May 13, 708 CR
Charles could not sleep.
He tried several positions, snuggled beneath the warm quilts with his wife, but none could silence the mix of euphoria and dread filling his thoughts. Even before the rise of the waning crescent moon the rat slipped from those quilts, draped his fur and tail in a cloak, and left his wife to her slumber with only a parting kiss blown from his cleft lips and hurried along on its way with a cupped hand resting atop his heart.
Kimberly had taken to leaving a single witchlight in a hooded lantern hanging on the wall outside the door to their bedroom to give them just enough light to see by should they arise before morning twilight. Only a sliver of the lantern was open, and though it was enough for a rat's eyes to find their way, Charles never had need of it. He covered the slit with one hand as the other lowered the thick forested tapestry lest any light spill into their bedchamber. With one last smiling twitch of whiskers towards his beloved, Charles turned and crossed the barely lit main room of their home.
He climbed the stairs up to the second floor and paused. Another hooded lantern revealed the wooden and cloth toys, all in the guise of various animals, strewn across the floor where his children had left them; most of the wooden toys showed signs of gnawing. His scalloped ears lifted to the sound of four little rats all asleep and snoring in their high-pitched voices.
His heart swelled and his steps carried him into the room, careful not to tread upon any toy, until he peered through the curtain on his sleeping children. Not enough light shown within for him to make out details but he still watched them. None of his four children stirred, each lying curled on their sides tail to nose. A smile stretched his snout and his chest swelled with warmth as he gazed. How little they were and how dear to him. Two eager boys and two darling girls. His children.
Charles lingered in their doorway for several minutes before letting the curtain fall. He walked back to the stairs and continued to climb through the darkness. After a minute of taking each step one at a time, the claws of his toes touching but not nicking the wood, light blossomed above. He came around the final curve to the balcony overlooking the Glen and rested his elbows on the railing. Though it was Spring, the air at so early an hour was very cool and he pulled the cloak tighter about his chest. He drew the tip of his tail around one leg to keep it warm.
The trees were too thick to see what sliver of moon had risen in the southeast, but he could see the glimmering stars in patches. Through one he found the milky band of midnight light crossing the sky and stared into its depths. The rich scent of pine filled his nostrils even more than the scent of rat clinging to his cloak.
He could not help but ponder what he'd endured and witnessed but a few hours before. So much horror and anguish, and yet a single glimpse of beauty was greater still. Would he ever truly understand what it all meant? He'd seen the edge of glory his youngest Ladero enjoyed, and now knew a daunting secret about his eldest. Did his little Charles scamper about the dreams of his littermates? Or did he enjoy one of his own? Would his father ever know?
The starry depths had no answers. A southern breeze stirred the branches, obscuring the numinous light, but the rat did not turn. He watched as they stilled, listening to the first cries of birds eager to welcome the morning. He idly wished he had taken up a pipe habit, for such heady thoughts as his seemed best with a bit of burl in his fingers and a trail of smoke teasing his nose.
Today was the first day in thousands of years without the shadow of Marzac. Yet the stars shone as they always had. And, Charles thought with a smile and a twitch of his whiskers, it was always so no matter the danger. The gift he'd received had lasted for the barest of moments, but the love and grace she'd given were always there. Everything good, even his own love, was an opening for it to pour through.
“Thank you, Eli,” he whispered. “I love you.”
And though he continued to speak until the sky brightened and those stars faded to blue, long tongue brushing against long teeth with each word, heart and mind lifted so he never felt the wood beneath him, he remembered not a word.
Malger could not sleep.
After leaving the rats, he returned to the Mountain Hearth Inn with Misanthe. The vixen was quiet and other than prepare him a small chaser of wine, honored his unstated desire for privacy. The marten sipped the chaser while standing on the balcony, one claw touching the crescent moon hanging about his neck. Too much had happened for him to return to slumber and the Dream. The deal, bartered and broken, to hear more of it, to even have his goddess try and explain the barest whisper of it, would be too much.
So he stood in the cool night air of Spring listening to the susurrus of the forest breeze and the occasional stirring of the sleeping village. In his home of Sutthaivasse there was boisterous activity throughout the night; from some noble or wealthy merchant enjoying a decadent party, to the dockworkers loading and unloading cargo, something was always happening. Even in Metamor Keep for most hours of the night one could hear some strain of music or laughter and always the shifting of the guards along the walls wary of an attack.
Not so in Glen Avery. There were always scouts watching the forest and the road, but what little noise they made was obscured by the breeze and the rustle of needles and fresh-grown leaves. It seemed to the marten there had been more to listen to while on the road with Murikeer and Elvmere than greeted him in the Glen. If not for the occasional bird there would have been nothing to listen to at all.
In the silence his ears filled with the voice of his goddess. “All found the paths upon which to take their journey, my dear.” He could not blame himself for the turmoil of hours past. “Tell only one, Malger, who awaits with you. He has prepared, and knows what to do.” And now, exhausted from so much use of magic, the skunk mage Murikeer had retired to enjoy a well-earned sleep. Many other words she'd offered came to him, but her final rang in his ears loudest.
