“It’s everywhere,” the grizzled old cat said. “It surrounds us.” And he heard the expected fear-filled gasps and murmuring among his audience.
“This everywhere demon, what is it called grandsire?” one gray-striped kitten asked, his eyes round as saucers, his expression bold and bright as the moonlight above.
“We don’t have a name for it, kit,” the old cat replied, “but the Hind-leggers call it Traffic.”
Under the moon, twelve kittens sat, gathered in a semicircle around the storyteller, a large cat whose straw-colored fur was now streaked with gray and white. The kitten who had asked the question was named Frederick, which tickled the old cat. He hoped that kitten, or one of his friends, would ask the question that he needed asked to properly begin his tale.
Sure enough, “Has anyone tried to face the demon?”
“Yes, or gather an army to kill or capture it?”
The old cat nodded, looking at Frederick. “None can capture or kill this demon, but there was one who faced it…”
Kynder was Chief in those days and she ruled with wisdom, grace, and humility. And though they were not needed in such relatively peaceful times, the Knights of the Claw still trained, maintained under the leadership of the young but able and noble cat named Frederick. In the heart of their realm there stood the mighty tower that housed the law and leadership of the cats. It was in this tower that Chiefs and Knights planned and labored to keep the cats of the realm safe and happy. It was in this tower that Chief Kynder called a meeting to discuss the inevitable doom that was fast approaching their shining realm. For the cats were soon to lose a precious gift that had been given to them by the earth, the gift of nine lives. There was a tree that once grew everywhere, that bloomed on summer nights, and bore leaves of dark green and blue, leaves that contained a nectar the color of moonlight. This nectar, when drunk by a kitten gave it memory and understanding and nine lives. The cats would not die and be reborn, but their lives were long, for if that cat were struck down, he or she would rise again, and again, up to nine times. Rare was the cat who required so many chances, only those who were foolish or bold. And because their lives were long, their lives were rich. And because their lives were long and rich, so too was their society.
Chief Kynder gathered the knights, even the knights-in-training, into a private, locked chamber within the tower in a clandestine meeting to discuss their fate.
“With all due respect, Kyndy, the idea is outrageous,” said Meese, a seasoned knight, who like Kynder was on his fourth life. “It would be more reasonable to continue searching the areas around our own borders. How could a filthy land like Urbania sustain even a drop of Moonlight?”
Sir Frederick stood. “Chief Kynder,” he began, with more than due respect. “I agree with Sir Meese that Urbania is an unlikely place to find what has now become a rare resource. But that same rarity is the reason that we must act upon your idea. We must look where we have never looked before.”
Lady Myra swished her tail. “It’s not worth the risk, Sir Knight. Our spies report that there is a great gray moat that must be crossed before entering Urbania. This moat is not made from water, but from something the Hind-leggers call ‘concrete.’ It is hard enough to walk upon, but it is guarded by a most fearsome demon with uncountable manifestations that move at unnatural speeds. It has already killed one of our spies. The cat had three lives left. She lost them all.”
“Then where should we look?” another knight said.
The Chief raised her paw and the cats fell silent. “I do not order any cat to go on such a dangerous and potentially futile mission. But without Moonlight, future generations of our people will be born without the gifts that we now possess and sometimes take for granted. These gifts are not rights, my fellows. They are privileges. If we want to keep them, we will have to struggle to do so. We will have to sacrifice to do so. I ask for volunteers. Tomorrow, those among you who are willing to cross this concrete moat into the realm of Urbania will come at the same time and to the same place as we now meet. I will wait here with further instructions. None who refuse this mission will lose honor or position.”
The meeting ended then and Meese saw the anxiety on the face of his Chief and his friend. Kynder was worried that no cat would come to the tower the next evening, and likely equally worried that some would. One was certain to come. Sir Frederick had made that clear when he defended the Chief’s idea. And he was a knight with influence among the young.
And so it was that the following night, the Chief was not alone in the tower. There were far fewer cats to be sure. But some who showed up were a surprise. Lady Myra had volunteered for one thing. Sir Frederick was there. And so, to his own surprise, was Meese. He likely would not have come if he were serving any other Chief. The company was twenty-nine. Sir Frederick was named their leader. With the blessings of their Chief, they bid farewells to families who did not know the details of their mission, and they made their way to the border between their land and the land of the Hind-leggers.
