by Charles Matthias

The news of Kimberly’s pregnancy would spread like wildfire. After Burris made his diagnosis, he suggested they speak to Lady Avery, who was more experienced in the matter of childbirth than he. The woodpecker then left, leaving the two rats alone in their bedchambers. Charles and Kimberly had stared at each other for several long minutes, neither able to say anything, their minds still growing accustomed to the idea.

After a while they embraced, professing their love anew, and sat upon the bed in each other’s arms. For a long time they remained like this, hearts trembling, tears dribbling down Kimberly’s cheeks as well as her husband’s. Paws at each other’s backs, minds floating strangely, as if lifted up by invisible lace. Charles felt his Sondeck pulse inside of him, as if it were a separate conscious, rejoicing in this moment too.

Those moments together ended when the first of many knocks came to their door. They both got up to answer it, and found Garigan standing dumbstruck beneath the lintel. The ferret blinked several times, a radiant smile creasing his muzzle as his eyes passed back and forth from one rat to the other. “I just heard,” he said, finally finding his voice. “Congratulations, Charles! Kimberly! This is wonderful news. I’m so happy for you both.” He then flung his arms about both rats, first his master, and then his master’s wife, hugging firmly with uncontrolled delight.

The two rats smiled in return, hugging back, their own arms still weak from the shock. Charles finally found his own voice, once lost like a weather-worn weary traveller who had stumbled from amongst jagged rocks and chocking forest to find a jewelled city shining brighter than the sun whose towers challenged that heavenly orb. “Thank you, Garigan. How did you find out?”

“I heard it from Darien and Christopher. They were on their way to tell their parents. They said that Burris just examined you,” he nodded to Kimberly, his smile coming and fleeing with the giddiness he felt. He appeared eager to hug them both again. “He told them that you were pregnant.”

Garigan’s smile extend up one side of his cheek. “Am I the first?”

Charles nodded, staring past him to see Lord Avery walking proudly down their walk, his two children in tow. Christopher and Darien were several inches taller than when Charles had first seen them almost a year ago, but they were still full of an energy only a child could possess.

“Not by much though,” Lord Avery called out, grinning broadly as he came to stand beside the ferret. He was dressed in a pearl gray doublet and hose, his fur standing against it as a dark contrast, though equally colourless. Like a cloud-choked sky that held promise of the sun behind its lofty veil.

Garigan stepped back out of the way, as Lord Avery gave Charles’ paw a firm shake. He then pulled the still stunned rat in closer and hugged him firmly about the shoulders. “Congratulations to you both! Angela took some shirts to the Levin’s to be mended, but I’ve sent somebody to tell her.” He then smiled warmly and knowingly down to Kimberly, and leaned forward to kiss her upraised paw. “I am delighted to hear of your joy, my lady.”

Kimberly’s legs wobbled beneath her as if she would faint, and Charles quickly set one of his paws at her elbow to keep her standing. She smiled tenderly, whole body trembling still with the excitement. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, ears flush with embarrassment at the honour Brian Avery had bestowed upon her.

His mind unable to land anywhere firmly, Charles could only nod again. He was going to be a father. A father! He’d been a husband for only a month now, and already he was going to be a father! Just thinking about it made his knees wobbly as his wife’s had been only a moment before. He put his other paw to the door jamb to keep up right.

“Having a bit of trouble with your balance?” Garigan asked, his smile wicked, a laugh barely hidden behind his words.

Charles narrowed his eyes at his student, but could do aught but smile a drunkard’s grin in return.

“We heard it right from Burris!” Christopher piped up then, as the two young grey squirrel’s poked their heads around their father’s middle.

His twin brother nodded, slipping on past inside the doorway. “Burris told us first!” Darien chimed in. “Our Dad says that your baby might be a rat too!”

Both Charles and Kimberly blinked at this. Kimberly leaned down a bit to be eye to eye with Darien. She did not have to bend far though. At the moment, she did not look very pregnant, at least not to her husband. But this was not the sort of thing he had much experience with. But he was going to be a father nevertheless!

“Is that so?” Kimberly asked, her voice full of wonder. Her eyes were still shining with a light that Charles had not seen in them since their first night together.

Both of the squirrels nodded. “Yup,” Christopher said, jumping as he did so. His long tail kept flitting back and forth, brushing all over Garigan who was standing just a bit too close. “Dad says that your baby might be just like us! I hope so!”

