Wagging Tongues Will - Part XLI

At long last, Charles and Kimberly were upon the road to Glen Avery. It was already well past noon, but it had taken them most of the morning to prepare all of their belongings for the trip. A long stream of wagons left Metamor shortly before noon, carrying all of their clothes, and all that they had been given for their wedding the previous day. But they were not along amongst the wagons and the horses that drew them. In fact, every single Long Scout had come along with them, as well as quite a few others.

Charles and Kimberly sat together of course in the lead wagon. Angus himself was driving the team of horses, though they were doing a pretty good job of handling the road themselves. Misha and Caroline sat opposite the two married rats, though Lord and Lady Avery were seated in the next wagon. They assured them they just wanted to contain their children’s enthusiasm, as apparently neither Darien nor Christopher were good travellers.

But they were accompanied by the bardic duo of Jo and Jono, the former delightedly telling the rest of them the wonders of living in the Glen. James was also amongst them, though he sat quietly, merely listening to the vixen’s account of the forest village. Garigan was also with them, and occasionally he would correct the vixen, as he had lived there his whole life while she had only settled there more recently.

It was still a pleasant trip through the snow clutched forests, the wheels of the wagons crushing snow and dirt underneath, while the trees passed by on either side, most of them still green with needles. But as they moved further and further north through the woods, the trees grew taller and wider, reaching higher and higher into the sky. Angus and the rest of the drivers lit lamps and hung them upon tall poles on each of the wagons as the sun had such a hard time reaching them.

Charles was delighted that the all of the Longs had practically demanded that they accompany he and his wife to the Glen. It gave the rat a good feeling to know that his fellow Longs felt so fondly for him. There was no denying it, they were all family. Being a Long was more than just being a scout who travelled further and faced more danger than most at Metamor. It was about being part of a huge family where every one looked out for everybody else. Charles could not remember all the times they had spent together, or the number of times one of the other Longs had given him some assistance, but he did remember all the times he had been there for them. That was strangely the most satisfying of all.

Charles had been letting the voice of the vixen gently fall upon his ears, and so felt the quiet more palpably as the conversation died. Looking up, Matthias saw that they were nearly at the crossroads. All that the rat could see was snow covered mounds scattered on either side of the road. Here and there bits of wood and stone poking through told that once there had been a town here. He could not tell how long it had been deserted, but it was clear that nothing else remained.

“What happened to the people?” Kimberly asked in a soft voice.

Danielle just shook her head, eyes cast down as she considered the broken timbers.

“A lot were killed,” Finbar said calmly. “The rest fled to the Keep for the winter.”

“They’ll be back come spring,” Misha said in the firm tone of command. It was reassuring to hear for most of them. “After all it’s not the first time Nasoj has burned the place down.”

Jo gazed out upon the ruins of the town, a faraway yet seemingly haunted look in her eyes. “What’s the town's name?”

“Mandholme,” Misha said. “Out of curiosity, why do you ask?”

Jo could not take her eyes off the ruined fields for several moments, just staring out until the wagons passed by before she turns back to the other occupants of the wagon. “I’m sorry, it’s... never mind. I’ll tell you some other time. I don’t want to darken the mood.”

Charles shook his head as he stared at splinters and ashes partially buried beneath the snow. His breath came out as mist before him in that cold air. “I don’t think you have much to worry about.” He then turned to the rest of them, putting the ruins to his back. “It will be rebuilt.”

Jono piped up then, a smile crossing his feline features. “That’s right. It’ll be rebuilt. So, what can we expect in the Glen?”

With renewed grins, they continued to listen to Jo regale them with stories of Glen Avery. Charles watched her breath rise as mist on that wintry air. And he listened to the crunch of the snow beneath the wagon wheels as it moved along the ancient road. The road from the Keep was made of the old, timeworn stone blocks laid down so long ago by Seuliman workmen and carefully maintained ever since. Here at the crossroads they turned left and onto a side road. This one was smaller but still paved like the main road. It was also Seuliman work, though not nearly as well maintained. In the distance they could just make out Lord Barnhardt’s castle.

As they got closer to the castle it became easier to pick out the details of the fortress. Its turrets and walls were made of the same gray stone as the road leading up to it. That betrayed the true age of place, just as the bits and parts of lighter stone told of newer additions and repairs. Charles amused himself for a moment by trying to guess the age of the additions, noting discrepancies between one strata and the next.

And then, just short of Lord Barnhardt’s home, the slow moving column turned off the road. Charles felt the jostling of the wagon jolting and shaking as it left the pavement and went onto the rutted mud track that led to Glen Avery. Snapped from his reverie, he caught once more the vixen’s words.

“And if you don’t feel like going to take a dip in the lake this time of the year, then Jurmas is the one you want to see,” Jo was saying, her voice trilling through the forest. “He owns the Inn at Glen Avery, where the rare traveller, and the more common merchant from Metamor or the other lands in the valley stay. That good stag keeps a small pool with his chimney oven’s chimney running beneath. The water stays very warm all day long!”

Charles grinned at that, never having been at the Inn himself. “That sounds lovely. Just how big is the pool?”

Jo winked to both of them, and even Garigan sported a grin. “Oh, it’s big enough for the both of you at least.”

Kimberly smiled at that thought, and wrapped one arm about Charles’s middle. He reciprocated by draping his paw across her shoulders. “And does Jurmas charge any for the use of this?”