Still the massive crow, ice-blue eyes touching the rat child as he lay sleeping on the cold stone altar, the echo of Malger's question of his fate ringing, her black beak open. “The child remains his. But,” her wing stretched and the sharp talons brushed across the boy's fur with a caress incongruously tender and warm from those wicked black edges, “one day he will have no choice and must let the boy come.” Her voice filled with delight, so odd from her frightful visage and in such a forbidding place, “He Dreams, Malger. And with strength. You will need to help him; his father and mother as well.”
He'd risen from the dream to inform Murikeer, and then slipped back down to find altar and child gone. From the vantage of Nocturna's realm he watched in the way the gods watch, two shadowy figures passing through realms he could not glimpse or understand, just as he'd watched the defeat of Marzac nearly six months before. Though he did not know what it was Charles had endured, he had recognized the moment when the corruption was finally broken
And when he reached the end, his mind turned back to the moment Charles entered the prepared cellar to begin the dream anew. Malger took a deep breath and pushed it aside. After four reminisces he could stand it no longer. There was a little rat child, only a year old, who could Dream! He brought to mind what he had seen a few days past, the tree rising up over a vast black pit – the corruption he now understood. There had been something else watching, something small; it had fled the moment Malger turned his gaze toward it. The rat child perhaps, trying to see into his father's dreams unknowing of the dangers?
He welcomed the distant pounding of horses' hooves from the road. Even though it took a full three minutes before the riders became visible at the far end of the Glen commons, the sound was enough to distract his thoughts. A trio of riders burst into the Glen at full gallop and only slowed as they neared the rocky hillside in which both brewery and inn made their home. A quartet of large witchlights trailed them, illuminating the road before them and making it easy to see who they were.
Malger sighed in relief and waved his arm once, before cupping his hands over his snout and shouting toward them. “Rickkter, Kayla, Kozaithy! Up here! The Inn!”
He wasn't surprised to find a feral fox tucked under his chair watching as they all gathered in the inn's empty commons. Misanthe had said little since they returned to the inn but she had ever kept a watch on the marten. Now, as a sour-looking raccoon and cheerful but exhausted pair of skunks settled down at the end of their long ride, he realized how glad he was she had not said anything to him just yet. Malger needed those moments of silence.
Rickkter scratched the oaken table with one claw as if punishing it for not having a mazer of ale ready for him. “So I'm told we aren't needed here after all.”
Kayla's tail swung behind her, and though weary, her voice was filled with delight. “I felt it when it happened. It was like I could breathe again. I never understood how deeply Marzac had touched us and was still touching us. Now it's gone. Charles defeated it. We're all free!”
The white-furred skunk Kozaithy looked about the room for somebody who was not there. “I'm sorry I couldn't find you both in time. At least now everyone we love is well.” The last was a question for Malger.
“Murikeer was a great help in this fight. Without him aiding Lady Kimberly and helping her reach out to Charles, we might not have won. Once all was done he went to his rooms here to sleep, for the effort had sorely taxed him.” He gestured at the ceiling and rooms beyond with one arm. “Charles returned to his family to do the same.”
Kozaithy relaxed. Rickkter snorted and scowled. “Well, since there's nothing for us to do, I'm going to go raid the innkeeper's larder for something to drink and then find a room with a bed to sleep in.”
Kayla lashed her tail. “Rick!”
Rickkter stood up from the table and stretched out his back, striped tail flat against his legs. “I'll pay him back in the morning. The innkeeper should have come out to greet us when we arrived so it's only fair.”
Malger tapped his thumbs together and narrowed his eyes. “What's wrong, Rick? Aren't you glad Marzac is gone?”
“I just rode as fast as I could for four or five hard hours, if I read the stars right, to come rescue the rat and we were too late. Marzac stripped my soul from my body for six months, it made me an invalid, humiliated me, and has made me feel useless in all sorts of ways while people I love suffer. And not once have I been able to even so much as give it a punch in the nose. And now it's gone and I'll never get the chance.” He shook his head and took a step toward the door to the innkeeper's stores. “Yes, I am glad Marzac is gone and no mistake, but I'm just too damn tired to feel good about it.”
“Rick!” Kayla stretched out her arm, but the raccoon stalked toward the larder anyway. She sighed and shook her head after he was gone. “He wasted no time in coming here; he really did want to help.”
“You do not have to apologize for my sake. I know he wanted to help. But maybe he's right. We'll all feel better after some sleep. And, Kayla, if our good innkeeper Jurmas should complain I will set the matter straight. He has two young daughters; he needs his sleep too! So go be with him and then take your rest. Kozi, Muri readied a room for you when you returned; you'll know which one. I'm glad to see you safely returned and I know he'll be glad to have you back. For now, Rick is right, it is time all of us to sleep.”
Neither skunk chose to argue. Nor did he press his suggestion with either, standing up to leave them to whatever they decided. And with a little fox trailing his feet Malger climbed the stairs back to his room to see what sleep and dream would hold for him.
Kimberly found him still on the balcony not long after the sun's rays pierced the forest gloom. She carried a steaming cup of tea and he blew across it several times before risking a sip. “Thank you, my love. How did you sleep?”
