“An Ancient World” (excerpt)

FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER are two of my favorite characters from fantasy literature, but they’re not very well known among many younger readers of the genre.

In my latest novel, STRAY CATS, I present my homage to those heroes, in the form of “the Scorpion”–an assassin/wizard–and “the Wolf”–a warrior/shaman. The tale chronicles how they meet each other and a small black cat named Pimmi, and what trouble soon befalls the three of them.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt of STRAY CATS, entitled, “An Ancient World.”

A tale in which, on the Day of the Dragonfly, early in this, the 848th year of the Age, Our Feline Heroine makes the acquaintance of a pair of young adventurers. One keeps a sinister secret, the other searches for the unknown. As both begin their exploits, they extract themselves from an unwanted predicament, yet head unwittingly into far greater peril….   

“You should have killed that fellow back there,” the smaller youth said, nimbly stepping into the canoe, inadvertently rousing Pimmi where she slept in the bow.

“For this boat?” the larger youth asked, placing his spear and a long bundle inside. He settled himself in, not nearly so gracefully as the other, the rear of the canoe dipping dangerously low in the water under his enormous bulk.

“No, because he’ll tell the others which way we went,” the first replied, casting off the rope tying the canoe to the dock.

“They won’t catch us,” the other said, taking a paddle from the bottom of the boat and setting to work with long, powerful strokes, first one side, then the other.

What is happening? the cat wondered. She peeked out from behind the bound-up net that the owner of the boat used to make his living. The youth closer to her was slim, swarthy, dark of hair, the sparse whiskers on his lip and chin betraying him as being a few years short of full manhood. He wore loose clothes of pale linen, far too light for a chilly late afternoon on the lake.  

Behind him was the largest person Pimmi had ever seen, almost twice the size of the other. His skin, a warm light brown; his hair, black as Pimmi’s fur, and worn in a single braid longer than the cat herself. His pants and shirt were buckskin, adorned with pelts of various animals.

She frowned. Who are these two? What are they doing in my boat?    

“I appreciate your help in getting away,” the smaller lad said, setting aside his paddle. “The lake men don’t care for foreigners, I think.”

“As a foreigner, I felt kinship with you and your situation. And seven on one was over much.”

“When you stepped in, it quickly became seventeen on two. Much ‘over much.’”

“Much!” The larger youth grinned broadly. “My grandmother named me Saunooke, but my people call me ‘Wolf.’ You should, too.”

“By your size, I would think that ‘Bear’ would be a better appellation for you.”

“My brother was called ‘Bear,’ but then, he was much bigger than me.”

What? Pimmi squeaked, but neither heard her.

“Regardless, I can’t give you my name,” said the other, “because I’m of a habit of not trusting anyone.”

“No one?”

“When you trust no one, no one can betray you. In my country, there’s a story about a frog who trusts a scorpion that asks to carry him across a river.”

“I suppose it ends badly for both of them. A good thing, then, that I’m a wolf, and not a frog. But does that make you a scorpion?”

“Coincidentally, yes, it does.”

“Then ‘Scorpion’ is what I’ll call you, in place of a proper name.” The Wolf pointed a massive finger past the other youth. “What’s that, there?”

The Scorpion looked over his shoulder. Pimmi hunkered down, ears back. Oh, no!

“A cat!” the Scorpion exclaimed. “Now we’re in luck.”

“Yes, because I’m hungry.”

“You can’t eat a cat,” the Scorpion scolded. “Especially not one found on a ship.”

“Your Trade language is still new to me,” the Wolf replied, “but aren’t we on a ‘boat,’ and not a ‘ship?’”

“The principle stands. Calamity befalls any who harm a cat.”

“Another story from your country?”

“A true one.”

“All stories are true. True enough, anyway.”

“Cats bring good fortune wherever they go. Everyone knows that.” The Scorpion beckoned to her. “Hello, my love. Come out, and be adored.”

