At least I’m in good company he thought, as Ragruk clapped his massive stony hand on his back. Somehow, Ragruk had picked up on Cat-eye’s foul mood. He could be surprisingly sensitive for a half-troll, Cat-eye mused. He could also snap a man in two with his bare hands, Cat-eye reminded himself, smiling for the first time in several days.
“That’s better, mate,” Ragruk smiled a giant grin, revealing his large, rocklike teeth. “At least you’ve got a friend to buy you a drink!”
Cat-eye chuckled, “And another one, I hope. It’ll take more than a pint to make me forget my lot tonight, I fear!”
In response, Ragruk slammed another silver piece on the battered oaken bar. The barkeep frowned at the noise, but after one look at Ragruk’s massive frame, he kept his mouth shut. He scooped up the silver and, moments later, returned with a decanter of ale. As he placed the container before them, he kept his head down, avoiding eye contact. They probably don’t get too many half-trolls in the Bloody Buckler, Cat-eye thought to himself, amused.
He was halfway through his second tankard when he noticed the stranger watching him from a corner table. Cat-Eye first caught sight of the dark-clad form reflected in the polished shield that hung on the wall behind the bar, and he had the disconcerting feeling that the man, whoever he was, was looking him right in the eyes. Cat-eye nudged Ragruk and whispered in Thieves’ Cant, the secret language of ruffians and rogues, “Don’t look now, but someone’s watching us,”
The Half-troll’s gemlike eyes widened in surprise, “Where?” He responded, also in Thieves’ Cant.
“Here.” The voice was neither Cat-eye’s nor Ragruk’s—somehow the stranger had heard their whispers from across the large, crowded room, and evidently, Thieve’s Cant had done nothing to conceal the meaning of their words from him.
Cat-eye turned to regard the man and placed his hand on the hilt of his dirk —this bar was a rough place, and Cat-eye had learned an outlaw’s caution. His profession had made him several enemies he knew about, and dozens more might lurk in the shadows, unseen, their sharp blades gleaming.
“No need for that,” the stranger spoke in a low, hissing tone. His voice carried across the room so that it sounded as if he were standing right next to them. “I seek your services, not your skull.”
Cat-eye shuddered, but it was more the stranger’s bearing and the sound of his voice than his choice of words that put Cat-eye ill at ease. And though he could not see the stranger’s face, Cat-eye could feel the man’s eyes upon him.
“Join me,” the stranger spoke, indicating two open seats at his table.
Cat-eye looked to Ragruk, but the half-troll merely shrugged, clearly waiting for his friend to take the lead. “Rhia’s fortune!” Cat-eye proclaimed at last as he rose from his barstool, “If you can pay me enough, consider my services at your disposal!”
Cat-eye and Ragruk joined the stranger at his table. The flimsy wooden chair creaked in protest beneath the half-troll’s hulking weight, but Cat-eye ignored the sound, focusing instead on what he could make out of the stranger’s face amidst the shadows of his hood.
“So,” Cat-eye began, hoping his cavalier manner masked the strange uneasiness he felt in this stranger’s presence. He could not put his finger on it, but something about the man struck him as unearthly, almost ethereal, as though he might suddenly melt into the shadows that wreathed the tavern’s poorly lit common room. “You said you seek my services? What know you of my ‘services’ then, and pray, tell how you came about such information?”
“There is no time to dawdle over such inconsequential matters,” the stranger’s eyes caught the light, glinting beneath the hood. “A most valuable treasure has been stolen. I need you to get it back.”
Ragruk scratched his enormous head with his equally enormous hand, as Cat-eye assayed the stranger pensively. “Well, I’ll need to know where —and what —this treasure is before I agree to anything. And I’ll need to know what you can pay us. But before we get to any of that, there’s something else I must know —why me? If you won’t tell me how you have come to know whatever knowledge you have of me, then at least tell me why you have chosen me for this task.” At the moment he needed any coin he could get, and this stranger’s offer was the only opportunity in sight. He might just have to take this job, even if the one who offered it seemed more akin to the shadows in the room than to those who peopled it.
The stranger hesitated for a moment, then said, “Surely you know that you have some renown among…shall we say, ‘less affluent’ citizens of this realm?”