“Better than you I guess. How long have you been up here?” She gestured at the balcony and trees around them but did not leave the doorway.
“A few hours; I'm not sure. We will sleep much better tonight. Are the children awake?”
“Not yet,” she lifted her cup and lapped at the acerbic tea. “This needs more honey. I don't know how you can enjoy it like this.”
Charles chuckled and then lapped it with his tongue, sprinkling a few drops on his whiskers. “I grew up with it, I suppose I just learned to enjoy it.” He stepped to her side as he flicked the tea drops off with a twitch of his jowls. “It is Sunday, and even after we say our prayers, I will stay here with you and the children. I expect our friends will stop and visit to see how we are doing.”
Kimberly nodded and smiled. Charles gazed at her in the dawn light and felt his heart beat faster. She had donned a thick robe to guard against the cool Spring air, but beneath she was already attired in one of the comfortable blue dresses he had bought for her. Nestled in her bosom was the amethyst stone she had taken to wearing a few days ago. Though she had refused to tell him anything of it, he knew it had played some role in his rescue. He resolved never to ask.
He reached over and cupped his fingers behind her ear, touching the soft flesh with tender strokes. “My Lady, I love you.”
Her dark eyes filled him and were filled by him. “I love you, my knight!”
Charles squeaked a laugh and nearly spilled his tea. “I love it when you call me knight.”
She leaned her head against his chest. “I love calling you knight!”
He slid his arm down her back and held her close as the cry of birds and the movement of Glenners below welcomed the new day. When they remembered the tea it was already cold.
James and Baerle were the first guests to arrive; they did so not long after the children were awake. The opossum helped Kimberly keep the excitable rat children attentive while James assisted Charles in leading them in Sunday prayers. Once complete they enjoyed a breakfast of oats and honey and then the children were allowed to play inside. Other than a brief visit to the stables to tend his pony Malicon – in his taur form so he could give both of his sons a short ride – Charles never left his home.
While he and James discussed ideas for the Narrows as little rats scampered about their legs the next set of guests arrived. “Kayla!” Charles shouted with delight at seeing the skunk with whom he had journeyed to Marzac stand at his threshold. “Come in! Come in! Rick, Muri, Kozaithy, please, all of you come in and make yourselves comfortable. Is there anything we could offer you?”
“I can have a fresh pot of tea steeping if you'd like,” Kimberly offered before turning to the children. “Now why don't you all say hello to our guests and show them where they can sit.”
Both Kayla and Kozaithy gladly let Charles's boys show them to the long couch facing the unlit hearth; the pair of skunks complimented the boys on their chivalry and made their whiskers stand on end with delight by calling them 'sirs'. Muri was well-known in the Matthias home and so Charles's second daughter Baerle rushed to grasp his hand and lead him to a chair where his tail could swing free. Rickkter was a stranger to their home, and so his first daughter stared up at him and he back at her for a few seconds before the raccoon held out his paw and allowed the girl to lead him within.
“Tea would be lovely,” Kayla replied and then patted little Charles on the head before turning to the raccoon. “Aren't they so adorable?”
The raccoon shrugged. “I suppose.”
Kimberly returned from the kitchen a minute later and smiled to the one-eyed skunk. “Are you well, Master Muri?”
Murikeer rubbed his forehead with one hand and offered a smile in return. “I am a little sore still, but knowing we, you both, triumphed last night makes it seem as nothing.”
“It is... we... I... ” Kimberly stammered for a moment before falling into the surprised skunk's arms, her eyes brimming. “Oh, Muri, thank you! Thank you! Without you we... we...”
His surprise lasted only a moment before the skunk wrapped his arms about the lady rat's back and held her gently, his churring voice soothing and compassionate. “My Lady, nothing I did would have helped if not for your deep love for Sir Charles, your husband. You won him back. You.”
Kimberly caught her breath and stood up, brushing the tears from her eyes, her expression grateful and embarrassed. “Oh look at me, I'm going to get your tunic all wet.” Two little rats, her girls, gathered at her legs and grabbed her skirt as they looked up curious why their mother would be crying. She smiled at them and cupped their snouts in her hands. “Oh, your mother is fine. Just a little something in the eye.”
Murikeer smiled at the little girls and then snapped his fingers; a bright flame danced at the tip of his claws. Their eyes went from worried to excited, and they squeaked as they tried to snatch at the flame which danced around their little fingers.
“Well,” Rickkter grunted as he stretched his toes and looked around the Matthias home, noting the tree rings on the floor and ceiling as if trying to count them, “I guess we won't need to meet every week now. I was tired of hanging around the Keep waiting for Marzac mischief anyway.”
Charles carried his little boys over to admire Murikeer's dancing flame while his wife returned to the kitchen to prepare the tea. “I suppose not. I have the Narrows to tend now. What of you, Rick?”
Kayla slid a little closer to the raccoon and favored him with wide eyes. “Aye, Rick, what of you?”
“Honestly? I want to get away from Metamor and find some brigands or Lutins or something I can kill. I've been cooped up too long. After we return to Metamor I'll talk to Misha and George and see if there is anything promising I can help with.” He turned his head toward the skunk at his side and offered her a faint smile. “I am sorry but I am not spending another week on my tail.”
