Young Richard Ashendale liked the rain. It was one of the many things he liked that his father did not approve of. The nursemaids had said it was normal for a boy of his age to want to play in the mud, and Richard had gone ahead and let them think that. The rain made the worms in the garden come to the surface, and the things Richard could do with a worm would curdle milk. It was better no one knew about it. Now that he was almost an adult, however, he had to be more careful with his excursions; it was normal for a six-year-old to play in the mud, but it was not normal for a sixteen-year-old.
Richard was not a normal boy, although he pretended very hard he was one. At first it was because he was trying to please his implacable father, but that soon fell through when he realized his father would never be happy with him no matter what he did. After that he pretended to be normal because he did not want anyone to know he was strange, because he knew they would pick on him, and he would be given no choice but to implement the strategies he had been practicing on the worms. Later, when his father took him away from his tenuous friends and confined him to the grounds of his plantation house, Richard pretended to be normal because it was the only way people would leave him alone. During the day he poured himself into his unbearably boring studies, and then at night, or in the rain, he would sneak out of the house and find worms to toy with. Every so often he would find a night bird or a wandering dog, and those were really good nights.
It was raining that day, and Richard had decided it was time to renew his father's permission to go wandering the grounds in the rain. He could have left his father's estate at any time, but he did not think the world would be ready for him, unless it was with torches and pitchforks.
The hall was empty of servants, empty of portraits and curtains and tapestries, empty of ornamental vases and busts of ancestors. The hall was empty, like all the halls in the Ashendale estate. Lord Ashendale was not fond of his family, and he was not fond of excess, and so the estate he had inherited was barren and cold and boring. The door to the baron's study was huge, carved from oak, inlaid with brass. Richard hated that door. He had sworn to himself long ago that he would burn it to the ground. He was just waiting for the right day.
Richard knocked. He always knocked, because if he didn't, his father would not speak to him. Then he waited.
The Lord Ashendale's study was as barren as the rest of the estate of artwork and comfort, but was at least strewn with papers and open books. Lord Ashendale liked to prepare for invasions in his spare time, and he studied war histories and strategic maps with uncanny devotion.
"What do you want?" Lord Ashendale snapped, not even looking up. His head was bent over a book, the grey light from outside draining the color from his sun-weathered face, his graying auburn hair, his black and red robes. Lord Ashendale resembled his son in face only―he was tanned and bulky, and grew his hair out long―and Richard wasn't sure if he hated the similarities or the differences more. The Ashendale heir cleared his throat, because he was always nervous around his father. He hated this fact, but could do nothing to change it.
"Father, I was hoping you would grant your permission―"
"But you didn't even let me finish!"
"You are not going outside today, Richard, and that is final. You will stay in here, and you will continue your studies. Your tutor tells me your progress is declining."
Richard fumed, but refused to rise to the bait. "Have you talked with Mother about this?" he asked stiffly.
"Yes." his father replied. "She feels the same way I do. Now go."
Richard almost stayed and had a good screaming row, but instead he just bowed and left, slamming the door behind him.
Richard was at a loss. He wandered through empty corridors, trailing his delicate, long-fingered hands along the barren walls; he peeked into empty rooms, letting only the top of his head and his eyes protrude across the threshold; he rattled locked doors like a mournful spirit. It was almost a quarter of an hour before he finally found her―in the sunroom, sitting by the window and reading.
She was once a beautiful woman. She had grown older, and had aged with as much grace as she could muster. She was thin and fragile, like a statue made from blown glass, and seemed almost translucent in the gray, rainy light. She looked like a ghost, dressed all in white, fading away even as he watched.
Richard coughed politely. "Um, Mother?" he said. Lady Ashendale looked up, and her face spread into a smile when she saw him.
"Richard." she said, and patted the seat beside her. "Come, sit down."
"How are you?" Richard inquired, taking one of her small, dainty hands in his own. Richard had strong hands, although nobody had managed yet to figure out why.
"Oh, I've been better." she replied, still smiling. "The rain, you know."
"Yes, I know." Richard stared out at the drizzle for a moment before saying, "You know, Mother, it's been raining for three days now."
