Marital Bliss

by Charles Matthias

Kimberly screamed.

It was the sound that woke Charles from his slumber. He’d been having a rather pleasant dream, though he could not then recall its particulars, when suddenly the pastoral serenity of it was split by the squeaking cry of his lady wife. Thrust into wakefulness, the rat bolted upright in bed, snapped open his eyes, and let the darkness that encased their room fill him. It took only a moment for relief to come flooding into those bleary orbs, of the dresser and mirror on the far wall, the desk and hearth that occupied another end, and the row of unlit candles and lamps that lay atop them, not to mention the outline of the tapestries that hung from one side.

But all of that was secondary to the figure that lay to his left in the bed, that of his wife whose sudden cry had dwindled into laboured breathing, her own eyes wide with apprehension, her voice hoarse. Charles blinked once then, thanking Eli that the curse saw fit to make them rats and provide them with the ability to see some in the dark. “What’s wrong?” he asked, finding his voice despite the shock of his waking.

She said nothing at first, gnashing her teeth together against the pain. Charles grabbed his chewstick from his end table and placed it before her snout. She nibbled upon the end greedily, dampening her pain only somewhat before she firmly gripped his upper arm, claws digging through the fur into his flesh. “It’s time!” she gasped, before gnawing again.

“Oh,” Charles said, for a moment feeling idiotic that he didn’t know that already. His whole world seemed to tilt then, and the room distorted from his eyes refocusing. He fumbled wit the flint and steel on the end table, failing to even strike the two together until the fourth try. But after a moment he did manage to light the lantern, casting weird shadows down across their room.

His heart beat quickly in his chest, finding itself gaining two beats for every breath his wife gasped through the stick that was quickly being reduced to splinters by her incisors. He left the lantern burning upon his end table and rushed about the bed, his legs at least not betraying him. “Let me help,” he said, though he could not quite express how he wished to help her, and what he might even be able to do. She nodded though and tried to lean forward. He slipped an arm between her back and the pillows and lifted her, at least enough so that he could slide the pillow further up against the headboard. When he lowered her back, she was propped up against them better.

“Get Burris,” Kimberly said through clenched teeth. “Get him.”

Charles nodded, and dashed around the bed towards the tapestry that covered their doorway, but her voice caught him again. “Get!” He looked back in confusion, one paw already brushing the tapestry aside, the cool night air in his home brushing across his fur.

Kimberly opened her eyes and looked at him. “Get some clothes on.” She then clenched them tight again and resumed her measured breathing.

Feeling stunned, the rat glanced down at himself, saw that he had on nothing at all, and decided to heed her advice ere he should run into town seeking out the woodpecker.

Baerle at first did not quite understand what the shrill scream meant. But it had drawn her from the deeper places of sleep into the shallow waters of half-remembered dreams. And even those lasted only a short time before she pulled herself up into wakefulness. There had been an urgency in that cry, a needfulness that she could not ignore.

With a heaving breath the opossum lifted aside her quilt and slipped out upon the warm wooden floor. Her claws stretched across its surface, while she stretched her arms out wide, yawning. Upon a small hook she had hung her night robe, and quickly she drew it about her shoulders, tying the sash in the middle. It was dark throughout the Matthias’s home, but she had little trouble seeing in the dark.

Even so, Baerle lit a small candle and crept out past the completed nursery and down the tight circular stairs. In the main room, she saw a rather hastily dressed Charles - he had his tunic on inside out – making for the door with all possible haste. “Charles?” she called out in surprise. The rat had no scout duty that evening.

At the sound of his name he turned, though his forward momentum nearly collided him with the armour tree from which his chain mail hung. “Baerle! It’s time! Get Kimberly some hot water or something.” He said not another word, but from the note of rushed urgency in his tones, he didn’t need to. He was out the door before she could even open her muzzle to reply.

The day had come. She did not wish to look at the clock lest she see what unholy hour it stood upon. After the many months of watching the life within Kimberly develop, her children were to be born at last. There was so much that had to be done to get ready! She’d need hot water yes, but first she’d need a fire.

