Cracked ice glistened in the noonday sun so near to the very sky itself. Across the peaks of the Barrier range, the Spring sun brought quiet but certain warmth, and to each, a slickness as the ice encrusted rock began to thaw. It was slow, a process that took weeks to complete, but its effects could be felt already. In the fissures worn by aeons what had once been trickles was now a rushing flood, rivers beneath the ice finding their way down into the lush valleys that were hidden to the eyes of men.
Nor was it simply the melting, for the birds had begun making their way Northward again after fleeing the frigid wastes for the warmth that the South would hold even when the nights grew long. The long forgotten hooting of geese and the twittering of larks could be heard in the air, and flocks of the birds would often descend upon a peak, making perches upon the melting ice. Sometimes, their talons would crack the ice as they held fast, hastening the thaw itself.
One particular group of birds had found a high peak whose last twenty feet was simply a spike of colour. The ice was shaped just so that the sun’s rays when reflected through it broke apart, filling each corner with reds and blue and greens. But the strangest accoutrement to that slender tower of brilliance was the leaden ball swinging on a dark chain imbedded within the ice at its summit.
One of the birds, a stout fellow with dark ruddy feathers and heavy beak, took it upon itself to peck at where the clasp was lodged in thawing ice. A few taps was all it took before the ice shattered with a loud cracking, the sound resounding like a thunderclap from the nearby mountains. The clasp sprang forth, starling the bird, who took to the air with a disgusted squawking. The ball itself crashed down into the snow-strewn rock, rolling a few inches before coming to a stop, the chain piling up behind it.
And there it rested, glistening like the ice in the bright rays of the sun, a mote of black in an otherwise white world.
Charles turned over in bed to see that Kimberly was still sound asleep. He smiled slowly, running one paw gently above her forehead, his skin barely touching the ends of her fur. Her brow furrowed in sleep, nose and whiskers twitching at the sensation, and she tried to turn away. But the large bulge beneath the thin sheet prevented her from moving very far.
Still smiling, the rat pulled back is paw and simply blew her a kiss. Charles slipped out from underneath the sheets covering the bed and strode to their closet to find something to wear. Even during the night it was quite warm in their home now, and so Charles had come into the unfortunate habit of walking about with little on during those days when he was trying to arrange all of the baby things upstairs. Now that Baerle was living upstairs as well, he could hardly do that.
Even so, it was early morning, and so the rat merely pulled on his ankle high silk robe that had been one of his wedding presents. Gingerly drawing aside the heavy tapestry before their bedroom door, he slipped out into the main room and shut the door behind him. Kimberly needed her sleep after all, especially now. When she woke an hour or so later, he’d make sure there was something very warm waiting for her to eat.
The living room was quiet with the stillness of dawn. The cinders in the hearth were cold ash now, and even through the small porthole windows came only a faint smattering of light. But Charles did not need much to see by, and so after crossing to the hearth, he struck the tinder to light but a single lantern. It was fashioned from brass and had a single handle on its side, which he gripped tightly in one paw. The scent of the wax made his whiskers twitch a bit, but he carried it with him into the kitchen, setting it down upon the far counter top so that the subtle scents would no longer aggravate his nose.
He was about to bend over the stove, when he heard the ticking of claws upon the stairs. Turning to the side, he listened to each step, knowing full well who it was. Quickly, he pulled his robe about him tightly, and opened his muzzle in a grin. “Good morning, Baerle,” he chimed softly as she gingerly stepped into the kitchen to see who else was up.
“Good morning, Charles,” the opossum replied, smiling to him as well. She had on her usual scouting clothes, loose fighting green jerkin and breeches.
“Was everything all right last night?”
She nodded, her gaze glancing away across the rest of the kitchen. “Yes. I slept very well.”
“It didn’t confuse you to wake up here, did it?”
“A little, but not for long.” Baerle’s long white tail curled about one of her foot paws as she spoke. “Is Kimberly up yet?”
“No,” Charles admitted. “I was going to make her something to eat for when she did wake up.”
“Would you like some help?”
He could not help but smile. “I would love that, thank you, Baerle.” He looked down to the stove and nodded his muzzle to it. “If you would, could you start a fire while I get some sausages from the cellar?”