Cat-eye Jack gave no indication to confirm or deny the stranger’s words. After a moment, the stranger continued, “You are an expert at obtaining things from even the most guarded and gated places, are you not? And there is talk, also, of your ability to recognize objects of…special value.”
Cat-eye Jack unconsciously straightened the eye patch he wore to conceal the false eye that had earned him his name. Ever since he’d first worn the crystalline orb with designs like a cat’s eye swirling within —a treasure stolen from a sea-hag’s cave —he’d gained the ability to see things others could not. When he looked upon magical artifacts, such as those that the great mage-kings of ancient days made (and the inferior copies made by their modern day counterparts), he could see a faint glow, as if such objects gave off their own light. Some magical artifacts were practical and benign—like the cat’s eye that Jack wore —but others were stranger and more malevolent. In light of the man’s last words, Cat-eye felt certain that the “valuable treasure” of which the stranger spoke must be some sort of magical object. He cringed inwardly. More often than not, magical objects meant trouble. “How much coin might you be persuaded to pay, up-front, for this little venture?”
Cat-eye Jack was sure the stranger smiled beneath the hood as he produced a pouch the size of his fist and laid it upon the table with a clink. The sound was enough. Cat-eye did not need to see the shimmer of gold to know the bag’s contents.
“So where did you say this ‘treasure’ was?”
From the dark street below, Cat-eye Jack surveyed the slender shape of Lord Camberwell’s tower, which gleamed like a shaft of silver in the moonlight. He whistled softly to himself —he had quite a climb ahead of him.
Lugging his grappling hook and coil of rope, he approached the tower yard. An iron gate, at least twice his height surrounded the sumptuous grounds within. Statues of mythical beasts and legendary heroes adorned the yard, and fragrant plants perfumed the chill night air. Here at the postern gate, he spied no guards, but only moments before, as he snuck down the quiet street, he’d seen two men armed with halberds and clad in iron plate mail posted at the tower’s front entrance. Taking a final look to be sure he was not risking discovery, Cat-eye waved a hand three times above his head, a signal for Rugrak who lurked some sixty paces away, waiting, watching for the signal with his night-seeing eyes. This night was not the first time the two had practiced this method—Cat-eye scouting ahead, moving stealthily into a safe and unseen position while the larger, noisier Rugrak trailed at a distance, relying upon his superior night vision to keep his companion in sight and to spot the signal when it came.
Rugrak trundled toward the gate noisily—stealth was not among his strong suits. But Cat-eye had known none other capable of what Rugrak did next. The half troll laced his fingers together, held them out so that Cat-eye could easily place his foot upon them, and hoisted him over the spiked iron gate. Cat-eye landed almost soundlessly in the soft grass on the other side. Rugrak backed away, taking up a hiding place in a nearby alley. The two had argued for a while, but Cat-eye had convinced the half-troll to stay behind, since he was certain that stealth and a fine touch would serve them best on this errand. Rugrak had resisted at first, wanting to join Cat-eye in his search for the artifact, but the half-troll finally agreed to stay behind, knowing that his friend was right in what he said: there was no way that Rugrak could infiltrate the tower undetected, and to fight the entire complement of the duke’s guard was a risky proposition, even for the two experienced warriors.
So Cat-eye would slip within the tower to seek the artifact alone. The stranger had told him the object he sought appeared to be an ordinary green glass bottle. The stranger had remained stubbornly vague regarding what it was that made this particular bottle so valuable he was willing to pay a hefty sum of gold for it —five gold dragons up front and twenty more once the artifact was in his possession. But the man’s reasons mattered little to Cat-eye, so long as he was paid, and paid well.
Putting aside thoughts of gold and the feasts and finery it would purchase, Cat-eye twirled his grappling hook in a tight circle until it gained sufficient momentum, then released it and watched in satisfaction as it sailed through the air and hooked firmly with a solid clank on a crenel at the tower’s top.
Cat-eye waited the span of a few heart-beats for good measure—to insure that no unseen sentinel had heard his grappling hook. Then, satisfied that he could make the climb unnoticed, he grasped the rope firmly between his hands and began scaling, moving swiftly and smoothly, like a spider ascending a strand of web.
About two thirds of the way up the tower, some forty feet above the ground, Cat-eye spied a small, unshuttered window. Peering within, he saw a small chamber, sparsely furnished and illuminated by an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. Cat-eye swiveled upon the rope, out of view of the window—this looked to be a guard’s post, and if the burning lamp was any indication, the chamber would not be empty for long.
