June 11, 708 CR
Twilight limned the jagged coast of Sathmore to their east. Charles eyed the thin sliver of moon as his fingers tightened the main stay knots, his toes curled through the rigging, and his tail dangled in the empty air above the oar locks. The familiar scent of sea salt was tinged with the murky wash of seaweed and dead fish. After two weeks at sea he'd become accustomed to both and no longer twitched his whiskers in distaste.
After the first day he'd offered his services to Captain Calenti both in the oar locks and to watch at night. The Sutthaivasse seaman accepted the offer and in only two nights gave him over to a stoop-backed man half-deaf in one ear named Dandelo. Dandelo had a prodigious and inventive mastery of vulgar expressions in at least four tongues and demonstrated his talents at length when informed he would be teaching a four-foot tall rat how to be a sailor.
The first week out from Menth they rowed with the current along the rocky coastline at the northern end of the Sea of Stars. Dandelo used his time to teach Charles the various knots and where each was used; he shouted obscenities and wished for a giant cat when the rat made a mistake. It was a uniquely humbling experience but after two weeks his knots were deemed “good 'nuff for dogs a–”; Charles dare not even think the last word.
When they passed into the Great Western Sea they turned south and hoisted the sails. During the Summer months the prevailing winds blew southeast along the coast of Sathmore which meant they could use them to make better time than oars alone. They were blessed with a few clear nights and so as they enjoyed the last of the moon's light they risked sailing in the wee hours before the morn. Charles had not appreciated the strength of the wind and the sail, and endured more epithets from Dandelo as he scrambled across rigging to tighten his knots when a sudden gale pulled them loose.
If not for his Sondecki strength he doubted he could have managed.
Most of their sailing was done in the day while he slept and so he missed seeing the great city of Elvquelin though he did enjoy watching the forests and small mountain peaks of Magdalain island slip past beneath the light of a half-moon. For now the shore was too distant to make out details. Dandalo told him there was little to see, “'cept farms 'n fields.”
Still, with the winds steady, he could watch the sunrise from the rigging and enjoy a moment of calm. In a few hours he would return to his chambers in the aft castle and try to sleep. He would kiss his children and wife awake and then climb beneath the warm sheets. He always slept better regardless of the nightmares when he knew his little boy would not see them.
In the beauty of the twilight morning it was easy to forget the horrors plaguing his sleep. Visions of his journey through the hells were his usual fare and while terrifying they did not frighten him nearly so much as experiencing anew his smoldering transformation into a Shrieker. He could still hear the shattering cry, launched from his own mouth, echoing within the iron chamber of memory. He could endure the hells with their elaborate tortures and soul-crushing monotony; but the cry of the Shrieker – his cry – thrashed him from his bed, gasping, paws slick with sweat.
But it was the new nightmare he feared seeing. Ever since the voyage began his mind conjured scenario after scenario ending in disaster on his return to Sondeshara. His punishments varied from confinement in the city which he would accept, to public flogging which crippled him, and even to having his Sondeck bound so he could no longer use it. Last night his family had been forced to watch as he was beheaded. Charles pressed his eyes shut tight and cursed under his breath.
And then he lifted his gaze to the heavens above the slender lune and whispered, “Eli, spare them such a fate. Spare me! Let me remember Mother Yanlin...”
Even as he traced the Yew across snout and chest, he felt a small touch of peace pierce the gloom of nightmare. It was as a grain of sand too small to see compared to the glimpse of a single ray of light from Yahshua's mother in her glory. But it was enough.
Charles smiled and murmured his thanks before climbing higher in the rigging. It was time to return to his duties.
Quoddy woke as the sky brightened but waited until the first rays of sunlight illumined the eastern shore before stretching his wings and nudging his brothers. On the second day of the voyage Sir Charles and one of the crew helped build a smaller nest on the main mast above the crow's nest suitable for them to watch and sleep. The same crewman, Vasco, half-dozed beneath them for a minute more before grunting and rubbing his eyes.
Lubec and Machias yawned their beaks and stretched their wings, easing up and giving each other what little space they could. They slept nestled together as true birds did, but once awake the habits of men returned.
“Good morning,” Quoddy squawked as he stood and wiggled his webbed feet beneath him. The wood they'd used stunk of tar and he was convinced it would stick his feet fast one day. “Sleep well?”
“We're at sea, of course I did!” Machias replied. He turned and dug his bright orange beak into his wing feathers to straighten them. “And there was a pretty lady puffin...” Lubec nudged him with his wing; Machias squawked in surprise as he hopped a step to keep upright. “Hey! She was pretty.”
“And you've been dreaming of her how many nights now?” Lubec asked as he looked over his black feathers.
The puffin scuffed his webbed feet. “Four or five.”
“Ten or twelve,” Quoddy corrected with a laugh. “Maybe we'll meet some when we return to Metamor.”
“In a year,” Lubec noted. He turned his head toward the sunrise and then to the sea. “A good year.”
“Aye, a good year!”
“I've never been this far south before,” Machias noted, his composure restored. He hopped closer to his brothers to peer toward the shore-line and gentle sea ahead of them. “You've been here before. How's the fishing?”
“Good,” Quoddy admitted as his stomach grumbled. “But don't try fishing at sea; you should always just see what's close to shore. All the fish you'll see out this far are too big to snatch. And the sharks... they might jump out and snatch you!”
Machias pecked him then fluffed up his white chest feathers. “I'm not stupid; I know you're teasing.”
Lubec shook his head, eyes darkening. “He's not. I've seen it.” His voice lowered, and for a moment Quoddy remembered his brother cormorant in the weeks after Gmork was killed. “A lone bird swooping low over the waters, beak jabbing into the waves to snatch a bit of mackerel, only to have a terror of the deep, a gray monstrosity whose jaw has teeth like knives, leap out of the water, bite down through his back, and disappear beneath the waves with only scattered feathers to mark the spot he perished.”
The cormorant shuddered, head drawn close to his chest. “What a frightful thing to see! I'll never fly close to the surface of the sea again.”
Machias gaped, blinking several times before he fluffed himself up taller and pecked both of them in the back as they laughed. “You two are terrible! Sharks don't jump out of the water to eat birds!”
“Nay, nay,” Quoddy admitted as he stopped laughing. “But the fish this far out are usually too big to grab. Stay close to shore and you'll be fine. There's even some crab and mussels hiding in the rocks if you want to give your wings a rest.”
Machias huffed one last time and cast his gaze toward the shore. “It's not as if we'd have time anyway. The ship's moving too fast to fish.”
“But there's plenty in the hold. I think I smell some cooking already.” Quoddy leaned his head out over their nest. It was the meager-est of scents overwhelmed by the tang of the salt in the sea, but the thin strand of sizzling fish was there. “Let's go see what Mogaf is making!” He spread his wings and jumped, spiraling around the rigging toward the deck.
