CIGAM COUNTRY: A Cat Land Chronicle

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CIGAM COUNTRY:   A Cat Land Chronical
By Karin Weiss
Current revision:  February 19, 2006

Catrina thought about the baby. How many years had gone by since she carried the newborn infant girl through the portal to be raised by the human tribe? She rocked meditatively, feeling melancholy, as memories of that difficult time surfaced. Sitting now in her favorite rocker, (wicker, and virtually impervious to the ravages of fourteen house cats who shared her home,) she regretted her long-neglected contact with the outer world.

It has been eight or nine years, she mused. The child would be about the right age now to begin her apprenticeship. Catrina realized she had grown old. It seemed urgent that she begin training her successor in order to leave Cigam Country safe and at peace when she finally died.

Casting a glance around her spacious cabin, Catrina spied two of the cats nestled together on the corner divan. “Sabrina,” she said, speaking softly so as not to disturb other napping felines arranged variously about the furniture and rafters, “I need your advice.”

A pair of intense amber eyes winked open and a luxurious flame-and-black-furred shape gracefully uncurled itself from among the pile of pillows on the divan. Catrina watched the tortoiseshell female glide down to the oriental rug, where she stretched her limbs and licked herself with such concentrated leisure that Catrina grew impatient.

“I have rather urgent matters to discuss with you, Sabrina,” Catrina said, “so please hurry up with your grooming.” The cat eyed her indignantly, but flounced across the room to sit at Catrina’s feet by the fireplace.

“What’s so pressing on your mind now?” asked the cat of the old woman.

“It’s about the child…the baby girl we took to live with my cousin in the village. I think she needs to come back to us now, but I don’t know how to reach her without stirring up trouble between Cigam Country and the outer world.” She reached down and stroked Sabrina’s glossy long fur. “Have you any suggestions?”

The cat purred at the woman’s gentle touch while she considered the question. “If she’s like any normal little girl, she might be enticed to follow a kitten. We could send Teddikins down to the village to find her.”

Catrina glanced at the kitten, still sound asleep on the divan pillows. He was not so small a kitten anymore…old enough to be out on his own and rumored to be quite a little daredevil in the woods. “Don’t you worry about him on the loose at his age?” she asked the kitten’s mother.

Sabrina chuckled a deep-throated gurgle. “He’s been an intrepid explorer from the day he opened his eyes. I have little fear for him. He’s been training with his dad, Jeremiah, for the past several months and he knows how to get around without raising alarms among the other woodland inhabitants.” She put her whiskers forward in a proud cat-mother smile.

“Well, that sounds like a simple enough plan. At least, Teddikins might be able to make contact with the girl and let us know how she fares.” Catrina thought a moment and nodded with increased enthusiasm. “In time, they could become close enough friends that the girl would dare follow him here.”

“Meanwhile, we can prepare Rex and the others to accept the new human into our land,” said Sabrina, casting a sly glance at Catrina.

Sabrina’s words reminded Catrina of the real dangers of their plan. The citizens of Cigam Country were neither accustomed nor appreciative of humans encroaching on their land. She, herself, was one of the few exceptions, having lived there all her life. Of course, being from ancient elf-lineage made her something more than an ordinary human anyway. Her heritage bore the line of sacred priestesses to the ancient temple of Bastet that was the center of their magic land. They were sworn to protect the magic country when it was formed more than a century ago. Now Catrina found herself, as an aging crone, the last of that sacred line, and alone among the animals and faery folk of a hidden enchanted land. It was not a lonely life, but nevertheless it entailed some heavy duties that restricted her freedom. The sanctity of the peaceful mystical mountain world depended on her to maintain the charms and spells that kept it hidden from the human world. This burden was becoming harder for her to carry on her own, even though she had the help of all the animals…especially Rex.

Yes, she reminded herself with a wry grin, there is Rex too, and he is a large part of my dilemma. How will he react to the news that our baby girl is still alive?

Catrina shook herself from her reverie and answered her cat companion. “You know that won’t be an easy task. Rex is adamant about keeping humans out of here. He believes they bring only mischief – he thinks they contaminate the magic with their misguided notions of good and evil.”

“And he is right about that,” countered Sabrina. “We will all feel uncomfortable if you succeed in bringing that human child into the magic country. How can we be sure she isn’t already contaminated by those wicked notions herself? How can we be sure she would be a loyal apprentice to you and keep our secrets? What if she believes, as the human folk teach, that fairies and elves aren’t real and that animals are meant to be hunted and killed for their pelts and meat…or kept as pet-slaves for their service and entertainment?”

Catrina watched the cat’s fur begin to rise and knew her friend was becoming agitated. “You are right, dear Sabrina,” she said, “but we won’t know unless we test her. And I will need an apprentice before many more years pass. Although I can live much longer than an ordinary human, I do not go on having multiple lives as you and the other mage-cats do. Even Rex will not live much more than another century, for he used up about half a dozen of his nine lives during the wars to save our sacred land.”

****

Their conversation was interrupted by an insistent scratching at the kitchen door. Sabrina leapt to her feet. “That might be Rex now,” she said, sounding apprehensive.

“Not likely him,” replied Catrina as she pulled herself up from the chair and bent to retrieve her cane where it had just fallen. “He hardly needs to claw his way in, and he never uses the back door.” She limped shakily to the kitchen, leaning on her cane, and grumbled, “I’ve got to do some healing spells on myself soon, or I won’t be able to teach an apprentice anything.”

She opened the door to a scruffy-looking black cat with huge golden eyes. “Hunter! What brings you into Cigam Country?” Catrina noted how the outlander cat’s coat was matted and patches of bald spots revealed his emaciated frame. Apparently the hunting hadn’t been good for him lately. She did not invite him in, knowing his presence would disturb her in-house felines, but she stepped out onto the stoop to visit with him.

“I know you-all don’t eat meat hereabouts,” said the visitor cat, with a guarded glance behind Catrina into the kitchen, “but could you maybe spare a bit of your fish-scumble or egg-bake?” He heaved a resigned sigh and looked down at the ground. “I’m a bit drained from pulling myself through your portal barriers.”

“Of course, Hunter,” Catrina replied, “You just wait here while I get something.” She turned back to the kitchen where Sabrina and Teddikins, along with several other cats, peeked around corners observing the interchange with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. “Shoo away kids! You know old Hunter doesn’t mean us any harm. I’m just going to give him a bit of milk and some of your left over fish.” She filled a couple of bowls and carried them, balanced in one hand, back to the outlander cat. She set the bowls on the ground and watched him scarf it down in a few bites and swallows.

“Now, tell me, what causes you to make this exhausting foray into our hidden country?”

The cat sat on his haunches and began licking his paws, washing his whiskers. Specks of milk on his midnight face sparkled like bits of star-dust when he finally looked up at Catrina. “Not sure this is anything important,” he said, glancing sidelong over his shoulder, “but some humans are wandering along the other side of river and seem to be looking for a way to cross over here. Best I could make out from listening to them is they are looking for a kid who’s got itself lost.” His pink tongue stretched out comically to wipe a star-speck off his nose. “They carry guns, though, so they must be hunting too.”

“Did you see the child who is lost, Hunter?” asked Catrina.

“No. But it could be the one who always talks to me when I go into the village for scraps at the butcher’s garbage cans.” He glanced over his shoulder again.