Meese saw from the corner of his eyes, shapes flick by, some gray, some white, some striped, some patched. Sir Fred was night-black. Only his green eyes shown in the dark beneath the trees. It was shortly after Frederick’s birth that the Moonlight famine began. He was lucky to have had the nectar as a kitten. As were many among the twenty or so shapes that darted past Meese from every direction. Most were mere kits, still in training.
Unlike lithe knights like Frederick and Myra, Meese was a hulking, straw-and-mud-colored cat and proud of his bulk. He presided over the testing of knights-in-training. As they moved through the forest, leaving home far behind, Meese watched through the corner of his eye as Frederick bounded over to him, falling in beside him.
“Meese,” he said, “I would speak with you a moment.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“Just stray thoughts,” Frederick said. He had spoken so boldly in the tower, and now seemed as nervous as a kit. It wasn’t his first time leading, nor was it his first time venturing farther from home than he had ever been, but something was bothering the young knight. As the older knight and the second-in-command, it was Meese’s duty to calm his leader and dampen his doubts. This above all duties was the one that Meese dreaded.
Meese looked up at the darkening sky. “Rain,” he said, “are you thinking of turning back?”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you?”
“It’s a fool’s mission, kit.”
“Fools sometimes succeed where the wise fail.”
“You’re no gambler, Frederick. What made you volunteer? Challenging yourself?”
The young knight ignored the question and asked one of his own, one that Meese did not want to answer. “What would happen to our people, Sir Meese, if we no longer drank the Moonlight?”
“You know what would happen.”
“I know what Kynder told us, that we would lose our nine lives and only have the one. We are fortunate to have even one life, nine is not necessary. So why is Moonlight so important? We would lose something else, wouldn’t we? Our memory and our understanding. Our wits. That’s it, isn’t it? Without Moonlight we would become…beasts, dumb beasts. What then would be the point of having nine lives?”
“If you don’t want the rest of your lives, kit, I’ll take them.”
“Forgive me if I sound ungrateful. Of course I cherish all my lives. Of course I want another eight chances, if something were to happen. Eight more chances to serve my people, to enjoy carousing with friends, to find the lady cat who could be my love, to have kits of my own.”
Meese raised his whiskers. “I didn’t know you wanted kits.”
“Perhaps, some life,” Frederick said.
“Then why in creation would you risk those happy lives you’re planning to go and face a creature that could take it all away? Even if we make it past the demon and reach Urbania, we may not find Moonlight on the other side. Then we’ll have to face the demon all over again to return back home.”
“There’s something about Moonlight that Kynder didn’t tell us. Or perhaps you know, but she just didn’t tell me.”
Meese felt his young friend peering at him with those uncanny green eyes. He was saved from responding by the arrival of another to their conversation. Lady Myra crossed their paths swaggeringly.
“What are you two whispering about over here? I thought we were all meant to be quiet as we came closer to the Hind-leggers’ realm.”
“We were speaking of you, in fact,” Meese said, hoping to change the subject. “Frederick mentioned finding a love and raising kits and such.”
Frederick stiffened, but gave no other indication of what must have been his utter frustration and annoyance with Meese.
Lady Myra swished her tail and moved deftly to Frederick’s left side, putting herself between the two males. “Could it be?” she said. “I still have a chance to win his knight-ship’s heart?”
“My heart is not a prize to be won, my lady.” Frederick’s words were belied by his warm and gentle tone.
They were fond of each other, Fred and Myra. But Meese judged that the lady was too much the jester for a serious young cat like Frederick. It was said that opposites made lasting matches, but real life did not always follow such sayings. Still, if Frederick needed to unburden his mind, it would be best he do so with someone who did not share those burdens and did not have any troubling answers to give him. Meese veered slowly away from the two as Myra continued her teasing.
The concrete moat was even wider than Meese had imagined. From far away, the moat glistened like water. No doubt, the illusion was meant to frighten water-fearing folk like the cats. From the distance at which he stood, Meese could now hear a constant hum and whine. He saw clouds of ground dust rising from the gray moat as massive shapes whipped by. Traffic. Frederick give a final order to two of the knights—the youngest, Meese noticed. Then he trotted back towards the rest of the knights. The two youngest were to stay behind and watch for the others. After five days had passed, those two were to return home as bearers of bad news if none of the twenty-seven remaining knights made it back across the moat. And such might happen, for out of all the knights, only a few like Frederick still had all nine lives.
