The local dragon had made its annual demand for a new cat for its collection. Arms crossed, Daniella stared the village mayor down. She knew what he was thinking—that she was a silly little girl with no business undertaking such a vital enterprise. He’d turned it into a competition, for the first time in remembrance. Nash, the head of the rival team, gave her a smug look, while his three friends laughed behind their hands. She curled her lip at them and pointedly gazed away with a jerk of her chin.
A pair of cat carriers sat on the desk, and the mayor’s aide handed one to Nash and the other to Dani, after a moment’s inner debate on whether he should give it to her or to Grisaldo, her large and hirsute barbarian friend. She made an impatient noise and practically snatched it from his hands, and he backpedaled. Nash and his companions bolted as soon as they had their own cat.
The mayor watched them go with some bemusement. “Remember, bring back a jewel from the cave to prove you actually left the cat there,” he said. “Or no reward. You have three days before the dragon demands a virgin sacrifice. We’re a tad short on virgins at the moment, so best not fail.”
MacDonal was a thief who’d grown up with Dani and Gris, helping them get into and out of trouble. He had a gleam in his ferrety hazel eyes. “Oh, no worries, yer honor.” Dani counted on him to drop the cat in the cave without being seen or roasted.
“Yon cat-collecting dragon’s been a pain in our village’s arse for decades now,” Grisaldo rumbled through his bushy black beard. She’d tapped him for his muscles and sword. “Wot’ll ye give us, then, if I brings back ‘is ‘ead?”
The mayor huffed. “If you can pull that off, I suppose you’d be entitled to all the treasure in its cave.”
“Well, then, Daniella,” Grisaldo said. “Best get on, then.”
Dani had proven herself adept at planning, so the boys were willing. The other team underestimated her, laughing at the notion that a mere slip of a girl was good at anything but cooking and bearing children. She would prove, once for all, that a woman was as canny as any man. The mayor gave Dani a tolerant look, as if to say “Isn’t she adorable,” and perhaps she was, being small-boned with a pixie-ish face.
“Is there anything we should know before we set out?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, I nearly forgot!” The mayor slapped his forehead. “The mountain trolls and the goblins have been having a bit of a dustup in the area of the right-hand pass, so best take the leftmost one.”
“Ha,” Dani said. “This, my boys, is why patience is a virtue. We’ll have that jewel back before you know it, your honor.”
“Good luck, my dear,” he said, with an air that told her that he believed he was indulging a ridiculous lass with delusions of grandeur.
Dani looked forward to wiping that expression from his face. All business, she braided her long auburn hair into a knot at her neck as they left the building.
They strapped their supplies to their horses and set off toward the mountain, with Moggie the cat grousing in the crate behind Dani. “I don’t know why you need me,” Moggie muttered. “Thomas wants to go, the idiot creature. Of course, he’s counting on there being quite a few unattached females in that cave.”
“He may or may not be right,” Dani said. “No one knows why the dragon wants cats.”
“Perhaps he eats them. Isn’t that a pleasant thought.” Moggie hissed. “I have no wish to be some dragon’s dinner. Or its bloody pet, for that matter.”
“Oh, stop whining,” Dani said. “The village will suffer if we don’t go, so there you have it.”
Moggie scoffed. “What care I for the village? They certainly care nothing for me. Else I’d be warming myself by a fire in a comfortable pub rather than stuffed in a crate on a cold mountainside.”
Dani tried to be reasonable. “The dragon’s cave will be warm, and he has other cats to keep you company.”
“I don’t like other cats,” Moggie answered, flattening her ears and lashing her long, well-furred tail.
“Then get used to being miserable. You’re already well on your way there,” Dani snapped. Moggie went silent, finally, for which Dani was profoundly grateful.
MacDonal rode up beside her and nodded at the fresh tracks of the other group. “Nash has taken the right-hand trail,” he said, with no small satisfaction. “He always was a rash bugger.”
An importunate bugger as well. He thought that if he could beat Dani at this, she’d roll over and marry him. She was far more likely to marry Mac or Gris, whom she actually liked, but there was no telling Nash that. The other village girls fell about at his feet, but his vast ego found rejection insupportable, so naturally he wanted Dani.
They took the left-hand trail, wishing bad cess to their rivals—and hoping that Nash’s party would run smack into the trolls and goblins. A loud sigh from behind Dani told her that Moggie still wasn’t reconciled to her situation, and Gris patted her crate. “Cheer up, kittycat,” he said. “If I kills the dragon and takes its head as a trophy, you won’t have to worry about staying with it.”
“That’s an enormous ‘if,’” Moggie grumbled. “You’re not very good at the whole barbarian vocation.”
