by Charles Matthias

Kimberly found that she enjoyed the comforting solemnity of the tall trees of Glen Avery as she went about her daily chores. With Charles gone north once more with Misha and the Longs, she needed whatever she could find to keep her happy and smiling. She shuddered every time she thought about how distraught the fox had been when he’d come to their home only a few days ago. And it only became worse when she knew that her husband had left with him into whatever dangers lurked in those vast empty expanses north of the Dike.

Nor did she have many friends here at the Glen either. She missed Bernadette and the others from the Keep’s kitchens. The Glenners were nice, Lady Avery herself had taken some time to show her about and introduce her to the other women of the Glen. But Kimberly was still an outsider here, though she lived amongst them. It had been two weeks now, and she still felt like she had come to this village only the day before.

Soft snow littered the commons, the open field that was kept clear between the mighty redwoods. The sun filtered in through empty boughs, while large lamps hanging from the lower branches kept the rest of the clearing bright. Most of the homes in the Glen were set in the base of the trees as was her own, or they were high up in the branches. The Inn and the Brewery were set into the rock at the western edge of the village, as well as a few of the other shops.

The Market itself was set amidst a high collection of roots just off the road towards the lake. Stone and wood had been put in place between the roots to make for walls and a roof. The roof was presently buried under a few inches of snow, though she’d been told that during the other seasons it was still covered by leaves, moss, and a few other plants so that none would see it. There were two tall trees on either side, and in each was a small hole about twenty feet up from which trailed smoke.

Kimberly gripped the wicker basket in her paws tightly as she strode between the winding roots to the door. It was thick and made from the redwood as if it were part of the roots. Eaves held a great deal of snow overhead, but beneath them the ground was clear. As she stepped through, a little bell rang with a silverly tinkle. Inside was warm, and she could hear the crackling of fires from either side of the interior. Shelves were lined with goods, many of them trinkets sold to visitors to the Glen. Lamps were affixed to the end of each row, and they cast a warm glow about the homely shop.

There were a few others there already. Near the inglenook to the left she saw an opossum studiously examining a few pieces of glassware. The proprietor, a lynx named Frederick Blaylock, was standing by the rows of cloth arguing with the tailor Walter Levins over prices. Blaylock’s wife, Abigail, was rubbing her paws together as she watched the opossum handle the glass pieces. Kimberly noted that she was feline as well, though she did not recognize the exact breed. She’d been told at least once already, but it had escaped her again.

Kimberly moved further into the store then, staying away from the others as she looked for what she needed. There were many things that the Glen could not provide for themselves, such as tubers and grains, or any variety of fruit other than the assorted berries that were easily found in the surrounding forests. There were also many goods that the Glen did provide such as the eggs from the cavern rookeries. And she had finished their last egg that morning, so taking the money that Charles had left with her, she was determined to buy some more.

The eggs were kept near the walls and away from the fires, at least during the winter. Having worked in the kitchens at the Keep for a year, she knew well that it was best to keep them cool so that they would last longer. There was only ever a couple dozen, laid in small trays filled with hay to keep them from breaking. She selected one of the trays, holding six eggs, and gingerly set it within her basket. They were rather large, and would make for a few good meals. She did so hate having to eat alone, but what else could she do?

Her tail twitched back and forth then, and her whiskers wiggled slightly as she could hear the muffled footsteps of one of the two felines. Turning her head to look, she saw that it was Abigail, looking down pas her grey nose to the rat. “Good morning, Kimberly,” her voice was rough, but amicable enough.

“Good morning, Abigail. How are you and Frederick doing?” Kimberly smiled slightly, cradling the handle to the basket in her paws.

Abigail let one green eye slide over to where her husband was still bickering with the cool tailor over the price of some bolts of cloth. “He’s haggled with everyone who’s come in here today, even with Lady Avery herself!”

Kimberly smiled. “So he’s over his cold then?”

