Natures Denied

by Charles Matthias

That basket is five coppers,” Blaylock said as he gestured with one claw towards the small bushel of apples. Charles had hoped only to pay three, and told the lynx so. But the feline was obdurate. “Would you rob me blind then?” he asked in exasperation.

Charles shook his head, having grown used to the manner of Frederick Blaylock in his months here at Glen Avery. The man would haggle with anyone who came into his shop, though his wife usually made sure he didn’t get anyone to pay an outrageous price for anything. Outside of his shop, the lynx was quite an agreeable fellow, not one that Charles found frequently in his company, but he made for pleasant company at least. But inside his store, he was a different creature altogether.

The rat fished three coppers from his belt pouch. “I am prepared to pay you this for these apples. They are for my wife, who as you know, is expecting.”

“And Abigail is expecting me to bring some money back with me today. I spent a great deal on these wares as you know.” The lynx had an injured look, as if he were being asked to sacrifice one of his paws.

“And you make a great deal too,” Charles chided him. “But as I am in a good mood this morning, I shall pay you four. Fair enough?”

Frederick nodded then, green eyes narrowing suspiciously, as if he expected this was some sort of trick. “Very well, I suppose four will have to do.” Charles handed him the coins and Blaylock took them as if they pained him to hold. He handed over the apples nestled in a small cloth in a wicker basket. “It might pay the taxes. They went up you know after the assault!”

“I know, and we all pay them.” Charles, being a Long Scout, was technically exempt from paying the Keep’s taxes, but he offered his share anyway. “And don’t for a moment think to tell me that you can’t afford them.” Charles crossed his arms in front of him, offering Frederick a dubious stare. “We all know you have quite a bit of money.”

The feline stood a bit taller. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“I’m sure it is,” he replied, smiling. The door at the back of the shop opened, and Abigail emerged, wearing a brown dress and bodice that blended with her fur. “Good morning, Mistress Abigail.”

Abigail smiled, green eyes twinkling as she stepped past a row of eggs nestled safely on a shelf lined with hay. “Good morning, Master Matthias. Has my husband cheated you yet today?”

Frederick glowered at her, but said nothing. “Oh no, he gave me a reasonable price for these.” Charles hoisted his apples before him, suppressing the nervous twitch that was beginning to work its way into his tail and nose. The scent of two dangerous felines aroused his rodent instincts in ways that were hard to hide.

“Well if wonders will never cease,” Abigail chided, smiling both to him and to her husband. “I’m proud of you my dear.”

“We’ve our own kids to feed my dear,” Frederick reminded her, though it was obvious he knew he would not win the argument.

“And Kimberly has five in her belly to feed. No sense making them poor at the same time.”

Frederick grumbled beneath his breath, but Charles could hear him, “A man has a right to charge what he wants in his store.” If Abigail heard him, she did not show it. Lifting his head then, the lynx found his smile again and nodded back to him. “I only paid a copper for the apples, Charles.” He scooped a copper from his pouch and held it out for the rat. “Here, have this back.”

Charles smiled, feeling a blush coming on in his hears. “No I agreed to pay you four, and so you shall have four for the apples.” He smiled to them both, looking between Abigail and her husband for a moment. “Besides, I enjoy haggling as well. It wouldn’t quite be a trip to the store if we couldn’t bicker over the price a bit.”

Abigail frowned at this, though it’s effect on Frederick was immediately obvious. His grin spread wide and he stood a bit taller. His paw closed around the offered coin, and he slipped it back with his pouch. Standing akimbo then, chest sticking out, he said expansively, “Well then, you are welcome back here anytime you wish, Master Matthias.”

“Thank you, Frederick. I’m sure I will be back again soon.” He took a step away form them and back towards the main door.

Abigail followed after him and once they were several paces away for her husband, who was delightedly straightening out his wares, she leaned over and whispered into his ears, “You shouldn’t encourage him. He’d rob the town blind if folks let him.”

“You know he wouldn’t do that,” Charles said, the smile still upon his muzzle. “Not with you watching over his shoulder.”