Jo chuckled lightly then. “Only when he or his wife want to use it!”

Misha and Caroline nudged a bit closer together then. “I think we may want to take a crack at that while we’re here,” the fox suggested in coy tones.

Caroline’s eyes grew brighter, and her tone sultry. “Oh yes, we must.”

“Jurmas will be pleased to hear this!” Angus bellowed from the seat of the wagon. The badger turned about, one thick furred paw clutching the reins for the team of horses. “Visitors he likes to charge.”

Misha scoffed mildly. “Oh, he knows us well enough.”

Angus laughed at that. “Oh yes he does. And he knows you can afford a good scalping!”

The rest of them laughed at that barb. After the fox’s display yesterday at the wedding, they each knew that Misha had quite a bit more wealth than he ever let on. Charles preferred it that way though. He’d never been wealthy himself, being a Sondeckis he had no possessions until he came to Metamor in fact. That Misha’s wealth was not obvious in the way his friend lived his life was comforting in a way.

“Well, If I’m to be scalped,” Misha mused, “I will have to pay for all of my Longs to use it!”

Angus laughed boisterously then, as did most of the others. “You do know how to get on his good side don’t you.”

Caroline rested one paw on Misha’s thigh. “I like to think he knows how to get on everyone’s good side.”

“Except for Nasoj,” Jono put in suddenly, his voice full of verve, as if he were about to break out into another tale.

“I think we all have managed to get on Nasoj’s bad side,” Misha added, his voice suddenly stern.

“And we’re going to get on it some more too, right Misha?” Charles said, giving his fist a swing.

The fox nodded firmly at that. “You bet we will.”

“Someday,” Jono mused thoughtfully then. “Someday, every bard will know the tale of Metamor, and of the battles we have fought and won.”

Charles snorted slightly and laughed a bit. “You are so right. Why only last week, Misha and I had discussed that very thing. We are making history, my friends. Whether we like it or not, our names are going to be known.”

“Mine probably won’t be,” James put in, his voice low. Charles turned to the donkey, having nearly lost track of him, he’d been so quiet.

“Oh, you never know,” Caroline suggested mildly, her lutrine features bearing a slight grin. “You’re here with us now after all, aren’t you.”

“History is fickle,” Misha intoned suddenly. “There is no telling just who she chooses to honour or despise.”

James nodded, and then smiled over to the rat. “I have you to thank for that.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Charles cautioned. “Not everybody likes being a part of history.”

“No,” Kimberly said softly. “You’ve done enough.”

Charles turned to his wife then, and stroked one claw along underneath her chin. “Oh, you think I should stay home more with you then, eh?”

Kimberly smiled back to him, her eyes bright. “Yes I do.”

Smiling even more broadly, he leaned closer to her, nuzzling his nose alongside of her shortened whiskers. “I think you’re right,” he whispered in sultry tones.

“Boy, you two really can’t wait can you?” Angus remarked with a laugh. The two rats disengaged then, both blushing slightly as they turned back to face the others in the wagon with them.

“Oh, by all means, go on,” Misha said, waving one paw towards them. He ran his claws down between Caroline’s ears. “I can focus on something else.”

Charles laughed and shook his head. “It’s all right. We can’t be that much further from Glen Avery as it is.”

Jo nodded at Charles's pronouncement, then glanced off to her right, and smiled. “Look, there’s your first sign,” she said, pointing towards the northeast with one claw.

Following her gaze they could see a large clearing where a wide gap in the trees framed two tall snowcovered mountains opposite each other, and a third seemingly smaller one in the middle. The middle peak was partly covered by a massive tree, but they could still see that it was covered completely in snow, forming what looked to them like a white arrow point between the two greater mounts and behind the tree. The westernmost peak appeared so evenly sculpted from there and seemed so close at hand that Charles could have sworn he could have reached out and felt along its smooth sides. James was in fact reaching out seemingly to attempt just that. The easternmost peak was not quite as perfectly formed, but they could all see trees reaching impossibly high up along the mountain's side; too early to show off a cover of green, but an impressive sight even so.

“The Three Points, as they’re sometimes called,” Jo said almost reverently. “Mount Kalegris, Mount Arran, Mount Nuln. Along with the Great Tree there they’re what’s represented in the symbol of the Glen. Arran is actually taller than both of the others, but it’s so far away that it looks that small against Kalegris and especially Nuln; they’re practically to the edges of the forest. They don’t form this configuration from any other viewpoint, or so I’ve heard; as you get near the Giantdowns Arran is hidden behind Nuln and Kalegris seems to get much shorter. They’re still interesting then, but I think them far more impressive here.”

“I’d certainly agree with that,” Charles said, holding his Lady close. She nodded in agreement as they both stare and gawk up at the sight, listening to the occasional chirrups of a sparrow or two as they ponder those lofty mountains. Charles had seen them like this before, when he’d travelled to the Glen for the very first time with Misha last Spring. But at the time there had been no snow atop them, though taller mountains far in the distance bore their winter coats all year. Now, they were a radiant beacon sparkling in the winter sunlight.

Angus nodded, briefly looking away from the horses to catch a glimpse, then smiling slightly to himself and turning back towards the roads. “Not far now; give it about another halfhour to get there at the most, and that’s only if Berchem and Kevin are slacking off,” he said, chuckling a bit to himself.