Sure enough, moments later Cat-eye heard a man’s voice, a gruff baritone grumbling about the chill in the air. Cat-eye considered his options: he could overcome the man by force, thus gaining entry to the tower, or he could search for another way in. From past experience, he guessed that the treasure he sought was locked away in a room somewhere near the tower’s peak, so this entrance might not prove his best option in any case. On the other hand, it sounded as though the guard was alone, and from what Cat-eye had seen of the room within, it appeared to have no open doors or windows through which he might be seen should he enter. Cat-eye ceased his deliberations suddenly when he heard the sound of splintering wood followed by a howl of pain and an unsettling gurgling noise from somewhere within.
Cat-eye risked a peek to see what had happened. There, within the tower, a shadowy, four legged figure crouched over a fallen human form. The dog-thing had ripped the man’s throat out —his dead body still twitched grotesquely as blood poured from his wound, gathering into crimson pools upon the cold stone floor. But the true horror revealed by the flickering lamplight was the creature itself. Basically canine in aspect, there was something ghastly and uncouth about the thing. Its proportions were not those of a normal dog, nor even those of their wild wolfen cousins. The head of the thing was overlarge, but the jaws in particular were disproportionate to the rest of the creature. The size of its maw, and the way the dagger-like teeth within glistened in the lamplight gave the impression that the thing’s sole purpose was to feast upon living flesh. Its fur was jet black, but lacked the wholesome luster that a black dog’s might possess. Instead, the thing’s coat appeared dull and wretched, as though it were composed of shadows and filth. As he witnessed the grisly scene, Cat-eye realized that the thing had not seemed to see him yet. It was too busy sating whatever dark urges compelled it to feast so fervently upon the fallen guard.
Jack swiveled his body out of view of the window once again. An icy terror shot through him. He’d seen monstrous creatures before —man-eating plants from the jungles of Khung, giant spiders who dwelt beneath the Camyrian sands, hoary giant folk of the northern steppes —but never had he felt the uncanny revulsion he felt as he watched this unearthly hound gorge itself with such passion and greed upon the unfortunate guard. Fighting back fear, he steadied himself and risked another glance through the window. The creature was gone. The only proof of its existence was the splintered wood of the chamber door, and the ruined heap of bones and tattered flesh that had once been the guard.
Murmuring a prayer to Rhia, goddess of luck, Cat-eye swung himself into the chamber. Once inside, he padded to the room’s only exit with expert silence, and peered out the door into the hallway beyond. Torches burned from iron wall sconces illuminating the chamber sufficiently for Cat-eye to see that it was empty. Swift and silent as a fox, Cat-eye slinked down the corridor to the open door at the opposite end.
As he poked his head out the doorway, he spied a grand stone stair, spiraling both above and below him. His task would take him up to the next floor, or the one beyond that, where he hoped to find a treasure store or vault of some sort. From what he knew of nobility—even petty nobility such as Lord Camberwell—vanity required them to keep many valuables in their homes, which sometimes proved a boon to skilled thieves such as himself. Caution, however, required that such valuables be kept well guarded and under lock and key, which sometimes proved an impediment. And what of the wolf-thing? he wondered. Facing a handful of human guards was one thing, but Cat-eye shuddered at the thought of facing that fell beast alone. He drew his twin daggers from his belt and glanced about anxiously, shaken by the thought of the creature loose within the castle walls.
After taking a moment to brace himself, and seeing no sign of the creature, he hurried up the stairs. When he reached a door, he noticed that it was open, just a crack. Had the creature passed through this way? It seemed unlikely, but not impossible: perhaps the door had partly closed again by a quirk of its design, or perhaps a breeze had blown it nearly shut. As Cat-eye looked through the narrow opening into the room beyond, he saw no sign of the thing. He did, however, spy a large, ornate door on the opposite side of the spacious chamber, guarded by two men bearing pole-arms and wearing plate armor. As likely a place as any I’ve seen for a lordling to store his treasure! Cat-eye thought. Now, how to get past those guards…
In a sudden frenzy of shadow and blood, the dog-thing reappeared. While logic told him it must have skulked through the shadows of the chamber and taken the guards by surprise, from Jack’s vantage point it seemed to materialize before the men as if by magic. Now it rent at their flesh with the same hateful ardor it had shown mere minutes before as it gorged itself with the meat of its first victim.
