Bound to the Cage Bird: Strangers in a Strange Town
The pair of furriers walked along the road, tails swaying lightly, ears perked. Their hunt had gone well; three rolls were strapped to the back of the smaller feline man, two magpie-black pelts and one furless, irisdescent hide. His much larger partner, a near-black wolverine, carried a heavy war hammer almost as long as the shorter one was tall, as well as a generous supply of dried meat, bones, claws and fangs, all excellent trade goods.
Neither of them was very very familiar with the area, but they’d seen the smoke from the settlement’s fireplaces and headed for it. If there was nobody there wealthy enough to purchase their hides at least they could lighten the load of the other excess. If there was such a man there, on the other hand, they’d have made a pretty profit from their latest tour.
As they entered the town and walked along the main road in search of an inn where they might rest, bathe and prepare for the sale of their goods, the townsfolk seemed eager to stay out of their way, glancing at the wolverine as they hurried past. It was an odd mix of people; in most places the population varied widely in height and build, with the furriers fairly close to either end of the spectrum, but none of the townspeople, and especially not the men, were even close to the tall, broad wolverine, instead resembling the lanky jaguarundi tanner-mage, even if not many were quite as short as the chestnut-furred cat.
“A strange place, this,” Vinnu observed, his voice a low rumble.
“Something is wrong,” agreed Eyra, shifting the hides on his back. “Still better give it a try, now that we’re here.”
Many of the women they passed, especially those of races typically larger in stature, had their heads covered with black cloth, an even more disturbing sight than the relatively low average height of the population. Something must have happened to put so many of them in mourning. Never had Eyra heard of an illness that would kill men but not women or children, nor of one which would strike only those who had reached a certain height. Yet that seemed to be what had happened to this town; no wonder they stared at his partner.
They found their inn, finally, a brightly-painted sign with a grinning lynx face swinging in the wind, and once inside they were met by a lynx smiling almost as widely.
“Ah, travellers! Welcome, welcome! Welcome to the Smiling Lynx! I assume you’re here to see Lord Aquema?”
“We may be,” the tanner-mage replied, cautiously. “If he has need for our wares.”
“I would not worry on that accord,” the lynx assured him, waving them in. “Come, come! Very good rates for the Lord’s guests. You won’t find better in a day’s ride, I bet my whiskers on it! Get settled, tidy up a bit, and I will send someone with you to the hold. My treat!”
The pair looked at each other for several moments, weighing their options. The Smiling Lynx seemed to be the only inn in the town, and the innkeeper, borderline crazy as he seemed in his enthusiasm, had mentioned there was indeed a potential customer in the area. Being disturbed by his bright mood wasn’t a particularly good reason to miss out on a sale. Still a bit hesitant, the shorter of the pair nodded.
“We will take your offer.”
The dirt that hadn’t quite been washed out of the furriers’ coats in the last month or two while they’d been making do with cold streams in the wilderness was eventually defeated by hot water, soap and a lot of scrubbing, leaving the pair looking considerably neater than they had as they entered the town. Donning their least dirty changes of clothing under their armor, the cat and wolverine followed the roe deer kid the innkeeper had found to show them to the Lord’s hold. They left their wares behind, deciding that risking damage to the hides would be foolish. Better then to get the Lord interested and go from there.
Again, people avoided them in the streets, casting nervous glances in the huge hunter’s direction. It was as though they expected the seven-foot wolverine to attract bad luck that would rub off on them if they came too close.
The women in mourning were even more puzzling; Eyra could swear they looked at his partner with sorrow in their eyes, and what they seemed to hold for the tanner-mage himself… If he didn’t know better he’d have said it was pity. But what reason would they have to pity him? He had everything he’d ever wanted, and some he hadn’t realized he’d wanted on top of that, in himself, in Vinnu, in their trade that had become their life.
Unlike the town, nothing about the keep looked suspicious; it was hardly abnormal that the young roe buck was all too glad to leave. In fact, the keep seemed more normal than the town it overlooked. There was certainly a bias towards the large individuals the town had lacked, among the guards, but the servants came in all sizes, and none of it did anything to raise Eyra’s suspicions. They were stopped by a uniformed servant, a polled mouflon whose body shape just barely managed to hint that she was, indeed, female.
