Casting Off

by Charles Matthias

May 27, 708 CR

   Three long days of journey brought them a few hours from the port city Menth. The moon, a sliver shy of full, was already limning the eastern sky, while the western glowed bronze with the setting sun. Two fires brightened the roadside, and an assortment of Keepers more than two-dozen in number shared their warmth after enjoying a hot meal. Three well-laden wagons and a noble's carriage flanked the fires, offering them some privacy in a land not touched by Metamor's Curses. An evening breeze brought hints of the sea.

   Charles reclined against a stone, one hand holding the chewstick between his incisors, the other rubbing the soft flesh of his tail, while he stretched his toes near the fire. He watched his children scampering and tumbling about in the grass while his wife Kimberly and the fox Misanthe looked on, intervening when their play brought them too close to the fire. Mercifully, due to their young age, they had managed to sleep part of the journey each day; but it left them full of boundless energy when they awoke and kept most of the retinue busy trying to protect them. More often than not they had bounced from one side of the wagon to the other or capered along the verge of the trail; even letting them ride with the knights or upon Pharcellus only offered a moment's respite before they wished to scamper again. Erick seemed to be the most curious and adventurous, darting from discovery to discovery when he was not chivying their escorts for stories of battle or lessons in sword. Luckily many of the horses were intelligent residents of Metamor and did not startle when rats leaped onto their backs or darted beneath them; their calm demeanor kept the normal horses from spooking.

   Charles hoped there would be room aplenty for little scampering rats when they took to sea.

   Malger entertained the company with a spirited tune on his flute. Egland and Intoran accompanied the marten on cookpots, wringing melodic tamber from the cast iron by deft strikes with the pommels of their knives. Larssen the giraffe and the human Maud danced to the music, Larssen taking care not to step on his wife's delicate feet with his hooves. The youth Van and the ram Dallar clapped in time. Versyd and the other horses shouted encouragement between needling each other to join the dance. The gull Quoddy watched them from his perch atop Malger's wagon and tapped a webbed foot in time to the beat.

   Sir Saulius and the bison Hesgebaern were busy inspecting the real horses, though their heads turned from time to time to listen. So too it was with the other rats who checked over their wagons with as much care as a mother inspecting her children for bumps, bruises and bites. And far overhead Jessica and Weyden circled, swooped, and soared, both to keep watch and to stretch their wings.

   Only the two dragons, Garigan, and Jerome relaxed with Charles. Garigan stretched in the grass, eyes searching the sky; his toes twitched with the rhythm but nothing more. Pharcellus – who had taken a human guise once they left the Valley – perused the set of maps Kayla had procured for them while surreptitiously keeping an eye on his younger brother. Lindsey and Jerome lay next to one another as the young dragon combed his claws through the wolf's black fur.

   Animals most of them appeared, and yet it seemed wrong to look at the wolf and know it was his friend. Jerome startled them all when he rose on four paws in the morning looking no different than a wild beast. But Lindsey assured them it helped Jerome stay himself if he 'let the wolf out' from time to time; none of them objected further but they had all kept a respectful distance from his wagon.

   Charles sighed as he gnawed.

   “What are you thinking about?” Lindsey asked.

   “Tomorrow we enter Menth. Tomorrow we enter a world beyond the Curses. We did so in secret before; at least for most of our journey. This time we do so openly. All the world will see beasts who walk as men. My children will be seen as vermin. They've never been treated as vermin before, Lindsey. They've been loved; never hated. Will they remember the look of disgust they will receive because they are rats? I remember the looks we received in Breckaris and in Sutthaivasse.”

   Lindsey tilted his head to one side and offered him a draconic grin. “They are still young. They probably won't remember any of this except for the stories you tell.” He ran his claws between Jerome's ears and the wolf lifted his head from his forepaws. “But if any man dares threaten them, Pharcellus and I can eat them!”

   Charles almost choked on wood splinters. “Eat them? You should not be using dragon humor, my friend!”

   Lindsey laughed. “I doubt I could ever do such a thing! I may be a dragon but I am still a man too.” He twisted his long neck and nodded toward the red-haired young man. Pharcellus smiled over the top of the maps but said nothing.

   Julian climbed off the nearest wagon and wiped his hands on his breeches. He drew up his tail and snagged the tip between his fingers. “We will draw eyes. Some will be curious; some will be afraid. But this is Menth. Many of the merchants here have been traveling to Metamor for years now. They are used to seeing people like us and they know we are not beasts. They are just not used to seeing us in Menth.”

   “In sooth. I shall try not to worry,” Charles added before gnawing on his stick again.

   “I intend to make sure they do become used to seeing us here in Menth. After we leave you with your ship, we'll spend some time in the merchant district. I'm sure there are many things they want we from Metamor can provide!”

   “And your wagons can carry.”

   Julian's red eyes glimmered in the firelight. “We're going to need more wagons. I wish I could convince those horses to work for me. Ah well, there will be others.”

   Charles laughed beneath his breath and relaxed. “There are plenty more still living in the Glen. And there are plenty from Bradanes who will need work.”

   “We shall see.” Julian stretched and sat down next to him. He was about to lean against the rock when his eyes narrowed, staring at Charles's back. “You have a flower growing out of your tail.”

   “Oh, it blossomed?” Charles set his chewstick in the grass and reached both hands to feel his tail root. The little vine, a few days ago no more than a tendril, had grown its first bud while he slept. Now he could feel delicate petals; he could not see them but he knew they would be purple like the vine clinging to his stable walls at the Glen. “I thought it would wait for the morning.”

   “Why do you have a flower growing out of your tail?”

   “It was a gift from the Wind Children. It saved our lives last year when a strange plant in the Marzac swamps attacked us.” He laughed at Julian's incredulous expression. “I have no idea who the Wind Children are, but we met them while journeying through Åelfwood. I was stone still and they planted a vine in my granite flesh. It grew into the massive vine you've seen I keep in my stables. Somehow it can slip in and out of my flesh without hurting me, and before we left it gave me a seed.”

   “A seed?”

   “A seed I planted within my flesh, and as you can see, it too is growing.”

   Lindsey chuffed as he stroked the wolf's ears; Jerome panted as he leaned into the dragon's claws. “He's telling the truth. I remember the Wind Children. They shaped leaves and flower petals to appear as our faces before giving Charles his vine. Even the Åelves were surprised. Even Zhy...” Lindsey lowered his snout and thumped the end of his tail. “Even Zhypar was surprised.”

   Charles leaned over to pat the dragon on his side. He glanced down at Jerome and felt his heart tighten. Sitting back up he forced a smile to his whiskers and put his hand against the rock. “And, like I said, I was rock at the time.” The pink flesh of his hand hardened and grayed before disappearing within the stone. Julian gasped and scooted away on his tail.