“What are you watching for?” Catrina asked him, guessing that he might have been followed into the portal.

“A squirrel I was chasing just before I saw the people…it was pretty angry at me for stealing some of its corn…I think it might have come in…I had a bit of trouble closing the portal just right.” He shrugged. “No big deal. The squirrel and I are old enemies.”

“But you may have left the portal ajar?” Catrina felt perturbed at the cat now. If he was careless with the portal it could mean that humans might be able to break through.

That hadn’t happened for some time…but, when it did, it always brought serious disruption to the peace and safety of Cigam Country. She would have to get a warning to Rex about this right away, for tonight all inhabitants of the hidden-world would be celebrating Midsummer festivities and, therefore, more than usually vulnerable to unexpected intrusions from the outer-world.

****
Rex hunched on the ledge of a broken stone wall and watched Hooter from the corner of his eye.

“Full moon will be coming up. Good night for feast and frolic,” huffed the big owl from his perch in the great oak that overhung the abandoned temple’s courtyard.

Just then Jeremiah, first lieutenant of the cat-guard, emerged from under the temple’s cracked portico and stopped to shake off dust and cobwebs from his golden stripped coat. “Not such a good night for the magic folk,” growled the big orange tabby. Rex and Jeremiah eyed each other meaningfully for a few moments. Then they each glanced down, ears pulled forward in the cat-signal of mutual respect.

“What news from within the cottage, then?” asked Rex.

“Catrina had a visit from Hunter. Humans may be scouring the woods today for a child who wandered away from their village.” Jeremiah stopped talking to lick at his coat. Then he continued, “Catrina says to tell you the portal may have been weakened when Hunter came through so we have to go check on it soon before festivities start.”

Rex looked up at the owl. “Have you sighted these people, Hooter?”

“No. But the ravens tell me they hear Vurm soundings in the mid-world canyon. That could mean even worse danger than humans.” Hooter swiveled his head ninety degrees left, then right. Suddenly he spread his wings and soared silently into the night.

Rex leapt in one graceful bound from the courtyard wall to the temple’s tower parapet. He settled into its crenellated shadows and peered down the cliff on which the ancient ruin nested to the river winding through the valley below. Rex sniffed the wild mixture of scents in the air and put back his ears. “Phut!.” he spat a curse. We’ve got double trouble, and on the most sacred day of the year. He reflected briefly on the peace that had existed between all the animals for so long, and his own responsibility in making that peace possible.

He adjusted his position and turned his gaze to the bramble-grown woods behind the temple where candlelight glinted in the windows of Catrina’s tiny log-walled cottage. Letting his thoughts gather for a moment, he reflected on his unusual relationship with the woman who worked with him to keep the enchanted land safe from outland intrusions. When he was the prince of this war-torn country before its collapse in the revolution, her kin had been magical healers at the temple to the cat-goddess, Bast. When his father, the king, was killed, they had given the wounded prince, Rex, refuge and saved his life. But in the process of his recovery from the first war wounds, he underwent an excruciating transformation from human into cat. Since then he had retained an ability to return to human form for short periods when needed, but it always left him feeling mentally disoriented, and he found he much preferred living in his cat-form.

He slipped down the side of the tower through vines of overgrown ivy and joined Jeremiah on the temple portico. “We’d better organize a scouting before tonight’s Midsummer festivals get underway.”

“The humans probably aren’t likely to break through our portal barriers, but those Vurm devils could raid our nursery from underground while our females are making their annual homage to the Goddess,” said Jeremiah. “Maybe we should check in with the under-world before we set out on our own?”

Rex considered this a moment before replying. He knew the temple snakes had banished the rogue batch of reptiles from the magic lands years ago, but he doubted that they kept track of their slitherings nowadays. The banished reptiles had avoided the forbidden territory and were known to prey on outlander cats and small animals. Rex knew some humans had recently begun hunting the Vurms, so that may be why they had suddenly risked coming so close to Cigam Country again.

“Yes, much as I hate being down there,” he said, “you are right. We’d better check in with the snakes.” He shivered, his silver-and-gold-tipped long fur coat rippling across his back. Then he shook himself, held his bushy tail high behind him, and directed Jeremiah to take the lead into the tunnels.

Jeremiah turned back into the temple interior and headed for the far corner, Rex followed close on his tail. Sunlight pierced through gaps in the ancient tile roof. Smells of decayed wood and dusty granite mingled with those of small rodents and wild catnip. A warm summer breeze whispered between cracked columns of the portico as the two tomcats went single file through a broken grate in the floor and down a narrow tile shaft into a maze of catacombs underground.

Here they stopped at a convergence of several tunneled walkways and waited. They could sense others present, although none could yet be seen in the indigo dark cavern. Gradually their cat vision accommodated a weak beam from the shaft and they could see the eyes that glinted from all directions.

Jeremiah and Prince Rexamillion hissed softly once, in unison. Theirs were answered by a sibilant shushing chorus of snakes that slithered into the cavern from all directions. Surrounded by this venerable reptilian clutch – ancestors of those snakes once tamed by temple priestesses to prophesy and give warnings – the two cats held themselves calm and still. They waited for the Elder to begin converse.

“What brings the cat-guard to the under-world?” The huge old snake’s voice sounded like the rumbling of a volcanic eruption and shook the ground on which the two cats sat.

Rex struggled to keep himself from automatically changing into human form – his normal response to any direct threat to his cat-form. He knew this ages-old snake meant them no harm, but the ancient enemy instincts still hovered between the cats and snakes. He glanced at Jeremiah, who appeared totally unruffled by the snake-stench and sound. Rex took a deep breath and calmed himself.

“We have news of impending danger to Cigam Country coming from two separate fronts on this sacred day of the Midsummer festivities,” said Rex. “We would be greatly appreciative of your wise sight to help us direct our defenses most effectively.” He cleared his throat and swallowed. Sometimes the snakes could be maddeningly indifferent to the concerns of the upper-world, even though they had fought alongside the cats and others to save the magic places during the wars a hundred years ago. Since then, both groups had scrupulously maintained the truce demanded by the warning prophecy which said if any snake or cat threatened to harm even one of the other’s young, the entire magic kingdom would be destroyed and return to “survival of the meanest” as it exists everywhere else on earth. Rex hoped the old snake would sympathize with his concern.

“Name the dangers and their terms,” commanded the Elder snake.

“Vurms, number one,” said Rex. “They have been heard rumbling in the canyon this very evening and could bring down the curse that lies between our two species.”

The Elder sat coiled and silent, his forked tongue darting back and forth in a way that made Rex want to move aside. But he stood his ground and waited. At last the snake hissed, “SSShtupid Vurms. We don’t fear them.”

“We know that, and we trust in your ability to keep the Vurms away from our babies,” replied Rex in his most polite manner. “But the other threat comes from humans, and we need all our troops guarding the portals tonight in case some should break the barriers. With the festivals in progress, our citizens will be more than usually vulnerable to human intrusion.” He swallowed again, unsure whether the snake could see the danger here.

