Dance of the Betrothed

by Charles Matthias

Monday, August 9, 724 CR

   The dust made his nose itch, but the clash of practice swords was all Sir Erick Matthias could think of. He dodged to the left and swung his blade but the frog opposite him was nimble and pirouetted aside. More dust kicked up as their legs and his tail lashed the practice grounds outside Matthias Keep. He wriggled his whiskers and thrust, unwilling to let the frog gain an attack.

   Erick and his dearest friend Bertram usually trained with Erick's father. But the Baron was settling a dispute between the stonemasons and civil engineers building the outer wall. The second crane had been replaced three weeks ago and had moved not ten stones into place before a fight broke out. The engineers accused the stonemasons of deliberately ruining several blocks. The stonemasons accused the engineers of sabotaging their work.

   It was really about money. Both stonemasons and engineers wanted more as the outer wall and ring of towers the Baron envisioned took longer to build than any had once thought. Money was one thing Erick's father never had enough of.

   He felt a sharp sting on his left shoulder and stumbled to one side. “Ha!” Bertram croaked as he lowered his blade. “The match is mine!” The frog stepped out of the dust cloud toward a small grove of trees; they were the only ones to remain from the forested promontory on which the Keep was built and around which the small village and bailey walls were growing. Bertram dipped his webbed hands in a bowl of water and then splashed his face several times. Yellow eyes blinked as the dust rinsed from his tender skin. “Ah, much better!”

   “You know what Father would say. Your enemy will not give you time to rinse your skin in battle.”

   “Aye, aye, but dead men – and dead rats – cannot stop me!”

   Erick laughed and slapped his padded leggings as he walked toward the copse, trailing little storms of dust in his wake. He lifted a brass ewer and lapped the wine within. Bertram tilted his head forward and blinked; it was the frog's way of showing disapproval as his fixed wide lips could neither grimace nor smile like a rat. Erick set the ewer in the grass and wiped a drop from his whiskers. “I'm dead, and the dead can do what they like!”

   Bertram bulged his throat sac with a load croak and hopped into one of the tree branches. “Can the dead climb trees?”

   Erick picked up a pine cone and pitched it. Bertram ducked and sat down, dangling his gangly legs out of the rat's reach. “I hope not! Now get out of there. We should practice more.”

   But the frog didn't move. His yellow eyes glanced across the outer wall for a moment before alighting on his friend. “More? Still miffed your brother placed higher in the tourney?”

   Erick thumped his tail on the ground. “Well, aye! I'm the knight and he's... not a knight!”

   Bertram laughed, tipped backward off the branch, and landed on his long, webbed feet. “You'll do better next time. But we won't have any more time to practice today. I saw a caravan heading up the road. I think it's Master Julian.”

   Both delight and a feeling of impending doom struck him. As long as he could remember visits from Master Julian meant gifts for him, his litter-mates, and all his younger siblings. When they were young he brought sweet candies or strange fruits from far-off lands. Since his tenth year the gifts were either fancy clothes, trinkets to display his station, or delicate craft of wood or glass to display in his family home. He gave brief thought to what he might receive this time.

   And while he had known Julian and his father's other friends from Metamor would come to attend his litter-mate Bernadette's wedding, Julian's arrival was too soon. The wedding was not for another three weeks. Even his brother Charlie who had promised to come early and hunt with him in the Narrows would only come next week. Julian's early arrival must be for some other reason.

   And with Julian arriving in a caravan, she must be with him. Lenora, his betrothed.

   “Are you sure?” Erick asked as he set hand to tree. It was an easy climb...

   Bertram shrugged as he bent over the bowl and splashed more water on his face. “They were flying merchant guild pennants.”

   He tested his footing on a burl. “Your father perhaps?”

   Bertram turned his flat head and croaked a laugh. “You know my father always returns from trading season with as little fanfare as your father will permit him! He's not likely to be waving pennants of any color.” The frog's skeptical expression faded and his goggle eyes blinked. “Although, he could be accompanying Master Julian for Bernadette's wedding.” His wide mouth opened in an amphibious grin. “I know one person who will be there. Your precious lady rat!”

   Erick scowled and fluttered his whiskers. “She is not my lady rat!”

   “Oh, the lovely maid Lenora!” Bertram hopped up, twirled in the air, pressing his arms and hands together under his chin in an exaggerated swoon. “Fair of whisker and shrewd of tongue! 'Tis a pity she is so young!”

   “Bertram, stop it!”

   The frog grasped a nearby tree trunk and swung around, his free hand pressed atop his heart. “Her fur, soft alabaster white. And her incisors, what a bite!”

   “Bertram, I'm warning you!”

   The frog danced to another tree which he hugged while tracing one finger across the bark as if it were a woman's bodice. “Beauty she, yet uncertain he. What could his reservations be?”

   Erick picked up the brass ewer and hoisted it. “I will brain you with this! I promise!”

   Bertram flicked out his long tongue and danced back, bowing like a jongleur. “He did not choose her, Father did. And gave him her as wedding bed!”

   He flung the ewer, but Bertram jumped out of the way. The wine spilled across the practice field and soaked into the dust. “Would you hold still! Argh! Impossible frog!” Erick threw up his arms and stormed away from the trees. He heard the frog land behind him and felt a webbed hand on his shoulder.

   “Oh come now, Erick. Why are you so afraid of Lenora? She seems to like you. I've seen her admire you.”

   He shoved the hand from his shoulder. “So do my younger sisters but I'm not going to marry them!”

   Bertram croaked and Erick imagined the frog trying to roll his eyes. “Well, if you really don't like her tell your father. He's letting your sister marry a carpenter; a journeyman carpenter even!”

   Erick stopped and glowered at the outer wall. His father would be on the other side trying to forge peace between the workers. “I'm the heir. It's my duty.”

   “So do your duty then!” Bertram stepped alongside and cracked his wide lips. “Maybe you'll like Lenora if you spend time with her.”

   “And if I do not like her?”

   “Maybe his grace will invite you on more of his campaigns!”

   Erick felt his heart lift at the suggestion. Next year he would join his brother on the long journey to Vysehrad with the ducal heir so Bryn could woo King Pelaeth's sister. Bertram would be at his side, but little else had been decided; or at least, if Bryn or Charlie had decided anything more they had not informed him. The thought of more adventures with the Duke's son and his brother was an appealing one.

   In these days of relative peace there were few chances to win glory and honor for his house.

   “Well, all right. I will try. But I'm not forgiving you your poetic jests so easily!”

   Betram laughed and hooked his arm behind them. “As long as you don't expect me to clean up your mess!”

   He glanced back at the ewer of spilled wine and squeaked.

   A part of Erick preferred waiting at the Keep for Master Julian's arrival, but after returning ewer, basin, and practice swords, he and Bertram rode down the avenue of close-fitted stones through the village of tradesmen and laborers until they reached the outer wall. Earthworks were transforming the hollow nestled against the mountains into three rings of terraced fortifications in which a prosperous city could abide. Only the inner-most bailey wall and Keep were complete, though the Baron had plans for expanding each once the other walls were finished.

   Where the road met the outer wall a gatehouse was underway. The northern tower was the sixth in a planned twelve and the site where his father was nearly crushed a few months ago. The foundations for the seventh were laid and trenches were dug for the next thirty feet, but nothing more. The hard-packed road running east through the Narrows widened as it reached the proposed gatehouse and there it was Erick found his father waiting for the caravan to arrive.

   “Ah, Erick, Bertram, come! How was your morning practice?” Baron Matthias waved with a smile as he saw them. His light blue tunic was dusty from the road and the earthworks, but he sat astride his pony with patient dignity. There was a touch of weariness Erick recognized in the crinkle of scarred flesh around his right eye, but the twitch of whiskers and delighted jowls were genuine.

   Towering above the noble rat was his Steward. James was already taller by a head – not counting his long ears – but mounted on a horse the donkey now dwarfed his friend of almost twenty years. He bore a dark blue tunic of similar cut and a medallion marking his station and fealty to the Matthias house. The donkey smiled on seeing them, then returned his eyes to the caravan making its plodding way down the road.

   Erick pulled the reins when he reached his father and chuffed with a shrug. “Short once we spied the caravan. Have the masons and engineers stopped fighting?”

   His father grunted and tensed his fingers on the saddle horn. “If anything they are making it worse. They know I need them working before the wedding and want to rob us blind. I pray you won't have quite as many squabbles to settle when the Narrows are yours, Son.”

   “I hope and pray they won't be mine for many years, Father!” Erick glanced at the fortifications and smiled when he saw a trio of rodent ears at the top of the half-built gatehouse tower. “Do you know why Master Julian is coming? Bernadette's wedding is still three weeks away...”

   “I do not. I was not expecting him for another two weeks. This is the busiest season for merchants. Harvest is almost here and Metamor is flush with traders with furs from the north and spices and perfumes from the south. So he must have a good reason to come to the Narrows now.”

   “How long have you known he was coming?”

   James shifted in his saddle and pointed to the tower top with his muzzle. “A bird arrived an hour ago with the news.” He turned to the frog and his ears folded back. “Your father is with him, Sir Bertram.”

   “He is?” Bertram sat up straighter and wiggled his long toes in the stirrups.

   “Which is welcome news,” the Baron admitted with a broad smile. “I just hope it means trading season has been more profitable this year.”

   “Does my mother know?”

   James jerked his snout toward the Keep. “I sent the bird along to the Baroness with the news. If she doesn't know she will soon.”

   “Of course,” the Baron added with a warm smile, “you are freed from your duties. I've already given the craftsman the rest of the day to spend with their families; I could do no less for you, Sir Bertram.”

   The frog croaked his delight. “Thank you, milord Matthias! But... I will wait here to greet Master Julian and my father with you.”

   “Good man.”

   The caravans crested the last rise along the road through the Narrows. A team of two to four horses led each wagon or carriage while their pinions marked by coin and weight fluttered with a mountain breeze. Erick recognized Master Julian and Bertram's father Gibson riding alongside but the others were unfamiliar. He did not see Lenora. Dare he hope?

   “Look out below!” a voice squeaked from the half-built tower. All eyes lifted as three rats leaped from the top-most stones and glided over their heads. Erick and Bertram laughed, James shook his head, and the Baron snapped with exasperation.

   “Nat! Misha! Meredith! How many times have I told you to stop jumping from the towers!”

   The three rats of the second litter waved at their father before feigning remorse as magical conduits brought them safely through the air and to the ground with no more haste than a trio of leaves embracing autumn. Erick had been almost three when they were born and could still remember trying to help their father build new beds and toys, while his sisters helped their mother change and dress them. They had been his playmates for many an adventure and mischief, and they had always looked to him to decide what to do.

   Both Natalie and Misha demonstrated a talent with magic, doing the same things with witchlghts and little enchantments their mother did at only four. The Baroness taught them as much as she could, before asking the skunk mage to take them on. Meredith, chubby and affable, had accompanied them and helped with books and other learning even though he could not make an oiled wick so much as smoke let alone handle witchlights. They were a litter and did everything together; they knew each other as themselves and could not imagine being apart.

