Rites

by Charles Matthias

Kimberly was returning from the Blaylock’s store when Baerle found her. With a basket tucked under one arm, Kimberly was making her way through the snow-locked paths amidst the trees that was glen Avery. Baerle had her bow slung over one shoulder, the tips of her fur tingling in excitement. She’d slipped on her nicest green jerkin only a short while ago, the one with the two small emerald gemstones set on either side of the choker. And every few moments she found herself studying the lay of the fur on her arms, worrying over even the slightest strand out of place.

The lady rat smiled as she saw the opossum’s approach. “Good morning, Baerle,” Kimberly said, her whiskers flicking slightly, dark eyes bright against the tan fur upon her face. “Oh my, that’s a lovely shirt. Where did you get it?”

Baerle felt herself blush at the compliment, standing only a few paces from Charles’s wife. “Mycransburg. A gift from the ard’Kapler family to my father many years ago. It was meant for my mother, but she passed away when I was very little. So my father gave it to me instead for when I was older. I’ve only worn it a few times.”

Kimberly reached her free paw up to the collar, while Baerle leaned down a bit, the fabric pressing firmly against her breasts. “Are these real emeralds?” Kimberly asked as she touched them, her claw tapping at the small stones.

“Yes,” she nodded, smiling, delight filling her at her friend’s admiration. “Aren’t they pretty?”

“Very pretty,” Kimberly said, smiling widely, stepping back. “I think they go very well with your fur. I have a tan skirt that would go beautifully with it, but I don’t think it would fit you right.”

Smiling, Baerle shook her head. “I’ve never worn a skirt before.”

Kimberly’s eyes grew wide at that. “You haven’t? Oh but you would look so pretty in a skirt. We must ask Walter to fashion one for you.”

Feeling her ears blush, Baerle gripped the haft of her bow tighter with one paw. “That sounds nice, but I could never pay for it.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can work something out. If not, I can pay for it.” Kimberly pressed her paw to her belly once, but only for a moment. “Charles would not mind me doing that for a friend like you.”

Baerle kept her smile, though her body stiffened ever so slightly at the mention of the rat’s name. The rat who she so yearned to see again. Many nights she had lain alone in bed, her mind turning as a windmill back to Charles. At times, they were simply memories of the moments they’d had together, from the kiss upon the hilltop, to those hours at his bedside, talking and sharing their feelings. At other times, images of things that had never occurred outside her mind would come, images of Charles slowly undressing her, rubbing his paws across her flesh, her paws upon his own.

But of course, she never spoke of this to Kimberly, for fear of what it would do to her. For the last two weeks, they had shared a few hours together. Usually they would sit by the fire in Kimberly’s home, sipping at tea, nibbling at eggs, and speaking of anything that struck their fancy. Often it was Charles, but they also spoke of their homelands and their families. Kimberly told her little of Brathas where she had grown up, but enough to know that her life had not truly began until she had arrived at Metamor.

Kimberly had once asked Baerle if there were any men in her life, and Baerle had to tell her that there was nobody then. She was treated well, but none ever pursued her. She’d changed the subject back to Charles by asking Kimberly to tell her more about their courtship. That was always strangely easy to listen to. Was it because she was imagining herself in Kimberly’s place? Baerle did not want to hear the answer to that question.

“So why are you wearing it today?” Kimberly asked, pointing to her shirt. She then rested her paw back on the handle of the basket.

Baerle smiled and leaned down a little bit, “I was on scout duty only a short while ago, and just had to get back here once I heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Charles is coming home today!” Baerle crowed, feeling her heart pound firmly in her chest. She had not spoken to the rat since the day she’d rode with him back to Metamor. She had seen him from afar after he’d come to live at the Glen, but had not yet had the courage to come any closer. What would he say to her? What would she say to him? She had no idea. But today, she would have to. A bit of a twist came upon her smile as she tried to imagine the rat’s reaction when he saw her standing next to his wife.