   “I...” Julian stared for a moment before shaking his head. “Are there any more secrets you wish to share?”

   “Nae,” Charles withdrew his hand and returned it to flesh. “Nae, there is nothing more. It has been a very strange year.” He touched the scar around his right eye. “It has changed all of us. Jessica's feathers are black. I have this scar, can turn to stone and have a vine growing from my tail. Lindsey is a dragon! And Jerome...” He sighed. The wolf lifted its head, golden eyes peering at the rat, waiting. “Jerome, my friend, needs our help. And so we go.”

   “You forgot to mention one change,” Julian noted with a smile returning to his whiskers. “We have left the cellars behind. Forever.”

   He gripped Julian on the shoulder and leaned forward until their snouts touched. “Few things have made me happier, Julian. Thank you.”

   His fellow rat returned the grip. “Thank you, Charles. Now go. Dance with your wife. Don't waste such good music with moping.”

   Charles gave him a firm hug. There was nothing more to say. He went and danced with his wife for a song or three.

   Malger searched the dreams. He did so at leisure, his pace and manner laconic. During the day the travelers acted as if they were out for nothing more than a pleasurable stroll to the next village. At night the tensions and worries were loosed and given shape. He witnessed brigands striking them down with swords, mighty waves swallowing the ship whole, slavers leading the children away in chains, and even an apprentice to Sideshow capturing them in cages for his terrifying menagerie. Malger would not add his own anxiety to the dreamers.

   Instead, patient and slow, he offered a bit of joyful song or a whisper of encouragement into each unsettled dreamer. It was never enough to chase the nightmares away, but they were never as frightening again. And after each offering, Malger withdrew as quietly as he had come and continued his search.

   He had only seen traces of the Matthias child each of the nights on their journey. Sometimes it was a flash of ears and tail disappearing into mystic underbrush, other times it was little scampering tracks left in the path darting from dream to dream. He did not blame the child for running away; here in the dreams he was without mother or father to protect him. And while there was much he could say in the waking world to help the little rat, the true teaching must take place in the dreams.

   Which meant little Charles would need to stop running and hiding from him.

   Malger did not have long to wander among the dreams of his traveling companions before he found the tell-tale sign of the boy. Paw prints which sparkled with moon-glow dust trailed through a nook of stone and trees. He followed at a leisured pace, listening for dangers and threats but hearing none, and watched.

   The paw-prints ended inside a little hole in a tree far larger than its neighbors. It reminded him of the mighty redwood the Matthias family lived in, though the shape was distorted with a profusion of twists, branches, and whorls. The hole appeared too small to squeeze through but as he neared it swelled in size. He crouched at the entrance, peering into the dream without entering the dreamer.

   The dreamer was the other Matthias boy, Erick. He could see a fantastic world of forest where everything was exaggerated with knightly banners draped from tree branches and familiar animals capering about. Erick and his brother Charles were both wearing armor and battling each other with massive swords. They laughed as they swung and squeaked as they dodged each blow.

   Malger chuffed in surprise. Little Charles had entered his brother’s dream to play with him.

   He watched their play for a time and then reclined against one of the gnarled roots conjuring a happy tune from his flute. A small bitterness touched his heart; there had never been any simple play between him and his family. But this was one pain among many he had taken for himself over the years; he surrounded and cornered the hurt with grace notes, captured it with a trill, and scattered it from his heart with a boisterous arpeggio. He would let little Charles have his brother.

   His thoughts strayed to the stone altar, the massive crow, the scarred rat, and the child between them. What little his goddess had explained to him still left him confused. It was a riddle within an enigma lost in an archipelago of mysteries. Would he ever understand? Would any of them? And what pain would there be in understanding? A sour note touched his flute with those thoughts.

   Malger blinked and stared down between the roots to find a rat child staring back up at him, little paws curled around the tip of his tail. The boy gazed at him as if he'd been waiting there for hours. The marten sucked in his breath and let the flute fall from his muzzle. “Hello, Charles.”

   Whiskers twitched and dark, protruding eyes blinked while over-sized ears flicked up and down. For a moment the child appeared more alley rat than knight's son. And then he spoke, his voice anxious and interjected with little squeaks Yet it penetrated the marten more deeply than the melody he had chased his childhood regret away with. “You not dream for yourself.”

   He smiled. “Nay. You and I walk the dreams of others. I will teach you how. I will teach you how to help and protect the dreams of others, and how to protect yourself from them.” The boy only stared at him and rubbed his fingers over his tail tip. “Do you know who I am?”

   “Daddy says you Archduke Sutt.”

   “Very good. But as I am your teacher, you may call me 'Master Sutt'. Do you understand?”

   The boy blinked and nodded. “Master Sutt. Bye-bye.” Before he could react, the little rat fell to all fours and scampered into the dream brush leaving only moon-glow paw-prints behind.

   Malger chuffed and shook his head. It was a start.

May 28, 708 CR

   A half dozen wary guards watched the caravan once it emerged from the forest; the four at the gate exchanged anxious words, while the two manning the gatehouse parapet looked down with curiosity. For many minutes traveling Keepers and resident men merely eyed each other until the distance between them had closed to a few wagon lengths.

   One of the guardsmen stepped forward and held up a hand. The three behind him rested hands on sword pommels while the tower guards knocked arrows to their bows but did not draw. “What... what brings beast men to Menth and so many?” The man demanded gruffly, narrowing his gaze to stare up at Malger, who had ridden forward from the train. “You... State your business!”

   From his lofty perch astride Versyd Malger offered the guards a reproving stare. “Beast men?” He scoffed with perfect aristocratic annoyance, glancing back at the wagons. “Do not caravans of Menth journey to Metamor and back? Does not your lord swear fealty to Duke Thomas of House Hassan? As a horse is he, too, a 'beast man'?” Egland and Intoran rode forward slowly to flank Malger. Charles and Saulius rode beside the first wagon with his family; four little rats peered over the side of the wagon, noses lifted to the pungent air of a port city for the first time. Jessica, Weyden, and the other soldiers stayed back along either side of the second wagon, their hands upon the plainly visible pommels of their weapons. Lindsey and Jerome hid in the final wagon beneath a stretched canvas. “Do we demand human men who come to Metamor's gates state their business?”

   The mustached man in charge of the gatehouse gawped a couple of times before regaining his composure, realizing by dress and stature, even if he was some sort of furred creature, he was of a far higher station than a mere town guard. “Such caravans do journey to Metamor and we are loyal to the House Hassan. But all visitors must state their business in Menth; especially the rare visitor from Metamor.”

   Malger snorted haughtily and let both hands rest upon the front of his saddle. “Sire,” He muttered flatly.

   “Sire?” The guardsman blinked.