Kayla walked her fingers up his chest as she leaned into him. “I expect you to bring your tail back home safe.”
Rickkter offered a roguish grin. “Just my tail?”
She poked his nose with a claw. “It's a start!”
Baerle and Kimberly returned from the kitchen bearing trays with a steaming teapot and a dozen cups, not all of them the same size. All four children came rushing over, squeaking for whatever it was their Mommy brought. Kimberly shushed them as she did her best to hold her tray level. “Quiet, quiet, you four! There's enough for all of you.”
Charles and James picked up two little rats each and despite some squirming kept them still long enough for Kimberly and Baerle to begin serving tea to their guests. Murikeer passed his cup to Kozaithy before accepting one for himself. As he did so he glanced at Charles and asked, “What will you be doing with Marzac gone?”
“Tending the Narrows,” Charles replied as he positioned his daughters on either knee. “I would like to build a Keep there so we have another fortified defense in the north of the valley. But it will take many years and much planning. For now it will be enough if I can keep Glenners and Lakelanders from fighting over it. I suppose you'll continue work on the villa?”
The skunk nodded. “With visits around the valley as time and need permit. I would enjoy showing any of you the home Baron Avery has gifted me if you wish.”
“We'll be returning to Metamor after we've had one more bite to eat,” Kayla noted with a grimace; but her snout then opened into a warm smile. “But I know we will return to the Glen in Summer. For now I have my duties for Andwyn to resume; I cannot tell you how grateful I am he has been so understanding of all things Marzac.”
“Don't let him overwork you,” Kimberly suggested as she finished pouring tea for her children. “Baerle, please don't spill your cup!”
As the little child squeaked an objection, Kayla laughed and waved one hand. “Oh, I look forward to it. Organizing reports of Lutin movements will be comforting after all of this. All I expect to see is any last reports on the refugees coming to Metamor.”
Kozaithy lifted her snout, eyes fill with delight and concern. “I should head south to visit those living in Iron Mine. There are more of my people there than the town can take. I want them to know the cities in the north of the valley will welcome them too.”
“I could use some to come and help cultivate the Narrows,” Charles said after taking a long sip of tea. It was not the acerbic blend he preferred but had a light sweetness palatable to most beastly Keepers. “We can discuss our land after you have visited them, milady.” The appellation made her blush in the ears. The rat looked into his tea cup and for a moment pondered the eddying ripples. Cascades of reflection and refraction through the dark drink settled into a distorted image of his friends sitting across from him, until his boy Erick nudged his elbow and stirred the tea again.
He patted the boy between his ears and then lifted the tea high. “I would prefer wine for this, but you, my friends, are here now and this is what we have. I know you must return to Metamor soon and do not wish to delay you any further. But, I want to thank each of you for coming to my aid both last night and in the days before. I could ask for no finer friends. I am honored to call you friends, as well as many others who cannot be with us today. Thank you. Eli's blessing be on each of you. If you call on me, I will be there for you. I will be there for you!”
His friends lifted the tea high, as did his children after a moment; they did not understand but it seemed right to do so. Rickkter offered the rat a bemused grimace as he lifted his cup. “Even me, Charles?”
The rat tilted his head and met the raccoon's gaze. A part of him wanted to dredge forth the animosity he had long felt for the Kankoran, but there was no strength to it. Instead his whiskers twitched as a smile stretched his snout and cheeks. “Aye, Rick, even you. Especially you. Thank you. May many happy days killing brigands afar and homecomings sweet with skunk await you!”
Kayla hugged her perplexed raccoon tight, neither caring as they spilled their tea.
“I hope to return often to your fine establishment, Master Jurmas,” Malger offered the cervine innkeeper a theatrical bow after depositing a small pouch with more than the required coin for the rooms he and his men had enjoyed; part to pay for whatever Rickkter had helped himself to the night before while the rest was genuine gratitude for the welcome bed, good food, and pleasant wine. “Have you ever considered welcoming jongleurs and troubadours to entertain during the evening meal?”
The deer bobbed his head, the first tines of fresh antlers cutting a careful arc through the air. “Begging your pardon, your grace, but Glen Avery is not Metamor. We have few of either to liven our evenings. Certainly none as skilled as yourself!”
Malger laughed and favored him with a lop-sided grin. “Then I shall have to mention this lack to a few ambitious ears.”
Jurmas could only stammer in gratitude as Malger made his final farewell and took his leave of the Inn. Misanthe followed after in two-footed guise and together they greeted the warm Spring noon-day air. The commons was filled with various Glenners, some gossiping, some training, some trading, and others heading down to the lake to fish, swim, or bathe. Normal chickens and a few geese kept for their eggs wandered about in groups pecking at the ground or running from boisterous Glen children being chased by yapping dogs. Any day in Keeptowne would have seen five to ten times as many crowding the market squares from the sun's first light to its setting. Even with the Glen at its busiest – apart from festivals – Malger could still enjoy the creaking of branches, the soft rustling of leaves, and the spirited song of the many birds watching over their nests.
