Keeper's Return

by Charles Matthias

Jan 23, CR 708

Snow gently fell all across Metamor.  Rickkter glowered at it from behind bleary panes of glass.  He sat in his quarters which were cleansed of all dust, cobwebs, and mice after two weeks of exhausting effort, and gazed at the soft white sky in disgust.

"Not that I can go anywhere," he growled to himself. "But I still hate it."

Four weeks ago he'd woken from a long, dark nightmare.  For six months his body had been tended by the Lothanasi acolytes under the dutiful eye of Raven hin'Elric.  From Solstice to Solstice he'd slept, a body without a tenant, moving only to breathe.  A sleep of a short time was restorative, but in his case, the opposite was true.  To stay alive his flesh had feasted on itself until the day he'd opened his eyes, enfeebled and helpless against the hands of children.  For two weeks he'd lingered in the Lothanasi Temple, tended by the acolytes and the occasional insufferable concern from Murikeer and the skunk's new protégée,  regaining enough strength to walk and tend himself without resorting to magic to prop himself up.  And even now, another two weeks later, he could not walk the length of Long Hall without gasping for breath.

Rickkter growled a beastly growl at the snow and turned aside.  It would be still more months before he regained his former strength.  There was no sense complaining of snow when it was his weakness that truly kept him trapped at Metamor.  His eyes returned to the iron bars laying next to his paw-like feet.  With a grunt he bent over, tail twitching behind him, and picked them up one in each paw.  He needed to spend as much time as he could strengthening his muscles; he couldn't afford to keep taxing his magic to stay standing or he risked graver consequences than he wished to admit.

The sooner his body was healthy, the sooner his mind would be too.

He was no more than seven lifts in when his ears perked.  A pair of clawed feet approached his door, followed immediately by a knock.  "Rick?" A familiar baritone called from behind the stoat oak. "Can I come in?"

Rickkter flicked his tail and the latch snapped open. "Come on in, Misha." At least he had no shortage of friendly visits from the Longs.

The fox was dressed warmly, and he carried a pair of sweet smelling pastries in one paw.  He handed one to Rickkter. "Fresh from Gregor's ovens," Misha declared.  He found a second chair, set it close to the window and sat down next to him.

Rickkter laid the iron bars in his lap. "So what brings you here today?  If you've come for news, you've picked a very poor source."  The pastry tore easily and was topped with a gooey sugary glaze.  The raccoon couldn't help but lick the crumbs from his claws.

"I'm bringing news," Misha replied.  He smiled and wagged. "Word came through cerulean that Kayla and the others are on board a Sutthaivasse carrack making its way north.  Eli alone knows how Cerulean learned of it, but he is a dragon and I'm not going to ask!"

"Better not to ask questions of dragons," Rickkter agreed.  And then pondered. "Sutthaivasse?" He finished the pastry and then sucked a dollop of glaze from one claw. "What do they have to do with this?"

Misha shrugged . "Who knows?  Cerulean didn't say how.  Only that they're on their way home.  They've reached the Sea of Stars, so it won't be long now."

"How are they going to make their way?  I thought all the northern harbours were choked with ice this time of year."

The fox shrugged again. "I expect they'll put in to port as far north as they can go and take carriages the rest of the way.  The roads are passable, even in Winter, so in won't take them long." When Rickkter didn't say anything, Misha added, "I thought you'd be happy to hear the news."

"It is good news, it is."  He turned and tried to force a smile for Misha, but he could tell that the fox could see through to the bitterness beneath.  He dropped the smile. "It's just that every time I think of her, out there, I can't help thinking it should have been me." He shook his head, his ears going down.  "If not for that damn Marquis and his triple-damned cards, it would have been me."

"Habakkuk would never let you.  He didn't let me."

"Habakkuk is a meddlesome Felikaush who puts too much stock in his own view of the future.  He used me once before and I won't forgive him for it — even though he was right.  I don't care what he said he saw in his visions.  Prophecy can be bent and prophecy can be broken.  The Felikaush had been using their visions for their own ends for centuries.  Habakkuk is no different. I won't live my life by somebody else's vision.  I would have found a way."

"And you could have been killed.  You almost were in the Belfry.  We all almost were.  That man stopped Whisper!  By Eli, Rick, stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You're alive and so is Kayla.  She'll be back in a few weeks at most.  Be happy about that!"

Rickkter glowered at the fox for a few seconds and then sighed, leaning back against his chair, his head tilted up against the top of the rest.  He didn't have the fire for a fight with his friend. "I am happy," the raccoon repeated.  He pulled a quick smile across his face. "I'm just very, very frustrated right now."

Misha nodded and swallowed the last of his pastry. "Haven't you had to suffer bed rest before?"  He smiled with a flash of teeth through his whiskers, "Murikeer must be at Glen Avery again if he's not here torturing you with tender loving care."

Rickkter rolled his eyes and nodded with an irritated shrug at the mention of the young pair of skunks who simply refused to give him a moment's peace when they were at the Keep.  "Never like this," he said with a shake of his head. "I've been bloodied and broken, but could always count on healing myself in good order.  This is altogether different.  I'm having to regrow almost all the muscles in my body!  I haven't been in this bad condition since I was dying just before I was changed!" He growled under his breath, eyes leaving Misha to roam his quarters. "And all the while I'm essentially stuck here in this room!  There are only so many times one can read about Merton's formulas before one is ready to chuck the volume out the window!" Rickkter nearly slapped the back of his hand into the frosted panes of glass at his side. "And somewhere out there is Kayla, Habakkuk, and that... that... rat!  Saving the day!"