As he drew closer to the moat, Meese felt fear rise in his gut. Shapes, rattling, roaring, passed by the waiting knights at unimaginable speeds. It was not just one demon. Traffic was legion. It was unstoppable. In all his four lives, Meese had never seen the like. The knights waited, until they could see an opening. One by one, they were to cross in a designated order. Meese watched the first. She was staring at the moat, dreamily it seemed. Suddenly, she rose and dashed towards it. Meese nearly let out a scream of warning, until he saw that the moat was clear. She was halfway across when he heard the roar. Two demons bore down on her—one large and dark green, like the leaves of the forest, but shimmering, the other was bright red with fiery stripes on its flank. The demons had four limbs, not legs like natural creatures, but round limbs that looked like obscenely enormous eyes. They rushed towards the knight in a frenzy. First, one was ahead, then the other, as if in a gruesome race to kill the young knight.
But they were too late. After they passed, the knights eagerly searched the other side. Already the moat was creaking from the passage of more demons, some traveling in one direction, some in another. But they saw her. She ran from side to side to show that she was alright. Meese glanced over at Frederick and saw their leader’s sigh of relief and his intake of breath as he saw the second knight take his place near the moat’s edge. Hours passed by, but only five of the twenty-nine knights had made it across thus far. Night would be upon them shortly. But it was only getting worse. It seemed as if Traffic was sending more and more demons across the moat. Perhaps it knew they had come.
By morning, they had all made it across the moat. Meese could see that Frederick was at once relieved, proud, determined, and worried. They took stock of themselves. No injuries. But almost all the cats had lost at least one life. Sparks, like small bursts of lightning, ran over the bodies of those cats. The crossing had taken far longer than their longest predictions, and it had been far more wrought with chance and danger. There was no pattern they could discern to the demons’ crossings, no safe moment they might wait upon.
And now, the dangers continued. For they were in the realm of the Hind-leggers.
Frederick split the cats up into teams of two, the least experienced going into a team of three, with orders to search for the tree and if found, to collect Moonlight in the small jars that each knight had hung from a collar that wrapped around his or her neck. At the end of five days they would all meet again at the border to the moat.
As they were unfamiliar with the land, each team was also tasked with mapping the regions they explored, so knights on future mission would have an easier job of finding the trees. They started in the south. And they all would go as far north as they could before the time of their mission ran out.
Frederick had chosen Meese as his partner, much to both Meese’s and Myra’s disappointment.
“Why do you want to be traipsing about with an old codger like me when you could have chosen a more nimble and fitting partner?” Meese said when they had separated far enough from the other parties.
Frederick ignored the question. “Why do we need the Hind-leggers to grow this tree for us? Why can we not grow and nurture it ourselves?”
Always, he was thinking. Always questioning.
“We’ve tried, kit. The tree is a delicate one. That is why it is dying out. It requires care. And it’s not our way to grow things. From chief to knight to common cat, we are hunters all. Still, we have tried. We have failed. We don’t know how.”
“Perhaps we can learn, by watching the Hind-leggers.”
Meese sighed. “Watch the Hind—you are full of strange ideas, Sir Frederick.”
Frederick stiffened. “What is strange about that idea?”
“Look at this realm, kit. It is hard and cold and sharp. There is nothing worth learning from these Hind-leggers.”
“Except how to grow the tree that sustains our lives and our way of life.”
Meese sighed again and shook his head.
The two cats heard a roar behind them and the glowing eyes of what could only be a demon. They leapt out of the demon’s line of sight and behind some oddly shaped shrubbery. They watched as the demon passed, slowly this time, and stopped beside the edge of the road. The roar stopped. And the glowing eyes dimmed and darkened in an instant. One of its strange arms or wings perhaps moved away from its body and the cats could see inside the creature. Hind-leggers. They emerged unharmed from inside the body of the demon.
“You see?” Meese said. “They are in league with Traffic. I daresay they seem to have used the demon as a steed. They are evil, Frederick. Do you still think otherwise?”
