May 23, 708 CR
“It's been well over a year since I last lived here at the Keep,” Charles admitted as he stared out across the expanse of Euper from the battlement wall, “but I will still miss this place.”
“And it shall miss you,” Goldmark added with an affirmative squeak. “At least until you return.”
There was a chance he might never return, but Charles said nothing. Instead he stretched his legs – all four of them – before settling against the sun-warmed stone to relax. Goldmark, also four legged, reclined near him. His friend reached into a knapsack draped across his lower back and removed a a comb. As he groomed the dark, wiry fur of his lower back and haunches, he noted, “You appear to be feeling better.”
Charles reached an arm around behind his upper back and nodded. His fingers traced across the small bit of vine emerging from the join between his upper human-shaped and lower rat-shaped torsos. An ivy tendril crossed the bruise in his back soothing and mending in its subtle way. “I was fortunate to have good friends and hale warriors with me.”
“It is always good to have dragons!”
Both rats laughed. Their eyes met, dark and protruding above their snouts, before Goldmark turned back to brushing his haunches. “I almost envy you traveling across the world like this. Even before I became a rat I had never left the valley.”
“If Julian, Elliot, and your enterprise grows you may yet.” Charles slapped his tail against the rampart wall as he stretched. “How is business for you?”
Goldmark shrugged. “It is off to a promising start, but almost all of our business is through friends. Most of the merchant class prefers their own caravans. I fear we'll need more wagons and more men before we can celebrate.”
“You will manage,” Charles assured him. A smile creased his snout. “I would not hire anyone else to help bring my family home when we return.”
Goldmark returned the smile. “Thank you, Charles. You know, we can never repay all the goodness you've shown us over the years.”
Every morning for almost six years Charles had spent time with his fellow rats, trying to convince them not to fear what the Curses had made of them. For most of those years his efforts felt vain; but Eli's miracles came in their time and not his own. In this Charles trusted and hoped. “Show goodness to all the new rats in the valley then. I've heard we have almost a dozen more now from Bradanes alone.”
“We do! A few of them are even young ladies.” An excited chitter touched Goldmark's tongue.
Charles smiled wide, whiskers spreading. “Young ladies in need of good rats perhaps?”
“Julian has not wasted any time!” Goldmark slapped his tail against the stone and grinned, showing off his incisors. “Only two days ago he escorted a young maid newly made a rat through the gardens. She's quite fetching too with a dark hood and white creamy fur and tail...”
He laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Goldmark! But two years ago our fur, snouts, whiskers, eyes, and tails were all reasons to hide where none could see us! Now we find them fetching! What Rats we are! It brightens me to hear it; you have no idea how long I have yearned to hear it.”
Goldmark blinked as the thought dawned within him. His smile faltered for a moment in surprise, and then stretched further across his snout. His ears lifted, his frame shifting as if he'd become lighter than air, as a squeaking laugh echoed Charles's own. “What Rats we are indeed! Hah! Now I guess it's time for Elliot, Hector and myself to find good Rat ladies of our own. And Sir Saulius too. I'm hoping for a young lass who likes her Rat large.” He patted his flanks and offered a raucous laugh. Charles felt a bit of a blush touch his ears, but after spending months in his taur form while journeying through the Barrier Mountains and Åelfwood, the twinges of modesty had subsided.
“And who enjoys walking on four legs?”
“Aye, I hope!”
Charles laughed, shook his head, and turned to the battlements, resting his arms on the stone and his snout on his arms. “I had hoped Sir Saulius would be here to see us off, but he won't return from patrol up north for another week.”
“I'm sure he will wish it too, but I can hear him say it is the burden of duty.”
“Aye, he would,” Charles smiled as he thought on the rat knight armored and astride his pony. Saulius may be small, but he was proud with a fierce spirit and deep devotion for his friends. Charles was proud to be a knight like him.
His gaze swept Euper, the road, the river, and the forest beyond filled with merchants and travelers about their business. His family would not be among them for hours yet. Charles stretched, scraping the claws on all four of his legs against the stone, and then stood. “Let us quit the wall. I feel like walking again.”
Goldmark nodded and put his comb away. “Where shall we go?”
Charles gave the wall a gentle tail slap. “Wherever in Metamor our four legs shall take us!”
Word came during the last few minutes of combat between two alarmingly mismatched foes. One stood tall, wide, and powerfully muscled; a pale hued Percheron stallion whose ears pricked the seven foot line etched on a wall. His opponent barely cleared five feet, a pine marten lithe and lean. The horse held a heavy practice mace and the marten a simple duelist's practice blade as distinctly flimsy against the mace as the marten was against the stallion.
The marten, however, was Malger Sutt, the last surviving heir of his House and Title, and sparred like a common guardsman, clad in a simple leather vest and short pantaloons. Given the address 'dae ross' which, while spelled and spoken in many different manners across the kingdoms, simply meant 'first heir of' his House, he acted less like the entitled royalty he was whenever he could possibly get away with it. For years he had comported himself as a moneyed socialite and, as expected of royal brats, sybarite. But always there had been a deeper agenda, carefully hidden by his rather public face of debauchery. And then, with the eradication of his sisters, brothers, the concubines and wives of his warmongering sire, Malger had been left with it all and put to the road with assassins at his heel.
There, for years, he hid in the guise of foppish traveling minstrel which had suited him as finely as had his earlier years of royal privilege.
Until his Goddess said otherwise.
And now he was the Archduke Malger dae ross Sutt, holder of Western Pyralia. Though he had placed the onus on the shoulders of one better capable of stewarding those lands he kept the Title, and with it the privilege he had been raised to without the boorish elitism of his deceased line. Raising his practice blade before his muzzle he grinned at his opponent, who stood head and shoulders over him – towered to be truthful – and beckoned him to attempt his attack once more.
The stallion Versyd snorted, having been thwarted in every attempt for the past hour, took a staying breath against his understandable frustration, and stepped into snap a low, brutal swing with the mace in his off hand. Malger, his new liege though who looked no more noble than the horse against which he practiced, deftly leaned back without moving his feet and deflected the heavy mace with the heavy arm behind it upward easily.
In actuality it was not his purpose to strike the target moreso than overcome the parry, or outmaneuver it, neither of which the untrained young horse had yet perfected.
The Percheron had already proven himself a capable and dependable mount, with a smooth gait at any speed, and a proud stride perfect for bearing royalty. But Malger wanted him for a guard as well, and so Versyd and the other horses he'd hired in Glen Avery spent several hours a day training in close quarters combat with sword or mace. At present they trained with the Keep scouts, but Malger intended to hire personal instructors when he found one to his liking.
And as Versyd was to be his personal guard as well as mount, Malger insisted his eager Percheron practice his swordsmanship against the marten's tasseled blades. Versyd had both strength and stamina from years of pulling heavily-laden wagons, but he'd only received the most perfunctory training with a sword. No matter how many times Malger 'skewered' him he never grumbled at his defeat. In a little over a week he had already learned the danger of putting all his strength into his swings. It would not be long before he was a formidable fighter.
But when the message came, Malger had to cut short their practice. The time for waiting was over. He had but one errand to run before he set his plans in motion.
“His grace, the Archduke emeritus Malger Sutt, Lord of Sutthaivasse and master of Western Pyralia, answers your summons, your grace!” Andhun the bull bellowed by way of announcing his presence to Metamor's Duke. Most of the Duke's personal guards remembered him from his days as a court minstrel and seemed a little awkward with the marten's nobility; then they were servants together, now he was to be served. At least Andhun, one of the Duke's favorites, still gave him the same smoldering glower to assure him if he did anything untoward to the Duke he would be reduced to a gelatinous paste beneath the bull's massive hooves, followed by a familiar wink to wish him luck on his visit. No matter how much the rest of the world had gone topsy-turvy, it was nice to have some things stay the same.
The marten shot Andhun a glance and lift of one brow, as exasperated by the lengthy lung-emptying bellow of his entire title as he ever was. To Thomas, Duke of Metamor, the marten was a friend, though his title put the stallion a step below him in the ranks of nobility he took pains never to abuse his status. Besides, Thomas was a Midlands noble, not a Pyralian one and Malger was guest in his Keep.
He had been escorted to a small informal audience hall where he found the Duke standing with a chalice of wine between two thick hoof-like fingers peering down at a map his adopted daughter Malisa was populating with pewter animal figures. Malger needed only a glance to see Metamor Valley and its beastly barons; a squirrel for the Lord of the Glen, a badger for the master of Iron Mine, a lion for the mage of Hareford, and so on. He noticed no marten upon the board and wondered how long it would be before his likeness joined them.
“Ah, Malger!” Thomas said with an expansive sweep of his arm. “Is there some new wrinkle in matters supernatural? I have much gratitude still to show for your help this last week.”
Malger shook his head and offered both the equine Duke and human Prime Minister a fang-filled grin. “Happily my role in those affairs is at an end for now. A new adventure awaits me and I come to bring you the news.” Thomas's ears lifted but Malger did not wait to be asked. “Two days hence I shall depart Metamor in the company of Sir Matthias and his family. We shall journey to Sondeshara in hopes of finding healing for Jerome, Charles's Sondeckis friend who has been of great help to Metamor.”
“Ah, I have heard of this. I have also heard the dragons Pharcellus and Lindsey will be joining you. May the gods grant you a safe and uneventful journey.”
Malger laughed. “Well, not too uneventful! So many of our beastly appearance treading unmasked in foreign lands will be sure to cause a stir in every port.”
“Very true,” Thomas offered him a hopeful and thoughtful gaze. “Sir Matthias, you, and the rest showing yourselves to the rest of the world has given me new confidence. I will be making a ducal visit to some of the southern fiefs later this Summer; my first since the Curses were laid. It is about time they saw their liege again.”
Malger glanced at the map once more. Malisa, a devious grin creasing her lips, lifted her hands to reveal a horse-head statue at the southern edge of the map. “We've been working on this for a year now. Our vassals need to see our strength and courage; as do our enemies. We've withstood two sieges in less than ten years. There will not be a third from either north or south.”
“No there will not,” Malger agreed with a wider grin. “Which brings me to my question for you, Thomas. The journey to Sondeshara will be long and we will need to resupply in almost every port. Is there any errand I can perform for Metamor?”
Thomas and Malisa turned to each other, neither speaking for several seconds. Though Malger prided himself on the art of reading others he could guess nothing of their thoughts. Thomas took a deep breath, swinging his long equine head back to the marten, and in a low voice replied, “Actually, there is something you can do for Metamor.”
Their four legs took them many places throughout Keeptowne, though after wandering aimlessly for an hour, Charles grew bored and soon steered them toward places he knew and had once been frequently. First on his list were various shops and stalls in the market where he'd often purchased a morsel to eat or supplies for his work. Some he had not returned to since leaving the Writer's Guild two years before, and some were not there anymore, victims of the Winter Assault he had never before mourned.
He spent a few minutes in each place speaking with those he knew, listening to them describe their families and their hopes for the prosperous days of Summer and Autumn ahead. Many had heard of his investiture and congratulated him on his title and his family. All offered to keep him in their prayers, be they Followers or Lothanasi, for the long journey ahead.
Charles sought an excuse to purchase something – anything – from each merchant he visited, as if to relive those days now past. Apart from some fruits and cheese, most of which the merchants insisted they take as a parting gift, there was nothing he could justify; seeing those he'd once known well again was all he truly needed. There were a few times when he feared his larger four-legged body and tail would knock something from its shelf and he'd be forced to pay for its repair, but Goldmark, far more used to the vagaries of the taur shape, always stopped his tail or hindquarters from wreaking havoc in tight spaces.
Morning slipped past and soon the fullness of the afternoon was upon them. Charles turned their course back toward the keep. The mighty edifice was once his beloved home, and yet somehow there was a sadness clinging to its towers.