   “Aye,” Malger snapped. “Do I look a passing churl? Now, I have hired a ship berthed here in Menth. My companions wish to do business of their own in your marketplace.” Leaning forward in the saddle Malger fixed the guard with a hard penetrating stare. “Unless you wish to deny us entry, which I am sure to tell his Lordship should I need to return to Metamor with my business unfulfilled, you will let us pass.”

   The guard chuffed and cleared his throat, then stepped aside. “We are not accustomed to Keepers here,” he explained with a slight bow. “Even here, where the cursed of Metamor are known, you would do best not to wander freely.” The two guards on the tower lowered their bows while the four at the gate stepped aside. Malger nodded his thanks even as Versyd trotted with regal air into the city. One by one the wagons followed. Little Baerle and Bernadette waved at the guards as they passed.

   Charles smiled at his children and tried to keep his smile as he gazed about the city beyond the gates. Menth was a port town and trading center for the Northern Midlands. Wide streets allowed easy passage of commerce from both northern and eastern city gates to the marketplaces and the wharves. Already he could see the tall masts of sailing vessels over the top of the clustered row houses. His nose wrinkled from the scent of refuse even the sea could not hide.

   The streets were filled with vendors selling fish, fruits and vegetables as well as garlands made from flowers, townsfolk buying them, and children playing. The presence of so many Keepers, particularly beast-cursed Keepers, was noticed the moment their wagons rolled through the gates. Charles could almost sense the ripple of news radiating through the town as a palpable force. It was the children who took the keenest note of the Keepers, pointing and gawking in surprise. Brave boys rushed up to get a closer look. Charles watched a pair daring each other to touch the tip of his tail dangling off Malicon's flanks; neither could work up the courage or shame the other enough to be so foolish.

   Soon all eyes were upon them and the raucous noise of the streets died down to a susurrus of curiosity. Charles could hear their whispers if not their words. Their eyes were uncertain; some were afraid, others merely curious. A few even appeared excited as if they'd always hoped to see a beast-cursed Keeper one day, without having to risk the curse itself by visiting. Some took the hands of children and kept them from coming any closer, but most of the young boys were unattended so they continued to pace the beast men of the north and their train of wagons.

   Charles's four little children waved and called out happy greetings to the other children and for a time their high-pitched voices were about the only ones heard upon the streets of Menth. He scoured the crowd looking for faces filled with disgust or hands reaching for vegetables to throw; of the latter he saw none, but scowls were easy to find. Despite their disgust at the sight of animal-shaped men, he was grateful to be a rat; the shape of his head made it easy for him to watch everyone along the road without turning.

   A tense half-hour followed as they maneuvered three wagons and the Sutt carriage down the wide street toward the wharves. Guardsmen watched them and the people thronging the streets to catch a glimpse of them with one hand on their weapons. Some from the crowd followed after them, while others rushed to the streets ahead of them. Merchants grumbled curses as their booths were swamped by gawkers. Charles and the other knights did their best to appear imposing but not threatening. Malger rode with snout lifted high, noble elan undisturbed by the regard of the crowd.

   Charles breathed a sigh of relief when the road turned onto a broad, flat esplanade overlooking the wharves. Official looking houses loomed over the street, each bearing a sign upon its lintel and many dangled pennants from foreign lands from their windows. At least two dozen ships of various sizes were moored, most of which were crawling with roustabouts heaving cargo and supplies. Soldiers wearing the sea-green livery of Menth patrolled the esplanade and stood guard at both ends. They permitted the Keepers passage but shooed away most of the gaggle of curious townsfolk.

   Malger turned to beckon him forward and he nudged Malicon ahead until he was even with the marten. “Ah, Sir Matthias. Yonder is the Venture Swift.” He gestured four ships down the line. The kasshet hull was long with a wide-bottomed keel and almost two-dozen oarlocks per side. A single mast with rigging prepared dominated the center; a leaping dolphin decorated the prow. Dozens of men, sweaty from labor, moved supplies up the gangplank, checked the oars, tightened the rigging, and cleaned the deck.

   “She looks seaworthy enough. Will there be enough room for everyone?”

   “If we only carry supplies for the voyage,” Malger replied. “Captain Calenti knows to expect us today, and with our welcome this morning I expect he already knows we are here. You are free to see the Venture for yourself. I must find Calenti and ensure everything is satisfactory.”

   Charles nodded and stroked one hand down his pony's neck. “Then I suppose it is time we said our last goodbyes and parted ways.”

   Garigan, Kimberly, and Misanthe helped the four children out of the wagon, while Pharcellus lifted the canvas from the last wagon so Lindsey and Jerome could crawl out. Jerome was still a black wolf; he kept close to the wagons where he wouldn't be seen. Larssen and Dallar lifted their supplies from the second wagon and set them down on the stone esplanade. Charles watched them for a moment before dismounting.

   “Erick,” he led Malicon by the reins around the first wagon to where his fellow rat knight watched. “Sir Saulius, I leave my steed in your care until I return.”

   Saulius dismounted and took the offered reins. “I shalt care for thy steed as my own, Sir Matthias. May Eli speed thee and protect thee and thy family on thy way.”

   They hugged, patted each other's backs, and parted. Nothing more needed to be said. Charles thanked each of his friends for their help on the journey to Menth and wished them an easy return home. They in turn wished him a safe journey as Saulius had. A few he embraced, but only a few. They had been saying farewell for almost a week; the actual parting was welcome.

   Charles, Garigan, and Pharcellus carried their supplies down to the stone wharf next to the Venture while Malger disappeared to seek out the Captain. The pier was slick with sea foam; the waves sloshed against the stone and made the oars creak in the locks. Even next to the sea the sludge of the city made the air foul and he did his best not to breath in too deeply.

   Lindsey and Jerome followed along behind the trio, both on all fours; they continued to the end of the pier and did their best to stay out of everyone's way. If anyone remarked upon the odd pair it was with no concern of the large black wolf for it strode alongside a dragon. A dragon! On the Menth docks! Gawkers clustered as close as the guards would allow, crowding nearby piers and the balconies of roofs of surrounding buildings to point and chatter like magpies spying a sparkling coin lying on a crowded street; alluring but unattainable.

   After setting down the trunks and casks of clothing and what few personal items they dare bring on such a long voyage, Charles stretched and stared back to the esplanade at his friends. Saulius had hitched Malicon to the back of the wagons and Versyd was now on two hooves helping to rearrange what little was left between the wagons. Jessica, Weyden, and the rest of their patrol group apart from Larssen climbed aboard the wagons for the return trip. Versyd joined Hesgebaern on the carriage. One by one they turned the wagons around and started back north. Charles did not look away until they had disappeared behind the cog moored next to the Venture.

