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Varjak Paw, Page 2

S. F. Said

  ‘It's silly to alarm the kittens like this,’ tutted Mother. ‘They're too young and impressionable to understand anything so serious. They'll go and have nightmares now, you see if they don't.’

  ‘That's right.’ Father arched his back and stood up. ‘I don't understand the problem. The Gentleman is feeding us better than the Contessa ever did—’

  ‘But why is he being so nice to us?’ said the Elder Paw. ‘Fancy food, presents – it's too good to be true. And what about those black cats who gave Varjak a scare?’

  ‘We all know about Varjak and his tales,’ declared Father. ‘No, I see nothing to worry about. I don't believe in those cats, I don't believe the Contessa is dead, and I don't believe this is the same Gentleman the Elder Paw remembers. He must be getting confused in his old age.’

  There was a murmur of agreement around the room. Varjak couldn't stop himself. He had to speak.

  ‘I saw the men carry something away,’ he said. ‘It could've been the Contessa's body—’

  ‘Varjak!’ hissed Mother. ‘That really is too revolting!’ She turned to the Elder Paw. ‘You see what you've done?’

  ‘But it's true!’ said Varjak. ‘And so are the cats! They're—’

  ‘Shut up, you stupid insect!’ snarled Julius. ‘We're the only cats in the Contessa's house. And this is grown-up business, not kitten make-believe.’

  Everyone started to shout at once. The flames roared louder and higher in the fireplace.

  ‘Listen to me!’ demanded the Elder Paw, struggling to regain control. ‘We need to make a plan. If things change in this house, we will have to go Outside.’

  ‘Elder Paw!’ cried Mother. ‘What can you be thinking of? Everyone knows the world Outside is full of monsters. At least here we're safe from dogs.’

  ‘But we don't even know what dogs are!’ said the Elder Paw. ‘This house is the only world we know.’

  ‘This house is the only world we need,’ said Aunt Juni. ‘The Contessa is fine. Everything will go on as before.’

  ‘Listen to me,’ pleaded the Elder Paw. He stepped down off the armchair and into the middle of the room.

  Father squared up to him. ‘No. You listen to me for a change.’ His fur bristled. ‘Maybe it's time for someone else to make the decisions in this family.’

  The room was completely still now, except for the raging fire. Shocked at what he was seeing, but unable to look away, Varjak watched the two of them intently. Everyone did.

  Father began to circle the Elder Paw, wordless and menacing. He bared his teeth. He looked twice as big, twice as fierce as normal. His shadow danced across the Elder Paw's body in the firelight. He hissed, and strode forwards.

  The Elder Paw backed away. Suddenly he looked tired and old, very old, like the threadbare rug on which he stood. ‘I'm just saying we should think—’

  ‘That's enough!’ blazed Father. ‘This Council is over.’ He turned to face the family. ‘Let's go.’

  There was a rumble of support around the room. Varjak's throat felt dry. He couldn't believe how fast it had happened. One moment, the Elder Paw was in charge; the next, it was all over.

  ‘Pure-bred Mesopotamian Blues,’ croaked the Elder Paw. ‘The family of Jalal. Is this what we've sunk to?’

  ‘The Council,’ spat Father, ‘is over.’

  Chapter Four

  The moment the grown-ups had left the room, Julius turned to Varjak.

  ‘I know why the Contessa's not here,’ he said, digging a claw into the toy mouse. ‘It's because she can't stand to look at Varjak's eyes.’

  Jasmine, Jay, Jethro and Jerome all stood by Julius's side. No one stood by Varjak's side. He was alone and boxed in by the Contessa's empty armchair.

  ‘Poor Varjak,’ said cousin Jasmine, but she was smiling as if it was some kind of joke. ‘Why do you always pick on him? I'm sure he'd rather have green eyes, like everyone else!’

  ‘Because they're different,’ said Jay.

  ‘The colour of danger,’ added Jethro.

  ‘He's not one of us,’ concluded Jerome.

  Varjak ignored them. He didn't even look at them, staring instead into the fire. ‘The Contessa's not here because she's probably dead. Didn't you hear the Elder Paw?’

  ‘That's enough, insect,’ snapped Julius. ‘No one asked you. And how dare you speak in Family Council? You're a disgrace to the name of Jalal.’

