"I want to go!" Sittchuk-Seth's silver plumy tail lashed back and forth. His jaw tightened and his expression was obstinate.
His father Thut sat upon his throne. His beautiful russet paws rested on the burnished gold arms of the regal chair, his expression both indulgent and annoyed. "What say you, Furrlin, shall we take this whelp of mine?" he asked the soothsayer.
Furrlin padded over to the blue crystal ball that stood in the corner near the throne. Standing on his hind legs, he rested his front paws on the crystal. The interior of the globe began to stir, to roll and flash in a prism of color. Furrlin stared unblinking into the ball as the blinding colors flashed. After a long moment, the storm of colors receded and once more lay dormant.
"Well," demanded Thut.
Furrlin turned and shrugged. "His destiny is already written. Do what you will." He dropped to his four paws and padded back to the king.
"What in the name of the Goddess kind of answer is that?"
"The kind you get from a soothsayer, my lord." Tiaa, his beautiful queen, put her paw over his and leaned toward him from her throne. "You promised, my lord. He would not accompany you into battle until he was a year of age." For a moment, her paw tightened on his and anguish shone out of her beautiful amber eyes. "He is our only child. I can bear no other."
"Mother, other Odin Cats fight at six months; should their future king not be at their side?" Pacing back and forth across the smooth stone floor, Sittchuk-Seth stopped at the window. He rose on his hind legs to stick his head out the stone embrasure and smell the clean salt air from the sea. He inhaled, drawing air deep into his belly. The massive castle reminded him of a velvet-lined prison. He yearned to fight his first battle against man and dogs, to flirt with pretty Odin Cats and ferals. Instead, he was confined to this dark gray castle that jutted on a scree of boulders, with the ocean singing its siren song far below.
He turned. "Please, Mother, let me go."
She stood up from the throne, dropped to all fours, and padded over to him. She raised her manicured paw and placed it on his face, her touch gentle. "I cannot."
He jerked his head away. "I want to go. I'm almost as large as my sire," he said, his voice sulky even to his own ears. I know I'm behaving badly but I can't seem to help myself. How can they leave me here like an old Odin Cat or a kit?
The king rose on his back legs. His sleek coat glowed and muscles rippled along his shoulders and spine. A scar ran the length of his left foreleg where man had ripped it with a knife.
"Do you want to try me, whelp?" Five and in his prime, a warning fire glowed deep in Thut's emerald eyes.
"I meant no disrespect, Father, but my place is by your side." He stood his ground, treading a fine line between reason and disrespect.
"Enough," Thut bellowed, his patience at an end, his tail lashing. He turned to Furrlin. "Take the whelp to his room." He looked at his son. "While I laud your courage, your insolence bores me. Show your mother the respect that is her due. She has earned it. You haven't. You will not go on this raid."
Disappointment bitter as bile rolled in his throat, threatening to choke him. He opened his mouth, looked at his father, snapped his jaws together, and stalked out. Furrlin followed, his steps more halting. The old Odin Cat was seventeen if he was a day.
"Why won't she see reason?" Sittchuk-Seth snarled. "She babies me so. All my friends will pass from kitten-hood into cat-hood today, leaving me behind like a kit that needs a sitter." He cocked his head over his shoulder, talking to Furrlin as he trotted up the wide stone stairway to his room. "That's what they call you, old friend, Seth's kit sitter."
Furrlin put his front paws on the steep step and pulled himself up. "I know it well. It doesn't bother me. It's been a pleasure to serve you, young Seth."
"Why do you say has instead of is?" Seth stopped, his paw raised in midair for the next gray stone step. Tension skittered just below his skin, causing it to ripple.
"I won't live forever, young master."
"What did you see in that ball of yours?" Seth sat down and wrapped his plumy silver tail around his body, waiting for the old cat to catch up.
"Not my future, but yours." His mouth open, panting, Furrlin climbed the steps that stood between them and sat down next to his charge, his old legs trembling.
"What is it?" Seth leaned forward eagerly.
"Patience, young Seth. To know it is to change your destiny and that I cannot do." Furrlin drew air deep into his belly.
Seeing his friend had regained his breath, Seth leaped up several steps. He waited on the landing for Furrlin. A black Persian Odin that served his mother passed by and nodded.
Seth dipped his head in return.
Furrlin pulled himself onto the corridor and padded down the hall.
Seth matched his stride to the old Odin.
"Do you believe the legend, Furrlin?" Seth asked as they entered his room.
"I do." For a moment the old Odin's emerald eyes blazed.
"And there are other Odin Cats outside our kingdom?" Seth walked into his chambers, padded to the window and stared down at the small garden of catnip below. The catnip bloomed year round, regardless of the weather. He sniffed, his head bobbing up and down. The scent of mint both mellowed and exhilarated him.