His brothers, all scuffling forgotten, were quick to follow him down.
“It has been many years since I had so favorable a wind at my back,” Captain Calenti admitted. He bore the countenance of a boy who'd found a heroic knight's banner. One hand curled about a goblet of wine and the other trailed across a map of the coast as if they were the very wind he welcomed. “We will make your city, your grace, a week earlier than expected.”
Malger dae ross Sutt, once wandering minstrel and now Archduke of the ancient city of Sutthaivasse of Pyralis, tapped his chin with an appraising claw. The marten did not share the sailor's delight; he appeared a boy who'd bitten an apple only to find a worm within. “My messengers may not have even arrived by then. Nothing will be ready!”
“I suppose we could drop anchor for a day or two.” Calenti frowned and tapped the map. “There are coves we can shelter in if your need is great.”
Malger twitched his snout and peered past the sailor at the window. The sea rose and fell with the rocking of the ship. His sinuous body almost danced as it kept pace. “Nae, nae, Jerome's need is greater. Haste is for the best, but...”
Calenti eyed him for a moment; instead of asking he merely sipped his wine. Overhead they could hear the shouting of his men and the squeaking voices of the Matthias children. He thought of the Dreamer boy and a smile touched the edges of his muzzle. He turned his head so the Captain would not see. “It is merely an inconvenience. To enter my own city unannounced without preparations made for my arrival? It is not done.”
“Send one of the birds. Or Kurgael. Or one of the dragons!”
Malger chuffed. “The birds would struggle to reach the city ere your vessel does. You retained Kurgael, not I, I cannot trust him with such a mission. And Pharcellus... I fear my people would shower him with arrows before the message was delivered. Although, if I must arrive unannounced, he would make a mighty herald!”
And there would be little time for any assassins hired by the many schemers in the city to prepare their own welcome for him. But no time for his few trusted men either. He chittered a curse beneath his breath and turned back to the Captain. “There is nothing to be done for it. Very well, Captain, continue your course and let the wind guide you.”
Calenti's delight returned. “Thank you, your grace! You will not be disappointed.”
He wasn't. Minutes later he stretched in his hammock with flute to his snout. He whistled a wandering tune and stared at the tar-black wood above him. Dragons, birds, a dreaming rat, a wolf struggling to be a man, and intrigue beyond count in the city of his birth. What a splendid adventure this was turning out to be!
Garigan no more finished a meal of fresh-caught fish then he raced up the deck to start his shift for the day. Like his master he had volunteered to serve on the Venture Swift after their first day at sea. He already won grudging admiration from the seasoned men for the way he slithered through the rigging and pranced over the narrow cross-beams; it seemed little different to him than cavorting amongst the treetops of the Glen, and any reminder of home was a pleasant one.
He was impressed with how much there was for a sailor to do and he did all he was bid without complaint. But with the wind behind them and the sails full and steady, he had a few minutes to relax. A young sailor – younger even than the ferret – stood next to him in the rigging, checking and tightening the knots, all while smiling and sighing in relief for their respite. “So, Garigan, what's it like?”
“Hmm?” He flicked his tail and stretched his toes, careful not to nick the ropes with his claws. “What's what like, Marco?”
The youth appraised him with an anxious glance. “Well... fur... you know.”
Garigan chuffed and picked at the gray fur of his arm. “This? Well, I have been this way since my thirteenth year. After so long I cannot imagine not having fur, claws, fangs, a tail. I suppose I remember I could see better before I changed, and my nose was not as strong. Winter's were colder before I had fur. I need to eat meat or fish as often as I can. In Metamor it is just how things are. Here... it was awkward at first, and I heard some speaking behind our backs when they thought I couldn't hear them.” Marco's eyes widened. “Now I am glad I can be of help and being like a ferret makes it easier.”
“And your claws? And fangs? They look sharp...”
He laughed and waved those claws in front of Marco's startled face. For a moment he was reminded of the incorrigible pine marten Marcus and the way he would stare in awe and fright whenever Garigan made a threat in his serious voice. “They are. I need to be careful I do not cut the ropes as I climb. But I am used to them and very good with them. I remember one time while fighting Lutins I lost my sword and learned how strong and sharp these really were. All the blood...”
Marco's eyes were bigger than his head and knuckles white as plaster.
Garigan patted him on the back and laughed, squirming between a square in the ropes to climb a little higher. “Oh, don't worry Marco. We of Metamor are very careful about matters of fang and claw. I like you and look forward to sailing this voyage with you. Now come; it looks like the wind is shifting.”
Marco blinked and offered a nervous laugh. “Oh aye, aye, it is. Of course!” Together they climbed up the rigging to ready for the next gust of air.
Pharcellus remembered well the twists and turns he'd made in his efforts to fight off a dozen or so Lutins when they'd freed Fjellvidden a little over two months ago. As a dragon, even while in human guise, he contorted and snatched at anything near regardless where his attacker struck. A blow or two might land upon him with so many against him, but it would take many more such blows to fell a dragon.
Yet to the four Matthias children he lost each battle with ever-increasing delight. Under the watchful eyes of their mother Kimberly and the vixen Misanthe, the little rats cavorted about the poop deck and scampered under, up, and over Pharcellus. For his part he would stomp around and make menacing dragonish sounds, waving his arms at times like forepaws and others like wings as he sought each one. Those he caught in his arms he would nibble upon their necks or tummies before they squirmed free of his grasp. The rest of the time he let them slip through his fingers only to have them jump on his legs and back, clinging with sharp little claws, and from time to time biting with strong incisors.
Their mother would reprimand them each time they bit the dragon, but even though their teeth could injure his soft human flesh, he paid it no mind. It was no different than the play of hatchlings deep within the great caverns of the wyrms. These four had the incisors, claws, fur, and tails of rats for a reason; through play they would learn how to use them.
And while their energy did seem boundless, Pharcellus knew it was only a matter of time before he could corral them into motherly laps and regale them with a dragon's tale of adventure and mischief. The two boys were particularly eager for each story, especially when their was fighting involved. The girls were more apt to hide their faces at the scary parts, but their ears were always perked to hear what came next. But they always squeaked a laugh when the dragon lunged forward startling the boys deeper into motherly arms.
And when the tale was done the chorus of earnest squeaks would commence, all of them asking the same thing.
“Can you fly us, Master Phar! Can you, can you! Please1 Please! Fly us! We wanna fly! Fly! We wanna fly! Mommy, please tell him to take us flying! Please Mommy!”
The answer from Kimberly was always some variation of, “If you want to fly you had best eat your lunch and take your nap like good rats first!”