  Julius's tail thudded menacingly on the rug. Very slowly, Varjak looked up and met his big brother's eyes. His own tail started to thud.

  ‘Is that supposed to scare me?’ sneered Julius. He towered over Varjak Paw. His claws came out. So did Varjak's.

  ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ Jay, Jethro and Jerome crowded round the two of them. Jasmine watched, grooming her fine silver-blue fur.

  Varjak shook inside, but he didn't show it, didn't back off. He'd never had a real fight, and he knew he didn't stand a chance against Julius – but it was as if something inside him was rising up, something old and strong and buried deep. Who did Julius think he was?

  ‘Julius, darling, he's only a little kitten,’ cooed Jasmine, in her milk-in-the-morning voice.

  ‘He's not even a proper Mesopotamian Blue,’ said Julius. He stared at Varjak with devastating green eyes. His pupils were thin slits of scorn, mocking, challenging, daring Varjak to move first.

  Varjak couldn't. He couldn't even hold the gaze: it was too strong, too sure of itself. Whatever it was that had risen up within him had gone. He turned away, and backed down.

  It was over.

  Julius had beaten him with just one look, as Father had beaten the Elder Paw. In the fireplace, the flames sputtered, and died.

  ‘You're the cause of all this trouble,’ said Julius. ‘Apologise for what you've done.’

  ‘I'm sorry,’ croaked Varjak. The words were like hot coals in his mouth.

  ‘And don't ever do it again – or I'll break every bone in your body.’

  Varjak sloped away from the front room, humiliation scorching his cheeks. A disgrace to the name of Jalal. That hurt the most. He didn't care what Julius thought, but Varjak had always felt close to his ancestor, always loved the tales. He couldn't bear the thought of being a disgrace to him.

  You wait, he said to an imaginary Julius in his head. You just wait. One day, I'll show you.

  There was no one in the hallway. It didn't matter if he was caught going out into the garden now. Things could hardly get any worse. Varjak went up to the back door, nudged the cat flap open, and slid silently out.

  The garden was a dark, gloomy place, full of gnarled old trees. They'd bent back on themselves, grown inwards and locked together, making a tangled net of knotted wood. It was hard to see the sky through them.

  Beyond the trees lay the stone wall that enclosed the Contessa's house and garden. It was so high that no one in the family could imagine climbing it – even Varjak, who could sometimes make it half way up a curtain before Mother or Father shouted him down.

  He drank in the cold night air, peered at the massive wall, the tangled branches – and thought he could see a thin white whisker of moon up there, far, far above.

  ‘ Varjak. ’ It was the Elder Paw. He was on his own, at the bottom of the garden, by the crumbling roots of a dying tree. Varjak padded over to join him.

  ‘I'm sorry, Elder Paw,’ he said. ‘It's my fault, everything that happened – but it's true about the black cats, I swear on the name of Jalal it's true.’

  His grandfather smiled sadly. ‘I know that,’ he replied. ‘And it's not your fault, not a bit of it. It's them. They don't even want to think any more.’

  They sat in silence together, in the shadow of the wall.

  ‘Are you still going to tell me the tale of Jalal's greatest battle?’ said Varjak after a while.

  ‘Against Saliya of the North? Not tonight,’ said the Elder Paw. ‘I'm afraid there are more important things to tell you first. You're still young, but I don't think we have much time, and you're the onl
y one who'll understand.’

  Varjak's skin tingled beneath his fur. Even after what had happened in the Council, he was thrilled by his grandfather's words.

  ‘I'm ready, Elder Paw,’ he said.

  ‘Then listen carefully. Jalal only knows what this Gentleman's up to – but with the Contessa gone, it's more than we can manage. We have to get help from Outside.’

  ‘Isn't the world Outside full of monsters?’ said Varjak.

  ‘A monster's exactly what we need. A monster called a dog. The tales say they're huge, and strong enough to kill a man. Dogs fill the heart with fear, with their foul breath and deafening sound. But the tales also say Jalal could talk to them, so there must be a way to get their help, to scare this man away.’

  ‘Mother and Father say the tales aren't true. They say they're only stories.’

  ‘Only stories.’ The Elder Paw looked at him. ‘And you believe that?’