Pimmi raised her head. An admirer? She crept closer. He slowly extended his palm and she rose to her feet, arching her back in a languid stretch. Then she hopped onto the net and allowed him to begin stroking the top of her head. She rubbed her cheek against his hand, and began to purr. I like you. I like you. I like you.

“You see?” the Scorpion asked, Pimmi continuing to nuzzle him. “She’s recognized that my people worship hers, and now she’s rubbing her luck on me. We’ll have nothing to fear for the rest of our voyage.”

An arrow whistled down, then made a solid thkk as it jammed itself, quivering, into the bottom of the boat. Another zipped into the water a few inches from the side. Pimmi squeaked iii! and leapt back behind the wrapped net, a third arrow clattering off the gunwale beside where she had been. The fourth arrow just missed the Scorpion’s ear as he twisted to shield the cat. Their pursuers—four boats, each with two or three men—rowing hard, shouting as they came. One of them kneeling in his boat, drawing back his bow again.

“He’s surprisingly good, for a lake man,” the Scorpion said.  

Another arrow, the edge of it slicing a thin red line across the bigger youth’s bicep. He grimaced, but kept paddling. He nodded. “Yes, he’s quite good. Probably hunts birds from his boat.”        

 “A good thing, then, that we’re not birds.” The Scorpion slid both slim, curved swords from the sash at his hips. He rose to his feet as smoothly, steadily, and confidently as a lifelong waterman, the boat not waggling or tipping at all as he balanced on the thin wooden thwart that ran across the inside of the canoe.

Don’t do that! Pimmi demanded.

The Wolf frowned. “Sit down!”

“Keep paddling,” the Scorpion told him, and as the next arrow whistled toward them, he slashed the air with both swords, severing the arrow’s shaft, the pointed head and feathered tail falling separately and harmlessly to the bottom of the boat.

Deuced lunacy! Pimmi exclaimed.

Another arrow, another slash. Then the next, but this one, the Scorpion couldn’t deflect. It snapped against the blade of the paddle as the Wolf pulled it from the water. 

“You missed!” the Wolf roared.

“This is considerably more difficult than it appears,” the Scorpion replied.

“I meant the fellow shooting at us.” He placed the dripping paddle across his lap.

The Scorpion scowled. “What are you doing?”

Yes, what are you doing? Pimmi demanded, peeking out from behind the net. Another arrow whistled close by—too close—and the smaller youth struck it out of the air.

Sitting straight up, breathing deeply, the Wolf cupped his hands and began to chant loudly in a language neither Pimmi nor the Scorpion had ever heard before. At once, the canoe lurched forward—the Scorpion desperately pinwheeling his arms to keep from falling—and then shot itself across the water, impossibly faster than the Wolf or anyone else could paddle. The lake men bellowed in astonishment, the hunter quickly firing two more arrows, but neither came anywhere near, falling into the water several yards behind them.

Pimmi came out from hiding, her eyes full and round, as the Scorpion carefully sat again. She put both paws on the side of the canoe, blinking at the spray from the water as the boat increased its speed. The Wolf looked back, grinning as the other crafts shrank to small black blobs. He leaned over, nodded. “Wa do,” he said, to the water.

“You’re a shaman,” the Scorpion said. Pimmi stepped away from the edge, and onto his lap. “You call upon spirits.”

“Yes, if ‘shaman,’ and ‘spirits’ are the right words in your Trade tongue. The lake is alive. So is the boat, and the land, and the air, just the same as you and me and the cat. My people have always known this; some of us know how to speak with the spirits. I learned from my grandfather, he learned from his grandfather, and his from his, back to when my people first climbed up into this world.”

A small smile crept across the Scorpion’s face. ‘Well, then, we should be across this lake in no time.”

Hopefully in time for supper, Pimmi purred, paws beginning to knead the smaller youth’s leg.  

“So, you are…what is the word? A sorcerer,” the Wolf announced.

“Not enough of one,” the Scorpion replied, a map spread across his lap, tiny purple flames dancing in his palm. Pimmi watched the fire from the safety of the bow. “I was taught only a few of the minor, more useful magicks. Not anything like what you can do.”