Cat-eye shuddered at the thing’s ferocity, but he also recognized his fortune in its unexpected attack. The guards were no longer an obstacle, one of them still stood, slashing desperately at the shadowy form with his glaive, but it was clear that the man would soon share his companion’s fate as fodder for the devouring jaws.
Cat-eye quickly assessed the situation. If he moved fast enough, he might make it past the thing unnoticed as it occupied itself with its ghastly feast. Murmuring another prayer to Rhia, and holding his twin daggers at the ready, he bolted for the festooned door. He turned its bejeweled handle and found it locked. Horrorstruck, he turned to face the dog-thing, but it still did not seem to notice him. It had knocked the guard onto his back and now clawed at the man mercilessly, splintering the wooden handle of his glaive with its massive paw.
Cat-eye sheathed his blades and from a pouch at his belt withdrew several slender metal shafts, each about the length of his forefinger. Some were straight while others crooked or curved at the end. Two of these he inserted into the door’s lock, and worked frantically while still the beast fed upon the last of the guards, whose glaive now lay, broken and useless on the blood stained floor.
Though it felt to Cat-eye as if long minutes passed while he worked at the lock, he had the door open within the span of a few heartbeats. The dog-thing still was occupied itself with what was left of the unfortunate guardsman, but Cat-eye knew he had only moments before the thing was upon him.
Rushing frantically, he entered the room to search for the green-glass bottle. Ornate statues inlaid with gems and adorned with gold filigree lined the chamber’s walls, and relics of all sorts were scattered about the place. His ensorcelled eye detected no glow of enchantment on any of the objects, and his panic mounted —would he meet his end here, cornered in this chamber by that unwholesome beast? Then he spotted a cabinet near the rear of the treasure chamber with bottles of myriad shapes and sizes arranged upon its shelves.
He searched through the phials with his cat’s eye, breaking his concentration only to glance frantically toward the chamber door, where he could hear the cracking of bones, and where he knew that death lurked on shadowy limbs. At long last he saw the faint glow of sorcery radiating from a large, emerald green bottle with a gourd shaped bottom and a long, slender neck. As he scooped the bottle (and a few assorted portable valuables) into his sack, he thought he caught a glimpse of something shimmering within the green glass container, a radiance distinct from the shimmer of magic. But he did not dare delay long enough to examine it. He could almost feel the clamp of those gigantic jaws upon him.
Cat-eye reached the door, fully expecting the thing to be waiting there, its teeth bared, ready to devour him. What he found instead was a relief: a circle of guards, evidently alarmed by the sounds of combat, thronged the beast, prodding it with their glaives. The goddess of luck must be laughing this eve, he thought, a thief glad to see the castle guard!
But the feeling of relief quickly gave way to horror, as the thing bowled several guards over in a single strike from one of its massive limbs. Cat-eye dashed for the nearest window; while a fall from this height might injure him, it was preferable to facing this creature that scattered armed and armored men like children’s toys.
As he raced through the chamber Cat-eye could feel its eyes upon him, but he reached the window in time, leapt onto sill and looked down, bracing himself for a jump. From this height, the grand statues in the courtyard below looked no larger than his outstretched hand, and for an instant his head swam with vertigo. Steadying himself, he dove out the window, aiming for a soft patch of shrubbery in the garden below.
He tucked into a ball and rolled as he landed, but even cushioned by the undergrowth, the impact was enough to wind him. As he regained his feet, a strange voice distracted him from his discomfort. High and bell-like, the voice warbled strangely, as if heard underwater, “Careful! Ouch! What are you doing?”
Impossible as it seemed, the voice could only be coming from one place —the bag he wore slung over his shoulder which contained the artifact and his other loot. Looking to the window above, Cat-eye saw no sign of the dog. This brought him little comfort though, as he recalled its surprise attack on the guardsmen outside the treasure chamber. Still, the curiosity was too much to bear; he decided to risk a moment to examine the contents of his bag more carefully.
He withdrew the strange glass bottle. In its depths he could clearly see the light he had only half noticed before. Through his ordinary eye he could only make out a subtle glimmer, like starlight reflected on water, but through his cat’s eye, he saw a tiny, luminescent form, unmistakably female and basically humanoid save for its large wings. The tiny creature stared at him peevishly from within the glass bottle. “Uncork this prison at once!” She shouted in tremulous tones.