Baerle nodded, glancing at the stove and the pail of kindling that sat next to it. Bending over, long white tail lifting up behind her and rubbing against the counter top, she began to select some of the thinner strips to start the fire. Charles watched her for a moment before turning to the smallish door at the far end of the kitchen that sunk down even further into the tree.
Having a home bored out of a large redwood could be rather unnerving at times, especially when he considered the amount of weight that stood overhead. He suppressed an involuntary shudder at the thought, and opened the door to the basement below. Before him a dark staircase descended downwards, the end of it only dimly visible, even with his rodent eyes. Turning back, he saw that Baerle was still bent over the stove, stuffing several pieces of kindling inside atop the bed of ashes.
“Could you pass me the lantern?” Charles asked, pulling the sash about his waist tighter. The robe did cover his middle, but it left the lighter brown fur of his upper chest exposed. “It’s a little dark down there.”
“Afraid of the dark?” she asked him, although she took the few steps towards the head of the kitchen and retrieved the brass lantern from where the rat had left it.
Charles frowned at that, setting his paws wide apart in the usual Sondeckis stance. After so many years of training, it was still the most comfortable way for him to stand, foot paws shoulder-width apart, paws clutched before his waist languidly, head held level. “Only when I can’t see it,” he replied after a moment with a slight grin set in his muzzle.
She chuckled at that, lifted the lantern by the small brass handle, and returned, holding it out to him. “So you’ll leave me in the dark then?”
“Not for long,” Charles replied, taking the lantern over to the doorway. He removed the brand from the sconce and, after opening the lantern’s glass case, lit the wick. Holding the lantern out to her, she took it and put it back on the counter. Charles then set the brand once more in the sconce, casting the warm flickering light down into the cool earthen basement.
Satisfied, Charles let Baerle resume the starting of the fire, and climbed down the stairs. Unlike the rest of their home, the basement moved into the earth beneath the massive roots. The tree roots themselves were firmly anchored into the earth on all sides of their cellar, and some even in the ground beneath the cellar. As such, the cellar was not very large, nor did the Matthias family store much within it. But the same magic that kept the floors and walls of their abode warm kept the cellar cool. And so, they kept what meat they did have there.
With the sconce at the top of the stairs lit, enough light permeated the cellar that Charles had no difficulty in finding his way about. While Kimberly would have simply summoned a witchlight to illuminate her path, a trick the skunk Murikeer had taught her, Charles had to make do with a bit of fire.
Shortly after they had moved in, Charles had a small rack built by one of the Glenners that he could hang the meat from. Set against one earthen wall, it had a wooden back covered in thick lacquer to keep the wood from staining. Curved metal hooks held up the few slabs of meat they kept. A string of sausages hung form one hook, while from another was a heavily salted slab of venison taken from the elk he’d killed for the Equinox festival. It had been so large that they still hadn’t finished it!
Counting out seven links of the sausage, Charles severed the link with his incisors, the juicy taste spilling across his tongue immediately. He grinned, whiskers twitching slightly at the meaty flavour and scent. He then repositioned the rest of the links so that they would not slide off the hook, and climbed up the stairs with their morning repast. On his way, he blew out the brand.
Baerle smiled but did not turn her head from the stove as he emerged. “I bring great bounty!” he declared, holding the sausages aloft. “How geos the fire?” Although he could hear the first flames snapping at the kindling, he felt it polite to ask.
“Good, good, we should be ready to begin cooking in a few minutes.” She turned and saw the links of sausages in his paws. “Five for Kimberly and two for you?”
Charles shook his head. “No, two for us and three for her. If you are going to be living here as the wet nurse, it only seems proper to feed you too!”
“Thank you,” Baerle said with a soft smile. She bent over then, long tail rising up behind her once more, and stuffed a few larger logs into the stove. She then swung the stove doors nearly shut, open just enough so that the air could easily feed the flames. “There, that will burn nicely.”
Charles set the sausage links down upon the counter, and then yawned. It had been late last night when they had finally finished moving all of Baerle’s things into the upstairs room that she would now live in. At Kimberly’s request he did refrain from drinking that night, much to the amusement of his friends helping them move her few things. They would have started earlier of course, except that Charles had been out on patrol a bit longer than expected.
