Mrs. Brisby and the Search for Johnathan

By David Leemhuis

Contents

Courage of the heart…it served Mrs. Brisby well in her quest to save her children and gained her valuable allies and friends. Now, she must rely upon it again in a new quest to find the one who will once again make her family complete: Johnathan Brisby, the father of her children, the one she thought they’d lost forever. Guided by the ever-mysterious red amulet, she leads her new friends into parts unknown to any of them, with no way of knowing that they’d meet opposition to their quest…or that they may not survive to be reunited with the object of their search.

Introduction

The first draft of this story was written in March and April 1986, after having been pretty much in my head for over a year previously.  The original version saw print in “The NIMH File,” an APAzine compiled and edited by Timothy Fay.  I was under a certain amount of deadline pressure at the time, plus it was my first attempt at writing any kind of fiction since high school a decade-plus before, so I was never entirely satisfied with the results.  As I put it at the time, I mainly wanted the chance “to get this story out of my system,” so I banged out the entire story in about a month’s time, and as a result a lot of material I now consider “cringeworthy” crept in: certain bits of dialogue, plot elements that I later realized made little sense, and one horrible mixed metaphor: “I’ve made some further discoveries, my friend, though how they all fit together I’m only beginning to unravel.”  Come again?

So, 2 ½ years later, I finished a revised and expanded version, which I retitled simply “Mrs. Brisby’s Search,” because at the time I thought the original title gave too much away. In between, I’d written a follow-up story to “Search”—“The Hidden Conflict”—which presented my own origins for the Stone and Nicodemus’s powers and abilities, while attempting to explain away other unresolved matters and inconsistencies from the film. More recently, actually about a decade ago, I first had the idea for an alternate storyline that would simplify and streamline the whole saga, mainly because I thought “The Hidden Conflict” introduced characters and situations that strayed a bit too far from the original milieu of “NIMH” and made the overall storyline more complex than necessary and too bogged down in detail. Even I was finding it hard to follow. I hadn’t written down any details of this alternate storyline—in which “The Hidden Conflict” was written out—but I’d kept the basics of it in the back of my mind. This past year, upon discovering online “NIMH” fandom and the opportunity to present my stories on the web, I decided to dust off the alternate and make it the definitive version. So once I’d firmed up the details I started the third version of “Search,” for which I decided to restore the original title.

My apologies for being long-winded, but these stories do have a history, if only to myself and a handful of others who’d read the originals.

The story, though movie-based, also incorporates elements from the Robert O’Brien novel: characters such as Arthur, Isabella and Janice, aspects of Timothy’s and Johnathan’s personalities, the creekside setting for the Brisby summer home, etc. It takes the reader into a realm which is arguably more fantastic than that of the movie and which I’m sure some may find confounding but which I hope others may find to be, at the very least, a unique approach. When I’d first conceived it a good quarter-century ago, it seemed a logical extension of the seemingly-mystical and otherworldly aspects of the film, and this latest version retains that flavor as well as the basic plot of the original, though many details were altered.

Finally, as I’ve stated in my forum posts, I don’t consider this any more “definitive” or “correct” than anyone else’s fan-fiction; it’s just my own take on this particular fantasy realm, one out of many, some of which I’ll readily admit to be superior.  As usual, feedback is appreciated.  Love it or loathe it, feel free to post comments at the following forum topic:

http://forum.thornvalley.com/discussion/3/on-the-fan-fiction-balcony

Read on…

Prologue

A figure sat by a window overlooking a terraced hillside, gazing at the sunset, his thoughts far away.  How like the sunsets he’d known in past years, before everything changed for him.  Similar, and yet…

His reverie was interrupted by a light tapping on the door, which was ajar.  A figure physically much different stepped into the room.  His appearance would, to most, give the initial impression of advanced age but much youthful spirit, and perhaps more strongly of quiet dignity and great wisdom.

“Aphonjal. You’ve been here most of the afternoon, my friend. I’ve prepared a light repast for us both, and I hope you’ll join me.”

“Thanks, Gwinthrayle,” said Aphonjal. “But no thanks. I’m not hungry.” There was an air of weary resignation in his voice, like a grudging acceptance of a fate which was futile in fighting.

Gwinthrayle, ever responsive to changes in his friend’s mood, replied, “This is most unlike you, my friend.  Please, come downstairs, and after we’ve dined, we—“

“I said I’m not hungry!” Aphonjal replied sharply. “And I don’t need another—” He fell silent, disbelieving his own uncharacteristic outburst. He rose from his chair. “Gwinthrayle, I’m sorry. I can’t believe I raised my voice to you.”

“It’s all right, I understand.  But you should never abandon hope.”

“I know…but I should apologize.  I know I haven’t been the best company lately.  You’ve shown me more kindness and hospitality that I’ve ever had the right to expect.  You took me in when I had no place else to go and was more than a little scared and uncertain.  I’ve almost come to regard this place as much a home as the one I left.  But all that I did leave:  Madeline…my children…all my friends.  They must have all given me up for dead long ago.”

“I know it’s hard.  I’ve been experimenting with some different spells the past two days, though, and I believe we may be close to a breakthrough.  I’ve asked Birantha to help me with some of the more complex ones.  Now if only we had something as powerful as the amulet which…”

“That blasted jewel!” Aphonjal slapped his fist into his other hand. “I wish I’d never seen it, I wish I’d never picked it up. If not for it, I’d never have…” He checked himself again, sighing deeply. “I’m sorry, there I go again. I…guess I’ll join you after all.”

“Very good. And then afterwards we can try out some of those spells. I believe you’ll have good cause to be hopeful.” Gwinthrayle turned and exited the room.

And Aphonjal knew that Gwinthrayle meant it sincerely. But wasn’t there the possibility, after all, that this would be just another attempt doomed to failure, or at least with no visible result? He vowed to put such thoughts out of his mind. To think in absolutes, to expect the very worst was something he frequently needed to remind himself not to do, and he did so silently as he left the room.

He didn’t realize that events to ensure success had already been set in motion, and that the results would be quite unexpected.

Chapter 1 - Remembrances

A light rain was falling on this hazy, muggy, mid-July day; and in a field mouse’s den nestled beneath the roots of a giant oak tree, Mrs. Brisby’s family was growing restless.

