Divine Travails of Rats

by Charles Matthias and Ryx

Metamor Keep

 

Divine Travails of Rats

by Charles Matthias and Ryx

 

 

Pars I

Dispicio

 

 

Wednesday, May 12, 724 CR

 

The cool of the morning mist had burned off as the sun crept above the mountaintops, taking with it the best chance the hunters had of finding their quarry out from cover. One of Wolfram’s patrols had spotted the white hart north of Glen Avery a week before and identified its particular track by the short half of a single cloven hoof. Since then scouts had tried to track it, and spied it twice more, but the beast was elusive and hard to spot despite being as white as fresh fallen snow. Those same scouts and a retinue of beaters, huntsmen, servants, and guards in soft leather – which was more silent, and more comfortable, than their usual scale – hung back with the quiet obsequious ways of servants. A larger retinue of house servants waited back at the Glen proper to receive the victorious hunters when they returned with their prize.

But an elusive prize it was proving to be. Yet it was a hunt, out and away from the noise and crowds of daily court life, so it offered the two hunters a prize respite that was almost as valuable as the quarry they sought. It was the only time the two could really enjoy each others' company more or less alone, discounting the hovering retainers a hundred lengths back at the edge of the wood. The hunters sat astride tall, sleek chargers and gazed down the far side of the hill upon which the hart had last been spotted and regretted their ill luck at the fading mist.

One of the pair was a curious sight; a tall, broad shouldered horse astride a horse, dressed in a snow white doublet with modest lace brocade trimmed in silver unadorned save for the rearing blue stallion on his breast. The other was shorter, more slender, and most certainly not a horse-astride-a-horse; he was a rat. He was likewise dressed in as fine a cut of tailor-craft as one might dare risk out a-hunt; a doublet of pale sky blue with even more lace and silver trim. The rat’s raiment was by no means gaudy, but beside the white of his companion he stood out like a sapphire propped beside a snow sculpture.

The stallion in white turned his head to regard his smaller companion with a moue of displeasure and a rueful whinnying laugh, “It looks like the only thing we’re going to find today are rabbits. More rabbits!” He shook his regal head with a sigh, “As much as you enjoy a brace of coneys, three days of such fare is sitting heavy on my gut.” He turned his gaze once more toward the tree line a few score lengths down the gentle slope. “To the trees, Argamont.” He held no reins; only a long finely crafted bow in one hand. Strapped to his thigh was an ornate quiver of supple white leather with white-fletched arrows. His mount ambled forward leisurely and the rat’s matched pace. “What say we quit this farcical endeavor and make north to Hareford to see how old Sir Dupré is coming along with his wall?”

The slim rat let a slight crease draw at the corners of his long snout, whiskers twitching amiably and ears of pale cream flicked. “The day is hardly begun.” He smiled more warmly toward his childhood friend and offered a slight shrug, reserved as was his manner. Unlike the other he held reins in his rodentine paw lightly but let the horse have its head to walk along beside the strawberry roan charger beneath the white clad nobleman. “I fear we would cause your father unnecessary anxiety.”

The stallion snorted and smiled with his supple equine lips. Unusually long ears for one of his breed danced above his youthful brow, not detracting from his youthful handsomeness but rather enhancing it. A brash mane tied in black braids flowed between those ears and bounced along the side of his thick neck. He was not quite as regal as the sable-brown stallion lord that was his sire, nor as rugged as the assingh lady that was his dam. Their bloodlines had blended to create the stocky, stubborn, and garrulous young noble who lead the hunting party. He had inherited his sire’s dark coloration, and his mother’s ears and solid lines in a form that was considered quite handsome – for a horse. “And my mother?” he challenged humorously of his smaller companion, thick lips spread to reveal flat teeth.

“She would encourage the ride.” The rat nodded with a smile of his own, reaching out to lift a branch aside as their mounts ambled into the shade of the forest verge. Behind them they heard their retinue following with as much silence as two score men could – which was rather little. The dappled forest light glinted from a medallion that dangled about the rat’s neck; the form a crescent moon worked in filigreed silver. The rat was lithe where his equine companion was solid and was a good head shorter though his lanky frame gave the impression of greater stature. Deep blue eyes peered through the forest as scalloped ears turned to listen to the scrapping and rustling of branches. “And then tut your father for not going, himself.”

“And my sisters and little brother with them!” the young horse lord brayed with a deep-throated laugh that hitched through the octaves rather than rolled; a legacy of his dam as well the throat of a youth in the transition to manhood. His lush tail draped off one side of his mount’s back, resting in a notch specially created in his saddle for the sole purpose of allowing one with a tail to sit. The rat’s tail, long and slender and all but furless, rested through the back of his own saddle similarly, but flitted from one side to the other in humor. “And your father, Charlie? What would he have to say about such a side trip?”

Charlie shrugged, his long whiskers twitching in the sort of good humor he always felt around his childhood friend. “Probably the same as both your father and mother. I’m just not sure in which order he would say it!” His laugh was a sharp staccato of perfect pitches like someone brushing their fingers over the strings of a harp, unlike the raucous bray of the young stallion. “But if we wish to end the hunt we should at least disposition our men. We wouldn’t want someone sneaking off and capturing the hart before us, now would we?” Their horses drew closer together as they navigated through the thick trunks of ancient trees, making both riders lean forward in their saddles to duck a thick, low hanging limb.

“Damn the hart!” the stallion snorted with a laugh and an upward glance, one hand reflexively rising to trace the sign of the yew across his breast, finishing with a light tap upon his broad brow. “We’ve been crashing about over hill and dale here for three days with nary a sign of aught but rabbits and more rabbits!”

“And the innkeeper's son.” The rat grinned with a show of powerful incisors, whiskers lifting and ears pricking forward in jest.

“Well, yes, and one luckless innkeeper's son.”

“Whom you tried to fletch, Bryn!”

With a snort Bryn swung out an arm to rap his companion lightly on his upper arm, “That fool buck should know better than run around on four hooves when he knows we’re out a-hunting!” He shook his head and batted aside a branch of budding green. “He should wear a proper sash so we know he’s no mere beast of the wood!”

“That buck,” quipped a chattering, indignant voice from the trees above them, “is my friend!” The two riders stopped and gaped upward, as did the lordling’s mount with a surprised snort. The rat’s mount merely dropped her head to crop the sparse undergrowth. From out of the leafy boughs that smelled of sweet spring blossoms dangled a gray-furred squirrel in a loose green tunic and matching breeches, a simple bow of slender yew slung close across his back. “Milords.” The squirrel added a moment later in belated observance of their rank. “He was merely out for a morning stroll when your arrow sprang from a tree not an ell from his nose.”

Bryn, ears upright and eyes wide, scowled at the squirrel hanging up-side-down from the branches overhead, “Lucky him Charlie saw that bangle on his antlers and whacked my bow, else my aim would have been true.”

The rat, Charlie, tilted his head slightly at the awkward view of their visitor’s face peering down at them. “Fallon! Stop scurrying about in the trees and learn to ride a horse!”

“Why?” quipped the squirrel with a bright, churring laugh. “This is more fun!” The youngest son of Baron Avery, lord of the Glen that held the family name, turned his hands loose from the branches and he hung full length downward to offer them a profound bow – wrong wise round. Charlie clucked his tongue against the roof of his muzzle and sighed, but could not help but grin at the squirrel’s antics. Beside him Charlie could see Bryn’s lips twitching with a suppressed grin of his own as the squirrel, five years the rat's junior, exemplified his race’s inability to sit, stand, or even hang head-down from a tree with any semblance of stillness. “You aren’t thinking of abandoning your hunt, are you?”

“Great Eli, no!” Bryn exclaimed, “We’d have to return to the Keep if we did that!” The equine lordling suddenly realized his language and hastily sketched the sign of the yew upon his breast and brow again.

“You know,” Charlie remarked with a laconic smile, “If you were Lothanasi you wouldn’t have to keep doing that. The Pantheon doesn’t hold much to how their names are used.”

Bryn cast him a sidelong glance, “If I were Lothanasi I’d have to learn ten times as many symbols!” the stallion shot back with a scowl at his friend’s good-natured needling. Charlie could see a wrinkle of tension upon his friend’s brow that he long recognized. There were certain things his friend did not like being teased about and following his mother’s Faith was one of them. Charlie hoped that, with a few more years behind him, the blossoming of his true manhood would turn his friend’s irritation into the amusement of an old joke.

But, in the end, the young stallion’s ire lasted only a moment. His dark eyes returned to the squirrel dangling above them shaking the new budded maple leaves with each twitch of his lush gray tail. “We’re not abandoning the hunt.” He snorted, “We are taking a short excursion to relieve ourselves after three days of fruitless wandering about the wood! If I did not know better I would say one of you Glenners took the white hart already and are making pouches out of its beautiful hide while we speak!”

Fallon raised one hand to his breast and feigned exaggerated innocence. A trilling laugh burbled in his throat as he spoke. “Would we ever do such a thing to you, milords? Never! Why such a hide would look so much better stretched out in front of the hearth at Lars’ alehouse!”

“That hide will be on my wall, tree rat!”

Charlie' nose twitched at the pejorative, but he had heard far worse when accompanying his father on their annual summer voyage to the southern city that bore their family name. Sailors and tradesman, be they of Eli or one of the varied Pantheonic gods, swore without rancor and laughed off their affront to the gods.

It was always strange to journey beyond Metamor Valley. They had plenty of humans here in the borders of Metamor, but outside in the larger world it always felt so plain seeing nothing but them! Where were the walking, talking martens, foxes, horses, raccoons, rats, alligators, hawks, dragons, and countless other species that he was so accustomed to seeing from the time of his youth? He enjoyed those journeys into the southern kingdoms and savored the intrigue that necessarily accompanied them, but it was a much greater relief to return home where he could walk freely without drawing the stares of shock and incredulity that his mere existence caused. It felt liberating to sit astride his horse beside his friend without fear of a bold trophy seeker or assassin or merely the misguided fear of a commoner seeking to slide cold steel between his ribs for being nothing more than what he was; a rat.

Still, he would have to chide the heir to the Duchy of Metamor over his insult later. Something in the squirrel’s manner set the hair of his nape atwitch. Under his father’s tutelage, and after several years accompanying him and using their shared talents, he had gained a healthy sense of when things were not sanguine. Fallon was an eleven year old squirrel and thus very excitable and, while his alert black eyes rarely stayed in one place very long, they were not often accustomed to avoiding direct eye contact. He was itching to say something, Charlie sensed, and he also sensed that it was probably unpleasant news.

Such as the revelation that a hunter, unknowing of the young heir’s hunt, had scored a white trophy for his homestead.

“Enough boasting about a hart none of us have seen let alone put fletching to.” Charlie said at length, reaching across to rest his claw-tipped fingers against his larger, though slightly younger, companion's powerful arm in a calming gesture. “You sought us out here to do more than taunt us and leave our necks sore from gawping up at you. Have you aught to say, Fallon? A message, perhaps?”

The squirrel lithely twisted himself about, reaching up to grasp the branch that only his strong foot-paws had been grasping, to right himself. He swung as easily from one branch to the next as Charlie might descend a flight of stairs until he was not quite so awkwardly above them. His tail dangled, the entire length lashing from side to side as he bobbed his head. “A rider came from the Narrows to the Glen not an hour past, to see my father, Brian.” He cast his eyes down to the branch and his sharp claws gouged narrow furrows in the spring softened bark. “The Baron… he…”

Charlie felt his heart stumble within his breast, an icy lance of dread racing up his spine and setting his short fur alift. Beside him Bryn became still, his tall ears pinning forward at the young squirrel, all irritation fled in the span of a breath. “Say on, Fallon. What of him?” Bryn prompted gently, his voice a much lower octave than he was wont to use around friends. His court voice, as he called it; calm and low and commanding without being demanding.

“There was some accident,” Fallon continued, unconsciously brushing his brow with the prominent knuckles of one dexterous hand, his chittering voice dropping to a barely understandable churr, “An accident, the rider told my father. The Baron… had an accident.”

Charlie felt the muscles of his jaw twitch, his incisors grinding together for a moment before he took a careful breath, “What happened to my sire?”

Fallon swallowed and shook his head, closing his eyes and hunching down penitently, “I heard the rider say… say… I’m sorry, milord!” He lifted his gaze beseechingly, tail going utterly still, “The rider said that the Baron Matthias was crushed beneath a boulder!”

Charlie felt his jaw gape and his eyes widen in shock. Beside him Bryn twisted in his saddle, “Markham!” he bellowed so loudly it made Charlie’ ears flatten back in reflex. Bryn turned his attention back to the fearful squirrel, “Then why didn’t you say so in the first place?” he snorted with restrained anger as he leveled a lordly glare at the young squirrel. “Charlie?”

The rat took an unsteady breath and sat taller in his saddle. “To the Narrows.” He nodded uneasily, his earlier good humor blown away as completely as the morning mist. “Thank you, Fallon, Bryn.” A human man dressed in the livery of House Hassan jogged up to stand at the shoulder of Bryn’s horse.

“Markham, have the men retire to Glen Avery. Lord Sutt and I are riding to the Narrows with all possible haste and will return,” he glanced aside at his slender friend, “We shall return when we return. Have a rider take word to the Duke.” His voice was smooth and deep, in full command. “Tell my men-at-arms to catch up as they can.”

The man bobbed his head and stepped back, “As you wish, your grace.” With a crisp turn he jogged back the way he had come.

Bryn looked down at the head of his mount which was turned slightly to gaze back at him with one deep brown eye. “Argamont, are you good for haste?” The horse seemed to understand perfectly, bobbing his head once in affirmation. Charlie set his heels to the ribs of his mare, not nearly so intelligent as the young Duke’s own charger, and tugged the reins to bring her head toward the south. The horse lord offered him a reassuring smile before his mount set his own course, as familiar with every hill and valley of Metamor as any born to the land. Fallon scampered into the treetops and was lost to sight as their retinue, still in the meadow atop the hill, began to decamp.

It took an hour and more to make their way from the depths of the forest, traversing game trails and hidden paths. The trees about them changed subtly as they made as much haste as the terrain and paths allowed, transitioning from oak and alder and aspen to the notably thicker, towering pillars of oarwood and sequoia common to the Glen. Bryn’s men-at-arms had overtaken them in the forest and rode in their wake as they emerged from the deeper forest and onto the land cleared for the slowly cultivated tracts and homes that were taking shape across the Narrows.

The new road that Charlie’s sire had beaten from the Glen to the Narrows was still little more than a rough cart track that wove around the small lake at the foothills of the Glen and through the rugged terrain to the south. The narrow ravines, countless streams, and abrupt promontories were concealed beneath a cloak of towering oarwood and sequoia beneath which grew fir, birch, and alder. Through the occasional breaks in the canopy they could see a bright blue sky lofting overhead broken only by wisps of cloud drifting lazily from the south. The rough-hewn track skirted the most rugged terrain and, apart from a few places where it was forced to wend back and forth up or down steep declivities, was able to cut an otherwise gentle path through the series of cliffs that marked off the present outskirts of Glen Avery.

Once they broke from the forest onto the track their progress was much more swift, emerging soon after upon a natural hollow in the rugged rock; a mostly flat stretch of land wide enough for cultivation, if not by a great margin. It was tough work; the soil was thin but rich and yielded lush crops in the growing season. A portion to the south of the main road was reserved for the shepherd Silvas and his flocks which the bull had tended with gentle care for as long as Charlie could remember. He gave half a thought to stopping and asking the stooped bull, one hoof-hand wrapped about his crook the other comforting a startled ewe at their approach, but chances were he would know even less than Fallon. So with only a wave, Charlie, Bryn, and their company rode on.

A few minutes ride and the narrow expanse of cleared fields crested a long hill beyond which they saw their goal. At the western end of the road stood a half built stone structure and a small village nestled up against its flanks. Most in the village were craftsmen and stone masons who worked on the keep itself while the remainder were farmers and those who supported both.

The bulk of the outwall, once finished, would stretch between the two flanking mountains at the westernmost end of the cleared hollow and would fortify a strategic choke point in the northern valley. The Baron had chosen that vantage for his home. The outer wall was marked off by a proposed twelve towers, five of which were already complete with a sixth partially complete, enshrouded by a latticework of scaffolding and heavy oarwood cranes. Charlie noted that a new section of wall connecting the towers had been completed since his last visit the Yule before.

Within the outer wall two other walls had been built, terracing the new Keep as it climbed within the fold of the mountains where steep cliffs protected it from attack while the bulk of the Keep itself warded the eastern approach. Neither of these walls was complete either as many of the designs that the Baron had requested were still being crafted, but the foundations were laid and massive blocks of quarried granite were being carved from the surrounding mountain rock in preparation. Each block only came slightly higher than Charlie’s waist, but they were as long and deep as he was tall. Charlie quailed at the very thought of their weight. None, save perhaps some of the larger dragons, could possibly survive having one of those blocks, or even half of one, fall upon them.

Cutting through the center of the village was a boulevard of large, precisely cut and fitted stone that stretched from the completed gate house to some hundred lengths down the center of the Narrows. The hooves of their mounts rang loudly upon the stone as they cantered toward the gate house. Craftsmen, human and animal alike, both male and female, paused in their tasks to watch the two finely dressed men trailed by half a dozen soldiers make their way toward the Keep. One of those fearsome blocks was suspended the height of six men or more near the tower under construction, held aloft by a massive crane fashioned from the very oarwoods that had been felled to clear the valley for construction. The thick ropes that held it creaked as men pushed and prodded it cautiously toward its eventual seat in the wall.

Near the gate house all labor stopped as the commoners espied who approached and moved aside. When the two and their entourage brought their horses to a stop in the shadows of the stone arch the workers sank to their knees and bowed their heads. Such was his concern that Charlie spared them not a second glance. Charlie shifted his weight to one stirrup and dropped to the flagstones before his mount had stopped fidgeting. Bryn slipped smoothly from his mount with a clop of hooves. His charger turned its head slightly, catching the untended reins of Charlie’ charger with its lips, and turned to lead the mare away without any guidance.

“Milords, welcome.” One of the craftsmen hazarded greetings, wringing his hat in his hands. “One of th’ boys ran inside to let them know you had come.”

Indeed, even as the men-at-arms dismounted and secured Charlie’ mare, ignoring Bryn’s mount, a familiar pair emerged from the shadows of a postern gate. The first figure was well dressed in green and brown like the forest that rose above them on all sides. He stood tall and strode with confidence, his head held high. Like Charlie, he was a rat, though somewhat shorter and more broad of shoulder. “Milord Hassan! Brother!” the rat cried out warmly, extending his arms in greeting. “Welcome to the Narrows.” Charlie was swept into a powerful, brotherly embrace and returned it perfunctorily.

“Hello, Erick,” Charlie churred, his voice hitching as his brother’s strong hands slapped his back in the hug. Breaking the embrace Erick leaned back to hold Charlie at arms’ length, his green gaze roving him up and down. Behind them the second figure, a mirror to Erick with brown tunic and short-cut breeches over the pebbly green skin of a frog, kept a polite distance but smiled with his dark yellow eyes.

“You look very well, brother.” The knight proclaimed with a warm smile. His expression then became more grave as he met Charlie’ concerned gaze. “I suppose, by that agitated look in your eye, that you're here because you heard about father?”

“Aye,” Charlie replied with a nod to his brother and litter-mate. They did not see each other as much as they once had in their youth, but until this moment every visit had been a joy. “Did...” He paused, trying to collect the fearful thoughts that spun through his head, “Did he survive?”

Erick tilted his head slightly, rounded ears pricking forward as his ears twitched. “What did you hear?”

“That your father the Baron, Charlie’s sire, was crushed by a boulder!” Bryn declared with a snort, “Were we mislead?”

The shorter rat shook his head and turned to glance aside at the construction taking place some distance away. “One of the blocks they were attempting to lift did fall on him this morning, aye, but it only struck one of his legs.” He brought his attention back to his brother, “He’ll recover in a month.” Slipping an arm around Charlie’s shoulder he turned to guide him the rest of the way through the arch of the gate house. “He’d be delighted to see you both if you can stay. We would all be delighted, of course.” Erick grinned sidelong at his taller, more slender litter-mate, his green eyes gleaming; Erick had never learned to hide his feelings. “Mother would love to see you, too.”

“Of course we'll stay, brother.” Charlie heaved a relieved sigh at the news that his sire lived; whole if not entirely hale. “I have been away far too long and you have a lot more stories to share, I would wager.”

“And you new songs to screech.” Erick chortled. He turned back to the frog and waved. “Continue on without me, Bertram. I'll see you after I've brought Charlie to Father.”

The frog waved a webbed hand to them both as long legs carried him back the way they'd come. “I'll be here.” Erick smiled after his friend before turning his bright face back to his brother.

“Bertram may croak, but I do not screech,” Charlie chuffed querulously but with good humor, elbowing his brother in the ribs. “Lead on, good Sir Erick!”

The shorter rat smiled and gestured for the two of them and their retinue to follow. Bryn fell into step behind the pair, satisfied to follow despite his station earning preference in admission to any holding within his sire’s demesne. Charlie glanced back over his shoulder briefly with an inquiring twitch of one brow at Bryn and the long-eared horse smiled and nodded. They carefully wound their way through the rock and dust strewn path between the walls and up the steep slope behind them. A large semi-circular area was already clustered with small homes of wood and stone, most of which had the appearance of a hasty construction. The Narrows was still very young and if not for the commerce guild funneling money, supplies, and people there would be almost nothing here at all apart from the Baron's family and their handful of loyal servants.

The next wall was almost finished but for the squat gatehouse and it was here that they were met by an older donkey and a quartet of green liveried ostlers. The donkey's snout was decorated with gray whiskers and his strong neck had a few patches of unruly hide that had never fully grown back right. Despite his age he appeared hearty and hale with broad shoulders and arms used to swinging the long sword slung across his back. He bowed his head lightly to each of them in turn, a warm smile creasing his snout. “Good afternoon, milord Thomas. Good afternoon, milord Charles. It is so good to have you grace us here at the Narrows.”

“James!” Charlie smiled affectionately at his sire's most loyal friend and steward. “Could you prepare rooms for us? We mean to stay the night.” If Bryn was surprised by the sudden change in plans he gave no sign of it. But the remark brightened both the donkey and his brother's expressions. “And then I would like to see my sire if he is well enough to take visitors.”

“He will be overjoyed to see you. Shall I tell her Lady and your siblings of your arrival?”

“They will learn soon enough,” Charlie replied with a slight smile. Visiting the Narrows was never a simple affair, not with three litter-mates and over a dozen younger siblings whom he knew through his frequent visits during his youth. It was a wonder that they had enough room in their little fort for all of them let alone for noble guests.

James nodded. “I will see to it at once. Milord Thomas? Do you have any needs?”

“Nothing other than what my friend has said,” Bryn replied with a whicker. “While he visits his sire, I and my soldiers will inspect the grounds and the construction of your keep. I will pay my respects later and join you for dinner if not sooner.”

Charlie turned to the long-eared horse and gave him a questioning glance followed by a grateful one. Bryn understood that visits to his sire were always awkward affairs, especially in the last few years, and best handled alone.

“We shall see to your horses,” James noted, his dark eyes surveying them curiously, “if we knew where they were.”

Bryn laughed a bray, “Argamont tends them by yon outwall but he would appreciate the help.”

“We'll see to it that they have fresh feed and a place to rest for the night.” Even as James spoke the ostlers slipped behind him and headed down the hillside toward the outer wall. The donkey gestured for the rats to follow him through the inner wall toward the fort. Bryn smiled and patted Charlie on the shoulder once before turning and guiding his soldiers toward the cluster of homes. Charlie watched them leave for a moment and then turned his attention on the fort which was the most complete structure yet built in all of the Narrows.

The Matthias home was a squat building with crenelated walls and towers at the nearest two corners. A reinforced gate protected the main entrance in the middle of the facade. The courtyard between the wall and the fort was lined with a row of bushes, herb flowers, and vegetables. There were no signs of recent construction, but he knew from seeing his sire's plans in the past that he intended to expand and better fortify their home once the outer walls were finished.

“How are things at Metamor?” Erick asked as they walked alongside James, with servants in tow.

“Fair and full of intrigue,” Charlie offered with neutral geniality; politics were always a sensitive topic to discuss. One wrong word in the wrong ear could undo months of careful negotiations. Not that he feared Erick would relay anything untoward, it was always best to exercise some caution. “Envoys from Kelewair seeking alliance, envoys from Salinon trying to enforce our alliance, and then there's the never ending turmoil in Sathmore that washes up on our shores.” Charlie would never admit it, but he loved the intrigue and saw the visit from any foreign ambassador as a chance to root out their secrets for the benefit of Metamor. “The Prime Minister is trying to secure a marriage alliance for Bryn; he's not very happy about that.”

Erick laughed, green eyes bright with the humor. “I imagine so! I wasn't terribly pleased when father told me that he and Julian had agreed for me to marry his daughter. At least she's still too young for a couple more years.”

“Lenora has a good heart and a shrewd mind. She's also a rat. You could not have chosen better.”

“But I didn't get to choose her!”

Charlie looked down at his brother and smiled, this one stretching most of the way across his snout. He did not reveal his feelings so openly with any save Bryn and his litter-mates. “We rarely can choose anything in our lives, why should we expect our wives to be any different?”

“I have not heard that you have any prospects,” Erick replied, though there was no venom, mere curiosity. He looked at the ground and sighed in an uncharacteristically boyish moment of petulance. “Bernadette was not foisted off on some stranger.”

Charlie let the complaint slide, it was one he had heard before. He had even used it himself, on occasion, when visiting noble daughters were brought before his father in hopes of a title by marriage. Not one mention was made concerning his sister's potential pairing, though she was still young yet. “Hopefuls I have in number,” he admitted with a flick of his tail. “Greedy women or greedy fathers all interested in my father's wealth and title. I can do without both. Ah, here we are.”

James opened the gates for them and ushered them inside. A soft carpet greeted them in a dimly lit room beyond. The donkey's hooves clopped against the stone step and were then muffled by the carpet as he gestured to a hall on the left. “Milord Matthias is recovering in his chambers. I will see that you and milord Hassan's rooms are prepared. Would you care to wash your paws?”

Charlie shook his head, “Thank you but my paws are fine. But if it is possible to find something in my size, I would appreciate a fresh doublet and hose to be waiting for me in my room.”

The donkey spread his supple lips in a warm smile. “I will see what we have. But I fear we may not have anything fresh or to your taste.”

“If not, my hunting attire will serve well enough. Thank you again.”

James bowed his head to the two rats and the excused himself, walking with wide gait down the corridor to the right. He disappeared through a set of doors and the two rats were left alone in the entry. Charlie glanced at Erick who, though broader than him in shoulder, stood almost two hands shorter. “Could you let mother know I am here? I think I will go see him alone.”

“She'll be overjoyed to see you. We all are.” Erick swallowed in embarrassment and then bobbed his head respectfully. A moment later he followed after the donkey, long tail darting through the double doors as they closed behind him.

The left passage took Charlie up a flight of steps to a hall with several doors lit by a single brazier at his end. The hall stretched no more than twenty paces before coming to a double door beneath of which a little light could be seen. He knocked politely and then stepped through. The chamber beyond was modest with a large canopied bed, a pair of chairs with holes in the back framed around a crackling hearth, a few animal heads and skins, a narrow window framed by bench seats to let in natural light, and chests of drawers covered with thick brushes, combs, and a good mirror broad and tall enough that they could see their whole head at once and even when turned in profile. A sword hung by his sire's bedside, but it did not appear to have been clasped in a few weeks.

Reclining in the bed with a scroll grasped between his paws was a brown-furred rat with green eyes and the beginning of gray fur lining his snout and around his ears. A patch of naked flesh around his right eye in the shape of a monstrous hand was creased and drawn with old scars, still appearing as black as the day he had suffered the searing touch. He bore a patterned red vest and cream colored tunic in addition to the decorative medallions given him by his wife many years ago. The rest of him was tucked beneath the covers. At his bedside Charlie saw prayer beads curled in a pile as if his sire had just finished using them.

The rat looked up from his scroll and his face brightened. “Charlie! I knew you would hear word and come rushing to see what fool mess your sire had gotten himself into. I just hadn't thought you would be here so soon. Come, sit at the end of my bed and keep an old rat company as he stews in his foolishness.”

Charlie closed the door behind him and stepped to the bedside, sitting on the other end from his sire and rested his paws in his lap. “And how foolish was the Baron of the Narrows today?”

“Foolish enough to nearly kill myself but fortunate enough to limp away with a broken leg. And it isn't even a bad break, praise Eli.”

“What happened?”

“I was supervising the work by the outer wall beneath the crane. One of the oarwoods snapped under the stress and everything collapsed. The stone was right above me when it began to fall. I dove out of the way, but didn't quite make it. I should have turned to stone; I probably wouldn't have been injured that way, but instincts are instincts. All I have to show for it is this broken leg,” he gestured to the covers and shook his head. “I told Kimberly I could just take my taur form and continue to work, but... I have to let her win some battles and so here I am.”

Charlie nodded with a rueful chuckle. “Stone shatters, father. Flesh and bone yields and breaks. Had you become stone you may have come away without a leg at all,” He pointed out with a gentle smile, nodding at the leg that was splinted straight. “Erick says you will be a month recovering.”

“So does the Healer,” the Baron set the scroll on the desk and leaned back against the headboard, arms crossed. “I'll be up and about in two weeks. Sondeckis heal fast.” He stared at Charlie's hunting attire and then back into his whiskered face; a broad yet reserved smile creased his snout. “Shall I have some tea brought?”

Charlie almost winced at the thought of the bitter chai his sire blended with foreign spices and shook his head. “No thank you, I'm not thirsty.”

“Would you care for a stick to chew then? I have a few here and would be glad to share.”

His incisors always ached except when he chewed; it was a sensation and a need he was long used to, but he preferred not to chew where others might watch him, or where he might be caught with splinters in his doublet. When amongst fellows rats things were different as they all needed to chew. “I would be grateful for a stick. You do not mind splinters on your quilts?”

His sire laughed as he bent over the edge of the bed, opening a drawer and pulling out a pair of short sticks no longer than his forearm. His snout contorted for a moment before he pulled himself back up and offered one of the sticks to Charlie. “Maple seasoned for two years now in dark honey. Not as colorful as the bountifruit wood they have in Whales, but very rich and sweet. Better than anything you'll find on your hunt.”

Charlie lifted the thin stick to his incisors and bit down at the dark and smooth outer layer, finding it firm between his teeth, chipping slowly as his jaw muscles worked. For a moment neither spoke as they chewed, the flecks of wood bouncing from their tongues to land in their laps only to be brushed aside. Each morsel that dallied in their muzzles left them with a rich taste both nutty and sweet. For those few moments his teeth were doing exactly what they were meant to do; satisfaction was too poor a word to catalog all that it accomplished.