Kimberly blinked once, and then her whole face lit up, ears lifted slightly, whiskers stood on end. She clasped her paws together, and gave out a delighted squeak without realizing it. “Oh my! When will he be here? Do you know? I have to change and get cleaned up!”

“Would you like some help picking out a dress?” Baerle offered.

Kimberly nodded, her whole complexion changed from delight to worry in the space of a heartbeat. She did not walk stately back to her home, but gripped the hem of her trousers and held them high, basket bouncing back and forth along her side as she skipped along the path. Baerle easily matched her pace, and within a minute’s time they were at the entrance to the Matthias home.

Kimberly slipped inside, leaving the door open, her paws at her face, the basket hanging from one arm forgotten. Baerle closed the door behind her, slipping the bow from over her shoulder and leaning it against the doorjamb. Her friend had already disappeared within her bedroom, the door there hanging open.

The wood beneath her feet was warm, though no fire burned in the hearth. Baerle crossed over to the open doorway and discovered on the other side a thick woolen tapestry hung from the other side. It was lain across the top of the door, keeping it open. Looking down along the room she saw a lovely bed, covered in thick blankets and quilts. A small hearth was at one end, though it too was unlit. Two small windows were covered in frost, permitting only diffuse light. Several lamps lined the walls, each giving off a dim glow. The basket that had been hanging from Kimberly’s arm only a moment ago was now laying lopsided on one end of the bed.

Baerle righted the basket, hearing the contents shift about inside. Turning her head the other direction she saw Kimberly standing inside a large closet, carrying a lamp in one paw, rifling through fabric with the other. “Oh I just don’t know what I should wear,” she said to herself, her voice strained.

Lifting another lantern from its sconce, Baerle stepped into the closet, admiring the array of fine dresses, skirts, and blouses upon one side. The other was filled with several tunics, doublets, and assorted hosiery. Most of the clothes appeared to be rather common, but a few were of a quality she had not often glimpsed. Baerle felt her paws reach up o her own shirt, pressing against the choker, suddenly feeling very plain.

Kimberly smiled as the extra light came into the closet, “Thank you, Baerle.” She studied some of the finer dresses then, rubbing her paw along smooth sateen sleeves ending in cuffs lined with small pieces of jade. “What do you think?”

Baerle stared at it, trying to keep her muzzle shut. She reached out her paw and ran her fingers along the smooth fabric. Her rough callouses dragged along the tender weave. If only she could ever wear something as lovely as this, she thought. “It’s... it’s... gorgeous. Where ever did you get it?” She wanted to ask where she had found quite a bit of her wardrobe, but did not want to appear too jealous.

Kimberly hung her lamp from a small hook by the open doorway. She then took the sleeve and drew it across her chest, admiring it. “Charles bought it for me last summer.”

The answer did not surprise the opossum in the least of course. She knew that Charles had a good bit of coin, not as much as Lord Avery himself did, but more than she was likely ever to see. Baerle scanned along some of the other dresses, and a bright blue one caught her eye. “How about this one?” she asked, barely gracing her fingers along the shoulder. Bright ruffles lined the cuffs, while bits of lapis lazuli were imbedded into the neckline. It came down in a tight V to the bodice, but the cloth was thicker than the sateen that Kimberly was appraising. “You usually wear green. Why not this bright blue? I know you’d catch his eye in this.”

Kimberly blinked once, whiskers twitching a bit. She let the green dress slip back into place and pulled the blue out to examine. “I’d be afraid I’d catch cold with this one,” she said at last, pointing to the collar. As if to emphasize her point, she placed her paw to her belly once more, a brief look of discomfort crossing her muzzle. “But it is lovely.”

“Oh come now,” Baerle said, smiling widely. “I can just see you dressed in this, standing just outside your home, bright as the sky. If you have a bright necklace, you could wear it to accent the lapis. And you wouldn’t be outside for very long.” Her head tilted to one side then as her paws pressed down upon some of the lapis. “I would love to see how this looks on you too.”

