In Love and Trust

In Love and Trust

The pathetic little creature had been stalking him for about forty minutes now, darting beneath the nearest cover every time he half-turned his head. It seemed to be under the impression that hiding its face was enough to keep him from noticing the brightly colored legs shivering in the cold and wind. If not for the miserable weather, he would have assumed it was playing a game; stalking lessons of some sort. But there was no sign of older cats in the area, aside from himself and with the rain driving hard enough to soak through the forest canopy, there was no way the kitten was enjoying itself.

Crescent, of course, had the benefit of a witch’s care to see him through the dreary trip. The wind was still harsh, driving cold fingers across his fur every time it blew, but a tiny spell kept his fur dry, a blessing for which he would long be grateful. He had been looking forward to returning to the witch’s warm hut, to lay by the hearth fire on his favorite pillow and wait for the poor weather to pass, ever since he departed from his task in the village early that morning.

But he couldn’t lead a potentially unwanted guest straight into her stronghold, no matter how miserable the weather. And he couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone terribly wrong for so young a creature to be this deep into the forest alone. Had any of the swamp’s other inhabitants taken notice, the kitten would surely have met its end by now.

Crescent paused to sit beneath a towering oak tree. He stared determinedly forward but flicked his ears back and forth, listening for signs of his trail. He was displeased, of course, with the way the chill sank into his flank through the earth, but it was high time he dealt with the situation.

He could have heard the kitten stumbling into the undergrowth from half a mile away. When he turned, he saw the tell-tale legs crowded beneath a bush. They shivered more wildly as he approached, so much he feared the kitten would bolt before he could reach her. He was close enough now to identify her by scent.

He was about to speak when the four little legs gathered beneath the hidden form and attempted to leap into the distance. An older cat would have been ten feet away before Crescent could get a word out, but the poor kitten caught one of its rear legs in the hedge and tumbled into a ditch instead.

<It would be far easier if you greeted me directly, little one. It’s miserable weather for a game, don’t you think?>

A pair of wide, desolate green eyes stared back at him, framed by mud and a pair of leaves now stuck to the kitten’s matted fur. He strode gracefully down the incline and plucked the leaves from her face. She shivered and shrank from him at first, but seemed grateful when he was finished.

<Sorry.>

So he had been right; the distinct tang of magic in the air hadn’t come from the witch’s spell. But if she was a familiar, where was her witch?

<Lost your way, did you? It’s a tricksy swamp if you aren’t familiar with it.> He was careful not to say too much, just as he had been careful to take an indirect path here. It wasn’t uncommon for a witch to send her familiar ahead when she wanted to lure another witch into a trap. Though he had never seen one so young used for such a tactic.

The kitten’s ears fell and she lowered her head, eyes on the muddy patch her paws were stuck in. Now that he saw her clearly, he realized how thin she was; her ribs stood in stark contrast with each exhale. She might not have eaten in a week, though she likely hadn’t had any trouble finding water around here.

<Followed you,> she admitted with a plaintive meow. <Didn’t know where else to go.>

Crescent flipped one ear to the side while the other remained erect. It was very similar to the way two-legs sometimes arched their eyebrows, but far more graceful. <Where is your witch?>

<Haven’t got one.> He couldn’t help noting the way she shivered when he said the word witch. But she was obviously a familiar. Normal cats couldn’t communicate half so well this way.

He glanced skyward for a moment. A raindrop bounced off his nose, sending a cold shiver down his spine even if it didn’t stick to his fur. He stood and lifted his tail. <Well then, I’ll take you to mine.>

<NO!>

The kitten answered with such force that Crescent leapt backwards, as if startled by a physical sound. His tail was twice the size when he came to rest and he bowed his head forward, bearing his teeth in a hiss.

With a cry that sounded shockingly like that of a human child, the kitten scampered out of the ditch and back to the shelter of the bush. Not that it kept her dry. Her fur was already saturated. At least the rain would soon wash her coat of mud away.

<Please don’t make me go,> she begged, shivering with more than cold in her hiding place. <Witches are awful!>

Crescent shook himself, trying to return his tail to its normal size and his temper back to mild. He got the impression even a little bit of anger was going to spook his new companion. <Mine isn’t.> And he lifted his chin with a sense of pride. <Besides, we can’t stay here. You already look like a drowned rat and the weather doesn’t look to improve any time soon.>

<Can’t you help me?> she insisted and he wondered what she wanted him to do. Sneak food out of the witch’s hut for her? As if his witch wouldn’t notice.