   “Pharcellus!” A squawking voice called from above him. Charles lifted his head and saw three birds circled down from the mast before the midday sun blinded him. Shielding his eyes, he blinked the spots away as the sea birds landed on the wharf.

   When he could see clearly again he recognized the black cormorant and puffin as Quoddy's brothers. The gull had flown ahead to find them and now their voices were filled with excitement and joy. It warmed his heart to hear it. Lubec stretched out his wings and cawed, “Pharcellus! Lindsey! Are you ready to see the sea we know and love?”

   The dragon masquerading as a young red-haired man smiled and pumped his fist. “We are ready, my friends! We merely wait for yon Archduke's return with the Captain of this fine vessel. Are you ready?”

   Machias bobbed his head. “We're going to do a little more fishing while you wait. Don't worry, we'll keep Venture in sight!”

   Lubec folded his wings behind his back and craned his neck to the sky. “I think you'll like the fellow Calenti hired to help protect us all on the voyage. If he ever comes down...”

   Pharcellus and Lindsey peered up. Charles and Garigan did too, both shielding their eyes. Jerome panted at the end of the dock, eyes lost to the sea. Far overhead a shape circled slowly. It was larger than a bird with an oblong shape. Charles frowned; he could make nothing else out; Malger had said he wanted to hire another flyer or two. Pharcellus seemed to know what it was as he clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Impressive fellow. I'm curious how he was hired given the warm reception the people of Menth offered us.”

   Quoddy shrugged his wings and took a step toward the edge of the wharf. “You'll have to ask him when he decides to land. I think he's saving the story so he only has to tell us once.”

   Pharcellus laughed and a moment later the three birds leaped into the sky to scour the waters for fish. Garigan lowered his eyes and blinked the spots away before saying, “I'm going to inspect the ship. Do... do Sondeckis ever get seasick?”

   “Young ones do,” Charles admitted. “I would be very surprised if you do.”

   Charles watched the ferret bound up the gangplank and disappear over the gunwale. He noted the oarlocks and pondered how many weeks he would spend rowing; he was physically fit and would do his share of the work no matter what anyone else said. After a moment he turned to the two dragons and his breath caught in his chest. Jerome had shifted into a crouch, his muzzle retracted an inch and his forehead swollen; there was no mistaking him for an ordinary wolf. Yet his golden eyes still peered across the waters lapping against the wharf, sea foam and city flotsam beating at the stones with each gentle wave. The rat wondered if his friend even knew he'd changed.

   “Sir Matthias?”

   Pharcellus's question snapped him from his distraction. “You may call me Charles when it is just us. No need to stand on title among friends. And I certainly would never lord a title over a dragon!”

   The red-haired man laughed and shook his head. “We dragons delight in your titles. They are one of the threads binding your society and giving it shape. And yours is a title of honor, O Rat Knight!”

   “If you insist then!” Charles offered him and Lindsey a smile. Lindsey kept close to Jerome, his vermilion-tipped gray scales bright where the sun struck them, but said nothing. “Have you decided how you will be traveling?”

   Pharcellus smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “We will follow along on your journey; at least at first. It will be bad enough for the crew without us three on board.”

   He nodded. “Of course. I know you can keep an eye on us with ease from the skies. And if we need to send you a message one of the birds will help.”

   “They will. As you saw, Sir Matthias, they are as eager for this journey as we are!” The dragon's smile appeared to show fangs though his human disguise had none. “And your family?”

   “My family will be fine.” He waved one hand toward them to reassure them. “I am here to protect them, as will be Garigan and our other friends. Besides, should any threat arise I daresay it will unlikely reach us before dragon fire convinces it to go elsewhere. And... a journey like this will be good for them all. If it does not bankrupt us. I wonder what deal Malger has arranged for us.”

   “What of the deal?” asked a calm voice behind him. Charles turned in surprise; the sound of the ships groaning against the wharves had masked their approach. Malger approached with one arm draped over the shoulders of the slender red fox Misanthe; she had dressed in a simple servant's gown of gray and bore in her arms his youngest daughter Baerle. The young rat's cheeks were plump and dimpled with glee as her tiny fingers clutched at the claw the vixen used to tease her whiskers. Malger smiled at them with regal aplomb, his eldest boy clutched in the tall marten's other arm. Beside him walked Kimberly with his middle children clutched one in each arm; his second boy squirmed a little trying to see everything. “I believe it was a single merchant per soul per week at sea.”

   “Ahh, there you are, and they! I was beginning to wonder...” His eyes lifted and he felt an anxious worry at the price. “I certainly hope the captain is not demanding a coin for each of the wee ones similarly?”

   “Oh, indeed so.” Malger winked, casting an affectionate look down at the rat child held easily in the crook of one arm. “Because babes wail, or will be, once the Venture makes the water.” His gaze and then snout lifted back to the rat child's father, pausing a moment to study the hand-print scar surrounding the right eye. “But this is a price you needn't worry about, as I told you. You are my guests on this voyage, Sir Charles. You need know nothing more of the cost for it is not yours to bear.”

   Charles held out his arms and took his eldest boy from the marten. Little Charles yawned and began to gnaw at the leather armor over his father's shoulder. “And I thank you again! When do we disembark?”

   “Captain Calenti will be here shortly to oversee final preparations. With no cargo and the currents behind us we have only a light crew. But we will make quick time to Sutthaivasse regardless. For now, unless you have need of anything more in the city, we should board and secure all we have brought.”

   Charles shook his head. “I am ready. Garigan is already aboard.”

   Malger smiled and swept his now free arm up the gangplank. “Then shall we?”

   The Venture was a cargo ship and looked the part, wide and shallow of beam. The upper deck spanned the entirety of the vessel from gunwale to gunwale, though a good portion along either side was little more than open lattice above the benches for the rowers. Charles gazed down into the dimly lit oar benches and assumed two or three men could seat each oar, of which there were a good two down on each side of the vessel.

   What a crew they would have if the oar ranks were full! The effort simply to move the boat and a hundred men would be no mean feat, much less the tonnage of trade goods. He could only marvel at the scope of the endeavor he had embarked upon. For his sake, for Jerome, Malger had shouldered the financial burden of supporting not only his family, but the pay of an entire ship and its crew for he knew not how long.

   Just below the top deck was an open passageway from bow to stern, blanked by heavy beams and only broken by the spar of the mast piercing the deck from above. Between the beams hammocks were neatly strung, drawn close and empty while the crew was, ostensibly, spending the last of their hours in Menth.

   A single broad shouldered, stooped man met them at the base of the gangway stair, his rheumy eyes sizing them up. “Ye lot our fare, aye?” He growled though not unpleasantly. His voice was rough by years at sea more than a gruff manner.

   “Aye,” Malger nodded, moving to the fore. “And you are?”