Misha nodded, patted his knees, and stood. "I'm going to be organizing a welcome home party for them at the Long House.  I hope you'll want to help.  Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself." The fox turned to leave.  Rickkter wanted to throw the iron bar at his back, but he probably wouldn't reach him. "Until then, take care of yourself and get your strength back.  Kayla will be home soon enough."  Misha didn't wait for Rickkter to give him leave before sliding out the door and shutting it behind him.

A beastly growl bit through Rickkter's words. "Damn it.  I hate it when he's right."  He picked the iron bars up and resumed lifting them.  Up and down; over and over.  And outside, it continued to snow.

"These lands belong to the Glen!  They have been holdings of the Avery family for generations!  It is perfectly lawful for me and my family to hunt here!"

"And these fields have been tended and hunted by those who serve the Barnhardt family for generations!  We do not recognize the claim by that squirrel!"

"Please, both of you!" Sergeant Dallar strode between the wolf Glenner and the human male archer. "We are all Metamorans!" The ram looked ready to butt them both with his massive curled horns.

Maud idly fingered her sword still sheathed at her side.  Beside her the towering and comforting presence of Larssen blocked out the sun.  The giraffe bore a broadsword over five feet in length that weighed more than many Keepers.  Standing at nine feet tall he also dwarfed almost every Keeper that lived.  She certainly felt small in his presence; until his dark, sombre eyes found her and she felt immensely safe.

Only two years ago she'd been a man.  Now she was a woman and felt as a woman does; including love for a man, even one covered in spotted yellow fur who took a very long time to chew his food.  It had begun a short time after their change; but the confinement in the prisons had made what they had always danced around an unavoidable reality.  They were in love with each other and would soon have to do something about it.  She was just waiting for her giraffe to seek her hand and she would give it.

But of course their duties as soldiers for Metamor came first; even if it meant cracking the heads of fellow Metamorans like it might today.  Three months ago, after they'd been released from the dungeons, they had been quickly inducted into Metamor's army.  With Yonson gone and they under the influence of Metamor's peculiar magic there was no returning home.  That was a minor issue as they had been specifically recruited from those who had few if any family and no other familial ties.  Due to the deeds that Yonson had undertaken while under the dark touch of Marzac is was deemed more wise to enlist them than to keep them in the dungeon.  After all, they had done nothing against Metamor except serve a man corrupted to an evil will.

Under Sergeant Dallar, their one time gaoler, they'd been assigned to patrol the land north of Barnhardt's Lake and south of Glen Avery.  Currently garrisoned in Lord Barnhardt's castle when not on patrol they daily heard how the Glenners continuously encroached on Barnhardt's ancestral lands.  Weeks earlier, while visiting Glen Avery on their way to their current post, they had heard the many irritated claims that the Lakeland folk were the ones making uninvited incursions into Lord Avery's demesnes.

And from what Maud could tell these disagreements flared up every time there was relative peace in the valley.  These were the same people who had cooperated only a little over a year ago to destroy the supply lines for Nasoj's army during the winter assault and decimate the reserves before they could reinforce the attack on the Keep.  Together they had paid with flesh and blood and lives to cast the mage's army out of their valley yet again; shoulder to shoulders as one. That had been only a little over a year past, a time so short as to be fresh in the memories of all, but now they were at one another's throats arguing who would hunt where, ready to strip the land for themselves once more.

And it was a beautiful land.  From the narrow cleft in the western mountains all the way to the main road between the Giant's Dike and Metamor, it sprawled in lazy hills covered with tall oaks and pines, broken up by bare patches framed with stands of birch where shepherds grazed their flocks.  A solitary river flowed southeast from the Glen between a narrow ravine that cut lengthwise across the contested strip, before turning south and emptying into Lake Barnhardt.  There was little chance that anyone could farm the land for more than a handful of crops, but it was pretty and provided good foraging and plenty of cover.  No wonder both the newt and squirrel claimed it for their own!

"I have a right to hunt here!  I need to feed my family!" The wolf barked with a flash of stout, predatory teeth, gesturing with one paw toward a deer he'd slain.  The carcass lay on a triangular sled which he'd been pulling through the snow.  More was falling and covering their tracks as they argued.

"There's plenty of deer on Avery land!" The Lakelander snapped as he swept his long bow to point roughly toward the distant Glen.

"Sirs, if you would please!" Dallar bleated, stomping his hooves for emphasis. "This is a miserable day to be out!  And it will be an even more miserable day to bleed!  Don't make me draw my sword on either of you.  Just shut up and listen to me!"

Maud kept her hand on her hilt as she watched her commander for any signals.  He was very good at gesturing with his short tail, but for now he just seemed tense.  She spared a quick glance at her former Captain, Weyden, who'd been demoted to a mere private like them in Metamor's army.  As a hawk he was a natural scout and lookout.  He'd taken to it with relish.  Of course, she knew that he was really looking for was the return of Jessica.  It had been a month since he'd spoken of the dream vision he'd had of Yonson promising her return.  His excitement had faded into patient hope, but it had not faded altogether.

"My family will starve if I don't feed them!  You are trying to kill my family!" The wolf shouted, fangs bared beneath quivering jowls.  "We cannot survive from roots and berries and grass, we must have meat!  We must hunt!"

The Lakeland man took a step back, gripping his bow tightly as if he were about to swing the end. "You are stealing our deer, Glenner!  You would have the Lake folk starve instead!"