<Only if you’ll tolerate my witch,> he replied, though he was careful to inject sympathy into his voice. He padded across the wet grass and stuck his nose through the bushes to nuzzle her cheek. <She’s very kind. I rather think she’s the best witch there is, but I suppose I am biased.> Until now, he had always thought every familiar would say the same about their witch.

He wondered if the kitten shook because the cold had penetrated to her core or if she really was that terrified of the idea of meeting his witch. Either way, it troubled him. It took longer than he would have liked, but he coaxed her from the bush with talk of warm pillows beside the fire. She stumbled down the embankment again but he helped her onto the packed dirt path and trotted quickly and directly for home. Even with the witch’s spell keeping him dry, he didn’t want to be out here any longer than was strictly necessary.

He paused a short distance before the clearing and lifted his ears. The kitten stopped instantly, eyes darting in all directions, trying to detect whatever he had heard. But he hadn’t heard anything; he thought he’d better warn his witch he had company just in case. She was kind, it was true, but she didn’t always like unexpected visitors.

<I return,> he called across their private connection. He could have contacted her from anywhere, even the village, but it was his custom to announce himself only when he arrived – or when he discovered trouble.

<And who is that with you?> Perhaps it was his tone that set her off. Or perhaps he had sensed the kitten’s magic. She seemed to exude a lot of it.

Crescent turned to the kitten. <Have you a name?> He hadn’t thought to ask sooner; cats didn’t much care how they addressed each other, but two-legs considered names very important.

<My witch called me Tipsy.> The kitten lowered her ears again, as if she were ashamed by the admission.

Crescent decided not to ask what had happened to this witch, though he could perhaps see where the name had come from. <She says her name is Tipsy. And either she has lost her witch or->

<It hardly matters. Bring her inside.>

Crescent was somewhat relieved he hadn’t had to finish that sentence. The thought that a witch would abandon her familiar was rather unsettling.

<We are expected,> he said, nuzzling the kitten’s wet cheek again. <Hurry now.>

The door stood open when they arrived. There were two cat-sized bowls of warm meat-flavored broth waiting for them and Crescent noted that a second pillow had been laid beside his, both covered in a thick, woolen blanket. He greeted his witch with a purr, rubbing against her leg before he trotted to his dish and made short work of the broth.

The kitten hesitated in the doorway, but the witch beckoned her inside so that she could shut the door.

“Poor thing,” she fussed as she bent to scratch behind Tipsy’s ears. “Let’s get you warm and dry. Go on, give a shake.”

The kitten hesitated, looking to Crescent for permission. He lifted his head from his bowl long enough to nod.

As the kitten shook, the witch held her hands poised above the cat’s tiny body. Crescent felt the surge of magic and noted with some amusement the way the kitten’s suddenly dry fur poofed around her. The witch helped her smooth it back into place and then shooed her gently toward the bowl.

Tipsy had stopped shivering, at least and Crescent purred louder to encourage her to eat. When he had finished, he returned to the witch, hopped into her lap and passed on the information she had sent him to gather. They spoke in private for several minutes while she ran her slender fingers through his tawny fur. Then he hopped down and padded across the room to his favorite place to spend rainy days. After several moments of pressing his paws against the billowing blanket, he curled into a depression, his cheek pressed to the warm fabric.

He was only dimly aware when Tipsy pressed her smaller body against his, nuzzling deep against his warmth before they both fell asleep.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It wasn’t the kitten’s name which troubled the witch, nor was it her lack of attachment. She was only mildly concerned about the press of ribs against flesh; a problem easily solved by a steady and well-balanced diet now Tipsy had a place to find it. No, what concerned Rose was the way the kitten ran from her, jumped at the slightest sound, pressed herself into the deepest hiding places she could locate and would only come out after several hours left alone or a great deal of coaxing from Crescent. Hunger was the natural side effect of wandering a strange wilderness alone at Tipsy’s age, but her behavior hinted something much darker haunted her past.

Patience had long since become a part of Rose’s daily life. One could not maintain the number of projects, let alone the delicate balance of power she worked with on a daily basis without the ability to think in the long term. She did her best not to crowd her new companion, asking Crescent to coax her from her hiding places only when she worried the kitten had put herself in a dangerous spot, or startled so badly she might hurt herself. If Tipsy shied from her she let her be, though she always tried to leave treats or toys where the kitten would find them, hoping such offerings would eventually lead the kitten to her.