   “Mogaf, galley master, yer grace.” The man knuckled his brow and bowed, though hardly affecting very much change in height considering he was already stooped by years spent belowdecks. “I'll be preparin' yer meals and sundries, an' overseein th' care of yer animals too. Saw th' wolf and serpent above, Ah did, meanin' them, not yerselfs,” he corrected hastily with a quick glance at the group slowly gathering at the base of the stair.

   “The dragon will see to itself, good sir.” Malger smiled with a slow nod in return. “And the wolf was once a man, like us. The Curse was not so kind to him as us, but he has a man's mind.” He paused and pursed his lips, whiskers angling forward before lying back and drooping. “And a wolf's nature, I might warn. He's still learning to grasp the enormity of his change.”

   “Ah, aye then well, ah'll be lettin' 'im be on 'is own, then.” Turning the man shuffled down the passageway toward the bow. “Cabins fer yer grace 're up t' th' bow. Be a sight more rough when th' water's up, but be forward o' th' bilge s' not quite such a bite t' th' nose, aye? Cabins fer th' rest 're below. Wit no cargo t' speak of we put up some partitions, like, so's ye'll have some pervacy an' all.” Coming to a wall at the bow end of the passage he waved toward the lone door, and a gangway leading deeper into the ship to one side of it. “'Fraid be naught below thems but th' bilges an' ballast, so's nae let the little 'uns be wonderin', aye?”

   “They'll be in good hands and under watchful eyes, master Mogaf, never you fear,” Malger assured him.

   With a nod the man made his way through them back toward the stern. “Good, good. Galley be in th' stern.” He paused to glance at Malger, then Charles and Kimberly, taking in the children held among them. “Won't be a'fttin' fer yer lordly mouths, ah'm jes a ship's cook. But it'll keep ye full and healthy like. Yer grace.” With a bob of his head and a touch of knuckle to brow he turned and shambled into the dim shadows toward the stern.

   “He seems put out,” Garigan opined laconically, earning an uneasy chuckle from the others. “Couldn't give a damn if we've got fur, or three eyes.” He shrugged and peered down the nearby gangway into the darkness below. “Well, I'll go see about a cabin.”

   “Secure one for me as well, lad,” Malger said, turning toward door before them and pushing it open. Despite being wood exposed to the endless damp of the sea the door opened smoothly with little more than a rasp across the jamb. “Charles, you and the Lady Kimberly will need this cabin. I daresay you'll need the space.”

   “Malger?” Charles quipped in surprise. “I'm sure the Captain expected you to...”

   “I'm sure he did.” Malger nodded as he stepped inside, securing the door open with a strip of leather bolted to the wall within. “But I need only enough space for myself. You've an entire family.”

   Just within the entry was a short corridor with a door to either side, beyond which proved to be two smaller rooms hardly larger than closets. Ostensibly those were for the servants of whomever would be using the cabin. The end of the corridor opened out to a relatively large, considering they were at the bow of the ship, somewhat triangular room. At the apex of the triangle was a simple bedstead built to accommodate enough bedding to satisfy a pampered lord though it was still bare. A table was secured to the floor to the right and a bureau to the left complete with mirror of polished bronze.

   “We'll have to see about arranging things for the children, but it's certainly better than a mere cabin in cargo.” Malger nodded approvingly as he looked around. There were no port holes but some square ports in the ceiling proved themselves to be covered hatch windows to the deck above. Not big enough for a man to use as a way in or out but sufficient to let in the sun and redolent salt air.

   The cargo space below the main and rowing decks proved to be spacious. The forward portion of the hold had been partitioned by sturdy, though clearly temporary, wooden walls creating a dozen cabins. More than enough for the entirety of their retinue and more. From the middle of the hold rearward it was open, save for the heavy wooden beams and mast. Aft of the mast the ceiling was open and through it sunlight spilled into the hold, revealing a large slab of wood five paces to a side on which all of their cargo was piled. Ropes secured at each corner rose into the sunlight, clearly the manner by which the cargo had been lowered from above. The light also revealed ranks of boxes and barrels along either wall, the scent revealing they carried water, food, and various sundries for their journey. Spare ores were slotted along the top of the hold in wooden racks.

   As above, hammocks were strung between the beams though all of them were toward the rear of the hold, beyond a curtain wall of canvas which divided the cargo hold forward and aft at the mast. At the moment it was drawn open to either side while crewmen loaded the ship. Two were present, young men perhaps nearing their late teens, rough of look and wary of countenance as they paused in their labors to look at the gaggle of passengers.

   “No mo' cargo comin' down.” One of the young men offered diffidently, nodding toward the huge pallet and their property. “So's ye can leave the lot there, er to yer cabins as ye like.” As he spoke the sunlight abruptly waned and vanished with a heavy wooden boom from above. The main deck hatch had been closed, plunging them into darkness but for a single lantern swaying above where the two men were working. “Gots jes a mite t' lash in, then we'll be ashore 'til th' tide.”

   They left the two men to their tasks and retreated past the cargo cabins, making their way back to the main deck. Charles squinted at the sun, blinding bright after even their brief time below. A few crew had appeared during their absence, men with small bags slung over their shoulders, crossing the deck to the mid-ship stair. A trio of them abruptly stopped whatever laughing conversation they had been engaged in and gaped openly when they spied the passengers clustered near the mast.

   “This is going to be awkward,” Malger observed.

   The tide would turn in early afternoon, so the Keepers busied themselves moving the cargo from the pallet and bringing it to their cabins. Misanthe helped Kimberly arrange the state cabin so it would be comfortable. The large bed was more than enough space for all of the rats and as the children were used to sleeping huddled in a pile – Kimberly had seen them do this often enough after a morning of rough play – they laid the little quilts down at the footboard and the larger quilt at the head. Charles and Garigan brought the three trunks of clothes, grooming equipment, and all else he knew they would need and placed them wherever they would fit and not get in the way. The four children scampered about the room, explored under the bed and in the two anterooms for servants, and pestered their parents with questions, most of which began with “Why.”

   Once everything was to their satisfaction, Charles and Garigan left the children with the women to help Malger. The marten had selected the cabin next to the ferret's own; both were big enough for a trunk of clothing or two, a hammock, and not much else. They found Malger reclining in the hammock, staring down at his toes in the wan light of the single lantern. He regarded them with a mercurial grin and shrugged. “It will be even more comfortable when we are out to sea! Has Captain Calenti arrived?”

   Confused, Charles asked, “I thought you already spoke with him ere we boarded.”

   “Aye, I did, but only to inform him of our arrival.” He twisted his body all the way around and landed with a muffled whump on bare paws. “Let us go topside and see.”

   “And be seen.” Garigan suggested. “No sense hiding from the crew.”

   Malger nodded. “Let them look. Let them gawk. Ere the voyage is done they will admire we Keepers!”

   “Hear, hear!”