But Frederick sat watching. His eyes wide, mesmerized. He was not watching the Hind-leggers as they entered their domicile. He was watching the demon, which now sat silent and sleeping on the edge of the hard road. Frederick was breathing heavily. “We must…we must warn the others. Traffic is not just in the gray moat. It is here in the concrete jungle. It is everywhere.”
“Sir Frederick!” Meese swiped a paw against the young knight’s face, stunning Frederick, who looked up at him. “Get a hold of yourself. This is not the time to collapse into fear and doubt. Do that in your private chambers when we are safely back home.”
Frederick stood. He arched his back, extended his claws, and shook his head. Without another word, he walked ahead, and Meese followed.
And after a long stretch of silence, Frederick only said, as if speaking mostly to himself, “Maybe they are beholden to it for some reason.”
Meese gave no reply. His friend, it seemed, was determined not to think too ill of a people who could grow something as beautiful and good as the tree that gave cats life.
“Look at this place, kit,” Meese said, gazing around himself. They had been wandering for three days and had found nothing but a few of their fellow search parties, equally empty of paw. “It will be a wonder if we manage to find anything growing in this place, much less the tree we seek.”
They were walking through a narrow passage that was littered with the refuse of the Hind-leggers. Everything in the realm was hard as stone. All angles were sharp. And the dwellings of the Hind-leggers were so high and so close together that the cats had to climb to see much of the sun and the clouds.
“You exaggerate, Sir Meese. Look around, there are patches of green everywhere. And trees line the streets. It is a strange realm, to be sure, but there is life here.”
“Not a life that I would want.” Meese felt closed in. He longed to be done with their task, to return even to the border of the hard gray moat. There was shrubbery and grass there. More so, he longed to be on the other side of the moat, back home. To rumble in the grass with his children. The lie on a warm patch of dirt under the full gaze of the sun.
“Away from this place of shadows,” he whispered to himself.
“What was that?” Frederick asked. He passed by one of the native cats of the realm and gave her a nod of greeting. She watched both knights pass. Meese saw curiosity in her eyes. But she did not follow or speak to them. The cats of the Hind-leggers realm were oddly quiet.
On the fourth day, they encountered Lady Myra and her partner running towards them as if they were being hunted. The knight she had been paired with was a young one. He still had some of his baby whiskers. He looked shaken and Meese wondered if the lady knight had taken the pair on some daredevil adventure.
“What’s your worry, kit,” Meese said, placing a paw on the knight’s shoulder. Dash was his name. He was fast, even for a knight.
Lady Myra, an uncharacteristic look of concern on her face, strode forward. “We were chased by some stray dogs. Nasty fellows, Sir Knight. They took us by surprise. Dash lost a life. We got away from them by climbing.” Suddenly, the look of concern vanished. She took a breath and placed a paw on Dash’s other shoulder. “Hear that, kitten? You got away. Don’t let it change your mind about being friends with the gentle dogs from our country. And don’t look so scared. You’ve still got eight left.”
“It’s not such a trifling matter as all that,” Frederick said, frowning at Lady Myra. He carried the frown over to Sir Dash. “You both got lucky. But luck doesn’t last forever, and neither do our lives.”
“That’s right, kit,” Lady Myra said, bouncing her paw off the young knight’s nose. “Be careful with your lives. They don’t grow on trees, you know.” She winked at the young knight and raised a brow at Meese and Frederick.
The young knight seemed to relax. He smiled at her. But Frederick gave a sigh of frustration and stalked ahead.
“Don’t you want to know what we found?” Lady Myra called after him. Frederick kept walking. She looked at Sir Dash and tipped her head toward Frederick.
Dash trotted forward until he was apace with Frederick. Meese and Myra followed.
“Sir Frederick, we did find something that might be useful,” Dash said. “We were chased away before we could explore it. But now we four can go. There is an oasis in the middle of this realm. It looks a bit like our country, though not nearly as lovely. It’s not far from here. There are more trees in that place than I’ve seen thus far in the rest in the realm. Surely, the one we seek must be there.”
“Sounds promising,” Meese said.
They walked in silence for a moment.
“I agree,” Sir Frederick said at last. “Good work, Sir Dash.” He nodded and Dash walked ahead to lead them. “And you as well, Lady Myra.”
