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The Knight of Cats

By avidler88 All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Blurb

The crumbling empire of Carraphas, land of desert jewels, is beset by savage raiders from the north bearing a terrible curse.

Chapter 1

The moon was fat and full the night the town of Lazra died.

This became important later. It informed the myths and the fears of the people, that great silver orb hanging over all, turning red blood a gleaming black and leaching the faces of the raiders of all colour.

Lazra was not a large town, but neither was it weak. It had walls which looked down over the sun-baked eastern road and the flat plains around with a kind of careless arrogance, the arrogance of plenty. Its harbour, home to traders and fishers, was watched by a tall stone tower. Sentries held bows they could not possibly have shot with any kind of accuracy in the dark, and watched the headland for the prows of swift-moving ships. Lazra had not known a raid in years, decades, but this was Carraphas, and even in what the elders of the town called “these fallen times”, the empire protected its own.

Marti had little cause to reflect on any of that. Nor indeed did he notice the full moon as it hung lazily in the deepening dusk. The boy had tarried overlong at the docks and he was perhaps overly conscious of the fat pouch of silver at his belt. The two tally-sticks in his hand felt slick. Lazra was not particularly known for its robberies or back-alley stabbings, but any harbour town had its share of drunks and sailors that would think little of divesting a lad of four-and-ten of his coin. Marti circled around the taverns and brothels and breathed easier when he crossed onto Hardu Street and the narrow aisles of well-churned dirt were replaced with cobbled thoroughfares. A pair of watchmen strolled past, cudgels at their belts. They didn’t spare the boy a glance as he straightened his shoulders and walked past.

His mother’s shop was a small adobe building on Kystra Street, and from here Marti would know the way if he were sightless. Years running between Aslai’s Goods and any part of town his mother required a courier had worn into his mind an etching of Lazra’s roads and hidden ways. He had even been to the castle once, high on Sunrise Hill to the town’s east. There the club-armed town watch had been replaced with soldiers carrying weapons of steel, and even servants wore clothes finer than anything Marti had ever seen, even in his mother’s store.

Aslai’s was closed when he returned, so Marti looked around quickly and darted to the back, where he slipped a key on a leather thong around his neck into the lock on the cellar. He heaved the door up from the ground with a grunt, thankful the hinges were for once well-oiled, and slipped down the ladder, pulling the door closed and locking it behind him.

The cellar was stuffed with crates, bolts of cloth, pottery, even furs. Marti felt his way past them in the dark, his hand twitching back from anything it touched, lest it tumble and break. He had once left a grimy hand-print on a fine glass flask his mother had paid in gold for, and even at fourteen he did not like to recall the thrashing which had followed.

Marti found, with some relief, the steps that led up to the store proper. He clambered up them, taking care to grip the tally-sticks in his hand. The silver at his belt felt now reassuringly heavy. He reached the top of the steps, pushed open the door and blinked in the light.

His mother had a lantern burning that had been invisible through the shutters on the shopfront window. She was reading by it, some ledger of goods or bills owed. Marti had tried time and again to interest her in his small collection of books but she would have none of it. “Frivolous”, she called him, though always with a smile.

She smiled at him again now. “You are late,” she said.

Marti nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. Captain Viro had a few people to see this afternoon.”

“More like he just kept you waiting to see if impatience would dull your wits.” She leaned back in her chair, pushing the ledger away. “Did it?”

Marti smiled. “I don’t get impatient, mother. I recite cantos in my head until they grow flustered waiting for me to grow flustered.” He pulled free the coin-purse and tossed it onto the table where it landed with a silvery thump.

She laughed. “My clever boy. We are rich, then?”

“He bought the full shipment.”

She held out her arms and he came close for a hug. “Good boy,” she said into his mop of hair.

“I only did what you said,” he mumbled, half embarrassed.

“Listen to you. As though Calla is looking through the window.” She lowered her voice. “He asked after you today.”

“Mother!” Marti pushed himself away. He put the tally sticks on the table and very determinedly did not look at her.

“He was wearing that red shirt. You know that red shirt, don’t you?”

Marti felt like his face was afire. “Is there dinner?”

His mother chuckled and took pity on him. “In the pot, there by the fire. Beans and goat. There is bread, too.”

Marti nodded, and helped himself to the stew. He sat at the table by his mother and began to spoon the food into his mouth.

“You could talk to him though.”

“Mother!”

The window shutters crashed open and a burning brand was tossed in onto the rush-strewn floor.

