The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXVI - Parting Words

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

Metamor was truly a wondrous city. Though this was only the second time in his life he had beheld the Jewel of the North, Father Felsah of the Questioners felt its imprint deeply. The gambled roofs and narrow streets carried a sensation of community that the wide avenues and sun-baked clay of Yesulam lacked. The lush fields and forests that surrounded the Keep, not to mention the towering snow-capped mountains that lined the valley, gave this land a vitality that was missing in his home.

And then there were the people of Metamor, many of them twisted into half-human, half-animal shapes. The first time he had been in the city, though he had known what to expect, it had taken all his training to keep from showing surprise at the myriad guises the men of Metamor possessed. Now, watching from a balcony at the many townsfolk going about their daily routine, noting the occasional tail, hoof, or paw, he thought it nothing more than an otherworldly charm that with time, any man could embrace.

If Felsah stayed another few days, he might experience that firsthand.

The priest sighed and lifted one hand to his face. Healer Coe’s art had saved his life, and he nearly had his full strength back. The bruises upon his cheeks and eyes were almost gone, though he felt the soreness still. But there was nothing holding him here in Metamor anymore. Madog could take him back to Yesulam anytime.

A stiff northerly wind brought his mind back to the present with its chill. Felsah pulled his black robe taut, trying to hold the warmth in. If he stayed, it would take him far longer to accustom himself to the weather than to the bestial shapes of the people, or even the pagan faith the majority of them practised.

With a sigh, Felsah returned to the small room in which he’d spent the last six days recuperating. He pulled the door shut behind him and went straight for the narrow hearth opposite the low bed. He took a poker and stirred the wood until the orange flames licked higher. He tossed on another log and then sat on his bed, enjoying the cushioning of the thick quilts while working the soreness out of his arms. It was the most comfortable bed he had slept on in months, a fact that dismayed his sense of clerical privation.

He was recovering from an injury, so he was able to forgive himself the luxury.

After the initial flurry of excitement his arrival brought, the Metamorians took little notice of him. The raccoon-man Brian Coe told him that he’d had a few angry visitors wanting to know why one of the Questioners had come back to Metamor, but they had all been turned aside by one of the soldiers that the fox Misha Brightleaf assigned to keep watch on him. The guards were not interested in talking with him, so for most of the last few days he’d only had his thoughts for company. Madog came by once a day to check on him, and each time he felt ten years younger; but there was only so much the automaton could do.

The Prime Minister had come by the previous day wanting to know all that was going on in Yesulam, and Felsah had told her as much as he could. Normally, he would never have said anything, but he was the guest, and owed Metamor a debt; he would do what he must to repay that debt.

It had been nice to have her company, even if only for a short time. But she left as soon as she was able, and now Felsah sat wondering what he should do. Coe had told him he was fit to travel late last night, but Madog had not come by since then. Did the automaton want him to stay at Metamor? And what if Felsah did, what would the curses make him? Would he be a child like Father Hough, or would he become some animal mix like Vinsah had? Then there was the truly unthinkable, becoming a woman. He did not want to have to leave the priesthood; despite the corruption he had seen, and the cruelty his elders were capable of, this was exactly what he wished to do and be.

His musings were interrupted by a knock on his door. “Please, come in,” he called, rising to his feet and straightening his black robe. It was wrinkled from days of use and had blood stains along the collar and arms, but it was all he had to wear.

The door opened and in stepped the red fox, Misha Brightleaf. The black axe he was reputed to carry was nowhere in sight. Felsah recognized the tightness in his muzzle, and saw a look of discomfort in his grey eyes. Felsah did his best to offer a welcoming smile, but so many years keeping his emotions hidden behind a mask blunted it.

“Welcome, Sir Misha. I’m sorry I have nothing to offer you.”

Misha shook his head and waved one paw. “Just call me, Misha, Father.” His grey eyes scanned the room, studiously avoiding the priest. “I hear that you are well enough to travel now. What are you going to do?”