At the base of the rocky hill overlooking the commons the heavy-set caravan-master Hesgebaern busied himself with last minute preparations of their carriage. He fussed over the rigging and harnesses and then kicked each of the wheels with a cloven hoof before giving the half dozen two-legged horses standing at a short remove a suspicious glance. Malger, who'd glimpsed the bison's dreams, knew Hesgebaern still smarted from Versyd's suggestion the horses he'd selected in Metamor were not fit to pull the Archduke's carriage by the simple fact they were purely normal animals, not those gifted with intelligence. Still, he would never have given either Hesgebaern or Versyd a chance if they had not shown initiative and good sense.
“Master Hesgebaern,” Malger called in a loud voice as he took the final steps down the well-worn path up the slope, “is all ready for our return to Metamor?”
The bison lifted his eyes, dark thick lips wrapped about the long stem of a pipe, and stood as tall as his hunched back would let him. “All is ready, your grace. We can leave at your whim.”
“I have a duty I must attend to before we leave. But first...” He took the remaining steps and turned toward the percheron who had watched the marten's every step since leaving the Inn. “Versyd, you offered yourself and your brethren as horses to serve my house. If your brethren are as capable and as determined as you are, I'm sure I can find room for them. But you, Versyd, I do wish to hire as my personal mount. I expect you to serve on four hooves whenever I have need, and also to train with weapon to serve as bodyguard when on two hooves. And if there are other duties I find you skilled in, I may ask you to render other services. As for payment, is two garrets per week agreeable to you?”
Judging by the wide-eyed expression Versyd and his equine brethren shared none of them had ever held a garret let alone earned one. Versyd blinked once and then stood straighter; proud. “It is agreeable, your grace. Do you wish to ride to Metamor, or shall I help pull your carriage?”
Malger pondered the question for a moment. Thin lips spread in a fang-filled smile. “I am hiring you as my personal mount, lad. Unless the need is great, you will not be pulling my carriage.” A couple of the other horses who had gathered with Versyd, all of whom had shown interest in finding a place in the reconstituted Sutt house, gave the percheron indignant glares. Versyd had an expression of surprise and pride. Malger knew he had just found a man for his house who would serve with loyalty and honor.
“As for your companions,” Malger continued, gesturing to the other five horses who'd come with Versyd, “if you are willing to pull my carriage, to carry riders for my house, and to serve as guards for my house, I extend to each of you the same offer.” He lifted one hand and tilted it back toward the bison who more chewed the end of his pipe than smoked. “Providing Master Hesgebaern decides you are both fit and cooperative enough for carriage work.”
The bison took a step closer in surprise at the marten's invitation, “Milord?”
Part of being the head of a noble house was maintaining loyalty and the good-will of his servants. He liked both Hesgebaern and Versyd, and the best way to keep peace between the caravan-master and the horses who would pull them was to let Hesgebaern have the choice over who would and would not serve. “Master Hesgebaern, while I attend to my last errand here in Glen Avery, I wish you to inspect Versyd's companions, should they wish employment, and select only those you deem fit for carriage work. You may hire all of them or none of them, it is your choice. I expect you to guide them and care for them on the road as you would a normal horse. There is a great advantage in having a horse which understands your speech and can think on their own. I trust your judgment and I trust you will treat them fairly.”
Now to assuage any resentment the other horses had toward Versyd. “And for those selected, if you prove yourself more than capable and show good initiative, there will be opportunities for other positions in my house. I will never let a good man go to waste.” Seeing Misanthe, quiet as ever, standing slightly to the side Malger half-turned and proffered a sagacious nod. “Nor woman.” The vixen's whiskers lifted and her ears backed briefly in a demure smile, gaze dipping.
He flashed them one more smile before turning to walk past the carriage; Misanthe followed quietly behind. “Now, I expect all to be ready for our departure on my return in an hour. Versyd, I look forward to learning if your walk is as graceful as your gallop!”
The percheron stood taller, eager to prove himself.
After tea the three skunks and raccoon all excused themselves; Rickkter and Kayla began their journey back to Metamor while Murikeer and Kozaithy returned to the mage's villa to continue its restoration. To keep the children still, Charles performed a story while Kimberly, Baerle, and James attempted to hold the squirming little rats in their laps. The tale was one he'd learned in Sondeshara and well-suited for children as it was about new Sondeckis arriving in the fabled city for the first time.
As he finished describing their first day of training there was a firm rapping at their door. Charles gave a flourish with one arm and announced, “And so their days as Sondeckis began!” Before sweeping a bow to his children's delight, and then skipping to the door with two steps. Beyond stood foppish marten and an enticing but deferential vixen. “Milord Malger! Misanthe. You honor our humble home. Do come in.”
Kimberly pulled their eldest boy a little closer to her chest, the purple stone about her neck resting between his ears, as the marten stepped inside and cast his snout about. “Humble? It is a lovely home well-lived and full of family love!”
“Is there anything we can offer you? A bit of tea?”
“No, no, do not trouble yourselves on my account. I've just had a fulfilling meal and merely wish it to settle.”
Charles nodded and shut the door after the vixen swept through, a smile touching her snout as her eyes noted the wooden home, its furnishings, and the clutter filling it. “Baerle, James, could you take the other children up to their play area for a while.”
