Rites - Part IV

Jurmas was delighted by all the business the Longs and their families were presenting to him. In fact, almost every room he had was immediately filled. Charles felt sorry for James, who was working at the Inn that day, who had to make sure that all of the rooms were swept and dusted before they were to be assigned. While the donkey was furiously trying to prepare all ten rooms requested, the Longs all sat at the tables in the Commons room supping and drinking.

The room was so full of cheerful people, Jurmas could have extinguished the blaze in his hearth, and the room would still have been warm. Not only had each of the Longs come, except for Arla and Kershaw, but they had brought every member of their family along to celebrate. Several children sat at one of the tables all clustered together, joking and sometimes warranting a stern look from a parent when a drink was spilled, or they started pushing each other. Charles was told frequently by the parent’s that he had quite a lot to look forward to when his child arrived.

Kimberly returned with the ladies about an hour later, and after depositing whatever finds she had made in the forest somewhere that Charles would never look, she joined them at the table, after herself being hugged by the female Longs and warmly congratulated by the rest. Charles thought that she was beginning to look pregnant now, the grey dress she wore stretched around her middle in a noticeable bulge. It was slight, but he could see it now.

As they sat, Charles and Kimberly held their paws together. She smiled to him warmly, even as the Longs about them noisily went about eating, drinking, and merrymaking. Leaning over his shoulder, she pressed her muzzle within his ear and whispered just loud enough that he could hear, “Tomorrow.”

He turned then and blinked, staring at her with wide dark eyes. “Tomorrow?” he asked, trying to understand what she meant by that. “What happens tomorrow?”

Kimberly smiled and pointed to her belly with her free paw. “We find out,” she said, her voice brisk, but ever so pleasing upon his ears.

Charles blinked one more time, before his whole body went stiff, heart trembling from understanding. Tomorrow he would know what sort of child was growing within her womb. He nearly fell backwards from his seat then, but Misha caught him with one arm. “You better be sure you tell us too!” the fox declared, his face bright, even as his other paw gripped a mazer.

“It’ll be right after the baby shower,” Kimberly announced proudly, her face all smiles and delight.

“Where will that be?” Caroline asked excitedly.

“At our home,” Kimberly replied, sitting a little taller. “We want to get started by noon.”

Misha grunted, “We’ll have the men’s party at Lars’ then. I think we’ll use up enough of Jurmas’s wine and food tonight!”

Charles chortled a moment. “You know, if we keep this up, every time I see you I’m going to expect a grand party with lots of food and drink!”

Most of the Longs laughed at that, some even raised their glasses in salute to the idea. The fox was one of them. “Being together is always reason enough to celebrate, Matt. Always!”

A short time later, the Long Scout children were led by the Avery twins and the other Glen children out into the trees. As they had spent their lives living in the Keep, most of them were utterly enthralled by the huge trees, as well as the rustic lifestyle here. It was strange to them not to have any stone buildings crawling upwards to the skies. While their parents watched nervously, their children disappeared up amongst the trees, screaming and giggling delightedly at their bit of adventure.

The table in Jurmas’ Inn quieted somewhat after a while. The men and women slowly began to split off, each clustering in their own little groups to talk. Misha and Caroline were the last to separate, so firmly did the fox have his arm wrapped about her lutrine shoulders. But part they eventually did. The women all spoke quietly at a separate table, many times giggling and casting surveying glances over at the men’s group. The men were more full-throated, at least the unmarried ones. Their eyes narrowed especially when they felt the mirthful gaze of the women upon them.

They could not sit talking all day long of course, and so before they lost too much of the sun, the men all left the Inn, and were led by Charles about the glen. He showed each of them the various sites, the homes in the trees, and those under the trees. He pointed out the shops set back towards the mountains, and even rattled off the names of the trees, telling what he knew of each of them.

It did no take much convincing to get them up into the trees themselves. Charles was very eager to show them the lofty heights that he had learned to scale and make his home. He took them in a tight circle about the Glen, bringing them out to the edge of the highest trees before the western mountains to watch as the sun began to dip towards the jagged horizon. He pointed out how the mountains themselves were a kind of calendar, showing them the tips of various peaks, and how one could determine the date just by seeing where the sun set amongst them.

They did not wait for the sun to set before returning to the ground of course. While they still had some light, Charles took them to the archery grounds, where each of them made one shot. To the rat’s delight, most of them actually managed to hit the target through the close-leaning tree trunks. Charles himself was a claw’s breadth away from the centre of the target itself.