Felsah folded his hands together and let his smile fade. “A part of me wishes to stay here at Metamor, I do not deny it. But there is much still to do at Yesulam. I will return there as soon as Madog can take me.”

Misha crossed his arms and nodded, staring at the bed as if he expected to find something there. “That is probably for the best. I know Malisa came to see you yesterday. What did you tell her?”

“You have not yet heard?”

Misha grunted and shook his head. “Not yet. They’ll tell me eventually, but I’d like to hear it from you. I take it something is happening in Yesulam that we ought to know about?”

“One thing at least concerns one of your citizens. Though he was not always that way.”

“Who?” The fox finally looked at him, those grey eyes piercing. Perhaps because they were slit like a beast’s, Felsah found them more unsettling than any other man’s he’d known, save for perhaps Father Kehthaek.

“Vinsah will be returning to Metamor by ship.”

“He arrived safely in Yesulam?” Misha asked, his face brightening.

Felsah sighed, but did not let his eyes fall. “Before you say anything more, let me describe to you what happened. When Vinsah arrived in Yesulam, he sent a message to Bishop Jothay of Eavey asking for Jothay’s protection while he was there. What Vinsah did not know was that Jothay was corrupted by the power of Marzac.”

“Marzac?” Misha snapped, his fur bristling. “Is there no evil that place cannot do?”

Felsah pursed his lips. “I have only learned part of what it has accomplished, but I do know that Jothay was responsible for arranging Patriarch Akabaieth’s assassination. The night I was wounded and Madog came for me, Father Akaleth and a group of Steppelanders were going to track Jothay down to put an end to him. I do not know if they succeeded, but I hope.”

Misha nodded slowly, his one ear folded back like an animal stalking prey. “So what happened to Vinsah? You said he is returning to Metamor.”

“Jothay betrayed him, and Vinsah was excommunicated.”

“What!” Misha barked, his voice rising without warning to full bellow. Felsah had grown used to people erupting in anger in his presence, but the quickness with which the fox went from intent curiosity to rage was startling even to him. “How could that be!”

Felsah sighed. “Jothay’s web of corruption was larger than we suspected. Vinsah walked right into a trap. Father Kehthaek made sure that Vinsah was safely delivered from the city. But there is more that you must hear. If you would sit, we can talk more comfortably.”

It took the fox several seconds before he was able to still his anger enough to actually sit down. His body was taut, ready to bolt at even the slightest signal. And as Felsah told him of the altar Akaleth had discovered, and Zagrosek’s presence in Yesulam, the fox only grew tenser and tenser.

Finally, when Felsah was finished, the fox growled. “I see why you want to go back to Yesulam. Somebody has to do something about all of this.”

“I can only hope that my friends succeeded the night I was wounded.” He ran one finger over the red cross on his robe. “We Questioners are meant to find evil in the Ecclesia and root it out. In the past this has always come from pagan influences at the borders of the Ecclesia’s domain. I never thought I would see it infecting the very heart of my faith. I don’t think anything else I have ever done will be as important as this.”

Misha nodded slowly. “Nothing will. You have to go and save your Ecclesia.” He grunted a moment and then looked Felsah in the eye. “I still don’t trust you Questioners, but you, Father, I think I can trust. I was wrong about you. You are a good man. If we ever see each other again, I will be glad of it.”

A smile broke out on his lips. “Thank you, Misha. I hope to see you and this place again. But for now I must return, before it is too late. Well, once Madog comes to take me back at least.”

“You ready, Father?” a third voice piped from behind the bed. Both Misha and Felsah turned to stare in shock at the smoky gray automaton who sat waiting by the balcony door. His tail wagged an inch off the floor, his eyes bright and eager.

Misha shook his head and smiled. “I guess it is time for you to go. Good luck, Father Felsah.” He extended a paw. The priest did not hesitate in shaking it.

