The Black Khajiit

Count the phases thus: the Big Moon wanes, then the Small Moon wanes, until there’s nothing but blackness. That’s when Suthay is born: in the blind of the night, when it’s good to hide. Perhaps that is why Footpad decided to put the key to all doors inside Suthay after he stole it from the Night Mistress. He told the Clans to keep it a secret and for many phases, we did. In the end, it got away on a whisper, or a fleeting scent. It flew with the night wind and entered the ear of our enemy.

The barefoot Bosmer thought it was a dream, but our luck was such that it remembered. It gathered a party so that they were five when they set out, loud-breathing bandits, not sleek shadows as they could have been, had they a tail each. Greed makes the children of Nirni always slow and heavy.

They came looking for Suthay in the shallow sands, where the red-eyed devil hunts for slaves and Dagi goes no more. Lucky they were, as Bosmer often are, and before a phase passed, they caught the scent of poor Suthay, living in a Sirodiit village. Suthay was a weakling, the ninth of his litter, and had a bad leg he dragged behind him. Slaver didn’t want him and Sirodiit thought he was bad luck because he was so black it could only see his eyes in the dark. But Bosmer didn’t mind. “Easy prey,” it said. “Suthay will be no match for us, and nobody will miss him. Let us catch him in our net tonight, when he strays among the trees.”

And so it came to be. Bosmer set a trap far enough from the village so Sirodiit wouldn’t see a thing, but along the path Suthay used to walk; they hid their smells and footprints and stunted bodies so that Suthay suspected nothing. As he passed between the trees, the net fell down and wrapped around him: cruel, dry sinews cutting through his fur. Bosmer jumped off its tree, and laughed and gloated and poked Suthay with its bone arrows.

“What does it want from poor Suthay?” he squealed. “Suthay is terribly thin and not enough to feed it!”

“We don’t care to eat you, stupid cat,” Bosmer laughed. “We want the Skeleton Key!”

This was to say, they were to cook him alive. But instead of struggling to escape, Suthay became limp and miserable and seemed to be even smaller than before.

“Suthay gladly gives it. His life is not worth living. But Suthay won’t die for nothing, so he asks: has it everything it needs for the ritual?”

Bosmer were confused. In their eyes, Suthay was wretched beyond disdain, and they believed he would want to die. But they never heard of any ritual. All they had to do, the wind had said, was to cook Suthay, cook him good, until he fell apart, and then look for the Skeleton Key among his bones.

“Oh, no,” Suthay laughed, hanging in the net as if he were dead already. “It must make a ritual. Suthay is an old cat, and knows the spirit talk better than the forest folk.”

“You lie,” Bosmer said. “You want to stall us and run away when Jode hides beneath the trees. We cook you now!”

“As it wishes. Suthay can’t make it. But when it cooks Suthay and finds nothing, it will be sorry, purrr.”

Bosmer were thinking. They believed Suthay was a gift from Y’ffre, and would not challenge their luck. They knew no words of magic, yet the Key was made of magic, and so it was not impossible that they would need magic to get it. A difficult riddle, it was.

“Speak, then,” Bosmer said. “We lose nothing by hearing what you have to say.”

And Suthay taught them so: to fetch a big earthen pot unspoiled with either blood or water. To anoint the pot with warm sadek fat. To fill the pot with water that used to run. To make a fire out of ticklewood branches. To set up the ritual in the middle of the night, at a crossroads, standing naked and in silence. To cook poor Suthay apart and then put each of his bones between their teeth in turn until their reflection appears in what has left of Suthay in the pot, and that bone will be the Skeleton Key. In no other way will they be able to find it.

These tasks were difficult, each in its own way, but Bosmer, being proud, reckoned they would need but a day to collect all the ingredients. In their eyes, the ritual seemed simple, for all they had to do was stand in silence and stir the soup. Thus they decided Suthay was honest, and released him from the net, putting a leash around his neck instead and dragging him about like a pet. Suthay was so weak and deplorable that they didn’t even bother setting up watch during the night, though they kept an eye on him through half-sleep to see if he would try to run.

Suthay did not, and Bosmer awoke encouraged. They divided the tasks so that one went to the village to buy the pot, two went in pair to hunt for sadek, another went to Niben to fetch the water and the last one stayed with Suthay to cut the ticklewood for the pyre.

There was plenty ticklewood in the dry woods, but Suthay warned Bosmer it was better to collect the fallen branches than to cut the living shrubs. In its pride, Bosmer refused to listen and spitefully cut into the green vein, which sprout a spray of sticky poison. Bosmer smeared it all over its arms and face in panic and soon it was scratching and laughing and twisting its body in unnatural ways. For ticklewood is loonyleaf in our tongue.

“That was silly, but Suthay warned it, purrrr. It should have let Suthay help, and then none of this misfortune would have happened.”

“Shut up, stupid cat,” Bosmer yelled and hit Suthay in the face. “You can’t even hold a fork, let alone teach me how to handle plants!”

When Bosmer who went to hunt for sadek came back to the camp, they beheld a sad sight: their friend, still twitching and jerking but barely conscious, tore much of its skin off its arms and face. Yet they had their own wounds to worry about, as Suthay saw by the blood stains on their clothes. For though sadek looks funny it has a hide that arrows can’t pierce; and cutting its throat means feeling its teeth.

“Sadek must have been difficult to kill, purrrr. It should have brought Suthay to help, and then none of this misfortune would have happened.”

“Shut up, stupid cat,” Bosmer said and threw rocks at Suthay. “You can’t catch a sickly mouse, let alone a sadek.”

When Bosmer who went to the village came back to the camp, it beheld a sad sight: its friends, all grim, bitten and poisoned, moaning in their pains. Yet it had its own pains to worry about, as Suthay saw in its contorted features. For the pot was huge and surely weighted twice as Bosmer, and now that it put it down its arms were trembling and its spine crackling.

“That must have been hard to carry, purrrr. It should have brought Suthay to help, and then none of this misfortune would have happened.”

“Shut up, stupid cat,” Bosmer said and kicked Suthay. “You can’t carry your own skin, let alone this pot.”

When Bosmer who went to Niben came back to the camp, it beheld a sad sight: its friends, all beaten, wounded and tired, lay around the fire and good Suthay brought food and drink to their mouths. Yet it had its own fatigue to worry about, as Suthay saw by its heavy pace and shaking knees.

“That must have been a long walk, purrrr. It should have brought Suthay to help, and then none of this misfortune would have happened.”

“Shut up, stupid cat,” Bosmer said and spat on Suthay. “You can’t even walk upright, let alone march to the Niben and back.”

But it was dark already, and Bosmer got to work. They put the ticklewood around the big earthen pot, oiled it with sadek fat and filled it with water from the Niben. Just before midnight, as the Big Moon climbed above the trees to watch, they lit the fire, took off their clothes and made poor Suthay enter the water. The water soaked his beautiful fur so that Bosmer saw him in all his misery and removed the leash from his thin throat, for he had been true, and wanted to help, and had not tried to run.

And then Suthay purred, for he had managed to cripple his captors. How ridiculous they looked, standing naked around him, serious and silent and trusting! An elegant spring, a fierce shake, a thousand droplets extinguishing the fire; jaws biting into a soft throat, claws cutting over the wet eyes; a scream, a groan, then silence.

Suthay sat for a while arranging his fur, and then ate the sadek. The Big Moon kept him company on the way back to the village. There, as the dawn broke, a whisper in the wind reminded him to stoop and bend and drag his hind leg behind him.


Notes

Submitted to Temple Zero.

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