A cool spring breeze ruffled Kittara Ponterisso’s long chestnut-brown hair as she rode along the forest path. The late afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees from her right, and her horse’s hooves left well-defined impressions in the soft, damp ground. The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue, and the air held an indefinable freshness that hinted of warmer days to come. It had been this way ever since the morning: an absolutely perfect day to be traveling. Now if only she was traveling alone …
“And do you know what the Comarrian said next?” a male voice asked.
Kittara glanced over at her companion, Reyakeen Sylk, who rode next to her on a large gray stallion. Sylk was a tall man with dark blonde hair, well-muscled arms, and a bothersome penchant for telling stories that she had no interest in hearing. Still, out of politeness, Kittara murmured, “Do tell.”
“He said, ‘Mine’s bigger than that, and about twice as long!’” Sylk laughed and slapped his thigh. “And when he pulled it out, well, none of us could say anything — he was right!”
“You all should have known better than to compare tobacco pipes with a Comarrian,” Kittara remarked.
“But we didn’t know that’s what he was. None of us saw his tattoo. Well, not until later that night, when …”
Kittara sighed inwardly and turned her attention away from Sylk’s story to the sound of the birds twittering in the trees that lined the path. Even though the pair had been traveling for less than two days, she was already growing tired of her partner’s nattering.
The young woman glanced over at Sylk again, and a thought occurred to her: perhaps his constant talk was an attempt to avoid a real conversation, one in which he would have to tell her more about the message that had them heading for Wachock, a town in the western portion of Duchy Arvalia. Three days before, she and Sylk had been in Tench when a courier had delivered a message to them from Lord Jastrik, the Duke of Arvalia. Since Kittara could not read, Sylk had looked over the message and told her that Duke Jastrik wanted to meet them in Wachock as soon as possible. Kittara had pressed him for more details, but Sylk had insisted that the message said nothing more.
Privately, though, Kittara suspected that he was not telling her everything he knew. They had gotten to know each other fairly well in the two years since Sylk had recruited her into the service of the duke, and she felt that she could discern his moods with some accuracy.
Kittara waited until Sylk paused to take a breath, then asked, “So, how long do we have?”
“Have for what?”
“For getting to Wachock. Do we have to be there by a certain day?”
Sylk shook his head. “Like I told you, Kit, as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Kittara said with a sigh. Whatever Sylk knew, he was guarding it well. Even getting him drunk didn’t work; at the inn they had stayed at the previous night, Sylk had kept himself to only three ales and had shown no signs of inebriation.
A small dark shape suddenly burst out of the undergrowth and scurried across the path in front of them. Startled, Kittara yanked hard on the reins and brought her horse to an abrupt stop; Sylk’s horse whinnied in protest as he too jerked his mount to a halt.
“Did you see that?” the young woman asked, gazing at the spot where the forest creature had vanished.
“Just a rat, or a squirrel,” Sylk replied dismissively. “The woods are full of them. I don’t see why you had to stop — one less wouldn’t make any difference.”
Kittara didn’t answer; instead, she slid off her horse and knelt at the base of a tree on the right side of the path. The rodent’s flight had drawn her attention to a rectangular object on the ground, half-obscured by dirt and dead leaves. She pushed back a strand of hair and peered closely, realizing after a moment that she was looking at a wooden sign with words painted on it. A hole near one edge indicated that it had once been nailed to the tree, but had clearly fallen off some time ago.
“What’s that?” Sylk asked, still on his horse.
Kittara picked up the sign, brushed it off, then went over to him and handed it up. “Can you read what it says?”
Sylk frowned and blew on the wooden slab. “Barely. I think it says, ‘Beware of the … cat …’”
“Beware of the cat? Are you sure?”
“No, not just ‘cat’. There’s more to the word, but it’s been worn away. I can’t read the rest.” He tossed the sign aside into a stand of thorn-bush.
“Hey!” Kittara glared at him, then got back on her horse. “That sign was put there for a reason. Are you sure about what it said?”
Sylk frowned, and for a fleeting instant Kittara thought he was going to tell her to ‘learn how to read if you don’t believe me’, but instead he answered, “Yes, that’s all it said. Beware of the cat — something.” He started his horse forward, and Kittara did likewise.
A few menes later the forest gave way to a broad field, and the path widened into a dirt road that led down to the edge of the Grenweir river. Kittara squinted as the sunlight shone full upon her, and put a hand to the side of her face to shade her eyes. On the other side of the river was the village of Sharwald, where they would be staying that night. Neither she nor Sylk had been there before, since they usually traveled the southeast route to Hawksbridge on the Duke’s business.
“I wonder,” Kittara said, “if the sign was meant to say, ‘Beware of the catling’.”
“Catling?” Sylk echoed.
Kittara nodded. “My grandmother used to tell me stories about a giant cat that imitated the voice of a crying child, in order to lure people close enough for it to catch and eat them. She told me never to go into the woods alone, or else the catling would get me.”
“Sounds like the stories my father used to tell me and my brothers,” said Sylk, “but about the catwyrm.”
“A half cat, half worm?” Kittara chuckled. “Doesn’t sound very frightening.”
“It’s more like a half cheetar, half serpent, half dragon.”
Sylk grinned. “That’s how my father put it. He said that if we stayed out after dark, the catwyrm would find us and bite our throats out.”
“A real cheetar would do the same.”
“I know. But the catwyrm sounded much scarier!”
“You don’t still believe in that anymore, do you?”
“Only if you still believe in the catling.”
“I’m not a child anymore. Besides, I love cats.”
Sylk snorted. “Useless creatures, if you ask me. Dogs, on the other hand –”
“What do you mean, cats are useless?” Kittara broke in. “What have you got against cats, anyway?”
“Nothing at all, save that they can’t herd sheep, can’t track game, can’t guard a house, can’t –”
“Cats are certainly not useless,” Kittara insisted. “They can hunt mice –”
“When they have a mind to,” Sylk countered. “I’d rather give that job to a snake.”