"I said shut up!" Dallar snapped, now actually drawing his sword.  Maud, Larssen, Van, and the other soldiers under Dallar's command did as well.  The sharp song of polished metal from leather and iron baldrics was a shrill metallic hiss that caused both arguing peasants pause. "Look," he turned to the Lakeland man.  He held his sword low, but ready, as he glared at the man. "We're not going to settle whether these lands belong to Lord Barnhardt or Lord Avery.  If I hear another word about it, I will drag you both back to the Keep and put you in the stocks myself."  He thrust the tip of his sword toward the carcass on the sled, "And leave that here to freeze until the scavengers find it!  Who starves then, aye?"

This seemed to catch their attention.  The wolf no longer snarled and the man lowered his bow some.  They still eyed each other with anger, but now their attention was on the ram desperately trying to mediate.  Dallar took a deep breath and gestured with the point of his sword toward to the deer. "The deer is already dead.  It's not getting any livelier no matter how much we argue.  Guy," he nodded to the wolf, "killed the deer.  I say he should have it.  But, as a token of friendship, I suggest he shares a shank with his brother Metamorans to the south."  He levelled his hard stare, incongruous under his caprine brow and thick horns, at each of the men in turn, as if daring them to argue any further.

Glowering at each other and refusing to meet the ram's challenging stare they reluctantly agreed to Dallar's suggestion.  As Larssen put his massive sword to good use severing one of the shanks for the Lakelander, Weyden turned his head to one side and stared at a shadow moving against the clouds. "What is it?" Maud asked him.

The hawk cracked his beak in a grin. "A dragon heading northwest.  Cerulean I'd wager.  Looks to be about his shape and colour." Maud nodded, noting the shadow, but unable to discern either form or hue like her avian friend could.  Weyden's eyes widened in golden radiance. "I think he's headed our way."

"A message from Metamor perhaps?" Maud suggested.

"Possibly," Weyden admitted.

The antagonists gawked at the rich blue dragon that descended amidst the falling snow into the clearing, rattling the empty branches all around and cascading the snow drifts in every direction with each beat of his wings.  At last those wings folded against his back, and he lowered his head to regard them with deep purple eyes.  His body and tail was longer than all of them laid out end to end; nevertheless the warmth in his eyes and delight in his voice allayed all their instinctual fears.

"Good evening," Cerulean said as his gaze swept over them.  He stopped when he saw the hawk. "I bring a message from one of my brothers far to the south.  A ship of Sutthaivasse has been sighted entering the Sea of Stars.  The brave Keepers who left last Summer's Solstice to brace a great evil are aboard and returning home."

Weyden stood taller, and stumbled toward the dragon. "You bring welcome news indeed!  Tell me, is Jessica well?"

Cerulean shifted his arms in a draconic shrug. "I fear I do not know all the details, only that they have been sighted on their return voyage.  I fly to bring this hopeful news to those wait eagerly for their return."

"But, is there nothing you can say of Jessica?" Weyden asked, stepping within reach of the dragon's large serpentine head.

But the dragon could only shake his head in regret. "I fear that I know very little.  What my brother tells me is that the one who lives in the sky is there, as well as a rat and donkey.  There is a bird of some sort, with feathers that are black as night, but what type of bird was not told to me.  Perhaps she was below decks at the time my brother observed them.  If I should learn more, I will be quick to tell you, Weyden."

The hawk nodded, chest heaving once. "I have been waiting a very long time for news.  I was promised she was safe.  I will trust that it is so.  Thank you, Cerulean."

The dragon nodded and leaned back on his haunches. "You are most welcome, Master Weyden.  But I must be off to the Glen.  I have one more I must tell before the night steals away my wings!"  He bunched his legs beneath him then leapt into the sky, his wings spreading and catching the air like vast sails.  With three beats he cleared the line of trees and spiralled up into the winter tears.  Weyden's golden eyes never left blue dragon.

"Well," Sergeant Dallar said with a pleased smile. "Now that that bit of excitement is past, let's make sure our friends here do as they've promised, hmm!"

Maud put a hand on Weyden's shoulder, fingers brushing through soft feathers.  He turned his head slightly, and then lowered his eyes.  His beak cracked in a faint smile.  It warmed Maud's heart to see it. "Yes, let's," the hawk agreed.  And to their delight, Cerulean's visit had driven out whatever fight had been left in the Glen wolf and Lakelander.

Would that could happen more often, Maud lamented with a sigh.

"Very good!" Murikeer said with a smile.  Kimberly sat opposite him on the couch, a single candle between them.  Though neither had moved, the wick had caught flame and now burned a bright yellow. "You are getting much better at reaching out to the elements around you, Lady Kimberly."

"Thanks to your instruction, Master Muri," she replied with a heavy breath.  Summoning witchlights had become second nature to mother rat, but drawing out a flame was a new trick that the skunk had begun to teach her ever since his return to Metamor and settling at the Glen.

Not that he spent all his time visiting the Matthias family.  The white-furred skunk Kozaithy always seemed to find a way to his side and he to hers.  But Kimberly did want to learn more magic, both because she found what little she knew useful in so many different ways, but also so that she could share it with Charles when he returned.  Not a day went past that she did not see his face in her children or in her dreams.  A month ago Misha and Sir Saulius brought word that Charles had been seen far to the south, and only a few days later she'd been told that the great evil they had left to destroy had been defeated.  Now she waited and prepared their home for the day of his return, a return she hoped was soon in coming.

So, while Baerle and Kozaithy kept the children outside building fortifications and tunnels in the snow — with the eager aid of Garigan, Marcus, the Avery twins, and nearly every other Glen child, Murikeer stayed in with her and guided her in the pursuit of this talent only two years past she would never have believed herself capable of.

"My instruction only guides you to what you are already capable of.  You just need to know how to find those paths," Murikeer replied with a modest smile. "Now, lighting a candle is one task.  You drew energy from the elements of air and fire to create flame where it wished to be.  Can you take that energy back to extinguish it?"