He plunged on to explain further. “Although the humans don’t mean to threaten our world, their presence causes contamination that confuses the magic folk and animals. The few times humans have trespassed in our world, they have managed to leave considerable destruction in their wake without meaning to. They destroy fairy villages simply by walking among them. They set fires with ashes from their smoking pipes and cause floods with their drinking jugs. It can take months for the magic strands to be re-woven and repaired. But it can get worse should one of the humans actually perceive the magic itself, for then we are compelled to put a spell on that individual and they die of the enchantment. We can remove the corpse, but the pall of its spirit creates another disturbance that is nearly impossible to dispel.” He gulped, “We need your assurance that you will guard the tunnels from Vurms tonight so we can tend to the human threat.”

Rex realized he had been rambling and stopped talking. The Elder snake simply sat and stared at him, flicking its tongue. Rex felt let down. The snakes would not be much help after all.

Then the Elder spoke. Stretching its neck high into the shadows of the cave, it intoned, “A new priestess will bring both rescue and renewed danger to Cigam Country. There will be dispute among you before healing is restored.” And with that, the snake unwound itself and disappeared into the catacombs from which it had come, the others following in its path.

Rex and Jeremiah looked at each other and shrugged. They turned and padded despondently back up the shaft to the temple above. “What was that about?” asked Jeremiah when they were seated out on the portico again.

“Who knows?” replied Rex. “A new priestess?” He shook his head. “I’ll have to tell Catrina about that one. She should get a laugh out of it…we haven’t got any new priestesses sitting about waiting that I know of!” He grunted.

“Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us tonight anyway,” said Jeremiah. “Best we call the rest of the guard together and set stakes at each of the portals. You and I can take the fox-hounds and ravens to the river canyon. Perhaps we can corner the Vurms there before they have a chance to cause any mischief. I would guess the under-world snakes will keep watch and turn them away from the tunnels even if old forked-tongue didn’t exactly say so.”

Rex agreed. He knew the snakes would be loyal to the cause if need arose.

****

Felicity woke up feeling tired, as if she had been running in her sleep. That was rather curious, as she was quite certain she’d slept through the night. She looked around her room in the back of the old mill house where she lived with the local blacksmith and Old Maud. Nothing appeared out of place…except the window near her bed was slightly ajar, and a bit of brindled fur clung to the latch. She put one hand to her head and found the answer to her riddle.

Small pointed bumps protruded along each temple just above her ears. The cat ears were shrinking again now, but she must have been out hunting again. What in the world was wrong with her? She didn’t dare tell anyone that she sometimes felt like she was a cat…and that in her sleep she sometimes went on the prowl. She thought Old Maud might suspect something though, because on certain nights she actually left the back door unlocked and set a bowl of cream down outside the door, even though Mistic, their pet cat, was sound asleep, safe indoors.

And that was another odd thing. Sometimes Felicity thought she could understand what Mistic was saying when he meowed. She would meow back to him and he seemed to understand her too. Felicity sometimes tried talking like that to other stray cats and even, once in awhile, to dogs. The cats always stopped to talk with her…but the dogs didn’t seem to understand a word she said. She wasn’t really any good at barking.

Oh well, its time to get up and get going, she told herself now. The townsfolk are planning another Vurm hunt and this time I am going to follow along even if they don’t want me. They think I only get into trouble, but I believe I know how to find those stupid little dragons. In fact, maybe that’s where I’ve been tonight…chasing dragons! She giggled to herself at the idea, for it pleased her very much.

She knew people thought she was demented. They treated her with a cautious deference only because they feared the wrath of Old Maud. At school, other kids made fun of her for talking to animals, and Dumbert , the school bully, called her a devil-spawn. Felicity didn’t mind, she was happy to spend most of her time in the woods, collecting plants and roots and berries for Maud’s potions.

She gave her tousled curls a quick comb-through and tied on a red kerchief to restrain the unruly mass. That was another reason people thought her bewitched – her hair was the color of brindled moonlight tipped with streaks of rusty gold…not normal hair, they said. She liked it. It was about the only thing she did like about her own appearance when she bothered to think about it. The rest – long skinny legs and arms, big hands and feet, a face with a flattened nose and wide-set eyes – just plain ugly she thought, and shrugged. She pulled on the denim pants and shirt she wore for foraging in the woods, stuck her feet into a pair of sturdy clogs, and went to the kitchen for a bowl of milk and cereal.

Maud greeted her with a hardy hug. “You’re up bright and early, m’luv,” the old woman said with a grin. “Must be planning on joining the Vurm hunt today, are ya?” Felicity only nodded as she munched on her crispy mix of dried berries, seeds and nuts. She did not tell Maud about her night-riddle.

Maud continued her chatter without waiting for a response. “Those blasted lizard-snakes are getting to be an awful nuisance. Just yesterday they caught one pushing its way up into the root cellar at Clancy’s meat market.” She stirred a pot of soup bubbling over the fire as she talked. “Seems it was after some newborn piglets he had penned down there. Luckily Clancy was just coming down to check on the sow’s food and clobbered the varmint before it could slink back into its hole.”

Felicity stopped chewing and looked up at Maud. Swallowing quickly, she said, “Did he keep the carcass? I’d like to see it.”

“Yes, he was showing it off last evening at the pub. Ugly little thing. Hard to believe they can cause so much damage. They must be pretty vicious.” Maud looked at Felicity. “Why are you so interested in them little devils?”

Felicity shrugged. “Just curious.” She thought she’d better get going before Maud asked too many more questions and read her thoughts about last night’s mysterious adventures. “I’m going out to the back woods for a bit. I’ll be watching for them to start the hunt and follow along. Don’t tell anyone I’m going, will you?”

“Your secrets are safe with me, hon.” Maud’s face revealed no hint of suspicion as she patted Felicity’s shoulder affectionately, “You just take care to stay safe, y’hear?”

****

Felicity stopped by Clancy’s meat market and found the proprietor sweeping the floor. “Hi mister Clancy,” she said, trying to sound as if she’d just casually happened by. “Maud says you clobbered one of those Vurm critters yesterday. That must have been exciting!”

The man looked up from his sweeping and grinned. “It was quite a good accident for me to come down to my cellar just as it was making its way to the little piglets. Could have been a real tragedy if I hadn’a showed up just then.” He chuckled quietly to himself, then looked more sharply at Felicity. “Kinda unusual for you to be out visitin’ so early in the day, isn’t it?”

“Oh, I was just curious, is all,” said Felicity. “Are you going on the hunt today?”

She listened to him affirm the plans for himself and three other men to set out later in the afternoon. He mentioned that Dumbert, his son, was going along. (That set Felicity’s teeth on edge but she held her tongue.) As he spoke, she kept looking around for more evidence of the marauding lizard-worms, but saw none. She finally asked, “Could I see the specimen you killed? I’ve never seen a Vurm in person.”

“I’d be glad to show it to you,” he said. “But, it disappeared during the night. Some dogs must have found it in the box where I’d stored it out in the shed, for the box was all torn up and the corpse was gone. Nothing but a few scales and a claw left lying about.”

“Could I see them?” she asked.

The man cocked an eyebrow at Felicity’s request, but led her to the back shed, where scratch-marks showed how the door had been pried open. He pointed to a pile of rubbish in a bin and said, “I threw them in there. You’re welcome to look in it.” He laughed when she dug in and pulled out the claw. On it was a clump of brindled fur. She pocketed the object and left with a quick wave of thanks, to which Clancy merely shook his head, looking puzzled.