Marti and his mother gaped, stunned. Aslai had only started to rise from her seat when the door was kicked open. Marti yelled and flung his bowl, which skidded onto the floor and splashed some beans onto the intruder’s boots. He laughed and said something in some foreign, guttural tongue.

“No,” Marti’s mother had her hands out, trembling. “No, we won’t fight. Take what you want. Take-”

The man shrugged, pulled a small axe from his belt and flung it at her. It crashed into her chest and she collapsed with a tiny shriek. Marti took one look at her, the blood bubbling from her breast, the tiny hiccoughs of her dying breaths, and he looked back at the grinning man now pulling a long knife free from its sheath, and he fled.

Marti ran for the door to the cellar and flung it open and hurled himself down into the darkness. Behind him came the faint noise of laughter, but no heavy boots thumped down on the floorboards above. Marti thought of his mother, dying or dead on her floor, and he thought of the knife in the man’s hand, and he ignored the ache in his heart to turn for the portal to the outside. Smoke was beginning to filter through the door. He could not stay.

Stumbling now, he felt his way to the other set of stairs and pulled himself up. He was sobbing but did not realise it. He nudged the heavy iron-bound wood of the cellar door with his head and pushed up, opening it a crack. Silver moonlight fell onto his eyes. Nothing. Nobody waiting. He flung the door open and fled for the shadows under the awnings of the store next door. Within he heard screams and smelled smoke. He became aware as if by stages that the same sounds were ringing throughout the town and over all a bell was clanging frantically. Marti hugged the shadows and tried not to think about how frightened he was.

The raiders had been cunning. The seas were watched even of a night, but not all of them had come by sea. A ship had docked at the harbour earlier that day, and though its crew seemed word-shy and nervous, they paid the right bribes and in return few paid them heed. Within the hold of the merchantman, waiting to be found had any customs official felt his duty more keenly than the lure of silver, squatted shoulder-to-shoulder a band of armoured warriors, staying hid lest their pale skin and outlandish garb mark them for what they were. Come nightfall, they had smeared mud on their faces to ward away the moon’s pale gaze and crept out onto the docks of Lazra. The sentries in the tower, the watchmen strolling the harbour streets, had died near soundlessly, and the raiders had lit the tower’s beacon as a signal to their fellows.

Around the headland they had come, four ships like sleek spears along the water and flying near as swift. Some in the town might have spied them, and wondered at it, before turning back to their wine. Only when the ships pulled into harbour and disgorged their own load of white-skinned reavers, and the screams began, did Lazra know it was under attack.

Marti saw only strange men, running in pairs and small groups, garbed in thick woollens and leather armour, carrying straight swords and round shields, laughing and calling in their harsh crow’s tongue as they dashed hither and yon. Marti knew he had to move but he was quite frozen. He looked around, craning his neck towards the slice of street he could see between his burning home and the one he now pressed against, and inched forward towards Kystra Street.

The door to Aslai’s thumped open and the golden-bearded raider who had killed Marti’s mother stepped into the street. He held something in his bloody hand up before his face and by the light of the flames Marti could see it was an ear. The silver pin his mother had worn for as long he could remember winked in the flickering light.

His fear curdled into something else. The only weapon he had was his belt-knife. He did not know if it would stab through the warrior’s leather armour but he found he did not care. There was a gap between the killer’s grey woollen skirt and his knee-length boots, where the milk-pale flesh showed. Marti set his eyes on it, pulled his knife and started forward. He knew enough about slaughter to know man or beast did not move far with their legs cut.

The raider shrugged, stuffed the ear into a leather pouch on his belt and called out, looking intently down the street. Marti, at the edge of the neighbour’s building, froze again. The awnings shaded him but should the raider look his way…

An answering call, raucous and jovial, came from down the street. The raider laughed and set off at a jog. Marti saw with a jolt the axe that had killed his mother, hanging bloodied and gleaming at her murderer’s hip. The sight halted him, and the raider moved past him without a glance, and was gone.

The knife was shaking in Marti’s hand. He wiped his brow and his eyes. “I…” he said without knowing why, or to whom he spoke. He thought again of his mother’s blood. She had wanted to be buried next to his father, but the raider’s burning brand had put paid to that. He vowed to himself he would return if he could and do her bones honour, and that promise straightened and stilled him with its weight. Later he would consider that moment his passage into manhood.

A scream rang out down the street, one among a chorus of screams that trembled through Lazra, but Marti knew it. “Calla,” he said, and the word loosened his limbs. He ran out, uncaring of the shadows, and pelted down Kystra Street.

