Tabby Mittens Nabs the Faerie Prince
The Soulstealer War
Briar Tomassen left the spoon in his stew bowl, and set it on the hearthstone. Therein, a last nibble of meat didn’t have long to idle.
“Meeow,” Delvin’s old tabby stirred from the warm hearth. There was a show of back arching and stretching, claws extending and retracting, and then without so much as a leg bump, Miss Maggie set to chewing the tasty morsel. Briar and the cat had an arrangement, a peace accord between two old souls that shared the fire.
Briar produced his clay pipe, and began tamping in a fresh plug of Badger Furleymoor’s tobacco leaf. He looked to the gathered regulars at the Taproom Counter. Despite the chest thumping and tongue wagging, Badger cured the finest weed in Three Corners. Turning after Turning, he delivered. You’d be a fool to smoke something else. Briar leaned into the soft leather cushion, prepared to make a night of it in his chair. Its comfort eased his foot pain. “Damnable gout,” he complained aloud.
“Sir,” it was young Ned, “Miss Dalia sent me over with your pint.”
Briar accepted the tankard and eyed the skinny stable boy. Ned was new at the Landing. He’d wandered into town after the first snow; thin as all bones and an orphan. Rumor had him hailing from the northern timber, along Bryn’s Aisle. Folks were still adjusting to him scurrying underfoot. The lad didn’t say much, but he was kind-hearted and had a way with animals.
Ned tarried by the crackling flames after his delivery. Briar suspected what was coming next, and wasn’t disappointed.
“Sir, perhaps another story?” asked Ned.
“Briar, he’s got work to do,” Delvin barked impatiently from the bar.
“I’ll keep it short,” Briar assured him.
Delvin glowered and glared, but said nothing more.
Just then, Dame Westmarch entered the Landing with her two daughters. “Dell Westmarch,” she called sharply over to the men at the Landing’s Counter, “a few minutes if you please.”
As Dame Westmarch laid siege by the Landing’s door, her daughters pulled on her skirt and then whispered their request.
“All right,” she replied. They scooted over to the hearthstone, and then softening a hair, Dame Westmarch decided to shift the battle to the Boars Head Table, waiting upon her husband.
“Welcome lasses,” Briar perked up, and put his pint down. This was a proper gathering. “Let’s see, I was just about to tell young master Ned an old tale…” Briar hesitated, he was drawing a blank.
“Meeow, meeeeow,” Miss Maggie beckoned the girls, angling onto her back for an overdue belly scratching.
Ahah! Briar thought, saved by the cat.
“Do you hear Miss Maggie,” he directed his curved pipe stem at the clever feline. “She knows what we’re saying. ‘Twasn’t always that way though.”
The children and Ned settled on the oak floor.
“Mind the foot please,” Briar patted his right leg, and then continued, “in the early days of Weir, the land was a wild, wild place. There wasn’t a homestead to be found in all of Three Corners. In those times, dark and deadly creatures, and magical beings prowled the night. Not least among those hunters, were the woodland cats. Now, Tabby Mittens was not the largest or strongest member of his clan…”
“Why did they call him Tabby Mittens?” one of the girls interrupted innocently.
Briar frowned, he couldn’t remember her name, but such questions were to be expected with youngsters. “Tabby’s fur was black with the barest striping, but on the tip of each paw he had bold white markings. I suppose they could have called him Tabby White Socks, but that’s not how it goes. Now shush. Where was I, Oh yes…,” Briar cleared his throat. “Tabby’s Dame often chided him whilst he tumbled with his stouter folk, ‘Tabby,’ she would say, ‘you’ve better things to do than being held to the ground. Now groom your coat and be off.’ Tabby knew she was right. There were other qualities to be admired in his Line; a sharp eye, a quick wit, and most of all, patience in the hunt.”
“And so it was that one eve padding through the deep ferns, Tabby heard a wondrous sound. Following the melody, he stalked his prey, slipping through the tangles and skirting the leaf litter without so much as a peep. There, before him, lay a rare sight; a grassy clearing on a lone knoll. And on this wayward bump a mushroom ring grew. ‘Twas red heads with white spots, poisonous growths that his Dame had taught him never to touch. But that wasn’t the half of it. In the midst of this mound, a troop of wee figures danced, no taller than his whiskers.”
“The Faerie Folk?” the other girl asked excitedly, perking up so as to nearly hit Briar’s foot.
Briar leaned over, sipped his ale, and rested his gaze upon the little one. Gently chastened, she slumped down, but couldn’t resist flashing a sweet smile.
Briar paused, and made a show of looking around the Taproom and over his shoulder. Satisfied, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “’Twas the Green Mother’s Children.” Letting that revelation sink in for a moment, he then resumed the narration, “Two legged, and dainty, with bright coverings and gleaming jewels; and chief among them was a fine little fellow who sang a merry tune. The Faerie Folk wheeled and drank and ate with abandon, faster and faster with each new song. And there Tabby stayed, watching the festivities silently, stubby tail twitching in anticipation, until the dawn light painted the tree tops. At this, another of the folk put a horn to his mouth and blew a warning, whereupon all the figures disappeared underground into their hidden kingdom. The singing fellow was last, making sure that none of his people remained above.”
Briar could see that his pipe was struggling. He popped it in his mouth and took several intense draws. Pleased with the burn, he removed it and said, “That morn, as Tabby returned to his clan and told his Dame what he’d seen, she advised, ‘Tabby Mittens, leave the magic folk be. Nothing but mischief comes of it.’ Now then,” Briar thrust his pipe at the girls, “do you think he listened?”
