A Familiar Face

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
When a sorceress dies, what happens to her belongings? What happens to her cat.

Submitted: March 08, 2019

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Submitted: March 08, 2019

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Grace looked up from her work in the garden when she heard her daughter Jenna giggling inside the house.The little girl found all sorts of things funny, like pushing wood bowls off the table at dinnertime and throwing her ragdoll out of a window.Most toddlers do such things and Grace didn’t take it personally, but experience had taught her to be wary when her daughter was too happy. Worried what had happened this time, Grace got up (no easy feat when she was seven months pregnant), brushed dirt off her knees and went inside her small wood house.

She found her daughter sitting on her small bed next to the fireplace. Jenna was a plump girl of two and a half years with brown hair like her mother and a simple cotton dress.She wasn’t alone on the bed.Two small gray kittens lay on the straw mattress, animals so young their eyes were still closed.Jenna cradled a third kitten in her lap and stroked its back.

“Kittens, mommy!” Jenna called out when Grace came near.Technically she said ‘kit tens’, but the meaning came across.

Grace sat down on the edge of the girl’s bed.“Sweetie, where did you get those?”

Jenna grabbed the other two kittens and placed them in her arms.“Mommy cat gave me kittens.”

Grace looked around the small house.There were two beds, one for her and her husband and another for Jenna, a chest for their clothes, a table with three chairs, but there was most definitely no cat. They’d never had one, making this gift of nearly newborn kittens more than a touch unusual.

“Jenna, where is the mommy cat?”

“She left.”Jenna heaped love on the mewing kittens, kissing them and hugging all three.

As if on cue, a large cat walked through the front door of the house like she owned the place.She was big and healthy with a luxurious silvery gray coat, and she carried another kitten in her mouth.The cat had a black collar with a large, red faceted garnet rimmed with silver on it. Such a piece of jewelry would fetch good money at market if some fool tried to take it.No one robbed a sorceress and lived a long life.

The cat jumped onto Jenna’s bed and set down her kitten.Jenna scooped up the new arrival and squealed, “More kittens!”

Grace put an arm around her daughter.“Sweetie, that’s Esme’s cat.These are her kittens.We can’t keep them.”

“Mommy cat gave them to me,” Jenna said.Her tone made it clear this wasn’t a protest but a statement of fact.

Esme’s cat bounded down off the bed and headed for the door.The cat glanced at Grace and gave her a look that said ‘I tolerate you’before leaving.

Jenna set down her armful of kittens and patted her mother’s swollen belly. “We have kittens and a baby.Baby kittens!”

“Oh dear,” Grace said.Peasants had no dealing with magicians and sorcerers if they could help it.Magic wielders felt the same since peasants had nothing they wanted, no jewels, no rare plants or mushrooms for potions, no monster parts like unicorn horns or dragon scales.Each side stayed well clear of the other and liked it that way.

Esme was no world shattering power when it came to magic.The old woman lived by herself at the edge of the forest, occasionally making potions for sale or working some minor enchantment for aging noblemen who were having trouble in the bedroom.Esme came to the village with her cat only rarely to buy food or clothes before returning to her shack.The sorceress was polite, calling men sir and women ma’am as if they were important people.

Keeping the kittens was out of the question, but it was essential they stayed safe until Esme reclaimed them.Grace went through her limited belongings until she found an old wicker basket. She filled it with rags and placed it on her daughter’s bed.“The kittens need to stay warm.Let’s put them in here.”

Jenna was a compassionate child even if she was mischievous.She placed the kittens in the basket and shouted, “Warm kittens!”

“You play nice with the kittens,” she cautioned her daughter.She stroked Jenna’s face and said, “Be gentle, like this. Can you be gentle?”

Jenna stroked a kitten and smiled.“Soft.”

“Yes, touch them very softly, like that.Come with me into the garden.You can hug the kittens all you want there.”Grace picked up the basket and carried it outside to the vegetable garden next to the house.Jenna followed her and continued cuddling the kittens while her mother worked.

Grace worked on a plan while she weeded the garden.The kittens had to go back, no question, but she couldn’t do it now. She had chores to do and dinner to make, and she had to keep an eye on Jenna.Her husband would be back from cutting wood in the forest soon enough. Once he returned she’d explain the situation, and in the morning he could take back the kittens when he went into the forest.She didn’t like placing this on his shoulders, but there was little choice.

