The nearest guards came to investigate. He dropped to the ground and secreted himself in a wedge of black shadow, behind where the lamplight from the square slanted into the alley. The flagstones were cold and greasy beneath him. Rain pummelled him from above. He pressed against the bottom of an alley wall and waited.
The guards’ footsteps grew louder. But he realised he could hear something else. Barely discernible at first, there came through the wall beside him a sound of labour. Faintly, hammers seemed to bang and clang, saws to rasp and snarl, shears to snip and snap. The longer he listened, the more he sensed these sounds didn’t just come from the immediate building. A low hum of industry, like the droning of a distant bee-swarm, resonated across the city.
Two guards appeared at the alley’s mouth and stood there for a minute. Although they peered into the shadows on the side away from the lamplight, one concluded, ‘Nobody here.’
‘If there was somebody,’ said the other, ‘they’ve turned tail and fled.’
After the guards returned to their places in the cordon, the Cat got up—silently, the way he was supposed to move. He raged at himself for his clumsiness. He glowered down at his feet, telling himself it was the fault of what he was wearing. This wouldn’t have happened if he’d had on his boots.
Then he noticed that he no longer heard the mysterious sounds. Whoever was using those hammers, saws and shears must be working at ground-level, or in basements below ground-level. Kandarvyl was a wealthy city—the wealthiest in the territory, it was said, the jewel in Lord Ferowne’s crown. Thus, its people had to work sometime, though he thought it odd that they should work at this late hour. Whereas from his observations of them during the daytime, back when he and his comrades had been free to roam the streets, before they’d been confined to the square, the citizenry here were an indolent lot. The merchants and tradespeople did little but chat with their customers. He hadn’t seen anyone making or fixing anything.
Then Laggan the Cat forgot about the sounds and flitted lithely and soundlessly out of the alley. For their cordon to encompass the square, the guards had to stand a distance apart. All were weary by this time, some practically asleep on their feet. Meanwhile, the oil-lamps hanging along the square’s sides produced only a murky light. These things helped him penetrate the cordon undetected and enter the square itself.
There, he made towards the encampment that for the past month had been home to the Legion of Beasts.
The mercenaries had set up their tents across the whole square when they arrived. Since then, it’d rained incessantly. The drains along the square’s sides and the gutters in its corners had clogged with the encampment’s detritus—food scraps, discarded bandages, arse-rags, excrement—and pools of rainwater had formed and spread. These forced the mercenaries to up their tents and retreat with them into the central area, which was raised a yard higher than the rest of the square and supported several statues and a podium for the giving of municipal speeches. Now all the tents were crammed onto the elevated part. Such was their proximity that you could roll over in your sleep in one tent and knock somebody awake in an adjoining one.
The Cat sprang onto the raised area and threaded along the cracks of space between the tents, frequently bumping against and drawing curses from people inside. He reached the one he shared with Karmil the Vixen and Fern the Bear and ducked under its entrance flap. Festooning the interior were clothes, bags and pouches that hung from the tent’s skeleton of poles and from crisscrossing ropes. It was rank with sweat, pipe-smoke, candle-tallow and the herbal balms Fern was rubbing into his wounds.
They had a visitor. This was a second bear, called Blodar, and he was in the middle of an argument with Fern. He reached over, pinched the mahogany-brown skin on Fern’s uninjured arm, and said, ‘Look at your colour. Why don’t you rename yourself Fern the Brown Bear, and let me be Blodar the Bear?’
Karmil the Vixen interjected. ‘Any real bear I’ve encountered has been brown. So, Fern’s the proper bear colour. Why should he change his name to suit you? Whereas I’ve seen you bathing, Blodar. I know that under your furs and leathers your skin’s the colour of milk. Isn’t there a type of bear like that in the faraway, icy north? Shouldn’t you rename yourself Blodar the White Bear?’
‘Besides,’ Fern added, ‘the Legion has half-a-dozen people who call themselves bears. Why pick on me? Why don’t you go and annoy them?’
Blodar sighed. ‘Oh, I will. But I’m starting with you. Anyway, there’s no longer half-a-dozen. Greel the Bear was killed during the battle. Hargan the Bear died of his injuries two days ago. There’s just you and a couple of others I need to persuade now.’
Karmil said, ‘You’re ridiculous.’
‘I’m not. It’s merely unfair. I was the first bear in the Legion, the original bear. The title should belong to me. You can’t complain. You’re the Legion’s only vixen.’
