1. Nine Lives
In a time now clouded by memories of grief and sorrow, the Valar could see them coming in the twilight around Telperion and Laurelin. They hid and played in the shadows that danced between the trees, shades of silver and gold that fled every time they sensed a presence. None of the Valar had seen their form clearly, for they leaped and they curled with liquid grace and vanished like dreams in the sunlight.
It was Nienna who first approached them. Something of her sorrow lured them closer to her outstretched fingers and for a fleeting moment their amber eyes shone under the light of Laurelin. And once more they ran away from the Valar, their soft fur sparkling with mischief and mirth.
But they came back.
First it was a sniff of the outstretched hand; then it was a hesitant stroke of fur against flesh and then a shy purr. Then came the time where the creatures curled on Nienna's knees and stared at her face with their huge, luminous eyes that reflected wisdom greater than their mortal shape. Nienna took them into her heart and in her Halls at the West of the World. But their joy could not be confined in Valinor and their line traveled to Arda and mingled with the lives of the Firstborn and later with the Aftercomers. And although their descendants had little of the grace of those that came first, they still ensnared the hearts of the people of Middle Earth.
During the years of strife and warfare, they were neither servants of Darkness nor agents of Light. They rested under the Sun and under the Moon they waited, licking their whiskers and grooming their fur.
For the affairs of Elves and Men matter little to cats, unless they interfere with their meals.
Berúthiel would never forget the day Limua came into her life. The future queen was still a girl when her feet led her to the swollen form of an animal in advanced labor at a remote corner of her family's garden. In awe, she watched the young cat give birth to no less than nine kittens. All were black, like their mother; all, but one, the younger of the litter and the most unlikely to survive. She hid them at the back of an unused section of her father's stables and everyday she fabricated all kinds of excuses to sneak away from her tutors and visit her feline friends.
Having no other children of her age to play with, Berúthiel found in this family of cats a new world of laughter and carelessness. The way the mother cared for the kittens affected her deeply, since her own mother had died during childbirth and her father had distanced himself, leaving her upbringing to trusted servants. She would stare at their ebony forms and lose track of time, as if in every dark sparkle of their fur the mysteries of heavens unfolded. The young girl took an oath to save the little white kitten, the one its siblings kicked and stepped on during their struggle for food.
Whenever his fur was soiled she gently cleaned him up and placed him on his mother's belly so he could nurse. When the kittens finally grew enough to eat solid food, she brought them scraps from the table and everything she could steal unnoticed from the kitchens. The best treats she kept for her white friend, whose fur was no longer dull and dirty but shone like the single star among his midnight siblings. She named the white kitten Isilme, the word she had heard that elves use for moonlight. She could not recall the origins of the word; probably one of her father's visitors had mentioned it.
Or perhaps it was the kitten that had whispered the word in her ear, during the nights she had hid him under her covers and he would purr blissfully on her neck, singing in his own tongue songs and lullabies from when the world was young.
In her homeland the rats were many and the cats were always welcome to keep her home and lands free from vermin. No one took notice of the cats, for most were black and hunted at nights.
The girl soon grew to a woman and the woman became a Queen. Her cats followed her to her royal chambers, despite the disapproval of her handmaidens and the king's advisors. Berúthiel kept them away from her bed every time her husband spent the night in her chambers and the cats soon came to accept this new arrangement. All, but one; Isilme never welcomed the newcomer in their life. Stubbornly, he would sit on the windowsill like an alabaster statue, watching closely every move the king made. And no treat or threat could keep him away for long.
At first, King Tarannon Falastur was amused. But in time this feline behavior took its toll on his mood, for he felt the cat's amber eyes burning his skin. Tarannon felt as if the cat was stalking him, lurking in the shadows behind him and waiting for a moment of weakness to sink his fangs in his throat. Having no desire to admit that the presence of an animal made him nervous, he distanced himself from his wife. But he still cared for her, despite her withdrawn ways and her obsession with those creatures. Her advice had proven valuable on several occasions in which she had warned him regarding ill deeds in his court.
What the King was not aware of was Berúthiel's source of information. He had guessed that it involved the usual women's gossip, but this involved a lot more. At nights, Isilme and his siblings would roam the streets of Osgiliath. The gossip of servants, the dealings in shadows and the deeds in the dark were all seen by their feline eyes and in morning all nine cats reported them back to Isilme. He would then crawl up and nest in Berúthiel's arms and purr in her ears the tales that were neither lies nor gossip; they were warnings of foul play that could endanger her regal status and the cats' welfare.
People grew nervous around the queen who was never alone. The fact that she was still childless became a matter of several discussions behind closed doors. They all deemed her barren, for no one had suspected the truth. The king's visits to her bed were now rare and his affections were given elsewhere. And deep in her heart Berúthiel felt comfortable with this arrangement, since the fear of childbirth and the death of her own mother weighted heavily upon her heart. She dreaded a possible pregnancy and the effect it could have on her health. Should she die giving birth to an heir, who would then tend to her cats?