The water-spirits that the Wolf had summoned had pushed their canoe for miles, taking them far from land. When the sun had set over the lake, the spirits had departed, and the Wolf had resumed his paddling. The Scorpion had shared the dried figs from his pack, and the Wolf had brought the last bit of flat fried bread from his bundle. It had not been much for two, not even a snack, and there had been nothing at all for Pimmi. When they had finished, the Scorpion had taken out his map, spoken a single word—Nahrun!—and produced the fire so as to see by.

“Does your map tell you where we are?” the Wolf asked.

The Scorpion peered at it, looked around. Frowned. “Not accurately. I have no sense of how quickly we were traveling, so I’m not sure of our location. Sadly, I don’t have much talent for navigating by the stars.” He chewed his bottom lip for a moment. “This isn’t the plan I had worked out for crossing the lake.”

“So, I’ve made it much more interesting for you, yes, little friend?” the Wolf beamed.

“‘Interesting,’ indeed. We have only this boat, and what we’re carrying—”

“—and the cat—”

“Yes, the cat, our prized companion,” the Scorpion said. Pimmi preened. “Nevertheless, I have no idea of how long it will take us to go where I meant to.”

“And where was that?”

Not back to the dock, Pimmi supposed. I’ll probably never again see that man who has this boat—or get anymore of his fish.

“South, to the city of Northarbor.”

“‘North’arbor,” the Wolf mused, “which is south of here. Hmm. How far is it?”

“Not quite sixty leagues from Tame Port, where we set out—but again, I don’t know exactly where we are.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “We’re here, on The Lake of Stars.” 

“The Trade language is very odd, for you to speak of a lake and use the word for lights in the night,” the Wolf said, looking up for emphasis. Pimmi followed his gaze, but her eyes were not fashioned to see deep into the sky: all above was black to her.  

“A bit of whimsy, then, but more appealing than its other name: ‘The Bottomless Sea.’”

“How is it that this water is called a ‘lake’ and a ‘sea?’ In my people’s tongue, it would certainly not be both.”  

“That’s really not important now.” The Scorpion tapped the map. “Here is Tame Port.” Brushed his finger down the parchment. “And Northarbor is here, on that spit of land on the other side of the lake.”

“How long does it take a canoe to go ‘sixty leagues?’”

“I don’t know.”

The Wolf took the paddle from the water, set it across his lap, and leaned forward for a better look. He pointed to the dot that indicated the city. “What do all these squiggles and scrawls around it mean?”

“South of there is the Thorn Swamp, and past that, the rest of the country of Pallandyrr. The city is the most northern part, hence, the name.”

Unimaginative, Pimmi sighed.

“And what will we find in Northarbor?” the Wolf asked.

“Whatever you want. It’s the largest, wealthiest city in Pallandyrr.”

Could we find supper there? Pimmi wondered.

“How about a map like yours?”

“Probably a much better one.”

“Then, that’s what I’ll look for, not that I’ll be staying long. What about you, little Scorpion? What do you want to find?”

“Work at the docks, maybe as a clerk, or a scribe for a merchant.”

That sounds dull, Pimmi decided, but perhaps that merchant will want a cat around for luck—or mice.

The Scorpion’s fingers swirled, winking out the purple flame, revealing the endless expanse of flickering lights above. The great Silver Moon was rising, casting a long, shimmering beam across the water, but the tiny Red Moon had yet to appear. “Can you summon the lake spirits again, and command them to take us there?”

“There’s no ‘commanding’ them: they come—or don’t come—and do—or don’t do—if they want to. All I can do is call to them, and ask for help. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, but it’s best not to call on particular spirits too often. Otherwise, they might get annoyed—or angry.”

“So, we’re on this small boat, probably nowhere close to shore, with no food. We have fresh water, and can relieve ourselves over the side, but we’re at the mercy of the weather: if there’s a storm, we’ll mostly likely capsize.”