Finally, Kimberly began to smile as she held the dress before her, the sleeves over her arms. “I do have a necklace that would go lovely with this. Oh, but I’d need something for my head too. And my tail. And I still have to clean my fur.”

“Do you have any blue ribbon? I could make some lovely bows and frills with them to tie behind your ears,” Baerle offered.

Kimberly’s smile broadened as she thought of that. “Yes, they are in the small chest next to the dresser. Oh, I hope my claws are clean.” She folded the dress over her arms and carried it out to the bed, leaving the lantern hanging in the closet.

Baerle went to the small chest while Kimberly fussed over her things. It was made from fine cherry, and had a sweet smell to it. Lifting the small silver latch, she raised the lid back. The wood inside was a deep red. Small shelves were stacked on either side, filled with assorted odds and ends. Lifting the first two trays out, she found the ribbon, three small rolls, one of pink, green, and blue each. Taking the blue, she put the trays back and closed the trunk.

“I’ll prepare this and take care of your basket for you,” Baerle said, even as Kimberly traipsed back and forth from her bed to the closet, paws pressed worriedly to her face.

The rat blinked and rushed back out of the closet, dark eyes wide. “Oh, thank you, Baerle! Would you start a fire for us as well?”

“I would be delighted to do that for you both,” she said, smiling. She then stepped out of the room, relieved to find her friend smiling appreciatively at that. She pushed the tapestry free from the door and pulled it closed behind her. Carrying both the roll of ribbon and the basket, she strode to the kitchen. The ribbon she set on the counter to one side for the moment. Inside the basket she found several eggs as well as a few berries, none of which were currently in season at the Glen. Giving one a gentle squeeze, Baerle found them to be ripe enough. Those must have cost a pretty penny at Blaylock’s. She’d never purchased berries out of season before.

She resisted the temptation to plop one in her muzzle, and closed the basket once more. With the ribbon in one paw, she returned to the entrance room, and stared at the hearth. There were a few logs already set within it, but otherwise it was as cold as stone. After setting the ribbon in one of the chairs facing the hearth, Baerle opened the sluice and placed several smaller sticks beneath the logs. She took a long match from the mantle and lit it with a lantern’s flame. Kneeling down upon the stones, she held the match to the kindling, breathing slow. It took a few minutes, but a flame finally did catch. A few minutes more, and she’d coaxed the flames into a pleasant blaze.

Sitting back, Baerle smiled and held her paws out, feeling the warmth from the hearth fill her. She put the sluice back in place, and then turned to see to the ribbon. It was then that she noticed the soot smudges on the knees of her breeches. Her heart froze inside her chest, breath held tight, as she reached her paws down to brush them off. Instead, they only smeared further, twin blemishes upon her appearance. A heavy sigh escaped her throat, and she sunk into the chair, feeling tears threaten to break forth.

Bearle schooled herself not to cry, paws griping the arms of the chair tightly. They were just smudges, not the end of the world. She sniffled, feeling her breathing come heavy. If she did not do something, she knew she would cry anyway. Lifting one paw to her face, she could feel the edges of her eyes moisten. Cringing at that, she shut them and shook her head. Charles was not hers, so she shouldn’t feel this way. She did not have to impress him.

But she still wanted to. Baerle sighed heavily, and took the roll of ribbon in her paws. This she could do. She took her knife from her side and set it on one arm of the chair. Unrolling a length just a bit longer than her arm, she sliced it clean, and set the roll aside. Being a scout, Baerle was familiar with all sorts of knots, so found it easy to create a ribbon with a single loop that could fit over Kimberly’s ear, with several other longer loops that would dangle. Taking the knife, she ran the sharp edge along the two ends of the ribbon, forcing them to curl.

Baerle did the same for another length of the blue ribbon, finding the material easy to work with. It only took her a few minutes before she had both finished. Taking a shorter length, she fashioned a smaller ribbon that would fit over Kimberly’s tail. She smiled slightly as she admired the bouncy loops. These were very pretty.