The feline nodded. “Yes, he still tries to make me bring him his breakfast in bed, but I dragged him out by his toes this morning.”

The rat laughed warmly at that. There had been days when Charles had not wanted to get out of bed either. Perhaps she should yank on his toes the next time he was disagreeable. Kimberly looked over at Frederick, who was protesting that Walter was robbing him blind. He did look much better than the last time she’d been to the store. Glancing past the lynx, she noticed that the opossum was looking over in her direction. But she, as the opossum was female, turned away fairly quickly after that.

“Don’t let him charge you more than four coppers for those eggs,” Abigail advised with a wink and a twitch of her whiskers. “He only paid two for them.”

“Aby!” Frederick protested as his ears turned to them.

Both Kimberly and Abigail laughed heartily at that, Walter, who was counting coins from her money pouch smiled at that, but said nothing. And then, Frederick scooped the coins into his paws and handed several bolts of cloth over to the tall woman. Walter took them under her arm and nodded her thanks before stepping back out the door, the small bell hanging over the transom ringing merrily as the door shut.

Kimberly pulled out the four coppers from her money pouch as it hand from her hip. The lynx approached then, grumbling beneath his breath. She held out the coppers to him, and he took them in his paw. “Here are the four coppers for the eggs.”

Frederick nodded and quickly scanned over them, pushing each aside with one paw. “Oh don’t you go counting money in front of this nice lady!” his wife scolded once more, batting at his shoulder with one paw.

Chagrined, the lynx slipped the coins into his satchel. “Well, you have a nice day then, Mrs Matthias.” Kimberly smiled her thanks, to both Frederick and to Abigail.

“I will, and the same to you, Master Blaylock.” Kimberly then walked to the door, enjoying the pleasant tinkling of the bell as she left.

She had only gone a few paces past the roots that surrounded the Market before she heard the door open and shut again behind her. Turning her head to one side, she saw that the opossum had left, and was smiling a bit towards her. “You should have hear how Master Blaylock groused when you left.”

Kimberly chuckled lightly then and looked over the opossum. She appeared to be athletically built, slim of proportions, covered in a greyish white fur, with a tail that looked rather like her own, except that it too was white. She wore a light grey jerkin and trousers, most likely fashioned from wool. Her belt was dark, and at its side were both a small dagger and her money pouch.

“I’m sure Abigail will cure him one day,” Kimberly opined gamely.

“It’s hard to cure any man sometimes,” the opossum added, stepping a little bit closer.

She could not help but nod at that, remembering how often Charles had already snuck of to Lars Hansgken’s brewery in just the two weeks they had lived at the Glen. It would of course help if Angus, Brian and the rest did not encourage him so! But of course, Charles was now away up north again. And all she wanted for him was to return home safely. Then she could pester him about his drinking!

Kimberly smiled to the friendly opossum then and held out her right paw, letting the weight of the basket rest in her left paw. “I am Kimberly Matthias. What’s your name?” It felt so good saying that, and she could not help smiling even wider. Despite the cold of the winter air, she felt warmer inside.

The opossum’s whiskers twitched at that, her eyes staring past her for a moment. Then, she too held out her paw and shook it gently. “I’m Baerle. Pleased to meet you, Kimberly.”

“And I’m pleased to meet you, Baerle.” She returned the weight of the basket to both paws and held it before her legs. She was only wearing a simple skirt over thick stockings to keep out the cold. “Are you a scout?”

Baerle nodded at that, standing a good foot over the rat. “Yes, but I’m mostly an archer. I don’t like to have to use this.” She let her claws gingerly rasp over the knife’s hilt. “So where are you from? Metamor?”

Kimberly nodded at that. “Only this last year. I came to Metamor from Brathas to the West. I was to be married to this terrible man, and I didn’t want that, so I came to Metamor.”

“And already married I see,” Baerle said, her tone slightly distant, but friendly enough. One claw pointed to the ring that set upon Kimberly’s paw. The rat looked down at the band and smiled as she saw it. Yes, she had found a husband so much better.