Nonetheless, her ways were strange to the people of Gondor. They came to despise her black and silver clothing, never thinking that black cats shed a lot. Her bare chambers were the topic of many muffled discussions among servants, who ignored the simple truth that cats break things. And the malformed statues that stood in their gardens, sculptures of headless children and tortured bodies were the result of several felines climbing on top of them and knocking them down. She tortures the cats, some claimed, after hearing the howls that sometime came from her room at nights. But no family is without quarrels and among Berúthiel's cats fights were not uncommon.
What could have been her downfall?It was the yellow eyes that gleamed under the moonlight and witnessed a steward adding many a coin into his purse. Or it could have been the amber eyes that burned a captain's back as he embraced a pale form that belonged to another than his wife. Or perhaps it could have been the hands of a servant who misplaced small pieces of her Lady's jewelry into her own pouch. Hearts were bitter and malevolent and soon words reached the king's ears, pouring poison into his mind. She is a worker of evil, they said, and the cats are her servants. They feed off the children's breath at nights, they claimed, and they can steal a man's virility. They spy on the king's subjects, they protested, and twist the truth to fit their petty plans and evil scheming.
King Tarannon Falastur rejected their words at first, but soon they mingled with his own fears and suspicions. Had not he been childless? Hadn't he felt the white cat's eyes burn his flesh with evil intent? Had not the queen known those things that men wish most to keep hidden? And the time came when under the pressure of his court he was driven to act against his wife.
Berúthiel's protests fell on deaf ears. How could she make them see that neither her ways nor her cats were evil? They had already deemed her evil, driven by their own fears and guilt. The king had little choice than to sentence her to exile. His advisors urged him to send the guards after her cats and hunt them down with fire and noose and spears, but the wail that left Berúthiel's throat made their hearts shudder. A touch of unspoken sorrow fell over the king's court and Tarannon, fearing that greater magic was at work, ordered the cats to accompany the fallen queen's exile.
The night before Berúthiel's departure for the Black Sea, the king had a visitor. He started from a restless sleep to face a white cat seated on top of his chest. Tarannon's blood froze and all sound was drowned in his throat. The cat stood motionless and calm, with his huge amber eyes fixed on the king's face. For several moments neither cat nor man moved; then Isilme twitched his tail, licked his whiskers and jumped out of the window and into the night. But the king would never feel safe again, for the cat had spoken to his mind that night.
You may be King of Men, but I have nine lives. You haven't seen the last of me yet.
The way to the West had been concealed from mortals since the time of Ar-Pharazon. But legend has it that by some fate or grace or favour of the Valar some fortunate mortals had reached the Undying lands.
Not all of them were human.
When the ship with a cat sculpture as a figure-head on the prow came to Valinor, nine black cats jumped off the empty deck. Nienna came from her Halls at the West to welcome the little ones home. They came to her feet purring with tails erect and trembling, treating her as a friend long lost. None other was found on the ship; just the memory of a presence and the hint of a ghost, a taste of bitter tears and the flash of a white tail that were now the lament of the north wind.
With sorrow in her heart, Nienna sheltered the black cats under her grey cloak, grieving the passing of the two that never reached Valinor.
But in the dark alleys of the towns and hamlets of Middle Earth, among the dirt, the mud and the shadows, a pair of amber eyes is often seen. They gleam and they sparkle in the anticipation of the hunt, old and patient. Then the flash of an ivory fang and the squeal of a rat indicate the eternal struggle of life and death, until Elves and Dwarves and Men have all perished and the beasts will reclaim Arda.
It cannot take more than nine lives.
Written for my white cat Lugh, who is my Isilme.
1. "She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin. She hated all making, all colors and elaborate adorment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things " That men wish most to keep hidden", setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. At last King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle Moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow. And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings."
Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch II The Istari Note 7
2. At the end of the Akallabêth, Tolkien hints that some mortals 'by some fate or grace or favour of the Valar... had come to the lamplit quays of Avallónë...'. It is just possible, then, that some unusually fortunate mortals had come to the Undying Lands at some point in the Third Age, before the Ring-bearers' ship at the Age's end.
From the The Encyclopedia of Arda.
Author's additional notes:
This story is inspired from a passage in Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, which can be found at the bottom of the page. It concerns the life of Queen Beruthiel and her ten cats. According to this passage, Beruthiel was like an evil witch and the cats were her minions.
But we never really hear her side of the story. Taking into consideration that history is written by the victors, there can be more to it.
Additionally, Tolkien was Catholic. And the Christian Church has a long history regarding the persecution of alleged witches and their cats, especially black ones. (No offense to people of Christian faith. I know very well that the vast majority of Christians love cats dearly). So I tried a different approach in this, hoping that my story will shed some light in one of the darker characters of Tolkien's work.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.