Monday, January 26, 2015

Recent Tales--A Mouse's Courage by Kathryn M.

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A Mouse’s Courage

“Look who’s come back again again,” said one of them in disgust.
“Oh dear! Oh gracious!  Oh Lumé and Hymlumé!”  The second of the two ducked down, looking across the crowded ballroom with wide brown eyes.
Anyone looking at the pair of them (not that anyone was; there were far more interesting people in the room to look at) would have seen one man, slightly over average height, a little too thin for his height and build, with the kind of face that always looks hungry; and one woman, short and plump-cheeked, with round eyes and a nervous way of grooming her whiskers, whether she had any at the moment or not.  Any mortal looking at them (not that there were any in the room to look) would have thought that something was rather odd about them; and quite right too, for this pair was not mortal at all.
“And—oh, fire and brimstone,” the hungry man grumbled.  “Not another of his stupid songs!  What can he possibly have to say to Lady G that he hasn’t said already?”
The nervous little woman had no interest in songs, stupid or otherwise.  “Oh dear oh dear,” she squeaked.  “I’d better go.  I really had.  You don’t think he’s seen me, do you?”
“Don’t be silly, Calliach.  As if he’d do anything to you in front of the Queen and everyone,” said the hungry one, twitching his nose disdainfully.  (Even when he was in man-shape, it was a rather long and pointy nose.)
“I don’t care, I don’t care.  He’ll come after me, I know he will!”  She scuttled around behind her companion, peering out around his stomach to keep an eye on the new arrival.  He was easy to spot, even across the great ballroom of Rudiobus: he had bright orange hair and a bright red coat; and he moved and spoke as if he knew the whole court was watching him, and liked it.
“Now this is the very sort of thing I’m talking about,” said the hungry one.  “Why should the likes of him be allowed at Rudiobus, when they do nothing but cause trouble for the likes of us?  He keeps going off—for summers and summers, sometimes!  Why shouldn’t he go off forever?  Or be made to go off?”
“Oh, don’t talk like that, Radzi,” Calliach begged.  “You know he makes the king laugh!  He’d never send him away!  But please, please, Radzi, help me over to the wainscoting before he—oh dear!  Where’s he gone?”  For the orange-haired Faerie was no longer singing to his lady.
“Not to worry,” Radzi told her, looking warily around.  “He’d never try anything here; still, let’s just walk casually toward—ULP!”
“Ah, Radzi,” the Faerie bard said breezily.  “How nice to see you!”  He favored the hungry man with a disturbing smile.  “How are all your brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts?”
Calliach trembled.  At her first glimpse of the Faerie cat, she ducked under Radzi’s tattered gray cloak, where she crouched, shaking like a small disturbed jelly.
“Oh, they’re fine, fine,” Radzi said, his voice cracking just a little.  He straightened his shoulders and looked down his nose at the orange-haired man.  “And how’s all your family?  Oh, I forgot—you don’t have one.  And how’s your sweet lady?  Oh, right, she’s not speaking to you.”
“Radzi, Radzi,” the cat-man said, shaking his head sadly.  “Your attempts at nastiness are as uninspired as ever.  So glad to see you haven’t changed, my dear fellow.”
“Don’t you dear fellow me, you—you cat you!”  Radzi bristled.
Eanrin smiled and looked smug.  “I shall take your compliment in the spirit in which it was uttered—and now, what’s this?  What a tragedy!  Look, Radzi, something horrible has happened to your tail!”
“What?” Radzi asked, glancing around.
“What an enormous tumory growth!  Big enough to be a legend in song and story—I would compose one, if I ever sang about such plebeian and disgusting things.” 
The cat-man crouched quickly down and pulled the cloak from Calliach’s head.  She crouched frozen, her terrified eyes staring directly into his mischievous ones. 
“Meow,” said he.
Calliach squeaked.  She spun and scrambled away as fast as she could, so blind with terror that she ran into two rabbits and a bluetit before she reached a friendly wall.  In mouse shape, she tumbled into her hole, paws skittering frantically. 
She didn’t stop until she had reached her own cozy nest, far from the reach of any horrid Faerie cat.

