Dani woke with an unfamiliar weight on her hip, and she was reaching for her knife before she quite knew what was happening. “Of course,” a familiar voice said. “Kill first, ask questions once it’s too late.”
“Moggie,” Dani said. She could have kissed the cat, but didn’t, of course. “You came back.”
Moggie flattened one ear. “There are things on this mountain. Things that think a morsel like me is a tasty treat.” A soft hiss. “I’m safer with you. Unfortunately.”
“We could have told you that,” Gris said without moving. He was wrapped up with his back to the dying fire. “Had you bothered to ask.”
“Well, now I know, don’t I? Don’t make a fuss.” She hopped off Dani’s hip and stepped over to Mac. “He’s a mess, and no mistake.”
“Nash is apparently more canny than we gave him credit for.” Dani was shamefaced. She was supposed to be the planner, the smart one, and she’d let poor Mac walk right into a bloody ambush. “He’s also a brute.”
“That he is, Dani, but it’s not your fault.” Mac sat up, and by the gods, he looked terrible. The bruises on his face had bloomed overnight, and he moved carefully, like he was sore all over. Well, he likely was, but he waved a hand. “Be all right. Best we get an early start.”
“You speak truth.” They broke camp and mounted up, Moggie riding on Dani’s shoulder rather than in the crate since she’d finally found wisdom. They set an easy pace to spare the horses; the mountain was steep, and the track narrow.
Their first sign of trouble was a sudden ghastly roar that flattened saplings behind them and spooked the horses, who nearly bolted before they could get them under control. Squealing and rearing, rims of their eyes showing white, they wouldn’t be calmed. Moggie dug her claws into Dani’s shoulder and hung grimly on. “Something that sounded very like that tried to eat me last night,” the cat informed her. “It was large and craggy and oh, there it is.”
Seven feet tall if it was an inch and built like the stone that made it, the mountain troll burst onto the trail, spread its arms wide, and roared again, shaking an obsidian cudgel. “Oh dear,” Dani said as the horses panicked once more.
Gris leaped from his horse, tossing the reins to Dani with a manic grin. She caught them automatically as he advanced toward the troll, drawing his sword from the scabbard on his back and swinging it. “I’ll have a new trophy on my wall, Dani, just you wait,” he said.
“Gris, are you mad, come back here this instant!” But there was no talking him down when he got like this, not with that berserker gleam in his eye, and Dani despaired. What would a sword do against. . . that?
Dani couldn’t actually control two horses at once, and when the mountain troll roared yet again, her mount reared, bucked, and threw her from its back to land in a thorny bush. It bolted up the trail, delivering a kick to Mac’s horse in passing. He was none too steady in the saddle due to his injuries, and he was tossed unceremoniously into a different but no less thorny bush. Moggie darted up a tree and stopped on a branch well above the fray, puffed up and hissing, her tail flicking.
The troll lumbered forward and made a clumsy swing at Gris’s head. He ducked under it almost casually and took a giant swing himself, and Dani’s eyes widened when the troll’s arm came off at the elbow. The sword had cut stone as if it were no more solid than fog. “Glad I paid to get the good enchantment!” Gris shouted merrily, swinging again as the troll roared in surprised agony and backpedaled from an opponent it had woefully underestimated.
The rest of the arm came off at the shoulder this time, and the troll looked comically like it had an urgent appointment elsewhere it had just remembered. It turned tail and lumbered off at a tangent to the track, and Gris stood disappointed for a moment before sheathing his sword. Dani and Mac just stared, open-mouthed. “What?” Gris asked.
“I’m quite glad your sword’s enchanted and all, old chap, but couldn’t you have said something?” Mac said, extricating himself with difficulty from his bush. “I thought you’d gone and committed suicide.”
“As did I,” Dani said. Her bush had formed an untoward attachment to her hair, which had come loose from its braid in the excitement and was tangled quite badly in the branches. “A little help, boys?”
They rushed over and helped her up, but the bush adamantly refused to let go of her (admittedly long and impractical) tresses. She finally gave a sigh. “There’s nothing for it. Mac, lend me your knife, there’s a good fellow.”
“Dani, don’t—” he started, but she plucked it from his belt and cut her hair free. He looked distressed. “We could’ve untangled it.”
“And taken far more time than we have to spare. It’ll grow back, luv. Now.” Dani gave him the knife back. “Let’s find our horses, shall we? I wouldn’t like to be without our supplies on this journey. You can come down now, Moggie.”