****
Rex stood at attention on the highest peak of the cliff just above the main portal into Cigam Country. The cascade of rocks formed a jagged escarpment leading down to a strip of rocky beach along the river. Below him, Jeremiah and two fox-hounds scouted the hidden portal to check that its protective charms were strong and secure. On the other side of the river, a steep sandstone bluff obscured all but a fringe of the forested land beyond. A single hawk soared elegant spirals high above the trees. It was another of Cigam’s scouts. Rex nodded a salute toward the bird and it dipped a wing in response. Apparently there was nothing happening on the bluff.

Further along the watershed, the land sloped down to form a ravine in which rough-hewn stairs descended leading to a cleared beach on the opposite side of the river. Rex peered more closely to get a glimpse into the woods behind the clearing, but all seemed quiet there as well. No humans in sight.

The river curved in a graceful S-shape, forming wider clearings of rock-strewn embankment on alternating sides, and at the median curve, a narrow foot-bridge spanned a shoal where the water eddied toward a cataract downstream. At the end of the bridge, the woods came closest to the riverbank on this side, creating a natural curtain in which lay the middle portal into Cigam Country. Rex’s watchful eye focused closely onto the muddy ground around the bridge. He sniffed a fetid stench coming from that area and suspected the shoal might harbor some Vurms.

Several hundred yards beyond the bridge, at the river’s confluence with a smaller brook, a third portal lay hidden among tangled branches from a large fallen tree. This back portal led to Catrina’s cottage and was the one most used by dwellers of the magic country when they had need to come and go between there and the outer world. This was where Rex now turned his keen eye for he perceived a slight movement. Someone was coming through the veil between the lands. He watched a bedraggled black form emerge through the thicket. It was Hunter, the outlander cat Catrina once befriended and who occasionally brought messages from the human world to theirs.

Hunter sat down on the beach to lick himself after having made the crossing between worlds. Rex watched in agonized shock as two lizard-like creatures with extraordinarily long tails and snouts oozed up onto the beach about twenty yards down from the black cat. He shouted at Hunter to beware, but it was not enough. The cat looked up just in time to see its attackers coming at him. He put up a valiant fight, as fur and scales flew in all directions. But he didn’t stand a chance. It was two of the Vurms against one old and weakened cat. Hunter died there as Rex watched helplessly. He quickly made his way down the rock escarpment to alert the others and together they ran to beat away the Vurms.

****

They dragged Hunter’s broken body up to the top of the cliff and buried it in a cairn just outside the veil that hid Cigam. Rex felt outraged at the cruelty of the Vurms. He said to Jeremiah, as they piled the last of the stones on Hunter’s grave, “I should have been able to stop them somehow, but I’ve never learned the language of those evil beasts to cast a spell on them.”

Jeremiah curled back his lip in a sneer. “At least the filthy things didn’t kill a fulltime resident of the magic country or this murder would have impelled the start of that dreaded final war.”

Rex shuddered again. “Yes, but we have our work cut out for us if we expect to stop them from making their way into our land…if not tonight, sometime very soon. We can count on the under world snakes to fend them off in the tunnels, but they may come in on top ground levels, as they did here.”

Jeremiah hissed and put his whiskers back, warning Rex to stop talking. They both hunkered down, ears perked at a new sound coming from the other side of the river valley. Human voices – loud and boisterous – sounded like three or four men. The two cats turned and watched the ravine where the stone steps led down to the beach. Soon the humans appeared, carrying guns and creating enough noise to wake the dead. Jeremiah chuckled low in his throat. “How do they ever manage to catch anything making that racket?”

Rex and Jeremiah quietly observed the humans stomp their way over the bridge and toward the spot where Hunter had died. There, they stopped and examined the broken ground, picking up pieces of scale and fur and congratulating each other over their good fortune and excellent tracking skills. Of course, no Vurms showed up, though the pack of humans kept a noisy vigil for some minutes longer.

At last, one of them ventured closer to the back portal and began kicking around the brush of the fallen tree. At this point Rex felt an urgent need to change to his human shape, and warned Jeremiah to stand watch.

The big white tomcat, with silver and gold in its fur, gradually expanded in height and girth, forming hands and feet in place of his paws and standing erect – now a big man with a white mane of hair tipped in silver and gold. The last thing to change was his face and ears, so that even in his human form he maintained some feline features, most particularly his golden eyes, which never transformed. Within a few minutes he stood on the rocks dressed in a hunter’s leather vest, leggings, and tunic, with wrist-braces and boots trimmed in fur to match his hair. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. Then he strode down the rock embankment toward the hunting party, calling, “Yo there! Are you fellows looking for someone?”

He could see he’d startled them, and immediately held up his hands in the universal peace gesture so that they would not shoot at him. They appeared to relax and one of them stepped forward to shake hands when Rex extended his. “We think a child may have wandered in this direction. She’s a young girl who was following our hunting party, but when we invited her to join us, she ran away.” Rex wondered how much of this was true. The men didn’t look like they were searching for a child; they looked like they were out to kill something.

“I thought perhaps you were hunting the Vurms,” said Rex.

“Well, in fact, that’s exactly what we are doing,” said the spokesperson. The others remained silent and watched Rex rather sullenly. “In fact, it looks like we may have found our prey’s tracks right here,” continued the talker. He pointed to the scrabble of ground just behind them where some fur and scales could still be seen. “They must have had a good fight with some animal there. We were about to scout deeper into the woods from here, but the way seems to be blocked.”

Rex forced himself to maintain a calm tone, although the part of his mind still in cat-mode wanted him to growl. “I’m afraid that would be impossible, sir,” he said. “This is my private land, completely forbidden to outsiders for hunting. If there are Vurms crawling about my woods, you may rest assured that I will get rid of them.”

When the man hesitated, Rex lied, “In fact, I think I may have spotted a young female… er, girl child…wandering along the beach over there awhile ago.” He pointed across the bridge toward the top of the bluff. “Of course, I was quite far back on this cliff, so I can’t be certain.” He smiled gallantly and gestured for them to leave. He remained standing on the beach until he saw their backs disappear up the ravine steps into the woods above the other side of the river valley.

Suddenly he heard Jeremiah shout. He turned around and saw that a young kitten had wandered onto the bridge and now Vurms were crawling up from the ooze beneath, surrounding it. He pulled his hunting knife from his belt and began to run toward the bridge. He saw that Jeremiah and the fox-hounds were on their way down from the cliff as well. He had no idea where the kitten had wandered from. Perhaps it, too, followed the hunters. Surely it wouldn’t be one of ours, he thought…it seems much too young to be wandering around in the outland alone.

Just then, a piercing scream froze all of them where they stood.
****

That afternoon Felicity stealthily trailed the three men and stupid Dumbert on the forested bluff overlooking the river. She had the Vurm’s claw in her pocket as a talisman, for she sensed an impending change coming over her. Although many strange things seemed to happen to her these days, this was new. She had never felt such a strong draw toward the other side of the river before.

There had been a war between settlers of the two sides of the river a hundred years back, according to Old Maud. After it ended, a prophecy warned people they should avoid the opposite bank, which some believed to be enchanted. In past years a few people had dared venture into those mist-enshrouded woods, but most of them never returned alive. Their bodies would be found lying somewhere along the river suggesting they had drowned and been dragged ashore. But the corpses never showed signs of having died by drowning. One or two had managed to come home alive, but they became mad and eventually died of their insanity.