The more she observed Tipsy’s behavior, the more concerned she grew. Not because she seemed terrified of everything; that did ease with time. She moved with a strange sort of delicacy, as if walking too fast or jumping too far caused her pain. Rose would have liked to examine her more closely, but she feared the kitten would bolt at the first sensation of magic and never come back.

Crescent, on the other hand, was happier than Rose had ever seen him. He strutted about their little complex, showing Tipsy the animals, the garden, and his favorite places to laze about, grooming her as if she were his pupil. Tipsy always tried to keep up with him, to emulate and match him, but Rose could see what her familiar could not; Tipsy simply wasn’t physically capable of the same feats a normal cat could master. Had that been why her witch had turned her aside?

It was three weeks before Tipsy would allow Rose to pet her properly, and another week before she could get the kitten to lounge in her lap. Proximity filled in the rest of the details, though she couldn’t be certain without a magical examination. Deciding it was best to leave well enough alone, Rose pretended they were all one happy family and went about her business.

It was another month before Crescent came to her, playing coy as cats so often did, thinking he could hide the truth of her concern. For once, she humored him, failing to comment when he batted her leg, interrupting the creation of a temperamental potion, forcing her to discard her work and begin again. He demanded the usual behind the ear scratches and belly rubbing before he would speak.

<Have you noticed anything strange about Tipsy?> he asked, glancing over his shoulder at the kitten lounging by the heart fire. It was another dreary day and those seemed to affect Tipsy most. Rose suspected her joints ached and tried to make it particularly easy for her on days like today.

<That depends on what you mean by strange, darling.>

<Well she… she’s young, but sometimes she acts old, doesn’t she?>

Trust a cat to reduce such a complex condition to a two word explanation, but it sufficed. <Take a second look at her, love, and use the special features of your eyes.> It was a benefit of familiars that they could share the magical vision of their witches whenever they wanted. All creatures bore an energy aura of some kind, and most witches could see them without much effort. Tipsy’s was much larger than it should have been, even for a familiar, and it was twisted and tinted with strange black swirls a creature her age shouldn’t possess. She watched her familiar’s eyes focus intently for several seconds before she spoke again.

<I think our new friend is a bit older than she seems. Not old, but not quite a kitten either.>

<But she’s too small to be full grown!>

Rose pressed her lips into a thin line. <I have a nasty suspicion that Tipsy’s witch tried to accelerate her growth. She shows all the signs of it. Her rate of maturation was probably supposed to even out when she reached a certain age, but if even the tiniest bit of magic goes awry, you end up with premature aging instead.>

Crescent flicked his ears in a way that suggested she was acting like a long-winded blowhard. Rose drew a deep breath, gently reminding herself about the virtues of patience.

<Parts of her have grown old much faster than they should have. It’s possible parts of her have maintained their youth longer than they should have as well, which is why she seems like a kitten even though I suspect she’s two or three years old.>

Crescent shivered and much of his fur started to stand on end. When his tail had reached twice its usual size, Rose reached out to stroke his neck and back, waiting for him to calm before continuing the conversation.

Her familiar paced in a circle across her table top before he was able to settle. <But you can help her, can’t you?> There was a desperation in his green eyes that broke her heart.

Gently cupping the cat’s face in both of hers, Rose leaned forward and pressed her forehead to his. <Not the way you want me to. I wish I could, my love, I truly do. But such power is beyond me.>

Crescent pressed his fur against her forehead while his tail beat a slow, sad rhythm against the table. He closed his eyes and release a low keening sound that was shockingly similar to the cry of a human child. <But I have seen you heal many diseases before. Why not this one? Why not for her?>

<What ails our Tipsy is not a disease, darling, I wish that it was. It is a physical defect, caused by the absorption of rogue magic to every part of her body. Bones, muscles, vital organs. I cannot undo growth, or aging. I cannot slow the hand of death. I may be able to give her some vitality, but I fear it will last only briefly before the effects become advanced enough to claim her life.>

<Who would do such a thing?> Crescent demanded, angry now. His tail puffed up again and he bared his teeth, though he spared her the hiss.

<I do not know. And if I ever met Tipsy’s witch, I would see to it myself that she never had a chance to harm another familiar. It is forbidden. It violates the sacred trust between our kinds. I can only imagine that she had a deal with Tipsy’s mother, perhaps one based on sweet lies. But the process surely claimed her life as well.>

<I wish I could reassure myself with the thought of a familiarless witch.> Crescent shook himself again, hackles still raised.