Lord Avery nodded then, rubbing one paw across his doublet. A secret smile played at the edges of his muzzle “Well, you both are rats, so it is possible.”

Charles had often wondered whether this would be the case. Strangely enough, he realized then that he wanted his wife to give birth to a rat. He pressed his paw against Kimberly back, and pulled her closer. She went easily, smiling over to him. In those eyes was the same question he was asking himself. How would they know?

“Is there any way that we can find out what the child will be?” he asked.

“Yes,” the squirrel said, grabbing the shirt collars of his two sons, and preventing them from scampering around the rat’s home. The youngsters appeared disappointed at that, but did not try to get away from their father. “My wife will be able to help with that. We can talk about that more later, there is much still to be done first though. First, everyone in the Glen will want to tell you of their delight.” Even as he said this last, several other Glenners began to walk down the path towards their door.

Garigan chuckled as he leaned back against the door jamb, his own enthusiasm no less diminished. “Looks like you are going to have quite a day today. I suppose we won’t be practising then?”

Charles gave a barking laugh at that. “I’m going to be lucky if I can stay on my paws, let alone make sure you can stay on yours!”

The ferret laughed again and turned slightly. “Well, I’ll make way for the rest. Congratulations to you both. I do hope you’ll let me know when your baby is due.”

“Of course we will,” Kimberly said then, smiling.

“I’m going to take these two and drill them on their studies for now. We will speak more later as promised. Have a lovely day, both of you,” Brian said, at which both of his sons pouted. But they followed their father off, winding around the next few Glenners that were coming to offer their congratulations.

Charles smiled widely then, and waved to the burly figure ambling down the path between the roots. The Glenner’s name had escaped him, and he could not bring it back. All that his mind could do was keep repeating, “I’m going to be a father!”

Charles and Kimberly did not have much opportunity to rest that day. For several hours a constant stream of Glenner’s came a calling at their door, each with hearty congratulations to offer. Some brought gifts, from swaddling clothes to small wooden toys painted in bright colours, while others brought promise of gifts soon to come, such as a cradle or new clothes for when it became obvious that Kimberly was with child. Some came only to give their delight, while others dawdled to tell them of their first child, and what they had done in those days long since past.

Neither rat had much occasion to sit down that day. But as the afternoon wore on into the twilight before evening, the rush became but a trickle, and so they both took to their chairs, sometimes staring absently into the gurgling fire struggling against inattentiveness to stay lit, while other times staring into each other’s eyes, trying to assemble their thoughts into coherent sentences. More often than not, they simply smiled and told each other of their love, or said “Mother” or “Father”. Nothing more could they do.

It was shortly after dusk when Lady Avery finally came to their door. Charles found that he could not eat anything, though Kimberly was continuously asking him to fetch whatever morsel from their pantry that she could think of. He would do this numbly, bringing it back to her waiting paws, only to find it gone several seconds later. When the knock from the lady of the glen came, Charles was bending over the fire, stirring the disconsolate ashes with a long black poker, hoping to spur them into fiery life once more.

“I will see who it is,” Kimberly said, rising o her feet, stuffing the last bit of cheese into her muzzle. She licked her claws clean then, and smiled to her husband. Charles’s turned so that his tail was not the only thing poking out from the hearth, one paw clutching the poker, the other holding the sluice in place. When she was halfway there, he turned back around, grabbed a few small pieces of wood, and spread them out, a few tendrils licking upwards as they caught. He then set the poker back in its place, wiping his soot-stained paws along his breeches.

“Lady Avery!” Kimberly cried out in delight when she had rested the door open. The squirrel was also dressed in grey, her paws cradling a small wicker basket lined with the hide of some animal, and painted in varying hues of grey. From the base to the top, it lightened, from the a hue so dark it could have been mistaken for black, to a thin band of white along the top-most ridge.

She smiled widely, and threw her arms about Kimberly in a firm hug, head upon shoulder each, her tail lifted high. “Lady Kimberly,” she said, freely adding the appellation that she had not been born to. “Both Brian and I are unspeakably happy for you both.” She then gazed over at Charles who had taken a few steps towards them both. “You will have to be understanding of your wife in the days and months ahead, Charles.”

“I always have been,” he said, hoping he did not sound as defensive as he suddenly felt. He smiled to his wife, and he felt her radiant smile burn away the sudden taint that had come upon it.