Kimberly tried to turn what little she could feel of the magical threads around her back on their courses.  The flame sputtered for many long seconds as she struggled to understand the magic and how to twist it, but it refused to go out.  She let out a huff of breath she did not realize she had been holding and glared at the tiny, obstinate flame before setting to it once more.  Murikeer sat on, watching with that soft single-eyed distance he adopted while observing how she worked with the slender threads of magic she was able to grasp.  After several failed attempts to remove the flame from the candle she narrowed her eyes and took a different approach; she removed the element of air.  The flame guttered and shrank, and then simply vanished, leaving only a single trail of smoke to curl between them. Kimberly let out a gasp of surprise and silently cheered at her success.

"Very good." Murikeer churred warmly with a congratulatory smile, "You see that an element, once awakened, finds its natural balance and becomes free of your magic, and if you are not careful, your control." He explained gently as he reached out and pinched the wick between two fingers. "Fire is the most dangerous, and that is why I teach it to you first, lest you learn the easier elements and approach fire on your own, unknowing of its risk." The wick hissed softly at his touch and the smoke faded toward the ceiling. "It wishes to burn, and the wick is natural for it, so once lit it remains that way even once you have stopped providing magic.  That is why you could not put it out by taking fire from it; the wick gave as much of itself as you withdrew." Crossing his hands in his lap he leaned back into the cushions of the couch. "You did well to shift your attention to air, an element that pairs to create fire.  Without it, the fire perishes, as it would had you chosen to chill the wick too much to sustain heat.  I compliment you for your imaginative thinking." His smile widened warmly. "Imagination is as much what makes a mage truly what they are as the magic that they can wield.  Without imagination they are trapped in the rigid chains of ritual and tradition; they can never grow."

Kimberly's whiskers twitched upon her muzzle as she smiled and panted softly, "It... was a puzzle to understand," she admitted quietly.

"I think tomorrow we can move onto something more challenging," Murikeer remarked with a pleased churr in his voice. "Anymore tonight and you'll be too tired to move."

Kimberly glanced at the clock on the mantle and nodded.  It was getting rather dark outside. "Yes, we should bring the children back inside.  I'm feeling quite fatigued now that you speak of it."

Murikeer helped her to her paws and then stepped out of the way.  Always a gentleman this one, which made him very trustworthy company.  How well she could remember the way he'd been the first time she'd met him, colliding with her in a hall and causing her to drop a glass bottle.  Back in those halcyon days he'd been more a frightened beast than a man.  The last year had seasoned him well and drawn out a measure of calm that she'd never before seen.

If what little she'd seen between the two skunks was a foreshadow of things to come, then Kozaithy would be a very lucky woman.

As they made their way to the door between the tree's toes, they heard several shouts outside.  Some of those were the cries of little rats.  All exhaustion forgotten, Kimberly yanked the door open and ran outside, barepawed and heedless of the thick blanketing of snow covering the Glen.

She came upon a scene of white towers and crenellated walls heaped up with fluffy detritus that had been the last remnants of a siege.  These winter fortifications were abandoned by one and all.  Gathered in the clearing were her four children, shepherded by the older Avery twins, Garigan, Marcus, Baerle, and Kozaithy.  All had their eyes to the east and the opening in the redwoods.  The sky was dark with twilight and grey with falling snow.  But through the breach came gliding a blue dragon who was rapidly shrinking in stature.

Kimberly put her paw to her mouth and almost bit her fingers as she and the others watched the dragon's wings dwindle as his body sucked in on itself.  The massive snout pulled back, the tail whipping back and forth as it was swallowed by some magic that was beyond Kimberly's meagre comprehension.  Just as they thought the blue-scaled figure would fall from the sky, he turned what was left of his wings backward, briefly arresting his forward motion.  And then they too disappeared and he landed with a soft whump in a snowbank.

Garigan and Marcus were the first at his side, the two mustelids lifting a still blue-scaled figure who now looked more a child than a monstrous legend.  He still had horns and a dragon-snout, with a small stub of a tail, and his eyes were a deep purple.  Though Kimberly had never personally spoken with this particular dragon while staying at Metamor, she knew who it was as soon as she caught sight of those distinctive eyes.  And she'd never heard of any other Keeper — and certainly no other dragon — who was forced to change so at the fall of night.

"Cerulean!" Kimberly shouted.  Her children rushed forward despite Baerle and Kozaithy's attempts to restrain them.  Kimberly ran after them.  The four little rats clustered around the snowbank and squeaked in surprise as the half-dragon child that was only a foot taller than then shook the snow form its smooth scales. "Are you all right?"

"Kimberly!" Cerulean gasped in an embarrassingly high-pitched squeal. "I am fine.  It is not the first time I have had to land so since the Curses did this to me." He coughed and the four rats all jumped back, half afraid a gout of flame would erupt from Cerulean's jaws.  But out came only air. "I am looking for you, Kimberly.  I bring good news."

By now the others had all gathered around.  Baerle stood close to Kimberly, paws held close to her chest, face just as eager for any news that drove a dragon to risk flying through the many trees of Glen Avery.  Murikeer had one paw on Kozaithy's shoulders, his one eye studying the diminutive Cerulean with a magician's curiosity.  The Avery boys were acting as wardens to keep the other children from getting too close.  The little rats were now clustering close to their mother, eyes wide and ears perked to listen.

"What have you heard?" Kimberly asked.  She did not dare ask any more for fear of what it might be.  She clutched her tunic front tightly within her paws, the cold around her all but forgotten.