She found her eyes straying once more to the soot smudges upon her knees, when the door to Kimberly’s bedroom swung open. “What do you think, Baerle?”

Baerle stood up, and watched as Kimberly sashayed around the room in the brilliant blue dress. The lapis caught the firelit, nearly twinkling in their glossy finish. About her neck was a simple silver chain with a small sapphire resting just above the line of her bodice. It was a brilliant blue that would be sure to draw any man’s eye. Her fur was freshly combed, that Baerle could see. The hem of the dress was ruffled, layered with both white and blue cloth.

Kimberly gripped the hem of her dress with both paws and gave a little twirl. “Do you think he’ll like it?”

“I think he’ll be thrilled when he sees you. He better be once I put these ribbons on you!” Baerle said, her smile stating to come more fully to her face as she watched her friend.

“Oh, those are very lovely,” Kimberly cooed when she saw the ribbons Baerle had made. Her eyes then strayed a little lower and her face was filled with horror. “What happened to your breeches? You can’t be there when he arrives in that!”

Baerle looked down and felt the smile flee from her face as fast as an arrow loosed from her bow. “I was kneeling down to start the fire. I got a little soot on my breeches. It’s all right. He’s coming to see you anyway.”

“It is not all right,” Kimberly declared, her paws brushing her own skirt out. “Come back with me, we’ll see if we cannot find you something lovely to wear with that jerkin.”

“But none of your clothes would fit me,” Baerle objected.

“Nonsense, they’ll just be a little short, that’s all,” Kimberly was already striding purposefully back to her closet. The opossum followed after her, still carrying the ribbons in her paws. She found her friend already surveying several different skirts.

Baerle set the ribbons down on one corner of the bed and joined Kimberly. The rat had just selected a long tan skirt with a green sash that wound about the middle. “Here, try this one on. I think it would go lovely with your jerkin.”

Taking the dress gingerly in her paws, Baerle set it out on the bed, and sheepishly shimmied out of her smudged breeches. Kimberly watched her, smiling as the opossum pulled the dress up over her middle, slipping it over her hips. The waist appeared a little tight, making her hips stand out more. The hem only came down just past her knees, so a good bit of her lower legs were visible.

Baerle tied the sash on around her middle, and stood there, feeling a little silly for trying on Kimberly’s clothes. But the rat did not seem to notice. She walked up and gave the waist a little tug, moving fabric here and there. “Well,” Kimberly said, as she pressed her paws down, smoothing out the cloth, “I think it looks very nice.”

“But you can see my legs.”

“Well, we just have to make sure nobody notices them. I can add some peridot or citrine to your jerkin and sash. Give me a moment and I’ll get some thread.” Kimberly rushed back into her closet then, even as Baerle stood there, staring down to her foot paws, past the hem of the dress. It did look rather nice. She set her paws upon it, and felt the smooth, but warm fabric. Baerle could not help but smile, as it made her feel strangely elegant.

Kimberly returned with a few loose stones. “Now the peridot would blend well with your jerkin, but the citrine would add a dash more of colour to it. How about we put some citrine along the neck to go with your emeralds, and the peridot we hang from the sash so that it dangles? How does that sound?”

Baerle tried to picture herself like that, and found that she rather liked the result. She hoped it would draw attention away from her legs. If ll else failed, she could always stand behind something, she supposed. But the opossum could not help but grin and nod to her friend. After all, she was going to be wearing more gems than she’d ever had before in her life this day.

With a wide grin herself, Kimberly proceeded to lace the stones into the shirt, trying as hard as she could not to make the thread visible. Baerle stood still, wondering again just what Charles would do when he saw the two of them.