Pharcellus loved his new daily routine.
“Ah, there's nothing quite like flying, eh Lindsey?”
The young dragon turned his serpentine neck to offer the gryphon a toothy grin. They glided through the air, the winds as a gentle hand lifting them higher and higher until the Venture Swift was no larger than a pebble. Kurgael's golden beak was cracked in what long years at Metamor taught him was an avian's smile. “In sooth! And with this wind... Ah!”
Lindsey swung his head back and in his delight belched a tongue of flame. He could do no more yet and suffered a dragon's indignation at so minor a fire, but his brother assured him it would grow as he did. At least he felt confidant enough in flight to serve as both scout and defense for his friends.
Kurgael beat his wings until he flew beside Lindsey. His avian forearms gripped a wrapped bundle tight to his chest. Even as he spoke his piercing eyes scanned the waters below. “I heard it said you are not a natural dragon but a Keeper cursed like me; yet you call Pharcellus brother and are also said to be a young dragon. How is this so?”
His nostrils tightened; they'd only ever told Calenti and the crew he and Pharcellus were brothers and friends of Sir Matthias. Perhaps Kurgael overheard the birds discussing it. After what they endured together, he could never hold anything against those three. “I am Pharcellus's half-brother. We share the same dragon mother, though I have a human father.” He banked his wings and began a slow turn toward the empty expanse of sea. “It's a long story with a terrible villain, but in the end the villain died a fitting death and I became a dragon. Perhaps Phar can tell it some evening when the seas are calm.”
He wondered how his father Alfwig and his human mother Elizabaeg were faring. Had the men of Fjellvidden reclaimed the southern coasts yet? And what of Yajgaj the Lutin? Was he really his brother Andrig or was it a ruse of the Blood Harrow? One day he and Pharcellus would return to Arabarb and learn. And afterward he would need to meet his true mother and his dragon kin; it would be many years before he ventured back into the world of men. Pharcellus had never said so but the dragon in Lindsey knew.
Kurgael offered a whistling screech and clacked his beak together as he followed the crimson-touched gray-scale in his turn. “Do I get nothing more until then? This sounds a fantastic tale!”
Lindsey closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head. “It is a fantastic tale, but a painful one too. And for Jerome and the birds, Lubec especially. I don't know if they are ready to hear it told.”
The gryphon bobbed his head and then scanned the sea below. “Then I shan't pry. But, ah, to fly... even if I had the chance to become human again I would not take it. I do not even like taking the more man-like shape Sir Matthias and the Archduke use. This is what I like to be, and in the air is best of all!”
Lindsey's turn brought them around north so they could see the ship in the distance. The sails were full of the wind and even after only a few seconds it appeared larger. “I do wish I could walk on two legs again. But I'll never give up flying either!” His eyes scanned the sea between them and the ship, settling on a darker patch of water on their right. “Look there, what do you think?” He gestured with his head at the spot and Kurgael followed his gaze.
“A school. No doubt.” One avian claw unfurled the netting he carried. The lead lines snapped in the wind, trailing behind him threatening to tangle in his legs. Lindsey backed his wings and fell behind the gryphon, snatching the ropes with his forepaws. Once he had a grip he dove forward, drawing the net taut between them. Together they circled down through the layers of wind closer and closer to the rippling ocean. The net tugged and burned his fingers but he held it tight.
The dark patch proved to be a school of snappers. Most were too far below the surface to reach, but the pair dropped the net, holding only the guide lines as they flapped their wings hard, sluicing through the water and scooping the net through the surprised fish. When they lifted back into the air away from the sea more fish than Lindsey could count bounced and flopped within the net.
“Hah!” Kurgael squawked in triumph. “This should keep the crew for a week! At least until we reach Sutthaivasse.”
Lindsey grunted under the strain but kept beating his wings. “Indeed!”
“I think we're getting good at fishing.”
He could only nod once. Why couldn't he have been a full grown dragon like his brother?
Gmork's Prodigal reclined against the gunwale near the prow and stared at the small clouds drifting across the sky. He sat upon his haunches and rested his snout on the oiled wood, black nose sniffing the briny air, sweaty sailors, and the pungent catch dragon and gryphon had deposited on the main deck an hour past. He kept his hands as human as he could make them, but his black Sondeckis robe had disappeared into the silvery-black pelt of the wolf beast he'd become.
The wolf-beast his father had made him.
Gmork's Prodigal licked his nose and breathed in the same scents, golden eyes moving without haste to another cloud. There was nothing for him to do on the ship – the sailors kept their distance from him and even his friends were uncertain how to act around him, more often than not treating him as if he were an invalid at best and an untamed hound at worst. Charles and Lindsey always spoke to him as a man and dear friend and it was only in their company he found any comfort. The rest of the time he yearned to slink away and hunt the feral rats infesting the hold. He'd already eaten three – he spat the carcasses over the gunwale rather than let any see what he'd done – but it was not the same as hunting game with his father and brothers.
He turned his snout toward the sea; even thinking about loping through the woods felt a torture. With nothing else to do he stared at clouds and smelled the sea, letting each wash all thoughts from his mind. He heard every word uttered by the sailors but understood none of it. He would have nothing in his mind but sea and sky.
And so it took a few tries for his friend Charles to stir Gmork's Prodigal from his contemplation. The big rat kept calling him by that name. “Jerome!”
He flicked his ears and lifted his snout. The rat waved his chewstick at him and gazed with palpable concern in his protruding eyes. “Charles,” he garbled with his wolf tongue. He shifted on his haunches until he was almost sitting on his tail; his snout withdrew halfway into his face. “Charles. Forgive me. I wasn't listening.”
“I see,” Charles noted, stepping closer and gnawing on the chewstick for a moment. He bore baggy pantaloons an a tan vest much like many of the other sailors, but no undershirt as if he wanted to show off the brown fur covering his chest and arms and the muscles beneath. “How many clouds have you counted today?”
“I stopped counting hours ago.” He shrugged and managed to pull his snout in the rest of the way. He could even feel the cleft in his lips closing. “How did you sleep?”
Charles leaned against the gunwale, long tail thumping against the side as his eyes followed the latest cloud. “Well enough. I should have something to eat but I'm not ready for another fillet of fish.”
“There is a fresh catch.”
“I saw.” Charles stuck his tongue far out of his snout and wriggled his whiskers and nose in distaste. “I think we ate better in the swamps of Marzac.”
“Well, we ate different things.”
“In sooth!” Charles laughed and shook his head.
Gmork's Prodigal wagged his tail once as he tried to remember some of the worst things they had to scrounge on the last miserable miles of the swamp. Even the wolf's nature seemed revolted by them. “Are your litter sleeping?”