"I know." she answered. "And what of it?"
"Father still won't let me go out."
Lady Ashendale sighed. "I know, Richard. But it's for your own good, believe me. He just wants the best for you. He wants you to have a good life." She patted his hands and her smile became wistful. "He's worried you'll end up like me, you see."
"I don't think that would be so bad."
"Oh, Richard, my little mud-pie. Why this obsession with the rain? Why do you never go out in the sun?"
Richard thought hard for an answer that didn't involve explaining about the worms. "I can think better in the rain." he answered at last. "Something about the atmosphere."
"I don't know. Something has been killing the cats, and your father and I are worried that whatever it is could still be out there."
Richard almost laughed. Oh no, Mother. Whatever-it-is is in here.
"Mother, I think I can handle a fox. Even a wolf wouldn't present too much of a problem."
Lady Ashendale's lined face went hard. "Richard, we do not speak about that."
"Why not?" Richard objected. "If you could just see―the things I can do with a bucket of dirt and some bones would―"
"It brings nothing but ruin." Lady Ashendale snapped, pulling her hand from Richard's. Then she coughed. "You will not speak of it and you will not practice it. That is final." She softened and said, "You can do wonderful things with your own two hands, without any outside help. I know you can. Now, I'm sure you have studies you could be catching up on. Please do, Richard. For me."
Richard sighed and hung his head. "Yes, Mother." he said, and got to his feet. "For you."
His brain was going to start dripping out his ears. Any moment. The next second could be the one where his liquified gray matter at last gave up the ghost and trickled out through all available orifices.
Richard was bored.
He was sitting in his own study (as far from his father's as one could get without leaving the main building), staring out the narrow window, chin propped on his hand. An open book lay at his elbow, the tasseled silk cord that served as a bookmark lying crookedly across the pages.
There was a knock at the door. Richard leapt to his bare feet, knocking over his chair as he hastened to answer it.
"Finally," Richard said, throwing the door open wide. "I thought I'd be stuck here all day."
There was a maid standing there, looking intimidated. She was head and shoulders shorter than Richard, and seemed even smaller because she was hunched in upon herself in an almost defensive manner. She gazed up at him with big, brown eyes that reminded him of a puppy's. Richard hastily quashed the fire that had sprung to his fingertips, grinding them out like five cigarettes against his door.
"L-Lord Richard?" the maid stammered. "Your . . . father would like to see you."
Richard sighed and sagged against the smoking door. "This is a first." he said. "I don't think he's ever wanted to see me before."
"Um, he said it was . . . rather urgent."
"He can wait." Richard snapped. He tapped his chin, thinking. "What could he possibly want?"
"I-I don't know."
"I wasn't talking to you."
"Yes, my lord."
"Stop calling me that."
"How many times do I have to tell you?"
"None more, sir."
Richard smiled. "You know I'm just messing with you, don't you?"
The maid smiled, still terrified. "Um, yes? Sir?"
"You still have to call me 'my lord.'"
The smile was almost frantic. "But . . . you just said―"
"Some people have no sense of humor." said Richard, waving a hand dismissively. He sighed. "Fine, I suppose I'll go see what my troll of a father wants."
The maid was scandalized. "Sir! You shouldn't speak of your father like that!"
A look of horror crept onto Richard's face. "Oh Gods," he murmured, "what was I thinking? He's obviously listening to everything we say because he's that vain and paranoid." The horror was replaced by annoyance. "Not that he couldn't if he weren't such a coward about it." He brushed past the maid and stormed off. She breathed a sigh of relief once she was sure he was gone.
"And you still have to call me 'my lord!'" he called from around the corner.
Richard swept through the halls like a cold wind. The servants stayed as far out of his way as they possibly could, hiding like mice from a prowling cat. The young Lord Ashendale almost didn't knock at his father's door, but decided to at the last moment because his father might have changed his mind.
"Enter." came the call from within. Richard entered.
"Took you long enough." said Lord Ashendale. Richard missed the days when he was young enough that he could throw things without it being immature. "Sit down."
