Natures Denied - Part V

Sir Saulius had run Charles through many of the same exercises that they’d done the day before. Charles found them only slightly easier that day, but he was still breathless with the excitement even after he dismounted and led Malicon back to the stables. The knight was instructing him in what his daily duties were going to be now that he was in training, but as he ran his paws along Malicon’s neck, he strangely did not mind so much. He rather enjoyed the opportunity to attend to the pony that was his own after all. Looking after Saulius’s steed as well seemed a small matter.

Of course, Saulius assured him that he would be there to show him how to see to their mounts’ needs for at least the first week. After that, Charles would be on his own. After rising in the morning he’d be required to make sure both ponies were curried and their horseshoes cleaned. He would then adorn them with their barding and saddle them. He was to have all of this ready by noon when Saulius would enter the stables to take them out into the yards. After that, Charles would train until the evening meal when he would replace the tack and barding, and make sure that both animals had their troughs filled. Once all that was done, the rat could then return home to eat and rest.

It would be a busy schedule, but Saulius assured him that he would allow his squire a day’s rest once a week. Despite his thrill, Charles knew he would very much look forward to that day of rest. And he pondered it all the while he put the tack away under Saulius’s supervision. It did not take nearly as long as he expected though, and soon, they had parted ways, and Charles was stumbling back over the grounds to his home.

Although he was still feeling the excitement of the yards, the mail shirt was beginning to weigh heavily upon him. It was strange how little he noticed it while mounted. But now that he walked upon his paws, he could feel every link in the armour bearing him closer to the ground. Perhaps Baerle would take it off him again. Now that she knew what to do with it, it’d be nice to have her attend to him once more. Kimberly certainly wouldn’t be able to do it in her state. He hoped that they both were okay. He had not said one word to either yet that day.

Stepping inside, he did not see either Baerle or Kimberly immediately. In fact, only one lamp was lit inside. He blinked and called out, “I hath returned!” he grinned a bit as the Flatlander accent slipped upon his tongue. But there was no return greeting, just the ticking of the clock on the mantle.

Grimacing, Charles closed the door behind him. There wasn’t even the scent of anything cooking. Both Baerle and Kimberly were home, that much he could smell. Kimberly was in their bedroom he wagered, while the opossum was upstairs. He quickly undid the lacing on his tunic and slipped it over his head. His whiskers twitched as the fabric brushed across them.

He was laying the oil-stained tunic across the arm of the couch when he heard the stirring of paws upstairs. He paused for a moment listening to Baerle moving towards the stairs. Her step, normally very light, seemed unnaturally ponderous. Still frowning, Charles lifted the mail shirt over his head, and carefully slid it over top the armour tree next to the door. The links clinked brightly as it settled, and a small smile pursed his muzzle as he watched them.

Turning back around, the smile faded quickly as he saw the opossum slip out the entrance, dressed almost negligently in plain brown tunic and breeches. But it was not her dress that caught his attention, but the resigned and pained expression upon her face. “Baerle?” he asked, stepping further into the poorly lit room. “Is something wrong?”

Baerle sighed then. “Welcome home, Charles. Kimberly’s...” her voice trailed away, though her face turned towards the tapestry that covered their door.

“What’s wrong Baerle?” Charles asked, picking up his tunic again and pulling it back over his head. “Is it because of last night? I’m sorry I was so rude to you. The stew was good.”

A faint flicker of a smile passed briefly across her muzzle, but then faded again. “It was last night, but not that.”

Charles grimaced then, pulled his chewstick from his side and began to gnaw upon it. He walked around the couches and put his free paw upon her shoulder, having to reach up as she was a head taller than he. “Baerle, please tell me what is troubling you. You look like...” he paused then, finding the memory of the last time she’d been so withdrawn and hurt as this.

“Yes?” she asked then, lifting her gaze to meet his, as if daring him to say it there in his own home.

“You look like that first time I saw you after I returned,” he finally managed to say. “Sit down. You need to.”

Baerle took a deep breath, her body tensing for a moment, before she slipped out from under his touch and let herself fall into one of the seats. She slumped defeated in the cushions. Charles settled in next to her, though he kept a little space between them. “What happened last night?”

Sighing again, Baerle looked down at her paws, clasped before her in her lap. “I was upset, and I had too much to drink.” The opossum’s voice caught then, as if she had been about to say something more but thought wiser of it. “A lot of things became clear last night. I just don’t know what to think of them.”

