May 16, 708 CR
“Sir Charles, wake up and look! Dragons!”
The rat grunted as he rolled onto his back and blinked. Birch and elm clustered above him, but to the north he could see two shapes, one larger than the other, flying out of the mountains to the west. He blinked and pushed himself to his haunches, tail dragging beneath him across the loam, needles, and stone. They were too far for him to see clearly, but they certainly looked like dragons.
“So it appears,” he said, then stretched and stood. Muscles and bones found their place after his brief nap high upon the ridge where he hoped to build his keep in the Narrows. The ferret Garigan watched from an outcropping of stone while at the base of the ridge James waited with their mounts. The morning had only begun but after an hour of riding and climbing Charles had to lay down and rest. His dreams the last few nights had been unpleasant and he did not want his son seeing them; he'd only managed short naps when he managed any at all.
Garigan turned his gray and black snout toward the two figures gliding into the valley and gestured with the sweep of an arm. “I think they're headed for the Glen. Do you recognize them?”
Charles shook his head and blinked the last of the rest from his eyes. “Even if I knew them I wouldn't from this distance. Your eyes are better than mine. What do they look like?”
“Gray scaled, with a touch of red I think. The small one... I don't think I've ever seen a dragon so young come out of their mountain home.” Charles nodded as he plucked needles from his chain mail. “I think the larger is carrying someone; I can't tell for sure.”
“Did I ever tell you about the time I rode a dragon?”
“Aye, and quite proud of being a dragon of Whales. I wonder who these two could be.”
Garigan turned and helped Charles rid his armor of the last of the needles and leaves, brushing down his tabard with one paw while craning his neck in a way only a ferret could to watch the pair of winged shapes begin circling above the mighty Glen redwoods. In a quieter voice he asked, “Didn't you say your friend Lindsey has become a dragon?”
The last of the sleep left the rat and with one heart beat he felt alert and a terrible foreboding. “We need to return to the Glen right away. If it is Lindsey...”
But very soon you will have the chance to aid two who suffer greatly.
Garigan stopped his work and blinked at his mentor. “Yes?”
Charles shook his head and offered the ferret and fellow Sondecki a smile. “If it is Lindsey then I cannot wait to see him again. And compliment him on his success; Calephas is dead thanks to him.”
“May he rot in hell,” Garigan spat and with one last look to check on the rat started back down the ridge. Charles shuddered then followed with one last glance at the blurry shapes descending to the Glen. He took no breath all the way down.
Glen Scouts spotted the two dragons as soon as they crested the mountains but for most Glenners the day continued as any other Wednesday in Spring might. The fishermen were so busy reviewing their haul from the night before they were the last upon the lake to note the arrival of the serpentine beasts. As the pair circled down, heavy wings beating the air and stirring the shore into a froth, the fishermen nervously brandished scaling knives and spears. They did not raise their weapons, but kept them at the ready as they warily eyed the Glen's reptilian guests. Most dragons who visited Metamor were friendly but caution with strangers was the Glen way.
Gibson the frog had been preparing to take his son out on the lake when the pair descended from the sky. Unlike the fishermen who spent their lives beneath the mighty boughs of Avery, the merchant traveled the valley each Summer and Autumn and had become familiar with many of the dragons who traded service to Metamor for a lofty tale of adventure to tell in the decades to come. Most were known only in passing but he prided himself on remembering their names and greeting them each time he was graced to stand in their presence.
So as the fishermen anxiously cowered much like his one-year old son Bertram who hid behind his father's spindly legs, Gibson felt his heart lift in delight as he recognized the larger of the two dragons. He warbled and croaked as the pair circled with wings spread wide; when their long necks turned toward him he waved with both his arms, hoping they knew it as a welcoming gesture.
The dragons circled twice more before the larger beat his wings, sending up a spray across the lake and scattering the grass and fallen needles along the shore, and settled into a gentle landing on the well-beaten path about the lake. He then craned his head to watch the smaller dragon – still twice the size of any man – attempt the same feat. The smaller however wobbled as he neared the ground and only just kept himself from crashing by digging his claws into the rock-strewn earth and holding fast.
Gibson brushed a few needles from his tunic and then waved a long green arm as he croaked as loud as he could. “Pharcellus! Welcome to Glen Avery! What brings you and your friend here?”
The larger dragon, gray of scale with crimson highlights along each, turned his purple-flecked golden eyes upon the frog and his long snout opened in a delighted smile. Something shifted along his back and Gibson noticed the man-shaped creature the young dragon had carried. The face was of a solid, dark-haired foreign man, and the arms were strong and stout, but his ears were pointed and covered in fur, and his legs looked like those of a wolf; he even had a tail like many a Keeper. His silvery black fur shimmered as it settled in the churning wake of dragon-flight. He climbed down from Pharcellus's back, slipped past the younger dragon who reached out a foreleg to touch him, and then bent down in a bed of needles beneath the branches of an old pine and closed his eyes tight. His only raiment was a tattered black robe which he clutched with the ardor of a child for a favored doll.
Gibson thought there was something familiar about the beast-man's face, but the sinister touch and wrongness of his deformed shape, even for Metamor, squelched any recollection. He turned back to the dragons in what he hoped would be taken as polite curiosity.
Pharcellus studied him for a moment before a gregarious laugh echoed within his massive chest. “Gibson, I believe! And who is hiding behind your legs?”
Gibson lowered his hand to the top of his son's head. The boy cautiously peered around his father's knee. “This is my son, Bertram. Bertram, this is Pharcellus the dragon, one of Metamor's friends. And the other...”
The younger dragon, gray in scale but with a lighter touch to his scales, more vermilion, craned his neck before taking a few quick steps to work out the tightness in his legs. “It's me, Lindsey! I'm Pharcellus's younger brother. Bertram, you can come climb on my back if you'd like.”
Pharcellus glanced at his brother and even Gibson could see the beam of pride in the dragon's eyes. Bertram stared with yellow eyes as wide as they could and only clutched his father's leg even tighter than before. Gibson croaked a laugh and patted him on the back. “Come, Bertram, these are friends. Dada will show you.” So saying he scooped his little boy, gangly legs and all, into his arms and carried him toward the pair. Being a frog Bertram couldn't hide his large face though he tried with all his might.
“It's safe, Bertram. Dada's here. They won't hurt you. They want to say hi. Can you say hi?” Gibson stopped a few feet from the pair and the smaller, Lindsey, took two steps forward, lifting his head only a hand-span to bring it level with the little boy. A tongue flicked out from between sharp fangs and whispered past the back of the boy's head. Bertram squirmed but did not turn. Lindsey teased him with his tongue twice more on either side of his head, and the little frog finally shimmied around so one eye could see.