   Erick envied them; his litter had always been apart. Even when Charlie did visit he felt an absence. He could not remember his litter-mate Ladero, but he always knew in his heart there should be a fifth rat. They did not say it, but his sisters Bernadette and Baerle felt it too.

   And in a few weeks Bernadette was to be married; she would leave the Narrows for the Glen and only return to visit. And if Baerle made good on her intentions to join the nunnery at Metamor, the only rat of his litter left in the Narrows would be him. The thought filled him with loneliness.

   Misha brushed his hands over his whiskers blinking all innocence. His dusty, almost red fur, glimmered with a bronze cast in the afternoon sun. “But we were only practicing, Father!”

   “And we took the stairs up,” Natalie, hooded black over white like Erick, added with a broad smile and click of her tongue against her incisors. She twirled her chewstick between her fingers before taking a quick bite.

   Meredith, who Erick wished would come training with him to work off the stones all the extra pastries and cheese added to his girth, chittered for several seconds before adding. “It did seem easier, and... fun.”

   But the Baron was undaunted. His dark eyes narrowed and he tightened his grip on his reins to steady his startled pony. “Your studies are with Master Murikeer, and he is in the Glen at present! What if your spell went awry? You could have landed on top of us!”

   “But it didn't,” Natalie pointed out.

   Misha nodded. “Falling like a feather is an easy spell. We've done it from much higher up in the Glen.”

   “You have what?” The Baron sighed and rubbed his forehead while James tried to hide his chuckle behind one hand. Erick and Bertram didn't bother. Erick even gave his siblings an approving wink. But before they could reply, their father waved his hands and shook his head. “Never mind; I trust Master Murikeer to keep you safe. But if you are going to practice falling, please do it from small rocks and not towers!”

   They assured him they would, though Erick doubted their resolve would last the week. “We saw Master Julian,” Meredith added after his apology. “Could we stay and greet him when he arrives?”

   “I suppose, if you can find your ponies in time. You cannot greet our guests on foot.”

   Natalie and Misha ran back along the wall while Meredith tried to chase after, his whiskers drooping and his jowls sour; if there was one thing his brother hated it was riding a horse. Bertram shouted encouragement while James and their father exchanged knowing looks.

   As they waited, Erick ran his claws through his pony's mane, and listened to the familiar sounds of home. The soft susurrus of voices carried through the dry, August air, and with them he heard the ringing of the smithy, the sharp staccato of sword practice, the clatter of hooves on stone, and the muffled thumping and grinding of wheels on hard dirt. He lifted his gaze to the sky and offered a silent prayer. Eli, what do I do?

   He could think of nothing more to ask.

   The sound of wagon wheels and voices grew louder as the caravan descended the long slope. Erick took a deep breath and straightened out his tunic as the caravan reached the bottom and started back up the gentle incline toward the gatehouse. He felt his father's eyes on him and turned. Baron Matthias smiled, eyes bright and proud. Erick sat taller in his saddle as he smiled back.

   The second litter managed to find their ponies in time, as the trio cantered back down the main road, settling in just behind them as the caravan neared the gate. The Baron nodded to them, and then touched his chest, brushing across it with his fingers. All three looked down, and then Misha and Meredith quickly brushed little wood chips off their tunics and put their chewsticks away.

   With his family properly apportioned and mounted, Baron Matthias eased his pony onto the road. James, Erick, and Sir Bertram crossed the road to form a line on the other side. Natalie, Misha, and Meredith lined up across from them. The caravan stopped before the gatehouse though there was nothing standing in their way. Coming around the first pair of wagons was a white-furred, red-eyed rat sitting awkwardly atop a quarter horse; a somewhat more comfortable frog followed after him.

   The rat, dressed in a black vest and tunic with gold trim, smiled and waved one arm expansively. Master Julian was not theatrical like Charlie's father; every gesture was meant. “Baron Charles Matthias, might we have the honor of entering your beautiful home and breaking bread with you?”

   Baron Matthias smiled and opened his arms wide in welcome. “I would be honored to have you as guest in my home. You are welcome, Master Julian, and all of your kin and companions. I am very happy to see you. And you, Master Gibson, you are also very welcome. Come, let us ride together to my home and talk.”

   Julian rode forward and fell in beside Charles. Erick and the rest of the Matthias clan followed along, leading the caravan. Bertram slipped back on his pony until he rode beside his father. Erick turned his head enough to see the two frogs reach across and hug tight, eyes bright and proud. The rat smiled for his friend.

   Erick found himself riding beside James and behind his father and Julian, with the second litter following close behind. He could hear Meredith grumbling as he struggled to stay in the saddle while his litter-mates flanked him and gave him gentle nudges whenever he started to tip. Bertram and Gibson followed and spoke moderately, but between the creaking of wagon wheels and the voice of the rats ahead of him all he heard were croaks.

   Charles and Julian spoke cordially and with great fondness, complimenting each other on their appearance and health and asking after each others' fortunes. Erick let his eyes follow the twitch of two, long rat tails, both a sullen pink hue. His father's was lined with little brown hairs, while Julian had white making his tail appear brighter. They both dangled across the back of their ponies before sliding over opposite thighs so as not to lay atop equine tails. Erick's own did the same.

   He didn't often think about how unusual it was for a person to have a tail; he and most everyone he knew had one. He even felt a little sorry for Bertram who lacked one. But staring at his father's and Julian's reminded him if he married Lenora, their children would be rats too. How much trouble had he and his litter-mates caused with lashing tails? He chuckled beneath his breath at the idea.

   They followed the road from the incomplete outer gate toward the first of two finished walls. Laborer camps dotted the earthworks, and many an eye peered from ramshackle huts and tents at the Baron and the merchants as they passed. When they reached the next wall they all came to a stop and dismounted. The road beyond was too steep for the wagons – a fact his father had plans to fix in the next year or two – and so they would proceed on foot while Julian's men unloaded their wares in the storehouse just within and the horses at the stables beside.

   “You've made good progress since my visit last Spring,” Julian noted as he handed his reins to a vole ostler. “Shall we discuss your success over a bit of tea? I have fresh cardamon pods just imported from Boreaux; they will suit your love for tongue-biting flavors!”

   “I have the perfect leaves for them! Come!” Charles laughed as he dismounted, casting a backward glance at his heir. “Erick, come join us.”

   “It would be my honor,” Erick replied. He slipped from his saddle, letting James take the reins. The donkey, in his quiet way, had the ostlers and other servants organized in moments to manage the horses and ponies as well as to assist Julian's men with their tasks. Behind him his siblings did their best to sneak away but the watchful eye of the Steward marked them; they joined Bertram, Gibson, and the servants in helping unload the wagons.

   Erick chuckled before his breath caught tight in his throat. The door to the third carriage opened and a lithe rat the same age as his siblings emerged. She had white fur and red eyes like her father, with little ribbons tied about her ears and a gossamer veil draped between them to suggest flowing hair. She bore a fetching vermilion dress to match her eyes complimented by a small silver locket about her neck. Her tail was decorated with ribbons in the shape of roses.

   Lenora. His betrothed.

   She caught his gaze and her whiskers twitched in pleasure as she dipped in a curtsy. Erick gulped and after a quick nod of his head, chased after his father. He hoped Bertram hadn't seen him!

   Erick's father brought Julian to his study, a small room adjacent to his bedchambers with a hearth, a small writing desk, five oaken chairs, a bookshelf with a dozen tomes and scrolls, and a service with freshly stocked kettle, ewer, and goblets. Charles invited his son and guest to sit while he rebuilt the fire. Julian noted the lack of decoration or cushions on the chairs and then threaded his tail through the back as he sat.

   “I thought I had chairs with the twin peaks of the Narrows built for you.”

   “Those are in the great hall. And thank you, Julian; they are quite handsome indeed!”

   “If we have another bountiful season I shall have more built. You should be greeting your personal guests with more opulence. It is what they are accustomed to.”

   “So you remind me. But between the wages I must pay – they demand more and more – and the defenses I must build, there is little left for opulence.” He coaxed the flame into life with a few heavy breaths and then added some logs. “There. Do you have the pods?”

   Julian offered him a small sheepskin pouch which Charles took to the service. The pouch held two cardamon pods which he crushed with a pestle and then swept into the ewer. To this he added a generous supply of small leaves. The scent pricked Erick's nose and twitched his whiskers.

   “I must say you appear to have fully recovered from your accident three months ago.”

   Charles nodded as he hung the kettle over the fire. He thumped his left leg with one hand as he turned around. “I fear I will always be a little slower with this leg than I once was, but aye, the wounds are all mended.” Erick's eyes flicked to his father's chest but saw only the blue tunic and not the scars of stone hidden beneath. “So, I take it the trading season was more profitable than usual? We were not expecting to see you or Gibson for another two weeks.”

   “It is not over yet, but aye, it has been very profitable this year. Goldmark is seeing to the affairs in Metamor and will join us in two weeks for your daughter Bernadette's wedding. Our unexpected guests from Vysehrad and the Steppe brought with them many rare goods as well as prestige. We've been able to trade at higher prices with so many come to Metamor and through our southern factors to obtain such curiosities.”

   Charles settled down opposite the white rat and laconically crossed his footpaws and curled his toes. “Metamor's control of Ellcaran and its trading routes has no doubt helped.”

   Julian beamed, red eyes brightening. “Indeed! My factors in Menth and Midtown have never seen so many ships and caravans! A few more peaceful years and Metamor will be the richest land in all of Galendor.”

   “All of Galendor?” Charles chuckled. “She will have no shortage of contenders for such a claim!”

   “Aye, aye.” Julian waved one hand and then fingered at a long, slender pouch on his belt. “I do wish to discuss the state of the Narrows with you, but first, as your guest, I have something more than cardamon pods to share.” He opened the pouch and they were struck by the sweet scent of maple, cinnamon, and apple. Julian took three chewsticks and handed each of them one. “Freshly seasoned. Hareford syrup and Ellingham apples with a touch of Tournemire cinnamon. I think you'll enjoy it while we wait for our tea.”

   All three rats gnawed at the sticks while the kettle came to a boil. Erick savored not only the relief his incisors felt from the gnawing, but every morsel of flavor he tasted; it was at turns sweet and tart, and sometimes the little chunks of syrup he chipped off made his tongue tickle with spice. By the time he had finished the short chewstick, the water had boiled and the tea had steeped. Charles brushed crumbs from his tunic before pouring each of them a cup of tea.

   “Thank you, Julian. What an incredible flavor! You've made my honey concoctions seem bland!”

   Julian accepted the tea with a pleased grin. “Then my visit has begun on the right paw. So, Sir Erick, I saw your bouts at the festival and was quite impressed. A pity your father thrashed you so.”

   Charles hid his blush behind a sip of tea. Erick almost spilled his as he sat taller. “It was... was... bad fortune being paired against Father. I did tell him not to go easy on me. I'm not ashamed at losing to one of the best knights in all of Metamor.” His father's eyes beamed at Erick's reply.

   “Nor should you be. But I wager with a little more seasoning it will be your paw claiming the Summer Crown. Speaking of which, I hear you'll be spending the Winter with the ram Sir Dupré.”