“I can swim. Can you?”

“There isn’t much need where I’m from, but yes, I can.”

“And where are you from?”

“It’d be better if you don’t know.”

“It’d be better if I do know. I’m an explorer: wanting to know things is why I came across the Great Gray Ocean.”

What I want to know, Pimmi said to herself, is how we’re going to get anywhere anytime soon. The air had gotten colder, so she huddled beside the Scorpion.  

“I’m from a desert pharaohdom,” the Scorpion said, “almost 700 leagues north of here.”

“I don’t know what ‘700 leagues’ is supposed to mean, or how you learned to swim in a desert.”

“I was taught to, in case it was necessary. But just because we can swim doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t eventually tire and drown if wind and waves swamp—or break—the boat. Not to mention how cold the water is.”

“You worry too much. We have the cat,” the Wolf said, his broad, flat palm indicating her. “You said yourself that a cat brings luck, and that we have nothing to fear.”

True! Pimmi said, rubbing herself against the Scorpion’s arm. I might like this large one after all.

“So,” the Wolf asked, grinning, “how do you cook cat, in this country?”

Pimmi narrowed her eyes, went silent.

“The Lake of Stars isn’t in any country,” the Scorpion replied. He stroked Pimmi’s head. “Don’t listen to him,” he murmured to her. “He’s only joking.”

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. She started purring again, but glared at the Wolf, flicking her tail once, twice.   

He gave no sign that he recognized—or cared about—her annoyance. “Why do they call this ‘The Lake of Stars?’”

“That’s really not important now. Go back to paddling while I sort out this situation we’re in.”

“It is important. And besides, I’ve been doing all the paddling, which is more important than you pretending to sort things out while you pat that little fellow.”

Fellow? Pimmi sneered.

“Like boats, cats are considered ‘she,’ until determined otherwise,” the Scorpion said.

The Wolf smirked. “Yes, because you—from your ‘desert pharaohdom 700 leagues north of here’—know so much about boats.”

Hah! Pimmi laughed despite herself.

“I do know,” the Scorpion retorted, “because I have read thousands of scrolls.”

“And yet, you don’t know why this is ‘The Lake of Stars.’”

“Not that I have yet read of yet, but at least I do read, a skill that I doubt a wolf possesses.”

“Which right now is not nearly so useful as paddling—or swimming, a skill that I doubt a scorpion possesses, despite what he says. A skill that would be good to have, in case the boat suddenly becomes smaller, and there’s only room for one—and a cat.”

Pimmi smiled faintly. Perhaps this Wolf doesn’t mean to eat me—at least, not yet. Then her keen eyes were the first to notice, a spear’s throw from the boat, a faint yellow glow, round and no larger than Pimmi’s head, slowly floating up from the depths. It stopped a few inches from the glassy surface. A twin appeared a few feet from the first, then a third, a fourth. In moments, there were dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, surrounding the boat for half a mile or more, wafting here and there in the water.

“‘The Lake of Stars,’” said the Wolf. “More spirits, I think.”

“Glowfish rising to the surface to feed,” the Scorpion insisted.

“Were you taught that before or after your lesson in swimming?”

“Truly, it’s astounding, in all senses of the word, what can be learned by reading, a habit I would encourage a wolf to engage in.” The Scorpion peered across the lake. Pointed. “There’s something very big out there, too distant for me to see it well, but not distant enough for my liking.”

Pimmi looked, but while Mother Bastet had blessed the eyes of her kind to be superior to any man’s at piercing darkness, they were ill-suited for seeing anything much farther than the reach of her claws. Still, there was an odd noise, of water slapping against something large, coming from the direction that the Scorpion had pointed.

“Do you see it?” the Scorpion asked. “I can just pick it out from the lights in the water.”

“I see it,” the Wolf grunted, rubbing his chin.

The Scorpion drew both curved swords. “There are such things as lake dragons, or so I’ve read—”

“Reading is all your eyes are good for, it seems.” The Wolf grinned again. “That’s nothing more than a ship, my small, desert-friend.” He took up the paddle from the bottom of the canoe, started toward the dark thing in the distance.