Cerulean's alligator jaws creased ever so slightly into a warm smile, but one that only a Keeper could recognize. "One of my brothers to the south spotted a Sutthaivasse vessel making its way into the Sea of Stars.  Your husband and the others who accompanied him are aboard."

Kimberly let out a long sigh, and there were several cheers around her.  She did not know who had cried out in delight, for her own heart's joy was much too loud for that. "How is he?"

"I have heard that he appears well.  My brother saw him rowing an oar with the other seamen.  There was also a donkey with them, James I believe Misha said his name was."

"Oh, good.  I hoped he'd be well too," Kimberly smiled and then leaned over, wrapping the little dragon-man in her arms.  One of his horns brushed across her cheek, sleek and cool. "Thank you, Cerulean!  This is wonderful news!  Oh, how long before he returns?"

"I cannot say.  The Sea of Stars is ringed with ice already, but the southern shores have safe harbours still.  It may be two weeks or more before they are able to return." Cerulean patted her on the arm with a chubby paw. "If I hear any more from my brothers to the south, I will be sure to bring you the news."

Little Charles squeaked and came over to help hug the dragon-man. "Daddy's coming home!!  Thank you, Master Ceru...Ceru... yan!"

"Thank you, Master Ceruyan!" Little Bernadette squeaked in delight, joining her brother in hugging a blue-scaled leg.  Little Erick and Baerle grasped the other leg a moment later and echoed the same words, faces bright and fur quivering with excitement.

Cerulean laughed in delight, patting each of the children on the head. "I wish I had met you four before.  We'll just have to get to know each other better tonight, hmm?"

Kimberly was too busy fondly imagining her husband working an oar without his shirt on, flexing and growing all his muscles as he lifted the oar up and down, forward and backward, to let the dragon's remark sink in at first.  But she did notice it. "Tonight?"

Cerulean looked down at himself and nodded. "I hope you do not consider it an imposition if I spend a bit of time with them.  I cannot return to Metamor as I am now, and I won't be able to change back until dawn."

"Can Master Ceruyan stay, Mommy?  Please!" Little Baerle begged with wide dark eyes and pink ears folded aside her head.  Her other children quickly took up the plea with equal ardour.

"Of course he can stay!" Kimberly replied with love, fondling each of her children's heads in turn. "Now hurry up inside and warm up by the fire.  Baerle and I have to prepare your dinner."

"Can we stay too?" Marcus asked with even more boyish enthusiasm than her children.  The marten nearly burst from his pelt with hope. "I'd love to hear any stories Master Cerulean has to tell!  And I... I don't have any scouting duties tonight, so I won't be missed."

Kimberly laughed and nodded. "Of course.  You can help keep the fire burning."

"Huzzah!" Marcus cheered and jumped, kicking snow all over the dragon-man's back.

"And I'll stay to make sure he doesn't burn the tree down," Garigan added with a smirk.  Even Marcus managed to laugh with the others at that.  Together, as a group they returned to the Matthias home.  Kimberly's heart was so light in her chest, she didn't even feel the ground as she walked.

Jan 30, 708 CR

"So it's to be Ellcaran," Kayla mused as she, Abafouq, Captain Aldanto, and Darius Egland listened to the report from Guernef.  The white gryphon had spent most of his days in the sky.  He would fly on ahead and scour the sea for signs of danger, both natural and supernatural.  Thankfully he'd seen none of the latter, but in the dead of winter there was plenty enough of the former to worry about.

And now he brought them news of ice choking the coasts and harbours in the northern seas.  Of all the ports, only Ellcaran could accept them, and even they had many of their wharves overrun by the chill winter.  Ellcaran was a seaport of the Southern Midlands and was a city not known for being hospitable to Keepers.  Not, truthfully, that any were.  Beyond the boundaries of the Northern Midlands and Duke Thomas's reach few ever encountered non-human cursed Keepers.  Albeit a distant port Ellcaran would have to suffice.

"We can reach Ellcaran in another day," Aldanto said as he traced his finger along the map's coastline on his table. "Once there we'll have to hire carriages to lead us north.  I don't suppose you have any money."

"Nothing yet," Kayla admitted with a swish of her tail.  She leaned over the map but kept her paws on the dragon swords. "But we have enough at Metamor, and your liege did promise just compensation to you and your crew for this."

"Aye, that he did.  And a good thing too.  Hiring carriages will be expensive this time of year."

"I brought some with me," Darius added through furrowed brows. "It should be enough."

"You can barter my skill in enchanting stones as well if you must," Abafouq suggested. "I am thinking that a promise of pyrocks or glow stones will make them amenable to our request."

Aldanto nodded. "Do you have any I can give as surety?"

"I will fashion one tonight," the Binoq replied with a smile. "I'll need more stones if I am to make any more, but I suspect those will not be hard to come by once we land."

"No, they won't," Aldanto agreed. "Very well, we shall have to trust that will be enough." He managed to keep his gaze levelled at the Nauh-kaee who crouched before the cabin door, blocking all escape.  His firm avian eyes held them prisoner. "Thank you, Guernef.  This is the news we've needed.  I'm going to give the first mate our new heading.  Excuse me."

Guernef bowed his beak slightly and said in his harsh voice. "I will wait in our room until it is time to leave this ship." He turned on his haunches, showing the right which had a nasty scar over the thigh from where a tree limb had punctured it, and then shoved himself out the door and into the aft castle hall.  Aldanto uncertainly followed his leonine tail out.

Kayla lifted one paw to the map, drawing the katana with it.  In the cramped room the sword seemed many times larger than it was but the action was such second nature to everyone that none took note of the naked steel.  She tapped the coastline with her knuckles. "It should take us ten days to journey from Ellcaran to Metamor if the roads are good and we don't suffer mishap.  Oh, if only we still had the Rheh Talaran to ride!  We could be there in a day or two with them to lead us."

