I rounded the corner and paused. I was pretty sure this was the passage I wanted to go down, but the white vastness of the palace could easily get one lost. It all blurred together in one’s mind; and it certainly didn’t help that every single corridor looked exactly like the one I was staring down. But still, I was pretty sure this was the one I wanted to go down.
The sound a guard makes when he is searching for someone is very distinct, and I’ve heard it enough times that I’ve recognized it in my sleep on several occasions, which led to waking up standing on a roof or in a back alley with no recollection of how I had gotten there. This is why I knew that the sound of boots in the hallway was not a guard searching for me. It was, in fact, a guard really hoping he didn’t find me. I edged down the hallway. It wouldn’t do to be caught now, especially if it meant I wouldn’t get to steal the object I was pretty sure was behind the tall white door at the end of the hallway. The door I was getting closer to at a steady rate.
The guard walked past the corridor, casting a cursory glance down it, (and, consequently, in my direction,) before walking past. He stopped a few steps later and backed up to stop and stare. It was painfully clear he did not want to be seeing what he was looking at.
I looked up from the lock on the door and waved. “Hi.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “You are not supposed to be here.” He sounded accusatory.
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I’m not. It’s just a figment of your imagination.” I went back to picking the lock.
The guard relaxed. “Oh; just a figment of my imagination. Good.” He sounded relieved. “Er, I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’ll just go now.” He turned and walked back down the hall and disappeared around the corner.
I shook my head. Some people were just not cut out for this sort of work. My lock-picks clinked into place and I gingerly turned them. There was a satisfying click, and the door swung open.
It was a wide, round, white room, empty save the pedestal in the very center. There was a cushion on the pedestal, and nestled on the cushion was something that looked rather like a marble. It was about the size of an eyeball and a translucent white color. As I got closer, I noticed a swirling mist just below the surface. It was mesmerizing. It was beautiful. It was…I picked it up and put it in one of my many pockets. It was stolen; quite stolen, in fact. So stolen it would never be un-stolen.
Unless I got caught.
But that never happened, so there wasn’t a lot to worry about. I slipped back out the door and closed it behind me. While this trip had been fun, I was looking forward to getting back to Lezera’s. She would be so pleased to see…whatever it was.
“And where did you get this?” Lezera sounded irritated. She looked irritated, too. Her arms were crossed and she was glaring at me.
I did my best to shrug nonchalantly. “A place,”
She raised the Eyebrow of Doom.
I hastily explained. “You see, there was this big palace, and it was filled with guards. And I asked one of the peasants and he said there was this really important gem hidden deep in the palace and that it was guarded with magic and stuff, so, well… you know… I stole it.” I glanced at her. She didn’t look impressed. “Actually,” I added as an afterthought, “It wasn’t all that well guarded. A cat could have just waltzed in there whenever he felt like it.”
She smiled tightly. “And I supposed that’s exactly what you did.”
I nodded and she sighed. She stacked the papers on the table and stood to put them away. With her back to me, she continued. “Someone with your particular set of talents really shouldn’t misuse them in that way. Someday you’ll get into more trouble than you can get out of.”
I absently picked up one of her pens and examined it. It had a gold tip.
She turned and frowned at me. “You haven’t been listening to a single word of what I’ve been saying.”
I looked up guiltily. “I heard the first two sentences.”
She walked over and took the pen out of my hand and put it back where it belonged, giving me the Look. “I only said two sentences.”
“So I succeeded!” I protested. “Why don’t I get points for succeeding?”
Because you didn’t pay attention to what you were listening to.” She frowned.
“Yes I was,” I argued back, ignoring how dangerous it was.
“No.” She gave me the Look again. “You weren’t.”
This time, I didn’t bother arguing. There was no point to it, anyway. Besides, she was probably right.
“I’m just saying you should be more careful.” She sighed, gathering a stack of books to shelve.
“Eh,” I waved a hand. “What could happen?”
She raised a decidedly smug eyebrow. “Need I answer?”
I thought about this for a moment. “True… I promise to be careful.” Well, careful-ish. But it seemed to satisfy her and she smiled. Then I jumped up and headed for the door. If I stuck around, who knew what she might try to make me do.
“Hey, Bucky!” I greeted my old friend.
He looked up from his mug and glowered at me. “Jal.” The tone of his voice was accusatory. “You stole my money.”
I waved a hand soothingly. “Technically, that was your fault. You really shouldn’t have left it lying around like that.”
This, for some strange reason, didn’t sooth him like I’d hoped. “It was in a lockbox in the safe in my basement. A lockbox to which only I have the key, the safe only I have the combination to, the basement filled with deadly traps.”
I nodded in agreement. “Precisely why it’s your fault.”
He glared at me for a few seconds, and I met his gaze. Finally, he sighed. “Fine. Sit down.”