“State your business,” was her harsh command, her voice scratchy.
“We have tarravi hides your master might be interested in,” Eyra replied, standing as tall as his small stature would allow.
“I will let Lord Aquema know.”
She was gone for longer than either of the hunters really liked. Eyra tugged at his cloak to try and cover the worst of the stains on his well-worn leather armor; he’d long been meaning to get it dyed, but had never gotten around to doing so. Doing so would mean staying in a town while it was being done, and he didn’t like having walls around him for extended amounts of time.
At long last, the sheep returned. “Sir Aquema will see you now.”
Eyra bowed his head in reply, and the pair followed as they were shown into the Lord’s audience chamber. The room was large, with a high ceiling, and contained little in the way of furniture. At the far end was a raised dais, the centerpiece of which was the padded, high-backed chair which seated the hold’s master.
Lord Aquema’s mahogany and cream fur was immaculately kept, a bright white spot between his ears standing in stark contrast to the softer coloration of the rest of his body. At the medium-height squirrel’s side stood a sambar deer, not quite as tall as Vinnu, though the difference seemed bigger due to the deer’s lighter build. The decorations pinned to the man’s uniform caught the light from the tall, narrow windows, sending reflexes dancing across the walls as he shifted. If he was to hazard a guess, Eyra would have said the sambar was some kind of military commander, rare as prey species were in that position. The pair was flanked by near-identical leopards, bodyguards judging by the armor and weapons they carried.
“What do you have to offer?” It wasn’t the squirrel who spoke, but the deer next to him.
“Two tarravi pelts and one bull hide, all ready for the armorcrafter, sir.”
“And your price?”
The jaguarundi named a sum large enough to seem like a dream to a commoner, but which should not be a major strain on a nobleman’s wealth. He felt it was a fair price for his wares, maybe even a bit lower than it should be for the level of craftsmanship. He felt the fur on his tail twitch, starting to rise, as the squirrel flattened his ears. With a deep breath he forced himself to remain calm, refrain from being outright rude. Their line of work was dangerous; expecting the furriers’ wares for a pittance was a slight.
“If my price doesn’t suit you, my partner and I will move on.”
The squirrel’s hand waved the sambar closer, and the furriers stood waiting while they conferred. When their whispered conversation was over, Aquema himself rose, making a sweeping gesture no doubt intended to look generous with one of his shortish arms.
“I see there’s no haggling with you; I will pay your price, cat. I will send Kadat to fetch the hides. You may go now, the servant will show you to my quartermaster to get your payment.”
Eyra was satisfied as he and Vinnu followed the mouflon out of the chamber, knowing that they had earned enough to live comfortably for at least the next two or three months, likely more. They just barely reached the top of the stairs they’d need to descend to get to the quartermaster’s office when the sound of hooves against the stone floor behind them made their guide pause.
“Commander Kadat?” she asked, hesitantly, as she turned. “Was there something more?”
“You may go,” the sambar replied, in a voice which left no room for protests. “I will take care of our guests.”
“As you wish, Commander.” The sheep bowed deeply, hooves shuffling against the floor, then she hurried off down the stairs, ears flicking and short tail bouncing.
“I have a proposal for you,” the sambar said, slowly, addressing Vinnu over Eyra’s head. “You’re lucky that the Lord approved it.”
“Speak,” the wolverine rumbled.
“You are to join the Lord’s armed forces one way or another. If you come willingly, Sir Aquema will pay the cat another twelfth and provide him with a mount so he may travel and find himself another partner.”
“No.” Vinnu’s reply was simple; nothing more needed to be said.
“Would you rather cost him that money?”
“I said ‘no’.” The wolverine snorted, laying one of his large hands on the jaguarundi’s shoulder. “You will not have me. Give us our pay, come gather your wares, and leave us alone.”
Eyra’s ears flattened, reacting both to the unacceptable proposal and the tension he sensed in his partner. That deer did not know what he was doing, irritating Vinnu like that. The wolverine wouldn’t need a weapon to do quite a bit of damage if he felt the violence neccesary.
“You will join.” The deer’s head swayed from side to side, just a bit, waving his horns. “My offer was not a request.”