<You might be able to do something about that, my love. Your words would carry a lot of weight among your kind.>

<Perhaps. But I would have to know the identity of the witch to poison her reputation.>

<Perhaps. But perhaps speaking of such crimes will be enough to make the others weary.>

Crescent’s tail had returned to its normal size, though his ears remained pricked forward. <Perhaps. But it will not help poor Tipsy.>

<No,> the witch agreed, having nothing further to say on the topic. She pet her familiar until he settled again, then sent him off to sleep by the fire. She watched the way he curled carefully and protectively around the smaller cat, mindful of her aching joints, and her aching heart uttered the foulest curse for the witch who had harmed her other half so.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Rose thought the hardest day had been the one when Tipsy asked if she would become her witch. Tears stung her eyes before she was able to catch them, and it was only with great willpower that she swallowed the lump in her throat. She had explained as gently as she could that a witch could only have one familiar, and her bond with Crescent was too precious to lose, though she suspected he would have given it up in a heartbeat to allow Tipsy the chance to know her as he did. But such a bond could not be easily reforged if it was severed, and she needed Crescent more than he knew.

She cradled the smaller cat for the entire conversation, running her fingers gently through her silken fur. She wondered if Tipsy could feel her heartbreak even while she tried to offer her comfort. Disappointed as she was, it was clear Tipsy understood that Rose could not connect with her no matter how much she wanted to. But while they could forge no magical connection – and Rose strongly suspected Tipsy would be incapable of forming a magical connection with any other witch, a parting cruelty from her original owner – Rose made it clear that she had adopted Tipsy in every other fashion and that she meant for the cat to remain as long as she lived.

She wondered as she returned Tipsy to her favorite cushion if the cat knew how short a span of time that would be.

But the hardest blow came a half a year later, when Tipsy padded solemnly across the hut to settle at her feet one fine spring afternoon and announced, <My witch sent me away. I think she hated me.>

Rose blinked at the little cat, stunned for a moment into silence. She glanced out the window, but Crescent was still chasing birds away from the fish pond. He kept waiting for them to resettle, giving them just long enough to think he had lost interest in the game before he sent them flying again. Satisfied he would remain distracted a little longer, she scooped Tipsy into her lap and scratched gently behind her ears.

“Sent you away? You mean she asked you to leave?”

The little cat shivered under her hand and she was careful to make sure Tipsy knew she could hop away if she wanted to. But after a moment the cat nuzzled into her warmth and rubbed her cheek against her hand.

<At first she told me to go. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t know anything beyond home. The world was big and frightening. I didn’t know any magic of my own and mother died before she could show me how to hunt. I sat outside the door crying. I thought she would let me back inside.>

Rose bit the inside of her lip to keep her temper in check, worried that Tipsy would become disturbed if she showed the slightest hint of anger. But she wanted nothing more than to hunt this awful woman down and make her suffer twice Tipsy’s terrible fate.

“Did she?”

Tipsy let out a tiny, forlorn sound. <She forced me beyond her gate. And when I kept crying, begging her to take me back she…>

“She banished you,” Rose finished, her voice soft. That bitch. And no doubt she had severed her connection to Tipsy when she teleported her away so that the poor cat would never be able to find her way back. At least now Rose knew where to start looking for her. There were a limited number of places within her range and she guessed the witch had sent Tipsy as far away as her abilities allowed.

Tipsy made another soft sound and Rose soothed her fingers across the cat’s back. They sat in silence for a moment before Rose said, “She was wrong to do that to you. I hope you have realized that by now.”

<She was angry,> Tipsy insisted. <I was never very good at magic. Whenever she asked for my help, I messed it up. I thought… I thought that’s why you wouldn’t want me.>

Somewhere deep inside her, something snapped. Rose lifted the cat in her arms as if she was a child and cradled her against her cheek. She cooed softly, the way a mother might to her baby. “My darling little kitten, I want you more than I can say. I wish that it were allowed, but there are limits to our magic for a reason. Your witch’s anger, and your magical troubles, were all her fault. Never yours. She used forbidden magic, either on you or on your mother. I suspect she wanted something from you that you were incapable of giving, even with her tampering. I suspect that she lost your mother to create you and I suspect that loss rankled when she could not achieve the heights of power she desired. All your misfortunes were caused by her poor decision to abuse the power granted her.” She stopped just short of swearing on her life that she would make the witch pay for it. Tipsy was upset enough as it is without thinking she had troubled her new friends.