Lindsey bunched his body and then sat on his haunches like a dog. Bright, golden eyes glimmered in the morning sun. “Hello, Bertram. I'm Lindsey!”
Pharcellus's bigger head swung into view, but not nearly as close as his brother's. “Hello, Bertram. I'm Pharcellus! It is a great honor to meet you.”
Bertram stared for a moment longer, then turned his head back into his father's chest. But a moment later he shifted it back half-way so the edge of his eye was visible. A little croak escaped his throat. Gibson warbled a pleasant laugh. “I think my little boy wants to play with the dragons, doesn't he!”
This time, when he put Bertram down, his son did not try to hide. Instead he took a cautious hop to where Lindsey sat. Lindsey watched him but did not move. Bertram reached out an arm and poked at a leg or tail. Lindsey slithered out his tongue to tease the back of the frog's head. Father and older brother watched for several seconds as their beloved kin began to play together.
“So, Pharcellus, what brings you both here to the Glen?” Behind him he could hear the fishers resuming their duties and the arrival of other curious Glenners eager to marvel at the sight of not one but two dragons in their land.
Pharcellus lifted his head and stared at the figure crouching beneath the sheltering pine. “For the sake of our friend, Jerome. We brought him here because this is where Charles Matthias lives. He is the only one who might be able to help break the spell on him and restore him. And we needed to return to Metamor anyway; there is much to discuss of the events in Arabarb. Why you should hear what my brother accomplished in Fjellvidden against the loathsome Calephas!”
Gibson cast a glance behind him and could see Lord Avery and his closest men descending the road from the commons to the lake. “I'm sure milordship will want to hear the tale, as do I! But Sir Matthias is visiting his fief, the Narrows, to our south and may not return until evening.”
The dragon's gaze also saw the many coming to greet him and he settled down upon the ground, the spade tip of his tail paddling the edge of the lake. “Then we will wait here for knightly rat to return. Do you think yon fishermen might spare two flight-weary dragons some of their delicious catch?”
Gibson warbled and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm sure we can ask!”
They found a third of the Glen had gathered by the lake to welcome the dragons. Baron Avery was there with Angus the badger at his side holding a conversation with the larger of the two dragons. The two Avery boys were straddling the same dragon's back and pretending they were soaring through the sky; another dozen Glen children scampered about his long tail and toes, or cavorted with the younger dragon who kept his wings tucked in tight as he pranced about the shore. Charles beamed on seeing his own children among them.
As they rode out of the woods and came into view, the younger dragon lifted its head and in a voice both familiar and strange, cried out, “Charles! James!”
James, ears lifted high, broke into a warm smile as he beheld the dragon. With a braying laugh, he murmured, “It's Lindsey. He really is a dragon!”
Charles took a deep breath and waved his arm as they approached. Behind the youthful dragon he saw his wife anxiously observe their children scampering over a creature almost big enough to swallow them whole. She met his gaze and the tension in her eyes eased. “Lindsey? Is that you?” Charles called out. He drew back the reins, bringing his pony Malicon to a stop a dozen paces from either dragon. Malicon stomped his hooves, as did the horses his friends rode, all wary in the presence of such large reptiles.
The gray-scaled dragon bobbed his head and spread his jaws in a wide-smile. “It is! How do I look?”
Charles could only stare and stammer until he chuckled. With a bemused smile stretching his snout, the rat spread his arms wide and nodded. “You look magnificent; you make a very handsome dragon, Lindsey. I never... never would have guessed it. Are you still a child?”
Lindsey turned his head toward Pharcellus whose purple-flecked golden eyes cast between the Lord of the Glen and his younger brother. When he glanced back he bore an expression none of them could discern. “Not as Jessica made me, no. When I became a dragon I was only half this size! A day before we left Fjellvidden, Jessica's spell shattered and I swelled in size; thankfully I wasn't flying or I know I would have crashed. Pharcellus tells me I am as big as a dragon my age would be, so,” he seemed to shrug his wings, “here I am!”
James blinked, nostrils wide with a smile, as he slipped down from his mount. “As old as you were as a man?”
“More or less,” Lindsey admitted, a shifting of his chest suggesting a dragon's shrug. He lowered his neck and gave little Baerle a lick behind the ears. She squeaked and scampered into her mother's arms.
Garigan took the reins of all three steeds while Charles and James approached with swift step. Lindsey leaned back on his haunches – long tail tripping a few Glen children who laughed and tumbled back to their feet only to try and jump the dragon's tail as it swung past again – and spread his arms wide. He was large enough both rat and donkey could hug him at the same time without bumping snouts.
Warmth filled his vermilion-touched gray scales. Smooth along his neck and shoulders, Charles held tight with joy at the reunion. Lindsey's head bent down and he could feel the underside of the dragon's jaws touching his back. While the rat had ridden dragons in the past, and had savored slipping the bonds of earth to touch the face of the heavens themselves, he had never actually hugged a dragon as a man hugs his dearest companions. His heart trembled and he felt a subtler transport no less profound than the embrace of sky, perhaps even moreso.
A little voice broke his hold, though it only made his heart grow. “Dada! I play with dragon!”
He let go of Lindsey and turned to pick up his daughter Bernadette who stared at him bright eyed and unafraid. “Would you like to give the dragon a kiss on the nose?”
Bernadette's whiskers backed against her snout and her tail curled against his arm and side. James laughed while his two boys tugged on the rat's tabard begging their turn. Lindsey blinked and tried to smile at the little rat without revealing any fangs; it was an awkward expression at best but it made Bernadette giggle. Charles lifted her gentle and sure, while Lindsey leaned his snout forward until she could reach. Her nose touched the narrow snout where the nostrils flared and then she giggled again, her whiskers twitching all over.
Lindsey patiently waited as Charles lifted his two sons in turn so they could give him a kiss on the nose too. Kimberly brought Baerle and after her brothers had their turn, handed her to Charles for one more dragon's kiss. His children had not even had all of their turns before other Glen children began begging a similar boon from their curious parents. But Lindsey lowered himself back to all fours and sidled next to the rat. “There is a reason we came here to the Glen first, Charles. You're the only one who might be able to help him.” Lindsey stared off into the woods near where they stood and the rat followed his gaze.
He knew the pose before he recognized the distorted face; easily mistaken for a Follower at prayer, the figure was bent over hands clasped together over his chest, one a fist and the other a cup to hold it, while a placid detachment ruled the lines of the face and the stress of the muscles. It was the pose of a Sondecki seeking and exploring their Calm.
It was his childhood friend Jerome Krabbe.
And yet it was not.
