The sound of the grate creaking open overhead woke me from my sleep.
I didn’t move, not quite yet. I was still sleepy. I wondered what they had brought me this time? Another scrawny thief? The political executions were often the best, some fat, juicy official who had angered the king in some way. At any rate, the emptiness in my stomach would soon have something to fill it.
My ears twitched at the sound of something, make that someone, falling to the floor. The soft thud betrayed someone light, small. I was disappointed.
I cracked my eyes open. The flickering firelight from the torches held in a ring above the grate showed me that a small girl had been dropped into my pit.
She stared back at me, her dark eyes wide, but not with fear. “Oh,” she cooed, “you’re beautiful”
Angry, I pulled myself up from the floor of my prison. I had been beautiful once, yes, but not anymore. Years of no sunlight, no hunting, nothing but human garbage for food, had left my coat patchy and my muscles weak. How dare this small, impudent creature call me beautiful?
A small meal, perhaps, but an easy one. I lunged forward and clamped my jaws down…
Was she an illusion? I spun around, searching to see where she had gone. She stood behind me now, in the corner by the wall where I slept, still staring at me with that wondering look.
Time witch! No wonder someone so small had fallen under the ire of the crown. She was a time witch. That meant she’d be a challenge to catch after all, but not impossible. I could wear her down until she was too weary to slip through time and escape my pounces. My tail twitched eagerly. I could catch her. She had been caught before, at least once, or she never would have been thrown into my pit.
I bounded into the corner, staying on my toes, not committing myself, so that I could make a quick turn when she slipped away. She vanished, but a quick thought whispered in my ear, “If you kill me, I can’t help you.”
I growled and twisted my body, sniffing the air to find where she had gone this time.
She still wasn’t afraid. Her face was as calm as if I were a kitten she’d found in the street. This time, before I’d even moved, she had vanished again. Another whisper, “I can help you escape. I can take you with me.”
In a sudden burst of fury, I charged around the edge of the pit, determined to catch her if she was sulking anywhere against the wall. I bounded into the middle, and came close enough to snatch away a strip of cloth from the hem of her dress. Above us, those watching murmured in approval and satisfaction.
“You’ll have to pretend to catch me,” the time witch said, with perfect confidence. “They won’t open the door again unless they think I’m dead.”
I couldn’t so much hear the words, as that they were suddenly in my mind, whispered to me from outside of time as she brushed by, invisible, intangible. I turned my head and snapped at her presence, but she had gone to the other side of the pit again.
“Stand still, then,” I growled. “Let me catch you.”
She vanished once more. Another message, “When they open the door again, I will stop time. Carry me with you, out of the pit, and run while everyone is frozen.”
It was a tempting offer. Freedom. How long had it been since I had tasted freedom? I had forgotten what it meant, but I wanted to remember.
The time witch stood with her back against the wall, her hands gripped the stone tight behind her, as if she had to hold on to keep herself from slipping away from me. She gave me a slight nod.
I lunged, and this time my jaws closed on flesh. Only so tight, though. Not enough to break it. We would make this deal, then, and see if she would keep her bargain.