"I am wondering what became of them," Abafouq mused, eyes staring past the map into memory.

"The Rheh Talaran?" Darius asked with a curious grunt.  In the few weeks they had been journeying, the Pyralian seaman had become accustomed to their beastly appearance, but he was still withdrawn and offered them only the basic rudiments of friendship.  What thoughts or feelings he had he kept to himself.

"The most marvellous horses this world shall ever see," Kayla replied, glancing at the sword in her paw before smoothly slipping it back in its sheath.  She could feel the warm song of the dragons in her mind.  Ever since she'd struck the Marquis down with them, she felt a love from them and a sense of attachment that she couldn't explain.  When she returned to Metamor she would give them back to Rickkter who was their true wielder — no one could ever claim to own them without losing their hand — but she found imagining that harder and harder.  And she had a vague sense that the dragons didn't want to go back to him anyway.

"Horses?  What makes them so special?"

"They can fly," Abafouq said with complete aplomb. "And any other horse that runs with them can fly too.  Our Åelf friend would say that the Rheh are what horses were meant to be, only this fallen world has led many to forget their true nature.  But with them they can remember.  A touch of grace amongst your equine friends, that is the Rheh Talaran."

Darius's eyebrows lifted and he could not hold back the smile. "They sound very impressive indeed.  A horse that can fly!  I would love to see it myself."

"Mayhap you will, Captain.  Mayhap you will." Kayla stretched her fingers a moment and then reclasped the hilts. "But I think we'll have to settle for a carriage for now.  I'm going to pack my things.  Just think!  In less than two weeks we'll be home!"

Kayla nearly bounced on her paws out of the room.  Behind her, Abafouq smiled with a deep sadness behind his eyes. "Some of us, aye."  Darius said nothing.

The five of them were wrapped in blankets as they huddled near the fire warming their paws.  The cellars were always cold, but especially so in winter.  So the five rats who lived down there emerged to spend their evening about one of the hearths in the Deaf Mule, heedless of the other patrons who'd come to chase away the cold with companionship and ale. But this mischief had long found their own company the most pleasant of all.  It was just warmer here at the Mule.

"I admit," Julian said as he turned his paws back and forth in front of the crackling flame, "this was a good idea.  It is much nicer up here."

Sir Saulius chittered, long whiskers twitching and shaking off the drip of snowfall. "‘Tis always a better place that hath a fire to warm bones and weary flesh!"

Elliot and Goldmark both nodded as they hunkered closer. Goldmark was a taur, so his back half lay out across the floor a hazard for the larger Keepers who might walk past.  Hector mentioned this to him when they'd first arrived, but the rattaur only smiled and winked.  The others laughed and then kept a watch out to make sure nobody did trip.

"Although," Julian added with a smile, his incisors reflecting the orange flames, "I had hoped for some place more private to discuss what we should do to welcome Charles back.  This will have to do."

"Charles is coming back?" Hector repeated in delighted surprise. "When did you hear about this?"

"This morning," Julian replied.  Goldmark and Elliot nodded, having heard the news already.  Sir Saulius, who'd been out on patrol the last week, had not.  His whiskers stood on end and his dark eyes brightened beneath the grey fur of his brow. "Apparently the Longs and a few others have known for a week.  They've been quietly buying supplies for a welcome home party for Charles and the others.  I thought we might do something similar."

"Do you think Charles will come here with the others?" Hector asked with a curious frown. "Won't he go to Glen Avery to be with his wife first?"

"I don't know," Julian replied candidly. "But we should be ready just in case.  He'll be coming in from the south with the others who left with him last year."

Elliot tapped a chewstick against the front of his teeth. "We should let Tallis know.  The Writer's Guild will want to know that two of their former headmasters are returning from their quest against that evil place."

"Indeed," Sir Saulius agreed, wrapping his tail about his middle. "I wouldst prefer to present the stables the knights and I built for him at the Glen myself, but we shouldst be here to greet my squire if this way he dost come."

"And if he goes to Glen Avery first?" Goldmark asked.  A longer limbed patron passing by growled, but stepped over his body.  The rat laughed, "What am I saying, this is Metamor!" He churred deeply with a toothy grin. "To get to the Glen from the south he must skirt Euper, hardly a stone's cast from the Keep's walls.  Why not stop here unless he follows some goat track on the mountains or somehow learns to fly!" He laughed again, and then sobered immediately. "But if he does go to the Glen first, we'll need to offer comfort rather than welcome."

All their faces fell at that. "Aye," Saulius mused. "‘Twill be a terrible blow for him to receive."

Julian's moue deepened as he considered for a moment.  His plans were moving along smoothly and would soon be ready to reveal.  But for Charles, the one person who had believed in their worth in all the years of their hiding, he would do anything.  That decided him. "We can prepare for his return here, but if we learn he has gone ahead to Glen Avery, well, we have a team of horses standing ready that can take all of us there.  And if he comes here, then we can all go to the Glen together.  We just need to find something to offer as both welcome and condolence."

"I've been working on something," Hector said softly, eyes downcast. "I'll have it ready in a few days."

"We should each find something," Elliot added, his voice equally subdued. "He's been there for us.  We're going to be there for him when he needs us."

"Aye, we shalt." Sir Saulius took a deep breath and then huddled closer to the fire. "I wilt depart on the morrow for the Glen.  Lady Kimberly needs to be told of our intentions.  I wilt return as soon as I am able to aid thee."

"Thank you." Julian stretched his paws toward the fire and then drew them back beneath the blanket. "Now, before we make any other plans, I suggest we get something to warm our bellies too.  We have much to do and a full stomach makes for a good beginning."