“That is quite good,” Charlie opined between bites. After working loose a nugget of hardened syrup between two knots in the wood, he lowered the stick and nodded. “Thank you. Did you season this yourself? I haven't seen this variety in the markets before.”

“I did. Gregor did give me a few ideas on my visit to Metamor last year.” The Baron regarded him with deep green eyes that did not waver even in the inconsistent light of the lamp at his bedside.

Charlie looked from the lamp to the parchment curled beside it. “I hope I was not disturbing something important.”

“Not at all. Merely the affairs of a fief. The stonecutters ask for more coin despite a rate that would quickly bankrupt me if Julian did not send help. And then there are the larders which still must be cleaned of last winter's leftovers and the new crops and grains we hope to store for this winter. Ah, and the matter of repairing the second crane.” He shook his head and sighed. “It does make me wonder at times why I ever agreed to become a Baron. But then I see my family every day and I know why I did.”

Charlie said nothing while the Baron narrowed his eyes and bit hard into his chew stick. He chewed for several long seconds, eyes slowly lifting to meet the tall rat on the end of the bed and in a quiet voice said, “It is good to see you, Charlie. You don't come to the Narrows often enough. We saw you more when we were still living in the Glen.”

He shrugged his shoulders and returned the stick to his lips, his gaze sliding away from his sire to briefly ponder the discarded scroll that had rolled itself up. “This has never been home. The Glen at least felt that way.” Charlie's incisors dug into the hard wood for a few seconds before adding, “I hear you finally sold the old house in the tree.”

“A few months ago. We weren't using it anymore and it is a short enough jaunt from here to Glen even when visiting Brian we didn't have need of it. And I didn't sell it, I gave it as a gift to Bernadette's betrothed. Have you had a chance to meet him? Godfrey is a fine young man.”

“He is,” Charlie agreed between nibbles and spitting out honey-flavored splinters. “Not very ambitious and he doesn't come from a prosperous family, but a good man.”

The Baron tilted an arch stare toward the eldest of his line with a green eye in its field of black scar. “I have sons and daughters in plenitude. I can afford to allow many to wed without the necessity of political maneuvering.” He shrugged and leaned back against the pile of pillows behind him. “He won my eldest daughter's heart and that is good enough for me.” Baron Matthias twisted one of his whiskers for a moment and then pointed the gnawed chew stick at him. “You weren't born into a wealthy family either, my son. Don't forget that.”

The reminder irritated him but he didn't show it. “Point taken. But that is not how things are now.”

“Indeed. How's your father?”

“He is well and keeping busy helping the Duke with this or that negotiation, playing the musician, being a dandy and being a father. I can bring him a message if you'd like.”

“Tell him that it has been too long since he paid a visit and we would love to see him again.” The gray-muzzled rat shifted under the covers and winced as he moved his injured leg. “And how are you, Charlie? You turned seventeen last week; you're quite a man now.”

“I am well enough. My days are long with study, practice, and the dance of court life. Father is giving me responsibilities over our house but mostly just accounts and ledgers for now, as well as reviewing his diplomatic machinations, though he still directs those himself. He does ask my counsel, however, and does seem appreciative of my observations. He says once I have proven myself with such trifles I can manage more important affairs.”

The Baron nodded and idly stretched his fingers to loosen the muscles before lifting his stick to gnaw again. “We all must begin somewhere. I'm glad to hear it.”

“I think Father just doesn't want to do them himself.”

“Possibly, but it is good to learn.”

Charlie tapped the shredded end of his stick against his upper incisors for a moment before chuckling. “Speaking of having boulders fall on you... you haven't heard about Misha and the trebuchet this spring.”

“Oh?” The Baron's ears twitched upright and a smile drew his whiskers up. “What has my old friend done now?” He chortled.

His voice, though the words were spoken, took on a lilt as if he were miming a lyre strumming in the distance. He put one paw to his chest and sat up straighter.

 

“O Misha the fox, curious as a cat,

Clever as a rat, stubborn as an ox!

Vet'ran of the siege, master of the bolt,

Friend of all metal, counsel to his liege,

Didst tangle within one gallant day,

The rope and hook of a trebuchet!

 

The boulders prepared, the ropes all drawn taut,

But wood filled with rot, and none were awared.

Misha climbed within, tool in belt and paw,

To beam he set saw, fang to cheek he grin,

Yet the tension was too great for it,

So into the air Misha did flit!”

 

The Baron shook his head and laughed warmly, and when he saw that Charlie had stopped he smiled around his incisors and said, “That sounds like my old friend. Surely there is more to it?”

“There are a few more verses, but I am still working on it,” Charlie admitted with a shrug. He grimaced and turned the chewstick over in his paw. “I am not altogether happy with some of the rhymes; they could flow better.”

“How long have you been working on it?”

“A day or two; it helps pass the time when the hart proves elusive.”

His sire nodded at that, and then both their heads turned at the sound of the door opening. Into the room swept a short rat dressed in a matronly lavender gown that was both modest and elegant. A familiar oddly cracked amethyst pendant hung above her bodice. When her eyes settled on Charles her husband one paw lifted to touch that stone in an unconscious gesture as old as the younger Charlie's earliest memories. To Charlie's perception it glimmered even in the fitful lantern light and he could not recall ever seeing her without it. Her blue-gray eyes seemed to water a moment before her gaze shifted to her husband's namesake and a smile banished them from her countenance. With an undignified squeak, she strode to the bedside and wrapped his head and shoulders in her arms.

“Charlie! Oh, I'm so happy to see you,” She chittered, her usual dulcet voice rendered husky with emotion. “You've discovered your father's incautious folly so soon?” She drew her head back to let him up for a break. “You will be staying long?”

“Hello, mother,” he replied with a laugh as he tried to keep the sharp end of the chew stick from jabbing either of them. “Word did reach us in Glen Avery. And aye, I will be staying the night.”

Kimberly let go of his head but she kept her paws on his shoulders. “Oh, you look so handsome dressed like that. Out for a hunt in the Glen with your friends?”

“With Bryn, aye. He's here too.”

“Erick told me. He's such a good man, your friend.” She slipped a paw beneath his shoulder and pulled, drawing him off the side of the bed. “Now come. Your father needs his rest,” she shot the Baron narrowed eyes and the older rat chuckled, “Since he had best not be trying to read to that old lamp instead of a proper witchlight!” She turned back to Charlie and smiled. “Everyone is eager to see you again. They'll all want to hear about Metamor and your adventures down south.”

Charlie tucked the chew stick beneath his arm and stifled the sigh that yearned to escape his lungs. They may be siblings, but he barely knew the youngest at all. No visit to the Narrows would be complete without it. He turned and offered his sire a nod and a brief laugh as he was swept from the room. His sire could only wave and laugh in return before brightening his lamp.

 

 

Order in the Matthias family existed only through the tireless effort of the Baroness who after five pregnancies each of which resulted in litters of three to five rats could not believe that any task was beyond her ability or time so long as that task dealt with her ever expanding home. She did not need to cook or clean by the time the third litter had been born as they had been granted noble title and a generous enough stipend to hire servants to help maintain their house, but she involved herself in every duty of the home. One moment she would be in the kitchens tasting the bread, cheese, and stew, and the next she would be inspecting her children, room, dress, and fur to make sure each were properly comported. She was mistress of her house and none knew it better, not even her husband whose own sweat and sinew had gone into building it.

Charlie was swept by her firm paw, callused from her years working in the Keep's kitchens and then in her own, but still soft from the mild comforts of minor nobility. She led the taller rat from room to room of the house where each of her children – his brothers and sisters by birth – were occupied with their daily studies with tutors, sword and bow practice with trainers, or at play with dolls, dogs, and forts built out of toppled chairs and pillows. As she predicted they were all delighted to see him. The youngest grabbed his legs and begged him for a story or a song. The older ones begged for gossip from Metamor with his sisters wanting to know about this or that noble son and his brothers wanting to know which knights were favored to win the Summer tourney.

The sea of rodent faces, some brown like their father, others tan like their mother, and the rest either black or white or a combination of both, were hard to keep straight. Apart from his litter-mates Erick, Bernadette, and Baerle, he had trouble remembering all of their names but after a candlemark in their company he managed well enough. At least the Baroness had almost as much trouble matching name to child!

None of them, no matter how young, had any trouble remembering Charlie's name.

He was grateful when Bryn returned and they gathered for the evening meal. Like everything else in the Matthias fort, the feast hall was not very large and quickly became cramped with over twenty rodents, a long-eared horse, and half-a-dozen servants bringing bowls, plates, and platters of creamy soup, bread, cheese, boiled eggs, fruit, and finally wood roasted perch.

There were three tables in the room arranged in a disconnected 'U'. The Baron reclined at the head of one after hobbling in on a cane. He was joined at his left by his wife, and at his right by Bryn. Charlie was seated one further away, at Bryn's right, and on his own right was Erick. Opposite them, to Kimberly's left, were their daughter Bernadette and then Baerle. The rest of the Matthias clan was distributed about the other tables by age, with the youngest and most boisterous children at the farthest table watched over by the women servants.

While Bryn and the elder Charles conversed over matters political in the Valley, Charlie busied himself catching up on the lives of his litter-mates. Erick was only too pleased to discuss his knightly training and his hopes to ride in the lists that year or next. Bernadette gushed about her betrothal to Godfrey of the Glen, taking particular delight in describing how gentle the groundhog was to her and to their youngest siblings. Baerle confessed in a quiet voice that in all of her prayers in the last few months she had felt a pull toward religious life in the convent but she wasn't quite ready to become a postulant.

The food satisfied but it lacked the variety and delicacy of spices he was used to at Metamor. The wine was good and Charlie felt embarrassed when he realized that they had deliberately used one of their best and it still lacked a certain verve. The Matthias family was not trying to impress Bryn no matter how much interest his sire showed in the horse. It was all to make Charlie feel welcome and at home there in the Narrows.

Part of him was flattered and cheered by the gesture. There was always a deep sense of belonging that he felt when among other rats that he did not often feel with other animal Keepers and one that he never felt around humans, especially those in the lands to the south. Another part of him felt a sullen irritation at the communal implication that he did not visit them enough. There was nothing preventing them from visiting him and his family at Metamor more often than the occasional festival.

Charlie tried not to let the give and tug of his emotions distract him from the feast and from the genuine pleasant company his litter-mates and Bryn provided. When they asked him of news from afar he regaled them with the foibles of court life and the strange customs of lands where only humans dwelt. He repeated a few of his father's ribald witticisms to Baerle's chagrin and Erick's high-pitched laughter. And after being pressed not only by his litter-mates, but by Bryn and the Baron as well, he consented to offering a performance of his ballad of Misha and the cantankerous trebuchet.

The flute and hand drums he had brought with him on the hunt were still in Glen Avery with his servants and gear so he had to make do with what was before him. He asked the Steward, James, to bring him several glass goblets and fill each with water. Everyone stared and murmured as he carefully adjusted the depth of water in each until he had seven of the glasses pitched right. He glistened the tips of his fingers and then traced out a hollow bell-like melody from the rims of each glass.

Squeaks of delight and wonder filled the silences between each note. His tune glimmered with the witchlights bobbing overhead, and seemed to persist with a ghostly essence as if the ceiling were cavernous and not flat. His whiskers twitched with the unraveling melody and simple harmony that bewitched the Matthias family with its beauty.

The glimmering bell tones were so exalted that when Charlie finally did begin singing about Misha and the ridiculous series of accidents that befell him when he'd tried to repair the trebuchet it only made his ballad all the more amusing for his audience. The contrast was part of the whimsy itself. And as the fox became more and more entangled and more of his fellow engineers had to struggle to free him, Charlie sloshed some of the glasses so the notes would fall out of balance, transforming the tune he drew with his fingers from a heavenly hymn to a cacophonous parody.

Not that he didn't inwardly cringe at some of his terrible rhymes and clumsy meter. In a few weeks he could iron them out and then present it to his father and perhaps at the Blue Note one night. But neither Bryn, who'd seen the fox launched thirty feet into the air when the wrong ropes had been cut, nor his sire and siblings seemed to mind or notice the rough patches in his poetry. He brought the song to a close by dragging his fingers across as many of the glasses as he could, producing a hideous chord that nevertheless seemed to capture the moment. Two dozen paws applauded him, with the youngest predictably squeaking for an encore.

He demurred and reclaimed his seat, assuring them that next time he would bring his instruments and play more for them. The disappointment of his youngest siblings was short-lived as the next course arrived to distract them with one more sampling of cheese. Charlie wished that he were shorter so as to hide from every glance, but there was none feasting taller than he save Bryn.

Charlie chided himself on his foolishness and cast a quick glance at his sire to remind himself just why he had come to the Narrows. For one moment he caught the Baron gazing at him with a look of profound anguish. But as soon as their eyes met, his sire's pleasant smile returned and he said, “Thank you for sharing that song, Charlie. Has my old friend Misha heard it?”

“Not yet,” he said, dipping his snout to find his wine glass among the spilled water glasses and to hide the sudden anxiousness he felt. “Perhaps I'll sing it for his son's birthday later this year.”

Bryn almost brayed in laughter, while his mother put a paw on her husband's arm. “Speaking of birthdays, will you return from the south in time to join us for your sire's fiftieth this September?”

He nodded quickly and, having found his wine glass, took a careful sip. “Unless the seas delay us, we should.” He smiled, whiskers twitching and dribbling droplets of wine. All he could think about was how much he wished for the dinner to come to an end.

 

 

Evening came and its arrival whisked away the warmth of the day. By nightfall the air had turned brisk and colder than usual for the season. The workers all retired to their homes and the Matthias family sought the comfort of their beds. Charlie enjoyed the solace of one of the towers. He savored the curl of the cold wind around his large ears and over the bridge of his snout bringing with it the scent of honeysuckle and pine. Overhead the stars were even brighter than what he was used to seeing in Metamor, with the milky band and the numerous constellations vibrant without any clouds to hide them. The dark line of the forest and the mountains flanked him on all sides and in that darkness he felt the first real moment of peace since they'd abandoned the hunt.

He rested his forearms on the stone crenelation and leaned forward enough to peer down the side of the tower and across the growing town around his sire's fort. He idly wondered how large the town would grow in the next few years when he heard a familiar sharp rap of hooves slowly ascending stairs behind him. He cocked his head to the side and smiled at the long-eared horse as he emerged through the narrow hole in the floor. Not everything in the fort was sized for rats, but the tower stairs seemed to be one of them. Bryn looked cramped even standing on the tower next to him.

“I see you managed the stairs.”

“Stone ladder, you mean?” Bryn laughed and leaned against the wall across from Charlie, propping one broad hoof against the wall opposite to brace himself. He glanced down at his brightly polished hoof. “Rats can scamper any and everywhere, you've got bloody claws. It wasn't easy with hooves.” He shook his head with humorous sigh and draped his hands over the crenelation behind him; he was tall enough that he surpassed it by head and shoulders. “What are you doing up here anyway?”

Charlie smiled at his friend before glancing out between the stone uprights. “Solitude,” he answered. “It's the only quiet place here,” Charlie waved his hand out to take in the keep and bailey below with a twitch of his whiskers.

“I'm not going right back down those stairs if that's what you're asking.”

Charlie chuckled and shifted about so he was half-facing the horse. In the darkness he could only see the white tunic and riding breeches so that he seemed almost a ghost against the gray tower wall. “Nae, I wouldn't. What did you think of the defenses?”

A long equine snout bobbed toward the outer wall. “Once they finish those walls this fort will be very well-defended. It's going to take another few years though. They should be done long before Sir Dupré at least.”

“Easily.” He had something more to add, but the words slipped from his mind. He sighed and swung his snout to gaze across the Narrows.

Bryn's voice was soft but insistent. “What's bothering you? Don't you like visiting your birth family?”

“This isn't home.”

“No, but they love you here. You love them.”

“Aye.” He both felt irritation and a sigh escaping him. “I do.” He turned about to lean his back against the stone still warm from the day's sun. “But I'm not... one of them.”

Charlie could feel the calm regard of the would-be stallion lord's gaze upon him in the dark. “So?”

Charlie turned his head slightly to gaze across the rooftops below. “This is not my home.” He shrugged. “Charles is my sire, but he's not my father, and Kimberly.” He broke off with a sigh and ran his fingertips along the fresh-hewn roughness of the crenel stone. “Kimberly has this haunted look whenever she sees me; almost pity! Of me, the only one in the family with a nobleman's title!” He wished for a moment he had one of his sire's fancy chew sticks to crunch on. “And I don't even know why.” He turned his gaze toward the quiet black form clad in moon-glowing white standing across from him. “Seventeen years, and I don't even yet know why.”

“That you're not their son, but someone else's?” Bryn hazarded with friendly, gentle curiosity.

“Aye,” Charlie sighed and looked down at his hands. Rat hands, long and nimble with pronounced knuckles and even more pronounced claws, trimmed and polished even as they were. “My father says it's because I can do what they cannot, but it seems a lazy mollification.”

“Yet you can, you do. For my father, your father, Charlie, and so many others, even as young as you are.” Bryn snorted in the dark, a streamer of moonlit white wafting up from the shadowed profile of his regal head. “They place more weight of responsibility on your shoulders than they do mine, with each passing day.”

“Have they so many that one is not missed?” Charlie asked with a pang. As much as he found the hullabaloo of his presence confounding and no little uncomfortable, he also wanted to be a part of it. No high placed lordling's son, but a man of his own flesh and blood family, to have never known the noblesse oblige that came with his name.

One of Bryn's white clad arms swept across the buildings below their lofty perch, “They miss you Charlie. They always have, and your visits delight them.”

“As would your visit, or you father's, Bryn. A vassal to his liege.”

“They don't look upon you so shallowly as that, Charlie,” Bryn scolded gently. In the darkness he could see the equine's long ears drop against the side of his neck. “They truly think you as part of their family, they accept you as family. Only your name is not theirs. Nothing else between you and they is different than you and your father.”

“Oh?” Charlie challenged with a throaty churr. “Did you taste the wine, Bryn? Lorland vintage, twelve years, considered the best of the duchy! But what of it, compared to the Farlon red we had at the Duke's table not four days past? Or the day before?” His fingers curled into fists. “They brought out their best, because I was here, not you. It's not what they drink from one day to the next; it's brought out for special occasions. To impress me. It makes me feel less like I belong here than ever.”

“Perhaps it was something that they simply had to do, for whatever reason. For you, for your father, for themselves? You know it's not uncommon to foster one's family out to far flung reaches of the kingdom, to preserve some vestige of the line should plague or other calamity befall it. Your mighty family would have more need to do that than mine. Whatever their reasons, it was long ago, and the reasons are their own.” Bryn rested his arms across the stone and looked up to the stars, his eyes tracking a flickering slash that raced across the sky before winking out somewhere unfathomable. “Kimberly is still wrought about whatever choice that took you, her eldest, from her. As does your sire. More so he than she, methinks.”

“Yet, here they are, together united as a whole. Aside from those taken by sickness, none have been lost to them. Save me.” Charlie turned to lean into the gap between the crenels and gaze down at the quiet dwellings of the inner fort below. “I am alone.”

Bryn snorted softly, quietly. A shift of cloth and clop of hoof heralded his motion and Charlie did not move away when the heavy, thick fingered hand of his friend rested upon his shoulder. “You're not alone, Charlie. You have your sister. You have your mother, your father; me.” He offered reassuringly. “Even my father, who dotes on you as a somewhat elder son than I, if somewhat removed. He respects you, and seeks your counsel.”

Charlie twitched an ear back. “Because I have insight he cannot gain elsewhere.”

“Beyond that too, Charlie. He... respects your wisdom, moreso than that of your father or I, who are both of us brash and quick to act. While we act, you watch, gauge, and find other ways. Where I would need pick and labor to dent a mountain, you merely nudge a pebble and it crumbles before you.”

Charlie snorted a laugh at the odd metaphor. “I'm no mage.” He wiggled his fingers into the night. “I cannot even call forth so much as a witchlight, no matter how much the elders have tried to teach. Master Murikeer says that all can do it, and even Baroness Kimberly can dandy about witchlights without half a thought, but me – sputtering sparks unfit to call even a candle.” He slapped the cooling stone and sighed. “I... Bryn, I'd just like some silence.”

With a nod Bryn withdrew his hand and stepped back. “Very well. Do you mind the company?”

“No.” He took a deep breath and shivered as a cold breeze dipped across his tail. He tried to smile at his friend. “Thank you.”

Together they stood in silence, regarding the stars and black silhouettes of the mountains. Somewhere far to the south, a mere shimmer above the trees that stood proud and tall in the valley, the lights of Metamor Keep's watchtowers shone steady and unblinking against the black shadows of the mountains. All was quiet apart from the sigh of the wing, the cry of birds and the bay of distant wolves to serenade them.

 

 

The great trunks of Glen Avery's towering trees stood dark sentinel in the night, blocking out the stars and moon above, leaving the ground in a blackness so deep only night-keen eyes could pierce it. Few lived upon the forest floor in the Glen; those preferring earth to wood, for the most part. Through these dark sentinels he walked, tracking his fingertips across rough wood and powerful roots that stood a man's height from the rich earth around the base of each tree.

He came to a dark door inset between two roots at the crest of three steps and pushed it open without regard of whom might reside within.

“James, the water!” a buxom woman, an opossum of perhaps advanced middle years, was laughing while she rolled a dough of pressed oats and flour on the age worn table near the door. She did not look up as the door opened, oblivious of a visitor standing there, watching. “I'll have naught for the dumplings if you let it boil away!”

A familiar donkey ducked through the door, ignoring that someone stood in the threshold, his tall ears folded back as he tugged a towel around himself. Water coursed from his short gray pelt as he tried to keep the towel away from the hearth fire while drawing the cauldron out upon the arm from which it hung. “I'm sorry, Baerle, but the mistress Avery said it was nigh time I washed the dust out...”

The door closed and the watcher moved on aimlessly. Rough stone walls stretched between the trees, freshly carved from the land. Wood and stone stood together, each occupying the same space upon the dark earth yet each without disturbing the sanctity of the others' place there. It was as if two places stood together, just slightly out of kilter with time, and shared the place for a moment. Another door was pushed open onto a churned field of battle, the blinding sun shining down upon the lone warrior who stood in its brilliant light.

Lord Thomas Bryn Hassan stood victorious upon the field of battle, a flamberge twice as long as the powerful young lord stood tall held in both hands, but no vanquished foe lay before him. The field, churned, muddied, and littered with the shattered debris of battle, stood bare but for the young stallion in his polished blue-steel plate and mail. A dented helmet sat upon his head, a single curving steel horn standing from the proud brow. Casting about for another foe to fell Bryn found none and a roar came to his ears; a crowd of hundreds – nay, thousands – stood all about the field of battle while in a covered stand sat the Lord and Lady of Metamor clapping with warm pleasure at their son's uncontested victory.

None took note of the door that stood open, unsupported but for a rough-hewn wooden frame, in the middle of the list looking out onto a night darkness of a forest glade framed by fresh laid stone walls. The night mist crept to the valence of the door but did not intrude as the door was slowly swept closed with a chuckle. What a sword! Such thoughts of grandeur, from such an accomplished warrior, seemed ill fitting. With a chuckle the wanderer wandered on. Coming at last to a familiar tree, its presence so profound that the walls were subsumed by its preeminence. The wanderer stopped at the door with fingers lightly resting upon it, and then pushed lightly.

The room beyond was, like the tourney field, brightly lit in a myriad of colors. The stained glass windows were vague, not clearly formed while the one form within was sharply defined. The Lady Kimberly Matthias sat in a chair, her arms outstretched, open hands held palms up before her as if to cup something delicate. Above them a hand, fur as black as night and claws gleaming with a razor-edged sharpness, shimmered above her open palms.

“Of two shall be made one. Two souls, awound and bound, together entwined separated only by the quickening of life.” A low, ghostly voice filled the sunlit room, but it was not Kimberly's gentle churr. Nor was it such a voice that she appeared to fear it, eagerly awaiting what the black-furred paw might gift her. “Blood and blood, from two bound one, in union without consecrated.” A stone, shimmering purple with a strange illumination, appeared in the grasp of that black hand. Crazed about its smooth, crystalline surface were lines of bright glistening blood. “Of the two, this one be made.”

The voice continued as the wanderer stood in the doorway, unsure to be aghast or amazed, as a shimmering third form began to appear. The light of the glowing stone began to shimmer, and then pulse, as the shadowy form became a shape; strong of shoulder and broad of hip, with a long tail and an angular muzzle. The stone, held between one paw and another, assumed the place of the vague form's heart. “Take to your breast and hold dear, for from you to he a bind be made, two into one. Cut the binding and he is unmade.” The voice dropped to a hard warning as the hand faded and Kimberly gazed at the stone resting in her palms, its glow pulsing to the time of another's heart.

The door closed, shutting out the light and plunging the stone corridor into the darkness of night once more. The glow of flickering torchlight defined the corridor that stretched away behind but no torches stood within the sconces on the wall. The door was fresh hewn, iron banded and built of stout, pale wood. A hand raised slowly, though the bearer of that hand had not moved from the last door to this, they were neither one alike. Slender fingers tipped with slim, sharp claws pressed against the door and, though the bolt was shot, it swept open.

And then swept away, banished as if it had never been. The land was moon-lit and still, stars winking overhead uncontested by the least of lights upon the land. A ring of towering stones stood, ancient and worn, atop a mighty tor of even more ancient stone. In the center of that ring a long stone laid horizontal and worn smooth by countless years of use. Before it stood the Baron Charles Matthias, his leg in a splint though lacking a cane, his shadow long and draped down the side of the tor like a tapestry cast down. He gazed across at another figure; taller, darker, and altogether more foreboding. It was clad in a cloak of night-black feathers and, as its head came up, a black beak shone forth so dark that none even the moon's glimmering rays could cast upon it a shine.

“Have you come?” the raven queen croaked flatly.

“I have,” Charles intoned, penitent yet somehow eager to the point of fidgeting excitement. “I seek one who has passed beyond.”

“Beyond the veil of night, beyond dreams, beyond my grasp,” the raven's haunting voice croaked as she gazed down at the small rat with calm yet intense regard; as a heron might a careless minnow.

“But you know where he may be found!” Charles cried out.

“I do.” The raven's regal head bobbed slowly, eyes dark without a patina of hue gleaming in expectation. “You ask that I seek to find him?”

“To bring him back, mistress,” the rat intoned querulously. “I beg, please, bring him back to me, that I may know him one last time. To say... to say farewell.”

The raven shook her head. “To bring him back from the Beyond place, from His grasp unto yours.” The feathery cloak that she wore lifted of its own accord, broad wings stretching to cast the slab of stone that lay between them in moon shadows. “A task of greatness, you seek to ask of me. The price of a soul is steep.”

“A soul lost can be found, mistress. I seek it.”

“The price of a soul is a soul in return.” She bowed her head, her voice a deathly corpse-croak of sinister potency. “You have one to offer, seeker of the lost?.”

Steeling himself with a breath Charles straightened his stance and nodded. “I do.”

The raven queen's wings snapped down, casting the light of the moon once more onto the slab, where a child lay in sleep. As her wings fell they settled about her shoulders, mantling about her rather than folding as a cloak once again. In her arms she held a babe of her own, so similar to the one that lay upon the stone that they might be brothers. “You surrender one soul to regain another that was lost?”

Tears trailing from his eyes Charles stretched out his arms for the babe held in the raven's eerie, motherly embrace. “I do!” Slowly she held out the child and Charles eagerly grasped at him, drawing him to his breast in a crushing embrace as he wept. His own shadow seemed to stretch and envelop them both. The raven's gaze lowered to the child slumbering, peaceful and blissfully ignorant, upon the stone. Her hand reached down.

“The bargain is struck.” Her voice croaked as her head turned slightly, cavern-black corvid eyes gleaming as they gazed not toward Charles wrapped in his shadow, but toward the one watching. She, and she alone of all who had been seen, saw the watcher as clearly as one might a person standing beside them. “The bargain is struck. The exchange is agreed.” The croak of her voice echoed as her fingers caressed the brow of the child. He vanished in a swirl of night-black mist.

 

 

Charles Matthias jerked awake with a start, both hands flying up as he gazed at them in the wan glow of a shuttered lamp. He flexed and clenched his fingers. He had held him! He had given up one to take back another. His voice hitched in his throat as his hands dropped to his face and tears sprang from his eyes. Sixteen years ago... this day. Such a dreadful bargain he had made, that had cost him two sons. At his side Kimberly slept peacefully, undisturbed by the return of the knife wound pain of a horrible choice. Her hand was clasped around the pendant that she had been given not long before Charles had made that dreadful bargain.

Lost. Both of them, lost. One beyond the pulse of life, in Eli's arms. The other... the other given an altogether more questionable fate, though he yet lived. Two sons, lost to him.

Clutching his hands to his face in horror for his transgressions, Charles wept.

 

 

Thursday, May 13, 724 CR

 

Bryn snorted as he rubbed the last of the sleep from his eyes with his thick-feathered wrists, following Charlie out of the fort and through the gardens. The sun had not risen past the mountains to the east but the sky was brightening and only the most radiant stars were still visible in the sky; a few minutes more and even they would be lost to the new day. With no clothes other than those they had brought with them, both noble horse and rat were dressed in rumpled tunics with fur neither had time to brush.

“I thought we would at least linger long enough to break our fast,” Bryn said almost as if it were a suggestion.

“Not if we want to have any chance of catching that hart,” Charlie replied as he stepped with a quick pace down the wide lane between the rows of flowers and vegetables. “Besides... I need to.”

Bryn's grumpy expression turned soft and he nodded his large head. “Say no more. I sent my men to ready our steeds. They'll be waiting for us at the outer wall.”

“Good. It will be good to be back in the saddle.”

“Aye, it will!”

They made half way to the inner wall before a squeaking voice cried for them to wait. Turning they could see Baroness Kimberly and his litter-mate Erick rushing out of the fort after them. Kimberly was wearing a simple dress in only one piece, likely something she had grabbed to be modest when word had reached her of their departure. Erick had on his linens and a mail shirt but that too seemed to have been hastily donned. Charlie chuckled under his breath and turned to wait for them.

“I cannot stay longer,” he assured her, but she threw her arms around him and held him tight.

“I know. But I wasn't going to let you leave without something! I brought you both some of last night's bread and cheese. I even had it warmed for you.” She reached over and handed them a small sack that smelled of hidden delights. Charlie felt his stomach growl as each scent tickled his nose. “I had some sent ahead to your men, as well. Last season's harvest was plentiful and we have more than enough to spare.”