Kittara shook her head. “I had no idea you were a cat-hater.”
“That’s not true. After all, don’t I like you, Kitty?”
The young woman rolled her eyes at her partner. “Don’t call me that!” she said as she smacked him soundly on the arm.
They crossed the wooden bridge that spanned the Grenweir river and continued along the road that led into the village. Kittara caught sight of a short, portly man waving frantically to them from the front porch of a low rectangular building about a hundred paces from the bridge. She pointed this out to her partner; as soon as Sylk looked in his direction, the portly man vanished into the building.
“What do you think he wants?” Sylk wondered.
Kittara indicated a sign above the door that bore the images of a sword, a hammer, and a horse saddle. “To sell us something, I think.”
“You want to stop and ask him where the best tavern is?”
“Not really. Given the size of this place, I doubt there’s more than one.”
“He looked to be a man who’d know his ale. Let’s ask anyway.”
They halted their horses in front of the wood-and-stone building, then tied them to hitching posts near the entrance. Sylk stretched and groaned as he dismounted; Kittara rubbed her backside as soon as her feet hit the ground, but was careful not to let Sylk see her do it. She knew that he still looked at her with more than a casual eye, even though she had made it clear a long time ago that she was not interested in sharing his bed.
As Sylk stepped onto the porch, Kittara briefly considered waiting outside to watch the horses and their equipment, but a quick glance around showed that the street was empty, save for a white cat peering at her from around the corner of the building. She thought about going over and trying to pet the cat, but it darted away before she had the chance. Shrugging, she decided to follow her partner into the store, reasoning that they would only be inside for less than a mene.
“Welcome and well met, good friends!” cried the portly man as they entered. “I’m so pleased you stopped by!” Kittara saw that the man was dressed in a simple green tunic and was standing behind a long counter that stretched nearly the entire width of the room. The wall behind him was arrayed with an eclectic variety of items such as weapons, lanterns, ropes, wineskins, bows, and traveling cloaks. The counter itself was covered with an untidy assortment of articles large and small: pitted helmets, wooden cups, leather bags, lengths of iron chain, Stevenic symbols, and the like.
“Yes, yes, well met,” Sylk replied, leaning on the counter. “We need to know where the best tavern or guesthouse is in this fine village of yours.”
“Ah, well, yes,” said the portly man, his jovial expression faltering. He cleared his throat, then pointed a finger at himself and said, “I am Gwaddyn, purveyor of the fine merchandise you see here.” He spread his arms expansively. “I can provide you with much more than the location of taverns. Now, I have done much traveling in my own time, and know –”
“Listen,” Sylk gruffly broke in, “we’re more in need of a barkeep than a trader. Should I repeat my question?”
Kittara let out a breath. “Sylk,” she muttered, “let’s just look around on our own.”
Her partner frowned, then pushed back from the counter, causing it to shake slightly. A rusted gauntlet near the edge of the counter fell off and crashed to the ground; Sylk shrugged and turned towards the door.
“Wait! Wait!” Gwaddyn flung himself across the counter, scattering items left and right, and tumbled to the ground on the other side. He struggled to his feet and slammed the door shut just as Sylk began to open it. Kittara suppressed a chuckle as the trader pressed himself back against the door.
“No need to leave so soon,” Gwaddyn said with a strained grin. “The Greenhill Inn is where fine people like yourself and your lady should stay. But as I was saying –”
“Hey, I’m not his lady!” Kittara protested.
“The Greenhill Inn,” Sylk repeated. “Much thanks. Now, if you’ll let us go …”
“But surely you must be in need of something for your journey! I –”
“The only thing we need,” Sylk snapped, “is to be on our way. We have important business with Duke Jastrik in Wachock, and don’t have time for bargaining.”
“Very well, very well!” Gwaddyn said forcefully. “If there is nothing you want to buy, perhaps you have something to sell? I can make very reasonable offers on –” He made a gurgling sound as Sylk pried him away from the door and pushed him aside. The trader began sputtering indignantly, and Kittara grimaced as spittle flew from the man’s lips.
“Uh, thank you for your help,” she said quickly, slipping through the door and pulling it closed behind her. As she went to untie her horse from the hitching post, she frowned at Sylk and said, “You didn’t have to be so damned rude, you know.”
“I’m not very fond of shopkeepers who try to imprison their customers,” her partner replied dryly as he swung himself up into the saddle.
Kittara shook her head as she mounted her own steed. “We’re representatives of Lord Jastrik, aren’t we? How we act ultimately reflects on him. I think you should apologize.”
“His Grace does have a forgiving nature, so –”
“You know who I mean!” Kittara pointed in the direction of the trader, who had not followed them outside but now stood watching them from the open window, a sullen expression on his face.
“Fine.” Sylk cleared his throat. “Sorry!” he called in a loud voice. “Please accept my most earnest apologies!” Under his breath he added, “For not buying your filthy rubbish.”
“Sylk!” Kittara exclaimed. The blond man laughed and wheeled his horse away.
The Greenhill Inn turned out to be located just around a curve in the road, not more than a mene’s walk from the trader’s shop. The sign above the door depicted a sort of green hump, obviously someone’s conception of the inn’s name. A stoop-shouldered man in a worn leather apron was shooing a pair of cats away from the doorstep with a broom; at the pair’s arrival, he stopped and greeted them.
“Are you the owner?” Kittara asked.
The man nodded, running a hand through his unkempt white hair. “Hallrin’s the name, good lady.”
Sylk asked if any rooms were available; the innkeeper nodded again and asked how long they would be staying.
“Just for the night,” Sylk answered. “We’ll be leaving at first light tomorrow.”
“Only one night?” Hallrin shook his head gravely. “Did you not see the moon last evening?”
“It was nearly full. What about it?”
“The folk here know not to be on the road during the full moon’s time. It’s not a good time.”
“Why not?” asked Kittara. “Bandits?”
Hallrin shook his head again. “It’s the catwyrm!”
