Can't Catch Me
Disclaimer: All concepts relating to the world of Velgarth, and the Tayledras people, are the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey. The plot inconsistencies, narrative style and any speeling mistakes are the fault of etcetera-cat.
Chapter One- Whither Do I Wander?
I’m being as quiet as I can.
Padding silently in no real direction, except for away from where I’ve come. I’m flitting from shadow to shadow, the pools of dimness that are round the base of every tree and tangle of bushes in this forest, lifting and placing my feet carefully in the thick loam and leaf litter to make sure that I don’t step on a dry twig or leaf that will announce my presence to the vicinity.
All around me is alive with sounds, proof that my bid for invisibility is working. I can hear the birds and other small creatures in the canopy above me, calling to each other and squabbling over food. Normal daytime sounds that drift into my pricked ears as I continue my careful slinking.
I don’t understand how anyone could find this place to be silent, all around there are signs, and sounds, of life.
Mind you, people in general confuse me greatly. Confuse and scare me. Out here is much safer.
Especially for me.
My stomach begins to ache slightly, not-so-subtly reminding me that I haven’t eaten anything since the sun rose. An internal sigh, and I cast around, looking for something that I can con my body into thinking is food. My luck seems to be making a rare appearance, just across from me, next to as deep a pool of shadow as one could wish for, is a bramble like plant loaded down with a fruit I recognise as starberries.
Despite the fact that my guts increase their insistent grumbling at the sight and prospect of actual food, I maintain my caution and skirt my way carefully around the bright patches of summer sun that lance down through the green above and gild the ground they wash over, until I can sink gratefully into the cover provided by the shadows next to the brambles.
Although I am most certainly not the smallest creature to pass through this forest, the shadows around the bases of the trees are more than enough to hide me completely, two or more of me at once, in fact.
The sheer size of the trees in this place is the reason for that, they are quite simply massive. Big enough to build houses in, and people do. Build houses in the trees, I mean. The Hawkbrothers do, at any rate.
Who are the Hawkbrothers? Well, you’re not exactly asking the right person that question. I know very little of them. What I do know is that they live in this forest, which stretches from north to south for what seems like forever, and that they have magic, which they use to fix the places that the terrifying magic storms made several years ago, and to fix the…monsters… that the magic also made. They also have birds, large birds of different species that they have tamed and changed, so that they are intelligent. Partners, not pets.
That is all I know, and I don’t intend to find out anything more, for that would mean meeting—coming into contact with them, which I do not want to do. They have a ‘shoot first and then ask questions’ mentality when it comes to encounters in the forest, their territory. Although that is supposed to have lessened since they became allies with the civilised countries to the east, particularly the one that has this forest running the length of one of it’s borders…Valdemar? Yes, I think it is called that.
Despite that, I still am certain that in my case it would most definitely still be a ‘shoot first’ scenario, hence my caution. I don’t want to overly announce my presence to the local wildlife, and I definitely don’t want to encounter any Hawkbrothers.
There, now I have stripped every last ripe starberry within my reach and they seem to have satisfied my stomach, as it has stopped aching. Unfortunately, this means that I can pay more attention to the rest of the aches and grumbles that my body is informing me that it has.
As if I could forget, and pausing has allowed my muscles to cool enough that the aches are more noticeable, along with the threatening stiffness that only left me this morning after I had been moving for at least two of the local’s ‘marks’.
As well as the aches, there are several sharper pains, one across the top of my head, and one tracing down my right leg.
I should have known better than to speak the few words of Trader-talk that I know to those people. Hells, when it comes down to it, I should never have gone anywhere near that village. I should have…stood by and watched that child get dragged under the water, never to resurface? No! I couldn’t have done that, even if he was-is one of them. But I shouldn’t have half-carried him back to his village.
Stupid idiot that I was, lulled into a false sense of security by the child’s lack of anything resembling fear when presented with a good look at me. The other inhabitants of that village soon broke that bubble of ridiculous daydreaming. The fact that I then tried to speak to them only made it worse.
As my battered self lays testimony to.
Time to move off before the threatening stiffness does invade my limbs, I can’t afford to move any slower than I have been. A thorough inspection of everything around me, and I leave the scant protection of the shadow pocket and continue my silent trek northwards.
After an indeterminate amount of time I catch the whisper of a new sound in the air. Looking around and sniffing cautiously at the air, I determine that it is a small stream, off to my left. Good, I’m thirsty.
I change the direction in which I have been walking, so that I will soon intercept the stream at an angle. No use in turning at right angles to walk to it, this way I am heading both towards the water, and away from back there.
