A Constant Companion
by Kit Campbell
“…as long as you’re living under my roof,” Jael was saying, but Briony tuned him out, choosing instead to glare at the table. Her hands sat on its uneven surface, curled so tightly in on themselves that she could feel her nails digging into her palms.
Behind her, she could hear the laughs of her brother’s small children as his wife told them a story. Their youngest, Brin, would be a year soon, and had taken to copying everything her older brother and sister did, much to the amusement of all involved.
Jael should be in there parenting them. He didn’t need to be parenting her. He wasn’t her father. Just because Mother—
Briony shook her head to clear it of the thought.
“Are you listening to me, Bree?”
“It’s not really your roof, is it?” Briony leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest and staring sullenly at the fireplace. It was a silly argument—she didn’t fault Jael and his family for moving back in, not after… and it was nice to not have to sleep in an empty house. But that didn’t mean he had to act like he owned the place. It was as much hers as his.
Jael groaned and pressed his fingers to his temples. He’d started growing a beard, probably trying to look older. “Bree, for the love of the Old Ones, we’ve been over this. Mother asked me to look after you until you’re grown.”
Briony felt her entire body tense. “I’m not a child, Jay. Don’t treat me like one.”
“You are, Bree.” Jael sighed, then gave her a look that almost worse than all the fighting that she couldn’t seem to help lately. She felt a flare of guilt. It wasn’t really Jael’s fault. He was trying to help.
It wasn’t his fault that the only person she needed was dead.
Briony pushed to her feet, scraping the bench across the floor.
“Where are you going?” Jael crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re not done.”
Ignoring him, Briony crossed to the door and pulled it open. Jael made some sort of token protest, but they both knew he wouldn’t actually do anything. Their relationship had changed; it was too fresh and new and painful to have any rules as of yet. For now, Briony would get away with nothing more than the occasional lecture, though she knew Jael and Nerys talked about her at night, trying to find some way to help her, to calm her new wild streak.
How could she be calm when her world had no foundation anymore?
Outside wasn’t much better, though at least she was alone. But was that better? When she was alone, she was all too aware of the dull ache that seemed to take up her whole chest.
The forest’s edge loomed all too close. Mother had gone in, like she had countless times. But she’d not come back out. Briony wanted to hate the forest, hate it for taking her mother from her, but she couldn’t. She’d had too many happy times; it was too much of a part of her.
She looked back at the cottage. Jael was standing at the window, watching her, something heartbreaking in his expression. Briony shot him a glare, feeling some need to be difficult, and walked over to the edge of the trees. She waited for Jael to come running out, for him to bar her from entering. When he didn’t, she forced herself inside, like she’d made a bet with her brother that she now had to see through.
Nothing happened. No hole appeared in the ground to swallow her up, no Fracture barreled out of the undergrowth to devour her. Instead the birds continued singing their cheerful tunes, and the wind rustled the leaves over her head.
Briony pushed down a sudden urge to cry. Giving the cottage one last glance, she turned back to the forest and took a step. Then another. Her feet followed familiar pathways. Here was where she used to come with Mother to pick herbs, and here was where they used to sit and talk about how to use them. Here was where they’d practiced listening to the forest, practiced moving silently and not attracting Fractures. And here…
Briony pulled up short, ducking behind the trunk next to her. A large mountain cat lay stretched out on the ground in front of her, perhaps basking in the sunlight filtering through the trees. Briony had only seen a few of them in her life, since they were rare this close to the plains, but her mother had warned her about them all the same. The large cats were silent predators, able to take down prey their size without being heard. It would be best for Briony to go back the way she’d come, before it smelled her.
Actually, judging by the direction of the wind, the cat should be able to smell her already. Briony hunkered down lower to the ground, hopefully masking her scent a bit, listening to the pounding of her blood through her ears. The cat didn’t move. Maybe it had recently eaten. Maybe Briony would be able to go back the way she’d come without attracting its attention.
Shuffling back as quietly as she could, Briony rose to her feet and turned to go. But something stopped her, something about the way the cat was lying…
Against her better judgment, she left the safety of the tree and took a step closer. There was still no movement from the mountain cat. Briony took another step, and another. She was only a few feet away now.
She had been right—the cat wasn’t moving, wasn’t even breathing. It was dead. Briony let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. A laugh escaped. It would have served her right to have been eaten by a mountain cat just because she was trying to spite her brother.
Something next to the cat rustled. Briony almost dove for the tree again, but curiosity won out. Whatever had killed the mountain cat would have eaten it by now if it was going to, probably. Briony crept around the cat’s corpse, wrinkling her nose at the smell. On this side, the cat was torn open on its abdomen, its blood pooling underneath its tawny fur.
There was more movement in the undergrowth next to the cat’s head. As Briony watched, holding perfectly still, a tiny mountain cat cub crawled out. It mewed almost silently, opening its mouth too much, and knocked its head against the dead cat.
Its dead mother.
Briony felt her already tender heart tear again. She found herself on her knees in the moss, vision blurred from tears. She used one hand to wipe at her eyes. She couldn’t leave it, this tiny cub. It would get eaten before the day was out without any sort of protection.
Shakily, she pushed to her feet. The cub cowered against its mother as Briony approached, mewing pitifully.
“Hey,” Briony whispered. “Hey, I won’t hurt you.” She crouched down, spreading her arms wide. “She’s gone. She can’t—” Her voice cracked. Briony swallowed. “She can’t help you anymore. Sometimes…sometimes mothers have to go, before their work is done.”
The cub cocked its head at Briony, then nuzzled its head against its mother again. When there was still no response, it let out a horrible yowl.
“I know it hurts,” Briony said. “Believe me, I know. But stick with me, won’t you? We can protect each other. I’ll make sure nothing happens to you. I promise.”
The cub sat on its haunches, looking between its mother and Briony. It butted its head against the dead cat, then cautiously took a step toward Briony. She held as still as she could, trying to project safety and warmth. The cub came, slowly, until it could put two tiny paws onto Briony’s knee.
“Mew?” said the cub.
Briony reached out slowly and, when the cub didn’t object, gathered it into her arms. She felt fresh tears running down her cheeks. “Don’t worry,” she murmured, though she didn’t know if she was saying that to the cub or herself. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”
The cub tentatively nuzzled its head into her neck. It was so soft, and so warm. Briony held it a little tighter. “Let’s go.” Keeping the cub tucked safely against her neck, she began to retrace her steps.
“I think I’ll call you Poes.” The edge of the forest flickered into view, the cottage beyond it. Jael would not be happy about her bringing home a mountain cat, but he would just have to live with it. Poes needed her, and Mother had always taught her to help someone in need.
And, if she was going to be perfectly honest with herself, perhaps she needed Poes too.
Want to read more about this world?
Buy City of Hope and Ruin by Kit Campbell and Siri Paulson
Read “Brothers” (a short story featuring Astrolabe, set during the events of City of Hope and Ruin) by Siri Paulson