Baerle grabbed the hem of her robe in one paw and dashed to the tapestry, pushing it aside as she went. Kimberly was propped up with her pillows in the bed, and her paws were wrapped around the remains of a chewstick. The quilt was covered with bits of wood splinters that she’d already gnawed. A single lamp was light upon the opposite end table, and her form danced across the far wall with wild abandon.

“Baerle,” Kimberly said, her face contorting briefly into a smile.

“Charles has gone to get... somebody,” Baerle said, realizing that must be the case. “Let me get a fire going for you.”

“Thank you,” Kimberly squeaked around the end of the stick between her incisors.

Circling the bed, Baerle set the candle to one side and began to lay out the wood and kindling in the hearth.

The night was cool in the upper branches. Garigan relaxed slightly as he rested his back against the thick haft of the redwood, staring out across the main clearing of the Glen. Far below he could see the torchlights of the evening lamps flickering, the midnight oil burning a pale yellow. The colour coruscated along the towering trunks, reaching up to dance a subtle tarantella in the spring blossoms and the first of the summer leaves.

As his eyes scanned the foliage below, his mind continued to pore over the last lesson that Charles had given him. The rat was wont to instruct him rather casually, he suspected. Given that Charles spent most his days now racing about the jousting line with Sir Saulius, it surprised him that the rat found any time at all to continue to train him as a Sondecki.

It had been about a year now since he had first even heard of the Sondeckis. Charles had come to the Glen for that very first time, in the company of Misha Brightleaf, and the two of them had led efforts to discourage the forces that had massed in the mountains. Garigan could well remember how he had been at the time, a surly youth who could barely hold his temper. He remembered being angry at himself for being angry at all. He just could not understand why every little thing that happened upset him so greatly. And then Charles had explained to him the power that he possessed, and the power that was slowly driving him mad. At first he had not wanted to believe it, but the words had rung too true.

And so Garigan had left the Glen, the very home he’d had for all of his life, one that he’d risked his life defending nearly seven years before, back when he’d barely been able to hold a sword. His parents had died in that fight. He did not often think on them, as he remembered being knocked aside by the soldier and being unable to get up as he watched them beat his mother to death with her own batter roll. The soldiers had forgotten him where he lay mangled in one corner, barely able to keep his eyes open – else they thought him dead. And he likely would have been had not the curses struck, spreading across the whole of the valley, and sewing up the wound that had paralysed him and making him into a ferret.

He had been sad then, not really angry. Everyone said it was a miracle that he’d been cursed like that, given how young he’d been. Few his age or even a year or two older had fallen victim to the curses when they’d struck all of the valley. As Garigan pondered that, he wondered if that had been an expression of his Sondeck showing itself. Perhaps he would have to ask Charles about it the next time they were able to converse.

In the mean time, Garigan contented himself with finding that calm within himself, and rehearsing the lessons he’d been given. Ideas was more like it. The rat spoke in riddles about what he wanted to show him and would never explain himself. But Garigan did not find himself upset in the least. Very little in the last year had managed to upset him. Living at Metamor had been hard at first, but for the first time in years, he’d felt free of the anger that had claimed him. And for that he was truly grateful.

The smile that curled his muzzle and rubbed against the tender flesh where his front two teeth had been cut out that winter fell and his reflexes twisted as he saw a figure racing across the clearing below. His whiskers stood on end and his body turned in the sinuous fashion only a musteline was capable of. Anson, the arctic fox who he was standing position with nocked is bow and pointed at the figure, narrowing golden eyes.

Garigan shook his head, seeing that the figure was an animal morph. He narrowed his gaze and let out a laugh of surprise, though one concealed behind a paw. He waved Anson back and shook his head. “It’s only Charles.” Garigan watched as the rat ran across the field. His long tail flicked up behind him lashing back and forth in the air, a testament to his haste.

Anson let the tension in his bow diminish, but turned his ears forward. “Where’s he going in such a hurry?”