As he separated te sausage links with a small knife, he laughed to himself. Garigan and he had thought they’d spotted something suspicious off in the woods, some strange motion that seemed intent on remaining hidden. Their suspicion had only been fulled further because the object was upwind, and after they’d followed after it for a moment, discovered that it was still upwind. After nearly a half-hour’s pursuit, they discovered that it had merely been a young solitary elk who had mistaken their scent for a predators. Chagrined at being so easily spooked, they had finished the rest of their patrol without further incident. In the light of a new morning, Charles could only laugh at it now.
Baerle had already produced a pan from one of the cupboards and was peeling an onion. “I thought it might help the flavour,” she said after he gave her a curious glance. “I always preferred a bit of onion with my sausage.”
“Aye, that will be nice,” he agreed before depositing the seven sausage links into the pan. They were only slightly thicker around than his thumb, but once they were fully cooked they would plump up to twice that width. Baerle took the knife and began peeling out a few of the onion slices, depositing them into the pan amidst the sausage. Once she was satisfied, she gave a curt nod of her head, and the rat set the pan down atop the stove.
Leaning back against the counter-top, Charles watched as the onion in the pan began to sizzle slightly. “Could you give me a piece of kindling, Baerle? I need to chew on something” he asked suddenly, gesturing with one paw towards the bucket beside the stove.
The opossum nodded and gently removed one of the thicker pieces, holding it out to him in one paw. He smiled to her and took it, placing the thick end between his incisors. It felt wonderful to just gnaw away at it, wood shavings drifting down through the air to settle around his foot paws. The few that fell upon his tongue he spat out just as quickly. It was not that they tasted particularly bad, it was just that he would much rather have the sausage that was beginning to cook.
His need to chew satisfied, Charles lowered the bit of gnawed kindling and took a deep breath. “How do you like your new room?”
“It’s nice,” Baerle said, smiling, though her eyes were turned to the sausages which were beginning to sizzle in earnest. She took a long wooden fork from a nearby cupboard and began to stir the sausage and onion around the pan. “Larger than my own home. You need some drapes on the window though.”
Charles narrowed his eyes, the bit of kindling only an inch from his incisors. “But the windows are only a foot across and round.”
“So? Kimberly still has drapes on the rest of them.” Baerle countered, smiling at him defiantly.
He ground his incisors into the bit of kindling, uncertain as to why he was suddenly so flustered. “Well, yes,” he said after managing to pull the wood out from his teeth. “I suppose you can put drapes up there. We hadn’t because we still hadn’t decided what to do with those rooms, and Kimberly has a lot of trouble even getting up there now.”
“Then you’ll just have to help me pick some out,” Baerle replied, stirring the sausages some more. They were beginning to plump and darken from the heat of the stove.
“I think they look just fine without drapes,” Charles intoned before shoving the stick back up to his incisors and chewing.
“Well, then I’ll just have to find some myself,” Baerle said. “You will help me put them up though, won’t you?”
He shrugged. “Yes, of course.” His nose twitched at the scent of the sausages. It would not be much longer before they were done. “There is one thing I did want to talk to you about sometime though.”
Her ears perked slightly at that. “Yes, Charles?”
“Well,” He lowered his head then, finding himself suddenly embarrassed. “Since you are going to be living with us for a while, this is going to come up sometime. It’s hard to say though, I just don’t quite know how to approach it.”
Baerle blinked, her long tail curling around one of her foot paws as she studied him. She held the wooden fork limply in one hand, the end still resting in the sizzling pan. “Is something wrong?” There was a sudden urgency to her voice, that made the rat feel even more ill at ease.
“No. At least I hope not.” He shuffled his foot paws slightly and rested one paw on the knot of the sash at his middle. “Well, I noticed when I helped bring your stuff in yesterday that you had a small wood carving of Artela.”
“Yes, the goddess of hunters and the wilderness,” Baerle said, nodding.
“Well, you do know that Kimberly and I are of the Ecclesia.”
“Oh.” The sound of understanding in her voice seemed almost the tenor of relief. Baerle turned back to the sausages and stirred them around a bit. The onion had browned thoroughly by then, and the meat was quite thick and dark. The scent of it was so luscious and full he found it difficult to remain focussed on what he’d asked her. “The sausages are nearly ready,” Baerle commented. “Could you get some bowls?”