Angela Avery smiled broadly, incisors prominently displayed. “I am sure. There are things that I must tell your wife now. It is best for her to hear them alone.”

He blinked, tail snaking around his ankles. “What things?”

Her smile turned to a patient frown, as a schoolmistresses lecturing an unruly child. “Things that she must know. You asked my husband if there was a way to know what the child will be. There are things I must ask of Kimberly that will be for her ears alone.”

“It is all right, Charles,” Kimberly said, her paws still upon Angela’s arms. “You can go to Lars’ if you like.”

Angela smiled wryly then. “My husband is there as well. He will doubtless buy you many drinks.”

Kimberly chuckled a bit at that, much to Charles’s consternation. Ears flushing red, he point a claw at the basket that the squirrel had brought with her. “What is in that?”

Angela lifted her arm up, hefting the basket into Kimberly’s view once more. “This? Merely some herbs that may be useful.” Her eyes grew strangely weary, and she stepped out from the doorway. “There is nothing in them you need fear. Now, if you please, I must attend to Kimberly.”

Kimberly gave him a comforting smile, or at least one meant to comfort him. With a heavy sigh of breath, Charles finally nodded, and moved to the door, wrapping his thick woolen coat over his simple jerkin and breeches. “I will try not to drink too much, my sweet,” he said, his voice resigned, wondering how long it would take for him to be talked into one pints too many.

“Thank you,” she smiled in return, even as Lady Avery led her away from the door. She stepped out from the squirrel’s sheltering arm then and wrapper her own about her husband’s neck quickly, planting a sudden but firm kiss upon his own snout. “I love you!”

His eyes went wide at first, but he then savoured the moment and returned the kiss with equal intensity. “As I love you,” he said, his voice dreamy, his feet ready to lift off from the floor and stride amongst the clouds as easily as the birds. He then felt himself step out the door into the early evening’s abrupt chill. With slow deliberateness he brought their door shut, sealing the warmth of his home inside.

He stood at that doorframe for several moments, wondering just what Lady Avery would be doing with his wife, what she had to tell. Some female thing no doubt, after all, why would she shoo him off like that if it were something simple? Then another thought struck him. Why were both the Avery’s dressed in grey? He had never seen them wear that colour before, even though it so easily blended in with their natural fur.

Glancing upwards at the lintel, he broke off one of the icicles hanging down. Each day they had grown smaller and smaller, until they were no more than a few inches in length as they were then. He rolled the small spike about in his paw, feeling the ice melt against his warm flesh. On an impulse, he brought the thick edge up to his teeth and chewed upon it with his large incisors. It chiselled nicely, harder than many of the woods he used, but the sting the chill brought to his gums and palms was enough to convince him he was better off staying with wood.

He tossed the icicle aside, and it shattered with the tinkling of bells against the massive roots of the redwood that they lived within. Strangely delighted by the sound, he broke off another of the icicles, and tossed it underhand at the snaking root. Though the only light he had was from the torches burning in the treetops far above, he could see the yellow glint reflected in a million directions, smooth along its sides, jagged where he broke it free. And then the light disappeared in the tintinnabulation as it shattered like its brother before it.

Charles smiled then, rubbing his palms against each other to bring warmth back into them. With a bit of jump to his step, he scampered up through the roots to the hillocks of the Glen. He walked along their out edges, and the outer edges of the trees themselves as he made his way round to the brewery set within the stony fingers that rose up in the west. Fingers of the mountains they were, feeling their way about the undergrowth that was hidden beneath the canopy of trees.

The entrance set within the rock came into sight just then when a figure wrapped in dark cloth stepped out from behind the wide trunk, interposing himself in Charles’s path. Surprised, the rat took a step back, scanning the figure quickly in the dim light. The dark cloaks were pulled tightly, the curves of the body too feminine to be a man, though elongated they were and warped by the curse. He could see a long thick tail curling about the edge of her cloak, while soft paws held the crease together, the hood pulled up over a long snout.

His body tensed then as Charles realized he knew who this figure was. “Baerle,” he breathed, his heart trembling, resuming its beating only after a second’s pause. He tried to make his voice light, jocular. “What are you doing out here scaring poor men out of their wits?”

She pulled back her hood, smiling weakly at his attempt at humour. “I wanted to congratulate you, Charles. I would have come earlier, but I was scouting up North all day long.”