“If you know what is good for you, you will leave my partner alone.” Aside from his flattened ears, Eyra’s tail was the only thing that betrayed his agitation, lashing back and forth. “Your master just approved the hide, give us our money and leave. I will not see Vinnu killed in some petty war your master waged. This is not a matter of money. You could not pay me enough to leave him to die.”
It seemed like the deer now felt the absence of the leopards’ extra muscle, the commander’s ears flicking nervously as he drew the slender blade strapped to his hip. The hand on Eyra’s shoulder tightened its grip for a moment, then was lifted, and the jaguarundi held out his arm to hold his partner back.
“I said, leave Vinnu alone. I may be lacking in finesse but I can knock a tarravi down if it threatens him. You look substantially less… resilient. Do you really want to risk it?”
The sambar tossed his head back and snorted. As long as those two remained together he clearly would not be able to carry out his orders. His lip curled in disgust as he tossed a heavy pouch of coin at the cat, then turned and stalked off, hooves beating against the floor. “Someone will be down to get the hides.”
The pair were much more uncomfortable when they left the keep than they had been arriving. If the Lord was so mercilessly conscripting people, that certainly explained the strange atmosphere that had so puzzled them when they’d arrived.
“Let’s get the supplies we need, offload the bone, and leave as soon as they have the hides.”
Vinnu simply nodded, keeping close to his smaller partner.
By the time they returned to the inn, Eyra had managed to talk the wolverine into taking the money, his weapon, and their remaining wares and attempting to find someone to buy their spare bone, meat and claws. He didn’t want to leave Vinnu alone to wait for the Lord’s men at the Smiling Lynx, in case they were setting a trap, nor did he want to take the time to run the errands together after the men had fetched the hides, whenever that would be.
Vinnu would be relatively safe armed and among people, or so the cat hoped. Himself, he wasn’t terribly worried. They weren’t after him, didn’t want him at all far as he could tell, so there was no reason to believe the Lord’s men might harm him.
The minutes passed slowly, with the tanner-mage pacing the room he and his partner had rented, until finally there was a knock on the door.
Three uniformed servants, along with that pair of leopards he’d seen earlier, waited outside, and he reluctantly stepped aside to let them in. The hides were neatly rolled up, and the servants lifted one roll each, their bulk being more of a hindrance than their weight. Even after the servants had crossed the treshold and exited the room, however, the pair of spotted cats lingered.
“You have what you came for, now leave.”
“Not quite,” one of them purred, stepping closer. “Where is the wolverine?”
Eyra felt his fur rise on its own accord, though even with his fur standing on end he looked nowhere near as large or intimidating as the leopard looming over him. “I don’t know.” It was technically true; he knew Vinnu’s errands, but not where they would take him.
The larger cat circled him, slowly, and he turned with the man, unsheathening his claws even though he knew he would be hopelessly outclassed in hand-to-hand combat, especially if he was grappled. If this was anything other than an attempt to intimidate him, he would have to reach for his knife faster than the leopard could draw his sword. But he left it to the other cat to make the first move, not wishing to provoke him.
A pair of hands seized his wrists and slid down until they squeezed his hands in an iron grip strong enough to make him grind his teeth in pain. How could he have been so stupid, forgetting about the second cat? He opened his mouth, hoping to be able to focus what magical power he could wield through voice alone, and the leopard in front of him clamped his muzzle shut.
“You are a fool, tanner. You were a fool to come here, and you were a fool to defy Kadat.” The voice of the leopard behind him washed smoothly over him, a mockery of a lover’s affectionate whispers.
A leather thong was tied around his muzzle, twisting his face into a grotesque mask as he tried to hiss at his captors. A second thong was tied, very carefully, around his hands and wrists, leaving them immobile and tingling. He still fought, to the extent he could, when they took his knife from his belt, and they seemed to delight a bit too much in knocking him to the floor. Still dizzy from the fall he was half carried, half dragged out of the inn, but even in that state he clearly saw the money being pressed into the grinning innkeeper’s palm.
Despair seized his heart, just like it seized his partner when the wolverine returned some time later to see a sambar deer casually playing with the tanner-mage’s tarravi-claw dagger. Kadat had been right. Vinnu would join Lord Aquema’s army.
After all, they left him no choice if he wanted to spare his partner’s life.