The Gate of the Cat (Witch World: Estcarp Series), p.1Andre Norton
THE BATTLE BETWEEN
LIGHT AND DARK
Kelsie took heart as she saw one shadow fade, another break suddenly into bits as if it were tangible and could be handled.
Out from the columns came a beam of fierce red to strike full upon the whirling crystals of the jewels. Their clear light clouded—what was white and gold became red and darkened. The shadows on the surface of the world took heart, gathered, spread, ate up more and more of the land.
Kelsie cried out . . .
THE GATE OF THE CAT
“THE GATE OF THE CAT will please fans of this series; it measures up well to the standards set in her recent novels.”
—Science Fiction Chronicle
Also By Andre Norton
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Gryphon In Glory
Lore Of The Witch World
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Sargasso Of Space
Spell Of The Witch World
Stand To Horse
The Jargoon Pard
The Prince Commands
The Sword Is Drawn
Trey Of Swords
Wheel Of Stars
The GATE of the CAT
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THE GATE OF THE CAT
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Copyright © 1987 by Andre Norton.
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The long evening twilight pulled pools of shadows from small bushes. Kelsie shivered though she was warm enough in the quilted coat and the thick slacks above boots which seemed to sink a little more at every step she took over the reach of peaty soil which lay between her and the rise of the mist-crowned hills beyond. It was to her an unreal, even threatening landscape, yet she was far from turning back. She set her teeth and tightened her grip on the small basket she carried. Maybe tonight she would succeed; she refused to give up and accept all their stories.
At the present she saw nothing beautiful or imposing in the land about her, for all the gushing of the travel brochures on which she had first built her ideas of what was to be found and seen in these far northern Scottish highlands. Instead, she had the feeling of tramping over a deserted land in which some invisible menace lay in wait. One could well believe in Black Dogs and Daft Ponies out of Hell, of the meddling of otherworld things hereabout. Goodness knew there were stories enough—and she had listened to them eagerly when they had been told about the fireside. Only this was not the safety of a room lit and undercover.
She listened apprehensively to the noises of the night. There was the bark of a vixen, a distant answering howl from some farm dog. In answer to that stark loneliness, which those cries only accentuated, she hummed under her breath. It was the wordless up and down of notes that she always used when she confronted injured or frightened animals. Injured— She felt again the white hot stab of rage which had filled her two days ago when she had seen that torturous trap and, caught in it, ragged, blood-stained toe pads—two pads of a cat's paw gnawed purposefully to give the captured freedom.
Good for nothing they said—to be hunted down before the next lambing season if possible. That Neil McAdams had been very sure of himself about that!
Only she had seen the predator. It was a female, close to kittening. This past day under better light she had traced it up into the wilderness of the hillside. The grouse were thick and she had started up a whole covey, which was doubtless against the strange laws of this place also—
Kelsie set her lips obstinately together as she remembered the parts of fireside talk which she had not relished. The hunting down of a five point stag— Culling (as they called it—why not say what it really was—murder of the innocent) of the deer herd last year. The hunting drives to send birds into the air to be shot for sport—sport!
At least she knew in time she would never fit in here. She would put the house up for sale and—
Up ahead a tall shadow dislodged itself from a clump of brush and moved purposefully in the same direction she was going. There was no mistaking either the nature of the elongated part of that shadow—a man with a gun. And what he hunted here would be—
Kelsie began to run forward. This was still her land and certainly she would have the privilege to say who would come on it, and a right to distrust the motives of any skulker.
She saw ahead the standing stones—they called them that though all but three had been overthrown by the church in the old days. As a lesson to those who clung to the old times and ways, a warning later for those who might meddle in the forbidden. The three which still stood forming a rough arch, one mighty stone of crudely hewn rock balanced on two of its fellows. It was toward that that the intruder was walking.
She was nearly abreast of him now.
Of course it was Neil. Somehow she had known that from the first. The trap had failed so now he would hunt down a wounded animal and use that gun— On her land, never!
There was a wailing sound from beyond. Pain in it as well as feral hatred and determination to be free. The man raised his gun and Kelsie threw herself forward, but tripped. It was only her upflung arm which jarred against his so that when he shot the charge went wild.
“What do you do!” There was hot anger in his voice but Kelsie's attention was beyond—the squat shape drawn in upon itself, huddled in the very center of that archway. The wildcat—perhaps too injured to run, facing them both with hatred and the determination to fight to the death.
“Stop it!” Kelsie was breathless as she regained her feet. “Leave the poor thing alone! Haven't you tormented it enough by now?”