“Thank you, milady Kimberly,” Bryn took the sack and slung it over his shoulder. “You have been a gracious host. Tell your husband that we pray for his speedy recovery.”

At the mention of the Baron one of Kimberly's hands wrapped about the purple stone dangling across her chest. Charlie narrowed his eyes and stilled the tremble in his tail. “Where is my sire? Will he be hobbling out the door any minute?”

Kimberly favored him a reproving glance but lowered her eyes. “Your father did not sleep well last night. His injuries and the excitement were a little much for him. He is resting still. Would you like me to bring him a message? He will miss you when he wakes and learns that you are not here.”

“Thank him for the lovely feast and that I look forward to hearing of his recovery.” Charlie did his best to smile and returned his mother's hug. “Thank you for having us on such short notice.”

“Nonsense, we love having you visit. We love you and wish you could visit more. When can we hope to see you next?”

He tensed but kept his smile in place. “I'm not sure, it depends on how negotiations in the Midlands and with Sathmore proceed. If things go badly it may be some time before I am able to break free from the Keep again. You can always visit sometime.”

“There is so much still to do here,” Kimberly said with a tired expression. “But I know we will find a way. Now go and catch that hart. And when you return to Metamor give Peter and Timothy all our love. Thank you for coming, Charlie. It was so wonderful to see you again.”

He smiled and hugged her one last time before breaking away. Bryn thanked her as well before they resumed their walk down the sloping grounds toward the outer wall. Erick followed them even as Kimberly watched from the edge of the gardens.

“You don't need to escort us,” Charlie chided his brother.

“I know, but it is the polite thing to do. Besides, I wish I could come with you. With father injured, I have to watch over the construction. You should come hunting here in the Narrows sometime. Then we could ride together.”

“The game is better to the north,” Charlie pointed out, but he could not hold back a genuine smile for his brother. “Bryn and I will find some excuse to steal you away for a hunt one day. Won't we?”

Bryn laughed, a hitching bray complimenting his voice. “Oh aye, we will bring you with us, Sir Erick. And your friend Sir Bertram as well if he wishes. You can help us tie that tree-rat Fallon to a horse's back!”

Erick cocked his head to one side. “Fallon Avery? Has he even touched the ground? Ever?”

The three of them laughed.

They continued to talk of the foibles of the youngest Avery child and makeshift plans to take Erick hunting as they stepped through the inner wall, past the small village growing on the flanks of the Matthias fort, and down the steep rocks toward the outer wall. Just on the other side well out of the way of the makeshift crane and heavy stones ready to be hoisted waited their soldiers already mounted and Argamont leading Charlie's mare with her reins between his teeth.

“Well,” Erick added with a sigh, “I suppose I should return, get dressed, and then come wake the workers for another day. It was very good seeing you, Charlie. And you, Lord Hassan. Until Eli crosses our paths again. Fare thee well!” He and Charlie hugged, their whiskers brushing each other, before the shorter, stockier rat began scampering back up the incline toward the fort. Charlie watched his brother's long tail bounce from side to side for a moment before turning back to the horses and their men.

He nodded to Bryn's charger and said, “Thank you, Argamont,” as he took his mare's reins and vaulted into the saddle. He took a moment to position his paws in the stirrups and his tail in the crook behind him to keep it steady.

By the time he was comfortable Bryn had mounted Argamont and was stretching his arms. “Take us back to the Glen; we've more hunting to do.” Argamont snorted a blast of air and then he, Charlie, and the soldiers began eastward along the road through a light morning mist. Bryn swung the sack around his shoulders and pulled the drawstring. “Let us see what the Baroness gifted us with. Ah, three loaves of bread and I see two large wedges of cheese.” He tore a morsel from one of the loaves and set it between his supple lips. A moment later it was gone and the horse's long ears flicked in pleasure. “Good and warm. Almost as delicious as it was last night. Would you care for some, Charlie?”

The rat shook his head, his eyes on the trees and sky. “I'm not hungry. Have as much as you want.”

Bryn frowned at him but said nothing more. He propped the sack on top of the saddle between his legs and ate his morsels slowly. Far to the south the sky brightened as the new day began.

 

 

While the midday hours offered them little in the way of game both young men returned to the hunt with renewed focus and verve. They rode deep into the woods north of the Glen, following darkened tracks, beneath misty boughs, and along streams flush with the thaw gouging their way between roots and rocks. The beaters followed, flushing the brush where it clung to hillock and dale, ever letting the two nobles move at the front of their party to best see their quarry.

They had finished the bread and cheese that Kimberly had given them well before mid-day and felt little hunger as they eschewed the lunch meal in order to forge on through the afternoon. The season was still young and the chill of the night kept guard in the forest understory, retreating only when the sun above finally began to seep the warmth of the day into the forest. Argamont drew up short when a coyote, dressed in the eye-defying mottled leathers of the Glen Avery scouts, melted silently out of a bush and held up one hand to touch a claw-tipped finger to his whiskers. Charlie reined in his mare beside them.

“Hush now, milords,” the coyote whispered, motioning toward the beater masters to stay their men's valiant noisemaking. Word was sent down the line and, within minutes, silence fell. “Spied yon milk-white beast, nae a quarter league deeper in.” The coyote motioned back the direction he had come, “Nae half a candlemark past.”

“A good eye, Willem.” Bryn smiled, casting a sidelong grin at Charlie. “Lead on.” He turned in his saddle toward the nearest of the beaters. “Have the men remain here. Charlie and I will progress forward alone.”

“Aye, milord.” The man knuckled his brow and walked away to spread word. With a beckoning motion of one hand the coyote slipped into the bushes again, silent as a cat.

Not twenty minutes later, as they made their way north down a small slope toward the glade where once a star had struck the coyote motioned for them to slow. “Beyond yon crest o' stone, milords, be where I spied the beast. Ye may wish t' dismount, t'is a steep climb an' t'would be makin' noise a'horseback.” They slipped quietly from their mounts and recovered their bows and a few arrows from quivers behind their saddles. Argamont used his shoulder to guide Charlie's mare toward a small sunlit glade where they might graze a short distance away. Walking quietly, which for Bryn was something of a challenge with hooves, they made their way up a jumbled scree of rock cast up when the star-stone fell long ago.

“I see him” Bryn whispered when they crested the rock among a dense thicket of young spruce, pointing with the tip of an arrow. “A hundred yards?”

Charlie nodded. “And upwind from us. We should be able to get closer. You'll never make that shot.” The hart stood, head bowed, in a copse of aspen as it grazed on early season flowers, ears lowered but twisting. His antlers were still in velvet, as white as the rest of him, but it was impossible to see how large they were, or know how large they might become if their arrows did not fly true.

They moved slowly through the slender trees down the inner curve of the boulder strewn bowl, careful not to disturb stone or branch, while the hart grazed, for the moment unaware that it was stalked. The hart moved only when he'd eaten all the flowers in front of him. The bowl-shaped depression had only been a meadow in their fathers' time and even now none of the trees had branches high enough to block the sun whose rays, with no clouds in the sky, they felt for the first time that day. If not for their quarry so close its warmth would have relaxed all of their muscles and soothed every nerve. Now it just made them blink and cover their eyes, casting their gazes to the yellow, blue, and purple wildflowers gathered round their legs.

They slowed until their eyes adjusted to the light, anxious that the hart might hear their careful approach down the slope. Bryn moved into the lead, while Charlie hung back just far enough that both of them had a clear view of the hart; the coyote paced them slightly higher. Their chests tightened when they saw the white stag finish denuding the flowers about his hooves and move behind a cluster of pine and out of sight. Both held their breaths until they had climbed down far enough to see him on the other side.

Now only forty yards away they could see that the deer had four points on either velvet covered antler. Bryn's equine lips stretched into a hungry grin as he raised his bow and drew an arrow. Charlie unslung his from his shoulder and knocked an arrow. His claw-tip steadied the haft and he felt the wind and aimed. “Willem,” Bryn hissed as he took one knee and half drew his bow. “You spied the beast, the first loft is yours.”

“Milord?” the coyote asked in surprise, his ears springing up.

“Limber your bow, Willem, and cast the first shot.” The coyote was quick to oblige, unslinging his bow and knocking a short hunting arrow. The stave creaked as he drew back smoothly, the bows the lords accompanying him offering similar sounds of wood under strain. The coyote's arrow leaped forth with a twang and, even as it was in the air, Bryn raised his bow and loosed, with Charlie's arrow not an eyeblink behind. The first arrow nicked the Hart's breast and its head jerked up in surprise, Bryn's arrow taking it behind the ear with a meaty whack while Charlie's whistled through the empty air where it's bowed head had been a moment before. With a single half-step to one side the hart's head bowed forward again as if it might graze, only to be followed down as its body slumped and crashed to the forest loam.

“A valorous shot, milord!” Willem barked in surprise at the young noble's arm. “Cleanly done!” They descended the final lengths to the floor of the bowl and trotted toward the unmoving white form of the felled hart.

“How did you know where to place that arrow, Bryn?” Charlie challenged with warm humor as they drew up to the beast, feathered neatly behind both ears by the stallion's arrow.

“I was a shade slow.” Bryn slung his arrow and knelt to rest his thick fingers upon its breast to seek signs of life, but found none. “I thought it would hear the bows drawn and raise its head sooner.” He cast a smiling glance at the coyote. “Your shot could've taken him, Willem, had you not drawn it short.”

The coyote looked down, his ears backed in mortification at the young noble's chiding. “I dinna', sire. I've jus' a shortbow, not so strong as ye' longbows. M' shot lost loft too swiftlike.”

Bryn stood and brushed the grass from his knees. “You did a splendid job nonetheless, Willem. A huntsman's prize is yours, this day.” He clasped the coyote's shoulder warmly. “Argamont!” he bellowed loudly, “Fetch the butchers!” He lowered his voice and stretched with a triumphant smile. “Let's bear this prize home.”

For the first time that day, Charlie smiled and felt both joy and the thrill of his youth.

 

 

It was almost four hours later when a triumphant procession returned to the mighty, towering trees of Glen Avery. Leading the procession with regal poise was Bryn, a proud and confident expression gracing his youthful countenance; Argamont trotted with the courtly rearing of each hoof before crushing them into the ground with practiced dignity. Charlie rode just behind his friend, the mare beneath him performing the same proud gait. And behind them both plodded a tall broad-shouldered horse bearing the body of the white hart across its back so that all could see what the eldest son of the Duke had brought down.

Just to deliberately draw attention for their victory over the elusive hart, a pair of their soldiers following closely behind the hart drew out trumpets and blasted a short fanfare as they turned from the road into the main clearing of the Glen. The peal rent the quietude of the Glen, shaking branches, scattering birds and startling the simple townsfolk unused to such displays. Curious residents emerged from their homes among the trees; beastly heads poking up through roots or down from branches to see what the commotion was about. And when they saw the nobles from Metamor they all came out to do them homage and to admire the remarkable buck they had claimed.

Even young Fallon Avery dangled from a rope hanging off one of the higher branches. His whiskers lowered and his tail drooped. “Oh nuts, you caught him!”

Bryn snorted at the squirrel and patted the end of his bow slung across his back. “I told you I would! Now get down out of there and come celebrate with us!”

“I like it up here!” So saying, the squirrel scrambled back up the rope and disappeared into the foliage above. Charlie shook his head while Bryn laughed.

“Milords!” A more respectful voice echoed from the western and higher end of the clearing. Garbed in a simple green doublet and flanked by a rough badger, a grizzled skunk, and two other squirrels, identical in appearance, who had the bearing of competent warriors as well as the inkling of mischief which consumed their youngest brother, was the Baron Brian Avery of the Glen. His fur was a lush slate gray, but there was a subtle brightening around his snout and along the back of his tail that spoke of his age. He saw the white hart draped across a horse and applauded with a few short, echoing claps. “Well done, Lord Thomas, Lord Charles. Well done on your victory!”

“Thank you,” Bryn grinned as he rode Argamont several more paces until they were only a few feet from the lord of the Glen. “It was a difficult but exhilarating hunt. Your good huntsman Willem led us to the completion of our quest. Tell us, what fine libations can we expect to toast and drink heartily to our victory?'

“Lars has brewed many fine beers this season. The bock is particularly rich and satisfying. I am sure that you lads will find it to your taste.”

Bryn turned back to the rat and snorted. “What say you, Charlie? Shall we feast at yon bruin's brewery?”

Charlie had been to the cave in which the bear Lars had built his establishment many times before, nearly every time that he had visited the Glen in the last few years. There was no question that Lars was an inventive and competent distiller of liquors and ales, and some of the fine recipes he concocted were the envy of the Valley. But this was the first time he could recall being promised an entire selection at once! He intended to try them all too.

Charlie almost managed to laugh. “If a feast awaits us in the caves, then why are we still standing here? Lead on, Lord Avery!”

Roars of approval followed and the procession, now joined by Lord Avery, his advisers, and curious townsfolk always eager for an excuse to drink, made its way to the famous bruin's cave.

 

 

The flame led to calm, the calm to its center, and in the center was focus.

In twilight the wanderer wandered, the curious imagined, and the seeker sought, while the world around passed unknowing.

Where before the wanderer merely wandered without aim or goal, to espy what might be imagined behind the closed eyes of the unguarded, he now sought a path through the dim half-light that stood between awareness and imagination. His steps followed a dark path through the forest, the slender alders and birch before him shifted their appearance to disappear behind him as oak and maple. Vaults of branches lined his path, each of them coming to an arch and framing a door. Some of the doors were half open, suggesting rooms or lands beyond while others were closed and dark. Words and voices echoed from those portals but he did not listen to them for none spoke to him of that which he sought. None of them were his quarry and thus none of them were worthy of his attention.

Vagaries of fog and flashes of uncertain light overhead gave a suggestion of sky though there was no clear indication of either stars or of clouds, neither sun nor moon. It was as if the ceiling were a cathedral vault so high above that the eye was incapable of perceiving it within the gloom. Dirt, stone, and mire gathered around his feet, while a wind he could not feel stirred the branches, clattering together in a dry staccato. Leaves danced and the doorways thrummed, skipping past him as if he were riding horseback and not walking. Occasionally he would pause, listening, as a whisper plucked at his ear, only to move on when the name faded into other thoughts that could not further pique his interest.

Upon his journey he came upon a vast and towering wagon, mighty steeds at its yokes, piled high with a plethora of rare and expensive goods. Two rats, one white with bright red eyes and an odd pale, piebald gold mark across his shoulders that seemed more burden than blotch, while the other was hooded in black and white, sat upon the buckboard, seeming all too small for both wagon and drays.

“I don't care what he says, I'll not be raising my prices, nor my rates of trade, simply because he lacks a few goods that we can supply,” the pale rat said to his partner. “He is a good man, and he's a rat beside.”

“Aye, yah, but we be merchants!” The black-and-white admonished stubbornly. “'E's got a fair point. Yer cuttin' our profits nigh thin as it be! That's no what we do!”

“What we do is treat fairly with him, it's pretty simple. He's extended us every courtesy, and helped me establish...”

“He's promised yer girl t' 'is son, that be tha', innit?” the other rat groused, crossing his arms and giving his paler companion a glare. “So now ye be gone all soft inna heart, in't tha' it?”

“He is, and always has been, a fine friend. And he's fair short on coin, and we've stretched his wallet pretty thin. There are others from whom we can recoup any losses. And other ways to bring more business...”

With a shrug the wanderer continued on, unobserved by the two rats or the powerful horses that plodded along. Even those two conversed, but it held nothing for the wanderer so he continued on without discerning what might interest horses.

For a time the doorways faded, trees becoming walls of stone and then naught but naked rock untouched by the tools of men. The wanderer continued down the path, his ears twitching as he listened. It was not so much the name that he sought, but the voice that would utter it. That would call to him, draw him to the portal he sought. After some span of time that could not be measured the unhewn walls of stone began to change, inset portals leading to simple entries barred by nothing more than woven vines. In time the granite defile became a boulevard of cut and fitted blocks with homes of stone and wood standing upon either side. Signboards waved above doors of iron banded wood.

Words of comfort, words of hope, words of fear, words of wonder, words that had no meaning whatsoever drifted through the doors in the wood and stone. The wanderer heard them all, pausing only a moment to gauge each before moving on. The path now climbed by stone steps, the trees dwindling as if they were seen only at a distance, and yet the doors persisted. It was one of those doors that the wander found himself drawn to by a familiar voice. It was not the speaker that he sought, but upon their tongue was the name he listened for, and used with such insistence that he could not ignore it.

The name of his quarry resounded in his ears as he stepped through that near door. Beyond was a small stone room with washbasin, and a rack of clothing hanging to dry, all of them fine cut of modestly expensive material. Candles lit the room beyond, their wax forming tendrils to the floor and pools about them. Golden afternoon light shone through a single narrow window and cast a splash of light, nearly blinding to eyes accustomed to candles trying to banish the gloom elsewhere in the washroom, or the dim half-light of the path which the wanderer traveled. A young mole woman dressed in the garb of a common servant was beseeching another figure cloaked in finery and shadowed with the silhouette of a rat.

By the mark upon his face alone the seeker knew that it was the one he sought, but not quite truly him, for there were odd distortions in the face and body that made him seem stockier and swarthier than he should be, altogether heroic in poise and bearing. A warm smile drew at the visage of the rat as he strode down the stone steps toward the washerwoman, his hands straying to the sash which held together the robe he wore.

With a snort of rueful laughter the wanderer turned back and resumed his trek along the path.

The two became a city, towering buildings old and established, and at the apex of the boulevard a mighty fort stood, though no guards were posted at the gate. Though the gate was closed and barred the wanderer passed through.

He did not need to listen when he came to a door set in the midst of the mountainside. The arch frame was carved from the granite, and about its surface an ivy grew, flowering with bright purple blossoms. The ivy took root at the base of the door, stretching on either side as if protecting the door. The wanderer paused a moment to consider the plant but knew that it would not harm him. With a determined narrowing of his eyes he stepped through.

He emerged from the darkened mountainside at a seaside port staring up the gangplank of a large cog. Human men, sweaty and strong, carried supplies up to the ship, all of them casting wary glances at the end of the stone pier but not one toward him though they walked past him within a whisker's reach. At its prow were the artfully painted words “Venture Swift”, and a leaping dolphin graced its bow. The wanderer let his eyes descend from the bow to the end of the stone wharf where the waves crested and splashed , casting a brilliant sheen across each stone and crevice and there found his quarry. The black scar over his right eye was unmistakable, and where in the servant's dream he had been distorted into some idealistic impression, here he was as clear as memory served. Part of him was dressed in the blue finery worthy of his rank, while the rest of him seemed to be garbed in the common uniform of a scout for Metamor. He stood talking with a bright red-haired youth and a young dragon with vermillion-tipped gray scales. Between them crouched a creature that appeared to be both a wolf and a man, caught somewhere between either extreme, but not in the way of one touched by Metamor's curse still in transition. It looked as if the poor beast was both fully a wolf and fully a man at the same time, and could not make up its mind which it would be but wanting to be neither. Confused at what he was seeing, the wanderer stepped closer. Everything was so strangely clear, as if it were somehow familiar yet he could not recall the participants.

The red-haired man smiled and patted the scar-faced rat on the shoulder. “We will follow along on your journey. It will be bad enough for the crew without us three on board.”

“Of course,” the rat said with a nod. Despite the brilliant sunshine none of them seemed to cast shadows. “I know you can keep an eye on us with ease from the skies. And if we need to send you a message one of the birds will help.”

“They will. They are as eager for this journey as we are!” The red-haired man said with a smile. “And your family?”

The wanderer, unseen by the figures, stepped closer. “My family will be fine.” The fine, and yet simply, dressed rat waved a hand reassuringly toward man and dragon. A third shape circled above, slowly in wide arcs, but it was no dragon. It's body was too foreshortened and broad, but too long to be a bird's despite the broad fan of its tail. “I am here to protect them, as will be Garigan and our other friends. Besides, should any threat arise I daresay it will unlikely reach us before dragon fire convinces it to take that threat elsewhere. And... a journey like this will be good for them all.”

The wanderer felt frustration blossom in his heart. This was not what he had come to see. His tongue twisted and words spilled unbidden. “What of the child?” The voice was his own and it carried across the expanse of the wharf and over the sounds of the vessel's provisioning, rocking in its quay, and the chorus of seagulls, but none of the speakers seemed to hear. “What of the child left upon the stone?” He circled around the speakers, casting about, wondering why he was here, now, seeing this. “What of the deal?”

“What of the deal?” asked a calm voice as another speaker wandered up to the crowd. One arm was draped over the shoulders of a petite, slender red fox dressed in a simple servant's gown of pale gray. In her arms was a child, a rat, with only a year of age, her cheeks still plump and dimpled with glee as her tiny fingers clutched at the finger the vixen used to tease her whiskers. The speaker, a tall marten, smiled at rat and dragon and red-haired man regally. In his free arm he, too, held a young rat of similar age but this one was asleep, his face slack in pleasant repose. Beside him stood a feminine rat with two babes in her arms, clearly the mother of the matching quartet. “I believe it was a single merchant per soul per week at sea?” The finely dressed marten's brows were raised when he looked to the scar-faced rat. But the wanderer's eyes were drawn to the babes, their features sharp and crisp and so very, very present he spared not a glance for the nobleman nor vixen.

The male rat beamed a bright smile, one paw resting on the shoulder of the half-man half-wolf crouched at his side. “Ahh, there you are, and they. I certainly hope the captain is not demanding a coin for each of the wee ones similarly?” A shadow flickered at the corner of his eyes, stretching across the wharf for a moment from the rat's feet, but then vanished. Even the beast beside him cast no shadow, despite the sun.

“Oh, indeed so,” the marten winked, casting an affectionate look down at the infant held easily in the crook of one arm. “Because babes wail, or will be, once the Venture makes the water.”

“What of his fate!?” the wanderer cried out, but the gulls still cried, the waves splashed, and the ship still creaked against the dock.

“Sealed.” The voice was rough; a low growl that was almost inhuman and the wanderer's eyes dropped down in surprise. Beside the rat the half-beast was looking at him; direct and aware. But his eyes were black, depthless pits in which stars gleamed. “The bargain has been struck.” The wanderer fell toward those eyes, toward the distant stars, and the ship and pier were whisked away around him, banished into the shadowed twilight and doors.

More doors, closed and dark, and from not one did a voice come to call him back.

The prey had escaped and the wanderer was left, alone, his questions unanswered.

 

 

Charles Matthias stirred in his sleep, gasping for breath as he fought to banish the shadowed darkness that seemed to cavort at the edge of his mind. Around him he felt the familiar comfort of his bed, his wife Kimberly at his side, a soft breath escaping her lips and whistling across her teeth. He blinked several times as he shifted about, his injured leg throbbing.

The room, darkened as it was by night, nevertheless came into focus as he sat there seeking his calm. Where once he had pondered the sands outside his native Sondeshara, now he found memories of stone coming more freely to him, soothing the savage wound of time. He ran one paw down his leg and sighed as he felt the smooth coolness of granite where once he'd had fur. Only a patch as wide as his thumb now, but what would it be in a month, a year, ten years?

“A deal...” he murmured, the words strangely pertinent but he wasn't quite sure why. How many deals had he struck in his life, deals whose consequences reverberated through the years. He lifted his arm from beneath the quilts and stared at both of them held empty before them. That his flesh turned to stone was but one deal amongst so many, and by far not the worst.

He swallowed and lowered his head back to the downy pillows and felt a strange disquiet fill him. A deal for passage. So soon after that other deal that had riven his heart. “A deal... my boy...”

Charles closed his eyes and draped his arm across his snout. If his leg were well he would have climbed from bed and sought his vine, perhaps have even reposed within the mountainside itself for an hour or two. All that was available to him now was more sleep and the dreams that they brought. He swallowed and prayed that he would have no more.

But as sleep claimed the overwrought rat, they came back for him.

 

 

Friday, May 14, 724 CR

 

“Do you know the only mistake we made in capturing the hart?” Charlie regarded his long-eared equine friend now dressed in a brilliant red doublet with gold trim along the collar. Bryn favored him with a humorous moue and said, “We have to return to Metamor now!”

“We couldn't stay away much longer,” Charlie reminded him after chuckling. “Would you rather we spent a few more days out in the woods only to come home empty handed?”

“Nae,” Bryn admitted with another laugh. He brayed once and leaned back in the saddle. Argamont plodded along at a leisured pace beneath him. “And the hart does give me a few hours before the train of tutors descend on me again!”

Charlie reigned in beside Argamont as the young duke's mount slowed from its sedate walk to halt upon the rise. Before them, revealed over the treetops of the valley still a couple hours ride ahead, the towers of Metamor Keep rose above its surrounding walls. The castle sprawled proudly atop the steep ridge that divided the north of the valley from the south, a river coursing through a cut in the rocks to one side. Beyond that ridge, around which they would have to circle to enter the castle, Euper spread out unseen but for the tendrils of smoke rising from the countless chimneys. A southerly breeze coursing down the valley behind them cut wispy tendrils off at the crest of the ridge and left a faint smudge in the castle's lee.

“Always quite the sight, isn't it, Charlie?” Bryn asked with a smile as he rested both hands upon the pommel of his saddle. No reins descended from his fingers as they did from Charlie's, for Argamont had neither halter nor bridle, needing neither.

Charlie sat up a little straighter and stretched his back, flicking his tail side to side across the croup of his mount. “Aye, that it is. I will be sore glad to be off of horseback for a few days. My spine will be so thankful.”

Bryn looked back with a twist of his broad shoulders and Charlie followed his gaze. Behind them stretched a train of servitors; wagons and horses and people afoot, all to provide for the two young nobles and their hunt. Six wagons laden with tents, wardrobe, provisions, and a rolling kitchen lumbered along amongst a line of Hassan house servants that tended them and their two charges. Where a typical journey to Glen Avery might take a man on horse perhaps half a day, if they were traveling slowly, with such a train it was lucky going indeed to leave with dawn and arrive before sunset. Bryn whickered a laugh, “I'm for home, Charlie, what say you?”

“I concur.” His gaze roved along the lines of humans and animorphed once-humans following in their wake, cordoned by the soldiery sent along to provide little needed security. With the peace that had come with the final treaty signed with the Lutin hordes some years past the valley was as safe as anyplace had any expectation ever to be. Strife broiled in the southern kindgoms and the dangers of the north were still there, beyond Sir Dupré's slowly growing wall, but within the borders of the Northern Midlands peace was an often complacently overlooked luxury. “What of your host?” He waved a sharp-clawed hand toward the train.

“They will follow safely enough, barring a broken wagon wheel.” One of which had plagued their outbound journey for the better part of the first day. “Let us get hither, my friend!” With a slight forward shift of his weight Argamont lifted his hooves and paced forward. Charlie gave a flick of his reins and a tap of his paws to spur his mare forward, pacing out ahead of the young stallion that would one day be his liege despite his lower station. Argamont cast him a challenging look and raised his head to prance forward a trot.

With a laugh Charlie snapped his reins again and his spirited mount fairly leaped forward into a quick gallop. Argamont, never one to pass up such a challenge, was quick to give chase.

 

The Keep and its strange geometry made the passage to his home different nearly every time he sought it out, but nevertheless the entrance always appeared the same. The ceiling sloped upward into a beautiful rounded arch leading to a wide set of tall doors bearing his family's heraldry on either panel. So familiar to him now, he only briefly glanced at the crossed trident and oar, with sky blue over dark sea blue on the sinister, green grass on the dexter, before nodding to the guards standing watch outside.

“Welcome home, Lord Charles,” said the taller of the two, a broad-shouldered white-furred bear that stood eight hands higher than the rat and whose meaty paws were wrapped about the haft of a glaive; his claws were kept as long as knives and with one paw he gripped the latch on the door and pressed it open.

The other guard, an ox with sharpened spikes on the end of each horn and who only stood three heads taller than Charles, echoed the greeting and glanced behind him. “Where's Lord Thomas? I thought you went hunting together.”

“Bryn is seeing to the hart he caught, at least once it arrives in an hour or so! If he can get free he may come by later. Has my father returned?”

“Your father has not returned yet, Lord Charles,” the bear replied with a grunt. “Your mother and sister are home and will be delighted to see you.”

“Good,” Charlie replied, smiling to the soldiers loyal to his house. They did their duty well. “May the gods smile on you both.” They returned the blessing as he stepped between them and back into the place that was truly home. A high vaulted ceiling with artful tapestries of field, forest, and sea greeted him in the ornate foyer. Little spiraling pillars lined either side in terracotta with blue and green tiling along the wall behind.

The foyer opened into a wide room divided into two sections. The area on the left was arranged for entertaining guests, with a large hearth framed by several comfortable chairs and lounges with cabinets holding musical instruments and cupboards holdings chalices and a selection of wines. Embroidered pillows adorned every chair while the hearth was flanked on either side by tall paned windows to let in both light and air. The floor was covered in a mosaic over which several Sondesharan carpets had been overlaid.

The right half of the room was similar in purpose with another hearth and chairs arranged in a comfortable and welcoming semi-circle, but the patterns and design were more typical of Metamor, with thick bear-skin rugs, granite floors, and all color patterns in dark hues. Depending on his father's mood or the comfort of his guests he could entertain on whichever side seemed best. Charlie was never quite sure which one he preferred, but seeing both of them side by side felt right.

At the other end of the room open doorways led into other sections of their home. One was for the servants and while he had often sneaked into their rooms as a child he did not venture there much anymore. The others led to their private gardens, library, and recreation. Bedrooms, drawing rooms, and places of repose occupied the rest of their home. Charlie wondered where he might find his mother or sister, or even his sibling pages, when he felt a paw on his back.

“Ha!” his sister's voice growled in his ears. “And you said I couldn't sneak up on you!”

Charlie stifled a start at the predatory silence that heralded that sudden strong grasp upon his shoulder, his tail thwacking against the knees belonging to the herald of that touch. He turned and cast a glance upward at the tall, slender, russet hued canine towering behind him. “Suria! Just how long have you been waiting there behind the tapestries for me to come home?” He gave his younger, albeit considerably taller, sister a poke in the stomach with one paw, eliciting the expected titter of girlish, and very canine laughter. Even though he did not seek to tickle her, which was always a hilarious past-time, the expectation that he would try just that made her jump and laugh in expectation of it. Her large ears backed, pinned forward as she leaned down to give him a rather wet slurp across the cheek.

“I saw you and Bryn ride through the city up from the solar. He looks very handsome in that red doublet.” Her tail wagged as her jowl drew back in a bright smile. Suria had been born as a human and had only changed into the russet-colored wolf three years ago. So many of its mannerisms and instincts continued to surprise and frustrate her. But the wagging of her tail never seemed to do so. “Tell me about the hunt! Did you have to fight off bears or mountain lions? How long did you chase that white hart?”