Garigan scrambled around the tree a bit, digging his claws into the bark to give him more leverage. Charles passed out of his view for a moment, but then returned as he continued to run across the clearing towards one of the trees set farther back. He grabbed the rope ladder that dangled from on high and began to shimmy up it wit the practised ease of a Glenner. “That’s Burris’s tree,” the ferret mused, sliding back to where Anson waited.

“What would he be....” Garigan began, but then his eyes widened, and the tension returned to his body. He held his calm tightly, even though the bark began to splinter under the Sondeck influenced grip of his paws. “It’s happening!”

“What’s happening?” Anson asked in a sharp yip.

“His children,” Garigan replied, a wide grin crossing his muzzle. “It must be his children come at last. Wait here. I have to be there for this. I’m sorry.”

“But Garigan, the watch!” Anson protested.

“I’m sorry, Anson!” With that, Garigan scrambled down the tree trunk, claws digging and gouging out the bark as he went.

Burris built his home at the intersection of several large branches a good fifty feet up from the ground. There was a small enchantment on the knotted rope that helped those who climbed it from either letting go too soon or wearing their arms out. Charles climbed it with that confidence, but still more with the pressing worry over his wife’s state.

Where the branches met there was a small plateau a good ten feet across before he reached the mage’s door set back in the bark. He gave it a sharp rapping and called, “Master Burris!” His voice would undoubtedly be heard by the scouts that were keeping a watch o’er the village. It took two more rappings before he heard the rustling of wings inside. Burris pushed the door open with the back of wing and his long beak a few seconds later.

Burris looked around until his small eyes alighted on the rat fidgeting on his hind paws. “Charles, do you realise it is 2 o’clock in the morning?”

“Master Burris,” Charles said, the excitement threatening to reduce his voice to aggrieved squeaking, “Kimberly is...”

“She is?” the note of reproach left the woodpecker’s voice and he snapped his beak shut. “Keep her warm, but above the covers. Prop her legs up if you can. I need few things but will be there shortly.” Suddenly, he pulled the door shut and Charles could hear him rustling through clutter for whatever it was he felt he needed.

Charles twirled his tail about his legs, grabbed it in his paws and squeezed for a moment. Well, there wasn’t too much more he could do standing like he was. He turned back and grabbed the end of the rope firmly planted in the wood by Burris’s magic, and began climbing back down. He kept looking up though, wondering if he would see the woodpecker jump off the promenade.

“Confound it. I’m coming!” Lord Brian Avery’s voice carried through the doorway. Garigan rocked from one footpaw to the other in the squirrel’s antechamber. The room was small, with a hole in the bottom for the rope ladder that descended down to the forest floor below. Slits in the panelling on all sides could be used by archers, though they and a small oil lamp that was presently extinguished were the only other accoutrements to the room.

The grey squirrel opened the door and peered out, dressed in a modestly elegant brown saffron robe with the twin tree heraldry of his family stitched into the breast. “Garigan, is something wrong?” He carried with him a small lantern, casting his round face in warm light. It was clear he’d been very much enjoying his sleep.

“I just saw Charles running to see Burris, sir,” Garigan explained, bending a bit at his waist in respect for the lord of the Glen.

Brian blinked at this, his dark eyes taking in the ferret. “So?”

“He was running. At 2 o’clock in the morning. Kimberly must be having the babies.” At each sentence, Garigan paused, trying to see if the significance would sink in, but it was not until the last that the light dawned in the squirrel’s eyes.

“Oh my! I’ll wake Angela. She’ll want to be there. Wake Lars and have him bring some mead. Charles may need it.”

Garigan grinned widely and bowed, “Of course!”

There was a small fire crackling in the hearth when he burst through the tapestry. Charles glanced across the room, finding Kimberly still sitting in the bed breathing heavily, while Baerle was laying a few more sticks atop the fledging flame. Kimberly was still draped in the quilts, and in her incisors a new chewstick was being gnawed to splinters. A pile of the splinters had gathered at the base of her feet in a little fold of the quilt.

“Burris will be here soon,” Charles announced, smiling reassuringly to his wife. “Baerle, can you get me more pillows?”

