Charles could feel the month of April in the air, or so he thought. In his years at Metamor he knew that April brought the first of the Spring rains, though with the mountains on either side of the valley, there were usually only a few large storms. Most of the rest were simply passing showers that would bring all inside for an hour or two. He could smell the threat of rain in the air, even though most days it remained simply that, a threat.
But it would naturally rain on a day in which he was assigned to watch over the road to the Glen from the trees. And so he sat, his clothes and fur sticking to his body, sopping wet. Were he a towel, wringing him he knew would fill several buckets. And it was still raining, making his perch uncertain, and his mood just as gloomy and unpleasant as his wife’s often could be these days.
Thinking on Kimberly made him recall the way her pregnancy had begun to make her miserable. Only a week ago they had both marvelled at the way their children began to kick inside of her. Charles had pressed his ear to the curve of her belly and could hear something occurring within, and even felt a few prodding touches from under the skin. They had both laughed and smiled gaily at the activity, talking all day about how lovely it was to know their children were growing well, if quite a bit faster than normal.
But at night what had been a delight became a burden that made Kimberly terribly uncomfortable. She couldn’t get enough sleep, and so became cranky and irritable in the morning, and sometimes throughout the day. Charles did his best to comfort her, but it seemed that no matter what he did, it was not enough. And so, despite himself, he looked forward to his assigned duties as both a Long Scout and a scout for the Glen.
Except that now it was raining.
Charles leaned back against the tree trunk, working a bit of a kink out of his back. He had to shift the bow about his shoulders to keep it from pressing into his spine, but he had at the very least grown accustomed to its weight there. It did pain him that he could not use a staff, the weapon with which he was most proficient, but there was only so much that one could carry up into the trees with them. Had he a Sondeshike, he could have brought that, but he’d given it back to Rickkter what seemed ages ago now.
Sharing the branch with him was Garigan, his fellow Sondeckis and student. Though he had not had as much time to train Garigan in the last few months as he would have liked, nevertheless, Garigan was learning what he needed to know as a Green quite well. He was not near to being ready to advance once again, but Charles did not expect the ferret to take too long to reach that point regardless.
However, as he studied his friend whose dark eyes stayed fixed upon the road below, he observed the rainfall simply sliding across his fur and falling off. Of course it would though, the rat realized with a grimace, he was musteline after all. The water would just naturally wash off of him. Shifting his weight a bit, he grunted and began to nibble on the chewstick he’d brought with him. That always helped him relieve some tension.
And then his ears perked, for the hint of a very familiar song had come to him. At first it was merely the outlines, hints of melody ancient and deep. But then, his eyes trained once more upon the ferret, that he began to recognize it. It was none other than the Song of the Sondeck, whispered quietly amidst the pouring rain. Garigan caught the rat’s look and smiled, allowing himself to sing more openly. Charles lowered his chewstick then and joined him in the song, its reverent words the greatest solace he could ask for. No longer did the rat notice the rain as it soaked and chilled him to the bone.
The Matthias home was quite large. Set within the hollow of one of the larger redwoods that surrounded the Glen, it boasted two main floors and a cellar, as well as a winding stairwell that led up to a high balcony. James had never gone up to the high balcony, but he’d spent a bit of time in just about every other room of his friend’s home. Normally he was there with Charles, but the rat was off on guard duty that rainy afternoon, leaving the donkey morph mostly alone in his thoughts.
His own quarters were quite spartan. Jurmas allowed him to stay in one of the rooms he kept for travellers and visitors to the Glen in exchange for his services. While Burris the woodpecker mage was always happy to shape the trees so that another might have a place to call a home, to do so properly that the wood should not rot but remain healthy and strong required more than just his skills. There were other items the mage would need, and he needed to buy them from Metamor. James was saving up some money of his own, but it would take quite a bit more even to own a modest home in the Glen.
A few days ago he’d told this to Charles, the reason he’d even come to the Glen in the first place. While his friend did not have enough himself to simply give to his friend – and after all the charities the rat had already shown him, James would not have accepted it anyway – he had devised a way to help him, one that kept the donkey’s pride intact. With Kimberly’s pregnancy advancing even further, she could no longer get around the house quite as easily. Charles naturally had to be out and about the Glen, sometimes for days at a time, and so while he was gone, he would pay James to take care of the many chores that needed tending around the home.
