In a small rooftop garden she'd established nestled a single sprout of green, the stem rising through the loam she kept warm with an anchored spell. The preparations had been exquisite and costly, but already, before most any other flower would emerge especially one native to more southerly climes, Jessica's hyacinth was showing buds. In another week the blossoms would open and her reservoir of power would begin.
And with it, as she had seen in her dreams last night, she would be able to change the Curses and hold them for hours, even days on end. Perhaps even longer. The possibilities, from mischief to generous aid, were endless. Her experiments on Maud and Larssen had proven prophetic if taxing. She could hardly wait to see how long the spells would last once the purple and red blossoms broke forth into the sun's glistening embrace, drinking of the currents of magic like nectar.
Jessica stroked the green stem and slender leaves with the tip of one wing, then straightened and sighed in contentment. Her breath misted in the air, but only faintly and quickly dissipated. There was invariable a fog over Lake Barnhardt in the morning, and while it lingered over the center of the lake like a massive white turtle, it had long since burned off the town. Smoke curled from chimneys, and the air resounded with the clanging of the smithy, the bleating of real animals, and the shouts of merchants readying wares and the farmers seeking them in preparation for the growing season.
Weyden's company was returning to Metamor next week. And though it had long been her home, she knew she'd miss Lake Barnhardt. She glanced down to her small planter nestled against one corner of the barracks roof and cracked her beak in an avian grin. "I will be coming back once a week to tend you my little one."
Unlike Charles's vine which she'd often observed leaning into the rat's gentle caresses, her hyacinth merely bent then bounced back into place at her touch. Jessica stretched her toes, talons digging into the soft earth, then stretched her wings and hopped to the edge of the barracks. She stopped when something in the distance caught her sharp gaze. A large figure was flying toward them from the north. On its back were two roughly human-shaped figures.
She knew them.
Jessica shifted into her normal hawk-sized form and jumped from the rooftop in her excitement. They met on the other side of the lake where pine and ash thrust up through a clatter of granite stones larger than even many inns. She landed on a flat stretch overlooking the lake, with the tops of trees peering just above the ledge. Brush clung to every scrap of dirt amidst the stone. Guernef came to a ponderous stop, his wings beating heavily, clattering branches and sending the last of the snow in a swirling mist to either side.
Before either Andares or Abafouq could climb off the Nauh-kaee's back, Jessica had resumed her most human appearance and hopped to their sides to hug them. "Oh, it's so good to see you! Abafouq, Andares, Guernef! Why have you not visited sooner? I've missed you."
"It is strange how quickly time has disappeared," Abafouq admitted as he straighten his woolen cloak. "You have a saying, ‘it seems only yesterday' yes? That is how I feel."
"I know what you mean," she agreed.
"And it is with much sadness we admit that our coming here is to say goodbye." Abafouq, with a few words supplied by Andares, explained their plan to her. Jessica listened with heavy heart. Her objections made no more dent in their resolve than Kayla's or James's had.
And they came to an end when Guernef finally spoke. "There comes an end to all things. We three of the sky know such things. It too must end. And so we part. But we shall not forget you, and the wind will hear our songs always."
Jessica blinked golden eyes at the white-feathered and furred creature. "We three?" She shook her head. "No, don't bother. I'm so, I can't explain it, I don't think you should either. So you have to go, please don't go forever. Write. Send messages. Maybe we could even set up a magic scrying stone like Misha uses to speak to his sister. Just don't leave our lives forever."
Andares smiled faintly and put a slender, silvery hand on her wing shoulder. "We will not do that. If nothing else, letters will be written. Of that you may rest assured."
"And we certainly don't want to part," Abafouq said with a long sigh. "But we must. Before we go, how are things with you?"
"They go well. I am learning many new things since we returned. And soon I will be married to Weyden. I wish you could stay for the wedding."
None of them spoke for several seconds. A crisp breeze caught at her feathers and made Abafouq grasp his cloak in dismay. The trees rattled as dry bones.
Finally, Jessica flung herself at the Åelf and held him close in her wings. Her voice was strained and almost tearful. "You've been such good, dear friends! I'll miss you all!" Andares held her gently for several long moments before she bounced to Abafouq whom she bent down to embrace. The Binoq had a firmer grip and almost hang off her neck before he finally let go. Guernef's embrace was slight, a gentle cradling with one wing and a beak nuzzle much like those she and Weyden gave to each other. She returned it, barely able to keep her tears at bay.
Their final goodbyes were short, hesitant but quick, as if none of them wished to leave but feared to linger. Jessica watched them fly to the south on Guernef's back, but for once her hawk's eyes had trouble focusing. The tears streamed down her feathers and she trembled. The cold air cut her like so many little knives. She couldn't wait to return to Metamor. She could be close to Kayla and Lindsey there at least.
Jessica flapped her wings and returned to the city. Right then she just wanted to forget everything.
At the southern end of the valley, where the broad fields fought with the encroaching forests clustering beneath te edges of the mountains, the sun warmed the land and presaged the coming Spring. Its promise was sweet to the Metamorians who had endured a Winter wondering whether they would be attacked yet again. For the people of Jetta, it was time to begin planting crops.
And it was also time to check and repair the defenses. The two visiting knights, their squires, and several members of Jetta's militia patrolled the southern palisades. Egland frequently rattled the wooden slats and pointed out those that needed replacing. Only a few did.
By the time they reached a small bluff on which an old tower stood, the sun was beginning its way back down. There they met a surprising pair. Resting a hearty paw against the stone tower was the bear Sho Rosewain. And speaking with her, dressed in a black robe dirtied about the ankles, was the Questioner priest Felsah.