Far above the castle of Iubdan and Bebo, the moon was shining. Calliach had almost stopped shaking at last, when she heard a polite scratching outside her hole.  “Calliach!  Come out!”
“Radzi?  It that you?” she quavered.
“Who else would it be?  Come on!  I’ve got something to show you!”
“What is it?”
“Oh, for—just come out!”
Nose jiggling nervously, Calliach crept out, then sat up on her hind feet, grooming her whiskers with tiny paws.  “Where is it?”
“Don’t be such a mouse, Calliach!”  Radzi turned around in the tunnel with a roll and a writhe—it was a little too small for him—and twitched his long bare tail at her.  “Hurry up!”  Then he was off, oiling round the next corner like a snake.
“But I am a mouse,” Calliach called.  “Oh dear…”  She sat and groomed an instant more, thinking about it.  “Radzi will look after me,” she told herself, not really believing it; then scuttled after him.
It took her a long time to catch up.  Radzi’s people were all bigger than she was, and faster, and quicker at climbing.  She trailed him down behind the gilded wainscoting, then across an empty hall and down a drain, all without doing more than catching a glimpse of his long tail.  Following his smell would have to do—Radzi’s people all smelled a bit.  It was their diet, she supposed.
The copper drainpipe let them out into the gardens, a hundred feet from the palace.  When Radzi reached the end of it, he ran right out and darted under a bush; but Calliach stopped at the end of the pipe, peering up.  “Oh gracious!  What if there are owls out there?  Oh dear!  I wish I was brave like Radzi,” she whimpered.  “Oh dear!”
She twitched her nose, sniffing.  She could smell Radzi quite easily, where he was waiting under the bush for her.  But he was not the first rat to pass this way tonight; she could smell dozens of them, all Radzi’s brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins.  Whatever were they all doing out here?  And almost completely covered by the rat smell, she could smell—“The cat!  Radzi, come back!  I smell the cat!”
Radzi chuckled, under the bush.  “You bet you do!  Come on, mousey, it’s perfectly safe!”
“Safe.  Come on.”
She twitched her nose one last time, and went out. 
Radzi led her another long way under the bush, then along a high stone wall, until they came out of the flowery part of the garden into the wilder part, where the plants were allowed to grow more or less as they liked.  There was good cover all the way, but Calliach had to keep stopping—the smell of the cat was growing stronger, and the fear of getting closer to it made her heart pound.
Then they came to a little clearing.  It was full of Radzi’s family—all thin and hungry-looking in human form, with toothy grins on their two hundred faces.  In the corner of the clearing, with a little space around it, was a cage.
As soon as the rats saw Radzi, they began to cheer.  “Radzi!  Radzi!  Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!”
Radzi preened with delight, as he stepped forward, now in man-shape.  “Ladies and gentlerats!  This is a great night for all rat-kind!”
Calliach moved up onto two legs, nervously wriggling into the crowd.  With that horrible cat-smell in her nose, she didn’t want to be on the edge of the group, with nothing at her back but the darkness. 
“For at last we shall have our revenge!  At last, we have mastered our enemy!”  He struck a dramatic pose, pointing toward the cage.  “For we have captured… the cat!”
Calliach’s squeak of terror was lost in the rats’ cheer of triumph.  Could it really be true?  Yes—there in the cage, a red-haired man!  They had trapped the cat!  But what would they do with him now?
“Long have we suffered in silence, under his grins, and his insults, and the superior wavings of his tail!  He has chased us—and tormented us—but no longer!  We all know what he would do to any of us he caught alone, away from the protective sight of our queen—but no more!”
“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating just a bit?” asked the man in the cage.  He moved uneasily from one side of the closely-woven structure to the other; but his hair was still smooth, and his face wore a sardonic little grin.
“Exaggerating?” Radzi asked, with mock amazement.  “What do you think, ladies and gentlerats?  Am I exaggerating?”
“NO!  NO!  NO!” they roared back.  Calliach winced away from the noise.  Why were they being so loud?  They would bring the owls down on them!
“Are we going to put up with this any longer?”
“NO!  NO!  NO!”
“What shall we do with him?” Radzi cried, flinging his arms wide.
“Tear him to pieces!”
“Clip his claws!”
“Pull out his fur!”
“Banish him!  Banish him!  Banish him forever!”
“What good ideas,” Radzi smiled, his pointy teeth looking pointier than ever as he grinned.  In the cage, Eanrin swallowed hard, then sat down and began to groom himself with pretended unconcern.  “Now, our good queen is the only one with the power to banish a Faerie from this realm… and I’m sure none of us would wish it otherwise,” he said piously.
“No, no,” the other rats agreed, smiling slyly at one another.  Radzi had an idea, they could tell!
“But perhaps we can persuade this dear fellow to banish himself.  We all know what a fine dresser he is… how sleek his coat, how polished and sharp his claws.”
“Yes, yes!”
“If, though, he wasn’t so fine, how could he bear for anyone to see him?”  Radzi stopped, waggling his gray eyebrows.
“YES!  YES!  CLIP HIS CLAWS!  PULL OUT HIS FUR!”  The rats shrieked and laughed and danced.  Then, at a raised hand from Radzi, they became instantly silent and still.
“All together now,” he whispered.  Then his hand fell.
Calliach watched in horror as the rats rushed toward the cage.  Then, as horrible sounds filled the air, she turned away and buried herself in a pile of dead leaves, wrapping her tail tight around her little brown body.

