perhaps the Kynnish hounds of the local constabulary have you on the run? A cat-thief?”
“The saying is cat burglar.”
He paused. “And nothing will be burgled. Not so crude.”
His voice was so correct—a sharp, warm tenor, not the didacticism of a schoolteacher or the knuckle-rapping of a stern aunt. It was the voice of a fellow student, fed up to full with his mate’s foolishness. Matter-of-fact, cut and dried. He blinked again, and turned his full attention to his right haunch for a moment.
I waited a moment, embarrassed by the perspicacity of my drinking companion. “W-ell then, what do you need the comrade for?” You’ve done it now, I thought. You’ve pissed off the talking cat in your dreams. An extra aching head for you.
And no more late nights on an impoverished purse, I added. The price you pay is too high already. Maybe this time you’ll learn.
After a full cleansing, he turned back to me. For the first time, I saw that the cat had few of the battle scars I would assume came with the life of a wandering tom—in a large town like this one or among the wilds surrounding Kynnsport. River to the west, wooded hills and valleys north and south, and the foothills of the Kir’Bolg Mountains to the east. Aside from his cat necessaries—wide wiry whiskers, broad splayed feet with great fuckin’ claws biting cleanly into the aged wood of the bar, a short tail with a full body, banded and ticked fur, tufted ears rising above furry chops and piercing orange eyes—he had a nearly hidden leather thong wrapped ‘round his neck. A small bead of glass was threaded through under his throat, pale sea-green in the lamplight.
He blinked at me, and I looked at him, waiting. Patience in dreams is just as worthwhile as patience in love; haste either ends the joyful hour too soon, or drives away the self-same pleasures sought. Slowly, carefully lest I slip to the floor in my drunken stupor, I took a stand myself.
He yawned, a great gaping maw of white teeth, pink gums, and raspy tongue. He closed his jaws—I swear, there was an audible crack as they shut, if ever so quiet—and sprang to the floor with a graceful motion possessed only by felines, cranes, and noblewomen, a quick flash waterfall of fur and tail reappearing as cat on the floorboards of the inn.
He looked up at me, slit-eyed and slowly winking from knee height. “It will be a theft. Of sorts.” He stretched himself out, head down between fuzzy forelimbs, tail curling a presumptuous question mark in the air. “And you will help, yes?”
“Yes, of course,” I assured the vision. Play along, Eionn. Play nicely with the drinky-cat. If you do, there may be a drinky-nymph waiting for you in your dreams! “I’m at your disposal, O cat.”
“Good!” Self-satisfied, he rubbed against my shins again, loud purr rumbling even through my boots.
“But not now, manling. Time for bed.” Quick as only cats can, in a liquid lightning glide he was behind my legs, nudging me in that endearing way that cats door before they claw your pants to hell.
“That, cat-kin, is greatest sense.” I didn’t even try to keep the relief from my voice. And why not? It’s a rare vision that leads the drunkard to his rest; usually, mine tire me out in cobbled streets and pigpens. Kind drink, I silently prayed, thank you. Thank you for leading me to my bed, for now I will remember this lesson. I will engrave it on my heart and never forget the kindness of ale which leads one to sleep in a bed and not in the gutter or in a untethered rowboat.
And so up the stairs we went, to bed, and to sleep, I beneath the sheets and the cat at my feet.
An errant shaft of sunlight was tickling my face—the kind of warmth that brings with it squinted eyes pressed into tight wrinkled peepholes and a perfect balance between warm waking contentedness and the bitter realization that coming any closer to the surface of wakefulness means a hammering head and aching joints. O you veterans of hanging over, you know my travails and trials when I awoke. The boots—one on, one off; clothes beneath the blankets and sheets still full encumbering your body despite clear evidence of unlacing the night prior; stiff drool stains on the pillow; and a fuzzy, comfortable sensation giving way to both a terribly ferocious hunger and the immediate bodily response that food would never be welcome again.
It is at times like this that I become, for the moment, a man of prayer. True, the gods show their faces in myriad ways throughout our lives; yet it is when we feel the cruel claws of fate most clearly, pinching at the buttocks of our good fortune and shoveling forth the ill, that we turn to those Higher Powers who will deliver us from the various evils we have delivered ourselves unto.
How much moreso must we feel our indebtedness when there is a talking cat to greet us in the morning?