It was pleasant to be walking again beneath the boughs of the mighty trees of the Glen. Charles had always found them astonishing ever since he had first seen the small hamlet set amidst titans last Spring. Even though Winter was nearing its end, snow still gripped the trunks of the trees, perched upon branches high overhead, occasionally stirred free by the wind or a creature living amongst them. The road south to the Glen was also covered by snow, the only sign of passage their own.

As Glen Avery was the northernmost town under the curse of Metamor, as well as the under the control of Duke Hassan, the roads North were little travelled. There was hope that such would change, hope that Starven and Politzen might resume trading with them once more. But that was not for a warrior such as he to decide. But there was no doubt that Nasoj would no longer control those towns. The assault had cost the wizard far more than he could have ever realized.

Charles was not worried about that though. As he walked amongst the company of his fellow Long Scouts, triumphant in their return, he could only think about what he would do when he saw his wife Kimberly again. It had been three weeks since they had parted. He could well remember that day, remember her voice, strained, as she begged him not to go. And he could also remember the state of panic Misha had been in. He did not understand why Kimberly could not see that he’d had to go.

It had not been easy being separated from his wife for so long. Their wedding felt as if it had occurred a year ago, and not just a month ago. Charles resolved to be sure he spent at least the next month in Glen Avery before he allowed himself to be cajoled into joining another mission of Misha’s. While he was terribly fond of the fox, he’d been the best man at their wedding after all, he now wanted only the company of his beloved.

Misha was walking next to Caroline the otter. Charles wondered how long it would be before those two were wed. It was only a matter of time of course. He’d have to make Misha promise not to hold the wedding until after Charles was allowed back at Metamor. It was an event he certainly did not want to miss.

Though the fox was still missing an ear and a finger on one paw, he gripped his black axe Whisper tightly and proudly. On the fox’s previous venture up North, the axe had been lost and taken by Nasoj’s troops. It was for its recapture that they had gone deep into the Giantdowns. They had expected a terrible battle, but in the end, it had been returned to them by a poor creature also transformed by Nasoj’s magic.

Charles glanced over his shoulder once at the others with them. Finbar stood just behind Misha, eyes darting this way and that. Danielle was at the ferret’s side, holding his paw in her own. Delacot trundled along just behind them, still a little uncertain in his new form, some cross between a bear and a dog as far as the rat could tell.

That strange stilt fox-woman they had encountered was walking in the centre of their group, her face lost, eyes blank of all but nervous trepidation. Misha had called her kind a Tchau Ayakhu, but the words were as meaningless to the rat as they were to the fox. Charles wished he knew what was lurking in her heart, but in all the time he’d seen her, never once did any breath of intelligence come forth.

Rickkter stood on the other side of her, his face dour and deliberately unreadable. Charles and he had wordlessly agreed not to interfere with each other, once more doing this for a mutual friend. They had kept as wordless as possible as well throughout the venture, and both of them were content to leave it at that.

The raccoon had not yet noticed the rat’s scrutiny, and so Charles let his eyes wander elsewhere. And of course, the largest member of their party was the dragon Pharcellus. His scales were mostly gray, darker on top, lighter on bottom, but around his eyes and tail, crimson ridges added the faintest of colours to his appearance. They had flown back from the north, but being unable to navigate through the massive trees of the Glen, they’d had to land a good distance back up the road and walk the remainder of the way.

Which was all well and good as far as Charles was concerned. It was enjoyable to walk in a land he could call home. Here he could walk freely without fear that he would be ostracized because of his appearance. They’d been forced to stay to the shadows up in the North because of that.

It was shortly after noon when they finally neared the Glen itself. Charles was just about to ask Misha when he thought they’d be greeted when a ball of white dropped down from the trees above, and righted itself, feet planting firmly in the snow. “Charles!” the figure cried out, and the rat recognized him as his student.

“Garigan!” Charles said, letting out a delightful churr. “It is good to see you again!”

The other Long Scouts greeted the ferret as well, smiles on just about every muzzle. Rickkter was perfunctory, but not impolite. “And to see you all coming home in just one piece this time!” Garigan smiled, and then gazed back up at the tree. Several branches hung low across the road. Pharcellus appeared quite unhappy about it, as he could not stretch his wings at all.