James maintained his duties both at the Inn and he still did occasional work for Lars. Then of course he was still training to be a scout for the Glen, and that did take up quite a few afternoons. Nevertheless, what other times he had when Charles had to be away, he would now dedicate to helping Kimberly, and Baerle too, keeping that house in good order.
Most of the chores were similar to what he’d already done at the Inn and the Brewery, lighting fires, straightening rooms, cleaning dishes. Yet, despite the fact that only two rats lived in that home, he nevertheless felt that it was extraordinarily huge. As he kneeled down in the upper room, breathing the small whisper of flame into a pleasant, crackling fire, he said a short prayer of thanks that this was the last of the hearths to be lit for the night.
James rose back to his hooves, dusting his breeches free of soot, and surveyed the room. Kimberly was in the main room sitting in her chair working on a bit of clothing for one of the yet to be born children. She had told him when he’d arrived a short time back that evening that he was not to move anything in the upper room, as Charles and she were still trying to decide where to put everything. And as the donkey gazed over the wide panoply of objects, he noted their one common thread – they were all for the children soon to come.
So this was to be where they would play, he surmised, smiling to himself, long ears turned upwards in curious attention. He saw the five cradles all pressed back against one wall, while piles of clothes already given to them were arrayed in several patterns upon the wooden floor. A large bearskin rug had been placed in the centre of the room, atop of which amidst the thick brown fur lay baby toys of all shapes and sizes. Stacked just to one side of the rug was a pair of dressers, as well as a pile of wooden planks that was yet to be fashioned into a third.
Yet for all this, James could only smile. He didn’t have to do anything with this now. But he knew in his heart that Charles would ask for his help when the time came. He already had asked for his help in moving the items up the stairs after the baby shower six weeks ago. In fact, it had been his idea to put the cribs against the wall, both the first three, and the second two that they had received a few weeks later. He laughed lightly as he remembered Charles cursing a stubbed toe and his own cursing when he’d banged his head on the transom. Then he remembered the sweet bit of cider they’d shared after a job well done. There were still many pleasant memories yet that they would fashion in this room, he knew.
Turning back to the hearth, he set a few more logs atop the pile of kindling he’d arranged, and satisfied the flame was strong, closed the flue and headed back down the curving stairs. He ran one hoof-like hand along the wall, feeling the warmth of the wood, knowing that the thick bark of the massive redwood was only inches past his fingers. It would never cease to amaze him how this gigantic tree could still stand with so much of its trunk hollowed out. No wonder the magic that Burris could work was so expensive!
When he reentered the main room James saw that Kimberly was still sitting in her chair near the hearth, enjoying the warm glow of the fire, her paws working with needle and yarn to fashion a garment for one child to come. Her ears turned at his entrance, the clopping of his hooves on the wood quite distinctive, and her muzzle turned up in a slight smile. “Thank you, James,” she said, not looking up from her cross-stitch.
James nodded his head and smiled. “Is there anything else I might do for you this evening?”
Kimberly did set her sweater in progress down then. “Yes,” she said, turning her head to consider him with a pleasant grateful smile. “I’ve left a bit of onion and potato in the kitchen. Could you cut them into bite size chunks for me?”
“Gladly,” James said, glancing once towards the door then back to her. “Do you want me to cook them too?”
“No,” she shook her head slightly, one paw touching her swollen belly briefly. It was quite noticeable now, though it was not quite so large as it would get before the end. “Baerle will be here shortly and she can do that for me.”
“Baerle will be coming?” James asked. “Will you still need me then?”
“Not for tonight,” Kimberly added, looking back to the sweater she was knitting. She had the body, and one arm completed, the other arm was just beginning. “Thank you, James.”
James nodded, a little disappointed that he would not be staying for much longer, at least not after Baerle arrived, and then went into the kitchen. The onion and potato were set out on the lacquered counter top as promised. It did not take him long to find a knife either.
Kimberly was humming a pleasant tune to herself as she wove the needle in and out of the soon-to-be-sweater. The yarn was a simple green that she’d bought from Walter. She had a little experience with knitting from days long ago, but Walter was happy enough to show her a few new techniques to assist her. While she did not know exactly how her children would be shaped when they were born, the sweaters she made would serve them well for a time anyway. Besides, it would be summer soon, and they might not even have need of clothing at all.