“For now. They gave us no trouble for once. The promise of a ride in Pharcellus's claws seemed incentive enough. His wing is looking much better.”
“He still mopes over it.”
The rat shook his head and lifted his free hand to brush across the black scar over his right eye. “How anyone can grumble about a scar earned in battle I will never understand. I keep telling him it marks him as a warrior true.”
“Dragons are different.” Gmork's Prodigal felt a twinge of disgust as he said the name. Father hated dragons.
“Aye, they are. Even Lindsey seems different now.” Charles shrugged and turned his back to the gunwale, the root of his tail dangling over the edge. “Speaking of scars, how did you come by the ones on your chest and back?”
Gmork's Prodigal forced the fur to recede into flesh. The tatters of his Sondeckis robe spilled outward and billowed around his haunches with only his tail and paws protruding. He lifted the edge of the robe and rubbed his fingers along one of the ragged gouges crisscrossing his flesh. One claw caught on the pink scar and he yanked his hand away. “Ah... these... you should know, Charles.” He tried to lick his nose again but his tongue was too human. “It was Marzac.”
The rat's countenance darkened and he gnawed on his chewstick for several seconds. “The corruption scarred us all it seems. I had thought...”
“My Father did this?” He winced at his own words.
“Gmork... aye...” Charles gnawed again, eyes staring at nothing. A few seconds more and the rat forced himself to turn back to Gmork's Prodigal. “Do you feel him?”
Now it was his turn to look away. His snout grew an inch from his face, nose darkening to black leather. The cleft in his lips returned as his jowls swelled. “Sometimes. Not like Marzac. Marzac was pitiless and never relented. My fa... Gmork does not always think of me.”
Charles twitched his whiskers and nodded. “Good. Perhaps I can help you not think of him too. Care to practice with me? I've a little while before my children wake and I'm sure we both need a little time with our Sondeck.”
Gmork's Prodigal wagged his tail.
“Mind if I join you up here?” Malger asked as he poked his head into the crow's nest.
“Your grace!” Machais cawed, hopping backward on his webbed feet and almost off the rim from which he watched the sea. Lubec stretched a wing to steady him, while Quoddy gestured at their wooden nest in welcome.
“You are most welcome, Malger, but I do not think you will fit.”
“Then this will suit me fine.” The marten was used to stretching out in odd positions and so with paws propped on the main crow's nest and side pressed against the main mast he only needed rest his elbows inside the trio's smaller nest to be comfortable. “I am sorry you have not been able to fly much this last week. Good for the voyage; not so good for you.”
“Oh, it's all right, your gra... Malger.” Machais bobbed his colorful beak at the correction. “Even in the flocks we stood around for hours on end. At least this time we have somebody to talk to.”
The marten blinked and shook his head. “I am impressed you could spend so much time living as normal birds.”
“The first year was hard,” Lubec admitted, shrugging his wings. “What brings you up so far, Malger?”
“It's my charter and I will go where I please!” He laughed and leaned his head back. “I also wanted to talk to you some. You've done very well delivering my messages so far. When we near Sutthaivasse I'll have more for you, but for now we have only to enjoy the sea air and the rocking of the wind and waves. Have you ever sailed before?”
Quoddy shook his head. “Sailors usually don't like flocks of birds pooping on their decks. Every time we even neared a vessel they'd chase us off or try to catch us in nets. After the first time I always kept away.” His brother nodded and the gull continued, “It's not a bad way to travel, though I do wish we could fly a little more.”
“This wind will not last forever,” Malger assured them. “And you are in my employ now. I promise you on our return to Metamor you will not lack for occasions to fly!”
“You'd like it if you could do it,” Machais noted as he lifted a webbed foot and clawed at his belly. “I'm sure Pharcellus or Kurgael could fly you about.”
Malger laughed again. “I'm sure they could. I'm happy standing on my paws for now, but perhaps. So I am told you know Kurgael?”
Th puffin nodded. “We visited him in his home in the cliffs south of the valley when we returned to Metamor each Winter. There are many Keepers who have chosen to live more like the beasts the Curses made us.”
“It can take many years to learn what we can do to earn our way,” Lubec added. The cormorant groomed one wing for a second and then said, “And for many of us we have to earn it by being what the Curses made us.”
Malger nodded, remembering Versyd and the other horses he'd hired. He wiggled his clawed fingers. “I am blessed to still have these then. I am very glad I could help you three. If you would be so kind, tell me a story of one of your adventures. I will gladly share one of mine.”
The brothers glanced at each other for a moment before Quoddy turned his beady eyes back to the marten. “Well, we've only truly had one adventure worthy of the name, but we could tell you about things we've seen men do when they think we are only birds.”
The marten laid his arms atop one another and rested his snout upon his wrists. “Now this is precisely what I wish to hear! Continue my friends!”
“Sir Matthias,” Captain Calenti said through clenched teeth and purple cheeks, “I must insist you keep your children from chewing holes in my ship!”
“Do they ever truly rest?”
Misanthe stretched her legs and arms as she leaned against the gunwale on the aft deck. Her slender snout lifted, golden eyes fixed upon the four little rats climbing through the rigging with their father and Garigan. “They are so curious, adventurous, and precious. I love them dearly already. But do they ever truly rest?”
Lady Kimberly favored the vixen with a knowing twitch of the whiskers. “I wondered the same thing when they were first born. They kept Charles, Baerle or I awake all hours of the night for the first few months. They wanted to sleep during the day! By Autumn they finally started sleeping through the night; I fear it is the only time they do rest. But at least we lived at the Glen; we have many friends and there were always eyes to watch them when care for other things took me away.”
Misanthe watched with steady eyes as elder rat and ferret helped them scramble up the ropes. Bernadette missed one and dangled for a moment by her arms, squeaking in alarm, until her father's hands cupped her back and tail, hoisting her up to where she could place her feet. The vixen let out a little gasp of air. “It still amazes me how old they seem.”
“Lady Avery told me her two boys also matured quickly their first few years. It slowed in time, and I believe theirs will too. It has something to do with being part animal. Still, they are beautiful to me and more precious than anything else I own.” Her fingers lifted to the stone medallion creased with purple lines that rested in her bodice. “Before I came to Metamor I never thought I would ever call a rat beautiful! Yet they are.”
“It has not always been so kind... the last time I was around so many humans I hid myself in the beastly guise.”
“And I heard it said you can talk even as a normal fox?”
Misanthe nodded, looking away from the children so as not to watch their father dangle them one-by-one from the yard. “Aye. It was not easy, but my... former master,” she resisted the urge to spit in front of Kimberly, “demanded I master it. Whether for his use or amusement...”
“But it is useful! I know of no other Metamorian who can claim such a feat.”
