The Shrew That Did the Taming
The sky was black on the horizon as the storm passed over the wooded hills and patchwork farmlands. Sodden leaves and spray gusted through the invigorated air, driven by an autumn bluster of grey winds that was growing steadily more wintry.
A wet leaf slapped into the windowpane, causing Broc to start back in surprise. He inspected the dark brown shape seeming to cling to the air before him, then raised his paw and hesitantly touched it, still amazed at the solidness of something that didn't seem to be there. He'd bumped his head on it many times before Gasan called him a fool and explained its purpose.
He was wiser now. He did not try to catch what was on the other side. He was proud of his learning. It made him feel grown up. Like Gasan and his mother.
Broc stood up and stretched, then hopped down onto the floor. He felt excitement flutter in his stomach. It was his first rain. When he had first heard it thunder down onto the roof he'd ran yowling into hiding. His mother had come looking for him, gently laughing. She curled up next to him and told him what the rain was. About the freshness after it passed, the smells in the air, the dampness of the soil, the newness of everything.
Now he would see it for himself.
Gasan and his mother were asleep by the crackling fire, twined around each other on the thick carpet. Broc crept past them and slipped outside onto the wet grass. He lowered his nose and sniffed. The cold breeze ruffled his whiskers, sending an electric surge of sensations and smells shivering through his body. (The nuttiness of oak trees. The sharp contrasts of mint and damp earth, blowing over from the Master's vegetable garden. The grey clearness of air after the rain.)
He purred to himself with pleasure, then bounded off towards the wheat fields bordering Gasan's territory. He slipped beneath the wooden fence and sprinted into the field where the Master's carrier beasts grazed. He'd tried talking to them once but they ignored him. Gasan said they were bloated with their importance as the Master's helpers, and talked to nothing but their own kind.
Broc ran to the long grass bordering the edges of the field. He could see the yellow wheat swaying hypnotically above the green, could hear them sighing in the wind.
He was almost there when a sudden movement made him freeze in his tracks, nose and whiskers twitching. His eyes surveyed the area. Nothing. He waited a bit longer, and just as impatience was almost about to send him onward, he saw the movement and pounced towards it.
It was the tiniest creature he had ever seen, with a comically long snout and tiny black eyes. It stared up at him, shivering, as if waiting for something.
"Hello," said Broc, leaning forward and snuffling the creature. It jerked away from his touch and rolled into a ball. "What's wrong?" he asked puzzled. He sat back on his haunches. "My name's Broc. I'm going through the wheat fields to play in the trees beyond. What are you?"
The creature partially unrolled. Its nose twitched, gently testing the air. "I am a shrew," he said. "Old and wise. And you are a cat. Why have you not killed me?"
"Killed you?" Broc tilted his head to one side. "Why should I do that? Do you want me to?"
"No!" snapped the shrew. "How old are you, youngling?"
"Gasan says too young to grow up."
"Gasan. Your father?"
"Has he not taught you the way of the hunt?"
Broc had heard his mother talking to Gasan about this. "He says he had to learn on his own so so should I. He says he never had a father to teach him and he turned out tougher than all the other cats."
"Did he?" said the shrew, unfolding himself and staring up at Broc. "Do you have no brothers and sisters to play with?"
Broc shook his head. "Gasan says mother was sick and that I'm lucky to be alive."
"You are indeed. Remember that."
"That you're lucky- oh, never mind. Just an old shrew talking rubbish."
"Do you often talk rubbish?"
The shrew grinned up at him, and Broc saw that one of his front teeth was missing.
"Always," said the shrew. "It is one of the prerogatives of the old."
Broc didn't know what a prerogative was, but felt it rude to ask.
The shrew turned away. He walked with a limp. "Have fun playing in the trees," he said.
"Where are you going?" asked Broc.
"Home. To sleep. I just came out to forage now that the storm had passed. My stomach is full and I wish to dream."
"About when I was young enough to ask annoying questions."