“Come on down, Marcus. Get your tail down here too!” The ferret yelled up. He then brushed a bit of dust from his jerkin, revealing a green cloth. Charles could not help but smile proudly as he saw it. His student had remembered his colour.

The exuberant young pine marten let out a low whine of disappointment and scrambled down from his perch as well. He settled in the snow, and gave a pirouette. “Tada!”

Misha smiled and applauded softly. “Very good. We almost didn’t see you this time.”

Marcus scowled again at that and kicked some of the snow with his foot paws. “Oh foo! You wouldn’t have seen me if Garigan hadn’t jumped down I bet!”

Finbar laughed a bit, even as Garigan shook his head, rolling his eyes out of view of the marten. “No, we certainly would not have,” Finbar said, his voice level. There was a distance there, but it was tempered with good humour.

“Well,” Garigan said, “I told Marcus here to go pass the word on back to the others that you were all on your way.”

“And I did it really fast too,” Marcus said, smiling, holding his paws to his vest proudly. “Got back in time to greet you too!”

“Yes,” Garigan muttered good-naturedly. “I just cannot seem to get rid of you.”

“That’s right,” Marcus said, stamping on foot for emphasis.

“Well,” Misha said, interjecting between the two mustelid scouts. “Let us keep moving. Lars had better have his finest ale ready for us when we arrive.”

Caroline flicked one claw against the back of his good ear. The fox winced and smiled to her, moving Whisper from one paw to the other. “I think we are entitled to a good drink. What say you, Finbar?”

Finbar nodded, “Absolutely.” Danielle gave a tug on his arm then, and he blinked, “Well, maybe only one.”

“Edmund?”

Sir Delacot nodded then, his tongue attempting to hang from his muzzle. “Indeed. A broth of brew would be most pleasant.”

“Rickkter?”

The raccoon smiled slightly and nodded. “Nothing like a battle to get you thirsty.”

“Matthias?”

Charles grinned at the sound of his name. “Oh, I certainly think we deserve some. I think I’ll let you all go on in first though, let me know if it’s worth the price Lars will ask you for.”

“You better not rush off to get a drink without first spending some time with your wife,” Caroline admonished, her face narrowing.

Charles barked a laugh, lifting his chewstick from his belt. “Believe me, I’d never think about doing that. Not for long anyway.”

The males all laughed at that, even Rickkter snickering slightly at the rat’s joke. The opposite sex was not nearly as impressed with his bit of levity, but they smiled nevertheless.

“Well, let’s keep moving,” Garigan said, grabbing Marcus by the collar of his shirt and dragging him forward. “I’m sure Lord Avery will want to know how things went.”

Misha nodded, resuming his step. “It will be good to see Brian again. How are things here at the Glen?”

Marcus scrunched his face up to pout at being dragged along, but quickly found his own footing. Garigan let him go then and shrugged ever so slightly. His eyes were on either side of the road as much as they were upon the road. “Oh, much the same as always. At least he and Lord Barnhardt have finally come to an agreement on the hunting south of the Glen.”

“I guess working together to thwart the attack helped then?” Charles asked, nibbling upon the stick. The slight ache that was always there in his teeth abated as he chewed.

“Yes,” Garigan nodded, smiling, his whiskers twitching slightly. “Otherwise it is the same as always. We’ve started preparing for the Equinox Festival, but there is not much that needs to be done.”

“What are you doing for it?” Misha asked, wrapping his free arm about Caroline’s shoulders. She in turn placed one arm around his back.

“Oh, it will be a day of more food than you can eat, more dancing than you should do after eating, and some good music. Nothing quite as elaborate as I’m sure will be put on at Metamor.”