I grinned and plopped down on the bench opposite him. I pulled out the stolen orb and set it on the table. “Do you know what this is and what it does?”
He picked it up and examined it. “Figures you’d steal a rare magical object and have no clue what it does.” He hefted it in his palm. “Luckily for you,” he gave me a Look, “I do know what this is.”
I nodded eagerly and leaned forward. “What is it?”
“It,” He set it down and rolled it towards me, “is a marble.”
“The thief will be hung by the neck until dead!” The man announced, and I gave him an irritated look. As opposed to what, being hung by the foot until dead?
To be truthful, they did have every right to hang me. I had snuck into their very well guarded castle and stolen their most important artifact. What they didn’t know is that I still had said artifact in my pocket. I just gotten done replacing it marble fake I’d mistakenly stolen when they had captured me. They saw it and assumed I hadn’t managed to actually steal it before the alarm had been raised. So they didn’t bother to search me. I didn’t have a really good idea what the stone did, but I was reasonably certain that activating it would definitely keep me from getting killed. Probably.
Maybe this was what Lezera was talking about when she told me to be more careful, I mused as the executioner slipped the noose over my head and tightened it around my neck. But it’s always so hard to tell with her. I slipped my hand into my pocket and curled my fingers around the orb. It was icy cold. Hopefully it would work.
The executioner walked over to the lever. I gripped the orb tighter.
“Wait! The-” A liveried man cried, running out of the palace.
The executioner pulled the lever and I felt the ground drop out from under my feet. There was a sickening moment of weightlessness, and then I dropped.
Everything went dark.
I opened my eyes blearily and looked around. Oh. So the stone thing worked after all. I was in a forest. I looked up and saw a dark, stormy sky above me. A leaf floated down from one of the trees, and I automatically reached out and batted at it. Doing this always made me feel sort of stupid, but it’s one of those cat things. You just can’t help yourself. The question right now was why I was a cat.
I stood up and stretched. It didn’t take very much effort to sense the fact that I was stuck in cat form. Luckily for me, I was pretty accustomed to being a cat. I spent half my time as one anyway. On the other hand, I glanced up at the sky. There was a crack of thunder and it began to rain. I hunched my shoulders and began to skulk through the leaves. Hopefully I would find a path or a town or something.
After about thirty minutes of skulking, I did find a path. It was dirt. Well, at this point it was mud, but paths generally lead to civilization. I looked both ways. The forest was equally thick in both directions, so I headed right.
Being tiny, soaking wet, and plodding through ankle-deep mud is thoroughly miserable, but, after an hour of this misery, I heard voices. Peoples voices, specifically. From the sound of it, they were singing. Well, trying to sing, anyway. And, as I rounded a bend in the road, I saw firelight through the trees. I considered picking up the pace a bit, and then reasoned that the people would probably still be there in however long it took me to get there.
‘There’ in this case was a humongous tree. The people had set up a bunch of tables and benches beneath it, and they had three or four large pit fires going with various animal carcasses roasting over them, as well as a dozen or so smaller ones with various pots and things hanging over them. I paused just outside of the firelight. In some cultures, people would feed stray cats. But, from my experience, all the cultures I came in contact with were the sort that threw rocks at the stray cat.
But they had food. And I was a thief…
“Hey look! A cat!” One of the men had seen me. He helpfully pointed me out to several of his friends, who in turn pointed me out to their friends. Within a minute, I had half of the people staring at me. I backed away, my fur standing on end.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” One of them said softly, holding his hand out encouragingly.
I stared at him. Of all the interactions I’d had as a cat, I had never once had this happen. This was creepy. This was weird. This was embarrassing. I was a cat; not a pet.
“Maybe it’s hungry.” A different man speculated. I perked my ears up. Maybe they would feed me after all.
The other men seemed to consider the statement for a moment before one of them piped up. “What do cats eat then?”
At the question, the entire group exploded into a flurry of excited argument. The first suggestion was fish, but this was quickly vetoed on the account of ‘cats don’t swim so obviously they wouldn’t eat something from the water.’ Mice were suggested next and, although they all agreed that yes, cats did eat mice, they pointed out that they didn’t have any mice to feed me. This caused several men to volunteer to go hunt mice for me, and they were finding weapons when someone told them they wouldn’t find any mice because ‘it was pitch dark by now and raining besides and any sensible mouse would be curled up in a dry barn somewhere!’ The rest of the group continued to offer suggestions which quickly grew more ludicrous by the moment. One man put forth a rumor he’d heard that cats only drank rum, and another man claimed that cats didn’t eat at all. I sat for a few more minutes in case they did stop and feed me, but when someone mentioned he’d seen a cat eat an entire silk scarf, I figured there wasn’t much of a chance.