This den had been their first home since Mrs. Brisby and her late husband Johnathan—who had been gone since the previous September—had settled here some three years earlier, and they’d made many improvements and modifications to it in that time, virtually all of them in place due to Johnathan’s own unique—or so they’d seemed until recently—talents and knowledge. These changes included window-slots, covered with unbreakable clear plastic panels, to let in a generous amount of daylight, and many human-made artifacts they could make use of, such as candles, small metal and plastic vessels they used for a variety of purposes such as doing laundry, bathing, or for storage. In recent years, they’d divided their time between this home and a winter home located on a nearby farm owned by the Fitzgibbons family, spending three to four months there. But for the remaining portion of the year, this was their home; indeed, the place which had provided the lion’s share of happy memories for all of them.

Mrs. Brisby sat by one of the windows, her patched, well-worn red cape—originally a gift from Johnathan—draped over a nearby chair, while her children occupied themselves with games.  Martin, her oldest son, and his brother Timothy were playing a variation on baseball with a stick and wadded scrap of paper.  Martin’s twin sister Teresa and Timothy’s twin sister Cynthia were on the floor with a checkered cloth spread out before them, playing a version of checkers using different colored pebbles.

“C’mon, squirt, your serve,” said Martin, poised with the stick.  “Try to get it past me this time.”

“I thought ‘serve’ was a tennis term,” said Timothy.

“Tennis, baseball, what’s the diff?  C’mon, put it over.”  Barely had Martin said this when Timothy sent the “ball” sailing over to him, bouncing off his unkempt pate.

“You said put it over,” said Timothy innocently.  He began snickering to himself as Martin looked indignant at him.

Cynthia had looked up from her own game and giggled at the scene.

“Cynthia, pay attention,” said Teresa.  “How can you learn the rules if you let yourself be distracted all the time?”

“Oh, I was paying attention,” replied Cynthia, a bit irked at Teresa’s strict adherence to rules and envying the boys’ more free-wheeling, unhindered play.

Their mother, meanwhile, was almost oblivious as she sat by the window on a stool made of cork, gazing at the falling rain. Her thoughts wandered, as they often did in recent months, back to the events of this past spring, so pivotal and life-changing. It had been their first winter in their latest winter home, an enclosed cement block which had kept them cozy and comfortable, but which unfortunately proved to be in a less-than-ideal location, a realization that proved most critical with the fateful day that Timothy fell ill with pneumonia dangerously close to Moving Day. It led her to obtain medicine from the physician mouse Mr. Ages; and to her first meeting with the crow Jeremy, who took her to see the Great Owl for a solution to her predicament; her meeting with Nicodemus and the Rats of NIMH, who agreed to move her house to bring it out of the path of the Fitzgibbons’ tractor and avoid endangering Timothy’s life by exposure to the chill air; her impulsive decision, as much so as one Johnathan might have made, to perform his old duty to drug the farm cat Dragon, ultimately enabling her to warn the Rats of the danger they’d be in from the NIMH scientists; and the treachery of Jenner, who caused the death of Nicodemus and the near-deaths of all her children, who were saved by the power of the Stone, the red amulet Nicodemus had given her.

The Stone.  She hadn’t really understood what Nicodemus had meant when he referred to the power that lay within it; and after it had displayed its power—apparently using her as a conduit—by liberating her house from the sucking mud, as well as expelling all the mud that had started to fill the inside, it was tragically too late for him to explain further.  When Nicodemus first presented it to her, telling her that Johnathan had meant it for her, she was so fascinated by it that she hadn’t even thought to ask him where it came from; it seemed to her to be like a symbol of Johnathan, and of his love for her and the children; and so she wanted to keep it and treasure it always.  But in the aftermath of its display of power, which had been so unexpected and beyond her understanding and had left her with burned palms, she wasn’t so sure about keeping it; so she gave it to Justin, who was now the leader of the Rats, who were forced to evacuate their old home very swiftly and move to Thorn Valley…

Her reverie was abruptly interrupted.  Teresa was berating Cynthia for accidentally scattering their checkers game, and Cynthia was yelling and starting to cry back at her.

Their mother got to her feet and approached them.  “Now, children, I know we’ve all got cabin fever, but all this yelling and arguing isn’t helping any.  Teresa, help Cynthia straighten up your cloth.”

“It’s all right, Mama, I’ll help her,” offered Timothy.  He dropped down on all fours and started gathering stones with Cynthia. Martin put his hand to his face, shaking his head at this disruption of their own game.

Mrs. Brisby smiled to herself, but it was a smile tinged with sadness.  Timothy was always so helpful, and so perceptive about so many things; so much like his father it was almost uncanny.  As she looked upon him making up a joke to cheer up Cynthia while he helped her straighten the checkered cloth—the two had always had a strong bond—she silently thanked God for how well he was doing these days, how much stronger he was now since his frightening bout with pneumonia.  Before that had been the incident late last summer, when he’d been bitten by a spider; and prior to that, he’d always tended to take ill more often than his siblings.  As a result, he still wasn’t as large as Martin, and even Cynthia had begun to exceed him in height and weight, but his mother hoped fervently that the greater part of his past health problems were behind him now.  If only Johnathan could see him, and all of them now.  Her thoughts began to stray back to that day like no other, over three years ago, which she remembered so clearly in every detail, as if it were only the day before.

Only weeks before, she had lost her own parents to either Dragon or some other predator—she was never really sure—but now it was definitely Dragon who had her cornered in a hollow log.  She knew she was safe for the moment, but the log was rotten enough, and she was so petrified with fright, that she knew it was only a matter of minutes, if not seconds, before she would join her parents.  She hid her face in her arms as she awaited the inevitable…

…And then suddenly Dragon seemed distracted. He backed off suddenly, and she could hear sounds of a scuffle, but she knew that she didn’t dare budge from the spot; she couldn’t have anyway if she tried. After a few minutes of near-silence she heard a voice ask if she were all right. Cautiously lowering her arms, she saw a strange mouse at the opening. He introduced himself as Johnathan and said that he’d seen Dragon corner her there, and almost entirely on impulse, he took it upon himself to act as a decoy. He said he’d managed to evade Dragon for several minutes—at one point just barely—but he knew that it would be Dragon’s mealtime soon, and that Mrs. Fitzgibbons would soon be calling to him from the house. She was still not over her fright as she listened to his story; and so he stayed with her for a time, comforting and reassuring her that it was safe to come out. As he escorted her home, the full impact of what Johnathan had just done registered with her. Certainly she was enormously grateful to him for saving her life, and she’d let him know in no uncertain terms; but challenging Dragon! For as long as she could remember, nearly all the animals of the field had been terrorized by Dragon, and now here was a mere mouse challenging him.