“Aye,” Baerle stepped back up, holding the edge of her nightrobe in one paw, and swept back through the doorway.

Charles stepped aside as she passed, and then smiled hopefully and confidently to his wife. She smiled back, though weakly as she continued her measured breathing. “Burris says we need to take the quilts off. Do you think you are warm enough?”

She nodded quickly but said nothing, breathing heavily as her teeth reduced another stick to crumbles. Moving quickly, Charles reached her side of the bed and pulled back the quilt and exposed her in just her night gown. With one paw he wiped away the wooden chips and let them sprinkle to the floor.

His heart bubbled with excitement and worry. He rested his paw on hers as he leaned into the bed. “It’ll be all right,” he assured her, though his own voice was close to breaking into startled squeaks. Her paw turned over and gripped his tightly, squeezing firmly enough that his flesh went white.

Baerle returned a moment later, carrying two of her own pillows, one under each arm. She had the sash of her robe clutched between her teeth, exposing half her legs. Charles stepped closer to his wife then, and leaned her forward. “Put them underneath her back.” The opossum did so, and when they laid Kimberly back, she was lying far more comfortably.

Apart from the growing illumination from the flame, the room was still relatively dark. “Kimberly, I’m going to light the lamps. I’ll be right here the whole time though.”

She narrowed her gaze at him, but took the stick from between her teeth. “I know.” Her face became a cloud of pain, but the moment passed. “I love you.”

Charles felt as if he were being lifted off the floor by angels. “I love you too, my lady.”

It must have taken only ten seconds to light the lamps.

“Mead?” Lars asked, his heavy ursine brows drawing together. The bruin was leaning against the doorframe of the brewery, the wood creaking under his enormous weight. The heavy pall of sleep still filled his eyes, but he had not attempted to maul anyone waking him from slumber, at least not in the last few years.

“Yes, mead,” Garigan replied promptly. “I expect Lord Avery will pay for it himself. He wants it delivered to the Matthias residence with all due haste. The Lady Kimberly is giving birth, and Charles will undoubtedly need a good drink.”

“As will Avery and all the others who get dragged there at this ungrateful hour. Dawn is not the time when men of reason go to bed.” Lars had the manner of a scholar quoting an ancient maxim, though coming from a burly bear who had not fully awakened, it seemed more gruff and grumbling than dignified.

“And you are welcome to join in I’m sure,” Garigan replied, chiding and patting the older Glenner on the shoulder. “Now when can we expect you with the mead?”

“Give me twenty minutes to get it ready.” The bruin consented after a moment’s hesitation and a long sigh. “Somebody had better pay for the mead....” he groused as he turned and closed the door.

Garigan chuckled to himself, and then turned about, rushing to Matthias’s home. He was not going to miss this for anything!

The room had finally exiled the night time chill when a pecking sounded at their door. Baerle jumped up from where she had been sitting on the edge of the bed opposite Kimberly to let the woodpecker in. The knocking was so distinctive, it could not have belonged to anybody else. The curse had robbed Burris of hands – though the claws he possessed upon his wings often served, they were unsuited to knocking on doors with any volume. Instead, he would peck boisterously at the door with his beak, and often bore a hole into the wood. But his magic was more than sufficient to heal any scars he left from his singular entrance.

Charles waited by Kimberly’s side, holding one of her paws as she suffered through the pains of labour. He did turn his head and stand though as the woodpecker hopped through the doorway, a knapsack slung over his chest. “Ah, yes, it is time.” His beak cracked in an avian grin towards Kimberly, “Are you well, my lady?”

“As well... as can... be,” Kimberly replied, trying to maintain her own good humour. “I hurt.”

“Of course you do. But your pain will break forth into joy soon enough,” the woodpecker assured her. He folded one wing forward, sliding the knapsack over his long red feathers and onto the quilt. With surprising dexterity, he began to undo the lacings with nimble wingclaws.

“I will need a bowl of warm water,” he announced.

“I’ll bring one,” Baerle said, nodding her head quickly and rushing to the kitchen. She’d changed from her robe to a less cumbersome tunic and breeches after they’d lit the candles.