Sylk smiled and shot a triumphant look at Kittara. “So there is one around here, is there?” he said to the innkeeper.
“It would be wise for you both to stay for at least two nights. Three would be even wiser.” Hallrin’s voice sunk lower. “The catwyrm likes to prey upon travelers. Take my warning, if not for yourself then for your lady’s sake!”
“I am *not* his lady,” Kittara muttered.
Sylk got off his horse and fished a Sovereign from his belt pouch. “Two rooms for one night,” he said, pressing the silver coin into the innkeeper’s hand. “But have someone see to the horses first.”
Hallrin looked at the money, then shrugged and nodded. He pushed open the door of the inn and stepped inside, loudly calling for someone named “Runce.”
Sylk and Kittara led their horses to the front of the inn’s adjacent stables. As they unpacked their traveling equipment Kittara said, “I suppose you were right: the sign was warning about the catwyrm. But something doesn’t quite make sense …”
“No, it’s perfectly sensible. The longer we stay at the inn, the more money he gets, right? I’d say he tells that catwyrm story to every poor fool that comes by, full moon or not!”
Kittara tugged on her lower lip. “Then why was the sign so shabby? If it were my swindle, I’d make sure to change the sign when it got worn out like that.”
Just then, a skinny youth appeared and said that Hallrin had told him to take their horses into the stable. Sylk tossed the boy a coin and instructed him to treat their mounts with the utmost respect. The two travelers then picked up their belongings and went into the inn, where Hallrin gave them rooms that were across the hall from each other. Kittara agreed to Sylk’s suggestion for a drink in the common room, then closed her door. The room was small and contained only a single bed, a chair, and a table upon which was a wash bowl and a pitcher of warm water. She dropped her leather pack into a corner and stowed her crossbow under the bed.
A little later, Kittara descended the stairs into the common room, having rinsed the dust off her face and changed from her leather boots to a pair of soft deerskin shoes. Most of the tables were occupied by men who looked to be either farmers or tradesmen. She ignored the obvious attempts at eye contact some of them made, and headed over to a table near the bar where Sylk sat. He already had a mug in his hand, and another mug was on the table in front of the empty chair across from him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sylk said as Kittara sat down.
“I hope it wasn’t too much of an effort.”
“Not at all,” he replied with a grin. “There could actually be something to Hallrin’s catwyrm story.”
Kittara picked up her mug and took a pull of the dark liquid. It was ale, but watered down somewhat. She figured that Sylk was drinking the same, and that he had no intention of getting drunk this night.
“I thought you no longer believed in the catwyrm,” she said, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.
“There could be something hunting at night near the village. A cheetar or a laska would be my guess.”
“No no!” came a crusty voice from the table next to them. Kittara turned and saw that it was a gray-haired man with a thick stubble of beard who had spoken.
“Not a cheetar, not a laska!” the man continued. “Tis truly a catwyrm!” The two other men at his table murmured and nodded in agreement.
“Have you seen it, then?” Kittara asked.
“I’ve seen what it’s done!” The gray-haired man proceeded to describe how, one morning about a month before, he had been walking in the forest south of the village when he had come across the corpse of a man by the side of the path. “Cephas save me, ’twas a ghastly scene!” He grimaced, took a quick gulp of his drink, and continued. “The fellow was all clawed up, he was, through clothes and skin — down to the bone, by Stevene!” The man thumped the table for emphasis. “And his throat had a great huge bite out of it. Nearly took off the whole farkin’ head! A ghastly scene, by Cephas.”
“Niam’s right,” said another man at the table. “We all saw the poor soul’s remains!”
Sylk swallowed a mouthful of ale, then said, “Still sounds like a cheetar to me.”
The man called Niam shook his head vigorously. “All the cheetars, all the laskas were driven out of the forest years ago. It can only be the catwyrm!”
“Has anyone in this town,” Sylk asked slowly, “actually laid eyes on the beastie? Anyone?”
The three men muttered among themselves, then Niam said, “Young Lansar, I think, saw it last.” He turned and shouted toward the back of the room; a moment later, a pale young man of about fifteen strode up to Niam’s table. Kittara smiled at the youth and beckoned him over to her; he shyly returned her smile and went to stand next to her.
“Hello — Lansar, is it?” Kittara said brightly. The youth nodded, looking at his shoes.
“These men say that you saw the catwyrm, is that right?”
“Yes it is, ma’am,” Lansar replied. Kittara paused and waited for him to elaborate; after several moments, Niam said, “Tell her about it, then, you laggard!”
The youth reddened and shot an angry look at Niam, then cleared his throat. To Kittara he said, “Well, ma’am, it was late last summer, you see? I was with my dog, and we were going out to this cave where me and my friends sometimes go, and …”
“What time of day was this?” Kittara asked.
“Oh — afternoon, I think.”
“And where was this cave?”
“A short ways from here. South. Not very far.”
Kittara told him to continue, and Lansar said that when he and his dog had arrived at the clearing where the cave was located, he had seen something coming towards him through the tall grass. At first he had thought it was a large snake; then his dog had started barking, at which point the “snake” lifted its front part off the ground and spread a pair of wings, like a bat’s.
“When it did that, I–I just ran!” Lansar concluded, a slight quaver in his voice.
“Do you remember anything else about it?” asked Kittara. “Its color, how big it was, what it smelled like?”
The youth cast his eyes up at the ceiling. “Sort of gray, I think.” He was silent for a few moments longer, then shook his head. “That’s all, ma’am. Like I told you, as soon as I saw it, I ran.”
Sylk heaved a sigh, then asked, “What about its head? Did it look like a snake’s head?”
Lansar paused, then replied, “No sir, not like a snake’s.”
“Then what *did* it look like?” Sylk prodded.
“Like … well … like a cat’s.”
“You see!” Niam interjected. To Lansar he said, “That’s all, boy, you can run off now.”