Garigan started a bit at that, rising slightly in his seat. “Kevin? You mean Marian’s son?” He received a nod from the burly badger who had one more resumed watching the snow-slick mud road before them. “He’s scouting already?”

Angus nodded again, even as they all heard another sparrow chirrup in the trees above them. “Him and Marcus both.”

“Marcus? You trust him on patrols?” Misha asked incredulously, a grin starting to form on his muzzle.

“I sure don’t!” Jo added, prompting a chuckle from the fox and a hearty laugh from the badger. “He’s so much of a daredevil that I see him all the time.”

“I’m sorry, who are these two?” Charles asked. He’d met many of the Glenners in his previous two trips, but there were many that he still did not know.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jo said, turning back to the couple. “Kevin and Marcus are two of the youngest scouts in the Glen; they got started just shortly after I moved in. Kevin helped me out on a small project once, and Marcus... well...”

Garigan took advantage of the vixen’s pause. “He’s the ultimate daredevil of the Glen. He’s the only one living or otherwise to have challenged Christopher and Darien four times.”

“Four times?” Charles asked incredulously, not believing what his ears had told him. He recalled his own past experience in the trees with the two squirrel children and unconsciously began rubbing one of the spots on his arm that had been bruised. “How did he ever survive?”

“Luck,” Garigan said, nodding, starting to grin himself at the memories of his home, a home he was now returning to. “Luck and nothing more.” There were a few chuckles before Garigan continued. “So what are they now? Neither of them had even changed when I left.”

“Kevin’s become a sparrow, and Marcus is a pine marten,” the vixen replied.

“A pine marten?” Garigan asked, his tone making it clear he was not certain he was glad about that or not. “Don’t tell me he’s going to go for a fifth challenge now that that’s happened!” Garigan bemoaned, looking resigned to the possibility.

Jo just grinned, then nodded once, at which Garigan just shook his head. “Something’s got to be done about him before he gets himself killed up in those trees chasing after those two.” Of course, Charles still had a hard time believing that the Avery children could even survive doing what they did. He was glad they were in the wagon with their parents. He’d hate to have those two begin to shout and boast about what they could do.

“Well, I’m looking forward to that, then,” Jono piped up suddenly, grinning once more after his more sombre attitude earlier in the journey. “Get to see how the kids move so as to be prepared for my challenge,” he added, nodding to himself and still grinning.

Angus turned at that. “You can’t be serious! They’ll destroy you up there!” he said, his muzzle showing a combination of horror and mirth. Mirth won out.

Jo shook her head, a laugh hiding upon her muzzle. “Don’t bother trying, Angus. I already have, and if he won’t listen to me he’s not going to listen to anyone.”

“Bah!” Jono laughed then, getting to his feet and posturing as though he were telling a story. He was quite steady upon his foot paws despite the rocking of the wagon. “I’ve fended off Lutin armies and defended twoscore children, I’ve out-witted Inquisitioners and out-thought a wizard of Elvquelin. I’ve trounced Magyar raiders and fought pirates of the Sea of Stars on their own ships. What more could two talented but still young children accomplish to stop me?”

With a growing smile, Charles interjected. “You know, I said something similar just after Misha made a bet with me regarding them for a drink from Lars’s brewery.” His eyes twinkled knowingly at what Fate most likely had in mind for the cat.

“Oh?” Jono asked, suddenly curious.

“Yep, and I ended up with a free blackberry wine!” Misha piped in, grinning.

“Ohhh?” Caroline asked, looking up at her fox.

Misha started to get an embarrassed look, slumping his shoulders chastened. “Well...”

“Ha! We’ll see,” Jono said confidently, the grin never leaving his muzzle as he sat back down.

Angus just shook his head, chuckling. Off to the side Misha was blushing a bit more. “It was only one...” he protested in response to an otter with her arms crossed and giving him a very accusing look.

Charles grinned at seeing his friend’s predicament, though he knew he would get that same look from Kimberly if he patronized Lars’s place too much. He then turned back to the vixen. “You mentioned a project with Kevin earlier; might I ask what?”

Angus continued to chuckle while Jo bore a very large grin on her muzzle. “You’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure,” she said, the excitement barely concealed within her voice.

“Sure will!” a completely new voice suddenly interjected, startling nearly everyone in the wagon.

“Who..” Misha began to ask as he turned about suddenly, looking all about.

Before the fox was able to get any further though, he was interrupted by Joanne’s exasperated sigh. “Marcus! Do you have to be this way?”

As soon as the name was mentioned a pine marten with his fur coloured obviously for camouflage purposes seemed to materialize out of the bushes next to the wagon. He leapt up onto the side and grinned ingratiatingly. “Oh, c’mon. I just heard my name mentioned and I couldn’t resist.”

“You’re getting a little sloppy, Marcus,” Angus admonished, half smiling. “I could see you all the way back to the Three Points, and I’m sure Misha would have noticed if it weren’t for his dramatic battle here.”

“Dramatic battle? What battle?” Caroline started to ask, glancing about.

Misha quickly planted a quick kiss on his otter’s cheek. “The one we’re concluding now, love,” he said, trying his best to look authoritative. He received an odd look from Caroline, but that was all.

Marcus gave the fox a grin, then suddenly turned to the ferret, as if noticing him for the first time. “Garigan? Hey, great! It’s been way too long!” he shouted, clasping the ferret’s paw with one of his while the other clung to the wagon’s railing.