However, most village folk nowadays discounted all of that as old wives tales, claiming instead that the property was merely off limits because it was owned by an eccentric wealthy man who disliked the company of anyone other than his animal companions. Few still bothered to try going into those lands, however, and so things remained peaceful between the two banks of the river for the past century.

Now Felicity fought back an urge to make that trip across the river on her own. She privately hoped that the hunting party would dare cross over in their search for the Vurms. If they did, she could observe what happens to them. She daydreamed of stupid Dumbert running out of the woods half-crazed…No, she corrected herself, he’s already half crazy so he’d be totally mad then! She enjoyed her fantasy of seeing that bully caught in his own trap.

She was shaken from her daydreaming by a commotion that seemed to come from the other bank of the river. She had been walking a stone’s throw from the edge of the bluff so that she could observe any action down by the river. She made her way quietly to the overgrowth and peered through. She felt sickened when she saw the black cat attacked by the Vurms. There was nothing she could do, she thought. But as she watched the group of two large handsome cats and a pair of wiry dogs pick their way down from the heights and beat off the evil creatures, she felt an almost irresistible urge to go and join them. Of course, she told herself, that is ridiculous! I may be a cat in my dreams, but awake I am a human who would surely upset those magnificent animals. She wondered, though, how such healthy looking creatures lived on that apparently deserted and desolate land opposite where she stood.

Now a new situation unfolded before her as she watched the hunting party clamber down the ravine and cross the bridge. She had to laugh at their foolish excitement at finding the site of the recent Vurm attack. They act as if they had actually caught and beaten off those lizards themselves. Then this incredibly large and handsome man appeared – seemingly from nowhere – and turned her hunting friends slinking back across the bridge.

A little disappointed that her daydream of watching them enter the forbidden woods had not come true, Felicity was about to turn back toward home when she spied a tiny movement through the hazy mist of trees just at the end of the foot-bridge. A small kitten emerged and began to cross the bridge. Then the muck under and around the bridge began to bubble. Soon several pointed ugly heads of Vurms poked through the mud and surrounded the bridge. The kitten seemed not to notice them at first.

In a flash, Felicity ran down the ravine to the riverbank. She grabbed a long stick without knowing what she would do with that against such evil creatures, but she felt absolutely determined to save that little helpless kitten.

****

Felicity gripped the broken branch, holding it before her. She was inexplicably unsurprised by the knob of green and purple witchfire glowing at its tip. Instinctively, in her other hand, Felicity clutched the broken lizard tooth that she’d crammed into her pocket at Clancy’s.

She fought to suppress the roar that kept trying to rise from inside her, but it broke through and resounded throughout the forest. Birds startled from trees where they had been nesting. Squirrels and rabbits froze in their tracks at the terrifying sound. Wind died and silence eddied around her roar. Then all that was left in its wake were the pitiful mewling cries of a kitten nearly about to perish.

She ran toward that tiny sound and, breaking through the forest cover to the river bank, she came upon the desperate scene. The kitten – Felicity judged it to be about 8 months old – was cowering, its red-orange fur spiked in full fright, surrounded by a circling, slithering, sharp-scaled clutch of runt-dragons. Felicity had often heard the Vurms described by Old Maud, but she’d never quite believed them real before.

Felicity felt the hairs on her own head spike out in the defense mode of felines everywhere, and although she tried to ignore it, she knew her ears were growing pointed even as she ran. Her fingernails were already three inches longer than normal and forming sharp points.

Similar things had happened, but not quite so definitely, to Felicity from time to time all her life. She had learned to hide them and fake excuses for her odd behavior. And, of course, she never told anyone of the excursions she thought she made in her sleep. For a nine-year-old girl, she was uncommonly wise, although no one (other than Old Maud) recognized that quality in her. She was generally considered foolish and somewhat retarded by the tribe of people that had adopted her when she was left abandoned as an infant.

Now she let her voice take charge. The shriek that emanated from her lungs electrified her own mind so that suddenly she felt herself in direct contact with the minds of those snarling, hissing reptiles. The fire spurting from their slimy nostrils stank of such depraved evil that it made Felicity want to gag. She stood her ground, brandishing her torch directly in the face of one of the Vurms, while she shrieked and sent them images of their own imminent demise.

She formed pictures in her mind of the midget-sized dragon-creatures ripped apart by the teeth and claws of a monster cat. ( In a quiet corner of her mind she observed the ludicrous nature of her thoughts and filed her doubts away for later consideration.) The Vurms appeared to shrink, disappearing into the earth, and within a few minutes there was nothing left of them but the depressions in the riverbank where they had slunk back under ground.

The kitten, wide-eyed and shivering with exhaustion, looked imploringly at Felicity. It said, “Teach me to roar like that.”

Felicity laughed and felt her body recompose itself with a normal nine-year-old girl’s ears, hair and fingernails. “I don’t know how I did that,” she said, answering him in the common animal speech she had always known and understood. “Maybe someday you will learn how yourself, but right now we need to get away from here.” When the kitten hesitated, she picked it up and began walking over the foot bridge to the woods on the opposite shore.

At the edge of the forest the kitten squiggled to be put down. It said, “My name is Teddikin, and Catrina sent me to bring you to her.”

****

Rex was still in his human form, stunned at the scene he’d just witnessed. He ran a hand over his eyes as if to dispel an illusion, but when he looked again, the girl was calmly carrying the kitten across the bridge where they quickly scampered together through the middle portal. He found his voice and called to them, but they paid no attention.

He ran, following them into the thick cluster of trees, but they had disappeared. Calling again, he only heard the muffled rebounding of his own voice among the pines. Okay, let them go, he thought, and turned back to consult with his guard troops. He met Jeremiah and the fox-hounds as they were bounding along the riverbank toward him.

“Tell me what you saw,” said Rex, shaking his head. “That happened so fast, I can’t trust my own eyes.”

“Well, you weren’t imagining it,” replied Jeremiah, his fur still standing on end. “And, what’s more, I think I recognized that kitten as my own son!” He peered around Rex’s legs to the woods beyond, and the fur on his back rippled. “Of course I was up on the ridge, so I could be mistaken. When the girl…or whatever she was…came out of the woods everything got blurred and none of us could move for a few minutes. It was like a powerful spell was set over the whole valley.” He gave an ominous hiss that rattled deep in his throat, and added, “Whoever she is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.”

“Yes, that’s for sure!” said Rex. A suspicion nudged his thoughts, but he chose to ignore it for now. Instead, he said, “I’m going to talk with Catrina about this. Meanwhile, you guys scout the woods for that girl and the kitten. If it is your son, he needs a good talking to!”

“Yes, sir!” said Jeremiah, rather gruffly, and he and the hounds set off through the middle portal into Cigam’s magic forest. Rex turned and walked through the bramble portal and followed its path to Catrina’s cottage.

****

Catrina was not expecting a visit from Rex until later, so she was surprised to sense that he was already on his way to her cabin. She quickly put away the spell-book she had been studying and rearranged the objects on her house-shrine. She didn’t want Rex to know what she was up to with the girl. Not yet. Not until she could be sure herself.

At his knock, she went and opened the front door. Immediately, she knew something very important had happened. Had something gone wrong with Teddikin’s trip into the village? She tried to appear unruffled and unsuspecting. “Well, what a surprise, Rex! I wasn’t expecting you until this evening so I haven’t got the teapot on yet.” She reached up to give him a hug, and was not quite surprised when he pushed her aside and stomped in.