"Father Felsah," Sir Egland said in faint delight. "I did not know you were in Jetta."
The priest nodded to the knights, squires, and foot soldiers following them. "Sir Egland. Sir Saulius. I arrived only an hour past."
Egland noted his still human appearance. "The Curses haven't touched you I see, Father."
"Not yet no," Felsah agreed. He smiled to the much larger bear who grinned back. "But I'm sure it will not be long now."
"I've been showing him the tower," Sho said in her basso rumble. The bear patted the stone and glanced up at the unfinished cupola. "We'll be able to see for miles once it's finished."
"I'm surprised you don't have more," Egland commented, casting a glance back at the militia captain, a broad shouldered woman with close-cropped brown hair and a bow slung over her shoulder.
She jutted her chin at the tower. "There used to be. Hasn't been as much need since the Curses."
Sho almost growled. "There is a need! I was kept in a cage not one mile from this spot until I became this!"
The militia captain held up one hand. "I know. I know. That's why the tower's being built."
"We need more stones," Sho pointed out. Felsah set a hand gently on her massive arm and she seemed to still.
Sir Egland and Sir Saulius both dismounted. Their squires followed them. Egland glanced over the southern fields on either side of the tower. The palisade kept the tower defended from all but the north where Jetta lay. The boundary of the Curses lay somewhere in the mixed shrub and low hills before him. Stone markers had been placed to warn travellers. But they'd also been used to make roadside attractions like Sho for villainous showmen.
Egland studied the tower and grimaced at the dark lines of mould between the close-fitting blocks of granite. "This looks like an older tower."
"The older tower burned a dozen years ago," the militia captain explained.
But Charles was already pressing his paws against the stone. Sir Saulius beckoned him back, but the rat would not be distracted. This was stone. The flesh on his paws turned hard and grey, and then pressed into the stone. Sho jumped back and made the sign of the yew over her chest. Felsah stared in dumbfounded surprise. Even Egland began to stutter at the sight.
Charles didn't hear any of them. He felt the complaint of long neglect and the brittleness of a roaring fire. But there was a smouldering hope in the rock too. His still flesh muzzle creased in a smile, and his whiskers twitched across the tower wall. He withdrew his paws and let them return to flesh.
"The stone is old," Charles said, "and it did suffer fire, but it is still strong. You'll want to shore up with another inner layer of stone and wood before building any higher. But I think this will be a fine tower. Now you need more stone. I can find some for you and help convince it to be shaped well."
Nobody took him up on the offer. Instead everyone gazed at him with a mixture of fright and wonder. Only Sir Saulius knew his secret. His knight moved in closer and put a single paw on his shoulder. "My squire didst suffer a magical spell which made him living stone. But the spell hath been broken and he now controls the stone. ‘Tis nothing to fear."
"You can become stone?" Sho asked as she neared her precious tower. She rubbed the spot Charles had slipped his paw in and marvelled. "How?"
"A spell, but the caster is now dead. It no longer traps me. But, I can communicate with stone. It's..." he groped for the right word for several seconds but gave up with a shake of his head. "I cannot explain it. But, while this," and all of his flesh turned to granite and his eyes to obsidian jewels, "I can pass through stone as if it were water."
Sho put one paw on the top of his head and her dark eyes widened. "Oh! You're so cold!"
"I'm stone," he replied. "Although if I stay out in the sun like this long enough I'm told I start to get warm."
"You don't know?"
He shook his head. "I can't feel as much like this. Except for other stones. Those I feel."
"Other stones?" Felsah asked, his lips a faint, but unreadable line. "Do you think yourself a stone?"
Charles closed his eyes, and when he opened them he was flesh again. "Forgive me. I spent over four months as living stone; it was hard enough then keeping my thoughts straight. I have not become a full statue often since then. Stone thoughts can be... easy to accept sometimes."
Felsah rubbed his chin, "We will have to discuss that some time. It is very curious."
"But another time," Sir Egland said with a sweep of his arm. "This tower ought to be rebuilt. And not just to keep foreigners from forcing their victims to suffer the Curse. Our southern borders have been peaceful for many years, but that may not always be the case. I will recommend that several more towers be built along the palisade."
"Oh they will be," Sho assured them, to which the captain nodded vigorously. "And I'd like to take you up on your offer to help..."
"Charles," he supplied. "And it will have to wait some time. I am eager to return to my wife and children up in Glen Avery."
"Isn't that at the northern end of the Valley?" Sho asked. He nodded. "Then may Eli grant you a speedy return. But if you could help us, we would welcome it."
"I will try. If Sir Saulius gives me leave, I can come with you now and show you good stone."
"After we hath completed our inspection of the palisade," Saulius said in a gentle but firm tone. "‘Twill not be much longer."
Sho bowed her head a full foot lower and placed her paws together as if praying. Thank you, Charles. We will be here."
Sir Egland patted the tower one last time and cast a commanding glance across the menagerie of Metamorian soldiers. "With that settled, let us continue. Mount up. We've another mile to inspect and the sun won't be with us forever."
Charles felt the mildest twinges of disappointment as he left the stone tower behind and resumed his duties. Felsah and Sho waved to them as they continued their ride east along the palisade.
"This one will do nicely," the bull Tathom said as he pat his hoof-like hand against the trunk of a mid-age oak. Twenty feet above their heads, a lightning strike had severed one of the larger limbs and it dangled in the brush, not yet fully dead. "Get this one down and cleaned and we'll call it a day."
