Heraldic Beginnings

by Charles Matthias

March 20, 708

The vixen healer Jo, with the aid of Lady Avery, concocted a series of broths that would help sooth Charles's healing jaw and ribs. Mostly they seemed to put him to sleep and so for much of the four days after returning to the Glen he spent only a few hours each day out of bed tending to his home and to his needs. He had no shortage of visitors wishing him well, and when he woke that morning he could still smell the rest of the freshly baked pie that Annette Levins had made for him. The bread crust had been soft and the juices succulent, more succulent than they should have been for the season, but at least chewing hadn't hurt.

Despite this, Charles hated resting. The litany of visitors only made his home feel all the emptier; not even Baerle was left now that she had gone out on another patrol with James; they were slated to return in another day and while he was happy for them, being all alone in this house meant for his family made him downright miserable. Had his jaws worked right, he could have rivaled Byron the tanner for the color and crassness of his invective.

But, he was grateful for the visits that Jessica paid him every couple of days. The hawk couldn't stay long, but she always checked his bones and used what healing magic she knew – much of it magic she learned from Qan-af-årael while they journeyed through Pyralis – to help fix his broken bones. So on this, the fifth morning that he'd woken in Glen Avery since their return from the Gateway, his body, though sore, no longer hurt him when he moved or even when he tried to gnaw on one of his chewsticks. And that was something his incisors sorely needed to do!

And even though Lord Avery had given him a month to recover from his injuries before he was expected to return to duty, Charles had no intention of spending however much time remained before the quarantine was lifted laying about his empty house waiting for friends to stop by to try and cheer him up. He did have other duties that he could pursue that would not tax his weak body so much and to those he directed himself after offering his morning prayers and eating a bit of bread and cheese. Dressed in his squire's clothes, with the vine curling about his chest as it too regained its strength and substance, he ventured into the stables that the knights of Metamor had built for him and his family behind the massive tree that served as their home.

Charles was greeted by the two ponies that belonged to he and his knight, Sir Saulius. They whickered and rubbed their forehooves against the stall doors, grateful to see him again but also eager for their morning oats. He ran one paw through their manes, tousling that and their scalloped ears with his fingers, before hefting the feed bucket with his Sondeck and filling their troughs. While they ate he took an iron rake and started to muck out the soiled hay. The offal made his nose twitch in distaste, but the earthy equine aroma calmed him and made his heart beat a little faster.

Despite the slight ache to his jaw, as he tended the ponies, especially his roan Malicon, he keenly felt the desire to secure the pony's tack and ride about the Glen and even through the woods where the ground wasn't too steep. Sir Saulius had been right, Malicon was a very important part of him now, just like the vine that curled about his chest and back. But at least this was a part that Kimberly didn't seem to mind; he hoped one day she would care for the gift of the Wind Children, but until then he would not force it upon her.

After he laid down fresh hay, he began to clean their hooves, checking for loose nails and bent shoes, but on each of the eight hooves he checked he found nothing out of place. Both Malicon and Armivest were very comfortable under his touch and he took his time with each of them, both in cleaning their hooves, and then in combing their hides. His motions were slow and deliberate, both because of the soreness that still gripped his jaws and chest where James had struck him with the Marzac-infused bell, and because he felt very comfortable in their presence, an indefinable sense of rightness pervaded those stables. It was more than just that while with them he wasn't alone; for other, deeper reasons he didn't want to leave. What those reasons were he couldn't quite catch between his claws; like a pesky fly it seemed to dart out of the way just when he thought he'd finally captured it.

As the last bit of muck was cleaned from Armivest's hooves, Charles heard a familiar flapping of wings. A smile stretched across his sore jaw, and his long whiskers danced as he set the hoof down, patted the friendly pony on the flank, and then climbed back out of the stall and stable. Perched on one of the roots preening her feathers was a black hawk.

"Jessica! It's good to see you. What brings you to the Glen?"

The hawk lifted her head from her back feathers, golden eyes as bright and happy. "It is good to see you too, Charles. I see you are up and about; how is your jaw and how are your ribs?"

"Sore, but not as bad." He put one paw against his cheek and gently rubbed. "I ought to be able to ride today at least."

"And you're going to want to." Charles's ears tilted forward and his heart clenched in his chest. "I bring wonderful news, Charles. The quarantine was just lifted this morning by order of the Duke. You can be with your family again!"