Jerome did not sport triangular, black-furred ears, nor did he possess a long, lustrous black tail. His friend did not stand upon four-toed paws with legs shaped like a dog's haunches, nor were his arms covered in patches of fur with fingers ending in claws. And his fellow Sondecki did not have a cleft lip with long red tongue dangling between fangs befitting a beast.
And yet, this was Jerome. The vision Ba'al had shown Charles had been true, at least as to this dreadful metamorphosis the vile thing called Gmork had wrought. His heart fell from its elation as he stepped from the dragon's side toward his childhood friend.
“Garigan, attend me please,” Charles said, never letting his eyes waver. The cry of children fell behind him; the murmuring words of Lord Avery and the booming reply of Pharcellus were lost amidst the forest din. He felt the ferret's presence at his right side as a stirring against his whiskers and a green-clad, gray-furred shape at the edge of his vision. The creature in its Calm was all he could truly see. No other Glenner dared approach.
His tongue moved, and with it sprang forth the Song of the Sondeck. Its contours were joined by Garigan only a second later, and they lifted their paws across the loam, roots, and stubble toward the beast in Calm. Jerome's ears turned at the sound, and his face distended, nose darkening as a snout stretched forward. In only seconds the face of his friend dissolved into a black-furred wolf's head. Touches of silver gave the beastly visage an aura of nobility, but it was still not the face of a Keeper. Charles knew several wolf Keepers both at Metamor and the Glen, but there were subtle differences in the brow, the position of the eyes, the width of the cheeks and thickness of the neck all lacking in the Sondecki.
The wolf tilted back its head and howled with them the Song of the Sondeck. Charles watched the rest of his friend's body dwindle inside the tattered remnants of his robe. Arms lowered before him as fingers drew backward, paws pressing into the hard earth a moment later. His chest barreled outward even as it shrank and coated itself in the same silvery-black fur adorning his face. The robe melted into his now lupine shape until no trace of the man remained.
Two Keepers and a wolf, all Sondeckis, sang together the ancient song heedless of whoever might listen. And as they sang, both Charles and Garigan studied their friend. Unlike more conventional mages, neither possessed mage-sight; the ability of either Jessica or Murikeer to manipulate the threads of magic as a weaver worked the threads of cloth was beyond them or any Sondecki. Rather they could sense the Sondeck as a presence within which they extended past their flesh as they willed. The curses of Metamor had touched the Sondeck only subtly; Charles had needed to find a new Calm, but with only a little practice had recovered all of his former abilities. What they felt in Jerome was much different.
To the very core of his being the Sondeck itself had been corrupted. What should have seemed to them as the flesh within flesh was the pelt of a wild animal. The refined touch of a human finger was the sharp prick of a claw. There was nothing human remaining in Jerome's Sondeck.
Charles felt his heart tighten even within the beauty they shared; little wonder Jerome had become a wolf to howl the Song.
The rat leaned toward his friend, reaching out a hand to touch him on the shoulder – physical contact would allow him to pry deeper than mere projection alone. His fingers brushed fur...
Jaws snapped shut, spit flashing in the air, golden eyes bonfires in the night of Jerome's black fur. The attack had been so swift the rat still stared in shock even after the thunder-clap of those snapping jaws faded into echoes. Garigan had his arm around the rat's shoulder, having yanked him back as fast as the strike had come.
The Song cut short, Charles gasped, his voice choking in his throat, “Jerome! It is I! Charles!”
The wolf stared back, silent for a single moment, fangs glimmering beneath stretched jowls, before recognition came. The eyes closed and the snout shrank back. Paws stretched to fingers, the robe collapsed out from the black fur, and the posture shifted upright. The almost-man sat upon beastly haunches, head hanging low, and wept. “Charles,” the voice was Jerome's; at least it had not changed. “Charles, help me.”
“I must touch you. Will the beast strike?”
“I am the beast, Charles. I will not strike.” Jerome closed his eyes, pressing a tear from each, and the faint lines of a Sondecki seeking their Calm returned.
Both Charles and Garigan took a deep breath and the ferret let his master's arm go. Charles smiled thanks to him and then stepped closer. There was an exposed patch of human flesh at the base of Jerome's neck; the Sondecki robe, had it not been in tatters, would have covered it. Charles took a deep breath and then laid his palm down. Jerome's ears lifted and his tail straightened, but he otherwise kept still.
He felt deeper.
Darkness surrounded him. He crouched on a floor of dank stone and a bad air lingered, poisoning his lungs. The bitter taste of iron was fresh on his tongue. Something approached, awkward as it crawled on all fours.
He felt a breathless rush through the forest; fir and pine pressed close on either side, their branches brushing his sides, needles scattering and catching in his fur.
Good sand shifted beneath his feet, warm with the afternoon sun.
His limbs turned and twisted in the practiced ease of many years; his breath came in controlled intervals, each timed with every lifting and setting of his arms.
His body stretched as he propelled through the cold air, arms before him ready to greet and grip the earth to push him into his next bound.
A face peered out of the woods, eyes golden, fur gray, with an arm outstretched clutching a faintly glimmering bauble. The jowls curled back in a smile, and the jaws stretched wide, reaching for him. A long, slavering red tongue flecked spittle across bone-white fangs.
Charles yanked his arm from Jerome's shoulder and realized he was trembling. Garigan had his arm about his shoulders trying to still him. The rat's tail lashed and thumped against the ground as he collapsed into a heap, long toes splaying inches from Jerome's haunches. The mostly-wolf Sondecki kept still for several seconds more, before a man-like visage drew back the snout and regarded the rodent with at first a hopeful glance; but this decayed into one of sullen remorse. He averted his gaze and whimpered.
“Master, are you well?” Garigan asked; a subtle power flowed from the ferret's paws and into the rat's arms, calming his quivering muscles.
Charles could offer no answer. Transfixed by what had been his friend but now was wolf-beast he felt a horror. In the space of not quite three months this deformation had been perpetrated. Somewhere beneath the fur, the fangs, the claws, and the madness was the man. Either whatever powers Gmork had were not able to efface it completely, or Gmork had not finished what he'd begun.
Neither mattered for Charles; he could do nothing for Jerome in any case.
Charles sighed and shook his head, before lifting an eye toward the ferret. “Nay, Garigan. I am not well. Jerome needs Sondecki healers and I know not of the art. His very Sondeck has been corrupted. There is no one – not a single soul – in all of Galendor who can restore him.”
If Jerome was disturbed by the rat's words there was no sign. His furred ears remained alert but did not turn to catch their words. His eyes were closed and did not tremble. What was left of the snout continued to whimper but nothing more.