Meese glanced over at Myra and smiled.
“Nothing?” Frederick asked, raising his brows.
“Nothing,” Meese said.
“We’ve searched the whole park twice and there is not a single tree that even remotely resembles the Moonlight tree,” Lady Myra said.
“Maybe a few of the other parties have had better luck,” Sir Dash suggested.
“We won’t know until we rendezvous,” Sir Frederick said. “What if no one has found anything? What if you were right, old friend?” He turned to Meese. “What if nothing but the hardiest of creatures can grow in this stony land?”
“I had hoped to be proved wrong by you this time, kit.”
“We’ll return to the moat by another route,” Lady Myra said. “Who knows what we might find on our way back? There is no cause to abandon hope, my fellows. For we are all too charming and extraordinary to be this unlucky.”
The knights all smiled then.
“You are right, my lady, that we should not abandon hope,” Sir Frederick said. “But I will not leave such a vital task in the hands of a force as unpredictable as luck.”
“What do you propose?” Meese said.
Frederick took a deep breath. “That I stay behind and keep searching.”
Lady Myra stiffened in almost the same way that Frederick often did. “But…you need to lead us out of here.”
“You will lead the others out of here,” Frederick said, and he looked between Meese and Myra. “And if you refuse my request, I will make it an order.”
“Sir Frederick, I ask permission to stay here and search with you,” Sir Dash said.
Meese held up a paw. “Wait, just wait a moment, you fools. We may answer to you, kit, but you answer to Chief Kynder. And she made it clear that we were all to return.”
Frederick smiled mischievously then. “No excuses, unless it’s death, eh old friend?”
Myra stiffening and Frederick smirking, Meese thought. What next, will the moon rise during the day and the sun rise at night?
Frederick looked at Dash. “I hope you are in earnest, Sir Dash. There may be no returning for you or me not just now but ever.”
“I am, Sir Knight.”
“Then permission is granted.” He gave all three a look that meant no further arguments would be considered, only orders given, from that point forward. “Dash and I will escort you to the border and explain to the other knights what we are to do. We will keep watch until you are safely across the moat. Then we will turn back.”
“For how long will you search?” Meese asked.
“I don’t know. As long as it takes. We can discuss along the way how often Kynder should send spies to check on us.”
“Others will want to stay behind with you,” Lady Myra said, “will you grant your permission to all of them?”
“Some, but not you,” he said, stopping her before she could speak again, for likely she would ask to stay as well. “You must help Meese. For he will lead and you will be his second.”
She closed her eyes and bowed her head to him.
“Don’t worry, my lady,” Dash said as they all started forward again. “I’ll look after him.”
Lady Myra raised a paw and whacked him gently on the back of the head. “First look after yourself, kitten.”
And Meese saw Frederick give a silent sigh of relief.
“All that talk about settling down fooled me for a bit. But you’re determined not to have a happy life, aren’t you?” Meese said as he walked beside Frederick. Myra and Dash were a fair bit ahead, out of earshot.
“I’m determined to serve my people. Happiness isn’t worth much to me if I cannot share it.”
“The burden of saving our people is not yours alone to hoard. It belongs to all of us, down to the smallest kit. Stop being such a martyr.”
Frederick sighed. “Is Dash a martyr too? This should have been the plan all along, Sir Meese. Some to search and deliver what we find, if anything. Some to stay behind and explore this land, map it thoroughly, know it as well as our own country, so that we can establish an ongoing supply of Moonlight. Not just steal one meager portion of it in the night.”
“And what of the demon? What of Traffic?”
“Traffic is why I suggest we still try to grow the tree in our own land. Imagine it. Never having to cross that border again. Never losing a single life to that demon.”
They heard a sudden yowl and both cats darted toward the sound. But it was not a yowl of pain they’d heard. They watched as Lady Myra came leaping toward them, a look of elation on her face.
“Come quick, you two!” she said, breathlessly. “He found one. That sly little kitten!”
They jumped atop the wooden fence and into the enclosure where Sir Dash sat waiting for them. He sat before a Moonlight tree. The enclosure was a small garden it seemed. Along one wall was the entrance to the home of the Hind-leggers who had no doubt planted and cared for the tree. Meese had seen one before. Once, when he was a kitten. And it had been a sight to see, wide of berth, branch upon branch unfurled and reaching to the sky, dressed in leaves of a dark green and blue. And the Moonlight from those leaves sweeter and fresher than any food or drink he had ever tasted.