"I believe it to be so."
"And the prince will come in my lifetime? Maybe from across the waters, hidden on one of men's ships?" He stared out at the ocean.
"It isn't our lineage." Seth felt a fleeting regret then shrugged it off. "Father hates humans. He would never allow a uniting of kingdoms. How can I serve this prince, if I can't prove myself in battle?" He stalked up and down the stone-carved room.
"Leadership is about more than battle. It's about knowledge. It's about heart. It's about fairness and mercy. Listen to your elders, study so you will be ready." The old white cat, his fur an unhealthy shade of yellow, watched his young charge.
Seth stared out the window. "They leave in an hour. What route do they take?"
Furrlin heaved a sigh. "Did you hear a word I said?"
"Of course, old friend." He forced himself to put away his preoccupation with the upcoming raid. Dropping to all fours, he stalked across the stone floor to his mentor. The smooth rock was cool against the pads of his paws.
He rubbed against the old soothsayer's silken shoulders. "I have been learning since I was a kit. What else is there to know? I can hunt. I can speak both human and Catonese. I have studied the strategies of all the great rulers: the lions, tigers, pumas, even detestable man. I know everything I need to."
The old cat shook his head, his whiskers twitching. "You are brave, kind, and intelligent but you lack patience and humility."
With a twitch of his plumy tail, Seth stalked off. "Sppt, patience is for the old and humility is for those not born to royalty."
Green eyes glowing, the soothsayer said, "I wish I could learn these lessons for you, but I cannot. It's a journey you must make alone. It will be painful in the extreme. But know this. You will survive. And your story will be told around the campfires of both soldier and peasant cats alike. The name of Sittchuk-Seth will ride the wind and be carried to the farthest corners of the kingdom." As Furrlin spoke, his shadow filled the room, his jeweled eyes mesmerized, and his voice beckoned like that of a siren's. It echoed and re-echoed about the room. Colors flashed from his sharp talons.
Seth could feel his pupils dilate and his breath come in short sharp pants as he watched his mentor. The nerves beneath his skin tightened. A quiver, like a stroke over fur, ran along his spine. Though they'd been together for years, seldom did he see the old soothsayer's magic.
Then the shadow and colors dissipated, the voice no longer boomed, and the glowing green eyes dimmed to that of an old cat with the beginnings of cataracts.
He shook his head to clear it, looking around in wonder. For one magical moment he'd felt cloaked in the old magician's power. A gull called outside the window. He turned to watch it soar, the bird's magnificent wings spread to catch the wind. Seth's whiskers twitched; he'd returned to the world of the ordinary.
"What did you see in your globe, Furrlin?"
"Your future, young master."
Seth raised his head and looked into the old cat's eyes that were as green as his own. "My immediate future?" He tensed, his stomach muscles in knots.
Their eyes locked.
"And you won't try to stop me?" He twitched his ears.
"Your destiny is written in the stars."
"And you won't try to come with me?" he asked, still not quite believing it would be this easy.
"If I did?" Amusement laced the old cat's voice.
"I'm sorry, Furrlin, but you would slow me down." He winced just a bit at the arrogance in his voice. But it's the cat's truth.
Furrlin's eyes grew dreamy and undulated like green waves. "Your journey will be both less and more than you have ever imagined."
"Sometimes, old friend, your messages are a bit hard to follow." Seth plopped his hind quarters down, wrapped his plumy tail around his body, and cocked his head.
"I am only a vessel. I deliver the messages from the great cat goddess Bast herself." He shrugged.
"Can you tell me what route my father plans to take?" Seth leaned forward, eager.
"North into the high country. A band of ferals have been captured by humans to use for experimentation. Your father plans to attack before they reach the safety of the humans' city walls."
"Then I will go north too." Seth stood up. Eager to be off, he couldn't sit still.
He rubbed noses with Furrlin. "Will you be here when I get back?"
"I will always be with you, young prince."
"Always is a long time, Furrlin."
The old cat shrugged. "You are my charge. Given to me by Bast."
"You make me sound like a present. A fat juicy mouse wrapped up in ribbons." Seth snickered.
The old cat chuckled. "Something like that. But no mere mouse could so try my patience."
Seth sobered. "Will you escape unscathed for this day's work?"
"Would it make a difference?"
"I will go regardless, but I would rest easier knowing that you didn't suffer any consequences for it."
The old cat sighed. "You still think first of yourself." He batted his paw as Seth opened his mouth to protest. "I am the servant of Bast. Not even your father and mother, the king and queen, argues with Bast's messenger."