“May Eli go with you, Misha Brightleaf.” Felsah stepped to Madog and rested one hand between the metal fox’s ears. “I’m ready, Madog.”

The fox yipped, and darkness grew around them. Felsah closed his eyes, and felt everything tangible fall away. Only the familiar touch of the automaton’s skin was left to him in this place between shadows. And it would be enough for the journey home. Somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard Misha’s voice shouting.

He would miss Metamor. But somehow Felsah knew that one day he would be back. That thought in mind, he smiled and let the journey through the darkness take away all other thought.

It was only the seventh of October when they reached the Pyralis river. In two weeks time, they had crossed a large portion of the Flatlands thanks to the remarkable speed of the Rheh Talaran. Somehow that magical velocity was transferred to the Nauh-kaee as well, because Geurnef, who flew alongside, had no difficulty in keeping pace with them.

It was more than that. Not only could the horses of the Tagendend fly when they rode alongside the Rheh, but they appeared heartier, rich with a renewed vitality that the Steppelanders could only marvel at. That vigour filled the Keepers as well, and for the first time since they had left the city of Qorfuu, even the Binoq Abafouq was laughing and smiling around the campfire.

But now that they could see the wide river separating the Steppe from the Pyralian Kingdoms, there was a palpable sense of loss in the air. Though the horsemen had never truly warmed to their wards, apart from the First Hunter’s son who took every chance he could get to talk with them and learn more about them, they still looked disappointed to have their remarkable journey come to an end.

“We shalt make camp here for the night,” Fultag said to Jerome, the only one of their company with whom he was at least companionable. “‘Twill be dark soon.”

“The moon has already risen,” Jerome pointed out to the eastern sky. A quarter of the moon was dark, but the rest was softly visible in the clear sky. “It looks as if there are villages along the shore’s other bank. It may be some time yet before we can leave.”

Fultag nodded but said no more, turning to his own people to oversee the erection of the tents. Jerome rode back to where the Keepers waited, his face apprehensive. Over the last two weeks, he had learned about Charles’s new friends, finding them both strange and familiar at the same time. He spent quite a bit of time talking with each of them, and after their initial uneasiness, most of them warmed to him.

The skunk Kayla was somewhat reticent at first, muttering something about another Sondeckis, but now they sparred together in the evenings. She would use both ancient blades, while Jerome would don metal bracers to protect his wrists. He had always fought with his hands. They would be joined by the donkey James and often by Lindsey the woodcutter.

But the sparring that Jerome most enjoyed was with his old friend Charles, who was not only a rodent, but also a creature of stone. Jerome had spent so many years of his life trying to find where his friend had gone, and then after finding him last year, pretending as if he were still searching, to journey in his company was a joy that more than made up for the agony surrounding their other friend. His heart ached with the thought that Krenek Zagrosek had been consumed by the evil of Marzac. He hoped they would be spared the pitiless task of confronting their old companion.

When Jerome reached the Keepers he gestured towards the river. All eyes were upon him. “Fultag says his people will set up camp here by the river. I’d say this is a terrible place to ford, but I doubt that will be a problem.”

The younger Åelf chuckled lightly. “No, it will not be a problem.”

“What of the other shore?” Jessica asked, wings crossed over her chest. “It looks like there are several villages. I can see Pyralian soldiers in the streets.”

“I think making camp now would be helpful,” Abafouq pointed out, casting a glance behind him to the white gryphon who was the most enigmatic of their party. Deep eyes fixed them all, ever intense, but also ever silent. “If the soldiers send riders along the river, they might take note that not your average Steppe horseman are we.”

“Too true,” Habakkuk agreed.

“I’ll get started on that,” James said. The donkey climbed off his Rheh with an affectionate pat on his neck. Both Lindsey and Habakkuk dismounted to help him. Kayla did as well only a moment later.

“Even so, we have to cross the river at night,” Jerome pointed out. “Jessica sees soldiers. They might be keeping watch over the border. Even if they’re not, they will report seeing a dozen horses flying across the river.”