“Charles made me be happy to be a rat,” Kimberly said, realising that it was completely true. When first she had changed, she’d been horrified at what she’d become. But Charles had always been there to tell her that she was beautiful, and showed her that in every kindness and every gift he’d ever brought.

Baerle nodded at that, and then smiled to her. “That sounds wonderful. How long have you known each other?”

“Almost a year now. We were married the day before we came here to the Glen.”

“I remember that. I had to be out scouting so I missed the celebration.”

Kimberly smiled as she thought back to that night, the dancing and the singing and the music that was swirling all around them. The food had been delicious and seemingly endless. The wine and ale flowed just as freely too, a bit too freely, but she forgave him that one indulgence. Even though she did not know almost any of the Glenners, they did make her feel at home that night.

“I wish you could have been there, Baerle, it was very wonderful.”

Baerle simply nodded, looking back and forth. Another pair of Glenners was moving past them towards the market, but the two women paid them no mind. “I did meet Charles when he was here during the attack.”

Kimberly’s ears perked at that, and her eyes went wide. “You did? Charles doesn’t want to tell me anything of it. He usually doesn’t. He doesn’t want me to worry about him.” Kimberly chuckled slightly. “I think he doesn’t want me to scold him for getting himself hurt.”

Baerle laughed a bit at that. “That does sound like him. He was injured during the battle, and almost had to be tied down in bed to recover.”

“Yes, when he returned to Metamor I nearly had to do that too!” Kimberly then leaned a bit closer, dark eyes blinking as her arms pulled closer together to ward off the chill. “Do you think you could tell me what happened during the battle? I would really like to know what you saw Charles do.”

The opossum appeared distracted as she thought about that. Glancing around at the snow swept trees and lanes, she finally nodded. “Do you think we could go someplace warmer though? There is quite a lot to tell.”

Kimberly beamed at that, and nodded. “Why don’t you come to our house. I can make some fresh tea for both of us while we talk.”

“That would be nice, thank you,” Baerle said, smiling more freely then.

Kimberly turned then and pointed back through the trees. “It’s a lovely home in the base of a tree. I still cannot believe that trees could grow this large. They are so huge, surely the wind would knock them down.”

Baerle glanced about the large redwoods and smiled. “It does seem impossible, but there they are.”

“I think they are very peaceful.”

“Yes, they are.” Baerle said, and then both of them were quiet as they walked along the snow-laden paths into the main clearing of the village. Kimberly kept a tight grip upon the basket as she moved over towards the familiar roots that marked her home. “Is this where you live?” Baerle asked as she looked up at the massive tree whose base they lived in.

“Yes. You must come inside and see for yourself. Where do you live, Baerle?” Kimberly asked then, even as she reached the door.

Baerle shrugged. “Oh, I’ve a small little place up in the tree branches. It is not much, but is enough.”

Kimberly nodded as she pressed inside. The warmth immediately filled her flesh, especially her feet as she stepped onto the soft wood of the floor. Burris’s magic kept the wooden walls strangely warm, but it was a welcome warmth. She set the basket to one side on a small table they’d set next to the door. On the other side of the door they had placed a small rack to hang their coats. She slipped the thicker jerkin from her shoulders and set it upon one of the pegs.

Stepping out of the doorway, she took the basket in her paws again, and made her way around the couch, chairs, and table set in the middle of the room upon a lovely rug. “Please, make yourself comfortable, I will put some tea on.”

She walked back into the kitchen and set the basket upon the counter. The kettle was full of water still, and she took that back out to the main room. The fire was still crackling in the hearth, though it was still subdued. Kimberly slipped one of the mittens upon her paws, and then took out the spit that rested over the fire. Slipping the handle of the kettle around it so that it would remain upright, she placed it back over the fire. It would be steaming in a few minutes.

“This is a very lovely place,” Baerle said as she looked about, turning around on her paws just inside the doorway. She’d closed the door and hung her white coat upon one of the racks as well.