It wasn’t long before Esme’s cat brought yet another kitten.The cat spotted them by the garden and came over to investigate.Finding her kittens in the basket, she deposited the fifth one and nursed them.

“Mommy cat loves me,” Jenna said.

“I’m sure she does,” Grace said as she watched the cat.It glanced at her only briefly before licking the kittens clean.

Grace was a simple woman of twenty-three years, poor and forever to remain so. She had no education except what her mother had taught her.She wasn’t sure what to do when faced with a potentially dangerous situation like this. What was the sorceress’ cat doing in her house?There was no relationship between her and the sorceress.She’s never even spoken to Esme.Hopefully they could solve this problem without upsetting Esme.

Once she’d fed her kittens, Esme’s cat toured Grace’s house.It wasn’t much, a single room house at the edge of the forest with a garden and large woodshed her husband kept full.There were no fields or pasture with it, for Grace’s husband Roy earned his living as a woodcutter.Nor were there houses nearby, the closest one an hour’s walk away. Apparently satisfied, the cat ran off into the woods, hopefully not to bring another kitten.

With her work done in the garden, Grace brought the basket and her daughter inside to cook dinner.Normally this was a trying time since her daughter got bored easily and would wander off, but this time Jenna stayed by the basket and cuddled one kitten after another.The meal was almost ready when her husband came back from the forest pulling a sledge loaded with deadwood.

“That smells delicious,” Roy said when he came inside.He was older than Grace by ten years and had scars running across the left side of his jaw.There were more scars, but his shirt hid those.Roy brought in his tools, axes and saws, and a rabbit he’d caught.

“A problem came up while you were gone,” Grace told him.

Roy kissed Grace and stroked her belly.“The little one’s kicking again.”

“Like an angry mule, but that’s not what I mean.”

Jenna ran up to her father and hugged him, then pulled him to the basket. “Kittens, daddy!Kittens!”

Roy bent down to look at the animals.“Who did we get these from?”

“Esme’s cat brought them,” Grace told him.“She left them on Jenna’s bed.”

“That’s, um, that’s unusual.”Roy put an arm around his daughter and hugged her.“Esme didn’t say anything about this, did she?”

“Not a word.I’ve seen cats move their litters plenty of times before if they thought they were in danger.Who could bother Esme?”

Roy frowned.“You put more faith in her than I do.There’s no telling what kind of trouble Always Fails Esme is in.”

“Dear, don’t call her that.”

“She took three apprentices over the years and kicked them all out,” Roy said. “Three girls she thought the world of, I might add, and left them worse than when she’d met them, and one of them was Esme’s own niece.Those girls ended up angry, arrogant, half trained and half -witted.Two of them are dead, and it’s a pity the number isn’t three.”

Grace had to put a stop to such dangerous talk.She hugged her husband and said, “She gave them a chance.It’s not her fault they failed.You ran into men like that in your days in the army.”

Roy sat down on his bed and pulled his family into his arms.“Too many times.Give a man power and you see the worst in him.We had to protect the few good officers we had from our own side. Grace, I know you don’t like me speaking ill of Esme, but I’ve met my share of wizards.Not a one cared if kings died, much less soldiers.This isn’t safe for our family.Whatever’s going on, we need to settle it soon.”

“My kittens,” Jenna said.

“Where’s the cat now?” Roy asked.

His question was answered when Esme’s cat leapt through an open window and landed on the floor.The cat walked over to the basket and checked on her kittens before studying Roy, Grace and Jenna for a moment with a look that said ‘tolerable, barely’.

“That’s her cat,” Roy said.“I’ve seen it in the forest often enough hunting rodents.”

Grace and Roy were tense, not so much worried about the cat than they were what its owner might do.Jenna had no such worries and hugged the cat.“Mommy cat.”

The move surprised the cat.Jenna stroked the cat, and it relaxed and rubbed against her.“Pretty cat.Mommy cat, baby cats, where’s daddy cat?”

The cat’s eyes snapped open and it looked embarrassed, a rare move for cats. Roy smirked and asked, “Yes, where’s daddy cat?”