“Unless they’re drunk,” Lindsey grunted as he began unrolling the heavy canvas tent.

“A state soldiers are often in,” Abafouq agreed.

“We have made good time across the Steppe,” the hawk pointed out, stretching her wings behind her. To properly ride, she had shrunken into a smaller form, though still large compared to any real hawk. Her voice was more caustic and harder to follow, but after the last two weeks, only when she spoke quickly did they have trouble understanding her. “But now we enter a land that may be mobilized against us. As long as we remain undetected, we can travel quickly. But there will be towns and villages, even cities, which means travellers, both merchants and perhaps even armies. We must be cautious.”

The skunk nodded, long tail lashing from side to side. “Jessica’s right.” Kayla gestured at the moon. “We need to wait until the moon has set before we try crossing the river.”

“The moon is only days away from being full,” Jerome objected. “We’ll have only a few hours of darkness to cross the river.”

“And that is all that we shall need,” Andares reminded him. “They are right. We shall wait. Qan-af-årael and I shall take our meal and retire. Wake us when the moon kisses the western horizon.”

Jerome grunted and glanced down at Lindsey. “I suppose we should take the watches. We’re the only ones who won’t catch their eye.”

“Wake me at midnight then,” Lindsey replied, not even looking up from the tent pole he was busy erecting. And with that, the rest dismounted wordlessly to help prepare both camp and their evening meal.

For a time, it seemed as if the two nearest towns and the Keepers were competing to see who would douse their fires last. Eventually, Lindsey let their fire turn to ashes, waiting as all the world fell to a sombre quiet. Only the gentle churning of water broke the silence.

The landscape was flat on either side of the river, allowing them to see for miles in any direction. The Pyralis side of the river, even where there were no homes, showed signs of cultivation, either from farmland, or more often from close-cropped grass. These people depended on fishing and shepherding for their livelihoods. Under the silver radiance of the moon, Lindsey could see old stumps dotting the riverbanks, but whatever forests had grown here had been cleared away ages ago.

The nearest town was a few miles upstream and consisted of a series of widely spaced homes clustered around a denser marketplace. Several boats were moored at a ramshackle dock, testifying to the paucity of the last few year’s catch. But as the night wore on, the group of soldiers that Jessica pointed out were still huddled around their fire on the eastern edge of town. They had to know the horseclan was here.

Downstream was a similar town, but the contingent of soldiers there was watching the South, so not as worrisome to the Metamorians. Lindsey hoped the soldiers would go to sleep, but even when the gibbous moon reached the western horizon, they were still up.

As quietly as he could, he crept to the Åelf’s tent and said, “Andares, the moon is on the horizon.”

The Åelf stirred so quickly that Lindsey wondered if he’d even been asleep. “Make ready to leave; once the moon has set we must go.”

“The soldiers to the west are still watching, so be very careful. They’ll notice if we make too much commotion.” Though Lindsey doubted he really needed to tell these enigmatic creatures to be cautious, much less anything else, it felt good to do.

One by one he went to each tent and brought the same message. Charles was already awake, one paw rubbing the broad leaves decorating his back, but the rest had all been sleeping. Yet after travelling together for the last three months through strange lands, all it took was a few words to bring them up from their rest.

Without the fire the night had grown cold. In the northern forests, the closeness of the vegetation had always brought a subtle warmth to the air. Upon the Steppe, even so near to Pyralis, that warmth could not be trapped and fled at the fire’s death. Before any of them emerged from their tents, they first dressed themselves in the heavy woolen cloaks that had worn in the mountains. Even the stone rat had donned a vest, though that was only to hide the bright Lothanasi symbols glowing on his chest.

Quietly, they began to tear down their tents, working as much as possible in their shadows where the soldiers wouldn’t see. Without a word, Guernef began walking northeast, keeping the Keepers between himself and the distant soldiers. They looked to the Binoq for an explanation, but he held out his palms in a gesture they knew to be the Binoq equivalent of a shrug.