Misanthe favored the noble rat with a flick of her tail and lifting of her ears. “If you would care to learn, I might be able to teach you.”
Kimberly's whiskers drooped. “I am not sure if the voice of a rat could speak so.”
“Perhaps not. I wonder if there is not some magic about my skill but I have no way to know. But if you should change your mind...”
A chorus of squeaks overhead made both ladies lift their snouts. Charles and Garigan were bouncing one child at a time in the top of the wind-full sails. The girls squeaked their delight as their tails and legs flailed in the air. The boys squeaked their impatience as they stood unaided on the yard. Kimberly gasped and wrapped her hand tight around the medallion. “Charles! Garigan! What are you doing with my children?”
Her husband waved down to her with one hand as he lifted Baerle back up to the yard. He cupped his hands around his snout and shouted back down, “They're doing great! Don't worry!”
She shook her head and stifled a tremble. “I suppose if you are going to teach me, we should find somewhere to change without prying eyes.”
Misanthe rolled her eyes at the men and followed Kimberly beneath the deck.
“Enjoyed the spoils of fishing?”
Lindsey lifted his head from the hefty platter once filled with half-a-dozen cooked fillets. At first he'd been careful not to eat any of the bones, but the last three he'd given up and the final fillet he swallowed in single bite. His stomach still wanted more!
Behind him and just out of reach of his tail was his older brother in human guise. He'd tied his long red hair with string to keep loose strands from catching in the rigging. He combed his fingers through the end of the bundle as he smiled.
“I could have eaten twice as many,” Lindsey admitted as he scraped his claws across the platter. “Could you ask Mogaf to make more? I'll eat them cold if I must.” He glared at his midsection and then thumped his tail so hard on the deck a nearby sailor jumped. “Why am I so hungry, Phar? I haven't needed to eat this much since we flew back to Metamor!”
Pharcellus laughed and pressed his hands down either side of his spinal ridge. Lindsey felt the tension ease with each rub. “You are a dragon, dear brother! The more you fly the more you must eat. It is why our elders only fly when they must. You have been flying a great deal these last few weeks. I am surprised it has taken you so long to notice the hunger! I will ask Mogaf to make you a dozen more fillets. Trust me, you will eat every last one. And tomorrow you will have twice as many again!”
Lindsey swung his long neck around, staring down his snout at the plate empty but for the bones of the first three fish. “Two dozen? Three? Is my stomach so large?”
“You already ate a deer by yourself!” Pharcellus laughed as he pressed harder. His hands reached the base of Lindsey's wings and they began to stretch. “Just wait until you enjoy cow roasted with your own flame!”
The thought of beef flanks seared with his own breath made his jaws ache and fangs glisten with drool. “I'm hungry enough already and you taunt me more! Curse you for having a human form too! Tell Mogaf... tell him...” His tongue lolled from his snout as his brother's hands worked loose the tension in his wing muscles. He laid his head atop the plate, tongue licking the taste of fish from the last bones. “Tell him... more food... after this!”
Pharcellus laughed again. “Of course brother. There are so many wonderful things to enjoy when you are a dragon, are there not?”
Lindsey offered no argument as he stretched his sore wings and all his limbs. His stomach could wait.
The day waned though the wind did not. Even as the sun neared the sea and the sky bronzed as a leaf in Autumn the pace aboard Venture Swift slackened only to catch its breath. The sailors readied lanterns along the decks and masts while the first mate took readings of the shoreline for the captain while they still could see it. Captain Calenti listened to the man with one ear while the other and both eyes focused on their guests.
Atop the aft castle the Metamorians gathered in a wide circle while Malger played a variety of tunes on his flute. He'd passed out hand-made instruments to each of the children – a drum made from the remnants of a torn sail and scrap, finger cymbals made from hammered coins, a tube of metal for a whistle, and even a pair of rocks – and they played their parts with unbridled enthusiasm if not much rhythm. But the marten was skilled enough to wend his tune between their clanking, banging, and wheezing to bring something enjoyable forth.
Parents and friends clapped hands and paws in a boisterous march, while Lindsey provided a bass with regular whumps of his tail. Calenti's foot tapped in time and eventually his first mate grumbled and began muttering the numbers to himself. Malger offered him a swift arpeggio as he toiled in his evening duties.
A few of the sailors, their duties complete for the day, joined Calenti in watching the beastly company. One of them produced an old lute with two broken strings and sketched a passing accompaniment to the marten. Malger danced on his feet toward the older sailor, did a pirouette without skipping a note, and bobbed his head and chest in a way no human could have done to invite the unlikely musician to join him on the deck.
Pharcellus stood moments later and gave a third melodic voice with a loud whistling both deep and energetic despite his human guise. Malger's eyes lifted in surprise and the two proceeded to race up and down scales as if chasing each other to see who was fastest. Pharcellus easily glided between notes as his lips pursed and spread, tongue clicking against flat teeth to add accents with each change. Malger's fingers shimmered above his flute like hummingbirds feasting in a garden.
The sailor with the old lute scowled at both of them and played several sour notes until marten and dragon ended their race with a flourish and capped it with boisterous laughter. The children, seeing the song was done, started to hit each other with their instruments until Kimberly and Misanthe chided them.
“Who else will join us in our song? The night begs for music!” Malger declared, throwing his arms outward. “Charles, Garigan, Kurgael?”
Kurgael, who had been reclining to the far side of the deck, shook his head forcefully. “I've no ear for music, your grace. I'll listen happily.”
“If you've anything for us to play, we will!” Quoddy announced. He and his brothers perched on the gunwale and bobbed back and forth with each wave. “I won't promise we'll sound good.”
“Tonight is not about sounding good,” Malger assured them. He then offered a wink toward the sailor. “Sometimes sounding bad is the best thing of all. My good man, if you care to try it, I brought my own lute with a full set of strings. You have a good ear; would you care to try it?”
“Begging your pardon, your grace, but I've used my own for thirty years and could never play without it.” His hands ran down the wooden casing with a tender pride.
“Very well then! Quoddy, Lubec, Machais, I've nothing for you to play but I imagine you sing the spirit of the sea! Charles, Garigan, I know both of you can sing so do so even if you have no words. And Kurgael, if you are on this deck with us then you will do something. Fetch him a boat oar! You can drum it against the gunwale and help Lindsey keep time. All right now, children are you ready to play again?” He received a chorus of excited squeaks in reply. “Then let us serenade the night!” He laughed in delight as the most awkward sounding serenade began.
Within moments every sailor aboard either stared in bemused wonder or fled below decks to try to bury their ears beneath their arms.