Grumbling, she did so, and Dani had her sit on her other shoulder, since she’d clawed her fairly well and Dani was sure she was bleeding. But if poor Mac could smile through his injuries, she wasn’t going to complain about a few scratches. Her lips tightened when she looked at him. The fall from the horse hadn’t done him any favors. “We may have to walk the rest of the way, Mac.”
He shrugged with his good shoulder. “I’ll try not to slow us down too much.”
Dani pointed at him with a glare. “If it gets too difficult, you are to say something and we’ll stop and rest. I mean it.”
“Yes, Mum. Can we start off now?”
She dipped into the bag at her belt, thankfully still attached, and handed him a small paper envelope filled with white powder. “Try that first.”
He’d kept hold of his canteen, and he tipped the powder into his mouth, made a disgusted face, and took several long draughts of water. “Good gods, that’s bitterly foul, Dani. What is it?”
“Willow bark extract. You can thank me later.”
“I might, if I can ever get this taste out of my mouth. Eugh.”
“It’ll take the edge off the pain, Mac, and make you move easier,” Dani said over her shoulder, setting off up the trail. “You can’t blame me for taking you at your word when you said you didn’t want to slow us down.”
“Suppose not,” he muttered, but the lines around his eyes and lips eased after a few minutes, and he looked considerably less like he would keel over at any second.
Dani mulled a new plan while they walked. “Here, Moggie, what think you of an infiltration job?”
“I’m listening,” she said warily.
“The swap attempt went badly because they expected one of us to come along and were ready for that. What if—” Dani was still formulating while she talked. “What if you go in by yourself and tell them you’ve defected? Two cats are better than one, from their point of view, right?”
“You want me to join up with them? What good does that do you?” she asked.
“Because then you can talk Thomas into joining us. Once he does, you can slip away and leave them without a cat at all.”
Her whiskers bristled, and she slitted her eyes in a pleased manner. “It’s sneaky. I like it. You’d make a good cat yourself, Dani.”
Dani took it as the compliment it was, coming from her. “Thank you, Moggie, I’m sure.”
“The question, of course, is how I get from here to them without being eaten by the denizens of this horrid forest.” She bared a fang. “As much as I’d like to help out, I’m not willing to die for the cause.”
“I’ll take you,” Gris said. “Like to see anything try’n eat me. I’ll stop once we’re within shouting distance, and you can climb a tree and go the rest of the way overhead. How’s that?”
“It’ll do,” she decided, and that was when they turned on a switchback and found their horses grazing in a little meadow off to the side of the track. The animals whinnied with pleasure, and Mac huffed a relieved sigh.
“We’ll go on, and you can catch us up, Gris,” Dani said. “The farther ahead we are, the better I’ll feel.”
Moggie leaped from Dani’s shoulder to his, and they went off. “You really think it’ll work?” Mac asked once they were out of earshot.
“I think it’s the last chance we have, is what I think,” Dani answered. “I hope our Moggie can pull it off.”
“I suppose we’ll find out. Good luck to her, I say.”
“Be careful of traps,” Moggie warned. “Nash isn’t playing about.”
“I saw Mac’s face, didn’t I?” Gris said grimly. “They won’t catch me flat-footed.”
“They didn’t catch him flat-footed either. But catch him they did.” Moggie shivered at the memory.
“Mac’s a lot of things, but a fighter ain’t one of ‘em unless he gets ‘round behind you. Then look out.”
“They got behind him instead, and then held him while they beat him. Three-to-one odds, Gris.” Moggie eyed him, assessing his height and girth. “Though it’d be more like two to one, against a great fellow like you.”
Gris smiled with all his teeth. It wasn’t a pretty expression. “Nash will regret doing Mac like that. Maybe not on this jaunt. But later.”
Moggie didn’t doubt it. Her little band was quite loyal, one to the other, and they were good folk, despite her unwillingness to be in this situation. Perhaps, she thought, she’d go home with one of them once it was over. If they lived through it.
Gris might have been built like a bear, but he moved like a wolf, skirting the trail rather than keeping to it. Nash’s party had set more traps, but he avoided them all, even finding the bird before it could cry a warning and putting an arrow through it. He grunted with satisfaction. “They’re moving slow. Too busy trapping their backtrail to go forward very fast.”
“That’s to the good,” Moggie said.
“Aye, so long as we don’t get so far ahead that you can’t find us again.” He glided to a stop on a hillock overlooking the trail. “There they are.”