   “Aye. Sir Bertram and I will be there to assist with patrols, training, and with his wall. It is Metamor's frontier and if I am to do more than fight in tourneys I will need to be there.”

   “Or journeying to Vysehrad with our headstrong young ducal heir,” Julian noted after a sip. His voice was light and proud, but shrewd as well. He wanted to understand what Erick hoped to gain from such a long and dangerous venture.

   “It is hard to say no to such an offer and I would not have even if I thought I could. It is a chance to serve the heir, strengthen Metamor, bring honor to the Matthias family name, and to win renown for myself. It will be dangerous, but honor means little if I will suffer no risk for it.”

   “And a chance to see more of the world.”

   “I have not been beyond the boundary of the valley since I was a ratling,” Erick admitted, feeling a touch of jealousy for his litter-mate. “Aye, Master Julian, I do want to see more of the world. I love the Narrows and the Glen; they are my home and I will fight for them. But... I should have this chance too. How am I to be wise in ruling the Narrows if I know nothing of the world beyond?”

   Julian favored him a knowing smile. The white rat knew there was more beneath the wise-sounding words – as did Erick's father – but he would not shame him to reveal them. “In sooth. Well said, Sir Erick. I know you will serve his grace well and you will bring honor and renown to your house. And you will see wonders neither I nor your father have glimpsed. Vysehrad! An ancient city full of legends! I do wish I could come with you. It seems quite an adventure!”

   “Little has been decided as to the company,” Erick noted. “I am sure a shrewd merchant such as yourself could help us in many ways during our journeys.”

   The suggestion caught Julian by surprise; his red eyes widened and scalloped ears backed against his head. “Truly? Hah! Rats may be well thought of here in Metamor, but too many beyond may startle townsfolk. If I were ten years younger I would actually consider it, but days when I might adventure are long since passed. My battles are across the bargaining table, my sword is a counting box, my quiver is filled with coins, and my shield a well-stocked ledger. And it is why I have come so early.” He turned toward the baron. “Word of your predicament reached my ears. Tell me more and I will do what I can to help.”

   Charles sighed and sagged his shoulders. “The stonemasons and the engineers are quarreling. Ever since the crane snapped work seems cursed. Some of the stones have been the wrong shape and so the engineers accuse the masons of poor workmanship, while the masons accuse the engineers of sabotaging their work. I believe I have sorted through their claims but both are still demanding more coin; more than I can afford and still pay my men or bring in the harvest. I fear if I cannot change their minds I will have to abandon work on the outer wall for another year or more until the farms and herds bring more wealth. You have sent me traders but we have little to trade here.”

   “What of the mountains?”

   “I have already asked so much I do not wish to ask more. I do have a few gems they've given me in reserve I can sell, but they will only fetch enough to see us through the season. I could finish the gatehouse, but the southern wall will still be earthworks for years to come. The rest mean nothing if I cannot finish the wall; and there are still improvements to be made to the city and keep, not to mention the roads to the Glen and the Lake.”

   Erick listened; his father was teaching him of finance and how to manage a barony, but there was always more to learn. He watched both his father and Julian carefully, trying to read what wasn't said.

   “But you do have income from the farms and the herds; you control hunting in the Narrows as well. Have you considered a levy per head of deer taken?”

   Charles shook his head. “I cannot. Part of accepting my barony meant keeping peace between the Glen and the Lake. Both have been granted hunting rights on these lands.”

   “Surely you must have other income.”

   “I am still a Long Scout even if retired; no Keep taxes at least – I owe a little to Baron Avery as I am his vassal. I also have some from sale of old works from my days in the Writer's Guild, and I have gifts from time to time, but these are pittances. Most of my income is from taxes and the land.”

   Julian sipped his tea and drummed the claws of his free hand on the arm of the chair. “With time and cultivation your land will yield all you and Erick need for your house.”

   “Barring poor harvests or sick herds.”

   “Aye. But for now you need to finish these walls. I have come because I intend to help you, Charles. I do not have enough to finish them for you, but what I have is yours. In the days and weeks ahead, I promise you, we will find a solution, my friend.”

   Erick sat taller, ears lifting in delight at the offer. Charles sighed into his tea. “You have already offered more than friendship demands – much more! Julian, I... I cannot let you bankrupt yourself on my account!”

   “Rubbish! I am investing in my friend and,” his eyes cast toward Erick, “my future son-in-law. I would be a poor father indeed if I did not ensure my daughter a prosperous future. Speaking of which, Sir Erick, Lenora would enjoy a tour of your home.”

   His fingers tightened around his tea cup. “But... but she's already seen it.” His younger sisters, who played with her as children, and now gossiped with her in their adolescence, had taken her on previous visits everywhere within the walls and even into the new village springing to life around the Keep.

   “And she should see it again. I'm sure there are many things you know about the Narrows she has never seen.” Julian offered him a knowing smile. “And if you wish to receive my gift, you'll have to fetch it from her, young knight.”

   Charles gave his son an encouraging twitch of the whisker. “Go and spend time with Lenora, Erick. There will be many days yet for negotiation you can help me with. I want none other by my side than you. Little is going to be done today except the welcoming of honored guests.”

   “Of course, of course.” Erick stood and took a swallow of tea wishing it were ale. “Thank you, Master Julian, for the excellent chewstick and tea. And thank you for coming to help us!”

   “You're a good rat, Erick. You do your father proud.”

   He finished the last of his tea, handed the cup to his father, and took his leave. He stepped lightly out of the room, but turned his ears back and slowed his pace as he reached the door to his father's suite. His father's voice was low but Erick's hearing had always been excellent even for a rat. “Julian, thank you again for your offer of help, but... you have given me more than I could ever pay back already. There would not even be a Keep here in the Narrows let alone a half-built outwall if not for you! I must pay for this myself if I am ever to give Erick a barony worth its name; if I do everything on credit... the upkeep alone will destroy the Matthias house in its second generation.”

   Erick winced; were there other debts his father kept from them?

   “Nonsense. You owe me nothing, Charles. It is I who owe you a dept I cannot repay. If not for you I would be a pauper in the cellars, a debtor in prison, or a thief in the gallows. You rescued me from my foolishness time and time again; and not I alone. Goldmark, Hector, Saulius, and even Elliot, may Eli have mercy on his soul. We all owe you more than we can repay. I more than the rest. And do not be afraid for your family; I will not let your sons and daughters become debtors either.”

   “You pay me back every day you are an honest merchant and a rat standing proud and tall, Julian. Little gives me greater pleasure.”

   “Then as friends we help each other, Charles. No debts. No repayment. Just friendship.”

   He heard his father squeak a laugh. “Very well. Friendship. So no more talk of my finances. Tell me of your trading season this year. What's new in Metamor?”

   Erick eased out the door and pulled it gingerly shut behind him. He wondered if his father knew he'd been listening.

   Lenora always enjoyed visits to the Narrows. At Metamor, even among her father's merchant companions and their families, most of whom were rats as they, there was a sense they had to prove their worth as rats every day. Here in the Narrows rats were beautiful and respected. All the rats she knew in Metamor possessed an air of defense as they went about their daily tasks whether they be trading and bartering among the merchant class or wooing the nobility and wealthy aristocracy for position and status.

   The Matthias family showed her nothing of the sort; they were open and eager to welcome her, complimenting her on her beauty without having to boast of being rats. To be a rat was not a banner to be raised as a weapon against those still human or those who'd become large beasts with claws and fangs suited to war. Being a rat was simply what they were; being a rat was loved for its own sake and nothing more.

   Not to say Lenora did not love Metamor nor her friends there. She loved the city of her birth with its boundless variety, boisterous life, dress, food, and music, breathtaking architectural beauty, and even its burgeoning intrigue. Her earliest memories were dangling by her snout and claws from her father's counting table while he was arranging some deal; she had always begged him to let her move the stones and how she savored the look of pride in his eyes when she finally learned the art. When each deal was complete her father and the trader would shake hands and place the other on each others' shoulder; she'd squeaked in surprise and joy the first time a trader turned to her to do the same.

   So when the time came for her and Erick to wed and live in the Narrows she knew she would miss it. But at least the company of the Matthias rats would be sweet salve for the pain.

   The journey from Metamor had devoured their morning and if not for the basket of bread, cheese, and fruit she'd packed the night before she'd be famished. The streets of Metamor had been filled with merchants going hither and thither and then the road to Tarrelton was swamped with fur traders down from the north and soldiers patrolling the woods making progress slow and tedious. Her father and Master Gibson rode with her and they spent the hours talking of affairs of family and of fortune. Lenora listened, gnawed her chewstick when the need touched her, and offered a word or two when rat and frog fell silent. They greeted her thoughts with delight, her father smiling in approval and Gibson nodding his ponderous head, yellow eyes brimming at his friend's pride.

   When they reached the Narrows both her father and Gibson left the carriage to ride the rest of the way, leaving Lenora to herself. She enjoyed another of her father's chewsticks and listened to the creak of wagon wheels, the heavy gait of horses, the muttering of the men driving them, and the faint sounds of the forest beyond her windows. She watched the trees and wondered what the woodland life was like. She smiled as she remembered the Baroness dressing her in some of Nat's clothing so she could learn to climb with Nat and her older sisters. She'd been so afraid of slipping her little claws dug in tight with every step; she'd had no idea how strong they were until then.

   The reverie was cut short when they reached the gatehouse. Lenora listened to her father and the Baron greeting one another while she tidied her dress and the ribbons on her tail. Once satisfied she poked her snout of the window and squeaked her disapproval; the two wagons in front were blocking her view! Put out, she sat back down and crossed her arms.

   Lenora only stood again once the caravan came to a second stop, now at the base of the inner wall leading into Matthias Keep. Their driver, a black-furred bear with lighter face, opened the door of her carriage, “We've arrived at the Narrows, Mistress. We have to walk the rest of the way to the Keep.”

   “Very well.” She stepped from the wagon and smiled up to the bear; even with him on the ground and she on the carriage steps he was two heads taller. “Please bring the satchel with father's gifts, Clark. Baroness Kimberly will know to whom each goes.”

   The bear nodded his head and offered her a warm smile. “My pleasure.” He had been in father's employ as driver and personal guard since she was a ratling and used to let her ride on his back in both man-like and beast shape. He was twice her size and would have done so still if she asked.

   While Clark attended to their supplies in the rear of the carriage, Lenora cast her eyes across the low wall protecting the town and spotted the Matthias clan gathered to welcome them. Her eyes at first touched upon her friend Natalie, the one rat sister her age, and then slipped to the other hooded-black-over-white rat nearby. Her betrothed.

   Erick Matthias was three years older than she, with a short, stout frame like his father's. He wore a brown tunic and green vest of decent if not fine quality, but nothing to decorate fur, ears, or tail. He did not even don shoes, his long toes splayed in the dirt like another hand. Competent if not seasoned as a warrior, he still had the bearing and poise mastered from years of training. He was a very handsome rat.

   His dark eyes, almost lost in the black fur of his face, caught her gaze. For a moment his jaws opened in surprise; she even saw his tongue behind his incisors. Then he spun away, almost running up the hill behind their fathers, long tail bouncing behind him.