“Too short, actually,” the ferret corrected, smiling earnestly now. “I was this close to being rid of you!” Garigan held two of his claw a finger’s width apart to demonstrate.

“Awwww.” Marcus’s face suddenly assumed the most downcast possible expression he could possibly manage. Coming from a mustelid, Charles found it quite ridiculous. “You wouldn’t possibly think of leaving me behind... would you?”

But Garigan just smiled in reply, his whiskers twitching ever so slightly in the cool winter air. He even managed to keep from exhaling and letting a cloud of mist destroy the effect.

“Oh, foo, then.” The marten flipped over the side of the wagon, landing inside and looking at the two still somewhat startled rats. “And I take it you’re the newlyweds! Lemme guess, you’re... Charles and Kimberly?” he asked, pointing respectively to Kimberly and Charles.

Kimberly managed a giggle while Charles just shook his head with a smile, prompting a snap of the fingers from the marten. “Drat! I always get newlyweds mixed up. It’s just something wrong with me, I know it. Can either of you possibly forgive me?” he asked, staring almost forlornly at the pair.

“Of course,” Kimberly said with a broad smile, answering for Charles who was too busy trying to suppress a chuckle at the antics of the melodramatic marten.

“Great!” the marten shouts, his boundless enthusiasm returning as quickly as it had left. “That’s always a relief, thank you much.” He bowed to the two rats, then winked once, the mischievous glint clear in his eyes. “Well, I’d best be off; still need to make sure all is okay in the area and all, and I’m sure Angus would skin me alive if he caught me goofing off here – isn’t that right, Angus?”

“Very right!” Angus trumpeted, obviously trying to keep from chuckling as well. “You’re lucky I don’t get out the skinning knife right now!”

“Eep!” The pine marten suddenly appeared far less enthusiastic. “Well, that’s the word and all, will be seeing you as you get in, bye!” He had barely completed the sentence before he had leapt over the side of the wagon and vanished into the woods.

Jono gazed off in the direction the marten took, his eyes beaming with a strange pride. “Ah, marvellous! A man after my own heart!”

“Oh no!” Jo exclaimed then, dropping her head and covering her eyes with her paws. That was all that was needed for both Angus and Charles to lose their respective battles to keep from chuckling.

Misha’s good humour was back as well. With a bit of whimsy he added, “A fine lad. He’ll make a fine scout too once he can calm down.”

“I’ve been waiting for that all of my life,” Garigan remarked in a droll manner.

Angus finally managed to catch his voice, even as he led the team of horses further down the road. “He’s learning, bit by bit. I for one am glad he is so enthusiastic. It is better than cringing after all. He just needs to get the sense to know when to back away.”

“If Darien and Christopher haven’t taught him that, then I don’t think anything will,” Charles put in, his own chest aching from laughing so much. His injured rib was completely healed by now, but it became sore far too easily still. Kimberly and he had discovered that last night.

“I wonder how long it will be before I have to patch him up again,” Jo bemoaned into her paws, before looking back up at the roadway. They all shared a quick laugh at that, even as their eyes were drawn to the snow-slick thoroughfare.

The trees on either side were stretching impossibly high into the sky, the sun all but gone from their view now. The distant mountains had been lost behind the mighty sentinels that stood watch over this part of the valley, challenging their rocky neighbours to see who would be the tallest. Now that the scout had left them, the forest was quiet and still. None of them could bring themselves to speak in that, only breathe in and out, their breath turning to mist before them in the cold air. Even the grating of the wagon wheels as they ground through the snow and earth seemed muted in a way.

And like so they proceeded, eyes wandering across the huge trunks as they stretched in width, some of them wider than the length of the wagon in fact. From the rolling of the ground, Charles could tell they were moving into the foothills next to the mountains. Also, the slope was meandering gently upwards, and he could see hillocks and hummocks of ground upturned where once a mighty redwood had toppled, as well as the dimpled depression of snow next to it showing where the tree had ripped free from.

Charles gripped his lady’s, his wife’s paw tighter within his own. She smiled to him, her dark eyes reflecting the flickering lamplight as surely did his own. He nuzzled across her snout once, drinking in her rich scent as well as the scent of the meal they’d broken fast with that morning. Eggs and toast, cooked just so, their very last meal they’d had before leaving for the Glen. It had been a quiet meal they’d shared, but a pleasant one nonetheless.

They say there holding each other’s paws as the foliage slipped by, dressed in its winter white. Finally though, the road began to widen, and clear evidence of upkeep showed through. Everyone sat up a little bit higher then, as they gazed about, able to see what appeared to be a clearing at the end of the road. Charles smiled and hugged his lady close to him, watching, wondering who would be the first he would see. It always amazed him how well the homes in the Glen blended in to the natural surroundings, as he was still unable to spot them from this distance.

And then, Angus brought the carriage to a halt at the entrance to the clearing. Lord Avery’s wagon began to come up along side of their’s, and the two young squirrels jumped from their perches after their mother stopped holding them down. “We’re home!” they shouted boisterously as they jumped and scampered over one another to be the first to announce it to the rest.

