Moonshine Girl and the Golden Cat
Danea was a moonshine girl, and had been since she was old enough to tend a still. She lived with a coven of witches in the forest near Soushire, a small village a half day’s ride from the forest. It was said that Danea made the finest moonshine in all the land, and the witches turned a great profit selling it, along with their potions and charms in villages and towns near and far.
Danea had never left the forest herself--the witches wouldn’t allow it. Danea had no magic of her own, and the world was a dangerous place, they said, for a girl with no magic. There were wild beasts with hungry jaws, and goblin-kind with hammers and clubs, and worst of all--worst of all--said the witches, there were men.
Men! Though the witches spoke ill of them, Danea dreamed of men, for she was at that age when a girl’s heart will turn to such things. Though she had never seen a man, she had read stories and yarns in the books and scrolls in the witches’ library. There were tales to be found of bold princes and strong-hearted knights who slew dragons, or won great battles, or better still, fought for the hand of a lovely princess. These stirred yearnings in Danea, and she dreamed of such things as her mind would drift in idleness as she washed her long, golden hair, or fed the witches’ mules, or waited for another batch of shine to bubble out of her still.
She never told the witches of her dreams. Something in the back of Danea’s mind told her this would be a bad thing, so she kept her dreams to herself. And because she was a good girl, and served the old witches well, they never questioned her when she slunk away at dusk, lit a candle, and stared at the old engravings of the princes and the knights in the crumbled, yellowing pages of the story books and scrolls.
Danea never knew how old she was, for the witches only counted the passing of the moon and the seasons. But she had grown as such days passed, and now she was a lovely young woman, with a trim and shapely form, curves at her hips and fullness to her breasts. She had always made herself clothing from the fabrics the witches would sometimes bring back from their journeys, and of late she had spent a great deal of time making herself a dress which matched the ones that the princesses wore in the pictures and engravings from the books. She even made herself a crown of red and purple leaves from the autumn trees, and she smiled as she set it on her golden coiffure and then gazed at herself in the still waters of the river.
The old witches laughed when they saw her. They never cared much for beauty. Drab brown cloaks served them well enough, and pointy straw hats to cover their stringy grey hair. “What do the mules care of your appearance?” they would chide as Danea brought carrots and grain to the beasts. “You should spend more time with your still, girl.” Danea made as if to laugh with the witches–-they had cared for her since she was an infant, after all, and it would not do well to anger them, when they provided all that she needed in her life.
On a certain day when the bulk of autumn’s leaves had fallen to the ground, a large, golden cat walked into the glade where Danea was hard at work at her still. The first chills of winter were setting in, and Danea had been huddling close to the fire below her boiler when the cat appeared. It paused at the edge of the glade, scratched itself for a moment, then idly stared at Danea for a while.
“Hello there,” Danea called, smiling at the fine looking creature. Danea was a gentle soul, and got along well with all the little animals which roamed through the witches’ forest. “I haven’t seen you before,” she said. “And what a fine coat of gold you have.”
“Hello,” said the cat. “You’re not half bad yourself.”
Danea giggled. It was rare, but sometimes the creatures of the forest would speak to her. It was said there was much magic in the witches’ forest.
“Are you a moonshine girl?” asked the cat.
“Yes I am.”
“Is it good shine?”
“‘Tis said it is the finest in the land,” Danea said, a proud smile on her face.
“May I have some?”
“Ha, of course not. Cats don’t drink moonshine.”
“I do,” said the cat.
“Well, ‘tis not to be given away, my little friend.”
“It is for selling, and the witches would be none too happy if I gave it away.”
“Do you drink it?” asked the cat.
“Well...from time to time, to test the batch and such. But I don’t drink much, little cat, for it sets my head a-tingle.”
“Perhaps I could test this batch for you?” the cat offered.
“I...I don’t think that would be a good idea. I don’t think the witches would like it.”
“Are you their slave?”
“Slave, of course not! I’m, I’m a moonshine girl, and I earn my keep.”
The cat was silent for a moment, and then he walked over and passed round and round Danea’s ankles, then rubbed his head on her bare feet. She giggled.