But as the evening wore on, the shadows grew long, until all that was left was the shadows of twilight. The Longs returned to find their women and children, to see what mischief they had managed to get up to. Eric, Lisa’s ten year old son, had scrapped his knee while trying to jump from one branch to another, but otherwise, the children were all fine. The nerves of the mothers were a little strained, but again, nothing was damaged.

When they sat down to take their evening meal, once more at the Inn, little was said of the child that Charles and Kimberly would soon have. Instead, talk revolved around the lives of the other Longs, and the lives of Keepers in general. They spoke of the rebuilding of Euper, and that of watchtowers to the North. There was even talk about the cities just North of the Giant’s Dike, and how many had broken free from Nasoj’s control. There was hope yet of reestablishing trade with them, though there was still much to be done before that could happen. The bridge north would have to be repaired for one.

There was little in the news that upset Charles. Rumours of growing tensions between the Midlands, Pyralis, and Sathmore were about the only new that could have, but they were still just rumours. When asked, Misha spoke highly of the new chief of intelligence, though he did temper his remarks by saying he was a very cold man. Left unsaid was how Misha felt he compared to Phil, gone now two months to his homeland. Of what led Charles to the Glen, nothing was said, nor even hinted at.

And so when they parted for the night, they did so happy, full of good cheer, good food, and good drink. Charles walked back alone to his home, the fire still burning in the hearth in the main room. Kimberly was laying in bed, but not asleep. He slipped in beside her quietly, wrapping one arm over her chest. Her paws reached up to touch his arm, short claws stroking through his fur. He gently licked the side of her ear as their bodies warmed each other.

“Will you need to go out with Lady Avery anymore after tomorrow?” Charles asked at last into the silence.

“No, today was the last day for that.” Kimberly’s voice was muffled by the pillow she lay against. “I’m so excited, I don’t think I can sleep.”

Charles let his muzzle curl upwards in a private smile. The only light in the room was the orange glow coming from the flames crackling in their bedroom hearth. His mind was a little foggy from the drink he’d had that evening, but not nearly to the extent it had the last few nights. “Then we can just lay together here like this,” he said softly, nuzzling at her ear again, whiskers dragging along the back of her head.

Kimberly pressed back close into him, her tail brushing against his thighs. He lifted one leg slightly, letting her tail slip then between them, only to find his own, where they curled together. There was nothing quite like that feeling, his flesh so closely entwined with her own. No creature without a tail could possibly hope to understand how close it kept them.

The flames continued to dance before his eyes, casting her form in pale shadow, the tips of her fur catching and glinting subtly in the light. He breathed deeply, smiling contentedly. As his eyes drooped, he was certain he heard her mouth quietly into the still night, “I love you.”

He hoped that she heard him whisper it back to her. Because a moment later he fell asleep, holding his wife in his arms.

“Now, Charles,” Meredith, the bear whose great bulk had shrivelled since his injuries had lain him abed much like an autumn leaf sucked dry so only the veins shown, said in a professorial tone. “There is one thing you must learn to cherish n’these waning days of your youth.”

Charles, whose eyes had once more become distracted by the green Long Scout banner that hung from the rafter’s above, turned to consider the ursine who lay back in a chaise brought in to make him more comfortable, and to prevent him from injuring himself further. “And what is that?” he asked, paw gripping the wooden mazer tightly. It was his first beer for the day, and he was nursing it very slowly.

Meredith on the other hand was already well into his cups, what girth he still had left to him sloshing back and forth as if it were filled only by the mead that his fellow bear Lars liberally provided. His smile was wide, showcasing a large array of yellowed teeth, some rather large and sharp, meant for rending tender flesh. Most Metamorians were used to seeing such a smile now, as many of them bore one themselves.

“Sleep, my good rat! Sleep!” Meredith added with a laugh, his speech beginning to slur. His r’s rolled off his tongue like a child’s ball lathered in honey. “They cry n’the night so loud to wake the dead.”

Allart, who was standing a few paces beyond gave a hoarse laugh at that, his own youthful face creased by many such sleepless nights. “You are the dead those nights! When my little girl was younger, ‘twould take hours to calm her once she woke. And damned if she didn’t yowl for the silliest of reasons. Half the time I ne’er found out what it was! Just sat there holding her in my arm, rocking back and forth, hearing a cry so foul ‘twould have scared a horde of Lutins to retreat!”