Charles fell to his knees, paws clasped together so tight that his claws prodded is soft flesh. "Thank you, Eli! Thank you! Hallelujah and Hosanna in the highest! Thank you, Eli! Sweet Eli, thank you!" He continued silently in this vein, his chest aching as his heart beat in feverish excitement. Just the thought of actually holding his five – four – little children in his arms again, and to touch his wife's sweet, and gentle face made him as happy as he could remember being in a long time.

Jessica hopped down from the tree and wrapped him in a wing. "With everyone fleeing Metamor, it is better if you head there yourself to find your family. I'm so happy that you can be together again. I know how much it hurts."

"Thank you, Jessica. Come?"

"I have to go back to the Lake and then return with Weyden and Dallar's company. But I will see you at Metamor."

He nodded and took a long deep breath to try and bring some measure of calm to his body. He couldn't withstand being this excited long. "I will see you there. Thank you, Jessica."

After the hawk flew away, Charles moved swiftly through the Glen asking after Sir Saulius. His knight, he learned from Gibson the frog, was meeting with Lord Avery in one of the inner rooms at the brewery. He thanked the merchant and then headed to the de facto halls of power for the Glen. He rather liked the idea that all of the most important decisions were made in the same place the beer and ale were made.

Lars directed him to the room, and he found the squirrel noble and rat knight studying a map of the northern half of the valley. Little stone markers were placed on various forests, with sections and fiefs marked off with pine needles. They both looked up as he entered, and the squirrel laughed brightly. "Charles! I didn't expect to see you up and about so soon."

"The quarantine's lifted!" Charles blurted, before quickly genuflecting to the squirrel, chagrined at his lack of decorum.

Saulius and Avery glanced quickly at each other, before the rat declared, "Hast thou readied our ponies? We shalt leave at once for Metamor."

Lord Avery nodded. "Take a week at Metamor to be with your family. Then bring them back home; we'll have a little party for when you come back."

Charles offered another silent paean of thanks to Eli for providing him such good friends. "Thank you, your grace, sire. I will have our ponies ready to leave in minutes."

Saulius laughed, "Then I shouldst ready myself! Shalt we continue ere I return?" The squirrel nodded, even as with one paw he swiped the map clean.

They were on the road for not more than an hour when Laura, Allart, Ralls and Padraic caught up with them. "We were on our way to the Glen to give you the good news from Misha," Laura explained, "but then we learn you heard already! I'm surprised you aren't riding harder."

Charles truly wished that they were, but with his ribs and jaw still mending, they could risk no more than a trot on the long journey southward through the hills and forests toward Metamor. He allowed his friends to do most of the talking and they regaled him with stories of their time in Hareford, offering their opinions on Nestorius, Dupré, and the tentative trade contacts made with some of the human settlements north of the Dike such as Starven and Politzen. He listened with interest and allowed Sir Saulius to update the Longs on matters in the Glen.

As they continued on their way, they passed a few travelers returning from their forced confinement at Metamor. Most were merchants from Hareford or Lake Barnhardt. He even saw one of Julian's new sleigh-wagons, but he didn't recognize any of the Keepers driving it. Some of them related how they had been waiting near the gates since well before dawn when they'd heard the rumor that the gates would finally be opened. The Longs, the knight and his squire all looked at each other with dread at what they'd find waiting for them at Metamor's gates.

When, early that afternoon they reached the gates of Euper they discovered that things were not as bad as their imagination had suggested. About two dozen Metamorian soldiers were busy inspecting wagons at the gates, each of them working as fast as they could so that the many irate merchants could leave. With the fully rebuilt and fortified walls about Euper, they couldn't see anything past the gate and the particular trio of wagons being inspected while the merchants groused angrily about how long they'd been trapped behind the walls.

One of the other guards recognized them and made a path for them to ride through into the city. This they did, grateful to once more be within the walls of the lower town and on the road toward the city on the hill and the Keep itself. The main road was clogged with merchants, their impatient horses, muck churned up by their wheels and by the last of the melted snow, and from other malodorous leavings. A good number of the merchants appeared to be Keepers, but on listening to their conversation, they realized that most of them had been transformed by the Curses in the last week of the quarantine ad that each and every one of them was very unhappy about that!

"That can't be good for Metamor's trade," Ralls noted after they passed a newly made badger offer a tirade of invective and outright blasphemy in Metamor's direction.

"They all knew the risks of coming to Metamor," Allart chided. "They loved money more than their human shape."

"I'm not sure I like what that implies," Padriac muttered under his breath.