I sidled around the group of arguing men and headed deeper into the camp. The layout was pretty basic. There was a towering oak tree in the center of the camp, directly around which were a few well-tended cooking fires. Further out were about four fire pits, all with roaring fires in them. The branches of the oak tree sheltered the camp from most of the storm, so fires were still burning fine. There were benches and tables scattered across the place, many with people sitting at them. I looked up at the tree in the center. It had plenty of thick, sturdy branches. In fact, several of these branches were thick enough that someone had built a bunch of platforms and shacks up there.
I looked around for a moment. This was clearly an organized group of people who were permanently stationed here. Which meant there was probably a leader somewhere. And I intended to find him.
My stomach growled.
On the other hand, there was a man over there next to a fire and the fire had a pot over it and I was pretty sure the pot had something good to eat in it. The only question was how to get at the food inside the pot. I began to walk over, purposely hunching my shoulders and dragging my tail. When I was close enough to the fire to be seen, but still far enough away that no one would be able to grab me, I sat down and began to mewl pitifully. The man paid no attention to me. He stirred the pot with a wooden spoon, pausing to taste it, and then returned to his seat. I mewled a little louder, and he still ignored me. I sat there for five minutes mewling at the top of my lungs and the man did nothing. Maybe he enjoyed the melodic sound of a cat in distress.
I heard a sound behind me and spun, my fur standing on end. There was a man in green crouched there, his hand reached out. Caught in the act of trying to pet me, no doubt. I hissed at him. He looked at me with solemn eyes. “You know, little cat, the man whose attention you’ve been trying to get is stone deaf. If you wanted food, you would have been better off trying Colum over there.” He gestured to a cooking fire closer to the tree. I could see four or five people gathered around it. “Come on, we’ll get you some food yet. My name is Little John, by the way.” Without waiting for a reply, not that I could’ve given him one, he scooped me up and started walking. He talked while he walked. “We’re the Merry Men, part of Robin Hood’s band of thieves. Most of us didn’t start that way, but Robin Hood has a way of collecting people. We steal from the rich and give to the poor and needy. And Robin Hood does it to have fun.” I perked my ears. I liked to steal things for fun. “It’s a fine life,” he continued, “but it does get lonesome sometimes. And I have always liked cats.”
I looked at him suspiciously. Lezera had said something like that when she’d first met me, before I’d turned back into a human. Boy had she been surprised. She never did quite forgive me for not being a cat. And she never hesitated to assure me that she definitely liked me better in this form. Except during shedding season, for some reason.
He reached the cooking fire he’d pointed out before. “Hey, Colum,” He greeted the man stirring the pot.
The man gave Little John an irritated look. “I suppose you’re hungry?” He asked impatiently.
“No,” Little John grinned. “But my little friend here is.” He set me down on the table.
Immediately, the other people gathered around to examine me. “Is it tamed?” One of them asked.
“Can I pet it?”
“Does it bite?”
“Where did you get it?”
“What’s its name?”
“Is it yours?”
“Did you steal it?’
“Where can I get one?”
“Is it edible?” This last question was from Colum, and had a definite sarcastic edge. I recognized it as sarcasm because Lezera frequently uses it if she’s spent too much time around me. Sadly for Colum, no one else recognized it as sarcasm, and the people began to earnestly explain how domestic forms of cats, like me, were created as companions for old ladies and not to eat. They went on to talk about how some religion in Egypt had worshipped cats as gods and about the story of Puss in Boots, as if the two were in some way related. I did note that neither story had any old ladies in it, proving their theory about why cats existed as incorrect.
Colum opened his mouth, and then closed it again. “Never mind.” He sighed. It was the resigned sigh of someone who has long ago given up on the hope of ever meeting anyone who would ever understand anything properly. I recognized it instantly. It was the same sound Lezera makes at the end of every conversation we’ve ever had.
Colum waved the people away and set a bowl of thick stew in front of me, giving Little John a Look which clearly conveyed the fact that he thought the stew was utterly wasted on the half-drowned animal Little John had brought to him.
I ignored the look and began to eat.
The Next Morning…
I opened my eyes and blinked lazily at the sunlight streaming through my window. Where was I and how did I get here? I lifted my head and looked around as memories slowly swam their way back into my head. After I had eaten, Little John had carried me up into the tree and turned on of the hollows in the trunk into a cat-house. He’d put cushions and blankets in it, and a little weird dangly thing; that was now lying in the corner, no longer driving me crazy.
I sat up and stretched, and then began to lick myself clean since I was still covered in mud from yesterday. As I washed my fur, I thought about Little John. A sneaking suspicion was forming in my mind. A sneaking suspicion that grew until I was convinced of it. Little John was the secret leader of these so called ‘Merry Men’. At this, I resolved to leave a dead mouse and a couple of hairballs in his shoes as a sign of affection.