Charles frowned and laid a paw on her shoulder, gently massaging it through her tunic. “Baerle, you are part of our family now. Whatever it is we can handle them together.”

She shook her head then, fresh tears beginning to brim upon her cheeks. “Yes, your family. I’ll never have my own!”

“What do you mean?”

Her voice was bitter then. “You’ll have five children soon, Charles. I’ll help raise them, they’ll even suckle from my own breasts. My milk will feed your children, Charles. But they will never be my children. I will never have a child of my own feeding from my breast. Never!”

He felt the tension filling him to the point that he had to gnaw again, but he fought the urge down. “Do you mean?”

“Say it, Charles.”

The rat found it even harder then to keep the chewstick away from his incisors. They longed to gnaw upon it, to send every frustration he felt into that twig. He had to fill himself with the Sondeck, reaching to his Calm just to keep himself from acting like a common rodent. “Is it because of what we did? Or didn’t do?”

He could not tell if she was more annoyed with him or relieved that he spoke thus. Just speaking the words where Kimberly might hear them was an agony to him, but he knew he couldn’t stop now. Nor could he invite Baerle upstairs to speak more privately. With any luck, Kimberly was asleep. He flicked an ear back to listen, but he heard nothing but the faint rustling of the tapestry as the fabric rubbed against itself.

“No, Charles, that is not why I can’t have children.”

Charles blinked, wondering what it might be. There had been the smell of a skunk upon her clothes the previous night. He’d thought that she might still be so smitten by him that she couldn’t be with another. Perhaps she could, and perhaps she’d become so inebriated last night that she’d lain with a skunk. Berchem? He could not think of any other skunks in the Glen, and they certainly had reason to be close, both being archers.

But if being able to be intimate with another was not the problem, then what could it be. He looked Baerle over, from her triangular head and snout, the white tips of her whiskers sagging from her muzzle, down across her ample chest and lithe body, until he realized he was staring at her belly. It was flat, much as Kimberly’s had been before she’d become pregnant.

“Eli!” he swore then, feeling the weight of realization crash upon him like the blow of a lance. “Are you barren, Baerle?”

The annoyance fled her face with that single question. The opossum lowered her gaze once more to her paws. She had grabbed the fabric of her breeches and was twisting it in her paws. Slowly, very slowly, she nodded. “Yes. I found out last year before I met you.”

Charles stared at her, wondering what it was he felt. Sympathy of course. But it was more than that, and he was not sure what more it might be. “I’m so sorry. I... I had no idea.”

“Almost nobody knows,” Baerle said, her voice low. “Burris knows as he is the one who told me. And one other. But he won’t tell. He never talks about that.”

“Who?” he asked it even though he felt certain now that he knew the answer.

“When I told him that I was barren, he cast me from his life, and wanted nothing more to do with me. I had hoped that he’d love me despite it, but he just wanted a child.” Baerle slumped further. Charles slipped his paw further along her back then, pulling her closer. She leaned then against him, and he found his shoulder bracing her own, even as her ears rubbed along the curve of his own. “I couldn’t tell anyone else about it afterwards. I was so afraid they’d just leave me too...”

“I don’t want you to leave,” Charles said in a sotto voice. His arm slipped along her back until he was holding her other shoulder too. “I know things have been strange between us, but I want you to stay.”

“You don’t want a child by me either,” Baerle snapped then, though she did not move.

“Who did?” Charles asked again, rubbing his claws against her tunic. “Berchem?”

She stiffened for a moment, and it was all the answer he needed. “Did you see him last night?” Baerle nodded, ear brushing over his own. “What happened?”

“It was a mistake.” Baerle said. “We were both drunk, we should never have done anything. I said...” but her voice cracked then, as the tears began to spill forth. “I’m sorry, Charles,” she managed, but it was the last intelligible thing she managed. For several long moments she just sobbed into his cheek and shoulder. Her paws struck at his chest and back, though lightly. He held her the whole time, gently rubbing his paw back and forth to soothe her.

Charles felt his heart ache as he listen to her sob. He wished he could have done something more to help her, but what could he do? Perhaps if he had not let her think he was in love her back during the assault, things would not have come to this. Would he have gone back and changed it if he could have? As he turned his snout to face her on the couch, he realized that he would not change what had passed between them. He had enjoyed her attention, and especially her company. What did that say about him?

Charles pushed the thought from his mind as he held the weeping opossum. She continued to cry for several more minutes in which he had catalogued a long list of reasons that he was a foul creature undeserving of love. But he stayed there until she finally lifted her head once more, rubbing at her eyes with her paws. “I’m sorry, Charles. I got your tunic wet.”