Her tail lashed. “They’ve got Thomas in a cage even though he’s perfectly willing. Nasty buggers, I’ll be glad to see them lose.” She hopped from his shoulder and rubbed against his ankle. “I’ll meet them ahead on the track and tell them I’ve defected.”
“Thank ye, puss.” He reached down and scratched her chin. “But be careful, right? Nash is a nasty piece o’work and his friends are no better. If it looks like they’ll be hurtin’ you, you run. We’ll think o’something else.”
“Mrr, no worries. I’d like that lot to try to out-think a cat. Their brains would soon leak out their ears.”
She set out through the underbrush until she was well in front of Nash’s party. Then she sat primly on the trail, tail wrapped ‘round her feet, to wait their coming, ears flicking back and forth, listening for other dangers. It wouldn’t do to be eaten by a goblin before they found her, after all.
They turned the corner and stopped short when they saw her. Nash drew his sword and looked suspiciously into the forest. “What’re you doing here?”
“I could see which way the wind blew, couldn’t I?” Moggie asked. “I’ve got a better chance with you lot than with that inept bunch. You laid a right proper beating on Mac.” The poor little sod, she didn’t say. “He can barely move; they’ll be stalled for days waiting for him to heal.”
Nash curled his lip. “That’s good news. Not that they had a chance to begin with, but no sense letting them get ahead if we don’t have to, eh, boys?” His companions let out “hurr hurr hurrs” in response, and Moggie determined that she would give them a good clawing when she got the chance, see if she didn’t.
“Two cats are better than one, yes?” Moggie said. “So long as you don’t expect me to ride in a bloody cage, I’m your puss.”
“Well, then, hop aboard and welcome, I’m sure.” Nash smiled, and his expression was far less nice than Gris’s had been. “It’s in the bag now, fellows. Let’s get a move on.”
“Should we still be laying traps on our backtrail?” one of his friends asked. He had watery eyes and a weak chin he tried unsuccessfully to hide with a beard; Moggie thought of him as Minion One.
“Let’s wait a bit. They’ll probably try to take their cat back somehow, so we can give them a false sense of security, and then hit them with two or three things at once.”
Thomas was caged on the pack pony at the rear, and Moggie jumped onto the phlegmatic creature and settled on a sack of supplies after kneading it into submission. Thomas bristled his whiskers and slitted his eyes at her. “Glad you’ve seen sense, girl,” he said. “It’ll be cushy, you’ll see.”
“Says the cat in a cage,” she snorted, pitching her voice so the humans couldn’t hear. “I can’t believe you’re going with these horrid people.”
“Well, you’ve abandoned yours for mine, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Actually, I haven’t.” She cast a glance forward, but Nash and his minions were occupied telling lewd jokes. “I’m here to get you out so you can join up with my group. They, at least, won’t make you stay in a cage.” One of her ears twitched backward. “Didn’t they start with four?”
“They had some troll trouble and ended up riding hell for leather up the trail. The trolls took the hindmost.” Thomas licked a paw uneasily. “We heard him screaming for a bit, and then it stopped. Nash said there was nothing for it but to go on.”
“Did he.” It wasn’t a question. “I’ll tell you this much, Thomas, my group would never have left one of their own like that. It’s really not supposed to be the done thing among humans, you know.”
“I wouldn’t know, now, would I?” He looked a little wistful. “Are they kind, your humans? I’ve not seen much of that, in my life.”
“We’ve come to an accord, they and I, and they’re kinder than this bunch, I can tell you that much. Once this is done with, I’d rather like to go home with one of them. Perhaps more, if Dani would ever notice that Mac is madly in love with her.”
“How d’you know that?”
“I can smell it on him, can’t I? If he doesn’t say something soon, the daft little bugger, then I will. Cats are far more straightforward about such matters than humans.” She butted her head on the wooden cage slats. “What do you say, Thomas, will you come with us? I can get you out of there, and we’ll go off together. You don’t owe these bastards anything.”
“What’s in it for you?” he asked. “Because I know you, Moggie, and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have some sort of angle.”
“You want to be with the dragon, and I don’t. I’ve also come to rather like my little set of humans and don’t want to leave them in the lurch.” She rolled her shoulders. “So they’ll put you with the dragon and take me back to the village. Do us a favor, Thomas, and yourself one while you’re at it.”
“You make a good argument, Moggie. If you—”
One of the horses chose that moment to stop short and back up several steps, snorting and tossing its head. “What’s wrong with you, you idiot beast?” Nash said impatiently, kicking its sides. “We have places to be and no time for foolishness.”