A pair of wide eyes stared up at her. Tipsy’s ears flicked backward, then forward, then laid flat against her head. <How do you know?>

“I can see the flow of energy around you is abnormal. A few months ago, when you became accustomed to my magic, I tested my theory. Please forgive my intrusion, Tipsy, I meant you no harm. I wanted to find a way to help you, to ease your pains and perhaps correct your magic, but the defects are set too deeply in your body. I’m sure by now you have realized the truth.”

Tipsy almost seemed to deflate, laying nearly limp in her lap. <You cannot help me?>

“No, and it makes my heart weep that it is so. No living creature should ever suffer as you have, but even less should that suffering have originated with one sworn to protect and nurture creatures like yourself. You were a gift, Tipsy, a gift given to someone who could not see or appreciate you for what you were. That you have been made to suffer because of that is an injustice that can never be rectified. I only hope that you have found joy here, and happiness. Crescent and I have loved you, and will love you for as long as you live. And I swear that I will do my best to make certain that your magic, such as it is, is used for as great a purpose as I can find. I know it must seem like little-“

<No.> Rose was shocked to realize the cat in her lap was purring and batting her arm with her cheek. <You have given me everything, and I thank you.>

Unable to speak around the lump in her throat, Rose cradled the little creature against her until she fell asleep.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Tipsy rarely left her cushions anymore; the aches had set too deeply into her joints for her to move with any comfort. Rose had fashioned a basket so that her bed could be moved wherever she desired, and Tipsy often asked to remain close to her. Crescent made certain she was well fed, ferrying food and water to wherever her bed moved, delivering toys and treats, and often curling up to sleep beside her in the evenings.

There had been happy days. Tipsy had made certain to tell her and Rose was careful never to cry when the cat could see. Though she probably wasn’t half as clever as she fancied herself and she expected both familiars knew how she really felt.

The days were growing shorter and the winds cooler when the carriage came rushing down the path just barely large enough to accommodate it. An inch wider and it would have scraped every tree trunk between here and the village. It was obvious the journey had been rough, mud and leaves spattering the base and sides of the carriage, which had not been fancy or in good repair to begin with. By the time it got back, it was likely to need replacement.

But when the woman rushed through Rose’s door in a frantic panic, it became instantly apparent why she had risked the loss of such a valuable piece of equipment. Her daughter, who must have been twelve or thirteen from the looks of her, was too sick to walk or ride on horseback, and she was too large for the woman to bear into the cottage on her own.

Fever burned beneath Rose’s fingers as she lifted the girl’s shoulders and bore her inside. The mother’s hands shook and her voice broke as she provided a hasty explanation of the illness as well as a flood of apologies for the intrusion. Rose wasn’t overly fond of sudden and unexpected visitors, but she could be blamed for not monitoring the path herself, and this was a situation that warranted such a hasty arrival.

She calmed the other woman by asking her to put the kettle on, walking her through the steps of brewing tea to keep her mind occupied. Most of her attention was on the child. She could treat many illnesses without the benefits of magic, but it was apparent to her instantly that this was no such case.

According to the mother, her daughter had been sick on and off for the last three years. Each time she fell ill, the mother was forced to consult a new healer or medic, as the last round of treatments always ceased to work. The treatments had become ever more expensive and exotic, and at last they had failed utterly. The mother admitted she had been considering seeking the witch’s advice for some time, but had been hesitant about resorting to magic. Not to mention her inability to pay. That, at least, Rose reassured her was not a problem. She would never put payment over the saving of a life, a statement which almost reduced the mother to sobs.

The trouble was that the disease had advanced beyond the abilities of her magic. The old sorceries, the great magics, had long since left this world. There had been a time when Necromancers had been able to raise entire armies from the dead, to bind generations of souls between the pages of a book for later use, and stave off the hand of death. Healers had once been able to pull entire cities from the brink of death, cleansing everything they laid their hands upon. And there were songs of elemental feats, monumentally clever and strong.

But as the great mages had spread across the world, carelessly plying their trades, the energy demands had grown too great for the land to bear. Then came the dark days when magic began to turn on its wielder. It had been outlawed by many kingdoms, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Eventually the great magics had to be relinquished for smaller ones. Those who wished to seek the power, to study and advanced it were forced to obey the rules of balance; that was where her kind had come from. Witches were bound to the energies of the earth, to the living energy that still flowed around every creature and object. They could tap into it and make use of it, but only so long as they obeyed its limitations.