Kittara thanked the youth before he retreated to the back of the room to join his companions. By this time, though, other people had drifted over to hear Lansar’s story, and some of them now began relating their own. Sylk and Kittara heard four other villagers tell of finding bodies with bitten throats and claw marks, and two more reported seeing the catwyrm for themselves.
“I’ll tell you who’s truly responsible,” a middle-aged woman with deep red hair said from behind Kittara’s chair. “It’s that nasty old Cat Mistress!” The group of people around the tables muttered in agreement.
“Who is she?” Kittara asked.
“The widow Mourla,” replied the woman. “Lives down the street from here, in that smelly little cat-house of hers!” Laughter rippled through the group. In answer to Kittara’s question, Niam explained that Mourla was an old woman who lived by herself and kept a large number of cats as pets. Most people in the village believed that she had summoned the catwyrm to do her bidding, and so they stayed away from her in order to avoid crossing her and thus becoming the catwyrm’s next victim.
Kittara had many questions, but did not want to appear as if she disbelieved the story. She was an outsider, after all, and she knew that it was not a good thing to appear disrespectful of the locals — something that Sylk apparently didn’t care about. Still, she decided to ask, “You all have proof that Mourla summoned the catwyrm, don’t you?”
“Proof?” Niam snorted. “Every cat that you see on the street belongs to her! She’s lived among them for years! And she goes walking in the forest every day, but never once has she run up against the catwyrm. That’s proof enough for me!” The group murmured their assent.
“Proof indeed,” agreed Kittara with a false smile. “Well, thank you all for clearing the matter up for us.” Niam nodded at her with an air of satisfaction as the people around them dispersed.
“Go for a walk?” she said to Sylk.
Her partner paused in mid-sip of his third mug of ale. “Walk?” came the muffled reply.
“Yes. Before going to sleep. Like we always do, remember?”
Sylk put down the mug and started to reply, but Kittara stared hard at him and repeated, “Like we always do? Remember?”
“Well,” Sylk said, “I was hoping for a hand or two of paquaratti, actually.”
“Paquaratti?” Niam turned and looked at him expectantly. Sylk began to speak, but broke off as Kittara kicked him under the table.
“Ow! Never mind,” Sylk said through gritted teeth. “Maybe another time.” He stood up, favoring his right leg, and glared at Kittara. “Yes, let’s take our walk now.”
Once they were both outside, Kittara immediately apologized to her partner.
“Fine,” Sylk said tightly. “So why did you do that?”
“I want to talk to Mourla.”
“The Cat Mistress?” Sylk sneered. “Ol’s balls, what for?”
“Everyone seems to blame her for the catwyrm, or whatever has been killing people around here. I just want to hear her side of things.”
“This doesn’t concern us, Kit. It’s a matter for their mayor, or their liege, but not us. We’re only passing through.”
Kittara tossed her head back. “What you really mean is that we don’t have the time to help them. What if we come back this way and find that someone else has died? Will we have enough time then?”
Sylk gave a deep sigh. “Think about this, Kit: none of the people from the village have been killed. You remember what they said? Everyone who’d been found dead was a traveler, or at least a stranger. If there’s anyone you should be concerned about, it’s us.”
“The duke might say that the welfare and safety of his subjects *are* our concern.”
“We’re in Narragan, not Arvalia, remember?”
Kittara fixed him with a defiant stare. “I’m going to talk to Mourla. You can come along or not.” She paused for a long moment, and when he did not reply she turned and began walking quickly away.
“For Ol’s sake, would you wait?” Sylk called when she had gotten about ten paces.
Kittara stopped and turned to face him. “What?”
“You don’t even know where she lives. Let me find out, straight?”
Kittara smiled slightly and nodded, secretly pleased. Sylk turned to go back into the inn, but at that moment a boy emerged from the stables — the same boy who had earlier tended to their horses. She watched as Sylk strode over to the boy and spoke to him in a voice too low for her to hear. The youth nodded and replied equally softly, pointing down the street. Sylk produced a pair of coins and spoke in a firm tone. The boy shook his head, whereupon the blonde man let the youth have the coins and sent him running off.
“So, what were you going to do?” Sylk asked as he joined her. “Walk around until you heard a lot of purring?”
“Perhaps,” Kittara replied with a small grin.
The stableboy had given Sylk the directions to Mourla’s house, and the two travelers had no difficulty finding it at the end of a street on the east side of the village. It was a small, narrow house set a little apart from the rest of the homes on the street, and what made the dwelling unmistakably Mourla’s was the number of cats that were either lounging around on the weatherbeaten front porch or milling about in the weed-choked yard.
“It’s a cat house for sure, isn’t it?” Sylk remarked. As they approached the front door, most of the cats scattered. Sylk bent down to pet an orange-furred cat that had not moved; before his hand got close it stood up, arched its back and sidestepped away, all the while keeping its eyes on him. “And they’re all nice and friendly, too,” he muttered sourly.
Kittara knocked on the door, and when no response came she tried again. “Hello? Goodlady Mourla?”
“Probably gone to sleep already,” said Sylk.
“It’s not quite sunset yet,” Kittara answered. She was about to knock again when she felt a touch on her right leg. Looking down, she saw that a large white cat was rubbing up against her.
“Oh, aren’t you the cute one!” she said, crouching down.
“Careful,” Sylk warned. “They look like scratchers, the lot of them.”
Kittara ignored him and petted the white cat. It made no resistance, and began purring as she sat down on the porch and lifted the feline into her lap. “You’re not going to scratch me, are you?” she cooed, running her fingers through its soft fur.
Other cats started returning, and a small sandy-colored one even put its front paws against Kittara’s thigh, as if it wanted to join the white cat in her lap.
“I suppose you really do love cats,” Sylk said as he knocked on the door again. When no response came, he continued, “Not surprising, though. You are, after all, called …”
Kittara shot him a frown. “Don’t say it!”
“… Crossbow Kitty!” Sylk finished. At this, the white cat squirmed out of Kittara’s lap and dashed over to Sylk. It swiped at his leg, and the blonde man cried out.