Richard sat, stiff-backed, in the only other chair in the room, directly across the desk from his father.
"Your mother came to speak with me."
"Ah." said Richard.
"She told me to let you out of the house, or you would climb out your window and fall to your death."
"I see." said Richard. "That was perceptive of her."
"So," said Lord Ashendale, head still bent over his work, "you may go out today."
"Thank you, Father." said Richard, rising.
"Sit." his father commanded. "There are three conditions. First, you will not ruin another set of clothes with your grubbing about in the mud. Second, you will remain within the grounds. And third, you will be back before sunset. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Father." said Richard, petulantly.
"Go, then." Lord Ashendale waved a hand dismissively. Richard stood, bowed, and took his leave.
There was a spring in Richard's step as he walked down the barren hallway, and he hummed to himself on his way to the back entrance of the house―it was the quicker way to the gardens. He paused at the door to take off his shoes and socks and left them just inside the door.
The rain had slackened for the time being into a light drizzle, so it was several minutes before Richard was noticeably damp. By then he had made it to the gardens and was kneeling by a patch of flowers, long fingers buried up to the second knuckle in the mud, probing its depths for something small and wriggling. To his left, something sneezed.
He turned his head sharply and saw something retreat farther into one of the rose bushes. He caught a glimpse of a bedraggled white and orange tail.
"Here kitty," said Richard, holding out a hand to the bush. "come on, here girl."
The cat in the bush mewled pitifully. Richard crawled a few feet nearer, one muddy hand still outstretched.
"Oh, who's a cat, then?" said Richard, as he saw a pair of doleful eyes peer out at him from the rose bush. "Come on, kitty, I'm only going to hurt you."
The cat mewled again, stepping a little closer to the edge of the overhanging rose bush. It looked scruffy and thin, with burs in its fur and black gunk around its eyes. The cat took one more step forward and Richard snatched it up gently, cradling it to his chest. It began purring.
"There's a good girl." said Richard, getting to his feet and softly stroking the cat. "Let's go to the forest! Nobody's going to miss you."
Richard was sitting with his back against a tree, shoulders slumped, eyes half-closed, a satisfied smile lingering on his thin lips. He had rolled up his sleeves, and something dark speckled his twiggy arms up to the elbows. His hands were black with it.
"That went stunningly well." he commented to no one. "I like this hat."
There were footsteps to his left. He glanced at the disturbance, otherwise completely still. When he heard the gasp, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back, waiting for the scream. It never happened. Disappointed, Richard finally turned his head, looking to see who had found him.
"What have you done?" said the intruder. It was one of the grounds keepers, an old woman with tightly-bound steel-gray hair. She turned, scandalized, to Richard and repeated, "What have you done?"
Richard sighed and heaved himself to his feet. She was still staring at him with the same scandalized look of horror. "Oh, don't look at me like that." he reprimanded. "It's not like anyone would have missed it. And it makes a great hat. I think it suits me."
"You monster!" cried the grounds keeper. "It was an innocent animal!"
"It was a cat." Richard pointed out. "The day I see an innocent cat is the day I eat my shoes. Have you ever seen an innocent cat?"
"Why would you do this?"
Richard put a hand to his chin, considering. "Although, you know, they're pretty fine leather, so they might actually be edible."
The woman grabbed him by his narrow shoulders, shaking him. "Do you have any idea what you've done?"
"Of course I do." Richard scoffed. "It's a methodical, step-by-step process. First you set them on fire, because the way they run around when they're on fire is really hilarious―"
"You monster." the woman repeated.
"You say that like it's a bad thing." Richard replied. "And anyway, what's to stop me from doing the same thing to you?"
The look of terror on the woman's face was priceless. "You . . . you wouldn't." she said, taking a step back.
"Wouldn't I? I think I probably would."
"I . . . I won't say a word." the woman said, still backing away. "I swear."
"Oh, calm down. I'm not going to kill you. I have to be back by sunset. It would take too long." He flicked his fingers at her, eyes gleaming. "Go on, go. Nobody's stopping you."
The woman turned and ran. Richard laughed.
