Hralf and the Cat-Nappers

An interview with Sarvalur the halfling, one of Hralf’s long-time companions, regarding Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.

Oh. It’s you again.

I suppose that’s what I get for having an adventurous youth, adulthood, and middle-age: folks like you knocking on my door and disturbing my peace with your nosy questions.

Here I am, retired at last, relaxing by my fire with a well-earned half-pint of ale and not a care in the world—and you show up and want me to blather on about the things I’ve put behind me.

I’ll have you know I was just getting ready to go to bed in an hour or so.

Do stop grinning at me like that.

I suppose you want to know more about Hralf, yes?

All right, you’re here, and I suppose there will be no getting rid of you until I’ve spun you a tale or two. You might as well sit down and have something to drink. There’s a cask on the table over there: a lovely Somerset bock.

No spinning? What do you mean, no spinning?

Oh, that. That’s not spinning, that’s embroidery. I promise I won’t embroider. At least not too much. Plain whole cloth, that’s me.

The whole cloth isn’t enough for you? It’s quality stuff, you know: dyed in the wool and 60 threads per inch. You won’t find better at the price.

So you don’t want embroidery, and you don’t want whole cloth. What do you want then?

The whole truth, not the whole cloth.

That’s going to be a little confining. But seeing as it’s you, I’ll give it my best.

Any particular event you’d like me to cast light on?

Heh. Yes, I suppose I am your best source for that little bit of unpleasantness.

Well, so. A little after that thing with the sphinx, Master Halidom sent us off to the Cane Brakes of Crapulence to fetch the Magic Lantern of Lackwit or some such damned thing. It was just a job, like most that we did.

No, that wasn’t embroidery, that was me saying in my usual colorful fashion that I don’t care to bother remembering irrelevant details.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter because we never got there. We went to bed at a snug traveler’s inn out in the woods—Palantir, Hralf, Katia, and I—and we woke up in cells in a bandit camp.

I’ve got to hand it to them, it was slickly done. We had no warning at all. The innkeeper and his wife must have been in on it, but they gave no sign: no odd glances, no nervous sweat on the brow. They fed us an adequate meal, along with a bit of ale that was better than average for a backwoods inn, and wished us a warm and restful night. I’d have been willing to stay there again, is what I’m saying.

It was probably something in the food, though I might have smelled something odd as I was drifting off to sleep…but you expect odd smells in a place like that.

Next thing you know, I’m waking up in a cage with a pounding headache.

What was the bandit camp like?

Heh. I bet you’re picturing a ring of cutthroats sitting warm and cozy around a campfire, swapping lies and quaffing ale, while we shiver in cages tucked in among the trees. It wasn’t like that at all, or not much.
To begin with, we were indoors. I’m not sure what the building had originally been used for; some nobleman’s hunting lodge, maybe, though it might have been an abandoned inn. There was no furniture to speak of, and it all looked in pretty poor shape, but somebody had stuffed the holes in the walls and windows with rags so that at least the big main room had been made snug against the winter chill. On one wall there was a hearth with a roaring fire, and across from the fire were our cells, and in between were the cutthroats, who were more or less as you’d expect: unshaven, unclean, and uncouth. And, yes, quaffing.

The cells? There were four of them, all in a row along the wall opposite the fire. They were about four feet by five, maybe, and took up the whole wall, with iron bars along the front and between the individual cells. I was on one end, with a solid wall on one side and Palantir on the other. Katia was in the cell just beyond him, and Hralf on the far end.

I was the last to wake up; comes of being normally sized, you know?

Hralf was sitting at the back of his cell, glaring at the bandits and exposing the claws on his right hand one after the other, over and over.
Katia was sitting in the corner of her cell closest to him; she had her nose in the air and was pointedly ignoring the assembled bandits. She looked thoroughly disgusted—not, I expected, with the bandits, but with having been captured so easily. Getting caught is bad craftsmanship, and she prides herself on her work.

Palantir was standing at the bars and speaking with the bandit chief. I got up, staggering a bit, and went and leaned on the bars at the front of my cell so I could see better.

The bandit chief was a big barrel-chested man. He was cleaner than the others, and wore a worn blue coat with brass buttons and the kind of embroidery I’ve promised not to indulge in, a snowy white cravat, and tall boots that would have reflected the firelight if they’d been polished. His beard was long and braided, and his hair was in ringlets.

Typical. I shook my head.

Palantir was saying, “Usually folks wait until we’re coming home with the goods to pull this sort of trick.”

“Ah,” said the chief, in just about the plummiest voice I’ve ever heard. “But we are not interested in the ‘goods’, as you call them—the Amulet of Korphas the Wanderer, I believe? A wondrous artifact, to be sure, and of great personal value to a collector such as His Eminence, but a thing of no particular worth to men such as us. No, you may seek the Amulet freely, for all that we are concerned…once you have given us satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction,” said Palantir, looking puzzled.