It was some time later, and the clearing had grown quiet.  Calliach scrambled out of the leaves—checking the sky for owls—and stepped up onto two legs once more.
The rats had all gone off, laughing and dancing, playing wild music on the rat-pipes.  But the cage was still here.
She sniffed.  Yes—the cat was still here too!  She crouched to flee.
From the bottom of the cage came a tiny, tiny mew—like the mew of the smallest, saddest kitten that ever lived.
It was a mew so small it was almost small enough to be a mouse’s squeak.
Calliach froze, thinking hard.  If she hadn’t been woman-shaped, her ears would have been flaring wide.  Then she crept, very very slowly, toward the cage.
It was still night, but the moon was nearly full, and Calliach saw well in the dark.  The Faerie bard did not look well.  His clothes were tattered; and his hair—what was left of it—stood wildly on end.  He held his fingers curled close to his chest.  As she first came up, he was lying quite still; but then she saw him give the tiniest shiver.
“Oh dear,” she squeaked.
“Who’s there?” Eanrin squeaked back at her.  Then he coughed, sitting up straight.  “I mean, who’s there?”
She shuddered.  “It’s m-m-me,” she stuttered.  “C-Calliach.”
“Oh,” he said, relaxing a little.  “Mouse Calliach.”
Something about the way he said it made her feel indignant.  “Yes!” she said sharply.  “Mouse Calliach!  And what’s that to you, you horrid b-b-beast?”
He blinked.  As if not knowing what to say, he made a noise in his throat, then ran a trembling hand through his hair.
Calliach, suddenly realizing that she was nervously grooming her nonexistent whiskers, stopped. 
“Well, Mouse Calliach,” he said after a while.  “I don’t suppose I could persuade you to let me out of this cage?”
“Let you OUT?”  Calliach shuddered violently, wrapping her short arms tightly around herself.  “Oh dear!  NO!  Never!”
“… Oh,” said the cat-man.  “If that’s the way you feel about it.”  He licked the side of hand, absently, and rubbed it over his ear.  “It’s only…  Should Radzi and his family return—if I was still here.  Then…”
“Then what?” Calliach asked, curious in spite of herself.
“You heard what some of them wanted to do to me.”
“They p-pulled out most of your fur already,” Calliach reminded him.  She squinted her round eyes until she could see him as both cat and man at once.  “I suppose they could pull the rest out.”
Eanrin’s lip curled.  “What I meant, Mouse Calliach, was that they wanted to tear me to pieces.”
“Oh, they would never do that!  Queen Bebo wouldn’t like it.”  Calliach nibbled thoughtfully on the edge of her paw.  “Besides, Death doesn’t come here.”
“Yes, well, I’ve met the Black Dogs,” the cat-man said coldly.  “I haven’t the least intention of giving them any excuse to come after me.  So do let me out, Mouse Calliach.”
“But why ever not?” the orange-haired man asked in exasperation. 
“You’ll eat me!”
Eat you?  What a positively disgusting idea,” Eanrin snorted.  “You’re not clean enough to eat.”
“Well, you’re too dirty to eat me anyway!” Calliach squeaked indignantly.  It wasn’t the cleverest retort in the history of Faerie, but she still felt better for making it.
“It’s those rats, they’ve left their stink on me,” the cat said, with an embarrassed twitch of his whiskers.  “And this cage is so small!  I can’t imagine that anyone could wash properly in here.”  He widened his eyes imploringly.  “Do let me out.  I promise not to eat you.  Although why you think I would, I have no idea.”
Calliach, who had been creeping closer, jumped back at once.  “Because!  You tried!”
“What?  I tried to eat you?”  His face twisted with the effort of recognition.  “I can’t say I recall that.”
“You—you ch-chased me.  You chased me and chased me and I thought I was going to die!”   Calliach remembered it vividly.  She still had nightmares.
“Did I?”  Eanrin blinked some more.  “… Ah.  Mmm.  I don’t suppose you’d believe it was just a merry prank on my part?  I really had no interest in eating you.”
“A pr-  a pr-  a PRANK?  You call that a prank!”  Calliach snatched up a clod of earth and threw it at him.  He ducked, but couldn’t avoid the dirt that went everywhere when the clod hit the side of the cage.
“Meh—don’t do that,” he said, shaking a paw limply.  A small chunk of dirt fell to the ground.
“If I let you out, you’ll just chase me again!”