“I've told you before that most of the time on a hunt is quite dull. I had more excitement coming home only to be set upon out of dark corners!” he said with an exaggerated sigh even though the smile did not leave his face. “Until we saw the hart yesterday there was little to do except wander the forest.”

Her eyes brightened and she leaned forward, snout inches from his own. “You saw the hart? What happened?” Her ears then rotated upright as she spied someone beyond her brother.

“And has my son brought anything back from his hunt to please his mother?” Another voice called from the central hallway. Charlie turned and smiled at his mother who emerged from the passage with two young rats and a taller white tiger in tow. The fox's luxuriant, soft red fur was adorned by an elegant but understated lily-white dress that was both form and function for the wife of an important diplomat. He had seen her in much commoner clothes on the few occasions she had witnessed their servants not doing a sufficient job; they never made the same mistake twice, even when it came to cleaning the corners of each stairwell. Those that did make the same mistake twice did not remain in their employ.

“Mother!” Charlie embraced his mother and laughed, hoisting her a few inches from the floor in boisterous boyish glee. The smaller vixen yapped a laugh, her tail lashing at the indecorous greeting. “I fear that it was Bryn who brought something back from the hunt. His arrow struck the hart true while mine only pierced the wildflowers.” Setting his mother down with a moue of contrition he reached into a small pouch at his side and gingerly removed a trio of purple, blue, and yellow blossoms, their gossamer thin petals fragile but unbroken. “Here is what my skills have claimed.”

His mother glanced into his open paw and smiled, vulpine snout stretching to reveal white fangs behind her black jowls. “They are very pretty. What did you intend to do with them?”

“Preserve them in one of my journals. They aren't good for much else. Unless you actually want them.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Keep them for your journal. Or use them to practice your drawing. Your tutors are eager to see you again. But that can wait for tomorrow.” She sniffed the air and her eyes narrowed. “For now you should bathe. You stink of horse and of the woods. Peter, Timothy, draw a bath for your brother, please.”

The two rats, both dressed in blue livery and looking at the elder rat with eager faces and trembling whiskers, bobbed their heads and nearly bounced on their feet and tails. “Yes, milady!”

Charlie raised his paw and clicked his tongue against the back of his incisors. “Before you go, Peter, Timothy, your mother wanted me to let you know that she and your family send their love.”

Their eyes grew wide and their scalloped ears lifted high above their large heads. “You saw Mother? Father?” Peter asked with a boyish squeak.

“I did,” Charlie said with a nod. “And they expect to hear how well you took to your duties when I see them again!”

“Of course, Lord Charles!” Timothy pipped up, glancing at Misanthe and Suria before the two of them turned and walked as swiftly as they could without childish scampering back down the hall to draw the bath.

Once they were gone Misanthe cast a curios glance at her son. “You visited the Narrows? I thought you were hunting north of the Glen?”

“Word reached Bryn and I of an accident involving Baron Matthias. I had to make sure he was all right.”

A worried touch graced his mother's golden eyes. “An accident? I hope nothing serious!”

“His left leg was broken but he'll recover.” Charlie lowered his face to hide the slight twitch in his jowls. He slipped the flowers back in their leather pouch and took a moment to tighten the drawstring. “A crane broke and one of the granite blocks that they are using to build their fortifications fell on him. Luckily he's fast for an old rat and managed to evade having it land upon his head.” Charlie grinned boyishly with a twitch of his whiskers, “Though perhaps that may have done him less harm. He says he'll be fine in a few weeks despite the healer's expectation of a more protracted recovery,” Charlie explained while he unbuttoned his surcoat. With Misanthe's help he shed himself of the soft outer layer leaving him with only the lightweight cotton vest worn beneath. This Misanthe handed to the tiger who obediently draped it over one arm. Suria fidgeted behind him as if she wanted to help but wasn't sure what she should do.

“Aspittier,” Misanthe said with a slight smile toward the tiger, “have paper, quill, and ink brought. I would like to write a message to Baron Matthias expressing our sympathies and wish for his speedy recovery.”

Aspittier, the fifth of his family line to serve as Steward to their House, nodded. “Shall I have them sent to your drawing room, milady?”

“Yes, thank you. That will be all.”

Charlie smiled briefly to the dutiful Steward as the tiger bowed his head and returned the way he'd come carrying the rat's surcoat. He then turned back to his mother and asked, “Has there been any news of father? How are his negotiations faring?”

Misanthe spread her paws wide and glanced briefly at his sister who shrugged her shoulders. “There has not been much news, but none of it is bad. His last message said that he is considering allowing Kelewair to keep the ingot in exchange for allowing Metamor to increase their border patrols along their northern and western baronies.”

“If they take it,” Charlie mused thoughtfully, “then Metamor will continue to expand our influence and power to the south. No matter what Kelewair does with the ingot they still become more reliant on Metamor for internal security. If that is all I hope they agree.”

“Are we going to see Bryn?” Suria asked, her voice light and her eyes searching past her brother and mother with a look that they had often seen in her eyes whenever the name of the Duke's eldest son was heard in their home.

Charlie nodded and stretched. “I'm not sure yet whether Bryn will be coming by later to celebrate his victorious hunt, or if he'll wait until we see him at the Duke's table.”

“I suspect the latter,” Misanthe noted. “Duke Thomas is overjoyed at every triumph any of his children have. Even your own.”

He smiled and felt a slight blush creep into his ears. How well did he remember his childhood playing in the ducal apartments, scampering after a young colt, only to tug his tail and then scamper away as he stomped his hooves and chased after him. The strong arms of the Duke would reach down and grasp him almost effortlessly beneath the shoulders and hoist him high into the air with a hearty laugh, even when Charlie's tail had smacked him upside the snout in his excitement. His father always chided him not to do that, even while he was laughing at their antics as well, but the Duke had never objected and only smiled with a deep fondness that had never departed.

“Well, if we are going to eat at the Duke's table this evening, I should definitely take that bath.” He smiled to both his mother and sister and bobbed his head once more. “I will return smelling much better.”

“And better dressed!” his sister chided with an impish grin.

“That too!”

Charlie bowed to his mother, bringing them briefly to a similar height, only to have his ears captured and a kiss laid between them. With that parting gift Charlie churred a merry laugh and wandered toward the rear of his family's residence. While modest considering their station their home was palatial by the standards of the less well placed, with private rooms for each of them. Charlie's was across a wide hallway from his sister Suria's, with a common bath between them.

Common, insofar that they could only use it individually, as ever, despite that one room being larger than the totality of a peasant's home. Charlie was aware that he lived in opulence compared to, say, the coyote that helped them find the hart that was even now being prepared for the Duke's table, and some place of importance in the trophy hall. He had long ago become accustomed to such a marked distinction that was due to his station and not his personal desire for opulence. Not, of course, that he spurned what he was raised into.

Had he remained in the Matthias household he may not have had his own private room, as there were many children in his sire's family and never enough room for any of them, but he would have enjoyed a degree of comfort not far below what he had in Metamor Keep. Here he was given four whole rooms and foyer for his body servants; a seating room to entertain his guests more privately, his bedchamber replete with canopy bed, a reading room with never less than two windows despite the Keep's changing nature, and a private room for his meditations. Suria enjoyed a room for her rather considerable collection of finery where Charlie's raiment was confined to a single, if large, wardrobe in his bedchamber. The seating room was the largest of the three, but not so large it would become uncomfortably cold in Metamor's often brutally icy winters.

The foyer featured doors to both sitting room and bedchambers, and a pair of cots on which his body servants would both take their sleep and await his needs. He had brought one on the hunt with Bryn, but he remained with their vast train still navigating the streets of Euper and Keeptowne. The other had been given the day off with his family and so Charlie enjoyed the strange privacy of an empty foyer and the unusual experience of tending to his own needs.

He shrugged out of his vest and hung it from a rack beside the door. His garments would be retrieved by the other household staff for laundering while he was out. Only the crescent moon medallion remained against the soft, brown fur of his chest. He ran one finger down its smooth edge and narrowed his eyes, gazing into one of the shadows as if expecting to find something there – a cat perhaps.

Charlie shook his head and ground his molars. He stepped to his bedside and opened the top drawer in the ornate night stand. For many things he wanted, it was best to send a servant to the market to procure it. But when it came to chewsticks Charlie always went himself. Only a fellow rat could even understand the importance of quality grain, texture, and flavor that went into a proper chewstick. He picked three up in his paws, sniffed them, and settled on the cinnamon-flavored stick to gnaw for half a minute. His jaws worked up and down, his teeth grinding away at the hard surface, breaking little bits free, but none so large as to give him a splinter. The flavor tantalized his tongue and made his nostrils swell with heady excitement.

Satisfied, he returned the slightly gnawed stick to the drawer and wiped the little shavings from his chest fur and riding breeches where they were lost in the fresh rushes spread upon the floor.

He entered his reading room and walked over to the small bookcase where he kept the tomes for his study as well as the journals that he kept at his father's request. Gingerly he took the wildflowers from his pouch and softly pressed them between the pages. The delicate scents of each soothed his nose and he smiled at the memory of the meadow and pine trees, and the hart grazing unawares. His smile widened as he recalled the twang of the bows, the whistling of their arrows, and the whump of the stag as it collapsed against the forest floor. Every hunt was unique with its own delights and disappointments, but this one was one he knew he would never forget.

Charlie slipped the journal back into the bookshelf and then paused, his clawed fingers tracing the binding of the journal thoughtfully. There was very little that he did not write down in his journals and that again had been at his father's request. And that made him wonder just what he might find in his father's journals, especially about him and about his sire Baron Matthias.

Charlie took a deep breath and let his paws fall to his side. Later. He had no time to investigate now. His duty was to bathe and then make himself presentable for a feast at the Duke's table. Tomorrow there would be time in between his studies and lessons.

His course set, Charlie prepared for his bath. He was home and it was time to clean the forest off. Taking a robe and his personal grooming supplies from the wardrobe, Charlie walked past the silk curtained edifice that was his bed to a door at the back of the room. Through it was the bath where he found his younger brothers, who retained the Matthias family name, that had been attached to the ducal residence as pages so that they might learn their place in noble society. They were lounging beside a large wooden tub that they had finished filling with steaming water when Charlie entered and doffed his robe to a peg by the door.

“Hello Tim, Pete.” Charlie smiled warmly to the younger boys. They both beamed at him and fairly bounced upon their paws in excitement to learn more of the family that they would be spending the season away from. “Charles and Kimberly send their best regards and that they miss you both.” Mounting the stone blocks serving as a stair to the top of the deep tub Charlie sank into the heated water with a delighted groan of relaxed pleasure. While his brothers offered up soap and a long brush to scrub his back Charlie relayed the stories, and gossip, that he had learned while visiting the Matthias homestead.

 

 

Charlie was not surprised to find his mother straightening the pillows in the Sondesharan parlor. The sun had set several hours ago, and while normally he would be asleep he wasn't quite ready. The laughter, song, jesting, and revelry of Bryn's celebration was still a pleasant memory that he wished to savor. And then there were the many subtle glances, whispers, and ever present jostling for position at the Duke's table by courtiers, wealthy merchants, and diplomats in Metamor for a brief stay whose observation Charlie found such a captivating hobby. What little would be of interest to the Duke was probably already known to his spies, but when it came to intrigue, there was no such thing as practice.

In his many years in the Duke's retinue Charlie had become quite adept at the fine art of reading those around him, even without facing them directly, with simply a slight turn of one ear and the often overlooked range of his peripheral vision. Humans, even those who had lived in Metamor all their lives and suffered their own aspect of its curse, all too often neglected to understand just how wide the visual field of many animorphs was. Or their hearing and sense of smell and taste. Even Charlie's long whiskers told him a great deal about the room around him and those that moved about within.

And so, his mind still awash in the boisterous merrymaking and the political intricacies that went paw in paw at any feast offered by the Duke, Charlie sought the solace of the stars. He often liked to set one of the chairs next to a north-facing window, open the panes and rest his feet on the sill while he measured the turning of the stars in the sky. But as he crept down the hallway and heard the soft patting of a paw upon the cushions he knew that he would not be watching the stars.

“Even after all these years, Mother,” Charlie said as he admired his mother working away to ensure every one of the pillows was precisely placed, and the proper shape, to be the most pleasing to the eye, “you still have to serve house.”

Misanthe lifted her attention from the lounge and folded her paws one over the other. “It is what I was born to do, and taught to do from a very early age. Marrying your father may have given me title and servants of my own, but try as he might there are some things he cannot take away. And one of those is seeing to his – our – House.” Her expression softened at the edges of her muzzle. In the moonlight streaming through the southern windows she seemed luminous. “What keeps you up this late at night?”

He glanced at the windows and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not ready for sleep.”

“Our animal forms,” Misanthe said and gracefully sat upon the lounge, “are both of the night. It does not surprise me. Come, sit with me.” He did not make her ask again, immediately striding to the lounge and sitting across from her, one eye watching the window and shaft of starry sky beyond. The moon shone its silvery light upon his mother but was hidden from his view. “Something is troubling you, my son.”

Charlie snapped his snout around to face her. “What? I'm just not tired!”

“I'm your mother. I've cradled you in my arms and comforted you when you've seen frightful things you did not understand. I've tended your wounds when you and Bryn played too rough. I have rejoiced in your triumphs and your pride, and wept at all of your hurts. I know, my son, when something is troubling you.” Her narrow, predatory muzzle was drawn in a gentle smile that did not reveal any of her sharp white teeth. Despite many years of rough, often brutal, life in her youth the vixen had grown into a poise of regality that belied that youth.

He tried to smile at being caught, but in the end lowered his snout. “Seeing the Narrows... seeing my sire, my litter-mates, my mother, it... it made me feel... lost.” Before he realized what was happening, a torrent of words gushed from his tongue as his lithe frame folded in on itself. “Everyone there... they all seemed so full of love for each other and they went out of their way to try and impress me and... invite me to stay. How... how could they give me up? I.. I love you, Father, Suri; I love you as dearly as mine own life but... I just don't understand what happened to bring me here.” He slumped against the pillows and sighed, the pallid darkness of the Narrows tower returned.

Misanthe stretched out her arm and pulled him closer. With a heavy sigh he let her draw him against her chest, one large ear pressed in close enough to hear the measured thumping of her heart through fabric, fur, and flesh. In a gentle voice, as one of her paws stroked down the fur on the back of his head, she said, “You know that you share a rare gift, something so rare and so dangerous that it would have driven you mad long ago if not for your father here to help you. He helped me come to understand it in myself, and guide you in mastering it.”

He could feel his trimmed claws through his leggings, so tightly was he clutching his knees. “So he must train me. I know that. But why did Father have to adopt me and name me his heir?”

His mother's soft, practiced touch soothed his nerves despite his sudden flurry of emotion. Her voice remained calm with a tender lilt that could never fail to pierce to his heart. “Your father adopted you to protect you, Charlie. With what you can do, title and wealth are great assets. They allow you to choose how to use your gift and not another. There is another, and more important reason.”

“What is that?”

“Do you remember the journey we took when you were so very young? All of us, your litter mates, sire and mother, as well as your father and I down far to the south to the desert land?”

He grimaced and flicked his tail to one side. “I know of it, and can see images, and remember some of the stories Father has told of that journey, but no, I don't remember anything of my own.”

Her paw rested against his back as she held him close to her chest. “It was a very long journey taking a little over a year. You and your litter-mates were so very young, but so very precocious and sweet. Your gift was already revealing itself when we left Metamor and your father agreed to train you on the voyage. That was all that was intended, training. But something happened on that voyage that changed hearts and minds. Your father discovered that he loved you as a father should, and your sire saw it too. When the voyage was complete, through all of its trials and hardships, you held to your father more and more, and so your sire offered to give you up.”

She leaned back and gripped his chin in her hand, forcing him to look into her face, snout to snout. “Both your father and your sire love you very much, my son. You are here where you are now, who you are now, because of their love.”

As a rat he could not lower his eyes easily, but he did try to avert her gaze. As warm as the glow in his mother's eyes could be, there was an intensity that riveted all who met them. No matter the words, no matter how much he wished them to be true, he could not allow himself to surrender to so simple and so denuded an explanation. He had to know more. “I suppose,” he murmured. “I know they love me, its... just... so hard.”

She let go of his jaw and pulled his head in close, wrapping both of her arms about his back, rocking him back and forth as she had done when he was a child. He slipped his arms beneath hers and held tight, breathing in as she breathed out. For several minutes mother and son held each other in the quiet of the late night hour and in the indigo shadows of moonlight. He relaxed at the stroke of her paw behind his ears and the nuzzle of her snout across the top of his head. His toes curled together and his tail tried to find something to brush against but only found the carved lion paw leg to the chaise.

With a long intake of breath, Charlie eased himself back. Misanthe let him break the embrace, smiling at the edges of her snout as she looked into his dark eyes. “Could you,” he asked with a slight trembling at the corners of his cheeks, “tell me the story of the voyage?”

“I am no story-teller, not like your father.”

“Well, at least, how long ago was it? That I was adopted.”

She studied him closely for a moment before replying. “It was about fifteen years ago now. June. I remember well because it was the year we never felt a winter. You cried quite often those first few months, but we took you to see your family every week for a year and you stopped crying. And then your sister was born and Bryn was old enough to play; we have been your family ever since. I know it is hard for you to know that your first family gave you to another, but it was done out of love.”

He grimaced and nodded, slipping further away from his mother. “I... aye it is hard... but here I am.” He turned his head aside and looked around the wide room. There was no rest to be found here that night. “I think I'm ready to try sleeping now. Good night, mother. I will see you tomorrow.”

Her arms fell to her lap, paws primly resting one upon the other, as she gazed up at him with motherly love and concern for the anguish of his inner turmoil. Such would ever come to those who are still finding themselves, she knew, so she would not press. She knew he would come to her if those concerns continued to plague him, as he had done for the last fifteen years and would for the years that still stretched before them. And he could see those very thoughts in her eyes, the curve or her tight jowls, the slope of her shoulders, and the tilt to her ears.

But such recollection could not triumph over the present. “Elvmere expects you in the morning for your history and philosophy studies and Master Vidika wants to see you and Bryn in the afternoon for training. And do not forget that you promised Master Hymdal that you would complete your arithmetic lessons after the hunt.”

Charlie grunted under his breath and nodded. If it wasn't tutors it would be the Duke with a request of him, or some word of advice through the eyes of youth that he had forgotten in the years behind him. At least Sunday he would have some time to himself. “I will not disappoint him or any of them. Good night, Mother.” He stood and inclined his head respectfully, then turned and walked back toward his chambers. In the deep gloom of the corridor, he cast his eyes at the outline of the door to his father's library. There would be time. He would learn nothing useful tonight, but perhaps tomorrow he would.

 

 

Saturday, May 15, 724 CR

 

“So what does it mean for something that exists, be it a physical thing or an intellectual thing, to be a dependent object in the logic of Haquino?”

Charlie regarded the middle-aged raccoon dressed in a simple brown robe with a tired expression; the rat had allowed himself only a few hours of sleep the night before so he could finish up as much of his arithmetic lessons as he could before finding the scholarly Temple acolyte to begin his instructions. With so little sleep he'd not dreamed properly and that made him out of sorts. He had been alert the first few hours of the day but now as the mid-morning hour wore on toward noon he felt drowsy as if a heavy blanket had been draped across his mind.

“Charlie?” the raccoon prodded him with a glance. “Are you listening?”

Charlie blinked and looked away from the window, not that the view beyond offered any insight upon the raccoon's discussion. The small diamond shaped panes of imperfect, bubbly glass looked out at nothing more than the dilapidated rose vines climbing the west wall of the Duke's stables. The first blush of spring was beginning to interest a few buds from their winter sleep but the continued shade of the early season had not awakened them wholly. In the distance the hulk of the old giant pumping the smith's bellows was a vast misshapen shadow against the inside of the bailey wall. In his huge hand the tiny bellows handle, easily as stout as Charlie's thigh, looked like nothing so much as a twig twisted by the imperfections of the glass. After looking outward his inward look toward his tutor was suddenly cast into gloom. Elvmere's private study looked just as the rest of the Temple library did; close, spare, and jammed floor to rafter with shelf after shelf overladen with books and scrolls. A sense of fastidiousness remained as there were no books stacked in haphazard heaps in the corners, here, as other studies sported. The small writing desk was spotlessly clean and a small shuttered lantern stood at one corner beside the inkwell.

Elvmere, the raccoon lounging on the opposite side of that desk, was regarding him archly down the length of his angular muzzle with an uplifted quirk of his whiskers. Charlie chuffled softly through his own whiskers and drew a breath. “Aye, aye. Dependent object. That means that the object depends on some other object or objects to exist prior to its own existence.” He waved one hand distractedly as if that might move the lesson along, though he knew from long experience that it was a wasted effort.

“And what do you mean when you say 'prior to its own existence'?”

“I mean only that if any one object that the dependent object depends upon did not exist, then the dependent object couldn't exist either.” At the very least he was grateful that his tutor had decided to use the morning to refresh his mind on what they'd been studying before the hunt. The abstract concepts of philosophy, and even some of the ideas of arithmetic, made his head swim worse than too much wine. As an afterthought he added, “Time has nothing to do with it. Time is an object too.”

The raccoon's muzzle twitched in a slight smile. “And what does Haquino say of time? Is that a dependent object? And if so, on what does it depend?”

Charlie put his paws to his head and rubbed the fur in front of his ears. “Ugh, I... I don't remember.”

Elvmere narrowed his eyes and lowered the slate tablet in his paws. “Did you sleep well last night?”

“Not as well as I usually do. I'll be in better shape next week.” He rubbed his eyes with one paw, blinked several times, and then did his best to smile at the raccoon acolyte. The weariness gone from his voice, he asked, “So what does Haquino say about time?” A shift of his eyes toward the glass revealed no more vine or hulking giant at the smithy but an expanse of gray slate rooftops. Charlie hardly blinked at the changed vista. Despite not having felt any motion the study, and with it the entire Temple as it never changed on the inside, had been lifted to some height in a tower to make room elsewhere for some other thing the Keep had need of.

“That is not how this works,” Elvmere reminded him with an amused churr coloring his words. His brown robe shifted on his shoulders with each twitch of his lush, gray and black ringed tail. “If you do not remember what Haquino said, then you must do your best to tell me what you think. Come now, young man, tell me if time is a dependent object and on what it might depend.”

Charlie took a deep breath and pondered the question, trying to remember the various dizzying lessons he'd endured beneath the encyclopaedic scholar. He knew that all of his studies were important for a man of his rank and abilities, but he would far rather have Elvmere's musical accompaniment than his instruction. Still, he would never let it be said that he did not try his best; his father expected nothing less.

“I suspect time is a dependent object. Time is the way we know that other objects have changed, so time is dependent on the existence of objects that can change. If an object cannot change, then it doesn't make any sense to talk about time.”

Elvmere's smile widened and he nodded his head. “An interesting and astute observation. Haquino agrees with you in part though you should review his writings to understand more precisely. For now, suppose there is an object which cannot change. Does it follow that time cannot be dependent on such an object?”

Charlie frowned and felt his frustration return. Elvmere would not let him avoid answering questions that made his head hurt trying to understand the logical puzzles, and even when he did answer them, the raccoon only followed them with a question even more confusing! “I... I'm not sure. Let me think.” He took a deep breath, one eye casting toward the door, wishing that his mother or sister would come and interrupt them and spare him his metaphysical ordeal. But the passage remained empty, and he heard neither claws nor boots approach the study.

He set his chewstick between his incisors and gnawed for several seconds as he grappled the conundrum. When he lowered the stick he spoke in a quiet, measured voice, thinking always on the next phrase. “For time to be dependent on an object, there have to be some ways this can be. Time only makes sense if there are objects which can change. So there exists an object that cannot change. So nothing any object which can change can cause a change in the object that cannot change. Ugh. Which means that the only way an object which cannot change can be... uh... can be a dependency of time, is if some object which can change is dependent on the object which cannot change. And that dependency would have to be independent of time... I think. Am I... am I answering your question?”

Elvmere lifted his slate and scrawled a note to himself, green eyes filled with good humor. “You are trying. These can be challenging concepts. But you need to ground yourself in the basics before you are able to better understand what time is. Or what it means for an object to be incapable of change. But we shall work through the subtleties together. Now let us step back...”

Both raccoon and rat lifted their ears when the click of paws walking up the hall announced Charlie's hoped for reprieve. Peter, his younger sibling who had waited in the Temple proper to bring him any messages were they sent, stepped around the frame and waited beneath the lintel. “Pardon me, Lord Charles, but a message just came for Acolyte Elvmere from the Temple.”

The raccoon smiled and lowered the slate into his lap. “What is the message, my child?”

“The Lothanasa wants you to come to her study as soon as you can. I don't know why.”

“She probably needs me for rituals or prayers or to investigate some mote of history.” Elvmere's serene expression settled the young rat's trembling whiskers. “Thank you, my child. Lord Charles, I wish you to review the same chapters of Haquino's work that I assigned you last week. We will discuss the history of the Midlands next time.”

“Thank you, Elvmere, I will learn.” Charlie had never known Elvmere to wonder why he had been summoned; the raccoon always set aside whatever he was doing to answer the Lothanasa's summons. It irritated Charlie's father from time to time, but that was the closest his father ever came to uttering an unkind word about the raccoon. The two were incongruous friends; one staid and taciturn while the other was boisterous and extravagant, yet they had somehow formed a friendship that had lasted longer than Charlie's years. He remembered, only at the last sweep of the raccoon's tail disappearing out the door, that he had meant to ask what Elvmere knew of his adoption. In his lassitude he had forgotten, just as he had forgotten so much of Haquino's circuitous philosophic observations.

Peter waited in the doorway until Elvmere had left. The young rat glanced up at his older brother waiting for instructions. The two stared at each other for a few long moments until Charlie's brain once more lurched into cogent thought. He grimaced with a sigh when he realized that his brother was awaiting his wishes. “Do you not have other duties, Peter? I – have no immediate needs, thank you.”

“Yes, Milord Charlie!” the boy squeaked and turned so quickly he lost all poise.

“Wait!” Charlie said in a friendlier tone. Peter skidded with a scratch of claws on polished stone and whirled about with an excited widening of his eyes. Performing a task for their brother always seemed to leave the two young boys in breathless pleasure. “Tell my mother I will be in my father's study until lunch is prepared. She'll understand.” Despite the twitch of his whiskers and tail Peter straightened himself and, with a valiant effort, regained his composure. He bobbed his head up and down with a smile and left to do as asked, though with more poise than his earlier scamper.

Charlie followed him out, down the passage outside Elvmere's study door, through the vaulted doors of the Temple, and into the wide arcade beyond, every muscle in his body taut with expectation. He watched his brother flash as he strode through the pools of bright spring sunshine slicing in through the narrow architrave windows along one side of the corridor. Only once he had disappeared into the deeper shadows of the corridor at the far end of the arcade did Charlie begin to walk as well.

He chose no immediate direction, merely contemplating where he wanted to go and trusted in the Keep's subtle shifting to get him there without too great an expense of time. It seemed that, whenever he wanted to get somewhere swiftly it took the better part of an hour or more yet, when he wished to dawdle he found himself where he needed to be after only a few paces.

The sunlight was pleasant against his face as he crossed the small garden bordered by the arcade and into the shadows against a recessed door arch. No door stood within, merely an open way leading to an upward spiral of stairs. Without pause Charlie entered the gloom of the stairwell, the only light given provided by small arrow loups and narrow casement windows set every few steps. At the top he came to a landing and, on that landing, a single door upon which was the crossed oar and trident of his House.

Pausing briefly at the door Charlie traced the points of the trident; a tool both bringer of the sea's bounty and letter of blood in battle. An icon with double meaning, so much like his life. Dropping his hand to the latch Charlie pushed the door open. He had no fear that anyone might hear the door opening; Misanthe would be in the solar with Suria and the other ladies at this hour shortly before the mid-day meal, unless she was in the kitchen alongside the cook and scullions actually making it with her own hands. She was as much a dichotomy as the trident and Charlie himself; a noblewoman with the spirit of service not expected, or even dreamt, from one of her station.

Of course, that meant that the household staff absolutely adored her. She was a very strict mistress, but fair and compassionate. She actually saw to it that their immediate staff received worthy compensation from the House coffers and at least one day of each seven off to rest, if not two when demands were at an ebb. With his father away and Charlie capering about the forest the staff had likely enjoyed that two day reprieve, only to have their work doubled upon Charlie's return complete with dirtied clothes, sweaty horses, and used accoutrement.

Through the door the gloom of the stairwell continued, amplified only by a blinding pool of bright sunlight spilling across the dark, polished wood of his father's desk. On the wall behind, as with Elvmere's study and Charlie's own reading room, were shelves packed tight with books and scrolls and the collections of his father's years of travel. Intricate wooden models were artfully displayed on pedestals to either side of the door through which Charlie entered; Whalish oar-driven drommonds similar to the Sea Horse, another Pyralian in design but so huge compared to the drommond Charlie had never understood if the scale was accurate or not. It had twice the reams of a drommond and was thrice as long if not moreso. Pyralian script intricately painted upon its prow named it the Iron King. A few miniature siege engines, trebuchet and mangonels that actually functioned, sat poised as if to defend the study from miniscule invaders.

Such things were all familiar to Charlie, he had even played with many of them in years past, and broken them more than a few times. He ignored the displays and walked past the large desk to the back wall of the study where a line of leather bound journals stood in a neat row on two shelves. As his eyes grew accustomed to the glare of the sunshine reflected from the polish of the desk Charlie could read the gold inlaid text on their spines easily.

His father kept detailed journals of his day to day activities, and in teaching Charlie about important events in the history of their house, their duties, and their political and economic arrangements he often instructed Charlie to review select dates in those journals where some nugget of information had been carefully preserved. The dates were written on the inside cover of each book, and so he drew one out after another, checking those dates until he finally found one rather early in his father's library that framed the June from fifteen years ago.

Eschewing the huge, softly upholstered chair behind the desk Charlie moved around into the pool of sunlight that reached the floor in front of the desk. He had never sat in his father's chair, and the thought of doing so while he clandestinely perused his journals made him even less so inclined. Charlie worried his incisors together and laid down on the carpeted floor, feet in the air, toes rolling his tail back and forth between each paw. He spread the book flat before him, and flipped to the back of the journal. The entries were set in October, so he skimmed the pages looking for his sire's name and mention of a bargain. Page after page he flipped going backward in time day by day, week by week, his pace slowing at times as entire sentences leaped from the page to delight him.