Moggie stood up, poofing her tail. “The only fool here is Nash, if he won’t listen to his horse. This, right here, is what I’m talking about, Thomas.” She pawed at the cage latch, as one of the other horses reared, letting out an alarmed whinny.
“What’s got into them?” Minion Two asked, trying and failing to get control of the animal. A roar answered him from the forest, and his face drained of color.
“Trolls,” Moggie said. The latch, damn it, was being recalcitrant. A high-pitched ki-yi-yi came from the other side of the trail. “And goblins. We’re caught in the middle. This is the best day ever.”
Thomas’s tail flipped, and his ears flattened against his head. “Come on, Moggie, I don’t want to be trapped in here. . .”
“Doing my best,” she said between her eyeteeth. “There!” The door popped open, and Thomas leaped out just as the pack pony whirled and bolted back down the trail.
“Here, what are you—” Nash didn’t get to finish his sentence; a mountain troll lumbered out of the trees and aimed its cudgel at his horse’s head. The horse, being a sensible beast, dodged sideways, kicked, and fled after the pack pony. Nash barely kept his seat.
The minions followed on, and the cats dug their claws into the supplies on the pony and hung on for dear life. “Had Nash not been so impatient,” Moggie said, “he would have been told before he left the mayor’s office that goblins and trolls were battling each other along this trail.”
“Which is why your group took the other track, though it’s longer,” Thomas gasped. “Very wise of them, I’d say.”
“Very wise indeed, if this is the second time you’ve been beset by multiple trolls. We only had the one, and Gris put paid to it handily enough.” The pony took a turn at high speed, and she dug her claws deeper. “I think we’ve outrun them, though. What say you, Thomas? Are you with me?”
“Think well on your answer,” Nash said, riding along beside with his sword in his hand. “Because this traitorous little wretch isn’t long for this world.”
Moggie spit out a curse and leaped just as he swung his blade. She thought she was clear, but a sudden sharp pain halfway down her tail told her that she hadn’t escaped unscathed. Hissing, she scampered into the underbrush, and thence up a tree, high enough that no human could reach her. Nash and his minions jumped from the horses, as did Thomas, who dashed off in the other direction.
Nash was beside himself with fury, spitting much like a cat himself. “You, catch Thomas. You, come with me, and we’ll find the other one.” They tromped after her, making as much noise as the trolls, she thought, crouching on the thick branch high above their heads.
“Where are you?” Nash roared.
Like she was going to tell him. The end of her tail burned, and she caught it under a paw and examined it with rage. The sword had cut it right in half, and the end bled freely. Wincing, she licked at it while they went past below. Humans rarely looked up, and so long as she stayed quiet, they would probably continue to look for her on the ground. Once they’d given up, she’d make her way back to her own humans.
She hoped that Thomas was all right. Nash and his minions thrashed through the forest, beating about with their swords, but they eventually gave up and left without finding either cat, Moggie was relieved to see. She hoped spitefully that they’d dulled their blades enough for them to be completely bloody useless in their next troll encounter.
She’d started across the branch to the next tree when a soft “hst” made her look over. Thomas bristled his whiskers at her. “I trust you know a shortcut to your people,” he said, “because I’m completely lost.”
“This way. Stay in the trees. There’s things in this forest that’d eat you as soon as look at you. Sooner, really.” She led him through the branches, but it still took most of the night to find Dani’s group. They had a blazing fire going, though, and once she saw that, she jumped down from the tree and ran into the camp, meowing.
“Moggie, what on earth— Your tail!” Dani exclaimed, scooping her up. “Those bloody barbarians.”
“They caught me talking to Thomas.” Moggie buried her face in the crook of Dani’s elbow. “They’d’ve killed me if I’d been slower.”
“Bastards.” Mac had been sharpening a wicked-looking dagger, but he stood up and came over to give Moggie a petting. “Is Thomas all right?”
“I came with her,” Thomas said, stepping into the light thrown by the fire. “Because to hell with them, if they’re that way. It was just wrong.”
“Let me doctor that,” Dani said. “And then you can have some nice rabbit, both of you.”
“That would be lovely,” Moggie said faintly. And it was good to be able to relax after the stress of being a small animal in a forest filled with large predators, good to be here among her people, good to be cared for and cared about.
She’d never known what it was like to have that, and an involuntary purr escaped her throat.
JULIE FROST writes short SFF and lives in Utah with her family and a collection of anteaters and Oaxacan carvings. She whines about writing, a lot, at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/