“We’ve got a highly unusual situation on our hands, Catrina. I want the truth from you, if you have any idea what this is about!” His voice boomeranged around the cabin, bringing curious cats out from all corners. He ignored them. Being in his human shape, he was somewhat oblivious to their feline thoughts. He just stood in the middle of the living room and glowered at Catrina.

She calmly pulled a chair to the fireside, indicating for him to sit, and took a seat in her rocker across from him. “First you must tell me what this situation is that you’ve encountered. I can’t tell you what I might know if I don’t know what you’re asking about.” She waited as he shrugged out of his heavy leather jerkin, sat down on the edge of the chair, pulled a pipe from his pocket, and lit it. She knew he was struggling to compose himself. Something vital must have taken place and she felt impatient to hear about it. The tension between them was dangerously strained.

As Rex recounted the events of that afternoon – first of the Vurms killing Hunter, then of the human hunters, and finally of the strange girl and the kitten – Catrina listened, striving to maintain her serene countenance. Although she expressed sincere shock and grief at the news of Hunter’s brutal death, she hid her excitement at the news Rex brought about the girl.

Rex went on. “I just had Jeremiah and two of the fox-hounds with me. Hooter and the ravens were up in the trees. There were four humans, one young kid and three men. It didn’t take much of a spell to confuse them, and they were not about to fight me when I told them to get off my private estate.” He stopped to take a drag from his pipe and blew a smoke ring toward one of the cats who batted at it. Catrina and Rex both smiled at the little diversion, and it seemed to relax the tension between them.

“But that child is still lost,” persisted Rex. He made a sound something between a chuckle and a snort. “At least we found no sign of her or the kitten once they entered the portal, and this child is no ordinary human. It was quite astounding to watch her deal with the Vurms. The kitten could easily have been taken by them, but she seemed able to hold them off by her thoughts alone. Those stinking beasts snaked back into the ground without further complaint, meek as sheep.”

“She certainly must be unusual to be able to walk through a portal with no trouble.” Catrina pretended to be as puzzled as Rex, for she decided it was not yet time to tell him what she knew.

“Oh! That reminds me,” Rex broke into her thoughts. “Jeremiah thinks he recognized the kitten. It may be his son, Teddikin!” He raised an eyebrow and looked around the cabin. “Come to think of it, I don’t see the little scamp here now…he’s usually playing with my boot-laces or something when I visit.”

“It’s true, I haven’t seen him for awhile either,” lied Catrina. “His mother said she thinks he’s exploring the woods for mice to play with.”

“Well, he got more than he bargained for, if that’s what he’s about,” growled Rex. “Hasn’t his mother taught him not to stray outside of the magic country?”

Catrina felt uncomfortable with the direction their conversation was leading, so she changed the subject. “Shouldn’t you be out there with Jeremiah, now? If they find the two scalawags you may be needed.”

Rex shrugged, “I trust Jeremiah to handle things.” But he got up to leave nevertheless. “You be sure to get word to me if you hear anything more about either the girl or that rascal kitten.” He looked pointedly at Catrina, then came and gave her a brief hug.

She remained sitting in her rocker and picked up a skein of yarn to wind as she casually nodded her agreement. “By the way, I thank you for giving Hunter a respectful burial,” she added. “He was a loyal friend to the magic country. I feel very sad to lose him.”

“Yes,” agreed Rex, “and it seems ironic that he had just returned from bringing you the message about the lost child when he met his demise.” This was said with a hint of sarcasm that Catrina chose to ignore.

****

“That big orange cat is my dad,” whispered Teddikins to Felicity as they hid in a tree watching the guard troop pass under them.

With Teddy’s encouragement, Felicity had managed to change herself into a small cat when they were out of sight of Rex and the others. She wore a short coat of brindled brown and black, with distinctive stripes and swirls on her face and back.

As soon as Jeremiah and the fox-hounds had passed beyond sight, the two kittens climbed down from the tree and continued their explorations through the woods. So far, they had evaded several other cats, a flock of ravens, a nosy squirrel, and a pair of deer. Felicity was enjoying herself entirely. I’ll have to think about this later, she told herself, but right now I’m having too much fun being a kitten. It felt quite natural to run on four feet, and climbing trees was so easy this way.

They came to the broken stone wall surrounding the temple courtyard where they heard a loud clamor from the other side. “They setting up the carnival for tonight’s festival,” said Teddy, whispering again. “Let’s watch before we go see Ttatrina. It will be my first festival!”

Soon they had climbed to the highest branches of a tree that overlooked the old temple courtyard. Below them, animals and small human-shaped folk set up colorful tents and booths. Several were practicing tricks – juggling, acrobatics, swinging from vines – others were tuning instruments, preparing for performances. Felicity stared at the hubbub in awe. “Those are real elves and fairies down there!” she exclaimed.

Teddikins smirked at her. “Of course. They are part of Cigam Country too. And over there – he pointed with his nose toward two slightly taller individuals dressed in colorful gauzy robes – “are the king and queen of the fairy kingdom.”

Suddenly the two kittens were startled by a voice nearby. “Whoo are yoo in my tree?” it huffed.

Felicity turned around and found herself staring into a pair of huge orange and black eyes. It looked like another big cat, except that it had a very sharp curved beak where its mouth should be. She nearly fell out of the tree in fright.

Teddikins merely grinned and said “Hi Hooter. We’ve been exploring and came up here to watch the carnival getting ready.”

“Tooo kits in my tree. One I know. One I never saw before. Whooo are yooo?” He aimed his beak toward Felicity.

“Oh, excuse me, Hooter,” said Teddikins. “This is my new friend, Felicity. She’s magic, like uncle Rex and Ttatrina and the fairies.”

“Teddy!” scolded Felicity. “You shouldn’t be telling my secret. Besides, it’s not true!” She looked at the owl in alarm.

“It’s okay,” said the little orange cat, also looking at the owl. “Hooter won’t tell. He’s my friend.”

Hooter huffed at them, “Just don’t make trouble, you two. The magic folk have big problems already with the Vurms.”

“But we aren’t afraid of the Vurms!” bragged little Teddikins. “Felicity can make them go away real easy.”

Felicity nipped Teddy hard on his ear. “Stop talking about me like that! I am NOT magic. I am just me. I don’t know what happened back there… or anything.” She looked at the owl. “Just ignore him, sir. He’s all excited because of the carnival.”

“Sooo, I seee,” said Hooter. “Carnival starts – yooo watch – I go find your Uncle Rex.” And he took off in a great silent whoosh of wings.

“Oh no!” cried Teddikins, in serious alarm. “We’d better get going to ‘Ttrina’s afore Hooter brings Uncle Rex back here. I was s’pose to get you to ‘Ttrina’s and forgot ‘cuz we were having so much fun.”

They clambered back down to the ground to make their way along the wall toward the cottage that could be seen between the trees. But suddenly they heard Rex talking to Hooter… very close by. They ducked through a crack in the temple wall and found themselves going down a narrow tunnel. It was very dark and smelled odd – like musty old clothes, thought Felicity. She couldn’t see anything but it seemed Teddy knew where he was going, so she kept close on his tail, her heart pounding in her chest.