Again the surly sound of reproach, a younger brother (better behaved and, therefore, the favorite; mine had always simply been sneakier in his troublemaking—a good lesson for me later in life, but quite unappreciated at the time). I raised my lids past half mast and saw my tawny friend erect at the foot of the bed.
What else can a man do when faced with repeated evidence of his madness than swallow that bitter pill? Take it like a good fellow and accept it with quiet dignity?
Had I been sober, my scream of terror and shock might (hopefully) have sounded more like a mature cry for assistance. Ho, landlord! What talking beast is this in my bed?! Witchcraft! Call the exorcist!
As it was, the best my drunken self could manage was a pitiful whimper and a slithery slide off the sheets and down to the floor. Even that slow drop of slight height made the bells and clamor of Caiden Caelian spread cymbals through my soggy brain, and my whimper of fear (civilized outrage, I’m sure) turned to the sleepy self-pitying moans of the married man risen before his time. A state I knew better than many and less well than most.
I could see it just above the edge of the bed; the beast rose to its feet and walked over to me, peering down in the quizzical way of such creatures. I rose my hands to ward the thing off (they made it halfways up my chest) and spoke as surely and steadfastly as I could, mustering every ounce of courage and fire in my blood, “Away, foul thing!”
Perhaps a more accurate representation might be, “Geh-way, ful thang,” with added floppiness in the wrists. Intimidating, I’m sure.
The discerning reader has no doubt recalled—and even the infantile city sycophant will conclude with enough prodding from yours truly—that I was… encumbered by my imbibing of the night before. So it is. Think not that my stamina and constitution lack the necessary fundament to withstand your various ciders, wines, beers, ales, and liqueurs, both light refreshment and potent potions of forgetfulness; think instead of the weighty power of that dark, bitter ale that I was (somewhere in the farthest recesses of my still unresponsive mind) cursing just as bitterly. I promise, were you to ingest as much as I, you too would surely struggle with its weight and vigor. On my honor.
The thing blinked, and slid down to my level with far more grace than I had mustered. I think I gestured again, but the room slid sideways in a most alarming way, and all my wits and strength were required to maintain my position. Acrobat’s training, you know.
“You’re drunk.” Less judgmental now, more… curious? And such a clear voice. Persistent vision or visiting demon from the blackest depths of the abyss, I couldn’t let such a mistake slip by. A scholar’s curse—too much book learning.
My fear gave way—if only slightly—to pedantic lording. “Shtupid catth. I’m not drunkth. I’m—thick.”
“Thick.” I swear the fucking thing smiled. “Yes. Thick is what you are.”
It sighed (the cat fucking sighed) and stepped past my feebly flailing arms (sorry: make that feebly twitching hands, curling fingers trying oh so hard to remember how their joints worked; let it never be said that I, Eionn Rankin, lack authorial integrity). Lifting one massive clawed paw, it touched my forehead with the pads beneath its rich fur.
And I shit you not, the eyes glowed—orange like the harvest moon.
My head was clear. A great rush ran through me, veins and bones and achy arms. I blinked, mouth in a bewildered “o,” and slowly let my no longer shaking hands drop to my thighs.
What devilry is this?
“There. Now you can think.”
I gaped (or, technically, continued my gape). It’s hard to catch one’s breath when talking cats and drunken deliriums combine and then separate without taking the speaking animals with them. “I-I-I can think?”
“Yes.” It cocked its head at me, and I swear its eyes narrowed. “Have you reconsidered our arrangement?”
I blinked. “Arrangement?…” Have I struck a deal I forgot? My mind raced, clear now of its brew-driven fog. The priestess? Was the compact real? Has she sent this creature to collect its due? “I am sure that
Its tail flicked back and forth, and it sighed again. “Soft-skin. I need your help.” Sighing a third time, it gave consummate attention to its left paw, brushing it clean of invisible dust with its rough tongue before looking back up at me. Its ears flicked back.
“I can pay.”
As may be expected, the mention of compensation broke my dazed state and inspired me to renewed attention.
“How much?” I bit my lip, inwardly cursing my innate greed. O lust for gold! Thou hast done me in for sure.
Rather than answer, the cat began to pace back and forth in front of my stretched legs.
“Enough.” He seemed restless, and I had the sudden inexplicable urge to open the window and let him out. Out of my life and drunken head, back in the street and in my ale-dreams where he belongs.
