“We better get back before dark, Pad.”
Kittle’s voice was the only sound either of them had heard all through the quiet, cold day other than the background noise of snow falling, and their feet scrrching through it. Neither of them wanted to say it, but they knew they were in for a scolding, if not a beating, when they finally got home.
Pad was twelve, Kittle was eleven, and they were inseparable as brothers, in spite of (or because of) the fact that they were both village orphans. They were told that their parents had been caught in a storm (not too different from this one, Kittle thought) shortly after Kittle was born, which, to Kittle’s mind, explained why the village was so over-protective of them.
But this time there didn’t seem to be any choice; it was so cold that Haversford village was almost completely snowed in, and the river that they normally depended on for trade was frozen solid, to boot. Nobody could remember when the winter had been so devastating. That they were starting to slaughter milk cows for food was a sign of how desperate they’d become. The traditional Yule holiday the village enjoyed was sure to be cancelled for lack of food, and nobody was optimistic about Twelfth Night, either.
So Pad and Kittle had taken it upon themselves to sneak out of Haversford to trudge to the nearby village of Burrowsby, in the hopes that there would be some food available to loan. Never mind the fact that several men of the village had already made the attempt, and none of them had returned; Pad and Kittle were young, and convinced of their immortality. (Truth be known, they were also probably the two hungriest villagers, and therefore the most motivated.)
And wonder of wonders, they’d made it to Burrowsby…and found the village deserted and empty. They hadn’t found a living soul except a mother cat trying desperately to feed the two remaining kittens of her litter, which Pad insisted on finding a box for, filling it with some old woolen blankets, and taking the half-starved cat and kittens with him. Kittle told him he was stupid, but Pad just shook his head and trudged out into the darkening, gray twilight.
And now they were going to pay for the time it had taken to get the cats boxed up, thought Kittle, probably with their lives. The snow had started coming down harder when they were no more than two miles from Burrowsby, and the wind had picked up. “Ah, no, ya wouldn’t lissen ta me, would ya?” Kittle whined while Pad slogged along behind him. “We’ve got to go, I says, it’s getting dark, I says, It could start coming down harder, I says, and you just shakes yer head and ignores me!”
“Shut up, Kittle,” suggested Pad. “You’ll talk yourself to death out here.”
“What d’ya mean by that?” Kittle stopped and stared at Pad.
“I mean,” glared Pad in return, “that ever’ time yer opens yer mouth yer lettin’ heat out. An’ we ain’t got that much to spare between us.”
Kittle’s eyes got bigger. “Really truly?”
“Really truly,” confirmed Pad. “So shut up.”
And there didn’t seem to be anything that Kittle could say to that. So they continued to struggle through the woods, following the game trail they’d come to Burrowsby on.
Or so they thought. Suddenly Kittle looked up and around, walked a few more feet, and stopped. Pad bumped into him unceremoniously, and stopped himself.
“Wot’s wrong?” Pad looked daggers at Kittle. Kittle was either glancing wildly in every direction, or having a seizure. Pad couldn’t tell which. Finally Kittle stopped looking around, and said, as calmly as an eleven-year-old could,
“We’re lost, that’s what.”
Pad looked around himself, and didn’t recognize anything either. He thought it might just be the snow on the ground covering up his usual landmarks, but in the near-dark, he couldn’t recognize anything either. Just a grove of trees he didn’t recognize, and a stream he didn’t remember being there.
And the old man standing inside the grove of trees, apparently having some sort of argument with himself.
Pad’s heart leaped upward. “C’mon, look ov’r there, that gaffer’ll know where we need to go!” And he raced toward the grove, with Kittle in close pursuit.
At the last second, though, caution overcame desperation, and he flung himself down behind a conveniently large oak, only remembering at the last second not to land on the box holding the cat and kittens. It thumped to the ground, and the animals inside protested weakly, but fortunately they didn’t make enough noise to attract any unwanted attention. Both boys then peeped around the tree to watch the ongoing discussion.
The old man was leaning heavily on a staff, and his black hair was a mass of tangles peeking out from under his hood from time to time. He had a stern, weather-beaten face, which wasn’t strange. What was strange was the fact that he was apparently arguing with himself. What was even stranger was the fact that he seemed to be losing.