What have I gotten myself into? Doubts crowded her mind, threatening a reverse transformation to her human shape. “Help me, Teddy! I’m growing big again and don’t know how to stop myself.” Her little friend kept running. She forced herself to squeeze through a way farther, and then, thankfully, the tunnel got a bit bigger and she was able to crawl after him. “Stop, Teddy!” she cried, tears streaming down her face in fear and anger.

Finally the kitten stopped under a faint beam of light falling through a grate in the roof of the cavern they had entered. He sat down with his tail curled around his feet and made a little whimpering sound in a language Felicity had never heard before.

Soon they were no longer alone. Felicity watched in horror as a gaggle of snakes silently wound themselves out of cracks and crannies to surround the girl and the kitten. Felicity, crouching on her hands and knees, had no way to escape. She forced herself to stay calm and, following Teddy’s example, remained quietly waiting…for what?

An enormous snake slid down to the cavern, saying, “BE STILL, SMALL ONES!”.

The booming voice of the Elder made Felicity’s hair stand on end …the sense of transformation came over her again…she couldn’t control it…and she roared. But some powerful force entered her mind and stopped her from transforming completely. She knelt on her girl-body’s knees and elbows, but saw her hands had grown fur and nails…and she knew she had the cat ears again like when she attacked the Vurms. This time, however, she was terrified. And she had an almost irrepressible urge to actually attack, as in the image she had projected to the Vurms. Instead she sat and wept great sobs, her tears splashing onto the cool granite floor of the cavern. Teddikin came and rubbed against her cheek and that helped calm her a little.

At first she avoided looking at the big snake that curled itself in front of them, but she lifted her eyes to meet its stare when she heard the command in her mind. “Look at me young priestess!”

She realized the snake was talking to her, saying strange things she could make no sense of…and his words were coming into her thoughts without his making any sound. “It is your destiny, small child. You will heal the rift between our worlds. But first, you must learn to control your power. Go to your mother. She will teach you what you must know. Be happy and in peace. You are blessed.” Then the voice stopped and very shortly the snakes all disappeared leaving Felicity and Teddikins alone in the cavern.

Teddy nudged Felicity. She looked at her hands and saw they were back to normal. She picked up the kitten and hugged it closely. “Oh, Teddy! That was so scary! I can’t make any sense of it.”

The kitten squirmed. “I think we have to get to Ttrina’s house fast now. I know a quick way home from here. Follow me,”and the kitten took off at a loping pace up a wide tunnel that soon led into the basement of Catrina’s cottage.

****

Felicity still had no idea where they were or who this “Ttrina” was that Teddikins had brought her to see. They made their way up a cobwebbed cellar staircase and emerged through an opening in the floor of a sort of garden shed attached to the side of the house. Teddy told Felicity to wait there while he went to get his mother.

Soon Teddy returned with a stately tortoiseshell pacing at his side. “This is my mom,” he announced to Felicity, with loving pride in his voice. She could see that his mother was equally proud of her son, although at the moment the mother cat also looked a bit perturbed.

“Hello,” said Felicity. She didn’t know what else to say, so she waited for the statuesque female to speak.

“We are happy you have arrived safely after all, young lady. Some grave rumors arrived ahead of you, I’m afraid. Please come in and meet our dear priestess, Catrina. She has waited to see you again for a very long time.”

Teddy’s mother turned and led them in through the kitchen door, and then to the front room, where Felicity saw a handsome elderly woman with pure white hair in a long braid sitting by the fireplace. The woman arose with some effort from her rocking chair and came and placed her hands on Felicity’s shoulders. “Bless you, dear daughter,” she said. “I have long dreamed of this day.”

Felicity was totally puzzled and confused. She remembered her manners and returned the woman’s kindly words with a smile. “Thank you. But, please, I don’t understand. Why have you been waiting for me?”

For the next half hour, Catrina and Sabrina filled Felicity in on the basic outlines of Cigam Country history, and the current situation with the Vurms. They also mentioned the dangers inherent in humans coming into their land, and explained to her that her presence could upset some of the magic country’s citizens, but that she needn’t fear because she had been born with the magic blood in her, and was no danger to their world as long as she kept its secrets from the people in the outer world.

Felicity’s head was spinning with these amazing stories when, all at once, the old woman hurried her into a rear bedroom and told her to wait there while she made preparations for her to meet another important person. Felicity was glad for the opportunity to sit quietly and contemplate all she had heard. Moreover, she was still puzzled at why the snake told her to go to her mother. She had never known her mother or her father. She decided she would have to ponder that riddle another time, however, because now she heard a man’s voice joining Catrina’s in the living room. Teddikins snuck into the room and sat beside her. He looked just as puzzled as she felt, but it was a comfort to have him there with her. They listened quietly to the conversation, periodically looking at each other in wide-eyed amazement at what was being revealed.

****

When she sensed Rex was on his way to her house, Catrina set water to boil for tea and laid two places at her lace-draped table using her best china cups and saucers. She put a plate of freshly baked scones with a bowl of warm honey and another of wild strawberries in the center of the table. As she was arranging a vase of cut flowers she heard his boot steps coming around the house, followed by a sharp rap at the front door.

“Enter, Rex,” she called without going to the door. She observed him – in his human shape – cautiously peer around from the threshold, then step inside and close the door quietly behind him. “Why be so sneaky my friend?” she asked, “Did you anticipate finding other company here?”

“Can’t be too careful right now, my dear,” said Rex. He gazed around the single room with its high ceiling, impressed as always by how much larger it was than it appeared from outside. Several cats lounged together on a pillow-covered sofa in one corner. They twitched ears and one opened an eye at the sound of his voice, then settled back to sleep. “Looks like everything is as calm as ever in here, though, and those scones smell delicious!” Rex pulled back a chair and sat at the table, heaving a sigh as he did so. “Things are not yet so peaceful outside.”

Catrina poured them tea and sat down opposite Rex. She reached out and patted his big hand. “Poor Rex. Things have got terribly befuddled this Midsummer’s day. Tell me what has happened since we spoke this morning.”

“Well, it looks as though the Vurms are under control for the moment, and it is not likely that those people will come hunting them in Cigam Country anymore tonight.” He reached for another scone and took a thoughtful bite. “But the girl and the kitten are still out there, somewhere. None of the guards have spotted them.” He took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. “But Hooter came to me with an odd tale of meeting a new kitten, accompanied by Teddikins. When we went to see them, they were gone…again.”

Rex stopped talking and looked pointedly at Catrina. “Perhaps you have some information on that score that has evaded me?”

Catrina pretended to be absorbed with spreading honey on her scone and didn’t look up though she knew he was waiting for her to say something. At last she raised her tea cup to her lips and, meeting his gaze with equal intensity, said, “She is the one I’ve been waiting for.”

“You know where she is, don’t you?” Rex kept his voice calm but she could sense the rage building up in him.

“I won’t lie to you anymore, Rex. I do know she is safe. I also know who she is… and so do you.”

“What are you telling me, woman?” This time his voice shook with suppressed tension.

“The child we made together nine years ago has been raised in the human world by my cousin, Maud. The baby did not die as I led you and everyone to believe. She has come back to us now when her skills are ripened and ready to be honed for our future needs.” Catrina held her breath waiting for Rex’s reaction to this news.

“That’s preposterous!” He rose from the table, tipping over the chair he’d been sitting on. The crack of the chair against the floor sent the sleeping cats into immediate attack mode and several others appeared, hissing, from above them in the rafters.

