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Fantasy Fiction Middle School

Sir Bertilak was no normal cat, of this the girl was certain. The scruffy stray, so named for the bright green moss that often clung like discarded Christmas ornaments to his disheveled fur, did mostly cat things — he chased butterflies and birds around the periphery of her manicured back lawn, he drank long and slow from her father’s prized koi pond in the heat of summer, he rolled around in the decaying leaves of autumn with the carelessness of a kitten. To the casual observer, the charismatic Main Coon was just another stray in a world full of strays, fit to survive the dark and impenetrable forest it called home by virtue of size, strength, and the myriad evolutionary advantages of its hunter ancestors.


The girl though, was no casual observer, for she had seen moments when Sir Bertilak did not do cat things. The clearly forward-thinking architect that designed the modern Victorian at the end of Sycamore Lane had seen fit to install a cozy south-facing turret overlooking the estate’s gardens, too small to make a suitable study or office for a grown-up, but just the right size for a curious child to curl up in an ugly armchair and keep a keen eye on a cat that was not just a cat. It was from this vantage point that she had observed the scruffy stray strolling upright through the hedgerows like a visiting royal. It was from here that she had watched the curious creature bantering with father’s fish as if they were old friends. It was from this perch that she had witnessed the resurrection of a wilting marigold patch by way of cat breath. For three years she had climbed the winding stair to her post every free afternoon to spy on the furry changeling unnoticed, so one can imagine her surprise when, on the drizzly September afternoon of her fourteenth birthday, she found Sir Bertilak looking back.


The stray perched on the cedar gable of the garden shed like a Gothic gargoyle in miniature, his unnaturally bright green eyes fixed unmoving on the high window and its shocked occupant. Both stood still for a tiny eternity, something important passing between them before Sir Bertilak offered an uncanny wink and turned away, setting a leisurely course Southward. The strange spell finally broken, the girl came back to her senses with a start. This was the moment she had been waiting for. She took off at a sprint, running down a pile of storybooks and half-falling down the winding iron staircase. Unperturbed, she pushed on; she flew through the back door, leaped over hedgerows, and ran with everything she had to catch the not-cat before he faded into myth beyond the yard.


The girl’s nerves finally caught up with her on the outskirts of the deep forest, for this was a place she had never dared to venture. She was brave, surely, among the bravest of the town’s children, but to willingly go into the inky darkness of the woods was to invite all manner of hungry things. As if to accentuate the point, the frantic yipping of coyotes or wolves or hell-hounds began sounding in the untamed distance while she stood stilled and paralyzed by indecision. Terribly conflicted, she watched as the twitching tail of the stray began disappearing into the forest’s perpetual twilight, a clump of white-flowered moss dancing on its end like an angler’s lure.


 She was running out of time.


The girl turned on her heels and ran back toward the manor with an enthusiasm that sent clumps of sod kicking up from the soft earth. She shouldered her way through the door of the gardener’s shed like a hot-blooded raider, scavenging desperately for the tools she’d need to brave the horrors that must surely lurk in the depths of the woods behind Sycamore Lane. While the gardening tools lacked any of the mechanized artillery she would have preferred, she did come away with a half-split axe handle and an old Coleman electric lantern that would have to do in a pinch. Armaments in hand, she hurried to catch up to the fleeing cat.


The forest grew denser and stranger the further she walked. The fiery-leaved maples and willows of the boundary eventually giving way to old-growth conifers, massive and ancient in their ancestral home. Soft, damp humus chilled her bare feet, and an ever-present westerly breeze carried the scent of decaying leaves and fresh rain to her nostrils. The girl crouched like a rabbit in wolf country, stick held out in front of her as if its presence alone would ward off the hungry denizens of the wilderness. Somewhere up ahead, a low-pitched mewing and the occasional glimpse of an ornamented tail reminded her now and then that she was still on the stray’s winding path. She followed for what felt like hours, caged fear and the evening chill threatening to steal her sense of place.