The rat's heart clenched as he remembered what another Sondecki had told him from the doorstep of Heaven.
But very soon you will have the chance to aid two who suffer greatly. One of those you have already met on your journey. The other is a dear friend we both know. When he comes to you, the time will have arrived for you to set aright the wound that broke us all. You will know it, never fear.
The wound... broke us all. All... Ladero, Krenek, Jerome, and Charles. They had arrived in Sondeshara at same time as children and had progressed through the ranks together. All had remarked on their deep friendship It lasted until the day Charles fled never to return.
His claws pressed into his palms and his tail twisted beneath him where he sat. Had he a chewstick between his incisors he would have bit it in two. Charles pushed himself back to his feet and thrust his tail behind him. For one moment he felt a terrible fear, the same fear which had kept him running for years and what drove him to hide at Metamor; this fear made him a rat, gave him whiskers, fur and a tail. This fear drove Krenek in search of him where he fell into the hands of Marzac. This fear kept him away when Ladero was slain. This fear made him lie to the man who needed him now when he'd finally been found and who had put his own place in the Sondecki Order at risk to protect him.
The time had arrived for him to set right this wound. Charles intended to never return. Now he must never fear.
“Garigan, please stay with Jerome. I must speak to my wife.” The ferret nodded, eyes widening for a moment before a hardness filled them. He stepped closer to the beast-man and crouched at his side, a gray cloud passing before a black storm.
Charles emerged from the forest to find little had changed. Children romped around the dragons who kept still aside from an occasional nudge with snout and tail to keep little claws or fangs from harming their wings. Glenner parents watched closely though their anxiety had long since passed; these were friendly and gentle dragons. Many younger Glen scouts also stood close by, each eager to touch the dragons once they saw an opening. Charles forced a smile to his snout as he was greeted by many friends with whom he'd served; he stopped only to address the dragons.
“Lindsey, Pharcellus,” their heads swung toward him, large eyes bright and focused. He felt an involuntary shudder echo through his fur. “Thank you for bringing my friend here. You were right; I know what must be done. Please stay with him for now as he still needs your help too.”
“We have already vowed not to leave him until we know he will...,” Pharcellus began before one of the Avery boys jumped and grabbed him around the neck, yanking his head back down. The dragon responded by belching a cloud of smoke at the young squirrel.
“Until he will be well,” Lindsey finished for his older brother. “He is our friend too, Charles. Never fear.”
He smiled and half-turned so he could see his wife among the other parents watching. Never fear. He stepped toward her and put a hand upon her wrist. Her eyes met his, uncertain. One hand reached up to the purple stone at her neck. “Milady, there is something I must tell you. Let us take a walk around the lake.”
He offered his arm. She slipped her hand through and together they passed out of the crowd and began a quiet walk, the chorus of Spring and the rippling of the water covering their whispered voices.
“Sondeshara!” Kimberly exclaimed, one hand clutching at the stone as her step carried her a half-step to her husband's side. Up till then they had pressed so close even their tails brushed across each other with their stride; the sudden separation brought a chill to his fur. “It's so far away! I.. I cannot even imagine how far it must be! Charles, my Charles, why do you have to go there?”
“The only people in all the world who have the ability to heal Jerome are there, my Lady.” He stopped and turned, grasping her hands in his and pressing them tight. There was an apology in his voice, but firmness too. His eyes found hers and kept them, trembling little things in need of warmth and assurance. “There are three choices before us. If we all remain here, Jerome is doomed to be a beastly slave to a monster for the rest of his days. I cannot leave him to such a terrible fate! I will not! His only hope is at Sondeshara; there he will have Sondecki healers who understand how to mend his wounds. Either I accompany him to Sondeshara or I send him on alone. Either way I will end up in Sondeshara.”
Kimberly shook her head, fighting to draw back her hands. “Nay, how can it be? My Charles, how will it be?”
“Jerome was sent by the Sondeckis to find me and bring me back. He choose not to and has gone into hiding of his own. And now it cost him dearly. If I were to send him to Sondeshara alone the other Sondeckis would learn from him where I am anyway. One night, months, a year or more from now, they would come here and steal me away with none the wiser. You would wake to an empty bed with no trail to hunt. I would spend the rest of my days in Sondeshara a prisoner; we would never see each other again.”
Her whiskers flattened against her jowls and she wormed one hand free. She beat at his fists, her eyes wetting with tears. “But if you go I still will never see you again!”
“Nay, my Lady!” He caught her hand against and held it to his chest, pulling her in close. He stroked his fingers across the soft flesh of her ear and drank in her scent, one filled with fear. “You will not lose me. If I go back with Jerome, whatever sentence is meted out in recompense for abandoning the Sondeckis will be the less. But, aye, there is a chance I will never be allowed to leave Sondeshara again. I will not be parted from you or from our children. The only way is for you all to come with me to Sondeshara.”
Her jaws opened and he could see her mouthing the words, “Come with you...” as she stared with eyes as wide as any rat could offer.
“Aye. If we all go, then no matter what happens, we will be together.” Charles draped his arm behind her neck and touched his nose to hers. “I will not be parted from you or the children again. I was gone far too long to fight Marzac. I must take Jerome to Sondeshara. It will be a wonderful adventure for the children to see new lands. And you can learn about where I come from, my Lady. I can show you the beauty of the desert and its mountains.”
Kimberly's claws pressed against his chest. “But, Charles, this is our home! Here, the Glen. You want us to leave with no hope of ever coming back?”
“Want? Nay! I want to stay here for the rest of my life. But I cannot, you cannot ask me, to condemn Jerome to this fate. Did you see him, my Lady? We merely look like beasts. He is one. His only hope is to return to Sondeshara.” He swallowed and pulled her tight against his chest, snout nuzzling one ear as he whispered. “I have lived every day for the past ten years with the fear the day had come when the Sondeckis would find me and drag me back for punishment. The only hope we have of making this our home and of spending our lives together, my Lady, is to go to Sondeshara together as a family. If they see me come willingly, and if they see you and the children and what Metamor has made of us, their hearts will be opened to leniency.”
“Can you be so sure?”
He said nothing for a moment. Across the lake they could hear the laughter of the children including their own as they cavorted with the dragons. Charles turned his ears to listen for several seconds; the sound of the forest was always there around them, but now it was the whispering background – a mere stage upon which his children played.
His voice cut through their squeaks of delight with the gentlest of breaths. “I am sure it will help. I am not sure we will be able to return, but I cannot imagine the Sondeckis have fallen so far as to be without compassion. The man who drove me from them is dead and I know what he wanted to make of the Sondeckis was resented and resisted by others. I have hope, my love. I am not certain, but Eli did not give us certainty in this life. He tells us not to be afraid. I am more afraid of staying here than of going, my Lady. Our family will be safe. We will not be torn asunder again.”