Charles blinked in surprise then as he watched doors open from within the trees, ropes fall from the branches overhead, and trap doors open from between the massive roots of the trees. Glenners began to pour forth, some of them more obviously prepared than others. The rat stared back and forth between them all as he watched them trundle forth in their winter wear. He stood up in the wagon to get a better look at them, and Kimberly stood as well, pressing ever close to him as she stared at the place she would now call home.

Garigan had also risen to look at the Glenners as they assembled, pressing forward into the clearing, some rushing to greet the wagons. Charles saw several familiar faces, there lumbering was the brown bear Lars Hasgkenn, and just a short distance, was Jurmas and his wife. There was Alldis and Berchem sauntering alongside of each other. Even Mrs. Levins and Walter were coming forward, a sparrow following after them. Burris swooped down from some high tree in a smaller form, and shifted back to his usual stance as he landed a short distance from the wagons.

Yet, Charles found his eyes searching the crowd for one other, and when he finally found her lurking at the rear of the crowd near one of the redwoods, his body shuddered from a sudden chill. The opossum stared back at him for a moment, her eyes fixed clearly upon the lady rat upon Charles’s arm, and then she vanished behind the tree trunk. The rat cringed then, wishing he could chase after her and talk with her, anything to help her understand.

He turned his head then, pretending to look elsewhere. Anywhere but after the fleeing Baerle. He caught a sudden glimpse of a pained expression upon his student’s musteline feature. Garigan had been scanning the crowd too as if from habit, and then, an awful pang of memory delivered a shock to his system. The fading scowl of a fulgurite all the trace it left. Charles could not help but wonder who it was his student was looking for but would never find.

And then, he felt a tight squeeze from Kimberly as cheers and greetings were shouted forth from the Glenners. Lord and Lady Avery embraced many that were close by, sharing good news in quick snatches as the rest gathered in closer. Misha and Caroline dismounted from the wagon, as did Jono and Jo. James climbed down towards the rear, where he wouldn’t be as noticeable, but Angus motioned for him to step out before the horses with a wave of one paw.

Charles stepped down then, and held out his paw to assist Kimberly. She glided down from the wagon, her paws settling into the light dusting of snow that littered the clearing. Together, arm in arm, they strode out past the horses then, where a circle of Glenners pressed close, while Lord Avery stood proudly, holding his arms out invitingly. “Welcome!” Brian called, his voice loud enough that it carried over the crowd. Behind them all, the rest of the Longs began to pile out of the wagons as they came to a stop along the road into the Glen.

“We have many visitors with us today!” Lord Avery cried out, his tail lashing about in his unrestrained enthusiasm. There could be no doubt where his twin boys got it from. “We give a warm welcome to Misha Brightleaf and all the rest of the Long Scouts of Metamor. If not for their valour and cunning, we may not have met with such a happy ending this New Year’s.” Many in the crowd cheered the name of Misha or of the Long’s, their animal faces bright.

“But we also want to wish a warm welcome to those who are coming back to live with us here at the Glen.” Avery had to quell the delighted whoops and hollers before he could continue. “First, I want to welcome back our very own Garigan from his sojourn at the Keep.”

The ferret smiled, revealing his two missing teeth. Garigan patted and hugged with many dear friends, before finally bowing his head and shaking paws with the grey squirrel. “Thank you, Lord Avery. It is good to see you all again, and to be home.”

“We’ve been preparing your old home for you,” Berchem inserted. The skunk crossed his arms then and smiled. “Plus, there is a space open for you amongst the scouts if you wish to return to them.”

“Yes!” Garigan said, his whole face burning with eager delight. Charles could not help but smile as he watched his student rejoice at his good fortune. The ferret would have to periodically return to Metamor, as there were many practices a Sondeckis would be better able to endure in the presence of the altar, but he doubted Garigan would object to that.

“And I also want to wish a warm welcome to a fine storyteller, Jono!” Avery announced as he gestured to the panther who stood theatrically reclining against the shoulder of one oft he horses, who regarded him not too kindly.

This piqued Lars’s interest immediately of course, as it did Jurmas’s. Both the bear and the deer pushed their way over towards the panther, their intents clear. “A storyteller?” Lars managed to say first. “You must come and recite some of your fine tales oh master bard in my brewery.”

“And then,” Jurmas cut in, his voce good-natured, “you should come to my Inn and you’ll see why you will prefer performing your art there.”

“Oh come now,” Lars shot back, as if this were a well-rehearsed, or oft-repeated, argument. “The lighting at the brewery is much better suited to theatrical performance.”

“What lighting?” Jurmas riposted. “You keep it so dark that not even the sober ones know what they’re drinking!”

Jono absorbed the adulations of the two men with a practised ease. He held out his paws placatingly and smiled infectiously to them both. “Gentle masters, I shall visit both of your establishments on a regular basis. I do of course hope you will supply a meagre bard with food to eat and good wine to drink to appease his literary flesh and soul?” Jo rolled her eyes as she heard this, while several of the Glenners and the Longs assembled nearby broke out into hearty laughs.

“And there is also James of Metamor. Once a merchant of meats and vegetables, he’s now going to live his life here with us,” Avery announced. The donkey appeared ready to object to such a generous estimate of his abilities, but before he could, the bear and the deer descended upon him, both of them offering him employment within their taverns and kitchens.

“Um, thank you,” James said, his eyes wide, and his ears standing up straight, quite surprised to be approached so quickly and so eagerly by those two.