Raiders kicked in doors, shouted to one another. A band of watchmen, their ironbound cudgels hopeless against steel swords and axes, were butchered against the wall of Druga’s Tavern. One of them had courted Marti’s mother for a time and he screamed as the blades hacked at him but Marti spared him no more than a passing glance. The raiders likewise paid him no heed as he ran. He was a penniless, nameless boy and there were richer prizes at hand.

Calla lived with his uncle in a small house at the end of Kystra Street, where it ran into Luwra Street and rows of stalls and shops. The door hung askew and battered when Marti reached it. Calla’s uncle lay dead by the door and Marti jumped over him. Calla was there, in his red shirt, a short-sword in his hand and an axe-wielding raider before him. Calla was wavering, blood staining his shirt and breeches.

“Calla!” Marti called.

The raider spun, hand darting to his belt where a small throwing axe hung. It was all the opening Calla needed. He lunged and stabbed the raider just above the waist. The warrior stumbled, wrenching the hilt from Call’s hands, and fell to his knees. He looked up at Marti and tried to lift his axe, and Marti buried his knife to the hilt in the man’s throat.

The raider keeled over with a thump, thick bubbles of blood blowing from his mouth. In short order the bubbles stopped and the blood just poured in a slow river from his lips, pooling around his head. Panting, Marti looked up at Calla. “I…I heard you scream.”

Calla was pale. “You saved my life.”

Marti looked down at the dead raider. “I had to save somebody.”

Calla nodded. “Quick. We have to shut the door.”

“No!” Marti shook his head. “A closed door, they’ll break it down. If it’s open they won’t look twice at it.”

“Oh.” Calla squeezed his eyes shut, pressing a hand to his bloodied side. Through gritted teeth he said, “How many are out there?”

Marti crept towards the door and peeked outside. “I can’t see much. Not many. I guess they’ve moved on.”

“Any of…” Calla let out a shuddering breath. “Any of ours?”

“Soldiers? No.” Marti looked back at Calla. “How bad are you hurt?”

“Stings. But he didn’t break the ribs. I…I think that means I’ll be fine.”

“Still. We should bandage it. You’re bleeding a lot.”

Calla nodded. Moving to a shadowed corner of the house, Calla pulled his shirt off and tore it to strips. Marti cut a woollen pad from the dead raider’s skirt and pressed it to the long cut in Calla’s side, before wrapping the red cloth around to keep it in place.

“Tighter,” Calla said. “Tighter.” He gasped. “That’s it. Thank you.”

“We’ve stopped your blood pouring out,” Marti said. “That’s something.”

“It’s enough.” Calla plucked at his bandages. “I liked that shirt.”

“Me too.” The words spilled out without thought.

Calla looked at him. Marti, amid everything, blushed. “Never mind. We have to go.”

“Go where?” Calla lurched forward and grabbed Marti’s shoulder. “Wait. Your mother. Is she…”

Marti swallowed and shook his head.

Calla squeezed his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Marti looked out the door. “We have to go,” he said again.

Calla pushed himself up from where he had been leaning against the wall. “Your knife. You should take it.”

Marti set his hand to the hill and tugged. The raider’s flesh gripped it tight and Marti let go with a shudder. “I can’t.” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t be much good anyway.” Instead he tugged the raider’s axe free from the dead man’s stiffening grip. “How hard can an axe be to use?”

Calla laughed and winced. “Remind me to never introduce you to an axe-fighter.”

The weapon felt odd and heavy. Marti stuck it through his belt. “To the keep, I suppose?”

“Makes sense.” Calla barely limped as he walked to the door and knelt by his uncle’s body. “Goodbye,” he said, and kissed the corpse on the forehead. He straightened with a hiss of pain. “Let’s go.”

The boys crept out onto the street. It was near empty, but the city still echoed with roars and screams and the clash of steel. Marti looked around and nodded. “This way.”

They kept to the backstreets and alleys, hiding in the shadows when the raiders sauntered past in small knots. Smoke stung their nostrils as they crept along, and over the city hung an orange glow. Sometimes Marti could smell blood and shit as well, the rank scent of a terrified death. His mood sank as they moved for among all the bodies they saw strewn in burning houses and sprawled out on the street, barely one in ten was one of the pale-skinned raiders.

At length they broke out onto Sunrise Avenue, the broad and cobbled thoroughfare that led out to the keep on its hill. Calla pushed forward and Marti pulled him back. “Wait! Look!”