The road up to Keeptowne and through the Killing Fields was lined with merchants and other travelers grateful to finally escape Metamor. As they were heading into the city, they were able to move at a comfortable pace, forced only to dodge the occasional newly made child playing improvised games in the street as they could not abide to wait on the interminably slow moving wagons.

At each of the gates, they were met with more guards, often coming in packs of two dozen or more, watching over the messy affair. Their faces were all filled with both relief, amusement, and disgust. They smiled as they saw the Longs and ushered them through as quickly as possible, which usually brought about a string of cursing from the next merchant in line. Those who had not yet fallen prey to Metamor's curses managed to sound even more frightful than those just becoming accustomed to a beastly voice. Charles eyed them, wondering if he'd seen any sprout fur, but none did.

After leaving the Killing Fields behind and entering Keeptowne proper, they were met by a green clad ferret who nearly leaped onto Charles's pony to welcome them. "Charles! You've made it!"

"Garigan!" Charles cried with delight and patted his friend and fellow Sondecki on the back. "You're all right. Where are the others?"

"Misha and the Longs have their hands full right now managing this exodus! Everyone's involved. All of George's patrolmen still at Metamor are here, all of the Watch, all the knights, everybody!" Garigan gestured at the line of merchants and travelers that stretched in either direction as far as they could see. "Half the merchants are from Metamor to begin with, and half of the rest are probably going to be moving here soon thanks to the Curses. Anyway, I'm here to bring you straight to Long House. That's where Misha is pulling what's left of his fur out."

"And my family?" Charles asked.

Garigan's smile stayed strong, and he offered the rat and hug around the shoulders before scrambling back down the alarmed pony. "They're waiting for you at Long House. Come."

Hearts greatly cheered by the ferret, all six of them followed, moving quickly onto a side street to avoid the crush of everyone fleeing the city.

Following the side streets they made good time through Keeptowne and to the Keep itself. Garigan and the Long exchanged news, while Charles listened attentively and from time to time massaged his aching jaw. Most of what the ferret had to say Charles already knew from Jessica or the other Longs, but it was still good to hear. Garigan struggled with impatience to hear news of his home, one that he'd been cut off from for far longer than he liked.

Sir Saulius did his best to sate the ferret, but Charles found he could not listen. Rather his eyes strayed to the homes and shops of Keepers, many of whom he'd known in his many years living in this land. Most had open windows and bright colors abounding from every gambol, rafter, and sill. Some few had been sealed with shutters and plaster, but those had been recently torn down. A few, a precious few, had been burned to the ground and the ashes swept together and buried beneath dirt. All that remained was the char marring the buildings on either side and an empty space where once a home had stood pressed tight to its neighbors.

The Keep was bustling with activity, soldiers, scouts, and knights of all orders running in each direction, none of them sparing them a moment as they carried out their instructions. Garigan assured them that it had been like that since the morning when the announcement was proclaimed through the castle, through Keeptowne, and in Euper. The soldiers had been given instructions well before the first hour of dawn to prepare them for what was to come, and many looked haggard and unkempt. Nevertheless, they all appeared happy and relieved as they went about their duties.

The entrance to Long House was guarded by several familiar faces who waved them all through immediately. "Misha wants to see all of you," the bull said, jerking a thumb over his broad shoulders. "He's in his office most of the time."

"Most of the time?" Laura asked.

"That's what he said to tell you."

Charles and the others laughed as they entered the large hall that the Longs had made their home. The many areas in the vaulted chambers were often given over to practice, leisure, training, and even festivity. The usual green banners with bow and axe adorned all of the walls, with freshly woven tapestries made by the families of the Longs featuring forest scenes and the Keep itself interspersed between them. At the rear of the chamber hung banners welcoming each of the Longs home; Charles was grateful to see his name among them.

"Laura, Charles!" a large booming voice echoed and before they knew it, both of them were swept up in large furry arms, held close, and then dropped so the same voice could snag the other Longs who'd just come in.

"Meredith," Laura chided while Charles gasped in pain, one paw to his chest. "You horrible scoundrel! Have you been waiting here this whole time to surprise us by crushing you big bear?"

The bruin laughed after setting down a struggle Padraic. "Misha asked me to welcome you all back. I wish I'd been able to go out with you, but... it's good to see you again."

"So is Misha actually in his office?"

