Catapults, one of the healers had said, though Beru was sure they had nothing to do with cats. At the first sound of their racket, she had moved her kittens to the safety of the storeroom. Ten weeks old, they were nearly weaned and no longer demanded her constant attention. Once they were settled in their new nest of blankets, she hurried back to work.
In the Houses of Healing, the cats had the usual task of hunting and killing the vermin. Left unchecked, mice soon would chew through the medical texts and ruin the bandages and herbs. Though guarding the supplies was important work and worthy of any cat, the cats in the Houses also had a second, higher calling. Some healers claimed that their presence calmed restless minds and cheered downcast hearts, and some even said that their purring helped broken bones to knit, so the cats made it their duty to sit with the injured and sick.
But never had Beru seen the Houses so crowded. She and the other cats did their best to visit each pallet, treading lightly as they jumped onto the coverlets, softly curling up beside the injured Men. Yet they were too few to comfort the many wounded, so they started to seek out those who had been the most grievously hurt.
None of the other cats was near when the healers, calling urgently for aid, carried in three more cases. To Beru's surprise, one was a woman, her arm and shoulder swathed in bandages. Among cats and Men alike, the females were not the ones who fought over territory, so Beru decided this woman must have been injured while defending her litter. Her eyes were closed, but the cat rubbed her face against a cold hand to show her approval, then she hurried to the next bed.
A curly-haired boy lay motionless under the coverlets. The cat gently poked at him with her paw, but he showed no sign of awareness.
"Good Beruthiel, you have to move," old Ioreth said and lifted her to the floor. She trotted to the third bed and lightly hopped up.
Beru knew this Man, though his looks were greatly changed. He had often come to the houses, to talk with the healers and to visit the sick. The cats were very fond of him for he never scolded or tried to chase them away. Always he spoke to them with patience and kindness. The cat recalled that his name was "My Lord." She lifted her whiskers and the hackles on her neck for he stank of smoke and the sweat of fever. His dark hair was matted with grime, and weariness and soot shadowed his face. She gave a questioning, worried trill, but he did not open his eyes or stir.
All three of these cases were gravely ill. Even if she had not been born and bred in the Houses, her instincts told her as much, and she saw the horror and panic on the faces of the healers. They are dying of despair, someone said. She ran to find the other cats, but none could leave their charges.
Beru could sit with one of the three, but what of the other two? They desperately needed help, even if all the cats could give was the comforting touch and sound of another living creature. Licking her tail rapidly, Beru tried to think.
Where could she find more cats? The other cats in the City had not been trained for this work, and most would be in hiding from the din of the battle. From that cursed catapult, Beru said to herself, then stopped her nervous grooming in mid lick. She leapt from My Lord's bed and headed for the storeroom.
They're little, so I'll bring three for each, she thought as she ran, her tail held aloft. Good thing I had such a big litter. And it's never to soon for them to learn their duties. The kittens crowded around her with squeaky, trilling mews. She picked up the nearest one and trotted to the bed of the injured woman. Two more trips, and three calico kittens were purring and kneading the woman's feet. Next, Beru brought two black kittens and another calico to the young boy. "No wrestling," she warned them before she left. Their blue eyes stared up at her guilelessly.
She curled up beside My Lord, trying to lend him her warmth. She remembered the last time he had stroked her back, and she purred and pressed herself closer to his body.
When a healer started to move her, the warden ordered him to leave her in peace. Against this strange ailment, there was little they could do, but perhaps Beru and her kittens would help keep their charges alive-until, by some miracle, healing could be found.