“And bring a cup!” Burris cried out after her, turning his head nearly all the way around on his neck.

Charles glanced uncertainly at the knapsack and the array of small bottles contained inside. “What is all that?”

“Things to ease the pain, things to give her strength, and things to keep her from falling ill afterwards.” Burris returned his warm gaze upon Kimberly. “I will be giving them to you slowly, and one at a time. They must be mixed in hot water. I used to use tea, but I have found that the mixture can cause strange side effects in animal morphs.”

“How long... before....” Kimberly gasped, her eyes wide, but reassured by the woodpecker’s words.

“Before they are born? It is hard to say, but it will be soon now.” Burris extended a wing and laid the end of it across her distended belly. Charles felt a twitch in his fur as he watched. “Yes, it will be soon. If nothing happens.”

“What could happen?” Charles asked, feeling suddenly quite nervous.

Burris narrowed his eyes slightly, which was always peculiar because his eyelids were upside down. “There are many things that can go wrong in a birth, but most births are normal. Painful, but normal. Now, I must ask that you step back so that I can begin.”

Charles nodded uncertainly, though managed to smile once to his wife and kiss the back of her paw. She smiled back to him through the pain, but then returned to her breathing. As the woodpecker moved around and began to feel at her belly with the ends of his wings, Charles fidgeted some on his foot paws, pondering what he could do.

The thought came to him almost immediately. Sitting down at his desk, he pulled out two scraps of vellum, his quill and a stopper of ink, and began to write.

It was with excited trepidation that Garigan finally knocked on the Matthias door. He’d finished the errands that Lord Avery had asked of him, and was finally ready to present himself to the rat and ask if he could stay while the children were being born. He wanted to see the little ratlings as they were cleaned and presented with names. But more than that, he wanted to be here with his friend and mentor during this happy occasion.

Baerle was the one who answered the door, and from the breathless expression on her face, he knew that he had been right. “Garigan!” she exclaimed in surprise. “We weren’t expecting you.”

Garigan grinned widely, and glanced at the small windows set amidst the sprawling roots of the oarwood. They were all glowing brilliantly from the lamplight within. “I dare say you are expecting five someone elses though.” The ferret could not restrain a jocular laugh. “Might I join you?”

With a nod, she stepped back and let him through the door. A blazing fire was crackling merrily in the hearth while heavy breathing could be heard from behind the tapestry concealing the doorway to the bedroom. It was a forest tapestry, depicting scenes of the valley, with the castle at its centre, flanked on either side my the mountain ranges. High trees dominated the northwestern corner where Glen Avery was situated.

“How is she?”

“In pain, but Burris is here now and seeing to her.”

“Did it just start?”

“Aye,” Baerle glanced back at the doorway, her face worn from exhaustion, but it appeared impossible for her to get any sleep, or to desire it. “Burris arrived a few minutes ago. Can I get you anything?”

“No,” Garigan shook his head, stepping closer to the tapestry. He rested a paw on the edge, but did not yet draw it aside. Burris was saying something, but his voice was muffled. “I spoke with Lord Avery. Lady Avery will be coming to help as well.”

“Good,” Baerle breathed a sigh of relief. “She’s the only other one yet who has had cursed children here in the Glen. She’ll be able to help a great deal.”

“Aye, she will. Although I heard the other day that Kinslee is now with child.”

“The Innkeeper’s wife?” Baerle asked in surprise. “I thought Jurmas didn’t want anymore children.”

“Well, he’s going to be getting some whether he likes it or not,” Garigan replied with a chuckle. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go in and see Charles.”

“No!” Baerle said with a shout, reaching out and grabbing his paw. He could have easily used the Sondeck and shook her free, but that would have been wrong. This was not his home after all. “Kimberly is giving birth in there. You cannot go in. Let me go in and get Charles.”

Garigan paused, and then let go of the tapestry. “Of course. You are right.” He stepped out of the way and crossed his paws over each other while Baerle slipped inside and disappeared. Waiting, he listened to the muffled sound of Kimberly’s laboured breathing. He had not been close to many births, but it sounded about right from what he had heard.