“If you give me some moonshine, I can make your greatest wish come true,” said the cat.
“What?” Danea stepped away and stared down at the little creature. “How can you do that, you’re just a little cat.”
“I’m a magical cat, girl. I can do it.”
“You don’t even know what it is.” Danea turned back to her still, trying to ignore the cat, and tend to her work.
“Ah, but I do. You want a sweet prince to come and take you away, and love you forever and ever.”
Danea stopped short, her jaw dropping. She then quickly composed herself, looked about nervously, and then turned back to the cat. “I do not,” she said, stamping her right foot on the ground. “And I’ll thank you to leave, little fellow, before I take a broom to you!”
“Very well,” said the cat. “But I’ll come back again, to see if you change your mind. What’s a few drops of shine when you can make all that you want.” The cat turned and sauntered off into the trees from whence it came.
“Humph,” said Danea, furrowing her brow. She didn’t know whether to be angry or frightened. Perhaps she was a little of both, she mused. “I’m perfectly happy here,” she said to herself. “That cat knows nothing.”
As winter begin to set in, Danea tried to keep up her usual demeanor, but she couldn’t help but sulk a little to herself. That cat had known exactly what she wanted. She tried to forget about him, and to forget her sojourns to the witches’ library. But the chiseled lines of the faces of the knights and princes from the books found her in her dreams, and she was restless for days on end.
“What is troubling you, girl?” asked Teithen, one of the witches, as Danea returned one day from feeding the mules.
Danea was startled, but quickly composed herself. “Nothing, nothing, ma’am. Just a little bit of a winter cold.”
“Bah, chew some arrowroot and gale, and you’ll be fine, lass.”
“Yes ma’am. That I will.”
The next few days, Danea made doubly sure to keep up appearances. Though she had lived with the witches all her life, she still feared them a little. They were never cruel to her, but never loving either. They gave her all she needed to live, but she felt a deep emptiness in her heart that the witches could never fill. “Perhaps I am a slave,” she muttered under her breath one day as she tended her still.
“That can be remedied,” said a voice behind her. She turned with a start. It was the golden cat.
“Cat! You’ve returned.”
“Indeed,” said the cat. “And I bring with me the same bargain. May I have my moonshine now?”
Danea pursed her lips, and stammered for a moment. Something fired in her heart. Something she had felt many times, but never quite understood. It was hope.
“Well,” she said. “I did put a bit more barley and winter wheat into the mash this time. It should be a very full batch. Perhaps a few drops wouldn’t be noticed.” Quickly, Danea went to the run off tun and drew a few ounces of moonshine into a shallow copper dish that she kept for testing the liquor. She set it on the ground at her feet.
“Here, little kitty. Come quick and drink your fill, before someone comes and sees.”
The cat bounded across the glade, and with a few quick laps of his tongue he finished off the shine. “Ah,” he said, licking his chops, “‘tis truly the finest in the land. Bless your heart, girl, you do good work.”
“Thankee. Now what of our bargain? I’m game to see how you might fulfill it.”
“Of course, my sweet.” The cat walked back to the edge of the glade. “I will honor it, and I will do so by helping you. Helping you with knowledge.”
“Yes, you see. You have some, and you lack some. You know how to make good shine, but you know not what is done with it.”
“The witches sell it, and buy the things we need.”
“They sell it as their own. No one knows of your toils, girl. But you see, I know a thing or two about witches, and I knew they couldn’t make this shine on their own.”
“No. The fermentation interferes with their magical nature. They couldn’t do it without you.”
Danea felt a bit of pride well up inside her. “So what is this to me? How does this get me my...heart’s desire?”
“That’s the other bit of knowledge I give to you,” said the cat. “The only way you can have your heart’s desire is to leave the forest...and the witches.”
“What!” Danea cried, and then she whispered: “Leave the forest? But...but it is not allowed.”
“Then you are a slave,” said the cat.
“No. No, it is only that I have no magic. It is too dangerous for me.”
“That’s what the witches tell you, girl. But most people in the world have no magic, and they get along fine. Besides, you do have magic of a sort.”