He may not have seen his sire's name, but he certainly saw his own. His father wrote of him with such tenderness and delight that Charlie could not help but smile and swell his chest against the rug until the crescent medallion pressed through his fur and poked insistently against his flesh. And there were also allusions to his mother's pregnancy though he did not stop to actually read any of the entries until his father's hand became shaky in August. Intrigued, Charlie pulled himself closer so his snout hovered over the old pages that had yellowed at the edges. His eyes savored every word.

 

Tenth of August in the year Seven-Hundred-and-Nine Cristos Reckoning,

The surprises and delights with which my life began to overflow two years past when I began my travels from Metamor to reclaim my birthright have taken a turn I never thought, never dreamed possible. Already a father I have become through Charlie, the dear boy who shares my gift and who has come into my home these last few months and whom I have named my heir, I did not look to be a sire of any offspring of my own. And yet – and yet! – I am to be a father twice!

Misanthe told me the joyful news today, fearful that I would be wroth with her. The sly fox had suspected for the last few weeks, but did not even hint at it awake or asleep until she was certain, hiding it out of fear until she could no longer hold the news at bay. In the land of her birth one of her station becoming pregnant with a child of the House she served was punishable by death or banishment. She thought she was barren because servants were made so in her land and she had been subjected to that many, many years ago. So, when she finally realized what had happened, she was beside herself with terror.

For my part I never thought anything would come of our fleshly dalliances. But I had forgotten what I had preached others to seek of Metamor's curse; healing! And now Charlie shall have a younger brother or sister!

I will not allow this child of mine to be called bastard. Once what she had told me had sunk in – she would gift me with a child! – I demanded that she join me as more than a mere servant, but as wife, and take my name, my station, and that which she had already claimed – my heart. To allay suspicion as to the child's parentage I will have this ceremony done as swiftly as can be arranged. Gods be blessed she has agreed and the ceremony will be held in a week's time.

I have asked my friend Elvmere to officiate, much to his consternation considering his current status, but I assured him that I could – would – entrust no other to the fate of my family. He did have some reservations of a more ecclesiastic nature – as I have never made secret my many intimate assignations with countless others. He wished that I lay aside such adolescent delights, despite the reason I entered into them. We did exchange in a rather heated debate on the matter, but in the end I impressed upon him the importance of what the ultimate purpose of them was, though I did promise that I would find other means – That will certainly be a challenge, as I have already explored countless methods and found the one that works the most efficaciously, but I have agreed. I do agree, in the end, that he is right and I will, perforce, strive to use other methods such as I did with Charlie’s sire.

Though I am to give my own flesh to this new child, I will not forsake my promise to Charlie. He is my heir and will always be so. I love him dearly, more than I ever thought I could, and count his sire as a dear friend after our year's journey together. I would never make his sire and his mother's sacrifice a vain one by breaking my promise to them and Charlie.

But this new child, ah, what a world of delights I find myself! I can scarcely find words of thanksgiving and god to whom to offer them.

 

Charlie wished he could remember that time more clearly, but he'd only been two years old. And while he and all those born as rats were remarkably capable at that age, he could not recall a single clear memory until he was four.

But as happy as these entries were, and the way in which they made him recall his childhood, they were not the reason he was reading his father's journals. He had not known that his father had given healing to his sire but there was no reason to assume it had anything to do with his adoption yet; best to keep an eye open for any other such references. He resumed flipping backward, through the rest of August, and then through July with nary a mention of any bargain for Charlie, only snippets of his adjustment to living at Metamor and the frequent visits they made to the Glen so he could be with his litter-mates.

A few more page flips brought him to June and he scanned each page more closely, noting every detail. Charlie grimaced when he saw how sad he was that first month living with his new family, but felt a bit brighter when he read how often and how long both Misanthe and his father held him in their arms to comfort him. But as he neared the beginning of the month he finally found what he was looking for.

 

Second of June in the year Seven-Hundred-and-Nine Cristos Reckoning,

For the first time in just over a year we have set foot within the walls of Metamor Keep. Our long journey has finally come to its end and all of us feel a great relief to be home. Matthias and his family will be returning to the Glen and the Narrows to learn what has become of their home in their year-long absence. But the eldest son, Charles II but whom I will ever refer to as Charlie, is remaining in Metamor with me.

It was such an agonizing decision for them both, even though the idea has long been germinating for reasons I will not repeat. It was as equally trying for me as they, but for differing reasons. But only I can teach Charlie how to control his skills and how to benefit from them instead of being driven mad by them. And I do love the boy. I wasn't certain at first, though I have always been fond of him. He has such an infectious spirit and bright smile.

I never thought that I could be a father. My own father was a ruthless tyrant who I do not know if I could ever forgive; with such a poor example, how could I hope to raise a child? But Matthias has confidence in me, and even Kimberly expressed her faith that her boy would be all right. They are protecting him the best way they know how and I will make sure that their trust in me does not go unfounded.

Charlie is my son now and I have, before Duke Thomas as witness, named him my heir. I may have returned home but I am still on a journey whose end I cannot imagine!

The little boy did not quite understand what is happening to him. He was surprised but seemed happy enough to lay down to sleep in my home rather than Long House where Matthias and his family are spending the night. Misanthe has warned me that she expects him to cry once he understands he won't be going back to Glen Avery with his brother and sisters. I have held him and comforted him when he saw frightening things he didn't understand. I will do so again and for as long as he needs, and hold him even more for love's sake.

Still, we will be visiting the Glen and the Narrows frequently in the months ahead. My position affords me great latitude in movement and I intend to take full advantage of it! Charlie is of a noble house now and he too will learn to live as such. I will eventually need tutors for him, but first I will need good clothes for him.

But all of that can wait. Tomorrow must come first, and with it saying goodbye to his old family.

Charlie, you may well one day read this. Mayhap with me at your side, or in a study absent of me as aught but memory, but know that while breath quickens within me I shall always be here for you. I promise you, I will do everything I can for your sake. I will give up my life for you if I must. I am your father and I will live up to what that means. This I promise!

And one day you will understand all of this. I love you my son.

 

Charlie pushed the journal away from him and leaned on his side, tail flopping to the floor with a thunk. He closed his eyes and trembled, unable to even imagine how it must have felt now. Balling his hands into fists, he pressed them to his chest and rocked onto his back, pressing one soft ear between his head and the lush bear fur covering the floor.

Despite himself, he could hold back neither the smile nor the warmth that filled his heart at the thought of his father's love for him. Charlie took several deep breaths as he lay there, pondering that moment and trying to remember those first days in his new family. But he had only been two years old at the time and such memories did not come to him.

He could recall a few incidents in his younger years visiting Glen Avery and the Matthias family there. The one that came most readily was the time when he was five and he and Erick had climbed into the upper branches with the older Avery boys; he even chuckled as he recalled the thrill of his first jump between the branches.

There was another memory of flying through the air which came to the surface, but with a grimace he pushed it away. Charlie flopped back onto his stomach, stretched out one arm, and drew the journal back beneath his snout. He curled his toes beneath his tail and lifted it back into the air as he narrowed his eyes to study his father's script.

Charlie moved through the pages as quickly as he could, noting details of the journey along the coast of Sathmore, political calculations in Pyralis, a final visit with Prince Phil of Whales and the joyful news of the rabbit prince's impending fatherhood, and even the difficulty of navigating through the coral basin and a tussle they had with pirates. All throughout he read about his own training and the little challenges that he overcame, as well as some sense of the difficulty that Kimberly and his sire were experiencing. But nothing to suggest there was anything more to his adoption than had already been said.

A sharp rap against the bottom of his right foot dashed his frustrated curiosity with a curse for his inattentiveness. His body twisted abruptly, tail lashing to one side and then across in a swift arc while he drew his legs upward and pushed with his arms, momentarily compacting himself upon the floor. The lashing of his tail struck nothing, meaning that the assault upon his foot had come at some reach; the source was armed since Charlie's tail had not struck their feet as it may have were they standing close enough to rap his foot with their own or even their hand. Getting his footpaws beneath him, stout claws digging into the rare and expensive Sondesharan rug, Charlie sprang upright and snatched for his poniard.

In the Keep he never carried a sword, but often had a simple poniard at his hip just in case. Unfortunately, in his own House he had allowed his sense of safety to lapse, and his fingers closed on nothing. He grasped only air but by the time he realized he had no weapon he had also identified half a dozen others readily available within reach. One he held; the journal was both shield and weapon in the right hands. Another was the stiletto laid next to his father's inkwell upon his desk. Before the reflexive spin resulting from the unexpected jab brought him around and balanced to face its source he had journal and stiletto poised to defend or strike.

Standing before him at only four feet in height was a youth dressed in black vest, a white open-sleeved shirt, and black breeches with soft-toed shoes. His olive-skinned complexion and short curly hair framed an irritated scowl. “I would've gutted you thrice before you even stood, lad,” the boy remarked blandly, crossing his arms over his chest. Unlike Charlie, he was armed and frighteningly well for a youth who appeared to be no more than ten or eleven years old. The truth of the matter was that the 'boy' was pushing well into his late fifties, a good thirty and more years of that spent at war or training others for that task.

“Perhaps an alleyway bandit may have something to fear, one day.” His acerbic words were rendered almost comical by his prepubescent voice, but Charlie did not dare so much as twitch a whisker in mirth when the boy was irritated. “Your brother said I could find you here.” Half turning he unfolded one arm to flick his fingers toward the door. “You've missed your lunch.”

“Master.” Chastened, Charlie bowed his head and quickly slipped around the desk to replace the journal with its mates and to return the stiletto to its place beside the inkwell. “Master Vidika, I thought you wanted to see me in the afternoon?” He asked when he caught up to the departing boy.

The child, Vidika, spared him a sidelong glance. “It is afternoon, boy,” he snapped irritably in that piping, contralto voice. At his hips were two swords finely forged and balanced for his particular height, weight, and fighting style. A longer sword was strapped across his back with the hilt jutting over one shoulder. What an adult human would find to be a slightly longer and narrower sword than the typical battlefield longsword it was still a mere hand-and-a-half blade that would work well with a shield. For a strapping boy who topped out, on his toes, at four feet it was an easy two-hander.

Charlie had seen more than a few cocky tourney warriors with their sword and shield bested by the thing, or the paired shortblades Vidika carried upon his hips. Other men had met their ends by other means that were much more stealthily hidden when diplomatic journeys came upon unpleasant discourse. In one hand Vidika carried a slender cane of age polished hardwood. It had been that cane which struck Charlie in the foot while his tutor stood safely beyond the reach of any readied response. Charlie was more shamed by the fact that he had not heard him enter the study than he was for his uncoordinated fumbling about in response to the surprise.

“The Chapel tolled the hour passing some time ago,” Vidika was brusque as he strode purposely through the corridors of the castle, confident beyond the measure of any true child, even one armed to the teeth. “I found your mother and sister at table and they were unknowing of your whereabouts. They bade me seek out your brother, Peter I think, who was apparently the last to have seen you.” He cast a sidelong glance up at his pupil. “He told me where I might find you. Why would it be that you lie on your father's rug in books and not attending your mother at her midday as your mother, your mentors, and you yourself know you should?” He paused at an intersection of hallways to look around as if deciding which path would get them to their destination more swiftly, and to gauge threats as he always did. He seldom found any. “You are seldom so taken with your studies that you are unaware of your surroundings. What was so fascinating?”

Charlie clicked his tongue against the back of his incisors. “I was reading a few things. Personal matters. But if it is time to eat I will set this aside for later.”

Vidika chortled; a light tenor rolling sound that was equal parts mirth and sinister glee. Despite being in truth a man well into his fifth decade he did have a healthy sense of humor, though it was often somewhat dark. “Oh, no. You've eschewed that luxury, my boy.” He raised his gaze to the taller youth pacing along at his side and grinned hugely. “Now you're late for my tutelage, and since I had to seek you out rather than find you at table to let you know what was going to be needed, you're simply going to have to adapt.”

Charlie frowned not because he was going to spend the rest of the afternoon, at least while in Vidika's training, going hungry but that the household master of arms was going to punish him for it.

 

It proved to be a rather profound course in 'adapting', to be quite sure. They found Bryn awaiting them in the Long House where Vidika shared training space with the Long Scouts, of which both Charlie and Bryn were honorary members though they seldom attended the Scouts on patrol, as was their instructor. The young stallion nobleman was caparisoned in the boiled leather armor they used for training and carried a blunted steel greatsword that matched the heft of his battle blade. While Bryn preferred blunt, bludgeoning weapons he was no slouch with the blade, either. Vidika lead them to a series of rooms at the back of the training arena; a vast open room that could have doubled as a Hall with its fluted columns and towering clerestory windows. The rooms beyond served a dual purpose; sometimes meeting rooms or barracks but more often lent to training as well.

To their surprise, Vidika brought them into a large bed chamber complete with all of the expected accoutrements, to include a merrily blazing fire in the hearth that left the room sweltering as there were no windows to open and let the heat out. Vidika ushered them in, hung a plaque on the door's bolt latch outside that indicated it was being used for training, and leaned against the wall. “To the bed, Charlie.” He waved one hand toward the massive canopy bed and the young rat crossed the room as instructed. He was still wearing the doublet and hose he had donned that morning and felt more than a little vulnerable without his training armor or weapons. Bryn merely stood to one side of the door scuffing a hoof against the carpeting looking confused and no little concerned. “Now, boy, since you were late and failed to prepare, you'll have to deal with it.” Crossing to the writing desk to one side of the door he took out an hourglass and set it on top.

Inwardly Charlie groaned. He knew what that hourglass entailed; survival training over a set duration. He was going to have to hold out against Bryn, alone, unarmed, and unarmored, while the sand ran its course. Turning the glass over Vidika cracked an evil boyish smile. “Ambush!” He bellowed, or at least tried to. In his youthful tenor it came out more as a shriek. Bryn launched himself across the room, bearing up the huge sword that was a two-hander for his mighty frame and beyond even that for Charlie, with an equine roar.

Charlie hissed an epithet and scrambled further up onto the bed to prevent the first mighty swing from getting past its stout, though battered by repetitive training, posts. Bryn checked his swing with a downward sweep, bringing the sword up to thrust through the bed curtains. Charlie grabbed them and hastily wound the heavy material around the blade even as he dodged to one side. “Don't play with him, lordling! Skewer him!” Vidika hollered. Bryn snorted as he yanked back his monstrous blade only to find that the curtains were tangled around it surprisingly tight. He wasted precious seconds trying to shove the fabric from his weapon while Charlie scrambled off of the bed, his tail narrowly avoiding the stomp of a heavy hoof, and armed himself with a fireplace poker.

Through the afternoon the two dueled in the confines of the bed chamber, the sweltering of the fire sending both of them to a panting lather abated only slightly after each bout to listen to their tutor's critiques and instruction. Charlie had little time to think upon what he had learned from his father's journal as he tried to escape being bruised by his more powerful friend's repeated attacks. He did not entirely succeed, but by the time two hours had passed he found that he had managed to avoid more than a few glancing blows that would leave him sore for a day or two rather than weeks. Vidika's training was rough, often brutal, but it had left his charges more than ready for the rigors of any manner of combat they might find themselves in.

Afterward both of the students were allowed to retire to their respective residences after spending some time stretching to cool down from their exertions. In the past they would have bantered as they stretched over who landed the most blows, but Vidika had driven them so hard that day neither had the energy to do more than pant, beastly tongues past jaws hung open in hope for cool air. He managed a promise to see Bryn that evening before returning home where he had Peter and Timothy draw him a cool bath. The young rat allowed himself to soak as he tried to recall the arms instructor's tutelage; but now that he had some peace, his mind ever wandered back to his father's journals. There they remained as he soaked until he slipped into a pleasant nap, head resting on his arms on the side of the bath until he was awakened by the tolling of the Chapel bells ringing the evening hour.

Charlie dragged himself from the lukewarm bath and, while his fur was still dripping, stretched as far as he could to keep his muscles from tightening into knots. After a few stretches he managed to stand and ring the bell for his brothers. He stretched a few more times, arms reaching up high into the air then bending over and placing his palms on the top of his feet, the tip of his tail slicing through the bath water as it lifted, before his brothers returned with thick towels and fresh clothes. They helped him dry his fur and then dress in a fresh doublet and hose that did not stink of battle. Neither said anything until he was shimmying into his linen shirt when Peter finally asked, “Was Master Vidika mad at you?”

“He was,” Charlie replied when his snout poked through the top of the shirt. He shook out his whiskers and ears while his brothers drew taut the laces on either side. “But I suppose I deserved it. Why didn't you tell Mother where I was?”

Peter's whiskers trembled and his dark eyes widened. “But I did! I did tell Lady Misanthe! I just... I got sent on other errands before I could get back.” He cast his eyes down contritely and shuffled his paws.

While his younger brothers might have once or twice been distracted by common games and mischief and been reprimanded for it, they had never incurred one of Misanthe's remedies for lies. Merely the tale of them was enough to ensure every word they uttered in service to Charlie's house was true, no matter how embarrassing they might be. Peter had not said what other errands had intervened, nor did he need to. That he'd received them was enough for Charlie.

“Very well,” Charlie said with a nod of his head and a flick of one ear as he held out his arms for the doublet. “Be sure to tell my mother that I will be spending the evening in Keeptowne with Bryn. And tell her as soon as you finish helping me dress! And then I ask only that you ready my bed for when I return; if my mother has no other tasks for you then you may enjoy your evening.”

The promise of an evening for their own diversions was sufficient to stretch a grin across their snouts and add verve to their step. Charlie had never donned a doublet quite so fast.

 

 

Saturday evenings always brought welcome respite, and more than a few aches, from Vidika's best efforts to have the two friends beat each other senseless. Strange as it may have seemed, but their daily bouts of violence on the training floor had all but eliminated the friendly bouts of rough-housing that friends were often wont to do. They had never actually had any knock-down-drag-out battles over disagreements in all of their years. Whether that was testament to the tightness of their brotherly bond or the fact that they could work their differences out with training weapons one could never say.

Charlie could not recall the last time that he had traded angry words with the Duke's son, much less a desire to carry their many small disagreements to blows. And they did disagree, often, upon matters of faith and politic. Thomas himself had once opined, while the two of them sat across a table from each other and argued the points of a rhetorical topic put before them by their tutor, that it was good that the two of them did not see eye to eye on all things. Each was the other's foil, their disagreements a fulcrum that could bring them to a balanced understanding.

It actually strengthened their friendship, and led to all manner of off color jokes at each other's expense.

Not so with Sigismund hin'Thalberg. The Steward's only son was two years Bryn's junior and four years Charlie's. When he wasn't occupied with his duty learning all that his father knew he was, at the Duke's request, in Bryn's company that they might also become friends just as Thalberg and Thomas. While one was lifelong servant to the other they were also close companions whose trust in one another kept House Hassan and Metamor itself running more smoothly than other Houses and Kingdoms where trust was less secure between Majordomo and Lord. The young alligator's short legs, thick, heavy tail, and intolerance for cold temperatures made it impossible for him to ride most horses or to accompany them on a hunt such as they had recently returned from. Thalberg's exhaustive training and countless duties being given over to him, also kept the young alligator frightfully busy. But despite all of this and his reptilian exterior he was both affable and agreeable, never daring to utter a word of protest to either Bryn or Charlie with whom he so wished to be friends.

And that meant that no matter how fond and how dear Sigismund was to them both, and both Bryn and Charlie thought of him as a younger cousin, he would never be privy to the deepest secrets they shared only with each other. In that regard Charlie was Bryn's vessel for the friendship Thomas had with Thalberg.

So when Charlie saw that his tall equine friend was accompanied by the stocky and somewhat shorter alligator he wasn't sure whether to be grateful or disappointed. A part of him wanted to talk about what he'd discovered in his father's journals, but his trained reserve kept all of his suspicions inside until he could be sure.

The evening sun was beginning to pass behind the mountains to the southwest casting long shadows across the valley and through Keeptowne. Bryn and Sigismund waited for him by the large fountain in the gardens. The Duke's son was dressed in a bold red doublet and trousers with gold thread spun through the seams with matching leather caps over his hooves laced half way to the hock. The Steward's son was garbed in an off-white heavy woolen shirt and trousers with a thick red cloak fastened around his broad neck that came down nearly to the tip of his tail. Charlie found them with Sigismund's snout dipped in the fountain, yellow eyes following the little fish that lived there as they swam about their usually safe home.

None of them had ever paused to contemplate if any of those aquatic residents were cursed or anything beyond simple decoration no different than those in any other pond.

“If you can't wait for dinner we can always leave you here,” Charlie remarked, one claw nudging the alligator's tail as he neared.

Bryn brayed a laugh and then winced with one hand pressed to his side where the rat's poker had struck him a few hours before. The moment passed quickly, and before the alligator could lift his head to protest, the long-eared stallion's pleased demeanor had returned.

The alligator pulled his snout from the water and gave his head a quick shake, causing the other boys to shy away lest they get dampened. “I'm just practicing!” Sigismund protested in a voice that was finally deepening with maturity. It had always had a guttural quality as it echoed from the back of his throat and through his unmoving jaws, but in the last few months his tone had dropped from a throaty tenor to a grumbling baritone. If his father Thalberg were any indication, he still had another octave to drop. “We could go fishing some time you know.”

“Another time,” Bryn laughed again, more lightly this time, and patted the alligator on the shoulder.

Charlie smiled and shook his head. “So, Bryn, where to tonight?”

The horse shifted about on his legs with a faint wince at the edge of his snout. “Somewhere close by.”

 

Two hours later and the trio found themselves in a corner of the Deaf Mule, tummies full of stew or salad, while mazers shaped for snouts were brimming with their third mead – except for Sigismund who only had watered wine to his consternation. Bryn was heady with the retelling of the tale of their hunt for the white hart, which now seemed to have led them on a merry chase before finally succumbing to a well-placed arrow, and the patrons, who were a mix of courtiers, warriors, artisans, and local merchants some of whom had been present at the feast the previous evening where the tale had been much closer to what Charlie actually remembered, loved every moment of it.

But with his tale once again complete and applauded with roars and bleats, with the obligatory toasts and raised mazers dripping froth, and then stomping of boots, paws, and hooves, Bryn happily ceded the attention of the patrons to a pair of minstrels singing songs of the legends of Vysehrad. Charlie enjoyed the lilt of their voices and the slight discords that cropped into their melodies, especially at points where the ballad grew fraught with portent or woe. But he could not help but wince at the way a few cold nights in the valley had distorted the tuning of their strings, backing his ears and narrowing his eyes every time they cavorted in the upper registers.

“Did you bring an instrument, Charlie? Perhaps you can show them a thing or two!” Bryn suggested as he settled in his seat and wrapped his supple lips around the rounded tongue at the top of the mazer.

“That would be wonderful to hear!” Sigismund agreed.

“I brought my flute,” Charlie admitted with a sidelong glance at the human performers. “But I think I'll wait a little bit first. I'm not ready yet.”

“You are always ready to weave a tune or serenade us with a song!” Bryn objected with upraised ears and a flick of his tail. Beside him Sigismund nodded his long head and blinked yellow eyes.

“I see Misha with the artificers over there,” the alligator pointed with a toothy grin. “What about singing that song you're writing about him?”

Charlie lowered his snout over his mazer after casting a quick glance at the fox and his friends. Misha's gray snout was frothed with ale even as his paws adroitly worked over some complicated contraption of gears and joints spread on the table before him on which the other artificers gazed with intent scrutiny. “I cannot sing and play flute at the same time,” the rat noted with a slight chuckle. “Besides, I don't want him to hear it until it is finished.”

Sigismund laughed and then his head swung around toward the bar, his thick tail slapping the ground in delight. “Oh look! It's Nicolas and his father.”

Striding past the patrons at the long bar toward the felt-top pool table was a pair of large burnt green-scaled lizards. Large triangular heads domed a rounded chest with thin arms and legs and a large tail even bigger than Sigismund's. The pair of humans who'd been attempting to play a game were quick to gather their drinks and find somewhere in the Mule to hide. Unperturbed, the larger and older of the two lizards took the pool cues and offered one to his son.

“So how long has that lizard been winning?” Bryn asked with an amused snort.

“More than twenty years now I think,” Charlie said with a shrug. “Nicolas is good too, but I did beat him last month.” What he didn't say was how close he had come to being beaten by the lizard five years his junior. Whatever tricks Copernicus knew to control the balls with a facility that left even master magicians confounded his oldest son was quickly learning.

Sigismund shifted about in his seat for a moment before finally standing. “If it is all right, I would like to watch them play. Maybe Master Copernicus will teach me something too!”

“He already has!” Bryn declared, patting the Steward's son on the shoulder. “You swamped me two months ago.”

Charlie waved a hand and leaned back. “Go ahead, Sig. We'll watch from here.”

The alligator bobbed his head in a reptilian grin and then weaved from their corner between patrons toward the two lizards and their game of pool. Bryn chuckled and shook his head back and forth. “He's almost a man. We should invite him on a hunt once Summer comes.”

“We should.” The rat dipped his snout to his mazer and sipped quietly.

Bryn regarded him with narrowed eyes and upright ears. The horse leaned in closer. “So, what were you doing that Master Vidika had to search you out and drag you back almost by your ear? You're never late for practice lessons.”

With a long sigh, Charlie drooped forward over his mazer of mead and licked a few drops from his whiskers. “I was reading. Reading my father's journals, Bryn. I did not know that the sun had moved so much while I lay there digging into the past. My past.” He grunted, irritated with himself, and shoved his snout back into his mazer.

The horse arched his brow and drummed one hand on the table. “What are you looking for? Not anything about your adoption again? You know it was because you and your father share the same rare gift.”

Charlie's ears lowered and his tail curled around one of his legs. “I know that. That's what everyone has said all my life. It's just...”

Bryn waited several seconds before asking, “What is it?”

“After visiting the Narrows and seeing my sire again... I have this feeling that there is something more to it. I'm not sure what exactly, but... I have to know. I have to find out.”

“Let your father and your sire be. Whatever reasons they have are done and in the past. They both love you and you should respect and love them in return, not snoop through their things or... you know what I mean.”

“You don't understand.”

“What don't I understand?”

“You have only one father, Bryn.”

The horse glowered at him. “I know better than you think! I...” he paused and took a deep breath, still drumming his two thick fingers on the table. “Your father comes home tomorrow, right? Promise me that you will just ask him about it instead of snooping around anymore.”

Charlie narrowed his eyes and stared down the end of his snout into the mazer, watching the surface of the mead vibrate with his friend's tapping. How much more was there to his father's journals? He hadn't found anything so far. Perhaps there wasn't anything more to find. Perhaps it had just been a nightmare.

He sighed, tongue clicking against the back of his incisors. “All right, I promise. When my father comes home tomorrow I will ask him and will stop reading his journals.”

Bryn's hard expression softened and he stilled the tapping of his fingers. A smile emerged at the corners of his supple lips. “Good. Good! I'm glad to hear it! Now drink up and cheer up. Shall we go watch poor Sigismund valiantly lose to the lizards?”

Charlie cast a quick glance at the pool table and the trio of reptiles hunkered over it and chortled under his breath. “Why not?”

 

 

By the time they decided to call it a night Charlie's introspective mood was only a little lessened, and his frustration piqued more at being soundly trounced at the pool table by both Bryn and Sigismund. He and Bryn had become quite pleasantly besotted, though not so far as they had become insensible. Charlie wove a little as he walked, and his thoughts were muddy and inconclusive, while Sigismund seemed little affected by the copious, if watered down, wine he had imbibed. His gaze was cast to the ground in front of his paws in contemplation of learning more from his father's journals before he returned despite his promise, following the horse and alligator more by their cheerful conversation ahead of him than actually watching where they were.

He was so deeply distracted by his cotton-batted thoughts that he did not immediately catch the sudden silence from the pair until he stepped on the thick tail of his young friend. He staggered, for it was not an inconsiderable barrier over which to stumble, and looked up. Sigismund spared him not a glance, his attention cast down a dark, narrow alley to one side of the boulevard. Bryn's gaze was likewise directed, one hand on the alligator's shoulder and the other hand on the hilt of the sword he wore upon his hip. While being more for show than use it was still quite serviceable, as was the one Charlie wore. Sigismund wore no weaponry, his station was not such that he would often need to wear one. Raising his eyes from the alligator's tail Charlie followed their gaze.

He could only see shadows and deeper shadows within the alley, but the darker forms were moving, and there was a goodly number of them. His ears twitched and pinned forward at the snatches of conversation drifting from the depths of the alley.

“ – nothing!” A plaintive voice complained, “Wot would ye, take th' very clothes from me back?”

“Oh, aye!” Another voice growled, deep and menacing and inhuman. “Ye've taken th' master's coin, an' time's come t' be a'payin up, Sertef.”

Sertef, tailor, journeyman to the court tailor Murlie, a man who had begun life as a woman. Charlie's mind put the associations together with the facility born of years remembering names and occupations for pretty much the entire Keep staff. “That's Murlie's apprentice, Bryn,” he offered quietly and the young stallion nodded.

“I dunna 'ave th' coin!” The unseen journeyman tailor wailed, only to be silenced with a heavy grunt when one of the other dark forms moved. “Get it, I can... but nae until th' mornin'!”

“Let the boy be!” Bryn bellowed with a sudden explosive neigh, unlimbering his sword with a hissing whisper of steel drawn from leather. The shadows within the alley shifted, eyes glimmering in the darkness as the moonlight struck them. “In the name of the Duke, stand forth!” Charlie quickly drew his own steel and faded back a pace while Sigismund fell further back with a low, rolling reptilian hiss.

“An' who be this tha' be a speakin' in the old nag's name?” Challenged the low growling voice from the depths of the alley. The shadows shifted and crisscrossed themselves as the residents of the shadows turned their attention toward Bryn's challenge.

Light abruptly appeared about the alley; a witchlight blooming from thin air with an intensity that made Charlie half close his eyes and halted the advance of those within the alley. Revealed by the sudden illumination was a pack of roughly clad commoners, an easy two dozen street toughs led by a towering, broad-shouldered bear. The ursine carried a stout iron-banded cudgel in one massive paw that was easily equal to the mace Bryn preferred to use. Around him were mostly other animorphs, since the population of the Keep tended toward those who had lost their human forms and, as such, could not blend so easily into the outer world. A few canines, felines, a couple of herbivores and a handful of humans ranging in apparent age from child to middle-age. “Bryn hin'Thomas, your future liege!”

The bear's beady black gaze shifted from the blinding illumination hovering several spans above their heads down to the trio standing at the mouth of the alley. “Welladay, boys.” His teeth gleamed white from the black fur of his thick muzzle as the cudgel bobbed eagerly in his hand. “Let's be seein' if yonder lads 'ave more coin th'n th' clothes 'orse, aye?” A lanky wolf placed his fingers briefly on the bruin's arm, his lupine gaze hesitant.