So focused was she on the trail, the girl did not notice for some time when the forest began to change again. The trees lost none of their imposing majesty, but gained long, flowing vines in muted pastels that glowed with their own soft bioluminescence. The mushrooms still formed little colonies among the decaying leaves, but began to migrate across the forest floor on their own accord, the tiny townships built aboard going about their business with little knowledge of the giant creeping around nearby. So focused was she on keeping the errant cat’s trail that she failed to notice the short, deformed creature that stalked her until she was nearly within its reach. A snapping branch gave her just enough warning to send the stick whirling around, catching the horse-faced boggart across the jaw with a satisfying thump. It spun away, lashing out with a long, dirty limb and leaving deep scratches along the girls exposed forearm. She cried out, dropping the lantern and watching in horror as its light flickered and died at her feet. Somewhere nearby, a low growling warned that she was not yet out of danger. She steeled herself against the growing stone in her belly, stepping forward to swing the axe handle in a long, clumsy arc that made contact with only air. Her opponent took advantage of her misjudgment, leaping onto the girl's back from behind and sinking filed teeth painfully into her shoulder. This time, the girl screamed. Fear was abandoned as an instinct older than humanity took over. She thrashed wildly, slamming the clinging creature once, twice, thrice, into the thick trunk of a nearby tree until it finally fell away. Now freed, she scrambled forward on hands and knees a few painful paces before twisting with a two-handed swing that used up all of her strength. This time the weapon hit home, slamming into something soft and giving; an ear-piercing yelp rose up from the wounded monster and it immediately abandoned its hunt, making mindless animal noises as it blundered away through the underbrush.


The girl sat alone on the spongy forest floor, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. If these were tears of pain, of terror, or of wonder though, she couldn’t be sure. She bled from her many wounds, the chill of evening was deadening her tired limbs, and her lantern was shattered and useless, but how could such things matter when she found herself in a storybook? The forest behind Sycamore Lane was no ordinary forest, of this the girl was certain.

A nearby mewing broke her reverie, convincing her to stand on aching limbs and climb a nearby ridge to where a burnt-orange corona of sunrise could be seen peaking over the horizon. Here at its peak, she found Sir Bertilak hanging from a craggy pine branch and absently licking at his paw.


“You aren’t a cat,” the girl announced breathlessly as she finally crested the steep hilltop.


“I am whatever you needed me to be,” replied the cat matter-of-factly.


Both were quiet for a moment as they looked out over the coming dawn. From the ridge, the terrain dropped back down to miles upon miles of thick forest. Beyond, a glacial river valley in myriad shades of wildflower was flanked by tall, snowy mountains. Cities and castles that definitely didn’t belong to modern industrialized Europe appeared on the distant landscape. Further South, some impossibly large flying creature with wings that shone like mother-of-pearl glided through the lower atmosphere.


“I will guide you home if that is your wish,” Sir Bertilak offered, “this place is dangerous beyond your imagining.”


“And if I choose to stay?”


“Then you will stay. Your story is yours to write, child.” The cat twisted around to expose its belly to the rising sun, limps splaying out in a cat’s ungainly approximation of comfort, “such is life”.


The girl considered this for a moment before shaking the cold from her limbs and marching down the hill. A scruffy stray followed closely behind, a tuft of bright green moss clinging to its twitching tail.

March 03, 2023 22:31

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4 comments

Mad Bennett
05:59 Mar 10, 2023

This story is so dreamlike. You really nailed the tone of old-school fairytales or myths, where you can jump right in with all your disbelief suspended. You have a great knack for imagery without overshadowing your message. One recommendation: I'd love to see some of your paragraphs broken up, especially during the action. The denser paragraphs gave me the sense of it being slower or more bogged down where I expected it to be fast-paced. This is definitely just my personal preference, though!

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Alberto P.
21:26 Mar 08, 2023

I enjoyed this one a lot. Reminds me of Narnia, and that's meant as a compliment. I want to read the rest though. :D

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Michał Przywara
02:38 Mar 07, 2023

This definitely has a strong fairytale vibe, and I was reminded of Pan's Labyrinth, with that blurry mixture of imagination and magic. The world she ventures into is beautiful but dangerous, very fitting of things fey, and while her guide seems accommodating - I'm not sure he can be trusted :) The way it ends - I'm wondering if this is the start to a bigger story? It seems like the adventure's just begun.

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Jacob Weber
17:29 Mar 07, 2023

I'm a reader of mostly long-form scifi and fantasy, and I think I have a tendency to write "snapshot" short stories that tell a small story in a bigger context. I kinda like it that way, leaves a sense of mystery for the reader. Thanks for the feedback!

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