“I wanna go swimming, Dada!” little Erick objected as he tried to slip free from the donkey's arms. “You promised!”
“And we will,” Charles assured his second son. He brushed his fingers through the short fur between his ears and smiled. “Once Dada and his grace finish some business. Now go play with your sisters for a bit.”
James and Baerle stood. The girls squirmed a little in the opossum's arms at first, but had settled down and held tight around her shoulders as she carried them up the stairs. James had to struggle to keep hold of Erick who pointed at his brother and complained, “But Charles!”
“Will be up shortly, Erick. Have patience, and attend James as I asked.” Charles cast a loving but stern glance at his second eldest – if only by an hour – and motioned for James to withdraw.
His eldest son stared at Malger as if mesmerized.
James carried the still protesting Erick up the stairs and out of sight. Misanthe deftly captured a pair of neglected playthings and chew-sticks from the couch before Malger settled and made himself comfortable opposite Kimberly. She settled in one of the kitchen chairs, ceding Malger the entirety of the couch while Charles sat next to his wife, tail slipping into the slot between the cushions to lay on the warm wooden floor. He cupped one hand behind his son's ear but still he stared at the marten, jaw open, eyes unblinking.
“Thank you for coming, Malger, Misanthe. How are you both this day?”
Malger stretched and doffed his feathered cap, looking back at the boy with a curious and enigmatic gaze. “Well enough. I've just hired at least one of the Polygamites to serve my house, and perhaps as many as five others. I am now pondering if Master Murikeer or one of the other mages could fashion a horseshoe my new horses might don and doff as need be without recourse to farrier or nail.”
Charles's eyes darted to the wooden ceiling and a small chuckle escaped his snout. “Do not mention it to James; those folk invite him to join their herd from time to time and it upsets him.”
“Then I shan't mention it again.”
“And how are you, Misanthe?” Kimberly asked while smoothing down the fur atop her boy's head.
A tremor touched the vixen's eyes at the question but her poise covered the moment. “I am well, milady. I have enjoyed my stay in your beautiful village.” Charles knew there was more she could say, and likely had to Malger, but they were not words she would share with strangers.
“Well,” Malger said, eyes still intent on the dark-furred child in Kimberly's lap, “and how are you, little one?”
Little Charles's pink nose twitched as his white whiskers bobbed up and down. All eyes turned to him, but his own remained fixed on the marten. His voice was clear, if small and uncertain. “Awake, your...”
“Grace, or Malger if you will,” Malger finished for him with a curious smile. “Have you seen me before?”
Charles felt a heaviness in his heart as his son nodded. The boy did not wait to be prompted. “Was sleepin', grace.”
Kimberly gripped her son's shoulders and looked between Malger and her husband. An anxious note touched her voice. “I don't understand. What is this about?”
“Something we both learned last night,” Charles said, his tongue heavy as if he forced an apology from it. “Our little boy has the same ability Master Malger has. He is – I know little how to explain, my love. When we sleep our minds wander unaware. Our little Charles is aware when he dreams, as Malger is. He can leave his dream and look into others. He saw into one of my dreams last week and it terrified him.” In a low voice he added, “As it terrified me.”
“Your husband speaks true,” Malger said, leaning forward, his eyes meeting the boy's mother. “Little Charles is a Dreamer as I am. Where you, your husband, and your other children will each have their own dreams and ne'er step foot or paw in any other, little Charles can and will visit each of your dreams as easily as you might visit the rooms of your own home.”
Kimberly gaped, pulling her son closer to her chest. “But how? How could he see our dreams?”
Malger cast a quick glance at Charles and then smiled to the worried mother. “The same way I walk the dreams, milady.” One paw touched the crescent moon medallion about his neck and his whiskers twitched in the pleasure of a great secret. “For whatever reason and from wherever it came, your son was born with this ability. It is an ability Nocturna herself granted to man many hundreds of centuries ago, for the realm of dreams is Her realm.”
“Nocturna!” Kimberly lowered her snout and kissed her son between his ears. “But we are Followers of Eli!”
Charles sighed and scratched at his leg with one claw. “And yet in the last year how many times have we sought the aid of the Pantheon? How many of their festivals and celebrations have we participated in since we've come to the Glen? I have seen Akkala, Velena, and... others face to face.” He shuddered at the dark memories still clear in his mind. “Their power is real. But our children have been Immersed; they are protected in a way subtle and powerful. I know the thought of Nocturna is frightening, but she seems the least of our worries... for the moment.”
“Sir Matthias speaks true,” Malger nodded and then smiled down at the boy. “But you should not be afraid. Your son has something I did not.” He leaned back in the couch, resting both hands over one crossed knee.
“What does he have?”
“A family aware of his rare and precious talent. And guidance in the understanding of it.” Leaning forward, his brown gaze shifted from sire to dam and then down to the child they both touched protectively with embrace or paw. “I had neither. For many years I knew not what I did, and it near drove me mad. One did come to me in time, and guided me. I, too, was Immersed and fought to cleave to those teachings, until I was embittered and turned from them. But your son will have a tutor in these paths if you trust me to teach him.”