Except, of course, I was no longer drunk.
He stopped, head bent in my direction, feet frozen midstride. “You will want a number, yes? Exact?”
I nodded all too quickly, suddenly pricked by the sensation of imminent… perhaps not danger, but a vibration of anxiety. What strange creature is this? For the first time, thought of harm—aimed at my poor self!—intruded on my thoughts. Forty pounds… more like fifty, if he’s anything. And those claws…
As if on cue, he slowly turned in place, settling on his backside, paws lined up in front with his fucking talons biting into the grooved wood of the floorboards. His tail curled about him, and as he spoke his tufted ears seemed pricked even higher.
“Half now, half when done. Four hundred crowns outside of town, and four hundred upon return.”
The cat is richer than I am. For some reason, this thought depressed me even more than the thought of imminent face scratching or abdominal laceration. Why is the cat richer than I am?
Why is life so cruel? What profit the gods to see me suffer so?
“What could possibly be worth that much money to—to a cat?”
He blinked once.
My hyperextended jaw hyperbolized the floor with the softest of thuds. I am nothing if not discreet, you see, and I fain would not have woken the guests below. If my drunken ravings—or hallucinations—or, as was becoming more and more starkly apparent, the fantastical horrors of reality—caused me in alarm to waken my fellow sleepers, I would never forgive myself.
And I swear by all the gods the damned cat smiled at me. And without a sound save the merest of mewlings in the back of its throat, its whole body seemed to melt away, tawny ruddy fur becoming olive-bark colored skin with longer, dexterous fingers, large orange eyes with pinprick pupils, a roughhewn leathern kilt, oversized feet covered by handstitched pointy-toed shoes, tan sackcloth shirt stitched and re-stitched, reddish-brown hair curling in an untamed crest, over two large pointed ears.
A goblin. Now the cat’s a goblin. And he has a knife. Why is the goblin a cat? How is the cat a goblin? What will he do with the kni—
“I will explain. You will listen. Yes?”
What else is there to do when faced with madness? I could not run.
So I listened.
(Here, of course, the cat begins his tale. Since I am here and he is not, you will have to take me at my word that what he said is this and what he said is true and that I am not taking liberties with the speech of some poor cat-kin easily bamboozled by an urban sophisticate like myself.
Trust me. My story would be better.)
—am Dagg’t. My people are the DrenBolg, so I am Dagg’t DrenBolg. We rule the forest to the—”
“How are you a goblin?”
He stopped midbreath. “Manling,–”
“I mean how are you a cat?”
“Are you a cat? Or a goblin?”
“I just don’t understand. A talking cat is one thing; ale dreams are another thing; a talking cat in an ale dream is another less unlikely thing, but I cat that leaves an ale dream and then bargains with me and then becomes a goblin is entirely too much. I would like to speak to my solicitor, please. I don’t want to dream this dream any more. In fact, I would like—”
And I was. It took some effort, let me tell you. Still, when a magic goblin-cat tells you to be silent and his eyes glow, sometimes something seems extra persuasive about his request. In short, I found myself rigidly still on the floor save for the fluctuations of my breath and the palpitations of my poor overtaxed heart. Who knows what I would have—
He sighed again (remarkably like the sigh of the cat—take note of that) and, grasping the blanket with his long fingers and kicking his oversized feet up, heaved himself somewhat gracefully up onto the bed. I say somewhat gracefully because something with the head of a grown man but the body of a child and the hands and feet of an elven man but the teeth of weasel can be but so graceful.
He sighed again; it seemed a trademark affectation.
“You will understand soon. Listen.
I am Dagg’t DrenBolg. My people rule forests and lower slopes of the Kirbolg. Krasst KirBolg rules mountain, in and out. He is King—Gren’Bolg. King of Mountain. We hunt, but not past trees. He leaves us alone. It is good.
Many, many season ago, I was taken from my whelpmother by our Woodspeaker. He made DrenBolg friends with forest. Long time—before I was whelped. He made oak-heart in home—DrenBolgEhn. He taught tree climb instead of rock climb. He taught wood run instead of tunnel run. What say, sprint? Sprint.
Many, many seasons. DrenBolg hunt. Eat. Breed. Teach. Grow. No king; Gren’bolg Krasst big King. No need king. Need hunters. Need whelpmothers. Need builders. Need carvers. Need trappers. Suppose need whelps.