Goldmark was happy to accompany him on his meandering journey, but even he could sense something else in his friend. In a quiet voice, as they approached Gregor's Bakery, he asked, “Charles, are you saying goodbye for a year, or forever?”
Charles sighed and thumped his tail against the hard-packed earth freshly laden with straw. “I wish I knew. But aye, I might not return from this journey.”
“Then tell me, where else do you wish to say goodbye? We can visit them all.”
He pondered the question for a moment and shook his head. “I don't want to just visit these places. I wish I could live in them again. Only now when I may never see them again do I realize how much I appreciated all I had and all I knew here in Metamor. I am sorry I forgot. I am sorry I am dragging you through it.”
“You don't need to apologize to me, Charles. I am sorry I took so long to come up and live in this world. I am happy to spend one more day with a dear friend. So where would you like to go?”
Charles glanced at the sky and then at his fellow rat. “There's only a few places left I should see. I didn't see the dragons in the sky so my family isn't here yet, but they will be soon. It is best not to keep four little rats and their mother waiting.”
Goldmark laughed, patting Charles on the shoulder as they continued their way into the Bakery. They chatted with Gregor the capybara Baker who had finished his cooking for the day and was overseeing his apprentice, the tabby Brennar, hard at work before the ovens. Both rodent and cat insisted the pair could not leave empty-pawed, and certainly not before sampling Brennar's latest accomplishment. The soft cake-like pastry was sweet with a creamy goo in the center; it took only a few minutes to eat and another few minutes of licking the goo from their claws.
Nor did they leave without first a firm hand-shake and back-slapping and many wishes on the success of his voyage and a speedy return. But leave they did and made their way through busy streets into the central bailey about the Keep. Charles slowed his pace as they neared the old converted barracks, retracing steps he'd taken hundreds of times before over many years. Silent, Goldmark matched him.
It was nearly two years now since he had left the Writer's Guild; there were a few new faces, but most were familiar and some good friends. Tallis, his fellow rat, and Nahum the fox, both now Headmasters for the Guild, were eager to show him around.
The interior had not much changed since his days; a fresh bit of molding here and there, some new paint, a few additional tapestries, but otherwise it was as he remembered it. Charles closed his eyes and could feel years swim through him as the many writers and scribes of Metamor worked on crafting, copying, and critiquing to fashion stories of life at Metamor, or of life anywhere, to be sold to the wealthy, noble or merchant it did not matter, and added to all the great libraries of the world.
The main hall was filled with younger members of the Guild working on copying manuscripts, so Tallis and Nahum led the two rats back into the offices where they could talk and share a bit of cheese, bread, and wine. The writers asked after Charles's family and Goldmark's business and Charles asked after the progress on their latest compilation and if there were any promising new members. They told fond memories of the early days of Metamor when the Curses were new and tales of survival when their animal side came to the rescue. They laughed anew at embarrassments. They cheered for each triumph. They groused at the bitter disappointments.
And when the time came to leave the Writer's Guild, Nahum and Tallis held Charles tight in a firm hug and promised to pray for their safe return. Charles offered a long sigh as they continued onward, steps dragging, head turning to glance back. After doing so for a third time, Goldmark bumped his lower body with his hindquarters. “The Keep's in front of us, Charles, and in another couple of hours evening will be too. If there's nowhere else you want to say goodbye to, we can head to Long House and meet your family. I'm sure they've arrived by now.”
Charles took a deep breath, stood tall on his four legs, lifted his snout high, and sniffed as well as peered about. “Thank you for accompanying me, Goldmark. I don't think I could have done this alone.”
“You did teach us we rats must stick together!”
Charles felt a smile touch his snout. “So we must! There is one last place I would like to go, and then we can retire to Long House.”
Goldmark stood beside him and lifted his snout, sniffing. Apart from the delicate sweetness of Spring flowers, there was also a hint of roast mutton. Both rats tried not to drool. “Oh? Where is it? Oh!”
The scent drew their noses toward one side of the Keep. Nestled there was a large wooden building now fortified with stone. Both rats smiled as nothing more needed to be said. Together they headed to the Deaf Mule for one last round of savory meat, frothing ale, and a game or two of pool.
“Oh no! Not him!”
Misha was delighted to welcome the Matthias family at Long House one more time as they waited to begin their journey south. He loved seeing the four little rat children scampering around and playing with the other Long Scout children. So much laughter, so much energy, all of it filled him with the hope one day he and Caroline would be blessed with a family of their own. He was also glad to welcome Garigan and James, men of quality and courage, friends of Charles and the Longs. The rat merchants were only going to stay long enough to deliver all of the supplies Lady Kimberly had brought for her family on the voyage, but they too were welcome; they had already delivered relief supplies for Hareford and Mycransburg at Misha's request so he knew they could be trusted.
But the red-haired young man was entirely different. He wasn't actually a man.
“Pharcellus!” Misha exclaimed as the dragon in human guise followed the last of the rats into the wide open main hall of Long House. The young man turned his head at the name, saw the fox, and smiled buoyantly.
“Hello Misha! Did you miss me?”
The fox could only laugh and shake his head. What else was one to do with a dragon? “Thank you for all you have done and are doing. Just... please behave inside Long House!”
Pharcellus tilted back his head and laughed. “Oh, Sir Brightleaf, you know we dragons are very careful!”
“And very big!” Misha muttered, though Pharcellus's youthful enthusiasm and genial nature was already winning the fox.
Lady Kimberly reached him and threw her arms about the fox's chest. “Oh, Misha. Thank you.”
“For what, milady?”
“For keeping my husband safe again.”
Misha's one ear lifted and his snout stretched in a warm smile. “Milady, thank you for letting him come to my aid. Without him we would not have succeeded.” Or probably survived. “Your quarters are already prepared and we will gladly help you with your things. Charles is off exploring Keeptowne but as you've arrived now I'm sure he'll return soon.”
A note of uncertainty filled Kimberly's voice. Anxiety trembled her whiskers. “Did he tell you?”
He nodded. “We will dearly miss him if you must stay there. I have taken the liberty of inviting some of our friends, both yours and his, here tomorrow evening. It's not a party, but... a chance for everyone to spend a little time together before...” He hated it and couldn't force himself to say it. “Before... you know.”
Kimberly smiled to him and lifted her snout, pecking him on the nose. “You are a true friend, Misha. Thank you.”
“Caroline will be back shortly with some fresh food for tonight; I'm not sure what she's going to find, but it will be good! If any of you need some refreshments after your journey we do have stocks here we keep.”
“A little something to wet the throat would be nice,” Julian suggested. The white-furred rat carried one of the Matthias children in his arms. Elliot, the other rat merchant, stood beside him with another child. Garigan and James followed after with the last two. All four children were groggy as if they'd been sleeping; in a little while Misha was sure they'd be scampering over everything. The other three men carrying them all nodded at Julian's request.
Misha glanced over the travelers and frowned. “What of Lindsey and Jerome? I expected to see them with you. Charles told me he was the reason for this voyage.”
Pharcellus stepped forward and lowered the satchel he carried. “Jerome is not comfortable in such a large city. He and Lindsey are waiting outside in the forest where he feels safe. I will be joining them once my friends are settled here.”
“I did hear,” Misha said, a growl slipping into his throat. “Is there nothing we can do for him?”
Garigan handed little Bernadette off to Baerle the opossum and stepped toward dragon and fox. “No, there is nothing.” The ferret struck his chest with an open palm and narrowed his eyes. “What Gmork did to Jerome touched him to the very core of his being. His Sondeck has been changed. No magic here at Metamor can help. The guilds sent representatives to try, but they could not affect what dark sorcery had been afflicted upon him. Charles' skunk friend was the only one who could begin to prize it out, but he claimed it was enmeshed with his spirit as deep as the Curse we bear. He could not, and as much dared not, pluck at its web. Only in Sondeshara does Jerome have any hope of healing.”
Misha ground his fangs. “Why is it our enemies only multiply? We destroy one only to have another take his place. And each new one seems worse than the last!”
“Man is not meant to know peace,” Pharcellus observed with a shrug of his shoulders. “Not in this life. Such is denied even to we dragons, mighty and fearsome as we are.” Misha's ear lowered, tail ducking down, somewhat surprised at the dragon's philosophical bent.
“Are you sure you are Pharcellus?”
A disconsolate moue crossed the young man's face. “You might not recognize me anymore as a dragon, Misha. I have a scar – A SCAR – on my wing!”
After words of such depth, the outburst of draconic vanity made Misha tip back his head and laugh.
Charles was disappointed when Copernicus did not appear to whip his tail at pool one last time; but it was his only disappointment. He settled for trading wins with Goldmark while they downed ale and gorged on hearty stew. The potatoes were preserved from last year and the meat was salty, but it was the same delicious stew he'd come to expect from the mighty Auruchs who ran the Keep's favorite tavern. It brought back years of pleasant memories.
He paused at the doorway when they left, one hand holding the wooden jamb, feeling its contours as if trying to preserve them. Goldmark waited, saying nothing, until with a long sigh, eyes turned forward, he let go.
They reached Long House not long after and for a moment Charles recalled the first time they had ever set foot or paw in the massive hall. Misha and he had been playing predator and prey, running about the Keep in feral form as part of his Long Scout training. Charles only had to survive the day, and as he'd raced to escape they had discovered – or the Keep provided – Long House.
And there, within the Long House was a chamber plucked from the depths of his home far to the south, a shrine with an altar filled with the Sondeck at which he and his student could partake of their Calm and find rejuvenation. Within the chamber he had used an ancient trap to pin the fox down and win their contest. Before the year was out he would see again the place from which the shrine sprang.
He averted his eyes from the special door.
Meredith the bear was waiting for them at the entrance and he lifted Charles, even in his taur form, from the ground to give him a firm embrace. “Charles, you're back! Everyone is waiting for you.”
“Meredith! Oof! It's good to see you too! Oof!” The bear offered a rumbling laugh as he put the rat back down. Goldmark shook his head in silent mirth. “I expected to see my children scampering off the balconies. Where is everyone?”
“Oh, most everyone is on duty still. Misha, Caroline, and your family are in your quarters here. Julian and Elliot returned home not long ago, and Garigan went into the shrine a few minutes past. The dragon went off to do dragonish things.” The bear rumbled, dark eyes looking the rat up and down. “I say it is good to see you again. Must you always leave us so soon?”
Charles sighed. “If it were in my power I would not have left last year. Maybe I'd be out there in the woods scouting for Metamor right now. But this is for my friend; after all he's done for me, I could never abandon him. Did you see what they did to him?”
Meredith shook his head and then scratched behind his neck. “Nay, they stayed out in the forest. But Garigan described it. Is this Gmork really so powerful as to make a man a beast in heart as well as flesh?”
“It is what Nasoj wanted for all of us. I actually like being a beast in flesh and wouldn't change back if given the chance.”
Meredith's smile widened, showing off his considerable fangs. “Hear, hear! My life is better as a bear! And yours a rat!”
“Will you be joining us? I should go be with my family now.”
“I have to stand watch here, but I will see you again this evening and for however long you are here; I won't go out on patrol again until next week.”
“Then I will see you again soon; I am eager to hear of your adventures, my friend.”
Charles took a step into Long House and noted his fellow rat did not follow him. “Goldmark?”
“I am going to my home now. Thank you for sharing your day with me, Charles.” Goldmark stepped to his side and patted his upper back, flanks and tails bumping. “If nothing else, we will see you again for your journey to the edge of the valley.”
“Give Julian and Elliot my thanks and tell them I look forward to seeing them again soon.”