Kimberly trembled against his chest for a moment and then slipped free. She continued the walk around the lake, her snout lowered, eyes lost in contemplation of the rocks and grass at her toes. Charles stayed by her side but said nothing more. Together they walked in silence for a few minutes, bringing them three-quarters of the way around the lake before his wife finally found words to say.
“You are not giving me a choice. There is nothing I can say to keep you from going to Sondeshara. And even if there were, if what you say of your friend is true, I would not say it. You are too good a man and I love you too much to ask you to abandon him. But, Charles, oh, Charles, you speak of a voyage dreadful and long! How will we keep our family safe there and back again? How will we help our little boy with his dreams? Will we come back here? I don't want to lose our home.”
“I don't want to either, but it is something we must risk. What we will not risk is losing each other. Nor will we risk harm to our son. I do have an idea...” Charles told her. By the time they made a full circuit of the lake she agreed.
Several eyes were upon them as they returned to the cavorting children and the friendly dragons. Charles smiled to James and Lindsey before striding to where Lord Avery and Pharcellus spoke. “Pharcellus, my friend, I have a little favor to ask of you.”
Early afternoon was one of Quoddy's favorite times to sun himself next to one of the fountains in the marketplace. The fountain centerpiece had once been of a quartet of rearing horses but had been destroyed by Nasoj's army nearly a year-and-a-half ago; much of what was lost in the assault had been repaired but not the fountain. Still, the basin was clean which allowed the gull to swim a little if he wanted, and it had been in the sun all day long which meant the stones were warm too.
The best part were his fellow Keepers. Beginning a little before noon and throughout the rest of the day, they would come, usually in threes and fours but sometimes alone, to recline by the fountain and eat their midday meal; many would happily share a scrap with a friendly gull. It was a game, and most knew it, teasing him with some morsel of bread and cheese – or worse, fresh-cooked fish – until Quoddy resumed his more human guise and traded a few pleasant words with his friends.
It was there his brothers found him. A blue-red speckled tokay newly arrived from Bradanes – and one who had not yet realized Quoddy's true nature – was tearing off a small morsel of an odd-smelling meat for him when two larger forms descended from the sky and settled on the rim of the fountain behind him.
“I told you we'd find him here,” his brother Machias cawed. The puffin noted the gecko and laughed. “He's not really a gull you know.”
Quoddy swelled in size, and lowered his beak toward their scaly brother. “Please forgive me the deception.”
The tokay stared with large yellow eyes and then emitted a croaking laugh. “I should have known! I remember meeting you three at the Fellowship in January. You're the ones who spend Summer and Fall traveling the coasts of Sathmore. I'd be happy to share my meal for a story of your adventures.”
“Life as an animal is boring,” Lubec noted with a shrug of his wings. The cormorant stepped carefully around the fountain so as not to slip and dampen his feathers. “You spend most of your day fighting the other birds for every scrap of food when you aren't flying. But it does give you time to lose yourself in contemplation. Far better than most adventures you hear of in stories.”
The tokay cocked his head to one side which made his wide-jawed face look as if he were about to topple over. “I spent my last few years hidden beneath rags because of disease. You speak true, friend.”
“Lubec,” their brother said as he offered the tokay a wing.
He grasped the black feathers gently between two thick-fingers. “Wyaert. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Quoddy offered his brothers a beak-grin and then extended his wing. “And I am Quoddy.”
“Machias,” the puffin added, though he was too far back along the fountain to do more than hop about on webbed feet.
Wyaert tore an extra two chunks of cooked meat and offered them to the birds. Lubec appeared dubious. “I do not think we all have a story we can tell.”
“Consider it a gift then between new friends! I do not have time to sit for a single story anyway; I must return to my duties soon. Master Dunkirk will chop my tail off if he catches me sun-bathing on a rock again!”
“Isn't Dunkirk one of the stone masons?” Machias asked after gulping his morsel down.
“It is what I apprenticed as in Bradanes.” He lifted one hand and wiggled his dexterous fingers. “I can feel the stone even better now than I did back then. Who knows? Perhaps I'll even help repair this fountain one day.” He lifted his meat and bit through half of it.
“Thank you very much for sharing your meal,” Quoddy offered in a conciliatory tone. “I owe you a story, Wyaert, and I will deliver. Do you come here often?”
The tokay gulped down the last of his meat and stood, stretching arms, legs, and tail. “I think I will. The sun is warm, the food is good, and the company is rewarding! Eli's blessings, my friends!”
They watched Wyaert disappear back into the crowds in the marketplace. Once they lost sight of him, Machias cawed a little laugh. “Why are you begging for food, Quoddy? We have money aplenty now.”
Quoddy nodded. “I know.” Duke Thomas had named them honorary members of the Long Scouts and so they received the same generous wages. “But every copper I spend on some tasty morsel is one less I can give to the Ecclesia or to the Fellowship. We've never needed money before and they always do.” None of them had even owned a pouch to keep coins after their change. They'd carried their first donations to Father Hough and Emily in their beaks.
Lubec spread his wings as if to dry them, and then settled down next to his older brother. “We cannot always be just birds. I cannot just... go back to the way things were.”
“I know. But I'm not sure what else we are suited for.”
“Maybe we aren't,” Machias offered, nudging a bit of shed fur off the fountain with a webbed foot. “Maybe all we have to offer is three smart birds.”
“We are more than smart birds,” Lubec insisted and snapped his beak shut. “But,” he conceded with a long exhalation, “maybe it's all we can offer now. But I will not go back to living as a bird for half the year. I love the sea too and do not wish to lose it, but... it feels like we only fly from what all our friends here face; we abandon them. But I will not spy for Metamor again... I cannot... at least... not for now.”
Quoddy nuzzled his brother with his beak and rested his wing claws on his back. “We won't. And you're right. There must be something more we can do. Not all of our winged brothers and sisters serve as spies or scouts either. Why don't we ask them? Eli will help us find our way. Together.”
Lubec's eyes smiled and he beak-nuzzled his brother in return. “Thank you. Now about begging for food.”
“I'm not going to spend money on myself,” Quoddy objected with a squawk. “It doesn't...” His eyes lifted, along with many other Keepers in the market, as a shape flew overhead. Dragons were a common sight in Metamor especially after the Curses when a few of their own had joined the draconic ranks; there were also a few dozen young dragons from the mountains who offered their services to Metamor so they might have adventures to increase their stature among their own kind. But even though the passing of a dragon overhead was something they expect to see every few days or so, for most Keepers their magnificence never lost its luster.