Kimberly raised one brow and cast Malger a dubious glance, drawing her son closer. “Your words would have me believe you wish to be this tutor to him.” She frowned.
Malger nodded slowly, “Indeed, milady, I so wish.”
Kimberly's frown deepened into a scowl as she boldly met the marten Noble's eyes. “You have a certain rather odious reputation, your grace, and forgive me for saying so, but it is not one I would trust with my children.”
Malger took a long breath and let it out slowly, not dropping his gaze. After a moment he bowed his head and turned his hands over upon his knee in a motion of penitence. “A reputation carefully fostered and nurtured, but to noble ends all the same, as well your husband knows. I do not blame you or take offense, milady Kimberly.” Lifting one hand slightly he made a short cutting motion. “But this reputation was – is – for the fosterage of an ability I have and your son lacks. I assure you on my honor and my House and very title, it is for the safety of your son – and yourselves, your family, and any near you – I seek to offer myself as tutor to your son.” A soft, rueful chuff puffed his thin lips and whiskers as he realized just then how pervasive his long reputation was within the Valley. He would have to bring it to heel, and soon, now with a title a tad higher than 'sybarite minstrel'.
“But they are just dreams?” Kimberly asked, her anxious voice trembling. “Aren't they?”
“Dreams are very important to us, be they human or Lutin or Åelf,” Malger added, his smile now gentle. “Most are bound within their dreams and are never given to understand their full import. Some can never remember them, while others recall each detail. A very small few might stumble beyond the bounds of their dreams and into those of others, but are unaware they do, becoming a part of the dreams into which they stumble, mistaking those dreams as their own. All completely unaware. But a blind wanderer can Act, interfering with another's dreams. This can often merely be distressing, but can also be quite dangerous to both. Your son can, at his own will, step from his dream and into another's, unchanged by their dream nor sharing it as his own. He can affect them – profoundly, even dangerously. And those dreams he walks, now, would be of those closest to him; yours, your children, your retainers.
“Sleepless nights, nightmares, thoughts coming to them which are not their own, the sensation of another speaking when no one is there. These are some of the little things which can happen. There is much worse. Your son, without realizing it, may look in on your dreams, see something he does not like, and try to change it. Without understanding he could cause you to suffer any of these.
“And then there is the dangers your son faces. He will see things you cannot imagine; there will be terrors and nightmares you cannot protect him from. He has already seen in on your husband's dreams; it frightened him so much he roused your husband from slumber.”
Kimberly turned to Charles and all he could do was nod. “It is true. A few days past Marzac gave me a terrible nightmare. Little Charles saw it and woke me telling me he had been frightened by my dream.” Charles sighed and looked at his hands helplessly. “My dream frightened him, not a mere nightmare as children may have. We cannot protect him from our own dreams, Kimberly.”
For a moment Kimberly stared at him uncertain and afraid, her grip on their little boy so tight he started to squirm. But all their ears lifted when a little voice announced from behind their couch, “I'm gonna bite your tail.”
Charles blinked and called back, “Erick? I thought I told.... OUCH!” He twisted on the couch, yanking his tail from his other son's jaws before the sharp incisors could do more than break the pebbly skin. The little rat flipped over once and landed on his head. His claws skittered on the wood as he scrambled back toward the stairs. Charles stood and glared after him, one hand trailing down across his tail to check for damage.
Kimberly reached toward her husband. “He's jealous we're paying special attention to his brother and not him.”
“It's no excuse for such behavior.” Charles rubbed his fingers over the injury but could not produce any blood. “If he comes back down again he will not be going swimming with the rest of us.” The last he spoke toward the stairwell where he was sure Erick was hiding.
“I do not want to be a cause of discord in your family,” Malger said, shifting backward in his seat, eyes ever on the dark-furred rat in Kimberly's lap. Little Charles had looked toward his father when Erick bit his tail, but had already resumed his study of the Archduke. “But, milady Kimberly, Sir Matthias is correct. You cannot protect him from your dreams. But I know how to help and how to teach him. And I offer my instruction without charge. I will be visiting the Glen fairly regularly, and when I am here, I will give little Charles instruction. And it need not cause his brother any alarm as it will be within the dreams; at least after he trusts me enough not to flee when I approach.”
He lifted one hand to forestall Kimberly's objection. “And you need not fear what will happen in dreams. I could ne'er harm the lad. Should I do so my goddess will be quite wroth with me, and your husband can attest how frightening a god can be! I will protect him and I will teach him how to protect himself from the dreams of others. It will take time, but without instruction I foresee only sorrow for you, the child, and all your family.”
Kimberly smoothed down little Charles's fur and nuzzled his pink ears. Her voice quavered a bit as she asked, “What of Nocturna? What will she do?”
Malger shrugged his shoulders, casting one glance to the knight rat before returning to the boy's mother. “I do not know. It is Her realm, so your boy will know Her, either closely or from afar I cannot say. Such choice is Hers alone. But his religious instruction is yours. I will not interfere if you wish to raise him to be a Follower.”
Charles let his tail fall back to the couch and he settled down next to his wife. He wrapped her shoulders in one arm and nuzzled her cheek with his snout. “He will be safe, my love. Our boy will be safe. I trust Malger to keep him safe.”