He had tried to use one of the hammocks the first night he slept aboard the Venture Swift, but no matter how he laid down, Gmork's Prodigal was not comfortable sleeping in a man-like shape. So he found a corner in the hold near the stem, and laid upon a pile of rumpled blankets as a wolf. His nose wrinkled in disgust at the stink of man-sweat, fish, tar, and salt. He pushed his head into the blanket at his forepaws to muffle the stench; his own musky odor pervaded the blankets after more than a week of bedding in them and this was comforting.
The snoring of the crew offended his ears but he had already learned to ignore the more raucous sound of sleeping Keepers and so he folded back his ears and put it out of his mind as best he could. In an hour or so he would relax enough to sleep through the night. The crew knew not to venture into his corner – one fellow had stumbled over him while drunk and nearly lost a leg when Gmork's Prodigal snapped at him with his jaws – so he would not be disturbed.
He sighed into the blankets and stretched his hind legs. His time spent practicing with Charles had invigorated all of his muscles and for once the sedentary life forced on him had not let him sore and anxious. Perhaps tonight he wouldn't dream of loping through the woods with his father and brothers.
He briefly recalled the young boy, not even quite a man, from Fjellvidden, his face pock-marked with warts, who he helped deliver to his father. A part of him hoped he'd escaped back to his master the tanner and his fellow apprentices. Another part hoped he had a new brother. He trembled and flicked his tail, pressing shut his eyes in horror.
But no matter how he tried, his thoughts always circled back to his father. He could imagine his scent and the growl of his voice, and after these came his golden eyes and gray fur. His heart ached from absence and a fury seemed to beat within as if imprisoned. Why can I not hate you, father?
But he didn't and couldn't. He whimpered and whined for a few minutes, the wolf's only way to express his sorrow for what he'd become and what he'd done to his friends, to his brothers, and most especially to his father.
It came unbidden but the voice, guttural yet gentle, was his father's. I love you, my prodigal.
He lifted his head, ears erect. The snores of the crew met him. He offered a plaintive whine.
The prodigal returns to his father.
He whined again, lowering his head. He was Gmork's Prodigal. The prodigal never knew peace until he returned humbled to his father. He would be welcomed back with baying and joy. They would hunt and feast upon a mighty buck.
I am here, my pup. You will always know how to find me.
And he did. Gmork's Prodigal could not put a name to the place, but he felt the way across the sea and back north between the mountains into a deep forest on the edge of man's domain. He wagged his tail, anxious; he could not cross the seas himself.
I am ready to welcome you home, pup. I am your father. You are mine.
He whined anew and unable to sleep, unable to face his father, Gmork's Prodigal stepped out of the blankets and loped up the narrow stairs to the deck. Starlight blossomed above and the sea drowned all other scents. He paced back and forth around the fo'c'sle, panting and alert. He no longer felt his father's presence, but the terror of his near-surrender filled him. What would he have done were they on land the next time he felt the call? Seven times before he'd felt his father's voice come to him in the night, but none had been so powerful as this. What was different?
He wanted to sit on his haunches and lose himself among the stars, but he was far too anxious to sit. He knew the night sailors were watching him. Charles was not on duty yet or surely he would have come to the wolf's side. Where was Lindsey or Pharcellus? At least one of the dragons was usually on deck to sleep?
He lifted his nose and a moment's taste of the air told him. Lindsey reclined on the aft castle. It also told him of someone else. The pungent flavor of a ferret.
Gmork's Prodigal turned back to the deck stairs and came snout to snout with Garigan. It was too dim to read the ferret's face, but his posture and scent showed worry. “Jerome? Are you all right?”
He wanted to take on a more man-like shape and tell him everything he'd just felt, but his paws and snout remained. A ripple passed through his pelt and nothing more. He whined, ears back, even as he danced on his paws.
Garigan finished climbing the stairs and then sat down next to the gunwale, bent over so he almost seemed a wolf on his haunches. He tipped back his head and began to sing a wisp of melody. His ears turned at the music and he felt the anxiety draining. Gmork's Prodigal stepped to the ferret's side and after the first verse managed to sit. He too tipped back his head and howled the next verse with his fellow Sondecki.
And for a time, lost within the comforting Song of the Sondeck, he remembered the name his father stole from him. And he hoped with every beat of his heart, every cadence of song, and every mote of the ancient power within him their journey to Sondeshara would show him the way back to his friends.
His howls turned to song as the fur receded and his snout withdrew. Fingers emerged and spread wide. His pelt fell down across his shoulders and back as a black robe bearing the shield, red hand, and white sword. His legs and tail remained, but there was enough of the man even there he was able to stand upright to finish the song. Garigan stood with him, his voice rising with the final refrain.
Only when the echoes in their being faded did he turn to his fellow Sondecki and say, “I cannot sleep alone. I will lose myself if I do it again.”
“I will not say his name... but can you feel him?”
“He called to me...” He shook his head and cast his gaze briefly to the north. “I fear if I am separated from you and the others I will run back to him.”
Garigan stood an inch taller. “I will not leave you, Jerome.”
“Thank you, but there are two better for this. You need your sleep too, my friend.”
He smiled, though kept his lips close to hide the fangs he still had. “The dragons. I do not know why, but his voice is always muted when I am near them.”
Garigan nodded and cast a glance at the aft-castle. “In sooth? I wonder why... Even so, I will stay by your side this night.”
“Thank you. You know, Garigan, you may have only known of your Sondecki powers for two years, but I feel as if you could have been our teacher. Thank you.”
“Then you and Master Matthias have taught me well! Come, let's go wake up some dragons!”
He could not help but bark a laugh.
The ship was sinking, and there was no land in sight.
The mast was a mere splinter of its former self, the oars along the port side in a similar state. Benches were littered with bodies and water was pouring into the shattered hull making them float, staining the torrent black with blood.
Bar scrambled away from the flood, hauling himself toward the higher starboard benches, but as fast as he went the water seemed to be faster, lapping at his heels. Despite being crew on ships for nearly a decade Bar could not swim and the roaring surge of water sent his heart racing.
But there was one thing moving faster even than the water turning his fear of drowning into a keen edged panic he could not escape. Rats! They surged out of the bilge and hold in a squealing, hissing mass, their sharp claws clutching and skittering across the deck. Rats the size of cats, dogs, even men boiled from the dark hidden recesses of the ship seeking any buoyancy they could find as frantically as Bar did. Chests and bags and boards and oars and bodies bobbed about in the water, floating away from the stricken vessel as the bow tipped down for its final, fateful plunge into the abyss.
Rats! Rats everywhere, piling upon everything, sinking every lifeline as quickly as the boat.
Terror boiled in Bar's breast as he slipped, falling to the splintered deck, and a wave of rats surged over him. Drawing breath to shriek out the last exhortation of life Bar suddenly found his voice frozen, his eyes gazing upon a figure clambering up from the flooded hold below.