He had always been very brave, almost foolhardy; and the further details she’d been told about him by Nicodemus and Justin—details previously unknown to her, some quite surprising—certainly reinforced that view of him. How ironically fitting that it was Dragon that brought them together, and then two and a half years later it was Dragon that…

Again her reminiscences were interrupted, but this time by a gentle tug at her elbow. She looked down and saw Timothy staring up at her inquisitively. She realized that she had begun weeping, only now aware of the wetness beneath her eyes. She now tried to hide it though aware the effort would likely be futile.

“Mama…you’ve been thinking about Daddy again, haven’t you?”

Tears began to well up again, but she also felt great affection.  “Dear Timothy…I never could hide anything from you.  Yes, I was thinking back to the day we first met.”

“When he saved you from Dragon?”

“Yes.  Oh, there are so many happy times I remember, but…I guess I can’t help feeling sad too.”

“I miss him too.  We all do.  But we’ve done all right for ourselves since then, haven’t we?”

Mrs. Brisby realized that once again, here was Timothy in the position of reassuring her, as he’d been many times before; she instantly thought of the talk they’d had while he was sick last spring, believing that that situation would turn out for the best, doing much to mitigate her own fear and uncertainty.  “I guess we have.  And I have all of you, and we all have each other.”  She leaned forward and drew both arms around her son, kissing his forehead.  Martin, Teresa and Cynthia had abandoned their own activities to join Timothy at their mother’s side.

“It’s all right, Mother,” said Teresa.

“Yeah, Dragon comes around here, he’ll have to deal with me,” said Martin with his usual braggadocio.

“And it’s been such a great summer too, Mommy,” said Cynthia, ever the model of sunny optimism.  “Everything’s gonna be great.”

And now Mrs. Brisby was embracing them all as one, wishing as ever that her arms were truly that long.

Despite previous trials, she hoped to expect nothing but a normal life for herself and her family from now on; or at least, as normal as could be possible, considering her children’s heritage, being the progeny of as unique a mouse as Johnathan Brisby as well as herself.  Yet, due to that fact, she knew that, with a feeling of both dread and anticipation, they wouldn’t settle for living this way, the simple life of a field mouse, much longer; not with their own knowledge of this heritage, which surely meant they had more in common with the Rats of NIMH, whom they surely would want to visit in Thorn Valley before too long.  And she knew she couldn’t keep them from doing so, whether she accompanied them or if they left on their own.  It was a decision she knew couldn’t be put off much longer.

For now, though, moments like these were what made it all worth it—being a parent, with all its joys and sorrows, and knowing her children loved her unconditionally as she loved them.  She again thought about the events of last spring and hoped never to face anything as dire again.

If only she knew then…

Chapter 2 - Planning a trip

“Johnathan!”

The word had come half-whispered, half-shouted from her lips, and now she found herself back in familiar surroundings, though—at first—barely aware of anything but the foregoing experience—could it really have been no more than a dream?—and its aftereffects.  She was lying in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf; breathing shallowly, hoarsely, as if she’d just finished a marathon race; nearly oblivious to all but the feelings she was now experiencing, for which she’d hardly have words to describe.

“Mother?”

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

The words barely registered at first, and it took a few more seconds for her to notice the faces and forms of her two oldest children by her bedside.  Even in the dim light that filtered into their den at this darkling hour, there was visible concern etched upon their young faces.

“T-Teresa…Martin.”  She shook her head and clenched her eyes shut.  Upon opening them, Mrs. Brisby saw that Timothy and Cynthia had joined their older siblings, Cynthia looking especially worried as she and Timothy stood at the foot of the bed.  She made a concerted effort to control the tremors the experience had brought on.

“Was it a bad dream, Mother?” asked Teresa, hand on her mother’s shoulder.

“It…yes.  Yes, it was…just a bad dream.”  She managed a smile, swallowing hard.  “Nothing to worry about.”

Cynthia moved closer.  “Mommy…it sounds like you were…shouting Daddy’s name.”

Mrs. Brisby’s eyes widened as she realized she had indeed done so.  “I…may have.  I don’t really…remember much of the…the dream at all.”  Collecting herself as much as possible, she quickly added, “But it was just a dream.  And now we all need our sleep.”  They said their goodnights, and all four children returned to their beds, though Cynthia still needed a little extra reassurance before being coaxed back by Timothy.

Alone once more, Mrs. Brisby leaned back, inhaling deeply, staring at the ceiling, wondering: Did I lie to them just now? Or was it really just a bad dream? And almost immediately she concluded: No. No, it had to be more than that. This was just the latest one, the latest in a series. But if it was more, then yes, it means she did lie to them. She continued taking deep breaths, trying to make herself more relaxed. Why is this happening? And why now? Certainly he’d been in her dreams plenty of times since…since they’d lost him. But this…

She fought back the urge to burst out crying. No, there must be an answer. Someone, somewhere has to know. But who did she know who could…

And all at once, there was a realization within her; an epiphany, one might even call it. Perhaps there is someone, she thought, or…something. Again her thoughts drifted back to that day in March, to her family crisis that led to experiences at once wondrous and frightening; and she knew, beyond a doubt, what that something was. And what she’d have to do…perhaps what her entire family would have to do. Certainly it had been long enough, and a promise is a promise. “When you’re older,” she’d told them, on more occasions than she could count. She felt a measure of relief over having reached this conclusion, and yet…there was so much else, so many other factors to consider.

All right, she told herself, we don’t need to plan all this now, it can wait till tomorrow. Let’s get back to sleep now. Again the deep-breathing exercises, bringing some small feeling of calm; but in spite of her efforts, it would still be some time before she’d drift off completely.