"For the moment, but he will have to go report to Duke Thomas in an hour or so. It's more hectic today than it was at his grace's wedding! And we've got a big party planned this evening once all those merchants finish leaving town." Meredith turned and glanced at the still gasping rat. "Oh, I forgot about your wound. Are you okay? Did I break anything?"

"No..." Charles managed after coughing and pressing one paw against his chest. "Just... give me... a moment."

"Your family is visiting with my wife and children. They've been getting themselves into all sorts of mischief here at Long House." Meredith steadied his fellow Long with a single paw on the shoulder. "I do say they have brought a lot of joy here, especially when everyone was worried about that damn plague."

Charles took several deep breaths, felt the ache ebb, and then smiled with all of his whiskers. "Thank you, Meredith. I know the way." He glanced at Sir Saulius, but the knight merely nodded with a smile.

"Thou dost not need my permission for this, Charles."

Nor did he need any more incentive. Charles smiled once more to his friends, then ran down the length of Long Hall and dived into a side passage that led to the quarters for the families of each of the Longs. The corridor led straight with doors on either side, each quarter affording more space than they would have ever been able to purchase in Keeptowne itself; all owed to the magic of Kyia herself. There were even quarters for Charles and his family in the hall, but they had only ever used them when visiting Metamor; at one point the rat had hoped they would move into them, but after he'd been sent on the journey to Marzac, Kimberly had elected to remain in Glen Avery and thus the children were all used to that place; there could be no other true home for them, at least for now.

Little signs adorned each of the doors, and Charles was able to find Meredith's home, not just from the sign of a bear hanging on the door, but also because of a quintet of familiar scents that made his heart race and every strand of fur on his flesh stick out. What sweet memories percolated through his mind at just that whiff of delectable air! He reached the door, knocked, and danced back and forth in his raw need while he waited.

Meredith's oldest child, still young enough not to be cursed, opened the door. The girl took one look at Charles, then turned her head and yelled, "Lady Kimberly, your husband is here!"

Charles pressed past him with only a perfunctory apology for his rudeness, and saw them all scampering about the floor with wooden staves and pinions made from scarves. Erick and Charles, his two boys, were dressed as scouts and were trying to fight through the monsters that were Meredith's other children in order to rescue Bernadette and Baerle, his two daughters, each dressed like a little princess. Kimberly reclined on a couch with Meredith's ocelot with Elisha at her side, sharing a cup of tea as they waited.

But all heads turned to the door with the boy's pronouncement. Charles gaped as he saw his own flesh and blood lift their snouts and twitch their whiskers. His eldest boy, the one named after him, in a high-pitched squeak murmured, "Dada, is this a dream?"

"Nay!" he cried, running to his children and wife. Kimberly rose, her eyes filling with tears, while the quartet of little rats fell to all fours in their excitement, scampering up into his arms and legs, holding and nuzzling against him, their voices reduced to mere excited squeaks and squeals. He laughed and rolled onto his back, holding each of his children one by one, wishing he had four arms instead of just four legs from time to time to grasp each of them at the same time. His chest felt light and his heart strong.

All at once his children welcomed him and tried to tell him how happy they were to see him and all about how they, the boys, were going to be rescuing princess from evil Lutins and how the brave scouts were going to rescue them, the girls. He barely understood half of it, but didn't care as he touched his snout to each of them, saying their names over and over again, seeing their faces, holding them and feeling their little bodies against his paws, and wishing that he could stay in that moment forever.

Kneeling over him was the most beautiful face he had ever seen, with soft, tan fur, large scalloped ears beige in hue, prodigious whiskers always kept in order, neatly maintained incisors, and large, black eyes that warmed him as if they were a pleasant fire roasting a succulent ham. He lifted one paw from the pile of his children and stroked his furless knuckles across her cheek; her paws cupped his own, pressing his fingers against her face.

"I love you, Charles."

"And I love you, my Lady Kimberly."

Charles, despite the soreness in his chest, did little but play with his children and hold his wife for the next several hours. Even when the Long's celebration that evening arrived, Charles found that he could not bear to be parted from his family for more than a few moments. He did take the time to embrace Misha and the other Longs, as well as Kayla who had been invited, and Jessica who'd arrived a few hours before; he and Rickkter nodded perfunctorily when they met but otherwise ignored each other.