   They returned to the main deck, their beast eyes easily navigating the shadowed hold and passages. All three shielded their faces when they returned to the full light above. A moment more and they could see what their ears had already told them, the main deck was beginning to fill with seamen returning from whatever haunts they'd enjoyed in port. A good dozen inspected the oar locks while another checked the rigging and cleaned up after the many birds who'd perched on the gunwale. Reclining at the prow and half sprawled across the leaping dolphin masthead was Lindsey, with Jerome sitting on his haunches and Pharcellus standing akimbo between them and the crew.

   Charles started walking toward them and both ferret and marten followed a pace behind. The red-haired young man smiled when he saw the Keepers, turning his head so a gentle breeze ruffled his long hair. “A lovely day for casting off, is it not, your grace?”

   Malger chuffed, eyeing the dragon on the masthead with a smirk. “It is. If the weather favors us we will make remarkable time. I thought you were going to fly the first few days?”

   To their surprise, it was Jerome who replied. His voice was guttural and felt at times both a snarl and a whine coming from a wolf's muzzle, but they could still hear the man in it. “I asked to come aboard. Staying on the wharf felt like being left behind.”

   Charles wrapped his fingers about his chewstick but did not lift it from his beltloop. “I'm sorry, Jerome. Would you care for a tour of the Venture? It's going to be your home for a few months as well as ours.”

   Jerome backed his ears and shifted on his haunches; his shoulders spread outward even as his snout drew back into his face. The black fur of his back softened until it was a tattered Sondeckis robe. His eyes, ears, legs, and tail remained those of a wolf. A softness touched his features as he half-stood on beastly legs, resting a clawed hand on the gunwale. “Thank you, Charles. Thank you, Malger. But I think I would rather wait here until it is time to depart. After this morning hiding in the wagon, I need open air. I need for...” He stopped himself, a flash of pain crossing his eyes.

   Charles glanced at the dragon who had spread his wings to soak in the noon-day sun. “Lindsey, Pharcellus? Would you care for a tour? I'm sure Malger would be pleased to show you.”

   Lindsey craned his neck and blinked. “Will I fit below decks?”

   Malger nodded. “Aye, as long as you do not stretch your wings or lash your tail. We'll give any crew we meet below a bit of a start, but they may as well get used to it!”

   “Garigan, why don't you go with them. I'll keep Jerome company here.”

   The ferret nodded and after both he and the marten stepped out of the way, Lindsey uncurled himself from the masthead and with his older brother followed the two Keepers toward the gangway below decks. All of the crew working the main deck kept clear. Charles watched them for a few seconds before turning to his fellow Sondeckis. Jerome had fallen to a crouch but was mostly man-like. He slumped his arms and head over the gunwale and stared out to sea. White clouds drifted across the sky, flocks of birds enjoyed the air, fishermen plied their trade, and the waves gently undulated to the horizon.

   Charles reclined next to him and gnawed on his chewstick for almost a minute. “How are you doing?”

   “I wish I could lope in the woods with you and Garigan and take down a deer.” He sighed. “I need to be a wolf; I ache without it. I know it is what... he... did to me, but...”

   “Do you remember when I was stone? I had needs I could not explain to you or anyone else back then. I thought in ways human tongues cannot express. I do not understand all you mean when you say you need to be a wolf, Jerome, but I understand the need of a nature forced upon you.”

   Jerome grunted, triangular ears lifting and turning as the crew prepared the oars; the heavy spars groaned and the wood of the oarlocks creaked as they scraped against each other. “I won't run off. I want to reach Sondeshara too.”

   “I never thought you might.”

   They stared at the sea listening to the lap of waves and the noisome cries of roustabouts making the last preparations for the Venture. Nothing more could be heard, not even the bustling noise of the city. Charles wondered how Julian, Jessica, and the rest of their friends fared as they toured the marketplace. He gnawed his chewstick.

   Rat eyes let him study Jerome as well as the sea. His face, other than the ears and the golden eyes, was the same stocky man he'd grown up with in Sondeshara. But where the Jerome he knew had been calm and reserved, almost unreadable to those who did not know him, this Jerome was wild and ever on alert. The tattered Sondeckis robe covered a pale muscular chest and back covered with long scars he'd never spoken of. The fur began at his lower back, a dark black glimmering with moonlight, thick and soft all the way down his misshapen legs and the heavy paws and thick claws digging into the deck. A long tail dangled between those legs, twitching back and forth with every anxious thought.

   He wished he could become a wolf to join his friend in the forest.

   “There will be many woods along our journey if you need a night to run and hunt.” Charles turned so he faced Jerome. “I know we cannot run with you, but it is something for when you need it. Don't give in too much. Guernef had to warn me many times from thinking like stone. We are Sondeckis. We are brothers, Jerome. I will make sure we reach Sondeshara together.”

   “Thank you,” Jerome replied, a smile touching his lips. Charles set his hand on Jerome's shoulder. He felt the man's flesh tremble a moment and then all was still. Jerome took a deep breath and said again, “Thank you.”

   Charles smiled and together they watched the sea.

   No tour of a sea vessel would ever take long – there was not enough space to tour – unless you were giving the tour to a dragon. Lindsey was a young dragon and small enough to fit on the leaping dolphin masthead, but his long quadrupedal body found navigating stairs and maneuvering through the tight corridors below decks a challenge. Pharcellus offered helpful advice to his brother every step of the way, while Malger and Garigan gave him as much room as they could.

   “You can change into a human shape, Pharcellus,” Malger pointed out after Lindsey almost tore one of the partitions in the hold out while squeezing his hindquarters and tail around a narrow bend. “Is this not some dragon magic you can teach Lindsey?”

   “I don't have enough magic yet,” Lindsey said while craning his neck to inspect his tail for scrapes or missing scales. “I am starting to feel normal walking on all fours; I know I'm not an animal but it still seems wrong.”

   “It is not wrong for a dragon,” Pharcellus reminded him with a faint chuckle. “And you will grow into dragon magic soon. If I could, I would transform you while aboard the Venture, but I can only change myself.”

   Lindsey clicked his tongue against his fangs and lifted himself onto his haunches, bringing his serpentine neck up to eye level. “If I get much bigger, I won't be able to fit below decks at all. How do we even live in caves?”

   The red-haired man laughed and wrapped an arm about Lindsey's neck, cheek to dragon cheek, “You will see, brother! You will see. Now, is there anything more to see of this Venture?”

   Malger shook his head. “This is pretty much everything. We should return to the main deck and see what is keeping the Captain. I thought we would have cast off by now.”

   “The tide is starting to turn,” Garigan murmured. “High tide is almost over.”

   “How can you tell?”

   The ferret gestured at the floor of the hold. “I can feel it in my legs. The waves. They just... it feel like they are pulling away from the wharf.”