“And what is that?”
“Beauty. You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen...in all the land. If you go into the world of men, you will enchant them like no other woman they have ever lain eyes upon.”
“Bah, what good is beauty?” Danea replied, echoing the sentiment of the witches.
“You’d be surprised,” said the cat. “Now I must go, but remember, your heart’s desire is waiting for you, and can only be had...outside of this wood.” With this the golden cat bolted into the underbrush, and was gone in a flash.
“Ugh! Little trickster!” Danea cried, as she felt hope deflate in her heart. “I knew such promises were too good to be true.”
“What was that?” said a creaky old voice behind Danea. “Who were you talking to?” It was Teithen, who suddenly strolled into the glade.
“Oh,” said Danea, composing herself. “No one, ma’am. Just, just an old work chant I say from time to time, to help me along with my chores.”
“Well, work quickly, girl. We’ve a need to get this last batch of shine into town, before the winter storms set in.”
“Yes, yes, of course, ma’am.”
Winter set in fully, and with the snows came a deep cold that seemed to freeze Danea’s heart with a chill that would shatter it to shards. But Danea knew that it was more than the cold that cleaved her heart. It was dread and longing; and yes, the knowledge that the cat had placed into her thoughts and her dreams. The season passed, all the while the witches worked away in their huts on their charms and potions; their unctions and spells, paying little attention to the moonshine girl, who now sulked openly.
When spring came, Danea could stand it no longer, and she decided she would leave the forest. She devised a plan as well. Stoking the coals beneath her still, she ran off a particularly large batch of shine, then she ran it through the still a second time, and then a third, making it stronger and stronger. When she was done, she siphoned off a few jugs, and brought them to the witches.
“Good evening, ladies,” she said as she entered their communal hut just as they finished their evening supper. A few of them grumbled greetings back to her. “I’ve just finished the first batch of shine of the new season,” she said. “And I’d like you all to taste it.”
“Taste it?” said Teithen. “Shine’s for selling, not drinking.”
“‘Tis a very large batch, ma’am. And I want to make sure it’s up to muster. Please, just take a little taste, and tell me what you think.”
“Why not?” said Jelleg, a particularly fat and wizened witch. “Do me old joints good.” She took the jug and downed a long sip. “S’good, girl. As always.” she said.
“Let me try,” said Teithen. Soon the jug was passed around to all the women in the room.
Danea then produced one of the other jugs. “Now this one is a bit different,” she said. “I distilled it in the winter, with a mash of rye and oats. Won’t you try it as well?” She passed the jug to the witches, hoping they would not detect her lie.
“Blarney, girl, it’s as good as the first,” said Jelleg.
“I don’t know,” said Rhethes, a tall, thin witch with a crooked nose. “I need another taste of the first.”
The witches passed both jugs back and forth, and didn’t seem to mind when Danea produced a third. At length the shadows of the forest grew long, and the witches one by one excused themselves, went to their huts, and fell into a deep, inebriated slumber. Danea was alone but for the heavy snores of the old women.
“Well, ‘tis now or never,” she mused. She went to her small hut and donned her princess dress, then walked back outside. “I hope you’re right, kitty cat.”
She was full of anxiety and fear, but also a strong sense of jubilation filled her heart as she started off the small path that the witches followed when they went to trade their wares. The sky turned from deep blue to stove pipe black as she made her way through the suddenly unfamiliar trees. It was spring, but there was still a chill in the air as she walked. After what seemed like hours the trees thinned and she came upon a wide dirt road that led off to the north and south.
“Which way? Which way?” she wondered. “Bah, both ways will lead to somewhere,” she mused, and hurried off to the north.
She walked quickly, at times almost jogging, and just as the light of morning began to break, she saw something in the distance. It was like the huts of the witches, only a hundred fold more. Thatched roofed cottages dotted the land like mushrooms; further down the road large buildings of stone were clustered two and even three storeys high. She had come to the village of Soushire.
