The Infinite Bard presents a thrilling tale of medieval river pirates and their cat!
“Why,” Elizabeth Hollingsworth shot her crewmate an incredulous look as the elderly woman trudged up the gangplank, “did you wait so long?”
Locks of the septuagenarian’s snow-white hair kept falling across one eye, and she’d twist her mouth to blow them clear. She didn’t have a free hand to brush them aside. At the moment, Eleanor affected none of the frailty she feigned to garner sympathy, and deflect suspicion, in her advanced years. She needed all her strength and coordination to keep her grip on the struggling white and gray feline in her arms. The cat yowled in displeasure.
“Took me this long to catch her. You thought it would be easy?” Eleanor raised her voice over the cat’s protests and pointed with her chin. “Open the door.”
Eyebrow raised, Liz opened the door to the captain’s quarters, then closed it quickly behind the woman. A few crashes and bangs sounded inside, punctuated by growls, howls, and the occasional hiss.
Good thing Coventry liked cats.
Sighing deeply, Liz stood at the bow of the shallow-bottomed riverboat Menace with its double mast and sail, and fought the urge to leap into the gently windswept water. The feline wails faded quickly.
She hated this part. She always hated waiting.
The gentle breeze barely created ripples across the river’s surface as it danced over it and through the lush, green treetops. Brilliant sunshine dappled the wooden deck of the boat as if in a playful tug-of-war with the shadows cast by the low-hanging branches.
The glorious spring weather mocked her sour mood with its bright joviality and vernal pulchritude.
Logically she understood that Coventry wanted someone trustworthy and responsible—such as her, his second-in-command—looking after matters until he got back. She still hated the crew being separated in these dire circumstances. Moreover, she loved the little village and The Dancing Fish, the inn where she and the rest of the pirate crew could always find refuge.
But now their presence endangered the townsfolk.
A cold, hard smile touched her lips. The most recent blow they’d struck against the sheriff made their sacrifice well worth it. They’d ransacked the local sheriff’s treasury and had rescued thirty people due for execution. Amazing—and a huge shame, Liz thought—that the murderous sheriff hadn’t died from apoplexy.
An added bonus: they’d gotten the king even more furious with the sheriff. The king could oust the sheriff from office at any time.
They could only hope.
Coventry had insisted on going by himself to the depths of the forest. He’d needed to warn one of their allies about their impending departure. saying the farmer who often sneaked them food would not believe any messenger and besides, he wanted to say goodbye to his old friend.
Liz had acquiesced at that. Neither particularly difficult nor risky, the job didn’t really require more than a single person. Yet she hated for any of her people to go solo. Far better to have backup near at hand. Besides, none among them were more recognizable than Coventry.
The wanted posters of Coventry actually looked like him. They showed a man with a pleasant enough yet unremarkable face, blue eyes and dark blond hair. It didn’t show his average height, of course, nor did it capture the humor perpetually sparkling in those kind eyes. He had an appealing, gentle manner that evoked trust and drew people to him. His eloquence inspired people to follow him—and to protect him and his crew.
Her wanted posters made her look twice her twenty–five years and—despite showing just the face and shoulders—somehow still made her look like a hulking amazon. Maybe it was that they’d inaccurately drawn her features even rougher and larger, the shoulders too broad.
Liz didn’t mind in the least that the authorities had no good likeness of her. Better for her to have gone on the errand instead of Coventry.
Eleanor darted out of the cabin and secured the door behind her.
“What?” she demanded in response to Liz’s sidelong look. “You know Ruffian is a good hunter and earns her keep just like any of us. She’ll keep the mice and rats out of our cabin, protect our food.”
“I know. It’s not Ruffian. I won’t be able to relax until Coventry’s back.”
Eleanor nodded sagely. “Any time now. Then we can get going. It’ll be good to catch up to the others.”
Of the twenty in their pirate group, normally ten stayed on the boat. Another twenty or so had assisted them so blatantly that they needed to flee as well.
In groups of two or three, four at most, they’d set off over the past week for the other side of the kingdom. The trickle, instead of a mass exodus, hopefully would not draw attention. So long as they received their money and goods in taxes, the upper crust paid no attention to the lowly peasants.
Liz and her friends just needed it to stay that way for a little bit longer.
Coventry returned shortly before nightfall, right as Menace prepared to shove off. The riverboat glided away from shore, its two sails unfurling and snapping taut as they caught the night wind. The crescent moon followed them downriver. Its delicate silvery light didn’t overwhelm the glittering sea of stars overhead.
With a wave of his hand and tilt of his head, Coventry gestured for Liz to follow him to his cabin. She trailed after him, grinned as he inched the door open and peered inside to see if the coast was clear. He slipped quickly inside.
She followed his example, carefully shutting the door behind them. The compact room had a bunk, with drawers above and below it, built into the left wall. Windows made up the top half of the far wall. A table and two chairs sat to the right. A lantern on the table cast flickering shadows around the small room.