“Wait! What are you doing?”

“Taking us there, of course.”

“That might be a very bad idea.”

“A moment ago, you were worried about this tiny boat sinking, and us drowning or perishing in too-cold water. Now, I find us a ship, and you don’t want to get on it.”

“We don’t know anything about the men aboard it. They might be pirates, or slavers. Or they might not be men at all. There are tales of haunted ships, crewed by specters—”

“A ship of ghosts would be less likely to be attacked by a water dragon, I think,” the Wolf scoffed, still paddling with long, strong strokes, the lake-lights slipping out of the boat’s way. “So, there would be one less worry you would have. Besides, I don’t like sitting for long.”

It only took a few minutes until the ship—a boxy, four-masted vessel—loomed over them. The Wolf stopped paddling, cupped his hands. “Osiyo! Osiyo!”

Many footsteps and confused voices from above, and then a lantern swung out over them, held by a pole. “Hoi, the boat! Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“You should probably speak for us,” the Scorpion whispered. “People don’t seem to like me.”

“I could tell by that seven-on-one situation with you,” the Wolf muttered. Louder: “My friend and I are trying to cross the lake, but it’s too far for our little boat. Can we come aboard yours?”

Another voice, louder. “Out of my way! You were supposed to be on watch, Waegydd, you fat, useless rat scrotum, so how’d they manage to get right up on us like this?” The light dipped toward the youths. “Your names: let’s have ‘em!”  

“I am called Wolf. My friend has no name he can give you.”

“That was not the right thing to say,” the Scorpion hissed.

“If you can’t give me a name, you can’t come aboard! You can drift ‘til Dagon drags you down.”

“Please, don’t send us away!” the Scorpion called. “My name is Aqrab. My friend did not say it, because I did not give it to him. But I give it to you now, if you will please help us.”

Past the pale lantern light, the two could just make out a burly, bearded man scowling down at them from the rail of the ship. “‘Aqrab,’ you say. Your accent: I know it. Qellizarri, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Captain—?”

“Samperson. And you?” he asked the Wolf. “Where are you from?”

“Far off. My people are the Ani-Yunwiya, a great nation, but not at all curious about the world. I’ve come to learn more of it.”

“You—the little one. What use are you? What can you do?”

“I can cook, and sew,” the Scorpion said, “and—”

“Read,” the Wolf interjected. “He reads scrolls, many of them—”

“—and I can write, Qellizarri, of course, Upper and Lower, and the Trade, and Agarthonian—”

“—and he has a cat,” the larger one added. Pimmi beamed.

“We have two cats already,” the bearded man growled. “Can you mend sails?”

“Yes, sir, and I’m good with rope.”

“Fine! You can come up. Now you, big fellow: can you fight?”

“In my clan, only my brother was better than me. And I’m better than anyone you have aboard.”

The other men on the boat—the Scorpion could make them out, now that his eyes had adjusted—hooted and guffawed, slapping each other’s backs and thumping the rails that they were looking out over. “Hoi!” Samperson said. “We’ll see of that straightway. Drop ropes!” he called to his men, “and let ‘em up.”

What about me? Pimmi asked.

“Leave the cat,” the bearded man said, as if he had heard her. “We don’t need a third.”

“I’m not coming up without the cat,” the Scorpion announced, tying the end of the rope to the bow seat of the canoe.

“And I’m not coming up without him,” the Wolf declared. “So, I suppose we won’t see how well I fight, will we?”

What will that captain do? Pimmi wondered. I should not want to be set afloat, but—

“Oh, I want very much to see how you do, Wolf-pup,” the captain said. “Bring the cat, then, and shinny up here.” He turned to some of the men. “Call Khoregg from below. Tell him I’ve work for him.”

To read more, get STRAY CATS on Kindle or in softcover here.

Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. Follow Kenton on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. You can also catch him on Instagram.