   Lenora laughed to herself, whiskers lifting with her smile. Handsome and cute too.

   “It is not much, but at least there is one room in this cramped castle a woman can feel a lady.”

   Lenora sat down on a corner of the satin chaise, tail draping over one end, and smiled to her hostess. “Thank you, Baroness. This is from Urseil's is it not? And do I smell Jardin perfume?”

   The small parlor within Matthias Keep had two chaise lounges around a hearth, cabinets along either wall with mirrors and grooming kits, and adorned with vases with flowers, a service with a supply of wine, cheese, fruit, bread, and chocolate, and a few cushioned stools. The room and its furnishings were decorated in bright but soft colors and illuminated by a small fire and a score of witchlights hiding in a glass chandelier. After half-a-dozen years of use by the Matthias women the strongest scent was rat, but as this was so familiar and welcome to her she barely noticed; the flavor of fire, the luxury of chocolate, and the tantalizing bouquet of perfume were what her nose savored.

   She had only sat down and already Lenora felt relaxed. Baroness Kimberly had brought a small sample of the aristocratic life from the great cities to the Narrows.

   “Very good, Lenora!” Kimberly smiled as she stepped to the service and glanced at the morsels arrayed there. Her two eldest daughters, Bernadette and Baerle, were sitting upon the stools, while the two girls from her third litter, Mary and Theresa, were grooming their older sister's fur with little combs and tying ribbons around their ears and tails. “I bought it when we visited Metamor for the Summer Festival. So many of the perfumes they sell are too strong for rats, but Jardin's was so gentle I couldn't resist. And the satin is from Urseil; a gift from Kendrick three years ago we were finally able to use. How is he and Lydia? They have not visited the Narrows since; I hear they have a daughter now?”

   Lenora nodded. “Last year. Eselbaeth is a pangolin too, just like her older brother. And Lydia is expecting again. The whole Urseil family has not stopped celebrating for months!”

   Kimberly beamed at the news. “Wonderful. I will write them a congratulatory note. Charles wanted to invite them to the wedding, but he wanted to invite half of Metamor too.”

   Bernadette's ears perked and her bright tan fur thrummed with her whiskers. Lenora turned to her and offered a warm, incisor-filled smile. “I am so happy for you, Bernadette. Godfrey is such a good man. You are going to be so beautiful at his side. Have you your dress?” In truth, Lenora did not know the groundhog; she had only seen him in passing on earlier visits to the Narrows and the Glen. He was a journeyman carpenter with some skill but even when he became a master it was unlikely he would have renown in Metamor.

   Bernadette shook her head. “It is almost ready. It's going to be so beautiful, with lace flower cups down my back and tail and a crown of white roses in my ears. But oh, Lenora, you are looking quite lovely already.”

   “And would you care for anything to eat?” Kimberly asked, her eyes noting her four daughters before returning to Lenora. “You must be famished after such a long journey.”

   “I would care for something, thank you, Baroness. As long as there is some chocolate I'll eat anything else!”

   “Oh yes, chocolate!” Bernadette agreed. Next to her Baerle nodded, though her enthusiasm was restrained to a whisker-dancing smile. The two younger sisters quivered but kept to their duties.

   Kimberly prepared a small plate of morsels and a small glass of wine for Lenora before settling herself down on the other lounge. The purple stone medallion bounced atop her bodice while she straightened her sky-blue dress. “Mary, Theresa, be dears and bring your sisters and I something to eat as well. Then you may groom our guest until she is satisfied.”

   “I do not...”

   But the Baroness cut her off with a glance. “You have had a fatiguing journey, Lenora. They will only freshen you for the Narrows.”

   Lenora picked up a small morsel of chocolate. The flavor was divine, and inside the nugget her incisors found a piece of walnut. She let the sweet, richness permeate her mouth. All the while she watched the younger sisters, both with dark brown fur like their father, ready plates for the elder sisters and their mother. “I hear Mary and Theresa will be going to Metamor soon. Duchess Sutt is taking them on with their brothers for a year and teaching them to serve house. Or so I heard.”

   “Aye,” Kimberly replied with a fondness and a touch of regret in her eyes. “We will miss them here, as we do Peter and Timothy, but it is important all our children know how to keep a house for when they marry.”

   Or, Lenora thought to herself, if they do not marry and need employ themselves as a servant to a wealthy house. As nobility they would never be common servants, but they might be stewards or mistresses of kitchens and the like. The Matthias house had almost no money and as a new house, few prospects for marriage. Their remaining children would all be forced into the life of soldiers, scholars, servants, or laborers if they did not show talent with magic like Natalie or a calling to religious life like Baerle. Perhaps only Erick – and his brother Charlie – would be able to truly lead a noble's life.

   How she wished she could help.

    “My father does have something for them, and for you both too. Clark carried it in the satchel there.” The bear, who waited patiently outside the parlor in an antechamber so small he could almost touch opposite walls and ceiling without stretching, had left the satchel beside Kimberly's lounge. The lady rat shifted about, bunching her dress beneath her legs and tail, and opened the satchel. She peered inside and poked about while Mary and Theresa brought trays and little glasses of wine to Bernadette and Baerle. They came up to Lenora, gave curtsies with eager smiles, before moving behind her. She felt little clawed fingers begin teasing at the veil behind her ears and the ribbons on her tail. They even undid the strings of her blouse and exposed her back. She chittered in pleasure as they ran soft brushes through her fur.

   “Oh my sweet Eli, look what treasures Master Julian has brought for each of you,” Kimberly gasped as she sat back up. In one hand she held an emerald brooch cut in the shape of a heart and inlaid in a medallion of gold, and in the other a set of prayer beads; the chain holding the beads was gossamer thin weave of gold, and each bead a colorful stone of iolite, hematite, and chrysolite; the Pater Noster stones were tiger's eye. Each gift was worth more than the sum of all the gifts her father had ever given the Matthias children.

   “I've never seen anything so beautiful!” Bernadette stammered and squeaked. She almost dropped the plate of cheese and chocolate as she stumbled toward her mother. Baerle was only a touch more composed than her sister, setting her plate on the stool before stealing across the room to run her fingers in awe down the length of the chain, claws touching each bead with wonder.

   “A Queen's prayers. I am not... Oh so beautiful!”

   Kimberly allowed Baerle to cradle the prayer beads in her hands before turning and securing the brooch about Bernadette's neck. The green heart settled above her breasts in her soft tan fur. “It's... like the heart of the forest. I love it! Oh, Lenora, your father is such a wonderful man. Do you see it? I... I cannot believe it!”

   Lenora beamed, and picked up a piece of cheese between two claws. “Father had it commissioned the moment we heard of your betrothal. And the same with your prayer beads when we heard you were thinking of joining the nunnery. Have you decided?”

   Baerle shook her head, eyes never leaving the beads which she pressed to her snout as if kissing them. “Mother Wilfrida asked me to spend this year discerning at home before I entered as a postulant. But...” She lifted her eyes and they met her mother's. There was a look of uncertainty between them; Kimberly did not wish to lose her daughter, and Baerle knew she would miss her bountiful and loving family. “But all I want to do is pray and be with our Lord Yahshua.”

   Sadness touched Lenora's heart for a moment. Everywhere she went she saw daughters with their mothers and was witness to both the love they shared and the stormy battles they fought. She would never know them but for a cross of stone behind the nunnery where her father and she laid roses and kisses.

   Perhaps, after the marriage, she would know a mother's love from Kimberly.

   “And there is something in here for both of you,” Kimberly announced as she turned back to the satchel. “Mary, Theresa, once you are finished come and I'll help you put them on.”

   “What are they?” Theresa squeaked, her claws pausing a moment as she worked a small sponge along the back of Lenora's tail. Lenora could smell the faint touch of vanilla in whatever soap they used to clean the road dust from her tail.

   “Lace asters.” Kimberly lifted what appeared to be a purple flower with a yellow center from the satchel. “You will tie them about your ear for a lovely color.” Kimberly twirled the golden bands of lace between her fingers to show them. Mary and Theresa chittered their delight while Lenora smiled; she helped her father select them. Asters grew in abundance in the mountain hills above the Narrows and she'd helped Nat pick some on her last visit.

   “So, Lenora, what news of Metamor do you bring?”

   Lenora was happy to talk of the affairs of the merchant class and their families. She shared gossip about the Hassan daughters and some of Bryn, but with the Hassan family visiting the southern fiefs for the last month there was little new they had not already heard at the Festival. She mentioned as much as she knew about the Steward's family and the family of Kimberly's old friend Bernadette the mouse from her days serving in the Keep's Kitchens.

   “Now I only heard this yesterday, so I do not know if it is true,” Lenora said after savoring the last of the chocolate. Mary and Theresa had finished cleaning her fur and tail and now sat with their mother having their gifts straightened; they each wore a single aster and on opposite ears so they seemed a mirror of one another. Kimberly's eyes lifted from her fingers tying the lace on Mary.

   “Oh? What is it?”

   “The rumor is about Miriam; she has laid another egg.”

   A warm smile crossed Kimberly's face, one filled with joy and a touch of shock. “Truly? How wonderful for them both! I know they have long wanted another child. We will all pray this egg will give them one.”

   “It is only rumor,” Lenora cautioned, but still she was glad the telling of it brought such joy to the Baroness. “But I'm sure you can ask when they arrive.”

   Kimberly nodded and smiled to Bernadette who was stealing glances at the brooch in a mirror. “The Steward was one of the first who accepted our invitation. When will they and the Duke's family return to Metamor?”

   “Tomorrow if the roads are good. The day after if they are delayed. Metamor is flush with merchants and travelers of all sorts.” Lenora was about to say more when she heard the familiar click of claws upon stone coming into the antechamber. All of their eyes turned to the doorway as a handsome black and white rat stopped beneath the transom.

   Kimberly waved to her son with a chortle. “Oh, Erick, do come in. Your sisters, Lenora, and I are just enjoying a bit of repose. Are you here for Master Julian's gift?”

   Erick smiled to his sisters and mother, then cast a timorous glance at Lenora. “Ah, aye, well... welcome to the Narrows, milady. I hope... trust... you had an easy journey.”

   “It was long but pleasant. Thank you for coming to welcome us.”

   “Oh, well, of course, I...” he stammered a moment before turning to his mother. “Master Julian's gifts, are they?” Behind his back Bernadette and Baerle giggled under their breaths.

   Kimberly kept her smile even and nodded. “Lenora, do be a dear and show Erick which gift is his.”

   Unhurried, Lenora strolled the few paces from one chaise to the other, before she stood next to her betrothed and bent down to look into the satchel. Father had packed it carefully to keep the various gifts safe, using little lined pockets and boxes where he could. Erick's was in the large velvet-lined box at the bottom. This she lifted out, even as she tried to observe him from the corner of her eye. But Erick stood too far behind her to glimpse.

   “Oh, thank you, Lenora,” Erick said as he took the box.

   “Let me help you open it.” Lenora lifted the lid, her fingers briefly touching his; the skin was rough from a life living in a tree, caring for horses, and handling a sword. He did not flinch.

