Shadows danced along the green-gold leaves of Goldstone Wood. The orange cat stood at the edge of the forest, the soft grass smooth against his padded paws. He peered into the flickering dimness of the Wood, his senses alert.
Behind him, water rippled and gushed in a stream. He shuddered at the sound, thrown back to a time in his life full of greedy rivers and a plunge into a waterfall. Insanity—things any self-respecting cat would never agree to get into.
But he had lost self-respect in regards to many things, hadn’t he?
Cats were loners. They didn’t play about with—with feelings, either.
And yet, here he was.
Huffing, he stalked into the trees, his tail whipping and stirring the leaves of the bushes he passed. He found the Path he was looking for and allowed it to guide him, half-pulling him down its narrow trail. He knew it so well he would not have stumbled on a regular day, but today was no ordinary day.
Memories flashed through his mind. He hissed, pushing them away. Anger and denial built up in his chest, scratching to be let out. His orange fur and narrow eyes dissipated as the form of a man took their place. The sunlight filtering through the leaves caught his golden hair and set it glinting.
Balling his fingers into fists, he muttered to himself.
There once was a lass who took to task
To save every soul she could find
Little did she know the world doesn’t flow
And people don’t enjoy that kind of wine.
Someone of smarts and a really big heart
Tried to tell her this gentle and slow
And what does she do but create a large to-do
And accuse him of having the heart of a crow.
“A crow!” he snapped, his amber eyes flashing. He stomped along the Path, oblivious to the idea that the trees’ whispers might be laughter.
All too soon, before his rage had faded, he reached the Haven. Plunging through the slender trees and into its cool halls, he sucked in a deep breath. All around him, the air shimmered with invisible servants who plucked at his sleeves and snickered to themselves at his expense.
They knew why he was here. He gritted his teeth, wishing he had his feathered cap so he might feel a little more confident in himself.
He thought he heard one of the servants murmur, “The crow is here” before hurrying away, gasping in laughter. Although it had been so long, even they remembered.
When the servants had gone off to attend to their own business, he stood in a hall eerily silent. His footsteps were the only sounds that echoed as he made his way down the corridor. As he walked, he strained to hear the scratch of her quills, the shuffling of her papers. The muttered, “Dragon’s teeth!” as she spilled an ink bottle and was forced to start all over. The muttered curse she would then retract and blush over using.
Such an innocent little soul, so full of hope still.
No. His thoughts couldn’t start wandering in that direction—
Too late. His thoughts soared away from him, into the past, into the argument over one thousand years ago that had taken her further from him.
“No.” He slammed his fist against the desk, watching her jump and stare at him, wide-eyed. Then her eyes glinted and hardened, turning into cool dark stones.
“Yes,” she said, her voice calm.
“If you think I will allow you to venture out on your own, you’re demented,” he snapped. “Starflower—”
Her jaw clenched. “It’s Dame Imraldera now,” she said, so softly something that might have been pain stung his immortal heart. “And it’s not for you to allow or disallow,” she continued, rising, “but for our Lord to decide. The Lumil Eliasul will show me the way.”
He grabbed her wrist, desperate and unsure why. It was easy to sing little ditties honouring—more like mocking—the women in his life, but somehow, when he sang hers, the words felt real. Felt True and Powerful and Frightening. His stomach coiled. “No,” he snarled. “Little mortal, the one you want so desperately to save is un-saveable!”
She stiffened. Tugging her arm from his grip, she whirled to face him. “Like you were?” she demanded.
He pulled himself to his greatest height, peering down his nose at her. The sight of her childlike, uplifted face only solidified his resolve. The dark, fluttering lashes, the smooth, apple-plump cheeks—all belonged to a girl, a little mortal girl who had lost her way and found herself amongst faeries. But that did not mean she belonged in this world.
He had to protect her from it.
“That’s different,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. Sinking into a chair, he patted the couch beside him. “Sit, my dear, and stop worrying so much. Stop throwing yourself into quests where you don’t belong.”
The air seemed to pop. She strode up to him, bristling. “Do you know why I throw myself into these quests, you—you heartless crow?”
His eyes bugged. “Cr-crow—”
She cut him off. “Because you—” She jabbed a finger into his chest. “—are too afraid to set out on them. Our Lord called you by name, appeared to you, and yet you only do what you feel you must. You do not seek out the lost wherever they might be found. You go do whatever our Lord explicitly commands, and then you come here and lounge about like a bug. You take whatever quests will bring you glory and honour and dismiss the small, everyday tasks. You forget his implicit commands. You’re still selfish and petty and—” She broke off, her chest heaving.