Charles grimaced then, feeling ashamed of himself suddenly. “I’m sorry, Baerle. I should have waited until we were all together to bring that up. Or I shouldn’t have brought it up at all. Don’t worry about it.”
But the opossum shook her head. “No, you were right to bring it up. This is your home first, and we should talk about this. We can talk about it when Kimberly is up though.”
“Right,” Charles said, lifting his head and smiling slightly to her, meeting her gaze once more. She smiled in return, slender whiskers twitching as the ends of her muzzle curled upwards. Involuntarily, Charles brought the bit of kindling up to his muzzle and began to gnaw upon its end, working out the tension in his jaws.
“Will you get me those bowls?” Baerle asked, bending over the stove once more, stirring the sausages and onion in the pan.
“Of course, just let me get past,” Charles said, slipping behind her, trying not to brush against her long white tail as it languidly dangled behind her. The kitchen was not very large, so he had to scrape his back against the counter top to squeeze past. But pass by he did, and taking another step, felt a sudden tug on the back of his robe, and he lost his balance. Striking out to grip the counter top with his arms, he found it wasn’t where he expected it, and a sharp pain filled the back of his mind.
Dizzy images flowed before him, the throbbing of that sharp impact throwing everything else aside for a moment. The flowering of his Sondeck was there, it’s ability to protect him, and to control force, employed not quick enough to prevent whatever blow had felled him, nevertheless worked quick to rose him from the unconscious state into which he’d nearly slipped. But even so, his eyes found it hard to focus on anything for a moment, and the strange muddled singing he heard could not be put into order.
But the Sondeck did manage to bring his sense of balance back, and he realized that he was laying upon the floor. Charles blinked, a dull throbbing filling the back of his head. Before him hovered a gray image amidst the shadows of the kitchen. It took him a moment to realize that the figure was speaking to him. “Charles? Are you all right?”
It was Baerle. She was leaning over top of him, bent at her waist, long tail curling around her side. Her eyes showed her worry. Charles finally saw all this after blinking several more times to clear his vision. “Oh,” he moaned then, lifting one arm to try and force himself to a sitting position. However, his arm was tangled in his robe, and he couldn’t quite get it free.
“Don’t move,” Baerle said, her voice stammering. He felt her paws slip in under his shoulders, and with a gentle shove, she managed to lift him partially upright, enough for him to get his elbows beneath him.
It was then that Charles realised that his robe had fallen open. Everything from his chest down to his toes was completely visible. He blinked at that and stared, still feeling too dazed to move to cover himself. Baerle made a sharp intake of breath, and then, blushed in her ears and turned aside. Charles looked up at her a moment, blinking several times before he pulled the ends of his robe together once more.
“Am I bleeding?” Charles asked, the numbness in the back of his head matched only by the shock of having Baerle see him unclad.
Baerle shook her head. “No, but you are going to have a nasty bruise.”
“I already have a nasty bruise. How did I fall?”
“Your sash caught on one of the drawers,” Baerle replied, helping him once more get to his feet. “And now I have to get the sausages.”
Charles nodded, wincing at the sudden pain. Being Sondeckis, it would not last for very long, bruises never did, but it would hurt the whole while. Resting one paw on the counter-top to steady himself, Charles reached behind his head to feel the bump wit the other. Right at the base of his skull he felt it, a mild swelling that stung when he touched it, even gingerly.
Baerle took out three bowls and scooped up the sausages and onions into each. The seventh sausage went into Kimberly’s bowl of course. She then closed the stove doors, so that the fire would quietly expire. “Where do you keep your juice?”
“In the basement,” Charles said, gesturing with his free paw to the door. “You can take the lantern, I think I shall go get dressed now.”
Baerle nodded, smiling slightly. There was something beneath her gaze, some hint of something more that Charles could feel, but did not acknowledge. “Of course. I hope your head doesn’t hurt too much.”
“I’ve had far worse,” he admitted, smiling as she nodded and turned back towards the cellar, the three bowls already set upon the counter. He watched her go, long white tail swinging from side to side as she walked. It wasn’t until she and the light had disappeared down into the cellar that the rat was able to walk back out into the living room. More light was coming in through the windows, but the room was still quiet.