   Malger narrowed his gaze at the ferret – likely it was some sign of his Sondeckis powers – and asked, “Are you sure you are not secretly a sailor?”

   “I am not. I've never seen the sea before today.”

   “I know lad. But I have been on the sea many times and I feel nothing. I only know because I consulted the charts!” Malger flicked his eyes to the two dragons and then at the deck above them. “Let us see the sky again. I think Lindsey needs to stretch his wings.”


   Lindsey had an easier time climbing the stairs back to the main deck. All of them breathed in relief when they felt the sun on their faces again. Malger noted Charles and Jerome leaned against the gunwale at the prow, the many sailors going over the rigging and the oars a third or fourth time, and a general air of expectancy. The three arctic bird brothers were perched on the port-side gunwale – Lubec had his wings spread to dry them – talking with a middle aged man in comfortable and colorful attire beyond the means of any common sailor. Malger smiled and started toward him.

   “Captain Calenti!”

   The dark-haired and olive-toned man turned, and an exuberant smile etched into his weathered face. “Your grace! Welcome aboard the Venture! I understand you have already seen to your passengers.”

   “And everyone's gear. We are ready to depart at your command.”

   “Excellent. Thank you for sending Lubec and Machias with your last message. Having birds who are men as companions these last few days has better prepared my crew and I. And now I have met their brother Quoddy. I see this is one of the dragons you spoke of. Lindsey is it?”

   There were too many people standing nearby for Lindsey to stretch his wings, but he did stand on his haunches; the serpentine arch of his back brought him to a little more than man-height. He craned his neck to meet the Captain's gaze. “I am. You have a marvelous vessel, Captain. With your permission, when the night's are pleasant I may sleep by the prow.”

   “At your pleasure, master Lindsey. Having a dragon aboard will put to flight marauders faster than a volley of Whalish fire!” His eyes shifted back to the marten. “Now, your grace, will you introduce the rest of your companions?”

   “This is Pharcellus. He is an older dragon who has mastered the art of taking human shape when needed.”

   “I am much too big as a dragon to sleep aboard your vessel, Captain Calenti, but at this size I can manage.”

   “And two dragons will be even better! We are well met!” They shook hands and Calenti gave Pharcellus a manly slap on the shoulder.

   “And this is Garigan, Sir Matthias's student.”

   Calenti offered him a hand, even as his eyes narrowed. “Garigan... you are a... weasel?”

   “Ferret,” he replied as he took the offered hand, careful of his claws. “We're related but not quite the same.”

   “I shall remember. It is good to have you aboard.”

   “When will we be casting off, Captain?”

   Calenti looked to the sky and nodded. “My men are ready. If the dragons and wolf are going to fly alongside, they'll want to disembark now. Unless you mean to jump from the gunwale?”

   “The aft looks big enough,” Pharcellus noted. “I'll have to learn how to at some point. But today at least we will disembark and fly from the wharves. Come Lindsey, let us fetch our friend and be off.”

   As the pair headed to the prow, Malger stretched his back and felt a thrill of excitement build. “Captain, is there somewhere my companions can watch while you and your men work? I am sure the ladies and children are going to tire of the quarters below.”

   “Bow and aft are big enough. Stay clear of amidships when we are rowing; otherwise they can watch from there too. Now, your grace, if you will excuse me, I must see to my ship. The tide is leaving quick and we must be on it.”

   As the Captain walked away, Malger glanced at the gunwale. The three birds were already gone, having flown higher in the rigging where they could watch and keep out of everyone's way. He chuffed to himself and looked to the ferret. “Garigan, let Charles know I'm going to bring his family up to the aft to watch. And hopefully get their sea legs. I know you and Charles will be fine, but I do not know of Misanthe or his family. Poor Versyd would have retched just trying to board the Venture!”

   “I will let him know.”

   Charles smiled as he took his youngest daughter from his wife’s arms. Little Baerle wrapped her arms about his neck and her legs about his middle, while her snout nuzzled his cheek and her tail thumped against his belly. “Do you like your room and bed?”

   “Aye, Daddy!” Baerle squeaked as she looked around the boat and wharf. “Can we swimmin’?”

   He laughed and shook his head. “Not right now, my treasure. Maybe later.” He caught Kimberly’s gaze; his eldest boy squirmed in her arms trying to climb onto her shoulders. “How long have they been asking?”

   “As soon as they saw the water.” She plucked little Charles’s hand from her face and chided, “Careful! You almost poked my eye!”

   The little boy ducked his snout. “Sorry, Mama. Can I be on your head?”

   Misanthe had already given up trying to keep Erick in her arms. The boy straddled her neck with his legs and was holding on to her head fur, snout framed by black ears. Malger was having more luck with the older daughter Bernadette; she sat in his cradling arms and pointed at each of the bird brothers high up in the rigging and tried to say their names. Charles could only chortle as his wife surrendered, hoisting his namesake on her shoulders like his brother. The boy squeaked in delight, eyes wide and dashing from mast to sea and back again.

   “Isn’t Garigan going to join us?” Malger asked. He jerked his snout toward the bow where the ferret reclined by himself.

   Charles shook his head. “He wanted to ‘welcome the sea’ as he put it. I think he wanted a moment to himself.”

   “None of us will have much time to ourselves for many months. I’m sure Calenti will let him serve in the crow’s nest if he asks.”

   “I think Quoddy, Lubec, and Machias will be there ahead of him.”

   The marten chuffed and nodded. “How is Jerome?”

   “As good as can be expected,” Charles replied. The wolfish Sondecki was back on the wharf with the dragons. Pharcellus was helping the sailors undo the mooring lines while Lindsey stretched his wings. “He should stay on board with us as soon as he is ready. The crew will be used to us in a day or two. Tomorrow I will help row; they’ll accept us better if we sweat alongside them.”

   “And if the winds are all we need?”

   “I will teach my children of the sea. You know they’ll eventually…” Charles flicked his eyes toward the rigging and grunted. Malger suppressed a chuffing laugh.

   Before the marten could offer more, the Captain began shouting orders at the men in the oar ranks. Wood groaned as the last of the moor lines were collected and the sailors heaved the massive spars in their locks. The paddles pressed against the water, and they felt the deck jerk beneath them. The wharves of Menth shifted and began sliding backward. Kimberly gasped when she regained her footing, staring at the city as it drifted away behind them with each stroke of the oarsmen.

   “Daddy, Daddy! We’re moving!” Erick squeaked as he bounced on Misanthe’s shoulders. The fox smiled through the discomfort.

   Charles smiled and tickled his daughter’s sides. “No gnawing on your Daddy now.”