Michael the plaid beaver hefted his axe, muscles rippling beneath his fur and light jerkin. In the almost two years that he'd been part of the timber crews, he'd developed a bulk and stoutness that rivaled many trees. Some days he was put on chopping duty, and others on cleaning duty. Every now and again when on cleaning duty he'd just bite the slimmer branches off with his rodent teeth. But he always felt the most invigorated when chopping and so he grinned and took a few steps toward the tree, turning to one side with a lopsided grin. "Do you want the first swing, Lindsey, or can I have it?"
Only Lindsey, the very man who'd helped him adjust to life on the timber crews, wasn't there at his side. "Lindsey?" In the weeks since his return from the far south Michael had grown used to having Lindsey there at his side again. He'd spoken of his adventures, but of the last two months he'd remained almost completely silent. Michael had understood his need for solitude and had not pried. But he'd never just wandered away from the crew before.
Michael scanned about, as did several other heads. It was the moose Lance who spotted him. "He's down there by the road. How did he sneak off like that?" The moose shook his head, newly forming antlers shivering with velvet.
The road was a good fifty paces through a trail half wood and half scrub. Michael started on the trail until he got a good look at his friend. Lindsey's back was to them, but there were three other figures down there next to him. The beaver recognized them as some of his friends from his journey to the south. Lindsey and the tall strange one embraced.
Michael averted his eyes and waved the other members of the crew back. "Lindsey's friends are here. Looks private to me. Let's start on this tree."
They had chopped halfway through the trunk, wood splinters clinging to his tunic, when Lindsey returned, quiet like a shadow tilting away from the sun. His expression was dour, but that was not unusual for the burly Northerner. Michael grinned, peach-cream skin poking through his red and black fur. "There's still half a trunk here, Lindsey. You want to take a few swings?"
"Aye, thank you." Lindsey hefted his large axe, felt one finger along the edge, and then slammed it into the trunk. Splinters scattered, and the tree shuddered, groaning as more and more weight shifted to the side. "I'm sorry I left," he added after brushing a few chips from his beard. "But my friends..."
Lindsey swung again, and a second time without finishing the sentence. Michael rolled the haft around in his paws. "Your friends?"
"They had to say goodbye. They're heading home."
"Home," Michael repeated quietly as Lindsey swung again. He opened his muzzle to say something more, but thought better of it. They'd have to visit that tavern in Sawtry later tonight. Somehow he just knew they were going to hear a story about Habakkuk from their friend tonight. There was a look in the bearded man's eyes, a look Michael knew meant a certain kangaroo who'd not come back.
Lindsey felled the tree in three more strokes, each one more fierce than the last. Michael decided he'd better dip a little bit more into his coin for cups that night.
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells...
James tapped the cracked bell lightly with the hammer as he suspended it in air. The gentle throb echoed through the smithy while Malloc looked on with approval. The tone was clear, sonorous, and breached every attempt at description. It pleased Malloc whose grin stretched from one ruddy cheek to the other. His eyes twinkled like dancing crystals.
"Well, boy, you've coaxed a prettier sound from that bell than it had fore it cracked!" Malloc clapped his hands together and then patted him on the arm. "Any time you want to help out, you're more than welcome."
James's eyes savored the way the light bent around the bell's conical bore. Everything spun and twisted, turning with each twist of his hand. It weighed only a few stone which made it even more comfortable in his three-fingered hand. "I think this will be all," he admitted when he finally tore his gaze away. "Thank you for letting me do this, Master Malloc." He smiled to the age-regressed smithy and to his wife Emily. The rhinoceros clapped her meaty hands together and bleated.
"You are always welcome back here, Master James." Emily gestured at a small tray of sausage she'd just brought for the apprentices and her husband. "If you'd like you may have some. You've earned it."
James pondered, but decided his stomach wasn't up to sausage. "Thank you, but not today. I really should get going. It's late and I promised Baerle and Kimberly I'd stop by and see if they needed me for anything."
Malloc and Emily wished him well, protesting that he should come back and do more for them any time he wished. He thanked them again and carried his bell in his left hand back to the Glen commons. He wanted to show this to Baerle and Lady Matthias, and of course, the children. They'd certainly be impressed with what he'd done. Fixing the crack had taken a few hours of work every day for a week. But it had been well worth it. His heart leapt in his chest with every resonant note he coaxed
Lanterns were lit around the commons even though there was still enough sunlight to see by. In another hour twilight would begin to grip the Glen, shadows becoming greater than the few rays of light that could penetrate the forest canopy beneath which they dwelt. The air was brisk and cooling quickly. James thought about returning to the Inn and bringing his cloak, but decided a little chill couldn't hurt.
One of the wagons owned by the rats from Metamor was nestled against one of the large roots framing the entrance to the Matthias home. A liveried man old enough to have been cursed was busy tending the horses in the stables the knights had built for Charles in January. James waved to him and then walked to the familiar oaken door to the Matthias home.
It was very warm inside and smelled of freshly cooked bread and nuts. Tea steeped over the fire and Baerle was there watching it. James smiled to her and then waved to Kimberly who sat on the couch with bright face and whiskers. "Oh, James! Come in, Goldmark's brought news."
The rat Goldmark was stretched out on the couch, all four legs sticking out from underneath his grey-furred belly. The children were sitting next to him, snug between his paws, though little Erick was busy trying to stab his hearty tail with a little wooden sword. They all chorused, "Welcome, Master James!" when he stepped closer.
"And a good evening to you too." He looked at the rat who had on the courier uniform the rat's had designed for themselves. A burgundy vest over blue tunic and trousers with boots to match the vest. Only at the moment he wasn't wearing the trousers.