Nevertheless, it brought her a great deal of pleasure to sit by a pleasant fire on a rainy April afternoon knitting this sweater for one of her children to be. The tune upon her muzzle was not one that she knew, but that she had heard sung by some of the labourers about the Glen as they worked. She would have whistled it, as in the days of her own youth she often whistled while playing amongst the manor house halls of Brathas, but she had never figured out how to make her muzzle pucker just the right way.
The sweater was nearly finished, the fourth of five. The three already done were folded in a small pile to her side on the chair. They were so small and fragile, but it brought a smile to her face as she looked at them. Her smile turned to light discomfort for a moment as she felt one of the children in her womb turning about. But soon they were still again, and she patted her distended belly once. It was only another month before they would be born now, and she would be the mother of five little rats!
A year ago, she reminded herself, this thought would have horrified and shamed her. Now, it was a delight beyond imagining. Although Charles rarely would admit it, she knew that it brought him great pride knowing that his children would be rats just as they were. One time a few days after they had discovered what the children would be, her husband and she had been laying in their bed, the hearth crackling warmly, casting strange shadows upon the ceiling. He’d spoken then of how much he’d hoped that the children would be rats, how special that would make them. He had struggled to describe how it made him feel, but he’d always feared how he would treat a child of his that had been born human, and then became something completely different from them when they came of age.
And now, as she thought about Charles, she felt sorry for him, having to stand guard outside in the cold rain. She could see him dripping wet when he came home, a sodden mess of fur and wool that would curl into a ball by the fire. It would not be the first time he’d done so of course, and he’d likely spend a good bit of time complaining about whoever he’d been partnered with not having to worry about the rain. Usually it was Garigan his student. But she knew that in an hour’s time his fur would mostly dry and a hot meal would come to warm his belly too, and he’d be his cheerful self again.
Thinking of the hot meal made her listen to the sounds of James in the kitchen chopping up the potato and onion. She did not know him too well, but he seemed a very nice fellow. Quiet though. Charles spoke more of the donkey’s triumphs than James did himself. She knew that he was becoming quite skilled with the sword, although his woodsman’s skills needed more practice. And now he was doing odd chores for Charles while her husband was on duty to make a bit more money.
Kimberly did not mind that Charles had gone and hired him so, it was nice to have somebody else there to attend to things. Although Baerle usually came by to help out, she was primarily Kimberly’s company and friend. James was nice enough, but he reminded her more of a servant, going about his duty, avoiding too much contact with those he served. It made her feel even more pregnant and helpless than she thought she was. It was not so bad if it were Charles doing these things, but...
A sudden knocking at the door brought her mind back to the moment, and her humming ceased. She called out in a loud voice, “Come in!” The door opened a moment later, and there was the smiling muzzle of Baerle the opossum gliding in beneath the transom. In her paws she carried a small parcel, what smelled like baked bread wrapped in a thick cream-coloured cloth. Her long white tail swept in behind her, and she quickly shut the door.
She was of course, wet from the rain, although she’d hunched over the loaf so that it too wouldn’t get drenched. Kimberly set her stitchery aside and tried to rise, but found it a bit harder than she expected. Nevertheless, she managed to get up and stride over to her friend, taking the parcel from her paws, and giving her a quick hug. “It’s good to see you! Let’s get you dried off. Come sit by the fire.”
Baerle smiled and hugged her in return. “Thank you, Kimberly. I brought you some bread. I thought we could share it between the seven of us.” She didn’t have to say who the other five were, for both knew, and immediately set to giggling happily.
James poked his head out from around the kitchen and smiled. “Hello Baerle,” he said, his ears folding back to the side of his head. Baerle smiled to him in return, though her attention was more on getting close to the warm blaze in the hearth so that she could dry her fur and clothes. The donkey quickly scooted back into the kitchen to keep on cutting the potato and onion.
Baerle had a small woolen coat on that she shrugged off and hung upon a small hook over hearth where it might dry. She then kneeled down and stretched her paws out before the warmth, rubbing along her sodden, furry arms. “Ah, this is much better. Was that Charles’s friend in the kitchen?”
Kimberly nodded, settling gratefully once more back in her chair, picking up her nearly completed sweater and finishing off the last of the arm. “James. Charles hired him to keep the house in good shape while he’s on guard duty.”
“And to make sure you don’t exert yourself, right?” Baerle asked again, arching one eyeridge.