A hearty growl from Goldmark's lower torso echoed the white rat's thoughts perfectly.

Rickkter stared up at the banners hung at the far end of Long Hall with some disdain.  That rat's name was plastered all over them.  No mention yet of Kayla or any of the others who'd gone to Marzac.  He shouldn't be surprised.  Charles was a Long where none of the others were.  Misha always took care of family first.

And sometimes, the raccoon mused irritably, he did so in the most aggravating of ways.  The sly fox had taken Rickkter's complaint about reading material to heart and had been providing new material to him every day for the last week.  Unfortunately for the raccoon the fox's idea of worth reading material left much to be desired; each sample was more horrid than the last.  The first edition had been a copy of some of the stories that Charles had written during his tenure at the Writer's Guild.  The second had been collections of love poems of a particularly overemotional kind — the type that a lovesick woman might write.  It only proceeded downhill from there.  The last had been of such a hilariously licentious nature that the raccoon had been surprised the vellum didn't catch flame when exposed to the light of the sun.

And then there were the very strange pastries that Misha brought with them.  The last had been sweet and delicate, until he'd reached the curry laden centre.  Anything more and the fox was going to suffer some broken bones once Rickkter was well enough to cause them.

On one end of the Long House some of the Longs practised their swordsmanship, while Finbar taught several of the younger scouts who showed promise the deadly art of knifework.   Misha was sparring with Caroline, but as soon as the otter nodded in the raccoon's direction, the fox set aside his sword, wagged and waved.  Rickkter remained where he was with crossed arms.  His legs felt weak, but he was not going to go back to his quarters where that atrocious horse manure that dared to call itself literature waited.

Misha and Caroline walked over.  The otter's smile was genuine and lacked all the mischief that coated the fox. "It's good to see you up and about, Rick!  How are you feeling today?"

"Better than yesterday.  Tired of sitting in my room." He glared at Misha. "And if you bring me one more book I will cut off the rest of your fingers."

The fox's grin widened and his tail wagged in unrepentant delight. "What?  You didn't enjoy the Song of the Seven Swordmaids of Silvassa?"

"It was a title that made me question the wisdom of Habakkuk and his little band forestalling the end of the world. It was a title that hit bottom early on then dug several sub basements below that. What parts I could force past my eyes made me want to, in turn, go find a sharp stick, so I could dig them back out. I don't know how he did it, but the author somehow found a way to vomit words onto a page — may the gods take pity on any scribe tasked with copying that book.  And that particular title was all your idea, wasn't it?" he finished up, glaring not at Misha but at the loudly guffawing Caroline.

"Guilty, yes," she replied, raising a paw in surrender. "It was something given to me by a suitor many, many years ago, and I'd been looking for the perfect occasion to be rid of it."

Rickkter just snorted and gestured to the banners, eager to drop the topic. "I see you are getting ready for their return.  But what of Kayla and the others?  Aren't you going to welcome them back too?"

"Of course," Misha replied, all serious again. "I have the tailors working on banners for the rest now.  These are the ones we used last Summer when Charles returned from the Glen.  Briefly." The last word fell like acid from the fox's tongue, but his smile quickly returned. "It shouldn't be much longer now before he and the others are back for good.  And it should only be a few days before we have the other banners.  In the meantime, we need some help with other ideas for the party we're going to throw.  Now if only I had some more help with it!"

"You may be good at sneaking in the forest, but you should never try it with words." Rickkter shook his head and sighed. "I'll help you plan your little party.  If only to get out of my room and away from your books!"

"Oh, would you?" Misha pretended to be surprised, for which he received an elbow in the ribs from Caroline. "Ooof!  Glad to have your help, Rick!  Come on and I'll show you what we've got so far."  Rickkter shook his head one more time, then did his best to follow the two to Misha's office.

Captain Aldanto, Darius, and Jerome all went ashore after the Racasse docked at an ice-slick wharf.  The Keepers kept below decks to stay out of sight while the humans secured transport.  Word was likely to spread anyway.  Seamen coming ashore for the first time in three weeks would be hard pressed to keep quiet about something as amazing as Keepers, even if their Captain had promised extra shifts to any who blabbed.

But for a few hours at least they did not have to worry.  Which proved necessary for, despite Jerome's familiarity with the city, Aldanto's promise of pyrocks, and Darius's extra coin, it proved exceedingly difficult to find a merchant or mercenary willing to deliver them north to Metamor.  The litany of excuses was unending but most boiled down to four things: they lacked the men, horses, or carriages required, they were tied up with prior contracts and couldn't help them, they would never do business in the demon-cursed city of Metamor, or they feared being trapped at Metamor by weather or banditry and suffering the touch of those demon-curses.

In the end they found a factor for a Metamorian merchant who gave them a reasonable price once they learned they would be transporting a few Metamorians.  They would have to share with bundles of cloth waiting to be turned into beautiful garments but at least they would have transport all the way to the Keep.  With a bit more negotiation they were able to obtain a promise that the carriages would leave the city that very day.  It cost them half a dozen pyrocks and half of both Aldanto and Darius's coins but they had their transport.

When they returned to the Racasse Aldanto gave instructions to his first mate on what to do until they returned.  The chief task would be to help keep the dock free from ice.  They didn't want to have to winter here if they could avoid it.  Aldanto and half-a-dozen of his men would accompany them to Metamor, but they planned only to stay the one day.