His smile was warm now as he stepped in closer to the opossum, reaching one paw out to her. “Thank you, Baerle. I’m sure my wife would love to hear that from you as well. She has told me how you kept her company while I was away.”

In the dim light, Charles could not tell whether she had flinched or not at his words. But she did not approach him any further. “She is a very nice lady. She’ll be a fine mother to your children.”

Charles could hear many words unspoken then, and his heart began to beat faster, his feet and paws warm. He took another step towards her, eyes intent, but uncertain. She did not step back immediately, but as one of his paws neared her shoulders, she turned her face from him, showing him only one side, and stepped back around the tree.

“Please don’t go,” he whispered, his tail trembling, the tip flitting back and forth.

“I don’t want to keep you from your errand.”

“What errand? I am on no errand.” He stepped closer.

She took another step around the tree, drawing herself further and further into the shadows, and away from the Glen. “An errand for your wife. Why aren’t you with her then?” The last seemed to be asking a different question, though not one Charles knew.

He frowned, and took two steps closer now, the light of the Glen at his back. He could see her face more clearly now, white rimmed with pink nose, and long whiskers that quivered as if being brushed by leafy boughs. Her eyes were dark and dry, empty as if she’d been crying all day long. Reaching out with his hand, he darted forward and gripped her wrist tightly. Baerle pulled back to break away, but his claws dug in deeply, a bit of his Sondeck filling them, preventing her from escaping.

“Stop this nonsense,” he said, voice stiff. And then, softening both his grip and his tone, “Lady Avery has gone in to see Kimberly. They sent me out so that I would not get in the way.”

Baerle’s muzzle opened as if to say something, but nothing came free. She turned her head to face him then. Her eyes appeared so different from anytime he’d ever glimpsed them, that he would have sworn he’d never met her before.

With a heavy sigh, he let go of her wrist, and let his own gaze fall down towards his feet. They were buried in the snow, yet only now did they begin to feel its chill. “I never meant to hurt you, Baerle. I’m sorry that I did.”

As if he’d smashed a damn, tears suddenly did begin to flow from her eyes. Baerle shook her fists in the air, her voice hushed and low, but wild with emotions. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I,” Charles started to say, but he realized he had no answer for her. He scuffled his foot in the snow, the merriment he’d felt a moment ago now gone. “I just never thought to say anything. I’m sorry.”

“You said so much about Metamor, but you never said anything about her!”

Charles felt the sting just as he’d felt the slap upon his face so long ago. He balled his paws into fists and held his head lower, his eyes lifting to gaze at her feet, noting the way her tail curled about them, pressing the cloak more closely about her flesh. His flesh trembled then, the cold of the night air creeping in every crevice in his garments, winding its way through his fur and into his flesh.

“I know. I know.” Why hadn’t he mentioned Kimberly when he’d been bedridden at the Glen so many months ago? He had thought about her often enough, and trembled at the images his frightful mind had conjured. “I did not want think what could have happened to her.” Something he’d done all too often anyway.

Baerle pressed her paws to her face. “You made me a fool.”

“I didn’t...”

“You never cared about me!”

He tensed, claws digging into his palms. “That’s not true,” he murmured softly, trying to lift his eyes to meet her gaze. He found that his head was as unmovable as the mountains.

“Why couldn’t you tell me?”

The question stung deep. He tried to think back to the days of the attack, when he had been with Baerle. Ever since they had first met, they had been together, first travelling to the ravine, sitting atop the hill overlooking the fog-covered valley, and even hiding amongst the rocks when the bridge had collapsed. And then, while he had lain in bed, she had been there at his side, tending to him, making sure he got the rest he needed. She’d even changed the bed for him one time. And that last day, the ride back to Metamor, she by his side, up until he had told her of Kimberly. The slap, the tears, and the agony of realisation and understanding.

“Baerle,” he said, his head lifting as if pulled upwards by string. “It is not that I do not care for you, I do care for you. A great deal in fact. But I love Kimberly. She is my wife, and I love her. Please understand that.”

Baerle still had tears standing in her eyes. “I know,” she murmured. “I just...” and then she turned and ran into the dark shadows of the wood, her cloak flapping after her, snapping in the light breeze. Charles took a step to follow, paws outstretched, his body tense, but then he felt all of it drain from him. His arms fell to his sides, his breath sank down from his lungs, passed his knees, and into the snow at his feet.