She often turned illness with herbs and the villagers, ignorant of the properties of the plants she cultivated, regarded it as magic. When she did turn to magic, she always needed the herbs anyway. But this; this disease would require a great feat like the days of old and she could not summon enough magic to weave it without dire consequences. There was no name in these lands for the disease which ailed her, but in other times and other worlds, Rose knew it bore a name akin to the most powerful of curses.

“I can treat the symptoms,” she said. “I might be able to reduce the fever, to ease her stomach, and wake her. But I’m afraid the disease is stronger than my magic. It would grow as fast as I could kill it.”

The mother’s knees buckled out from under her and Rose gently nudged a chair into position to catch her; a small magic she could easily spare the energy for.

A small sound drew her attention and she glanced down to Tipsy’s basket, set near the hearth to keep the creeping chills at bay. The cat had lifted her frail head and was pushing to her feet when Rose knelt beside her.

<What is it, darling?>

<Could I… Could I lay with the child? Would it comfort her, do you think?>

Rose smiled and scooped Tipsy carefully from her basket. <Of course,> she said, laying the cat on the girl’s shoulder. Then she hurried to gather her herbs and some fresh cool water. The work of easing her suffering began now, and was unlikely to end. Perhaps she could use her magic to ease the girl to a kinder end, but that would depend on the mother.

Tipsy remained curled on the girl’s chest while Rose applied the cool compress and administered the first dose of thick herbal ooze. It was only when the frenzy died down that the cat spoke to her again.

<Why won’t your magic work? Is this girl like me?> There was such sorrow, such understanding in the cat’s voice that it brought tears to Rose’s eyes.

<Not like you, little one. She is sick in the same way most people get sick. But the sickness is strong and the magic required to kill it for good is more than Crescent and I can summon on our own.>

Tipsy looked at the sleeping child for a moment before she said, <And if you had my help?>

Rose swallowed around a lump in her throat.

<You can’t!> Crescent protested, leaping suddenly into her lap. <If you give up your magic, you’ll->

<I think Tipsy knows what will happen, dear. Let her speak.>

With great dignity, Tipsy lifted her chin. <You told me awhile ago that you would try to make sure my magic did something great. You told me that it could be stored when I died, or used before if I choose.>

<I did say that.> The lump in Rose’s throat grew harder.

Tipsy looked again at the sleeping girl. <Witch, tell me, what future do you see for this child.>

Rose slid to her feet and knelt beside the bed where the child lay. She set one hand on the girl’s forehead and the other on her own. Crescent sat in front of her, his head bowed.

The mother rushed to her feet. “What are you doing? You said you couldn’t heal her!”

“The cat who has spent the last several hours comforting your daughter is no ordinary cat. She is a former witch’s familiar and she has asked what future your daughter might have if she lived.”

The mother’s mouth fell open. “You can see that?”

“I can,” Rose agreed. “And this is what I see.” She let her eyelids drop as the power began to flow through her. She let the hut and the cats and the girl fall away from her vision, waiting for something else to replace it.

“I see a woman,” she said softly as the vision formed from the haze. “I see a road beneath her feet. A long road which moves through many cities, towns and villages. I see her welcome wherever she goes, greeted by the eager and the grateful. I see her stand beside many beds and tables, over many potions and brews. Ah, yes! I see now. This woman is a healer and the lives she touches are many.”

The vision faded back into the mist and Rose released her hold on the power. She blinked and opened her eyes.

Tipsy lifted herself onto her front paws. <This is what will happen if the child lives?>

“What I saw was only one possible future,” Rose answered aloud so that the mother would hear and understand as well. “But it is also the most likely future. Surviving a deadly illness often drives a person to want to help others with the same predicament. And she is young yet, with many years to learn such a craft. I cannot say what diseases she may cure, only that there are many who might die with her who might live if she lives.”

The mother let out a broken sob. “Why tell me this? Why torment me with a vision of what might have been?”

Rose steeled herself. This was hardly the first hysterical mother she had ever had to deal with, but this situation was far more personal than all the others. It was one thing to lose a patient and another thing entirely to lose a friend.

“This cat here, Tipsy, is special.” She reached over to scratch behind Tipsy’s ears. “With her help, I can save your daughter’s life.”

The mother’s breath hitched in her throat.