By the time the tents were torn down, only a sliver of moon remained in the southwest.

“Everything’s ready,” James whispered. The donkey had a travelling pack slung over each shoulder. His ears were folded down at the side of his head, only faintly masking his silhouette. But the soft crunch of footfalls from the Tagendend camp brought them up again.

Qan-af-årael smiled and bowed his head towards the two figures. “First Hunter, the time has come for us to part. I thank thee for thy warding these last two weeks. May Brienne smile upon thy herd and thy kine.”

Fultag, his face shallow in the starlight was accompanied by his son Horvig. The look the boy who would soon be a man gave them was eager, but disappointed as well. He smiled to each of them but said nothing. The First Hunter bowed lightly to the ancient Åelf before saying in subdued tones, “Thy gift and the gift of the Rheh shalt be treasured by my people for generations to come. Already six mares show signs of the foals the Rheh hath given them. ‘Twill not be long ere the rest do the same. For this, I come to ask if there be anything more we couldst do for thee ere thee leave.”

Kayla did not wait for the Åelf to decline, as it appeared he would. She churred softly and pointed towards the still burning fire and the soldiers in the wast. “We need those soldiers looking at anything else. Could you have a dozen riders head upriver to draw their eye?”

Fultag did not look directly at the skunk but he did nod. “When shouldst we do this?”

“The moon has set,” Qan-af-årael replied. “You must do this now.”

“Then I shalt,” Fultag bowed one last time. “The gods watch o’er thee, honoured wards.” He turned to leave, but paused when his son didn’t.

“A moment, Father?” Horvig asked. Fultag said nothing, but resumed his walk back to the Tagendend camp. The youth smiled to them, and once his father was out of earshot said, “A part of me dost wish to go with thee. Thou hast brought such honour to my people, I feel we owe thee a debt too great to repay! If any of thee shouldst journey the Steppe again, thou wilt find a happy host in the Tagendend.”

“We shall miss you, Horvig,” Jessica replied fondly, her beak cracked in an avian grin. “The Tagendend will always be friends of Metamor.”

“Thank thee!” Horvig beamed, then bowed, looking quickly at each of them. “Brienne go with thee, and all the gods bless thee.”

“And thee, Horvig,” Charles said, offering him a gentle pat on the back. “Now we must go. The Rheh have come to say it is time.” And indeed, the lords of horses had approached them from the rear and now pawed the earth, anxious to be off.

The other Metamorians quickly said their goodbyes to the boy before securing their things to the Rheh. When they were ready to mount, they could hear Fultag and his riders begin galloping to the East. The Rheh clustered together once their riders were on their backs, and without so much as a sound leapt a few feet into the air.

As Horvig waved, the Rheh carried them slowly out over the wide river. Without the moon’s illumination, the river was a dark, eddying emptiness below them. Pinpricks of starlight danced on its surface, giving it a depth that was shockingly deceptive. The Metamorians held even tighter to the Rheh as they glided over that starry surface.

The river was several hundred feet wide, and the Rheh moved no faster than a trot. They kept low against the horizon, never once blotting out the stars in any direction. When not chancing vertigo by staring at the river below, the Metamorians watched the soldiers in the distant village. In a soft voice, Jessica told them that Kayla’s suggestion was working; they watched Fultag and his riders, not the river.

“Why are we going so slow?” Lindsey muttered under his breath, eyes warily casting between the soldiers and the Pyralian bank ahead.

Habakkuk, who was even more awkward in the saddle than James, pointed with one of his huge feet at the Rheh’s hooves. “If they run, their hooves ignite the air. If they do, the soldiers will certainly see us.” One of the Rheh grunted in agreement, and the Metamorians fell silent.