He stood there for several moments more, staring absently down at the ground, dark except for the faint flickering of yellow torchlight from far above. His shadow danced nebulously back and forth over the snow, fading in and out of the night about him. He did not want to feel this way over anyone. He wished that it could be like before, Baerle and he friends at the very least, scouting companions too. There had to be a way to heal her wounds, but he did not know what it might be.

His own wounds needed a salve, and so he turned back towards the Glen, walking back out into the clearing that was mostly swept of snow. Sconces flanked either side of the door to the brewery, both brightly lit and cheering. Charles tried to find a smile for his face, but it was hard in coming. In fact, it was not until he had stepped within the warm entranceway that he finally brought his grin back. For several moments, he stood outside that door, reminding himself of one simple fact: he was going to be a father.

With his spirit partially renewed, paws shaking unsteadily, he opened the door and stepped through to the boisterous cheers and ready shouts of Glenners inside already at merrymaking.

The next few days passed quickly for Charles and Kimberly. What before had seemed a slight plumpness to him now was obvious as the first outward signs of her pregnancy. Although he was certain that it was just his mind playing tricks upon him, every new morning when he would roll about in sultry half-slumber, eyes stirring to behold his beloved, he could have sworn that her belly had grown larger. But for the time at least, her dresses all fit her as before.

By the day after, all of the Glen was dressed in greys, except for the Matthias’s. When he’d been in the Brewery with Brian Avery and many other new friends and neighbours, he’d never had a chance to ask what it meant. Instead, he had found himself in the careful confidences of the Lord of the Glen, who assured him that Kimberly would be fine under Lady Avery’s careful paws, and was told to drink and be merry. His diffidence from the confrontation with Baerle was mistaken for nervousness by the others, and after his second pint was washed away. He woke the next morning with a headache that rivalled the one he’d had the morning the Longs had left, but at least he had not been at singing bawdy songs.

The very next day, as Kimberly forced more of Lady Avery’s awful concoction mixed with tea down his parched throat, she explained to him the significance of the grey clothing. While Charles gagged, tongue pressing from his mouth as if to escape and slither across the floor to the fire pit where it mind find surcease within the wreathing orange flames, Kimberly spoke with an amused arch to her eyebrows.

“It is traditional in the Glen to celebrate the coming of a new child by wearing grey. It is usually only the friends of the family to be that wear the grey, but since we are friends of Lord Avery, everyone will wear it. We should too, but we’ve no grey to wear.” Charles had recovered somewhat at this point, though his eyes were still firmly shut t block out the light. “Angela said that it was like the winter before the spring, all grey and white, before life comes again into the world. I think that sounds very beautiful, don’t you?”

At that he could only mumble a groan, his mind still slugging along like a wagon wheel covered in molasses trying to trek through clinging mud. But even such a wagon eventually reaches its destination, and so too Charles eventually understood what it was that his wife had told him. It worried him at first, as Kimberly had talked about seeing Walter to purchase them both grey clothes. What if the grey was a Lothanasi tradition meant to honour their gods? While he himself had been within their temple at Metamor, even sung songs with them, he had no wish, even inadvertently, to engage in their worship.

But, as the molasses worked its way free from the spokes in his head, clearer thought prevailed. In his years at Metamor he had learned a great deal of the Lothanasi faith, and in so doing, understood vaguely the meanings of the colours and their relationships to the various deities in their pantheon. Grey was not one used expressly by the Lothanasi in expectation of a child. And so, he knew it had to be a tradition of the people of the Glen themselves apart from their faith.

Charles did not have much chance to see Kimberly that morning though, not after she had forced the vile brew down his throat at least. Lady Avery arrived before noon and had whisked his wife away for a hunt through the forests for some feminine purpose that neither were inclined to explain to him. Angela had brought another of those grey baskets with her for Kimberly to use, and after a few words to the groggy husband still feeling the effects of last night’s binge, they disappeared out the door.

After stirring up a fire in the hearth, Charles set himself to writing several letters. Leaning over the small table between the two chairs set before the fire, he had several sheets of parchment arrayed before him, a smaller stopper of ink sat upon the curling edges, while a single candle burnished light for him. After he finished his three letters, one to Misha and the Longs, one to the Writer’s Guild, and one to be delivered to Jerome via Raven hin’Elric, the wax had pooled within the basin of the candlestick.