“But every great act requires equally great sacrifice.” She allowed her sorrow to seep into her words, so the mother would know just how great a price the saving of her daughter’s life would demand. “The saving of your daughter’s life will cost Tipsy her own. Do not be fooled into thinking this is a mere animal sacrificed on the altar for a human to live. Tipsy is as sentient as you and I. She knows and understands the world in the same way you and I do. That is what makes the trade equal.”

Fresh tears glistened on the woman’s cheeks. She stared first at the witch, then at the cat, then back at the witch again. Rose knew that her throat would be choked with emotion, that it would take every ounce of effort she possessed to speak her next words. She waited patiently while the woman gathered herself and forced the painful words through her constricted throat.

“She… Tipsy… would do that?”

The cat nodded and Rose closed her eyes, the painful finality of that decision smacking into her like a horse’s flailing hooves. She had known their days were dwindling, had prepared herself for an ending. She had given Tipsy love and joy, but she had hoped for more time to celebrate her short life. Now she was faced with a sudden termination of their bliss and barely a chance to say goodbye.

Crescent’s keening drew her back to the moment. She held out her arms and he leapt into them. She squeezed him as tightly as she dared against his chest, sharing his sorrow and his pride. As soon as she could manage, she set him beside Tipsy. In a flurry he nuzzled her neck and licked her cheeks while she tried to butt her head against his chest, mingling their warmth together this one last time.

She had never felt so numb while she prepared the workings of a spell. She was as careful as she ever was, checking each component, each preparation three times over. Three was a very important number in her line of work. Three souls to save a life. Three weeks before Tipsy would have been with her a year.

Three times the good you do comes back to you. But not to poor Tipsy, who deserved it more than anyone.

Each step of preparation was one step closer to the end of Tipsy’s road. One step closer to the kind of goodbye that lasted forever. Drawing each rune, speaking each chant, laying each implement in place was like another stab through her soul.

And then it was done and there was nothing left but to work the magic.

Rose stumbled to the side of the bed, drawing Tipsy into her embrace. She allowed her tears to flow freely, wanting the cat to know how much she had been loved and how much she would be missed. Tipsy purred frantically against her cheeks, caressing Rose’s cheeks with her sandpaper tongue.

<I will never forget you, my special little darling.>She had to send the words to Tipsy’s mind because she had lost the ability to speak them aloud. <You will be in my heart, in my soul, forever.>

<And in mine,> Crescent agreed, his mental voice raspy with the weight of his emotions.

When Rose set Tipsy on the edge of the runic circle, the mother rushed forward, carefully plucked her into her arms and buried her tear-streaked face into the cat’s fur. “Thank you,” she sobbed three times before setting the cat back down. “From the depths of my soul, thank you for saving my baby.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

The girl and her mother stayed long enough to bury Tipsy beneath her favorite shade tree at the edge of the garden. There would be flowers there come spring. Strong, bright blossoms Rose intended to cherish. Perhaps she would dry them, as if by preserving their essence forever she could somehow keep Tipsy with her.

Almost overnight the vitality had returned to the girl. Her eyes were bright and shining, her appetite strong. Rose had been both careful and through. The disease would not return. The girl would live a long, healthy life, whatever she decided to do with it. And Rose desperately hoped this would not be one of the few times her vision was lead astray.

She escorted both mother and daughter back to their mud stained carriage. But before she let them enter, she laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Your mother will no doubt tell you the story of your healing many times in the years to come. But I wish to tell you myself of the vision which prompted Tipsy to save your life. I have foreseen in you the potential to do great things, to save lives in the same way Tipsy saved yours. Fate is not assigned; it is chosen, and I hope that Tipsy’s choice will guide yours. Take this.”

She held up a fist and the girl laid her palm below it. Into the girl’s hand she set a small brass bell.

“Tipsy used to wear this on her collar.” She paused to swallow a lump of emotion in her throat. “Bury it beside your house. If you choose to undertake the journey of my vision, you will know the time has come when you hear this bell ring again.”

The girl nodded. The mother said she understood and promised to tell the whole story when they reached home. And to tell it again whenever she thought her daughter might forget.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The days were growing shorter and the wind was growing colder. Crescent gathered the edges of his cloak closer about his shoulders. He preferred to make these journeys when he was fur-covered, to give him that extra buffer against the wind. But the witch had needed him to carry things this time, so she had planned the excursion to coincide with the rising of the crescent moon.

There were always benefits to visiting the village as a human, and Crescent hadn’t been disappointed. The basket of goods his witch required was tucked over his elbow. It would be easy enough to bear back, even if he had to pause and rest a few times. At least the sky was clear and there would be a roaring fire waiting for him when he reached home.