Charles watched his friend leave the Long House and then he headed deeper within to the quarters it had provided his family. He had never truly lived in them, but had he not been exiled to the Glen he knew they would have been home. There was a spacious main room with a wide stone floor covered by animal skins and comfortable chairs flanked by a staircase and landing leading up to the bedrooms. Doors on either side led to a small kitchen and the privy. And scampering around the floor were his four children while his friends reclined on the skins or in the chairs.
Kimberly glanced up at him and smiled, noting his four-legged stance with amusement. “Welcome home. Did you enjoy your day out?”
“Hello, my love. It was good to see many beloved places again. I smell ham and honey.”
Caroline thumped her heavy tail against the floor where she sat nuzzling her beloved fox. “We finished eating a while ago. We saved some for you.”
“I just ate at the Deaf Mule, but I will have it a little later.”
He was surprised by how long it took, but his children had been so engrossed in their game they hadn't noticed him when he first came in. But the moment was brief and before he could take another step they mobbed his legs, each of them clinging to one, all squeaking at once for his attention. Charles laughed and walked into the room, lifting each leg and child with great care, before settling his bulk next to his wife and tickling his children with his toes. His children and all of his friends laughed, their warmth greater than a roaring fire.
Night settled across Metamor and with it the warmth of the day vanished. Spring was in full blossom but there was still snow in the mountains which brought a chill wind through the valley. Charles felt it through his fur not as an alpine wind but as the emptiness of a desert midnight. He always smelled the desert when standing in the Sondeckis Shrine.
Garigan, garbed in his green Sondeckis robe, knelt before the stone altar imbued with the Sondeck, his paws stretched across its gray surface, snout relaxed in a repose as still as death. Charles watched the ferret for a full minute before he could see the slight swelling of his nostrils with each breath. He could not recall how long it had been since he had experienced such a deep Calm. He ached for it.
Unlike every other chamber within the Keep, the walls of the Shrine were fashioned from clay blocks. In six months time, if all went well, nearly every building he would see would also be fashioned from dried clay. He stepped back ten years every time he entered the Shrine. This time was different; this time he felt his future before him.
“I will have my family with me, this time.” Garigan's ears did not move. The ferret probably did not even know he was there. “I will not be afraid.”
Charles walked to one of the chests at the rear of the room, opened it, and lifted his black Sondeckis robe. He shimmied within its confines and felt warmth coat him. The new growth of vine nestled above his tail stirred against his fur before it and the robe settled into place. He couldn't take the entire length of vine the Wind Children had gifted him with last year on the voyage; it was simply too long now to even wind about his body when he did have four legs. The day after the dragons returned with Jerome, he had visited his vine to give it thanks and goodbye. One of the purple flowers had turned to face him and the rat bent forward to sniff the blossoms. Before he could touch those gentle petals a seed had fallen from within.
Tears had touched his eyes as he plucked the seed from the stable floor and pressed it against his back above his tail. He felt it burrow into his flesh, all without pain. The next morning the first sprout of vine poked a green tendril from the same spot. The Wind Children's gift, his plant friend, would be with him even in Sondeshara. Charles felt a smile return to his snout even as the memory touched his heart.
Attired in his robe, Charles knelt on the opposite side of the angel from Garigan and pressed his hands against the altar. Strength filled him and he felt a rush of heat. His eyes snapped shut and he found himself standing in the desert sands looking across a vast city and oasis. Its towers, its streets, and its lights were all familiar.
I once loved this city.
His paws sunk into the sand even as his eyes turned the city about, noting every avenue, every tree, and every rock. Day and night were present together, gold glimmering with brilliant sunshine and pools of water silver with the moon. He saw markets with wide awnings and domed ceilings where he and his friends traded chores for fresh figs and dates. His eyes walked through the practice rooms and commanded his limbs to perform each drill. His gaze brought him to the Cathedral and its crypt where one day he'd hoped his bones would rest.
And everywhere his eyes went, there the Sondeck abode. Its power suffused his flesh and drove his every deed. In it he found both repose and exhilaration. He was no more a knight, nor merely a rat; he wasn't even a man named Charles Matthias. He was a filled vessel, a cup running over, and an arrow springing from the bow. His life was not his own but a part of something vast. It was gift given to many and shared.
I belong in this city.
He could feel his claws digging against the stone of the altar and his eyes opened. The desert and city were gone. It took him several seconds to breathe. He stared at the gray slab and lifted his fingers away. Charles wanted to feel unsettled by everything he'd been shown, but all within him was calm.
“What was it?”
He turned to the ferret. Garigan had also lifted his hands from the altar and looked to the rat with serene curiosity. “I saw the desert sands, the pools of water bubbling up, the trees and grains, the clay homes, the brick streets, all of it. Was it Sondeshara? It's never done that before.”
“No, it hasn't. And aye, it was Sondeshara.”
Garigan reached across the angel and gripped the rat's shoulder. “It wants us to know all will be well when we reach your city, Master.”
“Perhaps,” Charles admitted. “But who is it? Has the altar ever spoken to you before? Has it ever shown you anything you had not thought of yourself?”
“No.” If this bothered the ferret, he gave no outward sign. “Has it never done so for you?”
Charles stood and invited Garigan to do likewise. “Those are more questions than we need for tonight. We have a very long journey ahead of us. Come, let us practice together for an hour and then we both need our sleep.” Was it, Charles pondered, a vision granted by the altar, or a gift granted by Metamor herself? After a moment he let the worry slip away.
The ferret smiled and joined him. Charles gave the altar one last stare before stepping to the middle of the shrine and allowing himself to truly savor the Sondeck within.
May 24, 708 CR
Even with an hour of practice to wear him out Charles did not sleep. He paced the halls of Long House for another hour before taking a hooded lantern and walking to the Keep's library. He did not see Fox Cutter, the librarian, and so meandered down the stacks. He pulled volumes off at random, flipped through the pages and stared at the words. A few times he stared for a minute before he realized the script was in a language he did not know.
He eventually found a book with maps of the known world and studied them for a time. He traced his claws along the coastlines of Sathmore and Pyralis; only a few months ago he'd sailed north along those coasts; he'd never expected to see them again, let alone so soon. Turning the pages he found drawings of Kitchlande and Sonngefilde. Ten years ago he'd left. Would he never again leave?
His steps carried him from the library. The lantern light swept before him into the gloom of the early hours. The Keep slept and all was silent; he did not even hear any wind outside. Exhaustion urged him to find a quiet corner and collapse, but he kept moving. He had nowhere in mind and for a long time nowhere is where he went.
It was still full night out when he found himself at the Cathedral doors. Candles were lit within and his steps drew him forward. He dipped his finger in the font at the doorway and made the sign of the Yew over his snout and chest, eyes lifting to Yahshua above the altar. Tranquility filled his face even as anguish consumed his flesh. Charles slid down to his knees and gazed.
And prayed. There were words but not many. A yearning trickled from his heart, threatening to become a flood. Something held the torrent back, but the rat did not know what. His gaze became distracted and he stared anywhere but the Yew for minutes at a time before he forced his eyes back upon the visage of his redeemer. He wanted to cry but there were no tears. Something beat at a door inside.
His eyes moved again, finding a depiction in glass of the Holy Mother Yanlin accepting the gift of her son. The face was typical of the northern clime of Metamor, soft with dark hair and white cheeks. There was no light behind the glass and not enough before it for him to make out any other colors. Yet a smile still touched his snout and the tension within him eased as he marveled at her.
His final moment Beyond the clouds had opened and through them she had smiled. Beauty, love, all goodness, radiated from her glance, transforming an instant to an eternity. The memory comforted the little rat on his knees, and he was able to lift his eyes to adore his savior hanging upon the Yew again.
His tongue moved at last, and in a whisper he prayed. “Lord Yahshua, I am afraid. I know you love me and your will for me is my salvation. I know I have received graces beyond measure. Thank you for each and every one. Thank you for my wife and children. Thank you for my friends. Thank you for this wonderful home. I am frightened I will never see it again. Help me to trust your will, Lord Yahshua, whatever it may be.”
He made the sign of the Yew again but found no more words to add to his prayer. The anguish in his heart still hurt, but more of an injury healing than an injury received. He knelt in quiet adoration, eyes tracing across the crucified image of Yahshua for many minutes.
His ears lifted at the sound of a door opening, and his head half-turned on instinct to see what it was. Not far from him, one of the doors to the residences for Father Hough and his seminarians opened. Another rodent poked its head out and cast a glance across the sanctuary. Their eyes met and the jerboa Questioner's whiskers twitched in apology. Charles made the sign of the Yew again, rose, and walked toward the priest. Seeing him approach, Father Felsah hopped out the door and eased it closed behind him.
The Questioner's black robes had been shortened considerably, and now gave his long feet enough room to hop without tangling. Small even compared to Charles, the jerboa offered a delicate playful appearance more likely to inspire other Keepers to pet his ears than to tremble in fear. Yet there was still something intimidating about him.
“Good morning, Father,” Charles said with a dip of his head and in a quiet voice. “I'm sorry if I disturbed your slumber.”
Felsah waved a paw. “I was not sleeping. I apologize for disturbing your prayers, Sir Matthias. Is there something I can help you with?”
Charles reached down to his side but he had no chewstick there to sate his nervous teeth. His claws dug into the empty space at his leg instead, while he stammered, “Well, I... I was hoping Father... um... Hough... um... could hear my confession.”
A small twitch at the edge of Felsah's whiskers bespoke a smile. “Father Hough is visiting Iron Mine this week and next. I can hear your confession, Sir Matthias. I have a great deal of experience hearing confessions of a... hem... supernatural nature.”
Charles blinked and stared at the jerboa whose head only came up to his shoulder if he stretched. “How... how did you know?”
Felsah lifted his ears and his dark eyes brightened. “We are both rodents, Sir Matthias. We have large ears for hearing many things. Mine are substantial.” Charles looked at them. Both were as long as his head from nose to neck and almost as wide. And then the rat stifled a chuckle; Felsah had told him a joke, one he'd used many a time before.
“Thank you, Father. I'm ready.”
“Then follow me.” Felsah hopped toward the confessionals in a bouncing gait. Charles cast one glance back at Yahshua before following.
Kimberly woke to her husband returning from a nocturnal haunt and collapsing into bed. It was not the first time since the terrible night she'd been roused by a determined skunk and forced to fight for her husband's soul. She knew it would not be the last. So far she had said nothing to him; instead she clutched the purple stone tighter to her chest and loved him through it. With one last kiss she positioned it within her bodice so it could be close to her heart.
The children were all still asleep, so after attiring herself, Kimberly gently roused Baerle and told her what she wanted. The opossum was always ready to help tend the children and wasted no time in helping her friend. Kimberly would sorely miss having her along on the journey south.
After Baerle was ready, Kimberly checked on her husband. Charles was sprawled on his chest with only one leg under the quilt; his tail sticking straight up before bending over and dangling off the side. He cradled the feather pillow under his arm and his jaws were open in a slow grinding snore. Kimberly smiled and shook her head. She lifted his tail and slipped it down between his legs, and then pulled the quilt up over his back until it just touched the tip of his ears. She pressed the end of her snout to the top of his head in a kiss and then left him to get his sleep.
Even as she did, her ears lifted at the sound of a little voice squeaking. Her children were awake.
Kimberly and Baerle dressed the four little rats and then took them to the main hall of Long House to romp and play. The other Long children were also up and playing various games and though they were far too young for most of them, the Matthias sons and daughters tried to join them. Some of the other mothers joined them and showed them where they could relax in comfort on one of the balconies. Before long they were sipping hot tea, nibbling fresh biscuits, and sharing stories of raising children and looking after their husbands.