One by one he lifted each sheet, and blew across the ink, drying the indigo upon the grey parchment. He folded each of the letters so that they could not be read without first being opened. Taking the end of his chewstick, he spread a dollop of wax along the end, and then held it in the candle flame. With a firm touch, he spread it over the centre of the fold, and then pressed the rodent crest he had taken for himself when Metamor had changed him into the already hardening wax.

He hoped that his letters would precede the news of his child to be. While he was certain the Jerome would hear of it first from his letter, wandering as he was gods-knew-where in the Midlands, he could not be so sure about either Misha or Habakkuk. Likely the vexatious Felikaush already knew and was scribing secret tableaux with the tale to be circulated amongst a specious few so that he might later scold the rat for his enthusiasms.

By the time Charles had left the three letters with Lord Avery with instructions for their delivery, he had managed to rid himself of such farcical notions. Brian assured the rat that the letters would be in the hands of Misha, Habakkuk and Raven that evening. He did express puzzlement as to why Charles would send a letter to the head of the Lothanasi faith at Metamor but not to the head of his own, the good Father Hough. Seeing a strange glint in the squirrel lord’s eye, Charles reluctantly explained that Raven would pass the letter onto his friend Jerome.

With his letters secure, Charles had gone about his daily chores in a daze. At every turn, he received congratulations anew. As the clearing was mostly cleaned of snow by this point, he spent most of his time as a scout for the Glen, usually in Garigan’s company. The ferret took him on his rounds, quizzing Charles at every turn about what to expect, testing his knowledge of the land. Despite the fog filling his mind, he still was fairly decent at recognizing the landmarks, noting the subtle differences in the scope of each massive tree, each hillock, rock, and underbrush.

By the time dusk was upon them and he returned to his home, body tired but not sore, Kimberly was already home, the gray basket sitting primly upon the kitchen counter. When he’d tried to pull up the lid to see what was inside, she’d slapped at his paws and shooed him from her kitchen. In fact, it was not long before she shooed him out of his own home as well, as Lady Avery would be coming by that evening to help her with some of the plants she’d collected.

When he tried to press at what plants, he was the recipient of a pleading gaze that made him wither and shrink away. He felt irritation at Brian’s wife over this, and he groused all the way to the brewery, kicking at the piles of snow still left to be moved. The men who were there expectantly waiting for him, shared in his agitation, but could only advise him to let the Lady Avery do her work. To keep his mind from it, he found a mazer always within his paws, and drink always upon his lips that night.

And for the next three days and nights, the same happened. With the dawn came the foul tonic that Lady Avery prescribed for a husband who had suffused himself with far too many libations the evening before. And after that came the giggling gaggle of females surrounding Lady Avery who whisked Kimberly away with that gray basket in her new grey dress. Each day they seemed to grow by one or two, but after that first day he noticed that Baerle was always amongst them. He did his best not to look at her, but found himself always questing her eyes in those brief moments while she stood in his doorway. But she would never meet his gaze, instead, saving her warmth for Charles’ wife.

The rest of his day was spent out in the woods with the other scouts, watching the boundaries of the Glen, learning all of her ways, feeling the ebb and flow of the hours upon the forest. Several times he tried to convince Garigan to take him to where his wife and the horde of women had vanished, but the ferret assured him that Lady Avery would skin him and hang his pelt from her lintel should he dare.

“But we’re Sondeckis!” Charles had protested angrily.

“And she’s a woman,” Garigan said, smiling understandingly to the distraught husband. “It won’t be but for a few more days, so relax.” Try as he might, Garigan would not explain what he meant by that.

On the third day, Kimberly had lain out a grey tunic and breeches for him to wear, and she was adamant that he do so. Try as he might, he could not get her to explain why it was so important. But she did smile prettily enough and ask him in her sweetest voice. It did fit him well enough, though the waist needed to be brought in just a tad. But she still left without an explanation when Lady Avery came a calling.

At the very least, he had told himself, he was now wearing colours that adequately reflected his mood. That evening, as he sat at one of the tables in the brewery, flanked by James and Angus, he remarked on that. The badger laughed heartily and patted him firmly on the back. “Who can say with the ways of women, eh? Best to let them do as they wish. Now eat something before you fall over!”

It was on the afternoon of the fourth day that the five wagons bearing the Long Scouts and their gifts came rolling into the Glen. Charles was on scouting duty with Garigan to the northeast of the Glen, when he heard that they were coming. Whenever the Glenners would be scouting, they would always go at the very least two-by-two. This way, one of the pair could if the need arose, leave to deliver a message to the other scouts or to the Glen itself. And so it was that the young pine marten Marcus suddenly fell from the branches overhead with a flourish, shaking their branch back and forth as he landed.