“Them's th' lord's lads, Sudge!” the wolf cautioned, though he carried a gleaming sword of his own. Almost to a man they sported weapons of all sorts, from proper implements to more make-shift fare like sickles and truncheons. “Liftin' them's purses'll get us put out fer sure!”

The bear shook off the wolf's cautionary touch with a glare. “Doubtin' them'll be sayi' much abou' it, after.” He took a couple of strides forward.

“Oh, I've got this.” Charlie was surprised when Sigismund shouldered past him to stride forward a pace in front of Bryn, who looked just as surprised, but could only flash a huge grin on his solid equine muzzle.

The bear, Sudge, paused at the horse lord's grin and the short alligator, who would've stood only to his breast had the two been closer than the two dozen paces. “Wot, geldin' boy? Ye think aught be funny?” He waved his cudgel threateningly, pointing it toward Bryn.

The young stallion merely shook his head. “Oh, no sir,” he chortled humorously, then let the humor disappear abruptly. “But I think I'm about to have some fun.” Sudge merely snorted and waved an arm for his cronies to advance. Only a handful came any closer, most of them fading back apprehensively. “Sertef, come forward. These ruffians are beneath your concern.” From the depths of the alley the slender form of an ocelot furtively wove between the thugs who merely watched, utterly unsure if they should run, or charge. The ocelot, wringing his hands in consternation, gave the bear a wide berth as he scuttled out of the alley.

Sigismund held up one thick fingered reptilian arm, turning the palm of his hand slightly upward. A small, wavering flame sputtered to life from the tips of his claws when he twitched his fingers. The bear blinked at the flame, hardly larger than that of a lamp, and then directed a brief look up at the witchlight still hovering overhead, before letting out a bellowing guffaw. “Be tha' it? A couple dandylights?” He laughed merrily and took a couple of strides closer shadowed by the half dozen less cautious thugs in his retinue. Steel gleamed from the swords and daggers but Charlie saw no archers under the uncompromising glare of the witchlight. “Get 'em, lads!”

The six charged forward half a dozen strides and drew up short when the flickering little flame in Sigismund's scaled hand suddenly blossomed, fire racing up his arm. His reptilian eyes burst into hissing coals that lent an orange cast to the stark white lent by his witchlight. Further compounding their fright was the bonfire that kindled between his teeth and licked the air above his broad, toothy snout. Half of them retreated hastily while the remaining three held back and vacillated between flight and the wrath of their leader, or a foolhardy advance toward a fiery fate.

“Is a boy!” Sudge bellowed as he strode up to stand with them, “Dun turn yeller on me now!”

“I ain't crossin' th' court wiz, ol' bear.” One of those remaining quailed, holding his hands and sword up in surrender as he backed up a few paces.

“Fool, court spellflinger's a skunk!” Sudge snarled, but did not advance any closer.

“That his is. And there's a hawk, and a raccoon,” Charlie chimed in, sheathing his sword with a shrug. Stepping forward he rested his hand lightly on Sigismund's non-burning shoulder. “But, you know, dragons can shape shift at will.” He lifted his muzzle and looked down its length, locking gazes with the bear who towered over all of them, even Bryn.

Sudge glanced back over his shoulder at the rustling sound of his greater numbers hastily withdrawing toward the opposite end of the alley, leaving him with only the two most brave of his loyals. One of them, an older woman, looked sidelong at him, “Sudge, lad, dragon's er' wiz'rds be bad either way. Let's git.”

With a snarl Sudge thrust his cudgel toward them, “Won't be 'avin a spellflinger in yer pocket fer'ever, boy.” He snarled, backing up. Only after they had disappeared into the shadows still claiming the far end of the alley did Sigismund allow the flames flickering along his arm and muzzle to peter out. The witchlight bobbed in the air before dropping down to hover a couple of spans over their heads. Shaken, but chuckling, the trio shook their momentary fear out with very animalistic shudders and tugged their clothes into order though none of them had so much as rumpled a single fringe of lace.

“Nice, Sig,” Bryn offered with a beaming grin as he sheathed his sword. “When did you learn fire like that?”

Impishly Sigismund bobbed his head and tittered a most un-alligator laugh. “I didn't. Illusions are easy.” He shrugged self-consciously. “Best I could've done was singe off a bit of fur before they were on us.” Bryn blinked, and then laughed anew with such vehemence that it left him breathless and spurred his companions into laughter of their own. Even the bruises they had couldn't convince them to stop.

The ocelot, Sertef, tentatively joined them after they had passed a few buildings back toward the Keep proper. “Thankee, milrds,” he meowed fearfully, bobbing his head in effusive gratitude. Only Bryn's gentle grasp on his shoulder prevented the youth from prostrating himself on the dirty street. “Ye saved my life!”

“All is well, lad, all is well,” Bryn nickered reassuringly. “Walk with us a while, and tell us about this coin you borrowed? Why would you bargain with back alley thugs for a bit of coin when you could simple ask us?”

“It...” the ocelot cast his gaze down, walking sideways to keep them from having to turn to list to him trail in their wake but without walking in front of them. “It wa fe th's mum, milords. Nae of yer concerning.”

“The well-being of all in my charge is my concern, lad. Say on?”

While they walked Sertef haltingly explained that his mother had fallen ill during the winter and they had been unable to afford a healer for her treatment, much less the coin for a more immediate divine cure. She had recovered, but the amount that he had borrowed was doubled, and the doubled again, in the time it was taking him to scrape together a repayment. Bryn listened quietly as they walked along and Charlie let the conversation fade from his immediate awareness as, once again, his thoughts turned inward. Beside him Sigismund entertained himself creating and dismissing small puffs of varicolored flame that brought brilliance to his otherwise dull scales while his witchlight dutifully drifted along over their heads.

And somewhere behind them, Charlie was sure, the Watch who always shadowed them was giving Sudge and his thugs a very bad night.

 

 

Sunday, May 16, 724 CR

 

Sunday morning dawned chill with a thick blanket of fog that left the Keep, even awakening to the Worship day, muffled and quiet. The tolling of bells, the singing of hymns, the chants of praise, prayer, and supplication, whether Lothanasi or Follower, could not pierce the misty gloom that captured the morning. Nor could it dispel a certain sleepiness that had settled on many of the revelers even after they had dragged themselves from their beds to attend to morning worship.

Charlie yawned hugely as he slipped from beneath his warm quilts and stretched out his arms. Morning had already come and with it a febrile gray light filtered through his windows only to leave his chambers in a sombre gloom. A slight headache pulsed between his ears and pressed at the back of his eyes, but it was a minor inconvenience compared to the soreness in his muscles and the throbbing discomfort of the bruises he'd suffered from Bryn's whacking. He had a dreamless night, rare enough, but for once he welcomed the chance to know a surcease to his ever thinking. It allowed him to take stock of the morning fresh and without a continuous stream of evolving plans as if he were locked in an endless game of chess.

His mother insisted that the serving staff always have one day of rest both for the sake of the servants and for the edification of their family. His father agreed as it was best that Charlie and Suria be forced to fend for themselves from time to time. In a house as generous with its comforts as theirs, it was not difficult to do so. With his father returning some time that day the staff would return for duties in the afternoon. The morning was theirs alone. This did mean that he would have to select his own clothes and find something to eat and drink to break his nightly fast. Doubtless his mother would prefer he join her and his sister for that morning meal and after failing to join them for yesterday's midday meal, he had no intention of missing.

His paws rubbed over the parts of his face which didn't hurt as bleary eyes took stock of his surroundings. Last night's clothing was discarded in a path from his door to his bed and he chuckled to himself as he recalled his drunken haste to escape to sleep last night. He would need to place them where his body servants Hogue and Jackson could find them when they returned to their duties that afternoon. Nothing else appeared out of place.

With a grunt Charlie stood, long tail sliding from beneath the quilts while he stretched his arms high into the air, fingers spreading wide, before bending over with legs straight to reach for his toes. His tail bumped the back of his legs as the claws tipping each fingers poked at the longer claws tipping each of his toes. He repeated the stretch ten more times until he felt limber and loose. All the while his mind ran through his responsibilities for the day.

Normally on Sundays, after breaking fast with his family, he would, with his father, attend Duke Thomas for a time on whatever matters needed attending. Often it was merely an excuse for the noble families to share a relaxed afternoon together to allow the burdens of state to weigh less heavily on their shoulders. This often involved musical performances from Charlie and his father, as well as games of chance or skill such as chess, or the telling of stories of far away places or of the history and lore of Metamor and the house Hassan. For Charlie, it was a welcome respite he looked forward to.

He dressed himself in a modest open-sleeved crimson tunic and vest patterned with stylized Pyralian flowers and a matching, though plain, pair of breeches. Around his neck he dangled his crescent moon medallion, and after a quick brush of a comb through his head and cheek fur, emerged from his room to find his family.

With the servants off for most of the day their home was very quiet and large. His ears turned to the sound of his sister's barking laugh coming from the kitchens and Charlie followed that sound and the intense pungent aroma of coffee that made his nostrils and chest swell. Normally the abode of the servants, the kitchens featured a small circular table about which his mother and sister were seated, snouts leaning over plates of bread, cheese, and egg, with cups of juice and coffee to wash them down.

“Charlie,” Suria barked in delight, ears perked as he entered. “Good morning! Did you and Bryn have fun last night?”

“Certainly,” he replied with a smile as he glanced at the counter and ovens; he knew how to stoke them and had helped his mother from time to time in the past, but it had been many months since his paws had last touched any of the wood or coals. A helping of cooked eggs sat on the counter still warm and salty to smell, while a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese waited to be sliced next to it. The only thing he did not see prepared for him was the coffee. “What blend are we trying today?”

“Something with vanilla and mint,” Misanthe replied as her paws cradled her cup and tipped the narrowed lip to her snout. “Father Felsah says it is how they drink it in Yesulam.”

He smiled as he imagined the jerboa Questioner giving a lecture on the proper way to prepare coffee. His father had a begrudging respect for the Questioner, confessing his reputation for honesty and generosity were well-deserved, while in the same breath dismissing him as a zealot and warning both Charlie and Suria to keep their distance. Charlie shared his father's assessment, but could not help but like his fellow rodent who never spoke ill of anyone and who had impeccable taste in food and delicacies. And his suggestions to improve the rather bitter flavor of coffee never failed to please.

“Then I will definitely have a cup,” he said as he took a small cloth and opened the stove to see how well the fire burned. He had to add another pair of logs and squeeze the bellows a few times to coax a reasonable conflagration into being, but soon he had a pot of water boiling. While the water heated he sliced himself bread and some cheese and scooped the rest of the eggs onto his plate. “Is there any word on Father?”

“This afternoon!” Suria yipped and wagged her tail. “Lubec came last night while you were out to say that Father was on his way and making good time.”

“Lubec?” Charlie blinked; the cormorant had been sent to Pyralia with communiques over two months ago whereas his father was only in Weislyn, a couple of weeks slow travel at the most and usually a few days faster. “I thought Kurgael was with him?”

Misanthe nodded as her clawed fingers cradled her cup of coffee, a rivulet of steam rising from its surface to curl around her black nose. “He is. Lubec returned early with news from Pyralis and so your father sent him on to Metamor to deliver his other messages too.”

“What news from Pyralis?”

“Duke Kurt Schanalein is inviting you and your father to Breckaris to celebrate the marriage of his daughter in August.”

“We might even be able to attend. It would be good to see Duke Schanalein again.” Although Breckaris was a rival to Father's home, the Duke there, Kurt Schanalein, had always been well disposed to Keepers and had taken it upon himself to visit Metamor twice since he had become Duke ten years before. And knowing his daughter was to marry someone else – for a time his father considered betrothing Charlie and the girl that had screamed in fright the first time she'd seen him – was a huge relief as well.

“I love weddings,” Suria mused wistfully. “Do you think we could go?”

“You would have to ask your father when he returns.”

“And he's returning this afternoon. Good,” Charlie said with a broad smile. He found the coffee grounds his mother mentioned and trembled as the piercing but pleasing odor tickled his nose. “I was worried he might be delayed again.”

“No delay this time,” Suria continued, before shoving a bit of bread in her maw and chewing quickly. “And,” she added with an almost uncontrollable glee, “he says he won't need to return south again next week. The negotiations are finished!”

“Wonderful!” He felt his heart swell as large as his chest. So often the endless negotiations and squabbles drew his father or the other noble lords Thomas relied upon to mediate disputes away from home; much of the time they would only receive short reprieves from their duties before tensions would flare again in the southern fiefs or with their neighbors. In another few years Charlie himself would be one of those negotiators; it was a prospect he did not much look forward to, but it was a necessary duty to protect his home, family, and friends.

He set his plate on the table opposite his sister, and then returned to pour his coffee. The mint was particularly strong and his whiskers twitched in anticipation. “Do we know when exactly to expect Father?”

“Only sometime this afternoon,” his mother replied in a more reserved tone. “Suria and I will make sure everything here is ready for his return; I have asked your brothers to return after Liturgy to help as well as the regular staff.” As scions of a noble house their presence to welcome the master of the house to which they were fostered as pages was expected. “Thomas expects you to attend him as usual.”

He set the pot of water where it could cool and then lifted his coffee cup to his snout. The stirring sands of the desert, the blossoming of strange flowers, the dry wind carrying an array of exotic spices, and the waves of hymnody washing from churches all filled his imagination as he indulged in the sweet odor of the Questioner's recommended blend. This Charlie carried to his seat, and with a swing of his tail, sat with his family. “I thought as much.” He touched his fingers to his medallion before raising them to briefly brush his brow and then kissed them with his nose and teeth, before beginning his meal.

They spoke little of their father's negotiations, preferring instead to discuss the summer to come and their hopes for the year ahead. Misanthe reminded them both that the time would come soon that betrothals would be made for them and that both she and their father were diligently examining several possibilities. Charlie was used to such reminders as his father had been trying without success for the last three years to secure him a betrothal. But none of the southern nobility fancied marrying a rat – though at least only the Schanalein girl screamed when first meeting him – let alone risking the sometimes sardonic vagaries of the Curse and the few that were interested sought only their own power and disgusted Charlie. Yet there was little political advantage to be gained from a marriage to one of the houses in the valley already under the Curse and so he tried to resign himself to whatever seemed best for his house and for Metamor.

Suria had made it known who her preferred husband would be, and while a marriage to Bryn had many advantages, neither Thomas nor their father was certain it was in the best interest of the duchy nor of their plans to contend with the sometimes warring factions throughout the Midlands. Nor did Charlie think it entirely likely as Bryn saw Suria as a sister and found her affection for him pleasing but slightly discommodious. Nevertheless, he hoped for his sister's sake that both his father and Bryn would come around.

When he'd finished his meal and his coffee, Charlie excused himself. He meant to tend to the studies he had left undone the day before, but to his own surprise his feet carried him not to his chambers but to his father's. He closed the door to his father's study behind him and stood for a few minutes staring past the ornate desk to the bookshelf where the black binding of his father's journals stared back at him. He could see the irate equine countenance of his dearest friend warning him away from those books and reminding him of the promise he'd made the night before.

Charlie sighed heavily even as he took a step toward the journals. “I'm sorry, Bryn.” He found the one he'd been reading through when Vidika's poke had interrupted him and carried it with him to a corner where the morning light shone. The fog was still thick outside, but it was enough for his eyes accustomed to the dark to make out his father's script. He flipped the well-worn pages to where he had last read and resumed his skimming.

It was strange reading events in reverse order, but he had to find the moment when his sire confessed to his father Charlie's abilities. He knew that was where he would find the answers he sought to what he had seen. He passed over their time in Sondeshara and his sire's trial there, back through the journey by sea and their first stop in Whales and the gift of the mighty vessel whose model sat atop his father's desk. All the while his father made notes on Charlie's progress but no word on adopting him touched those pages.

But eventually the voyage began and he found the entry where news of the trip first reached his father's ears. Charlie crouched a little lower as he sat cross-legged reading, one hand grabbing the middle of his tail and pulling at a scraggly hair growing out of it.

 

Sixteenth of May in the year Seven-Hundred-and-Eight Cristos Reckoning,

I did not expect to hear news from Charles Matthias so soon after leaving Glen Avery a few days ago. Nor was I expecting the remarkable request that he had a dragon deliver to me this afternoon. Naturally, I accepted. I have been planning to return to Pyralis ever since I left at the end of January, but I was not expecting to begin my journey so soon. But the opportunity is too good to pass up, and it allows me to watch over his eldest boy who has been singularly gifted as I am.

My thoughts are confused, so I shall recount what happened from the beginning based on what I was told by the dragon Pharcellus.

Earlier this morning Pharcellus, his half-brother Lindsey, and a Sondeckis named Jerome returned from Arabarb. They sought Charles out for the sake of Jerome who is suffering from some sort of beastly curse more monstrous than anything Nasoj inflicted on Metamor; I am not quite clear of the nature of that curse only that its progenitor escaped during recapture of Fjellvidden and the death of the loathsome Calephas and that they sought to transform Jerome into a monster as well.

Pharcellus and Lindsey asked Charles if there was anything that could be done for Jerome. Apparently there is nothing Charles can do himself, but there might be something the Sondeckis in Sondeshara can do to help him. The very place that Charles had escaped from so many years ago he now intends to return to in order to aid his friend, and, as Pharcellus tells me, where he expects to face judgment from his clan for his betrayal nine years ago.

But he will not be separated from his family again and so intends to bring them along, as well as his student in the Sondecki arts, Garigan. Because, undoubtedly, of my wealth and the ability I share with his eldest son, and no doubt because of our arrangement a few days ago, he has asked if I can join them and help secure sea passage for them down the Sathmore coast, through the Coral Basin, and to the coast of Sondeshara itself.

I have never been to the Southlands and have long wondered what that land must be like. If that were my only advantage I would still say yes. But there are so many more reasons to go. I like Charles and will do what I can to protect him and his family along the way. Not to mention all of the contacts I will make on such a voyage which can only strengthen my hand in Pyralis for the years to come. And there is the matter of Charles' eldest, Charles II, though for a child of such simplicity and youth such a name seems far too pretentious. His abilities are already manifesting and he will need help if he is as strong in them as I am. Without another to guide him he could easily be driven to despair and misery, hurting himself and others and not knowing why. This I will not allow.

I have already instructed Misanthe to prepare my things for a long journey. There is no point in asking whether she will accompany me or not as I already know that answer. I am indebted to her and fond of her in a way I had not expected but am grateful for.

Tomorrow I will begin preparations in earnest. I fear this journey may take us all from Metamor for a year or more. There is much to do! I expect dreams tonight shall be very interesting.

 

An arrangement between his sire and his father? His heart pounded in his chest and he had to steady his hands to keep from tearing the pages in his eagerness to turn them back. This was the first he had heard of such a thing and it had only been concluded a few days before! He read through each entry looking for more details, but the previous two days spoke nothing except tending to affairs in Metamor as he set up his house, hired servants, and played for private audiences. But the entry on the thirteenth, brief as it was, made his heart race even more.

 

Thirteenth of May in the year Seven-Hundred-and-Eight Cristos Reckoning,

I am still in shock over the events of last night. I cannot write them down. I do not think I can even speak of them again, for what I saw is simply too fantastic and personal. A deal, brokered and broken. Let it remain as such.

I will say no more than that.

 

Charlie ground his incisors together for a moment and lamented that he had not thought to bring one of his chewsticks with him. He took his belt off instead and chewed on the tough leather to work the tension from his incisors. Could the deal be the arrangement that his father had written of only a few days later? The belt pinned tightly between his teeth, he flipped the page.

 

Eleventh of May in the year Seven-Hundred-and-Eight Cristos Reckoning,

My visit to Glen Avery has been a pleasant distraction and an agreeable escape from the ever busy court life at Metamor. I have greatly enjoyed my time with Murikeer who is ever eager to show me the new home that the Baron of the Glen has given him in repayment for his numerous services to this woodland realm. He even used his illusions to show me what he will make of his new home and I am impressed with his imagination and ambition. I will be sure to send him some help to bring his vision to life in the months ahead.

Perhaps we can find an excuse to bring Elvmere here as well to give him a much needed respite from his cloistered Temple life. I'm sure Murikeer will be happy to show him the wonders of Artela's domain, though I suspect with his bookish ways he is destined to belong to Samekkh.

Not much more to add that I did not mention yesterday about life in the Glen. The only thing worth noting is the request that Sir Charles Matthias made of me. It seems that his youngest son died while he was away to the south last year. Murikeer must have mentioned to him about how I once helped to bring Llyn back to him for one night because he has asked for the same thing. He wants to be able to say goodbye. I cannot blame him for his desire but I have warned him that there would be a high price to pay. We will learn tomorrow night what that price will be.

 

Charlie sighed heavily and took his belt from between his teeth. That must have been what the deal was about. But why was his father's entry for the thirteenth so cryptic? What had happened the night of the twelfth? And where was the entry for the twelfth? He flipped the pages back and forth a few times, rubbing them between his fingers to see if there were two pages stuck together but to no avail. His father must not have written anything for that night.

With a sigh he closed the journal and returned it to its shelf. Sixteen years ago something had happened between his father and his sire. But if it had anything to do with his adoption he still didn't know. Charlie left his father's study before his curiosity drove him to peruse any other papers. He still had his own duties for the day and this time he would not be late. There would be time to discover more later.

 

 

Charlie spent almost an hour reviewing his studies before wishing his mother and sister a good day and leaving their house in the Keep. Already the both of them were hard at work preparing delicate sauces and creams for the evening meal to delight Father on his return. He gave them his love and quickly dipped one finger in a fruit cream before Suria could swat his paw.

The morning fog had finally burned off in the warm Spring sun and the the morning worship had finished for many Keepers. As he ambled toward the Duke's residence with a slight limp inspired by a heavy whack of Bryn's sword the previous day he passed by many familiar faces who hoped he would pause for a word or two of gossip. Charlie bemoaned his duties as a means to escape their clutches and hurried as best he could on his way. After a dozen or so minutes he found the horse lord, his wife, and their son in the great hall – their other children were young enough to still be at play under the watchful eyes of trusted servants – and uncomfortably bent one knee, if briefly, in a bow to his liege. Thomas' large, heavy hand gave his shoulder a gentle grasp, “Good morning, Charlie. You slept well, I trust?”

“I did, Thomas.” Charlie smiled as he stood. Out of the public eye they addressed each other by name rather than title, formality set aside by familiarity. “Nothing confers a good night's sleep like dodging a two stone bar of iron being swung at them for hours all chased by a generous portion of mead.”

“I'm not accustom to the pells dodging, Charlie,” Bryn nickered warmly with a smile. “I walked out of there probably more exhausted than you.”

Charlie chuffed with a twitch of his whiskers. “But less bruised.”

Bryn's braying laugh echoed from the walls of the Great hall. “I'd argue that point, Charlie! That fireplace poker hurts, and there was no way to parry it with that monstrous bloody sword.” He rubbed the left side that had borne the brunt of many stinging swats of the poker. Owing to the fact that the stallion had been wearing leathers Charlie had spared nothing in his swings or stabbing pokes. Officially Charlie had been 'slain' by his assassin three times, and Bryn dispatched no less than six, mostly due to the fact that his sword was indeed too large to be used effectively, for attack or defense, in the confines of the bed chamber. “But you comported yourself well, finding more things to fight with in there than I would have. I mean, a log of firewood?” He rubbed his brow off of which that faggot had bounced. “That hurt, too.”

“Master Vidika dost teach thee well,” Alberta noted with approval and a slight wagging of ears even longer than her son's. Though the duchess had lived in Metamor since before Charlie had been born, she had never lost the Flatlander speech and even, it was suggested amongst the courtiers, deliberately maintained it because it delighted Thomas in ways outre. “I shalt ask him to accompany us when we dost visit the southern fiefs next week. I wouldst dearly love to see thy skills in battle, my son.”

Bryn stood taller and his tail swung from side to side with pleasure at the suggestion. Charlie hid the smile that filled his jowls. But all of their heads turned to one side as they heard the slow, metallic squeaking of a laden cart being pushed from a corridor to one side.

“Ah good, the Stones,” Thomas whickered. He mounted the dais upon which the ducal seat stood and, after bowing to his wife Alberta and giving her hand a kiss, settled himself into the massive throne. “Spring is upon us, and with it the season of trade begins in earnest. It's time to verify with the merchants what stones they will be using, and ensure that they are still weighed properly for the year.” Upon the cart were ten blocks of polished black volcanic basalt, which had been used by the Duke as far back as Ovid I, to set a fixed measure of weight for trade goods within the borders of the Northern Midlands. Each stone had a polished steel ring anchored in the top and its official measure engraved and inlaid with shining gold upon it. The fifth, its crown ornately decorated with gold inlay, was The Stone. The first four were quarter weights, and the remaining five multiples of The Stone's weight. The tenth stone was a full hundred weight heavier and dominated much of the cart. Upon a second cart was a massive scale that would be used to measure each stone that was presented by the tradesmen.

They were only required to have at least six stones; four quarter weights, their own master Stone, and a single stone of five times master weight. Merchants would have weights smaller than the quarter stone but those would be tallied by the Guild of weights and measure. Thomas had taken the Stones away from that Guild not long after they had come to Metamor and discovering that the guild, and certain influential traders, were being less than truthful in their weighing. He had also brought the Guild under the Keep's charter to maintain a degree of credibility that rather few other kingdoms used.

Beginning with the smallest stone and a large wooden bucket delineated with intricate measurements the Guild representatives studiously calibrated each stone by its weight, measured in volume of water plus the weight of the bucket itself. It was not the first time that Charlie had sat in on a weighing of the Stones and he found his mind wandering. The Duke was there merely to establish the weighing as Official, and Bryn was sitting in to learn how the process was conducted though he, too, had seen it happen many times. Each Spring, Midsummer, and Autumn the stones were weighed and, almost every Spring, Charlie attended. The Summer, and often Autumn, checks he missed usually because he was traveling with his father to the south on diplomatic and trade missions.

His father would be returning from his latest trip later that day and Charlie looked forward to it. He had many questions to ask, but he also missed the man who had taken him as his son. As much as he was conflicted about being separated from his birth family – not to mention the strange suggestions and peculiar comments he had found in his father's journals as well as the behavior of his birth family – he did love his father wholly and without reservation.

Bryn was sensitive to his distraction and at one point nudged him with a hoof. Charlie had begun to slouch and let his eyes wander away from the weighing of stones. He quickly sat up straight, tail sweeping across the floor behind him, and favored his friend with a rat's smile. His mind continued to wander but he did his best to be attentive as the merchants busied themselves with their weights and stones. He idly wondered what Thomas was thinking about; surely not even their noble liege could be fascinated by something so mundane and dry.

After the last stone was weighed and its precise measurement noted by the guild scribes, Thomas thanked them for their diligence and wished them fortune and prosperity for the season ahead. The guild leaders thanked the Duke for his generosity and they, along with the Stones, left the Great Hall back the way they had come. Just as they left another set of trays were carried in, these by Thalberg, Sigismund, and several other servants. Thomas brightened, as did those with him, at the smell of fresh bread and fruit that was succulent enough to make even Charlie forget his distraction for a moment.

Sigismund brought platters to both Bryn and Charlie for them to sample, doing his best to maintain his poise and not spill anything. Thalberg kept one eye on his oldest son, but it seemed more a look of fondness than of worry or scrutiny.

Even while they were being served another one of the trade guilds arrived with business to discuss. Charlie did his best to listen as they discussed the quantity and quality of silver that was anticipated from the mine that Summer. Charlie was amazed that they had been able to keep secret the truth behind the mine at Joy's Legacy. For while it produced a supply of silver rivaled only by the Sathmore mines which both Sathmore and Pyralis warred over in western Galendor, its real treasure was the mithril found deeper within the mines from which the silver was carefully extracted.

A few years ago his father had taken him to see the mine for himself. Charlie had been impressed with the caverns already mined and into which complicated wooden supports, catwalks, and pulley systems had been built to shore up the walls and simplify the work of moving large rocks from the interior chambers to where they could be processed and the silver and mithril extracted. But the gloom of the place, and the eerie light that seemed to radiate from the walls had unsettled him as well. He was grateful for the mine and that he had never gone back.

The discussion on silver did not last as long as Charlie feared it would. But after they left no one else came to take their place. Thalberg, who was keeping a steady eye on several new servers that day, took the opportunity to clear his throat. “Your grace, if I might have a moment of your time.”

“Of course, Thalberg,” Thomas said with an inviting sweep of one hand and a smile revealing flat teeth beneath supple lips. “What affairs weigh upon you?”

Thalberg dipped his long green jaws down for a moment, yellow eyes never leaving the Duke.“I merely wished to mention, your grace, that the remaining guilds to see you this day present business regarding preparation for the Summer Solstice festivals. I believe that they wish to know where they will be allowed to sell their wares this year, and what sort of contests will be held. The craftsmen will want to provide goods suitable to any Keeper who would try their hands at tourney or at games of skill. And the rest want to know that they might feed the multitudes flocking to Metamor for the festivities.”

The horse lord tipped back his head and laughed. “Ah, is that all? I am very relieved to hear it! I trust that you have the plans ready that we discussed last time?”

Thalberg waved toward his son, who rushed forward, tail slapping the stone, with a heavy scroll-case in his arms. “Everything is ready for whatever question you might be asked.”

Bryn leaned over slightly and whispered into Charlie's large ear, “What events will you compete in this year?”

He tilted up his snout and whispered back, “I haven't decided yet. I...”

A blaring of trumpets at the entrance to the great hall made all of them turn in surprise and delight. Charlie felt his heart leap into his throat and he was standing even before the cryer could announce the new arrival. The cryer, a large bull dressed in the Hassan red with little tassels dangling from the tips of his horns, bellowed at the top of his lungs, “His grace, the Archduke of Sutthaivasse and Western Pyralis, Malger dae ross Sutt.” Two knights in scale and plate polished to a blinding gleam stepped through the door shoulder to shoulder. One was a towering, broad shouldered oryx, his proud horns cropped down to more easily manage the limits of doorway lintels, the enameling of his shield denoting Charlie's house, while the other was a wiry wolfhound bearing a shield of Thomas' heraldry. Both knights turned in crisp unison to take up stations to either side of the arch.

Through the great double doors stepped a lithe pine marten, his coat a deep chocolate brown beginning to gray around his snout and ears. His long whiskers twitched as he smiled hugely with a vivacious brilliance in his eyes that almost matched the brilliance of his dress. The marten was garbed in a doublet and hose with gold trim in all the seams, his open sleeves alternating a brilliant red and green, while his surcoat was a glimmering sheen of opalescent blue and jade green. Between his ears he bore a hat festooned with a plume of feathers so that he resembled not so much a marten as a peacock. This he swept off when he reached the foot of the dais and dropped to one knee with a deep bow, “Greetings, milords, milady.” He crooned with a perfect tenor as he genuflected before the Duke and Duchess. “And son,” He added with a slight tilt of his head to catch Charlie with one merry dark eye.