The feline appeared somewhat mollified by that, but still frowned. But after a moment even that simple moue faded into a look of pleasant neighbourliness. “And how is your wife?”

“She’s well, relaxing now. Still hungry though. Baerle’s with her now. You did hear that she moved in with us yesterday?”

Abigail nodded at that. “I saw. And you should keep your eyes off her.” The feline pointed a claw at his nose then, coming to stand in front of him. “You are married and you’ve no business looking at other women.”

Charles blinked in surprise, staring wide-eyed up at her, whiskers twitching rapidly. He reached down to his side with his free paw and grabbed at his chewstick, pulling it to his incisors reflexively. “I’ve done no such thing!”

Abigail raised one eye ridge. “Oh? We all know how close you two were this winter.”

Charles hissed at that. “That was back when I thought I’d never see Kimberly again. And she was the one who lavished attention on me. She didn’t know about Kimberly. I assure you, I’ve eyes only for my wife.”

Though the feline did not appear completely convinced, she nodded her head and stepped out of his way. “I’m sorry I said anything. I just have to remind my husband not to look sometimes too.”

Charles felt a bit of his good humour return then and he smiled slightly. “He’s looking at their purses, I assure you.”

She laughed at that then, casting her green eyes to look back at the other end of the store where her husband was whistling a tune to himself now as he worked. “True enough. There was one other thing I wanted to tell you. One of your friends from Metamor arrived late last night. He’s staying at the Inn. You were so busy with moving Baerle into your home, I don’t know if anyone told you yet.”

His teeth bit deeply into the chewstick then, but he pulled it from his snout for a moment. “From the Keep? Who is it?” He knew it could not be Misha – the fox would have knocked on his door that very night had he come. Besides, his last letter had suggested he’d be occupied at Metamor for some time. He’d hinted at something dangerous, but had not said. Whatever it was, it was probably too sensitive to trust to a letter. Likely, Charles would have to wait until he saw his fellow Long Scout in person again before he’d learn what was happening.

“I did not catch his name, but he was a rat like you.”

This made Charles smile widely then. He wondered who it could be, though had a hard time imagining any of his fellow rodents leaving the Keep. A year ago, they were hesitant to even leave the cellars let alone the protection of the castle. “Did you see him?”

“No, I just heard that a rat had come from Metamor and was staying at the Inn. Kinslee told me when she came here for some eggs this morning.”

Charles did not know Kinslee, the Innkeeper’s wife, very well, though he was on good terms with Jurmas. Both were deer, as seemed the custom in the Glen. Almost every couple that had married after the curses had changed them all had chosen to marry another of their own new species. Only those that had been married before and a few others were different. Charles thought it a wonder that more children in the Glen were not like the Avery twins, or like his own children to be, animal morphs from birth.

“Well, I must see who it is,” the rat said with excitement in his voice. He looked down at the basket of apple sin his paws. “Do you think you could take this to my wife? Send her my apologies, but let her know I will be back soon.”

Abigail took the basket and smiled ruefully. “Very well. But I shall blame you for any my husband swindles while I am gone.”

Charles smiled then and started for the door. “Fair enough.” He pushed the wide oaken door open then, and stood upon the threshold. “Do let her know I’ll be back soon.” Abigail assured him that she would, and waved him on his way. The rat smiled, a bounce to his step as he bounded out the door and up along the path through the massive tree roots that rose like walls on either side.

The day was already well on its way to being a busy one, Glenners going about their business with rigorous aplomb. Gazing down he saw that the fishers were hard at work on the lake already, tossing their nets overboard and reeling them in. Angus had taken over one section of the field as he trained several of the scouts in swordplay. James was among them, using his slender blade quite effectively. At the brewery, he saw that Lars and some of his men were unloading a stack of lumber and some new barrels. Some of the women were carrying baskets filled with herbs that they’d picked from the surrounding woods, and naturally, Lady Angela was leading them.

Smiling at all the activity, seeing many familiar faces that he’d come to know in the last few months of living at the Glen, Charles made his way further back in the mountains until he was at the Inn. He could smell the scent of horses coming form the stable, and the sounds of some being attended to. Smoke rose from the chimney set in the middle of the building, lazily drifting upwards in the relatively still air. The windows were dark though, so Jurmas must not have his lamps burning brightly.