Kimberly nodded, chuckling beneath her breath. “Yes, that too.” She then set down her needles and held up the nice green woolen sweater. “Look what I’ve been making!” she said excitedly.
Baerle’s eyes widened and she cooed in delight. “Oh that’s adorable! She tentatively reached out to take it, but didn’t as she was still quite wet. “That will look so cute on them! The colour goes very well with your fur.”
Kimberly nodded. “Walter helped me pick it out,” she then folded the sweater up and set it on top of the other three. “I’ve already made four of them. Just one more to go and I’ll have one for each of them!”
“They look very fine! Have you made any other clothes yet?”
“Not yet,” Kimberly said shaking her head. “I want to make trousers for them, but I’m not sure how to handle the tail. And I still have to make alterations to their swaddling clothes too.”
“Walter can show you how to do that,” Baerle pointed out, finally satisfied that her arms were dry enough. She brushed her paws over her face, some water flicking onto the stone tiling set just before the hearth. She then turned her back to the fire, and bunches her legs up before her, wrapping her arms around them. “She’s quite experienced with making alterations.”
“She seems a lot happier now doesn’t she?”
Baerle nodded and then smiled some. “Oh you didn’t know her as she used to be. A frightful woman, never happy with becoming a woman you know. Everybody avoided her unless they had no choice. But after the attack, she’s been quite a bit more pleasant to everyone.” Baerle laughed slightly. “Some of the other scouts used to wait until their clothes were about ready to fall off before they’d bring them in to be fixed. Now I hardly ever see anything get in such a state.”
The sound of clopping hooves made both of them turn their head. James was standing in the doorway, brown eyes casting back and forth between the two women. “I’m... I’m finished with the onion and... uh potato. Was there, um... anything else?”
Kimberly shook her head and smiled. “No, that will be all. Thank you, James. Baerle and I can manage the rest of the evening.”
James nodded then, looking away then and walking over to the door, nearly tripping over the rug as one of his hooves caught on the edge. He picked up the woolen cloak he’d brought with him and slipped it over his shoulders, pulling the hood up over his ears which now lay at the side of his mane. “Will you need me tomorrow?”
Kimberly shook her head. “Charles will be home all day tomorrow, so no. May Eli go with you.”
James nodded then and slipped out the door, closing it quickly behind him. They both listened to the sound of the rain spattering the side of the tree, and the retreating hoofbeats of the donkey for a moment, until only the former could be heard.
“He seems a little nervous,” Baerle said quietly.
“He’s always like that when Charles isn’t around,” Kimberly pointed out, working more of the yarn around the end of her needle, readying to begin the last sweater. “You remember him at the festival though, sitting next to Charles. He was energetic then.”
Baerle shook her head, shivering a bit as her wet fur continued to dry. “I don’t really remember actually. What was he doing in the kitchen?”
“Oh, chopping up some potato and onion for dinner tonight. He should have left it out so you can start on it whenever you like.”
“Once I am dry,” Baerle said then, scooting her back a bit closer to the fire, although her tail was curled safely around her foot paws.
“Well then,” Kimberly said, smiling, lowering the needle once again into her less spacious lap. “There was something I wanted to ask you. It is very important, and there’s nobody else I would rather ask than you.”
Baerle smiled comfortingly then, her slender whiskers twitching free a bit of rainwater. “What is it? You know you can ask me.”
Kimberly nodded then and patted her belly once. “I’m going to have five children, Baerle. Five! I knew one day that I would be a mother, and perhaps would have five children to call my own. But not all at once. I’m not equipped to take care of five children, not like this at least. I need some help. Will you be a wet nurse for my children?”
This question took Baerle quite by surprise. One paw went to her chest to rest upon her breasts. She was endowed suitably enough Kimberly judged, although she’d never had a child herself. “A wet nurse?” Baerle asked, her voice trembling, emotions too confused to decipher. “But there are others better suited to that. I don’t even have milk.”
“Lady Avery or Jo could easily help you with that. And I wouldn’t want any other woman touching my children that way. You are my closest friend Baerle. You spend so much time here anyway it seems only fitting that you help me this way. I could even have Charles prepare one of the upstairs rooms for you so that you could stay with us until the children were weaned.” Having now said it, Kimberly did not find it difficult at all to discuss. She had been thinking about it for a week or so now, but this was the first she had ever even been able to speak of it to anyone.
“Does Charles know?” Baerle asked then, looking quite nervous.