Charles ran one claw along the rim of his mazer, as he stood in the circle of his friends. All the men that had come from Metamor were there in Lars’ brewery, as well as many of the Longs. At the moment, the rat was with all of the fathers amongst the Longs, hearing their advice and admonitions. The children were once more scampering about the Glen with only the Lord’s twin sons as their stewards. The women were clustered within his home, sharing gifts and whatever motherly advice they could give.

Unbeknownst to him, Lord Avery had sent out Berchem and Angus that morning well before dawn. They took a handful of scouts with them, as well as a few stout poles. By midmorning, they returned poles resting upon their shoulder, with the carcass of a large elk dangling freshly slain between them. Upon their muzzles a hunter’s song of triumph, the strains of the chorus lilting upon his ears as he shared a quiet breakfast with his wife.

And as he spoke with his fellow Longs, Lars, James, and the other cooks were busy salting and roasting the stag. The potent scent of burning meat billowed out from the kitchen doorway, making his muzzle wet, and causing a few of the predator’s tails to wag uncontrollably. Several times, Charles had seen Misha panting in expectation of the feast still to come, his one ear perked at each sizzling exhortation erupting from the ovens.

“It’s not quite that bad, is it?” Matthias finally managed to ask. His smile was bemused, paws cradling the mazer. The froth of his beer had long since evaporated, leaving only the yellowed brew behind.

Alec gave a barking chuckle. The schnauzer shook his head. “Some nights it is. I’ve raised two children with Lisa, and may the gods show mercy, but in another few years they will both have fallen under the curse. But I still remember those nights they wanted us near. It is a burden, but one that you will sing praises to the heaven’s for as they grow.”

The bear nodded firmly at that, patting the side of the chaise with one paw. He nearly toppled his drink over in the process, but caught it at the last moment, spilling only a little of the froth. “Quite right! And I’ve three, bless them!” Meredith coughed heavily for a moment, but waved off any assistance, and a moment later had regained his composure. “I’ve three,” he repeated, smiling broadly.

“And I one,” Allart said, nodding his head smartly as he gazed at the rat. Allart had been age regressed, but he kept himself looking like a lanky thirteen year old, though was scarcely taller than Charles.

“Of course, “ Alec mused wryly, the fur on his jowls wet with beer, “as they grow older, they only learn how to get into more mischief. “

Meredith nodded at that, so forcefully that he nearly rolled out of the chaise and onto the stone floor. “And you canna watch them all the time. You’ll worry you’self sick when they don come home before ‘tis dark!”

“And then they go and do something unexpected that makes you so proud that you forget all about those sleepless nights, and the worrying, and the anger at the times when they misbehave,” Alec said, his eyes cast low, circling about the inside of his mazer. He smiled more widely then and took a quick draught. Their was genuine pride on his muzzle, as if he were thinking of his children even then. “Those are the times you’ll remember forever.”

Charles tapped one claw on the side of his mazer, shifting his weight from one paw to the other. “So, are boys easier to handle than girls? Or is it the other way around?”

“‘Pends!” Meredith slurred, smiling. “But you should have both.”

Allart grimaced a bit, “I’ve only my boy, Malcolm. Marya and I want more, but the curse made it damn difficult.” The youthful Keeper’s face scrunched up in obvious distaste, and he spat.

“It could be worse,” Charles said, “Marya could have become a man. Then you’d have no chance of having any more children.” But his fellow Long only grunted at that, and sipped at his beer, preferring the taste of his libation than to his bitter words.

“Lisa and I are glad to have Eric and Lucy,” Alec said smiling. His tail was even wagging a bit. “I would not trade either of them for any other. Even though I have nearly pulled my fur out because of them.”

Charles laughed then and nodded heartily in agreement. “Well, at least by the time my child is born we’ll be back at Metamor so I will have good veterans such as yourselves to keep me from pulling all of my fur out.”

At the mention of his return to Metamor, all of the Long’s brightened, smiles growing wider. Even Allart visibly grinned then, patting the rat once upon the shoulder. “It’ll be good to have you back.”

He felt his eyes drawn then to the Long Scout banner hanging from the rafters. He smiled as he stared up at it, a gift Misha and the rest had presented to him at the outset of their party. The familiar green cloth with the shadowed fox head in the centre, crossed by bow and axe, was complimented by a scrolling text in fine gold thread, “To Charles and Kimberly Matthias, for their first child. May they all have LONG lives.” The “LONG” was further accented by silver trim about each letter.