His face was contorted as though in pain, and he was saying something over and over, but neither of the boys could make out the words. An occasional “no” and “mine” was all they could hear. Finally Kittle could stand it no longer, and scuttled out from behind the tree and up to the old man, who paid him no heed. Kittle was able to eventually puzzle out what the old man was muttering, but it still didn’t make any sense.
“No, door, this is mine. For all eternity, this is mine.”
Finally Kittle reached out and tugged at the old man’s cloak. This resulted in the old man leaping into the air with a screech and coming down with his staff pointed directly at Kittle’s nose. Kittle’s eyes had never crossed before, but they did now.
The old man’s voice sounded like a dry grave.
“What do ye here, Son of Adam? From whence come ye, and what do ye seek?”
“Begging yer pardon, ser, my name’s Kittle, not Sunufadam. We’ve lost our way, and we’re trying to get home to Haversford before dark. Do ya know the way, and mebbe have ye got a torch, or a bit of food we might beg of ye?” Kittle was as polite as he knew how to be.
The old man laughed in a voice like dry bones. “Aye, I know your town Haversford, and I know where it sits, and I know it be doomed like Burrowsby, and Walton before it, and Falls Town before that, and a host of others.”
“Doomed?” Kittle was a bit slow on the uptake, but once he compared the mental picture of Burrowsby in his head with “doomed” he was able to put two and two together. “Why is it doomed? And what happened to Burrowsby? And Walton? And Falls Town? And-
“Enough! Know ye not who I am? Has the race of Man forgotten so much, that they know not, nor fear, Cuilenn Righ?”
“Kewlen Ree? I’m sorry, ser, I don’t know the name.” Kittle was still trying to be polite, in the hopes that the old man would show them the way home. Pad picked up the box holding the cats and joined him; Pad had always been the one to let Kittle do the talking.
The old man’s face darkened, if such was possible. “Dost know the Holly King, little one?”
“Holly King?” Kittle turned and looked at Pad. “Didn’t Nan used to tell stories about the Holly King and the Oak K-“
“Name not his name, lest ye die,” said the old man. “He is beaten and dares no more to show his face. Eternal Winter has come, and with it the end of the Sons of Adam, and all life save that which I allow. And I do not choose to allow the existence of two such as you.”
And he turned and called into the woods with a whistle, and out strode four monstrous wolves. They looked like they hadn’t eaten in awhile, and looked at the boys and the box with the stare of an animal who knows it is about to feed.
Pad and Kittle screamed, and turned to run, but quick as thought, the wolves cut off their escape. Within a few seconds they were hemmed in on all sides by the gaunt, snarling forms.
“I told ya an’ told ya and told ya, we better get home before dark, but nooooo!” screamed Kittle.
“Shut up, Kittle.” said Pad, and pulled his table-knife from under his tattered rope belt. The old man saw it, and laughed wildly. Pad dropped to his knees, put the box down, and lifted the tattered woolen blanket off the top. He leaned down and said, “Well, we tried, little girl. I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave those two and run away. Go on, now.” He was very matter-of-fact about it, as though discussing the chances of rain in the summer.
The mother cat poked her head out of the box, saw the wolves, and promptly doubled in size as her fur exploded. A hissing, snarling ball of fury arced up and out of the box, and landed less than a foot from the nose of the biggest wolf, who jumped back in surprise. The cat promptly followed him and a rather odd chase ensued. Three wolves chased the cat, who chased one wolf. When the action slowed down, the cat was twelve feet or so up a tree, yowling at the wolves, who couldn’t reach her.
The old man was laughing, but at the wolves now. Finally he stopped, and said “Enough, lads. Two of you guard the hell-cat. The other two, kill the boys, and whatever else may be in that box.” The biggest wolf and one other turned from the tree where the mother cat was marooned, and stalked toward Kittle, Pad, and the box. Pad moved in front of the box, pointed his table-knife at them, and said, “you’ll not have them.”
The old man laughed again. “Think ye that thou’rt a match for my two lads, and you but a boy, and alone?”
Then Kittle reached down on the ground, picked up a tough old branch, stood, and moved beside Pad. “Count again, old man.”
The old man laughed even harder. “Think ye that two BOYS be a match for my two lads? I tire of this. Make an end, my stout fellows.”
The wolves moved in. The box started mewing frantically. The boys looked at each other, and the wolves.
The mother cat set herself on the tree branch, and yowled. This was no ordinary cry of a cat; it sounded as though she was summoning a host to battle.
The sound faded quickly in the snowy woods. The old man laughed again and turned to go.