“Have we offended you in some way?” I asked. “If so, I am sure that Hralf would be glad to give you all the satisfaction you could possibly desire.”

Hralf snarled, and all of the claws on his right hand popped out at once. The nearest bandits winced, and Katia nodded firmly.

“No, no,” said the chief. “Dear me, no, nothing of that sort at all, no. You have given us no insult, and for our part we bear you no ill will. But you are one of Bounty Snare’s top teams, yes? We—my men and I,” he said, waving his hand at the assembled bandits, which led to a flurry of shouts and cheers, “We believe that the Snare will pay a pretty penny to have you back unscathed.” He regarded us fondly. “I do, I truly do, hope that they will. For our sakes, you know, as well as your own.

“In the meantime, just behave yourselves and we shall endeavor to make your stay a comfortable one.”

I really don’t understand some people. All he needed to say was, “We’re holding you for ransom. Shut up and behave yourselves.” But when a man rises to the leadership of a band of ruffians—no great trick if you’re cunning and mean enough—nine times out of ten he decides that he has to play the fallen gentleman, from the fancy clothes to the faux-noble accent and speech patterns. It’s trite, is what it is, and yet I’ve seen it over and over.

I blame theater. These types happen upon a band of roving players, and take in a melodrama or two—as who wouldn’t, you know?—and suddenly they’ve got something they feel they need to live up to.

I sat back down and rubbed my aching temples while I considered our situation.

Our digs were not too bad. Warm, for once, and they’d provided blankets, so they were probably sincere about treating us well. And they were in earnest, for the cells had clearly been built just for the purpose of holding us. The wood into which the bars were set looked new. I did notice that the bars of my cell were closer together than Palantir’s, so that I couldn’t slip through. It was a bit hard to see, but it looked to me like the bars of Hralf’s cell were farther apart. That struck me as unwise, but I suppose the bandits were on a budget.

I had it better than my partners: the cells were all the same size, and one size did not fit all. Me, I had enough room to lie flat if I wanted to. Katia could manage it if she lay at a diagonal, but Palantir couldn’t manage it without curling up, and Hralf, at the far end, looked a wee bit cramped. He could sit, kneel, or crouch, but that was about it.

I leaned against the bars between my cell and Palantir’s. He sat down with his back to me, facing Katia.

“You doing okay?” I muttered.

“I’ve been in better situations,” he said. “Any ideas?”

“Not yet. I—”

But our chat was cut short.

“Now, now,” said the chief. He was seated on a cloth-swaddled box by the fire, just enough above his companions to set him apart. “Though it pains me to remove any of the few pleasures you have remaining to you, we can’t have you conspiring with each other, can we? So no talking.” He paused for a moment, as if considering, then continued, “Perhaps you might profitably engage in a course of meditation instead.”

Hralf snorted, then declaimed:

Hooks are for hanging.
Minds suspended roam freely.
Bad men hang longer.

That drew a confused silence from the bandits, followed by a roar; they’d understood the last line well enough. The chief looked nonplussed.

“Quite,” he said after a few moments. “But that will be enough of that.”

I sat down in the corner to think. And my mind roamed pretty freely, unsuspended though I was, but to little avail. I wished I could talk things over with Palantir and Katia. I’m told that long time prisoners will often devise a tapping code to pass messages one to another, but I’d never had need of such a thing, and the chief would catch on anyway.
I was still trying to figure out how we could get out of this without costing the Snare a pile of gold when I heard a loud rumbling from Hralf’s cell.

Hralf snores. Have I mentioned that Hralf snores?

He does. Oh, he does, and it’s just about the loudest thing ever. It’s spoiled many a journey.

But even his snores can’t compare to the noise he makes when his stomach starts rumbling, and judging by the light it was well after breakfast time.

The bandit chief had gone out by then, but one of his men spoke right up.

“That’s enough of that, you!” He looked marginally cleaner than the others, though no less villainous, and wore a linen shirt with frilly cuffs; I judged that he was the chief’s lieutenant.

Hralf snarled back at him, and then his gut thundered like the clash of armies on the Plains of Iturea.

The lieutenant stood up and took a brand from the fire.

“You’ll stop that, or I’ll stop it for you!”

“He can’t help it,” I called out. “He’s hungry. So are the rest of us, if it comes to that.”

The bandit sneered at me. “Hungry, are we? Well, you can just wait. Food’s not ready.”

The rumbling continued on, unabated, like a persistent thunderstorm on the horizon, or the crash of the sea on a rocky coast. Only, you know, in the room with us.

Once in a while there was a lower, deeper rumble that made your teeth vibrate. When that happened, Hralf would put a hand on his stomach and grimace.