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the chilly night air, scented with oak and pine. Halfway through a contented sigh he was startled by the call of a bell. Not a church bell, as so often peeled through the streets of the village to mark the hours. This was a smaller sound, that might come from the jingle of the bell on a pet’s collar.

It had been nearly five years since he had heard a similar chime, though he still thought often of that day. The bell had sounded melancholy when the witch put it in the child’s hand, the little girl whom Tipsy had given her life to save.

A familiar prickle came unbidden to his eyes when he thought of the cat he hadn’t quite been able to save.

The bell tinkled again and he couldn’t help thinking there was nothing sad about it. This was a jingle of triumph, of summoning, of beginning.

Heart in his throat, Crescent rushed down the bush-lined path. He could see just fine in the dim light of the flickering lanterns. There was only one house left on the edge of town that he hadn’t passed. It wasn’t much bigger than the cottage he shared with his witch.

Even as the door came into view, it creaked open, spilling a more brilliant light across the path. Crescent stopped short of the end of the hedges and crouched, peering cautiously through the leaves.

He recognized the face in the door way instantly. She was five years older, but she still had the same eyes. She had sought him several times when he visited the village on behalf of the witch, always sending a message of gratitude home with him.

The bell sounded a third time and a tiny figure pranced into the light.

Crescent’s breath caught in his throat as his vision momentarily blurred. He swatted the moisture away so that he could get a second look at tan and brown fur. It couldn’t be! But the cat in the light cast by the doorway looked so much like little Tipsy that it took his breath away.

Except this cat didn’t move with that delicate sway to protect her joints. She didn’t seem to get dizzy on uneven ground. She pranced gracefully up to the doorway and her joyful meow drifted through the night to Crescent’s sensitive ears.

With a cry of utter delight, the girl stooped and scooped the cat into her arms.

Mindful not to eavesdrop too long, Crescent lingered until both cat and young woman had disappeared into the warmth of the house. Then he took off at a dead run, more eager than ever to reach home. The witch was going to want to know about this, and he was bursting to tell her.

*********
This story is dedicated in loving memory to “Tipsy” (real name changed for privacy reasons), a cat whom my writing partner rescued earlier this year and, sadly, had to bid farewell to a bare six months later. Below are the words my writing partner shared shortly after Tipsy’s passing; they are the message on which this story was based.

I had to say goodbye to Tipsy today. As some of you may know, Tipsy is a cat I took in back in May after her owner abandoned her. Her former owner may have known that she had mammary tumors when she left her behind, despite having her since she was a kitten, as I was told by the vet I took her to. They said she likely only had six months to live. They told me any shelter would put her down. That she was unadoptable. I adopted her anyway.

Things weren’t easy at first. She was scared and withdrawn and confused, and was not a fan of me or my strange house. She curled in a corner and wouldn’t let me get near, would lash out at me if I pushed her. So I gave her space and let her adjust. Eventually, trying to reach out, I remembered a lesson from Jackson Galaxy and I took a feather wand and tried to play with her. She loved it, and finally, finally started coming out of her shell.

After that we got to know each other, and she became a marvelous cat. She was sweet, outgoing, talkative, and always wanted to be near you, even if it was just to curl up in your lap while you read. She had a lovely purr, a squeaky meow, and had no problem making herself at home wherever you might be. She was sweet even as the sickness started to show.

The point of this post, however, is to say that she wasn’t just some abandoned cat I took pity on. She wasn’t just someone’s cat that lived in my house for six months. She was my cat. I loved her, and cared for her. When it came time, I made the hard choice. I held her and stayed with her, and I will remember her. At the end, I was her human, not some person who left her behind.

So, I just beg that if you bring an animal into your life that you remember that they are your responsibility. Food, water, health, love, safety. You take them in knowing it’s for their entire life, no matter how long, short, or hard that might be. And if, for some reason, you can’t or aren’t willing to take care of them any longer it’s your responsibility to find someone who can and is willing to take them in. Pets aren’t things to be left behind. They love us, and deserve the same in return.

My writing partner met ‘Tipsy’ at a time when she was in turmoil; anxious and frightened after her human abandoned her. Had my writing partner not taken her in, these would have been the last things she knew in this world. Instead, she enjoyed six months of joy and happiness and died in the arms of someone who loved her. Never underestimate the difference you can make to a life in a short time. It matters.

This will be the last story I share for this year. Thank you for reading.

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