But this tree. This tree was young. A sapling perhaps. If the four cats stood atop each other, they could reach the top. There were dozens of leaves, but they were small. If they took all the leaves, it would make enough Moonlight to fill two of vials they carried.
He looked at the younger cats. None of them had ever seen a Moonlight tree. They all seemed awestruck.
“This calls for a celebratory feast,” Lady Myra said glancing toward the wall. A mouse had just walked boldly out from under the crack in the entrance to the domicile and noticed too late that she was facing a pride of cats. Myra pounced and pinned the mouse under her paw.
“Wait!” Frederick said, approaching the mouse.
Lady Myra blinked. “I was going to share.”
Frederick glanced behind himself to look at the tree. He looked at the mouse. “You live in there, don’t you?” he asked her. “You probably watch the Hind-leggers as closely as you watch cats. Do you know how they have cared for this tree?”
Meese approached and stood by his friend. “Frederick, what are you doing?”
The little mouse cowered before the three cats.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Frederick said, his voice as gentle as a summer breeze.
Lady Myra purred. “Speak for yourself, Sir Cat. I’m rather hungry.”
“Haste is unbecoming of a Knight, my lady.”
“She’s right, Frederick,” Meese said. “This poor creature is good for nothing but a meal.”
“Harsh words for someone who was named after their kind for being such a small kitten.”
“What is your name, good mouse?” Frederick said.
The mouse said nothing. She merely breathed the shallow breaths of a creature in mortal terror. If Myra let go, the mouse would surely slip away beneath the crack in the domicile, where they could not follow. But pinned under the lady cat’s paw, the mouse had let go of any sense she might have. Frederick’s efforts were futile either way.
“I need your help, good mouse,” Frederick said. “My name is Frederick and the one holding you is Myra. If you answer my questions truthfully, I promise you that none of the cats here before you will harm you. We will let you go.”
He looked at Myra. She shrugged. “I can always catch another. Doesn’t have to be this one.”
The mouse, as expected, gave no reply.
“I know you have no reason to trust me,” Frederick continued. “That the only power you believe you now hold is to foil us. That I and my kind are your mortal enemies—worse, we the villains in all your stories. But I am a knight of my word. I do not make promises unless I know I can keep them.”
Meese glanced over at Sir Dash. The young knight was still sitting before the tree, but he was watching his leader with fascination.
“Knight?” The word was spoken in a quiet but high voice.
“Yes,” Frederick said. “I am Sir Frederick, a Knight of the Order of the Claw, under the service of Chief Kynder.”
“Not. Your not from here.”
“You mean from this realm? No, we are not. We came here searching for trees like that one.”
“Frederick…” Meese warned. If one mouse knew the weakness of the cats, she would tell them all. The whole lot of them would gnaw on the roots of all the Moonlight trees in the Urbania to bring them down.
“We come from a country across the gray moat. Our chief sent us here and bade us to collect the leaves of this tree, but I aim to go further. I would bring her the tree, grow it for her in her own garden, so she need not send us whenever she wanted them.”
It was the truth, bless Frederick. Yet he had revealed none of their desperation.
“Strange cats in the city,” the mouse said.
“Yes, those are my fellow knights.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
She hesitated. “Glade.”
“Your name is Glade?”
“No, it’s Whiskers. But I want it to be Glade.”
“Then Glade it is.” Frederick lowered his face till it was level with the mouse’s face. “Do you know how the Hind-leggers grew this tree? Can you tell me?”
“Hind-leggers,” the mouse said as if the word were foreign to her. Her breaths were calming. She looked at Frederick for the first time. “Yes, I know. I have watched them.” She took a few breaths, as if to calm herself further. Frederick waited with more patience than Meese felt.
“I will tell you,” the mouse said. “If you take me to your country.”
Meese exchanged a glance with Myra and Dash. Myra frowned down at the mouse. “You will tell him, or I’ll eat you.”
“Peace, Lady Myra,” Frederick said. His face was turned away, but Meese heard a smile in his leader’s voice. Frederick had a weakness for creatures who were small in size and large in courage.