“Here now.” Gris had an enormous sword strapped to his back, and he drew it out and admired it. “I’m good enough at it.”
“Just good enough to be dragon meat. At least it won’t go hungry. Great lummox.”
“Hsh, Moggie,” Dani said, as Gris began to blow like an angry bull. “Don’t make fun.”
“I’m stuck with you. I may as well get my fun where I can.”
Mac spoke up. “What if we swap you with Nash’s group? Could you slow them down, like, while we flit up the mountain and leave your friend Thomas with the dragon instead? Then you wouldn’t have to live in the cave; you could come back down to the village and have all the cream you liked.”
Moggie’s whiskers bristled at that suggestion. “I could do that.”
“How d’we know she won’t just scarper?” Gris said. “She’d leave us catless, and then we’d have to steal Thomas on our own, or find another cat.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Moggie said indignantly.
“Bloody right you wouldn’t, because I’d be along to make sure you didn’t.” Mac’s eye twinkled. “And mayhap I could handicap them further by stealing some essential piece of equipment.”
“Don’t take stupid chances, Mac,” Dani scolded. “We all know how you get, and you need to just steady yourself, right now. Once you start, you can’t stop. I realize that you think stealing things is a lark, but you nearly ended up in the stocks last time.”
“‘Nearly’ being the operative word, m’dear,” he said airily.
The three of us are misfits, aren’t we? Dani thought. But Mac was a quite decent thief when he set his mind to the task, and Gris could wield a sword serviceably well. They made good time up the trail, and struck camp right before dark, unloading the horses and letting them graze while Mac built up a fire. Gris wandered off and soon came back with a pair of fat rabbits, already cleaned, which Dani spiced and spitted across the merry blaze.
Once they’d eaten, Mac stood up and took Moggie from her crate. “Be a good puss, and you’ll be back in the village before you know it.”
“I hope you bloody know what you’re doing,” Moggie muttered.
“Be careful!” Dani said, pecking Mac on the cheek while he blushed madly. “Don’t do anything daft.”
“Who, me?” He gave her a mischievous grin and set off, and Dani sat back down by the fire.
Then they waited.
And waited. And waited.
Mac slid between shadows and made not a sound as he crept toward Nash’s party. Riding on his shoulder, Moggie made an approving noise. “You move nearly like a cat yourself,” she said in his ear.
“Wouldn’t be much of a thief if I made a bloody great row when I was tryin’ to be sneaky, now would I?” he answered, then froze. “Oh, they tried, didn’t they. Good thing I was looking for that.”
Moggie peered down at the ground. A thin filament stretched across the track, nearly invisible except where the moonlight struck it just right. “A tripwire?”
“Aye, and I’m sure all sorts of unpleasantness would rain down on us if we touched it.”
“Best not to, then.”
After checking all around to make sure that the tripwire wasn’t a decoy, and that avoiding it wouldn’t funnel him into a nastier trap, Mac stepped over it and continued. Not much further on, he stopped short again. “What now?” Moggie asked.
“See where the ground’s disturbed a bit, there? It’s well-camouflaged, but not perfect.”
She hissed softly as he knelt down and brushed the leaves away from a latticework of branches hiding a pit. Sharpened stakes at the bottom promised pain and slow death to any who fell into it, and Mac gave a low whistle. “They’re not messing about.”
“Thomas would be far better off abandoning these people. I wouldn’t put it past them to hurt him if it suited them, if they’re doing things like this.”
“Be sure and tell him that, yeah?” Mac said, skirting the pit. “If you—”
A night bird called an alarm. Mac’s eyes widened, but he didn’t have any more time than that to react before a tree trunk on a cable swung out and slammed into his back between his shoulder blades, sending him flying face-first into a live oak. Moggie nipped up a nearby elm.
Mac scrambled to his knees, half-stunned and shaking his head, but two pairs of hands grasped him by the arms and the hair and smacked his temple against the tree. His legs buckled, but one of the men twisted his arm up behind his back and yanked him to his feet.
“What a pretty ambush you’ve walked into.” Oh, gods, that was Nash, and Mac felt a cold knot of fear tighten in his belly.
He wouldn’t show it, though, not to the likes of these. “It was well done,” he said. “I’ve been taking notes.”
Nash’s fist struck, and the great ring on his finger split Mac’s brow, which began bleeding freely into his eye. “Cheeky little bugger, aren’t you? Hold him, boys.”
Mac struggled, tried to yank away, but their iron grips only tightened. His shoulder came out of the socket with a sickening pop. The only reason he didn’t scream was because he couldn’t get the air to do so. His vision went white, then gray and spotty before it cleared.
