The smoke was in the air even as Abelone awoke, early the next morning. Not the chilled, ashy smoke from the night before, but new smoke, rising up from the Festival bonfires, crisp and clean and pervasive. Abelone inhaled deeply, then washed and dressed as quickly as she could, before the chill got into her bones.
She glanced out of the window as she wound her long woollen scarf around her neck a few times, and noticed the little grey tabby cat perched on the low stone wall outside. He seemed to be dozing contentedly, minding his own business and lost in his thoughts, but something about the way his ears flicked back and forth restored the sense of restlessness Abelone had been wrestling with yesterday. She watched him for a moment longer, but he didn’t move from his position, so she shrugged and went downstairs to put the kettle on. It wasn’t until she was leaning against the kitchen table idly waiting for the tea to steep that she realised what the cat reminded her of. His stance, his attitude, even the way he moved his head from time to time mimicked exactly the sentries who guarded the town gate. Wary, protective… and very slightly apprehensive.
“Morning, Abby,” said her father, walking into the kitchen and taking a seat at the table. He investigated the teapot, and deciding the tea was strong enough, poured them both a cup. “Fetch the milk from the larder, there’s a good girl. I don’t know how fresh it is though, it’s been in there a while.”
Abelone wordlessly obeyed, her thoughts elsewhere, grabbing a small saucer at the same time. After checking that the milk was still fresh and pouring enough into the two mugs on the table, she tipped a small amount into the saucer, and took it to the door.
“You don’t mind if I give that cat a drop, do you?” she asked, over her shoulder, her hand on the door.
“Has he asked you for some?” her father replied, and she could tell he was only half teasing. She shook her head.
“Not exactly. It’s just cold out, and I’m not sure who he belongs to.”
Assuming that her father’s smile was permission enough, Abelone unlocked the door and slipped through. The smell of smoke was much stronger outside, and she could almost feel it weaving through her hair and creeping into her clothes. That was the trouble with Festival, she thought, the smell of smoke would fade over time, but never quite go completely. There would be times in summer where she might pull out a certain dress or jumper, and the smell would envelop her with memories and nostalgia and she would be right back in Autumn, watching the fireworks go up over the rooftops… but not this year, she suddenly remembered – this year was her twenty first year, and as such she would be going along to the Festival for the first time.
For the first time, she would be able to sit on the wooden benches lining the town square and watch the sparks go up from the fire and the rockets shoot into the night sky, rather than watching from their garden gate; for the first time she would get to try the spiced wine from the barrel and the spit pork straight from the flames rather than tea and toast; for the first time she would watch the dancers and listen to the musicians play their wild music rather than just hearing the drumbeats on the breeze; and for the first time, she was scared about it.
She’d never been scared of anything before, not really. She wasn’t even sure what it was she was scared of. She had sensed something last night, when the cat had insisted she go back inside, but it was more than that. It was a sensation she felt she might have had all her life, only now it had become impossible to ignore.
She had just reached the garden gate when a ghostly figure came into view on the road that came from the forest. It saw Abelone and ran towards her, skipping and jumping without grace.
“Hello, Abelone,” she called, for the figure was a young woman, a year or so older than Abelone herself.
“Morning, Susanna,” Abelone smiled. “Where have you been?”
Susanna looked over her shoulder at the forest, looking puzzled.
“I’m not sure. Waiting in the trees, I think. They talk to me, sometimes,” she confided, leaning in towards Abelone.
“The trees do? What do they say?” asked Abelone.
“I can’t understand them yet. I will though; I think they bring messages from my true love.”
“Ohhhh…” Abelone said, hoping that Susanna wouldn’t launch into one of her speeches.
“He’s going to come back for me, you know,” Susanna said, loftily. “He brings me flowers, and gifts of money every year, on this night. It’s our anniversary, you know. He’s shy, so he doesn’t stay. I just have to be patient and wait.”
“That’s not a good way to live though, Susanna,” Abelone said compassionately. “You shouldn’t have to wait for a man – and aren’t you a bit chilly in that summer dress?”