“It was stained from the armour already. You didn’t do it any harm.”

His words did not comfort her any. Baerle looked away, tears still in her eyes, though no longer flowing. “I know that I have not always done the right thing. But I don’t think there is anything else I could have done.”

“I was wrong to not tell you before I did,” Charles replied softly. “I liked what you were doing too much. I still do.”

Baerle’s gave remained upon her paws. “I know. I did not understand it until last night when... when...” and then she dissolved into sobs again. Her whole body shook with their force, her tail lashing about behind her, nearly smacking Charles across his face.

“Baerle,” Charles said, ducking his head around the tail and clasping her paws in one of his own. “What happened to you last night?”

It took her several moments to still her wracking sobs enough to speak. “I offended Berchem, and he cast me out of his home. I shouldn’t have gone there. I shouldn’t have been with him.”

Charles frowned, and then felt something kindling inside of him. “Did he hurt you?” he asked, more than the hint of a growl upon his tongue.

“He...” she stammered then, looking away, though her paws held his just as tightly as he hers. “He struck me.”

Spitting out a hiss of rage, Charles tightened his grip, feeling his sudden anger filling and magnified by his Sondeck. “How dare he!” He began to rise from the couch, murderous thoughts floating in his eyes.

“No!” Baerle cried out then, pulling him back down upon the couch. “Please don’t!”

“He hurt you, Baerle! I will not stand for it!” He drew himself up again, trying to wiggle his paw free from her grip. But the opossum kept her own fingers wound about his paw so tightly that he began to yank at his arm. “Let me go! I have to teach a lesson about respect for a lady to that knave!”

“No!” Baerle insisted, her face flush with sudden new fear. She jumped up form the couch and wrapped both her arms about his chest. “Stay! Don’t do this!”

“Baerle, he hurt you. I have to do this!” Charles replied, indignant, prying his fingers underneath one of her arms as it pressed against his chest. His claws worked through the short fur of her arm, slowly burrowing beneath.

“Then you have to take me with you,” Baerle replied, now circling her legs across his front, pinning his thighs together.

“Baerle! Stop!” Charles called out, suddenly immobilized as her legs pressed his own together. Now off balance, the rat tipped to one side, and the both of them crashed to the floor. Baerle let out a yelp as her arm was smashed beneath them. Turning over quickly, the rat rolled off of her arm, and looked back at her, his anger fleeing him as concern for her took its place. “Are you all right?” He gripped her paw in his, and inspected her arm.

“I think it’s fine,” she replied, smiling wanly.

“It’ll be sore though,” Charles said, running his fingers across her arm, feeling at the bone beneath. It seemed solid though, so he must not have broken anything. “I don’t think it’s broken.”

Baerle nodded, but let him continue his inspection. He pressed firmly up along her arm, sliding the sleeve of her tunic up to her shoulder to make sure that he’d examined it all. As he pressed his fingers into fur and flesh beneath, she said softly. “Please don’t be angry with him. He was drunk just as I. Neither of us were very wise that night.”

“That’s no excuse. He should know better than to treat a lady that way.” Charles finished his examination and pulled her sleeve back down over her arm. The anger he’d felt before had cooled, but the fire was still in his bones. The Sondeck had been given fuel, and it wished to burn. It sought release. And just then, he wanted to release it into a brutish skunk.

“If you do this, everyone will know what happened.” Baerle said, her voice strangely alm now. The pain that had been there was absent, as if the weight of it had been completely lifted from her. “If you do this,” Baerle looked up, catching his own gaze, their eyes locking together in a tight rapport, “then my shame will be known by all.”

Charles opened his muzzle, but could find no words to say. She was right, and he felt the anger that resided in his Sondeck was now turning inwards. He seethed, furious at himself for letting his anger nearly cause her harm. And furious that could not give the skunk the drubbing he so richly deserved. But if Berchem would hurt her because she was barren, then it was a secret best kept. Sighing, though his own anger was still not quelled, he asked, “Does Kimberly know?”

Baerle nodded then, glancing to the doorway where the tapestry hung. The fabric moved slightly from the air. “I told her last night while you were out. The news upset her.”

Charles frowned, and looked upon the tapestry, slowly rising to his hind paws. “I think I should check to see if she is all right.” He looked back down at the opossum. “Will you be all right, Baerle?”

She took a deep breath and nodded, also rising to her hind paws. “I think so. I’m going to go lie down for a short while. If you like, I can make you both dinner later.”