*      *      *

“Come on, Martin, don’t disturb her.  Let her get up on her own,” Teresa whispered as she tugged at her brother’s elbow.  Martin made to grumble something in reply, but instead allowed her to lead him away from the foot of their mother’s bed, quickly jerking his elbow away from Teresa’s hand with a silent scowl as they passed through the curtained doorway to the living/dining area.  Cynthia and Timothy were sitting at the dining table, still uncleared from breakfast.

“Still asleep, huh?” said Cynthia, not so much worried as confused.  Timothy put a hand on her arm, raising a smile from her; obviously he’d already been reassuring her.

“I’d sure like to know what’s going on with her,” said Martin as Teresa sat down at the table.

“It was just a bad dream, Martin.  She said so herself.  It just kept her awake, that’s all.”

“I don’t just mean that.”  Martin continued to stand with his back to the curtained doorway.  “For a couple weeks now, she spends so much time just…with her head in the clouds.”

Teresa stared in disbelief.  “After all she’s been through lately—after all we’ve been through, all of us—I think she has the right.”  It was a major effort to keep from raising her voice above that of normal conversation.

“She’s right,” added Timothy.  “We’ve all had so much to think about since we learned about the rats, and how Daddy knew them.”

“I think you’re just sore because you had to fix your own breakfast,” suggested Cynthia, giggling.

The face that Martin made by way of reply was enough for the others to tell that this was true, at least in part. “Well…I still say she should just get over it, whatever this is. There’s too many things we should be doing, and she’s…I dunno, it’s like she’s slowing things down on purpose, like she expects us to just…”

He paused as he noticed the wide-eyed expressions on his siblings’ faces, accompanied by Timothy’s subtle pointing gesture. Suddenly “getting it,” he turned; and found himself face-to-face with his mother, staring directly into her blue eyes, her expression one of dismay but also seeming to say, “You have a point.” Even so, she turned back into the bedroom.

Martin turned, suddenly feeling utter powerlessness before these three faces full of wrath.  “I don’t believe this!” sputtered Teresa through gritted teeth.  “Even for you, this is…of all the boneheaded…”  She shot from her chair, fists clenched, looking ready to punch her brother, but instead just shouldering past him toward the doorway.  In recent months, all four Brisby children had grown noticeably; and none more so than Martin, now almost as tall as his father and with added musculature as well.  Even so, facing his twin sister’s wrath was never high on his list of favorite things, and he’d rarely seen her this angry.

Just as she put a hand out to part the curtain, though, a voice just beyond it drew her to a halt.  “It’s all right, Teresa.  Martin…would you come in here, dear?”  Martin looked at Teresa helplessly, but she only shot him a you’re-in-for-it-now look.  Resigned, he swallowed hard as he entered past the curtain.

Mrs. Brisby sat on the side of the bed, expression serious but with no obvious anger.  With some small relief, Martin approached her. “Mom, I’m…I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean…I don’t want to hurt anyone, least of all you.  It’s just that…”  He sighed.  “I guess I can be a bonehead sometimes.”

She gave a small, reassuring smile and invited him to sit beside her.  After he did, she placed her hand on his.  “I know you’re worried about me, Martin.  All of you are; I can see that.”  She said this knowing full well that Martin was not one to admit to that particular emotion, but he looked at her with no sign that he’d argue the point.  “But can you tell me how I’m…‘slowing things down?’”

He winced, sighing and looking away, utterly unprepared to face such a line of questioning.  With no other recourse, he soldiered on as best he could.  “I guess…I meant that it’s been, like, four months now since, you know, that whole business with the Rats and the house-moving.  And…all that we found out about Dad, how they were his friends, and they all came from that NIMH place where the humans did experiments on them.  It was…just weird, but amazing to learn all that.”

“It was for all of us, dear.  We never imagined any of that about him…though I guess I knew he was keeping secrets, about the places he’d go and those mysterious ‘friends’ he never told us about.  And looking back on it now…”  She sighed, expression suddenly far away.

“So I guess…what I really meant was…”

“I think I can guess.  That we should go visit the Rats…sooner rather than later.”

Martin’s face lit up.  Not only had she guessed correctly, but he hadn’t expected her to agree so readily.  This was turning out to be much easier than he thought.  “Well…if you think we can handle it, then…”

Mrs. Brisby held her hand up, which all her children recognized as the call to silence.  “The rest of you may as well come in.”  The other three, having not concealed their eavesdropping well enough, entered the room, Teresa looking particularly sheepish.  When they were all gathered on and around the bed, she continued: “Now, if you all heard most of our conversation, then you know we were talking about the Rats, and when we would set out to visit them.”

“Tomorrow?” Timothy piped up.

“Or today!” added Cynthia.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We’ll have to have at least one day to prepare, pack what we need, and rest up, because it won’t be like Moving Day; it’ll be a much longer journey.  But…if all of you think we’re ready for it…if you think we can handle making such a long trip, then there’s no reason why we can’t begin tomorrow.”

“Yeahhh!  Thorn Valley or bust!”  Martin jumped almost straight up off the bed.

“Oh, thankyouthankyouthankyou!”  Cynthia threw her arms around her mother’s waist.  Timothy did the same, tipping her over backwards onto her back, making her laugh.  Teresa was more restrained, but was as joyous as the others with the anticipation of finally making this long-promised trip.

They all adjourned to the front room, where Mrs. Brisby began preparing her own late breakfast while apologizing for not being up earlier to prepare the children’s; but Teresa stopped her.  “Leave it to us, Mother,” she said, and Mrs. Brisby half-expected Martin to add, “What do you mean, us?” but instead he very readily joined in, though not after giving her a hug of gratitude.

As she watched this new bustle of activity from her place at the table, Mrs. Brisby considered: Maybe, just maybe I should be completely honest with them about why we’re making this trip now. And yet, there was no reason for them to suspect that she wanted to visit the Rats for other than purely the same reasons as they. Certainly she was just as curious to see how everything’s coming along with them, and equally enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing their new colony. Justin had given them an open invitation to visit, though he’d emphasized that anytime after three months would probably be best; at the time they’d evacuated the Rosebush, forced to make the migration to Thorn Valley several months ahead of schedule, their new colony very likely wouldn’t have been completely ready for habitation. But they’d be more likely to accommodate guests in a few months’ time, so now was definitely right, as long as the recent stretch of pleasant summer weather held out.