"Ah, James," Goldmark said with a broad smile. "I was just telling Lady Kimberly the good news."
"Much more cheering than the bad news one of George's messengers brought me earlier!" Kimberly said in exasperation. "Can you believe the jackal has Charles staying on patrol for a few days more?"
James frowned, ears lowering. He didn't know George at all, except from what Charles had said of him and from the fight in the belfry. But it sounded like the sort of thing those in authority might do. "So he won't be back tomorrow?"
"Not for another two days," Kimberly added with a long sigh. The children lowered their snouts too, then resumed their play on Goldmark's expansive lower torso. The rat with six limbs watched the four little rats with broad amusement. But Charles's wife was quick, like her children, to smile again, a bright thing that set her prodigious whiskers twitching up and down. "The good news — the wonderful news — that Bernadette's oldest boy, Richard, is getting married in a few days!"
James only knew the kitchen mouse by what Kimberly had said of her. He hadn't even known she had a son, let alone one old enough to marry! "Oh, well, that is good news," James replied. "I guess I should begin assembling our things for the journey to Metamor."
Kimberly shook her head, casting a quick glance at Baerle who poured tea for each of them. James followed her glance and watched the opossum a bit sheepishly. The lady rat's voice was elated but firm, "No, I want you and Baerle to stay here and wait for Charles in case he doesn't hear the news. You never know where he's going to be when he's on patrol! Goldmark and I will return to Metamor with the children tomorrow. I hope Charles can meet us there, but if he comes back here, you can send him straightaway to Metamor."
"Oh," James added, a little more relieved than he expected. Surely after travelling so long, he was merely delighted not to have to journey again so soon. "Would you like me to do anything while you are away?"
Kimberly's face was almost angelic in its brightness. "Just help Baerle keep the house clean. I expect we'll be gone a week. The children need to spend more time at Metamor anyway."
"I love Metamor!" Little Charles piped up in his high-pitched voice. His long tail lashed back and forth in excitement, the tip tickling one of Goldmark's front paws. The six-limbed larger rat shifted on the couch trying not to laugh.
"Is that the bell you've been working on?" Kimberly asked, pointing with one claw at the iron bell dangling from the donkey's hand.
James blinked and lifted it so all could see. The four little rats lifted their heads and peered with wide eyes. "Oh yes. I just finished it. Would you like to hear?"
"Oh please," Baerle said as she set the kettle aside and settled on the couch next to Kimberly. "What does it sound like?"
James lifted the bell, and with timorous delight, swung downward. The resounding gong warmed the air, soothed the ear, and blotted out all thought other than the vivacious sonority like a lens distorting light. Even the tongues of fire bent and cowed before it, flickering blue an gold before resuming their brilliant vermillion aura.
Goldmark gaped and blinked, whiskers gone completely still. The four children oohed in delight, their bodies, so full of nervous energy, for the moment stilled into awe. Baerle had one paw on her breasts, breathing deeply and rapturously. Kimberly clasped her paws together, and eyes translated to joy. "Oh my, James! That is so beautiful!"
The donkey blushed in delight, his ears folding back along his spiky mane. "Thank you, milady Kimberly. I am delighted by it too."
Their voices broke the eerie calm that had befallen them, and the children chittered again in playful abandon. Baerle lifted a cup of tea and held it out to James. "Will you join us for tea?"
James accepted and felt his chest expand. "Of course. Thank you, Baerle." He sat down next to Goldmark and set the bell on the table between them. Four little rodent faces, twisted by the curve of the bell, stared back at him from the iron.
"Oh this looks like a wonderful vein," Sho's basso voice rumbled in an ursine purr. Her paw stroked down the rocky granite jutting out from the hillside as it rose in a set of ascending bluffs toward the western edge of the Barrier Range. They were on the extreme eastern edge of the valley, two miles out from Jetta, but close enough that standing on the promontory they could easily see the village. An old woodcutter track cut through a thin forest filled with young birch and pine. But their passage had been the first in many years to judge by the clogged undergrowth.
Charles, completely stone, ran his fingers through the pearly rock and smiled. This was good solid rock with an agreeable temperament. An hour more and it would readily volunteer itself for the tower. For the first time that day, he truly felt contented with helping in Jetta. How much of that was due to Sho's unique presence and personality, not being around Saulius, Egland, or Intoran, or spending so much time as stone he wasn't sure.
"There is more than enough here," he said in his empty air voice, "for at least four towers. I'm not sure the rock will want to give up quite so much, so I'd start with just enough to repair the first."
Sister Sho Rosewain nodded and ran her paws across the vein, claws dragging and delicately sharpening against the granite. "This is very important, squire Charles. Not just to me, but to those who haven't been cursed. I will not let anyone do as Sideshow did; not if it's within my power to stop them."
So contented was he by the granite through which his arms had sunk up to his elbows that he didn't even flinch when she called him squire. "We'd heard rumours of it happening. But I'd never known for sure until I met you, Sho. I'm... I cannot imagine it."
Her eyes darkened as she looked toward the south. "And none ever should again." She then blinked and turned to the went, shielding her eyes with a meaty paw. "What's that?"
Charles turned, jeweled eyes having no trouble despite the evening sun shining directly on them. He jumped from the rock and grinned. "My friends! That's Guernef and I think Abafouq and Andares on his back!" He waved to them as they descended out of the darkening sky.
The welcome he received was not at all what he expected. Guernef landed a few feet in front of him and squawked angrily, golden eyes burning and intense. "Charles! I have warned you about being stone!"