“Thank you. Charles and I spent quite a few days trying to arrange all of our belongings the way we like them.” Kimberly returned to their kitchen and selected two cups from the cupboard, bringing them back in and setting them on the hearth. “Will this be large enough for you, Baerle?”

The opossum nodded. “That would be just fine, thank you. Would you like any help?”

Kimberly smiled at that. “Why thank you, yes you may help.”

Baerle eagerly followed her into the kitchen then, looking around the room as if studying it for some other purpose. The ornate dining set Misha had given them had been placed in one corner for now, though Charles had said they would have to find a more permanent place for it soon. The stove that Thalberg and the cooking staff had given as their gift was already placed back in its alcove, though they were still waiting for the proper piping to connect it to the wall.

“This is very lovely,” Baerle said, even as Kimberly went to the shelf with the tea leaves.

“Thank you! We have so much space we have not yet filled up all the cupboards either. The tin to drain the leaves is in the drawer next to you.”

Baerle turned and opened the drawer, pulling out the small tin with tony holes for the tea to drain in the bottom. She set that on the lacquered counter, still looking about. “How did you get this place?”

Kimberly took a small spoon and scooped out a few crushed leaves from another small jar. She poured them into the tin that Baerle had set down. “Oh, a wonderful frog named Gibson just gave it to us. He’s got a new home down by the lake that is quite nice too. Do you know Gibson?”

Baerle nodded then, and cupped the tin with the tea leaves in her paws. “Yes. He’s been at the Glen all his life. He sells our wood to the Keep in exchange for ores we cannot smelt.”

After putting the jar with the tea leaves away, Kimberly nodded, and gestured ack to the main room. Baerle went through the doorway, and set the tin upon the hearth next to the two cups. Steam was already beginning to trickle out of the kettle’s spout.

“That was rather nice of him to just give you his home,” Baerle added.

Kimberly smiled to her, as they both sat down in the two chairs next to the hearth. “Well, Lord Avery wanted to give us a nice home after all that Charles did for the Glen. Tell me, Baerle. What did you see Charles do during the attack?”

Baerle leaned forward in her chair, her long tail curling over into her lap where she rested one paw upon it. “Well, I didn’t see him until the day after he arrived. We knew that the Lutins were moving supplies across the main road from the Dike to Metamor. There is a bridge across a small gorge on that road, and we decided that the best way we could help Metamor was to destroy the bridge. That way, we would stop the supplies from reaching the Lutins, and you know how warriors can get on an empty stomach.”

Kimberly laughed a bit at that, her eyes half watching the opossum and half watching the kettle. The fire was still crackling warmly as it had been when she’d left to go to the Market. She would need to put another log in soon though.

“Well, Charles and his two humans friends were going to come along to help Burris knock down the bridge. I and some of the other archers went along to provide cover for them in case the Lutins saw us.”

“And did they?” Kimberly asked suddenly, trying to not to think too hard about stones and arrows being rained down upon her husband. Of course, she was still trying to wrap her mind around the idea of him knocking down a bridge.

Baerle nodded, even as the kettle began to whistle slightly. Kimberly stood up from her chair, walked over to the hearth and slipped the mittens on once more. The opossum was at her heels, setting the tin with the leaves in it over one of the cups, holding it out for the rat. Kimberly retrieved the kettle from the spit, and gripped the hot handle firmly in the mitts. She smiled a bit at Baerle, who responded in kind. Leaning forward, she poured the hot water slowly into the tin. Baerle gripped the wooden end tightly in her paw, and they listened as the trinkling into the cup began.

Holding the kettle tightly, she stopped pouring once the tea leaves were floating at the top of the tin. They waited a few moments while it all drained into the cup, the sweet aroma of fresh tea beginning to fill the air. Once the water had finished draining, Baerle set that cup aside and took the other in her paws, holding it beneath the tin. Kimberly then poured some more of the water from the kettle into the tin. She then set the kettle upon the stones beside the hearth to cool off.