“No, I haven’t told this to him. I do not think he would object. He’s glad you come over to help me so much.”
Baerle still appeared quite dubious, pulling her legs closer to her chest then. Her whiskers dropped in contemplation. There seemed to be quite a bit of yearning in her gaze, yearning that Kimberly could not place. Was it because she wanted children of her own someday? She had once spoken about that, but she had not sounded very confidant for whatever reason.
“I very much want it to be you, Baerle,” Kimberly said. “If by the time the babies arrive and you still do not give milk, I can ask another. But I want it to be you.”
Baerle blinked slowly then and finally nodded. “I will try, Kimberly. For you. I will try. I just don’t know how to feel.”
“Happy,” Kimberly suggested. “You will be a mother to my children too!”
This brought out a slight smile upon the opossum’s muzzle. “I hope that Charles does not mind,” she said tentatively, her voice quiet, filled with a subtle hope.
“I’m sure he’ll be pleased,” Kimberly said, nodding happily then, her eyes brimming with delight. “I bet he never even thought about having a wet nurse either.”
“Knowing him he’d probably suggest you use a taur form to feed them,” Baerle said, easing back a little, her fur nearly dry.
Kimberly gave a petulant squeak. “Yes, he would. He likes it so much after all. But I will not feed our children like an animal.” A look of discomfort filled her muzzle then and she placed one paw over her belly once more, as if trying to reassure that which filled it. “I think they want to be fed now though. Could you prepare the meal, Baerle?”
The opossum nodded and rose to her foot paws. “Of course.” She unwrapped the warm loaf of bread, broke off a piece, and handed it to the rat. “Eat as much as you like while I ready the vegetables.”
Kimberly took the bread gratefully and nearly had shoved the entire morsel into her muzzle by the time that Baerle reached the kitchen. She was desperately hungry!
The rain abated somewhat by the time the sun had set. Several torches were lit around the Glen. Some of the brands were enclosed lamps and they cast sharp shadows that rose up through the tree branches. The rest which were open to the air were tentative at first, but after an hour were burning as brightly as their brethren. Charles and Garigan watched the shadows flicker and dance as they rested upon the slick tree branch.
Both of them sat in quiet solitude, broken only by the occasional humming of the song of their clan. When one of them would start, it would only be a few bars before the other would join in, a peaceful calm settling over them as they did so. Wistfully, whenever they would hum, Charles would remember his days in Sondeshara, a time that seemed ages ago. It had only been seven years since he had left that ancient city, the home of his clan. But those years were ones he could not take back, nor would he want to if he could.
Even so, as Charles felt that soothing tune course through his very veins, he wished that Garigan could have trained there as well. How much more would a Sondeckis of his talent learn amongst so many masters? Charles could teach what he knew, and borrow from what many of his instructors said, but he knew that a part of his success in guiding Garigan as far as he had come already in a little less than a year was the ferret himself.
His thoughts however slipped from his mind just as the rain washed off Garigan’s fur whenever they reached the end of the song. Instead his focus returned once again to the land beneath them. Occasionally they would see one of the Glenners themselves running quickly from one door to another to avoid getting wet. Otherwise the road was empty, a thoroughfare full only of mud. And it was upon that despairing sight that Charles held until the sound of another climbing the tree caught his ear.
It was Berchem. The skunk was the captain of Lord Avery’s archers. And he was also the rat’s replacement on guard duty. Berchem liked to stand watch at night, as his monochrome body fur blended so well in with the darkness. In fact, if not for the clicking of his claws along the tree, a sound that wound not have existed if he were worried that there were any about in the woods, Charles could not see him at all. There was a shimmering amongst the shadows, a spectre that slithered up the trunk, but that was all. And then the skunk lifted himself up onto the branch, nodding once to the rat and ferret.
Charles smiled in relief, giving his whiskers a quick shake, a few drops of water flicking free. “Good night, Garigan, Berchem.” He nodded once to both of them, and then slipped past the skunk and made his own descent. They were not too high up in the tree, but it was enough that he would probably break something should he fall. When he’d tried to keep up with Christopher and Darien the very first time he’d been in the Glen, they’d gone much higher in the trees. With it drizzling, he would not even consider something so reckless.