The cat glared at him, a ‘keep it up and see where it gets you’look before slipping out of Jenna’s grip and leaving the house.Once it was gone, Roy relaxed.He put his axes and saws away on a high shelf far out of his daughter’s reach.

“After dinner I have to deliver the wood I gathered,” he told Grace.“In the morning we’ll see about the cat.”

“I get kittens and mommy cat?” Jenna asked.

“We’ll see,” Grace told her daughter.

Grace cooked the rabbit her husband had brought and left him to prepare the skin. Officially hunting was reserved for nobles, but their neighbors didn’t begrudge a poor man bringing in small game. Once or twice a year Roy caught a deer and shared its meat with the villagers, who ate the evidence of his poaching within hours.Neighbors considered this proof of his generosity rather than a crime.

Once dinner was done Roy went to deliver firewood to merchants and the nearby baronet while Grace cleaned up after the meal.Normally she’d look after Jenna, but the rambunctious child was too enamored with her kittens to wander.They’d need firewood to keep the house warm in the night, so Grace headed for the woodshed.

The woodshed was a small building open on two sides.Roy kept it well supplied with deadwood and live trees he’d cut and left to dry.Farmers and craftsmen counted on Roy to keep them warm through the winter, and carpenters often came for building material.

Grace poked through the woodpiles looking for a few small branches she could burn.She hadn’t finished when her unborn child kicked within her.“Mother keeps saying only boys kick so much.You must be healthy to make so much trouble.”

She reached over a pile to grab a dry branch and froze when she saw a spot of red.Grace dug through the woodpile, going ever deeper into the woodshed until she reached a bright red velvet pouch in the back corner.She lifted it and heard it jingle.Coins.There were more velvet pouches under the first one.One, two, three, four in all, each one was big enough to carry a goodly amount of money.Hesitantly she opened one and took out a single gold coin.

There was a terrible hiss behind her, and Grace dropped the pouch.She turned to see Esme’s cat carrying an ivory wand in its mouth.The cat dropped the wand and growled at her, claws extending and hairs rising across its back.

Grace was having none of it.

“How dare you!”The cat held its ground and snarled at her.Grace threw the coin at the cat’s feet and shouted, “Do you have any idea how much trouble we’re going to get into over this?Taking a rabbit now and again is one thing, but this is robbery! Esme is going to think we stole it! She’ll be furious!”

The cat froze in place.Its hairs settled and it looked down as it backed away.Was that embarrassment?Fear?A sudden realization hit Grace, and her tone softened when she spoke.

“Oh.Oh, girl, I’m sorry.Esme’s gone, isn’t she?That’s why you came here.”She bent down and picked up the cat.It made no move to escape, instead rubbing its face into her dress.She carried it back and set it inside next to the kittens.

Roy came back as night approached, and Grace met him at the door.He saw the look on her face and asked, “What happened?”

“I think Esme died,” Grace said, her voice just above a whisper.Jenna was too young to hear of such things and was best kept in the dark.“She died and her cat came here to raise her kittens.”

Roy cursed bitterly but softly enough that Jenna wouldn’t hear.“I’ll get my cousins and we’ll look in on her in the morning.”

“You’ll bury her?”

“There are small laws and big ones.Burying the dead is a big one.We’ll see she gets a proper grave, and Father Amadeus Firepower can say a funeral for her and bless the grave next time he comes to the village.That should be enough to keep dark spirits from taking over her body now that she’s moved on.”

Grace’s heart beat faster.“You think that could happen?”

“I saw it when I was in the army.I mean to make sure I don’t see it again.Make no mistake, Grace, I’ve no love for the sorceress, but I’ll not see her become a barrow wight wandering the forest.I do this for you and for Jenna.”

* * * * *

The next day started calmly enough.Jenna stayed near the kittens while Esme’s cat came and went as it pleased. Grace took her daughter and collected wild greens and mushrooms from the forest.Roy left early in the morning, coming back at noon with mud on his hands. He washed in a nearby stream and when he came home waved for Grace to join him outside.“You were right.”

“How did it happen?”

“No sign of violence,” Roy said.“I think it was just old age.We buried her deep and covered the grave with a large rock.That should keep the body quiet until the priest can bless it. Esme’s cat watched us the whole time we buried her.I asked my cousins to tell the baronet what happened.It may take a few days for knights or the sheriff to come settle Esme’s affairs now that she’s gone.