“What if I say I won’t?”
“As if a cat would keep a promise if he didn’t want to,” Calliach said in scorn. 
“Well,” the cat said uncomfortably.  He sat still for a moment, the end of his ragged tail twitching back and forth.  He seemed to make a decision.  “Mouse Calliach!  Whether you let me out or not, I promise never to chase you again!  With Hymlumé as witness!”  He bowed gracefully toward her.  It looked rather odd with him in cat-shape, but Calliach was too astonished to notice.  Calling on Hymlumé made his promise seem rather serious.
“But why would you do that?” she asked suspiciously.  “What if I don’t let you out, now?”
“Then I shall still keep my promise—though I will have a short time to keep it, before I am torn to pieces by Radzi and his company,” Eanrin intoned, as melodramatically as any great tragedian.
“But why?”
“Chasing you is beneath my dignity.  I’m a Knight of Farthestshore now; I can’t be having with that sort of kittenish behavior,” he explained gravely.
“A knight of what?”
“Farthestshore.”  He eyed her carefully.  “I serve… the Lumil Eliasul.”
Lumil Eliasul.  For a moment, the night seemed to shimmer, and the songs of the stars grow louder and more beautiful in Calliach’s ears.  Without her intending it in the least, a wide smile spread across her face.
“The… Lumil Eliasul?  You serve him?”
He twitched his tail.  “Yes.  You needn’t sound so surprised.  Hasn’t King Iubdan always been happy with my service?”
Calliach looked at him for a long moment, then stepped forward.  She found the three latches of the cage, and pulled them back, one by one.  As the door opened, Eanrin bounded out, winding through her legs with a purr.  Calliach rubbed her cheek nervously, but managed not to run away.  Still, she was glad when the cat moved off toward the edge of the clearing.
Her heart skipped a beat when he paused under a rosebush and looked back.  “What made you do it?” he asked curiously.
Calliach wiggled uncomfortably.  “I didn’t do it for you.
He stared at her with his frightening bright eyes.  “I’ll keep my promise, Mouse Calliach.  You see if I don’t.”
By the time the sun come up over the realm of Rudiobus, Eanrin had crossed into the Wood Between, with nobody seeing him in his ragged state.
Well, almost nobody.
“Rise and shine, Radzi!” someone cried.
Radzi woke up with a jerk, the smell of cat in his long nose.  He bared his teeth, chittering for the others to wake up—for he was sleeping all in a heap with his twelve brothers.  Above the nest, he could see that a board had been taken out of the wall, and an orange-furred cat peering in.  “Quick!  Quick!” he cried.
But they could not be quick.  The tails of all twelve rats had been knotted firmly together.
As they struggled and yammered and growled, Eanrin reached in with a great soft paw and patted Radzi gently on the head.  “Now I could hurt you, Radzi… but I won’t.  It wouldn’t be sporting.  I suggest you remember this, in case you get any bright ideas in future.”  He pulled back his paw, and watched the rats falling about for a moment more, a pleased expression on his furry countenance.  Then he bounded away, and didn’t stop until he was safe in the Wood Between.
He found a Path quickly, and set off, his tail arched high above his back.  “I’ll just go round the Gates.  Yes, that’s the thing to do.  Can’t let the old girl see me like this.”  He shuddered at the thought.  “I’ll just hunt around until my fur’s grown back.  Dreadful rats!  They haven’t the least notion of whom they’ve just offended.  Imagine them attacking me, a Knight of Farthestshore!”  He paused to look down his nose.  Then, still muttering to himself, he padded on down the Path, leaving Rudiobus’ golden summer far behind.
Safe in her nest, Calliach nibbled a piece of old bread until it was entirely gone.  She dreaded to think what Radzi would say when he found out that she had let the cat go free!  But, she consoled herself, even in his worst moods a rat couldn’t be as scary as a cat.  And the cat, she thought—with a happy twiddle of her whiskers—wasn’t so scary anymore.


Becky said...

Clever and adorable! Excellent job, Kathryn!

Jill Stengl said...

Love this story! Great work, Kathryn. :-)

ghost ryter said...

Calliach is dear. :) I love this, and can easily see Eanrin doing something like it. That cat.