“And sometimes,” she said, slowly and painstakingly, “sometimes I wonder if you even have a heart. If you even can love someone other than yourself.”
She had apologized for what she said to him. But he had never uttered a “sorry,” not a word, despite what he had uttered after her speech.
“And why should I?” he’d asked, in his anger more like a petulant child than an immortal faerie man. “Unlike you little mortals, I’m not a clinging, needy pest.”
Now he winced. Centuries had passed since that night. Centuries of strained friendship, of smiles that didn’t quite reach the eyes, of tenderness forced to hide itself because of the anger that still rested between them.
And all because of him. He grimaced, remembering his last appearance at his Lord’s palace on the Farthest Shore. Una, that spritely girl he had once watched over, had presided over him. Seated beside her husband, robed in silver, gold, and white, she had pinned him with eyes grown wiser within the space of a night than his had ever grown within the space of a thousand years.
And his Lord, though always patient, had begun to grow weary of Eanrin’s stubbornness. “One thousand years is long enough, cat,” he had said after bestowing sight to Eanrin’s eyes once again. “I called you to do my special bidding. Now go and apologize to your fellow knight.”
Eanrin had given a stiff bow in return before making to leave. In the context of the moment, he couldn’t even rejoice over his restored sight.
“Eanrin?” the Prince had called after him.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“Get over yourself.”
The words hit him now with a twinge.
“Eanrin?” The gentle voice pulled him into the present. He blinked to see her standing in the library doorway, her head tilted to one side. A lock of her rich dark hair slid over her shoulder.
How long had he been standing here like an idiot while she watched? A flush coated his cheeks, growing as he blushed about blushing. He hadn’t blushed like this since…. He swallowed. Since he had been a mere dandy faerie minstrel and she had been the Maid Starflower.
Does she think about those times still?
She arched a brow at him. “Are you ill?” she asked dryly.
Apparently not. “Not…quite,” he managed, pushing past her into the cool shadows of the library. She followed, her steps quiet. The library was bathed in silver-blue light, Lady Hymlume’s radiance. He sank into a chair, leaning over his knees.
She stood before him, her hands clasped before her. Her green and purple robes seemed to glow. “Eanrin,” she said. “What brings you here at this time of night? And are you certain you’re all right?”
He looked up at her. Her words were full of concern, but her eyes, no matter what emotion they showed, still held the same weariness they’d regarded him with for the last thousand years. No matter what he said or did, it remained. He could cover her shivering shoulders with his own bright crimson cloak or cradle her head in his hands; she would never believe the feeling behind the actions until he spat out his pride and buried it in the dirt.
It had almost been easier to be humble when she was a little lost girl in the Wood. With ease he had crooned her a lullaby to chase away her fears, had become soft so she might lean against him.
But there was no lullaby he could sing to chase away her fear of him.
The fear that he would hurt her again.
Suddenly, the last thousand years were too much to bear. They had been through so much together, had held onto their tense friendship because it was all they had left. Her mortal life had slipped away with Time, leaving her suspended in the body of a girl though her eyes held the wisdom of a woman far older.
He could always leave, visit Rudiobus and his kindred and then dance his merry way back to her. But she had nowhere to go. This library, this life that she had “thrown herself into” was all she had.
She was a truer knight then he.
He reached out, gathering her hands in his. She stiffened and tried to pull away, but he rubbed his thumbs over her cracked knuckles and bowed his head. “P-please listen to what I have to say,” he murmured.
“You always have lots to say.”
He flinched. “True, true,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted.
“You—you’re what?” she sputtered, swaying on her feet.
He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I said that night a thousand years ago. I’m so, so sorry, my darling, darling girl.”
And for one of the only times in his long life, Eanrin, merry minstrel of Rudiobus, Knight of Farthest Shore, cat of all cats, broke down and wept.
He hated the feeling, hated the slick wetness against his cheeks. But he hated more the fact that he had allowed one thousand years to pass by before reaching this point. He was a cat, through and through.
She fell on her knees before him, stroking his hair back from his face. “Eanrin,” she said. And what he heard in her voice was not mockery or accusation or even gentleness.
Raising his head, he understood why the Prince had given him back his sight. So that he might truly See.
He met her gaze, met the eyes no longer veiled by caution. Her voice held a note that sang of his lullaby over sixteen hundred years ago, a note that reminded him of how she had loved the Black Dogs. She had loved them, however undeserving they might have been. She had offered her heart and soul to them, even after they had rejected her and hurt her.
A gaze full of forgiveness, and so much more. So much more, that his heart ached with the hope and beauty of it.
In her eyes he saw once again the Maid Starflower. And in them, he saw his True Form reflected. And oh, how it shone!