The rat nodded, before pulling her into a warm hug. She returned the gesture, her muzzle brushing alongside his cheek. “We shall see. I’m sure Kimberly will need something to eat. Now you rest. Dinner can wait for a little while.” He smiled to her and stepped back. She returned the smile, turned, and slipped up the stairwell.

Taking a deep breath, Charles turned to his bedroom, and pushed aside the tapestry. It was even darker beyond, for no lamp had been lit in the room. He sniffed the air, Kimberly was certainly there. He could hear her shifting about in bed. “Kimberly?” he called softly.

“I’m here,” she replied. There was a little light coming through where he held aside the tapestry, and he could make out the outline of her form curled atop the bed. He let the tapestry fall back into place, taking away what light he’d had. But he knew the way blindfolded, and soon climbed up atop the bed beside his wife.

“Are you well, milady?” he asked, feeling across the covers with one paw until he found hers and clasped it. Her fingers curled about his own.

“I... I think so. I missed you.” Her voice was soft, distant. Charles felt it stab at his heart, breaking the last hold the anger had over him. He drew closer, and wrapped his arms about her completely. She pressed into him, her head cradled against his chest.

“I’ve missed you too, milady. My wife.” Charles licked across one of her ears then, and held her tightly. It was some time before either of them moved again.

Charles was not the first to awake the next morning. Baerle was up early, preparing breakfast for them both. Kimberly still lay curled about him, her arms draped over his chest, foots paws tangled in his own. But she stirred when he did, and her smile was warm and content. Leaning over, feeling the thick warmth of sleep slowly ebbing, Charles kissed her upon her brow, feeling the short fur tickling against his teeth.

“Sleep well, my lady?” Charles asked as he slid one paw across her arm, his claws spreading out her light brown fur.

“Once you held me.” Her voice was soft, musical.

“Feeling better?” He lifted his paws up over her shoulders as they snuggled together under the blankets. She nodded and rested her head upon his chest. Smiling to himself, he let his fingers gently trace along the curve of one ear. Her ear twitched at first, but she learned to keep it still. His fingers glided across the soft fleshy surface, feeling the warmth it held. Charles could not help but think them beautiful.

And then his own ears turned as he could hear the clanging of pots from the kitchen. He lifted his head into the air and sniffed. Baerle’s scent was in the air, as was that of eggs and bread. “It sounds like Baerle is making breakfast.”

Kimberly nodded as she lay against him. “It is nice to have her here, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Charles replied, thinking back to the way the opossum had been last night. He still wished to bring some retribution to that skunk Berchem for hurting her, but knew he could not unless Baerle permitted him to. “She told you she was barren?”

Kimberly frowned, but kept her head against him. “Amongst other things.” While Charles pondered that remark, he felt her paws slowly rubbing through the short lighter fur on his belly. His tail twitched some beneath him, suddenly feeling chilled at the thought of what she might say next. “Baerle told me that you were together during the assault, and that she had to attend to you after your injury. You haven’t talked much about it, but you never do. You never talk about your missions either. I know you don’t want to frighten me or worry me. But I have to know this. Did anything pass between you and Baerle during the assault?”

The question was a stab into his heart. It was the question that he had feared her or any other asking ever since Baerle slapped him after being told of Kimberly’s existence. It was in that moment that he understood exactly how she had felt about him, and how he had enjoyed the way she had treated him. It was something he had hoped Kimberly would never discover, though he knew it would be inevitable after Baerle began to become part of both their lives. And now it had been asked.

Stilling his trembling flesh, Charles sat further up in the bed, gently helping Kimberly to sit up as well. He placed one paw on her belly, and did his best to keep his eyes focussed upon hers. But they strayed, oh how they strayed. “Kimberly, if you are asking if I set out to be with her in a dishonourable way, the answer is no. I never sought her out. We found ourselves placed together. She flirted with me, yes. She even kissed me. I never told her to stop, nor did I ever tell her I was already engaged to be married. I just kept telling myself that nothing was happening. When I finally told her that I was engaged, she struck me hard and fled in tears. I stopped lying to myself then.

“I never stopped thinking of you though. I never stopped worrying. As soon as I was able, I came back to Metamor for you. But I never told you, and for that I am terribly sorry.” Pulling his eyes back up from the quilt where they wandered again, Charles could see that unsettling distance once more filling her eyes. “I was wrong to hide this, Kimberly. But now you know. We can go from here. I want to be here for you.”

