The screams were so loud Flin was sure one of the sheep had been attacked by a fox. At least, until he recognized his own name amidst the screams. Jumping out of bed as fast as he could, Flin drowsily wondered who could possibly be out there in the middle of the night. But even as he made his way to the window, he knew there was only one answer.
“Flin? Who is it?” his sister whispered sleepily. Flin pulled the curtain aside and saw a yellow speck running through the fields, disregarding any plants she was trampling. Something was wrong. He’d known Kena for years, and she had done all sorts of crazy things. But never had she appeared at this hour, screaming this loud.
“Flin?” his sister asked again as he rushed to the door.
“I’ll handle it. Go back to sleep,” he said softly before slamming the door. His parents were away for the night, visiting a faraway town where a high class establishment was interested in buying some of their wares, something Flin was grateful for now. He had no idea how to explain the princess running towards him in the middle of the night.
He rushed down the stairs and to the front door, almost knocking over a lamp in the process. The summer night was still warm and he found himself sweating before he was outside. Kena was still running through the fields, calling his name, and he ran towards her, for once not caring about the fresh strawberries they were trampling.
“Flin!” she shouted when she saw him. Kena increased her pace and Flin did the same thing. When they met they collided and she slammed into him, burying her head in his chest as deep as she possibly could. Her tears soaked his coat right away and all Flin could do was hold her while she struggled to breathe between the sobs and the screams.
“Kena, Kena…” He patted her hair, unsure of what else to do. Her screams lessened but never really died down. He tried not to shiver, tried not to make her feel how his body was trembling. What good would it do if Kena notice how much she had frightened him He felt a heart rage and first thought that it was hers, slamming so hard that he could feel it, but when she let go for a moment he was surprised to learn that it was his own.
“It was…Dark…” They were the first coherent words Kena had said, apart from his name, but he still couldn’t make sense of it.
“Kena, breathe. Try to breathe. Look at me. Take a deep breath first.” She looked up slightly into his eyes, but she was still breathing way too fast. She wouldn’t faint on him in the middle of the field, right?
“Come on. Breathe in, like this.” He forced himself to breathe slowly, and was surprised to see her follow his lead. It occurred to him that they must look quite silly, taking deep breaths in the middle of the night, but that didn’t matter now. Within a few moments Kena seemed to calm down, her large red eyes slowly returning to normal.
“My mother… She was… A cat…”
His heart skipped. A cat? Surely it couldn’t be… “Kena. Please. Calm down. Come with me first. Let’s go get a drink.”
She nodded and silently followed him to the house. He lit a lantern and only then did he notice how terrible she looked. Her hair was a mess, her eyes red and her cheeks soaked. But worse was the darkness behind her eyes. He rushed to the cellar and got some cool iced tea which Kena finished in one go.
“Start from the beginning, Kena,” he whispered as he poured her another glass.
“I was… Last night. I couldn’t sleep. So I decided to go look for my mom, to ask her for the holiday. I’m sorry, I hadn’t done that yet, I’m sorry, I…”
“Kena,” he whispered, “it’s okay. Please. Don’t get yourself worked up over that.”
She nodded slowly. “Okay. So I was looking for her, it wasn’t that late yet, but she wasn’t in her study so I went to the throne room and I saw something moving outside so I went out and found a door in the wall I had never seen before! It was so strange, so I walked through it. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought maybe a burglar?
But then I heard this wailing, this crying, I thought someone was in pain, so I went to look and I heard this chanting. Oh, Flin, the chanting, it was so, so… Dark. I don’t know! I don’t have any words for it! I didn’t recognize anything but the words were darker than the night and then I saw these two ponies and the feather and the cat and they were cutting the cat Flin! It was in agony!”
Cutting the cat. So he’d been right. All along, he’d been right. He had brought the servant to the body he had found, and he had retrieved it saying it was probably an animal and not to worry. He knew it hadn’t been an animal, but what more could he do? He had gone home and hadn’t been to the castle since.
Kena forced herself to breathe again before continuing. “These ponies… The feather they were cutting it with. It was dark as well, as black as the words from that chant. I don’t know how they were cutting it with a feather. Feathers aren’t sharp, are they?”
Flin shook his head.
“See. But they did. They were. It must have been some sort of magic. But then I looked at the ponies and it… It was Centrelle who cut it, Flin! It was her, even though she wore the cloak with the hood I know it was her! And the other pony, the chanting pony, it was my mother Flin, help me, it was my mother…”
Sobs took over her voice again and Flin put down the iced tea. The High Queen had been the one killing the cats? He shook his head. That couldn’t be. If Centrelle had been involved, surely she would have responded differently, right? Besides, it made no sense. Why would the High Queen and her heir be involved in something like this? They were the most powerful ponies in the entire world. They had no need to kill any cats. What could they possibly want that required dead cats?
“What must I do, Flin?” Kena whispered.
“I…” What could he possibly tell her? “I think you need to breathe. What happened after? Did they see you?”
“I… No. I ran off and came here. I didn’t see anything else and I don’t think they saw me. They were so caught up in ki… killing that cat.” Tears appeared on her face again. “How could she do that, Flin? She’s my mother. I know she’s not the warmest pony around, but she’s… she wouldn’t do… and Centrelle…”
He held her again, more awkward this time. How could they, indeed? Centrelle?
“Kena… I think you need to go back home.”
She looked up with big eyes and he shook his head furiously.
“No, no, hear me out. Stay here for a while. You can sleep in my bed. I’ll take the couch. Calm down first. But tomorrow, I think… Look. It was dark, right? And you only saw them from a distance. I don’t know what the explanation is, but there has to be one. I can’t believe the High Queen would be involved in the murdering of cats. Maybe it was sick, or maybe they were enchanted. There could be dozens of reasons.”
“I… I guess. But those eyes Flin, and the words…”
“I know. We’ll go back together, okay? Whenever you’re ready. Because this is not going to get any better by running from it. There’s an explanation, I’m sure there is.” Really, he wasn’t sure. If there had been an explanation, why hadn’t Centrelle given it to him earlier? But no matter how often he visited the castle or how close he was with Kena, he was just a farmer’s boy. Maybe she didn’t see it fit to tell him. For Kena’s sake, he forced himself to believe that.
“You’ll come with me?” Kena’s voice had never been that small.
“Of course I will. And you’ll see, Kena, that it wasn’t as bad as you made it out to be last night. You got spooked, understandably so. But she’s your mother, Kena. And not only that, she’s the High Queen. She is bound to have secrets and do things you don’t understand at first glance. But we’ll never find out if we don’t ask.”
He didn’t know if the smile on his face appeared genuine, but Kena smiled back. He almost sighed with relief.
“Yes. You’re right. Maybe I overreacted. We’ll go and ask tomorrow. Thank you, Flin. And thank you for offering that I can stay.” Kena yawned and he got off the couch. He was relieved to see she’d calmed down. He didn’t want to see her so upset, not ever. He just hoped that he was right, and that the High Queen had that logical explanation.
Because deep inside, he couldn’t think of anything. Even if they had to kill the cats for a valid reason, why do it at night, hidden in the forest? But he had to believe. For Kena, and for the poor creature he had seen lying in the dirt, abandoned by all but the dampness of the forest ground.