Monday, June 28, 2010

Cats and Riddles

While in the Railway Regions last year, I had my first encounter with a cathomar. Don't worry - I'm still quite alive and in possession of all my limbs. In fact, as near-death experiences go, it was surprisingly entertaining.

Cathomars are some of the only dangerous animals still common in the Railway Regions. (There is the occasional carnivorous sheep, but they're relatively rare, and most are perfectly safe if they're trained correctly.) Wolves avoid anything that looks civilized, as intelligent creatures like humans are too unpredictable for comfort. The same goes for bears and dreadgoats. Most of the other large carnivores - the intelligent ones, like saberclaws and serrated raptors - have become somewhat civilized themselves; most of them live in towns these days. Once in a while, even the most dedicated predators like to get their meat by paying the butcher for it. The solitary ones, who still prefer to stay out in the forests and hunt, see travelers as sources of conversation rather than food. I've met several raptors who have trampled out of the forest, all muscles and fangs and ripping talons, only to lick the blood off of their claws and politely challenge me to a game of chess. (They're usually quite good at it.)

Even dragons have become relatively peaceful.* Their pillaging days are long gone. They've found that it's easier - if slightly less fun - to pay farmers to raise prey for them.** Half the cows and sheep in the Railway Regions belong to dragons. They acquire their gold (or other expensive collections) from estates of well-managed farms, or put it in banks and buy more gold with the interest. Business, it seems, is more profitable than piracy. Their only feuds are private ones with other dragons.

Cathomars are different. They have no compunctions about eating anything or anyone. Any animal that is not a Cathomar is food.*** The ones that talk are simply more fun.

This one was a tom - sleek, enormous, and fairly old, judging by the size of his fangs. They were nearly as long as my arms. The Train had been taking its time in coming, and I had decided - perhaps foolishly - to try the footpaths that pass for roads in the Railway Regions instead. Now I know why people generally avoid them. The cathomar glided silently out of the woods as I was walking and sat his sand-colored sleekness down neatly in front of me. He looked about twice my height, sitting down, and was slightly wider than the path I was on.

A fly buzzed near his shoulder. Without looking at it, without twitching a single unnecessary muscle, he flicked his tail up and swatted it into the trees.

"Good morning," he purred. "You're not as well-fed as I'd like, but you look educated. What will it be?"

Cathomars are quite polite when they catch intelligent prey. Creatures that can talk are much more entertaining than ones that can't. Instead of killing them immediately, the cathomars will challenge them to a contest of the prey's choice: speed, strength, or riddle. (Technically, this challenge applies even to non-speaking prey; anything that runs away has obviously chosen the contest of speed, and anything a cathomar catches has obviously lost.) If you lose, the cathomar will eat you. If you win, it will leave you alone, forever. Cathomars have excellent memories for faces and always keep their word. If you beat one, you will never need to worry about that cathomar again - only all the other ones.

Most people avoid the first two contests, as the cathomars always win. Only a giant or an exceptionally muscular samoval has much hope at winning a contest of strength, and if you could win a race, the cathomar probably wouldn't have caught up and challenged you in the first place. Nearly everyone chooses the riddles.

Fortunately, I spent several weeks on my first trip to the Railway Regions researching obscure riddles - and coming up with a few of my own - just in case I ever ran into a cathomar. (That was one thing that Plack probably needn't have worried about.) I followed tradition and chose the contest of riddles. In fact, cathomars are no better than anyone else at riddles (thank goodness); they just enjoy them. They could live entirely on non-speaking animals and never go hungry. Intelligent prey is just more fun. Creatures that don't talk are good to eat, but creatures that do talk are good to eat and possibly entertaining as well.

Numerous people have called cathomars psychopaths. This is not entirely correct. They're not insane; they're merely wild. The fact that they can talk doesn't change that. Consciences are only normal for civilized creatures, and cathomars - for all their cleverness and elegant manners - are anything but civilized.

I would love to tell you the riddles we asked each other, but I'd rather not spread them (and their answers) any further than I can help. The cathomar used a variation on the old egg riddle, easily guessed, but that's all I'll give away. You never know when you might need a riddle no one's heard before. Suffice it to say that I won the contest. When the Cathomar finally gave up, lashing his tail and rumbling, I told him the answer to my last riddle. He stopped and stared at me for a moment; then he threw back his head and roared. I thought he was angry at first, but eventually realized he was laughing.

"Very good, meatling," he eventually said, still sneezing with subsiding laughter. "Very good indeed. You have won the game and your life. Go run off and do whatever it is you herbivores do." I happen to be an omnivore, but I thought it unwise to correct him.

"And come back to visit me!" he roared as I walked away, trying very hard not to run. "We'll see if I beat you next time!"

Perhaps I will. It's always a delight to see a game played well. If the stakes are low enough, it doesn't matter whether it's played well by you or your opponent. Losing to a worthy adversary can be as satisfying as winning. It's rare to find anyone who understands that. That was not the case in this game, of course, as I had a rather personal interest in winning, but that couldn't be helped.

Perhaps next time.

* They are not tame. If you call them tame, quite a lot of them are still likely to eat you. "Relatively peaceful" doesn't mean you can insult a dragon and expect to live.

** They pay with Train tickets, of course, not actual coins. Few dragons will willingly part with anything metal.

*** Except llamas.

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