A moment later, Charles emerged with a wide grin on his face, carrying two rolled slips of parchment in one paw. Both were freshly sealed he judged from the warm scent of the wax. “Garigan! How’d you know?” the rat exclaimed in surprise.

“I saw you running across the clearing to Burris’s. At 2 o’clock in the morning, I knew it had to be something very important.” He grinned broadly, the gap in his teeth clearly visible beneath his lips. “Congratulations again, Charles!”

Charles smirked lightly and grabbed the ferret in a sudden hug. Garigan was surprised, but returned the gesture, bending over so that the shorter rat could reach all the way around him. “Well, I’m glad you are here!” Charles announced a they split. “I was going to have Baerle send these, but you’ll do even better.” He held up the two rolls of sealed vellum.

“But I wanted to be here with you,” Garigan protested, feeling suddenly betrayed. Not more errands!

“And you will be. I wouldn’t have you anywhere else, my student! Just have a rider take both of these to Metamor. This one is for Misha Brightleaf of Long House, and this is for Tallis of the Writer’s Guild.” Garigan took them in separate paws so he could tell them apart. “When you get back, I’ll dig out a bottle of brandy or something.”

The ferret chuckled then and glanced at the door outside. “You don’t have to do that, Charles. I already told Lord Avery about this, and he made me go to Lars and tell the bruin to bring a barrel of mead.”

“A barrel of mead?” the rat asked in stupefied surprise. His eyes were wide, though there was a delighted mischief in them. “Well, that is a welcome development! I think I could use some. Did Lord Avery say he was coming?”

“Yes, he and Lady Angela will be here shortly. I better get these two off before I miss anything. And you better get back in there so you don’t miss anything.”

“Well, I guess we will have room for them both,” the rat mused to himself, fidgeting some on his foot paws. “Well, see you shortly. Get those messages off!” And with that, the rat ducked back under the tapestry, leaving Garigan standing there holding two pieces of parchment.

He sighed and chuckled to himself. What was one more errand after all?

Satisfied that his message to Misha and Tallis were away, Charles returned his attention to Kimberly. Burris had set the tub of water that Baerle had brought on a tray over the fire, letting it warm. A small cup was waiting nearby on the end table with one of the bottles from his knapsack next to it. The liquid in the bottle was a milky white, though did not recognize it.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“This will help with the pain,” Burris replied without looking up. He was running his feathers across Kimberly’s belly, from the top down to where the children would emerge. “All seems well in here, so it will not be long.”

Between Kimberly’s legs a mass of fluids had begun to spill, blood mixed among them. They were sticky and globular like egg yolk, and Charles found the scent faintly intriguing. He had a sudden urge to lap it up, but resisted it. “Is that normal?”

“Aye,” Burris replied, noting the flow with an introspective glance. “That is proper.” He looked over at the tub of water and then back at the rat. “Could you pour a bit of water into the cup?”

Charles smiled to his wife, who lay back against the pillows with her eyes focussed on some point on the ceiling. She did not see his glance, so he let the smile fade and quickly crossed over to the fire. Baerle handed him a large serving spoon, and he dipped it into the pot, drawing out a small portion of the water. It was not yet steaming, but there were a few errant bubbles rising to the surface. Carefully he held the spoon steady, letting his arm fill with the Sondeck so as to better keep its balance. He tipped it once he had brought it over the cup, letting it fill a little over halfway before he handed the spoon back to the opossum.

“How much of this do I put in?” Charles asked as he hefted the small bottle in one paw. It fit neatly between his fingers. He could empty the whole thing into the cup and still not fill it to the brim.

Kimberly turned her eyes for a moment then and smiled to him. But it was short lasted. He vaguely recalled Burris telling her to look at one point and to keep focussed on it while he had been writing his letters to Misha and Tallis. He had to write the letters of course. Tallis would inform his friends from the Guild as well as his fellow rats. And if he didn’t tell Misha, the reynard would likely eviscerate him after congratulating him on five beautiful baby rats.

