PROTECTOR OF THE SMALL (SKETCH #4)
The tide was going out, and the ropes creaked as the water tried to carry the boat away from the dock. From time to time the docks lit up in pale silver as the gibbous moon broke through ragged cloud edges. When all was dark again, two mice ran down one taut rope towards the dock.
“Can I have some now, Mother?” the smaller mouse pleaded when they reached the dock, stopping to survey the territory from the shelter of a coiled cable.
“Shh! Not yet,” the mouse mother replied, her words muffled by the hunk of bread she clutched in her jaws. She looked around the dock nervously, stomach turning with a feeling of dread that she could not place. She knew, without knowing how, that something was about to happen.
“Go now! Back to the hole, quickly!” she told her child, and he immediately prepared to follow her orders. But before he could start running, there was a movement in the shadows ahead of them. A gray furred tail lifted like a warning flag, and ears and whiskers twitched in the faint moonlight. The mouse mother’s heart pounded like a tiny hammer, and she stepped on the child’s tail to stop it from running.
The cat stretched and yawned lazily, seeming to take no notice of the mice, but the mouse mother knew better.
Another cat popped up from behind a barrel, and its eyes glittered with a wicked humour as it called to its compatriot.
“Hello, mousies,” it called. “Making a late night of it, aren’t you?”
“Look at them,” said the first cat. “They’re just skin and bones. I don’t think they get enough to eat, the little dearies.”
“Poor things,” a third cat purred, jumping down from a stack of crates. “Maybe we should let them go.”
“You know, I think you’re right. We could let one of them go, anyway.”
The cats began to circle slowly around the trapped mice, a gauntlet of orange and gray and calico fur, cruel eyes and quivering tails.
“We could,” said the calico. “But which one?”
“The little one,” urged the gray cat.
“No, the big one. The little one will be much tastier. I haven’t had a young mouse in ages.”
“But the big one’s stealing bread. From our dock. We can’t let her get away with that.”
“We could ask them to decide.”
“Oh, yes. What do you think, mice? Should we let one of you go? Who shall it be?”
“You go, Mother,” said the mouse child.
“Shh. It’s a trick. They won’t let either one of us go,” she told it. “They’re just playing silly cat games with us.”
“Oh, how rude,” the orange cat hissed indignantly.
“I agree. Shockingly rude.”
“Are you suggesting that we are not creatures of honour, Madam?”
“What an impertinent thing to say. And from a mouse, of all things.”
“Wretched little vermin. I take back my suggestion. Let’s not let either one of them go.”
“I have a better idea,” said a new voice, as deep as the shadows. “Let both of them go.”
The cats stopped circling, and all three of them pricked up their ears and shook their tails, looking towards the boat, where the growling whisper seemed to be coming from.
“Who’s there?” called the orange cat.
And the mouse mother, who was not looking towards the boat but watching the cats, waiting for a momentary chance to escape, saw what they did not: behind them, the darkness was moving. A shadow deepened and spread like ravens’ wings atop two barrels stacked by the building. Bright green eyes with slit pupils blazed briefly from the center of that dark wingspan.
The mouse child saw it, and gasped before his mother could stop him. Immediately the harbour cats turned and looked at the moving shadow.
“Who are you?” the orange cat repeated.
“One who has much to atone for,” the thing replied, and this time its voice seemed to resonate and echo around the dock. With that, the dark creature leapt down from its perch, landing silently between the three cats.
The clouds parted again, and the moon revealed a huge cat with a midnight-black coat, tufted ears like a lynx, and eyes like green fire, sitting nonchalantly on the rough wood of the dock. It did not have wings after all, but it was wrapped in a halo of fear, a palpable aura of menace that set all the other cats to hissing and stalking around it with bristling fur and ears laid flat against their heads.
The black cat lifted a broad paw to its mouth and began to clean between its toes. Claws like eagles’ talons slipped out from the pads of its paw. Finally it stopped and looked at the mice.
“Go,” it said quietly. “Don’t come back here. This is no place for little mice. There are safer places to find food, even for Small Ones. Try Windmawr Market!”
The calico snorted in derision. “They’re not going anywhere,” she said, getting ready to pounce on the mice.
But the black cat spun on its haunches and lashed out. Its claws dug into the calico’s back, halting the calico before her leap had even begun. The black cat jumped up with a nimbleness unusual for such a large cat, and the mouse mother saw that it had no tail but a ragged-looking stump, only a few inches long.
It landed on the calico’s back, sinking all of its claws into the matted fur, teeth flashing in the moonlight as they sought out the calico’s neck. The other cat spat furiously and rolled, stretching its neck to bite back at the attacker.
The black cat knocked the calico’s head against the wooden dock, pinning it there with claws extended just far enough to hurt. It looked at the mice, eyes aflame.
“What are you waiting for?” it asked them. The mouse mother nodded quickly and nudged her child into action. Together they skittered towards the hole, hearts beating frantically. The gray cat darted after them, but before it had taken three steps the dark one vaulted right over its back and kicked out hard with all four feet, knocking it against a barrel with a loud thump. Then all three of the harbour cats jumped into the fray, ferociously outnumbered at three against one, and the mice slipped into their hole.
“Who was that cat, Mother?” the child asked when they had gone a little ways.
“I don’t know. We’ll ask Deeptail. Keep going!”
They ran steadily on, and did not stop to rest until they were far from the dock and could smell the territorial scents that marked the borders of the Queen’s territory.
Other sketches: The Society of Three, Jezi and Calico, Windmawr Market...