For Quoddy the sight was more than a marvel of a mighty dragon; it was the welcome return of a friend. “Look! It's Pharcellus!” His brothers snapped their heads up to see even as Quoddy shrank to his feral size and beat his wings, lifting off from the fountain and working his way up into the sky. His brothers shifted and chased him, eyes locked upon the gray-scaled dragon descending from the northwest.
They had no chance catching up to a dragon in full flight especially not when starting from the ground. But Pharcellus was descending from the upper air, turning in a long circle above the mighty fortress at the northern end of the hill on which Keeptowne was built. On his second pass around they were high enough in the sky to catch his attention. Pharcellus's determined expression broke into one of delight, long jaws opening and golden eyes brightening. His long neck ducked and rose, carrying his body in a cavorting dance out of his spiral and into their midst. The brothers had to beat their wings to keep from being spun about in the enthusiastic dragon's wake.
They saved the rest of their greetings for the ground. Pharcellus banked to the field north of the Keep where the Duke preferred dragons to land and the brothers followed. After setting claws to earth, Pharcellus's body shrank in on itself until a crimson-haired young man was standing in his place. He spread wide his arms and with buoyant laugh welcomed each of the birds with a firm hug.
“Quoddy! Lubec! Machias! It is a joy to see each of you again! I was hoping I would find you on my return. How are the heroes of Fjellvidden faring?”
Lubec tensed at the name, but the joy of seeing their friend was greater. “We are very happy to see you! How was your journey back? Did Lindsey stay behind?”
“How is your wing?” Quoddy asked, remembering the scar stretched halfway through the leathery folds.
“And how are the people of Arabarb? Have they kicked out the rest of Calephas's troops?” Machias squawked, not willing to let his brothers be the only ones to ask questions.
Pharcellus waved his arms, tipped back his head and laughed, long hair bouncing with each breath. “You peck me with such wonderful questions and I am eager to tell the tale for each! But I am on an errand of utmost importance and must be brief. Forgive me so small a token for such dear friends!”
Quoddy laughed inside, though he would have enjoyed hearing a dragon's tale for each.
“The journey was uneventful but pleasant. Lindsey is much more confident in the air and now hardly ever crashes when he lands. My brother has come with and we brought Jerome as well. We stopped at Glen Avery first and there they remain awaiting the word I will bring when my errand here is complete. My wing is still weak,” he said with lowered head as if in shame at the admission, “but it is good enough for an easy flight; another month or two and it should be fully recovered. And all our friends in Arabarb are well; they returned triumphant from their first sortie to reclaim the mouth of the river. The hinterlands and the coasts await but they are flush with hope to see the last of the brigands routed by Winter's return.”
He gestured with his chin toward the blue-liveried soldiers approaching them from the castle. “Doubtless yon Duke will wish to hear this news, but I fear it must wait for my errand here is too important. Jerome's life hangs in the balance!” This last he said with such sudden intensity they lifted themselves to stand on the tips of their webbed feet in anticipation for the rest of the dragon's tale.
“Is he still... beastly?” Quoddy asked, trying not to look at his cormorant brother as he spoke. They never mentioned Gmork or Lubec's enslavement. Lubec was still haunted by the occasional nightmare, though his days were spent aiding in any way he could those he loved and knew at Metamor. Most of the time there was no hint at the wound he suffered except the mottled feathers strewn about his nest come morning. Even at the word from Quoddy there was no outward sign other than a faint tightening at the corners of his yellow eyes.
Pharcellus's lips drew into a serious moue – his penchant for exaggeration did not extend to the needs of his friends. “I fear it is true. My errand is for his benefit so I do not wish to delay.” The soldiers were almost upon them and to them Pharcellus turned his back. “Tell me, my friends, do any of you know where I might find Archduke Malger dae ross Sutt?”
The excitement from the dragon's visit did not dwindle with Pharcellus's departure for Metamor. Rather it shifted from the lake to the Glen Commons so there would be more room for Lindsey to move about as he entertained the children and young at heart. After draping a blanket across his back to cover the spines he allowed the children to climb atop him two-by-two; he made a slithering circuit about the upper commons, jostling the children between his wings enough to make them squeal in delight but no more. To the amazement of all the parents, Lindsey seemed to have as much energy as their own children and kept the same frenetic pace well into the afternoon.
By early evening everyone was exhausted and while children fell asleep in their parents laps, Glen families clustered in a wide circle on the Commons to listen to the dragon tell a tale from distant Arabarb filled with heroic warriors freeing their home from a tyrant.
Garigan took a break from helping Charles ponder all the preparations necessary for their journey to Sondeshara to listen for a time to the young dragon who was once a woman of Arabarb and a man of Metamor. The gray-furred ferret had never known Lindsey as anything other than one of the timber crews and had never heard him tell a tale before. Either he'd possessed a hidden talent or dramatic embellishment was innate to dragons as not only were the children mesmerized by the cadence of words and the sinuous motion of head, neck, tail, and forelegs, but Garigan too felt spellbound, heart trembling in rage at the depredations of Calephas and cheering at the heroic efforts of Alfwig, Elizabaeg, Gerhard, and Jarl, as well as Keeper birds Quoddy, Lubec, and Machias, and of course Pharcellus his unknown older brother. Even the Lutin Yajgaj, who at first Garigan had thought to be an enemy, turned into a friend by the tale's end.
The men of the Glen cheered when the tale was over as well as the children who had not fallen asleep. Lindsey sat upon his haunches and bowed his front half, chin a mere claw's breath from the ground, purple-flecked golden eyes bright in the forest sun, and vermilion touched gray scales shimmering in the dancing light of the early evening's first lanterns. Garigan applauded him before trudging back to the Matthias home to avoid being swept up in another adventure.
There he found Charles, James, Gibson, and Baron Avery all seated and sharing mugs of cider long-grown cold. They spoke without hurry and after the boisterous applause, it felt a whisper tickling his ears without words. In one corner of the room he saw Jerome crouched on all fours with lupine haunches and human arms and face; his eyes were shut and the lines of Calm were etched upon his scarred countenance.
Garigan felt a swell of fury in his breast. This good man had been corrupted and there was nothing Charles could do for him. Garigan could feel the wounds and the change in his fellow Sondecki, and there seemed to him some inkling of what needed to be done, but no matter how he pondered it the answer did not come to him. So much of how to use the Sondeck, once he practiced Charles's training, revealed itself to him without effort. But not this.