Exhilaration filled her heart, and she almost danced as she wandered through the early morning streets of the little town. Gradually, people began to emerge from the buildings, and among them were men! Old men. Young men. Little boys. She’s never dreamed of such a procession. “But...but, what now?” she suddenly wondered. Her plan had been laid only so far as to escape from the witches. She suddenly knew not what her next move should be.
She wandered about a bit longer, a growing feeling of despondence creeping into her mind. But then she smelled a familiar scent wafting through the air. It was barley malt, boiling away somewhere. The scent filled her with comfort, and she raced toward the source...a large stone building at the center of the town.
She entered, and saw a handsome young man tending a large copper kettle in the center of the room.
“Hello!” she cried.
“Well, hello,” said the young man. He was tall and muscular, with long brown hair pulled into a knot behind his head. “Have I died and gone to the halls of the gods?”
“I’m sorry?” said Danea. “What do you mean?”
“I’m seeing an angel before my eyes.” He smiled, and stood as one transfixed.
Danea blushed. She suddenly felt very embarrassed to have rushed in and talked to a stranger. She changed the subject. “Are you making moonshine?” she asked.
He laughed. “I ain’t no witch, ma’am. ‘Tis but a batch of ale.”
She shivered at the word ‘witch,’ but continued talking, trying to stay her nerves. For lack of a better thing to say, she offered, “I know how to make moonshine. I make it back in the forest.”
“Do you now? Well, I wish you’d pray tell how.”
“It’s simple. Take that ale you’ve made, and take it to an almost boil--” She stopped short. She suddenly felt uncomfortable telling him her secrets. As she stammered, she felt something down at her feet. She looked down and saw the golden cat.
“Kitty!” she said.
“He won’t hurt you, ma’am,” said the young man. “Just a stray. We get lots of ‘em. Grain draws the mice, mice draw the cats.”
“No, you don’t understand. I know this cat.” The golden cat suddenly darted out of the brewery door, and Danea turned to follow. “Wait, come back you cat. I have questions for you.”
“And I have more questions for you?” said the young man. “Wait!”
Outside, the golden cat was running at full speed down one of the cobbled lanes of the town. Danea darted after it, and the young man pursued a few steps, but then stopped. He had a bit of a limp, and could not run as fast as the girl. He turned sullenly back to his brewery, and shuffled inside.
“Stop, cat, stop! I would speak with you!” Danea shouted. She had followed the cat as he wound through the maze of buildings down street after street. She began to tire, and had just about given up when she rounded a corner and saw the cat standing still in the middle of the road beside a wizened old man. She bounded up to the cat without a thought and began to chasten it. “Why did you run, kitty. I need your help.” She then noticed the old man, who had long grey hair and beard, and wore a dark black robe.
“I’ll help you, girly,” he said, and holding up his hand, he blew a shimmering dust into her face. Everything suddenly went dark.
When she awoke, she was back in the forest, but it was a part of which she had never seen before. It was thorny and overgrown, and the trees were gnarled and wicked looking. She lay on the ground next to a small hovel of a house, junk and debris stretching off in all directions. She stood. She was still a bit dizzy, but she started to walk. After a few steps, she stopped short. She was chained around her ankle to a wooden post.
“Help!” she cried. She called a few more times. At length the door to the hovel opened and the old man emerged.
“Ah, excellent. You’re awake.”
“Who are you?” shouted Danea. “What do you want with me?”
“The same thing your witch friends wanted,” he said. He took a few steps past her and pulled a large tarp off of what Danea had believed to be a pile of debris. Beneath it was a very old and rickety copper still. “This is your new home, moonshine girl. And this be your new still.”
“Who are you?” Danea demanded.
“Me? Just an old sorcerer. Not of any import. But I’ve a thirst for your liquor...a powerful thirst. And like your witchy friends I, as a sorcerer, cannot make it myself. So I sought out you. The finest moonshine girl in the land.”
“Bah, let me go. I’ll never brew for you!”
The sorcerer cackled. “Oh, you will, deary. If you want to eat.” He walked back into his house, leaving Danea alone to contemplate her fate. She wept for a moment, then walked to the still. It was different than the one she was used to--very crude in fact--but as she touched it, she felt almost a need to use it. Making shine was in her blood.
