Disclaimer: Nothing of Earthsea is mine. Although I suspect that Tug's next of kin is currently napping on my PC.
Title comes from Shakespeare.
That Mortal Coil
Hissing and fluffing up, Tug ran around in circles, chasing his tail. So few hours in a day, so many things to do and chase: moths and bees, dust and sunbeams, shadows and whispers. Yet the moon shone high in the night sky, and his human sat at the edge of his bed, his face hidden in his palms. Tug ceased his chase; he could always catch that tail tomorrow. Carefully, he walked to the human and sniffed the trim of his nightshirt. Wide-eyed, the kitten winced, as Alder's smell reached his nostrils: fear.
The man looked up, and a frown clouded his face. Tug's eyes darted from man to bed, his little tail twitching wildly. Only when Alder patted the mattress beside him did Tug make up his mind. I'll fix you tomorrow, he warned his rebellious tail, and jumped on the bed. This human's body could never match his mother's warmth and softness, but then again none of his siblings would kick or claw him in his sleep and no tomcat would growl at him from across the room.
Just as Alder pulled the covers up to his throat, Tug paced the length of the human's body a few times to find the best place for a nap. Not long after, the kitten settled under the man's chin and purred himself to sleep.
Someone is in the room.
Tug's head jerked upwards as the fur along his spine stood up. With all his senses in sudden alert, his yellow eyes searched to room to face the intruder. Yet no sound reached his ears, no smell reached his nose. Just as he settled his head back on his forepaws, out of the corner of his eye, he saw them.
Shadows moved at the corners of the room; shadows with outstretched hands and claws, reaching for his human. Was there a wall in the room before? Despite the fluttering of his little heart, Tug stood, arched his back and hissed a warning. The shadows didn't even flinch; they crawled closer, the stench of death now strong around them. Help us, they cried, their wails barely a whisper; a whisper sharp as a hawk's talons and chilling as a mountain stream.
Tug cowered under the covers. I am just a kitten, he thought, his little body trembling. What can I do against such evil? What would my mother do? Then he remembered the night when the storm raged, and the old witch's hut shook and shuddered at the mercy of the winds. Amidst the roar of thunder and the blaze of lightning, Tug's mother had called her offspring by the hearth, and purred; her purr a song of long dead kin and of faraway lands, of strange winged creatures that danced high in the air under the morning sun, a tale of Times and Felines.
Slowly, carefully, Tug dared a glimpse at the shadows from under the covers. Despite their gruesome forms and their ghastly cries, Tug sensed no evil – death is rarely evil, his mother had once told him. Under the stench of death, the kitten caught scent of something deeper and more frightful: the long, forlorn ever after of a dry, desolate land. Bracing his little heart, Tug crawled out of the blanket, climbed on top of Alder's chest and stared at the shadows of the dead.
And he purred.
The shadows halted at the sound of his first, shy notes. Their wails ceased and they gazed at him in wonder. Tug half-closed his eyes and struggled to recall his mother's purring song, but his memory failed him. Instead, he purred of all those things he had seen in his young life and filled his heart with sunshine: naps by the hearth, a taste of warm milk, the chase after dust dancing in a ray of sunlight, moths and bugs, and his mother's bosom, his haven in a night of rain and thunder.
Daring another glimpse around him, Tug purred louder when he no longer saw shadows but people. Young and old, the ethereal forms of the dead sat behind the wall, their faces wet and their eyes bright. One by one they stood, their arms relaxed by their sides and, turning around, they took the path downhill. Then the first rays of sunlight crept through the window, a sparrow chirped somewhere outside and the vision of the dry land vanished.
Alder stirred and Tug settled down upon his chest. The human opened his eyes, the frown gone from his face. He reached out and stroked Tug's head.
"Hey, little fellow. What about some milk?"
Tug purred, licked his forepaw and stroked his ear. After a night like this, milk sounded just fine.
Story loosely based on that passage:
"The kitten, evidently happy to be away from the household of dogs and tomcats and roosters and the unpredictable Heather, tried hard to show that it was a reliable and diligent cat, patrolling the house for mice, riding on Alder's shoulder under his hair when permitted, and settling right down to sleep purring under his chin as soon as he lay down. Alder slept all night without any dream he remembered, and woke to find the kitten sitting on his chest, washing its ears with an air of quiet virtue."
Mending the Green Pitcher, OW