It was another rat, but not like the monsters darting hither and fro, over and under and upon him. No, this rat stood tall, like a man, on two legs. One side of his face was burned, likely from the fires of spilled lanterns. In one hand the rat carried a shattered oar stave which he used to prop himself up on the listing deck, seemingly unperturbed at its cant.
The other rats, as well, seemed to take note of his presence; they fled from him in a wave of suicidal terror, plunging into the water or back into the flooding depths below. The man-like rat strode toward Bar, who still lay sprawled upon the deck now bereft of any but the two of them.
Bracing the broken oar upon the deck the man-rat extended a hand as knobby and clawed as the rats he had scattered, “Come, it is safe. You need not fear me.” All the while ignoring the blood blackened water lapping around rodent feet. Reflexively Bar reached out for the surcease of offered grasp, his terror of the mundane – if incredibly large – rats allayed by their apparent fear of this rat who was not quite a rat. Strong fingers grasped his hand, pulling him upright.
Sunlight gleamed upon the water, lifting the boat upon the crest of a wave and settling it gently into its trough. Unmanned oars bumped and thunked in their locks and the sail snapped confidently in the breeze. The boat sat upon an even kill, its planks unstained, ready to journey to wherever the odd rat and lone oarsman might take it. “There is no need to fear us,” The man-rat said with a smile of prominent teeth, black eyes gleaming. The one side of his face was still burnt, the only evidence of the scene which had vanished as unexpectedly as the swarming vermin.
Surprisingly, Bar found he did not fear the upright rat dressed as a man might dress, a gleaming staff held in one hand and Bar's hand within the other. With a last glance down at the bestial yet strangely human hand within the curl of his fingers Bar had a momentary wonder at what there was to fear before he slipped into the void between dreams.
Rat, boat, water, and man faded into the half images of fading dreams and Malger quirked one corner of his muzzle in a rueful smile. Such were the fears of men; rats, water, death, and so many things manifestly more powerful in the moments of their dreams. Or nightmares, as Malger had found the oarsman Bar locked within.
Presented with the strangeness come aboard as passengers on their ship Malger had expected there to be nightmares, at least at first. For some they might crop up throughout their journey, and Malger would be there to steady their resolve and let them find reassurance in their dreams rather than fear, for he well knew fear would persist beyond the dream, beyond sleep. Fear would fester, and give rise to anger, hatred, and danger for all on this journey.
“I do hope you're not going to keep what I seek them to know at bay, my Love.” A gentle feminine voice reached his ears, metamorphosing the wry quirk of his muzzle to a genuine smile. Raising his eyes Malger found himself looking rather steeply upward at a dragon of black and silver equally as large as Charles' scaled friend Pharcellus when he took on his natural form. Eyes as deep and black as the night sky, and as spangled with glimmering starry motes, gazed down at him though not with ire.
“Ahh, Mosha my dearest, I know your touch upon a sleeper's Dream even when I am not tenanting it.” He assured the large beast with a bow and a sweep of one arm. “I am merely smoothing choppy waters to ensure a pleasant journey for all.”
“And a safe one.” The dragoness rumbled amiably.
“For all.” Malger's gaze flicked momentarily to one side though his furry, bewhiskered muzzle did not turn. “Even the most inquisitive.” Stepping forward he raised a hand to touch lightly upon the dragon's lowered snout. “He finds me so easily.”
“He does,” The dragon observed with a subtle hint of humor, “More easily at his age than even you, or any other, has for many an age.”
“Well, I've been told they do mature at a much swifter rate than I did as a child.” Turning slightly, tracing his fingers along the jawline of the dragon to her neck, he gazed toward the shadowy half-real gangway of a boat only half remembered. “Come now, did I not say you could approach, Charlie?” Though his given name was Charles like his father, Malger had decided not long after the ship set sail to call him Charlie instead. From the depths of the gangway two dark eyes peered out, whiskers that were mere pale hints against the darkness twitching. “Yes, my boy, we see you. There is no need to fear, Nocturna is merely… being as she chooses to be, this night.” He glanced up at the large reptilian head hovering over his own to peer at the owner of those dark, gleaming little eyes.
“He certainly is most curious of you, Malger. And I, though he knows not why.”
“Nock...” A quavering voice issued from the gangway, “Nockurna? Bad dream lady?”
Squatting to put himself at closer to eye level Malger nodded, then shrugged one shoulder. “Yes, and no.” He held out a hand and flexed his claw tipped fingers beckoningly. “Come forth, lad. Your father will not be angry with you, and I am not, nor is Nocturna.”
Creeping up the last couple of steps from the gangway, now more concrete about them as Malger and Charlie's memories created it as one would the props of a dream, Charlie crept out into the open. He was no different in the Dream than he was in the waking world; a young rat who stood upon two legs as a man might.
He had no memories of being a human as he had been born a rat. He would ever see himself as such in the Dream, unless there was a requirement he appear in a different guise for Nocturna's needs.
The young rat looked cautiously up at Nocturna's draconic visage but did not quail from it. His experiences with dragons had not, heretofore, been ones to engender the expected developed as one grows, hears stories, and learns just how deadly dangerous a roused dragon could be. Lowering her head even with Malger's shoulders she huffed a puff of silvery steam from her nostrils.
Charlie giggled despite himself as the waft of steam knocked Malger forward onto his muzzle.
“Dragon lady is bird lady too?” Charlie asked as he approached, rounded ears pricked forward.
“Bird?” Nocturna rumbled gently, though Malger sensed a sudden tension beneath the smooth scales under his fingers. He pushed his hat back up with his free hand. Charlie nodded cautiously.
“Black bird lady talk with Daddy.” He offered, standing bravely before the very creature who presented itself, in the form of a black raven, to his father Charles in a different dream. “And Daddy go… away. To a bad place, with a dark, bad person.” Wringing his hands Charlie glanced down at the night shadowed deck beneath his paws and then looked back up. “But Daddy came back, without the bad person.” One hand raised slightly to point at Nocturna. “You bad dream bird lady? Nockurna.”
“He is astute.” Nocturna puffed with incredulous humor.
Malger heaved a sigh, but could only nod. “Nocturna is she, Charlie, yes. Your father wanted – needed something. One who lied to him made him seek Nocturna, Charlie, but she is not bad.”
“Nor good.” Nocturna observed laconically, “Not exactly.”
“He…” Charlie paused, casting about for words that he had yet to learn to explain himself. Despite being only a shade older than one year Malger was mightily impressed at his ability to speak at all, much less enter the Dream. But Charles had told him their children, those of many animal-cursed keepers, matured many times faster than human children, slowing only after a year or three. “He fears black bird lady.” Charlie finally managed to blurt. “She is not of The Father and the Yew, but Daddy went to her anyway.” He looked up and boldly met Nocturna's reptilian stare. “Went to you.”