Kimberly nodded then, and put one paw to his muzzle. “I know, Charles. I know. I love you, and I want to be with you the rest of my life. Baerle told me some of this already. I just needed to hear it from you as well. Do not worry about Baerle either. She’s my friend, and I still want her with us.” She lowered her paw to cover Charles’s own, and she smiled, warmth filling her eyes once again. “I know you love me more deeply than you know, Charles. Let us see what Baerle has prepared for us to break our fast.”

Smiling, Charles nodded. He kissed her once more, much more forcefully this time, before he got up to help her get dressed.

When Charles finished his share of the eggs and toasted bread, he downed a goblet of juice and rose from his seat on the couch next to Kimberly. She had already finished her meal, even though it had been twice as large, and then she’d begun to snatch bits of egg from his plate as he ate. Baerle sat across from them quietly over her own plate, but she smiled when they smiled to her.

“Well, that was excellent, Baerle,” Charles announced with a wide grin. “But I must go and practice once more. Sir Saulius expects me to tend to the horses in the morning as well as ready for the joust. Like a good squire I suppose.”

Kimberly lifted her paw, and he clasped it in his own. “Be careful, Charles,” she said, smiling up to him.

“I shall,” he replied, bending over and gently kissing the top of her paw. “I shall be in the clearing should you need me, my Lady.” She said nothing else, and so Charles walked over to the armour tree, and slipped the chain mail over his head. The rings clinked heavily as he wriggled into it. “I’m starting to get used to this thing I think.”

Baerle held out his green surcoat, his squire’s tunic as Charles had dubbed it. He smiled to her once, and thanked her, pulling that over the chain mail. “Now I best be off. Both of you have a good day.” He smiled once to each of them, blew Kimberly a kiss, and then walked out the door. It closed quietly behind him.

“He looks so handsome like that,” Baerle mused to herself, before sitting back down opposite Kimberly.

“Yes,” Kimberly said quietly. Her smile had vanished. But the rat saw her friend looking at her, and managed to smile once more. “Yes, he does look very handsome. Baerle, there is something I want to tell you. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said to me, and what Charles’s has said both to me and to you last night.”

“You could hear us?” Baerle asked, looking surprised. She felt anxious, wondering what Kimberly would say. But she steeled herself, knowing that whatever was said, she would be able to accept it.

“I was listening. I watched too. I am glad you stopped Charles from attacking Berchem. That would have made things worse, and I probably would have had to ask you to leave. I’m not going to do that now. I still want you to be a wet nurse for my children. You are still my sister, Baerle. I...” she faltered then, and grimaced, shifting upwards in her seat. Her tail tip twitched some as she rested one paw on her distended belly. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Baerle lowered her head then and nodded. “Thank you, Kimberly. I want to do this for your children.”

“And for Charles’s children,” Kimberly added. “I know how you feel about him now, Baerle. I should have seen it sooner though. I can recall the hints now. The glances, the hushed words. You’ve been in love with him all the time I’ve known you. It’s hard for me to accept that, Baerle. It is. My father had several wives and it is still hard for me to accept. But I do.”

She paused then, rubbing one paw across her belly again. “If I didn’t think that you would respect both myself and Charles, I would feel differently. I trust you around him, Baerle. I know that you would never seek to entice him because of your love for me. But you need love too. Being barren, there are few men who could love you. Men want wives who will bear them heirs, no matter how little they have to pass on. You can’t do that, Baerle. I wish that you could, and I know you do as well. But you need another who will love you too.”

Kimberly began to shake slightly, but she forced herself to look at the opossum opposite her. “What has been harder for me to accept is that I think Charles loves you too.” Baerle lifted her own head in surprise at this. Secretly, she had hoped he would love her too, but she’d never believed it possible. “He doesn’t understand it, but I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice last night. Until he spoke with me honestly this morning, I wasn’t sure, but now I am.” She tensed herself then, paws clasping over her belly, fingers laced together so tightly that the pink flesh whitened.

“Kimberly?” Baerle asked timidly after several moments of silence.

“Charles has enough love for two,” Kimberly said at last. She lifted her eyes then, and looked at Baerle. “I’m willing to let him love you Baerle if he will. I don’t think I could ever be there if it should happen. He’s my husband, and I love him more than I can say. But I want you to know love too. If Charles can give it to you, then I will understand. But if he does not, in say a year’s time, then perhaps you should look to others again.”

Baerle say dumbstruck, her jaw hanging open as she heard Kimberly’s words. She finally managed to close her muzzle, and work her tongue, though it felt difficult to control. “Kimberly, I... I... you can’t be... be... serious can you? You would let me... let me pursue your... your husband?”