And he was right. Charles entered the Inn and blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom of the place. The lamps were all burning very softly, while the light from outside and the glow of the fire in the hearth provided the meagre illumination. But it was just as well, as there few in the Inn’s common room at that early hour of the day. Any merchants who would spend the night would not arrive until noon at the earliest, and the few Glenners who had chosen to break their fast with Kinslee’s cooking would have already eaten.

Jurmas himself was reclining at one of his tables, rubbing at the velvet of his growing antlers. He had a small mazer before him, filled with juice of some kind. He was chatting amiably with the only other inhabitant of the common room, a small rat who wore a brown and yellow tabard, the colours of a field of dried grass bending in the wind. Upon his buckler a short well-polished sword was fastened. There was a proud countenance to his muzzle, and a fierce pride in his eyes. Charles recognized him immediately.

“Sir Saulius!” he called out, racing around the tables to be at his friend’s side.

Saulius grinned as he rose to his hind paws. “Ah, ‘tis my squire, Matthias!” His grin was wide. Charles’s eyes went wide then, even as he stopped a few feet short of his friend. “Thou didst not think I would forget. We hath a championship to defend!”

Charles grimaced visibly, letting a sigh escape his muzzle. Behind one hand, Jurmas hid a laugh. “I did not think the Duke would hold a joust again this year. Not after the assault.”

But the knight rat smiled even more proudly then. “We hath convinced his grace the wisdom of the joust. ‘Twould be a dishonour not to participate. And thou art my squire, Matthias.” There was a pleased grin on the knight’s muzzle. “And what better reason to visit this marvellous town than to continue thy training in the most honourable warrior way, that of a knight!” The fervour with which he spoke earned him a raised mazer from the Innkeeper.

Charles laughed and shook his head. “Ah, Sir Saulius, it is good to see you. But I have been exiled here until the Summer Solstice. By the time I’d be able to return, the tournament would nearly be over!”

But this did not seem to daunt his friend in the slightest. Reaching into his tabard with one paw, the other brandishing a chewstick, he withdrew a scroll case. “I hath spoken to his grace ere I came here. He wast understanding of thy need to be at my side in the joust, and hath given thee permission to return a few days early to Metamor that thee might participate as is thy duty.”

Charles took the case in his paws grimacing. In truth, he had greatly enjoyed himself at the Summer festivities. There was an undeniable excitement to the joust, one that he could feel rekindling in his chest as he considered it. After they had won, he had known that Saulius would want to defend the title and would naturally ask him to be his squire once again. But once Nasoj had attacked the Keep, devastating their forces though ultimately losing, he had assumed that it would be years before they would hold another, as it had been after the Battle of Three Gates.

But now he knew that he would participate again, and strangely did not mind. He smiled then, and laughed lightly. “That was very considerate of his grace,” he said at last, lifting his eyes to meet the knight’s. Dark but fierce with pride, they only grew brighter as Charles’s own smile grew brighter. “Very well, I shall ride at your side in the joust at the Summer festival, Sir Saulius. I am once again your squire.”

Saulius let one eye widen in curiosity, “When didst thee cease to be my squire, eh? When a knight doth take a squire, a squire he shalt stay until he becomes a knight as well, or is dismissed in disgrace.” Saulius rubbed his fingertips along one of his whiskers then.

Charles let out a short laugh, rolling the unopened scroll case around in his paws. “I’m a few years older than you, Erick. You have been a knight for quite some time. I fear I will have grandchildren ere I’m knighted.”

But the knight waved one paw in dismissal. “‘Tis of no importance. Thou must train again with me. I hath brought thy steed with me.”

He blinked at that, and tried to recall the name of the pony he’d ridden in the jousts, but the name would not come to him. “How long do you intend to stay here in the Glen?”

Saulius looked once to the Innkeeper and smiled. “Why, until we shouldst depart for Metamor again for the tourney! I wilt stay here and train thee each day until thou art ready.”

“Do you have enough to pay for a room that long?”