“Stop it, girl!” he snarled angrily back. “Yon beast is vermin. It will savage lambs in the spring—”
He was raising the rifle again just as the moon broke through one of the twilight clouds full upon the arch and the cat crouched in it. This time Kelsie was more surely footed. She dropped her basket and snatched for the gun with both hands. He fended her off and her foot turned on some stone deep buried in the turf. As his fist cracked against the side of her face she spun out and around, voicing a cry of protest and anger, and then fell into the arch from which the injured cat sprang but a second before. As her head hit against the stone Kelsie rolled forward through the same opening into the place of the fallen rocks.
* * *
Kelsie was first aware of the warmth. Without opening her eyes she twisted a little so that her face felt the full heat. That small movement sent pain shooting through her head and she cried out. There was movement beside her shoulder, a rough surface rasped across her cheek. At last she opened her eyes and then blinked rapidly as a full force of sun beamed down upon her.
She had a confused memory of falling and then darkness. But surely this was not night in the Scottish foothills—this was day! H
This—how had she come here? Those stones, which had been age buried when she had fallen in among them, were now set up guardian straight. A warmth radiated from the nearest against which she had lain. The stand of grass within that circle was not the stubby, coarse growth she had known, but was even closer to the earth and patched with what seemed to be moss. What did spring higher was spangled with flowers of a cream white, cupped like tulips, except they were not like any tulips she had ever seen. Among them fluttered insects with bright wings.
“Rrrrrowww—” Again she turned her head, so suddenly that pain brought another cry from her. The wildcat crouched there, licking its torn foot, but looking now and again to her as if it perfectly understood that she could help it.
Her basket lay a foot or so away and she stretched out an arm to grasp it, each movement bringing that sickening pain in her head. With one hand she gingerly explored her own skin and hair on that side. There was the ooze of liquid and she brought away fingers painted the bright red of blood. She could only explore by the lightest of touches but she believed that the cut was a small one, more of a rasping and bruising of skin than the larger wound she had expected.
Fumbling with the contents of her basket she brought out the antibiotic salve and the cotton swabs she had carried on her mission of mercy. These she shared equally with the cat who only growled warningly as she handled its foot and smeared on the same protective jelly as she had used on her own left temple.
It was still difficult to move. Any sudden change in the position of her head not only brought a stab of pain but a feeling of nausea. So, when she had done with her battlefield surgery for them both, she leaned her back against one of those standing stones, which had so unbelievably raised itself from the ground, to look about her with more intent interest. The cat crouched some distance away again, licking its torn paw but showing no desire to withdraw further.
Now that she had time to observe—to think of more than her immediate plight, she studied what lay before her with eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun. She had already shed her coat because of the unnatural heat and now wished she could slip out of her heavy turtleneck sweater into the bargain.
Surely this was not even the brightest of summer days such as she had heretofore known on Ben Blair. Nor were the flowers, rippling gently under the teasing fingers of a light breeze, any she had seen before. And the stones—how had they come to be set upright?
Of course this might be all illusion and she still lay back in the night twilight with her battered head against the stone which had so roughly met her fall. Yet—it seemed so real!
The wildcat stopped her licking and made a small sound deep in her throat. She limped over to the coat Kelsie had abandoned and pawed at it intently as if searching the padded surface for something of her own.
Kelsie did not try to fight the vast fatigue which had settled on her when she had finished the last of her nurse-care. She closed her eyes and then opened them suddenly twice, as if she tried to catch the landscape before her in the midst of some change. However, it remained always the same—the standing bluish stones, the patches of flowers, the unnatural heat. She began to feel thirsty.
Now if she were indeed on the slope of Ben Blair there should be a spring not many paces away from the place of stones. The very thought of water curling out of the ground made her run her tongue over lips suddenly even more dry. Water-
She did not try to stand up, even creeping on her hands and knees made her feel qualms of nausea. However, she forced herself across a quarter of the circle, out between the stones, in the general direction where that spring must lie.
Only there was no spring, at least none where she sought. She slipped down again to lie full length in the midst of a patch of the wild flowers, the perfume of which was so strong as to add to her illness.
Water—with every moment she craved a drink more. Now it seemed she could actually hear it. Perhaps she had not been headed in the right direction. Muzzily she somehow once more got to her hands and knees heading south. Moments later she was indeed looking at water—down into water, for here was a steep falling away of the land above a pool which mothered a small rill trickling away among moss grown rocks.