The party was set to last well into the night, but Charles elected to retire early with Kimberly and his children. All four of his children shared the same bed, boys on one side and girls the other, but he let them cuddle up in the bed the Keep had provided for Kimberly and he. There he told them a fantastical account of his journey into the mountains with James, Baerle, and Angus, omitting that James had been corrupted by the Marzac bell. His boys especially loved the fight against the snow and wind, and the ever present threat of the Lutins, while his girls especially beamed when he told of James and Baerle coming together. Kimberly was radiant the entire time, and the glow from her face seemed to shine on each of the children.

By the time Charles had finished telling the tale and helped carry his boys, while Kimberly carried the girls, off to their own bed, the ache in his jaw was almost too much to bear. Still, he prayed with them, and it was only after blowing out the lanterns and closing the door that he admitted how much pain he was in. Kimberly nodded with a faint smile, kissed him on his good cheek, and then drew him down into the bed where they lay holding each other until at last she fell fast asleep.

Charles rested for some time, the ache ebbing as the minutes turned into hours. He could distantly hear the fox's party continuing, but that too dwindled until sometime past midnight all grew still and quiet. The rat slept intermittently, his eyes opening to the shallow darkness of the stone room from time to time only to slowly close again for a time. But, once the party had come to its inevitable end and Long House remained a place of quiet repose, the revelers all soundly sleeping off their revelry, those eyes remained open and fixed.

He stayed that way for several long minutes before slipping out of bed, carefully so as not to disturb Kimberly, and then, draped in a robe, he quietly made his way out into the corridor, and then into the main hall. Most of the lamps had even been extinguished, and with the moon already set for the night, everything was darkened as if wrapped in a heavy cloak. As a rat, Charles' eyes managed quite well, and with confidant steps he crossed the empty expanse to a familiar and little-used door.

Beyond the stone gave way to clay, a clay that burnished with flaming torches resting in bronze sconces along the walls. A hearth crackled with a fire in need of more wood at the opposite end. Between Charles and the hearth stood a large granite altar, at the base of which knelt an angel with palms upraised. With his paws placed firmly on the altar stood the ferret Garigan his face lost in meditation.

Charles closed the door behind him and immediately Garigan's eyes opened. "Couldn't sleep?"

"Nae," Charles admitted. He stepped to his student's side and spread his fingers across the top of the granite altar. He felt a surge of the Sondeck flow into him and through him, and his chest swelled with a gasp of breath. The flesh of his fingers transformed itself into stone, merging into the altar. Garigan watched with narrowed gaze but said nothing. Yet, unlike other stone, Charles could not feel anything beyond where his limbs touched. All that was there was the Sondeck; it was as if the stone were a mere shadow, bereft of all substance.

Disturbed, he withdrew his paws and let them resume their native flesh. Garigan murmured, "It is really quite unsettling to see you do that."

"I know. I had to live as stone for months; that changed me."

"In a good way?"

Charles stretched his arms across the altar, wondering where his Calm had gone; usually it only took a mere tick and a tock of the clock for him to find it when he touched the Sondecki altar. He sighed and shrugged, "I think so, but I'm grateful I don't have to live that way. I couldn't have done so much longer. And I don't think I can take being away from my family any more either."

"Nobody could have anticipated the plague," Garigan reminded him with a frown that blossomed into a warm smile stretching across his musteline snout. The dark fur around his face glistened with the torchlight dancing in his eyes. "You're together again. Remember that."

"Aye," Charles nodded, that one thought helping him locate his Calm. For several seconds he savored the sweet warmth of desert sands beneath his toes, a quintet of children sitting around him and enjoying the dry, baking winds. And then, after a long series of breaths, he opened his eyes to the Sondecki shrine and his friend. "Why can't you sleep?"

"I've not slept very well in a long time," Garigan admitted. "Ever since you left last year to defeat Marzac, I've had to keep up my practices all on my own. I don't know the forms, so I have to do what seems right. I'm not angry anymore like I used to be, but even in all the months spent at the Glen I feel so alone now. Shelley was the only one I was ever able to truly talk to until you took me under your wing, and he's dead."

Charles had not heard his student speak so plainly about his feelings in a very long time. He put one paw on the ferret's shoulder and gently squeezed. "Come back with us to the Glen. I will have time to train you more."

"That is good. I need it. I... I know I shouldn't blame myself, but I feel like I could have saved Ladero if I'd just known what to do, or if I'd been there a day or a week earlier so I could have tried things; I surely would have found the right thing to do."

"Don't," Charles said, tightening his grip and pulling the ferret closer. "Don't speak of it! I can't bear to hear it. Please!"