“I didn’t see much in her shack.No coins, no books or scrolls, no potions.Just as well there’s nothing to take or men might get jealous.We’re wondering if we should burn her shack down so bandits and rogues don’t use it.”

Grace hesitated before saying, “Esme’s cat hid things from her house in our woodshed.”

“What sort of things?”

“Things that might make men get jealous.Gold, a wand, maybe more I didn’t find.”

Roy made a low, growling sound.“Always Fails Esme causes trouble even when she’s dead.Tell no one about this.Don’t touch it, especially the wand.God only knows what it does.If knights come or Esme has any family who comes to mourn her then we’ll tell them.”

“The gold could do a lot of good here.”

Roy grabbed his tools before heading for the door.“Merchants would want to know how we got it, and telling them it’s from a dead woman wouldn’t go over well.That’s assuming they don’t just try to take it from us.I’ve seen men killed for a handful of copper coins. Heaven help us, bandits would wipe out the whole village for gold.I’ll be back in time for supper.Grace?”

“What is it?”

“Be careful around the cat,” he said.“I know how stupid that sounds, but I’m serious.I saw wizards back when I was in the army and some kept cats. They cast spells binding the animals to them.I didn’t understand it much and the wizards never explained except to call them familiars. If that cat is a familiar I don’t know what it can do without Esme, but it could be dangerous.”

Grace frowned.“If it’s dangerous we can’t safely get rid of it, either.”

“No, we can’t, and that’s why we need help dealing with this.Keep safe.”

Grace spent the day gardening and watching over Jenna.Her daughter was still excited with her new pets and stayed with them constantly.Esme’s cat came back at noon to check her kittens.The cat stayed for a while watching Grace.

“My husband thinks you’re something special,” Grace told the cat while she worked. This didn’t bother Jenna, as small children often talked to animals and toys.The cat watched Grace, showing only minor interest.

“I think he’s right.Cats don’t care about gold or wands.Esme must have cast spells on you to make you smarter, so I hope you understand me.I know you came here to keep your kittens safe, but you might be putting my family in danger.Men want gold enough to kill for it.They might kill for Esme’s wand.I don’t know if you brought them here to keep them safe or as a gift, but they can’t stay.Did Esme know people you can bring them to?”

The cat looked down and shook its head.Grace petted it and asked, “Why did you come here in the first place?”

Esme’s cat gave her a look that said ‘are you kidding’before it looked at Jenna.The little girl was sitting inside the basket with a pile of kittens on her lap.The cat also rubbed against Grace’s belly, where her unborn child started kicking.

“One mother counting on another.”Grace took Jenna out of the basket and put the mewing kittens back in it. “Then take this from one mother to another: Roy’s a good man and he’ll take care of us, but he can’t protect us from everything.”

The cat gave her a ‘oh, him’look, and Grace scolded, “Don’t you give me that.I was a girl when the king needed soldiers.They took Roy and ten other men from our village.I was a grown woman when Roy came back alone.He survived things that should only be in nightmares, and after he came back he killed two monsters living in the forest.”

Esme’s cat didn’t look sorry, but it didn’t show further disrespect before heading into the woods.Grace didn’t see it again until Roy came back at the end of the day.The cat lay in front of the fire, watching them when Roy handed Grace a squirrel he’d caught.

“Any trouble?” he asked.

“While you were gone Jenna stuffed all the kittens inside your spare socks.I just finished getting them out.”

Roy picked up his daughter and ticked her chin.“Why did you do such a silly thing?”

“To keep kittens warm,” Jenna told him.

“I can’t argue with that,” Roy told her.He put the little girl down and clarified, “I meant any trouble from our guest.”

Grace took the squirrel and prepared it for dinner.“No.I think Esme’s cat is only going to be with us until her kittens are grown.There’s no need for her to stay after that.”

Roy seemed more at ease with the idea.“As long as there’s no trouble.She seems lazy enough.”

“Must you pick fights?” Grace asked.

“It’s not an insult,” Roy said as he put his tools away.“Hunters who don’t know what they’re doing spend all their time and energy finding food.Lazy hunters are the best kind.They know what they’re doing, catch their food quickly and go home early, and that is one lazy cat.”