Ahead of them, their backs to Sunrise Hill, stood the keep garrison, armour gleaming in the moonlight. They stood with spears levelled over their shields, rich manor houses guarding their flanks, and facing them was a screaming horde of raiders. They rushed the shield wall in a ragged charge, and the two forces were caught in a clutch of flesh and blood and steel for a moment before a captain cried out “Lunge!” and the raiders were pushed back, stuck on spears and swords, dying with screams.

“Yes!” Calla was grinning, and Marti found the hate in his own heart was equal to his friend’s bloodlust. “Now we’ll see a real fight.”

The garrison pushed forward a step, the archers at the back of the phalanx loosing a stream of arrows at the raiders. The invaders milled in confusion. One man, with a great red beard in two braids, put a horn to his lips and sounded it, a low flat bellow.

And so they came.

These raiders wore red robes, hoods pulled over their heads. Their fellows did not cheer when they saw them but pulled back, opening paths for them, dipping their heads in half-hearted bows. The robed warriors took no notice until they reached the horn-blower. They bent their heads together and spoke in their guttural tongue. The garrison held back, unsure, unwilling to plunge forward.

Calla was muttering under his breath. “Strike now, damn it! Press forward…ah, gods….”

The newcomers had flung back their robes. Beneath they were naked, save for tattoos of strange spiked shapes, like letters, all over their bodies. There was no art or pattern to them, just a jumble of tangled spikes inked onto the skin. One of them, a woman with long black hair, raised her head to the moon as it broke free from tattered clouds. She howled.

The others, naked all, joined her, sounding a high weird scream that rattled bones and stones alike. The garrison wavered, until one bowman, at the back, shot an arrow at the newcomers.

The woman’s hand moved too fast to see and the arrow stopped, quivering, in her fist, inches before her face. She laughed, pressed the arrow between her breasts and drew down, hard. Blood welled where she had cut. And they changed.

All those who had worn red robes howled again, and shuddered. Their fellow raiders pulled back even further. Hair grew, thick and black. Eyes shone gold. Teeth became fangs. Marti dared not disbelieve his eyes.

The changelings lunged forward at the shield-wall, which wavered and splintered beneath the frenzied assault. Howls, howls tainted the air, and now the other raiders screamed their own warcries and rushed forward in the beasts’ wake. Marti prayed to every god known he was in a nightmare but did not wake. One of the beasts, a spear spitted clean through it, tore a soldier’s head free and flung it towards the castle. Marti fought the urge to vomit and grabbed Calla’s arm. “Come on. We...we can still sneak around.”

Wide-eyed, Calla shook his head. “Look. The gate is closed.”

He was right. The keep’s heavy portcullis was down and the great gates bound shut. Marti shook his head. “But if they see that we’re Carraphites…”

“They might have opened it before. But not now.” Calla nodded at the ruins of the garrison, where beastlings tore soldiers to bloody rags. “When they’re done they won’t attack the keep. They’ll come looking for us.”

Marti dared not cry. “So where do we go?”

“There’s a…a side gate.” Calla looked around and nodded southward. “Down there. Come on.”

“Won’t it be shut?”

“The guards likely died in front of us.” Calla’s voice sounded bitter.

“You couldn’t have done anything. You weren’t even on duty.”

“But…”

“We have to go, Calla.” Marti shook his head. “We have to let the empire know, we can’t die here.”

“They won’t believe us.” Calla’s eyes, hot and wet, were fixed on the gangling creatures stalking through the battle.

“We will make them. Please. I can’t go without…we’ll need to leave together.”

Calla closed his eyes. A tear slid down his cheek. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

They left the madness behind and Marti followed Calla to where the side gate, a small door in the great and useless stone wall, stood unmanned and unbarred. “We’re not the first to think of this,” Calla said.

In the small garrison stable was a messenger camel, staring at them with some expectancy. The boys buckled on its harness, flinching at every scream, however distant. They led the camel with care through the gate and once outside the city, facing the plains, the beast sank to its knees. The boys climbed aboard. “Where to?” Calla said.

“Away.” Marti flicked the reins as he had seen the cameleers do and the mount lurched to its feet. It set off at a steady jog across the plains, seemingly more sure of its direction than its drivers. ­­ Calla leaned forward, battered by pain and grief, and leaned his head on Marti’s shoulder.

Behind them, Lazra burned, a beacon to signal the world had changed.

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