“Julian hath lent me gold enough to stay. He dost wish to see thee ahorse as well.” Saulius lifted his mazer and finished off the juice within. “Come now, thou shouldst see thy steed again.” He thanked Jurmas for the fine juice and the deer’s hospitality in his proper manner, and then set off for the side entrance to the stables outside. Charles followed after him, nibbling on his chewstick. He pondered for a moment what Kimberly would say when she found out, and then smiled as he recalled how much she had loved seeing him compete last year. He walked a little taller then, feeling a swell of delight fill him.

The stables were not large, though they could hold up to two dozen horses if need be, most of the time there were barely a third that number present. And it was no exception that day. Charles followed after the knight rat, standing as high as possible on his toes as he looked about for the cream-coloured pony that he’d ridden before. And near to Saulius’s own black steed, he found him.

Charles grinned, and in that moment recalled the name of his pony. “Malicon!” he shouted, and ran as quickly as he could along the stable until he was leaning over the doorway, pressing his paws at the pony’s muzzle. The cream-coloured horse nuzzled his paws, eyes brightening in seeming recognition.

Saulius had opened the door to Armivest’s, that had been his name, stall and was rubbing at the pony’s neck. “It doth give me great pleasure to see thee glad to be with thy steed again.”

Charles grinned and then opened the stall door. The surprised ostler who had been sweeping up some errant hay laughed then and slipped to the other end. Malicon himself took several tentative steps forward, pressing his snout into the rat’s paws. “Do you think he remembers me?”

“Aye, he dost,” Saulius said with a smile. “A horse ne’er forgets its rider.” He smiled then and rests his head against his mount. The familiar gold and red banner with the rat clutching a bundle of wheat was resting against the side of the stall next to him. “Whene’er thou art ready to begin, we shalt.”

Charles nodded his head, thinking on how his days would have to be reworked now. He still had his scouting duties for the glen to consider, and of course, he was to be a father soon as well. How would he balance all of these things in addition to being Sir Saulius’s squire? He hoped that his friend did not insist that Charles take on the role as fully as was usual. Most squires lived with their knight, being their servant as well as their student. Charles had no desire to do that. But Erick had said nothing of it, and so Charles found room to hope.

“I must see Kimberly again before we begin, to let her know that you are here. I had been bringing her some fruit, but had another do that when I discovered a friend had arrived. I also have scouting duties this evening.”

Erick nodded slowly then, his paw still rubbing along Armivest’s neck. Malicon nudged Charles in the side, and he ran his paw over the pony’s nose and up around his ears to satiate the beast. “I wast told that thee wert scouting. Let us ride to thy home, and thee shalt tell thy lady of thy good fortune!” He smiled widely then, incisors brightly shining from the burning lamps.

Charles chose not to argue with him on whether it was good fortune or not, and gave Malicon’s neck a firm pat. “I don’t think I’ve ridden a horse since the last joust.”

The look of pain that crossed his friend’s face was quite astonishing. Charles flinched at it, and felt quite ashamed at himself for having neglected his equestrian skills. “Then thou shouldst definitely ride. In fact, thou must saddle both horses for our ride. Thee wilt find all the tack before thee.” Sir Saulius took a step back after running his claws over the bridge of Armivest’s nose once and crossed his arms before him. “I shalt watch.”

Grimacing as he did his best to remember all that he would need, Charles took a look at the tack that was set out on the wall of the stables. The ostler, a shaggy dog of the name Golan, looked like he wanted to help the rat, but only shook his head and went back to his cleaning.

Finally, Charles took two of the light blankets and laid them overtop of each steed. He glanced at the knight for confirmation, but Erick was busying himself with his chewstick. It was not hard to discern which of the saddles that were hanging from the wall were their own. He chose the two smallest saddles, both of them fashioned from hard leather, whose stirrups were designed for feet that were no longer human.

Both Armivest and Malicon seemed glad to have their saddles set upon their backs. Charles was very diligent in making sure that he did not saddle them backwards, something he’d done once before and received a lengthy approbation for. Then, he knelt down and secured the straps over their chests, until he was certain they were tight enough that the saddle would not slip. He even grabbed the pommel and gave both saddles a firm shake, but thankfully they did not budge.