Esme’s cat showed considerable interest in the squirrel Roy had brought home. Roy wagged a finger at it and said, “We’re putting a roof over your head, but we’re not feeding you.Get your own dinner.”

The cat gave him a disparaging look that said ‘cheapskate’before it got up and left the house.Grace, Roy and Jenna had the rest of the night to themselves with no further visits.Grace put Jenna to sleep, even if the girl insisted on taking the kittens and their basket with her to bed.Roy and Grace went to bed and were fast asleep within minutes.

* * * * *

Boom!

The explosion woke Grace and Roy from their sleep.Jenna woke screaming and ran to their bed.Grace scooped up her daughter while Roy grabbed a long handled ax from his tools.

Grace staggered to her feet with Jenna in her arms.“What was that?”

“Stay in the house!”Roy ran outside and came back within seconds.“I see smoke and bright lights in the woods.It looks like it’s coming from Esme’s shack.”

“You said there was nothing in there.How could it explode?”

“I don’t feel like finding out.Take Jenna and whatever you can carry and go to your parent’s house.I’ll round up any villagers who can help and get the baronet. Problems this big are his business, not ours.”

Most of their possessions were cheap and replaceable, leaving little for Grace to carry.She headed outside when Jenna yelled, “Kittens!I want my kittens!”

Roy grabbed the basket and handed it to Grace.“Go!Hurry!”

Grace didn’t get a step before pain washed over her.She winced and gripped her head, nearly hitting a wall as she staggered under the strain.Agony hit Roy just as hard and he fumbled for his ax.Jenna cried out and the kittens made pitiful noises.

“Yes, hurry,” a taunting voice called out.

Roy and Grace looked outside their simple house and saw lights floating in the darkness. A group of strange figures emerged from the forest.A tall woman in flowing robes was in the lead and flanked by two unnaturally thin figures.Too late Grace realized those things were men’s bones knitted together, and they had red glowing eyes.Two skeletal hounds and a skeletal stag followed them.The strange lights came from glowing skulls that floated around these terrible people.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” the woman taunted them.She was a grown woman but had a child-like voice and a singsong tone like a mother speaking to a child.“Auntie Esme hurried all the time, except when she didn’t.She hurried to tell me I was wrong.She hurried to kick me out like I was trash!She hurried to tell wizards not to teach me! But she wouldn’t hurry to trust me. Isn’t that silly?”

“Stop playing around,” a skeletal man told the woman.“Your lightshow is going to bring trouble.”

“You see what I have to put up with?” the woman asked.“My children are so disobedient.I’ve made and killed three batches of them, but the new ones are never better.You’re a mother.You understand.”

Roy stepped in front of Grace and Jenna.“We had nothing to do with Esme’s death.”

“Of course you didn’t,” the woman said scornfully.“Auntie could have killed a hundred men like you.The dark spirits told me she died in her sleep.She’s gone and the world’s no worse for it. Auntie never did anything worth doing. Don’t use magic if you don’t have to. Don’t become dependent on magic. Don’t make people jealous of your magic by showing off.She could have overthrown kings with her power, and she wouldn’t even fix a broken teacup!”

Grace staggered back under the pain.Where was it coming from?Why wasn’t it affecting this crazy woman and her monsters?

“Your aunt, her cat brought things from her house,” Grace struggled to say. “They’re in the woodshed.Take them and go.”

“Why do you think I came here?” the woman demanded.“I searched her miserable hovel and tore it asunder.The dark spirits told me where to find her wand. Seems she gave away her magic rings a few years ago to a wandering brat.Someone finally impressed auntie, it’s that strange?She threw out two girls and then me, her own niece.Three apprentices desperate to learn, desperate to please her, and she treated some penniless idiot on a quest like he mattered! She thought that was the end of it, but I found others to teach me!I showed her!”

The woman smoothed out her robes before saying, “That’s neither here nor there. I can feel auntie’s wand nearby. I could take it and walk away, no harm done.”

“But you won’t,” a skeletal hound said.It spoke like a bitter man.

“We’re stuck serving an idiot,” the other hound said.

The woman glared at her monstrous servants.“Auntie liked it here.So peaceful, so quiet, so boring, just like her.I couldn’t kill Aunt Esme, she was too strong, but I can burn everything she loved.So, about that wand, let’s pretend you didn’t tell me where to find it.I like pretending.”

