A Forest Cat, Chapter one: The Call of the Hunt, part 4
“Mister..eh… Shane?” Gaell’s shy voice floated across the little room; the fire had died down and darkness had settled over the forest like a blanket, only vaguely illuminated by the stars and the half moon in the sky.
“Just Shane, Gaell.” The man answered softly, shifting momentarily in the darkness.
“Can you talk to cats, eh… Shane?” There was an indication of surprise as Shane did not respond immediately to Gaell’s direct question.
“I can communicate with cats, yes.” The silence in the room lasted for several minutes before the girl tried again.
“How?” The man turned towards the half-raised figure of the girl on the bed, not hindered by the darkness in his movements. His golden eyes flashed eerily when they locked onto hers. He saw her flinch and sighed, wondering how he was going to win her trust.
“It is a long story, Gaell, but wouldn’t you rather go to sleep? It’s way past midnight, you know.” Instead of lying back down, the girl sat up a little straighter, putting her back against the wall for support.
“I cannot sleep, I’m scared.” The forlorn tone in her voice stirred his pity but he remained quiet, searching for a beginning.
“Do you like cats, Gaell?”
“Oh yes, I love cats! We have three at the farm, and…” Her voice trailed off as painful memories came back to her. Images that had been pushed away by her recent experiences flashed in front of her and she gasped in horror, reliving them with unrelenting vividness.
Jake had already secured the products of their harvest in the cellar, instructed by their father who had chosen to remain at the farm despite the warnings of the raiding parties of Wolflord Hanstan. Most of their fellow villagers had fled, leaving empty barns and shuttered houses that transformed their village into a ghostlike place. Only their family ( mum, dad, and her two brothers Jake and Eamon) and the Parses had remained, too set in their ways to flee. When they saw the first trails of smoke curling up in the distance, they had retreated into the cellar, barring the trapdoor with solid timber. Only Jake had remained outside, hiding in the wood, ready to warn them when the danger had passed. But danger did not pass by but found them quickly and terribly: rough, armed men had invaded the village only half an hour after they had hidden themselves, ransacking the houses, plundering all that was worth plundering. On stumbling on a locked cellar trapdoor, axes had made short work of the timber and they had been violently taken from their hiding place. Without hesitation, two quick, almost careless motions with a sharp blade had made an end to the lives of her father and brother. Her mother was taken away, dragged over the muddy ground while she screamed for Gaell to run. “What with this one?” One of the men held her by an arm, watching her disinterestedly. “Too young.” At the short decisive answer of the other man, her captor had raised his other hand, sword ready to strike. “Isun! Let her go!” The authoritative voice of the other man intervened. “She’s a child; let her loose in the forest.” The man lowered his sword hesitantly, shrugged his shoulders and threw her into the mud. Turning around to answer the question of another man, he no longer paid her any attention, forgetting her existence as easily as he would have taken her life. She had remained where she was, lying in the mud, stunned with horror. She was hauled to her feet by the same man who had so casually saved her life. “Get running, girl, before I’ll change my mind.” And she had run…
Shane had his arms around the shaking girl; uncontrolled sobs of anguish ripped through her body. He stroked her hair and rocked her gently, feeling her pain and sharing her anguish. He had been tracing her to her village and had seen what the raiders had left behind. He remembered his own despair at the sight, fearing his long journey had been in vain. But the little bright flame in his head that represented her had still flickered merrily, assuring him that she was still alive. Time was running out, however, and he had not hesitated when he found the trail of the forest cat.
From his bag Shane produced a small leather-bound flask, pulling the stopper away with his teeth as his other hand still held the girl, who was no longer crying but still shivered uncontrollably. “Drink this, Gaell. It’s strong though.” He set the flask to her mouth and poured a little of its contents between her lips. She coughed and spluttered, pushing the flask away with her hand in disgust. But the strong liquid had already done the job of shaking her out of her dark thoughts. Shane took the flask away, hesitated a moment, and then took a long draught himself. Even he had to wince at the strong burning sensation it caused in his throat but it also revived him.
“I’m sorry.” She said in a small voice as she tried to wriggle free of his protective arm, wary once again and short of trust. He led her go but remained seated next to her on the small bed. “Who are you, Shane?” Her need to hear another human voice was stronger than her distrust of the man who, in all honesty, had done nothing to harm her.
“You already know my name, girl.” He seemed unwilling to volunteer any more information, caught up in his own dark memories. His eyes stared unseeing into the darkness of the room and she felt the sensation of familiarity dissipate. Now she wished she had not pulled away from the comforting strong arms of the man but it could not be undone and she fought alone against the despair and loneliness that washed over her. “Can you see the small piece of candle on the table, Gaell?” The unexpected question made her blink.
“Of course I can.” She answered carefully, wondering at the strangeness of the question.
“Most people would not, you know.” She turned uncomprehendingly to face the man and looked straight into his golden lit eyes.
“They are like the eyes of a cat…” Her awed voice held only a trace of fear but she did not flinch nor drew away this time.
“They are indeed. Just like yours.” Seeing her shocked expression, he continued. “Eyes of a cat can see clearly in the dark, just like you and me.” She heard his words but refused to listen to their meaning, trying to push the vague comprehension that dawned on her stubbornly away.
“But I can’t talk to cats, I never…”
We come for your aid, little sister.
The words entered her memory unbidden and she ceased her angry outburst as suddenly as she had begun. Shane merely watched her as she struggled with the knowledge, not knowing how to help her accept what he had accepted all those years ago.
We are akin, little sister, you and I. She brought her hands to her head as if to prevent any more messages from entering it. He smiled sadly at the gesture, but added another thought nonetheless. And you can do what I can, sending thoughts straight to the mind. She shook her head frantically, her hands still clutching it tightly.
“Stay out of my mind!”
Leave me alone!!!
The thought thundered through his head so loudly that he winced at the flash of pain it caused, but he smiled when he saw the shock of realisation flicker in her eyes. “You will learn to control its tone, volume and direction.” He chided her mildly, climbing from the bed to take a look through the window. “You must sleep now, Gaell, and take your rest while you can. Tomorrow, at daybreak, we will have to move on.” The tone of his voice announced the end of the discussion clearly, leaving the girl with million unanswered questions fighting for space in her mind. “Lay down and I’ll make you sleep.” Her eyes widened at the odd command, but his eyes, still slightly illuminated in the darkness, watched her steadily. He threw his cloak, which had served her as a blanket once before, back over the obediently stretched out girl and put his thumb in a resolute gesture between her eyes, watching the momentary flicker of fear before her eyes closed in instant reaction.