“And if you promise that none of your people will harm me on the way.”
“I am not returning to our lands,” Frederick said. “And so I cannot make that particular promise to you. My friend here, however…”
He turned to Meese, who looked at the mouse as he would at some curious but irritating puzzle.
“On my pride, I will make no such promise!” Meese said.
Frederick glared at him. The young knight had often accused Meese of thinking too much of his pride. And not enough of his people.
Meese took a long and deep breath. “Very well,” he said. “I promise. But my promise is to you, Frederick. Not to this trickster. If ever you should change your mind—“
“Excellent!” Frederick said. “It’s settled then. Lady Knight, let her go. You may ride atop me, Glade.”
Lady Myra lifted her paw and the mouse quickly slipped away. Meese was certain she would slip under the door, leaving Frederick to lament an honest but poor choice. But the mouse moved to Frederick’s neck and climbed onto his back. She instructed them first to slice off a branch or two and to wrap it firmly in some dry cloth they found in the garden. The branches were so soft that Frederick used his claw to make the cuttings.
“Knight of the Claw, indeed!” Myra jested.
They collected some leaves then, and being in the presence of the mouse did not milk the Moonlight leaves right away but placed them whole in the vials.
They found no other trees on the way back to the border of the moat, where they arrived on time on the morning of the sixth day.
Of the twenty-seven knights who had crossed, only twenty arrived at the border that day. And only half of those had found and gathered Moonlight. Some of the cats had news of their missing fellows. One had certainly lost his life to Traffic as the demon patrolled the realm. Two or three others had been captured and imprisoned by the Hind-leggers. Those Frederick vowed to find and free. But the fates of the rest could not be accounted for. And those too he vowed to find. Aside from Dash, seven knights volunteered and were accepted to the duty of staying with their leader and continuing their search. Three knights volunteered to transport the cuttings and see to it that the mouse’s instructions were followed in growing the tree. The mouse climbed atop Meese’s back.
They started crossing again. And Meese’s anxiety grew. But the first knight went across and made it. Then another. And another. A mere few minutes later, the seventh cat was on the other side. The eighth perhaps emboldened by the success of his fellows, started across with a confident stride, even as a long, gray, jointed demon came hurtling toward him. Meese sucked in a breath. But he stood his ground, hoping the knight would make it before it was too late. But the cat stopped and looked towards the oncoming demon. He seemed frozen. The others screamed at him from the other side of the moat. Frederick darted forward. Meese had no time to stop him and then demons obscured his sight. When they finally passed, Meese feared what he would see. And he released a heavy sigh of relief when what he saw was Frederick and the other knight on the other side of the moat. There were sparks about their bodies. They had both lost at least one life. And it seemed their leader’s plans to stay in Urbania was changed.
But then, to Meese’s astonishment, Frederick dashed back across the moat. He was almost hit again, by a hulking red beast, but he made it back.
Meese trotted over. “This is madness. You should have stayed there. How many did you lose?”
“Two, I think,” Frederick said and he seemed to be gritting his teeth. “I couldn’t get us up in time. Meese…” He shook his head. “That demon is brutal. Most of us would be on our final death if we had but the one life. We cannot keep doing this. We must grow that tree in our realm. Please, my friend. See that it’s done.”
Despite the fear in his eyes, Sir Frederick crossed the moat four more times to aid other knights, and lost two more of his lives. One of the knights lost all her lives. Frederick managed to pull her body to the side of the road. They would bury her once all were across.
Meese was the last to go. By the time it was his turn, the company of knights had already lost many lives. The knights bearing the branches of the tree had made it across. But the branches would mean nothing without the mouse.
He turned his head back slightly and said, “Hold on tight, mouse. You’ve seen what will happen if you fall off.” And he felt the grip of the mouse’s claws on the fur of his back.
The sun was blazing in the sky. The moat caught its heat. Meese stepped toward the moat and felt the hot wind of a demon just pass. Unrelenting, another demon followed. Again and again. More and more. Some were smaller than the others, but all were much larger than Meese. All were faster. All were harder. Meese could feel their hardness as they passed. He started across, quickly and carefully. There must have been far more precious treasures in Urbania than the Moonlight tree to be guarded so brutally.