A skeletal man took a step toward Grace.“It’s playtime.”

It didn’t take a second step.Roy screamed a battle cry and swung his axe in an overhead attack, breaking through the skeleton’s skull and ribcage.Smashed bones went flying as the skeleton staggered back.Roy followed up with a swing across its chest that broke the rest of its ribs and its spine.

A skeletal hound bound at him and suffered for it.Roy’s next swing took off its head, and the following blow broke both its front legs.The next hound was a second behind the first and lunged at Roy’s neck.He ducked under its jaws and swung again, breaking off its back legs before he crushed its spine.

“Hmm, didn’t see that coming,” the woman said.

Grace did.Her husband had been a soldier for years and killed monsters after leaving the king’s service.Since coming home he’d cut wood twelve hours a day every day of the week.Battle tested and with muscles like iron, he was a match for these abominations.

“Let’s talk this over,” the second skeletal man said as Roy charged it.

“Grace, run!” Roy yelled.

Grace ran with her child and an armful of kittens.She’d only gone a few steps when the skeletal stag came after her. She dodged its sharp antlers by the thinnest of margins.The monster outpaced her and came to a stop directly in front of her.Grace ran back to the house and hid in the woodshed seconds before the monster charged.

“You can’t stay in there forever,” the stag taunted her.Hearing it speak like a person was horrifying.The stag tried to force its way into the woodshed, but its long thin legs and broad antlers got caught in the piles of wood.

Grace put down her daughter and the kittens before she pressed both hands against a tall woodpile.She pushed for all she was worth until the pile fell across the stag’s antlers, pinning it in place.She grabbed a long piece of firewood and stood over the stag, swinging again and again, breaking its legs and ribs until the awful thing stopped moving and the red light in its eyes died away.

“This wasn’t my idea!” the skeletal man said as it fled past the woodshed. It was missing its right arm, and another swing of Roy’s axe took off the other one.“Not in the face!Not in the f—”

He hit it in the face and crushed the last skeleton.With it gone the pain coursing through Grace’s body faded away and she felt normal again.

“Pity that,” the woman said.Her followers were gone, but the woman was far from defenseless.She wove her hands in the air and spoke foul words, then took a bottle from inside her robes and threw it to the ground.The bottle shattered and a tiny flying creature rose into the air.Seconds later the skeletons’ broken bones were swept up as if by a great wind and fused together around the little creature, forming a skeletal man eight feet tall.

“Can you see me, auntie?” the woman screamed as her monster marched toward Roy. “Your other students died, but not me! Am I not powerful?Am I not worthy?”

Grace dug through the woodpile until she found Esme’s belongings.She tossed aside the pouches filled with gold and grabbed the wand.This madwoman wanted it.Maybe it could stop her if Grace could figure out how it worked.

“Grace, run!”Roy struck the monstrous skeleton, but the fused bones resisted his blows.It tried to slap him and missed.

The wand had no writing on it, no trigger or lever, nor any switches. Grace did see two tiny silver rings near the base.Both rings could slide toward one another, and when she slid one she felt the wand vibrate.

“Grace!”

“As if running would help,” the woman said casually.

Grace stepped out of the woodshed just in time to see the monster skeleton knock her husband over.She pointed the wand at that revolting monstrosity and slid the two silver rings together.The wand shook like someone was trying to pull it from her hands.When the rings touched a deafening boom came from the wand. The horrible monster looked so confused before a wall of sound hit it like a battering ram, smashing it apart and sending bone shards flying.

“That would be auntie’s wand,” the woman said.She didn’t sound bothered.

Grace pointed the wand at this maniac who’d attacked her family.She slid the two rings together, and was rewarded with absolutely nothing.No boom, no shaking, nothing.

“Aunt Esme made that wand,” the woman said.“It works only once a day, one of her little teaching moments.She said if you have to resort to violence more than once a day then you should find better ways to deal with your problems. I’d say she’s wrong, wouldn’t you? Auntie was wrong about so much.”

The glowing skulls circled around the woman as she cast another spell. Giant black spider-like legs sprouted from her back and scratched at the edge of Roy and Grace’s house.Sharp claws on those legs hacked through oak boards as if they were soft dirt.Another spell formed a dense cloud of biting flies around the woman’s right hand.