Nevertheless, it did not take him too long to get down though, the sparse grass at the base of the tree quite damp. His toes sunk into the loam, mud burrowing into his claws in a most unpleasant manner. Grimacing, Charles shifted the bow slung over his shoulder and quickly made the trek through the massive trees and into the clearing. He smiled widely as he saw lights burning within his home at the base of one of the larger trees. There would be warmth for him soon enough.
He nearly felt the song of the Sondeckis spill out from his lips when he put his paw to the door. But he held his tongue in check and stepped through, ducking a bit so that the top of his bow would not catch on the transom. Charles could smell warm bread, cooked onions and potatoes, as well as the bite of woodsmoke and three distinct animal musks. The faintest was equine, and though it was only a trace when compared to the mouth watering aroma of the cooked vegetables, he knew it to be that of James, although the donkey had not been within his home in hours.
The other two were both much stronger, so strong that he knew they were in the room before him. The one was his wife Kimberly, and the other Baerle the opossum. It was not unusual for him to smell both of them so strong when he returned from his duties for the Glen. In that moment when he entered the door and all those scents came to him, he felt the pleasure of a warm home, and knew that his day was done. All that would come now would be pleasure.
“Charles!” Kimberly called out from where she sat. She did not stand up, but she did smile widely, lowering the bowl of vegetables she had before her. It looked nearly empty. Beside her was a pile of yarn and small folded clothes. “You look wet!”
Charles pulled the bow over his head and nodded a bit, water dripping off of his fur and clothes onto the wood floor beneath him. Baerle, who had been sitting across from his wife, set aside her own bowl and stood. She regarded him in amusement for a moment, and then came around to remove his hide jacket. Charles’s eyes went wide at that, and he stuttered, “Thank... Thank you, Baerle.”
Kimberly giggled a moment and quickly slurped down another morsel of potato. “We’ve got exciting news, Charles. Once you’ve dried off. Baerle, can you get him a towel?”
The opossum nodded at that, first closing the door. Not waiting for the towel, Charles crossed over to the hearth, and then leaned over the side of Kimberly’s chair and gave her a kiss upon her muzzle. “Oh stop it, you’re wet!” she objected, though she still laughed in delight.
“So what’s the news?” Charles asked as he held out his paws before the crackling fire. It felt so good to warm his cold fingers. His foot paws were still covered in mud, but he wasn’t worried about that just then.
Baerle returned with a towel then, handing it to him with a nod of her head and a slightly discommoded smile. Her eyes trailed down him as if embarrassed, and then she said in a soft voice. “Let me get you a basin for those paws.”
“Thank you, Baerle. That’s very nice of you,” Charles said, smiling. He would have preferred Kimberly to do it, but her pregnancy was too far along to allow her much motion. Baerle left into the kitchen to retrieve some warmed water for him, and he turned once more to his wife. “So what’s the news.”
Kimberly smiled primly and shook her head. “Not until Baerle comes back.” She then held up one of the folded garments and let it drop.”Look what I made today!” she said, her voice trilling with delight. There was a burr there, a chittering of pleasure that could never have bene made with a human throat. And somehow it only excited her husband more to hear that, his eyes growing wide, ears lifting high upon his head.
“Oh that’s wonderful! It’s a little shirt,” Charles wanted to reach out and take hold of the shirt, but his paws were still a little damp. He wanted to take his tunic and trousers off so that he could try to dry his fur, but he certainly could not do so when Baerle was there. Instead he rubbed the towel over his arms and legs, as well as his muzzle. He’d just have to wait a little bit longer before he could be as dry as he would like.
Kimberly smiled broadly then, her whiskers twitching in pride. “I made one for each of them today. I don’t know if they will fit right, but they are going to look so cute in these.”
Charles smiled and let his voice lower in pitch. “I don’t think they’ll need any help being cute. If they are half as cute as you are beautiful, even the most savage ogre would be stricken with love.”
She giggled at that and blushed slightly in her ears. “Oh you!”
Baerle returned from the kitchen then carrying a small brass basin filled with water. There was another small towel draped over her shoulder. She lowered it down onto the brick inlay in front of the hearth and then took a few steps back. “There you are, Charles.”
Charles nodded, lowering himself onto the brick, and sticking his muddied paws into the water. “You know I’m trying to dry myself off,” he admonished facetiously. The water felt good, warm, and it worked the mud out from between his toes and claws. He sat down upon the brick, tail and one paw splayed out behind him, while his other rubbed between his toes to dislodge the rest of the mud.