Most days at the Glen started in the same way. In the Summer they would often receive a visit from the hedgehog Mrs. Levins bearing a pie or three, as well as any one of the many young mothers eager to let the children play while their husbands were off on scouting duty. Sometimes Kimberly and Baerle would take the children to do the visiting. And even though she did not know the Long Scout mothers very well, it comforted her just the same.
At some point Madog appeared and started giving her children rides as he walked around. Little Charles and Erick demanded the metal fox go faster, Bernadette sat like a princess, and little Baerle had to be coaxed to stay on his back. Kimberly touched the polished purple stone, enigmatic gift of the mage Murikeer, through her clothes and knew her Charles would love to see them playing together.
Not long after, and after they finished a third round of biscuits and a second round of tea, one of the mothers, a short white-furred Terrier named Sylia, pointed toward the main hall and murmured. “It's the Steward! I've never seen him come to Long House before.”
Kimberly turned to see and felt a warm delight touch her heart. Garbed in his usual red robes strode the large green-scaled alligator who was Steward of the House Hassan. Thalberg looked around with his yellow eyes atop long blunt-nosed head, long tail almost dragging behind his laconic steps. “Oh, excuse me, I must go see him.”
She passed the rabbit Padraic on the stairs down who tried to stop her. “Milady, there's somebody...”
“I know!” She called back before hurrying down to the main hall. When she emerged she moved as swift as her feet would carry her without ruining her balance as the Steward had taught her. He saw her coming and took a few steps toward her before lowering his reptilian bulk to one knee. He still was a head taller.
“Milady Kimberly,” he said in his basso rumble. “I've come to wish you a safe journey. Is there anything I can do for you and your family to help you on your way?”
“Milord Steward,” she laughed, breathless, and almost startled. Until moving to Glen Avery the year before, she had spent her days working in the Keep's kitchens preparing meals for Duke Thomas and all his household. The hours were long and mistakes were not tolerated; Thalberg ruled the kitchens and he expected only the best from all. And while he had never been unkind, and often showed consideration for times when a loved one was ill, there had always been a hardness in him which kept them separate.
She'd seen there was a gentle pride in the alligator on her wedding day when he had acted in the stead her own father would have refused her, bringing her to the altar to give her to Charles. Now she saw it again, though this time it felt natural, as if his hard edges had already been worn smooth by something else. Even if the rat in her wanted her to flee from a monstrous face filled with fangs, the lady in her saw the nobility and chivalry in the man behind the yellow eyes.
“Thank you for coming, milord,” she said, smiling and lowering her eyes as she returned his greeting. “In truth I do not know if I need anything. Whatever seems best to you for my family's sake will be more than enough. I am just so glad you came to see us.”
“Then I will see to it you are well provisioned for your journey.”
Kimberly gasped. “But it will take us many months to reach Sondeshara! Surely you cannot spare so much!”
A laugh seemed to echo in Thalberg's yellow eyes. “Easily and more, milady.” He reassured her with a slight but warm smile which was all he could proffer without an undue display of numerous teeth. “Where Metamor has friends, you and your family have friends too. This much I can do.”
Kimberly marveled at him, at a loss for words. What words could express her gratitude? Instead she stepped forward and threw her arms about him, hands griping the ridges along his back even through his robes. Thalberg's heavy scaled arms gently held her. She could feel the underside of his jaw between her ears.
When they parted, she said, “You love her, don't you, milord?”
“Miriam. Your lady alligator. You love her.”
Thalberg stammered, the first time she ever recalled seeing the Steward of Metamor embarrassed. “Well, I... uh... I have been helping her... being an alligator... I...” And then he seemed to realize what he was doing and let out a rumbling laugh so deep his robes fell open at the front, exposing some of the broad yellow scales at the top of his chest. “I suppose. I care for her very much.” His eyes became reproving. “I suppose your friends in the kitchens have been gossiping?”
“Aye,” Kimberly admitted with a little laugh. “But I didn't need to hear it from them to know. I can see it in you, milord. I can see you love a woman; they just told me her name.”
For a moment it seemed Thalberg would object or take offense, but then his eyes brightened again and a chortle filled him. “Ah, Kimberly, you have been missed in the kitchens. I will pray the gods protect you on your journey.”
“And I will pray for you and Miriam.”
Thalberg lifted his eyes and his jaws opened in a reptilian grin. “Now, I do have a few minutes before I must return. I would very much like to see your delightful children again, if I have your permission.”
Kimberly couldn't help but imagine Thalberg tromping around as a full alligator with four rat's on his back. “Of course. Come with me, milord!”
Everything was arranged, but there was still so much left to do!
Malger had not hesitated to agree to Duke Thomas's request. It necessitated little change in travel arrangements but the imposition was small and would perhaps allow matters to work more favorably. Even so, he spent the better part of the rest of the day seeing to the arrangements with his caravan master, the bison Hesgebaern. While Hesgebaern would not be accompanying them beyond the port in Menth, the bison was well acquainted with provisioning long voyages and offered advice on what to take and how much.
And Malger spent all of the next morning writing various messages to ensure those careful arrangements were kept. Hesgebaern had been sent to inspect the wagons Julian and the other rats provided – which Charles insisted on using – with Versyd in tow to help inspect the horses. Malger was fairly confidant he knew what Versyd would suggest and was open to the idea so long as it did not offend the rats.
The stallion would also remain behind while they journeyed, to continue his training in Metamor. It eased the already considerable number of Metamorans crowding onto one boat, and eased the stallion's rather pointed dislike of water travel in general. He had become a horse to keep the ground under his hooves, he explained, his distress barely hidden under his respectful tone, not to sway hither and thither on the water. Apparently, Malger discovered, the horse became horribly seasick even on relatively calm lake waters. The skunk mage Murikeer had also demurred respectfully stating his desire to establish himself in Metamor before charging off on another youthful adventure.
Thus it would be only Misanthe remaining at his side, and the trio of sea birds who he'd retained as messengers. And two of them would need to leave.
Malger, his work now done, offered the trio a satisfied smile. The Keep had provided him expansive lodgings suited to his station with windows looking across the Keep's towers at the Duke's residence. The furnishings were spare as if Kyia had known Malger would prefer to populate them on his own, but at least there had been a writing desk and cushioned chair suitable to his wiry frame. In this chair he turned, affixing the final seal and slipping the letter into a protected pouch one of the birds could wear on their chest.
“This letter must be delivered to Captain Calenti of the Venture Swift. She's a Kasshet hull moored in Menth; you'll recognize her by the leaping dolphins on the prow and mainsail. I and our friends will be leaving by wagon and carriage tomorrow and should arrive in a week's time. But because there may be delays or other communication, I want two of you to go to Menth together, while the third remains here. This way, if Calenti needs to send me a message, he'll have one of you to send, and another to remain in case a message is missed. As to who stays and who goes, I leave it up to you. Choose, my friends, for this message must be delivered without delay!”
Perhaps a bit theatrical for a simple message but his performance pleased the brothers. All three were in their largest anthro forms at Malger's request; they had spent so much time among real birds they'd adopted their mannerisms. Having three pairs of webbed-footed beady eyed birds watching his every move made him wonder if they'd snatch a morsel of dropped bread from the floor should he dare. He had every intention of putting to full use their comfort in avian guise, a comfort he did not yet share. Malger had very seldom attempted to assume the minor form all animal cursed Metamoran's could grasp; he felt keenly vulnerable being so small. Nor had he sought the bulky quadrupedal 'taur forms he had seen others practice. He was comfortable in the bipedal form he had been given which was more than satisfactory for his needs.
It was bad enough Misanthe still ran around on all fours. What would people say if all of his servants were always animals!
Quoddy the gull and eldest, turned his beak back and forth between his brothers and said, “Shall we play Earth, Air, Water?”
Machias the puffin and youngest of the three almost danced on his webbed feet, his colorful beak cracked into what Malger had learned was the avian equivalent of a grin. “Sounds good to me! Winners go or winner stays?”
The middle brother, Lubec the black-feathered cormorant, shrugged his wings. “With three players it always easier if winner stays.”
“Winner stays it is then,” Quoddy nodded, and then he leaned his head forward and closed his eyes. His brothers framed him and did the same so their beaks were nearly touching. “One, two, and three!” Quoddy tilted his head back, beak pointing up. Machias and Lubec lowered theirs. They all opened their eyes, and Quoddy squawked. “Hmmm, I win! I guess I'm staying then.”
Malger laughed and waved one hand. “I have never heard of this game. What just happened?”
“Earth, Air, Water... it's something we came up with after our first year with the flocks,” Lubec said, turning his head form side to side as if working out a tight muscle. “Quoddy picked Air and we picked Water. We fly in the Air, feed in the Water, and sleep on the Earth. You cannot eat if you do not fly, so Air beats Water. You cannot fly if you do not sleep, so Earth beats Air. And you'll never wake up if you do not eat, so Water beats Earth.”
“And for Earth you just hold your beak out straight like this.” Machias leaned forward slightly to demonstrate.
“So do we need another round to determine who will carry the message?” Malger asked, lifting the pouch, an amused chuff escaping his throat.
“Machias can have it,” Lubec offered with a stretch of his wings. “I carried the last one so it's only fair.”
Machias and Lubec shared parting wing-hugs with their older brother and then both shrank down to normal bird size. Malger helped secure the pouch on the puffin's chest and then both puffin and cormorant jumped from the window into the air, wings spread and beating. A minute later they had climbed high enough to orient themselves and began flying away to the south. Quoddy watched them go until they were well out of sight. He turned at last and asked, “Is there anything you need of me, then, your grace?”
Malger swept his arm across his desk and then leaned back on the chair, propping his feet on an ottoman. “For now, we relax until Hesgebaern and Versyd return. And then we can attend the farewell gathering Sir Misha Brightleaf is hosting at Long House for Sir Matthias and family. I expect all of us to attend. And as human as we can be!”
A little fox's voice replied from beneath the chair. “Of course, Ma... Malger.”
Malger chuffed again and daydreamed how attractive Misanthe his vixen would look in the gown he had commissioned which he had yet to present to her.
Charles woke a little before the noon meal so broke his fast with his family, his fellow Longs and their families. Misha had left to attend to some errands in the morning but the Longs assured Charles he would return in the afternoon. With nothing more to do he spent some time practicing with the other Longs and playing with his children. He dueled swords with his two sons using wooden practice staves, and then after letting himself be killed a few times, sat down with his little girls who were pretending to share tea and biscuits with their fabric dolls. A perfect afternoon.
He excused himself when Misha returned. The fox looked weary, with one ear lowered, and both eyes drooping, but he became alert when the rat neared. “Ah, you did finally wake up! Lady Kimberly told me you did not come to bed until nearly dawn.”
“I've not had an easy time sleeping of late, and thoughts of leaving Metamor only made it worse last night. I should sleep better tonight.”
“I know I asked last night, but I must ask again.” The fox put a hand on the rat's shoulder; Charles felt the slight prick of claws through fur. “Must you really go?”
“Aye, I must. If I have any hope of coming back here, I must go.”
“Then will you not take one of my sister's gems? They would allow us to communicate and make sure you are all right.”
“I thank you for the offer, Misha, but I know you only have a few of those stones. They are better used here at Metamor to keep the valley safe. We will have messengers if the need to send a message is dire. And there is nothing you could do to help us if our need were immediate. It is a four month journey by boat; not even a dragon could attempt the distance in less than a few weeks. No, Misha, keep them here where they do the most good.”
The fox sighed and shook his head. “I know you're right, Charles, but I don't like it. You've just returned and here you are leaving again.”
“Believe me I would rather stay. I was looking forward to a quiet Summer with my family. Now... now at least I'll have them with me, but it will be dangerous like nothing I faced before.”
Misha offered him a dubious look. “Hordes of hell creatures dangerous?”
Charles chortled and shook his head, thumping his tail once for emphasis. “Well, not that dangerous!”