Lord Avery laughed slightly at the donkey’s startled expression, and then turned to the two rats who stood waiting arm in arm just before the two horses. “And I have the great honour of introducing the newest couple to the Glen, Charles Matthias and his wife the Lady Kimberly Matthias!”

Charles waved with one paw as he pulled Kimberly tighter to his side. She beamed at the shouts of welcome and congratulations they received from the assembled Glenners. Many pushed forward so they could shake his paw, and offer them both their fondest wishes. Charles had a hard time remembering all of them as they moved so fast, even the familiar faces were lost amongst the rest. Kimberly had it even worse as she had never even met most of the people who were making her acquaintance.

But the brouhaha died down after a while, Lord Avery standing before them, with his paws up in the air commanding his fellow Glenners to silence. Charles took their moment of reprieve to lean over and kiss his sweet wife upon the cheek. Her fur bristled in positive delight at that, and her arm tugged tighter about his own.

“Now,” Brian continued, “we have a feast and a celebration planned for this evening right here in the Commons. Don’t worry, we’ll have enough bonfires lit to keep everyone warm enough, as well as plenty of ale to keep the fire in your belly. But first things first. We must show the newlyweds their home, and help them move in. Charles, Kimberly, would you care to accompany me to your new home?”

Charles glanced down at the tan fur of his wife, and she nodded eagerly. With a grin he nodded as well, stepping forward. “Of course! Lead the way, milord Avery!” There were few people that the rat felt deserved the noble appellation they were born to. Lord Brian Avery was one of them.

He then turned to the fox and otter who were standing just a few paces away, smiling broadly the both of them. Caroline poked Misha in the stomach with one finger, and the fox winced dramatically. Charles could not help but wonder what brought that on, but decided to ask later. “Misha, Caroline, would you come with us to see our new home?”

The fox’s one good ear perked up at that and he nodded firmly. “Of course! I would love to see it before we make a mess of things moving all of your new stuff in.”

Charles laughed heartily and so did most of the Glenners. With Lord and Lady Avery leading the way, Charles and Kimberly followed behind, with Misha and Caroline right on their heels. A frog bundled very tightly in thick cloths began to hop along side of them. Charles stared at him curiously. He’d seen him during the previous Spring about the Glen, but he’d never learned the amphibian’s name.

The rest of the Glenners moved about around and behind them. They began to bring the wagons into the centre of the clearing, the Glen’s Commons as it were, and also started to unload some of the heavier items. A few even brought out the feedbags for the horses who had done their day’s worth of work. Charles glanced back behind them, and saw that Mrs Levins, Walter, and the sparrow Kevin were following along after them, Mrs Levins bubbly personality making her bounce as she walked. Even Walter had a smile upon her otherwise ice cold features.

Lord Avery and the frog lead them to a large tree that was just set back from the clearing. The ground between the thick roots of the redwood had been shovelled out, making for a path winding between those massive ligneous fingers. Set into the nook between the two roots was a solid door, apparently made from the same wood as the tree. Upon closer inspection, Charles realised that the door was a part of the tree, a product of Burris’s wood-shaping magical powers. It was wide enough for four of them to squeeze through at once, and certainly wide enough for them to fit all of their new things into.

“Well,” the frog said as he hopped over to the door, gripping with his green webbed hands. “Do you want me to show them the place or do you?” He asked in a chirping voice.

“Oh, it was your home,” Lord Avery said, smiling. “You can show them.”

“Pleasure!” the frog croaked. “Name’s Gibson by the way,” he added as he saluted smartly to both Charles and Kimberly. “You’re getting a lovely place, I assure you.” He opened the door wide, pressing it against one of the long wall-like roots.

“Why are you giving it to us?” Kimberly asked as she peered inside.

“Well, I made myself a place down near the lake,” Gibson replied, yellow eyes smiling to the lady rat. “Makes things easier for me that way. And I’m happy to let such a nice couple as yourselves enjoy my old home.”

Charles smiled wider, even as Lord and Lady Avery stepped back away from the entrance. “Go on in,” Lord Avery suggested with a wave of one paw. Charles beamed brighter, glancing into the lighted interior, eager to see what it would be like. Gripping Kimberly’s paw all the tighter, he smiled, and then slid his other arm underneath her legs and hoisted her into the air. Kimberly gave a surprised squeak before wrapping her arms about his neck. Misha let out a loud laugh at that, slapping one pant’s leg with a paw, while the rest just chuckled.

After so many years, using just enough of his Sondeck was almost automatic. And so he had no difficulty carrying her across the threshold into their new home. Kimberly laughed heartily as she was brought in, her tail dangling between her husband’s legs, and her paws high in the air, toes twitching a bit of dirt free. Charles could not help but laugh too as he stepped through into a large room, wood and floor ceilings, hearth on one wall, with lanterns lit and fixed to the walls in six places, two next to the entrance, two flanking an open doorway leading into another room at the back, and one each on the other two walls, both next to another doorway. The doorway on the left led to a staircase that quickly turned to the right, while the doorway on the right was closed.

“This is the entrance room,” Gibson announced as he hopped in after them. Charles set Kimberly down, and she stared in awe at the rich woodwork inside. It was completely natural, so they could see concentric rings leading in towards the centre wall along both floor and ceiling. The ceiling was twice their own height, and there was an iron fixture in the centre for a chandelier. The hearth was fashioned from oddly shaped stones cut to fit snugly together, as was the floor a good feet around it. Misha and the rest came in one by one, and they all marvelled at the size and the natural beauty of the place.