  Varjak shook his head. ‘No.’

  ‘Good. Because I'm going to tell you a family secret now, an old one. It goes right back to the beginning.’ Varjak's mind raced. This was the first he'd heard of any secret.

  ‘Is it about Jalal?’ he guessed.

  The Elder Paw smiled in the dark. ‘It is indeed. Everyone knows the tales of Jalal – but his Way is a mystery, known only to a few.’

  The Way of Jalal. This was something Julius and the others knew nothing about. And the Elder Paw was telling him: him and no one else.

  ‘The Way,’ said the Elder Paw, ‘has been passed down through the ages from Paw to Paw. Much of it has been forgotten over the years, lost and corrupted through time. Now only fragments remain. Perhaps the Way will help us talk to dogs; perhaps not. I do not know it all, and I fear I won't have long enough to teach you the parts I know. But it's all we have left.’

  Varjak felt strangely disappointed. Now he knew there was a family secret, he wanted to know it all. What was the point of a secret which was lost? Still, something was better than nothing.

  ‘Tell me more, Elder Paw.’

  ‘Come closer.’ Varjak bent towards him. ‘Closer.’ He leaned right over, so his ear was by the Elder Paw's mouth.

  ‘There are Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal,’ whispered the Elder Paw. His breath was warm in the cold night air. ‘We know only three of them. Their names are these: Slow-Time. Moving Circles. Shadow-Walking.’ He recited the Skills slowly, in rhythm, like poetry. ‘Learn these words, and pass them on in turn.’

  ‘Slow-Time,’ said Varjak. ‘Moving Circles. Shadow-Walking.’ He rolled the words over his tongue like a new taste.


  ‘Slow-Time. Moving Circles. Shadow-Walking.’ His fur prickled at the strange sounds.

  ‘Never forget this. Keep the Way alive, Varjak Paw.’

  Varjak nodded. The words – Jalal's words – were safe in his head. He would always remember them.


  The back door swung open. Varjak and the Elder Paw looked round. The Gentleman was standing there. And by his shiny black shoes, there were two sleek black cats.

  Chapter Five

  The temperature seemed to drop. Varjak shivered.

  ‘I don't like this,’ whispered the Elder Paw. ‘I don't like it one bit.’

  The Gentleman pointed at them across the garden. He crouched down to touch the collars on the black cats' necks, and whispered something into their ears. Then he turned and went back inside, leaving Varjak and the Elder Paw alone with his cats.

  Varjak's fur bushed out with fear as the cats came slowly, deliberately across the grass towards them. There was something so strange, so menacing about the way they moved.

  ‘Who are you?’ called the Elder Paw.

  They didn't answer. They just kept coming. Varjak and his grandfather backed away, but there wasn't far to go. In a few steps, they were up against the wall, as far from the house as they could get.

  Varjak's pulse was racing. He remembered how the Gentleman's cats had pushed him aside so easily. It looked like nothing in the world could stop them now. He scratched at his collar. It felt tight around his neck.

  ‘Varjak,’ said the Elder Paw urgently, but without a hint of worry in his voice, ‘I think someone as brave as you could climb this wall and go Outside, don't you?’

  Varjak glanced up. The stone was concealed by moss, but there was no hiding the wall's height. It was massive.

  ‘Don't worry,’ said the Elder Paw. ‘You'll have time. I'll see to that.’

  ‘ I'll have time?’ Varjak's head swam. What was the Elder Paw saying? That he should go Outside on his own? ‘But – can't we both—?’

  ‘No, we can't. Only one of us can get out. I'll keep them busy; you must go Outside and find a dog.’

  ‘You're not going to fight them, are you? They'll – they'll—’

  The Elder Paw took a pace towards the black cats. In his eyes was a fire Varjak had never seen before. ‘Go! Bring back this thing that even men are scared of. And keep the Way alive, Varjak Paw.’

  The cats had stopped. They were looking at the Elder Paw as if they were waiting for him. The Elder Paw growled at them. Varjak's head hurt. He was being torn apart by a thousand different feelings.

  The Elder Paw strode forward to meet the Gentleman's cats, tail held high, green eyes blazing. ‘Go, Varjak, before it's too late. Don't look back. This is the only way.’ He looked fierce and magnificent. The tired old cat of the Council was gone. Now he was a son of Jalal, facing his enemy, proud and powerful. A Mesopotamian Blue.