   Four Keepers and four children watched from the aft as the Venture slid away from the wharf. As soon as they were in the clear they watched Pharcellus shift into a dragon. Sailors on the other end of the wharf bolted up the esplanade when the vermillion-tipped gray dragon stretched his wings and lashed his tail. Lindsey helped him secure the leather saddle and straps to carry a man while Jerome hid from sight beneath an awning wing.

   The fleeing tide drew the Venture far from shore. They were joined in the water by fishing trawlers and flocks of birds riding the waves. Flotsam and seaweed marred the waves but the oarsmen plowed through each. The grunting of the sailors and the straining of the rigging filled their ears while the pungent tang of salt and the dwindling refuse of the city filled their nose.

   After rowing for a few minutes, the Captain turned the wheel and the Venture tilted to the left. The sun shifted until it was ahead and on the right; they were now heading south. The deck beneath them shifted with the waves; Misanthe and Kimberly reached for the gunwale to steady themselves.

   “Are you well?” Charles asked, taking a confident step toward his wife. Baerle finally seemed to notice the way her siblings had climbed atop the big people’s heads and dug her claws into the back of his head fur to do the same. Charles grimaced and helped her stand on his shoulders; he could feel one of her little hands digging at the burn scar around his right eye.

   Kimberly tried to smile. “I’d forgotten how the sea moves. I… I think I’ll be fine in a… in a little while.”

   Misanthe slipped beside her and patiently moved one of Erick’s hands off her ears. “I brought a few things to help if you need them, milady.”

   Bernadette scrambled even higher on Malger’s head, trying to brace her foot with his ear as she pointed at a shadow in the sky. “Daddy, look atta bird!”

   They all glanced upward and watched as a winged shadow descended from the sky. It circled around the Venture a few times, and once it was out of the sun, Charles could see the oblong shape clearly. It was not a bird.

   Both he and Malger moved next to the ladies at the aft gunwale as the gryphon came to a landing on the deck between them and the Captain. Calenti cast a backward glance and offered the eagle-headed gryphon a smirk. “Did you finally wear out your wings?”

   The gryphon dipped his head and folded his wings. “I waited until we were well away from the city. Why worry about me when you have dragons on this voyage too?”

   Calenti laughed. “My bravery stops at telling gryphons what to do. But after seeing how well they and our passengers were received, I see no reason you cannot join us when we dock. Speaking of, let me introduce you.” The captain stepped around the gryphon, who turned around in place, golden eyes wide and intent. “Your grace, allow me to introduce the last member of our voyage, Kurgael. I hired him to help guard the ship. Between Kurgael and the dragons we have nothing to fear.”

   “Well met, Kurgael,” Malger said, sketching a slight bow. “It is good to have you aboard. You seem comfortable around Keepers like us. Are you also from Metamor?”

   “I was cursed, but I prefer to live on the cliffs to the south.” He lifted his beak and one wing, gesturing to the three birds capering high in the rigging. “Lubec and Machias stopped by my nest to tell me where they were going. It sounded like an adventure and so I came along.”

   “I am very glad they did.”

   Calenti cleared his throat and gestured at the marten. “Forgive me your grace, but allow me to introduce you. Kurgael, this is his grace, Archduke Malger dae ross Sutt of Sutthaivasse, Sir Charles Matthias of the Narrows, his wife Lady Kimberly and their children, and the Lady Misanthe of Metamor.”

   Kurgael glanced briefly at the rest but his eyes stayed on the marten. “Oh? I had heard…” For a moment the gryphon's astonishment seemed to envelop every muscle in his massive body. Tension filled every sinew and for a blink of the eye it seemed he might leap as a cat toward the marten. But then he relaxed and a warm camaraderie touched his avian eyes. “I am glad to have a chance to be of service, your grace.” He turned to the rat and bobbed his head. “And to you as well, sir knight.”

   He then turned to greet both ladies, but before he could speak, all four of the little rats roused themselves from marveling at the gryphon and squirmed free, scrambled down parents, fox, and marten, across the deck, and up the startled avian forelegs of Kurgael in an effort to reach the feathered nape of his neck first.

   “Well, I’d say we’ve had enough introductions,” Malger remarked with a thinly veiled laugh. “You wear rat very well there, Kurgael!”

   Little rat voices chorused, “Can we fly you! Can we! Can we!”

   Charles wrapped his arm about his wife’s middle and pulled her close. Kimberly leaned her head against his chest as they watched their children play with the gryphon. He sighed and relaxed, letting the rocking of the waves soothe his anxiety. The voyage would be long and uncertain, but they were making it together. He kissed his wife between the ears, glancing at his friends around the boat and in the sky above him. Sondeshara could wait.

   Garigan leaned against the prow and stared across the leaping dolphin toward the horizon. He knew from studying the maps Kayla had given them they would need to sail first south, then west along the northern coast of Sathmore, before turning south again until they reached Whales. From there they would turn east through the coral basin gap between Marzac and Boreaux and then follow the marshy Boreaux coastline southeast. A journey of five months, four if the winds favored them.

   And at the end of the journey was a desert and a city nestled deep within the desert built around an oasis rising up from untold depths. A thousand generations of Sondeckis had made this city their home. The very sands thrummed with the power imbuing him, a power until a few years ago he never knew had a name. He had learned much from Charles in the last two years and there was a great deal he had discerned on his own. But in the city awaiting them he would learn so much more.

   He would learn to spin a Sondeshike.

   He would learn to shatter stone with a song.

   He would learn to shape metal with his fingers.

   He would learn to move without sound and without muscle.

   Perhaps he would even understand why he had been gifted with the Sondeck.

   Garigan was grateful to Charles for all he had shown him already. He was grateful to Malger for helping them make this voyage. He knew they journeyed to Sondeshara to help Jerome break free, but he came because of the Sondeck. It needed to find its home.

   Garigan dug his claws into the gunwale, savoring the wind in his fur, thrilling with every passing league.

   Cool sea air ran through his fur. He held tight to the leather straps framing Pharcellus’s neck and shoulders. Each beat of massive wings pressed dragon muscles into his chest; his breath fell into rhythm as they ascended high above Menth. Far below the Venture rowed away from shore into the sea lanes; the sails were ready to capture the winds to take them south.

   A journey of many months now begun. They would reach the ancient city in the desert, the only place in all the world he might be helped. Sondeshara.

   To the north, he could feel something. His heart ached for it. He could smell the warm earthiness and feel the loam beneath his paws. He knew his place in the world. He could see a wall with glowing baubles. He had brothers to run and hunt with. He had a father.

   A father he disobeyed.

   A father aware of him.

   A father beckoning him home.

   He pressed his muzzle against the dragon’s hide and forced his tongue to still; he would not speak the words tumbling from his heart. Sorrow. Regret. Remorse. Determination.

Forgive me, Father.

   Gmork’s Prodigal dug in his claws for the long flight.