Cat-eye blinked, bemused.
“Are you deaf? Hurry! Surely enemies of the crown are moving against me, sending their devouring hounds to gobble me up! That witch will rue the day she captured me within this bottle and sold me for crude earthly gold!”
Cat-eye shook his head, bewildered. Whatever this thing was, he had never seen its ilk before. It seemed like a thing from a children’s tale come to life. But the very real threat of the fell hound forced him out of his daze and into action. Frantically he raised his hand again to signal to his half-troll companion. Within moments, the half-troll appeared and quickly flung a rope over the iron gate. Cat-eye stuffed the bottle back into his sack. Whatever the thing was and however fiercely it protested, it would have to wait until he was in safer surroundings.
Cat-eye climbed smoothly over the tower gate and landed on the other side next to Rugrak. Just then, the shadowy dog-thing bounded from the tower window, landed soundlessly upon the ground, and clambered toward the gate. All the while, the little captive in the green glass bottle shrieked and shook her fist, demanding to be released. Just as Cat-eye and Rugrak turned to flee from the terrible hound, a familiar hooded figure emerged from the shadows of the street beyond and held forth a bony hand. “Give me the bottle!” the stranger cried as the dog-thing scrambled over the gate.
Rugrak was often confused, but from the puzzled expression on his craggy face, rarely was he so confused as in that moment, as the stranger reached for the bottle and the hound leapt over the gate.
“First the gold!” Even in perilous moments like these Cat-eye Jack’s roguish money-sense held firm.
The stranger tossed him a heavy bag of what felt like gold coin, and Cat-eye responded by throwing him the bottle, then drew his daggers and turned to face the hound.
But now that it had spied the bottle, the creature seemed to care for nothing else. Ignoring Jack and his massive companion, the creature leapt upon the robed stranger, but not before the man was able to uncork the bottle. Now freed of its glass prison, the winged creature swept into the sky upon diaphanous wings, trailing a stream of glittering emerald dust behind as it soared away into the darkness.
On the street below, the stranger still grappled with the hound, clutching it by the throat with one hand as he drew a shining blade from beneath the folds of his robes with the other. The two locked in deadly struggle for long moments, but Cat-eye stood watching, unable to take action, as if he were watching two gods of legend —or two demons —do battle.
The relentless jaws snapped on empty air again and again and the canine form twisted back and forth, dodging blow after blow from the stranger’s radiant blade. Finally the stranger landed a blow squarely across the dog-thing’s midsection, cleaving it neatly in two. The thing’s wretched jaws continued to clamp mechanically as its head and forelegs separated from its hindquarters, but the stranger did not pause. He continued to slash at the shadowy beast until nothing remained of it but ribbons of shadows and dust. When he was finished, there was no trace of the creature save a small patch of darkened earth, easily mistaken for ashes.
Cat-eye Jack and Rugrak the half-troll stood stunned, unable to speak after what they had witnessed. The stranger removed his hood for the first time since they had met him, revealing long, silvery hair and slender, noble features. “From your faces I take it you wish to know what has happened here tonight. Suffice it to say that a selfish and terrible woman captured our princess, trapped her in that bottle and sold her to Lord Camberwell as a curiosity. I cannot give you the story in full, but know that you have earned the thanks of all the fay folk. In particular, we of House Aladyr thank you.”
“But, that dog…” Cat-eye shook his head as if waking from a dream.
“Not all fay are of the same sort,” the silver haired stranger smiled, “and just as your folk resort to treachery and murder for power, so too do some of us. Suffice it to say that captivity made Princess Aladyr vulnerable, and that her enemies seized upon this and sent assassins after her.”
Rugrak and Cat-eye continued to stare awestruck as the stranger donned his hood once again and departed along the darkened street, a faint silvery gleam seemed to linger for an instant where he stepped, though it might have been a trick of the light.
After a moment, Cat-eye slapped the half-troll on the back. “Whatever this night has brought us my friend, at least we have money for ale —and more!” The half troll grinned, a stony, toothy grin, and the two ambled away in search of mirth and merriment.
© January 2017 Christopher G. Hall
Christopher G. Hall lives in Northern California and teaches at Sierra College. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.