"Ah." Broc watched the shrew's back as he slowly walked away. The he smiled in realisation. "That was a joke," he called. Then, when there was no answer, "I'll come visit again tomorrow! Have a nice sleep!"
He returned home when the light was failing and his stomach grumbling. He sought out his mother and asked her why the shrew was afraid of him.
"It is The Way," she said. "There is a natural order to life that must be followed lest all around crumble to dust."
"Who says so?"
"It has always been." She looked troubled for a moment. "I think Gasan must speak with you. He must teach you of the hunt."
"He said-" "I know what he said. But you are not as he was when young. You must be taught."
Broc walked away, troubled. He stayed hidden for much of the evening, not wishing to be lectured by Gasan. He would think Broc less of a cat because he did not discover these things naturally. His lessons would be full of spite and contempt.
The night was crisp and cold after the rain. He sat atop a fence post. He could see over the hills for miles. He wondered what the old shrew was doing now. Probably eating. He smiled and hopped off the fence. He would find out.
An owl flitted by overhead, the sound of wind ruffling through feathers betraying its presence.
Broc paused and looked up. He hoped the old shrew was being careful; this was almost the exact spot of their afternoon encounter. He looked around, then up again. The owl was flying in slow circles. As he watched, the owl dipped. Broc felt his heart leap. He broke into a run, knowing as he did so that it would be too late. The owl swooped to the ground, then lifted into the air, a small figure struggling in its beak.
It flew into the high branches of a tree. Broc leapt onto the bark, scrabbling up through the branches, not caring how much noise he made.
He pulled himself onto one of the uppermost branches. The owl was staring at him curiously. It was twice his size, and didn't seem at all alarmed. Broc saw the shrew pressed into the bark by one of its heavy talons. He was still alive.
"What do you want?" asked the owl.
"I am not your friend," said the owl. "Begone, little one. Go play with moths."
"No," said Broc. "You are hurting my friend. I want him back."
The owl appeared taken aback by this. "You mean this," he pushed down gently on the shrew, "this piece of food is your friend?"
"Do you not know of The Way? The little get eaten by the big. It has always been so." He paused. "Run along _little_ one. Before I eat you."
Broc shivered in fear, his hackles rising along his back. "No."
"No? Who do you think you are? You think you are entitled to change thousands and thousands of years of Lore, simply because you have a _friend_?"
The owl leaned forward. Broc tensed. "Run along," he said, then lowered his beak.
Broc charged, yowling at the top of his voice. He crashed into the owl, lifting him up and out as he hit. Wings flapped around his head, the beak pulling skin along his spine. He lashed out with his claws, pulling feathers out in a cloud.
They hit branches going down. Broc pushed himself away with a kick of his hind legs, feeling the owl's skin tear as he did so, and gripped hold of the trunk, panting heavily from exertion. The owl floundered in the air, turning himself around. His wings flapped heavily, skimming over the ground as he struggled to regain height. He circled once, diving close to the ground and calling out in anger and pain. Then he turned away and headed towards the forest.
Broc slid down the tree trunk and landed in the grass at the bottom. The shrew was there, staring at him with his big black eyes.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
Broc licked the wound on his back. "I was saving you. What do you mean?"
"The Way!" he said with emphasis. "It is part of the Lore. No good can come of this."
"Did you want to be eaten?" asked Broc, getting angry with the shrew.
Silence. Then, "No. No I didn't. I appreciate it, I do, but things happen for a reason. I am old. I let my guard down. I was caught. I've seen that owl flying around every night of my life. Always, I have escaped." He inspected his injured ribs. He saw Broc's look and shook his head. "Nothing too serious. The point is, it was my fault. I didn't even hear him tonight."
"You'll hear him in future."
The shrew laughed. "I will that." He turned away. "Go home. See to your wound. Stay away for a while. Till things calm down. Okay?"
"Yes," said Broc sadly. He watched the shrew walk away. "I was only trying to help you," he called after him.
The shrew stopped. "I know," he said. "And thank you."
Gasan was standing by the door. Broc hesitated, but there was no other way inside. He limped forward, feeling Gasan's gaze follow his progress. Brock stopped before him, his head low.