Inside their bedroom, he saw that his Lady Kimberly was still sleeping, resting upon her back, belly distending the sheets atop her quite visibly. He smiled, the pain from his bruise having mostly subsided already. In an hour he would only be able to feel it if he were to press upon it.
He crossed silently to her side of the bed, and laid a gentle kiss upon her cheek, smiling as he stared at her visage. Her small pink ears were folded back against the tan fur of her head, eyes gently shut, her long whiskers twitched at the stirring of the air, large incisors protruding from underneath her lips. Ah, she was beautiful, Charles could not help but think.
Just as quietly, Charles slipped into the large closet and found a pair of breeches and a simple green tunic to adorn. By the time he emerged from the closet, he could see Kimberly stirring in the sheets, stretching out her arms, a pleased smile across her muzzle. Her eyes were still closed, and she lay in bed, enjoying its warmth.
“Good morning, my lady,” Charles said in a soft voice.
“Oh good morning, Charles,” she replied, though she did not move from her prone position. She did open her eyes, smiling with them as well.
“How would sausages and onion sound to you to break our fast?” he asked, a twitch coming to his whiskers.
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” she admitted, shifting up a little bit in bed.
His smile broadened. “Good, because Baerle and I have already made them for you.”
Kimberly’s nose twitched then, as she smelled at the air. Her eyes, first inquisitive, soon glowed with warm delight. “I smell that. It smells delicious! Would you bring it here for me?”
Charles gave a long bow, one paw sweeping up behind him, tail lifting into the air. “As you wish, my lady.” She giggled delightedly at that and pulled the covers even closer to her chest over her pregnant belly.
“Did you hurt your head?” Kimberly then asked, concern creeping into the laugh.
“Ah, yes,” Charles admitted, straightening up. “It’s just a bruise, nothing to worry about. It’ll be gone in a day. You just wait there and I’ll get you those sausages!”
Kimberly nodded, still looking worried about the bruise, but did not say anything. Charles darted back out the door, still feeling woozy, but not enough to keep him from practically dancing his way to the kitchen. “Baerle?” he called out as he swung around the corner.
She was just returning from the cellar with a ewer of juice clutched tightly in her paws. “You will need to get more, this is starting to ferment.”
Charles smirked whimsically. “So?”
The opossum narrowed her gaze and waggled one finger after setting the ewer upon the counter. “You shouldn’t drink so much, you know.”
“Perhaps. It is not like I am drunk every night, you know,” Charles replied, suddenly feeling defensive. Why did they always have to bother him about this, he wondered. The back of his head ached again, and he narrowed his eyes to hide the sudden throb of pain.
“I suppose not,” she replied, taking out three small goblets.
“Kimberly would like her food in bed, could you help me bring it to her?” Charles scooped up the bowls in his arms, being careful not to upend any of them.
Baerle nodded, wrapping one finger around the stems of the three goblets. Once satisfied that her grip was secure, she picked up the ewer as well. Charles sniffed at the air as she neared, and aside from her own warm, earthy musk, he could only faintly smell the fermentation in the berry juice. It would probably not even give him a buzz.
Together, the two of them walked through the living room, warm despite the lack of a fire in the hearth, and then into the bedroom where Kimberly sat up in bed waiting for them, a bright smile upon her muzzle. “Oh, that smells wonderful!” she crowed, clasping her paws before her. She then uttered a single unintelligible syllable, and a small ball of light began to glow softly at the centre of the roof, casting the whole room in soft brilliance.
Charles smiled once to the flickering witchlight that Murikeer had taught her to summon, and then stepped into the room. “Your meal, my lady,” Charles brought the bowls to her, and gingerly plucked the one with three sausages from the crook of his arm and placed it before her on the sheets. “And Baerle has brought the juice to wash it down.”
“Why thank you, Baerle,” Kimberly said with a large smile. She still had the sheet pulled up over her chest, and Charles suddenly wondered if she had anything on under there. But she didn’t seem to mind having the opossum in the bedroom with them, and in fact gestured to the end of the bed. “Oh, why don’t you join us here for our meal, Baerle.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude on you two,” she demurred softly, backing away a step from the bed.
“Nonsense,” Kimberly said, even as her fingers dipped into the bowl and pulled out one of the sausage links, carefully hefting it between her claws so as not to burn herself. “This is your first day living here with us, so you should eat with us. You’re going to be part of the family after all.”