“I can’t distill liquor without barley malt,” she shouted. “Or water. Or wood for a fire.” She looked about, wondering where in the disheveled mess of the sorcerer’s abode she might find such things. It was then that she spotted the golden cat.
“You!” she shouted. “You got me into all the mess. You tricked me into leaving the forest. I should have never listened to you.”
“Truly I’m sorry,” the cat said, “but the old man made me do it. I am a man, Danea, and that old fool ensorcelled me into this cat form, and won’t turn me back unless I do his bidding. It was in this shape that I was able to slip into your witches’ forest, past their magical wards, and find you.”
“You lied to me. You said you’d give me my heart’s content.”
“I said I’d help you find it...that wasn’t a lie. You’d have never have found a prince–-or any man–-by staying with the witches.”
“You just wanted to get me out of their coven, so I could be taken here.”
“Well, now...I guess that was my ultimate angle. Sorry about that.”
“Sorry? Now I truly am a slave! I should have never left their wood.”
“Come on, love. It ain’t so bad. I’ll be your friend.”
“Bah! You’re as bad as he is. And what have you got for your efforts? I see you are still a cat.”
“True. I’ll be asking him about that. But I hoped first you’d make him some moonshine. He’s in a foul temper when he’s sober.”
“Urgh! I think I’ll just sit here and starve.”
“Please miss. At least try. He might let you go.”
“Humph!” She said, and tossed a rock at the cat. He darted away, and she tossed another, and finally the cat disappeared into the trees. At length, Danea sat on the ground, lay her head on her knees, and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Morning came, and she woke to the sound of a donkey’s bray. She looked up and saw the old man leading the beast into the clearing, bags of barley slung across his back.
“Everything you need, girly, everything you need,” he cackled. “Get to work.”
“It’ll take a few days for the first batch,” she said. “The wort has to ferment.” Can I at least have some breakfast?”
“Oh, of course, of course. Haven’t forgotten that.” He reached into his robes and pulled forth a stale, moldy loaf of bread. He tossed it to her. “If you’re good, I’ll perhaps let you bake as well. I was never much at making bread.”
“Bread. Beer. Liquor. It isn’t hard,” Danea mocked.
“Not for you. No. But me! Ha Ha.”
Days passed. Danea made her first batch of moonshine, and as soon as he’d had some, the old sorcerer’s mood lightened. She was given a longer length of chain, and pots and pans with which to cook over an open fire. Fruits, vegetables and meats were brought by donkey back from the village. Soon her moonshine began to be sold by the sorcerer as well. One moon cycle passed, and then another. Danea bided her time, but she found no hope in her heart.
One evening, as she worked the last runnings of her still, she looked up, and saw the golden cat.
“You! Back again for more mischief?”
“No, no, dear girl.”
“I see you’re still a cat.”
“Yes. The old man reneged on his bargain.”
“Humph. Well, I’m almost glad to see you. If only to have someone to talk to. All the creatures in this wood are mean and cruel. And the old man is the worst.”
“I can’t stay long, but I have come to help you, Danea.”
“Help me? How can you help me?”
“Only by telling you this: Make no more moonshine.”
“What?” Danea asked.
“No matter what he does, do not make any more. Not a drop. Trust me.”
“Trust you! Why you little scamp. It was trusting you that got me into this mess.”
“Trust me. No more shine.” And with that the cat ran off.
“Trust him? Bah,” said the girl. But something in her heart was set on fire, and she pondered the words of the cat as she lay by her still that night. The next morning, she decided to act. Taking an axe that she used to chop her firewood, she hacked the still to pieces.
“What have you done!” shouted the sorcerer when he awoke. “This is treason!”
“No more moonshine!” said the girl.
“What? What do you want? More food? A longer chain? What?”
“I want nothing but my freedom. I will no longer serve you.” Danea felt strangely happy to make a stand.
“Well, then. No more food for you.”
“Fine. I’ll starve!”
“I’ll...I’ll turn you into a squirrel!” he shouted.
“Then I’ll run away into the woods.”