“When you two are alone, yes. Don’t tell Charles I said so.” Kimberly looked away again, nearly on the verge of tears. “I think I need to lie down again.”

Baerle got up and stood at her side. “Let me help you to your bed, Kimberly. I... I don’t know if I can entice him. He is very faithful to you.”

Kimberly smiled slightly at that. “I know. But if he will...” she said no more, merely letting Baerle help her to her hind paws. “Thank you, Baerle.” Together, they crossed to the tapestry. Baerle pushed that back, and they both slipped into the rat’s bedroom. Baerle stayed at her side the whole way, helping her climb up on top of the bed, laying atop the quilts.

“Is there anything I can bring you?” Baerle asked, still shaking a bit herself, but managing to keep it inside.

“Not right now. I think I shall just rest. Thank you, Baerle.”

“Of course, my lady,” Baerle said as she slipped once more out the door.

Once the tapestry fell back into place, Kimberly lay staring at the rings of the tree in the ceiling above. “I love you, sister,” she whispered, though her words were caught only by the air.

It was fitting that Guernef would return at the beginning of dawn. Abafouq had tired himself out from all his pacing and had finally collapsed upon his pallet. He was still there, wrapped in the thick quilts when the mighty snow-white eagle’s head nudged his side gently.

Abafouq blinked open and stared into that massive black beak and white plumage. “Tequ’s Breath and Foqo’s Fire! You’re back!” Abafouq reached out his arms and pressed them around the avian neck. Guernef squawked in surprise, but made no move to stop him.

“You’re things are packed already. Good,” Guernef said, his voice the shrill cry of a great bird, though the meaning was plain in the Binoq’s mind. “If you are rested, then we will be off.”

Abafouq let go of the Nauh-kaee’s neck and looked over at his pack. “Yes, I’m ready. Should we blow out the sconces?” A small bit of fat oil kept the sconces set in the walls lit with tender but bright flame. So far as Abafouq knew, they were never extinguished. But there were many things in the cave that they would have to leave behind. He’d brought few possessions with him when he’d begun seeking out the Nauh-kaee themselves, and so only a few of the clothes he’d stitched for himself since coming to the cave would remain.

“No,” Guernef said. “They will burn until our return.” Abafouq felt a sudden twinge at that statement. Would he be coming back to this lonely stretch of the Tabinoq after bringing the Keepers to Nafqananok?

That thought filled him with dread. But he fought it aside for the moment as he rose from his pallet and picked the pack up in his hands. He set it upon the table for a moment as he retrieved his heavy travelling coat, drawing that over his short form. The hood he slipped over his face, the mask covering him once more, protecting him against the elements. In a few weeks once they were out of the higher reaches he would no longer need that.

Finally, pulling the pack across his back, he turned and nodded to the Nauh-kaee. “I am ready.”

“Then we go. The winds are well today.” Guernef turned about, his leonine tail flicking back and forth as he rather calmly strode up the wide stairs towards the cave entrance. He was so nonchalant, Abafouq felt for a moment that they were going nowhere in particular, perhaps even for a quick jaunt around the mountainside. But as he set foot on the first of those steps, he knew in his heart that his dream was coming true. He was finally going to see the players in this tale, and perhaps be one himself.

Abafouq could not help but glance back over his shoulder at the cave. The pallet in the far corner where he had slept for the last five years looked forlorn now. The table, cleared away of all implements, where he had often sat to eat his meals, was an empty shell. The walls were the same, but they seemed hollow. And there was a curious sighing in the very air, as if the cave itself were breathing, no, weeping at their departure.

Shivering at the thought, Abafouq returned his gaze to the departing Nauh-kaee, and hurried after his keeper. Guernef nudged aside the heavy skins that framed the doorway, and spread his white wings as he stepped out onto the promontory. Abafouq carefully replaced them after stepping out into the cold, his boots holding him firm even on the slick ice coated rocks.

The sun had just risen in the East, and the peaks glimmered with the yellow radiance. He shielded his eyes with a forearm for a moment, even as his other arm loosed the pick at his side. Hefting the iron tool, he trudged forward, along the downward slope that wound to the West.

Abafouq breathed deeply as he feet began that climb. He did not look back at the fur covered cave entrance. Once his eyes had adjusted to the brightness outside, he gazed only at the path his keeper had set for him, following the Nauh-kaee’s paw prints. Taking a deep breath, he smiled for a very long time.

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