It had not even been a year since he was inducted into the Longs, since his fur was as pink as the poor rabbit Padraic’s now was. But they were his family at the Keep in a way the Writer’s Guild had never been. While he now had many dear friends at the Glen, he still only had one family. His heart ached at that, and he took a long draught of his beer, wishing that such thoughts would wash from his mind as easily as the brew washed down his throat.

“And if the Keep is merciful,” Alec remarked, eyes glinting with good-humour, “we will not hear it when your child wakes you from your sleep.”

And at that, Charles could not help but laugh, the smile once more firm upon his muzzle and eyes.

“Oh, they’re just adorable!” Kimberly crooned as she held before her a pair of stockings and a woolen shirt, both small enough for a baby. Her face brimming with a grin, she laid the small bundle in her lap, and looked up at Jotham who stood with his hands clasped before him, a deliciously feminine grin crisscrossing his face. “These are wonderful. Thank you, Jotham! Thank you!”

Jotham had once been a woman, and as such, had asked if he might be allowed to attend the baby shower. Judging from the way he walked, spoke, and reacted at each new gift, had he worn a dress, Kimberly might have mistaken him for a true woman.

“Is that wool?” Somebody asked.

“However did you afford that dye?” Another voice called.

“I hope you made another set, in case she has a girl,” one of the Glenners she saw asked.

Jotham smiled and answered each question eagerly, while Kimberly simply stroked her paws across the set of clothes. They had rearranged the main room of her home to fit everyone, as well as all of the gifts. She was sitting with her back to the fire, dress splayed out around her feet before her. A stack of gifts was already sitting at her left and right, several pairs of swaddling clothes from Mrs. Blaylock, a small box of baby toys, including a bright blue rattle from Allart and Marya, as well as a companion set of pink one’s from the Innkeeper Jurmas’s wife Kinslee.

Her paws resting upon her belly, Kimberly wondered how much longer it would be before she could feel the child inside of her growing. She smiled at that thought, knowing that tonight would come a partial answer to that question. From what Lady Avery had told her about her own pregnancy with Christopher and Darien, were she to bear a rat, her time would come sooner than was traditional. After Burris had made the diagnosis, she had thought that in October their child would come, but the very idea that it might be a great deal sooner appealed to her. She simply had not yet had the heart to tell it to Charles.

“Well, I think they are adorable,” Kimberly stated, holding the baby clothes to her chest, nuzzling at them, feeling across the smooth wool with her whiskers.

“I’m so glad you like them,” Jotham beamed, his face shining even brighter than the lamps.

There was as always a bit of a stir to see who would have their gift opened next. Kimberly smiled as she saw many familiar faces, and some she did not know as well. A few of her gifts had been placed behind her along the wall so that she couldn’t see them. But others were set on the table, waiting to be opened. Lisa stood nervously perched over a tall cone-shaped basket set atop a stone tray. Her left hand – her only hand – was resting atop the basket, holding it steadily. Ralls, like Jotham once a woman but now a man, was standing next to her, ready to help.

“How about yours, Lisa,” Kimberly called, voice brimming, eager to see what she might have given that would requires such a strangely shaped disguise.

The youthful Long scout beamed with pride at being selected next. With her hand steady the basket, Ralls carried the stone base, setting it down just before Kimberly’s feet. “I know you and Charles are just going to enjoy this. I was so excited when I heard the news I had to make something special for the occasion. But I never realised how difficult it would be to bring it here all intact!”

Kimberly almost bounced in her seat, leaning forward, baby clothes crumpling in her lap, “Well, what is it? Can I see?’

Lisa smiled and nodded, gripping the handle of the cone-shaped basket in her hand and lifting straight up. There were several dimple sin the stone base, and in two of them sat fiery red and yellow pebbles that nearly glowed in the lamplight. But in the centre of the stone plate was a two-tiered cake, smeared a smooth chocolate frosting. Kimberly’s whiskers trembled as she let out a squeak of delight at the delectable treasure.

“Oh, that look’s marvellous!” Along the top, Kimberly could see that she had scrawled in a white frosting the words, “For Charles and Kimberly’s first!”. She smiled then and clasped her paws to her chest, beaming as she looked once more up to Lisa, “That’s so sweet!” She rose to her feet then, and gingerly stepped around the cake, and embraced Lisa in a tight hug.

“I knew you’d like it!”

Kimberly nodded, and leaned down, “When can I eat it?”