Within short order I spy a dark, winding line cutting through the ground ahead of me, sure enough it is a small stream, burbling it’s way over a bed of pebbles and fine-grained soil. My luck seems to be holding, for once, as I have intercepted the stream at the point where it makes a half circle loop around, with the inside of the meander a gently sloping beach of sand and pebbles.
I hesitantly step onto the soft sand—I shall have to remember to scuff out my p-foot prints before I leave—and approach the smooth flowing water. Before I take a drink I pause and look down at my reflection on the rippling surface.
As I thought, I have a large cut running across my head, from just above my right eye, backwards and the blood has scabbed around it, making my fur matt together.
Didn’t mention that, did I? I’m a Changling…I won’t say ‘Changechild’ as that implies more humanity to my looks than I possess. I suppose the closest would be ‘Changecat’ although that is not the whole truth either.
I sigh quietly and move my gaze so that I am staring squarely into the reflection of my green eyes. Slit-pupils, of course. The face that looks back at me looks broadly like one of the grasscats found on the great plains, although they are dusky gold in colour and my fur is a marbled-stripe mess of black, brown and silver that covers the mottled bruising that currently adorns my hide and I have green, green eyes. I really do look like a cat, nothing really human at all about my features, which suits me fine. I don’t want to look like one of them.
I dip my head to the water and lap it up, icy coolness spreading across my mouth and down my throat as I swallow. Once I’ve sated my thirst I sit back awkwardly on my haunches and twitch my whiskers to shake off the clinging droplets of sparkling water.
Sitting like this I look entirely like a large striped cat, my tail coiled loosely around my left hind, with my right stretched out slightly to one side.
I could almost be mistaken for something normal. I think bitterly to myself as I risk a look down at my right hind. The sharp line of pain is due to a long, shallow cut that snakes it’s way down my leg, from my hip to well past my stifle. It is scabbed over the same as my head wound.
I want to clean them both, but I don’t dare as that would most likely make them bleed again and introducing the scent of blood into the air of the forest is not something that I am hasty to do.
Dark of the moon only knows what would start hunting me.
I should move, before something, or someone, else happens along. I stand up, balancing most of my weight anywhere but my right leg and move slowly forwards, taking care to scuff out my distinct paw prints from the sand as I go.
Yes, I’m on all fours, although I can walk on hinds only if I chose, that ability and the fact that my front paws are very hand-like, are the only remotely human things about me. I prefer walking on all four paws to be quite frank, maybe because I always have done, and also because humans tend to comment if they catch a glance of a large cat pottering about on two legs. Of course there is a more practical reason at the moment, as well. I seriously doubt I could walk for any distance at all on just my hinds, and I have no wish to try it either.
I suddenly freeze in the dark of a large tree stump that is covered with thick green moss and my ears prick forwards, straining to catch any unusual sounds. I’m sure I just heard—yes! There it is again, faint and distant; a harsh, unmusical cawing sound.
I wonder what that could be? The thought fleets across my mind and I uneasily shift my weight from paw to paw, eliciting protesting aches from my bruises and a stinging complaint from my injured leg.
I should go and see what’s making that sound—no! I shouldn’t! Look at what happened last time I tried to help. I shake my head and turn away from the direction of the sound, whatever the bird is that is making the noises, it sounds afraid.
But, my inner voice of reason rears its head, you don’t know what kind of animal is making that noise…it could be food… The thought trails off as I contemplate the fact that it could indeed be food, and, apart from those berries before, I haven’t eaten properly for days. My inner curiosity senses this and joins in trying to convince me to go see what is making the sounds. They’re coming from ahead of you, up the stream after all, and you were thinking of following the stream for a bit… I hate it when I use semi-logical arguments against myself.
Very well then, I shall go and discover the source of the sounds, but I’m not going to blunder in blindly. I’m not that stupid.
First I strain with my ears and nose to gather any information about what lies ahead of me. I can’t determine much, other than it is just the one animal making the sounds, and, after the initial cacophony when it started up, the local wildlife has not changed its volume level much. That is most decidedly a good thing—maybe my luck is holding?—as it rules out the possibility of any hunters like the snake-dogs being around.
Well since I can’t gather anything more from…normal…senses, it’s time to use my…other…senses. Now I really concentrate, and slowly lower the shields about my mind. Actually a more accurate description would be thinning my shields. The outcome is the same however, the sounds in the forest around me take on an extra dimension as I am suddenly party to the internal chatterings of everything in my vicinity, as well as the external.
The general condition of my body and the fact that I have been running for too long on far to little means that I don’t have near my usual range, but I do have enough to probe carefully ahead of me. I can feel the distressed animal—no, definitely a bird—with my mind, but it feels…I don’t know…odd somehow. Not quite right.