Yet, for all that, there was still that matter, never far from her thoughts in recent weeks, that… No, she decided, it’s best to say nothing about that now. Who knows, but it may actually turn out to be just…dreams, bad or otherwise. And if so, she knew, it’s not as if it would be a wasted trip by any means. For the moment, she was content to be treated as queen for a day—or at least the morning—as she watched her offspring put together the typical fruit-grain-and-vegetable assortment for her morning meal.

*     *     *

By midafternoon, their plans for the next day were well established.  Timothy had compiled a list of items they’d need to bring along, which in the end proved to be quite short; aside from personal items for grooming and a small amount of food—mostly some favorite treats, since they knew food would be plentiful along the way—they would leave in the morning with little more than the clothes on their backs.  “Sounds like we’re ready now!” remarked Cynthia once this point was established.  “Let’s go!”  All were impatient to some degree, but in the end they agreed that with the estimated travel time of three to four days, beginning the trip at the crack of dawn should minimize the number of overnight stops they’d have to make.  The prospect of spending their nights in wild, unfamiliar territory, even if they find secure places to sleep, did raise a bit of anxiety; but not enough to cause any thoughts of backing down.  They all knew this would be no short stroll, and a much more arduous journey than any past Moving Day, but the children’s enthusiasm was by no means dimmed; all were sure it would prove to be the greatest adventure for them.

In late afternoon, the children opted for a session of swimming and generally cooling off in the creek; a nearly everyday summer activity for them, and one they and their mother alike found especially welcome on this late July day, on the eve of their “great adventure.” As for Mrs. Brisby, she opted to stay on the bank and chat with their neighbor Janice while watching both the Brisby children and some of Janice’s as they swam, dived and played games—the object of which might appear to some to be to drown each other—often with accompanying shrieks and laughter. There was little concern for their safety, as all the Brisby children were excellent swimmers, and they and Janice’s older children would keep a watchful eye on the younger ones.

“That was scary, hearing about Timothy, and how sick he got back in the spring,” remarked Janice.  “But look at him now!  He’s keeping right up with the others with no trouble at all.”

Janice, her mate Kory and their children were among a few other mouse families living in the immediate creekside neighborhood.  Mrs. Brisby had known them since they’d moved there in the spring of last year, and had since proven to be the best friends they’d ever made in this area.  She’d long known the tendencies other mice had shown toward her family—some, not all—and she’d always found it troubling, though not to distraction, that they would be uneasy in her family’s presence—backing away, even shunning them outright when any of them approached, especially adults and older children—but Janice and her family were notable and welcome exceptions.

In the “old days,” she’d looked to Johnathan for the answers to most every question she’d had regarding matters that she knew little or nothing about; but on this one, he could tell her nothing…or so he’d claimed.  Now, armed with the knowledge of what the NIMH treatments had done to him as well as his friends the Rats, she knew that it was a lie, as much as it pained her to think of it that way.  It had all been so unnecessary; this, out of all the things she’d learned about Johnathan and his connection to the Rats, was the most troubling for her, as it had stemmed from his fear that disclosing this connection to her, with everything it entailed, would damage their relationship, even make her stop loving him if she found out about the aging difference—her growing older faster than he would—which he’d known about since they’d met.  This difference, like the ones between her family and other mice, were all ones that, Mrs. Brisby believed now, she could have handled very well if he’d told her.  The children would likely have accepted it as well.

But these matters were not on Mrs. Brisby’s mind now, as she and Janice sat watching their children splash away this lazy summer day—either silently or with light conversation, though lately she was finding it difficult to find common ground with Janice, conversation-wise. Was it because of all she’d learned in recent months, and the changes it had brought to her life, or was it something else? It was hard to tell, but not a great concern; and now, she felt, there was one subject that she’d need to bring up before long, and so she told Janice that she and the children would be leaving on a trip early in the morning.

“Really?  Surely not to move back to the farm already?”

“Oh, no.  We’re just going to visit some friends who live further off in the woods, to the north.  We should be back in about a week or so.”  During the planning for the trip, she’d instructed her children to give the same answer to anyone if the need arose, and no more than that.  She hoped that Janice wouldn’t become too inquisitive now.

“Oh.  Well, I hope you all have a good time, and be careful.”

“Thank you, Janice.  We will.”  Mrs. Brisby smiled inwardly.

As they continued watching the children’s games, which now involved the buckets they normally used for hauling water to their home used for improved aquatic warfare, she allowed Janice’s mention of “back to the farm” to take her mind back to what had become a family tradition: Moving Day, in which, every spring and fall, they’d make the trek between this home and the farm. This had been Johnathan’s idea, to give them easier access to a more steady and dependable winter food supply. The first time, two autumns ago, they’d moved into a cozy if a bit cramped space beneath a hollow log, not all that far from the one where she and Johnathan had first met. But last autumn, that one was found to have been already occupied, something that had caused Mrs. Brisby no small amount of distress, following on the heels of Timothy’s latest health scare brought on by the spider bite, and Johnathan’s death. Fortunately it proved to be a temporary setback, as they quickly discovered the cinderblock near the great stone in the garden, and instantly they found it perfect for their needs; so perfect that it almost seemed to Mrs. Brisby to be meant for them to find, almost as if Johnathan had a hand in it in some strange way, as if he’d guided them to it. Its precise location proved troublesome, of course, before that was resolved last spring in a strange and unexpected manner. But after Mr. Ages had examined Timothy at the end of his prescribed three-week housebound recovery period and pronounced him fit for travel, the family agreed to proceed with Moving Day as planned, and—very possibly—to find yet another winter home come the next fall Moving Day. Despite its now more secure location, out of the plow’s path, all admitted to a degree of uneasiness with the idea of returning to a house which had, in effect, become a death trap, with Jenner’s treacherous actions leading to the children being in mortal danger from drowning in mud, a fate thankfully reversed by the Stone’s power. The actual move was quite pleasant; they made the trip at a lazy, leisurely pace, as they had in past years, making it very much like a holiday to celebrate the coming of spring. Since then, there had been no final decision on the matter of their next winter home, and in fact everyone had softened their stance on it, to the point where it was now agreed they’d return to the cinderblock if something equally or better suited wasn’t available, come autumn.