While Garigan steadied himself with one paw, Charles cast a withering glance to the youngster. “What cause do you have to try and frighten innocent scouts like that?”

Marcus laughed then, eyes bright with mischief still to do. “The Long Scouts are coming!” he declared in a proud voice. “Just doing my job as a scout too!”

His heart stiffened, excitement replacing the annoyance of a moment before. “Really? They’re here?” Charles took several steps towards the marten, nudging his bow slung over his shoulder to the side.

Marcus nodded emphatically, tail wagging back and forth. “Oh yes! They’re coming up the road from Metamor right now!”

“Excellent! You stay here with Garigan, I have to go and see them.”

Garigan growled morosely. “You aren’t leaving me here with that one?” He pointed a finger towards the pine marten. “It might not be safe for him, you know.”

Charles laughed then, and stepped around the younger scout. “I’m sure you’ll manage.”

But the pine marten bore a slightly injured expression, though it was mixed with an inexhaustible supply of good humour. “I will! Right Garigan?”

The ferret nodded, and then laughed as well. “All right, come on and sit down. And stay seated this time, please?”

Charles was already out of earshot before Marcus could respond. He was scrambling down branches, hoping as they twisted downwards. Where the branches thinned out, small handholds had been fashioned into the wood. With most of the snow melted, it left the wood rather slick in places, and so he was careful, regularly using his Sondeck to tighten his grip. When the branches of two trees were close enough, he would hop from one to the other, moving closer and closer to the Glen as he did.

Eventually, as he began to overlook the clearing in the centre of the Glen, he had to climb down the rope ladder that dangled from one of the lower hanging branches. It was from a height he’d jumped once or twice before in his life, but only when he’d had no other choice. As his foot paws once more touched ground, he was delighted to see that the Longs had not yet arrived. He wanted to be there when they made their entrance at the Glen.

Smoothing out his grey tunic and breeches, he leaned against the trunk of one of the trees a good ways back from where the road spilled out onto the grounds. Hillocks lined the clearing, some of them dug out into overhangs to protect the wagons and the horses. Once the snow shad melted, a thick moss mesh would be lain across them to conceal them from view. At present they stood open like a giant had scooped the earth free with a shovel.

He heard the scraping of claw upon bark, and glanced to one side. Lord Avery jumped the last few feet down to the ground, and took a few moments to brush his paws along his own grey liveried hose and doublet. He examined his claws with a sour moue upon his muzzle for a moment, and then looked up. As he saw Charles, he smiled once more. “You heard, did you?”

Charles nodded at that, arms crossed before him. The end of his bow was poking into his tail, and so he shifted it to his other shoulder. “Marcus old me a few minutes back. I’m just surprised it took them this long to get out here.”

The Lord of the Glen let out a hearty laugh at that, and patted his free shoulder with one paw. “My good rat, do you not think it took them a couple days to organize the gifts they would bring?”

“True,” Charles mused at that, smiling slightly. “It does not seem that long ago that they all brought me gifts for my wedding!”

“It was only seven weeks ago, that’s why!” Lord Avery smiled curiously. “It took Angela and I a year before we conceived.”

“Darien and Christopher are six now aren’t they?”

The squirrel nodded, his smile fading slightly. “And going on thirteen. By Summer’s end I fear they will be learning the sword and bow like scouts.”

Charles snorted at that, wondering for a moment how fast his own children would age if they were born as rats too. But those thoughts lasted only a moment before he could hear the fall of hoofbeats and the creak of wagon wheels coming up the road. He stood straighter, his body stiffening, eyes straining to see the first glimpse through the tall trees. His ears turned forward, flesh trembling for even the slightest sound of voices. His heart beat seven times, he counted, before he could make out the familiar burr of speech. Ten beats later, and he picked out the laughing voice of Misha from the rest. He smiled widely, standing on the tips of his toes, whiskers twitching as he tried to find their scent on the flowing breeze.

The wind brought him the scents of many animals, as well as a few humans too, the thick scent of horses was the clearest of them all. A moment later, he could see the first of the wagons turning the bend in the road, starting along the last jaunt before entering into the Glen. Charles could see that Misha was sitting up along the rail of the wagon. The fox’s head turned towards him, and his one ear perked instantly. With a leap, Misha propelled himself from the wagon, and ran past the horses, laughing, tail wagging unrestrained behind him.