‘But I wouldn’t care if there were others. Take Laggan the Cat here. There must be a dozen cats among us but I’ve never ever heard him grumble.’
As their attention focused on him, Laggan took advantage of the moment to vent his anger. ‘Tonight,’ he declared, ‘I’m a unique cat. I’m Laggan the Wronged Cat. The Vengeful Cat.’
Karmil looked down and saw the filthy moccasins still on his feet. ‘You didn’t get your boots back?’
‘Get them back? That scoundrel of a cobbler has them on sale!’
‘But they’re your boots. You gave them to him to repair. He can’t just sell them.’
‘He says he can under local law. Enough time has passed since he did the repairs. As he hasn’t been paid for them yet, he can now sell the boots and get payment for the work he put in that way.’
‘But it’s not your fault you can’t pay. It’s the fault of that bastard Ferowne.’
Forgetting their argument, the two bears grunted in sympathy. Everyone in the encampment was united in displeasure at the territory’s ruler. Lord Ferowne had hired the Legion and sent it into one of the most bruising battles in its history, and then sequestered them in Kandarvyl, the closest city to the battlefield. He’d told them to wait until the wagons arrived with their pay from his fortress-treasury in the south. So far, they’d waited for a month. Ferowne’s officials made constant excuses about the foul weather flooding roads, turning other roads into quagmires, and severing other roads again by causing landslides or washing away bridges, which’d slowed the treasury-wagons’ progress to the city.
In the Legion of Beasts, however, belief was growing in an alternative reason for the delay—that Ferowne was a villain and didn’t intend to pay them.
Then Blodar asked, ‘Why get so upset, Cat? They’re just boots.’
Fern chuckled, ‘Not to Laggan they aren’t. I’ve seen mothers fret less about their babies than he does about his footwear.’
‘They are a beautiful pair of boots,’ mused Karmil. ‘I say that even though normally I don’t give a damn what people wear. And Laggan’s a cat. Obviously, he’s particular about his appearance. Even his feet have to be well turned-out.’
Laggan made a decision. Gesticulating, jostling the bric-a-brac dangling around him, he declared, ‘Well, this cat isn’t going to tolerate it. I’m going back to that cobbler’s shop, breaking in and reclaiming my boots. Who wants to come with me?’
‘Ferowne’s officials,’ said Karmil, ‘won’t like that.’
‘To hell with them. If they’d paid us on time, I wouldn’t have to do this.’
‘They’ve warned us to behave and stay in the square. Those city folk aren’t happy about us being here. They’re getting less happy. That’s why we have the city guard watching us now.’
‘To hell with them too. If the Legion hadn’t fought tooth and nail a month ago, those ungrateful curs wouldn’t have a city. The Jaidran army would have looted this shithole and burnt it down!’
These bold words excited Fern and he stood up, though he had to stoop because the tent’s canvas was too low for his considerable height. ‘In that case, Cat, I’ll join you.’
Karmil pointed at Fern’s bandaged arm. ‘You’re injured. If that becomes gangrenous…’
He growled back, ‘I’ll more likely die of boredom cooped up in here. I need adventure. This expedition the Cat proposes sounds a good way of getting some.’
Karmil sighed and got up too. ‘I’d better accompany you, then. To ensure you two idiots don’t cause serious harm to yourselves or anyone else.’
‘This cobbler’s shop,’ inquired Blodar, also rising. ‘Do you think the owner keeps his takings on the premises?’
‘Ha!’ jeered Karmil. ‘You’re thinking of robbing the shop. That’s guaranteed to start trouble between the Legion and the locals.’
‘I’m only being practical. If your friend the Cat breaks in and takes away just one pair of boots, his boots, the cobbler will know who was responsible. But if we take his money, and some of his stock… Well, it’ll look like the work of a normal thief.’
Fern reflected, ‘More likely the work of a local thief. After all, we have the guard all around us and supposedly can’t leave the square.’ To Blodar, he said admiringly, ‘I thought you were the stupidest bear in the Legion. But you’re actually quite crafty.’
Laggan lifted the entrance flap. Outside, in the darkness, the rain poured relentlessly. ‘Let’s waste no more time.’
And that was how a cat, a vixen and two bears set off to raid a cobbler’s shop in the city of Kandarvyl.