Continuing the flourish of his arm he donned his garish hat once again with a flair as he raised his eyes to those seated before him. “Thomas, I have returned with success and good news for you and the duchy. It is very good to see you again.”

Charlie never understood his father's garish and outright foppish dress, nor would he ever share it, but seeing him again brought a broad smile to his face. Only his courtly manners kept him from running across the hall to hug his father to welcome him home. Still, he was pleased to see that his father's dark brown eyes sought him out first of those in the Hall, and the gray and brown fur around his muzzle creased into a pleased smile full of warmth and relief. His father was as happy to be home as Charlie was to have him home.

Thomas merely snorted humorously at the exaggerated greeting, bidding the marten to rise with a short, exasperated wave of one hand. With no courtiers or other audience to bear witness there was little need for such pomp. But Malger ever was the showman, and his genuine regard for the duke waxed playful as often as formal. “We are all relieved to see you home, Malger,” Thomas replied with a nod of his head in return. “I trust your journey was an easy one?”

“We had a short squall near Ellcaran, but the delay was only hours. We made it up with a hard ride the next day. Nothing so hard that my tail hasn't already forgiven me.” Malger stood from his bow and briefly whisked the unsullied knees of his fanciful leggings below which his humanesque footpaws were naked. Charlie, his adoptive mother, sister, and the entire Matthias clan had the crook-shanked lower legs of the animals that they resembled, whereas Malger did as well, only the species he had become walked flat of foot leaving his feet both bestial and human-ish at the same time. When he traveled he wore boots, but like most in Metamor he walked unshod within the realm. His tail twitched and swayed as it was spoken of as if the furry length had a personality of its own.

“And all went well with the negotiations?”

“As well as can be expected, and perhaps a bit better than I anticipated. Marigund paid full price for the one stone weight mithril bar stolen and the cost of splitting off the small beads they are permitted in a year. And in return for the rest of the mithril, Kelewair has ceded all claims to the lands west of Marcheorte forest.”

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the news. “That should make the merchants very happy indeed. Now we can protect the trade routes from Giftum to Ellcaran from brigands instead of Kelewair raiders.”

“We hope,” Malger reminded him. “Not every one of Verdane's vassals approves of your claims to those lands.”

“They once belonged to my family a hundred years past. Memories run deep in these lands.”

“They do. But so too does ambition,” Malger cautioned him. “Jaran Calephas is now sitting on top of one of the most prosperous trade routes in all the Midlands while we are at one of its ends. He is not his brother, but he covets your throne.”

“True,” Thomas mused with a sigh. “We must discuss the details of your negotiations later. I am sure you wish to spend your day with your family, my friend.”

Malger had already turned his head toward the rat who was his son. “I would indeed. Charlie!” He stretched out his arms as Charlie rose and stepped down from the dais. Father and son, marten and rat, hugged each other tightly, snouts pressing on each others' shoulders with warm laughs and firm pats on the back. “You are looking well!”

“It is good to see you again, Father.”

Malger ran one paw over his head fur and smiled with obvious pride. “Thomas, if I have your leave, I would like to take my son and retire for the evening. Unless you have need of him?”

Thomas laughed and waved one arm. “Go, my friend! He hides it well, but he's been thinking about you all day anyway.”

Charlie felt a bit chagrined as even Bryn laughed at that.

 

 

Not five seconds after father and son walked out of the Great Hall together, Charlie, a smile stretching from cheek to cheek, lifting his ears and spreading his whiskers, asked, “Why didn't you come back with Kurgael?” The oryx in scale and plate fell in behind them with a rattle of armor as they walked out of the Great Hall.

Malger's smile was equally broad, filled with good humor and the delight of a man receiving a hoped for gift. “A proper nobleman does not leave his staff behind, by a matter of days, just to reach home all the sooner. Hours perhaps, but no more. You'll learn these delicate matters when you become a man, son.”

The question had first crossed Charlie's tongue when he was five years old. The gryphon Kurgael had been one his father's first couriers since even before adopting Charlie as his son. When he'd been a boy Kurgael had been more than happy to carry him on his back or dangle him with his front claws while swooping through the air where his mother and father could watch, and so he had immediately grown very fond of him above all of their house's other staff. But because he was a courier, he did not often return when Malger did, and so the eager boy's question had tumbled from his heart each time.

And the answer had, in one form or another, been repeated each time with at first serious admonition, but later, as the question become a habit and later a bit of mirthful repartee, a whimsical rejoinder often grandly cast with a flourish of his arm and a wagging of a gentle claw before his snout. The exchange was so familiar to them that to not use it would have been as vile as the darkest epithet and foulest curse. It was an exchange of abundant love from son to father and father to son.

They both laughed heartily, heads tipped back and eyes bright. For not ten paces in front of them and waiting amongst the collection of house Sutt servitors who had accompanied Malger and were ready for any summons was none other than the gryphon Kurgael himself who shook his golden beak back and forth in wry pleasure at the long-running joke.

Their step brought them to the company of servants where Charlie smiled and, to the gryphon's chagrin, hugged him. “I am glad to see you returned as well, Kurgael. Did you fly anywhere interesting?”

The gryphon could not help but spread his wings, nearly pushing the mink Trybeline over even as the feathers along his neck tickled Charlie's whiskers. “Oh, nothing this time. A few messages from Weislyn to Ellcaran and Midtown. Nothing I haven't seen many times before.”

“And you should take your rest,” Malger advised with a warm smile to the gryphon. This was no command of master to servant, but the gentle warmth of a man caring for his friend. “We will need you to fly ahead to Sutthaivasse in another month to prepare our way. But first, if you would find Sir Egland and Acolyte Elvmere and let them know we have returned. Doubtless they will both want to welcome us back.” The marten's eyes glanced at the oryx, Sir Intoran, who was the Lord Marshal of the Sutt house. Intoran's lips twitched in a brief smile and his head bobbed imperceptibly in thanks though he did not let his mien slip too far; he was still mostly on duty until Malger released him so that he could attend to whatever the Steward had left for him in the month of his absence.

Kurgael nodded and one golden eye also briefly favored the Lord Marshall. “I will return after delivering your message to pay my respects to Lady Misanthe and Lady Suria.”

“They will be delighted to see you,” Malger offered and grasped his friend by the shoulder before beckoning him to tend to his charge. Kurgael stepped back, bowed his head to both Malger and Charlie, and then started down the corridor ahead of them. Despite having the ability to shift himself into a more human form as almost any who were given the animal aspect of the curse could, Kurgael evinced very little liking for the form. Besides, he argued, he could speak just fine in his full gryphon form, and his talons were dexterous enough to hold a quill so writing, when he needed to, proved to be no barrier. As well he did not need a quill with which to write, for his claws were more than sharp enough to double as writing instruments. His broad tail fan flicked amiably as the sinuous length of the feline tail extending beyond it twitched and waved in counterpoint to his smooth feline gait.

“And do you have any further need of us?” A canine in loose fitting robes and voluminous sleeves asked. The curses of Metamor had transformed Malger's master mage into a slender dog with narrow black snout, dark, innocent eyes, long ears with brindle hair that hung down to his shoulders, and a coat of a brighter wheaten fur that was in constant need of trimming. Only carefully laid spells kept the fine flyaway fur from becoming utterly unmanageable. One arm was wrapped around the middle of a stout black-furred bear, Sermin, who was both his wife and student of magecraft.

“I foresee not, Hersharch, no.” Malger considered with a slight sigh, leaning a little to stretch his back. “Feel free to retire for the day and enjoy your rest. After keeping that storm from wholly wrecking the wagons I daresay you and yours could use some relaxation.” Malger's back gave a quiet pop and he chuffed, unbending, his eyes shifting to the child standing beside the two mages. The child was older than he appeared, ever a confusing issue in Metamor. “I will want your notes on the negotiations prepared in two days' time, Dryek, and I would be pleased if you would also remit a copy to the Prime Minister.” The youth, carrying himself with a mature, almost officious air, nodded his head in a slight bow. “But, for now, retire with your family and make your ease. Let Fennister and Tik know that I will need their services tomorrow to transcribe all of the notes we've assembled. We want to make sure that Duke Thomas has a complete report.”

The hound, the bear, and the child all bowed to each of them before departing to tend to their family and their duty. Only Sir Intoran, a septet of house Sutt soldiers, and Malger's body servants, Trybeline the mink and Lassiter the wolf remained each awaiting their lord's pleasure. To the latter two Malger turned first, his tone friendly but still with that aristocratic touch that affirmed his position without flaunting it. “Go on ahead and let my wife and daughter know of my arrival. And prepare fresh clothes. I would rather not spend the evening smelling of horse.”

Charlie didn't think his father smelled that strongly of horse, but then again, the rat had just spent most of his morning in the company of the Hassan family.

“Intoran,” Malger said with his usual warmth. “Disposition our men as usual; I do expect to see you at least by the time Sir Egland and Elvmere arrive.”

Intoran bleated a laugh and nodded. “Shall I invite any other Blue Note regulars on my way?” His voice was soft, almost quiet, but belied the gentle strength in his towering form. He stood a head taller than Thomas, who was not short by the standards of Metamor, and positively dwarfed Charlie. Of those Charlie knew well only his companion, the papal knight Sir Egland, could equal his stature.

Malger scowled, but only to reprove; there was more merriment than malediction in that glance. “No, though perhaps later this week, after I've had a chance to tell Thomas all the wondrous details, intrigues, and offers of the negotiations, we shall have to perform there again.”

“I will check on Master Hesgebaern and the horses on my way,” Intoran offered as he bowed his head.

“Do let Versyd know that I am terribly sorry about that stone and hope that he will heal soon.”

Intoran assured Malger he would, and then gathered the septet of soldiers, swiftly making their way down the corridor. They disappeared around a bend and then father and son were finally alone together in the hall.

Malger stretched, eyes roving from wall to ceiling and back again, briefly admiring the tapestries, suits of mail on display, and the hexagonal lamps casting a luminous yellow glow over everything. “It is good to be home!”

Charlie chittered a small laugh under his breath as he fell into step beside his father as they casually made their way down the corridor. Their direction was unimportant for the walking was only to exercise body and mind, not to actually reach anywhere. The Keep was happy to provide them with a wide corridor filled with armor, tapestries, statues in the shapes of men from Metamor's history and in the guise of beasts from her more recent past, a variety of lamps hanging from the arched ceiling or fixed to the walls, and not a single door or turn to distract them.

“What happened to Versyd?” The mighty percheron had volunteered to serve as a mount for Malger, much as Argamont had long ago volunteered for Bryn. Charlie could only remember a few occasions when the stallion had stood on two hooves instead of four, so comfortable in a feral form had he become. A zebra filly named Maysin had volunteered to serve Charlie when he was ten, but he always felt a little awkward riding a fellow Keeper and so accepted her service for tournaments and ceremonies. Charlie wondered for a moment if he hurt Maysin's feelings by refusing to ride her more than he did

“Oh, nothing that he won't recover from in a week. We had a bad rain two days ago and a mud slide had ruined a bend in the road to Midtown. His hoof slipped on a stone and he sprained his left foreleg. The stubborn horse favored the leg the whole way home. But, and to his credit, he did not slow us. I hurt his feelings when I would not ride him through Keeptowne though.” Malger shook his head. “He's a good man.” He turned to regard his adoptive son, “And good men should be valued where they can be found, even in your foes. Court them as you would any lady to your bed, son.” He smiled as he offered a snippet of sage, age won advice, ending with a chortle when Charlie's expression soured in a moue at the ribald metaphor. He did not share his father's strange youthful affection for seduction, though he had come to understand the reasons for it as well as the pains he now took to avoid using it. The fact that Misanthe bade him use his fey talent to help others from time to time only confounded the young rat all the more. He would hate to see what Elvmere might do should the raccoon ever learn of the infrequent indiscretions; few men had no qualms in telling his father when he was wrong, nor could many do so with love for him all the while; Elvmere was one of the very few.

He ground his molars together and turned his thoughts from that conflicting subject. “So how did you convince them to give up their claims to Ellcaran?” Charlie asked, turning his head slightly to better focus on his father.

“Now, now,” Malger chided with another smile. “There will be time for my stories later. Misanthe and Suria will want to hear those. I suppose you really want to know what unspoken things everyone at the table truly sought. I'm afraid for that I'll have to review Dryek's notes, for he was the one doing the listening-under-the-conversation during our talks. What did you do while I was away? Or you and Bryn, I should say!”

Charlie laughed and then sighed, shaking his head. “Aye, Bryn and I went out for a hunt last week. Patrols spotted a white hart north of the Glen and we couldn't resist. Bryn felled the beast with a single arrow to the neck. It was marvelous, a shot for the ages.”

“I suppose you are composing a ballad in your head to commemorate yon horse lordling's triumph?”

“Not yet. Do you remember what happened to Misha last month while repairing one of the trebuchets?”

Malger's eyes filled with an impish delight. “How could I forget a fox being vaulted thirty feet into the air?”

“Well, the first few days of our hunt brought us no quarry but for coneys and a foolish Glenner treading as an animal without some sash to mark him; a lone bangle upon his antlers saved his life. In those hours marching through the woods hoping against hope to flush out our game, I began to conjure a little tune and some verse certain to make the fox's fur an even brighter red.”

Malger's jowls stretched across his fangs. “Sing some for me.”

Charlie did, regaling his father with his clear and cultured tenor, through rhyme and meter of Misha the artificer's misadventures with a troublesome trebuchet. Malger listened, bobbing his snout up and down with the rhythm, even hop-stepping in time, as if a dance were trying to escape his paws. As the song progressed his grin spread, jowls drawing tight across his fangs, a silent laugh etched there for his son to savor.

When the last words he'd cobbled together left his throat, Charlie sketched a dramatic bow and then almost pirouetted as he leaped back into place beside his father. “What do you think?”

Malger nodded, the taut grin parting but never leaving his snout. “You skewer the fox very well, and yet leave him that little bit of dignity that he really does have and deserves. Well done. The tune you have is infectious and I'm sure I'll be humming it myself soon. But, and I think you know what I will say.”

Charlie spread his hands wide and grimaced. “It is a little rough still. Some of the rhymes feel awkward and the meter is forced in some places. I am still refining it when I have the time.”

“You will have plenty of time for that on our trip this Summer. Although I believe those who know our friend the fox will enjoy it far more than those who do not.”

He could not help but frown, whiskers drooping. “Do you think it won't be funny to those who don't know Misha?”

Malger laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Oh it is hilarious, son. It just has special significance for we who know him, that is all. Now, I take it you have not performed it yet? Except for dear Bryn who you drove crazy with your couplets I suppose.”

“Well, that is something else I wished to mention. I have performed it. Once at the Narrows.”

Malger's eyes widened for a moment before resuming their usual amicable demeanor. “You visited the Narrows? How are the Baron, his wife, and your siblings?”

“Fine, although they almost weren't. Bryn and I heard word that Baron Matthias was crushed in an accident four days ago.” He raised one hand to keep his father from interrupting with a startled question. “It was a bad rumor. There was an accident, but the baron tumbled out of the way with only a broken leg. Still, when we heard the rumor we headed to the Narrows to learn the truth.”

His father listened quietly as he described his visit to the Narrows. From his private conversation with his sire, seeing all of his siblings there, the feast where he sang his song, and even to his complaining on the tower with Bryn, Malger did not say anything, but listened attentively, his eyes never leaving his son's face.

After speaking of the tower, Charlie could not help but feel ashamed and lowered his snout. The hallway continued to stretch ahead of them with no end in sight and so he knew the Keep wanted them to have this conversation. “I'm sorry I said those things, Father. It's confusing and I feel hurt in a way I don't know how to say.”

Malger nodded and then reached out to grab his shoulder. He stopped walking and pulled his son into an embrace, arms wrapped firmly around his back, snouts draped across shoulders. “I know you love me, and I know you love them. And we all love you, Charlie. I knew from the moment I learned that you shared my gift that your life would not be an easy one. Mine has not. But you have something I did not; a family who loves you for you. And not just one, but two. If there is anything at all you want to know, want to understand, about how you came to be a Sutt and not a Matthias, ask and I will tell you.” A wistful smile crossed his father's snout. “You know, I have wanted to tell you in detail about the journey to Sondeshara and back again that your sire and I, with you, your siblings, and many others all undertook sixteen years ago. I have wanted to tell you all the details for years, and not just the exciting moments you always loved hearing about when you were a child. Pirates, ha! Fools more like it! There is so much more you can understand and appreciate now.”

“I would like that, but, when will we have the time?”

“A good question.” Malger frowned thoughtfully and then laughed, his eyes brightening. “Of course! In a couple months we will be heading back to Sutthaivasse and perhaps journeying inland to Breckaris. We will have plenty of time on that voyage to recount another! In the meantime, I can probably think of a few moments to share I know you will cherish.”

“I suppose I can wait until then to hear all of the story. But, there was one thing I wanted to tell you.” He felt a horrible gnawing in his stomach, as if he were betraying not only his sire but also his father as well. “I saw something in the baron's dreams that night.”

Malger leaned back and his smile fell. “Oh? What did you see?”

“It was an exchange. I think the setting was more symbolic than memory. But the baron offered up one child for another. Everything felt laden with guilt and sorrow. I think he blames himself for giving me up.”

His jowls turned down into a moue. “Have you talked about this with him?”

“No, of course not. I don't think I could. Besides, he was still resting when we returned to the Glen the next morning.”

“Have you gone into his dreams again, son?”

Charlie nodded and dug his toe claws into the azure carpeting lining the floor. “I saw what I think was a memory; about when you and he were readying our supplies for the voyage to Sondeshara. My siblings and I were all small enough to curl up in your arms.”

Malger's face broadened into a smile, his eyes briefly turning inward, as if he were summoning that same memory and savoring it. “You were that small back then. What can you tell me about the first dream?”

He wasn't quite sure how much he wanted to admit to his father, but his tongue had spilled so much of what had weighed on his heart already, he could not keep it all back. “He was seeking a lost soul, and in exchange he had to offer a soul in return. And the words, 'The bargain is struck'. That I remember very clearly. It felt like a slamming door, or a hammer blow. Or worse, the headsman's axe. Do you... do you know what it means?”

For one moment a look of profound sadness seemed to fill his father's eyes. But the moment passed and he offered a faint smile to cheer his son. “It is a nightmare. Can you blame him? Matthias nearly dies that morning, and then you, the son he had to give away, arrives to check on him. Giving you up was very painful for him, and I suppose is still painful for him.”

“But why blame himself?”

“He shouldn't. There is no better place for you than here, for what you are, what you can do. You know that, and your sire knows it too.”

Charlie wanted to say more, feeling a strange tightness clutching within his breast. His father had to know something and wasn't telling him. What horror lay in that missing day in his father's journal? What guilt was kept hidden that plagued his sire's dreams? And why would they not tell him?

Malger cupped his hand behind Charlie's head and pulled him into another embrace. “I know it is confusing, my son. Let me speak with Baron Matthias about this. He is an old friend and ally and if he is suffering I want to help him. And whatever it is has made you suffer too. Try to put it out of your mind for now. Just let me speak with the baron first, and then we can sort out everything together. That is my promise to you, son.”

His father spoke the words with such warmth that Charlie, despite his anger, could not help but smile. He let out a long sigh and then wrapped his arms around his father's back. “Thank you.”

Charlie felt his father's chest swell with a deep breath, and then shrink with a long and happy sigh. “Now let's get back home. Your mother and sister are probably wondering what's taking us so long!”

 

 

Malger was welcomed home with boisterous hugging and yapping from Suria, and a more reserved but no less delighted embrace from Misanthe. Food and drink had been prepared and arranged on a table for anyone to sample which Aspittier, their Steward, hovered over most of the night to make sure everything was fresh and properly presented; both Peter and Timothy helped the white tiger by running errands and pouring wine. Malger, after changing into more relaxed attire filled with bright but dignified colors, relaxed on a chaise sampling breaded meats and sipping wine. His family were all about him each eager for the news he brought. The afternoon proved comfortably cool and the sky, while overcast, did not offer any hint of impending rain so they opened the broad, double leaf doors onto the balcony to let fresh air into the common room. The candles guttered in their glass chimneys but refused to gutter out. From without the sounds of the Keep and small cities, Euper without and Keeptowne within, drifted to them. The ever-present scent of civilization was both rank at times and pleasant, but had become so much a familiar part of their lives that none noticed more than the sharpest of either as they drifted like passing messengers upon the breeze.

Sir Intoran and Kurgael were also present and seated a short distance away taking their leisure after a job well done. Sir Egland and Elvmere joined them an hour later once their duties permitted them to come. Playful and friendly banter passed between them all, each taking their turn to provide a bit of music.

Charlie was amused at the way his father deftly avoided saying much at all about his mission to the Southern Midlands. Malger insisted that he first hear all that his wife and daughter had been up to in his absence, that he terribly missed them, and could not bear another hour without being delighted by the sweet sound of their voices. Misanthe called him a flatterer while Suria was more than happy to describe everything she had done in between repeatedly asking if she could come with them to Breckaris that summer for the Schanalein wedding.

Eventually, Sir Egland placed a flute in Malger's hands and stared at him with an intensity that only an elk with antlers that weighed as much as a shirt of mail on his head could. Unlike Intoran, who traveled beyond Metamor in Malger's service, he did not have to trim the broad rack upon his brow because much of the Keep and its surrounding architecture had been modified to account for the many varied forms its population now found themselves wearing. And his would regrow each year, where Intoran's did not. “It is time to share a little song together. And then you need to tell everyone about your journey. Intoran and Kurgael may know, but the rest of us are growing impatient, oh master marten!”

Malger laughed, stretched his toes, and then set paws to floor as he sat up. “Very well, knight! Does everyone have something they can play? I see not! Intoran, you know where Master Lemdon keeps the house instruments; you and Kurgael go bring something for everyone, yourselves included.”

“But I do not have an ear for music,” Kurgael objected, his two feathery ears drooping in the defeat he knew would come from this long-running argument.

“You do not need an ear for music to ring a bell. Is that not so, Elvmere?”

The raccoon spread his long-fingered hands wide in a shrug. “Given how long you have been in Archduke Sutt's service, I can only conclude that you speak the truth and possess less talent for music than an ordinary man. Even I have mastered many instruments thanks to his teaching.”

Malger adjusted the flute without even looking at it and offered the raccoon a wry reprimand. “And you'd be the master of temple musicians if you let the Lothanasa name you so!”

Elvmere nodded to acknowledge the frequent rebuke, but kept his eyes on the gryphon. “I would be happy to help you choose a set of bells that sound good together.”

Egland shook his head in a laugh as he removed his viola from its gilded mahogany case. One of the vows he had made in establishing the capitular order of the Knights of the Holy Yew was that neither he nor any other knight in the order would own anything of themselves but all things in common and only that which was needed for the protection of the Ecclesia both priests and pilgrims. And so Sir Egland had given his beloved viola, the treasure he had carried from his homeland in Pyralis to his years serving in Yesulam and then finally to Metamor to his friend Malger for safekeeping. The plain box in which he had once kept it to keep it safe from the elements had been replaced by an exquisite mahogany case lined with gold and adorned with an elk head fashioned from inlays of cherry and sandalwood; the inside of the case was lined with soft velvet in the viola's shape to cushion the instrument. Egland treated that case as delicately as his hoof-like fingers allowed.

Charlie produced a flute much like his father's. He blew a few tentative notes to check the tuning. His large ears turned and folded back in disgust until the notes sounded right. When he was satisfied he began sampling wisps of melody from a few songs his father had written. Both Malger and Misanthe's ears turned at that, and before the trio of friends returned, father and son charted an intricate dance of melody, rising and falling, cavorting this way and that about the aural landscape like a pair of birds merrily flitting through the trees. Hints of virtuosity emerged from the otherwise singing melodies.

The trio returned with an assortment of instruments a few minutes later. Intoran gently laid a dulcimer and the hammers on Misanthe's lap and the vixen nodded her thanks. Elvmere carried a violin in each hand, offering one to Suria while keeping the second for himself. The bows he'd tucked beneath his chin and with a light churr in his throat, let the maned wolf capture them both. Her tail wagged as she handed one back to the raccoon who accepted it with a polite bow.

Kurgael carried a pair of hand bells dangling from his beak and stretched himself out upon his breast across a backless lounge that had been fashioned for his comfort, his wings and tail relaxed to either side and behind. The lounge had a slight elevation and declivity that freed his forelimbs, like those of the raptor his forequarters resembled, to be used more like hands. Intoran headed back the way he came only to return a moment later gently hoisting a cello by the neck. Malger nodded in approval when he saw all of the instruments arranged and smiled as best he could while blowing sweet breath across the mouth of the flute. He winked toward Charlie, and the two of them chased each other in a wild arpeggio into the highest register before vanishing in a flourish of staccato notes.

“Ah, good practice!” Malger said with a satisfied sigh. “Now, what notes did you give yon gryphon to play?”

“Something simple,” Elvmere replied as he played a series of short notes on each of the violin's four strings. “C and G.”

“So you didn't want a challenge then?”

“Improvising with you is always a challenge, master!” Charlie smiled as he drummed his finger tips atop the keys. When it came to music the raccoon still thought of himself as his father's apprentice.

Malger laughed and shook his head. “The key of C it is then. Kurgael, ring that C bell would you so my family and friends can tune ourselves?”

The gryphon nodded and looked at the two bells in his scaled and clawed hands, pondering which one he should ring. Elvmere leaned over and tapped the larger of the two bells with the end of his bow and the gryphon cracked his beak in an avian smile of thanks. He swung the bell downward and a clear tone, lush and metallic, filled the room. Four bows were set to strings and father and son played their flutes again, everyone comparing themselves against that tone. Kurgael had to ring it twice more before each of them were satisfied.

They waited for the last echoes to fade before Malger put flute to snout and blew a simple melody. It rose stepwise at first, before lilting downward as a feather might drift on the wind. It resolved itself in a quiet but pleasing cadence before he began the melody again. Misanthe joined him, thrumming a few chords on the dulcimer, giving a soft vibration to her husband's song as if it were both sung and hummed at the same time.

Charlie began to play when his father repeated the lilting half of the melody. He began with a canon, repeating the first phrase of his father's melody, before embellishing it with a few trills, giving a new energy to the otherwise simple music. Beside him Suria put bow to string and started playing a counter melody of descending notes in the upper strings, like a long-breathed exhalation. The air felt pregnant with simple almost bittersweet delight and a hint of melancholy.

Egland, Intoran, and Elvmere all joined in at the same time providing a lush depth to the otherwise soprano melodies from the Sutt family. Intoran and Egland especially plumed their lower strings, at first in octaves and then in tenths. Their rhythm was completely united, as both elk and oryx could anticipate each other even better than Malger and Charlie. Elvmere preferred to provide a simple harmonic line that shifted with the delicate counterpoint in the flutes and Suria's violin. The beautiful music reverberated in the air, punctuated by the occasional peals from Kurgael's bells. Even these blended into the song, as Malger and the rest were careful not to modulate to any keys in which the C and G would become unpleasant to hear.

And modulate they did. Malger embellished his melody even further than Charlie had, so much so that the very harmonic structure took new turns. Charlie played a few discordant notes deliberately to add some tension, but otherwise followed his father into the new key. The quartet of strings, their voices soulful, bright, and deep, kept pace with them, while Misanthe began to hammer the dulcimer in an outline of the original melody but now faster and with increasing intensity.

What had at first begun as a pleasant adagio had now accelerated into a playful allegretto. Malger and Charlie traded notes back and forth, while Suria and Elvmere mimicked them with quick staccato runs, the bows bouncing off the strings to create a humming effect as if the room were filled with butterflies. Intoran added heft to the bass with double-stops in the low strings mixed with repeated notes that threatened to become a march but could not quite manage it with the slightly off-beat tune in the flutes. Egland allowed his bow to sing with long tremolo notes as if it were a man at a dance with no partner forced to watch everyone else enjoy themselves.

Egland's playing was so impassioned that as one both Charlie and Malger slowed their pace until each was echoing the other in measured chromatic turns in their lowest register. The effect was sombre and the others responded only seconds later. Kurgael appeared perplexed by all the changes, but he seemed to understand that he should let the ringing of his bells fade. Elvmere and Suria played a soft thrumming harmony with quick repeated notes, while Intoran echoed the flutes with a growling chromatic scale on his lowest string.

The elk tilted his head from side to side as he drove the viola from misery into a feverish rage. Elvmere and Suria's bowing became faster and faster, more exaggerated as they rose up out of the depths to their highest string. Malger and Charlie followed them up, dancing around each other in discordant scales. Misanthe struck notes next to each other to add to the confusion. Intoran bowed heavy chords on three strings, a tremendous feat since his hands only had two thick fingers.

And just when the music reached a brilliant climax, Suria shot into a fast-paced dance with a wicked grin spread across her fangs. Even Charlie had to fight not to chuckle into his flute at her feisty invention. Kurgael awkwardly rang both of his bells much faster, looking back and forth at the rest of the musicians hoping that somebody would let him know he was doing the right thing. The other string players were quick to follow Suria in her new light-hearted dance. Malger piped a bright little counter melody that Charlie immediately recognized as yet another variation on the original theme. He joined his father in the merrymaking and soon all of them were tapping paws and hooves, rocking back and forth in time to the beat; even Kurgael seemed to feel it right as he was able, after a few false starts, to ring his bells on the beat.

With a final flourish, all of them blew and bowed a brilliant chord in the original key and waited to let the sound echo away in the chamber. Malger took a deep breath and lowered his flute, jowls twitching to straighten out his whiskers. Charlie felt his heart pounding with the excitement and his whiskers trembled as he finally lowered his flute. Egland lowered his viola with tender care. Intoran leaned back, both hands wrapped about the cello's neck, his head tipped back in a warm laugh.

“Ah, now that was fun. A good warm up. We must –” He trailed off, his smile widening, at the distant sound of applause drifting in through the open balcony doors. Turning, they all looked through the open doors and spied the balcony that stood from the Keep wall some distance opposite them and a floor higher where the Duke relaxed with his own family. Malger stood and walked out onto the balcony to offer the royal family a wave and then a courtly bow replete with flourish of hands and tail before returning to his family and guests. “It seems our audience approves.” He chuckled warmly, brushing his fingers lightly across the ruff of Misanthe's neck as he came to stand behind the lounge upon which she reclined while Suria sat at its foot. “As I meant to say, we should gather to enjoy song and music more often. And well you should, even in my absence.” He admonished with a glance at Charlie and Egland. “A house of music is one bereft of sorrow.”