   Inside the box rested a silver-embroidered light blue silk hat with loops to secure it around both ears. A single shimmering blue and green peacock feather jutted out the back. Erick lifted it with a blink of amusement. “Well, this is... a traveler's cap for a gentleman?”

   “And fashioned for a rat, sir,” Lenora said with a winsome smile. “My father says the feather is from Marquis Tournemire's tail.”

   Erick laughed, turned the hat around in his hands a few more times, then tried to slip it on his head. Lenora gave the box to Kimberly and said, “Here, let me help.”

   Her betrothed's whiskers flattened against his face, eyes widening. “Oh, well, I suppose.” His sisters giggled again. He shot them a glare.

   Lenora stepped behind him, careful of his tail, and with nimble fingers secured the straps around his large ears. She studied a small nick in his left ear, and felt both amusement and uncertainty at the way his ears folded against the side of his head at her touch. Would he return from Vysehrad with much worse battle scars? Would he even return?

   “There.” Lenora stepped back, her legs brushing against his tail. “I think it looks very handsome on you, Sir Erick.”

   “Lenora's right. It suits you very well,” Kimberly agreed.

   Erick's ears lifted, one hand raised to touch the side of the cap. “It does feel comfortable...”

   “Oh just look, it's perfect for you!” Bernadette gestured toward the mirror in which a moment before she'd admired her brooch.

   Erick turned and bent over, staring into the mirror. He turned his head from side to side, ran his fingers and claws along the side of the hat. His dark eyes brightened as he admired the hat, his whiskers trembled, and his cheeks twisted into a rodent grin. Lenora also smiled as her betrothed tried out different faces in the mirror to see which worked best with the traveler's cap. He would twitch his nose, show off his incisors, raise and lower his ears, droop or lift his whiskers, open his jaws in a wide smile, or shut them tight in a lordly scowl. It was perfect for her betrothed, just as she assured her father it would be.

   “This is...” Erick said as he struck a contemplative pose, one hand stroking the underside of his jaw, “this is very handsome. I must thank Master Julian. I... I love it!”

   Kimberly nodded, one finger idly tapping the purple gem at her bodice. “A handsome hat for a handsome rat. Now, Erick, you didn't come here just to find your gift from Master Julian did you?”

   “Uh... oh... no, no, I didn't.” Erick straightened the fur on his cheeks out with a quick swipe of his fingers and claws and turned, eyes settling on Lenora. He drew himself up to his tallest, standing on the tips of his splayed toes, and puffed his chest out, affecting an aristocratic and dignified air. Lenora hid her amusement. “Milady Lenora, if you are not too fatigued from your journey, perhaps you would enjoy a tour of the Narrows.” After a brief pause he hastily added, “In my company.”

   Now she smiled. “I would enjoy a tour very much. Thank you, Sir Erick.”

   Erick's litter-mates giggled one more time.

   Erick escorted Lenora from the Keep with Clark trailing behind trying not to knock anything over in the cramped corridors. He murmured a few words about the castle his family lived in, but haltingly and with an apology or two about how she had already seen it all mixed in. Lenora smiled and nodded her head, eyes casting to everything he mentioned even if she had seen it before and offered words of approval or marvel as befit whatever feature her betrothed noted.

   When they left the castle they turned to the northeastern corner which pointed toward the Glen – Clark rumbled his relief and stretched his arms and back a moment before resuming his pace a respectful but watchful dozen steps behind them. The grounds surrounding the castle were cramped with inn, livery, armory, smithy, and an assortment of other necessities for a Baron to protect his lands. The promontory on which the Baron had chosen to build his castle was so small everything was packed together; the inn, which James and his wife Baerle kept, had to serve both travelers and guests of the Matthias house. Beyond the first line of buildings the new village could be seen and smelt, and then a steep slope through the first set of bailey walls. At the bottom of the steep slope would be the stables and homes for the many laborers come to build the outer wall. Lenora had often thought Keeptowne was cramped with homes built on top of other homes in some quarters, but at least the roads were wide enough for carriages. In this village around the Matthias Keep the roads were wide enough to walk paw in paw and no more.

   Erick paused when they reached the northeastern corner of the castle and ran his hand along one of the stones and the long tendrils of green ivy climbing them. Purple flowers glistened even though the afternoon sun could not reach them. Her betrothed's anxiety departed him for a moment as his eyes fixed on the stone. Curious, Lenora stepped closer. “Is this your father's ivy?”

   “Part of it,” Erick nodded. “Over the years he has planted new seeds in many places. This one he planted after we laid these stones. We all helped you see. These are the cornerstones. I... I placed this one myself.” His dark eyes glimmered, pink nose narrowed, whiskers stood straight out, and his ears lifted high against his hat; a rat's expression of pride.

   Lenora stretched her hand out, spreading her fingers against the stone. Compared to many of the stone blocks in the castle it was not very large. But Erick must have been strong even as a young rat to have lifted such a stone. She smiled and offered a little squeak of delight. “All by yourself? You must have been very strong indeed! Thank you for showing me, Sir Erick. Did you help build all the castle?”

   “Nay, not all of it. The masons did most of the work, but Father wanted us to be part of building our home so we all visited at least once a week to help put the freshly shaped stones in place. You should have seen Nat, Misha, and Meredith scampering over the stones and getting mortar all through their fur!”

   She laughed and shook her head. “Nat's never told me! You must tell me all about it, Sir Erick!”

   His ears stood taller every time she used his title. Erick was a young rat with doubts about his worth, but one proud of his accomplishments. He had earned the Sir and deserved to be proud of it. Lenora loved it.

   “Oh, there's not much more to it. My Father could tell you a grand tale of it, and I can retell the ones he's told us time and time again, but I'm not very good at making up new ones.”

   “In time you will,” Lenora assured him. “So what else of the Narrows do you wish to show me today, good knight?”

   Erick let his hand fall from the wall and he glanced about, eyes casting over the tops of the nearest buildings at the clear sky. His nose and whiskers twitched for a moment before he half-turned and caught her with but one eye. “The village is like any other really... is there anything you want to see? I know you've seen most of it many times before.”

   Lenora gently touched him on the arm. “Show me any place you love.”

   A smile flickered across his cheeks. “Oh... then... do you mind riding?”

   She was not dressed for sitting astride a horse and so Erick lifted her into the saddle, both legs draped over the same side, and then pushed her tail over the other. Lenora remembered some of the human ladies griping about riding side-saddle, but with her long tail to balance her she found it comfortable as long as the road was not rough. Erick assured her the bay mare she sat upon had a very agreeable disposition and would follow his russet quarter-horse without even a tug of the reins.

   Erick's manner was much more assured than in the parlor. Riding a horse was to her father something a well-to-do Keeper had to know how to do. For Erick it was a joy and a part of his being. There was no hesitation as he prepared the saddles and halters, and every twitch of his fur showed confidence and tenderness as he cajoled both horses from their stalls and worked his hands over their faces and hides. Lenora allowed herself to simply enjoy his strength and knew she would be safe in his care – her bear protector would follow them afoot but here in the Narrows she knew she did not need him.

   Erick heaved himself into his saddle with only his grip and the stirrup. He curled his toes around the leather and pointed his snout out the door. “We won't go far, but... the best part about the Narrows is the wood and mountain hills. It's not the Glen, but...”

   Lenora smiled. “Please show me, Sir Erick.”

   He clicked his tongue against his incisors and with a gentle nudge, his quarter-horse clopped out of the stables. Her mare, as promised, followed along at an easy gait; Lenora shifted her arms with each step to keep her balance, and almost giggled at the way the horse's hide rubbed against her dangling tail. Clark lumbered behind them, for once not quite as tall as she was.

   The ground between the stables and the outwall was hard-packed earth and stone with only a few patches of grass not yet trampled to death. Tents and little huts littered the grounds, home for the feuding stonemasons and engineers while the outwall was being built. Lenora wondered if any of them would chose to live at the Narrows when their work was done.

   Erick led them around to the northwest, hugging the inner bailey wall as much as he could. Lenora could see the last remnants of the shallow depression the Narrows had been built in beyond the completed outwall, and the line of thick forest beyond. It all ended in the jagged mountains with their bare-peaks and gowns of pine and fir. The mountains she could see from Keeptowne all showed signs of harvesting, with swaths of forest cut down for lumber or mined for stone. The peaks framing the Narrows were wild and untouched, or so at least it seemed. She knew mot of the stones making up the outwall had come from those peaks, but the work was so careful it left no signs.

   The inner bailey wall ran right into the mountain and a tower climbed the steep rock another thirty feet. A guardhouse was positioned along the wall and her nose detected the scent of more horses; her ears lifted and a moment later she heard one whinny from somewhere within the cluster of buildings abutting the rock. Erick led them past the building to a narrow track against the granite wall. She glanced up and saw roots and branches jutting out above the lip but nothing more. Her mare followed along the rock trail, hooves clopping so loud half the Narrows was sure to hear.

   Erick dismounted as the track wound to the outwall tower. The door to the tower was open, but Erick ignored it. Curious, Lenora watched him as he placed his hand on a part of the masonry between the tower and the mountain face; unlike the outwall the rock was smooth as if the mountain itself had been chiseled away around it. She squeaked in alarm when, with a dull groan, the stone parted to reveal a dark path illumined but faintly by a soft silvery light.

   Erick half-turned, smiling like a boy who's caught a fish, “My father built this; the witchlight is my mother's. It's one of our escape holes if the Narrows are ever overrun. Come, milady, it's safe. The horses have all been through before.”

   He climbed back into the saddle and with another wave, guided her into the tunnel. The walls were rock and twisted to the left only a few paces in, cutting off all light from outside. She glanced behind and saw Clark enter, running a hand across the stone as he passed, careful not to prick it with his large claws. The clop of horse hooves echoed in their ears, and after a moment she heard the stone groan again; the door had closed behind them.

   “This is remarkable,” she murmured. Her father had told her of secret tunnels deep beneath Metamor and after much begging showed her the first one he had found. They had walked through the passage whose walls, floor, and ceiling were the color and texture of black-pearl for an hour before turning back. She felt no fear in the tunnel – an advantage to being a rat – but after so long a time walking to see nothing new had been unpleasant. She suspected her father had taken her there and on such a long journey to ensure she never sought them out again without actual need.

   This was the first true tunnel she had entered since. Unlike the black tunnel under Metamor where she felt nothing, this one gently comforted. The walls were the same gray granite like most rocks in the valley, but in the walls were little crystals which glimmered in the witchlight's moonglow. The air, which had at times felt stifling in Metamor's tunnel, felt fresh and smelled of pine needles and wild flowers. There was even a subtle warmth to the air. “How much magic is there in here? I'm warm and I smell flowers.”

   Erick chittered and she could see him grin; the blue feather in his hat shimmered in the light. “My father asked the mountain and here we are. The witchlight is the only magic this place has. The doors only open for one of my father's blood, so we have no fear of invaders using it.”

   She wondered if it would work for her once they were wed. But for once Erick was not awkward and she rather enjoyed it. No need to remind him now.