Her thoughts now led her, perhaps inevitably, back to her principal reason for making tomorrow’s trip, and the strange feeling she’d experienced in the wake of last night’s “nightmare,” one she could only describe now as a deep longing. It had already led to several moments of preoccupation today, and now Janice noticed how lengthy her silence had become; but before she could say, “Penny for your thoughts,” the two women’s attentions were grabbed by an uproar from a little further down the bank…

*     *     *

It wasn’t as if Martin Brisby was the vindictive type; his mother certainly wouldn’t describe him that way, if the word was in her vocabulary.  Despite his frequent squabbles with Teresa, he held no real antipathy toward anyone; though there were some—actually, just one—who pushed his buttons, he was loyal to a fault to his family, always wanting them to be safe and protected, a trait he shared with his late father.  And yet…there were times when that old saying, “Revenge is sweet,” definitely applied; and he knew, beyond a doubt, that one of those times was close at hand.  Spying the buckets sitting along the bank, the ones they normally used for hauling water back to the house, near where they’d left their clothing and towels, Martin approached them stealthily, glancing over to insure the target of his vengeance wasn’t looking.  Wearing the most evil grin he could muster, he brought one of the buckets back with him into the creek, submerged it, drew it back up…and waited for the right moment, anticipating the exacting of his revenge for the unexpected dunking of his head under water some six minutes before.  He hadn’t been afraid of drowning, but the incident was still abrupt and startling enough, he felt, to warrant the action he was now committed to committing.

Seconds later, Teresa’s head broke the surface.  She brought her hands up to strip away excess water from her face as she moved on to the shallower area near the bank, unaware of what awaited her just inches away.  She heard a small grunt, as if from someone’s sudden exertion, just to her right.  She turned, with eyes open and suddenly growing wider, just in time to see Martin hefting the water-loaded bucket over his head, then ejecting its contents squarely upon her with all his might.  The impact knocked her on her side, right back into the deeper water.  In seconds, she was back on her feet, unhurt but exhaling rapidly to clear water from her nostrils; and then, upon seeing her brother doubled over with laughter with the refilled bucket at his side, replied the only way possible at that moment: “Martin, you’ll be sorry if you do that again!” 

And just as surely, another bucketful was heading her way.  It mostly missed her, because she was making a beeline for one of the other buckets.  “All right, you asked for it!”  She dashed back into the creek, instantly dunking her own bucket and, with a healthy grunt, heaved its contents back at Martin, who made no great attempt at dodging it.

Cynthia, Timothy, and Janice’s children Sibelle, Dupree, Lana and Lincoln quickly ceased their own activities to observe the mayhem, all content for the time being to watch rather than join in. “Of course, you realize, this means war!” quipped Timothy. It quickly became apparent that there was no real hostility in their actions—as if there was any doubt—as it escalated into a laughing, shrieking free-for-all. Cynthia glanced over to her mother, sitting with Janice along the bank, and noticed how preoccupied she looked; even with this going on? she wondered.

Martin and Teresa had taken their battle closer to the bank, both taking care not to get too close to their dry clothing and towels; getting them wet would mean invoking their mother’s wrath, if anything did.  “Are you ready for this one?” said Martin in his best faux-menacing tone.

“Oh, you’d better believe it, mister!” Teresa replied, making seemingly no effort to avoid being a target as Martin aimed another bucketful at her. Teresa was now all the way up on the bank, gesturing in a come-and-get-it fashion.

Martin took the bait, flinging his watery weapon; and in a little more than a second, three things happened: a figure emerged from around a weed patch in back of Teresa; Teresa dropped down on all fours, flattening to the ground; and Martin’s liquid projectile found a new target, which reacted with a sound like “Blooaugpht!”

“Uh-oh,” said Teresa quietly, recognizing the voice, as did her siblings, even as she instantly stood upright again.  Sure enough, there before them stood the ever-familiar figure of Auntie Shrew: self-appointed caretaker of the field, always helpful though often to the point of being a busybody, and currently soaking wet and fuming.

“Oh, Auntie Shrew,” said Teresa meekly.

“Oh, Auntie,” added Cynthia as she and Timothy approached a bit hesitantly, aware of the meltdown that would surely follow.

Martin was too busy rolling around in the shallow part of the creek laughing to even say “Oh, no!”

Timothy just greeted her with a polite “Hello, Auntie Shrew,” but it was all but—appropriately—drowned out…

…And a little further up the bank, Mrs. Brisby sighed and got to her feet.  “Sounds like a job for me.  Excuse me, Janice.”

“Isn’t that your ‘Auntie’ Shrew?  Being shrewish…”  Mrs. Brisby made a sour face, but took no real offense, instead preparing herself for one more defusing job.

“You disrespectful, spoiled little monsters!  Just wait till your mother hears about this!  Why, she won’t let you leave the house until next Moving Day!  She’ll—”

“She’ll ask you to calm down!”

Everyone looked to see Mrs. Brisby approach as Auntie Shrew tried to regain at least a semblance of dignity.  Martin was back on his feet, dripping wet, making little snorts as he tried unsuccessfully to suppress further laughter.  The other children, to a more restrained degree, couldn’t help but be similarly amused.

“Now come on inside, please, and we can talk,” Mrs. Brisby said with her typical sincerity and patience, a placating hand on the shrew’s shoulder.

“I most certainly will not!” Auntie Shrew growled as she wrung out her shawl.  “Are you encouraging that kind of irresponsible behavior?”

“No, of course not.  But all of us needed to relax and unwind today.  You see, we—”

“Bah!  I’ll not have any of it!  These young hooligans need to be taught—”

“Now, just a moment, Auntie Shrew!” Mrs. Brisby interjected gently but firmly. “You know I’m always grateful for your help, and I never refuse it when you offer it. But these are my children, and it’s up to me to decide how to raise them.” She glanced over to them, noticing Martin looking ready to shout something along the lines of “You tell her, Mom!” but he refrained.