The granite rat fell back a pace as Andares and Abafouq scrambled off the feathered back. Even they appeared astounded at the severity of the Nauh-kaee's reaction. "I was helping Sister Sho here find good stone for her tower," he replied, gesturing to the bear who'd tensed and begun to growl.
"Don't you talk to him that way!" Sho snapped and advanced on the gryphon, claws and fangs menacing. "I've had enough of monsters bullying others and you won't do it to him!"
Guernef's eyes became still with avian rigidity and truculence. "I have no quarrel with you. Nor do you understand. Charles has several times nearly lost himself to the stone. It is a temptation he still faces and cannot seem to resist! I have warned him again and again to no avail."
Charles backed up against the promontory and shoved his tail inside the welcome stone. It did a great deal to calm his jagged nerves. "I am not giving into the stone. I'm using it to help a friend."
Sho had stopped her advance, a little uncertain, but still kept a fierce snarl fixed on the Nauh-kaee. Abafouq had one hand on his side as if that were going to hold him back. Andares watched with intense scrutiny, eyes flashing back and forth between them with each breath. But the gryphon's fiery denouncement of a moment past faded into his more typical avian distance, yet losing none of its intensity. "If you are not giving into the stone, prove it by returning to flesh."
The rat felt an impulse to disappear within the rock behind him, but knew immediately such was foolishness. He stepped forward and willed himself to return to flesh. His heart sagged in his chest and he felt heavier if it were possible. "You see, Guernef? It is something I can do, and I am not tempted by the mountain anymore. I don't want to be a mountain, Guernef. I want to be a father."
"I believe him, Guernef," Abafouq said as he gently ran one small hand along the Nauh-kaee's feathery mane. "I can see things in stone you can't. It doesn't look like it has the hold over him it once did."
Guernef narrowed his eyes, leonine tail lashing back and forth, wings alternately spreading wide and folding along his back. Andares steadied the wing on his left and smiled faintly. "Your friend speaks rightly. Charles has been very responsible in his use of stone since Marzac was defeated."
Very simply, the Nauh-kaee squawked, "It still tempts him."
Charles wrapped his paws around the vine at his chest and shook his head back and forth. "I can't be a father if I'm a mountain. I've already lost one child, Guernef. I'm not going to let this take the other four from me."
He felt a hearty paw on his shoulder and saw Sho there towering above him. She had to bend down to even reach him to comfort him. "I believe you, squire Charles. And I thank you again for your help. You have no idea what it means to me."
Charles smiled to her and then looked to his traveling companions. "I know you worry for me, Guernef. And I thank you for that too. I wish I could cool your anxiety, but I can only promise that I am not tempted by the stone anymore. It is, just a part of me, but not the most important part."
"I do not wholly believe you," Guernef replied in cool tones. "But I must trust you. You have been my friend and I am yours. But now that we must part, I find you stone again. You frighten me, Charles."
"I apologize. But I haven't been full stone in a long time. I only consented to help Sho find good rock for her tower. Nothing more." And then the important of the gryphon's words struck him. "We must part? Where are you going?"
"Home," Andares replied. "For I, the Åelfwood. For Abafouq and Guernef, the mountains. We may return someday, and I hope that we do, but there are many things we must do, many things we must return to."
Charles patted Sho's paw with one of his own, and then walked to each of his friends and gave them a firm hug, one deeper and more heartfelt than many ever shared. Even Guernef he embraced, the acrimony of a moment gone. "You will all be missed. In a way, I wish we could still be traveling together."
"As do I," Abafouq admitted with a long sigh. "But life continues and we must return to ours."
Andares had no more words that he could share, but Guernef offered one parting command. With eyes level, beak tilting ever so slightly in his direction, and ears folded back, the Nauh-kaee said, "Be a father."
Then, with the sun dwindling in the sky, Andares and Abafouq climbed on Guernef's back and the trio disappeared back to the north. Charles climbed onto the promontory so he could watch them, but the trees to the north were too tall and he soon lost sight of them. He sighed, and slipped off the rock, being careful not to let any part of himself glide through it.
"Well," he said to Sho who only just now looked as if she realized what it was she'd been talking to, "shall we head back?"
The bruin, blinked a few times to rouse herself form her shaken stupor and nodded. "Next time you come," she suggested as he remounted Malicon, "bring your children with you. I'd love to meet them too."
His smile was faint but real. "I will. Thank you, Sister Sho, for giving me something real to help with."
As evening settled in and the already cool air took on a chill, they started their return to Jetta. No more words passed between them on their journey.
March 3, 708 CR
A few trees were sporting buds that would soon become bright pink and yellow blossoms, but most were still locked in winter slumber around Metamor. The air was warming as Spring beckoned at the gate, but snow lingered everywhere in defiance of the calendar. Kimberly tilted her snout up into the air for the tenth time and resisted the temptation to draw currents of flame to bring even more warmth to her and her children. With the roads cleared, they were no longer gliding across the distance on sleighs but enduring the bumpy road and the long five hours stretch from Glen Avery to Metamor. It did not take long before the chill of the day seeped through their blankets and into her fur.
Her four children did not appear to mind. They played a game of tag in between the dozen barrels of wild oats and roots, cloths, and other odds and ends that the merchants of the Glen were sending to Metamor. Goldmark was still in his six-limbed form, and all four lower limbs were sprawled across the buckboard as he drove the team of horses along familiar roads. The easternmost expanse of the Dragon Mountains rose up to their right, majestic and clear. The Barrier range hunched in the distance to their left, just visible through the hazy midday sky. The nearer they came to Metamor Keep, the nearer those mountain ranges grew. After two years, they were still impressive, even if she didn't notice them as much.