   The cavern walls parted as Erick's horse neared them and opened onto a forest glade with sheltering trees along a grassy decline. Lenora smiled as she turned her head about, drinking in the scent of pine and maple. Erick brought his steed a dozen paces from the cleft in the rock and waited beneath a bough laden with pinecones; his eyes were fixed on the south. Lenora's mare followed and brought her to his side even as her eyes adjusted to the faint verdant light. Clark grunted in surprise when the rock pressed tight a moment after he stepped out.

   “In the Winter when the leaves have fallen you can see the Narrows from here. If the wind blows just right you'll catch a glimpse.” Erick pointed at the trees lining the crest of a hill before them. Lenora nodded but could see nothing but broad maple leaves. He looked past her and at the bear who was checking his leggings. “Are you all right, good sir? The door didn't close on you did it?”

   “No, Sir Erick,” Clark replied with a rumbling grunt. “I appear to be whole.”

   Lenora favored her father's loyal guard with a warm smile. “Isn't it lovely here, Clark? There's so many trees!”

   “The bear in me is quite happy here in the forest, milady. The man in me wouldn't mind a good tavern and a mug of ale. The bear in me would like 'em too!”

   Lenora chittered her amusement, while Erick let out a boisterous laugh. “Ah, Clark, you are a good man! I'm sure we can find a mug your size.” He grinned wide enough to show his teeth and Lenora studied him even as she made it seem she was looking at the trees. He'd been so awkward in town and in the parlor. Here on his horse and in the woods he seemed perfectly at ease.

   The woods were beautiful... but with no roads or castles in sight, Lenora felt a strange unease. From her father's maps she knew the forest village of Glen Avery was somewhere to the north, the roads north to Hareford were off to the east, and to the west were impassable mountains. There was little fear of losing her way. But if she were to be separated, how long would it be before she found any of those places? What might find her instead?

   Erick eased his horse onto a narrow track leading into a patchwork of shadow, warmth, and brush beneath the trees. “There's a clearing north of here where my sisters enjoy collecting wildflowers and berries. It's not far.”

   Lenora nodded and gripped the saddle with one hand while her eyes scanned the large maple leaves overhead. The forest was quiet but for the grunting of horses and twittering of distant birds. If she strained she could hear the gentle tumbling of a stream. It was never so silent in Metamor even in the dead hours before dawn when most slumbered.

   Her eyes returned to the rat before her. He turned his horse through the brush as if he no longer even needed ponder what the right path was; Lenora could see nothing to suggest one way was any better than another. Yet Erick saw them as clearly as she might know the twisting streets of Keeptowne. His buildings were trees, his streets were deer paths, and his neighbors the hidden beasts of the wood. The forest was his home and in its light she could see warrior, knight, and rat in his best light; how handsome he truly was! But would he think less of her because she was already lost and helpless to find her way back without him? Would he chafe when she preferred life within stone walls and yearned for every visit to her father in Metamor?

   Lenora forced her drooping whiskers back out and smiled. Perhaps, with the passing of years, she would learn to love the forest even a little like her betrothed. Her father was shrewd and rarely misjudged a deal when it came to money or improving the lot of Metamor. When it came to Erick she would have to trust her father's judgment; he did want what was best for her; perhaps this rat truly should be her betrothed.


   Like Erick she said nothing as they rode on through the woods further and further from everything she knew and loved.

   Erick hummed a tune as he led his betrothed and her protector along familiar forest trails to the clearing his sisters loved. It felt good to be out of the cramped keep and away from any teasing from Bertram or his sisters. Astride a horse in the woods, the scents of trees and little animals touching his nose and whiskers, a rat could feel at peace.

   He glanced behind every so often to make sure Lenora and Clark were keeping pace. His betrothed rode with one hand gripping the saddle horn and the other pressed to her chest, head turned so both her eyes could watch him; those red eyes, the more they fixed on him, the larger they seemed. Erick never let his gaze linger on her long, always shifting to the bear who followed the horses with trained silence before he turning back to trail ahead.

   The clearing was not far from the Keep, but the trail twisted around the folds of earth at the base of the mountains so the ten minute ride seemed much longer and much further. Erick had traveled these woods with his father many times as a child, and after they moved to the Narrows had played and trained in them; he and his sisters knew the trees so well they even named some. As they rode past he whispered each name in greeting, offering the tree a smile and tip of his new hat.

   The clearing was on a gradual slope up one of the smaller peaks framing the valley and had been formed when a large oak toppled in a brutal snow storm not long before Erick was born. The oak and snow knocked over other nearby trees, leaving a wide open space in which mountain grasses, flowers, and now blueberry bushes flourished. Little shoots of pine appeared every Spring but his family uprooted them to protect the clearing.

   “Here we are,” Erick announced as they emerged from the wood. Warm sunlight bathed the field in radiant greens, blues, yellows, and pinks as wildflowers swayed in a light mountain breeze. Many of the bushes were laden with ripe berries, though most had been cleared by his sisters in the last few weeks or by the local fauna. Erick slipped from his saddle and secured the reins to a nearby bush. The horse happily cropped the grass and flowers while he stretched.

   “Lovely isn't it, milady?” He asked as he gestured around the clearing.

   Lenora looked around and a smile touched her face. “There are so many flowers, Sir Erick. I've never had blueberries from the bush before.”

   “It's when they taste best!” He motioned for her to follow, then grimaced and walked toward her, feeling an idiot. “Here, let me help you down.” He reached up, gripped her middle and eased her down from the saddle. Her tail slid over the back of the saddle and thumped to the ground a moment after her feet had settled in the swaying grass. The hem of her dress brushed through the flower petals and little specks of color stained it.

   Lenora yanked the hem of her dress out of the grass and Erick felt his heart sink. “Oh, I'm so sorry. I hadn't thought...”

   But his betrothed shook her head. “It will clean well enough.” She let go of her dress and offered him an assuring smile. “Do you come here often, Sir Erick?”

   “My sisters come here once or twice almost every week once Spring arrives. Bertram and I often come along when our duties allow us.” He gestured toward bushes still laden. “Come, milady, you must still be hungry.”

   Lenora followed while Clark tended to her horse and kept watch from a respectful distance. Erick was grateful for his presence as it meant none could accuse either of them of a clandestine indiscretion. Whether he liked his marriage bed or not he would go to it undefiled in both deed and word.

   A dozen paces away was a small semi-circle of bushes; the side facing the woods had all been picked clean, but the inside of the curve facing the mountains was still lush. The bushes had grown almost as tall as the rats and so Erick didn't even need to bend over to test the berries. He squeezed one between his fingers and juice smeared his soft pink flesh and around his claws. “Excellent. They're perfect!” He pulled the berry free and plopped it on his tongue. He crunched it at the back of his mouth and let the juices soak through his maw. A trickle escaped his snout and he wiped it off with the back of his hand before swallowing. “Here, why don't you try some?”

   Lenora took an uncertain step toward the bushes and her red eyes looked up and down the tangle of branches and berries. She glanced once at his hands, already purplish-blue from his very first berry, and then down at her own still bright and clean. What was she worried about, it was just a little juice? A good scrubbing and it would come clean.

   “You'll never have any if you don't pick them!” Erick chided her as he plucked another blueberry free and tossed it to the back of his tongue. He bounced it from molar to molar before chewing it good; this time he swallowed before the juices could stain his chin. “It's not hard. Here, let me show you.”

   “I didn't think to bring anything to clean ourselves, Sir Erick,” Lenora admitted with drooped whiskers. “Your hands are already a mess!”

   “You should have seen the youngest after Bernadette and Baerle took them here last week to pick berries. I think they had more on them then in the baskets or in their tummies! Trust me, milady, we at the Narrows are used to cleaning rat fur!”

   Her whiskers lifted and a chittering laugh escaped her throat. Her eyes brightened as Erick took one of her hands in his and guided it to a plump berry; he positioned her fingers at the base and he let go. “Now, just give it a little twist and you'll have picked your first blueberry, milady!”

   Lenora did so and on her third try the berry came free. She cradled it, ginger and uncertain, before setting it between her incisors. Juice sprayed forward as she bit and Erick laughed. Lenora swallowed the rest and dabbed her snout with one of the leaves, shooting him a glare.

   “You'll make an even worse mess if you bite it with your incisors! I'm sorry, milady, I should have warned you. How was the blueberry?”

   “Delicious! I did not know they could be so sweet and tart!” Lenora eyed the many more berries thrust out from the bush and then turned her red eyes upon the knight. “Well, Sir Erick, are you going to select some for me? I know which to chose in the market square, but which do we pick here?”

   “Any will be good this time of year. Just pick the biggest ones you see.”

   Lenora's snout and whiskers seemed to twist into a displeased moue and Erick could only shake his head. She had fingers and claws; surely she could pick her own. He plucked a handful free, letting them jostle together between his fingers as he settled down on a small rock to watch her as he ate.

   His betrothed took her time examining the berries before selecting another. She bent down a little, her tail lifting in a comely pose, as she worked her fingers underneath the berry. It took her a few twists to work the berry free; this time she plopped it in her mouth and ate; she licked her fingers and claws as clean as she could before starting her search for a third.

   “If you hold them a little tighter you'll get them off easier.”

   Lenora flicked her ears at his words but said nothing. He ate two more berries before she found another she wanted. Again she bent over and Erick caught himself admiring her lovely almost-white tail as it arched in the air. He could hear Bertram's croaking taunts already and grumbled to himself. Aye, she is lovely and pleasing to the eye! Now go soak your head you silly frog!

   “Oops!” Lenora squeaked when her third blueberry popped free and right out of her hands. She hiked her dress higher as she went to her hands and knees to find it in the tall grass and wildflowers.

   Erick was up from his rock and at her side in a moment. “Watch out and keep still! You could squash it with your knees if you move around.” She nodded and cast a quick glance at both knees but the fur was still white. He bent over beside her and together they pushed the grass aside until the slippery blueberry was found at the base of a small patch of yellow flowers. Erick lifted it and she leaned back on her knees and opened her mouth. He set it on her tongue, remembering the many times he and his sisters had done the same for each other.

   “Thank you, Sir Erick,” she said as she stood and brushed at the grass stains adorning her dress; most came off. “Had I known we were going to pick blueberries I would have worn something more sensible!”

   He grimaced and plopped another blueberry between his molars. He'd hoped she would love the clearing, but she was dressed for the castle, not the forest. “I apologize for the ruin I have brought to your dress, milady! Perhaps we should go back to the Keep.”

   Lenora shook her head and offered him a smile. “It is just a dress. I'm sorry I made such a fuss over it. Teach me how to pick the blueberries and the flowers and I will try not to worry about this little thing.” She plucked at her dress and lifted both whiskers and ears in a broad rat smile. “You know, you do look better here in the woods, Sir Erick. You look more comfortable here than you ever did on your visits to Metamor.”

   Erick felt a flush touch his ears. His heart thumped and he took a step back, stammering, “Well, I... I guess I... I grew up in Glen Avery; I was born and raised inside a tree. They're... home to me. Wood is... warmer than stone and I... I guess it's more friendly too. Stone is good I suppose.” He thought of his father and the scars of stone and his heart beat even faster. “And there is a lot of stone I love and cherish, but... I... oh I guess I just love the forest more. It's home. You understand, right?”