"My father will see reason; mothers are emotional creatures," he responded, dubious.
"Aw, you have learned at least one valuable lesson," Furrlin answered, pleased.
Arching his back, Seth dismissed learning valuable lessons as of little consequence. "I will be back soon. I will fight many humans and rescue many ferals," he bragged.
"You are so very young." Furrlin sighed.
Seth bristled. "I'm six months, an Odin Cat, no longer a kit."
"Go with Bast. Listen to what nature has to tell you. Not all men are bad. Remember what I taught you about their auras. Watch them and know whether you can trust them."
"Yes, yes." Seth's tail lashed and his ears twitched. He was eager to be off.
"I can do no more." The old cat turned and headed for the door, his steps slow as if he were in pain.
For one moment, Seth forgot his overriding sense of self and leaped after his teacher. He rubbed against him. "Thank you for everything you have done. I'll be back soon."
The old cat raised his paw and rested it on Seth's head for a moment then withdrew. "Bast speed." He padded through the door and didn't look back.
Seth raised his paw. "Bast speed, old Furrlin," he whispered then leapt to the window to watch the comings and goings below.
Forty or fifty paw-soldiers were gathering. Their sharp-edged claws clicked on the smooth stones.
A cool wind blew through the window. He bobbed his head up and down, sniffing. The air smelled of snow. The clouds were heavy and gray. The army would have to move fast. And it would. His chest swelled with pride. Odin Cats were both swift and fierce.
The cats began to line up in formation. Odins came in all breeds and colors: Himalayans, Siamese, Maine Coons, Tabbies, and many more.
The colorful sight mesmerized, taking his breath away.
Head high, graceful as a puma, his father stalked to the front of the soldier Odins, his russet fur gleaming.
Seth's breath caught in his throat as he watched his father. He was so proud of his sire and desperately wanted to make his father proud of him.
Thut raised a paw. For just a moment, the sun came out and glowed on Thut's gold crown and leg band that proclaimed him King of Odin, throwing blinding flashes of brilliant light around the sky.
Though he seldom wore his crown, a similar royal band encircled Seth's right front leg.
The sun disappeared as swiftly as it came.
"Odins move out." Thut dropped his paw and began to head down the rocky slope. They marched out of the stronghold, two abreast.
Seth's lady-mother waved her paw until they were out of sight.
Time to make my move.
He headed out of his room and ran smack into Delilah, a saucy little Siamese with blue crossed-eyes.
Or had it been the other way around, he wondered as she rubbed back and forth against him. He'd heard the older toms talk about females in heat and wondered if that was the case with Delilah. She certainly seemed friendlier than usual.
"Oh, Seth, you look so handsome today. You are becoming so big and strong. Would you like to take a walk in the catnip garden?" She purred a sensual sound from deep in her throat.
His brain began to fog. He shook his head to clear it then stepped hastily away. As curious as he was about the relationship between male and female cats, he was first and foremost a soldier-prince who needed to learn the art of warfare and how to lead soldier cats into battle.
"Another time, perhaps?"
"Well!" She stuck her nose in the air and flounced off.
He licked his chest. A wad of fur came off in his mouth. Nerves. He straightened his shoulders. What was there to be afraid of? His parents were being overly cautious. His mother would keep him a kit forever if she could. Once he'd saved the lives of many ferals, they would be proud of him. And then they'd start treating him like an Odin Cat instead of a kit.
He trotted down the back stone steps of the palace. A yellow-spotted feral that had been rescued in a previous raid, and now worked as a maid for his mother, came padding up the stairs. She bowed.
"Astasha." He nodded and kept going.
He reached the main level and slipped out the large stone opening in the back of the castle. As he trotted along the side of the castle, keeping well in its shadows, his father's secretary, a middle-aged fat gray tabby, came from the opposite direction. The tabby stopped in front of Seth, forcing him to stop as well. "What are you doing out here, young Prince, and why didn't you see your father off?" The tabby eyed him suspiciously.
Old geezer. "That's where I'm heading now. Have I missed him then?"
"Yes, I'm afraid you have." The secretary cat's tone was portentous.
"Don't let me keep you. I must hurry to try to catch a last glimpse of him." Then double back.
"Well, all I can say is I would have thought you would have been there in time to see your father off and support your mother. It's a dangerous mission."
Seth's tail lashed back and forth and his eyes narrowed. "You take it upon yourself to tell the prince his business?"
"I meant no disrespect, your majesty," the tabby mumbled, discomfited, and hurried away, his rotund belly swaying.
Seth waited until the tabby disappeared into the palace then looked around and slid between two large boulders where a narrow path circled around the palace and ran adjacent to the one his father had taken. The trail twisted and turned, winding closer then farther away, then parallel to the route the soldiers marched.