Charles could no longer stand against the tree, and ran forward as well, his own smile too broad to not laugh. He could see other Longs also jumping from the wagons and rushing to greet him, but none moved as fast as the fox. Charles slowed down a bit so that he would not crash headlong into his good friend, but Misha could not control his enthusiasm. When they collided, Charles was nearly bowled over by vulpine girth. Misha grabbed his arms tightly, and held him aloft as they came to a stop, hugging him firmly, and then giving him several firm pats on the back.

The fox’s grey eyes seemed to shine all the colours of the spectrum at once as he stood there, finding his voice amidst the joyous laughter. “Congratulations! This is... Congratulations! I’m so proud and happy and.. Congratulations!” At this last exclamation, the fox hugged him once more, while the rat could barely find time to even breathe.

Before he knew it, he was surrounded by so many familiar faces, all Longs. Each patted him on the back or hugged him as tightly did the exuberant fox, their voices a cacophony of praise and delight. There to one side was Lisa, smiling up at him broadly. Finbar and Danielle, arm in arm, continued to pat his shoulder as if it were a charm to gain luck from. Georgette, Jotham, and Ralls all moved back and forth, each taking turns to be next to the father-to-be. Laura and Allart with their families did their best to reach in as well. Even Padraic, the newest of the Longs was standing in close, his fur a bright shade of pink, testifying as to how new a Long he was.

As the wagons pulled in closer, Charles could see the great bear Meredith being helped from one of the wagons by his wife and his children. He smiled broadly at that, waving to the injured ursine. He looked far better than the last time Charles had seen him. “Did everyone make it?” Charles asked, barely managing to get his question heard over the delighted cries of his fellow Longs.

Misah shook his head then, his smile not perturbed even the slightest. “Arla and Kershaw are not here, both were too injured to make it. They send their best though. Where’s Kimberly?”

Lord Avery had moved up to join them, though the squirrel still gave the Long Scouts plenty of room. Charles glanced back at him and then gestured with one paw towards the tall wooden sentinels surrounding the clearing. “Kimberly is with Lady Angela and some of the other women doing I don’t know what. They won’t tell me.”

“As well they shouldn’t,” Lisa chimed in primly, her husband now standing with one furry paw each on her shoulders. Lisa reached up with her one hand and gripped Alec’s paw gingerly. “It’s nothing you should worry about I’m sure.”

The other women, except for Georgette, who had once been a man, nodded in agreement at that. Even Jotham, though now a man, but once a woman, gave a firm nod.

“They’ll be on their way back by now,” Lord Avery said at last. “I’ll have the wagons looked after. I assume you are staying the night.”

“Absolutely!” Misha said, his voice almost a shout so great was his excitement. “We are going to celebrate with Charles and Kimberly for the newest members of our family.”

Caroline, who was now being held firmly at Misha’s side by his arm, smiled to the squirrel, sharp teeth poking out from her muzzle as she did so. “I do hope you haven’t had a baby shower yet for them. We would like to attend.”

Brian chuckled lightly at that, “Speak to my wife. I think it is tomorrow.”

Misha leaned over and gently licked some of Caroline’s whiskers, causing the otter to turn back suddenly and blush in her ears. The fox then smiled back down to Charles. “I’m so happy for you both. Let’s go to the Inn so we can get rooms for the next two nights. We can eat and drink there while we wait for your wife to return.”

Charles nodded, seeing past the fox as the wagons all came to rest at the road’s end. There were five, each led by a pair of horses. Two of the wagons were covered by a thick tarp tied down at every corner and side. “What’s in those two wagons?” he asked, pointing with a finger.

Finbar laughed. “Surprises!”

“Lots of surprises,” Jotham chimed as well.

“I’m going to have to wait, aren’t I?” Charles asked, bearing a mock look of resignation.

“Not for the food and drink,” Misha declared, giving his shoulder another good pat. “Congratulations, Matt. I’m just damn happy!” He then could not help himself anymore, reached over and gave the rat another impromptu hug.

Before the rat could even catch his breath again, he was peppered from all sides by hugs and back slaps from the rest of his fellow Longs. His smile felt as if it had been sewn onto his muzzle. It was so good to be with family.

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