“Heh. I know you mean more dangerous for your family.”
“My children especially. I cannot help but think of all the dangers waiting for them out there, and they unaware! You and everyone else laughs in delight to see them romp through Long House, but you have no idea the heroic efforts of Lady Kimberly and Baerle to keep them from hurting themselves and to teach them how to behave. And they have still bruises and cuts and any number of bonked heads or pinched tails. Bruises and cuts are part of childhood, but an inch more to the left or the right, and it could have been broken bone or stitch-worthy gash! I am more afraid watching them play than I am in battle!”
“I don't doubt it. Laura, Meredith, and the other Longs with children have all warned me of the same. I know I caused my own dear father and mother some exasperation. But on a ship there will not be many places for them to run, and there will be many others, including some of your friends there, who can help keep an eye on them.”
“And much they can learn. It is the right choice, but ah!” Charles glanced to where his children were playing with the other Long children – some game of tag he thought – and then back to his friend. “Misha, thank you for letting me fight by your side one last time before we must part. I dearly hope I will be able to do so again.”
Misha gripped his shoulder and his jowls drew back in a vicious grin. “And thank you for fighting by my side. We will do so again even if I have to fly to Sondeshara to do it!”
“You would be most welcome.” Charles put his hand on the fox's shoulder too. The two warriors regarded each other, grips tight, muscles tensed, eyes alight with an eager fire. Though it had only been two years they had known each other, each felt the other had his been his friend for two decades. For a moment, Charles regretted his refusal of the communication gem. “I have an idea; let us practice together and promise to do so again in a year.”
“Will you be back in a year?”
“We might be a month or two delayed if we do return,” Charles admitted. “But we'll have messenger birds with us to warn you of our coming. And if I am not allowed to leave Sondeshara for a much longer time, well, we still have messenger birds and dragons!”
Misha pondered for a moment before his only ear lifted and a determined grin crossed his snout. “It is agreed! Come, let us choose weapons for each other.”
The grin became mischievous. “Well, we have to make it interesting, do we not?”
The rat laughed and stepped after his friend. “By all means. Choose for me and I shall choose for you, fox!”
Jessica and Weyden were the first to arrive at Long House for the gathering of friends. They had the privilege of witnessing fox and rat fighting with weapons ill-suited to both. Misha wielded a practice trident whose three points were blunted and whose shaft was so long it was clear it had been intended for a Keeper of much greater height. Charles had a pole and net which while a good size for tripping up Lutins, could never hold anyone of the fox's size. The rat easily dodged the fox's awkward jabs, and the fox deftly avoided the rat's swirling snares.
The battle, which was welcomed with raucous laughing and cheers from the Longs and their other friends, came to an end when Charles caught the trident in the net and yanked it out of the fox's grasp. The heavy shaft struck the rat in the middle and knocked him off his paws. Both fox and rat spent the next minute laying on the ground laughing.
“Well,” James said as he collected trident and net, “it looks like you both need more practice.”
“I don't think anyone has ever used these weapons before,” Laura noted as she took the net from the donkey
Meredith claimed the trident and turned it over a few times in his heavy hands. The weapon was a good fit for the bear's size. “Hmmm, I'll have to try this myself.”
Weyden hopped to the bear's side and extended a wing-arm. “There's much you can do with a trident. This might be a bit heavy for me now, but let me show you.”
Meredith handed the trident to the hawk. Weyden, despite not having proper hands, was able to grip the shaft with the wing claws he did have. He turned it over a few times before demonstrating some jabs and parries for the curious bear.
Jessica bent down to peer at the laughing rat. Her golden eyes twitched in avian precision as they followed the rat rolling back and forth. Eventually Charles came to a stop and waved up at her. “Jessica! What did you think of the fight?”
“You and Misha had a very good time.” She squawked and stretched out a wing to help him up. Charles let her pull him up to his haunches and then he let go. “I'm sorry we haven't had a chance to visit you since it all ended. We were sent on patrol down south; nothing happened but its our duty. I'm very glad to see you and your family doing so well.”
“Thank you. How are you and Weyden doing?”
“Very well. He misses being captain of his men, but I know in time he'll earn a new command of his own. I have picked back up my notes to see if there is anything I can do with the Curses again; with Yajakali gone for good now, they're finally safe to look at again.”
“Does Maud still want to be a giraffe?”
“Well, Larssen would like her to be at least!”
“Do you think you can do what you once did, without a hyacinth?”
Jessica tilted her head to one side and tightened her eyes. “I don't know. The corruption gave me knowledge I never would have seen on my own. I wrote some of it down, but even the little I have seems cryptic to me now. Perhaps some of the other mages can help decipher it.”
“Maybe they can.” Charles glanced at Weyden, on whom were most eyes in the Long House. The trident was still too long for the hawk, but it didn't seem so in his grip. He darted the tip in and out, spun it on its axis, and explained each action as he did so. Padraic and Meredith both found themselves disarmed after one volley, each rubbing their smarting hands after the sword was twisted from their grip.
The rat smiled to the black-feathered hawk. “But what about you and Weyden? How are you doing?”
Jessica cawed a laugh and her eyes, darkened by uncertainty over the Curses, now filled with joy. “Oh, we dearly love each other, Charles. We hope you will get to meet the first of many little hawk children on your return in a year.”
“I wish you both all the best and for many healthy chicks.” The crowd roared with laughter. Both Charles and Jessica turned to see Weyden gaping at his empty claws and then at Misha. The fox held the pole with the net; the net was tangled in the trident's blunt points which now lay inoffensive on the floor. Weyden shook his head and offered the fox a salute.
The gathering of friends was mostly cheerful. Many would take their turn sampling unusual weapons and battling anybody who dared. All of the Longs participated as well as most of their guests. There were a good number of bruises and a couple small cuts but nothing more; as much as they could everyone restrained their blows.
Some would gather to watch and cheer on their friends, while the rest would mingle and chat, catching up on the joys of life. The children romped freely as they had all day long, stopping only to beg of the refreshments, each eager for the sweetest to be had. Misha had purchased a large number of pastries from the baker, though neither he nor many of the Longs ever had a chance to taste one as they disappeared down young mouths faster than their mothers could reprove them.
Kayla arrived not long after the first food delivery was made, and after giving Charles and Kimberly firm hugs, asked if there was anything she could do to help.
“If you have any of those detailed maps we could borrow, aye,” Charles replied.
“Not of the Southlands, no. Will it even be safe to journey near Marzac again?”
Charles shrugged. “I can only hope it will be. If not we'll be forced to circumnavigate Kitchlande and I'll be delayed another year; and who knows if Jerome can hold out so long. The other choice is to attempt a land crossing through Boreaux in northern Kitchlande, and with a group as beastly as we are, such a crossing would be very dangerous. Where's Rick?”
Kayla laughed and twirled her long, striped tail. “Oh, off killing things like he wanted.” In a quieter voice she added, “If all goes well, he may be away for the entire Summer. There's a chance he could help the free men of Arabarb reclaim control of the pass into the Giantdowns. After being kept an invalid so long, he sprung at the chance.”
“Truly? I suppose they need it but... don't you miss him?”
Kayla nodded and her eyes took a far off cast. “I do. But he needs this. He may think he's a rogue, but even Rickkter needs to be the hero!”
Charles tipped back his head and laughed long and hard.
Not long after the skunk arrived the final companion on their journey to Marzac arrived. Lindsey had not yet learned how to take a human form, and so the new dragon landed on one of the balconies to the screams of several ladies who had gathered to enjoy the afternoon sun. The screams turned to cautious laughter after Lindsey announced himself and apologized. He even shared a sip of tea with them before continuing down to main hall where his friends awaited.
“Oh, Lindsey, you look so handsome as a dragon!” Jessica crowed as she hopped around him, bright eyes admiring his vermilion-touched scales. Kayla gave him a firm hug around his neck, mindful of the pair of ivory-white horns sticking out the back of his head. He leaned back on his haunches to return the skunk's hug, and then gave one to the excited hawk.
“Thank you, Jessica, Kayla. I am so glad to see you both well, and to see you again! Who would have ever thought I would actually be a dragon!”
“It suits you well,” Kayla assured him. “Your eyes are still you.”
Jessica looked him up and down and then seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. “I don't see the child spell I cast on you anymore. I was afraid it might have become permanent!”
Lindsey busied himself giving both Charles and James a firm hug when the rat and donkey came to see their friend, before turning back to the hawk and tilting his crocodilian jaws to one side. “I did have a sudden growth spurt a few weeks ago, but my brother tells me I am the proper size for a dragon of my age. Whether your spell or no, I have another childhood to live through, and a much longer one too!”
Lindsey pulled his long tail in around his feet. “Another thirty years I fear. I have a dragon's life now. My brother tells me a time will come when I will learn how to make friends with those whose lives are a blink of a dragon's eye. I will see your families blossom and flourish for many generations. I don't know how I should feel about it yet. Just thinking of it makes me sad.”
Kayla and Jessica both hugged the dragon tight, while James and Charles grimaced. The donkey, in a low voice, murmured, “Well, I suppose you can tell all of our grandchildren and their grandchildren about us.”
“And I know,” Charles added, “I will feel better knowing one of my dearest friends will always be there to watch over my descendants. Somebody will need to keep them from straying!”
Lindsey nuzzled skunk and hawk before offering rat and donkey an anxious glance. “I'm not sure I am up to so great a challenge, but it is something. Phar did say to befriend families.”
Charles cast a glance at the entrance to Long House and smiled anew. “Speaking of which, here is another friend to our family who comes to our aid once more.” All of their heads turned and they saw a familiar marten accompanied by a beautifully dressed vixen make their entrance. Despite his reputation as a showman and a fop, his attire, while still extravagant with gold brocade trimming at the cuffs and collar and clashing scarlet doublet and green tunic, felt restrained. Charles saw in it a simple message; Malger was a noble and expected to be treated as such, but one who knew he was only a guest of another man more highly regarded than he. And of the latter, Malger did not appear to mind.
The rat wasted no time in going to greet him. His Marzac friends came, each of them also owing a debt of gratitude to the Archduke. “Your grace, welcome to Long House,” Charles called, offering a sweep of one arm toward the hall, and then open arms to embrace the man he owed more than he dared admit.
Malger smiled, and gave the rat a polite but genuine hug before leaning back and nodding his approval. “The Keep has created quite a fortress within itself! I have heard the tale of the defense mounted from within these walls against Nasoj's wintry assault. I am grateful to see even this part of it tonight. It is even better to see each of you again. It seems so short a time ago we crossed the seas from a doomed land to return home. Of course, you know Misanthe.” The vixen, garbed in a gown of vermilion to match Malger's raiment which complemented her russet fur, curtsied with a blush of her backed ears.
Charles inclined his head toward the vixen. “You look beautiful. Thank you for all you will be doing to help us on our way.”
Misanthe seemed a little uncomfortable being treated above what was once her station. Raised as a servant little better than a slave in her home country now to be treated as a nobleman's lady left her terribly self-conscious. “I am glad I can help, Sir Matthias.”
“Lady Kimberly was hoping to speak with you when you arrived. I think she is going to ask you to help keep watch over our children.”
Misanthe's ears twitched, whiskers drooping as she frowned and cast her eyes down. “It has been many years since I have had the care of children, sire.” Her small hands turned to wave across her body. “Not since becoming... this, at all.”
Charles nodded his head, understanding her reservations. “Malger trusts you, milady, and we trust him. He speaks quite well of you, almost to the point of exasperation at times.” He smiled and reached out to touch her arm lightly with the tips of his fingers. “You will also be the only other woman on our voyage. My wife does not wish to be alone in a sea of men.”