On their way up the hillside from the lake, Charles had asked Lindsey a few questions about how much of a beast Jerome had become. The dragon's reply had been reserved so only those closest could hear: “He has good days and bad. He will eat, drink, and sleep as a man should for a few days, and then he will do the same as a wolf the next. He returns ashamed of the wolf and ashamed he tried to deny it. He is at his happiest when he is both. We hoped you could help him...”
Jerome had come into the Matthias home without complaint and even eaten some food as a man should. But of the cup of cider Charles offered, Jerome could not seem to use it right and ended up setting it on the wood floor and lapping it up. Even the memory of it felt a stab wound. Garigan would find no peace until he helped Jerome be a man again.
“Ah, Garigan, welcome back,” Baron Avery said, smiling over the top of his cup. The squirrel's dark eyes glimmered in the dance of witchlights. “Are the dragon's tales finished?”
“I think he is starting a new one. He's very good, I didn't expect I would listen so long.”
Charles turned and favored the ferret with a broad smile. “I'd wager he's taking lessons from Pharcellus. Now there's a dragon who makes me feel boring!” James brayed in laughter while the rest chuckled; all of them had enjoyed a breathless and long tale or three from the rat. “How are the children?”
“Kimberly and Baerle are keeping yours from climbing on Lindsey.” He let his gaze slip to the frog, “Bertram's sleeping in your wife's lap.” He then returned to his liege. “And your boys were having a contest to see who could stuff the most nuts into their cheeks.”
Baron Avery beamed and then laughed. “Look at us. We delight in the beastly things our children do and even pride ourselves on our tails and coats of fur, excepting you, Gibson, and yet we fear it in others and hatch grand schemes to rescue them.” He glanced at Jerome but the black-furred ears did not move and his face did not flicker. Garigan knew Jerome was deep in his Calm; he would not hear anything they said.
“It is different,” Charles pointed out, whiskers twitching with effort, even as he lowered a hand to stroke along his long, scaly tail. “Tails and fur for us are part of our flesh, but they do not strip away our souls. Touch them, aye, and we may carry them even beyond death if we so love them. But we still reason, even those of us who choose to live and work as the Curses wished to make us.”
Avery glanced at the half-wolf man and his expression soured. “I see what you mean. Still, Sir Matthias, you are a knight of the Glen. You have responsibilities here. You have sworn obligations which cannot be neglected. I could order you to remain here.”
The rat nodded and sipped his cider. Weariness filled his eyes and frame, but his voice remained strong. “Aye, and I would obey. My disobedience brought this fate to my friend and I would not compound it by further disobedience. But I beg this boon of you, milord. Jerome needs to go to Sondeshara, and I must return with him if I have any hope of fulfilling my obligations to you, to the Narrows, and to the Glen.”
“As you have explained,” Baron Avery nodded, running a claw along the rim of his cup. “But before I grant this boon, and I do wish to grant it, I need to know how you intend to see those obligations filled in your absence.”
“I've been pondering it from the very moment I laid eyes upon my friend.” The rat stopped, sat up a bit on the couch and turned back to Garigan who still stood a few paces inside the doorway. “Forgive me, Garigan, please join us. Would you care for some cider to drink?”
Gibson shifted a little closer to the Baron and Garigan settled down next to him, tail flicking to one side as he sat. “Thank you, Master, but no. Have you decided anything yet?”
“To answer both of your questions, some of what I hope to do depends on the answer Pharcellus brings. I am seeking the aid of Archduke Sutt. He has the financial means to transport my family and Jerome to Sondeshara and back again; I believe he will be interested in the voyage as it will provide him opportunities to strengthen his position in Sutthaivasse and Metamor. And there are other reasons I have asked him but they are for my wife and I alone.”
“And if he declines?” Avery pressed.
Charles shrugged and took a long sip of his cider. The cup empty he set it aside and slumped back into the feather cushions. “I do not know but we will find some way. There are others who I can beg favors from to help pay our way. And I will ask Lindsey and Pharcellus to accompany us so we will have the protection of two dragons; they alone should intimidate all but the most stalwart of enemies.”
James's ears lifted, surprise in his eyes. “I will go with you, Charles. You know you can rely on me to be at your side and help.”
Charles offered the donkey a fond smile. The rat's eyelids lowered though he struggled to keep them open. “Thank you, my friend, but I am sorry. I need you here to watch over the Narrows.” James flecked his lips, startled at the rejection, but before he could say anything, Charles turned to the squirrel noble and said, “Milord Avery, James is the one man in all of the Glen I trust to act as Steward for my fief in my absence. He has been there with me many times already and knows my hopes and plans for the land. You will find no better defender of my rights than he.”
Turning back to the donkey, Charles forced himself to stand and extended a hand toward his friend. “James, good and faithful friend, I offer to you the office of Steward over my house from this day and until you breathe your last. I entrust to you power over all my affairs in my absence and I grant you authority to act in my name. I ask his grace, Baron Brian Avery, and my friends Garigan and Gibson to witness.”
The donkey stared at him for several seconds, before glancing at Baron Avery, Gibson, and Garigan in turn; he met only encouragement in their beastly faces. The shock left his eyes and his lips slackened, ears drooping for a moment before lifting up to their full height. The donkey stood, clopped two paces to stand before his friend, and knelt, taking the offered hand in his own. “I accept the office of Steward to your house, Sir Matthias. I will serve your family all my life with honor. I will keep your lands until you return.”
“Rise my friend,” Charles said with a broad rat's smile and tugged on the donkey's hand until he did so. “You may have the office of Steward, but you are first and foremost my friend. I wish I could have you at my side on this journey, and you will be dearly missed until the day I set paw in this beautiful land again.”
“And we witness your office this day, James, Steward of the Narrows.” Lord Avery stood and placed a hand on the donkey's shoulder. “Congratulations on this honor.”
Gibson and Garigan stood to offer him their own congratulations. Garigan felt nothing but pride in the donkey who had won his master's earnest trust. James appeared a trifle embarrassed from the attention and after each had given him their support, they all found their seats again. James fidgeted a bit in his seat, ears folded down against his mane and eyes more focused on his snout than anything else. Charles almost fell into his seat, the sigh of exhaustion hidden beneath the chinking of chain mail he still bore.
Still, the rat managed to gesture with one arm between his friends and said, “James knows all of my plans for the Narrows, and Gibson has been of inestimable help in forming those plans. My Long Scout pay should be used to begin clearing some of the forest and building a road. Gibson, I recommend speaking with my fellow rat Julian of Metamor to transport supplies we need from the Keep. I fear it will be some years yet before we can make the land profitable, but I trust my friends will think of ways Garigan...”
He did not let his master finish, “I will be coming with you to Sondeshara, Master.”