Most of the bandits gave up even trying to talk, shooting irritated looks at Hralf. The four playing cards in the corner had to shout their bets at each other. The lieutenant looked more and more sour, and at last he took an unkempt fellow next to him by the arm and jerked his head at the door. The fellow nodded and went out, coming back with a tray of bowls of what smelled like a good hearty vegetable stew.

He came to me first and handed me the bowl through the bars.

“Thanks,” I said. “But he can’t eat that, you know.”

The man, who’d been about to hand the next bowl to Palantir, stopped short.

“Oh, not him,” I said. “He’s okay. I mean the big guy, down at the end. He can’t eat that.”

Hralf looked at me sharply, his black mane standing up in confusion. Fortunately I had the bandits’ attention, so they didn’t notice.

“He’ll eat it or go hungry,” said the lieutenant, as Palantir accepted his bowl.

“Haven’t you ever had a cat?” I said, disgust dripping from my words like spoiled molasses. Possibly I overdid it, but you have to consider your audience. “They have to have meat, fresh every day, or they starve. He’s a cat, and a big one. Are you trying to kill him?”

The lieutenant looked at Hralf, who gave a revolted sniff at the remaining bowls of stew, mane rising even higher, and spoke:

Plants from the pastures
Oxen eat them with gusto
Not food but food’s food

Then he made a rude gesture at me behind his back, where the bandits couldn’t see. Because of course I was lying, and he truly was very hungry.

Katia shot me a sharp look, but she backed me up by backing away from the bars. “I, too,” she said. “I cannot eat these slops of vegetables, me.”

“See?” I said. “This will do for Palantir and I, but they need meat, and lots of it. We’re in the woods; you’d better go and kill a wild pig or something.”

The lieutenant glared at me. He waved at the man with the tray to take it away, then stormed out himself.

I smiled to Hralf apologetically; then Palantir and I ate our stew.

What? We were hungry, too, you know.

What was I trying to accomplish?

At that point I was just messing with them. I couldn’t see any way out of the cells short of paying the ransom, not with them watching us so closely; and the Snare would want us back in good shape, so we were safe enough. But being drugged and taken captive irritates me, and my headache had only gotten worse. It seemed only just to share my pain with the bandits.

We sat there like that for an hour or so; then the chief came back in, followed by a man carrying a platter with a nice portion of steaming roasted meat.

“I gather there has been some difficulty with the catering,” he said. “As you are in need, I offer you my own meal. Let it not be said that we are lacking in hospitality.” He snapped his fingers, and the man with the platter approached Hralf’s cell rather gingerly and set it down on the outside of the bars.

Hralf nodded at him and tore the meat into two unequal pieces with his claws, leading to another round of winces and gulps. He passed the smaller fragment to Katia, keeping the larger fragment for himself. He ate his greedily; she ate hers daintily; but either way the meat was all gone in a matter of moments.

Blessed silence descended. I watched with glee as everyone took a deep breath and began to relax.

Hralf is eight feet tall; a generous portion for the chief of a backwoods band of thieves is no more than a snack for him. Just as the day’s last light was fading through the few unchinked cracks in the walls there came a crack and a roar like an avalanche from Hralf’s cell.

The bandits all turned to look at him in horror. He looked away, and shrugged. Katia rolled her eyes and shook her head. It was clear that none of us were going to get any sleep, and we didn’t.

The bandit chief decamped to a small room on the wall to my right, closing the door firmly, and I saw several of the bandits cast longing looks at the door to the outside; but there was several feet of snow out there, and not much shelter. In the end they all elected to remain by the fire.

Much good it did them.

The chief emerged from his room the next morning neatly dressed and coiffed but looking distinctly hungover, and detailed three men to go out hunting. Ominous rumbles from Hralf’s cell followed them on their way.

Finding game in the woods in winter is no joke, so we weren’t surprised when it took them the better part of the day to return. One came in, and spoke quietly with the chief, who gave him a few terse angry words in response; and after another hour they all came back in, bearing a platter weighted down with a mass of red, steaming, bloody raw meat.

Both Hralf and Katia stared at the platter, noses wrinkling in distaste.

“But it is uncooked,” said Katia.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said. “What’s the matter with you guys? They might be cats, but they aren’t animals. They like their food cooked, just like anybody.”

The chief gave me an old-fashioned sort of look. “Very well,” he said, and snapped his fingers. Platter-guy turned to go. The chief followed, along with another avalanche of rumbles from Hralf’s belly.

They brought more stew to Palantir and I at that point, and glad we were to get it; and after a time brought back the platter with meat that, if still pink, was at least no longer raw.

Hralf offered the first fragment to Katia, who took a delicate bite and then spit it out.

“This meat,” she said, “what kind of animal is it from? It is tough as old rope, and tastes of bandit behinds!”

“Alas, it is the best we have to offer,” said the chief, with a bow. He was showing remarkable patience, I thought. “It will have to do.”