“Damn!” he exclaimed, hopping back a step. “It scratched me!” Kittara suppressed a giggle as the white cat leaped into her lap again and rolled onto its back.
“I always knew Whitely was a good judge of character!” came a dry, cackly voice. Kittara looked up and saw a small gray-haired old woman peering down at her from the doorway. The top half of the door was open, while the bottom half remained shut.
“Are you Goodlady Mourla?” Kittara asked, picking up the white cat and getting to her feet.
“That be me,” the old woman replied. “Who are you, then?” She shifted her gaze to Sylk, who had knelt to examine his leg. “And who is he?”
Kittara introduced herself and her partner. Sylk stood up and said, “It’s just scratched, not bleeding. Fortunately.” He looked pointedly at the white cat as he said the last word.
“Whitely knows who’s good to trust,” Mourla said to Kittara. “And who isn’t.” The old woman cast a sidelong glance at Sylk.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Kittara said, “but I was just talking to some people over at the inn, and –”
“You’re not going to take my house are you?” Mourla blurted. “Or my cats?”
“No, nothing like that,” Kittara quickly reassured her.
“Good,” Mourla replied with a curt nod. “Didn’t think you were, though.”
“We’re just on our way through here,” Kittara explained, “but I just need to ask if you know anything about the …” She glanced at Sylk, who merely shrugged. “The catwyrm.”
Mourla’s eyes narrowed. “What about it?”
Kittara paused, selecting her words carefully. “Well … would you know if it’s true that a catwyrm really is the thing that’s been killing people around here?”
“How would I know if it’s true? All I know is what I hear!” the old woman replied harshly.
“Well,” Kittara continued, “the people we’ve talked to said it’s a catwyrm, and that you’re the one who summoned it to do these things.”
At this, Mourla compressed her lips into a hard, thin line. After a moment she emphatically spat on the ground, narrowly missing Kittara’s feet. “Who said this — Niam? That bitch-face Radna? You must’ve believed them, else you wouldn’t be here!”
“No, I didn’t believe them, actually.” replied Kittara. Whitely, the white cat, began to squirm restlessly in her arms; she changed the way she held the animal, and it settled down.
“Why not? Old Widow Mourla with a house full of cats. Who better than her to conjure a catwyrm, ha?” The old woman’s expression was a mixture of anger and sadness.
“Would you have any idea of what, or who, could account for what’s been happening?”
Mourla’s demeanor suddenly became fearful. “Why … why would I know who’s been conjuring the catwyrm?”
Sylk spoke up. “What about that sign in the forest?”
“What sign?” Mourla asked, her voice much softer.
“A wooden sign, in the forest across the river. It was by a tree just before the forest ended,” explained Kittara. “Sylk said that it read ‘Beware of the catwyrm’.”
“Don’t know nothing about no sign,” Mourla said, her eyes darting back and forth. “Don’t know about no catwyrm!” She snatched the white cat out of Kittara’s arms and shut the top half of the door.
Sylk and Kittara looked at each other for a long moment, then turned and strode away.
The setting sun cast long shadows as they walked back to the Greenhill Inn. They both agreed that Mourla knew more about the catwyrm stories than she let on, but not about why she was reluctant to speak.
“That was a clear waste of time,” Sylk said. “You didn’t really expect her to just tell you everything you wanted to know, did you? What reason would she have to trust a pair of strangers?”
“It seemed like she was afraid of something, or someone,” mused Kittara, ignoring her partner’s complaints.
“She just wanted to be left alone — with her cats.”
“It’s sad, though,” murmured Kittara. “No one wants to have anything to do with her, and if she has no family left, then the cats truly would be her only friends.”
“I can think of one cat that I’m glad to have as a friend,” Sylk said with a grin as he nudged her in the ribs.
Kittara gave him a playful shove. “Yes, but *this* cat hasn’t been domesticated!”
After a light supper at the inn, the two travelers went back to their respective rooms. Kittara tried to sleep, but questions kept her awake. Could the catwyrm actually exist? Were the attacks simply the work of a forest cat that had returned to the area? Did Mourla know the truth?
A sinister thought occurred to her: if none of the villagers were victims, then it might be one of them doing the killings, and making the deaths appear to have been done by an animal. But what about the people who claimed to have seen the catwyrm? All of them had given the same general description of the creature. Or could the whole village be somehow involved?
But some of the things she had heard didn’t quite fit. The innkeeper had claimed that the catwyrm came out on the nights of the full moon, yet the boy Lansar said he had seen it in the daytime. The two other people who professed to have seen it also gave different times of day for their encounters. Finally, why did the catwyrm only maul its victims to death and leave them uneaten?
Kittara sighed and turned over on the bed. This was certainly a mystery, but she wouldn’t get the chance to investigate; Sylk was adamant that they leave early the next morning. The thought of him brought a faint chuckle to her lips as she recalled how Mourla’s white cat had scratched him after he had called her “Crossbow Kitty”. Then again, that was another oddity: she would have given Sylk a slap if she hadn’t been snuggling with the cat. It was almost as if Whitely had read her mind!
As Kittara drifted off to sleep, she imagined winged cats gliding over the village, and wondered if Sylk was dreaming about dogs.
Less than a bell after sunrise, the two travelers were on the road that led south out of Sharwald. It wasn’t long before they found themselves in the forest once more, and after a bend in the road the village was no longer visible. Kittara was in the middle of telling Sylk her thoughts about the nature of the deaths and sightings when a flurry of movement in the brush at the side of the forest road caused her to stop in mid-sentence and halt her horse.
“What now?” Sylk huffed, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
“I don’t know,” Kittara replied, sweeping her gaze back and forth along the area where she had seen the movement. “There was something … I didn’t quite glimpse it, but …”
“Rat, squirrel, rabbit or cat,” Sylk said impatiently. “Take your choice. Or maybe you do believe the stories, after all.”
Kittara turned in the saddle to face him. “I know I saw something, but it certainly wasn’t the –”
“Then why’d you unpack your crossbow, eh?” Sylk indicated the weapon that was strapped at the back of Kittara’s saddle.