"You're mother had a word with me. She thinks I should teach you The Way. She thinks you are not like me, that you cannot learn for yourself." He sniffed at Broc's back. "It seems like she was wrong."
Broc sensed a sudden change in Gasan's mood, a gentleness to his voice that he had never heard before. He sat back on his haunches, his head still lowered.
"What was it?" asked Gasan softly.
"An owl," said Broc.
"An owl!" Gasan laughed. "You don't play games, do you? Did you win?"
"He flew away."
Gasan smiled, then licked Broc's wound, cleaning it for him. Broc kept his head down, hiding the tears from his father.
Two days later, the promise of returning rain lending a heaviness to the air, Broc returned from a venture down to the stream to find Gasan waiting for him on the step. He stared hard at Broc.
He knows_, he thought. He walked slowly up to his father, watching for any sign as to which way this might go.
"Do not look me in the eye," Gasan said.
Broc closed his mouth. Gasan was talking in a low, quiet voice.
"You lied to me."
"No. I did fight the owl."
"Yes, but for what reason?"
Broc said nothing.
"You do not realise how serious this is. You presume to interfere with The Way. You cannot."
"But why?" Broc could stay silent no longer. "Why must we hunt those that are smaller? We do not go hungry. We are fed."
"It is The Way," Gasan said simply.
"How was I to know that? You taught me nothing."
"Yes. It is partly my failing. That will change now."
"What do you mean?"
"You will hunt this... this _shrew_ the owl tells me about. You will bring it before me-"
"I will not!"
"Then you will be banished."
"If you do not follow the Way, you are not fit to live amongst those that do."
Broc stared up at his father. "You would do that to me? What about mother-"
"This has nothing to do with you mother! If you were a female, she would teach you. You are not, so it is my responsibility."
Broc turned away. "Tonight, Broc. When the moon dips below the fields, bring him here."
When Broc was almost to the horses' field, his father called for him.
"I am sorry, Broc. This is my fault. I should have taught you."
Broc walked on.
The moon was hidden behind the clouds, but he knew where it was. He had watched the old shrew gather up grubs before the rain arrived, stuffing them into his mouth and glancing nervously around. He had not approached him. He did not know what to say. He had crept away when the first droplets fell, knowing the shrew would be returning to his home to snuggle into warmth.
He didn't know what to do. He only knew that he would not kill the shrew. It was not right.
So he had lain in the field, oblivious to the rain and the growing cold, and had watched the moon set behind the clouds.
He spent the night in the bole of a lightning struck tree, and when the first washes of grey seeped into the sky he set out for home, ready for his father's wrath.
Again, he was seated on the step. It was as if he knew Broc was coming. He stared at his son, unblinking. Time seemed to slow for Broc. He saw his mother away to the side, watching from beneath a bush. She saw him looking and loped away. His stomach clenched. He turned back to his father. He was still staring at him. He lowered his gaze, looking down at something. Broc did the same, and saw the tiny grey bundle lying still at his father's feet.
He stopped short, his breath stolen from him. Black eyes stared unseeing at him. A thin trickle of red edged its way out of his mouth.
An eternity passed by. He tore his eyes away and looked up at his father.
"It is The Way," he said simply.
Broc turned and fled.
The litter was strong. Seven young, all healthy and fit, but for one. Broc listened to the mewling and smiled at his mate. She lay on her side by the Master's fire as the kittens fed hungrily. All but one, who was pushed aside in the others' eagerness. Broc gently nudged him forward, making sure he caught hold of a nipple.
"I will call this one Shrew," he said.
His mate, who knew of his story, and loved him the more for it, smiled. "Will you teach them The Way?"
"I will teach them another Way," he said, laying down and curling his body protectively around his young. "One I can be proud of."
Paul Crilley is Scottish, and currently living in South Africa. He's been writing since he was thirteen years old. "The Shrew That Did the Taming" is his first published story. Paul is currently writing the last third of a humourous fantasy novel called Godsend.