Richard returned home when the sun was a gray splotch on the horizon, mud squishing between his long toes. He was humming tunelessly, picking dirt out from under his fingernails. When he reached the back door, he was surprised to find someone waiting for him.
"Maikos!" he said. "What a surprise! I saw your mother today."
"Hello, my lord. Cutting it rather close, aren't you?"
"Some things have been cut rather close."
The man winced. He was short and rather portly, with scruffy red hair that seemed to have slid down off the top of his head and onto the sides of his face. "Yes, my lord. I'm sure they have. Would you like me to inform your father that you have returned?"
"You didn't already?"
"You only just arrived."
Richard raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"How was I to know when you would be back?"
Richard sighed dramatically and threw out his hands in exasperation. "Maikos, you were supposed to lie to him and tell him I was already back."
"No one told me that." Maikos objected. Richard seized him by the lapels, hoisting him of the ground.
"Don't sass me!" he cried, his face inches from Maikos's. "There's no crying in baseball!"
"Er, no, my lord. I'm sure there's not."
Richard dropped him carelessly and dusted off his sleeves. "Oh fine. Go tell my father I'm back, if you must. And make sure everyone knows I'm not to be disturbed tonight."
"Yes, my lord. A successful excursion, my lord?"
Richard sighed. "It could have been, but there are only so many hours in a day. Hop to it, Maikos!"
"Yes, my lord." said Maikos, bowed, and scampered away.
Richard stared after him for a moment, one hand on his hip. "I bet flaming rats would be funny." he commented, smiling to himself, and then followed the servant inside, tracking muddy footprints across the cold stone floor. And then, as the house settled down around his shoulders, "I miss my hat. Cat hat, I miss you."
"What did I tell you about being home by sunset?" a voice boomed ahead of him. Richard slumped, annoyance and disappointment vying for prevalence on his pointed face. Lord Ashendale stormed in and took in the scene. He saw Richard, shirt ruined from the day's activities, barefoot, tracking mud across the floor, staring off to one side crossly, water dripping from his short-cropped hair. "And what is that all over your shirt?"
"Blood." Richard answered, glaring at his father. "It's blood."
Lord Ashendale had been red-faced before, but he then turned an interesting shade of purple. "What in the thirteen hells have you been doing, boy?"
"You know that thing that's been killing the cats?" Richard said, crossing his arms. "I ran into it."
Some of the outrage faded from Lord Ashendale's face. "You killed it?"
Richard laughed at him. "Ha! No. Not even close."
He drew himself up to his full height and glowered at his father. "No." he said. "You explain. You explain to me why I'm not allowed to use my talents. You explain to me what you're so afraid of. You, Father, explain to me, why I'm a prisoner in my own home."
"Don't you dare speak to me like that."
"Why? What are you going to do about it? Beat me?" Richard taunted, and then sneered. "Just give me a reason, you stupid coward."
"Go to your room." Lord Ashendale ordered, voice dangerously quiet. "Now."
"No. I don't think I will."
"Now, Richard Clarence Ashendale."
Richard winced. "Did you have to use the whole name? It's bad enough I have it. You don't have to remind me."
"Do I need to tell you again?"
"No. Because I'm not going. I'm not a child anymore."
"You're acting like one. Grubbing around in the mud like some commoner, ruining perfectly good sets of clothes―"
"I've been killing the cats." Richard said.
"What? I didn't say anything."
"You tell me this instant what you were doing out there."
"It's not your business."
"I will never allow you to go outside again."
"Ha! You say that like you think you can stop me."
Lord Ashendale frowned. "Do I need to bring your mother into this? It'll break her heart, you know."
"You'd better not tell her, then."
The two stared at each other for a moment.
"I'm going to take a bath, and then I'm going to bed." said Richard.
"Very well." said Lord Ashendale.
And then, simultaneously, they said, "You will not speak of this," and parted ways.
Late that night, Richard lay awake, staring at the ceiling in the dark, hands clasped behind his head. The sounds of insects drifted in through his open window, along with the chill of the night. He sighed and closed his eyes, scratching his ear.
"I miss my cat hat." he said, and rolled over.