Charles glanced from his student to the other Long Scouts. “Would you all like to come and celebrate the Equinox with us up here? I’m sure there is also more libations than you should drink.” At this he winked, receiving friendly scowls from both Caroline and Danielle.

“We’d love to come,” Misha crowed, his grey eyes filled with delightful anticipation, “Wouldn’t we?”

“Of course,” Finbar and Delacot agreed.

“I would as well,” Rickkter said, his voice quiet, but firm.

“Well, you are all welcome,” Garigan said, nodding to each in turn, even to the Kankoran.

Marcus danced about a little bit ahead of them. “Oh, you’ll love it! Lars is going to make some of his special brew. He mixes all these wines together to...”

The ferret jumped forward at him, making the marten give a shriek. “No telling! It’s supposed to be a surprise!”

The marten pouted once more. “Oh foo! You are no fun at all!”

Garigan nodded. “You better believe it!”

Charles finished nibbling on his chewstick, and set it back into his belt. The road was turning west now. It would only be a few minutes more before they reached the Glen. The trees were taller now, and the branches higher up, giving even the dragon more room to breathe. Charles watched Garigan and the pine marten for a few moments thoughtfully. He really did not know Marcus that well. He was only newly transformed, and nearly had as much energy as the two Avery boys did. They would have to become more acquainted, Charles decided. He seemed like a very nice young fellow.

A sudden greeting from overhead brought their heads up. Several Glenners were perched high up in branches, looking down at them and waving. Each of them had a long bow slung over one shoulder, and their fur and clothing was dusted white. The Long Scouts all waved back, feeling the journey coming to an end. Charles did not feel the strain on his legs though. He was shorter than the others, and so had to move a bit faster to keep up, but over the course of the years, had learned how to move without wearing himself down.

The space between the trees opened up as they entered the Glen proper. A rumbling, satisfied groan came from behind them. Charles saw it was the dragon stretching his wings ever so slightly as they entered into the clearing. His eyes did not stay upon the great beast for long, but were quickly scouring the area to see who was there to greet them. Lord and Lady Avery were descending from their home by the rope, while their kids scrambled on down the side of their tree. Angus and several of his scouts were practising their sword technique off to one side. They stopped and waved as the Long’s passed.

But it was not until they were halfway into the Glen that Charles finally saw her. Standing just before the roots that wound to the entrance to their new home stood a bright blue gem. He saw the elegant dress she wore without truly seeing it, his eyes finding only her face, and then only her eyes. “Kimberly!” he shouted at last, breaking into a run to meet her as she stood with paws clasped before her, resting upon her dress.

And it was only a moment later that Charles saw the other figure standing just behind her. A sweet complexion dressed in a green blouse and brown skirt that seemed very familiar. He’d given that to Kimberly he knew. His eyes found her face, as she was standing a bit taller than his wife. Long face, pink nose, white fur with a few smudges of black along the muzzle. Soft, yet impetuous eyes met his own. It was Baerle.

And then Charles felt the world spin on him, tilt strangely, and he collapsed into the layering of snow covering the ground. He snuffled and pushed himself up, shaking his head, eyes still wide from shock. He glanced about, trying to get his bearings. Straight ahead he saw both Kimberly and Baerle rushing up to him. And he saw quite a bit of Baerle’s legs. He felt a blush creeping up his ears, and hoped nobody else saw it.

“Oh, Charles, are you all right?” Kimberly asked, reaching him first.

Charles was still trying to understand why Baerle was there, standing next to his wife, and wearing one of is wife’s skirts. But he managed to nod and smile to Kimberly. “I am now that you’re here.”

Kimberly knelt a bit before him, the edge of her gown brushing against the snow. He batted one of her paws over his ears, and stood up again. “I am too. Did you get hurt?”

He got to his paws, and kept his eyes locked upon Kimberly. Baerle was standing just to the side watching them both, her face quiet but inquisitive. Charles wrapped his arms around his wife then, and held her close to his chest. He could feel the chill of the metal necklace upon his own neck. “No, I am not hurt. I am a little cold though.”

