Yuprr watched a crow pluck out his father’s eyeball, throw back its head, tossing the eye in the air, and then catch it and swallow it whole with a single snap of its beak.
A sob broke out of him, wracking his whole furry frame, and fresh tears from an almost depleted reservoir blurred his gaze. He blinked them away. The crows made a flapping cerement on his father’s body, tearing and gouging. In time, they would peck the bones clean, as they did all Skavyri laid ceremonially on the mountainside after their demise. Yuprr would not wait to see that. He had just wanted to wait a little longer, to pay his respects and because he felt like he could not go on without his father, Yupyup. He did not know how.
His father had been Mouser, the fearless leader of the Skavyri, for Yuprr’s entire life. It was all he had ever known. Now, Yuprr was expected to step up and take his father’s place. He did not know if he could do that. He was still young, barely considered an adult, and he knew there were vast deficiencies in his knowledge. How in the name of the Gods was he to rule an entire people? As much as he loved and respected his father, that was the true reason he had stayed to watch the carrion birds tear at the corpse – because he was paralyzed by fear. What was he to do?
He sat until the sky raged and then darkened and frost swept in to dew his coat. He knew it would be foolish to stay longer. So, he rose, aching from sitting still for so long. The crows did not even glance up at him, but continued to gorge. He half wanted to shoo them away, but knew this was the Skavyri way – to honour nature by giving up their bodies once they died. So, he prayed his father’s spirit would find its way to the Promised Land of Milk and Honey, turned his back on the crows, and on his father, and made his way back to his cave to find a little shelter from the wailing mountain wind. Tomorrow, he would be Mouser.
He was nuzzled awake in his cave the next day by his mate, Liprr.
“Rise and shine, Mouser,” she purred in his ear, making it twitch.
They strode out to face the world together, paw in paw. The rising sun glazed the mountains north of Al Kutz, where the Skavyri dwelled, in syrupy gold. The whitecaps – both those of the mountains and of the breakers crashing against the cliff walls far below – shone like diamonds. This particular area of the mountains, honeycombed with caves near a plateau overlooking the ocean to the north, had been known as Mouser Home ever since Yupyup had said it was to be so. It had been Yuprr’s home all his life. Now, though, he would have to leave it behind.
“Shall we go for a swim?” Yuprr asked, trying to keep his voice light.
Liprr heard the tension in his voice, though, and knew he needed the solace.
She nodded. “It is a perfect morning for it.”
They headed north to the edge of the mountains overlooking the ocean, the wind whistling around them. Sunlight gilded the rippling waters beneath. They stepped into a wicker basket large enough to hold them both and were lowered by a long stretch of flax-woven rope all the way to the beach, where waves swept the sand some two hundred feet below. It had taken Yuprr a long time to find a spot to allow a completely vertical descent down the cliff face. There were knobbly protrusions everywhere. It had taken a long time to build the basket and the cranking mechanism now operated by a brawny young Skavyri called Rrep, and it had taken a long time to weave the thick rope. It had taken a long time to test the mechanism, and he had almost fallen to his death on his first few attempts.
He had persevered, though, Rrep and Liprr by his side every step of the way. It had taken even longer to convince the Skavyri community that the mechanism was safe. None had tried it until he had used it at least a couple of dozen times without failure. Now, they had come to accept that it worked, and many had taken rides on it for sheer joy. Yuprr’s heart swelled every time he used the contraption and was reminded of what he had built for his people. Very few of them had followed his lead in learning to swim, however. Not even Rrep. As far as he knew, in fact, he and Liprr were the only two that dared venture deep enough into the water to float. Most Skavyri despised water on instinct.
Yuprr was not sure why he had always been drawn to swimming. He had tried it once, out of curiosity in his youth, and had never found anything to match the wonderfully dreamy sensation of floating in the ocean, completely immersed and weightless. All his worries faded away beneath the waves. Now, though, as he and Liprr plunged in, the effect was muted. He dove underwater, relishing the silence and the sensation of water on his fur, but his worries persisted in the back of his mind, gnawing at him. Was this what it was like to be an adult? No reprieve from his troubles ever again? He had felt like a part of him had died with his father, and he felt it again now.
He saw the wicker basket being hauled back up when he surfaced, and his heart sank, knowing it was not a good sign. As he had predicted, it was lowered a short time later with his mother, Prrana, inside. He wondered why she was holding his father’s red scarf. Perhaps it was her way of mourning, he thought. His father had been alone among the Skavyri in wearing even so much as a scarf of human clothing. Most loathed clothes of any form, including his mother. Her fur was yellowing with age, the tabby patterns growing less defined. She still stomped crossly across the sand towards him with a spring in her step, though, he noticed wryly.
“What d’you think you’re doing?” she snapped, fangs flashing, nose wrinkling and whiskers twitching. “You’re the Mouser now, for goodness sake! You can’t be wallowing in the water all the darned day long! Get up out of there at once! You must see to your people! They’ll be expecting the announcement! We’ve talked about this, Yuprr! You know what you have to do!”