The bears impressed Laggan with their stealth and quietness. Despite their size, they managed to follow him and the Vixen through the cordon of guards and out of the square without attracting attention. Indeed, it hurt his pride that they did a better job sneaking out of the square than he’d done earlier sneaking into it.
They entered one of the city’s trading districts and descended a narrow vennel where rainwater slopped past their feet and fell from one stone step to the next. The vennel took them down to an alley lined with two-storey shops. Chains were slung across it, between the upper shop-fronts, and had lamps dangling from their midpoints. The lamp-light showed other vennels opening into the alley. All fed it with rainwater and created an ankle-deep stream sweeping along the alley’s floor.
The light showed the shop-fronts too. Each had a door at ground level, but the main feature was a long hatchway where, during business hours, a countertop hung suspended in front of it. The wares on sale were displayed on shelves and hooks behind. But now the countertops had been winched up and their undersides filled the hatchways like shutters. Windows existed only in the second storeys, where the traders had their living quarters.
Laggan led them to a shop that jutted above its neighbours because it had a third storey. This had been added so that the shop-owner could hang his trade-sign—a throne-sized boot sculpted from a section of tree-trunk—at a height making it more visible than the other signs along the alley. The extra storey was a haphazard assembly of brickwork, slates, vents, chimneys, skylights and a single window. It looked so precarious it seemed ready to topple into the alley, pulled by the weight of the giant boot dangling in front.
‘How many people?’ demanded Blodar.
‘Three,’ said Laggan. ‘The old cobbler, his wife, and a big, stupid-looking youth who’s their apprentice if he’s not their son. I’m sure they’re asleep.’ But then he remembered the sounds of nocturnal toil he’d heard at the square’s edge. He heard no such sounds here, though they might be hidden by the gurgling of the flooded alley. ‘Still, let me check.’
From a pouch tied to his waist, he took out a stub of candle and handed it to Fern with the instruction, ‘Get this lit, Bear.’ Then he removed a spindle, around which was wound a cord ending in a bronze representation of a cat’s paw. The paw, however, was larger than that of any cat and the claws protruding from it were unnaturally long and hooked.
Having unravelled the cord, Laggan flung it up several times at the bracket supporting the giant boot-sign, until the end with the paw and hooks snagged around it. He donned a pair of gloves and, gripping the cord, began climbing the shop’s front wall. His feet seemed to find invisible footholds in it. Between the bottom and middle storey, which contained three shuttered windows, was a narrow skirt of roofing. He stopped there and put his head against each shutter. Then he ascended to the single window in the highest storey and listened against its shutter too.
Next, he signalled down to Karmil that she should follow him. She put on her own gloves and scaled the façade with less ease—she was nimble, but not as nimble as Lagan. When she was one storey up, he motioned at her to listen to the middle of the three windows. She made out the sounds of two sleepers, snores rising to shrill peaks and plummeting to rasping troughs. Laggan beckoned her to the highest storey. As she hoisted herself up, the bracket around which the cord was wrapped creaked and tilted and the giant boot swayed underneath.
‘Listen to this window,’ Lagan whispered when she reached him.
She pressed her head against the shutter and heard more snores, this time from a single person. Their rumbling suggested someone younger, bigger and stronger.
‘The son or apprentice is inside,’ said Laggan, ‘and the old cobbler and his wife are ensconced in the bedroom below. All slumbering soundly. That’s everyone accounted for. It’s safe to proceed. Stay up here, Vixen, and keep listening. If any of them sound like they’re waking, warn us.’
Karmil was the expedition’s least enthusiastic member. Now, while Laggan lowered himself, she realised he’d assigned her this duty to keep her out of the way.
Laggan stopped again on the roofing between the first two storeys. Amid the slates over the entrance door was a skylight, a pane of glass with an iron grill on top. Then he looked into the alley.
Blodar had clambered onto Fern’s shoulders and the two bears had tottered to the nearest lamp on the nearest chain. A rag wrapped round his hand, Blodar was able to lift the lamp’s glass globe and light the candle-stub with the flame inside. Then he tapped Fern on the head and the bears tottered back, one still atop the other. Blodar brought the globe with him, using it to shield the candle from the rain. Behind, the unprotected lamp-flame fizzled and the surrounding part of the alley became dark. When they returned to the shop, Blodar was almost level with where Laggan was perched. He passed him the globe and candle.
Laggan said, ‘I need your muscle too, Bear.’