Could it be one of the Hawkbrother’s birds? The thought sends an icy shiver down my back and sets my hide to twitching on my flanks and I clamp down on the urge to run. I’m running out of places to run. Besides, I can’t hear any mind that sounds anything like human. Relatively safe then.
I winch my mind back in and begin to make my way forwards, following the course of the stream and heading towards the sound of the bird.
It’s strange, but it seems to simultaneously take me forever, and no time at all to reach the source of the wailing caws. And they are wails, uncanny and un-bird-like. Not that I can really comment of anything’s comparative uncanniness.
The bank that I have been walking along has gradually been rising, becoming almost a miniature cliff with the stream carving out it’s way along it’s base by the time I reach the sounds. So rather than being confronted by whatever is making the noise, I am above it. An advantage for me, I really do think that my luck is putting in a once in a lifetime appearance.
Well, I’m standing cautiously back from the edge of the cliff, but all I can see ahead of me is tree trunks and green covered branches. Not exactly informative. I crouch down and eel my way towards the harsh line that marks the edge of the drop, well, try to eel along. My abused self, in particular my leg, has much to say on that subject, none of it flattering. The ground I’m pressing myself along seems to be very disturbed here, and the edge of the bank ahead of me has a very jagged and raw look to it.
Maybe an animal fell over the edge? But why would a bird be crying out about that? If something has fallen over the edge, it’s being very quiet…maybe that means it’s dead…in which case I could well be having the first proper meal of meat in ages. My mouth is beginning to water at the prospect of salty, rich meat.
Enough dawdling, daft animal! I wriggle the last few lengths and raise my head slightly to peer over the edge of the cliff, which appears to be about two men high. I can’t see anything, so I shuffle forwards some more, gathering my aching limbs under myself so that I am in a crouched posture.
Well, just like I thought, it is a bird making the terrible sounds, it’s some kind of raptor and is perched on a dead branch that has obviously fallen from one of the surrounding trees a while ago as it is moss covered and one end is drowned in vine like creepers. Speaking of drowning, the focus of the bird’s—hawk I think—attention is something lying partly in the stream. Looks like my guess was right then, whatever it is fell off the bank. I can’t quite see what it is clearly though, so I lever my self up into a half-sitting position.
And promptly freeze.
It’s a human—a man. Worse than that, given the outlandish clothing and the fact that his hair has a silvery sheen to it and not-natural patterns, a Hawkbrother.
Run away! Run away! Run away! For once, all the usual argumentative parts of my mind unite and scream at me in fear. Two words, repeated over and over. Everything seems to be moving through syrup, I can’t seem to move, all I can do is listen dumbly to the skittering thunder that is my own heart, seemingly determined that if I don’t move soon, its going to bloody jump out of my chest and get out of here on its own.
Any second now, the man’s going to spot me and—the hawk’s keening breaks off and it fixes piercing yellow-brown eyes on me.
:Help!: The demanding, and male, voice echoes in my head.
What the Hells?! I yelp to myself and start violently, causing my leg to pulse in pain.
:You, help now!: I look wildly around for the source of the voice and suddenly realise that the hawk is the one speaking to me, staring at me too.
:Wha-what?: I reply without even thinking, as most of my mind is currently engaged in jumping up and down and screaming ‘He’s going to spot you! Run! The man is going to see you any moment now! Run!’ I’m still frozen in place though.
The bird flips its wings and gives a disgusting caw. :Bondmate hurt.: It states. I get the feeling I’m being patronised. :You help. Now.: Yes, I am being talked down to by a bird.
But, hang on, the man…the bird’s ‘Bondmate’, he hasn’t reacted to my presence. At least, I haven’t heard anything. I dare a glance down, muscles tensed, more than half expecting to be staring down the business end of an arrow. I’m not though. The man hasn’t moved as much as a finger, as far as I can tell. Maybe he’s dead?
:Not dead!: The hawk glares fiercely at me. It’s following my thoughts dammit! :Hurt, you help now.:
I consider the cliff face below my paws, I can see where the landslip that the Hawkbrother went over on occurred, the earth is fresh and loose looking. Maybe if I climb down on the left side, I can use those branches to help— I break off the thought and shake my head violently –what am I thinking?! I can’t seriously be considering helping one of them! He’ll wake up and kill me! I stop, half turned and with one paw raised to try and climb down the cliff face and blink.
:Not kill!: Damnable bird, in my head again. :Reeka say you help, Shadowstar not kill.:
I pause again and twitch my tail slightly, a weak breeze ruffling my fur, and the feathers of the hawk, Reeka, before moving forwards and trying to climb down the cliff without falling head over tail downwards.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why am I doing this? I am shaking so much with fear that I’m going to fall in a moment. But I’m still doing this. Because a bird told me to. I must be insane… The thought chase around my head, along with the ever-present yammering fear and insistence that I should ‘Run away! Run away!’