“Oh, we have a fire burning, so you can sit down and warm yourself up,” Kimberly said, her face all bright smiles. “Baerle started it when we heard you were coming. She also helped me dress. What do you think?” Kimberly held out her skirt with both paws and did a little turn.

Charles finally noticed it, taking a moment to glance up and down. The bright blue dress was meant to be worn in the warmer months, but he enjoyed seeing her in it still. The ribbons behind her sears and over he tail were a lovely touch as well. “I think it’s wonderful.” He let his eyes slip over to Baerle, so many things he wished he could say to her. Was she still hurt? Would she ever forgive him? “You did a lovely job, Baerle.” The words were a bit halting, but sure.

The opossum smiled a bit, her eyes buckling, as if she were holding back a river with them. “Thank you, Charles. I’m glad to see you are home safe.”

Charles nodded his head, “Thank you.”

“Baerle has been keeping me company these last two weeks. She told me all about what you did for the Glen during the assault,” Kimberly said, her eyes focussed upon him only.

“Oh, well that’s good.” And just what had the opossum told her? Had she mentioned the kiss? Charles shivered at the thought of trying to explain that one to her. Baerle only smiled and nodded her head though, stepping back ever so slightly. He looked back to his wife. “Shall we go inside?”

Kimberly smiled and nodded, gripping his arms with her own. “Yes, I have so much to tell you.”

Baerle took another step back. “I’ll see you both again another time. I will leave you to each other.”

But his wife then stepped over to the opossum and gripped her in a firm hug. Baerle was quite surprised by the reaction, but hugged her back just the same. “Thank you, Baerle! Thank you so much! Would you keep coming to tea with me in the afternoon? I’m sure Charles wouldn’t mind.”

Both Charles and Baerle stared at each other for a moment. The rat found himself blushing again, wondering what could possibly have gone on between the opossum and his wife while he’d been gone. “I would love to, thank you so much, Kimberly!” Baerle said. “I should let you two be now.”

Kimberly let her go, and stood by Charles again, wrapping her arm around his. Charles pulled her tight after a moment, his heart tight in his chest. He could feel the sting from Baerle’s slap fresh upon his cheek again. Baerle took several steps back, betraying none of the hurt anger she’d felt in that moment. Charles still gave her an apologetic moue, hoping that she would understand.

Charles felt a paw clasp him on the back then. He spun about on his paws, and was face to face with Misha, who was laughing a bit. “You’d best watch your step there, Matt!”

He felt his ears blush again. “Thank you.”

Misha then bent low, taking Kimberly’s paw in one hand, nuzzling it gently with his muzzle. “Greetings, milady,” he said, genuflecting.

Kimberly giggled spritely at that. “Greetings Misha!”

Caroline was standing just a short distance behind him smiling. Misha’s grin was more mischievous though. “Never fear, for I have brought your husband home safe and sound. I do hope you will allow him to come join us at Lars this evening for the drinks he promised us!”

Kimberly’s eyes turned on her husband. Charles narrowed his gaze at the fox, but could not keep back the small grin that was forming at the edges of his muzzle. “I’ll think about it,” she finally said.

The fox stepped back, still genuflecting ridiculously. “That is all that I ask, milady!” He then stood up, and gave Charles a gentle kick in the tail. “Now hurry up. Go seduce your wife already!”

Charles felt his face flush crimson at that. She was giggling of course at that, her paw finding his own once more. “Very well, I will!” he said faux indignantly, before wrapping his arm more fully about her back, and walking down the path between the roots to their door. “Right after I have something to eat,” he whispered into her ear, before giving the soft flesh a quick, gentle nibbling.

“Oh!” Kimberly exclaimed in a soft low voice. “I have missed you.”

Nuzzling along the side of her face, his whiskers brushing over her fur, Charles could not help but nod. “I’ve missed you too.” He then pulled the door open, feeling the warmth of their home greet him once more.

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