Garigan's face went blank and he closed his eyes, whiskers trembling as one of his paws pressed itself into the nearer of the angel's open hands. He wrapped his beastly fingers about that delicate, marble hand and squeezed. "I'm sorry, Charles. I just... I just have to be a Sondecki, no matter what it requires of me. I can't think about anything else anymore."

"Then let us try another technique for sharing our Calm," Charles suggested. It was an advanced technique that he'd only learned when he'd risen to the rank of a Red, but he knew that his student would be able to master it. He was already holding the angel's hand as if in some strange way he'd anticipated the rat's thoughts. "Reach out to your Calm, keep a hold on the angel's hand, and listen to my voice."

Charles took the other outstretched hand, and rested his free paw on the altar's surface. He drew back the desert sands and his family gathered there with him, and brought to mind the ferret as well. His lips moved and instructions fell from them.

All worry and fear departed within moments as their Calms were juxtaposed. Both of their snouts stretched into peaceful smiles as the ticks and the tocks continued breathing the ages past.

March 21, 708 CR

Charles woke the next morning to a wonderful sight – Lady Kimberly laying with her snout pointed toward him, her paws curled up beneath her chin, and tail tucked up almost within reach of those paws. He hadn't had much sleep, but what time he'd spent at the altar the night before seemed to have made up for it. As he licked the cobwebs out of his mouth blinked them from his mind, he stretched one arm and gently stroked his wife's ear.

She flicked her ear and then blinked open her eyes. Irritation faded quickly into warmth and delight. She reached out her left arm and draped it over his chest, claws clutching firmly in his side. For a moment Charles's bleary mind feared she would recoil when she felt the pliant warmth of the vine, but when her arm met only the fur of his chest he recalled that he'd placed it within the flagstones at the side of his bed for the night. With a pleased sigh his paw stroked down her cheek and then over his shoulder. "Good morning, my lady."

"Good morning, my man," she replied, her voice the sweetest and most beautiful thing he could imagine to begin his day.

"Did you sleep well?"

"The best I have had in weeks," she admitted, slipping closer to him so that her chest pressed against his side. He held her close, the warmth of their bodies making the already warm mattress beneath the quilts as warm as the brush of steam from freshly boiled tea or cider.

"Me too," he replied, gently brushing their noses together. "I'm tired of waking up alone."


For several long seconds neither said anything, arms wrapped tight, fingers and claws gently searching through the fur on their backs. Then, filled with the rich scent of his lady, Charles murmured, "With what shall we break our fast?"

"Whatever we want," Kimberly said, nuzzling her snout against his chest. "But not muffins. I'm a little tired of them."

"No muffins then," he laughed. "And then... we can try teaching the children some manners at table."

It was her turn to laugh. "You can! They're not even a year old."

"Yet they seem three," he whispered and closed his eyes. "I'll have to begin teaching them their letters soon too. After we go home."

"Home..." Kimberly's voice filled with yearning, but no trace of the weariness that had often marred her speech last night. "When are we going back? I miss the trees."

"In a few days I think. Today is Wednesday and I have not been able to celebrate Liturgy here in a very long time. We can leave after that. Four days then. Unless you want to stay for something more..."

"Well, you missed the wedding so no, there's no more reason to stay. But what will we do with four days?"

Charles would have to ask her later how the wedding of Bernadette's son had gone in the midst of the plague. For now, his thoughts turned only on the delicate curve in her flesh, the driving fragrance of her fur, and the gentle tone of her voice. He rubbed her back firmly with one paw and their tails curled together beneath the quilts. "What will we do? Whatever we feel like, my Lady. Whatever we feel like. And whatever it is, we'll do it together."

He could feel her snout stretch into a smile against his chest. Her satisfied sigh was sweeter than any birdsong.

March 22, 708 CR

"You wanted to see me?" Charles asked as he stepped into Misha's office in Long Hall that morning. He'd just come from breaking his fast with his family in Gregor's shop where they'd enjoyed some of the capybara's new meat and cheese-filled morsels, when he'd received the summons from the head of the Long Scouts. They had returned together after Charles promised that he would take them to play outside in the gardens when he was finished. The thought of playing outside was more than enough to keep his children boisterous, and his reassurance comforted Kimberly who's whiskers drooped when the message came for her husband.

Misha was standing on four legs beside the oaken desk with a map of the valley stretched across the top; mugs of cider and ale held the corners down. The centaur-like fox looked up, one ear lifting and tail wagging in delight when the rat entered. Standing with him around the table was the tall red-haired Laura, the gray-furred ferret Finbar, and the one-handed child Lisa who had a step stool so she could see more easily.