She was adamant. She sat by her pole, day after day. She grew weaker from lack of food and water. But she stood firm. The old man howled and raged. He bashed pots and pans. He fired off bolts of lightning that clove great oaks asunder throughout the clearing, but still she sat resolute. In the depths of night, she believed she heard him weeping in his hovel. She laughed silently to herself, but she wondered how long she could stand it.
Then a morning came that she awoke to a rustling through the trees. It was a rider, approaching on a horse. The man on its back winked at her as he dismounted. There was something familiar about him. The she knew it. It was the brewer she had met in town, so many months ago. She started to stand, but he held out his hand to stay her. He then hobbled to the door of the hovel and knocked upon it.
“Who in the hells bothers me!” came a shout from within. The old sorcerer threw open the door and stepped out, his eyes dark circles and his hair all a mess. “You dare to come upon my demesne? I’ll roast you!” He raised his arms as if to cast a spell, but the brewer simply smiled.
“Please, sir. I mean no harm. I merely bring a gift. A gift of moonshine!”
“What!” cried the sorcerer. “Where did you get it? Give it to me!”
“I made it, sir. With me own hands. And I’ll be glad to give it to you.” He walked to his horse and untied a jug that hung from the saddle. He handed it to the old man, who took a deep drink.
“Ah,” he said. “Tis true. More, more.” He held the jug high and poured it down his gullet. Wiping his mouth, he said, “Have you more? Can you bring me more?”
“I’d be glad to, sir...for a price. All I ask is for the girl.”
“Her? That ruinous little brat? Why, no. I’ll destroy her now that she is of no use to me.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” said a creaky old voice. It was Teithen the witch, who emerged from the trees with the other witches in tow.
“Crones!” shouted the sorcerer. “How dare you foul my lands with your presence? I’ll blast you all.”
“Blast away, fool. Your magic’s now been tamed.”
“What!” The sorcerer waved his arms about, and jabbered away with spell casting words, but nothing came. “What have you done?”
“Twas more than moonshine in that jug, old man. Let’s just say it was mixed with a special witches brew. Your sorcery days are over.”
That afternoon, Danea rode back to Soushire on the horse with the brewer, who she learned was called Galen. She was still in shock, but was at least in better spirits after she was released from the chains, as well as given a good measure of fresh water to drink. “And food aplenty, and ale, when we get to town,” said Galen.
“But how, how did you make moonshine?” Danea asked.
“I thought about what you said...or almost said to me that day in the brewery. About boiling the ale. I gave it a try. It took some finagling, but I managed to figure out your trick.”
“And the witches?”
“When they came to town without no moonshine to sell, I offered ‘em some. They were very interested in how I learned the craft. One thing led to another, and we formed a plan to rescue you.”
“But Galen, how did you find me. And why?”
“Strangest thing.” He said. “I thought I’d seen everything. But a talking cat...that beats all. He told me where to find my moonshine girl.”
“Your moonshine girl?”
“Well, perhaps I’m being a bit forward, ma’am. But I was hoping you’d consider staying in town with me. I’m but a lowly brewer, but I’ve got a princely heart.”
Danea smiled, but then she thought of the witches, who had stayed behind to plunder the sorcerer’s forest. “Galen,” she asked. “Do you really think the witches will let me stay with you?”
“I think we came to an arrangement. Long as I keep the moonshine flowing to ‘em, they won’t miss you too much. And with your help, there should be moonshine aplenty for them and us. You wouldn’t mind helpin’ out with that, would you?”
“Not at all. I’ve been dying to make a batch. It was all I could do to hold back.”
They rode on in silence for a while. Then at once, Danea asked. “What of the golden cat?”
“Oh, I heard his entire story from him,” Galen said. “About being a man and all. Well, I think the witches were a bit sore at him for sneaking into their woods. I don’t think they’re gonna let anyone change him back any time soon.”
“Oh, poor little kitty,” Danea said.
“Well, I think he’s found a good home at the brewery. All the mice he can eat.”
Danea laughed. “A good home at the brewery,” she mused to herself, holding tight to Galen, and feeling that same stirring of hope that she had felt when reading the storybooks.