Kayla extended an arm to the vixen. The skunk's tail brushed against the fox's and her jowls lifted to reveal little white fangs. “Come now, Misanthe. Trust me, these four are the sweetest little children you will ever meet. And Lady Kimberly a dear friend you'll never wish to lose.”
The vixen nodded slowly with a timorous lift at the corners of her muzzle. “I am not uncomfortable around children, no. The least years at the crèche are spent caring for and training the youngest, it is not a task difficult to me. But, ahh, I am a fox and they... well...?” She cast a glance toward Malger and then over to Charles. “You would trust me with your children, sir rat, and your Lady?”
Charles actually laughed warmly and nodded. “While some are taken by the instinctive desires of their new selves, they are few. And Malger tells me you have conquered it even so, being able to speak while in your smaller form. So aye, I am willing to trust you with my children on his grace's assurance. My lady wife will be much comforted to have another woman along, for company if nothing more.”
“The Lady Kimberly is here, if you would like to meet her, as are the children.” Kayla waved a hand toward the far end of the hall.
Misanthe smiled to the skunk, following the motion of her hand and said, “I have met them once before; briefly.” Taking a short breath she glanced at Malger who offered a gracious nod and slight motion of one hand, releasing her. The vixen let the skunk lead her to the other end of the hall where the children were at play and their mothers and some of the other Longs were watching them.
Charles smiled after them before turning back to the marten. “And how are you faring, Malger? Is all ready for our departure?”
Malger clasped his hands behind his back and watched as Misanthe was introduced to the children and Lady Kimberly across the hall. “As much as any such things can be ready for a journey.” He offered with a slow nod, whiskers lifting as he smiled. One of the young rats, whose name he did not yet know, unabashedly asked to be picked up by the fox while another of darker hue and in a girl's dress immediately latched onto the vixen's tail. He turned his sober gaze on the rat beside him. “The Duke was quite interested in our itinerary and well pleased we are expanding outward despite the limitations of our rather unorthodox appearances. It will be our greatest challenge, I think, as well our greatest asset.”
“Asset?” Charles asked with a lift of one brow, his round ears pricking forward.
“Indeed. We will be remarkable. Indeed, beyond remarkable. The curious will listen to us as they might ignore others passing through. Even without the weight of nobility I will bring we would find ourselves treating with the most powerful personages in the cities we pass through, for the simple sake of curiosity.” His whiskers twitched with a momentary tightening of his lips. “And fear will also dog our paws. Fears of the different, we dread skin-changers of Metamor. Fear exploited for advantage. Politics, always.”
Charles chuckled ruefully as he turned his own gaze toward his children. Little Charles stood before Misanthe, who held Erick in her arms while letting Bernadette explore the comparison of her fox tail versus rat tail with the patience of a saint. His eldest child asked Misanthe something with an expression of bland seriousness which made the fox's ears twitch forward before she glanced at Kimberly who was similarly surprised. At the vixen's nod Charles assumed it was something about the trip, or some other unexpected question she could answer affirmatively while Kimberly looked on with a slight look of self-conscious discomfiture.
“Thomas asked me to convey some diplomatic overtures here and there on our journeys, in those cities we expect to resupply at. Thalberg has already arranged supplies for us while leaving Metamor, and if his boasting is to be believed, generous prices in several cities along the way. ”
“Politics I leave to you, sir minstrel.” Charles offered with a sardonic glance and a shrug. The machinations and maneuvering of the royals was something he had been trained to be familiar with, as he had to understand them to be able to infiltrate their circles on various missions for the Sondeckis, but it was still something he had little stomach for all the same. Malger had been raised to it and would by far be the better diplomat.
Malger went on with a momentary twitch of his whiskers at Charles' droll rejoinder. “I will be hiring on at least one or two more flying escorts, hopefully larger ones in the event anyone needs to be transported swiftly. Two dragons will suit us very well simply by being seen, to keep would-be pirates at bay, but another one or two would be useful. If any can be found they'll meet us at the port with our ship.”
“I might carry a child, but not a full grown man,” Lindsey objected. Malger blinked as he turned to see the young dragon reclining just behind them. Peripherally he had been aware of the company, but he had not realized who the reclining reptile was.
“Ha! You are smaller than I expected. After meeting your brother I expected you to be larger as well. It is a good thing I elected to hire another flyer or two. No offense intended to you, Master Lindsey.”
“None taken, your grace. I am still new to being a dragon.”
“And what of Jerome?” Charles asked. “He could be a challenge, I fear. He is fearsome of countenance and I am unsure how well he would be accepted, even after the shipmaster and his crew is presented with us as it is.” What he would not say was his fear of how Jerome would accept the cramped confines of a sea vessel.
“Is not Lindsey's brother capable of carrying him?”
“Pharcellus?” Charles tilted his head at the question. “I imagine so. He flew Jerome down to the Glen, after all.”
“A week's journey,” Lindsey pointed out. “And Phar has spent most of his time since resting.”
Malger nodded to both rat and dragon. “Perhaps, at least until the crew is used to us, he might stay aloft during the day.” It was not a question but an option, one Charles would have to consider. It would be easier than trying to conceal Jerome in the hold or whatever the ship had for cabins. He made a mental note to ask Pharcellus about it when he saw the dragon again. “If whomever else we manage to hire are amenable, many of the smaller travelers can fly as well. It will put more eyes aloft where they would be useful, and ease some of the crowding on the ship.”
Charles pondered and then laughed with a shake of his head. “Whom among us would desire it, sir? You? I would have no issues with it, but I daresay neither my wife nor children can offer much for eyes, even should she allow it.”
“A dragon's back in the sky would be far safer than a ship in a storm, I daresay.” Malger countered with a smile, rocking lazily on his booted paws. “But I understand. Misanthe is smart, very adaptable, and rather amazingly brave, but I have not thought to ask her what she thinks of being so far off the ground.” With a tilt of his head he glanced at Charles. “She actually attacked an assassin who had caught me exposed and unable to react, did I not mention? Tore her throat out with her own teeth and saved my skin, and took a blade for it. Before I had even come to realize what had just happened, she bit the hand of another who sought my death.” The marten rubbed the left side of his chest at the memory. “In the span of less than a score of breaths she saved my life twice. So, never fear, my friend. She will defend yours as fiercely as any parent.”
“Two?” Charles' brows shot up and he threw a glance at the petite fox surrounded and partially buried by several children. “With her teeth?”
“Well, she did have a stiletto, but... for the most part, yes.” While the female and children got to know each other Malger told the lengthy story of Misanthe's apparent death and reappearance in the moments before Malger would have died at the hands of an implacable foe. Charles, Lindsey, and James listened with rapt attention.
The gathering continued for many hours. Stories were shared and old adventures relived. Food in a variety of breads, cheeses, meats, and fruits were sampled with great delight. Both ale and wine disappeared from the larders. The children scarfed sweet pastries with their meat and cheese and washed them down with fresh milk. Charles moved between his friends, making sure he spent some time with each. He also spent a little time playing with his children and helping them play with Lindsey.
As much as he enjoyed spending one last evening with his friends, he felt the hour keenly. In another day's time he would not even be able to see the towers of Metamor anymore, and would not again for at least a year. He thought he'd managed to say goodbye to everything yesterday, but the Keep itself remained. He caught himself touching the walls as he passed and trailing his claws across the stone. He'd already said goodbye to his beloved home in Glen Avery. Why was leaving the Keep so much harder?
He found himself walking the balcony with Misha, a goblet of wine in one hand, while the rest of his friends commiserated below. The fox offered him a gentle smile. “Do you remember when we found this place?”
“Aye. I will never forget it. You nearly caught me several times.”
“It was almost two years ago. Two years ago we went on our first mission together.”
“To Glen Avery. We were to make a show of ourselves, and yet ended up stopping an incursion of Lutins!”
Misha nodded. “By the loathsome Calephas.” He spat on the ground. “May he rot in hell.”
Charles shuddered and gasped. “He is, Misha.”
“Calephas is rotting in hell. He is tormented by his sins and the sins of others in Ba'al's domain. I saw him. I smashed him to pieces.” Charles shook his head, his words gasped. He'd already confessed the sins to Father Felsah who had welcomed them nonplussed. “Misha, after seeing it all, I could not wish it on anyone else, not even Nasoj himself. There's something else...”
Misha put a paw on the rat's shoulder. “You told me a little of what you saw. My friend Drift... you don't need to tell me more, my friend. I know how it must haunt you. I know you didn't get any sleep last night.”
“Or many nights,” Charles admitted. “But this is something you should know. I saw... I saw him, Misha.”
The fox blinked, his one ear lifting. “Him who?”
“Would you forgive me for mentioning his name in these halls?”
Misha's gray eyes pondered the rat's words for a moment, before they opened wide and a tremble touched his whiskers. “You... you... did...” His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth for several seconds as he tried to force the name from his throat. He did not succeed. “Him.”
Charles sighed and nodded. “All he ever wanted was to have a command among the Longs as he'd once had before Three Gates. Bitterness poisoned him. Even in death all he wanted was to prove himself to you. If not for his aid, I would not have survived.” Charles looked the fox full in his face. “He repented at the end, Misha. I know it. And so should you.”
Misha stammered again, his arms and legs shaking. He gripped the rat's shoulder tight, his frame buckling for a moment. Charles feared the fox would collapse to the ground; instead he fell against the rat's chest, narrow snout barely crossing over the rat's shoulder. His voice wavered but did not sob. “Charles, tell me everything; everything he said. I must... I must know.”
The rat held his friend tight and replied, “I will. I am sorry I did not tell you sooner.”
Misha pushed himself back up and steeled his face. “Now is the time we have. Tell me what he said and did. He was... a brother. And I love him still.”
Charles patted the fox on the shoulder and in a quiet whisper no other could hear, he described the machine in which he'd found the traitor to the Long Scouts, Baldwin the condor, and what he had done and said in the interminable moments after.
Misha listened quietly while his friend spoke. He held his body still as a statue. The only trace of movement was his slow, steady breathing. His eyes were locked onto Charles and seemed to bore through the rodent.
Eventually Charles fell silent as his tale came to an end.
Misha didn't speak, but seemed to stare into nothing for a long time. “I... I...” He stuttered for a moment, fell silent again, and only after a long breath found his voice. “I'm grateful to you for telling me. I'm glad to finally understand why.” Misha closed his eyes and sighed loudly. After a moment he turned to Charles and looked at him. When he spoke there was pain in his voice, and in his face and eyes. “I am relieved to see he has finally gained peace.”
Misha hugged his friend. “Thank you.” Charles did not have time to return the embrace as the fox spun around and raced off to be alone with his thoughts. Charles watched the empty space where his friend had stood for long moments. Then, he too moved, turning and downing the last of his wine.
Malger enjoyed the gathering and did his best not to be the center of attention. After regaling Charles and his friends with Misanthe's tale, he mingled with the Long Scouts, broke out his flute and played a few songs, and otherwise enjoyed himself and made sure others found pleasure in his company rather than the discomfiture of dealing with his noble statue. He enjoyed a liberal helping of wine and sampled every morsel offered. By the time evening arrived he felt quite contented and knew he would have a long sleep.
And as evening bore down he noticed the families one by one sending their children off to bed. Misanthe was still watching over the little rats with Lady Kimberly and her opossum handmaid. Malger saw the fox's ease and the spark of delight in her eyes as she worked with those scampering balls of energy. It warmed his heart and for a time he did aught but watch her.
But evening would not wait. As Lady Kimberly began to stir, Malger approached bending down as he walked at an angle no human could manage and not fall over. All four little rats seemed to notice him at once and scampered up to him, eager to grapple and prove to their mother how awake they were and how they didn't need sleep after all! Malger laughed as four sets of paws gripped his tunic and tugged him down to the ground. They cavorted over his back and squeaked their victory over the big bad marten!