“He did.” Nocturna offered with a slow nod. The young rat did not flinch from the dragon's head, equally as large as his entire body, or the momentary flashes of long ivory fangs as she spoke. “And I am not of Eli's realm, no.”
“Am I?” Charlie asked, showing for the first time a tiny crack of fear.
“Yes, if you choose.” Nocturna continued, stretching out her long silver and black scaled form to rest her huge head upon the wooden deck. “But you are also of this realm.” One wing lifted to sweep in a short arc toward the sea and night sky beyond the dream-created boat only they occupied.
“Bad dream place?”
“No. A dream place.” The dragon assured him. “Good and bad. You know Malger, is he bad?”
“No.” Charlie shook his head.
“The Dream is not bad, Charlie; the story the Dream brings is – sometimes – bad. Because we remember bad more easily than good. But it is not a thing you should be scared of.”
“Bad dreams scary, though!”
Nocturna's teeth gleamed in a brilliant, though unsettling, dragon grin. “They are meant to be. So you remember them.”
“But they make bad sleep. Erick has bad dream of not being home. Boat makes noise, moves, makes bad sleep for Erick. But I fix!”
“You fix?” Malger raised an eyebrow, head tilted in a curious stare.
“Tell Erick to remember wagon. No bad sleep in wagon, even moving.”
“Before you went to bed?”
Charlie shook his head, “No, here, when I see him in bad dream place. Make him think of wagons, bad place go away.”
“Already he does this.” Nocturna grunted, though quietly for Malger's ears before speaking more loudly, “Charlie, what has your father said of Nocturna?”
“Bad dream lady. But Daddy not say, I hear from others at stone house when we stay there. They say big dog lady talks to many that are not of the Yew, and bad dream lady is one she does not like to talk to.”
“Lothanassa Raven.” Malger offered with a sidelong glance down at the huge head resting on the deck near his crossed legs. “Children at the castle say this?”
The young rat nodded, finally crossing his legs and sitting down as well, his muscular rat tail flicking around to drape across his lap. “Some. Bigger kids say mean things. Some are like us, go to Ecclesia. Some are not, go to other house, where big dog lady talks to different … spirits?” He looked confused at the last word, not understanding the full concept of the Pantheon.
“Aedra.” Malger offered. “Like the Ecclesia, but with different gods.”
“I guess.” Charlie shrugged.
“Charlie, this place, were we are, is a place only you can reach, and I can reach. It is the place of dreams.”
“I know. I'm asleep next to Erick. This is a dream.”
Malger shared a momentary glance with the dragoness sprawled next to him, her bulk curled around behind him to dominate much of the boat's unoccupied deck. “Yes, this is a dream. I would like to talk to you, about the dream. Here, in the dream. Maybe later, when we are awake, but don't tell anyone except your Daddy, okay?”
“I do not know the answer, Charlie. And your brother and sisters won't know, either, or your mother. Your father knows. He has seen Nocturna. He understands.”
“Yes, Charlie, our secret, between you, your father, and me.”
“And her.” Charlie nodded toward the dragoness.
“She lives here.” Malger chuckled, “The secret can't be hidden from her.”
“Oh.” Charlie mulled this over for a few seconds, “Cheater.”
With a burring chuff Malger laughed and even the huge black and silver beast filling the deck rumbled humorously.
The wind slackened enough to give Charles a brief respite from his duties as early morning twilight graced the sky. Dandelo assured him it was only a lull and the wind would return as sure as a dog to its vomit. The moon was a sliver low in the eastern sky. Tomorrow it would be nothing at all. The nights were not as short as at Metamor, but it would be several hours yet before he could sink into well-earned rest in his family's bed.
He took his short rest upon the fo'c'sle next to the bow-spirit. He peered down at the leaping dolphin when his eyes tired of the last stars. The soft lapping of waves upon the prow lulled his senses. He blinked a wisp of sleep away and clasped his hands in prayer. Words murmured from his tongue, words he could not recall after they were uttered. A prayer? A plea? Something of the sort.
Loud footfalls woke him from his stupor. He half-turned and smiled. The young dragon Lindsey approached, wings tucked in tight, head lifted as high as his neck could reach. A fang-filled smile touched his face and bright purple-flecked golden eyes greeted him. “Good morning, Charles. How was your night?”
“Busy,” he admitted, rubbing soreness from his muscles. “But good. We've added a few more leagues. Sutthaivasse cannot be far now. And after her, Whales! And then Boreaux. And then...”
“Sondeshara!” Lindsey hissed the name as he came to the rat's side. “You know, I had never heard of the place until you spoke of it on our journey to Marzac last year.”
“And I had never heard of Metamor or even Arabarb until I journeyed north into the Midlands a decade ago.” Charles turned and leaned against the gunwale. “Yet here we are together. I hope one day I can come with you to visit your homeland. I hope... “ He grimaced and turned back to the sea.
Lindsey stepped out onto the bow-spirit and lay across it, tail dangling over the side to wrap around the leaping dolphin. He spread his wings over Charles's head like an awning. He gave out to the sea and a long hiss escaped his throat. “It is the land across the sea; the land Zhypar was born in.”
Charles chuffed and lifted his whiskers. “It is.” He stepped up and put one paw upon the bow-spirit, dark eyes fixed upon the dark-blue southern horizon. “It's a beautiful land, Lindsey. I do miss it. I will miss Metamor even more.”
“We all will. We do.” Lindsey sighed and Charles felt the wood shift beneath his feet. “Do you think you will never see it again?”
“I don't know,” Charles lowered his snout for a moment, hands balled into fists. “I fear it. But... this is what we must do. For Jerome. For Garigan. For my family.”
“For you,” Lindsey finished. “I had to return to my homeland. I learned something about myself I never would have thought possible.” He belched a gust of flame and hissed a laugh. “You need to return for yourself more than any of the others, Charles.”
The rat favored him with an amused grin. His ears perked, and a measure of confidence filled him. “Perhaps... no. You are right, my friend. You are right. I won't be a dragon! But...”
“But you'll have more peace in your heart than you have ever had.”
He blinked and stared to the south for several seconds. In only the few minutes they'd been talking the horizon had brightened to a pale blue. The wind pressed at his back and he heard the sail snapping taut. He leaned forward and rested his hand upon his knee. “Lindsey... I... I envy you. You're right again. I don't know what the future holds or where it will take us, but its a chance for us to right the wrongs of our past.”
“And it is coming fast! We'll be there before we know it.”
“Aye!” Neither said anything more as they watched the southern skies. Dawn of a new day aboard the Venture Swift was nearly there.