"Looks like we'll be there soon," Goldmark said as he half turned back to her. "I have to take the barrels to a few merchants around Metamor. Where do you want me to take you?"
Kimberly looked up and smiled at the towering citadel standing proud on the northern bluff of the rise in between the mountains. "To the castle," she replied. "Or as near as you can come. We'll be staying at our rooms in the Long House."
Goldmark nodded. His ears twitched as little Baerle squeaked when little Erick accidentally stepped on her tail. A smile creased his muzzle. "Only place safe for them?"
"It's the best place," Kimberly admitted. Her eyes strayed to the road along the river and sighed, drawing the blanket tighter around her chest, tail tucked closed to her legs.
Goldmark caught the glance and frowned. "I did think we'd see Charles riding back north today. Perhaps he's been delayed? Another order from George maybe."
"I knew this would happen when I married him," Kimberly replied with a long sigh. "He cannot be home every night. It's just..." She didn't even want to think of the possibility of her Charles having to leave on another eight month long quest. The first had been so sudden and painful, not even a chance to say goodbye; a second would devastate her. And the children... how could they cope?
The other rat seemed to understand and after gently patting her on the shoulder and meeting her gaze with one of sublime confidence, he returned to tending the horses, leading them around the hill to Euper. Kimberly turned her attention to her children and watched them play, not a one of them worrying that they wouldn't see their father soon.
Tonight, if not tomorrow. Kimberly assured herself of this as they continued on their way.
It was another hour before they finally climbed out of the wagon. After passing through Euper, they ascended the hill into Keeptowne where Goldmark bypassed the merchant's district to avoid being drawn into any length negotiations with merchants either seeking his wares or his services. He was given permission to approach the castle, and so only a few minutes later was able to leave Kimberly and her children at the Ivy Causeway. They gathered their few things and stepped through to the comparative warmth of the castle.
The air was still cool inside, but the many flambeaux helped to sooth her flesh, fingers and toes especially. "Now stay close until we reach Long House," she told her children who stared in wonder at the storied halls. All four of them kept close to her, two on either side, girls to her left and boys to her right. They gawked at several larger Keepers as they passed, but she didn't see anyone she recognized.
It took only a few minutes of walking to reach the familiar entrance to the Long House. A quartet of guards flanked the entrance. She knew two of them and they were delighted to wave her and the children through. Beyond, Long House was full of activity as always. In one corner she saw Meredith practicing his crossbow while a still-human scout she didn't recognize challenged him with long bow. A trio of Keepers chatted amongst themselves as they cleaned the floors and walls with feather brooms. The only banners on display were those of the axe and bow.
The children kept close to her as she headed toward the side passage leading to the family quarters. Her focus was so intent she didn't notice the fox Misha leaving his office to come greet her. But her children did. "Misha!" "Misha!" "Misha!" "Misha!" They ran forward, falling to all fours to scamper faster as they raced toward the fox. Misha's eyes widened and he braced himself. They jumped onto him, holding legs and middle as they hugged him and shouted at once. He laughed and fell back on his tail before rolling onto his back and trying to hug them in turn.
Kimberly, sighed and then laughed as she chased after them. When she got within a few feet she stood with paws on hips and scowled. "Is this how we greet your father's friends?"
The children whined a moment but eventually climbed off of Misha and, lining up, lowered their heads respectfully. "Good afternoon, Master Brightleaf."
Misha, still laughing, rolled back onto his paws and tousled their headfur. "So formal! Ah, welcome to Long House again. To what do we owe the pleasure?"
Kimberly smiled to him. "Bernadette's oldest boy Richmond is getting married. Charles and our family were invited to come celebrate."
At the mention of her husband's name, Misha's ears lowered and his tail wagged anxiously. "Ah, well, yes. Charles should be about finished up with the patrol George set him to. I can have a message sent to find him to let him know to come here."
Kimberly's smile widened, revealing more teeth than just her incisors. "Oh thank you! I did leave instructions for him in case he went to the Glen, but I'm sure he'll be most upset if he has to ride up there and then all the way back here just to find us!"
"That he would!"
"Master Misha," little Bernadette cooed in a plaintive voice. "Could you please show us the battlements again? I want to tip the cauldron this time!"
"No fair!" Erick stammered and squeaked. "You tipped it last time!"
"No I didn't! Baerle did!"
Misha waved his paws in the air. "You can all tip the cauldron! You each get one turn!" He looked to the mother but she smiled and nodded her head.
Little Charles perked up. "Will there be boiling oil in it this time?"
The fox yipped a laugh. "We'll see about that."
Kimberly set her pack down and smiled to him. "Could you see to them for a little while? I want to go check on Bernadette and see if she needs any help."
"I'd be... happy to," Misha replied with a strained laugh. He glanced over his shoulder at the big bear. "Hey, Meredith. How would you like the most dangerous assignment of all?"
The bear glanced at the fox and the four rat children who were held back from climbing all over him only by their mother's presence. "I already have children," Meredith shouted back with a hearty laugh. "But I suppose I can help you manage this mischief."
The fox breathed a sigh of relief, and turned back to Kimberly. "We'll make sure your things are in your rooms. It's good to see you again, milady." He clapped his paws together as the bear approached. "Now come on, children. Your uncle Meredith and I are going to show you the battlements and the cauldron and... and some other things!" They squeaked their delight and after one last look at their mother to make sure everything was all right, they scampered after the two Long scouts.
Kimberly, secure in the knowledge that all would be well, left to go find her friend.
And, hours later, when Misha, finally managed to leave the children in Meredith's capable paws, completely forgot to send the promised message.
