It didn’t stop there. The rrrrrrrrrrrrr went on forever. A cottonwool machinegun that would never run out of ammunition, it drummed tiny marshmallow bullets into his heart and lungs. Fired at point blank range, it seemed, from the soft but very firm weight on his chest.
Leo De Lacey fought to blink. His eyelids felt glued shut by sticky cobwebs.
The weight on his chest shifted. The sound carried on with a smug disregard for punctuation.
Finally, Leo opened his eyes wide. A black and white face peered down at him.
Fuzzy white chin, a snowy bewhiskered muzzle with a dab of pink for a nose and little curls of pink that had been brushed into the semblance of a smile. Gemstone eyes, slivers of night trapped in yellow-green glass, squinted out from a black mask while more flecks of snow collected around two delicate wig-wam ears. Wispy tufts guarded their entrances like smoke drifting from within.
“What – where am I?” Leo despaired of cliché but he could think of no useful ending to his question beginning with ‘what’. And establishing his whereabouts was uppermost in his mind. Not that he expected the cat to supply any helpful answer
There was the outside chance that someone else might be loitering within earshot. He hadn’t clambered into this strange bed unaided, after all. By ‘strange’, of course, he merely meant unfamiliar. In all other respects it was as normal as a bed could be, with simple rustic bedclothes, heavy sheets and an embroidered quilt and a firmness of mattress perfectly acceptable to Leo, whose back was used to the comforts of a cot in the officer’s quarters of the Mayoral Musketeers. The wallpaper in this room was a mite too floral for his tastes.
He suspected this was a far cry from barracks. And a further cry from Tortenschloss.
The rhythm echoed around his lungs. It was tempting just to lie back and listen, to succumb once again to sleep. To sleep perchance to dreammm. To dreammmmmm with as many mmmmmmmmmmms as there were rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs in purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Without having counted them, he appreciated he would have some catching up to do if he was to have any hope of matching the total so far.
Leo decided to close his eyes for just a few minutes. If nothing else, it would give his thoughts a chance to roam and perhaps rediscover a memory or two that he appeared to have lost along his route here.
He was aware of a number of dull aches and pains. But they seemed cushioned somehow, smothered as though under several pillows. Distant, almost, as though they troubled another body entirely. As though the cat’s purrs acted as an anaesthetic. As though, as though…
Leo remembered flying high above a bed of cloud. Or dreamed it. Or both. The distinction wasn’t important. He could just lie here and dream it again. It was a good dreammmm.
“Shoo! Go on, shoo, kitty! Leave the nice man alone.”
Leo opened his eyes in time to see a black-and-white blur scamper off the bed. A vision of loveliness floated into view. Except to call her a vision of loveliness was to reduce her to cliché and she was quite clearly one of a kind. And yet to say he had never seen anyone like her would be just as unoriginal and uninspired. She deserved far better. Leo appraised her anew, again and again with every passing second as she sat beside him on the bed.
Tumbling golden locks, honey-glazed skin, a petite figure sketched with an artist’s free hand under a silk brocade blouse and Romany skirt. He had heard eyes described as almond-shaped, but hers were big brown Brazils. But metaphors and similes were useless here. Leo was falling in love.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.” She smiled. Her lips retained their delicate pout as they formed a wry curl. “Now, perhaps you can tell me who you are.”
Leo lifted himself onto his elbows. “That ought to be my question. Who are you?”
“Easy now. One thing at a time. You’ve been through the wars. When I found you, you weren’t much more than a bag of broken bones hanging in a tree. You were in a uniform so I’m thinking we can safely assume you were a soldier.”
“Yes. Leopold De Lacey, at your service. A Musketeer from the city of Tortenschloss. There’s nothing wrong with that part of my memory. It’s the bits between there and here that I’m a little hazy on.” Images flashed in his head: comrades-in-arms lining battlements, muskets and grappling lines at the ready. “There was a battle. We were standing by to rappel invaders, I think.”
“Repel.” Her laugh was the prettiest of melodies played on a flute. Actually a shade deeper, like a bassoon, but ‘bassoon’ wasn’t the sort of comparison a gentleman ought to go ascribing to a young lady. “I believe you must have taken a worse knock to the head than I feared.”
“No. Rappel. We were being stormed by Tectonic Giants.” He could see the mountainous knights now, striding across the plains east of Tortenschloss. “You have to get in close to stand any chance of finding a crack in their armour, so standard tactics involve scaling them from top to bottom, looking for fissures and weak points.” He frowned, reliving a suffocating pressure on his ribs, crushed in a fist the size of a hill – then the rather terrifying freedom of a long, tumbling flight through the air. “Hmm. I suppose there is the possibility I might have been flung here. Wherever here might be.”
“You are lucky to be alive. We are some miles from Tortenschloss.”
He sat up. Lucky was an understatement. But the miracle of his survival was a secondary question, one that could wait in line with all the others. Panic and uncertainty seized his heart, more bruising than any giant’s fist. “And now I must return home! Check on my fellow Musketeers, my city. My friends!”
“No, no, no. You must take things slow. Easy.”
She touched a hand to his chest, guiding him back down.
“Wait now. What was that?”
He tilted his head, listening to the sound deep in his lungs. The cat was nowhere to be seen, vanished from the room on some feline errand. But the animal seemed to have left something of itself behind. It vibrated like the engine in the Mayor’s motor car, but soft like sugar and cotton wool. It coursed through him with every breath.
[To Be Continued…]