That was the last thought on his mind before a demon appeared from nowhere and separated him from his body. It was red. He saw that much. He’d felt its hot breath. Heard it scream as it approached him. Saw white smoke come from its eerie feet. Smelled its bitter stench, dusty and bitter. The smell of death, he gathered. He was in so much pain, he couldn’t move, couldn’t utter a sound. He knew he had died. Never a death before had been so horrifying. And he knew he must rise or it would happen again. For the demon was relentless.
His energy was draining from him. His eyes wanted to close. They drooped despite his efforts to open them. Something lifted him up. Then he felt as if he were being lowered. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Eight cats surrounded him. When he moved, they made happy sounds and each licked his face.
His senses were returning and the pain slowly fading. He tried to breathe and to rise.
“The mouse,” he said. He turned toward the moat and saw Frederick dodging Traffic with the mouse in his mouth. With an uncanny leap, he made it past another giant silver demon, and landed on the home side of the moat.
He gently set the mouse down and she turned and looked up at him as he smiled down at her.
“Frederick, you’ve spent eight already,” Lady Myra said. “Stay here.”
“I counted only seven. But I will be careful.”
“At least wait until there are fewer of them crossing. There were that first night we came.”
“It never stops,” one of the cats who were left to watch the moat said. “No matter the time or the day.”
“Then they’re as good as trapped over there,” Lady Myra said, looking across to the six knights who had volunteered to stay in Urbania with Frederick.
Sir Dash motioned for Frederick to stay where he was and brought a paw to his heart to signal that he would carry out his leader’s wishes.
Lady Myra shook her head. “So much for our plan to repeat this venture for more Moonlight.”
“I will not abandon Sir Dash,” Frederick said, “and I will not abandon those who have been captured or lost.”
Then Frederick gave Meese the fiercest look he had ever seen the gentle cat give. “On my last life, Meese, do not let any cat or creature harm that mouse. She is the salvation of us all.”
And before any cat could stop him, he started across the moat. And nimble and practiced as he was, he made it most of the way back before Meese could blink twice. Frederick was perhaps two or three leaps away when Meese saw the demon bearing toward his friend. It had an angry looking set of teeth and it hurtled toward Frederick. The demon struck Frederick and it rolled over his body and after it passed another struck him. And Meese waited for his friend to rise. But he did not rise.
Frederick has used his last life. And died his last death.
Most of the knights looked away as more demons rolled over the spot where Frederick was struck down. Myra did not look away.
“We cannot leave him behind like that!” she said, and Meese threw out a paw to hold her back as she started forth.
“He’s gone,” Meese said. “Think no more of what remains on that moat than you would of the fur you shed and forget.”
He looked across at Sir Dash. Frederick’s remains were closer to Dash’s side of the moat. The young knight held his fellow knights back as Meese had done. But there was a look in his eyes. He spoke words and a few knights disappeared into the bush.
Sir Dash nodded to Meese. And Meese to Sir Dash. Frederick would not leave them behind. Sir Dash would not leave Frederick behind. He was the leader of the knights in Urbania now.
Meese lowered himself so the mouse could climb atop him once more and as she did, she looked at him and in her tiny eyes he saw sadness. They started back home. And Myra kept watch over the branches as Glade instructed to do.
All made an unspoken promise that they would see Frederick’s will done. They would save their people.
They would live all their lives well.
Amid the expected tears for the fallen hero, the old cat saw also pride and wonder in the eyes of the kittens.
“Lady Myra was our grandam,” one of a pair of twins said, raising her head proudly. “My mum said she used to tell her the sauciest jokes when she was a kitten.”
The old cat chuckled. “And she was an even better storyteller than I.” Mostly because she embellished her tales.
“Old Chief Kynder died a few seasons ago,” a black-and-white kitten said.
“Then you, grandsire, are the last,” little Frederick said.
Meese took a deep breath and sighed. He looked over their heads at the saplings that were still alive and still growing. A few dozen dark green and blue leaves sprouted on each.
He smiled. “For now.”
Copyright © 2013. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Cat’s Eye,” “Moonlight Tree,” and “Sir Frederick and Glade” by Nila L. Patel. “The Old Storyteller” by Sanjay Patel. All rights reserved.