“But what is it?”

“In point of fact, it is what remains of our old mule. I fear we have hunted out our surroundings over the past week, and there is no game to be found.”

Hralf pointed a clawed finger at the chief and declaimed.

Choosy the veldt-lords
Flesh of the fleetest gazelles
Well cooked and juicy.

Then he turned his head away, spurning the meat…but not without making another rude gesture at me and Katia both.

The chief shrugged. “Perhaps you will find it more pleasing when you are hungrier.”

Hralf opened his mouth to snarl, then stopped, eyes wide, as his rumbles erupted ten-fold.

The chief rubbed his eyes with his hand, and bolted into his little sanctuary. I wondered how much drink he had in there, and whether he might be willing to share.

I woke in the middle of the night to a surprising tableau.

The lieutenant was standing, eyes wild and bloodshot, before Hralf’s cell. He held a large gobbet of mule meat before him, and shook it at Hralf.

“You’ll eat this and like it, you damned hairy lump! You’ll eat it now, before we all go mad!”

Hralf rumbled back, but turned up his nose. I’ll hand it to him—he thought I had a plan, and he was determined to see it through.

“So it’s like that, is it!” He dropped the meat by the bars, and going to the fire took a flaming brand by one end. Hralf snarled at him, but I saw to my distress that he wasn’t heading for Hralf’s cell.

He was heading for mine.

“Eat the meat,” he shouted, “or the little one gets it!” He waved the brand madly, sending sparks everywhere. I squeezed as far into the back corner as I could, and hoped that the chief held the key to the cell door.

Hralf looked at me, snorted, and turned and sat with his back to me.

A gasp rose from the assembled bandits, and from me, too.

“Hralf, damn it!” I shouted.

The lieutenant gave me a long look. “Nice friend you’ve got there, halfpint,” he said, and started down the row of cells.

“All right,” he said as he reached Katia’s cell. “You don’t care about him; but what about her?” And he made to stick the brand between the cell bars.

And this is where he made his nearly fatal mistake. The bars on Hralf’s cage were far enough apart for him to get his entire arm through, and Hralf has a very long reach.

The brand went flying, and so did the lieutenant. The air was cold but dry, and the worn wooden floor caught fire almost immediately, giving the bandits a busy few moments.

The ruckus drew the chief out of his hole, and once the fire was put out and he’d understood what was going on he gave the lieutenant a clout that knocked him onto the floor. Then he pointed at another fellow.
“Dump him outside,” he said. “The shirt’s yours.”

“Yes, boss,” said the new lieutenant, and started giving orders as the chief went back to his room.

Needless to say, between the smell of burned flooring and Hralf’s belly-music no one got any more sleep that night.

When dawn rose the gobbet of mule meat was still on the floor by Hralf’s cell; all but two of the bandits had gone out to try to sleep in the snow; the remaining two were staring daggers at Hralf; and Hralf and Katia were staring daggers at me.

The chief came out in due time, looking more hung-over and bleary than ever, and sat on his box by the fire. He’d have been looking daggers at us as well, I think, but he was too tired.

Bandits came and went, and after a few more hours of rumbling and sharp glances one came in with a note, which he handed to the chief.
The chief read the note without much interest, took a deep breath, and shook his head.

“Tell the boys to pack up,” he said to his new lieutenant. “We’re done here.” Then he approached the cells, though staying well out of Hralf’s reach.

“I must beg your pardon, but we shall be going now,” he said, addressing Palantir. “Your employer has declined to provide any form of ransom, beyond a general promise to send every team they’ve got in pursuit of us if we do not let you go in good health. Once I would have spurned such a decree, but today I find it to be a generous offer. Still, it doesn’t spend well.”

He shrugged. “I may say it pains me to break my word to our employer, but it seems we have no choice if we are to keep body and soul together. And in truth, I fear I should face a mutiny if I were to try to hold you for even one more day.”

He went out then, amid much joyous bustle from his crew; and after a short time returned and tossed Palantir a key. “Do not bother to rush,” he said. “We are leaving now, and we are taking your horses. You may find your other belongings back at the inn, which is three leagues to the south.”

And that was that. With the bandits gone, Hralf and Katia devoured the cold mule meat; and then we had a long weary slog back to the inn, where we met two of Master Halidom’s other teams who had come looking for us.

It’s a pity about the inn; it was such a pleasant, comfortable place before we were done with it.

Who paid the bandits to capture us?

You got me there. I’ve always suspected it was Copperbane trying to stir up trouble, but I’ve not seen any proof. You might ask Master Halidom.
Was Hralf terribly angry with me?

Heh. Not nearly as sore as Katia, who tore strips off me all the way to Clutterback City. Though I admit I did spend most nights hanging on a hook for a while, contemplating my sins.

And you know? Thinking about the bandit chief’s face that last morning…it was totally worth it.


Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

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