Malger touched the fingers of one hand to his breast. “On my very life.”
Kimberly swallowed and pressed her hand against the amethyst medallion. “He will truly suffer if you do not, your grace?”
Malger stretched his legs and arms as he nodded. “I did. I thought for a long time I was going mad. Your son will not. He has two things I did not: a tutor in the way of dreams and a family who loves him dearly.” He offered Kimberly a warm smile and stood from the couch. Misanthe stood a moment later. “I will be visiting the Glen a few times a month for three four days at a time. I believe it will be sufficient time for your boy to receive all he needs from me. And if you should venture to Metamor and I am there I will be happy to spend time teaching him there too. Regardless of the path you choose, I will watch over him, as I must, and ward him from harm, or causing harm, while he Dreams. I will do no more without your leave.”
Kimberly climbed from the couch, shifting about to keep her boy comfortable in her arms. “How... how long would you need to teach him, your grace?”
But the marten could only shrug. “Years, I suspect. It is another waking world for your son and I, the world of Dreams. To know all its vagaries, its dangers, and its beauties takes a lifetime. But like all skills, training is only the beginning of mastery. You are never going to fully understand your son, milady Kimberly. As with the Sondeck, possessing it separates one from those without. I know you will love him nevertheless.”
“Aye, I will, your grace. Very well, please, your grace, please teach my boy.” Even with her agreement her voice quavered in fears, tears gleaming within her eyes. To have her son, but not know him in some ways most important, clutched her heart in a merciless fist and squeezed.
“I will. You have my word, good Lady Kimberly!” Malger sketched a deep bow and with a flourish almost skipped back around the couch. “I fear I must depart for Metamor. I will return before the week is out for little Charles's first lesson. Until then, Eli's blessing be on you and your family.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Charles called, stepping toward the door to hold it open for them. “I hope your journey to Metamor is uneventful.”
Malger laughed and cast one last look at the little boy in his mother's arms. Little Charles stared at him wide-eyed. “I'm sure Versyd will attempt to make it quite eventful. I will see you again soon.”
“Buh-bye!” Little Charles cried out, waving a pink hand toward the marten.
Malger waved back, a gentle smile stretched across his snout. “Good bye, young man.”
Versyd pranced beneath the marten for the first ten minutes out of the Glen before settling into a comfortable gait. Malger could not help but delight in the youth's enthusiasm and ability. It made him wonder why none of the Keep's horses had ever thought to offer their services on four hooves before. And as he rode through the pleasant Spring air, he pondered what other services animal Keepers might offer in their beastly guises.
The other five Polygamites who'd sought employment with his house were tethered to the rigging hauling the carriage in which Misanthe reclined. The horses the bison Hesgebaern had used to drive the carriage to the Glen a few days past were roped behind. Malger would ponder what could be done with the other horses apart from pulling wagons after he returned to Metamor. Perhaps, should he hire a sufficient number of those of a mind with Versyd he could sell the other horses away. Keeping the cursed as mounts could hardly be any more expensive than establishing a wing of the stables and staffing them for the sole use of his household.
For once his delight at how responsive and smooth Versyd's gait was had passed, the marten's mind slipped back to the little rat child who dreamed. His smile dwindled into an uncertain moue. For once he did not need to sleep to hear his goddess's voice.
A few days every other week will not be enough.
Malger grunted to himself; Versyd's ears flicked back to him in expectation. I cannot always stay in the Glen.
This child will spend more time with your instruction than he will his father's.
He exhaled long and slow. The sweet fragrance of honeysuckle filled him as he drew the breath back. But it is not for me to decide, my love.
But the thoughts were still within again. Malger sighed, leaned forward, and patted Versyd on his powerful neck. “You've ruined me, Versyd. I can never ride a normal horse again!”
The Percheron Glenner performed a double step with his hind hooves in delight at the praise.
Charles waded into the cold waters of the lake and wondered how the frogs Gibson and Bertram weren't slipping into torpor. Two months ago there had been ice covering the lake. Now his children were cavorting about in the shallows attempting to capture the slippery frog who glided about on the surface with breathless ease. Gibson reclined half in the water with gangly legs sprawled atop the rippling surface. None of them looked half as cold as the rat felt.
At least he'd had the presence of mind to take off his shirt. The sun warmed his chest and back and he did his best to keep his fur above the waist dry.
And, he thought with a smile, all of his children were playing together; whatever jealousy his second son had for his eldest at the attention the archduke paid him had long since passed. How well he knew the tales of noble houses torn asunder by rival brothers – he had written a few in his Writer's Guild days – and such was the last he wished for his family. With two sons and possibly more awaiting them he would have much sacrifice in the days ahead to keep peace in his family.
Unable to capture Bertram, his boys turned to splashing each other and their sisters. Charles laughed with them, eyes ever drawn to his eldest boy; the Dreamer. How could he ever protect his son from a foe he could not touch in a world he could not enter?
Only the words of his brother Sondeckis brought comfort. And whatever happens, do not be afraid for him. He will be protected.
He lifted his eyes heavenward and twitched his whiskers into a smile. “Keep him safe, Ladero. Keep him safe.”