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ladytimedramon ([personal profile] ladytimedramon) wrote2009-07-27 05:51 pm

Real Cats Don't Wear Boots, Chapter 6

I spent the next few weeks trying to find out any tidbits of news I could about “the ogre”. Unfortunately this village was far from the center of action. Occasionally I would follow Henry into town to the tavern (much to his chagrin… particularly since when I was there, Molly Flowers chose to lavish me with attention instead of him) where I would overhear news from a traveler who had been near Carabas.

So far, the only things I had discovered was that the ogre had all of Carabas in a state of fear, and that no one truly knew what the ogre looked like – it reportedly could take the shape of any man or beast.

News of the ogre, however, was not what turned my new life upside down.

It was winter on this world, which meant layers of fluffy, white, frozen precipitation (aka “snow”) covered the ground. The family had been in a flurry of preparation for what they termed “the lean times.” Henry hunted. William fished. Michael helped Jacob prepare the mill for winter. I discovered that there was no grain production for the upcoming three months; the indigenous grains ceased to grow and the millstream would soon freeze over. I slipped out and disassembled my camp. From the family’s talk, I wouldn’t be using it much if the weather was as bad as expected.

The elder members of the family smoked the fish and game to preserve it, then stored it in a cabinet with a crude lock to keep the cats out (it wouldn’t keep me out, but I respected the family enough to resist the urge to raid a few snacks). William traded some of the family’s stored grain and flour (payment from some farmers) for root vegetables and other produce that he stored in boxes buried into the ground. He also gathered and dried wild berries. All three sons contributed to the gathering of firewood.

By the time the first snow fell, preparations were complete. Personally, I don’t know how these humans kept from going insane during what I would term a “lockdown.” The snow piled up around, making exiting the house a chore. Once a day, the younger men bravely dug out the door and made a path to the stable to care for the donkey and horses. The cats were content to stay in the house and lay by the fire, catching the occasional rodent that tried to find food and warmth indoors.

I was ready to go mad from boredom. The house was shut constantly – when someone left, the door was opened only briefly. My muscles were beginning to cramp from inactivity. The only thing of interest was when William read or wrote; I sat at his side to continue my own lessons (which led Henry and Michael to shake their heads and mutter). While that kept my mind busy, it did nothing for my body. I started climbing the walls… literally. Which is how I discovered a couple of loose shingles that became my “escape hatch,” so to speak. When the humans went to sleep, I would exit through the roof, hop the short distance to the top of the precariously slippery roof of the mill house, then slip in through another couple of shingles. The moonlight gave me just enough illumination to perform some calisthenics.

One evening I was returning from one of my workouts. Jacob came out of the house,so I paused. The old man walked over to the wood pile… something his sons would usually have done, but by now they unusually were asleep. Movement from behind the woodpile attracted my attention. I thought, at first, that it was one of the other cats, or one of the strays that occasionally came to the mill to find vermin. As my eyes focused I realized that this was no cat. It was a wolf.

Jacob lifted a piece of firewood from the pile, startling the creature into attacking. My police instincts jumped into action. I leapt down from my perch, placing myself between the old man and the wolf.

The wolf’s eyes almost glowed in the moonlight. Its fangs were bared as it snarled. I suspected that the wild beast was looking at me as an appetizer and Jacob as the main dish. As an officer of the Intergalactic Space Patrol, there was no way I’d let that happen.

I took the offensive; the wolf didn’t know what hit him. Our fight caused enough of a commotion that it brought William and his brothers running from inside. The wolf ran off, his tail between his legs. Hopefully he wouldn’t show his face around this mill again. The brothers stared at me in amazement. Then they saw Jacob sprawled out in the snow.

Henry and Michael carried their father into the house. William picked me up and held me tight. I could smell his fear. “Thank you, Puss,” he murmured. The brothers restarted the fire and heaped blankets on top of their father.

The family began an anxious vigil by their father’s side. By morning, the old man had opened his eyes. He was pale and appeared weaker than usual. Jacob managed some of the broth William gave him. Then the old man started barking orders. William and his brothers appeared relieved as they rushed to comply with their father’s demands. Henry was sent to the marketplace to fetch herbal teas. Michael was told to check the stables and the mill thoroughly. William was directed to bring Brother Bartholomew.

Soon it was just me and the old man. “Thank you, Puss, for saving my life. I’ve always known there was something special about you.” He looked me in the eye. “Are you a guardian angel, sent by the heavens to watch over us?”

Jacob looked at me, as if expecting me to say something. I decided to break my self-imposed silence. “In a way.”

Jacob blinked in surprise. “I always knew you were special.” A weak smile crossed his face. “Might you also be the phantom tormenting Henry in the stables?”

I couldn’t help chuckling as I said “That I am.”