After a leisurely cat-bath, I poked my head out of the tree and surveyed the camp. It was quiet, with only a few people around. I spotted Little John at a bed of embers, poking a stick at a pile of leaf-wrapped objects I presumed to be fish based on the fact that there was a fishing pole leaning on a bucket next to him. As I watched, he poked one of the leaf-wrapped objects out of the fire and picked it up. Then he dropped it suddenly and started dancing around, alternately waving his hands and blowing on his fingers.
A man with a ukulele began to play a fast-paced jig to Little John’s dance, causing him to stop and give the man what could probably be considered a very tame version of what is commonly known as a withering glare.
“Toot! Toot! Fanfare! Trumpets blaring!!”
“Make way! Make way!”
“Toot! Trumpet noise! Drums!”
That was the shouting I could hear. There was a good deal more general commotion. I leaned out of the hole to see.
It was a trio of three men in bright green. The men on either side were shouting and making horn sounds. The man in the middle was swaggering, a large golden crown sitting askew on his bright blond hair. He was wearing a rich red cloak which was being caused to billow around him by the efforts of his escort. I leaned out further. Was this… could it be… Was I looking at Robin Hood, the so called ‘leader’ of the Merry Men, the usurper of Little John’s rightful position?
He swaggered towards the tree and paused at its roots, turning to address the almost empty camp. I looked down at him.
Then I overbalanced.
As I fell, I was distantly aware of the fact that Robin Hood had been standing directly below me.
I landed, as cats usually do, on my feet.
Several months passed, and as I became more comfortable with my new life, I began to amass stolen treasure in my hole. And I watched with amusement as Robin Hood, who was convinced he was my owner, became more and more paranoid. Soon, Little John would rise up and claim his rightful place as true leader of the Merry Men. Even if none of the Merry Men knew it.
But no one could have foreseen what would happen next.
I sat in my treasure-filled hole, dozing in the sun. It had been a good day. I’d put a scorpion in Robin Hood’s shoe and stolen one of his bags of gold right from under his nose. He hadn’t noticed either yet, but he would soon.
“Everyone! Every man! OUT!! OUT NOW! LET ME SEE YOU!” I recognized Robin Hood’s voice, especially shouting like that. I meandered out onto the deck Little John had built and installed for me. This might be interesting.
He waited impatiently for everyone to arrive, then addressed the crowd with ringing tones. “Men! Gather your weapons, your torches, your rope! Today we hang the traitor in our midst!”
This didn’t seem to have the effect he’d been hoping for. After all, no one had the faintest clue what he meant.
“For the past three months, gold has been going missing. Jewels and riches and the wealth we steal to distribute to the poor and needy! Parts disappear and are never re-accounted for! They are being stolen by one of our own!”
This stirred the crowd a little bit. Partially due to the fact that at least five sixths of the men in the crowd had stolen parts of the stolen treasure, each, no doubt, reasoning that his little bit would go unnoticed; I know because I was there for most of the thievery. Cats see everything.
“In fact, as I watched closer the past few weeks, I became convinced of one particular man’s guilt in this crime.”
Silence from the crowd, each man holding his breath and praying his name wouldn’t be spoken.
Ever dramatic, Robin Hood slowly raised his arm and pointed. “Little John!”
There was collective sigh of relief from the crowd.
Then there was confusion. “Little John? Our Little John?”
“ Are you positive? Him?”
“Little John’s never stolen anything before in his life!”
“He steals stuff all the time.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Little John’s not a traitor!”
“I saw Matthew stealing coins last week!”
“How did you see that?”
And confusion gave way to wild accusations as everyone began to point fingers. The volume of the crowd rose. Fists began to fly.
There was an ominous crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of purple and white light. I closed my eyes against it. When I opened them, most of the crowd was on the ground. Where they had been stood a familiar figure.
Robin Hood staggered to his feet. “Are you here to kill me?” He demanded.
Several of the men on the ground cowered.
“I am,” she began, and I cocked my head in confusion. “Looking. For. My. Cat.” She looked up at me. “Although I’m not sure it was worth the effort to hunt you down, especially across dimensions. Did I or did I not tell you to be more careful?” She gave me the Look. “Now come down at once. We are going home.”
I obediently bounded down and padded over to her. She reached down and scooped me up. “This might pinch a bit.” She reached into a pouch and pulled out a familiar orb with a green wire wrapped around it. She curled her fist around it, and I realized my other life was finally over.
There was a flash of purple and white light, and my vision went black.
Robin Hood sighed with regret as he climbed the ladder to his beloved cat’s hole. All along, his cat hadn’t even really been his. To think… And he hadn’t even found out who had stolen all the treasure.
He reached the hole and looked inside.
And paused, staring mutely at the piles of gold.
“I guess I owe Little John an apology.”