After Kimberly had removed the mitts from her paws, Baerle was handing her one of the cups. Kimberly smiled her thanks and then cradled it in her paws, feeling the warmth flow through the delicate pottery. The opossum set the tin down upon the stones as well, and then took the other cup and sat back in her chair. She blew upon it lightly, the rich scent filling the air.

“This smells wonderful. Did you get the leaves from Lady Avery?”

Kimberly nodded proudly at that, even as she blew on her own cup, not daring to drink it yet. “Oh yes. It’s sassafras. I’d never had any sassafras tea until Lady Angela made some for us nd gave us some of her leaves.”

“It is not quite sassafras,” Baerle said with a slight grin. “Lady Angela treats the leaves ever so slightly, but she won’t say how.”

Kimberly continued to blow across the surface of the dark tea. “I would love to know how she does it!”

“So would just about everyone else.” Baerle let her tongue slip out and she lapped up just a tiny bit of the tea. Her eyes went wide then, and her body shuddered ever so slightly. “I think I’ll let this cool just a little bit longer.” She set the cup upon the small table that sat between the chairs then, and smiled over to her host. “Now let’s see, we made it all the way down the gorge to the bridge before we were noticed by those disgusting Lutins.”

Kimberly enjoyed listening to Baerle tell her about what Charles had done for the Glen. Several times during the opossum’s tale, she would interrupt and ask her to explain who she was talking about, and that of course led into many other explanations. By the time Baerle finally described how Charles had saved her by placing his body on top of hers in the rock pile, they had finished not only their first cup, but also a second cup of the sassafras tea.

“Charles really saved your life?” Kimberly asked, wide eyed, trying to imagine her husband fearlessly preventing the demise of this Glenner by putting himself in harm’s way.

Baerle nodded, a strangely distant expression on her face. “Oh yes. He did that, and then of course pretended as if he wasn’t hurt. I made sure he stayed in bed though.”

Kimberly nodded smartly, setting her empty cup on the table. “Good! Sometimes he can be so stubborn that it will make you pull your whiskers out. Did you know that he broke his arm one time and still wanted to go out on patrols with the other Long Scouts?”

Baerle shook her head laughing a bit. “Oh, that sounds like him. You must tell me about how he broke his arm sometime.”

Kimberly smiled and nodded. “I would like that, yes. And you must tell me more about yourself Baerle. Would you like to stay and have another cup of tea? I was going to cook some eggs later this evening if you’d like to stay and eat too.”

The opossum blushed then, and shook her head, rising to her foot paws, tail dangling over the arm of the chair. “Thank you, Kimberly. You are most kind, but I must replace one of the scouts for the evening.”

Kimberly shook her head. “I get lonely here without Charles. I don’t know when he’ll be back, and it is nice to have somebody to talk to, especially somebody as nice as yourself.” Even as she began to think of her husband, she began to remember how Misha had acted when he’d come to take Charles away from her. The fox had been shaken obviously when he’d stepped into their home early that morning. His eyes were distant, almost haunted, and the more and more he talked, the more erratic and frightened he became. Simply seeing the reynard so distraught had frightened Kimberly.

She’d begged Charles not to go, but to say with her, but Misha’s state only further convinced Charles he had to accompany his friend to the North. Whatever could have upset the fox that much must be terribly dangerous, Kimberly knew, and she did not wish to wait for bad news, but Charles still left.

Baerle noticed her distraction then and she smiled slightly, showing off her sharp teeth. “He’ll be back. He’s stubborn like that.”

Kimberly couldn’t help but smile as she heard Baerle say that about her husband. It was so true after all. “Thank you, Baerle. Would you like to come back tomorrow and talk some more? I can save a few eggs for you if you’d like.”

The question must have caught her off guard, for Baerle blinked a moment, staring first at the rat, and then into the fire. Finally, she offered a smile and nodded. “I would like that. Thank you again. It’ll be nice getting to know you.”