A kick cracking the side of his knee accompanied by a downward shove made him kneel, and the hand in his hair yanked his head up again, at a perfect angle for another punch. “Tell your silly little girlfriend.” Backhand. “That she’s reached far above her station.” A boot to the ribs. Now he couldn’t breathe at all. He was fair certain at least one was broken. “And she ought to get back to it.” A punch to the jaw. “Before someone gets hurt.”
“Get stuffed,” he managed, before something clubbed him on the back of the head, and they dropped him to the forest floor, unconscious, broken, and bleeding.
Gris rumbled unhappily after far more than enough time had passed. “He’s got in trouble.”
Dani had to agree. “Well, we should probably hunt him down, then. Can you track him in the dark?”
“What d’you take me for, of course I can.” He eyed Dani from under a lowered brow. “But you ought to stay in camp. There’s dangerous creatures out there, Dani.”
She slipped a dagger into her belt. “And I’m one of them. You know you’re not going to talk me out of going, so let’s just pretend you made a good effort and go, all right? He could be hurt.”
She was afraid of that, and her fear bore fruit when they found him, out cold and sprawled under a bush with his face bloodied and his clothes torn. Moggie was nowhere to be seen, nor any other cat. Dani knelt beside him and brushed his hair off of his forehead. “Oh, Mac.”
He stirred and mumbled and winced, then his eyes snapped open and he tried to scramble away before he quite knew where he was. He slumped with relief when he saw Dani. “Ow.”
“Don’t move.” Dani gave him a quick but thorough examination, while he gritted his teeth and flinched when she probed a bit too hard at a sore spot. “You’ve got cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and a couple of those cuts on your face will scar. They should probably be stitched.”
“Girls like scars,” he said, with a ghost of his usual cheeky grin. He was probably right, but he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his new-found attractiveness if they didn’t find another cat and get up the mountain before Nash’s group.
“I thought you was good at this,” Gris said. “How’d they catch you, anyway?”
“I slipped past a couple of traps they’d set, but they had a night bird under thrall that warned ‘em I was coming. Nothin’ I could do about that, and they was on me before I knew it.” He shut his eyes. “Moggie escaped in the confusion. I’m sorry, Dani.” She was sorry too, because she knew that by “in the confusion” he meant “while they beat me black and blue.”
“I’m just glad they didn’t kill you.” Dani rubbed a spot of blood from his cheek with her thumb. It didn’t actually help much. “Can you walk?”
He sat up, wincing. “Not well, but I’ll manage. I got to, don’t I?”
“Gris could carry you.” Neither of them looked happy at the suggestion, and she added, “He has to put your shoulder back, anyhow. We can’t leave it like that.”
Mac swore, fervently, creatively, and at great length. Dani was impressed. But he staggered to his feet. “Make it quick, Gris. It hurts like hell anyway; I don’t think you can hurt it more.”
A twist, a pop, a sickening crunch, and Mac bit back a scream and dropped back to the ground on one knee. “Clearly, I was wrong,” he wheezed. “Lesson learned.” He rubbed at the joint.
“Sorry, mate, but it had to be done,” Gris said.
“I’m not arguing now, am I? It’s better, Gris. Thank you.”
Gris made an assenting noise and helped him back up. “You can lean on me, if you needs to.”
“Nah, nah, I’ll be all right.” But they hadn’t got far before he’d taken Gris up on his offer, and by the time they got back to camp Gris was taking most of his weight and he was muttering to himself.
Gris lowered him gently onto his bedroll, frowning. “Mayhap we shouldn’t have moved him so soon?”
Dani shook her finger under his nose. “You’re pale and sweating and far from fine. Lie back and let me doctor you.”
“Yes’m.” The fact that he didn’t argue was worrisome as well, and she exchanged a glance with Gris before grabbing supplies and getting Mac cleaned up and bandaged, with a couple of stitches here and there for good measure. She dosed him with a painkiller, and he relaxed. “You’re a wonder, Dani,” he said. “I didn’t know how much it hurt till it stopped, like.”
“Better now?” He nodded, eyes closed, and she laid a hand on his cheek. He turned his head, kissed her palm, and fell asleep. She blew out a breath.
Gris had watched the whole thing with an unreadable expression. “What’d you give him?” he asked.
“Something for the pain, and another to help him sleep.” Dani gazed down at Mac and pulled his blanket over his shoulders. “It seems to have worked.”
“Aye.” His lips tightened. “What’re we to do, Dani? We’re catless now.”
“For tonight, we’re going to sleep.” She rolled up in her own blanket, pillowing her head on a saddlebag. “Tomorrow, we decide where we go from here.”
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/