In spite of falling painfully once, Kelsie reached the edge of that pool and cupped her hands to drink liquid as chill as if it had just been imprisoned by ice. Still the chill cleared her head a little and she slapped more of it on her face, avoiding the edge of the cut. Until, for the first time since she had awakened, she felt wholly herself again.
There was no such pool on Ben Blair, just as the standing stones had been lying once there. Where was she? Still wandering in the depths of some hallucination produced by the blow on her head? She must not panic, and panic came from just such thoughts and questions without answers. For the moment she seemed to be herself even if the rest of the world had changed.
She pulled out the shirt she had worn under her sweater and soaked it in the cold water, wringing it as dry as she could before tying it around her head. For the first time she became aware of a twittering and flitting at the other side of the pool. There was a bush there bending under a burden of dark red berries and birds were feasting, showing no interest in her at all.
Not grouse, nor any others she had seen before. There was one species with a golden breast and wings of a muted rose color, another a vivid green-blue, such plumage as she had seen before only on the throats of peacocks.
Just as the need for water had risen in her so now came the need to appease a hunger. She edged around the water. The birds fluttered a little away but did not rise on the wing as she had expected them to do. She drew a hand down one dangling branch and harvested a full palm's load of the berries. They were sweet, yet had a lingering tartness which somehow added to their flavor, and, having tasted, she straightway set about gathering and cramming into her mouth all she could reach and snatch from the same branches where some birds were still boldly feeding.
Two or three of those with the metallic blue feathers had withdrawn a little and were watching her—not as if they feared any move or attack on her part, but rather as if she herself provided some kind of puzzle they must solve. At length one of them took off, soaring up into the sky, the sun making a rich glory of its wings.
The cat— Kelsie looked at the birds, some of whom were eating fearlessly only a hand's distance from her. She wondered if the creature was worse injured than she had thought, and she turned to make her way back to that inexplainable circle of stone pillars. The upward slope she took cautiously, now back on her feet to feel the ground swaying under her. Then she reached the top of that rise and looked ahead. There was the yellowish-black patch of her discarded coat and she stumbled her way back to it, concentrating on the garment rather than what stood around it.
There came a tiny mewling cry as her shadow fell across the edge of the coat and an instant answering growl. Then she saw the kittens—two of them, small, blind shapes which the cat had just finished washing.
She knew better than to approach too closely, that growl had sunk to a low sound in the mother's throat but that she would allow an interference with her family Kelsie doubted. She spoke softly, using the same words that she had used many times over at Dr. Atless's when she had been the attendant in his veterinary hospital.
“Good girl, clever girl—” she squatted down, with her back to one of the stones, to survey the small family. “You have pretty kittens—good girl—”
She was startled then by a cry which certainly had not come from the cat or her new family. It might have been the howling of a tormented dog, only Kelsie's knowledge of dogs said no to that. Twice it sounded. The cat's ears flattened to her skull, her eyes became warning slits. Kelsie shivered even under the strong beams of that sun. She faced outward from the circle toward the heights which lay beyond. For the third tim
At the fourth howl the creature who had so given tongue came into sight—first only a black blot padding out of a stand of brush. And then, as it came closer, Kelsie had difficulty in stifling a cry. A dog?
No, no hound that she had ever heard of or seen resembled this! It was almost skeleton thin, the ridges of its ribs plainly visible beneath its shiny skin. A mouth which appeared to split two thirds of its skull dropped open and a scarlet tongue lolled out, saliva and whitish foam dripping from it. The long legs seemed only bones with skin stretched tightly over them as it padded forward, not with a rush but steadily as if it had marked its prey and had no idea of losing it now.
Kelsie pulled herself up, one shoulder against the pillar, the buckle end of her belt dangling loose, the other end wrapped tightly about her hand lest she lose her hold on it. She heard a growl and glanced for a moment at the cat. The kittens were half hidden under her body where fur bristled up in challenge. Though she visibly leaned her weight mostly on her uninjured paw, it was plain she was prepared to do battle.
The hound did not leap forward as Kelsie expected. Instead it stopped while still several feet away from the pillared circle. Throwing back its narrow head the beast gave vent once more to its chilling bay as if summoning some companion of the hunt. Though she and the cat were weak enough, Kelsie thought with fiercely beating heart, to give but token defense.
There was an answer to that last bay, a cry which was not a similar howl but rather more like a call in words she could not understand. Then out of the same knot of brush which had concealed the dog creature came a horse and rider. The girl drew a startled, shaken breath.
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