Though it took only a couple minutes, it felt like an hour before they reached the southern bank. Charles was not the only one to stare back across the gently burbling waters at the Tagendend camp. But only the rat fancied he saw the boy still watching them with awe in his face. “He was a good lad,” the rat said to no one in particular. “I hope my own children will be as wise and as noble at his age; well, half his age.”

James chuckled lightly and nodded, then turned to the elder Åelf, ears lifted high. “Where are we to go now?”

“There’s a small forest a few miles to the South,” Jessica reported. “We can take cover there while we decide how best to cross Pyralis.”

They readily agreed to this idea, and the Rheh set out at a springy gallop in the direction the hawk pointed. They continued to run through the air, but they moved no faster than a normal horse while the village was in sight. But after only a few minutes the ground began to roll, providing them with a shallow network of valleys through which to run. By the time they could see the forest in the distance – that is, they could see how it blocked the stars on the southern horizon – the village and the soldiers with it were hidden behind a range of hills.

The forest arose amidst denser scrub around a small series of brooks and streams. The ground had a gentle slope to the south and west, but near the streams it bunched together like a heap of clothes tossed upon the floor after a hard day’s work. It was too dark to see much, but the woods appeared to be dominated by walnut with some oak. They heard the hooting of a solitary owl, and the rustling of a badger or raccoon through fallen leaves nearby.

The Rheh brought them to a small hillock overlooking a stream and a small clearing. Rocks rose up from the ground on one side, against which leaves and fallen twigs had collected. Short moss was interspersed with grass beneath a layer of dead leaves. When the Rheh lowered to the ground, those leaves sizzled for a brief moment, but did not catch fire.

“The sun will rise in a few hours,” Qan-af-årael announced as he dismounted. “But we are safe here for a time.” When he set foot to the ground, they were all distracted by the sound of beating wings overhead. “Our friend Guernef has returned.”

And he was right. The Nauh-kaee landed in the clearing across the stream and then walked through it and up the hillock to join them. Abafouq rushed to his side and asked, “Did you see anything more from above?”

The white gryphon stretched his wings and avian talons before his squawking voice sounded. For the first time in many days, they each understood him clearly. “The forest continues for many miles south and west, but there are villages at its outskirts. I saw no sign of armies in any direction. The wind is very quiet.”

Jessica spread her wings and brought several globes of light into being. The witchlights rose into the air and hovered, illuminating the hillock in a pale radiance. “Well, we’re on our own again,” she said with a mild laugh. “Now what must we do?”

Kayla was already drawing a folded parchment from her satchel. She pointed at a flat section of ground. “James, can you lay a blanket over those leaves? I don’t want to get this wet.” The donkey nodded and spread his bedroll over the ground. He smoothed out the creases with Charles’s help. Once satisfied, the skunk began unfolding the parchment atop the makeshift table.

“That’s a map of Pyralis!” Jerome gasped in surprise. “An official map from the King’s own cartographer! How did you get that?” Even a poor merchant could find a map, but there was no guarantee that it would be accurate. But the map Kayla had produced was the most accurate of any, and only shared amongst the Pyralian King’s generals and chief counsellors.

She smiled, revealing her sharp teeth. “There are advantages to working with Metamor’s Chief of Intelligence.” A few of the Keepers snickered as they gathered around the map. The Rheh wandered down to the stream but for one who stayed to watch. Kayla drew one claw carefully along a blue line in the upper right corner of the map. “This is the Pyralis River, so we must be somewhere along it. I’d say here.” She pressed against a spot in roughly the middle of the river. “Which means we want to head South for a day, and then West until we cross the Breckarin River.”

“That’s a long way,” James noted.

“Probably as far as we crossed the Steppe,” Charles pointed out. “And it looks half the distance to Marzac.”

“Yes,” Kayla replied, her long tail pulling close to the back of her head. “We have to get to the river first. Now you can see most roads are East-West in the Eastern regions.”

“We cannot take any such road,” Lindsey grunted.