It also illuminated a pair of glowing gold eyes from the deep gloom of the inset bed.
Coventry picked up the cat, who promptly purred and rubbed all over his face and neck as he sat down.
Liz took a chair at the table. “Sounds like our new house is set,” she said. Then her face clouded. “But we have too much coin there. We’ll need to distribute it as fast, and as discreetly, as we can. Otherwise…”
“I know.” Coventry stroked Ruffian, who purred loudly in appreciation. “Soldiers find that there, and we’ll be running again before we’ve even stopped.”
A young man, powerfully built as one would expect of a blacksmith, met them on the dock which led right to the back door. He spared a nod and smile for Coventry carrying the feline inside before enfolding Liz in a hug and kissing her soundly.
After a few minutes, they followed inside. Liz chuckled at the ongoing inspection.
Ruffian stalked around the big, open room, thoroughly examining it to see if it met her requirements for comfort. The stone floor and crude yet sturdy wooden furniture evidently failed to impress her. She showed more interest in the cheery fire blazing in the huge hearth and in the robust aroma of a succulent stew cooking in the huge cauldron inside the fireplace.
After sniffing a few times, the cat padded over to a large rocking chair with an blue and green afghan flung over the back. She pawed the blanket until it fell into the seat, kneaded it into an acceptable condition, then curled up in the middle of it.
A ladder in one corner led up to a common sleeping area overhead. Eleanor and several of the other women and men in the group had already retired for the evening. Coventry sat at a long wooden table eating a bowl of the stew. He’d set two more bowls out as well.
“The coin?” Liz asked, sitting down eagerly to the hot meal.
“In the chimney wall. Some brick was loose. You have any trouble, John?” he asked the young man.
The blacksmith scowled. “The sheriff wanted a repair on a gate. Wasn’t difficult, but it made me hours late. Seemed safer than telling him it would take until tomorrow, and having him annoyed and notice right away I was gone.”
“You don’t think he suspected, do you?” Liz asked, heart suddenly in her throat on his behalf.
“No, and I wanted to keep it that way.”
“Wise decision.” Coventry nodded in approval. “No use being too obvious.”
They fell silent as they savored the rich beef stew, full of plenty of chunks of meat and copious potatoes and other vegetables. Eschewing wine or ale for the evening, they got water from the bucket used to draw it from the well.
Tension finally began to ebb as they relaxed in relative safety.
“You going back to Menace?” John asked as they all sat, content after the hearty warm meal.
Coventry chuckled. “Of course.” He glanced around the big room in satisfaction. “This’ll mainly be our meeting place of last resort. You and your ‘mother’ Eleanor—and Ruffian, naturally—can keep it looking lived in and maintained.”
“It’ll take a few days to get set up,” Liz said, to Coventry as much as to John, “but they found a good place deeper in the wood for our camp. And that cove across the river is perfect to hide Menace.”
“It’ll still be good to stay hidden for a few weeks, and get a better feel for this new area,” Coventry said. “Figure out what the authorities are like here, what their schedules are.”
Liz snorted. “Not that they’ll be any different.”
The trio exchanged sad looks of agreement.
“At least there are a few villages close enough I can get blacksmith work, once I get a forge built,” John said, his optimism sounding forced to Liz’s ear. “And lots of people can use a good seamstress and weaver. Eleanor will have options if she wants to keep busy.”
Liz shot him a wry glance. “You mean when she’s not practicing knife-throwing?”
John laughed. “Of course.”
“It will be good for the two of you to be able to show how you get your money.” Coventry couldn’t hide his own smirk, though.
Few people messed with Eleanor more than once. No one in their group handled knives better.
Liz folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb as the last of them—Coventry and John—boarded the dinghy to cross the river. She’d ‘guard’ the house, not that they expected trouble, while the rest of them gathered for the meeting to confirm the ground rules of their new territory.
They’d need to take great care to find out whom they could trust, and whom to avoid—or beware of.
A renewed pang of longing for The Dancing Fish stabbed at her gut. It would take a long time for them to find that level of security again.
Back inside, Ruffian had claimed what looked to be her favorite place: the rocking chair by the fireplace. With nothing cooking at the moment, and no need of heat on the temperate spring day, they’d let the fire go out. Better to save the firewood for when they needed it.
The smoke, soot, and ash had done its additional job: hiding that sections of brick had recently been removed and replaced.
Without the fire or the lantern lit, deep gloom pervaded the cavernous room. Her eyes already adjusted, Liz could see just fine, but the small windows let in so little illumination that someone entering from the bright sunshine into the dimness would be temporarily blind.
Suddenly, Ruffian raised her head, tail twitching and a growl deep in the small feline’s throat. With a hissing snarl, she leapt down from her chair, raced across the room, and using her momentum, sped up the ladder in the corner to the loft.
Could anyone possibly have followed them there? She didn’t believe so, although she forced herself to consider every possibility.
She stood perfectly still, but didn’t hear anything aside from the wind rushing through the leaves outside, and the river gently lapping the bank.