Kimberly and Misanthe looked aghast, but Malger shook his head and when it was safe, rolled over onto his back. He jabbed his fingers at one of the girls who squeaked and wriggled out of his grasp and rushed back to her mother. The two boys teamed up and attempted to tickle his sides, but their little claws were no match for his doublet. He gave both a playful hiss. The younger boy declared, “I'm not scared!”
“Me either!” Said little Charles, and then tried to tickle Malger again.
Malger gave in and laughed some more. He then felt something soft and wet on the top of his head. He tilted back his head and saw the other little girl there smiling at him. “I gave you a kiss!” she declared.
Malger laughed again. Kimberly picked up her other daughter and hugged her tight. “How very sweet of you, Baerle. Charles. Erick. It's time for you two to join your sisters in bed. Leave Master Malger alone.”
The two boys tried to jab Malger again but at their mother's clicking tongue, stopped and tried to scamper off. Malger put his arm down and caught the elder around his waist. The little boy squeaked and then stared at the marten, as if seeing him for the first time. Malger remembered how the boy had gazed at him when they'd first met, his eyes never leaving the marten the entire time. He saw the same look again.
“Hello little Charlie. Are you going to go to sleep now?”
“Uh huh. Are you?”
“Aye, soon. And I want you to know something. If you see me when you are sleeping, it's all right to come say hi to me, and any with whom you may find me. You can ask your mother and father and they'll say the same.”
The boy blinked once, flicked his ears forward and back, wiggled his whiskers, and then squeaked. “Oh. Okay. Good night!” He turned, climbed over Malger's arm, and rushed to where his mother and handmaid waited for him. The opossum scooped the boy into her arms and carried them toward a set of double doors. Misanthe followed them, carrying the other squirming boy in her arms. Malger watched them go, eyes ever on the vixen's lush tail.
Only when they were gone and the doors shut behind them did he realize he was still laying on the floor.
May 25, 708 CR
To his surprise, Charles actually slept well. He feared after telling Misha some of what had happened to him in the Hells the nightmares would be sure to come. Instead he slept without dreams and awoke refreshed and full of nervous energy. Kimberly was still in bed beside him and together they held each other for several minutes, neither speaking nor needing too. Even in the darkness with only a solitary witchlight to cast a twilight glow at every edge, their eyes spoke for them.
Her snout pressed between his neck and shoulder, his nuzzling within her fur, they remained in each other's arms until Charles finally found words to say. “We'll be together.”
Kimberly said nothing.
They dressed, gathered what few things they had in a pair of trunks and carried them out to the door of their quarters. Kimberly then turned to the hearth and laid several sticks upon the old coals. Charles watched her in awe as she pressed her paws to the tips; for a moment she seemed to hold her breath. A trickle of smoke rose between her fingers; a moment later she coaxed it into flame. A fire built of her own magic, his wife took a small pot, filled it with water, and then hung it over the flame.
Charles put a hand on her shoulder and nuzzled between her ears. “My love, what are you doing?” He found it entrancing to see her call up or quench flame.
“One last cup of tea before we go. I need one last cup of tea.”
He sighed and draped his arms over her chest, pulling her close. “Make it two cups.”
Ever quiet, Kimberly arranged clothes for the children. Charles touched each between the ears with a kiss. “Time to wake up. We're going on an adventure.”
Six rats and three heavy trunks of clothes, grooming equipment, and other essentials gathered in the main hall of Long House in the early hours of the morning. Charles and Kimberly carried their groggy children in their arms and settled down to wait for Julian.
James and Baerle joined them only minutes later with a few more trunks filled with everything else the Matthias family would not bring on their journey from excess clothes to toys and precious keepsakes they were sure to lose on a sea voyage. While the rats headed south, the donkey and opossum would return these treasures north to the Glen. Some Charles had told his friend to give to other families as they had need. Others, such as the little wooden and glass figurines they'd been gifted at their wedding, were to be protected in hopes they would see them again one day.
James scuffed his hooves on the stone floor as they waited, eyes narrowed, taking long, slow breaths. Charles took a few bites from a chewstick to calm himself before saying, “Is there something you want to say, James?”
The donkey lifted his long ears and glanced at Baerle and then the rats. “Charles, I... are you sure you want us to stay here? The children have always had Baerle to help mind them, and you have had me as your servant and friend for over a year now. You do not know what dangers you and your family are going to face. We have proven your trust in us is well-deserved. Why do you send us away now?”
Charles patted his wife's hand, and then scooped his two boys from his lap and nestled them down between two trunks. They opened their eyes, twitched their whiskers, and then cuddled together and fell back asleep. “James, take a walk with me. There are a few things I need to tell you.”
Baerle moved to where Charles had sat to keep an eye on the boys while the donkey followed him. He said nothing to James until they had crossed half the length of Long House and then only in a whisper. “What I tell you now I have not uttered beyond the chamber of my heart. But first, I wish I could have you at my side on this adventure. I depend on you, James, for a great many things. Those days you are off scouting for the Glen... I feel as if I am riding with my right arm missing. I am going to miss you more than anyone else here at Metamor, James.
“And you are right; I do trust you. I know you will never betray me or do anything which might bring harm to my family. This is why I need you to stay here in Metamor. This is why you are now Steward to my house. You have a very challenging task ahead of you but I would have no other but you do it.”
James murmured, “What would you have me do?”
“Baron Avery gave me the Narrows as my fief. Baron Barnhardt claims the Narrows are his lands. Glenners and Lakelanders have been squabbling over it for generations. I am Baron Avery's sworn vassal, and as such I am required to take his side in this conflict. If the Narrows did not belong to Baron Avery, then I have no fief at all! But I do not want to feud with the Lakelanders. I owe it to my Baron to foster friendly neighbors. As my Steward, in my absence, this task now falls to you.”
James turned his ears fully to the rat. Charles leaned in closer, one arm around the donkey's back. “Right now George keeps patrols moving through the Narrows to break up fights between Glenner and Lakelander.”
“Jessica and Weyden were there during the plague, I remember.”
“Aye, they were. And I've asked George to keep them there for now. In another week or two our friends should return. As Steward, it will be your job to meet with them and learn all they know of the comings and goings on my land. Most of what they will do is break up fights and try to force Glenners and Lakelanders to treat each other as good neighbors.
“As Steward, you have authority to decide what is and is not done on my land. Baron Avery has certain rights over the Narrows which you must respect. He is not to be denied his share of game nor his rights to send scouts through the Narrows. But he is also Duke Thomas's vassal, and it is Duke Thomas's will for peace in the valley. I will this too. You are to welcome Lakelanders in the Narrows as guests and friends. The shepherd Silvas is to be given every courtesy and grazing rights on whatever land his flock wanders. Contested game should be divided evenly, though both Baron Avery and my rights need to be respected. You need to eat as well, my friend, and as my Steward, you are permitted my share.
“I want my land to become profitable. You know my plans for a keep. Work with Gibson and Julian to lay the foundations. Both are men I trust to put the interests of my family first. Rely on our friends for help and advice. Jessica knows most of the mages at Metamor and is highly respected. Kayla works for Andwyn and knows more secrets than any of us! Misha will always come to the aid of his friends, and through me you have become one of them. Never forget how many friends we have!
“One last thing. I am a knight and as a minor noble I have rights now which I did not possess a few months ago. Learn them well. As Steward to my house, you now can insist on those rights on behalf of my house. You should do so when it is necessary, but be charitable when it is not. In all things do whatever seems prudent to you. I trust you, my friend. You will do as I ask when I am right and you will not hesitate to tell me when I am wrong. You are my right arm, James. I know when I return I will find my house more prosperous and respected than I do today. I have no other instructions for you. Do you have any questions for me?”
James took a deep breath, ears backed, tail flicking from side to side. The tuft made a little brushing sound against the back of his breeches. “Two years ago I was nothing more than a junior merchant in a shop selling cuts of meat. I hoped one day I'd be able to operate a shop of my own. Now you give me more responsibility than I ever wanted or dreamed. I don't know if I can live up to your expectations, but I will try.”
He lifted one hand and placed it on the rat's shoulder. The awe in his voice gave way to worry. “But are you sure you can trust the Archduke and his mistress? He did deliver us back home to Metamor, but how well do you really know either of them? You are not paying him to lead you on this adventure; what will you owe him on your return? One way or another, you will be his servant, Charles. I fear you will owe him more than you can imagine. He may say you owe him nothing, but he is a crafty one, this Sutt. From all I have heard with these ears of mine his family was a devilish one bent on conquest. He will find a way to profit; I fear it may come at your expense. Have you considered this?”
Charles nodded and sighed. “I have considered it. And in truth, I already owe Malger more than I care to admit. If I am to be his servant, so be it. From what I have seen, he affords his servants great latitude and respect. I do not fear what he may ask of me in the days ahead. And you should not either, my friend. For what we seek to do will make a better man out of him as well as I.”
James grimaced but the urgency of fear left his countenance. “I still wish I could go with you.”
The rat's whiskers twitched as a smile spread into his cheeks. “I wish you could. But there is one other advantage to remaining here. How fare you and Baerle?”
A blush touched the donkey's eyes and he stammered in reply, “We... uh... well... she accepts my interest. I think she... I think... she enjoys my company.”
“Then you have a much greater responsibility than I could give; you must win her heart, my friend. Both your happiness and her own are dear to me. Win her, James. It will be much easier with me a thousand leagues away.”
The donkey cast a furtive glance at the opossum sitting with Lady Kimberly and his tail swished faster. “I had not thought... I... thank you, Charles. I will win her. I will!”
“Good man!” Charles clapped him on the back and laughed. “Now, let us return to our lovely ladies and wait for our friends to tell us it is time.”
And together they did, quietly reminiscing over their many days of friendship and their hopes for the future until the moment Julian arrived.
Julian arranged three of his wagons to carry them and all of their belongings to Menth. Joining them was Hesgebaern the bison leading Malger's carriage so the Archduke could travel befitting his station. James helped Charles load his trunks into the middle wagon along with many of the supplies they would need to begin their journey. The rest of the foodstuffs occupied the final wagon in addition to Lindsey who was just small enough to fit; the young dragon reclined atop the crates like a lizard sunning himself. Lady Kimberly, Garigan, and the children would all ride in the first wagon to keep them safe. Charles would ride alongside.
A clear-blue sky welcomed them with the early dawn sun peeking above the heights of the Barrier mountains in the southeast. The air was cool and damp with the morning dew. Everyone, even the children were quiet and did what was necessary with only a word here and there. Julian helped Kimberly into the wagon, and then both took the children as Charles and James hoisted them up in turn. Little snouts peered over the edge of the wagons, eyes wide and curious. Baerle brushed her fingers over each of their snouts, standing on her toes to give each of them one last kiss good-bye.
Goldmark and Elliot checked the rigging for each wagon, while the bison and a pale Percheron Keeper fussed over the carriage. Of certain horses they asked if they were comfortable; two nodded their heads, but the third flicked his head back; sure enough the buckle around his middle was a little tight. There were twelve horses altogether, two for each wagon and six for the carriage. Charles asked Elliot why they had so many and his friend flashed him a bemused smile.
“It was Versyd's suggestion.” Elliot bobbed his head toward the Percheron; Charles recognized him from the Glen. “We will return from Menth with neither passengers nor cargo, but we are still Keepers. Four of these horses are men like us, and there will be Versyd too. They will help protect us on the journey home.” The rat chuckled and nodded his head toward the last wagon in the train. “A bit of the cargo is their wardrobe and weapons, too. If they're to return on two hooves instead of four they thought it best to do so a tad less than skyclad.” Charles blinked and then laughed with his friend, having overlooked so small a detail.