“Nooooo,” they said together chuckling.
Briar winked lightheartedly, “That’s right. ‘Twouldn’t be much of a tale if he did. So, the next eve, Tabby went back to the edge of the mushroom ring, and sure enough, the Faerie Folk were there, and the celebration was in full swing. The moon was full and bright, and Tabby was extra careful to keep low in the thick fiddleheads. As the night passed, the wee folk grew into a frenzy, drinking and spinning to nearly a one was left standing. And again, the horn sounded. The same secret path opened, and they picked themselves up, and slowly vanished from the surface. Only the fine little fellow was left, and as he turned to go home, that’s when Tabby…POUNCED!”
The girls jumped, startled by Briar’s cry.
Satisfied, Briar continued, “’Leave go or else!’ the fellow threatened. Tabby’s claws had dug into his fine clothes and he was mightily upset. But Tabby wasn’t one for letting go. Though, he nearly did because that Faerie changed into a bloated, warty swamp toad. That toad leaped so high that Tabby almost did a flip holding onto him, landing sideways in a heaping thump.”
The girls protested together, “But cats always land on their feet!”
“Oooooh,” said Briar, feigning surprise, and then he informed them smugly, “They didn’t way back then. Now, if you please…so being as the toad wasn’t working, the Faerie changed into a foul Death Spider. Tabby hissed at this unpleasantness, for a bite would be fatal. But still he clutched his prize. And so, seeing Tabby’s resolve, Mr. Faerie put his tricks aside, returning to his proper form, and tried talking a truce.”
“’Cat,’ he said, ‘you’ve got me fair and square. You may call me Aubron o’ the Willows, Prince of the Forest Faerie Folk. And you, sir?’
‘Tabby Mittens,’ he said, not wanting to be impolite.”
Briar paused here, for a warning to the youngsters was in order. “Hear me children, never give your true name to the Faerie Folk. ‘Twill give them power over you.”
The girls promised, and Ned too, dipped his head in agreement.
Briar continued, “The fellow bowed at Tabby’s courtesy, as much as he could while still being held, and said, ‘Well then, I’ve a bargain to propose. By the laws of the Green Mother, I’ll grant ye three wishes for my freedom. Tho’, you must ask quickly, for I cannot remain in the sunlight.’”
“‘Truly?’ Tabby asked, skeptical at the offer.”
“‘I swear it on my honor as Prince,’ said he.”
“And so Tabby slowly released Aubron. The wee Faerie dusted his clothes, put his hands on his hips, and waited…”
Briar put his pipe in his mouth, and took a lingering draw, then gently exhaled the smoke. Then he took another. By now the girls had learned to keep silent.
Ned, however, wasn’t having it. “Sir,” Ned glanced at Delvin behind the Taproom Counter, “I can’t stay much longer.”
Briar nodded, “Very well lad. Tabby had a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he didn’t want to waste his wishes. But that sun was rising higher and higher in the sky, and Aubron was pacing back and forth, faster and faster. Tabby was thinking about his side, which hurt quite a bit from the toad fall, and he said, ‘I wish I hadn’t landed on my side.”’
‘“Done,’ said Aubron. As Prince of the Faerie Folk, his magic was powerful. Tabby shrank a few inches in height, and at the same time his tail grew thrice longer. He swished it back and forth adjusting to the feel.”
“The Faerie explained, ‘I have to take, in order to give. Forever more, you will land on your feet from any fall. Now please be getting to your second wish.’”
“Tabby thought this was a good trade, but he was cautious. He got to wondering if he would have died if the Faerie had bitten him while in the guise of that Death Spider. This helped him with his next wish, and he said, ‘I want to live forever.’”
“’Now then Tabby, immortality is reserved for the Faerie Folk. I can’t give you that, but I’ll tell you what I can do. I’ll take a bit o’mine, and grant you a life for each of the Nine Circles of Existence. That’s nine chances to keep death a’ waitin’. That’s more than most any other creature. Now, do hurry on the third wish, for I must return home.’”
“Tabby twitched his tail and got to more thinking. He’d done okay so far negotiating with Aubron. Talking was better than fighting it seemed, but Aubron was magical, so of course he could understand the Faerie’s tongue. But all the animals of Weir had their own languages. That was it! Tabby said, ‘I wish to understand the language of every living creature.’”
“’Done!’ Aubron said and waved goodbye. The Faerie Prince disappeared in a blink.”
“Tabby wanted to say his farewell, and opening his mouth, only one sound emerged ‘Owww.’ His ribs still ached, and try as he might, it was Me’oww, M’eoww, M’eoooww, and forever more ‘twould be. For in granting the ability to understand all creatures, the Faerie had taken Tabby’s ability to speak.”
Briar stopped there.
“That’s not a happy tale,” one of the girls objected.
“Is it not?” Briar quipped, “You might say the Faerie Folk took their piece, but they gave as well. Over the thousands of Turnings, Tabby’s Line survived and prospered with such gifts. Why, every housecat today is descended from Tabby, and though magic fades, they all share the legacy of his three wishes. Even yon Miss Maggie, there by your feet.”
“Ned!” Delvin yelled, “Wood for the fire, and the scullery is piling up.”
“Yes, sir,” Ned replied smartly.
The Westmarch girls rose, curtsied together and then angled between the Landing’s patrons to reach the Boar’s Head Table.
“That was a good one,” Ned thanked Briar, and then spun to attend his duties.
Briar snagged Ned’s arm, “Would you be so kind as to ask Miss Dalia for another pint?”
“I’ll take care of it.” Ned assured him with a widening grin.
Find the hidden key to unlock the prize…