Excerpt: Witch, Cat, and Cobb
I was not accustomed to swamps.
I had been warned about the dangers of swamps, of course, as all children were, and knew that the likelihood of traversing the swamp without grave peril befalling me was dismally low. But somehow, in the course of plotting my grand escape, I hadn’t given that fact as much thought as I should have. And to pay for it, I was knee-deep in muck with a cat’s claws digging painfully into my shoulders.
“Don’t make any sudden movements!” said Fen, digging his claws even deeper, until I was certain he had latched onto my bone. “It’ll only make it worse.”
“Make it worse?” I screeched at him. “How could this possibly be worse?”
Fen released his front claws from my neck and placed them gently on my head, “I’ve heard about this sort of ground. If I’m right, it’ll be a few hours before it’s swallowed you whole. Whoops!” He had jumped up onto my head, his back legs scrambling over my ear and causing me to shout in pain as his claws grazed me.
“Shh, I’m balancing.” He turned delicately on my head and crouched, wiggling his backside for good measure. “Anyway, you don’t know what sort of creatures you’re likely to attract, making so much noise.” He jumped, shoving me deeper into the muck as he did so, and caught a branch, scrambling up and then perching deftly to look down at me. His normally tawny fur was black in silhouette against the full moon, his eyes a green glint in the otherwise dark swamp.
“I should never have trusted you,” I said, glaring up at him. “You’ve led me to my death!”
“I haven’t!” called Fen, sounding offended. “Anyway, you agreed that the swamp was the best choice because no one would come looking for us!”
“And no one will find us even if they do!” I squeaked.
“Hush.” Fen took a step forward, and the tree shifted as he arched his back, swaths of witch’s hair dipping into the muck next to me. He took another step forward, and the branch swayed and bowed downwards. “There, see? Grab that.”
I did so, glad I had thought to change into my riding breeches before leaving the castle, and attempted to haul myself up, my fingers tangling in the greasy mats of the witch’s hair as I did so. Fen made a very un-cat-like screech, and raced up the tree as it buckled further under my weight.
At last I managed to pull myself up and crawl over to where I hoped the ground was more solid. I let myself down with a whump and sat, collecting myself. Fen landed lightly on my shoulder, and I hissed at him, causing him to scuttle away and behind the tree.
“Don’t do that,” he said presently, his voice muffled by the leaves and bracken. “Show some gratitude.”
“Right,” I said, standing up and attempting to brush myself off as best I could. I was also not accustomed to being quite so dirty. “Thank you for saving me from the peril you yourself put me in.”
“You are the one who wanted to run away, Princess, if I might remind you.” Fen emerged from behind the tree and trotted up to me, jumping deftly back onto my shoulder. “I simply agreed to help you out.”
“You think I don’t know that you’ve got some sort of ulterior motive?” I asked him as I began to walk again, keeping a wary eye out for more of the muck I’d sunken into.
“What ulterior motive could I possibly have?” said Fen. “I’m a cat.”
“A talking cat, I might add. Who waited for how many years, twenty? To decide to reveal that fact to me, and not until I had mentioned that I might be thinking of running away to the swamp. Why?”
“I just liked the sound of it.”
“You liked the sound of this?” I gestured to the seething wet darkness around us and stopped walking. “No, tell me immediately.”
“Hmph,” said Fen. “If you must know, I’m not really a cat.”
“Fen, I’ve been undressed in front of you!”
“Oh, don’t be so full of yourself, Princess.”
“I’ve had ladies in my bed while you were there!”
“I didn’t watch!” Fen jumped from my shoulder to the ground and licked his back defensively. “What was I supposed to do? It’s not easy being a man trapped in a cat’s body, you know. I was living in the barns before you took a liking to me. I wasn’t going to risk being kicked out of your quarters if you discovered I could talk!”
“So,” I crossed my arms, trying not to think of all the silly childish sob stories I had told Fen, all the private things I had done in front of him throughout my childhood, assuming he was just a normal cat. “That brings us back to my original question. Why tell me now?”
“Right, I’ll tell you, but can we keep moving?” He sniffed the air. “I swear we’re close.”
“Everything, then,” I said, following him down a narrow path of moss between two trees sunk deep in a shallow, slow-moving stream.
“Fine, if you must know, we’re here looking for a witch.”
“What, the Swamp Witch?”
“The very same,” said Fen, turning and jumping onto my shoulders again. His feet were wet from the moss, and the cold seeped through to my skin. Some of the muck had also soaked into my boots, and my feet sloshed as I walked. I wished for my fireplace back home in the castle. But not for everything else associated with it. “It’s her fault I’m a cat, you see,” Fen continued. “And she’s the only one who can turn me back. I would have gone and asked her to change me back years ago, but I barely got out of the swamp alive, and I knew I’d never be able to find my way back alone. You’re the first person who’s even mentioned going into the swamp in twenty years.”
“I wish you’d told me earlier,” I said. “Oh look, a path.”
“Yes!” Fen shouted. “I recognize that! Follow it.”
The path was made of wooden slats, trailing around moss and rocks, and slowly meandering its way up a hill. I hoped it wasn’t some sort of trap. Fen jumped from my shoulder again and trotted ahead. As we walked, dim green lights began to light up in the ground on either side of the path, lighting and leading our way.
“Doesn’t this seem a bit—” I looked around warily, “—convenient?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…” I was about to mention that the green lights seemed suspiciously like the fairy lights I had read about in books as a child and that if we were really getting close to the abode of the Swamp Witch, we were probably likely to be walking straight into a trap. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to say any of that, because I had walked straight into a trap.