Blodar scrambled off Fern’s shoulders and onto the roofing. Laggan indicated the skylight and Blodar hooked his fingers around the grill, strained and wrestled it away. Once the hinged pane had been raised, Laggan inserted himself through the space and dropped to the floor below. He landed so gracefully that, in his hand, the candleflame barely flickered.
The light showed the entrance door in front of him, a thick iron latch holding it in its frame. He turned. A wall was on one side, behind him was an opening that led to a storeroom, on the other side was a long narrow space separating the hatchway from the wall of shelving where the cobbler exhibited his wares. Laggan entered the space. A few candles were placed along a ledge below the shelves and he lit these, so he could better see the items on display. His boots rested on a middle shelf. With the candles burning under them, they resembled two sacred objects in a shrine.
Blodar stuck his head down through the skylight. ‘What have you found, Cat? The cobbler’s takings, by any chance?’
Laggan wasn’t listening. The sight of his boots entranced him. He lifted them off the shelf and caressed their leather straps, tassels and fringes, their silver buckles, studs and toecaps, their intricate laces, embroidered stitching and cherrywood heels.
Blodar declared, ‘Right, Cat, tell you what. I’m coming in. And if I find his money first, I’m claiming it for myself.’ He started to lower his bulk through the aperture.
Laggan’s eyes were damp. He recalled how mangled and worn his poor boots had been when he left them here a month ago. The cobbler was a rogue, but he’d repaired them beautifully.
Blodar discovered he was stuck. His legs, backside and belly dangled in the shop’s interior, his shoulders, arms and head remained above in the rain, and his chest was jammed between the aperture’s sides. He twisted and squirmed, trying to free himself.
Laggan kicked off the squalid moccasins, bent over and returned his beloved boots to his feet. Then he noticed something about the floorboards beneath him. They were old, warped and sometimes divided by cracks of space. Fine, reddish lines of light were visible, filtering up between the boards from a source underneath. It occurred to Laggan that the shop had a basement and somebody, not the cobbler, his wife or the youth, was in it just now—
Blodar dislodged himself from the aperture and fell into the shop. He crashed down on the spot where Laggan had landed daintily. The floorboards reacted with a great, splintering screech and collapsed under him, and he plunged further.
Once the pain from his bruised tailbone became tolerable, Blodar began to take in his new surroundings. He was on a floor of hard, cold flagstones, in a basement that reeked of soil, mildew and sewage. A drain burbled nearby, busy removing the water that percolated through the earth from the flooded alley above. Finally, in front of him, he made out a timber staircase descending one of the walls and, filling the basement’s central area, two long tables that each had two long benches on either side.
The tabletops were stubbled with partly-molten candles that produced a fuzzy red light. They were also strewn with hammers, pliers, chisels, scissors, rulers, strips of measuring tape, needles, spools of thread, panels of leather, scraps of burlap and animal-hide, lumps of wood and cork. A dozen shoe-moulds jutted up from them, encased in partly-assembled shoes.
Four figures sat along each bench, meaning eight of them sat at each table and sixteen sat in the basement altogether. They’d been working but now they were motionless, arms frozen while they reached over the tabletops.
Simultaneously, sixteen heads swivelled around and looked towards the intruder. None were human.
The largest of them seemed no more than four feet tall. Their grey-brown skins were naked and their heads were bald and flanked by large, tapering ears. Their mouths were lipless and crooked, while the expansive whites and yellow pupils of their eyes made Blodar think of eggs frying in a pan. All had beards, their strands as long and swirling as tentacles.
Blodar clambered to his feet and said with atypical courtesy: ‘I apologise for the disturbance. Pay me no more attention. Carry on with your work. I’ll find my own way out of here—’
The creatures blinked—all of them, again simultaneously. Worse, the slits of their mouths parted and became grins. Each grin was crammed with fangs. Then they sprang up from their benches and surged towards him.
The first one to reach him was greeted by his fist. The blow deflected it from its course and sent it careering into a wall, from which it rebounded, fell on the floor and didn’t get up again. Blodar’s other hand intercepted the second creature to arrive and, briefly, his fingers enclosed its face. He noted its jagged teeth and tightened his hand. The creature’s face imploded bloodily.
Then the rest of the creatures hurtled into him and their combined weight and strength propelled him backwards. He encountered a wall just behind him. There, he was vertically pinioned, the scrum of creatures pressing his arms, legs and torso against the wall’s rough-hewn stones.
Blodar roared, ‘You frog-eyed, subterranean bastards!’