Normally I would have no trouble climbing something like this, but I am really shaking and my usual flexible body is bitterly complaining at the contortions and strain I am putting it through. Suddenly, my right leg decides that it has had quite enough, thank you very much, and it gives under me, throwing me off balance totally as I scrabble helplessly at the side of the bank. Which chooses that moment to start to disintegrate beneath me.
I hiss as pain flares along my leg and then I’m sliding, falling down the rest of the bank. My luck seems to have wandered off after the faeires, as my uncontrolled descent—perhaps ‘plummet’ would be a better description—is only halted by the gravely bed of the stream and the bank.
At some point. I must have shut my eyes, as the pain as I impact with the rough, stony ground flashes behind my eyelids as a dazzling display of red and glowing black, accompanied by a winded moan that blows into the soil my nose is now pressed in.
I gasp and try to pull air into my lungs before I pass out, and then, shakily try to stand up. After a few false starts I manage to gather my limbs into some semblance of working and wobble my way upright.
:Cat hurt?: The bird is looking at me with it’s head over to one side. I suppose I do look like a cat to it.
:Oh, I’m absolutely fine.: I send acidly, unfortunately this seems to go right over the damn thing’s head as it blinks and looks at me.
:Good, now help Shadowstar.:
Who? Oh, right, the Hawkbrother… I look down to my right and sure enough, there is one unconscious human sprawled on his back near me, legs trailing into the water. Well, what the Hell am I supposed to do? I think irritably and shift my weight from paw to paw. Try to, at any rate. My right leg buckles under me and I whimper as pain jags up the limb and try to regain my balance. As I do, I notice a new metallic scent on the air, a hasty look confirms it. The cut along my leg has reopened and is now bleeding sluggishly.
I do not need this.
Well, I suppose I better get myself and the unconscious Hawkbrother out onto dry land. I limp out and round to his head. He looks young, not a child or anything, he’s full grown, but there are no age lines on his face. He smells nice-ish too, of woodlands and musk, not like them, those villagers, who stank of fear and anger.
My fear. Their anger.
I can’t pick him up, I only have three almost functioning limbs at the moment. Maybe I could drag him somehow? I hesitantly paw at his hair until I have exposed the collar of his patchy green coloured tunic. Dipping my head hesitantly, I grip the material in my mouth and begin to back up. Limp vaguely backwards, at any rate.
Stupid lump man. Stupid heavy lump man. I mutter to myself as I drag both myself and the Hawkbrother backwards, up onto the soft loam of the forest floor.
:Not lump!: Reeka objects loudly. :Bondmate!:
Yea, well silly bird should try dragging him. I think rebelliously and spit out the cloth. I look up to check that I have gotten all of him out of the water, which I have. Now what do I do?
Get out of here! Run away! My subconscious clammers at me. That sounds like a plan, I want to get out of here before the Hawkbrother wakes up—a low groan and I jerk my head downwards, to find myself staring at the suddenly animated face of the Hawkbrother.
His eyes are open and he’s staring back at me with dazed confusion.
Ohnonono! Fear paralyses me for a moment, until instinct takes over, literally flinging my higher brain functions to the back of my consciousness, and causing me to back paddle violently away from the man before he can fully wake up. That’s the plan, anyway. My treacherous hind leg has other ideas and promptly crumples under me and I can feel a wave of heat roll down to my paw as the wound opens more.
It hurts. Lots. But I can’t do anything other than stifle a scream of pain into a whimper and force myself to continue moving, trying to pick up speed, as the Hawkbrother has now rolled onto his side and gained to his knees, the confusion still plain on his face. Runrunrun! Get away! Run! And now he’s staggering to his feet, as his bird krrs in agitation, and he towers over me and I’m trying to hunch to the ground and present a small a target as possible whilst at the same time trying to scrabble backwards.
Everything is moving through syrup again, and I can’t seem to get my body to work properly, everything about me is burning with pain and fatigue and I’m getting increasingly dizzy. So dizzy, in fact, that it’s becoming hard to focus on the looming figure in front of me. Run! Run! Run!
I think he’s extending one hand and speaking, but I have no idea what he’s saying, nor do I want to know. I take a chance and twist around and launch myself away, desperately trying to goad my failing self into escape.
I slip, a mixture of slippery ground—though why it should be slippery when it hasn’t rained for days—and a shrieking protest from all of my muscles, not just my injured leg, and fall sideways—I think I call out, but I’m not sure—my head cracking solidly off the fallen branch that the hawk had been perched on.
Multicoloured pain explodes behind my fading vision and I slump to the cool ground.
I’m dead… My last thought.