It was the most words any of them offered while the final preparations were made. Misha and Caroline arrived a few minutes later leading Charles's pony Malicon. His coat had been brushed and tack cleaned. Charles smiled to fox and otter before stroking the pony's head and giving him a gentle scratch between the ears. Malicon whickered and bumped the rat's arm, asking for more.
Caroline left the rat and fox together to give Kimberly and the children one last greeting. Charles turned to his friend and the two hugged close. “At least this time,” the fox mused, “you aren't leaving to fight crazed ancient beings trying to end the world.”
“Some consolation I suppose,” Charles admitted with a mirthless laugh. “How far will you come?”
“I dare not,” Misha admitted with a sigh. “If I follow you even to the gates I will follow you all the way to Sondeshara. But you will be safe as long as you are in the Valley. The Longs will be watching. And so I will be watching.”
“Then we will be safe,” Charles replied, forcing a smile to his cheeks. He cast a glance at Caroline who had climbed into the wagon and held Kimberly tight. “I had hoped to be there at your wedding, but it will please me more to return home to find you both working on playmates for my children.”
The fox's one ear lifted up in surprise and then lowered in uncertainty. Charles had seen this fox face down nightmare terrors from the realm of the Daedra and hordes of Lutins and mages without the slightest hesitation; he hurled himself into the midst of melee with a snarl and a laugh. Yet in the face of a woman he had no courage to do what his heart desired. Charles could only keep smiling.
“Well, I... I hope. I know she wants children. I just...” Misha shook his head and laughed. “You were once like this too!”
“I know. Which is why I'm hopeful for you and my other friends.”
“Thank you!” Misha said and paused for a moment. His snout tilted down as his fingers fumbled at the drawstring to a leather pouch at his side; curious, Charles said nothing. The fox managed the laces, pulled something out, and offered it to the rat. It was a simple unadorned amulet of copper whose only marking was an engraving of a hook shape; claw or talon perhaps. “This is for you and I insist you take it.”
Charles studied the object, turning it over in his hands. “What is it?”
“If you need help in a fight,” the fox explained. “Hold it in your hand and pronounce the command word Artellum. It will bring forth a Summoning to fight for you; for a short while only, but against most enemies nothing more would be needed.”
“It's a thing of magic. Not truly alive.” Misha brought his hands together and wiggled his fingers for a moment. “It's difficult to describe. Its claws and teeth are sharp.” He gave a yip of laughter. “I can attest to how sharp they are! But be careful, it will only work once.”
The rat closed his fingers over the amulet and smiled, whiskers drooping and then lifting. “I knew you would find a way to help. Thank you, my friend, my brother!” Charles grasped the fox's arm, and the two hugged. “Good bye, Misha. Eli willing I will see you again in a year or two.”
“Eli go with you, Charles. May He bless your family all your days and bring you home.”
They smiled, faces brave, and parted. Charles lead Malicon by the reins to the wagons. Caroline gave him a firm hug and then she too stepped aside, returning to where Misha watched near the gardens. James and Baerle followed.
While his children reached out to pet the pony, Charles saw Malger and Misanthe emerging from the Keep. To the rat's surprise they walked alone; no servants and no fanfare to accompany them. The marten's attire was flamboyant with bands of colors angling across his doublet so he appeared more an ornamental heraldic emblem than a well-dressed Keeper. Yet nothing else in his manner drew attention to himself. If not for the bright colors, he would appear as nothing more than any other Keeper out for a morning stroll with a lady.
Misanthe bore suitable clothes for travel with an err toward comfort rather than foppishness as Malger displayed. Even in simple, if somewhat elegant, servant's attire she was a fetching sight. All eyes turned to watch her. Even in his finery, Malger could not outshine the vixen.
Versyd and Hesgebaern met them a dozen paces from the wagons and carriage. Malger gave the horse a reproving glance. “You are not properly dressed, Versyd!”
“I thought you would prefer your carriage, your grace.”
The marten's gaze did not waver, but there was a hint of delight in it. “For when I need sleep or if the sky opens and dumps rain to drench our fur to the bone. But on a day like this, I will ride and show off my magnificent steed!”
The horse's ears lifted and his supple lips stretched proud. “Of course. I shall change immediately, your grace!” Hesgebaern rolled his eyes and his pipe between his thick lips before lumbering after the young stallion. Curious, Charles watched as the pair withdrew an ornate saddle and tack from the last wagon. They disappeared behind it, but he could see their legs beneath. At first, each stood on two hooves, and then the horse's lifted to remove his breeches. A moment later and another pair of hooves fell to the stone causeway. By the time Malger sauntered over to the rat, the bison emerged followed by a massive charger, saddled and almost dancing with regal step.
“Are we all gathered then, Sir Matthias?”
“I believe so.” He and Garigan helped Misanthe climb into the wagon with Kimberly and the children. The little rats greeted the vixen with excited squeaks. “Pharcellus and Jerome are waiting outside the city. I only do not know where the birds are.”
“Lubec and Machais left for Menth yesterday with a message. Quoddy wished to find our dragon friends; I expect we will see him when we leave Euper. If there is nothing else then, we should be off. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
Charles pulled his chewstick to his incisors for one last quick nibble before saying, “Then we can leave as soon as you are ready.”
Versyd trotted to Malger's side and nudged him in the back. The marten laughed and stepped around to his side. “And soon. Versyd wants to show off his prance!”
He laughed one last time as he climbed atop Malicon, Malger matching his motion as if choreographed, Versyd arching his neck and flagging his tail with a proud dance once the marten had settled. Charles smiled to Kimberly and down to his children. He waved back at Misha, Caroline, James, and Baerle. And last he turned to Julian in the lead wagon. “Let us be off.”
Julian gave a verbal command, one echoed by Elliot and Goldmark in the other wagons. The once-human horses strained against the rigging until the normal horses caught on and started forward in tandem. The wagons jerked forward, jostling everyone aboard. Charles nudged Malicon's sides and the pony took up a comfortable gait, keeping alongside the first wagon. Versyd with Malger stomped past him to lead the procession. The Percheron almost danced on his hooves, each clattering against the stone with an asymmetrical yet rhythmic clop. Malger rode tall, statue still, a thrilled grin stretching his snout. Charles shook his head and sighed.
Keeptowne slipped by with little more than a few friends waving as they passed. His children were still young enough to be impressed by the tall, close-packed buildings and the fountains in the market district. They pointed each of these out with delight, asking if they could climb the walls or splash in the fountain. Each unusual Keeper also inspired a question, and Charles did his best to recall their taxonomy. Often times his reply was, “Lizard”, “Bird”, or “I have no idea, sorry.”
While they traversed the Killing Fields and the long slope down to Euper, Versyd relaxed his gait and plodded along much as Malicon did. The four Keepers helping to pull the wagons and carriage had long matched their pace to the normal horses so he no longer could tell which was which. Charles had resisted the urge to wave goodbye to the places he had known and loved since coming to Metamor almost nine years ago. But on the slope to Euper he twisted in the saddle to offer a single farewell.
There was little in Euper Charles recognized; what few places he had known had been destroyed in Nasoj's Winter Assault, and even the course of the main road seemed different to him since then. He spoke with his wife and Misanthe, telling them some of the history of the town nestled at the Keep's feet. At the head of the procession, Versyd trotted with regal splendor and Malger soaked in the curious gaze of onlookers. Behind them his fellow rats kept the wagons in line with little words and the occasional tug on the reins; Lindsey waved from his perch, flapping his wings and making silly dragon faces at the Euper children.
The sun finished climbing above the mountains by the time they passed through the gates of Euper. The road widened into a broad hard-packed boulevard of dirt rutted by wagon wheels and pitted by hooves. A branch led down to the small lake which was truly nothing more than an over-sized eddy in the river, while the main road led north and south along the western edge of the prominence on which the Keep perched.
Where the road began south in earnest a large group of Keepers waited. On the opposite side of the road reclined a good-sized dragon and an oddly shaped man hunched beneath a wing. Charles blinked in surprise and delight when he recognized the Keepers. Jessica and Weyden stood before a giraffe and the human woman who was his wife, a ram with a long-stemmed pipe in his teeth, and a youth. Beside them were two knights, an elk and a rat, and an oryx squire, all mounted and ready for travel.
“Sir Saulius!” Charles exclaimed, nudging Malicon forward. His fellow rat knight moved forward from the group, a wide grin twitching his whiskers.
“Sir Matthias! Didst thee believe I wouldst let thee go without so much as a 'fare thee well'?”
They hugged and Charles laughed in delight. “I am glad to see you! I thought you were on patrol up north?”
The elk, Sir Egland, rode up alongside them with his squire not far behind. “We received orders two days ago to escort you to Menth and to guard all those returning to Metamor.” The elk bobbed his head toward the marten as he rode up alongside. His antlers were still growing for the season, but already they promised to be a pair the envy of any hunter. “I am proud to serve as your honor guard, your grace!”
Malger chuffed but smiled. “I am pleased to know we have such good men as yourselves to protect us and our friends as they return home. We may only have a few days, but I am eager to hear of your adventures. And perhaps, if perchance you have your viola, we can join in song?”
“Alas my viola remains at home, but musicians will always find a way to make lovely melody.”
While elk and marten commiserated, Sir Saulius trotted over to the wagons and greeted Kimberly and the children. He nuzzled their noses with his own, tickling them with his whiskers. He lifted his namesake from the wagon and set him on his pony's neck. Little Erick clutched at the saddle horn with excited squeaks. The other children immediately begged for a chance to ride too. Charles picked up his eldest boy and set him on Malicon's neck. “Bernadette, Baerle, you two will have your turns in a moment.”
“Nay,” Egland intoned with a smooth baritone rumble, his heavy steed's hooves thudding up along the opposite side of the wagon. “Let them not feel second to those rapscallions.” Holding out an arm he carefully lifted Baerle onto his saddle while his squire, on an equally massive warhorse, accepted Bernadette onto his. The two girls squeaked merrily before the two gallant gentlemen as their prancing mounts moved forward to join the others.
Jessica, Weyden, and the other members of their patrol team waited for the wagons to reach them and then fell in step beside them. Jessica hopped alongside Malicon and looked up at him. “You can thank Kayla. She pestered George to let your friends accompany you to Menth until the jackal gave in. I wish we could go further, but... for some of us it will be the first time we've left the valley since we came!” She cast a glance at every other member of her patrol. “With so many of us, I know we will be safe.”
“I'm glad of it. Tell Kayla thank you and I owe her for this.”
“Between friends you owe nothing.” Jessica assured him. Her eyes lit upon the dragon. Charles nodded and after depositing his son between the elk knight and his youngest sister , rode between the wagons and a little ahead. When he reached the pair reclining beside the road, he dismounted and approached.
“Good morning, Sir Matthias. A beautiful day for journeys, is it not?”
“Good morning, Pharcellus. Thank you for watching over my friend. And yes, it is a beautiful day. May Eli bless us with many more!”
The dragon made the sign of the yew with one claw, and then peered over the rat's shoulder at the train of wagons. “We'll follow along behind; no need to spook the horses.”
“Some of them are Keepers so you shouldn't, but for now it's probably wise. Thank you, Pharcellus.” He turned to Jerome. His fellow Sondeckis was mostly human in shape, though his legs were still deformed, ending in black paws. A tail dangled through a gap in his robe. His jaws protruded beneath cleft lips and a darkened, flat nose, while his ears stretched to fur-covered points. But at least his eyes were the same as they had been in youth. He met Charles and his lips formed a smile, fangs protruding where they parted.
“I'm ready, Charles,” Jerome said, only a faint growl hiding beneath his words. “You needn't worry about me.”
“It is a long journey, but we'll make it.”
Charles smiled. “To our home.”