“You killed my children,” the madwoman said as the cloud of flies grew larger.“It’s no great loss.They were as disappointing as the ones before them.Still, I’d be lonely without them.You and your neighbors can replace my children…after a few modifications.”

Roy gripped his axe and braced himself.Grace threw the wand aside and grabbed a loose branch from the woodshed.

“Hiss!”

The noise was loud enough to draw all three people’s attention.It was Esme’s cat, standing at the edge of the forest. The cat had caught a squirrel and brought it back, dropping it at the sight of the battle.Grace fancied that she could guess the cat’s thoughts by its expressions.What she saw in it now was outrage, fury, hatred without limit, a look that said ‘how dare you’.Grace saw the red garnet on the cat’s collar glow bright in a match to the cat’s wrath.

“Why are you wearing auntie’s broach?” the woman asked.

Grace wondered why the madwoman didn’t recognize the threat.Whether it was insanity, stupidity or arrogance, she missed the opportunity to strike first.Esme’s cat charged the woman and ate up the ground between them in seconds. The garnet glowed brighter still as the cat changed, twisted, bent and grew until it seized the woman with claws four inches long.The woman cried out in shock as Esme’s cat, cat no longer, dragged her eighty yards into the forest.Seconds later her cloud of flies scattered and the glowing skulls winked out.

* * * * *

The baronet and ten soldiers arrived at the woodcutter’s house early the next day. Word had gotten to him that Esme had died.He’d put little thought to it as he was no relation to the woman and had no claim on her property, nor did he use her potions or enchantments.But morning had brought reports of an explosion in the forest and talk of dark magic.He found the woodcutter and his family surrounded by neighbors and relatives. They were shaken up but not seriously injured.

“What happened?” the baronet asked as he approached.

The woodcutter bowed his head.“Sir, one of Esme’s banished apprentices came last night.She swore violence against the village.”

The baronet gritted his teeth.Two of Esme’s former apprentices were safely buried.Word was that Esme’s last and worst apprentice had sunken deep into black magic and necromancy.If she was here then every man within twenty miles was in danger.

“Where did she go?” the baronet demanded.

The woodcutter pointed to a fresh grave with many large rocks over it.“We buried as much of her as we could find.”

“You killed her?”

The woodcutter looked down and his pregnant wife joined him.“No, sir.”

“Sir,” the woman began, “we would have died except Esme’s cat attacked the woman. Your lordship, Esme must have enchanted her cat.I think she left it behind in case her apprentice returned.”

The baronet didn’t relax at this news.If Esme’s last and worst apprentice was gone so much the better, but he had no cause to rejoice if there was an even greater threat present.“Where is this cat?”

The woodcutter’s wife pointed at a large silvery gray cat with a black collar. The cat sat at the doorway to the woodcutter’s house, joined by a little girl and a number of kittens.The cat watched him.It didn’t look threatening, but wizard’s pets seldom did.

“I see,” the baronet said.He was a practical man who had survived many threats by being smart enough not to run straight at them.This was a matter for wizards to deal with, or possibly a higher ranked nobleman, and his meddling could only make things worse.

Countless eyes watched him.He needed to calm them before someone panicked.“The animal doesn’t seem to be causing trouble.I will petition for a court wizard to deal with any matters Esme left unresolved.Until then I’m leaving my guards here to prevent further problems.Has Father Amadeus Firepower been contacted?”

“We sent a messenger at first light,” the woman said.

The baronet nodded.The priest could make sure the necromancer stayed dead, no certain thing when black magic was involved.“Good. You’ve done well in difficult circumstances and have reason to be proud.Return to your homes and fields.”

The crowd dispersed slowly, still half panicked.The baronet couldn’t blame them.He cursed his bad luck that such a horror came to his land.Bad as it was, the problem seemed to be contained for now.The only thing he had to worry about was a cat.

Esme’s cat looked at him as if to say ‘well, now what’, a valid question.He gave it some thought as he looked at the fresh grave and its hideous occupant.He wondered at the damage that wicked woman could have done, the lives that could have been lost, and he came to the conclusion that he rather liked cats.


© Copyright 2019 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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