Catrina signaled the cats to stay still. Despite his superior size and strength as a cat, she knew they could do real harm to Rex while he was in his human shape.

Rex took no notice of the cats but continued to holler. “We do not need to bring any human influence into this secret place. I don’t care if it is a spawn of our own magic blood. This is a human who has been raised among them and knows not of our sacred trust. She could bring disaster upon all of Cigam Country merely by her innocent contact with her human caretakers.”

He stopped and cleared his throat, as if embarrassed by his outburst. “Sorry. I know you desire an apprentice, and I see your reasoning. But it simply must not be. We can get along for many years yet as we have. You are not about to die soon, nor am I.”

“And I feel equally certain that the girl would keep our sacred trust.”

At her words, Rex again checked himself, his mouth agape with new awareness. “I’ve forgotten to tell you something else,” he said in an apologetic tone. “Jeremiah and I conferred with the Elder before going down to the river this morning.” Rex gazed at Catrina meaningfully for a moment. “He made a prophecy that struck me as irrelevant to our situation at the time. Now I must amend my opinion.”

“What did the Ageless One say to you?” asked Catrina, her eyes sparkling with unhidden precognition.

“It would seem you already know,” Rex retorted, with a wry grin. “But I’ll reiterate anyway. He said, ‘a new priestess brings both healing and strife to Cigam Country’… or something to that effect. I guess he must have been talking about this girl you have brought home to us.”

****

Just then, Catrina looked away from Rex toward the window, and caught her breath. She whispered with surprised urgency, “There is a human coming up the back way. Quickly, go and greet him. Don’t let him come into the cottage!”

Rex, startled, said, “How in damnation did he get through? I thought I checked that weakened rear portal when I came back from the river.” He crashed out the back door and met the intruder. It was the kid who had been with the three hunters earlier. “Stop where you are!” commanded Rex. “I thought I warned you people to stay off my land.”
“Yours is a strange land, indeed, old man,” replied the boy rudely, with a sneer on his face. “I’ve been led in circles for half the day by your invisible tenants.” The boy snickered in a crazed manner and Rex guessed he was already pretty well encorcled by the fairy magic. The kid took a few steps toward the door of the cabin. “I believe you have the girl here with you who we were looking for. She was following our hunting party, and I’d guess she found her way in here after we left you.”

Rex put out an arm to stop the boy coming closer, but the kid suddenly kicked him in the shin and darted under his arm when he lurched in surprise. Rex chased after the kid, but he’d broken into the kitchen and was about to grab Catrina who stood at her altar with her back turned to them. She was in the process of setting the additional protective spells on barriers to the surrounding countryside, to keep the intruder from going any further. She spun on her heel and called a command in cat language.

As soon as the stranger made his appearance, cats from all directions descended upon him, claws extended and teeth barred. But the kid, crazed as he already was, put up a vicious fight, throwing off cats right and left.

Rex, watching in horror, began to make his own transformation to cat in order to join in the fray, when suddenly, out of the bedroom burst two more cats. The small one, he recognized to be the missing Teddikins. The other was a large brindled wildcat with handsome black and silver markings. Its roar was deafening and oddly familiar to Rex. But he’d never met this awesome animal anywhere in his years of wandering the magic land.

Rex and Catrina and the rest of the cats simply stood aside and watched, flabbergasted, as the wildcat grabbed the human kid by the seat of his pants and pulled him out the back door. Then it let the kid get a running start, and charged, roaring after it down the path.

****

Felicity ran in a state of wild rage, mixed with joyful abandon. Dumbert ran awkwardly ahead of her, bumping into trees and stumbling over stones. But she paced herself, letting him struggle in his fear-crazed state. It was the answer to her wish to get back at the bully’s many humiliations of her in the past nine years, and she was in no hurry to end the pleasure. She reined in her wildcat’s strength so as not to totally demolish the kid. She really had no desire to kill him, but she was happy to see him terrified of her. As they wound their halting way down the path to the rear portal, Felicity let herself reflect on the astounding revelations she’d learned just before Dumbert intruded.

When she heard Catrina and the big man, Rex, reveal that she was their own daughter, she had been both horrified and elated. That explained her lifelong aberrations and eccentricities, and it gave her a new sense of belonging. She now had parents like everyone else. Well, maybe not quite…she didn’t know of anyone else who changed shape like Rex and herself…she wasn’t sure whether Catrina also could transform to a cat, but she was certainly a magical person in any case. Still, the dilemma they posed was frightening, for she learned that her father really did not trust her to stay in the magic country. And she couldn’t be certain the idea was all that appealing to her either. She would have to give all this a bit of thought when she returned to the village.

Woops! She hadn’t thought about that. How would she make the transformation without revealing that secret to Dumbert or other humans? She remembered the warning in Rex’s voice when he told Catrina that the apprentice priestess needed to prove her loyalty to all of Cigam. Of course they couldn’t be certain she could keep their confidence if she went back to live in the village. And, could she ever visit her new friends in Cigam again without endangering them even further? These troublesome thoughts caused Felicity to stop in her tracks. She quietly slipped back into the woods and let Dumbert run on out of the magic country. She could only hope his crazed fright would serve to make any tale he told about her be unbelievable to others. She climbed a tree and rested there while she pondered her options.

She could return to the cottage and follow the destiny prophesied her by the Elder. That seemed best for everyone. But she longed to go back and tell Maud her decision. Still, realizing that Maud had always known of her heritage, she figured that venerable old soothsayer would naturally understand. With that, Felicity leapt down from her perch in the tree and loped back to the cottage. She met Rex, in his cat-form, coming down the path toward her. “So you’ve chosen to stay with us,” he grumbled. Then he strode over to her and rubbed noses for a moment before she began to regain her human form. “Maud and Catrina will be happy about this, but you will need to watch yourself around the other inhabitants of Cigam until you’ve proven yourself.” But then he harrumphed a cat-laugh. “That’s a bit silly really, for it seems you’ve already begun to build yourself quiet a reputation as a magical heroine in these parts!”

“That’s for sure!” chirped a small voice from behind Rex. Teddikins popped his head around the big cat’s tail and ran to Felicity, who picked him up and carried him with her to the cabin….to their home. END.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THESE?  HELP ME DECIDE WHICH TO WORK ON:

On this Page of my blog, I will post stories I have written, or begun writing, in past years.  These have been pulled from my files of writing classes and also from some I started on my own inspiration, but never completed for publication.  All of them need a good bit of work before they can be a “real book” and, of course I don’t anticipate finishing them all.  However, a few a real favorites of mine for which I still feel enough enthusiasm to work on further.   I will appreciate any comments from readers.     Is a particular story of interest to you?  Is it worth making into a full-fledged book?   Let me know what you think.

This first story has grown in me for along time and I am considering going on with it.  It could be a short story as it stands, with some serious editing.  And in that case, it cries out for a sequel of course.  Or I could just keep adding to it to build the whole thing into one book.   The story grew from my own life here at my cottage “in the woods”… living with my own cats indoors, and also a number of feral cats who have lived in and around my home, especially UNDER THE HOUSE where there is a crawl-space and heat ducts running through.  A cozy hideaway for them especially in winter or during stormy weather.  I have great curiosity of what that “den” under my home really is like, but of course I can never know without literally tearing down my house!   So I let my imagination take me there and this is what came out:

STORY #1:

 

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