The opossum blushed, momentarily casting her gaze to Charles, before nodding slowly. “Thank you, Kimberly.” She sat down slowly on the far edge of the bed from Charles. He held out her bowl towards her, and she cupped it in her paws. “Thank you, Charles.”
“It’s our pleasure, Baerle,” he said, smiling a bit. He leaned gently back against his pillows, though he did not lean his head against the head board for fear the bruise would throb again. Turning to the side, he took the ewer that had been set on his side table and poured out the berry juice into each goblet. The first he passed to Kimberly of course, who took it with a gracious smile as she stuffed one of the links into her muzzle as quickly as she could. The second he passed to Baerle who also smiled, though she had only begun to nibble on a bit of onion. The third he kept for himself naturally, sipping it a bit, and grinning. The alcohol was just light enough that he could vaguely taste it only when it reached the back of his throat.
They were all relatively quiet as they ate. The sausages were just as delicious as they smelled, the thick meaty flavour accented by the onions that Baerle had added. And the berry juice washed every morsel down with only the faintest of bite. Before long, they were all sitting on the bed, smiling with empty bowls before them.
“That was delicious,” Kimberly said, licking at her fingers, “but I could still eat some more.”
“We have more sausages if you want me to prepare them,” her husband offered even as he set his own bowl to the side.
“I think I want some fresh fruit,” Kimberly said, rubbing the sheets that covered the top of her belly with one paw. “And some cheese.”
“Cheese we have,” Charles replied, one of his whiskers twitching thoughtfully. “But the fruit we do not. Would you like me to go to the Blaylock’s and purchase some?”
She nodded, even as she passed her bowl to Baerle who was also licking the tips of her claws clean of the sausages. “Would you? Oh that would be so wonderful.” She smiled to him, her eyes wide
Leaning over towards her, Charles gently stroked the bottom of her muzzle with one paw and kissed her. “It would give me great pleasure to purchase you some fruit, my sweet.” He smiled broadly, and then flipped off the bed, landing on his hind paws, while his tail cut a graceful curve between his legs, and then back out behind him again. He bowed low, pretending to hold a hat in one paw, and then sauntered from the room.
As Charles let the tapestry slip over the doorway, he thought he heard the giggling of women. Shaking his head, he just smiled and slipped out into the warmth of the new day.
“Do you like your room?” Kimberly asked shortly after they heard her husband’s foot steps recede outside. The warmth of the wooded interior filled them, as did that of the sausages. The rat’s eyes were bright and her smile wide as she surveyed the opossum sitting upon the end of her bed.
“Aye, ‘tis very nice. But the window needs some drapes. I love the colours you’ve chosen in here. The green goes so nicely with the wood.” Baerle smiled and gestured to the drapes that framed the circular windows like soft petals. “It goes well with you too.” The opossum offered her a warm grin. “You look like you belong here too.”
The rat’s whiskers twitched a bit then, but her face crossed with a look of discomfort as she shifted about. “I had better, I don’t think I’m going to leave this room for another month!” Though the comment was said whimsically, judging by the size of her belly, Baerle could not help but wonder how true that statement really was.
“Oh, I’m sure Charles can carry you out. He’s pretty strong.”
“Yes. But he says he shouldn’t just show off either.” Kimberly rubbed her paws over her belly and stared down at it past her muzzle. The tip of her nose almost touched the lip of her belly. “I’m glad I only have to carry them for four months. I think another five of this would break my back.”
Baerle nodded slowly. “I cannot imagine what it must be like for you, Kimberly.”
But the rat smiled back to her, paws still resting against the covers as they lay atop her pregnant bulge. “You will,” she said with an almost rapturous joy. “One day you too will have a child, Baerle, and you’ll know.”
The look that crossed the opossum’s face was for a moment devastated, but she regained her good cheer just as quickly. “Of course,” she said, and then rose up from the bed. “I’m going to go make sure there is a fire burning in the hearth, and then I’ll attend to the dishes. You rest, Kimberly. Charles should be back shortly with the fruit.”
Kimberly blinked in surprise at that, and stared after her friend as she slipped out through the doorway, the tapestry falling back into place even a her white tail slid through. “Baerle?” Kimberly called out in a plaintive voice, but there was no reply.