Then the creatures began to bite and he was unable to insult them any further. Instead, he started screaming.
The boots had cast such a glamour over Laggan that he’d seemingly forgotten his military expertise. He didn’t react to Blodar’s mishap with the quick-wittedness and decisiveness he’d acquired from years of soldiering. He merely stumbled to the hole that his comrade had disappeared through, crouched at its edge and peered into the murk of shadows and candlelight below.
He became aware of Blodar’s voice, first talking politely, then roaring contemptuously, then screaming in pain. He also heard footsteps, as someone scrambled out of bed and clattered around in an upstairs room. And he heard Fern outside: ‘Cat? Bear? What the hell’s happened in there?’ When he got no reply, Fern resorted to slamming himself against the entrance door. On the door’s inside, the iron plate holding the latch in place jolted and the screws at its corners half-prised themselves from the timber.
All this seemed dim and unreal to Laggan. It was as if being reunited with his boots had drugged him.
Fern hurled himself against the door again. It buckled and the plate with the latch broke away. The door flew back and Fern, unable to check himself, came blundering into the shop. He stepped into the hole that’d swallowed his fellow bear and plunged through it too.
As he descended between the ruptured floorboards, he flailed and tried to seize hold of something that’d stop him falling. He managed only to grab one of Laggan’s shoulders, which wasn’t enough to save him and he fell through into the basement.
However, he inadvertently yanked Laggan over the edge of the hole and into the basement with him.
Blodar the Bear was resigned to dying. He only wished he would die in a pleasanter manner than by having the flesh ripped off his bones.
Then something happened to the mass of creatures crushing against him. A large object—no, two objects—plummeted from above and crashed down in the middle of them. Bones cracked and snapped gruesomely as several creatures were flattened. There was a cacophony of cries, expressing alarm, shock and rage, as the uninjured ones retreated.
Blodar looked down, curious to know what the two objects were. However, he saw no further than his chest and belly, where his furs and leathers, and pieces of his skin and flesh, hung in tatters. Blood oozed from many wounds. Indeed, one creature still gnawed at his left forearm, so intent on its business that it hadn’t noticed what’d happened to its associates. Wearily, Blodar reached with his right hand, grabbed the creature’s beard and wrenched it free of him. Then he swung the creature into the wall behind him. Its head met the stones with a satisfying crunch and it dropped.
Laggan the Cat rose in front of him. ‘Blodar the Bear,’ he said, standing with his back to the rest of the basement. ‘Are you all right?’ The spell cast by his boots had been broken.
Blodar gestured down his torn body. If he hadn’t had the wall to lean against, he’d have toppled onto the floor and be lying there bleeding to death. He croaked, ‘What a stupid question. Obviously, I’m not all right.’
‘Well,’ said Laggan, ‘not to worry. We’ll soon get you out of here and back to the Legion’s surgeons. Fern, can you help?’ He got no answer. ‘Fern, where are you?’
Slowly, Fern struggled to his feet. ‘Cat,’ he groaned, ‘you landed on top of me.’ Then he noticed the carcasses littering the flagstones beneath him. ‘But what did I land on?’
Laggan peered down at them. ‘Yes, what are these dead things?’
Blodar sighed. ‘Those dead things have friends that are still living things. Look behind you.’
Laggan and Fern turned towards the main part of the basement. Nine of the creatures remained. They’d regrouped by the tables and armed themselves with the hammers, scissors, pliers and chisels that’d lain on the tabletops. Now they glared at the mercenaries with murderous intent.
‘Well,’ said Laggan, drawing his blade, ‘they look unfriendly. Shall we take on three of them each?’
‘I can’t handle three,’ Fern told him. ‘I have a wounded arm, remember?’
‘You’ll need to ignore your injury, Bear. Make use of the good arm and the bad one.’
Meanwhile, Blodar’s consciousness was fading. His legs folded and he slid down the wall. ‘I’ve done my bit already,’ he muttered. ‘You deal with them. I’m dying.’
Fern reached back, grabbed Blodar and hoisted him up again. ‘Oh no, you’re not dying yet. If I have to fight, you can too.’
The creatures began to move forward. They didn’t repeat the mad rush with which they’d attacked Blodar, but advanced slowly, stealthily, purposefully.
‘Here they come,’ declared Laggan. ‘Get ready.’
He sounded excited now. One of the tips of his newly-retrieved boots beat an eager tattoo on the flagstones.
TO BE CONTINUED….