“We won’t,” Kayla agreed. “The major roads are to the south. If we cut across the middle of the country, the only thing we need worry about are these three roads.” She gestured to three North-South roads. “Almost all the cities are on the shore or near rivers. The middle of the country is mostly farms and pastures.”

“But can the Rheh safely move as fast as we did over the Steppe?” Habakkuk asked. The kangaroo was gently rubbing his side with one paw as he crouched.

Kayla shook her head. “Not everywhere, no. But there are large stretches where we can.”

Andares ran his finger over the map. “We are here, you said. What about this area to the southwest?”

“Guernef said that villages line the outskirts of the woods, and it looks like he was right. But once we are past them we can probably risk it for a few days.” Kayla scrutinized the map a moment more, then smiled and nodded. “Yes, I am sure we can do it.”

“Can you tell us how long it will take to reach the edge of the wood?” Abafouq asked.

Kayla glanced up at the sky and grimaced. Finally, she shook her head. “I'd need some special equipment to check star locations and get an exact fix on our position. I'm still just guessing where we are on the map based on our general direction of travel so far. Until we're able to find a distinct landmark to go by, I can't do any better.”

“Then,” Charles suggested, “we should just go now anyway. Jessica can pace us in the air. As soon as we reach the southwestern extent, we wait for nightfall to slip past. Afterwards,” he thumbed one of his saucer-shaped ears, “we’ll see then.”

One by one, they all began to nod, even the one Rheh who watched them. But it was the donkey who spoke. “I like it, but can we have something to eat before we ride again?”

The others laughed, even while their eyes cast warily about the cool darkness of the woods. After riding in the open on the Steppe, they now had to hide again. But just then, they weren’t going to worry. With smiles and good cheer, they prepared a morning meal and waited for the sun to come up.

The breadth of Pyralis could wait another hour.

The weather was beginning to cool in the Glen, and so Jo wrapped a bright red scarf around her neck before setting out for the day. It was time for the Glen’s Healer to make her rounds, so with basket of remedies in tow, she set paw to ground and started for her regulars.

There was the usual bevy of scouts and soldiers who spent too much time at Lars’s brewery the night before. They were the meat and potatoes of her trade, though there were days when she just wished she didn’t have to put up with groaning men who should know better! Still, like every one in the Glen, they were family. She thought of them as younger brothers who needed a good rap on the head from time to time; irascible and frustrating, but still family.

Most of her morning was spent on the regulars, as well as checking on one of the young archers who’d gone out to collect his arrows without first making sure nobody else was using the range. The shot had cut him along the side, a long wound, but shallow. Already he was showing good progress and would be well enough to get himself into more trouble in a few days.

The sun had been up for a couple hours by the time she reached the Matthias home. The tree stretched overhead, and out of the piping a column of pleasant smelling smoke rose. She could scent a small bit of meat mixed with fruits and nuts in that delectable odour. Jo smiled and poked her snout in the door. “Hello Kimberly! Baerle! I’m here!”

Before she could set foot in the main hall, several loud thumps echoed from above, and then came careening down the stairs. She was halfway into the door when four small forms bolted out of the staircase, dark eyes fixed upon her with young voices crying, “Jo! Jo!!” She smiled at the children, all of them adorable with their long pinkish tails, soft fur, big round ears, and long incisors sticking out of the front of their mouths.

From out of the kitchen came Baerle. The opossum had an apron draped around her middle with a small spoon in one paw. “Now children, let Miss Jo come in. Stop crowding her!”

The four children backed off, eyes still afire with eager mischief. Jo smiled at them. It had not been so long ago that she’d helped their mother birth them. They were growing into such sweet things.

“Good morning, Baerle. How are you?”

“Well enough. And yourself? Been long at your rounds?”

“Since the sun rose. I fear some of my charges did not appreciate their medications.”

Baerle laughed brightly at that. “Kimberly is upstairs. She has Ladero in bed.”