Both Baerle and Kimberly laughed at that. After depositing the smaller towel on top of his head, Baerle sat back down and continued eating her potatoes and onions. “There is a little bit more on the stove when you are ready to eat.”
“Thank you, Baerle,” Charles said, smiling as he pulled the second towel off his ears. Satisfied that his foot paws were clean at last, he quickly dried them off and then stood back up. “So what’s this big news?”
Kimberly shook her head, swallowing one more bite. “Not until you get dried off. Now go and get changed.” And before he could object, she had already put a chunk of onion between her teeth, turning back to Baerle and giggling. Baerle did as well, a thoroughly feminine sound that made Charles feel quite uncomfortable. They were plotting against him somehow, although he knew that was irrational.
Not wanting to waste any more time while they were giggling conspiratorially, Charles crossed over to the bedroom and closed the door behind him. The fire was not burning as brightly in their bedroom hearth. He set a few more logs upon it, and it crackled gratefully. He then stripped off his wet clothes and hung them just before the flue. He’d brought the towel in with him, and quickly rubbed it firmly along his chest and back fur. It always felt good to massage himself so, especially when he rubbed it back and forth along his tail. He could not help but grind his teeth together in rodent pleasure.
Through the door he could hear his wife and Baerle giggle some more, talking in whispering tones that he was meant to hear but not understand. He laughed to himself then, sighing and shaking his head. Whatever it was they had to tell him was probably some devious scheme they had in mind to get him out of the house just like they had back when Kimberly first became pregnant. Well, as long as they told him this time what they were up to he supposed he could handle it.
He slipped on a dry pair of trousers and tunic and then rejoined them. Baerle was bringing Kimberly out a fresh bowl, as well as a loaf of bread. She greedily took it from her friend’s paws, and quickly bolted down another bit of potato. “Oh, Charles,” Baerle said as she looked up. “I left a bowl out for you. There’s still some bread left too.”
He nodded once to the opossum, and went to grab his own meal. There was only a little bit of potato and onion left, but it would suffice. He spooned it into the bowl, and took it back with him, sitting down in the couch next to his wife’s chair. “Okay,” he said, after eating one bit of onion. “I’m dry, Baerle is here, and I have my food. What is the big news?”
“Well,” Kimberly said, setting her bowl aside for one moment, though she could not help but shove little pieces of bread into her muzzle as she spoke. “You know how we are going to have five children, my dear husband.” Her tone was arched at that, but only mildly so. “As I have only two breasts, I cannot nurse all of our children at once. So I have decided that we will need a wet nurse merely to survive.”
Charles blinked once at this. He had never even thought about how they would feed so many little muzzles. Surely there were other ways aside from having a wet nurse. Perhaps she could take a taur form. She’d have more breasts then. He smiled coyly then, shifting about on the couch. He’d rather like to see his wife in a taur form, if he could ever convince her to try. To keep his smile from becoming too obvious, he shoved some potato in his mouth, nodding for her to continue.
“And I have decided that Baerle will be our wet nurse.”
The potato flew out of his muzzle. “Baerle?” he exclaimed after his choking fit subsided. His eyes stole across to the opossum, and saw her nervous smile to him. “But you haven’t had any children of your own,” Charles managed to add. The thought of the opossum nursing his children sat oddly with him. He did not know how to feel about it.
Kimberly’s eyes were wide with shock, looking down at the potato chunk that her husband had spit out and back up to her husband again. “We already discussed that. Lady Avery or Jo can help there. Now pick that bit of potato up.” To Charles, Kimberly sounded hurt in some way. Abashed, he set his bowl aside and knelt down on the floor, retrieving the offending bit of potato.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Charles said, feeling a bit of shame fill him. “It caught me by surprise was all. Baerle,” he did his best to smile up to the opossum from his vantage point on the floor, “I know you do so much for Kimberly. And I’m sure you’ll do this for her and for us just as well.” He climbed back into his chair and scooped another bit of potato in his mouth, eating it and swallowing this time.
He smiled then to his wife. “It is a good idea, dear. That will definitely take some of the strain off of you. I suppose that means that after the children are born, you’ll be spending quite a bit more time here?” This last he asked of the opossum.
“Actually,” Kimberly said, eyeing her husband, “I thought that Baerle should live with us, at least until they are weaned. You could help her move into one of the upstairs rooms once she’s ready.”