The Keepers readied all of their gear but kept hidden in their quarters.  Jerome, Lindsey, and Andares carried their gear for them while the others dressed in obscuring cloaks.  Even after the carriages arrived from the Urseil family factor they waited until the docks were quiet with most of the workers home for their afternoon meal.  They then snuck onto the covered carriages and lay hidden beneath heavy woolen tarps, snuggled together to keep warm.  Only Guernef remained behind.  Once night fell he would fly north along the road to join them.

Charles was next to James in the wagon, with Abafouq crouched behind him muttering to the pebbles Jerome had collected for him.  Jerome sat in the wagon with the tarp wrapped up to his waist, so they could see his legs folded crossways.  It was dark but warm, and also very bumpy as they meandered through the city streets.

They kept quiet as best they could.  James grunted a few times when the wheels hit a particularly unyielding stone. "I almost wish I were out there on all fours pulling these things!" Charles just chuckled and gently stroked his vine.

All in all they were six wagons heading north from Ellcaran through the winter wild toward distant Metamor.  Two wagons for cloth, two for supplies, and two more to hide the Keepers who did not appear human.  Between the seamen Aldanto brought, and the mercenaries in the Urseil employ, as well as the hidden Keepers, the wagons had more than enough protection to see them safely north.

The first day brought them along the coast road half a day north.  They continued well on into night before stopping.  After weeks of sea-travel, Aldanto's men were all familiar with the sight of the Keepers.  And the men driving the wagons had all been to Metamor several times so found the Keepers just one more novelty for their journey.  They shared food and ale around the same fires, swapping stories of the road and rumours of the doings of distant dukes.  Only Guernef was treated with suspicion by the men of Ellcaran; but the Nauh-kaee seemed to prefer intimidating others so took no offence.

The weather cooperated with them that night and all the next day.  The clouds cleared from the sky to reveal a cool blue from horizon to horizon interrupted by the pale yellow light of the winter sun.  Their breath hung in the air.  Icy mud cracked and snow made powdery loose by the bitting chill squeaked as the wagon wheels crunched down the road.  The Keepers stayed in the wagons ready to draw the tarps over them at the first sign of other travellers, but the land was as empty as the sky.  Just before twilight the coastal road joined with the main road from Braasem to Giftum, and they found a hostel to spend the night in.  The men did.  The beastly Keepers made do with creeping into the hayloft after the dark fell and picking their way amongst vermin nests and forgotten wine bottles left behind after a secret amorous assignation drained them. The night's sleep was still more comfortable than many they had endured on the long road to Marzac.

They began before dawn's first light.  Lanterns dangled from each wagon, like six bright fireflies dancing and weaving up the northward road.  Old forests and fallow farms lay on either side, both denuded by the season but also full of the promise of life in the months to come.  The sky remained clear all that day too.  The evening brought them within sight of the Marchbourne river and the city of Giftum flanking either bank.

Another night in a traveller's hostel, another night skulking through hay and avoiding unpleasantries their noses made all too vivid, and they entered the Northern Midlands proper.  Knowing they were crossing lands that swore allegiance to Duke Thomas filled them all with good cheer.  It was the first time in over seven months that they had set foot in such lands, and it seemed to them that some unnatural burden was lifted from their shoulders.  Even Lindsey, who had been dour ever since he'd ripped that foul black thing from his pouch, managed a smile or two.

Abafouq spent his days working on pyrock enchantment, and by the time they passed Komley on the sixth day, he had the half-dozen agreed to for passage.  He made a few more the next day for himself.  This kept him isolated despite riding with Charles, James, and Jerome.  He did converse with the others when they stopped for the evening, but otherwise he stayed in his reclusive shell.

Lindsey was hardly better, and Andares rarely said anything anyway.  Jessica and Kayla who rode with them more than made up for their taciturn manner.  The hawk and skunk conversed on any and every topic that came to mind, which more often than not elicited embarrassed chuckles from any man who happened to be listening in.

Aldanto's men kept a wary eye open, though as they neared the southern extremes of the mountains, they gawked at the huge peaks rising up like jagged knives from the northern horizon.  The Urseil men were wary, but all had the droopy eyed look of men who had travelled this path many times and knew all of its tricks and false turns.  Darius Egland remained stoic, though his expression grew more and more pained as they miles wore on beneath them.

Charles eagerly promised to reunite Jerome with his student Garigan, and also to introduce him to his youngest son Ladero who was gifted with the Sondeck, in addition to his wife and four other children.  He described the home the Keep had made for them next to Long House, and expressed his earnest hope that Kimberly had moved his family there while he'd been gone.  But he also spoke of Glen Avery and its many charms and wonders.  Jerome listened patiently to his friend jump from topic to topic, but could not repress his own enthusiasm for the wonders his friend the rat descried.

The day after they passed through Komley a snow storm struck that delayed them a full day.  But the hostel and stables were warm and dry, and the only thing they could complain about was a temporary delay.  The following day they were on the road again.  They reached Midtown, the last major city before they passed under the shadow of the Curses of Metamor, by the end of the day.  Their wheels struggled against the new fallen snow where it was deepest, which seemed to be everywhere around Midtown.

But by the end of their day, they could all look to the north, the mouth of the Valley opening before them. The white peaks of the Great Barrier Range pressed down on them from the northeast, while the jagged but stately heights of the Dragon mountains brooded through snow fog in the west.  Although the night was upon them and they could see nothing, they all knew that to the north lay the spires of Metamor Keep.  One day more and they would be home.

Though they lay down with eyes shut, neither Charles nor any of the other Keepers were able to get any sleep.  Their long journey was finally coming to an end.  Charles, as he lay beneath his blankets, almost wished that it didn't have to end.  He would miss rising in the morning to the faces of his friends.  But he yearned more to wake by the side of his wife, and that thought, and may others like it, kept him from sleep.

Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough for the Keepers.

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