“And you. I don’t have any friends here yet, and I would like some.”

Baerle blushed at that bit of sharing, but still she kept something close to her chest. “If I can help remedy that, I will. Thank you for inviting me in, Kimberly. This has been very pleasant.”

Kimberly smiled and rose. “Thank you for accepting, this has been the nicest day I’ve had since Charles left.”

They both walked to the door then. Baerle slipped on her coat once more, and pulled it close around her chest. She turned around, and a strange look filled her eyes. “I can see why Charles married you. You are a very wonderful person, Kimberly.”

Kimberly blushed at that, her ears folding back from the compliment. “I... thank you, Baerle. I think you are very nice too. I shall see you tomorrow then?”

The opossum nodded. “I’ll be around about noon. I’d love to share an egg with you.”

The two smiled and hugged each other gingerly then before Baerle opened the door and stepped back out into the cold evening air. It was already dark outside, only the lamp lights providing any illumination. Kimberly closed the door slowly after her, and felt the warmth of her home fill her. This had indeed been a wonderful day. Charles would be so happy to know that she’d made a new friend here at the Glen already. She’d have to worm the story of the attack out of him too now that she knew some of it.

Walking back to the kitchen, she retrieved the eggs from her basket. Taking two of them, she grabbed two small metal cups, and fit one egg inside each. She carried them both back to the hearth and slipped them onto the spit. Sitting down, she waited for them to cook. For the first time in days, she felt like she was not eating alone anymore.

Baerle took her place on one of the high branches over looking the Glen next to Berchem the skunk. Berchem was the head of the archers, and while he could be a bit of a jerk, he was an expert marksman in a way that Baerle hoped one day to emulate. The skunk looked at her in the darkness as she scrambled on up to the perch. Her tail coiled about the tree limb, finding it pleasantly swept of snow.

“Have you seen anything?” she asked, her voice soft.

Berchem shook his head. “Nothing but forest critters. The forest is quiet tonight. You should have an easy shift.” The skunk moved along the branch then, his footing sure, as was that of every Glenner long used to such tasks.

Baerle leaned out a bit, her grip secure as he passed by. “Anson will be up around eight to replace you,” the skunk said, his voice brittle. He then scrambled down the tree, only a light misting of snow disturbed in his wake.

Baerle rubbed her fingers over the haft of her bow. It was solid, but of scant comfort just then. She sighed as she prepared herself for the lonely wait upon that branch. It was a lonely life being a scout, she knew, but it didn’t have to be. She remembered with fondness when she and Charles had been upon that hill over looking the fog shrouded valley. She’d kissed him then, and he’d blushed terribly at that. The way his ears had gone red had been so adorable.

The opossum found herself smiling at the memory, even as she gazed down into the darkness below. Her eyes were very good at picking up the small details, even in the darkness. But there was little to see along the road to the Keep. At some point, Charles would be walking along that road, back to his new home in the Glen. She was glad that he’d come to live at the Glen, but now she no longer knew what to think.

How she had wanted to hate Kimberly, hate that rat for taking Charles from her. She’d spent several nights rehearsing what she could do to drive the two of them apart, and Charles into her arms. Many plans had been formed, and many dismissed, but until that evening, that had been her one goal. To accomplish it, she knew she would need to gain Kimberly’s confidence, which meant that she would need to become acquainted with her.

And now that she had, Baerle found that despite how much she wanted to hate her she could not bring herself to do so. In fact, the more they had talked, the more Baerle realised that she liked Charles’s wife. She was in fact looking forward to spending tomorrow afternoon talking with her again. She could not bring herself to hurt Kimberly, not anymore. And she doubted she ever would.

But of course, with a resigned sigh, she knew that meant that she could never have Charles either. Staring down into the empty blackness, Baerle could not help but wonder where he was. No doubt whatever he was doing he was thinking about Kimberly and not her. She rested her head against the haft of her bow, and began to cry.