Charles's eyes widened for a moment, but the weariness was stronger and brought them low again. A smile crept along the rat's snout, one of pride. “Aye, Garigan. You must come. You are Sondecki and there you will find what you need. Are you prepared to leave your home behind, possibly for the rest of your days?”
The question gave him pause and his eyes stole to Baron Avery. Guilt touched his heart as he met the squirrel's gaze. It took several seconds before he found the words he needed. “I hope to return; this is my home and I am ready to die to protect it. But if I must stay by your side in Sondeshara, I will do so without regret.” He only hoped the words were as true as he meant them to be.
And he could not help reflecting on them as Gibson and James told Baron Avery of the plans that Charles had made for the Narrows. The ferret let his eyes trail across the tree rings in the ceiling above them, and all the little touches that made this home the Matthias home in the woodlands of the Glen. He remembered a time when Glen Avery was like any other town of Metamor Valley with wooden homes, thatch roofs, and stone walls, with the trees used only for the scouts. Now the trees were their homes, whether high up in the branches, in the midst of their sinew as fashioned by magic, or in burrows beneath the roots.
He loved what had become of his home. Though he had regained some level of comfort in a city like Metamor, his heart yearned for the forest and the simpler life of the woodland village. He knew the names of all but the most recent arrivals from Bradanes or from southern fiefs and while there were some whose company he could not abide, they were all still Glenners and thus his kin.
Still, those who had lived dearest in his heart were all gone. His father and mother and all his siblings died in Nasoj's first attack when he was just ten years. With the many other orphans he spent the next few years growing, learning, and training to be a scout for the Glen. The girl he had a crush on, Shelley, became a boy even as he became a ferret when they both turned thirteen. In Nasoj's second attack, his best friend Shelley, the only one who'd ever been able to calm his temper, was slain before he could return to help.
Could he truly leave this home and never return?
He lifted his eyes and saw that his master had finally fallen asleep. How anyone could fall asleep while wearing chain mail he hoped never to know. Garigan did wonder why Charles seemed so exhausted as he'd never shown a proclivity for sleeping during the day, but his thoughts were interrupted by a loud whump outside so heavy it made the couch tremble beneath him. He, Gibson, and Baron Avery stood up to stare out the open door – he'd left it open as it was such a pleasant day – at a familiar gray-scaled dragon. A trio of sea birds landed next to him even as Pharcellus's shape blurred and shrank. They could all take on a feral shape and so the sight of a creature transforming was nothing new. But they had never seen the red-haired human guise Pharcellus had fashioned for himself. And as he shrank, the three birds swelled to a more human posture as if his mirror.
Together, they entered the Matthias home, the young man who was a dragon beaming with delight. “Pharcellus,” Baron Avery said, his voice cracking for a moment as he gathered his composure. “What news do you bring from Metamor?”
“Good news, noble squirrel!” Pharcellus offered with a sudden pirouette. “Yon archduke of the flamboyant gesture has agreed to charter a vessel for the great voyage to Sondeshara and back! It will be a vessel befitting his station and the gravity of the mission, or so he claims with verve a dragon can admire.”
“And he offered us jobs as messengers and lookouts during the voyage,” the gull proclaimed with delight before realizing they were strangers in the Matthias home. “Oh, do forgive me, but my name is Quoddy and these are my brothers...”
Charles jumped from the couch, eyes wide with fright as one hand grasped at his throat and the other reached for a sword no longer on his buckler – he'd removed it on returning home hours past. From his throat erupted a scream more rodent's squeak than human voice. “Shattered manacles! A pool of crystal! Coming! He's coming!”
And then just as suddenly he collapsed back onto the couch, clawing at his neck and whimpering. James, sitting next to him, was there first, with Garigan only a moment behind, each grasping the rat from either side. “Charles!” James snapped, throttling his shoulder with a firm shake. “Charles! Wake up!”
The rat's eyes blinked open again and he managed to still his hands. He took several deep breaths before finding his voice again. He did not smile, but there was gratitude in his dark eyes. “I am well. It was a dream.”
“A nightmare!” James exclaimed. “Manacles? A crystal pool?”
“More than a dream,” the rat admitted after another deep breath. Baron Avery and Gibson stood ready to offer help, while Pharcellus kept his place in the doorway. The three birds stayed close to the dragon looking at each other unsure what to do. “It was a memory and a vision.”
Charles pushed himself to his feet. Garigan and James helped him stand; neither left his side. The rat turned to face the corner of the room in which Jerome sat on his haunches. His face had distended into a lupine snout, though his arms remained mostly human. Golden eyes peered at the rat, ears lifted and tail straight behind him. The jaws parted and a growling whine came forth; Garigan wasn't sure how he knew, but Jerome, even through the beast, was worried about his brother Sondecki.
“I am sorry, my friend, but there is another who I must go to help first. He's coming soon. I must be in Metamor in five day's time if I am to help.”
“What are you talking about?” Baron Avery asked.
Charles turned his scarred, right eye toward the squirrel. “Something I learned before I woke that night... something I learned after being freed, milord. There are two I must help. Jerome is one. The second is coming soon.”
“But what of Archduke Malger? He has agreed to help us,” Garigan asked even as he felt a tremble stir his fur. There was no need for Charles to elaborate which night he spoke of from what he'd been freed.
“He has? 'Tis a relief to hear it. We've much still to plan and prepare before we join him at Metamor, but I must precede you for this other's sake. You are all my friends. I couldn't help him before. I'm the only one who might understand his anguish.” Charles waved his hands and settled back down on the couch. “No more questions, please. If you wish to know, stay and I will tell you of him, and how I nearly became as chained as he.”
The black cormorant hopped forward on his legs and in a timorous voice asked, “Do you mean, a slave to another's will, Sir Matthias?”
“Slave, plaything, and more. But I ask each of you who wish to hear this to swear never to speak of it again. If you do not wish to hear, then you should depart because if I do not speak it now I will not have the courage to help him.”
Garigan bent forward as only a ferret could and gripped the rat's shoulder. “We will never abandon you, Master. Never. And we will never break this vow to you.”
“Never,” James repeated with a firm nod.
Avery and Gibson both nodded. “To my death I shall carry it,” the squirrel tapped his fist to his chest, a grim smile revealing his incisors. All three birds chorused their assent with a similar gesture of wing to breast.
Pharcellus was the last, his smile one of sympathy yet eager like a boy for a promised treat. “This would not be the first tale I have sworn to never let pass my tongue. You have my word as well, O Knight Rat!”
Charles breathed a happy sigh and lifted his empty cup. “Then let us all share something more to drink and I will begin. Come my friends, listen and I will tell you of the Hound of Revonos!”
--- THE END ---