He retrieved the appropriate sized halters for both steeds, and with only a little bit of coaxing managed to fit them over both ponies’s heads. He draped the reins across the pommel for each steed, and then satisfied with his work, turned back to the knight who surveyed the work with his eyes. He nodded slowly then as he stepped to each in turn, and gave the tack several firm tugs to make sure it was all secure. “Thou hast done a fine job for simple riding. But thou must still learn the art of barding thy steed. ‘Tis important, for in battle, thou must protect thy horse’s life as much as thy own, for they art dependent on each other.”

Charles nodded slowly, feeling a bit of pride that he’d remembered everything at least. He wasn’t sure he ever wanted to ride in battle, it just didn’t seem right to him, but he knew better than to object to that. The joust would be the extent of his involvement, though it was important to humour his friend. After all, only last year he’d still be delusional about being a rat.

“Now mount and lead us to thy home.” Saulius said, climbing into his own saddle with practised ease.

Charles did so, and found the way his legs stretched to either side around Malicon’s middle uncomfortable. But he’d grow used to it in time he wagered. Taking the reins in his hand, he gave Malicon’s sides a nudge, and the cream-coloured pony was soon trotting merrily from the stables. The rat could feel the horse’s excitement through his flesh, as if he yearned to be moving much faster. But he kept a tight grip on the reins, at least until they were no longer in the stables. Once they were out in the warmth of the forests of the Glen, he let Malicon take on a reasonable trot.

A few heads did turn as they rode through the central clearing, down the hillside and towards the Southern end of the Glen. Angus even paused in his training to watch with a repressed grin as the pair of rats rode past. Charles caught the glance, and smiled a bit. James, his friend and now sometimes servant waved one hoof-like hand in salute to him, and the rat waved back. If the donkey found his situation humourous, he did not show it.

Charles kept his paws close before him, legs tight around Malicon’s middle as Saulius had shown him last year. It was surprisingly easy to regain the feeling for riding that he’d once developed. And there was a sense of power and purpose that he could feel as he rode so high. It was similar to the sort of power he felt when he took the taur form, although in that shape he was not nearly so high off the ground. Plus, the horse moved differently than did his rat body, and so the sensations of movement were more fleet, almost easier than he’d known.

It only took a few minutes to reach the mighty redwood that was his home. Saulius appraised it in awe, his muzzle hanging open an inch or two as he stared. “‘Tis a marvel that thou dost live within this mighty tree. I hath ne’er seen a tree stand so tall. Ne’er!”

“Nor had I until I came here for the first time last year.” Charles replied, dismounting. There was nowhere to tie Malicon’s reins though. “Will he remain here while we are inside?”

Saulius nodded. “Thy steed shouldst remain here. Shouldst he wander, it wilt not be far. Thy scouts will lead him back shouldst he stray too far.” Saulius dismounted as well, and gave Armivest a firm pat on the side. The black stallion snorted and raked one forehoof across the ground impatiently. The pony had oped for more than just a simple trot about town!

Satisfied with the answer, Charles gave Malicon a final scratch behind his ears, and then turned back to his home. “You will have to do me the honour of letting me show you about my home, Erick. But first, you must pay homage to my Lady.” He smiled widely then as he led his friend down the sloping path between the roots to his door.

Charles went in first, and was met with the warm scent of a kindled fire. “There he is now,” Baerle’s voice said as he pushed inside, Saulius so close behind him that he nearly stepped on his friend’s tail. Kimberly was reclining on the couch, her belly so large that he had to wonder how long it had taken her to make the walk. Baerle was sitting next to her, and they had several bolts of cloth laid out before them. He didn’t remember seeing that cloth before, so had to wonder where they’d found it.

“My Lady Kimberly, I have returned!” Charles said with a bow, smiling widely. “And I have brought a most honoured friend with me.” He gestured with an expansive sweep of one arm at the knight who drew back his tabard, revealing the shirt of mail underneath.

He grinned widely and bowed as well. “‘Tis an honour to see thy loveliness again, Lady Kimberly. Motherhood dost suit thee well.”