Macaban had servants bring the two knights and their squires steaming cups of cider to warm them as they commenced rounds of the many fields and farms of Lorland. Charles clutched his and let it warm his paws and his snout first as they gazed across fields left fallow the previous year. Already farmers were busy keeping the fields clear from snow and checking the soil to see how well it was thawing. In another few weeks they would begin planting crops for this year.
The farmers spoke confidently of good weather and good harvest, hopefully of the new priest, Father Purvis, who'd just begun his duties a few days ago and was now busy visiting all of the Follower families in Lorland, and speculation about when the newly married Duke would sire an heir. The last topic seemed to amuse Sir Egland but he wouldn't quite say why that was so until they were alone again.
Sir Egland gazed at his friends and a twisted look of mirth graced his cervine muzzle. "The Lady Alberta is a dear friend of mine, and once a knight of Yesulam."
"And a Steppelander," Saulius reminded him with a bit of pride.
"Oh, aye, very much a Steppelander," Egland's grin lifted his ears. "When we both first came to Metamor, Alberta, then Albert, pondered what sort of steeds he might be able to sire with so fine a blood as the Hassan." He waited a moment as their eyes widened. Saulius guffawed. "Well, she's going to find out one day!"
Charles laughed and resumed blowing on his cider. But he stopped and stared at the distant road. What looked like a long train of wagons were passing by. He gestured with a nod of his head. "That's a rather large caravan. It looks like at least twenty wagons. Rather colorful too it looks like."
The others turned. Intoran frowned and shrugged his shoulders. Egland pondered them as if he thought he should know them. Saulius gaped, and the rat scrambled at his side for something that wasn't there. After a moment he turned to Egland and held out one paw. "Quick! Thy spyglass, Sir Egland!"
Intoran dug the brass spyglass out of Egland's saddlebags and passed it to the rat. Saulius turned it back and forth in his paws for a moment before lifting the narrow end to his right eye, and squeezing the left one shut, tilted the larger end to bring the wagons into view. He tightened the focus a little and then squeaked in surprise. "Magyars! What business hath they in Metamor?"
"Magyars?" Egland bleated, sitting a little taller in his saddle. "Alberta told me of them. Tricksters and thieves she said."
"She hath spoken rightly!" Saulius replied with bile. "But harmless so long as thou dost keep watch o'er thy wares. And thy children!"
"Do they really kidnap children?" Intoran asked, ears quivering in sudden anxiety.
"Not often," Saulius admitted as he lowered the spyglass. He huffed and sagged in the saddle. "But I hath heard of it many times."
Charles narrowed his eyes and gently stroked Malicon's mane with one paw. Under his breath he muttered, "At least they aren't likely to go to Glen Avery."
After putting the spyglass away, Sir Egland gestured to the forest to their north and the fading sun. "Let's finish up our rounds. We can thank Macaban. If we're lucky, we'll reach Metamor tonight."
Saulius cast a quick glance at Charles and then nodded to the elk. "My squire and I will spend the evening at Lake Barnhardt before pushing on to Glen Avery tomorrow morning. Do tell the Watch to keep a close eye on the Magyars."
The elk laughed and nodded. Charles sipped his cider before giving Malicon a gentle nudge with his hind paws. They set off a trot across still hard earth, the warm steam washing across their faces and filling them with the powerful aroma of apples.
The Matthias house felt so empty with Lady Kimberly and the children gone to Metamor. Baerle busied herself with cleaning the place up, starting with the main room. Only a year ago she'd been a dedicated scout, and now she was nursemaid to the Matthias children, dear friend to Kimberly, and... she wasn't sure what to Charles.
Kimberly had once given her permission to pursue the handsome rat, but with everything that had happened to him in the last nine months, she couldn't help ponder whether it was such a wise idea anymore. Did she still love him and desire him?
Even thinking the question made her tremble. She knocked over a little wooden figurine of a rat, but caught it before it hit the floor. She set it back on the mantle and sighed, resting her forehead against the wooden mantle and peering into the gently burning fire. It crackled, the flames burning low but still flickering as they consumed a bit of oak. She sighed and added another log.
Looking back over the mantle, she was surprised to see the cracked bell James had repaired still resting on the end. He must have left it there last night before returning to the Inn. He hadn't been by at all that day, which was unusual. Even when he was working at the Inn, like he did today, he usually made a point of stopping in under some pretext to offer help or just to say hi.
Curiously, Baerle took the bell by the handle and hefted it. The weight was no more than a sword, but still felt awkwardly balanced in her paw. She gave it a downward swing, but the sound was hollow and weak, even if clear. Odd. It had been so beautiful when James had rung it. Now it just sounded dull.
She set it back on the counter and resumed cleaning, pondering instead of the rats, the offer the badger had made to her. With the children getting older, there would be more opportunities for her to return to scouting duties. Angus had even promised that she would not have to serve alongside Berchem. The skunk was the best archer in the Glen, and one of the best hunters. But the unhappy relationship she'd shared with him a year and a half ago was well known.
Baerle almost dropped her cleaning cloth when the door banged open. She spun on her paws, long tail whipping around behind her and striking the corner of the nearest couch. James stood in the door wide-eyed and a worried look on his face. The donkey stumbled inside, hooves clopping on the wooden floor. His eyes found her and he began to stammer, "Did... Did I... I leave my... my bell here?"
"It's right there on the mantle." Baerle pointed.
James almost ran to the mantle to claim it. He picked it up and rubbed one hand over the side, breathing heavily in relief. "Oh, thank goodness. I just had this sudden fear I'd lost it."