  ‘GO!’ he yelled, and hurled himself at the black cats.

  They nodded as he came, as if it was all too easy. The Elder Paw ran straight at them – but then he seemed to shimmer for a moment, and went through the gap between them, and came out the other side.

  The two black cats span around. The Elder Paw was just out of their reach. They glanced at each other, and went after him.

  Varjak's heart thumped in his throat. His grandfather was leading them away, through the trees, back towards the house. He was taking them further and further from Varjak, with quick wits and cunning, a flash of silver blue.

  The black cats were faster. They moved together perfectly. Each one looked sleek and lethal. How could the Elder Paw fight two together? Already he was slowing down; still proud, but old and short of breath. And the black cats were closing in, one on each side.

  They'd catch him soon. Even if they didn't, what could he do against a Gentleman ten times his size? What could any cat do, or even a whole family?

  The Elder Paw was right. The only chance was to find a dog. His grandfather was doing what he had to; now it was all up to Varjak.

  His mind on fire, Varjak tore his eyes from the garden, and turned to the wall. It separated the world he knew from the world Outside. No Paw had been over that wall since Jalal himself came from Mesopotamia, but it was the only way out.

  He took a deep breath, coiled his body tight. One last glance, over his shoulder. No!

  The black cats had caught the Elder Paw. They had him backed against the house. They came at him from both sides. He slashed out, but together they swarmed on top of him, and forced him to the ground.

  There was a terrible howl. The black cats came away, shaking their heads. And the Elder Paw—

  The Elder Paw looked limp, like a broken toy.

  There was a roaring in Varjak's ears. His stomach churned. Everything inside him screamed at him to stay, to fight, to help the only cat who ever understood him. But the Elder Paw's words echoed in his mind: go, before it's too late. He turned to the wall.




  Varjak exploded into motion. Back legs uncoiled. Front paws reached out for a grip. Found it. Back legs pushed, pumped, powered up, up, and like the wind, Varjak Paw flew up the face of the wall, up, through the trees, higher than the curtains, higher than the house, up, beginning to tire, muscles aching, vision blurring – how much further? – up, grip after g
rip, paw over paw, slipping…

  Latched onto a ledge. Heaved. And made it to the top of the wall.

  Chapter Six

  He peered down the inside of the wall. He could see nothing through the trees. The Gentleman's cats and the Elder Paw were hidden by the tangled net of branches. There was no way back. He was truly on his own.

  Had he done the right thing? Shouldn't he have helped his grandfather? He couldn't get that picture out of his mind: the Elder Paw, limp, like a broken toy.

  Tremors were coming up from somewhere deep within him, racking him open. Varjak blocked them, stopped them, pushed them back down. The Elder Paw knew what he was doing. He'd planned it. He was willing to lay down his life, so Varjak could have the chance to go Outside, and find a dog.

  All he could do now was go on. But where?

  Ahead of him was a sea of lights, stretching far away into the darkness. Varjak couldn't tell what they were, or where they led. He looked up. Another sea of lights: the moon and stars, cold and distant. They made him giddy in the pit of his stomach, so dizzy that he could almost feel the wall slip out from under him.

  He closed his eyes and counted to ten. It didn't work. The view was too big; he was too small. A pure-bred Mesopotamian Blue had no place on top of a wall. But then, as his family said, he wasn't much of a Blue. So who was he?

  Beneath that giant sky, he was no one. He was nothing.

  Varjak's stomach lurched. He was going to be sick if he stayed on the wall any longer. Down. He had to get down, and quickly – the black cats would be looking for him. But how? He couldn't climb down the wall: it was sheer. He'd over-balance and crash if he tried.

  There was a tree Outside the wall, just one. He could climb down a tree, if he could only make it that far.

  He stretched out a paw. His pad zipped on the wet moss that cloaked the stone. He clung on with his claws and regained his balance. A blast of bitterly cold wind almost pushed him over the edge. Another wave of giddiness washed over him. The wind seemed to taunt him with its song. Too high, it sang. Too high, too soon! Varjak tried to shut it out, but the song was everywhere. You've gone too high too soon. You'll never make it to that tree!