“This is beautiful,” Kimberly breathed, her eyes wide. She crossed over towards the hearth, and ran her paw along the wood next to the stone. “Oh, Charles, it’s so smooth, and warm.”

Charles came over to feel and he found that the wood was very smooth, as if it had formed naturally this way. But there was also a tender warmth to it that filled his paw as he pressed deeper, something that gave him quite a start. “You’re right, it is warm!”

Gibson croaked a laugh, even as Misha, Caroline, and the others touched the walls to feel fro themselves. “Part of Burris’s magic. I need to keep myself fairly warm, so he imbued the wood with heat. I don’t know how it works, but it is nice.”

“It feels wonderful!” Kimberly intoned, even as she draw her paws along the hearth. “Oh, this is lovely.” She smiled over to Charles. “Should we put two chairs right here facing the fire?”

Charles nodded then and stepped over to her, hugging her with one arm. “I think that’s a lovely idea.”

“Don’t start planning things just yet,” Misha laughed. “It looks like there’s plenty more to see!”

Charles nodded and turned to the frog who was surveying the empty house as if wondering what he should show them next. Gibson finally settled upon the open doorway opposite the entrance. They all followed after him, the couples each arm in arm. Mrs Levins, Walter, and Kevin were talking amongst themselves near the entranceway though, the hedgehog giggling despite herself.

Through the open doorway, they found another room about as large, though the wall in the back was lined with cabinets and cupboards, each made from the tree, though the counter top had been lacquered. One corner was conspicuously empty, though the end of an iron pipe protruding from the ceiling made it clear that the stove would go there. Charles glanced around, seeing several lanterns lit along the empty wall, pondering where they could place the wonderful table that Misha had given them. At the far end was another doorway.

After they had opened the cupboards and cabinets, cooed over the smooth finish to the walls and the counter, Gibson opened the door at the far end, and showed them the twisting staircase that led down into the cellar. It was dark down there, and so the frog grabbed one of the lanterns and led the way. The stairwell was made from the wood of the tree as well, as almost everything in their home seemed to be. Down there they found a stone floor in the dark room that spread out quite a bit. The thick undersides of roots cut through several portions of the room, though it was still quite spacious.

“I only ever used this to store things I didn’t need, but I suppose you could turn this into something more cheerful if you wanted.”

“A larder perhaps?” Charles suggested.

“How about a wine cellar?” Misha offered, which rewarded him another poke to the ribs from his darling otter.

“We’ll think of something,” Kimberly said, smiling as she hugged her man tight. Charles nodded and looked back to the stairs. There was still much to be seen.

After Gibson replaced the lantern in the kitchen, he led them to the other door off the main room. Inside was a long room with lanterns lit on one side, and two small windows on the far wall. Kimberly immediately went to peer out them, and Charles was right at her back. The view was not that remarkable, just more of the forest floor between the massive roots of the tree that was their home. Charles stepped back from it then and considered the rest of the room. On one end was another smaller hearth, cut from the same stones as the one in the main room. On the opposite side was a closet door, whose interior was wide with shelves on either side, a long room for them to walk in and out.

Gibson then led them to the stairwell off the main room. It twisted upwards into another room, this one flush with windows on three sides, each rather large, with a sill made from the outer bark of the redwood. There were two doors on the other face, as well as another hearth almost directly over the one beneath it, and a stairwell continuing upwards. “I never had much use for this room I must confess. I had Burris make it for when I finally had a family, but I think I’m going to be a confirmed old bachelor for some time now.”

“So the other two rooms are also bedrooms?” Charles asked.

The frog nodded his wide head. “Yes, you can use them for such if you need to.”

Misha nudge the rat with one elbow. “You better start getting good use out of that bed of yours.”

They all shared a bit of a laugh at that, and then Kimberly pointed towards the other stairwell. “Where does that lead?”

“That leads to the balcony. It’s a long climb though, and the height is kind of dizzying, but I liked it. I hope you wouldn’t mind allowing a sentimental old frog to stand up there from time to time and watch the forest?”

“Not at all,” Kimberly smiled warmly to him. Gibson’s yellow eyes beamed brightly back to her and he gave a croak of pleasure at that.

“Well, that is your new home, what do you think?”

Charles gestured to the stairwell, “I think I want to see this view from the balcony.”

“Yes,” Kimberly agreed, smiling widely. “Let’s go up there.”

“It’s a long climb, my Lady,” Gibson warned, though a tremble in his voice told Charles that the amphibian was looking forward to going up there.

“I’d like to see it too,” Misha said with a firm nod.

Lord an Lady Avery held a private conference for a moment. “I think we’ll go see how things are developing out on the Commons,” Brian said then. “Besides, I’d better go check to see where my sons got off to. If somebody hasn’t kept a close eye on them, they may be waiting for you up there on the balcony!”

Charles and the rest laughed warmly. “If we see them we’ll send them back down,” the rat added with a smile. The two squirrels laughed themselves and let back the way they had come in. Gibson took one of the lanterns that hung on the wall then and began to climb the wide steps that turned about, spiralling up through the pulp of the tree. Charles gestured for Kimberly to go first, and he followed right along behind her, his legs every now and then brushing against the side of her tail. Misha and Caroline came up behind them with the fox taking the rear.