Kimberly’s eyes brightened as she recognized the rat. “Sir Saulius! Please come in! Would you care for an apple?”

The knight smiled still, and stepped forward, settling himself down in one of the couches, the mail of his shirt clinking slightly. He let the yellow and brown tabard fall back across his front, covering it once more. “I thank thee kind Lady, an apple would be delicious.”

“Baerle,” Kimberly said, her face all smiles, “this is Sir Erick Saulius. He is a knight at Metamor.”

Saulius turned to the taller opossum and bowed. She held out her hand smiling lightly at that, even as he knelt to kiss it. “We were well met, fair lass.”

Baerle laughed at that, and held out an apple for him as he stood. “Here’s your apple, Sir knight.”

Saulius smiled, brushing back his whiskers with one paw. “Thou art most kind, lass.” He looked back to Kimberly and then beamed proudly at Charles. “I hath great news to bring to thee. Thy husband and father-to-be hath agreed to be my squire. I shalt be training him in all the knightly ways. He shalt attain honour and land for thee and thy family.”

Charles blinked a bit at that, wondering when exactly in his friend’s mind his agreement to participate in the contest had transformed into something broader. But the look of bemused delight on his wife’s face kept him silent. “Oh my! I wish I could attend. I remember last year, it was so wonderful watching you both on the field.” She smiled to him then, her face bright. “You were so very brave!”

Charles could not help but smile at that and he nodded a bit stiffly as he took his seat. “It was very exciting.”

“Kimberly told me about that,” Baerle added, crossing her legs as she sat down. Her white tail curled around her hips and dangled over the end of the seat. “I’d love to see you dressed in a suit of armour.”

Kimberly laughed at that, her eyes wide with delight. “Oh yes! You’d look so dashing dressed in armour.”

Charles rubbed at the back of his neck, finding the conversation going completely away from him. “Well...”

But Saulius interjected, his own voice lofty and full of pride. “Mayhaps one day thee wilt see it. Thou wilt make a fine knight, my friend!” Saulius patted him on the back with a firm paw, and grinned widely to him, his own whiskers twitching furiously.

“Thank you, Erick. Although I think we are being a bit premature here. I have a great many responsibilities already.” The look of delight on his friend’s face faded into offence. “Now I’m sure you are right, that I would make an excellent knight. I just don’t know if I would ever have the time to do it. I’m about to become a father, and I know that does change a lot of things.”

Saulius was still frowning, a look of noble indignation that Charles found himself intensely sorry he’d played any part in creating. “We hath little time to lose, methinks. When thou art dressed properly, then we shalt begin thy training.” He then took a bite of his apple and chewed it meaningfully.

Charles looked to Kimberly and Baerle, but the two women just smiled at him. “Don’t worry about us, dear,” Kimberly said between bites of her own apple. “You just have a good time with Sir Saulius. Try not to get hurt.”

“I’ll patch him up if he does,” Baerle offered.

His wife turned and smiled to her. “Thank you, Baerle. And thank you Sir Saulius. It is good to see you again.”

Smiling victoriously, the knight rose from his seat. “And it hath been a pleasure to see thee, my Lady.” He nodded once to Baerle, “And ‘twas a pleasure to meet thee, lass.” He then turned towards his fellow rodent who was still smarting from his wife’s betrayal. “Come then, my squire. Thou hast much to learn.”

With a sigh, but with his good humour quickly returning, Charles rose to follow after his knight.

The spire of coloured ice glimmered radiantly against the blue sky. The cries of birds overhead accompanied the quiet winds as they swept from peak to peak through the Tabinoq range. Apart from the birds and the cascading drifts of snow that were carried upon the wind, only one other figure moved through that frigid domain. A small figure, bundled warmly in leather furs with a small pack upon his back and picks looped through his belt, was climbing the sloping path towards that spire.

Abafouq’s face was covered by a leather mask with only three small holes – two for his eyes and one for his mouth. As he climbed, he would stare up at that ice-bound spire, one hand before him to shield his eyes from the radiant scintillation. His heart beat faster in excitement as he examined the smooth face of ice that covered the stone, as he could not find the black metal ball he’d suspended from the peak. If it had fallen, then it would be time to depart for Metamor.