“Yes,” Charles said, glad that he hadn’t put anything into his muzzle. Not only would she be breast-feeding his children, but she’d be living in his home. Perhaps it would be for the best. After all, they were friends still. There was nothing wrong in being close to friends. “That is a good idea too. We have enough space for it. Just let me know when you want to move in, Baerle, and I’ll be glad to help you. You can choose which room you want of course.”
Baerle nodded and smiled warmly to them both. “Thank you, Kimberly, Charles. You both make me feel like a part of your family. I suppose I could move in whenever you’d like me to.”
“Well you should before they’re born,” Kimberly said, smiling brightly once again, paws resting on her bulging belly. “That’ll give you time to settle in and help us get everything organized.”
The opossum laughed. “You still haven’t moved any of it have you?”
Charles chuckled lightly and shook his head after swallowing some onion. “No, it is still quite cluttered in the upper room. James and I were going to sort through it next week when we had a chance, but an extra paw would be lovely.”
“Oh why don’t you go pick out a room right now,” Kimberly suggested. “Easier while we’re thinking about it. Charles, show Baerle the rooms. You can take your dinner with you.”
Charles could not help but blink and nod at his wife. He took the bowl in one paw and rose to his feet. He leaned over and gave his wife a slow kiss upon her cheek though, and he could see her smile in her eyes and whiskers. He felt those whiskers twitch across the fur of his neck, and it brought a slight chitter to his tongue. As he stood back up, his ears brushed across her whiskers. “We shall be back before you can miss us,” he assured her, holding her chin in his paw.
“Well,” Kimberly said, her laugh gentle, “maybe you shouldn’t go after all. Not if you’ll do that again.”
At that Charles laughed openly, and kissed her once more. Stepping around his wife’s chair, Charles gestured to the stairwell, and Baerle glided up them, long white tail swinging from side to side with each step. Smiling once more to Kimberly, the rat followed up after the opossum, carrying his bowl of potato and onions in one paw. There wasn’t much left to the meal, only two bits of onion and three of potato. He ate one of the potato as he reached the top of the landing.
Baerle stood inspecting the room cluttered with the various baby things. Her eyes scanned the cribs against one wall, the toys laying upon the bear rug, and the dressers yet to be assembled. The fire continued to crackle in the upstairs hearth, but she still added another log to it to help keep the home warm. “This will be a very nice room once you have it organized. Kimberly says that you decided to let the children sleep out here while they are young.”
“Yes,” Charles nodded, swallowing the potato. “There are three rooms off of this one, but we’ll let them move into those once they get older. The middle one is the largest.”
Baerle looked to the three doorways set to her left. They were all fairly close together, but the middle room did appear to be nearly half again as large as the other two. She stood in the doorway for a moment, and then peered out past the rat towards the set of windows that overlooked the Glen in the opposite wall. They were small round portals in which set a pane of glass. During the summer, the glass would be turned on its side so that one could see through it clearly and to let a little breeze into the room. Small brands burned on either side of the windows.
“This is larger than my home,” Baerle said softly. Charles looked up sharply then, and took a few steps towards her, careful not to stub his toe on a rocking horse.
“I’ve never seen your home,” he said. “I hope it does not bother you.”
Baerle shook her head, looking away from him for a moment. “It will be lovely to live with you and your wife. I hope you don’t mind.”
He shook his head. “It caught me by surprise. But I think Kimberly is right. You’ll be a great help to us both. And you are a dear friend to us both, Baerle. We’ve been through a lot together after all.”
“Please,” Baerle said, her voice lowering. She smiled, though it seemed almost forced for a moment. “I will take this room. I don’t have much of my own. But what I do have I can bring most of myself.”
“Nonsense.” Charles shook his head, and reached out with his free paw and rested it on her shoulder. It was awkward, considering that she was taller than him, but he did so nevertheless. “I will be glad to help you move everything whenever you are ready to move.”
Her smile was stronger then. “Thank you. I’ll do my best.”
He squeezed her shoulder a bit and smiled. Some of her fur spilled from her collar over his fingers. “I know you will. Now come, let’s rejoin Kimberly. We’ve plans to make.” He let go of her after a moment and stepped back out of the way. His body trembled, though he could not quite tell why, as she passed, her tail very nearly brushing against his legs.
Putting a piece of onion between his teeth, Charles chewed it quietly as they went back downstairs.