He ran along the dirt track, familiar with it from training and hunting exercises.
Still a distance away from the marching Odins, the wind carried their scent allowing him to follow them on the adjacent path. Sometimes, he would catch a whisper of their voices on a current of air. Though seldom, as Odins were stealth itself.
He traveled steadily north, far now from home. The temperature continued to drop and occasionally a cold round flake would fall from the overcast sky. He blinked away a snowdrop that landed on his eyelash.
Suddenly, the sound of shrieks and the sharp report of guns broke out. He sprinted, frantic to find a place in the trail where he could break through and join the paw-soldiers.
Guns were the biggest hazard Odins faced. Odins could take man one on one or even a man with a knife, but they weren't a match for a musket ball. To compensate against such powerful weapons, Odin's used surprise to their advantage. Usually dropping on their enemy from trees and rocky tops or attacking at night when their superior vision gave them the upper hand. Had the soldier cats dropped from the rocks? Or been taken by surprise themselves?
He ran with his mouth open, trying to catch more scent, his ears twitching as he strained to hear.
He looked up. A small dusty trail carved in the rock went over the boulders separating him from his pack. If he could climb the trail, he could reach the paw-soldiers and help them. He hurried forward, stepping on a sharp piece of shale in the process.
The wind carried the acrid scent of blood and blood lust, the odor of kills strong in the air. His fur puffed to twice its normal size. Stiff-legged, he skidded to a halt, his claws digging into the rocks and dirt.
Step by step, he backed up and forced himself into a nearby crevice, the walls scraping his haunches as he wedged himself inside the tiny fissure.
Whistling reached his ear. A man came down the pass dragging three dead Odins and a feral behind him. Tied by their hind legs, their bodies bumped against the rocks.
The man spit a stream of brown smelly liquid out of his mouth.
Seth laid back his ears, and drew back his lips in a silent snarl. A furr-trader. The human's pores were filled with the stench of years of death. Furr-traders followed human mercenaries. They hung on the outskirts of skirmishes and grabbed the dead cats to skin and sell their fur. Despicable. As father would say, they are human; what can you expect? Like vultures, they didn't fight, just stepped in to pick up the leavings.
Seth's tail lashed. There was no honor to an Odin in becoming a human's coat.
Crouched out of sight, Seth watched them. As the trader passed by, the feral's eyes fluttered open then closed again. Eyes as blue and clear as crystal. The feral isn't dead! I must save her.
He sank even deeper into his crouch, an age old attack mode. His muscles bunched and quivered beneath his skin. With the grace of a cougar, he leaped high in the air and landed on the man's shoulder. "Slash the rope with your claws," he yelled to the feral in Catonese.
The man staggered under Seth's weight. He screamed, dropped the rope, and drew out his knife.
Seth dug in his claws, angling for the man's jugular through the heavy leather hide the trader wore as a coat. Blood spattered from the man's neck.
The trader slashed at Seth.
Seth felt a burning ignite his leg as the knife bit deep but he didn't relinquish his hold. Determined, he dug in and held on.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the feral work her way loose. Even if I die I have saved her.
She opened her mouth and screamed liked a cougar. Crouching, her tail thrashing, she jumped and sank her teeth into the man's thigh. He howled and stabbed at Seth while violently shaking his leg.
Seth yowled in pain.
The man stumbled backward, shaking his leg, but the feral hung on.
The furr-trader tripped over a rock and pitched backward against an outcropping of sharp-edged gray stone. As he went down he hit his head. Seth heard the human's skull give. The man fell and lay still.
As if they had a will of their own, his claws loosened. Like a flower petal floating, he felt himself drop to the cold ground. A red haze rose from the rocks and swam in front of him. He shivered as the winds howled. The heavens opened and Mother Nature expunged large thick flakes of snow as if angry for the vagaries of creatures that tried their best to kill each other.
Freezing. I'm freezing. And my life's blood drains from me and soaks the ground. He began to shake, his body convulsing against the icy rocks.
A cold nose touched his.
He tried to open his eyes but couldn't.
"Who are you? What do I call the Odin that saved my life?" the feral asked, her voice distorted by the wind.
He opened his mouth and could do nothing but pant, his blood spurting out of his body. He forced out, his breath a mere whisper, "Seth."
"I won't leave you, Seth." She lay down on top of him, protecting him as best she could from the weather, placing a paw over his leg to slow the blood spurting from it.
"Save yourself; find shelter. The storm is a bad one." He thought it but couldn't force the words past his lips.
I'm dying. He closed his eyes and lay still.