"Charles! I'm glad you could make it. I promise, this won't be long." A small mischievous smile crept over his narrow snout. "I know we all want to see you try swinging from the balcony by your tail with your child holding each of your paws again."

Charles laughed at the memory of the craziest thing he'd done yesterday, well remembering how much his children laughed and squealed their delight as they spun through the air, as well as the expression of worry that blanketed his wife's face. "I think Kimberly will break my tail if I try it again."

"She did look like she wanted a heavy skillet to swing," Finbar said.

Both Laura and Lisa shook their heads while the three men laughed together. Charles closed the door behind him and then came to the table. "So why did you need me?"

Misha gestured at the map. "I wanted to take a moment to discuss some plans for the Valley's defense. With you at Glen Avery, there may be some opportunities we can follow through on to make sure we keep the northern lands secure."

"There's only so much I can do myself; most of the time I just double as another Glen scout, either on paw or hoof."

"I want to improve coordination between Hareford, the Glen, and Lake Barnhardt. There's too many old rivalries between them and that's making my job, not to mention George's harder."

"You aren't going to solve that," Charles pointed out. "And don't tell me there weren't rivalries between the families of Marigund."

The fox's eyes lifted in irritation and he nodded. "One reason I'm glad I'm here and not there! Things here make much more sense than they did there! But that's not my point. I was hoping we might give them all more reason to work together. You live at the Glen and know her people. Laura has spent a good bit of time at Hareford these last few months; and half of those troops are from Metamor to begin with. If you have any suggestions I would like to hear them."

Laura ran her fingers along the map near the Giant's Dike and the old fort of Hareford. "You won't have any problems with the troops at Hareford. They are very capable; they just need more time getting to know the land. Both Lord Nestorius and Sir Dupré seem to understand that. Since he's arrived there, Dupré has been getting the troops out into the forests and hills around Hareford every week; he's running patrols constantly. And to be honest, I've never seen a man pick up on the strengths of the land faster than he. If he's as loyal as he professes, we'll be very lucky to have him there."

Misha nodded and shifted his hindquarters until he was sitting on his haunches. "I was going to ask you about him. Nestorius at first seemed very fond of him, but the last few times I spoke with the lion he was much more distant; he wouldn't say why."

Laura frowned. "That is what worries me. Dupré has a vicious temper and he lost it with Lord Nestorius. They fought and..."

"And what?"

Charles's ears perked up as he and the rest waited for the woman who'd once been a man to finish her thought. "He kicked Nestorius in the... um..."

Both rat and fox widened their eyes and shifted about a little, while Finbar just laughed. "The old lion probably deserved it. I would have loved to have seen his face too."

"That's the problem," Laura replied with a shake of her head, one lock of her red hair falling across her shoulder only to be shoved back with another flick. "Nestorius didn't deserve it, he just got in Dupré's way."

Misha stopped laughing and frowned. "We'll have to keep a tight leash on Dupré if he cannot put one on his temper."

"If he could manage that, he'd be formidable."

"George said he was when he met him many years ago," Misha added as he stood back up on all fours and paced back and forth, eyes fixed on the map until he sat back down again and looked at his fellow Longs. "Being exiled and parted from his family is probably the cause. Now, before our rat friend decides to emulate the ram, what of the Glen? How can we win their trust to work with Hareford and the Lake?"

Charles waved one paw and gave the fox a sour look. "I'm not going to do anything like that, Misha. You know I don't lose my temper that way."

"I know," Misha said with a faint yip. "I'm sorry."

But the rat had already forgiven his friend. "As for the Glen, well, if the Valley is threatened they'll fight alongside the Lakeland folk; otherwise it won't happen. They have been fighting over a strip of land between them for over a generation; we aren't going to overcome that."

"They need their heads knocked together," was Finbar's assessment.

"Maybe," Charles begrudgingly admitted. "As for Hareford... well... Glenners never have anything good to say about them; at least not after the folk at Hareford stayed in their castle while Nasoj was attacking the Keep over a year ago. And I don't think that's going to change unless Haerford's forces have some victory on their own. There's a lot of resentment that Hareford hid while the Glen bled."

Lisa shook her head and drummed the fingers of her only hand on the map. "That's not fair. The blizzard kept Hareford pinned down. They spent a week shoveling themselves out even after Nasoj was driven back!"