In the weeks since he’d wedged the ball into the mountainside, he’d gone over the notes he’d written, studied the accounts of history that had been handed to him. Every facet that he could absorb he’d committed to his memory, repeating them out loud until he could do so blindfolded.

He had a great deal of time to do so, as Guernef, his Nauh-kaee keeper, was almost never in their cave. Guernef, the Kakikagiget of his people spent most of his days elsewhere, and he wouldn’t tell Abafouq where he’d been either. Sometimes he would bring back freshly killed boars or rams, as well as bundles of plants he’d uprooted to add to his charge’s pallette. But much of the time he simply returned, watched for a time, and then left again, all without saying a word.

Abafouq put his mysterious keeper out of his mind just then as he continued up the last slope of the mountainside. He made the trek up the mountainside once every few days. It was not an easy journey, but he had become long accustomed to the terrain. Still, when his boots felt a slick patch, he would draw out one of his picks and chisel a toe hold or two. But once he was able to see the summit, it did not take him long to reach it.

And once there, he felt his heart pound even faster than before, nervous excitement welling up in his chest. Sitting in a pile of black obsidian against the white of the snow, and the rainbow hue of sun upon the ice, was the ball and chain he’d wedged into the peak. “Yes,” he whispered, his voice erupting form his mouth against his will.

Bending over, Abafouq cradled the ball in his mittens, lifting it into the air. The thaw had finally come. They would begin their trek to Metamor once Guernef had returned. After five long years, Abafouq would finally leave the caves of the Nauh-kaee and travel once more under the stars. Finally, he would see and speak to others, and not merely Guernef his keeper.

He set the ball down in the snow once more so he could slip his backpack from around his shoulders. Undoing the lacings, he slipped the ball and chain inside, and then secured them both. Satisfied, Abafouq shouldered the pack once more, and turned around. The descent would be more dangerous with the weight upon his back, but he was not afraid. Cautious, but not afraid. He would go to Metamor Keep now, and he was not going to be so foolish as to jeopardize that by falling from the path.

Carefully, Abafouq retraced his steps down the mountain path back to the cave where he had lived for five years. He smiled the whole way back.

With a warm fire burning in each hearth, Baerle returned to Kimberly’s side with a slight smile. They had a lovely home, there could be no doubt of that. Charles still had some work to do to arrange all of the children’s things, but there was some semblance of order to them now. The main room upstairs was now somewhat organized, with the five cradles placed against the far wall, and a bin that James had helped the rat build set opposite the hearth. In that they had placed all of the toys they’d been given for now. A single dresser stood next to it, in one of whose drawers were all of the clothes that Kimberly had stitched for them.

Baerle could well remember what it had once looked like, and so found it far more attractive. The last room from the stairs was crammed with most of the excess that had not found a home yet, though Charles had promised Kimberly he’d find a place for it all before the children were born. Now that he was training under Saulius once again for the joust, she could not help but wonder how he’d have the time for any of it.

Retiring once more downstairs, she sat down next to the pregnant rat and sighed. “Well, all of my stuff is in my room, but it’s going to be a while before everything is where I want it.” Kimberly was still running her claws along the bolts of cloth that Abigail had surreptitiously brought them earlier. They were but a loan from the store of course, but it made it far easier for them to select the colours they wanted.

“And you still haven’t chosen a colour,” Kimberly reminded her, smiling a bit. There was a distant look in Kimberly’s eyes though, as if her mind were somewhere else. She did not say anything though, instead looking away at the hues. There were an assortment of greens and blues, as well as a few browns and reds spread out before her on the table.

“I do rather fancy this green,” she said, pointing to a deep shade. “It’d be like having leaves over my windows. I could wake up in the morning and think I was in the treetops.”

Kimberly laughed at that pulling that bolt out and setting it atop the rest. “It is a lovely shade. Do you sleep on treetops?”