After just a moment, she heard hoofbeats. From several horses. Not traveling particularly fast.
Even so, that couldn’t be good.
A bunch of horses together usually meant soldiers.
She could follow the cat and pull the ladder up after them. She rejected that option a split-second later. Soldiers could still get up there easily enough, and it had no other exit.
Grabbing her bow and quiver of arrows from beside the door, she ran outside away from the incoming riders, and into the woods. Blinking at the sudden brightness, her eyes watered.
Just as she climbed high enough to hide herself in the tree branches, four magnificent gray war horses, soldiers in chainmail astride, trotted into the clearing between the house and the river.
The four men, all of the same type, dismounted in unison and tethered their mounts to the well. Tall, burly, two-handed broadswords on their left hips, identical neatly-trimmed beards and moustaches. Even had they not been wearing mail and the colors of the king, everything about their deportment screamed ‘soldier’.
Liz held her breath as they strolled around, realized she was doing so, then took a slow, careful breath.
“Looks like someone really did move into this haunted old place,” the oldest of the quartet said as he eased the door open with his sword. The years had roughened his deep voice.
Gray touched his brown hair lightly. He could have been any age from forty to fifty, but the other three—their faces unlined where the beards didn’t cover, like their foreheads and cheeks and the corners of their eyes—didn’t look older than their early twenties. And they moved without the stiffness their—Liz guessed—commander was just starting to succumb to.
The younger three gathered behind their leader and all four peered into murkiness.
Liz’s crewmates had given the place a thorough cleaning. No more dirt, grime, or cobwebs. Clearly, lived in. The solders would see as much if they went in.
She held her weapon ready in case they saw her, knowing full well that the very last thing she should do was kill any of them. The river pirates needed the authorities to stay away, or, at the very least, to ignore the place, not swarm all over it or stay there in search of whoever had attacked their comrades in arms.
Her heart sank as the four men trooped inside.
Her friends had left nothing of any particular value or interest sitting around. And she felt confident they’d never find the coin. But if they decided to loiter there, she and her people would have nowhere to go. They certainly had no interest in meeting the local military.
“What’s that?” the man’s voice echoed weirdly in the stone building. “Is that eyes?”
“Where?” the deeper-voiced commander replied.
A keening yowl, at once angry and mournful, emanated from the building. What the heck was Ruffian doing? Hadn’t she stayed hidden up in the loft?
Startled not-quite-simultaneous shouts overlapped, accompanied by ungodly shrieks that only an enraged cat could make.
A metallic crash told her they’d upended the cauldron and it was rolling around. A more muffled bang sounded like the table and benches falling over and being shoved across the stone floor. Metal met stone with sharp clacks as blades connected with the floor and walls. The four soldiers stumbled out of the building.
Wide-eyed, Liz needed all her effort not to laugh out loud—as that would surely have gotten her killed. Their mail hung askew, revealing the shredded non-chainmail material of their jerseys and pants. Blood flowed from deep gouges on their hands and faces.
They stood looking at each other in the clearing, as if unsure what to do next. Their horses whinnied and neighed, their equine anxiety plain as they pulled at the reins tethering them near the well.
“Wolves,” the youngest soldier finally said, stroking the neck of one of the steeds.
“A mother wolf defending her cubs,” a second chimed in as he gathered his own roan mount’s reins.
“A pack of wolves,” the third suggested. His gray mare attempted to sidestep away, but the soldier kept a firm grip on the reins and a comforting hand on her withers.
Mouth twisted in annoyance, the commander gave all of them a hard look. “A pack of wolves,” he confirmed. “We ran them off; they won’t be a danger. No need to hunt for them.”
The quartet all nodded in agreement as they climbed back into the saddles.
Liz still battled mightily to contain her laughter as they rode off. After the sounds of hoofbeats faded away, she clambered down from the tree and dashed inside.
Her eyes needed to adjust as she looked wildly around for Ruffian. Liz liked her and would never want anything to happen to her. Eleanor loved her dearly and would personally kill anyone who’d laid a hand on the feline.
Liz didn’t want to face Eleanor if something had happened to Ruffian with Liz left on watch.
The cauldron lay on its side across the room from its hearth. All four chairs were scattered about, two of them broken. The upended table leaned against one wall. The ladder, also broken in two, had skidded across the stone floor as well.
Only the rocking chair had escaped unscathed. The chair, and the smug white and gray feline kneading the blanket on its seat. She meowed a coupled times at Liz then curled up.
Risking disturbing her, Liz hurried over and picked her up. Not a mark on her. Squirming as usual, Ruffian seemed to be moving just fine. Totally unhurt.
Liz gave her a quick hug and kiss and set her back on the chair. Affronted, Ruffian kneaded the perch again then settled back in.
Grinning, Liz began cleaning up the mess. Thank you, Ruffian. Their territorial feline had just added immensely to the house’s reputation as a place to avoid.
Well done, little cat.