The young woman stared at him, momentarily speechless. Even though she doubted the existence of a creature as unlikely as the catwyrm, she knew that something — or someone — had to be behind the deaths the villagers claimed to have seen, and she did not want to be caught unprepared.
“Never mind,” she finally said, turning sharply away from Sylk. “We’ve got a long ways to go, don’t we?” She urged her horse ahead.
They rode in silence for several menes. Kittara breathed in the cool morning air to calm herself, but she couldn’t shake a feeling of unease. Was it frustration at leaving the village without finding out the truth, or was it merely Sylk’s irritating manner? She gazed at the road ahead without really seeing it as she contemplated this thought; suddenly, she looked back and realized that Sylk was no longer following her. She saw that he had stopped about a hundred paces behind and gotten off his horse, and was now disappearing into the trees. Muttering a curse, she turned her horse around and rode back.
Sylk’s horse was tied to a tree, and when Kittara reached it she leaped to the ground and hurriedly tied her own horse to the same tree. She unstrapped her crossbow from the saddle and pulled a steel bolt from a leather bag that hung off her sword belt. Calling Sylk’s name, she strode into the forest after her partner.
Since the trees were not yet in full leaf, Kittara was able to see that Sylk was a good distance ahead of her. She risked a few moments to load the bolt and cock the crossbow, and swore when she looked up and could no longer see him. “Sylk! Where are you?” she shouted as she dodged around the trees, heedless of the branches that scraped her face. Her heart began to pound, less from the exertion than from an impending sense of danger that she couldn’t explain.
Less than a mene later she found herself at the lip of a large, shallow depression in the ground. It was clear of trees and roughly circular; a huge outcropping of gray rock squatted at the opposite side. The feeling of unease Kittara felt now turned into a powerful sense of dread as she saw Sylk approaching a narrow cleft in the face of the rock.
“Sylk!” she cried, stopping at the edge of the depression and putting the crossbow to her shoulder.
Her partner paused and turned. “What’s the matter?”
“Why did you stop here? What are you looking for?” Kittara called back.
“Put that down,” Sylk replied, frowning. “You planning to shoot me?”
Kittara lowered the crossbow slightly. “Come back here and tell me what you’re doing!”
“I heard someone crying — sounded like a child. I got this strange feeling …” Sylk shook his head, as if trying to clear his thoughts. “He could be in this cave, so come help me look.”
A cold knot began forming in Kittara’s gut as she recalled the stories of the catling and how it used a child’s crying as a lure. The knot tightened as it dawned on her that this must be the cave where the boy Lansar said that he had encountered the catwyrm. She desperately wanted to run to Sylk and pull him away, but knew that wouldn’t work. She had to convince him to leave on his own.
“Why — why didn’t you tell me that?” she asked, her mind racing for something better to say.
“I did! You ignored me.” Sylk shrugged and started to turn back toward the rock.
“Wait!” Kittara called. “What’s a child doing out here by itself, at this time of day? Think about it, Sylk!”
The blond man stopped and furrowed his brow. Kittara held her breath, all the while keeping a close watch on the area around him. Something was here, she was certain. Beyond the trees, maybe, or in the grass? She shot a look at the top of the outcropping; there were a few small trees scattered atop it, but nothing else that she could see.
“Kittara,” Sylk finally said, starting to walk towards her, “why do you look so scared?”
“I didn’t know where you were,” she replied with forced calm, mentally screaming at him to move faster. She looked past him to the cave entrance, straining to see if anything could be hiding just inside.
Sylk smiled. “I’m glad that you care, but I don’t think there’s –”
A sudden movement at the top of the outcropping caused Kittara to jerk the crossbow up into aiming position. Something was falling; at first she thought it was a piece of rock, but as it fell the “rock” unfolded a pair of wings and a tail, and began descending toward Sylk!
“Get down!” she yelled. The blond man flung himself to the ground without looking back as Kittara fired the crossbow. The bolt struck a wing, and the flying thing veered off to the left as it plummeted into the trees that surrounded the hollow. Kittara dropped the crossbow and quickly drew her sword. As she advanced toward her partner, she heard the sound of breaking branches. A heartbeat later, something reared up behind Sylk, and an image of it flashed into her mind the instant before she acted: Tall as a man. Thick-bodied. A cheetar’s head, forelegs, and chest merged with the lower half of a giant snake. Dark gray fur. Scaly hide. Veined, leathery wings. A pair of curved fangs. Big claws.
It had to be the catwyrm.
With her left hand, Kittara snatched a small knife from its sheath in her boot and threw it at the creature. The catwyrm let out a piercing scream as the knife sank into the flesh between its neck and right shoulder. Its wings dropped, and it batted at the knife with its left paw.
Sylk, meanwhile, had rolled away. He sprang to his feet and drew his own sword. Kittara sidestepped to the left, while Sylk kept to the opposite side. The catwyrm succeeded in knocking the knife away, then lunged at Kittara, who slashed at its face as she leaped back. Sylk stabbed his sword into the catwyrm’s flank, causing the creature to scream again. It spun around and dropped the front half of its body low to the ground, supporting itself with its powerful forelegs. Sylk whirled his sword in front of him and backed slowly toward the outcropping. The catwyrm stalked toward him, taking swipes at the blade but remaining out of reach.
Kittara’s mouth was dry and her heart thudded in her chest. How could just the two of them possibly kill this beast? She dashed forward and hacked at the cut that Sylk had made on the catwyrm’s flank. Blood began spilling out of the gash, and the catwyrm roared in pain. It turned to face her and tried to rear up, but instead flopped forward with another cry. Kittara scrambled away, realizing that she must have cut it deeply enough to make such a movement painful.
“Kit, run!” Sylk yelled, hurling himself at the catwyrm’s back. He gripped his sword with the blade pointing down, clearly intending to try and stab it again, but an instant before he reached it the catwyrm whipped its tail around and swept Sylk’s feet out from under him. He landed hard on his back, losing his sword as he fell.