“Oh yes,” Baerle’s whiskers twitched in wry amusement. “The curse made me an opossum. I’ve even hung by my tail before!” She lifted her tail behind her and curled the end slightly.

“That sounds dangerous!” Kimberly admonished in surprise.

“Well, I couldn’t hold on for long,” she admitted with a slight laugh. “It was quite relaxing though for what little time I hung like that.”

Kimberly shook her head and tried to sit up. With some effort, she managed, one paw resting over her belly. “Oh, I wish they’d be born and I could move again! This is growing tiresome!”

Baerle lent a hand to her shoulder and steadied her friend. “Lady Avery said it will only be another month.”

“Another month and I will be so large you will have to roll me around on my belly to move me!” Her face fell in slight dismay. “I hate the way this makes me look.”

“Charles doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve seen him smile as he looks at you. He loves every bit of you, and everything growing in you too.”

That mollified her slightly, though she was still upset about something. “Baerle,” she said, her voice slow and uncertain. “Something is bothering you, I know. You didn’t want to talk to me this morning.”

Baerle frowned and felt suddenly abashed. She leaned back in her own seat and rolled her fingers across one of the blue bolts. The fabric was somewhat smooth, and the weave tight. “Well, Charles did say something to me this morning.” In truth it was not what Kimberly had seen, but it still bothered her. She lowered her eyes, feeling quite stunned still by what the rat had told her. He’d apologized, but she’d never expected it to come from him.

“Well?” Kimberly prompted, her voice encouraging rather than impatient.

She clicked her teeth for a moment and then replied, “He saw my carving of Artela, the goddess of hunters and the wilderness. He says you are both Patildor.”

Kimberly nodded slowly, and then reached out a paw to pat her friend’s shoulder. “I saw it too, Baerle. Did Charles ask you to remove it?”

Baerle shook her head. “No, he apologized for saying anything about it. I did not think it would cause any strife. Almost all here in the Glen are Lothanasi, so I did not even think about it.”

“Charles and I knew that when we came here. He does not talk about his faith much. Nor does he make a show of it. We haven’t been able to practice our faith much since we’ve come here either.”

After the last of Kimberly’s words ended, Baerle said nothing for a moment. The silenced that descended was slow, and strangely gentling. Though the pain that lingered in her heart still burned her, she did not feel it as much then. “Do you think he will object to me practising my faith in your home?” Another slow pause, and then the opossum added in a quiet voice, “Will you?”

Kimberly appeared to think for another long moment, one in which Baerle felt suddenly chilled. Ever since her youngest days when she would play amongst the rocks of Mycransburg, she had kept her devotion to Artela. There was a commonality there, something she could grasp and emulate, the role of huntress and of the wilderness that she enjoyed to be in. When she was little, there were few Patildor in the valley, and so only in the last few years had she learned much at all of them. And now she ha gone and fallen...

It was Kimberly’s voice that broke her from her risky train of thought. “In my homeland, though there is little of it that I love, we have a saying. ‘A new wife, a new god.’ Every time one of the men would take a new wife, they would also take her god into his house, whoever that might be.” She frowned then, a look of disgust crossing her features. “It may have been fine for the men, but not always so for us women.”

Baerle frowned, completely dumbfounded. It was rare enough for Kimberly to speak of her past. Her friend did not like to think about the land she escaped from, much less talk of it. Of Brathas she spoke little, and even less of the disgusting man that she was supposed to marry. In fact Kimberly had often said that her life truly began when she became a rat, and had no regrets of anything done since then.

“I’m just the wet-nurse,” Baerle said at long last.

Kimberly smiled to her then and pulled at the back of her neck. Slipping forward, Baerle found herself in a tight embrace. She returned the hug, and felt strangely comforted. “You are more than that to me,” Kimberly said at long last. “And to Charles too I daresay.”

They let go after only a moment, but they were both smiling now. “And I’m sure Charles will be glad to discuss this matter when he returns. For now I don’t think it will bother any of us if you continue to practise your faith.”

Baerle nodded and reached out to hug her friend, her sister again. “Thank you, Kimberly! Thank you for being so kind to me.” Quite suddenly she began to cry, and could not altogether tell why.

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