“The boy needs something to keep him on his toes,” returned Jacob. “I worry about all my sons. I should have seen to it that the elder boys were married off, but a mill takes youth to run it.” He sighed. “Still, Michael will take over the mill, as is his right as first born. The horses and cart… Henry will find what to do with them. But William?” Jacob began an alarming bout of coughing.

When his breathing returned to normal, he continued. “I worry about William. For all of his intelligence, he is not prepared to survive on his own. That is my fault. William’s mother was told by a fortune teller that the boy could aspire beyond life at the mill. In my wife’s memory, I’ve honored her wishes. But by doing so, he will never be able to manage at a trade.” He coughed. “Brother Bartholomew thinks he could become a scribe at a court. Or join a holy order. But William is still young.” Another long round of coughs stopped Jacob for a few moments.

“If William were on my world, there would be many options open to him,” I told Jacob when the cough stopped.

“Could you… take William to your world?”

I couldn’t help blinking in surprise before carefully considering my words. Jacob would not be able to understand the full story. “I am… bound to remain here. There is a mission I need to complete first, and even then I might not be allowed to return to my world.” The old man sighed sadly. “That is not to say that William couldn’t accompany me on my mission.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“Would you, Puss? I do not think I am long for this world, and it would ease my mind to know that William will not be alone or misused by his brothers.”

“If nothing else, I will make certain that William attains an education and gets settled into a proper life,” I returned. Jacob was likely on his deathbed and needed to set his mind at ease. “Please do not tell anyone of our conversation,” I added. “It would… jeopardize my mission.”

Jacob nodded and began hacking just as Michael entered the house. Alarmed, the eldest of the miller’s sons tried to get his father to drink some water. He rested his hand on his father’s head, then pulled it back abruptly. Michael muttered something about fever.

William soon returned with Brother Bartholomew. The priest confirmed what Michael suspected. “He is burning up. Fetch cold water and a cloth.” The brothers complied and a compress was applied to Jacob’s forehead. “Willow bark tea should ease the fever,” advised Brother Bartholomew.

“Henry has gone to town to fetch some,” returned Michael. “Though perhaps William or I should have gone instead.”

Surprisingly enough, the middle son returned faster than anyone expected. He arrived, breathing hard as if he’d been running, with a cloth sack in his hand. “Made it as fast as I could,” he panted as he handed the sack to Brother Bartholomew. Water was already boiling on the hearth. The priest examined the contents and added some to the pot. I heard him mutter one of his prayers as he strained the liquid into a bowl.

Michael helped Jacob sit up to drink. I watched, wishing I had access to my ship. It had a healing pod that, within minutes, would have eradicated whatever was affecting Jacob. Mentally I cursed the primitiveness of this world. Michael and Henry sat by their father’s bed while William told Brother Bartholomew about my saving Jacob from the wolf.

“A cat strong enough to fend off a wolf is truly a miracle,” agreed the priest. “But it may have only given your father a few more hours. I believe the Lord is calling your father to heaven.” William started to become choked up. He hugged me in an attempt to hide his tears.

Jacob’s cough became worse. His breathing became more difficult. As Brother Bartholomew said, I might have given Jacob only a few more hours to spend with his family. The brothers resumed taking turns standing vigil over their father. I paced anxiously. Sometime after midnight, Jacob opened his eyes and waved his sons to his side.

“I think I will be joining your mother very soon,” he said, his voice weaker than before. “I regret, though, not seeing my sons married and having the chance to enjoy grandchildren. This mill belonged to my father before me, and his father, and his father’s father. It has been passed on to the eldest son for generations. Brother Bartholomew, you are my witness.” The priest nodded silently. “Michael, the mill is yours. But do not waste time. Marry and have a son that will be able to take on the mill after you.”

“Yes Father.” I could hear the tremble in Michael’s voice as Jacob coughed.

“Henry, the horses and cart are yours,” continued the old man. “Do with them as you will.” Henry nodded as he fought back tears. Jacob waved William closer. The teen took his hand. “My son, there is not much left for you. You have your mother’s dowry chest and its contents that she wanted you to have. Continue your education. Keep Puss beside you – he will guide and protect you.”

“Yes, Father.” The youngest son’s tears flowed freely. Everyone knew the time was near. I was starting to become choked up myself.

“Michael, Henry, be sure that William continues his studies,” said Jacob as his breathing became more and more labored. “Puss, take care of William,” he said to me, surprising the others. I didn’t reply. Jacob already knew my answer.

The old man closed his eyes and seemed to doze off. “It will not be long now,” said Brother Bartholomew in a low, sad voice.

The brothers did not move far from their father’s side. I stayed close to William; he was the youngest and most vulnerable. As the sun rose, Jacob’s breathing ceased. The only sound was Brother Bartholomew’s prayers and the tears of Jacob's sons.

On my world, there would have been a two week period of mourning for the immediate family – Felorans have specific rituals that had been followed for a millennia. On this world, there were prayers said in the church, then Jacob Miller was laid to rest in a grave behind the mill next to his wife.

For his sons, life continued on.