“Tied down probably,” Jo said with a smile, her tail wagging. She felt a paw try to grab at the tip and quickly turned. She saw the girl Bernadette standing next to her, looking up with innocent eyes. Jo laughed again and patted the little rat on the head. “I’ll go up and see them now.”

“Of course.” Baerle clapped her paws together and bent down, still holding the spoon tightly. “You four play down here where I can see you now.”

The little rats chorused in squeaking voices while Jo climbed the stairs. They came off the main room between the kitchen and hearth, and spiralled up to the right. The stairs were barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side, with only a single lamp halfway up to illuminate them. They opened onto a smaller room that was littered with small wooden toys, many of which had been chewed up by the children. Kimberly was sitting in a rocking chair next to one of the cribs reading from a book. Ladero poked his head up from the crib when Kimberly stopped reading.

“Jo!” Ladero piped, and then began to cough. It had a dry ragged sound, but did not sound serious.

Kimberly smiled to her and rose to her feet, gently cupping one paw behind her youngest son’s head. “I’m so glad you could make it, Jo. Is there anything we can get you? A bit of tea perhaps?”

“Thank you, Kimberly, but no, I have more chores to run still. If you like I can come back later and we can share that tea.” Jo set her basket down next to the crib. The rats were almost big enough to need new beds; in another month they would probably have them. “So, how are you feeling today, young man?”

Ladero and the other children were not even six months old yet, but already they were speaking a few words. “Good, jus’ coughin’.”

Jo nodded and put her paw to the child’s chest. “Take a deep breath,” she said and then demonstrated. Ladero watched her, long whiskers twitching curiously. Kimberly smoothed the fur behind his ears and smiled to him, nodding in approval. Ladero finally did as instructed, and Jo could feel his little chest expand. “Okay, now let it out.” The boy did so, and Jo smiled. “Very good! Can you do that for me again?”

All in all, she had him take five deep breaths. On the last he had another coughing fit, but it subsided quickly. “Well, he doesn’t feel any different from your other children. Because he’s a rat, I don’t know for sure if I’m looking at the right things, but I think he just has a cold. How long has he had this cough?”

“It started a little over a week ago. I wouldn’t have bothered you but he seems to cough more and more often.” Kimberly kissed her boy between the ears and gave Jo a worried look. “Is it just a cold?”

Jo smiled and nodded, patting the boy on the cheek. Ladero smiled and squeaked delightedly. “I’m sure it is. I think you should make some broth for him to drink and give it to him twice a day. You might also want to keep him indoors when its cold. If he isn’t improving in a week, let me know and I’ll take another look.”

Kimberly nodded while Jo fished into her basket for the right herbs. She hummed tunelessly to herself as she selected a few small bottles. “Yes, these should do I think. I’ll show you how to make the first batch of broth and then leave enough with you for a week.”

“Thank you, Jo,” Kimberly said, her face beaming with motherhood. She kissed her child again and bade him lie down again. “I’ll be back up in a minute with broth. You stay right here.”

“Aye, Mama,” Ladero pipped, snuggling into the covers. He clutched a small cloth dog to his chest in one arm.

Jo and Kimberly went back down the stairs together. “He really is a wonderful boy,” Kimberly said. “So strong, like his father. He always asks me when Dada is coming home.”

Jo put a hand on Kimberly’s shoulder. “Has there been any news?”

Kimberly shook her head, a tear forming in her eye. “No, nothing. I hope and pray every day, but there’s been nothing.”

“He’ll come back to you. He’s a man. Men are like that.”

Kimberly laughed, brushing the tear from her eye. “Yes, yes they are.” She smiled to the vixen and then hugged her suddenly. “Thank you for coming, Jo. You must come back for tea later.”

The Glen’s healer smiled warmly and returned the hug. “Of course, Kimberly. I’ll be back for tea. Now let’s get you these herbs so we can make Ladero well.”

Kimberly nodded and together the two of them joined Baerle in the kitchen. The other four children chased each other in the living room, squeaking merrily without a care in the world.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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