“No!” Kittara shouted. The catwyrm growled, dug its claws into the ground, then launched itself at her with surprising speed. She desperately tried to throw herself out of the way, but its shoulder managed to catch her in the ribs. The impact knocked her off her feet and spun her face-down into the dirt.
Kittara lay motionless for a moment, her side hurting and her breath gone. The sound of snapping twigs sent a bolt of fear through her — the catwyrm was coming back! She groped for her sword, found it, then pushed herself to her knees. With a shock she saw that the creature was rapidly slithering towards her; gripping her sword tightly, she braced herself for a hard strike as soon as it got close enough, but to her surprise it swerved away and instead sped toward Sylk, who was still lying on the ground.
Kittara shot to her feet and started to race after it, but the catwyrm was much closer and would be upon the blond man in moments. She tripped on a half-buried stone and fell again; as she cursed and tried to stand, a white blur flashed past her. She froze in amazement when she realized that it was a white cat: Whitely!
The catwyrm had now reached Sylk and was about to rake him with its claws when Whitely sprang upon the catwyrm’s back and sank his teeth into the creature’s neck. The catwyrm turned its head sharply and uttered a fierce hiss. It pawed the air and threw itself from side to side, trying to dislodge Whitely. Kittara had regained her footing and was about to run to help when more cats streamed out of the forest and rushed to attack the catwyrm. The felines surrounded the creature and started nipping, biting, and scratching at it.
The catwyrm gave another hiss as it faced its new attackers. Whitely let go of the beast and was thrown aside. Kittara feared he was hurt, but the white cat quickly recovered and joined the other cats in harassing the catwyrm. Whitely darted close, struck at the creature’s underside, then dodged away before it could retaliate. The orange cat that Sylk had tried to pet leaped up and locked his jaws onto the catwyrm’s throat, only to be flung away a moment later. Two more cats were swept back by the creature’s tail.
The air was filled with mewls, cries, and screeches. Kittara started forward, intending to pull Sylk away from the feline melee, when she heard someone shout her name. Looking back, she saw Mourla stumble out of the forest, panting heavily. The old woman shakily pointed to the outcropping and, after a heaving breath, said, “The cave! You must … go to the cave!”
“Why? What’s in the cave?” Kittara snapped.
Mourla put both hands on her knees and drew another gasping breath. “To kill the catwyrm … find him in the cave! Hurry!”
Some instinct told Kittara to obey the old woman, but she couldn’t just leave Sylk lying defenseless. Indecision gripped her, but after a glance at Mourla she made her choice. With a quick nod, Kittara ran to the opening in the rock, avoiding the fight between the catwyrm and Mourla’s cats.
The cave entrance was dark, but she barely made out a faint reflection of light on the walls. After seven paces the cave bent slightly to the right, and the light grew brighter. Kittara paused, sank quietly to one knee, and peered around the bend. After a few moments her eyes adjusted, and she saw a man sitting on a rock in the center of a small high-ceilinged chamber. A lantern on the ground by his side provided enough illumination for her to see that it was Gwaddyn, the trader that they had encountered the previous day. His eyes were closed as he held a flat, round object tightly in both hands, and his mouth worked slightly as if muttering to himself.
Kittara stood up and bounded into the chamber. “What are you doing?” she shouted, striding over to Gwaddyn. “What is that?”
The trader’s eyes popped open with a startled look. “Get–get back! Go away!” he gibbered as Kittara grasped the object he held. Gwaddyn fiercely resisted, but released it when the young woman leveled her sword at his throat. He cried out as the point pricked his skin, and tumbled backwards over the rock.
Kittara held the object up to her face, trying to see what it was. It looked to be a ceramic amulet of some sort, with a faintly glowing jewel embedded in the front. Curving around the jewel was an embossed figure; she swore when she realized that it was an image of the catwyrm!
A hard blow to her shoulder made her stagger and nearly drop the amulet. She glanced up just in time to see Gwaddyn drawing back a gnarled wooden walking stick. Kittara twisted and ducked, barely avoiding the second blow.
“Give it back! Give it back!” Gwaddyn screamed, swinging the stick at her again. She easily dodged it and stepped back out of his reach.
“Are you controlling the catwyrm with this?” she demanded, waving the amulet. “How do you stop it?”
“Not until he’s dead,” the trader said in a strangled voice. “Now give it back, before I hurt you too!” He slammed the stick against the sitting rock for emphasis.
Kittara dropped her sword. “Come over here and take it, then.”
Gwaddyn raised the walking stick and moved around the rock. With an angry cry he swung at her; she tossed the amulet onto the rock and caught the stick with both hands as it descended. They struggled over it for several heartbeats, then Kittara pulled the trader forward and drove her knee hard into his crotch. Gwaddyn howled with agony and let go, immediately clutching himself. Kittara brought the walking stick over her head, then hammered it down onto the amulet with as much force as she could. The jewel shattered and emitted a blaze of violet light, causing her to drop the stick and throw her arms up in front of her face.
“Oh gods, no!” she heard Gwaddyn shout, and felt him give her a hard shove. She lost her balance, and as her back hit the ground she heard the portly man let out a wild, terrible shriek that abruptly ceased an instant later.
Breathing hard, Kittara got to her feet and felt her stomach turn. Gwaddyn was slumped over the rock, his skin covered with deep red burns. His clothing also appeared scorched. Kittara picked up the walking stick and used it to prod the trader’s body; when he failed to move, she bent down and felt the man’s neck. There was no pulse.
The young woman stood quietly for several moments, feeling a pang of guilt at the trader’s death even though she hadn’t directly caused it. She thought about trying to move his body to get a look at the amulet, but decided not to. With a sigh, she picked up her sword and made her way out of the cave.
She met Sylk and Mourla at the cave’s mouth; they had been about to enter when she emerged. The cats were scattered about the clearing, but the catwyrm was nowhere to be seen.