“I know, I know,” he said, wearied beyond words by her nagging, though he had just risen. “I was just about to get out of the water and speak to the people. You came just in time. Let’s go back up together.”
“He just needed a little quiet time,” Liprr said quietly to Prrana behind Yuprr’s back while he shook himself dry, though Yuprr could hear them perfectly well. “You should’ve seen his face this morning.”
“There’s no time for quiet time,” Prrana said waspishly. “He needs to be doing his duties as a Mouser, and you know that! Yuprr, dearest, hold a moment. Before we go back up, I have something to give you.” Yuprr turned to face her, and she held out the scarf. “This was your father’s scarf. You may have wondered why Yupyup was such a great fighter. Well … this is the reason. I have a secret to tell you, Yuprr, and you must promise – you and Liprr both – never to tell another soul what I am about to tell you now, understand?”
Intrigued, Yuprr nodded. Liprr, too.
Prrana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Very well. Here it is. The truth is …” she shared a glance with Liprr, “your father wore this scarf every day, because it is a magic scarf.” Seeing Yuprr’s mouth open, she hurried on, “Where it came from or how it came to be enchanted is not important. What is important is that your father found it one day when he was young and realised that it gave whoever wore it fantastical martial arts skills, so much so that whoever wore it could not possibly be defeated in combat. That is the true secret of your father’s success. Now that you know this, you must promise me to wear this scarf every day and never take it off or lend it to another. That way, you will be invincible. Do you promise?”
He took the scarf, wide-eyed, a weight lifting from his heart, and whispered reverently, “I promise.”
Prrana let out a sigh of relief as he wrapped it around his neck. “Good. You should speak to the people then. Be strong, dear one.”
Together with his mate and mother, Yuprr took the basket back up to the top of the mountain. Most of the clowder were sunbathing on the plateau. Yuprr stepped up on a boulder – the same boulder his father had always used when making announcements – and all eyes turned sleepily towards him. He gulped. The Skavyri – cat-like folk, able to walk on their hind bowing legs, with dextrous paws – were a violent people, and more than one would-be Mouser had been slain by a rival just a few heartbeats after they pressed their claim. Yuprr wondered if he was breathing his last few breaths as he stood there, gazing out at his people. His heart thundered in his chest in contradiction to the sunny summer sky, and he worried his voice would come out with a warble. He reminded himself they were just words. He just needed to speak them well enough for them to be understood.
He took a deep breath and said in a slightly high, strained voice, “You all know me. I am Yuprr, son of Yupyup. My father …” He cleared his throat, determined not to weep. “Ahem, my father passed on yesterday, as you know. I hereby lay claim to the moniker of Mouser, if you’ll have me, and swear by Celeste to do all in my power to provide for and protect you all until the day I die.”
“Let’s hear it for Yuprr, Mouser!” Rrep yelled, punching the air.
To Yuprr’s immense surprise and relief, the whole clowder cheered its approval. Yuprr’s heart soared like the eagles above in that instant.
He had to clear his throat of a lump again before he could speak. “Thank you all. Your acceptance means a lot. As I’m sure you all know, as Mouser, I must depart for a while to visit the other clowders, let them know of the change in leadership and give them a chance to demur. I will not be gone long, and when I return I will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, I promise you!” The clowder cheered again. “Old Wiprr will be in charge while I’m gone.” Before hopping off the boulder, he inclined his head towards his father’s friend, an old and well respected Skavyri, and the clowder cheered one last time before returning to their naps.
“You’ll come with me?” he asked Liprr, and she nodded.
“We both will,” Prrana assured him.
Yuprr rolled his eyes, but could not think of a way to ask his mother to stay behind without hurting her feelings. So, taking Rrep and another of his friends named Prrit as bodyguards, Yuprr left Mouser Home that day. He would’ve liked more time to mourn, but if he did not press his claim, another would. He felt like he would make a good Mouser, and he had meant his promise. He was not sure how he would do it yet, but he wanted to bring prosperity to his people, ensure their bellies were always full, their lives always easy.
“I’ll make you proud, father,” he whispered as they set off.
The first clowder they visited was south of Mouser Home, in a valley in the mountains where a stream flowed. Yuprr had never seen so much greenery as he did then, though but narrow bands of plant life grew along the stream banks, thick with butterflies. Watching the yellow flowers wave in the breeze, his heart lifted, his trepidation easing. Perhaps visiting new places would not be stressful after all, but exciting, he thought, watching an unknown rodent dart through the bushes. The wind was far less noticeable in the valley than it was amid the mountaintops, and Yuprr found he did not miss its constant nudging. He and his companions were greeted as they descended into the valley by the resident Skavyri, who came clamouring to ask why they had come.
Staring into the curious faces of so many strangers, Yuprr had to force himself to say, “Mouser Yupyup has passed on. I am his son, Yuprr, the new Mouser.”