And then faintly, from far in the distance, they heard the deep chord of a great horn, answering the call. The old man spun around, screaming incoherently, while the wolves abandoned the cat and the boys to cluster around him. The horn sounded again, much closer this time. Pad reached down, grabbed the box, and ran for the nearest tree, with Kittle close behind. By the time they had reached it the horn had sounded again, an ear-splitting blast that caused the old man to take a firmer grip on his staff, and the wolves cringed. A light could be seen growing from the direction of the horn.
The horn sounded one more time, and from out of the woods burst a figure astride a horse, and the light emanated from him. The horse skidded to a precise stop while the figure landed lightly beside it.
“Cuilenn.” Everything that was missing in the old man’s voice was here; sun, wind, growing things, life. “Did you truly think yet again to break the endless cycle? What sheer folly.” The figure removed his hood to reveal a young, smiling, blond man, with a sword slung at his side.
“Duir.” The old man sounded even more displeased than before, if that was possible. “I had thought that the trap I laid for thee would surely keep thee occupied long and long, and that the bitterness of the winter I laid on these people would surely find its way to their hearts, and that the end would surely come.”
“Oh, as to that; ‘twas a most cunning trap, Cuilenn. And e’en the most stout hearts will eventually fail, and did, it seems. But you know the rules as well as I: all it takes is one selfless act, and no trap or magic may hold me. And here we had many: The boy rescuing the cat, the cat prepared to die to defend her litter, and the boy prepared to die to defend the kittens. Thus is your power triply shattered, which the Powers That Be will surely note, and sharply limit thy power for the next three years. Now begone, ere I chasten thee with the Light.”
And with that, the old man and his wolves turned, and slunk into the dark forest. The blond man turned his attention to Pad and Kittle. “Come, lads. Thou mayest show thy faces, and fear not.”
“I wasn’t afraid!” Piped up a voice.
“Shut up, Kittle.” Pad stepped out from behind a tree with Kittle close behind.
The blond man inclined his head to the boys. “I thank thee, young sirs. In truth, old Cuilenn did come closer to the mark than he knows. But as long as there is innocence in the world the Light will never fade. Indeed, I do not think Cuilenn has thought through what would happen should he ever win: a neverending Darkness, with no Light to struggle against.”
“What?” said Pad and Kittle together. Pad followed that with “who ARE you? What was that all about?”
The blond man smiled. “Look down at my feet, boys. What do you see?”
It took Kittle a minute, but finally he blurted out, “no snow!” And indeed it was true: everywhere the blond man had walked, and indeed the path back through the forest from whence he had come, was bare earth. Kittle stared at the bare earth, and back at the man, and finally stuttered, “are-are you magic, ser?”
“Indeed, young one.” The man smiled, sadly this time, it seemed. “I am Duir Righ, the King of the Oak. Those stories your Nan told you were true, every one. Each Yule the Holly King battles the Oak King, and loses. Six months after that the Holly King defeats the Oak King, and the seasons change. This cycle cannot be broken, and yet Cuilenn continues to try. Sometimes it seems he has succeeded, for a time, and the winters grow harsh, and cold, and forbidding, and seem never to end. And the Sons of Adam grow cold, and forbidding, and harsh, and “good will towards men” becomes a distant memory.
And then someone such as yourself comes along, young Pad, and winter’s grip is broken, and the cycle continues. Remember that in the years to come, and remember Duir Righ, the Oaken King, and Cuilenn Righ, the Holly King, and when things seem their darkest, gather ye together, and celebrate, and lo, the season will turn.”
And with that the blond man sprang atop his horse, and blew a blast such as they had never heard, and sprang away faster than their eyes could follow. And when they shook themselves, and looked around, the frozen village of Haversford was just around the bend, and sitting behind them was a huge sled full of bags of flour, and hams, and onions, and potatoes, and turkeys, and bread, and many, many other good things to eat, and atop the biggest turkey was a half-starved tabby cat, gnawing for all she was worth and purring loud enough to be heard twenty feet away. And sure enough, the village gathered, and celebrated, and the season turned, and Pad and Kittle were heroes.
And in later years, when winter’s grip seemed never-ending and the rest of the villagers grew sour, and distant, and hateful, Pad and Kittle would throw a party, and burn the Yule log, and exchange gifts, and eat food until they burst, and sure enough, the season would turn.
And always, for no reason that anybody else ever figured out, there were cats around.