   Lenora nodded and cast her eyes upward and then off into the woods; Erick could tell she was trying to see something not there. “Oh, aye, I do. I do.” She bent over and tried to pluck another blueberry.

   “Here, let me help you.” As he stood by her side and showed her how, he could see Bertram croaking another salacious ballad. He wrinkled his nose and whiskers at the mere thought. Shut up, frog!

   By the time they returned to the Narrows Keep her dress was ruined by the grass and flowers and occasional spurts of blueberry juice, but it was a small price to pay to save Erick from further embarrassment. Her hands and the fur around her mouth were also marred by blue stains she could not seem to remove, but in this she was no worse off than Erick or even her protector Clark. The bear said nothing as was his way, but she knew he'd gorged himself with his own patch of blueberry bushes.

   At least the blueberries had been delicious and the scent of flowers very pleasing. Despite the stains she had enjoyed herself as she ate and stole glances of her betrothed. To her even greater delight, she had caught him admiring her several times. Usually it was her tail, but when he thought she couldn't see he'd also admired her ears, face, and snout. At least he didn't seem bothered by her red eyes; far too many could not help but find them unsettling, even those who'd lived at Metamor their whole lives.

   After stabling the horses Erick escorted her back to the keep where she excused herself to the chambers in the Inn the Matthias family always reserved for them. Her maid-servant, who had arranged all of her things in the three rooms she, her father, Clark, and their personal servants would share for the few weeks they would stay in the Narrows, removed the ruined gown and gave her an impromptu bath in freshly heated water. It took a bit of scrubbing but the blueberry stains did come out of her hands and fur and soon after she was dried and attired in a mahogany-brown gown with russet lace surplice to compliment her eyes and make the white of her fur even brighter than a fuller's bleach.

   Dinner followed and it was the first time since they'd arrived she saw her father. All of the Matthias children were excited to have their Uncle Julian there for a visit and her father had wisely made sure each of them had received their gift before dinner. He sat next to the Baron and Baroness. Gibson sat beside him and she next to Gibson so she could sit with Bernadette and Baerle and talk more freely during the meal. Erick and Bertram sat across from her and she tried not to listen in on the frog's playful needling of her betrothed.

   As a night of welcome to guests, the Matthias family offered a sumptuous feast of roast mutton in a dark, spicy sauce once popular at court. This was preceded by courses of soup, fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish, and truncheons of bread and potato, followed by more cheese and fruit with dipping creams of various flavors, and finally cake and a bitter cup of coffee after all the wine. Lenora ate as much as she could after so many blueberries in the afternoon, and watched Erick as often as she could. Her betrothed filled his plate anew for each course and while he never quite managed to empty it, still ate more than three times what she could have managed even on an empty stomach. Was this the appetite of a warrior, or indulgence at a rare feast?

   The dinner extended well into the evening; the youngest litter of Matthias children who were boisterous and noisy at the start were all cranky or nodding off by the end; the Baroness and the older daughters all helped carry the little ones to bed. When they returned, her father expressed his own interest in retiring for the evening. The Baron was gracious and bid them a pleasant night sleep and many beautiful days in the Narrows ahead. Lenora offered Erick a parting smile before she followed her father from the great hall and out of the Keep.

   Despite his professed fatigue, her father walked a spirited pace and both she and Clark had to rush to keep up. He whistled a tune with a familiar air of satisfaction and it made her heart rush. Discussions with the Baron must have gone very well indeed if her father were in such a good mood.

   He did not slacken his pace until they entered the nearby Inn and even then it was mere courtesy to avoid running into the many folk preparing the Inn for the numerous guests they would receive in the weeks ahead. When they reached their rooms, her father first turned to Clark and said, “You did well today running all about the Narrows after my future son-in-law. Get your sleep, my friend, I do not think we need fear assassins this night!”

   “I will be all the more ready tomorrow, Master Julian,” Clark assured them in his basso rumble. The bear inclined his head respectfully toward her father, and then patted her on the head between her ears. Lenora chittered in appreciation and then wondered; would she be able to keep her protector after she married?

   After Clark left to the room fronting their own, Julian turned toward their personal servants. His was a gray-muzzled mouse who'd come to Metamor many years ago in search of healing. Hers was a cursed-born shrew who'd lost her parents during the last attack against the Keep and whom her father gave a home after Lenora was born. “Willem, Hallie, you've both done well this day. The rooms are just as I like them! Prepare comfortable clothes for us tomorrow and then you may enjoy the rest of the evening as you see fit. Lenora and I will prepare ourselves for bed this night and we'll leave our garments in your room to tend in the morning.”

   “It is our pleasure, Master Julian. You and milady enjoy a pleasant night's sleep,” Willem offered with a chitter and pleased twitch of whisker and ear.

   Hallie smiled and gave Lenora a quick hug, “You must tell me all about your day in the woods with the dashing young knight tomorrow, milady!”

   Lenora chittered a laugh and hugged the shrew in return. “Oh, I will, I will. Goodnight, Hallie.”

   After both servants left, her father stretched and sat down on his bed. Their room was at a corner, with windows in two walls to keep the air fresh. There were two beds opposite the windows with modest frames but comfortably stuffed with thick curtains to keep them warm in the cold mountain air. A wardrobe occupied the corner between the windows, while a writing desk and a service filled the remainder of the room, offering a token of comfort for the well-to-do traveler. The door next to her father's bed led to the other two rooms they had, those for their servants and their supplies. The door next to Lenora's bed was locked and led to a secret staircase down to a hidden exit if ever they needed to flee the Inn.

   “Ah, I know Lenora... I know. You wish to hear of the negotiations! Ah, I am blessed to have you as my daughter. Come, sit beside me; we may have eaten but my incisors could stand a chew.”

   She sat next to him and smiled. “Mine as well. Are things here as difficult as we heard?”

   Her father took two short sticks from his pouch and handed her one. They were flavored with a touch of honey and peach juice, and made a sweet chore. They both soothed their incisors for a full minute before he lowered his and gave a deep sigh. “If not more difficult, but Charles will come to my way of thinking in a few days. The men we arranged to supplant his crews will be here in a week if all goes well. Charles has already made generous offers to both stone masons and the engineers yet they still refuse to work. Let us see how fears of starvation suit them. They break guild practice to demand so much and must be taught a lesson. Charles is a good man and dear friend, and he can build a beautiful city here too in time.”


   “But he needs to be convinced sometimes he does no wrong to punish those who would take advantage of his generosity. You may need to teach Sir Erick the same lesson in time. It has been too long since Charles has had enemies; he knows how to fight with sword and pen but not with coin. But,” Julian smiled and lifted the chewstick to his incisors again, “he has earned our friendship many times over and deserves all we can give. In a few days he'll see things our way, Lenora. In two weeks time the stone masons and engineers will be working again or they will have no work at all.”

   Lenora smiled around her stick as she listened. She had seen her father do something similar when some of their drivers or soldiers demanded more coin than the rest. There were always plenty of folk in Metamor willing to drive a team of horses or lift a sword or bow in defense.

   They sat in quiet but for teeth grinding into wood and for the evening village voices drifting up through their cracked windows. Compared to Metamor it may as well have been as silent as an empty temple. She slid her tail along the bed-quilt until it brushed against her father's. He tilted his head toward her, warm red eye searching her face. He said nothing until he finished his chewstick.

   “And how was your day, my flower? I hear Sir Erick took you to the forest to pick wild blueberries.”

   “He did. I fear the lovely white dress you bought me may be ruined. I only asked him to show me some place in the Narrows he loves. He loves the forest, Father.”

   “He grew up in a tree. You remember visiting it when you were little. I still remember the first time you tried to climb those branches with Natalie.” He chittered a laugh and his smile warmed her. “Did you enjoy the places he showed you?”

   “I would have more if I had not been worried after my dress so. The woods were beautiful, the flowers very pretty, and the blueberries were delicious. It was so quiet though. Everything here is too quiet.”

   “Except their dinner table!”

   Lenora frowned, ears dropped, and cast her father a withering glare. “You know what I mean.”

   “Aye, it is certainly quieter here than in Keeptowne. But the Narrows are young. With time and cultivation this place will seem just as noisy and full of life as our home.” Her father ran his claws through the fur behind her ears, something he'd often done to comfort her when she was young. “Does the quiet bother you?”

   “It... doesn't seem right. It makes me anxious, Father.”

   “Is it the only thing?”

   Lenora took her last few bites of her chewstick then set her hands in her lap, smoothing the wrinkles out of her burgundy evening dress. “I don't think he wants to marry me, Father. I'm afraid he won't love me because I prefer the city and only feel awkward or anxious in the forest village. I don't want to marry someone who won't love me, Father. I don't want to be away so far from you and everything I know.” She surprised herself when she felt tears dripping down her cheeks. She thrust her arms around her father's chest and pressed her face in tight.

   Julian continued to run his hands down the back of her head and neck while his other arm pulled her in close. “Sir Erick is a good rat, Lenora. He may be older than you, but he is still young and there is still the boy in him. It takes men longer to know they must love a woman. If today he showed you a place dear to him, then you can rest assured he does care about you. Love will grow in time. All true love does. It is not a thing known in a moment, but cultivated and deepened with every sacrifice and every shared memory.”

   He leaned back and lifted her snout so their eyes met. “Your mother and I... oh, we had our moments when we were so angry we did not even want to smell each other's fur on anything of ours! But we loved each other in what short time we had and always overcame our anger and our wounded pride. I see so much of her in you, Lenora. In many ways I love her more every day even if we cannot be together. Do not fret over whether Sir Erick will love you or not, or whether you will love the Narrows or not. If you are willing to love them and do so, then both will be true in time.

   “And do not fret over missing me; you will gain a new mother and father and many, many brothers and sisters who will be eager to love you. And beyond they, I will certainly spend as much time here in the Narrows as I can. I love you, Lenora; I am your father and I will protect you. I would never force you to marry a man you hate.”

   Lenora brushed the last tear from her eyes and squeezed him tight. “Oh, Father! I love you too. I do... like Sir Erick. He is handsome and charming. And he is a good rat. And I do want to help him and his brothers and sisters. I... I just...I'm just scared!”

   He continued to comb her fur with his claws while the tip of his tail brushed across her own. “We always are. I was terrified the day I married your mother; but the terror turned to joy, and so will yours. I promise. And you have another three years to prepare. There will be many more chances to know Sir Erick. He will be an older and wiser rat when you wed; he will see the ducal heir try to woo a woman first-hand, and learn the importance of treating his wife well if he does not know it already.

   “And if all I have said does not comfort you, Lenora, know this.” Her father lifted her snout again and fixed her a firm, but comforting stare. “If in three years time you see something in him you fear, I will bring it to the Baron's attention and we will dissolve the betrothal if your fears are true.”

   Lenora blinked and stammered, “Oh I... I don't... but... I don't want... I...” She chastened herself and then took a deep breath, “Far be it from me to ask so cruel a thing of you, Father. Sir Erick is a good rat. The only thing I fear is I will not be the wife he hopes for in his heart.”