“Whenever you want!” Lisa said, beaming with pride.

“Charles will want some of it too,” Kimberly said, resting one paw on the chair’s arm. “But this is so nice! However did you keep it warm?”

Lisa tapped one of the two red rocks quickly. “These are pyrocks. They kept it warm while under the basket.”

Kimberly took the cone-shaped basket then in her paws, and slowly lowered it back over the cake. “Well, let’s keep this safe. Thank you, Lisa, it looks wonderfully delicious!”

With Ralls helping, they were able to set the cake back on the table and out of the way. Kimberly did her best while she was standing up not to look back towards the hearth, lest she see some of the other gifts before it was time. But she would have to choose another of her friends now. Slowly letting herself sink back into the chair, tail curling around her legs, she decided to pick one of the Glen Avery women. She’d just chosen two Long Scouts in a row after all.

She saw Annette Levins standing towards the doorway, a long sash drawn over her shoulders, threads being torn out by her spindles as she moved. Kimberly glanced away though, she was sure that the hedgehog had baked something as well, and would find out what a little bit later. Baerle was standing not too far off, smiling, her paws clutching the hem of her breeches. Kimberly resolved again to help the opossum get a nice dress. She’d have to ask Baerle last for her gift, she was too special a friend to go in the middle.

And then Kimberly’s eyes alighted upon Lady Avery standing patiently in her grey frock only a short distance to her right. Kimberly smiled and waved a paw in her direction, “What do you have for me, Lady Avery?”

Angela let out a slight laugh, silvery tones marred by the chittering from her squirrel throat. “I think Laura, Sylia, and I should present our gifts together.” She glanced over to the Long Scout and her wife. Laura was once a man, and had married before the Battle of Three Gates. Sylia, her wife, had become a white furred Terrier, an Elvquelin Terrier she’d heard. While they could never have a child again, both being women, they did have a son Benyam from before the curses struck.

Laura smiled then and nodded, patting Sylia’s paw with one gentle hand. “Yes, give us a moment to bring them out.”

“Now close your eyes!” Sylia pipped merrily, jumping up excitedly, tail wagging furiously behind her.

Kimberly did so, pressing her paws over her face, giggling under her breath. She could hear the movement of bodies about her, and the scraping of wood against stone, and wood against wood. She could smell the press of bodies, as well as a richness she now realized was the chocolate from the cake. Her body trembled excitedly, tail tip shivering as she waited, grunting coming from all sides. Whatever their present was it must be awfully heavy for so many to be grunting so!

The sound of something heavy being set down before her, several somethings in fact, came to her ears a moment later. She resisted the temptation to peek just yet, her paws eager to return to her sides. Her ears twisted forward, straining for permission to see once more. And then, she heard all three women declare in delighted tones that she could open them once more.

Before her – Kimberly blinked several times to make sure she was seeing properly – were three cradles made from wood. They were set in a line, with the two on either side very similar in design, while the one in the middle appeared to be designed like a rocking chair. She reached forward and gave it a small push, but it did not move.

“Three cradles?” she asked, blinking again, the disbelief plain in her voice.

Laura laughed. “Sylia and I bought you the rocking one.”

“We didn’t know that Lady Avery would be giving you two as well!” Sylia finished the thought for her husband.

Kimberly touched all three in turn. The two cradles that Lady Avery had supplied were made from a nice sturdy cherry, while the one from Laura and Sylia was fashioned from oak. The two had feather cushions fastened inside, while the pillows set in the rocking cradle were not attached. “How do you make it rock?” she asked at last, giving it another push.

Laura bent forward, and gestured to a level on the far side of the cradle. “You have to turn this clockwise, and then it will rock.” She gave the small handle a twist, and then the cradle suddenly lurched under Kimberly’s paws. “See?”

As it swung back to meet her palms, Kimberly smiled, giving it another push. “I see now!” She smiled up to Laura, “This is lovely! Thank you,” she also gazed to Sylia, “both so much!” The rat then stroked her paws over one of the cherry-wood cradles. “Why did you give me two?” She asked.

Lady Avery smiled and glanced over the rat. “These were Darien and Christopher’s cradles. They don’t need them anymore, and I didn’t want them to go to waste. It will be good for you and Charles to have several, just in case.” At that, several of the women turned to their neighbours and whispered quick words behind their hands and paws.

Kimberly could only blush a bit and nod, stroking her paws happily along the smooth red wood. Tonight she would know after all. Tonight.

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