“And please,” she continued, her tone unchanging, “if you have any amount of respect for me—any at all—don’t call my children ‘hooligans’ or ‘little monsters.’”

Though she’d in past times been described by others and herself as timid and shy, she’d always had great inner strength—more than she admitted to herself—amply proven by her survival skills, raising her children these past ten months as a single parent, and—beyond a doubt to anyone—her experiences this past March.  She had grown much since then, feeling inclined to be more direct, less reluctant to speak her mind and let herself be heard.

Auntie Shrew was clearly taken aback, still stubbornly unaccustomed to such a reaction from the mouse who’d long been her favorite among the denizens of the field, the closest she’d had to a child of her own.  Still, she’d been pacified enough, and replied, “Well, I would…advise you to think about that anyway.”  She rearranged her shawl around her shoulders.  “I’m sorry, child, I just don’t like…being wet.”

“You’ll be all right,” Mrs. Brisby said comfortingly as she led her friend a short ways from the bank.  “So, what brings you here, so far from home?”

“Why, do I need a reason to visit you?  I just wanted to see how you were coming along.”

“Of course, Auntie.  That was very thoughtful.”  Words like these, Mrs. Brisby found, were always effective at defusing Auntie Shrew’s darker moods.  Janice approached them, and after reintroductions, the three made their way back over to the children.

“Looks like the party’s over,” said Martin dryly.  Teresa had already begun drying off and was wrapping her towel around herself.  Their siblings and playmates followed suit.

After Janice had collected her children and herded them away, Mrs. Brisby lost no time. “All right…I didn’t see everything that happened, so…somebody needs to start explaining.” She allowed her roving eye to settle the longest on Martin, not wanting to be too quick to point a finger of blame, but also resigned to the possibility of his being the instigator. She could hardly blame his or Teresa’s exuberance, but was clearly weary of his ongoing feud with Auntie Shrew.

Teresa, meanwhile, looked ready to speak but instead just rolled her eyes and shuffled her feet, not too proud but not entirely regretful of the fact that she’d helped to start this ruckus.

Martin was likewise resigned to being expected to be the first to explain himself in these situations, but he was ready to defend this one.  “We were just having a water fight, Mom, and…well, she was just there.  We had no idea, no warning or anything.”

“It’s true, Mother,” added Teresa.  “It was just an accident.  And if it’s anyone’s fault, well…it’s just as much mine as it is Martin’s.”  Timothy and Cynthia added their support to the point.

“I see.”  Mrs. Brisby nodded thoughtfully, actually not at all surprised.  “So, Auntie…is this true?”

Auntie Shrew made a wringing motion with a corner of her shawl and gave an inarticulate grumble, obviously not quite ready to concede.

“Spit it out, already,” said Martin under his breath.

Teresa gave him a quick jab in the ribs.  “Don’t make me regret supporting you!”

“Yes…yes, it’s true,” the shrew finally admitted.  “I did call out, but they were making a lot of noise, and they probably didn’t hear me, and…it’s not their fault.  And…”  She directed the next words at them.  “I’m sorry I called you little monsters and hooligans.”  She grimaced as if the words caused her physical pain.

The children’s reactions, though, were quite unexpected for her, as they were highly impressed with this first-ever apology from their part-time caregiver and with the fact that their mother was able to draw it out of her with such ease.  “We accept your apology, Auntie,” said Teresa, hugging her quickly.  Timothy and Cynthia followed suit, and even Martin put in an “It’s cool, Auntie Shrew.  No problem.”

Mrs. Brisby beamed with pride at all this, and allowed a moment of self-congratulation; truly, it was moments like these that made past hardships worthwhile.

The children continued drying off as much as possible with their towels, after which they’d each bring a bucketful of water back to the house while their mother brought their clothing back; then they’d spend a few minutes allowing the sunshine and wind to dry their fur more thoroughly before putting their clothes back on. Auntie Shrew, meanwhile, was genuinely touched, even admitting that Mrs. Brisby had raised her children—her “very, very odd family”—very well indeed.

They chatted a few more minutes before Mrs. Brisby remembered the matter foremost on her family’s minds today; and so she told Auntie Shrew of their plans for tomorrow, giving the same half-truth she’d given Janice, even knowing the shrew would be liable to have more questions about their “friends” and their precise destination. But Mrs. Brisby held firm, telling her friend, “Johnathan knew them from ’way back” and “The names wouldn’t mean anything to you”; and, surprisingly, the shrew seemed satisfied with this; so much so that for a moment Mrs. Brisby actually considered disclosing the full truth, then decided against it.

Even in the brief time she’d had to get to know the Rats of NIMH, they’d impressed upon her the importance of revealing as little as possible about their existence. Plus, even after all they’d done for her family, all of which Auntie Shrew knew very well, she still held a very low opinion of them, as if they had some ulterior motive. It brought to mind the night they came to move the cinderblock house, and how she refused to remove herself and the children—including Timothy, who would have had to stay inside anyway—from the house. The Rats had little other choice but to move it anyway. Mrs. Brisby had played the events of that night over and over so many times in her head, and speculated on how events may have played out had she been present, and always reached the same conclusion: that her being captured by Billy Fitzgibbons and caged in the farmhouse kitchen was the right thing to have happen to her. Considering the alternative had always—and again now—made her shudder.

After the children were dressed, they all went inside to prepare their evening meal, with Auntie Shrew as their guest. After she left to return home, the Brisbys spent the rest of their waking hours quietly, finishing some light chores, reading and studying, and—just before preparing for bedtime—Timothy regaling his family with what had become a tradition: one of his lively storytelling sessions. The events of this day, and the anticipation of the next had provided much inspiration, and so he spun a tale involving the Rats and an invasion of cats led by Dragon; with the Rats winning the battle, of course, through some highly inventive means.

While they prepared for bed, Cynthia approached Timothy.  “I hope we all sleep better than last night,” she said with a yawn.

“I think we will,” replied Timothy as they sat on the edge of the bed he shared with Martin.  He responded in kind to his twin’s yawn.  “Even though we have such a big day tomorrow.”

“Did you have to say that?” said Cynthia with a giggle.  “You’re gonna get me all excited again.”

“Sorry,” said Timothy with a grin and a nudge to his sister’s side.