“Did you play any down south?” Egland asked as he returned his viola to its case.

“Oh, snatches here and there,” Malger admitted. “When there was time. I suppose I owe everyone a little story about what happened.”

“Yes, Father!” Suria begged, eyes bright, ears erect, and tail stiff with her excitement. “Tell us what happened!”

Malger laughed, stretched out an arm, and ruffled the fur atop her head. “I'm gone not quite five weeks and you all act like it was five months! Very well, I shall tell you. I warn you though, it is not very exciting. I will not be responsible for you falling asleep where you sit while I tell my tale.”

“I could never fall asleep from one of your tales, Father!” Suria assured him with a slight yip to her voice. Charlie chortled under his breath when he heard it. Ever since she had changed Suria had hated the little animal noises she sometimes made without realizing it.

Malger glanced at his family and friends, and even at his Steward Aspittier, Timothy and Peter, and the other handful of servants who had come to serve them that afternoon. “All right, well set those instruments aside somewhere and we'll get started.”

Leaning over he gently lifted Suria's violin from her delicate paws and slipped it under his chin. “The journey from Metamor to Weislyn was, thankfully, so uneventful I shan't bore you with the details of broken wheels and cracked traces.” He slowly drew the bow across the strings bearing out a minor note that sounded both bored and flat. “We are known well so not even a surly gateman stood to challenge our entry, for the beasts of Metamor are passing common even beyond our borders, this far north.” The bow returned in a higher register, denoting the satisfaction of achieving a goal, if a minor one. “But thieves abound.” A slightly quicker draw accompanied by a dance of his fingers along the frets. “News I was not given to know as the messenger bearing it passed over our heads, bringing such tidings to the Duke, yonder, who listens to our chorus with pleasure. Upon the messenger's return the missive I gained was thusly simple;

“Recover what was stolen, or recompense in turn, for a mighty lever was given to us by that very theft.” A downward cascade with a stroke of the bow, from merriment to ire. “For, you see, it comes about that a trade caravan bearing goods toward Marigund carried more than was listed upon its manifests. A full ingot, a full stone's weight, of our precious Mithril was discovered during a routine inspection of the caravan as it paused in Weislyn.” The bow stopped upon the violin's lowest register with an abrupt skirl of dissonance as Egland let out a snort of surprise and Charlie's eyebrows lifted. “Ah, yes, indeed my friends and loves, a full stone's weight in one unbroken piece, an amount the good Duke would unlikely trade away to many eager kingdoms, much less to a single guild sitting smack in the middle of a Kingdom that bandies treaties yet calls us enemy.”

He lowered the violin slightly and smiled over the polished wood, tapping its edge lightly with the back of the bow, “And, thus, having come to entreaty for more protection along a key route of trade, I found myself in the strong position of the affronted party from whom something precious had been stolen, and this is what I did.” For the next hours, even beyond the falling of full night and the slow quieting of the land beyond the balcony, and long after the Duke's family had retired from their own, Malger wove a complex tale of politicking and intrigue, all to the deft accompaniment of nothing more than a single violin. Though without the subtle magic of a true Bard, he made the violin speak as clearly as his own voice, trailing through complex allegro cascades of triumph and slow dirges of anger and shadowy deals brokered behind closed doors.

Through his lengthy discourse from which Metamor emerged with a profit that could not be measured in coin, gained by laying guilt and pulling shame, everyone remained rapt. Even the two young rats assisting the Steward, ever easily distracted and short of patience, eventually came to rest upon stools or railings simply to listen, enraptured by the almost poetic singing delivered in a conversational voice accompanied by naught but a single instrument of music. By the time Malger let the music trail away only the last fading tolls of the chapel bells calling the second watch offered hint that a city resided beyond the horizon of the balcony. A single steady light shone from the windows of the Duke's residences; Thalberg's chambers, where the alligator was very likely diligently planning the day to come.

As the last notes faded into the night the small audience seemed to twitch, coming back to themselves from the distances traveled upon music and word, and as one they all leaned back upon their seats or lounges and let out a collective sigh.

“Rapturous,” Misanthe breathed with a soft clapping of her petite vulpine hands. “A minstrel, a royal, and one of the most devious schemers I have ever known.” She grinned with a flash of bright white teeth. “And I have known more than my fair share. Yet none so subtle, and quick to turn vulnerability into strength!”

“I daresay the Verdanes, Otakars, tradesmen, and the mages of Marigund are going to be a lot more careful when I'm sitting across the table from them in the future.” Malger chuckled, his throat dry and his arms sore from holding the violin and stroking its strings for the better part of three hours. He smiled and gratefully accepted a chalice of wine from Timothy, holding violin and bow in one hand while he slaked his dry throat. “But this does bring to light a grave concern; whom in the complex, carefully secreted line of handlers has deigned steal so much from Joy's Legacy that they can trade half a kingdom's value with such aplomb?” He held out the chalice and Charlie's younger brother eagerly refilled it while Peter fetched a plate of meat stuffed pastries left over from their meal.

“A grave concern indeed.” Elvmere offered with a rasp before coughing and clearing his throat with a penitent moue. Laughing, Timothy fetched another chalice from the service and pushed it into the surprised raccoon's hand before carefully tipping the ewer to fill it. Charlie looked on quietly as he watched his brother by flesh but not name handle the vessel despite the fact it was as tall as his arm was long and doubtlessly weighted no small amount. “Prizing the culprit out will be difficult.”

“The question is,” Intoran opined as he rubbed his jaw, accepting a tankard from Peter with a smile and a nod of gratitude. He paused to drink and collect his thoughts. “If they have been so bold as to offer up an entire ingot, as such things are kept within Kyia's own vaults inaccessible to any but the Duke's family and Master Purser, how much has gone overlooked already?”

“Ah, the list of responsible parties is short.” Malger nodded, setting aside his chalice. “These concerns I will bring before Malisa in the morning, and Thomas shortly thereafter.” He held up the violin with a slight smile. “Though without the musical accompaniment.”

Everyone shared a laugh and nodded, congratulating Malger on keeping them entertained with the droll, dry complexities of politicking, and slowly bid their farewells. In only a short amount of time only Malger's family remained, and the quiet presence of their Steward standing attentively by the doors of the hall leading to their respective bedchambers. Suria retired with a yawn, her russet tail flicking as she stretched. Malger dismissed Aspittier with nothing more than a glance and brief nod, something the white tiger was long used to, leaving him alone with Charlie and Misanthe.

Reclining back into the chaise, with Misanthe comfortably curled up against his front, Malger cast a sober look toward his son. “You and I will find this thief, Charlie.” He murmured as he offered his wife a slow nuzzle between her vulpine ears. “Only we can.” His hands stroked lightly against the front of the vixen's gown lightly and he smiled when she tilted her head back to peer up at them, getting a brief kiss in return. “Misanthe may aide us in our efforts as well. We will need many eyes, and many actors, to prize out this traitor.”

Charlie stood as well and stretched, his tail thumping the lounge as it lashed animatedly behind him. “When, Father?” He asked with a groan, relaxing from the stretch and licking his whiskers.

“Two, perhaps three nights hence, we will begin building the stage for our play.” Malger smiled up at him. “I will advise Thomas and the Prime Minister to say nothing, and launch no investigation, until we have discovered whom they should seek, and how they should investigate.”

With a nod Charlie smiled, “Very well. If that is all, I would retire.”

“Rest well, son.” Malger churred while Misanthe merely smiled, her vulpine eyes gleaming in the light of the last guttering candle. Charlie turned and closed the hallway door as he passed from the common room. His adoptive parents would enjoy the night air for a time more discussing whatever it was married folks discussed before their own slumber. But Charlie did not feel tired, merely aggravated and restive. He had so many questions, so many doubts, and was so confused about what he had been told but, more importantly, what he had not been told. Through Malger's complex discourse he had found himself distracted, already very familiar with the complexities and layers of his father's machinations and manipulations.

He could tell a lie that sounded like Eli's direst commandment and make the truth seem like a bald faced lie, but Charlie had learned to see through the masquerade. He knew when his father was obfuscating something, and in the hallway he had read the profoundness of his evasive dodge.

A lutin, standing beneath one of the many sconces lining the hall, looked up as Charlie passed. In one hand he held the empty bowl of a lantern and in the other a tun of fresh oil. The recently cleaned glass chimney was carefully perched upon a towel nearby but Charlie paid it, and the lutin who tended his household's lamps, candles, and other illuminations, the slightest heed. He swept into his rooms so brusquely that the two residents sleeping in the foyer jumped up from their cots in startlement. “Master Charlie,” the human, Hogue, muttered somewhere between sleep and startled wakefulness while the gazelle, Jackson, merely blinked up from his awkward seat upon his cot. “We did not expect when you would –”

“I can tend my own bed for now,” Charlie retorted, though gently, as he waved his two body servants back to their rest. “Please tell Bron I wish a simple wardrobe for the morning, and the blue doublet come afternoon once my training with master Vidika is complete. I will break my fast only when I awaken, not at the table hour.”

Hogue bobbed his head and stifled a yawn, “Yes, milord. We shall see to it.”

“If I am in the black room come dawn, awaken me.” He turned at the door to his chambers proper, “Otherwise, allow me my sleep until the ninth bell, lest I miss another day of arithmetic.”

Hogue nodded again to Charlie's drawing the door closed.

Doffing his clothing, casting the lot onto his canopied bed in a heap, Charlie crossed his room. Behind the bed was the door which led into the baths, to the other a smaller balcony much like the one beyond the common room, opposite this his sitting room where he could more comfortably and privately entertain his guests, and directly across from the entry door was both his reading room and one other. It was to this other that Charlie strode clad only in fur and the crescent moon medallion he always bore around his neck. Where he went none would be concerned with his manner of dress, his station, education, or family. Pulling open the door he stepped through into darkness.

The room he knew as well as his own flesh; it never moved, it never changed, but it was wherever Charlie needed it to be within the ever changing geometry of the Keep, the stone body of the spirit Kyia who maintained it. He had only seen that being, revealing herself in the form of a young woman or child in diaphanous gown, two or three times in the length of his life. Others, he knew, saw her far more often such as Elvmere who admitted that he conversed with her at least that many times each month. It was a small room, scarcely eight paces to a side, the floor strewn with simple pillows, the walls draped with curtains to dampen the sounds of the world without though there were no windows.

Moving toward the center of the room Charlie stopped before his shins caught the edge of the low table. He did not see it, he did not need to; the room's every inch was a comfortable memory. With exquisite care, he slipped his claws beneath the chain about his neck and lifted the medallion with its pearlescent lune and hung it from a small hook on the wall, the only thing other than the drapes that touched the walls. Charlie then crossed his legs and sat down upon the cool stone of the floor, gathered a couple of pillows close to either side. Just as he knew exactly where the table was, he knew exactly what rested upon it, and exactly where each item rested. A candle holder within which was a long taper, beside which was a flint and steel. There was nothing else in the room for nothing else was needed. He brought it to quavering life with a couple of quick strokes of flint and steel and returned it to the candlestick.

Charlie further braced himself with pillows on three sides, his tail tracing a sinuous path between them. Shadows were not cast so much as pierced by the flickering light, revealing Charlie's clawed feet, brown-furred legs, and his hands resting atop his knees. Beyond the candle he could see the silver crescent of Nocturna to whom he and his father owed their faith and in whose service they traversed the world of dreams.

Staring into the wavering flame Charlie slowed his breaths, allowed his body to relax and his mind to still.

Many nights he had spent in this room on some errand when an omen was to be given for good or ill, or a lesson taught to a particularly dangerous interloper in Metamor's affairs. And many nights Charlie had come merely to wander about the dreams of the many diplomats who'd come to Metamor seeking favors or concessions, or even secret knowledge with which to arm their distant lieges. By these dreams Charlie could advise the Duke and steer him and his family away from those who meant Metamor harm. And by these dreams he and his father would seek out the thief whose betrayal had nearly given an ingot of mithril into the hands of their enemies and bring an end to his larceny.

Rarely did he ever peer into the dreams of others for his own sake. This was a rare moment.

The tall candle whose color was lost to the darkness stood on a small table in front of him so that he could stare through the flame and at the crescent moon emblem on the wall beyond. His eyes traced its contours, the edge of the lune shimmering with each twitch of orange light. The rat's breath came slowly, measured and deep. Each inhalation took longer than the last. The soft pillows at every side seemed remote now.

The air blew across his tongue, past his incisors, disturbing the flame so that for a moment the crescent moon would flash brighter before the darkness closed around them ever more tightly. Charlie felt his body relaxing and sinking ever deeper into slumber. His eyes drooped until even the flame and crescent became indistinguishable blurs and then they closed.

 

The flame led to clam, the calm to its center, and in the center was focus.

 

But behind his eyelids was something other than a candle in the darkness. Where other men would drift aimlessly and with little purpose through strange vistas, familiar or not, as their body rested, Charlie moved with purpose and with control. He stood in a vast chamber with colonnades rising to a ceiling imperceptible in the heights. Heavy granite blocks fit tight together spread beneath the colonnades and his feet, stretching in every direction. He gazed through the luminous gloom, strange wisps of air that resolved briefly into faces, snouts, and beaks, before vanishing like smoke in a gust.

Already standing, Charlie began walking between the colonnades. Though any direction looked the same as any other, he knew enough to judge whether his path was valuable or not. The value was in thoughts, ideas, and particular events that replayed themselves over and over again. It was the only way to find a specific soul; follow the strongest thoughts that they would be thinking.

But when another sleeper was miles away, Charlie first had to in some sense get past all those sleepers who were between them. As he walked the colonnades dwindled in proportion, the ceiling sloping downward. The heavy circular blocks stacked one atop another were replaced with wooden beams and mortises joining above with plastered walls on either side. Braziers lit the way, while wooden doors were fitted side by side so that they shared the same hinges. Voices floated through the wooden portals, some soft as if whispered, others shouted in anger, in fear, in joy, while still others laughed in merriment or in coquettish foreplay. The rat, cloaked with an air of indifference, strode past all of them without even a twitch of his ears.

The posts and lintels continued to dwindle in significance until even the plaster was gone, replaced with open air and trees. The night sky glimmered with the sparkling of fireflies bouncing from one branch to another. The stone gave way to soft moss and fallen leaves. Despite his toes crushing the dried leaves, he passed silently through their midst. He ignored everything around him until the ground returned to stone.

The forest around him thinned as walls returned, stretching up between branches to form arches and doorways. He slowed his pace, whiskers twitching as he wandered into the maze of sleeping thoughts and vistas, each echoing from one of the portals half open on every side. This time he did not enter whenever he heard his quarry's name. He already knew what he was looking for.

The rock lifted him ever upwards until he returned to a familiar portal in the mountainside. He paused before the ivy covered arch with its purple blossoms only long enough to take a deep breath before plunging into the darkened passage. He'd found the sleeper he was looking for.

Beyond the portal he entered what appeared to be the Cathedral in Metamor. The stained glass windows showed nothing in particular but smears of color, while the statuary normally lining the walls were completely missing. A long red carpet was stretched out in the middle of the sanctuary beside which numerous Keepers stood waiting; he recognized a few faces but most of them were so nondescript that he could not force his eyes to linger upon them. Near the altar almost all of those in attendance were rats. Charlie walked toward them.

The cathedral stretched a great deal longer than even Metamor's variable geometry was wont to do in his treks through the castle. The altar, instead of coming nearer, receded as he walked toward it, the figures standing before it losing definition and blending together, though they remained the strongest and clearest figures in the vaulted chamber.

The distortion lasted several seconds before everything snapped into focus. At the altar garbed in so many robes and with a heavy miter and stole that he seemed to be holding himself up by his crozier was Bishop Hough. Before him he could see an elegantly garbed lady rat who he recognized as Bernadette, with his sire holding her arm. A fine but modestly dressed groundhog waited for her at the altar with a bit of wood between his incisors.

Not a memory yet, but a hoped for celebration that his sire enjoyed in his dreams that night. For a moment, Charlie felt a weight on his heart pressing him to leave this joy alone. But into that stirring of conscience questions pestered and then festered. Why did he give me up? What isn't my father telling me? What was the deal that was brokered? Why am I a Sutt and not a Matthias? His claws bit into his palms, his fur trembled, and the gorge choked his conscience silent.

Charlie stood behind them and held out his paws, pushing at the image of the gathered rodents at the front until they bent away as if they stood behind a curved lens. His eyes narrowed and his whiskers twitched along his jowls, as from up through the ground he dragged a pillar of rough stone. It churned its way through the close fitting slabs of the floor, and in the clouds of smoke that rose from the discarded rubble, the spectators and the walls of the Cathedral were lost to view. When the clouds dispersed there was nothing else behind them except a cool gray expanse that stretched an indeterminate distance to the horizon.

Hough was praying in the tongue of the Ecclesia, but with each new pillar of stone that Charlie raised into his sire's dream the words were harder and harder to distinguish. He narrowed his eyes at the back of his sire's head which had been carefully groomed and cleaned, the curve of each ear bright and pink in the warm light of the cathedral, and spoke with a resounding echo that drowned even the eruption of the pillars. “Remember the night when the bargain was struck. Strike the bargain again! Strike it!”

Those large ears twitched at the words, and a moment later his head began to turn from his daughter's wedding to the circle of stones which were nearly complete. The groundhog and Bishop Hough both stepped back and vanished as pillars burst through the ground at their feet. Charlie stepped forward, took his sister by the paw, and guided her away from their sire who started turning his bewildered head from side to side. His sister, once so substantial and life-like, became a caricature of herself, almost a thing of light and feathers within her wedding gown, before she was nothing but insubstantial veils. He tossed these beyond the boundary of the ring of stones and turned back to his sire.

“Remember the night when the bargain was struck.” Charlie urged in a fierce undertone. “Recall the bargain that was made! Awaken the memory forced into slumber and strike the bargain afresh!”

His sire's eyes turned from bewilderment to fright as he spun about on his paws, staring at the stone monoliths with trepidation, swallowing heavily while his fingers clenched into fists and his whiskers trembled. Though the light was diffuse and seemed to come from nowhere, a long shadow stretched from the rat's feet across the desolate rock-strewn ground. A broad, hulking shape as dark as shadow, but like the pillars casting none of its own, stepped from between the tallest of the stones, sharp claws scratching the ground. A tall, lithe figure slipped from between another pair.

Charlie kept on the far side from the trio, his eyes noting first the flamboyantly dressed noble that stood at Charles' side and put a restraining paw on the frightened rat's shoulder. Charlie's teeth ground tightly as he regarded this new revelation of Malger Sutt in his younger days; he had not featured in Charles' dreams before. Only then did Charlie realize that his viewpoint was different; he had occupied the younger Sutt's place in the memory, before, when it had been fresh. His sire had transposed Charlie for Malger in that remembrance but now, forced, he was drawing out more of the memory without the influence of his son's recent visit to color it. There was an air of nonchalance about Malger that Charlie recognized, though at the moment it seemed exaggerated as if there were nothing that could disturb his countenance. Neither figure seemed to notice the tall rat in occluded garments watching them with a scowl.

The third figure strode on long, slender avian legs, sharp talons scraping naked stone with each step. Its form was inkwell black; a darkness so deep and lustrous that it seemed to defy the eye yet shimmered with deep highlights that were almost blue in the sunless light of the memory. Wind whipped at the explosion of feathers that draped over her shoulders as both cloak and wings. Corvid eyes of ice blue peered from within the feather bulk, surmounting a long black beak as it towered above the Keepers. He could not tell whether she wore clothes or not, so difficult was it to keep his eyes on any one part of her for long. She stopped only a few feet from the rat and marten and gazed balefully down upon them. Between she and they stretched a slab of stone as wide and tall as a man and worn smooth from years of use. Unfolding from the raven's shoulders vast wings stretched out to either side with a throbbing whuff of sound that banished all others but the sound of Charlie's own heartbeat. Those wings spread to the pillars at either side, blocking everything behind her, offering the two mammals no escape around her. They must brace her or flee.

The raven curled her wings forward as if she were about to embrace the two figures, mantling round them like a raptor over its prey. Charlie took a few steps to the side so he could better see his sire's expression. His sire's long tail lashed and his eyes bulged in awe at the massive bird. Her beak creaked open with with a creak like the unoiled hinges of a heavy door. “You have come to ask something of me.” The great black bird's voice croaked, lost somewhere between the petulant rough nagging of a crone and the belligerent rumble of a bullfrog.

Charles shook his head. “This is done! I don't want to do this again!” Charlie's father became suddenly two; one still gazing up at the bird in fearful awe, another reeling back, peeling away from the first like a shadow given physical form, one hand out-thrust toward the tableau he sought to escape. The stones suddenly wavered, age worn contours blurring into a fog as the retreating form gained form and solidity and the one left behind faded to a fast dimming memory.

“Remember!” Charlie insisted, reaching out with one hand and grasping at the air as if to draw the escaping dreamer back into the nightmare he had conjured forth. “Strike it! Remember what you have forgotten, what you have hidden away!”

The two rats for a moment shared only a single point of contact; the tip of Charles' tail, one younger and less care worn but adamant in the expression on his face though awed. The other was older, worn by the passage of years and complexities of life, both its joys and its sorrows. At Charlie's admonition the elder of the pair clutched his head, shaking it powerfully as he sought to curl his tail around his ankles. For a moment Charlie feared he had gone too far, that he had pushed too hard, as the dream wavered but the raven did not. The elder rat, for some seconds, coalesced in greater detail as he wept into his hands. He fell back a half pace as if he sought to flee the memory, stepping into the shadow pooling at his younger self's paws. The younger Charles for a moment appeared to sink into his own shadow down to where the fur stopped at his ankles. But then he righted himself and the look of panic dwindled into determination. “I have come for one last time to be with my son robbed by the grave.”

The raven lowered her head so that tip of her beak very nearly brushed his nose. “You come for a soul.” She croaked flatly, ice-blue eyes boring into those of the rat before her. “Have you a soul to offer in return?”

“Is that what you wish of me? A soul?”

The ebony beak dipped in a slow nod. “You have two that may be offered in recompense for that which you desire.”

Malger watched all with implacable calm, almost as if it were he that was a statue and not sometimes Charlie's sire. The only motion Charlie could see from the younger recollection of his adoptive father was a slight turn of his snout from the rat to the raven. At the mention of an exchange of souls the remembered Malger barely lifted a single brow in curiosity.

“What two souls might satisfy you?” Charles asked in a somewhat timorous voice.

“Your own.” The raven said as she leaned her head back slightly as if it were an invitation for him to fling himself into the embrace of those night-dark wings and deadly looking talons.

“My own?” Charlies scowled, looking for the trap that he felt had suddenly been laid before him. “What do you mean my own?”

“Surrender your soul to me.” The raven's harsh voice croaked as she held out an arm, her fingers flexed, claws as black as her beak glinting in the sourceless light. “Give up your life, then you can be reunited with the soul stolen by the grave.”

Charles frowned and glared up at her. “No.”

As if expecting that answer she lowered her hand and chuckled. The sound sent a shiver racing down Charlie's spine; he had never heard the like before in his life; that doomful croak of tortured harridans upon the throaty thrum of taut-stretched ropes in the wind. “Then set aside what you embrace and bend knee to the night, to me and my voice.” Her wings spread further, stretching behind the stones in a black mist before curling forward to encompass the rat and the marten and their observer. “Become my disciple and worship me as you would Him.”

The rat shrank in disgust, his shadow swelling in proportion to the raven's embracing wings until it was larger even than the feathered harbinger of doom. “Never! I will never worship any but Eli!” The last word cracked like a thunderclap and Charlie felt the throb of sound pulse through his breast and sent him back a pace in surprise. The raven, however, seemed unfazed and Malger's memory merely rocked momentarily in place like a sailor on the listing deck of a ship.

“And yet you come to me for help to bring for a short time a soul from His domain,” The raven noted with dry amusement.

Charles ground his incisors together. “What other soul will satisfy your demand?”

Slowly standing to her full height the feathered night queen peered down the length of her raven's beak at him. “You know of whom I speak.”

“Whom?” Charles' whiskers twitched and his tail lashed behind him. “Name the soul, and I will bear it forth to reclaim what has been stolen from me!”

“Blood of your blood. A soul stitched from the shrouds of your own.” She seemed to loom larger as she spoke, leaning forward as if to stoop down upon the rat before her. “The soul of your eldest.” Once more she stretched out an arm, claw curling above the empty palm extended in askance. “Tear his heart from his breast and bring it to me.”

“No!” Charles bellowed. “I will not kill my son! I will kill no one for you, harridan!”

The raven's head cocked bird-like to peer at him with one glacial eye. “Then you withdraw your desire?”

Trapped, Charles' tail lashed and the shadow shifted about his paws though the light without source did not change. “I do not. I cannot.” He crossed his arms and stared down at the shadow stretching away from his paws. At length he looked up, voice resolute. “I will not kill him.”

Black wings rose and fell in a shrug. “He is already mine.” Her croaking voice intoned. “Though you refuse to see it. I will have him, whether you bring him to me or not he will come, willing or no. All you do is deny him peace.” She leaned down to bring her head level with Charles', tilting it the other way to bring her opposite eye to bear upon him. “But you need not spill his blood to surrender to me his soul.”

Charles did not shrink back from that baleful corvid gaze. “Name it.”

“There is another whom you know, who walks in my shadow.” The focus of her eye shifted and Charles' gaze followed it toward the unmoving form of the pine marten standing nearby. “He brought you to me, did he not? He walks where you cannot, but the soul I desire can. And will, ere you give him up or refuse.” The raven leaned in even closer now so that her beak pressed against his left ear. The blue eye peered over the top of the rat's head straight at Charlie, the first figure in the nightmare he had forced upon his sire to notice him. “That is the bargain I demand; his soul becomes mine and that which was taken from you I offer in return, for a time.”

Charlie's eyes widened and his jaw slowly unhinged as the raven stared at him with one eye over the top of Charles' head. Each word felt as sharp as a knife to the chest. Charlie trembled and fell back against the nearest pillar, his claws gripping its uneven surface to keep him from tumbling to the ground. His heart beat so loudly that he feared and in some way hoped the dreamer would hear it.

But his sire only swallowed and nodded. “Agreed.” He said curtly, flatly, cutting the air with one hand. “I offer you my eldest for the return of my youngest.”

Her beak darted forward and sliced through the soft flesh of his left ear. “The bargain is struck,” she cawed, the blood flecking from the tip of her beak across his snout. Charles winced but did not recoil. Tears streamed down the side of his face. The shadow at his feet stretched upward to swallow him whole.

Charlie pushed himself up from the pillar until he managed to stand. His entire body shaking, he flung himself through the pillars and out of his sire's dream entirely. His legs carried him down the mountainside and through the maze of doors, stone, and trees at a blind, reckless charge. He brushed hot tears from his eyes and curdled the scream that boiled inside his lungs. Around him the vestiges of dreams writhed in the proximity of his rage. Trees withered and snapped, stone faded and crumbled while the doors, those portals that would lead him into the dreams of others, slammed shut with echoing reports. His feet caught at roots and loose paving stones and finally he tripped and tumbled down the path. Every rock and branch that clubbed him as he hurtled past left a sweltering bruise as if he were not moving between dreams but dodging them as they crashed down about him.

Finally one root refused to yield to the fury of his passage and hauled him up short when it caught his toes. Charlie spun awkwardly and slammed his back against a rough-hewn wall of stone. Only then did the root turn loose his foot and he was sent sprawling ignominiously upon his posterior with a sharp flash of pain from his tail. He landed at a turn in the path and cradled his tail which was swollen in three places as he tried to ease himself up. Injuries like this would fade quickly for him, but those brief moments he would suffer them as if he had been beaten by men with clubs. He took several shallow breaths and straightened himself out, hands pressing on his knees as he let his tail swing back behind him. A presence, like a shadow in a realm where no shadows were cast, fell over him.

Charlie sensed Her presence like a pressure building in his ears. “You should not have done that.” The corvid croak was admonishing, without the weight of doom that had been an unheard warning to the memory of Charles' dark bargain. “You know better.”

He turned back the way he'd come and there, hulking in the passage between dreams, was the raven. Her night black feathers glistened with highlights of midnight blue while her arresting gaze, now an azure not so glacial but uncompromising still, regarded him. She was some distance from him and did not feel threatening; her reprimand was cool as if his obedience or disobedience ultimately did not matter to her. He tensed and drew himself up in full measure and glowered back at her.

“You bargain for my soul and that is all you can say to me!” He shrieked with petulance at the portent of doom standing betwixt the dreams with him. “'I know better'?” He snatched a brick from a wall without heed to the mortar holding it in place and hurled it at the bird. “Leave me be!” The brick flew true but slowed as it neared the raven's breast only to pause in the air before striking her. Calmly she reached up to pluck it from the air and watched the young rat storm away down the formless path that wove between one dream and the next. Charlie expected the raven to follow him and to reprimand him further. That at least would have meant his barb had sting. But she did not follow him, she did not stop him, and he heard no more reprimand from his Goddess.

The walk back to the colonnades was long and he felt every bruise lance with pain at each step. But return he finally did, and with only an exercise of will, he roused himself from that place. The candle had burned a quarter of the way, the wax pouring out one side to leave an intricate trail of stalactites on their way down. The pain was gone from his muscles, but he still trembled.

Charlie stood, kicked the pillows away, and walked around the small table to where he'd hung the silver crescent on the wall. His paws grabbed the lune, ripped it from the wall, and though he bent and twisted in incoherent rage, he could not mar the metal. With a gurgled scream he threw it at the far wall where it clattered and fell face down in the corner while the struck curtain shimmered. Only a glimmer of the medallion's edge was visible in the candlelight.

He averted his eyes and took several deep breaths to still his emotions. Was he angry? Was he sad? What was he feeling? Charlie wrinkled his nose as a trail of smoke brushed across his whiskers and with a flick of his arm knocked the candle over where it snuffed itself on the ground. Hot wax burned the back of his hand for a moment before cooling and hardening there. In the darkness he picked the wax clean and simmered.

He felt like a prize pig at market.

Charlie swallowed the curse that leaped to his tongue, found the latch at his side, and slammed the door shut behind him. He would find no sleep this night.

 

 

In distant Narrows another rat found his slumbers dashed and any pretense at peaceful rest snatched away. Baron Charles Matthias lay wide awake in bed, face turned from Kimberly so that she would not hear him, sobbing into his pillow.

Memories, as horrible and sharp as any headsman's axe, wrapped icy fingers about his heart and squeezed.

 

 

 

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"Divine Travails of Rats", copyright Charles Matthias and Ryx