Need Woodspeaker. Need him more than anyone. He brings heart of forest to home. DrenBolgEhn safe for all folk.
So after seasons—forty? thirty? many—taken for teaching by Woodspeaker. Be…how you say, Behn?
Youngling. Learner. Apprentice! Yes, apprentice. Good word.
I learn his ways. How to walk. How to climb. How to hunt. How to eat—and how to cook. How to see—and how to see like a hawk. How hawk flies. What berries can stain hands, what roots stain leather. What to eat, what not to eat, what to feed to enemies so they die screaming. How wolf hunts. How she smells. How she walks—so. How she hears. How to move like cat—how to be cat.”
Here he paused again, and I noticed for the first time the green bead threaded on the leather thong around his neck, noticed for the first time the kestrel feather bound to a tawny braid of hair at his temple, noticed the bone piercings in his ears.
“In time, I became Woodspeaker. He die, I take place. Maybe…another one hundred seasons, all told.”
He paused, fingers resting on his knobby knees.
“This is my thirty-fifth frost. I think—yes. They are still clear in my mind. Clear as ice. Cold.
I have helped out people through many seasons. When elk ran south, I helped stew mushrooms with white caps and red caps, but not both together. When Ig’tOrlk—big, big boar, big tusk—go crazy, mouth foamy, red eyes, I try to calm. Woodspeaking, whisper in pig tongue. Talk of piglets and fat sows. Talk of acorns and sunbathing. Nothing. I try to drive away. Bite heels. Scratch flank. Howl in night time. Nothing. So I kill. ‘Put down’ is phrase.
But I take care of DrenBolg like Woodspeaker before me. I listen. She speaks. I do what she asks. When Blagg’t—big brother, mean hands, stupid face—when Blagg’t say ride up mountain and steal Gren’bolg Krasst elk, steal caves, steal mountain, I say no. He say, ‘But hungry.’ I say no. He say, ‘Hunters need hunt. Whelps need meat.’ I say no.
I see danger. I see hard winter. Frost. No game. Whelps die. Whelpmothers sad. Hunters fight. Weak die. Strong live. Learn smarter. DrenBolg too big, too many mud-huts and not enough tree-room.
But no. He go up mountain. He die. King Gren’bolg Krasst kill all hunters. Come down, take tribute. He leave me, leave whelpmothers. Takes half whelps, kill half adults. Tribute. Justice. Way of the people.
Winter harder that year. She knew. She always know. Better listen to her. That Woodspeaker job—make people listen to her.”
I couldn’t resist. The silence of the pause was too inviting.
“Who is she?”
He looked up, and it was like staring down an eagle—all tawny-amber anger and alien strength, a thing that was beyond all communication. Not a man. An animal.
And I want to make one thing clear right here, right now. I’ve known many gobbos. Some are thieving little rat-bastards that would as soon steal your purse as look at you (or, to fit the form, steal your purse, sneak back and cut your throat, then do a dance). They’re also cunning little shits who are quite useful when it comes to guiding one through the mountains are offer quite the fair price in goat meat for the service.
I’m no purist. I’m a half-blooded almond-eyed knife-ear. I know many things about mixing, and many things that won’t mix. I’ve run from mountain orcs who were probably going to eat me; I’ve dined in high elven society where I’ve been all but certain that I was a sneeze away from having my throat slit. I’ve eaten amongst the wild elves and been careful not to try any of the (I’ll let you figure out what that is); I’ve been saved from river rapids by a congenial bugbear who despite his altruism and remarkably good conversation was nonetheless shot by the constable of the next town over. Crossbow bolt to the chest. And the man expected me to thank him.
So I know what I’m talking about.
All the same, when he caught my eye, I felt more like I was talking to an owl outside my window—like a child, safe from the coal-black talons and foreign predator eyes.
“She is the wood.
Woodspeaker speaks to the wood. But mostly listens. Is the best way. Yes?”
I nodded, unsure of what else to say—or if I had offended.
“Woodspeaker.” Here, he pressed one hand on his chest. “She gives me gifts. Many. In return, I serve. It is a good life.
Woodspeaker keeps Bolgen right size, right mind. Take too much, we die. Take too little, we die. Play nice with other peoples, no be crushed. Play too nice, be slave. Balance is good.