The opossum recovered her sensibilities and gestured at the couch. "Would you like to stay? This place feels too empty without the others." She moved to shut the door which the donkey in his haste had left open.
James, eyes locked on the bell, suddenly looked up and shook his head. "Oh, I'm sorry, Baerle. I'd love to stay, but I have to get back to work. Jurmas is going to brain me for running out like I did."
She felt disappointed at his sudden departure. She bid him stay one more time, but he could only apologize again as he slipped out, carrying the bell with him. This time he did shut the door. Baerle looked about the wide empty room, noted the many rings of the tree in which the place was built. So many rings, more than she could count. If not for the magic that had gone into the room's fashioning, the tree would long ago have collapsed.
And that is just what she did, falling into the couch, staring at the rings above her, lost in the endless circles one about another, dark and light like a million suns and moons stacked on top of one another. And if she wasn't careful, that's all she'd ever end up doing too, spinning round and round in circles.
She hoped Kimberly and Charles would not be gone long.
March 4, 708 CR
They reached Lake Barnhardt well after nightfall on the third. Charles wanted to push on to the Glen, but even he could see that their ponies Malicon and Armivest needed the rest. It would be another three hours north to the Glen; better to attempt the ride in the morning when all of them were refreshed.
Sir Egland and Intoran had returned to Metamor that afternoon, and the elk promised to deliver a report to George, absolving them of the need to do so. Once they'd parted ways the rats were no longer under orders and could come and go as they wished. So it was that nobody at Lake Barnhardt was expecting them, but as they were known, they were allowed inside the city gates without having to answer any questions.
Charles spent the evening conversing with Jessica and Weyden. He was surprised to learn that the black hawk had learned how to manipulate the Curses, but politely declined the offer of a personal demonstration. He did oblige his friend by showing Weyden how he could turn his flesh to stone and move through rock, but nothing more than shoving his arm into the walls of the barracks. Weyden and his friends were suitably impressed. The ram Dallar who Charles recognized from his last stay in the Keep's dungeons bade him not attempt that trick should he make another criminal visit.
The evening, Charles had to admit, was a pleasant one, but his mind was ever on the morning. And so well before the sun made its first appearance, he and Sir Saulius mounted up and bid their friends goodbye. They traversed the road north in silence, the snow-draped trees muffling everything.
The sun just poked its feeble arms over the mountains when the tall spires of the Glen spread before them in welcome. Charles breathed a long sigh of relief. "Home at last," he murmured.
His fellow rat chuffed a laugh. "Hardly compares to thy last venture."
"And if I'd known," Charles replied, feeling a taste of bitterness in his throat, "that my little Ladero would have died while I was gone, I wouldn't have."
Saulius opened his snout to object, but turned away and shook his head.
The lower clearing for the Glen was mostly swept clean of snow, but even at this early hour of the morning few wished to go out into the cold. A pair of scouts that Charles waved to walked past, but otherwise the town was empty. In another hour or two everyone would be out and about and making ready for Spring, but for now almost everyone slumbered in the warmth of their homes.
Saulius took both ponies around to the stables while Charles shook the chill from his frame and crept inside. The scent of rats was strong inside, a biting earthy aroma that swelled his chest and made the vine quiver with sympathetic delight. His ears lifted to catch the sounds of excited squeaks and scampering paws. But everything was quiet and still. Were they all still asleep?
He glanced at the tapestry covered door to his bedroom at first, but decided to let Kimberly sleep a little bit longer. He turned to his left and very carefully climbed the wooden steps through the interior of the massive tree. Not even his claws made a sound as he took each step. Everything was dark, but he knew each step with absolutely certainty. At the top of the stairs, a little light came in through the windows, bringing the room into bright enough relief that he could make out the little beds for his children. They'd expanded the cribs while he'd been gone, but in another year they'd have to find something even larger he was sure.
Yet, all of the beds were empty.
"Charles, Bernadette, Erick, Baerle? Where are you?" He tried to laugh, pretending this was some sort of game. He rifled the quilts but there was nothing there. His fur trembled.
A sound from the opossum's room made him spin on his paws. Somebody was in Baerle's room moving around. He sniffed and caught the familiar scent of the opossum nursemaid and relaxed a little. She could tell him what was going on.
A moment later the opossum stepped out of her room dressed in a robe that seemed to have trouble covering her chest. Charles kept his eyes focused on her face. "Baerle! What's going on? Where are the children?"
"Oh, Charles!" Baerle blushed and tried to pull her robe on better. "I was just sleeping when I thought I heard something. I thought you would go straight to Metamor when you got the message?"
"Kimberly took the children to Metamor yesterday. Bernadette, her mouse friend from the Kitchens, invited her and you to her son's wedding."
Charles frowned for a moment and then nodded. "Richard. Yes, I remember him vaguely. Stuck as a fourteen year old, but I guess that's old enough to marry." He narrowed his eyes as his tail curled around one leg. "What message?"
Baerle's snout lowered and her voice trembled ever so faintly. "Kimberly said she'd have Misha send you a message to let you know in case you didn't return in time. I guess you didn't get it. She asked James and I to stay behind to let you know."
He felt his Sondeck tightening like a spring but took several deep breaths to still it. "It figures. Everything seems to be conspiring against me lately. First George tells us to do some pointless patrols and now this! No, it's not your fault. I better tell Erick we need to turn right back around."
"I could fix something for you both to eat?"
"Something quick," Charles replied, quelling his irritation with every ounce of will power he had. "I'll go let Erick know." He turned stiffly and almost ran back down the stairs. His claws dug deep into his palms.