“Pour in half the bottle,” Burris instructed as the flow abated and stopped. “Baerle, please dampen this cloth in the water and bring it back,” He lifted a small cloth that he’d laid out on the end of the bed and the opossum took it. Looking back at the rat he bobbed his head forward. “Stir the cup until it is well mixed. And blow on it to cool the water off some. Do that for a few seconds and then give it to Kimberly.”

“Here’s the cloth,” Baerle said as she returned with the now damp cloth.

Burris took it gingerly with his wing claws and then proceeded to wipe the area between Kimberly’s legs clean with it. Charles felt a jolt of jealousy that he would dare touch her there, but he knew it was necessary. Turning his eyes from the sight, he unscrewed the lid on the jar and wrinkled his nose in distaste. The substance inside bore a foul chalky odour that he could not quite identify. It seemed to have a hint of bark to it, but it was awfully subtle. Whatever it was, it left a bitter taste in his mouth and he hadn’t even had any of it!

Pouring half the bottle’s contents into the cup, he watched as it spread over the surface, fading a bit as it began to dissolve. He sealed the bottle back up as quickly a she could and then picked the cup in his paws and swirled it around, being careful not to spill any of the liquid. Leaning forward, even as his nose tried to crawl up his snout, Charles blew across the surface of the water. He could already feel the warmth of the liquid in his paws, but it began to fade as the medicine mixed in with the water. When the water seemed to fix itself in a filmy state, he turned to Kimberly and held it out for her.

“Kimberly, can you drink this?”

“Aye,” she said, lifting her head a bit, even as he slowly poured the concoction into her muzzle. She gagged briefly, but drank the fluid down. Once it was gone, she laid her head back on the pillow, and resumed her breathing.

Burris nodded and handed the now dirty towel back to Baerle who took it gingerly between her paws and laid it out on the brickwork in front of the hearth. “That will take a short while before it takes effect. You will feel better when it does. And then we can start pushing, Kimberly. That will bring your children out.” He lifted his head, as they all did, when the loud knocking sounded.

“I’ll see who it is this time,” Charles announced. “It’s probably Lord and Lady Avery now that I think about it.”

And the rat was not disappointed. It took only ten seconds to leave Kimberly’s side, step into the main room, and open the door. Standing outside were both the Avery’s, though only Lord Avery was dressed according to his class. Lady Avery wore a simple grey smock that she no doubt had no qualms about staining. She carried with her a small pouch between her paws, and there was a look of urgency in her eyes.

“Have any been born yet?” she asked immediately, a fear in her voice. As if something terrible may have already occurred and she was too late to prevent it.

“Nae, my lady.” He shook his head and stepped back from the door so they could come in. “Burris is with her now.”

“I’ve had word sent to Joanne the Healer. If anything should go wrong, we may need her skill as well.” Lady Angela did not wait for Charles’s leave, but headed straight for the veiling tapestry.

“Hold on,” Charles said, though he did not reach out and grab at her arm as he wished to. “Do you think anything will go wrong? Burris doesn’t seem to think so.”

Lady Avery pursed her lips in a disquieting moue. “I hope nothing goes wrong. But Kimberly is birthing five children. Five rats. It is better to be safe. Now I must see to your wife.”

The rat stepped back to let her pass through the tapestry and looked back at Lord Avery who was dawdling a bit in the entrance. His long tail curled behind him, nearly brushing across the transom overhead. “You might want to wait out here,” Brian advised. “This sort of affair can get messy, and it really is women’s business.”

Charles stood up a bit straighter then. “They are my children, and I will be there when they are born!” He realized just how vehement his voice had become, and he lowered his head, shamefaced, “My lord.”

Brian rolled his eyes and took a seat in the posher of the couches. “Your choice, but the mead and the men will be out here. You’ll just be in the way in there, I promise you.”

“Maybe,” he admitted through gritted teeth. “But I’m going to be there anyway.” And with that, he turned and pushed through the heavy fabric into his bedroom.

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