That caused a fresh commotion, and Yuprr and his companions were escorted by half the clowder to the centre of the valley, where the shrubbery grew the thickest. Even a few small pines and larches had taken root, and a flock of wren flew out from them with a flutter of wings and branches as Yuprr and his companions approached. In the wood’s dappled shade lounged the rest of the clowder, preening.
“A new Mouser has come! A new Mouser has come!” chittered those who had escorted Yuprr and his friends.
Standing before them and not wishing to waste any time so that he got the unpleasant part of the trip out of the way as fast as possible, Yuprr said, overloud, “Mouser Yupyup has passed on. I am his son, Yuprr, and I hereby lay claim to the moniker of Mouser and swear by Celeste to do all in my power to provide for and protect you all until the day I die.”
He gulped, looking around, waiting for a dispute to his claim. Aside from the Mouser, there were no official titles among the Skavyri, however every clowder generally had one or two among them to whom they turned when they needed help. Yuprr’s heart sank into his navel when the largest of the clowder, a tabby with a scar across one milky eye, rose languidly and advanced on him.
“You’re the new Mouser, eh?” he sneered. “How can that be? You’re a runt!”
Yuprr bristled. At six feet tall, he was far from a runt. The tabby that confronted him, however, peaked at seven foot, and so Yuprr found himself staring at the Skavyri’s furry neck.
“I challenge you for the moniker,” the tabby said, poking Yuprr hard in the chest so that he stumbled back a pace. “I am Sithiss, and I should be the new Mouser!”
“Very well,” said Yuprr icily, resisting the urge to rub his chest. “I accept your challenge, Sithiss. Fetch your weapon and meet me back here for combat. The winner will take the title of Mouser.”
As Sithiss strode away, Yuprr turned to his companions. “My spear, Rrep?”
Rrep handed him the weapon. “Good luck, my friend. And remember – size isn’t everything.”
Liprr embraced him tightly. “I know you’ll be fine, but … good luck.”
Prrana patted him on the arm. “Of course he’ll be fine.” She lowered her voice and darted glances this way and that conspiratorially. “He has the magic scarf.” She beamed at Yuprr. “You cannot lose, my son! Now, go out there and show this clowder why you deserve to be Mouser!”
Within minutes, Yuprr and Sithiss were circling one another with wooden spears in paw, sharpened to fine points. Liprr, Prrana, Rrep, Prrit and the rest of the clowder that lived in the valley gathered around the duellists in a wide ring, all trying not to blink.
Yuprr wondered how the magic of the scarf worked and realised ruefully that he should have tested it sooner than this, in circumstances where his life was not on the line. It was too late now, though. Either it would work or he would be killed. He had never been the greatest fighter in his own clowder, and this behemoth of a Skavyri scared him almost witless. He did not perform any impressive moves involuntarily, so he guessed that was not how the scarf worked. He tried waiting for Sithiss to attack to see if the scarf would help him block any blow that might come his way without him even trying, but Sithiss made no move to attack and the longer they circled one another, the greater and greater grew the strain on Yuprr’s nerves until he could take it no more. He flung himself at Sithiss with a wild war cry in the end, stabbing at the bigger cat with his spear again and again, high and low, as fast as he could. Sithiss backed away, blocking and grinning. Not a single stab penetrated his defence, and Yuprr pulled back after a few seconds, panting. Why had that not worked? he wondered. Was the scarf faulty?
“I have your measure now,” said Sithiss, still grinning infuriatingly. “You’re no warrior, no Mouser. You’ll be food for the crows by day’s end, just like your father.”
Yuprr snarled and let his rage propel him forward. His spear was an extension of his arm, an extension of himself, of his anger, and it snapped at Sithiss with the speed of a striking snake. Sithiss’ grin faded, and Yuprr thought victory was within his grasp when he overbalanced and stumbled forwards. Sithiss stepped out of the way and would have stabbed Yuprr in the side easily if an errant breeze had not caught the red scarf around Yuprr’s neck just then and fluttered it into Sithiss’ face. Sithiss missed his stab and stumbled, and Yuprr regained his balance and brought his spear arcing round to whack Sithiss in the back of the knees. The big tabby hit the ground hard on his back, and Yuprr stood over him, spear tip at his throat.
“Do you yield or must I spill your blood in this stream?” asked Yuprr, voice shaking.
Part of him wanted to ram the spear through the tabby’s eye for the bigger cat’s earlier hostility.
“I yield,” Sithiss said faintly, then more loudly, “I yield! I concede. You are Mouser, Yuprr. You are Mouser.”
Yuprr offered the tabby his paw, and Sithiss took it and pulled himself to his feet. They nodded to one another, and then Sithiss sloped off to wince in private while the rest of the clowder congratulated Yuprr, clapping him on the back and cheering. No one else in the valley challenged him after that, and he found he could finally relax and take in the sights. The clowder fed him and his companions well, offering up chub from the creek and beans and tubers from its banks. Yuprr and Liprr went wandering up and down the stream for the rest of the day, red scarf blowing in the wind, and Yuprr felt lighter of heart than he had since before his father had died. Perhaps everything would be alright.
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