   His whiskers twitched and the familiar glint of the merchant at the bargaining table touched her father's eyes. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But you can be something better. You can be the wife he needs to be more than just a good rat. You can be the wife he needs to be a good Baron and father in his turn. You can be the wife he needs to make the Narrows prosperous. You can be the wife he needs to transform him from a knight without renown into an elder lord of Metamor. And in the midst of it you will give him what every man truly desires – a family of his own.” His smile transformed his face into one of profound joy. “I was never truly happy until you were in my life, Lenora. You will understand it one day, as will Sir Erick.”

   Lenora nodded and a small smile touched her snout. Her whiskers twitched as she pondered her father's words. “I will try, Father. I promise you I will.”

   “I know you will, my beautiful Lenora. Now, enough serious talk. Let us ready ourselves for slumber. There is much work we both have in the days ahead and we have had a very long day.”

   Together they slipped down from the bed and father and daughter, as was their custom from her earliest years, helped each other prepare for sleep.

   It was well into night when Erick climbed the long steps into the mountains behind the Keep. He'd had to endure far too much of Bertram's needling and ribald witticisms for one night and the cool mountain air felt refreshing on his fur. The mountain stairs were rough and in some cases barely visible, especially on a cloudy night despite his rat's eyes. But every night his father came this way the steps would become smoother and easier to climb as he communed with the mountain.

   And they were easier than last week; his father would be up above.

   After dinner Gibson had wanted to see how well his son could fight and so Erick sparred with Bertram for a short while. He did his best to give the frog a few clever openings to impress his father and Bertram took all but one. Erick would regret the bruises in the morning, but they were better than his banter. When they were done Bertram retired with his family, but not before offering Erick a whispered thanks.

   For a moment, Erick didn't wish his friend would be betrothed to a foul-smelling mud puppy.

   He left the Keep and wandered the Narrows for a bit, watching the lamplighters at their work in the village streets, before walking down to the outer wall and climbing the unfinished tower. He leaned against the rocks and stared into the sky for many long minutes, but apart from occasional glimpses of stars behind the clouds, there was nothing for him to see. Nor would his thoughts settle and so not long after climbing back down – he would not jump like the second litter – he found himself making the mountain ascent.

   Erick did not have to climb far before he found his father. The Baron was leaning against a large granite extrusion, his chest up to his arms and head fully stone, while his legs melded into the rock, trousers and all. There was no sign of his tail. It was not the first time Erick had seen his father this way; when he was younger he was always awed by what his father could do with stone, and especially the way he cajoled the mountains into providing them colorful little gems to shine and sparkle. But in the last few years he'd noticed all the little scars his father received turn to stone and stay; every time he saw his father meld with stone now he knew it was only a matter of time before there was nothing left of his father but a statue of living granite.

   And how long after before the statue was nothing more than ordinary rock?

   “Good evening, Father,” Erick did his best to keep his voice level, but a little squeak escaped at the end.

   “Ah, Erick, I knew you were coming.” The mountain told him so; or the ivy which climbed along the stairs. “I will be done here in a moment. Please forgive me for letting you see me like this.”

   Erick nodded but said nothing. He wanted to turn aside but he was not a child anymore. He would face this like a rat. For a few minutes it seemed as if his father did nothing but close his eyes and press his hands against the surface of the granite block. But Erick could feel the stone shifting beneath his toes. An edge pressed outward and into his claws until a new step in the long stairs emerged.

   Once the changes stopped the Baron opened his eyes and rose upward from the stone. His tail slid free and took on the quality of flesh, as did his chest, apart from the scar Erick's brother gave him at the Summer Festival. The trousers returned to cloth as they broke free from the granite, and his paws pulled free until his toes also splayed across the new step. The Baron ran a paw over his bare chest, pausing only briefly at the granite scar. “I know I've tried to keep you from seeing these, but you've known... how long?”

   “I've suspected for a couple of years. About six months ago I saw the one on your side.” Erick gestured at a small scratch along his father's right side just above the waist; he'd nicked his father there while they were training last Winter. “And the night at the festival, I stayed up and hid in my minor form until you came back. I saw what Charlie did.”

   His father nodded. “Please assure me you have forgiven him as I have?”

   “I have, Father. But... what of you? Are you going to turn into stone forever?”

   “Perhaps,” his father admitted with a moue darkening his already night-dark features. “But my friends are helping where they can; they are very powerful and should be able to keep the stone at bay for many, many years yet. Please do not be afraid for me, Erick. I would rather spend my many years seeing you grow into a man ready to take on the burden of tending the Narrows than worry over matters of stone.”

   “I don't want to lose you, Father.”

   Charles reached over and gripped Erick by the shoulder. He felt the claws through his tunic. “I promise you I will not leave you, your mothers, and your brothers and sisters. I love you all too much. This stair... it is something I must build. One day you will understand. But enough of me! Your new hat looks very fetching on you, Erick.”

   He reached up and touched one corner and his whiskers twitched into a grin. “Oh, yes, it is! And very comfortable too. It is my favorite already.”

   “And I hear you took Lenora to the clearing to pick blueberries.”

   Erick nodded. “I even took her through our secret passage. I don't think she enjoyed picking blueberries as much as I hoped she would. She was too worried about dirtying her dress.”

   “Well, perhaps you can take her again another day when she's better prepared. Perhaps she was also fatigued from her long journey. Don't be too hard on her, son.”

   “I am trying. It'd be easier if Bertram wasn't teasing me about her all the time.”


   “Aye, he does nothing else when it comes to Lenora.”

   “And there will be a time in his life when you can return the favor.” His father laughed and pulled Erick in closer. “Oh, my son. You are blessed to have such a good friend as Bertram! If he did not tease you so I should have to hire someone to do it. We all need a friend who will shield us from pride and conceit. You know what James does for me, as well as Master Julian! And let us not forget every time Misha Brightleaf visits! If I dared become too proud of my title he'd use one of Pascal's permanent dyes!”

   Erick laughed and felt the better for it. Bertram was his friend and he wouldn't want any other at his side in battle. He should still have to marry a smelly mud puppy though.

   “And Lenora is a good rat too. She is smart, gentle, and a lover of beauty. Like Master Julian she is shrewd and cunning. She can help you make the Narrows prosperous, Erick, and in a way I never can. She may not be as used to the forest as we are, but give her time. I grew up in a great city too, one even larger than Keeptowne, but I fell in love with the woods. So can she.”

   “I suppose... it's just... I... well...”

   Even in the dark Erick could see his father's face twist in a bemused grin. “Well? What is it?”

   “She's well... she's like... I... my...”

   “Come now, Sir Erick, is my young knight frightened of something?” Erick felt a blush in his ears. His father called him 'young knight' when he was a ratling riding a cloth and stick horse into battle with his mighty chewstick.

   “Well, it's... Lenora is... she feels like she's my sister.” There, he finally said it. “I do like her. She is sweet and very kind. But... she's like my sister. I cannot marry my sister!”

   “Nay, you cannot. But she is not your sister. She is going to be your wife and the mother to your children. You will love her more closely and share more with her than you ever have with your sisters. No one will be closer to you nor more necessary to you than she. So drive any thought she is your sister from your heart and mind. You are seventeen years old. You are going to be spending the winter aiding Sir Dupré at his little wall, and you will spend most of next year away with your brother and his grace, Bryn Hassan, in Vysehrad facing unknown perils! You cannot afford to act like a boy anymore. Not before them and certainly not before your betrothed.”

   Erick scuffed his claws against the new step. “But I didn't chose her, Father. You did. You didn't have a wife thrust at you. Why don't I have a choice too?”

   “No one has a choice in these things, my son.” A fondness filled his father's voice as he leaned in and gripped his shoulder anew. “None of us did. I and your mother had no choice. I sought only to console her when she became a rat, and yet our hearts bid us closer together until before I knew what had happened I could not control myself at all. I had to have her for my own and I had to belong to her if I was to know any happiness. My choices have only been to deepen the love we share in the time since our marriage. There were many times I could have let little angers fester and wound my love for her, but I would not. Ask any man if they chose their wives and the only unhappy ones you will know are those who say, 'Aye'.

   “You may not have chosen Lenora, my son, but you can choose how to love her or not. It is those choices you make which will determine whether you and she will be happy.”

   As his father spoke, the clouds in the east began to part, letting the light of the moon warm the mountain path with a silver radiance. For the first time he could see his father's eyes clearly and in them he saw a firm gentleness. “I love you, Erick. You are my flesh and blood and I have named you my heir. I want only your happiness and a long, prosperous life filled with family and joy. Aye, Lenora was chosen for you to bind our house with the merchant's guild. It will secure for you avenues of wealth only available to me through Julian's largess. And it will help both Julian and Lenora for he has no heir and no other family. There is nothing wrong with practical considerations when making a betrothal.

   “But I would never have agreed to it if Lenora was not of good character. She likes you, Erick. She admires you. Your mother told me how much she enjoyed giving you your gift; and not just this one, but all the ones before it. You know, it was Lenora who picked this out for you?”

   “She did?” Erick reached up and touched his new hat.

   “Aye, she did. Stop being afraid of her and do more of what you did today. Share yourself and what you love with her. She wants to love you; let her. And in your heart I know you want to love her back, my son. Do so. Be gentle where she is weak and uncertain; the forest is not her home but it can be if you teach her. And trust her where she is strong; she grew up at the bargaining table and knows the ways of merchants. There is little about her, my son, to quibble or fear. She will be your wife and you must be a good husband to her.”

   Erick sighed and dug his claws in further. “I will try. I just... I... I just hope I can, Father. I just hope I can be a good husband like you. You can do so many things I cannot. Both you and mother and Charlie and Natalie and Misha, you all have these powers I don't. I'm just a rat trained as a knight. What do I have to offer her? What do I have to offer the Narrows?”

   The moon glowed on the granite scar across his father's chest, yet it was not brighter than the pride in his father's eyes. “You are far more than just a rat trained as a knight, Erick. You are valiant. You are honest. And you are wise to know where you are strong and where you are weak. My powers dictated the course of my life, as have Charlie's, and to a lesser extent Misha and Natalie's. There are some things you cannot do, aye, but you also have a freedom they do not. You have a freedom I did not. I had to betray my order to have the life I have now, and it was a terrible burden to pay the cost for my betrayal, but...”

   “It's a long story,” Erick finished.

   His father chittered a small laugh. “Aye, it's a long story.” He pulled Erick into a tight embrace. He could feel the cold of the granite scar, but all else was wiry fur and warm flesh. “Ah, Erick, you have already proven yourself to me. You will show your worth to Lenora and the Narrows. Do not fear. Now come. Let us return home to our family.”

   Erick hugged his father tight, doing his best to smile. “I will try, Father. I promise.”

   “And you will have scores who love you dearly helping you every step of the way, my son. Now come, we have a long day of wrangling with Master Julian, the stone masons, and the engineers tomorrow. We're going to need our rest.”

   Together the two rats walked down the incomplete stairs, Erick standing just a bit taller. Lenora was pretty. She was smart. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe they could love each other. In time.

   Bertram could still use a good thrashing. Erick chittered a laugh as they headed back home.