So. That me. Question?”
I licked my lips, mind racing. “No—not really. I mean, I’d like to know how you learned to speak the common tongue. Why you need my help. How you picked me. How you turned back into a gobbo—a goblin after being a cat. How you turned into a cat, for that matter. who we’re trying to kidna—er, rescue. But—” I looked up, askance. He smiled
“Well, I suppose you’ll answer those questions in time won’t you.”
I sighed. “Well, nothing for me then.”
He pulled his legs up under him, crossed, and looked about as pleased as any cat I’d ever seen (let alone a goblin-wizard-thing).
“Language is… hard.
I speak Bolgen. Surprise, I know. I know orc-speak, and best curse words. I understand the wood when she speaks to me—but that not speech, just knowing and feeling and hearing without needing to use ears.
She—she first taught me to speak.”
His eyes were so wide at first and so alien that, for a moment, I didn’t notice he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was looking past me, out through the wall past the roofs of Kynnsport and beyond. No more the bestial expression earlier like an unhooded hawk or cornered lynx. He looked more like a child, small.
“She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like—like a mountain cat, like eagle. Like snow in spring.”
The goblin was silent for what must have been only a minute or so, but I found myself nearly bursting with pent up breath. I had just resolved to speak with him when his orange eyes found me. Piercing. Yearning. Burning.
“I will find her, manling. And you will help me.”
An explosive sigh.
“And then we will see what will happens.”
I will find her…
Two hours later. Dockside. Much warmer. Head (and stomach) empty. Waiting for the goblin (who was once again a cat? somehow?) to fetch his belongings.
Which were, coincidentally, somewhere along the river’s edge with the silt and rot and muck below.
I was sitting on the edge of the dock; the closest fisherman—a dozen yards away—cast his net lazily in the midmorning sun, droplets catching the light like blown glass as the steady flow of the Kynning ran on nigh soundlessly.
I jumped reflexively. Looking around I saw nothing; it wasn’t until I looked down that the orange eyes of the goblin—of the cat—caught my eye. He was peering up at my from beneath the dock, perched on the jutting bow of some ruined punt. His river-soaked form would have been pathetic there in the cool air, fur plastered down to the bone. Would have, if that same drenched fur look had not revealed the corded muscle and iron-sprung tendons powering his meaty frame.
He’d put a real hurting on any dog that crossed his path. Then again, I thought, I doubt he has any trouble with dogs.
The trip down to the riverside had proved uneventful. I gathered my things, no longer impeded by my no longer drink addled head, and trotted downstairs—cat (secret goblin) in tow—paid Connaugh in full for the rest of my evening consumption, and walked briskly through the moist morning air. The sun was high enough to lend some warmth to an otherwise dewy and miserable atmosphere; in the stoops of poorer buildings and in the cobbled streets the dirty down-turned faces of passersby—set in the perpetual grimace of the struggling poor and striving middle class—told me that those up earlier than I felt the onset of wintry weather commensurately more.
With occasional nudges and mewls (and a single well-timed growl), my companion shepherded me down a cross-cutting of streets to direct dockside. When we reached the end of the pier, he ducked down underneath, grim claws clambering, biting deeply into the aged wood, leaving me with no to-do or word of explanation.
So I waited.
Reach down. It is too heavy for me to lift and climb.”
Cautiously (as if the fisherman would care?) I bent down as if examining something in the water. The cat pulled his body back, and I snagged the strap of a large leather saddlebag soaked clear through.
The weight of it was extraordinary. Without proper purchase, I had no way to pull the hefty thing up to the dock. So, with another self-conscious glance around at strangers who would give a fig for a single thing I did, I got down on my belly and heaved the thing up. He followed swift after, shaking the wet out of his fur, and giving his full attention to cleaning it—ever the cat.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and pulled back the flap covering the saddlebag (I have many talents, but lifting heavy things is not one of them. Usually, my talents are directed at getting other people to do the lifting and carrying and hitting for me.) Inside, the pale gleam of white gold greeted my eyes.
Mother Iomedae have mercy…
Old, old gold—leaves and laurels, elvish script and stamp, gilded eagle and silvered drakes—a bloody trove, a veritable stash of wealth.
Four hundred crowns…
I swallowed, hard.
“Now, manling. Before we leave. More listen.”