Gibson had been telling them the truth when he said it was a long climb. Though Charles was not quite out of breath, Kimberly was huffing and puffing as she made it up the last few steps. It opened out onto a wide balcony that had been grown from the tree itself. The railing was high, nearly up to the rats’ necks, though there was plenty of room for all of them to stand and stare out.

They were quite some distance up from the ground now, but they could clearly gaze down at the white ground far below, into the Commons where they could see the wagons being brought closer to their home, as well as their belongings organised and examined again. Several groups of Glenners were arranging the wood for the bonfires in several places about the clearing. Some had already begun to dance a bit down below.

“This is an incredible view!” Charles admitted as he stared out at the trees rising up all about them. Branches moved back and forth, crossing in a tight weave that defied even his imagination. He’d been up high in these gigantic trees before, but then he’d been standing and holding onto the branches, sometimes for fear of his life. Here he could relax and watch with calm serenity.

“Oh, this is so wonderful,” Kimberly agreed as she pressed her head against his shoulder.

“Matt, this is amazing, I love this!” Misha said, the slightest hint of jealousy in his voice. Charles suspected his friend let that come out only because he wished it too.

“Oh, can you imagine standing here in the morning watching the sun rise?” Caroline suggested.

“I’ve done that before,” Gibson admitted. “You cannot see much of the sun during the summer time, but right now it’s a marvellous view.”

“Yes, it is,” Charles admitted as he rested one arm upon the railing and stared out.

“Well,” Gibson admitted, his voice hesitant. “I think we should head back down so we can start moving you two in properly.”

“Yes, let’s get started, still plenty to do today!” Though it was still early afternoon, there would not be much light left to that day. Soon they would have only the bonfires to guide them. Without wasting any more time, the five of them trekked back down the long circular staircase, guided only by the light of Gibson’s lantern. But they had no difficulty seeing where they were going, and after a few minutes returned to the upper level of their new home. A few heartbeat’s later, they were back on the main floor, greeted by a beaming Mrs Levins and the sparrow Kevin. Walter was standing just a bit back, clutching a large parcel.

“I’m so sorry we couldn’t make your wedding,” Mrs. Levins called out, her voice bubbling over with enthusiasm. “But Kevin and I have a surprise for you waiting in the kitchen. Our gift for such a wonderful couple!”

Charles grinned and then took a whiff of the air. Wafting from their kitchen was a sweet delectable fruity odour that drew them all. Kimberly was the first to the doorway, and there, sitting upon the counter were two strawberry pies, piping hot, fresh from the hedgehog’s ovens.

“They look delicious!” Charles cried out in delight as he saw them. It had been so long since he could remember having one of her famous pies. But he’d never heard of ones made from strawberries. “How did you do this?”

“Kevin here found the strawberries, he knows their secret location as he likes to call it.”

The sparrow ducked his head a bit embarrassed at that. “I did, aren’t they wonderful?”

“Oh, they smell scrumptious!” Kimberly practically swooned as she stood there drinking in their scent.

Misha nodded firmly and grinned slightly to his friend. “Are you planning on sharing some of that with your old friend Misha Brightleaf?”

Charles laughed then and patted the fox’s shoulder with one paw. “Don’t you two worry. If Kimberly says its okay, I’d like to share a slice with all the Longs.”

“Oh, that’s a lovely idea!” Kimberly crowed then, beaming brightly.

“Oh you,” Gibson croaked. “Making such a wonderful pie and teasing me with it!”

Mrs Levins laughed and smiled to the frog. “Oh don’t worry dearie, I have plenty more strawberries to make pie from. Kevin here is a good helper.” The sparrow ducked his head again, wingtips rising to hide a blush that could not show through his feathers.

Walter stepped forward then, holding out her parcel. “This is my gift for you two. Garigan suggested it, but told me to give it to you when he wasn’t around.”

Charles took the heavy parcel. It was wrapped in parchment, which he was able to remove with ease. Inside was a thick black cloth, folded tightly in a way that could only be accomplished from years of practise. Letting the cloth unfold of its own accord, Charles held it aloft, seeing that it was a banner, and finding a very familiar heraldry upon it. There was the shield, the hand, and the sword within. All of it made precisely as the banner that had hung in the Shrine had been until Rickkter had destroyed it.

Although Kimberly could not know the meaning, she admired the handiwork nonetheless. Charles however, shuddered as he held the fine gift, rubbing his paws across it as tears threatened to come to his eyes. “This is... this is so wonderful, Walter. Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me.” And then, before the rat realised what he was doing, he stepped over and wrapped his arms about Walter in a hug.

The woman did not reciprocate immediately, but then she smiled warmly and patted the rat upon his back. “I’m so glad that you like the gift.”

Charles let go of her then, and clutched the cloth close to his chest, and smiled warmly to them all. “Thank you all for this. I am so glad to have you as my neighbours.”

“And we’re glad to have you,” Kevin admitted, as he hopped about on his talons. “Welcome to Glen Avery!”

Charles nodded and smiled up to Misha and Caroline, and then to Walter and Mrs Levins. Finally, he looked to Lady Kimberly, his wife. He wrapped one arm about her shoulder and held her tight to his chest. He kissed the side of her ear softly then, feeling his heart pound so hard in his chest that he thought if he did not cry for joy he would explode. They were home.

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