Susanna eyed her contemptuously, ignoring the fact that her thin arms were slightly blue with cold.
“You couldn’t possibly understand, little Abelone. You will, one day, when you fall in love. Until that day, do not presume to give me advice.”
With that she wafted away down the lane towards her own house. Abelone sighed; that was the way every conversation with Susanna had gone for the last five years.
“Hey,” she said to the cat, placing the saucer on the path by the gate. “I brought you this, in case you’re hungry.”
The cat peered round at her, and looked away. Abelone began to feel a bit silly, but she never doubted whether she had heard him speak the night before. She didn’t go round imagining things like that, it just wasn’t the sort of thing she did. But she felt silly none the less, aware that her father would probably be watching her through the kitchen window in amusement. She flapped an arm lamely at the saucer.
“Well, it’s there if you want it, anyway.” She turned to go, when the cat’s voice stopped her.
“Milk is for kittens, you know,” he told her, never taking his eyes from the road that lead towards the forest. “I would prefer ham, if you have it. Or rabbit. Either would be nice. But not milk, thank you all the same.”
“Oh,” Abelone said. “But I’ve seen grown up cats drink milk.”
“Getting older doesn’t mean you grow up. Some cats remain kittens until they die, old and frail. Some are never kittens. I would have thought one such as you would know that.”
“Why do you say that – one such as me?” Abelone asked quickly.
“Why wouldn’t I say it? Are you not one such as you? If you weren’t, that would be a pretty poor state of affairs, would it not?”
“You’re not making sense. Can’t you just tell me-“
The cat put its ears back and hissed.
“I am not supposed to tell you anything. Nothing at all, and I have told you far more than I should have, and still it isn’t enough for you. You need to seek your answers elsewhere, or at least just leave me alone to do my job. Hushaway now, and leave me be.”
Chastened, Abelone picked up the saucer and made her way back inside.
“Don’t forget the ham,” called the cat over his shoulder. “Or rabbit, that’s fine too.”
“How did it go? Did he not want the milk?” Marten asked, pouring himself out more tea.
“He didn’t want the milk,” replied Abelone grumpily, pouring it into her teacup.
“Did he tell you that?” he asked, watching her carefully.
Abelone paused for a moment, then looked up to meet her father’s eyes.
“He did. He said that milk was for kittens, and he’d prefer ham or rabbit next time.”
“That’s cats for you. Never happy. If you’d tried to give milk to a dog, he’d accept it and be eternally grateful. Cats act as though you owe them something, like they’re doing you a favour just by letting you share the same space. Give me a dog any day.”
“You’re not worried about me?” asked Abelone. “You’re not worried that I might be going mad?”
“Do you think you’re going mad?”
“I don’t think so. But I could understand why you might think I was. Also, I just spoke to Susanna, and I don’t think she realises she’s mad, so I think my own opinion on my owm sanity might not count for too much.”
“Ah, poor little Susanna,” her father replied, rubbing his chin pensively. “What an odd child. Engaged to be married to the miller’s son Robert one minute, the next she drops him without a word of explanation and floats around wearing inappropriate dresses. But no, Abby – I’m not worried about you going mad. I worry about everything else, just about, but your sanity has never given me any cause for concern. If you say the cat is talking to you, then what I want to know is whether he’s said anything important, apart from his dietary requirements.”
“Well, not really. He’s just acting oddly.” She gestured through the window at the cat. “Does he look like he’s on guard, to you? Like he’s watching out for something?”
Marten peered through at him.
“I’m not wearing my glasses, but to be honest, he looks like he’s just getting on with being a cat. They do that, sit and stare at things. Funny creatures, cats. I wouldn’t fret. Are you nervous about your first Festival? You don’t have to go, you know.”
Abelone punched his arm lightly.
“You know I have to go. And speaking of going, we should really be getting over to Aunt Brynna’s, to help set up for tonight. She won’t be impressed if we’re late again.
Marten nodded, and started to lace up his shoes. Abelone quickly washed up the cups, and didn’t hear the low rasping growl the cat had started to make at something he couldn’t see but could sense, something he felt watching from just beyond the boundaries of the forest.