"And they've been told that," Charles said with a long sigh. "But when a man like Angus believes Hareford is full of nothing more than craven children, then you can imagine what the rest think."

Lisa was about to object when Misha waved one paw. "Charles is right. I need to think on this. There may be an opportunity for Hareford to show her worth, but I do not see it yet. Still, it seems we have our work cut out for us. Finbar, I want your squad to be ready to head to Hareford tomorrow. You'll be leading them on an expedition into the Giantdowns."

Finbar grinned. "Who are we going to kill?"

"Nobody that I know of," Misha laughed and then lowered his ear, all serious. "We need to keep an eye on the human settlements that have broken free of Nasoj. And we need to keep watch over the Lutins. So..."

"Usual reconnaissance," Finbar finished. "That we can do. Everybody's itching to get out of Metamor."

"I am too," Misha exclaimed with a heavy sigh. "I'm sure I'll come up with some excuse that will drive George crazy."

"He can handle it," Finbar said, his grin widening. "He's a big boy."

"Aye. Now, Charles, I want to see if we can resume the lines of communication we had with you before this plague business. We need to know what the Glen Scouts know and fast. And of course, if we know something, they'll need to know it fast."

"I can do more than just pass information along," Charles pointed out.

"Aye, how well I know that! We'll need to discuss it with Lord Avery and Angus, but I'm sure we can get them to agree that you ought to have more say in the arrangement of their scouts and defenses."

Charles frowned a little. "I do not think they appreciate meddling from Metamor either." He held up a paw to forestall the fox's objection. "I am not saying that is what it is, only that is how some of the Glenners see it. They are very proud people, Misha. You should know this."

"With good reason to be proud," Laura added with a chuckle. "Their scouts could teach most of ours a lesson or two."

"I know," Misha said as his eyes trailed once more to the map. "They really are some of the best. Which is why I want to make sure we coordinate with them better, and that means we need Charles in some position to help organize them. But... that will have to wait until I can spare the time to come to the Glen. For now, we'll go back to passing messages and keeping each other informed."

"Very well. What else do we have?"

"Lisa, could you go over the troop assignments for the next few months?" Misha smiled to the one-handed girl, the mischief filling his gray eyes. "And keep it simple. There are still some rafters Charles hasn't swung by his tail from yet!"

The rat shot his friend a dirty look before chuckling and shaking his head; it was good to be back!

Lisa did as Misha asked, and within another ten minutes the meeting came to an end. After wishing Finbar and his team a safe journey, Charles left to find his family, but not five steps from Misha's office ran into a very familiar face, one that was almost as familiar to him as Kimberly's. She brightened and jumped to her feet when she saw him, long monochromatic tail dancing behind her back.

"Kayla!" Charles laughed and gave her a friendly hug. "It's good to see you again. Were you waiting for me?"

"Aye, but not long," she said after greeting him. "I wasn't sure how long you planned to stay in Metamor, but I had an idea and I hoped you'd be able to come."

"To come?"

"I sent messages to Lindsey and James too, and Jessica's come back to Metamor already. I was hoping that we five could just meet and share a meal again together, like old times. I know you want to be with your family."

"That's a wonderful idea," Charles exclaimed, face brightening at the mere thought of seeing his traveling companions in one place again. " I'm sure Kimberly and the children will love to meet each of you too. The children especially; I've told them stories."

Kayla's face brightened. "Oh, I can't wait to meet them! But... I can't right now. I have to go meet Rickkter. I'll let you know when I have everything arranged."

Charles took a deep breath and smiled to the skunk. "Thank you, Kayla. It won't be hard to find me – just look for any of my family and you'll find me; but James is on patrol right now. It might be hard for him to get away."

"If he can't make it, we'll manage. We did want to keep an eye on each other," she said with a slight suggestion. Charles nodded, grimly remembering the evil bell that had nearly consumed the donkey, as well as the dragon that had tried to subsume Kayla herself, or that thing growing in Lindsey's pouch.

"Aye, that we do," Charles agreed. "I'm sure whatever it is, it isn't finished with us."

"No, it can't be." Kayla lowered her eyes for a moment, and then her expression brightened and she gave Charles a firm squeeze. "Oh, you go have a lovely day with your family. I will see you again soon, Charles!"

Charles laughed and hugged her right back. "You know what Rickkter will do if he sees you hugging me like that!"

"He'll keep his mouth shut if he knows what's good for him!"

Those few words kept Charles laughing and skipping all the way to the gardens where his family waited.

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