“What happened in there?” Sylk asked. After Kittara told him, he strode into the cave, telling her to wait outside with Mourla.
“Are you hurt?” the old woman asked, seeing Kittara rub her left shoulder. Kittara assured her that it was nothing, then asked what had transpired while she was dealing with Gwaddyn. Mourla described how her cats had been fighting with the catwyrm when the creature suddenly vanished, leaving the confused felines biting and swiping at nothing but air. She had then gone over to Sylk and revived him; the blond man had been knocked unconscious from his fall, but otherwise seemed unhurt.
At that moment Sylk returned, holding Gwaddyn’s walking stick. “He’s dead,” he said simply.
The three of them headed back to the village, Kittara and Mourla riding the horses and each cradling a cat that had been injured in the fight. The other cats trotted around them like a feline escort.
“Maybe this will teach you to be nicer to people,” said Kittara.
“That lesson’s been made clear,” Sylk replied, looking up at her with a rueful grin.
“And you also learned that cats aren’t as useless as you said, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that too,” Sylk admitted with a sigh. He then asked Mourla how she knew that Gwaddyn was the one controlling the catwyrm. The old woman replied that not long after the trader had settled in the village, she had come across him conjuring the catwyrm with the amulet, whereupon he had threatened to send the catwyrm after her if she told anyone. Mourla then said that she had put up the sign to try and warn people about the catwyrm, but was too afraid to do anything more.
“It’s a good bet,” Kittara remarked, “that Gwaddyn started the rumor that you were the one in command of the catwyrm.”
“‘Course he did,” Mourla said bitterly. “Who better to blame it on than me? After he started killing folks, I tried to tell people, but they wouldn’t listen. Wouldn’t believe me. I wanted to tell you two, when you came asking me, but I was still afraid.”
“How did you know that we were fighting with the catwyrm?” Kittara asked.
“I didn’t, but Whitely sure did!” Mourla replied, nodding at the white cat that confidently sauntered in front of Kittara’s horse. “I was starting on my morning walk — right along this road, but going the other way — and some of my kitties were with me. Then Whitely comes running back, all screeching and wailing like his tail’s on fire! Next thing I see, he and the others go running off, so of course I had to follow.” She finished by saying that when she saw the catwyrm, she knew that Gwaddyn had to be directing it from inside the cave.
Once they arrived back in the village, the three of them stopped at Mourla’s house, where the old woman took the injured cats inside.
“‘Bye, Whitely,” Kittara said softly, kneeling on the ground and petting the white cat.
“I’ll get you a kitten just like him, how about it?” said Sylk.
“That’ll be hard to do,” Mourla said, coming out of the house. “I’ve never had one like him. Some days, I think he’s got more sense than anyone in the village!”
“That isn’t usual, is it?” asked Sylk. “For cats to band together like that?”
“Who said my cats were usual, hah?” Mourla replied with a wink.
Kittara stroked Whitely under the chin and said, “I wish I had time to stay. I’d like to get to know them better.”
“You come back whenever you’d like,” the old woman said. With a glance at Sylk she added, “Him too, I suppose!”
After thanking Mourla for her help, Kittara and Sylk rode away to the Greenhill Inn and told Hallrin the truth about the catwyrm. The innkeeper immediately sent two of his employees to the cave to verify the story, and dispatched another one to fetch the local healer.
“We’re not hurt, really,” Sylk insisted, but Hallrin shook his head.
“If what you say is true, if the catwyrm is truly dead, then you can stay here as long as you need to!” the innkeeper declared.
“You’re glad that it’s dead, then?” Sylk asked.
“Oh, for certain — it would soon have begun preying upon us!”
The healer arrived a couple of menes later. She applied a poultice to Kittara’s bruised shoulder and side, then examined her and Sylk for other injuries. While she was doing so, Hallrin’s employees returned. They confirmed that the trader was dead, and produced the pieces of the shattered amulet. Several villagers had tagged along and now peppered Sylk and Kittara with questions about their battle with the catwyrm.
“So it was Gwaddyn all along,” said the red-haired woman after Kittara detailed her actions in the cave. “Well. I can’t say that I’ll cry over his grave, I’ll tell you that much.” She gave a sniff of contempt.
“Just so it’s clear,” Kittara said, “Mourla had nothing to do with the catwyrm, so there’s no reason to keep avoiding her.”
A short while later the healer pronounced Sylk and Kittara fit to travel. Hallrin offered them rooms in which to rest until the were ready to leave; they agreed. The two travelers headed upstairs as the villagers debated whether the catwyrm had been a magical creation of the amulet, or whether the amulet had in fact summoned the catwyrm from wherever it normally lived.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Sylk said as he accompanied Kittara into her room.
“I’m listening,” she said, stretching out on the bed.
Sylk moved to the window and gazed outside for a long moment. He then turned to Kittara and said, “About the message from His Grace. It wasn’t actually written by him.”
Kittara sat up. “What do you mean? It wasn’t Jastrik’s writing?”
“I mean, it came from the Duke of Arvalia — had the official seal and all — but Jastrik didn’t write it. Glavenford did.”
“His cousin?” Kittara frowned. “But why? I know he’s next in line to be duke …” Her voice trailed off and her eyes went wide.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re thinking,” Sylk said, moving to sit on the bed next to her. “Glavenford would assume the duties if Jastrik wasn’t able to, for whatever reason.”
“So why would Glavenford want to meet us in Wachock, instead of Hawksbridge? And why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“First, I don’t know. Second, I didn’t want you to be worried.”
“I thought you knew me better than that.”
“I’m sorry. I needed time to think.” He gently squeezed her hand.
“Don’t keep these things from me,” Kittara said with a frown, pulling her hand away. “Or don’t you trust me anymore?”
“It’s not that,” Sylk replied. “But if Glavenford tells us what I think he’s going to tell us, then there may not be anyone either of us can trust anymore.”
They looked at each other in silence for a long time. Finally Sylk said, “Did you notice that there were no dogs around?”