Cynthia looked up, toward where their mother stood brushing her teeth in front of the wash basin.  She said more quietly, “I sure hope Mommy doesn’t have any bad dreams so we can start real early.”  Both recalled how their mother had strangely slept over two hours later than usual that morning, and seemed occasionally distracted during the day.  “I’ve had bad dreams before, but I just go back to sleep.”

Timothy looked away with a small, distant smile.  “I don’t think that was really a bad dream she had.”

“How do you know?”  Cynthia asked.  “Is this one of your funny feelings again?”

“Maybe.” Timothy said no more, and Cynthia refrained from further questioning, knowing that in the many times they’d confided in each other, he’d often say something she wouldn’t understand but that seemed to reflect his deepest conviction, even if he didn’t seem to entirely understand it himself. It was something that had been long accepted by the rest of the family as well.

“And speaking of ‘funny feelings’…” Without warning, Timothy engaged his sister in a laughing, shrieking tickle-fight. Of course, it got the attention of the rest of the family, but Mrs. Brisby allowed it go on a little longer than she normally would, knowing it would help them to relax more.

Soon, everyone was asleep, having put behind the past day’s excitement and happily anticipating the next. Everyone, that is, except Mrs. Brisby, who, with the prospect of seeing Justin and the other Rats of NIMH again, felt inclined to again reflect on their shared experiences from this past spring. They had so little time to become acquainted—much less than a full day, in fact—but look at how much had changed in that time for all of them: their leader murdered in cold blood by one of their own; his killer, Jenner, and his co-conspirator, Sullivan, also dead before the night was over. Given all that, could there be a chance of some trouble, differences among them leading to something similar to what she’d found herself in the thick of when she’d met them, differences which further complicated her own situation?

No, let’s not worry about that, she decided. As brief as their first meeting was, she was sure she had no cause for misgiving. Justin had been quite explicit, that she and her family would be most welcome to visit. With him in place as leader, she was sure the others would agree. He’d even provided them with a copy of a map showing the way to Thorn Valley. No, of course they would be welcomed with open arms, even though they’d be arriving unannounced. Look at how grateful the Rats were for her help, all the things they gave her family: not only material things like books, extra blankets and bedding, and materials for making clothing, but advice on things to help make their lives easier, like how to better conceal their winter home from human eyes. It was all very last-minute, since the Rats had to be on their way in a matter of hours before the men from NIMH arrived with their poison gas. She shuddered even as she acknowledged that it was her warning that had saved them all from death or recapture. Even after all the times she’d pondered those events, the significance still hadn’t fully sunk in; she still regarded her overhearing Farmer Fitzgibbons’ phone conversation as just being in the right place at the right time. Johnathan had sometimes used the word “destiny” to describe how they’d met and seemed so perfect for each other. Could that apply to what happened to her as well, being in the position to warn the Rats?

Oh, this is too much to think about now, not when we all need to get a good night’s sleep. She breathed in deep, trying to empty her head of any more distracting thoughts. Still, she found herself thinking of Justin, and how she and the children so looked forward to seeing him in particular. They were all aware that he and Johnathan were good friends, and all wanted to hear more of this side of his life…the side he’d kept so thoroughly hidden from his own family. And perhaps, Justin might even be able to shed some light as to why…

But no, that’s a matter best left for later.  Come on, let’s get some sleep now. In about fifteen minutes she’d succeeded in this more immediate goal.

Chapter 3 - Into the wild

As planned—just after the crack of dawn, with the morning dew still damp on the grass—the Brisby family stood in front of their summer home, giving it one last once-over.  After breakfast, they’d attended to one final pre-departure detail, a procedure they’d followed the past two fall Moving Days; and thus, they’d barricaded the front door from the inside and filled in their back access tunnel from the inside out.  Last fall, they’d carried this out in a rote fashion, with little enthusiasm, since it was the first Moving Day without Johnathan.  But there’d been little thought of that this morning, even from Mrs. Brisby, filled as they all were with the anticipation of the day to come, and beyond.

Now, satisfied that their home wouldn’t become occupied by squatters in their absence, and aided by Janice and Kory’s assurance that they’d keep an eye on it as well, Mrs. Brisby turned to her children.  “Well, everyone,” she said smiling, “shall we?”

Martin raised a forearm. “Thorn Valley or bust.” The others repeated what had become something of a family motto since yesterday; then all moved as one, following the creek bank.

“Goodbye, house,” said Cynthia, waving behind them. Martin rolled his eyes at his sister’s habit of talking to inanimate things, but said nothing. All had a sense that they were embarking upon something that would signal another major change in their lives, perhaps any number of changes, and none more so than Mrs. Brisby. She had become even more acutely aware in the past two weeks of how much her children would benefit from this visit; and despite the others’ reaction to Martin’s “bonehead” statement yesterday, she knew that something needed to be done to spur her into action; and, she had to admit, it had been true to a degree that she’d been “slowing things down.” The time was definitely right to make this trip, and not just because of Justin’s after-three-month estimate.

As to that other, perhaps more important reason: even as she was relieved to not have had a repeat last night of what she’d experienced the night before, she was still determined to get to the bottom of why it happened…or rather, why they happened.  She still thought it best to keep the matter private, otherwise they’d likely worry or barrage her with questions she couldn’t answer. Best to save it for Justin, she thought.  For now, the minute-by-minute reality of the task ahead of them would take priority.

They followed the creek a short ways to the fallen trunk that provided a bridge across it, so they could continue in an almost straight due-north route. At this point, they all felt their journey had truly begun in earnest. They quickly settled into a routine at once relaxed—taking in their new surroundings, pausing for occasional food-gathering, speculating on what awaited them in Thorn Valley, sharing a joke or two—but also cautious, as on any occasion where they’d be out in the open in broad daylight, mindful of both landbound and airborne predators.

Some two hours into the trip, they took their first break to eat and rest, nestled among some large rocks. They discussed in greater detail what they’d hope to do once they’d reached Thorn Valley and visualized what the Rats’ new colony might be like.

“If they’re more like humans now, in the way they think,” pondered Martin, “I wonder if they’ve built houses like them too.”  He bit into a wild pokeberry.

“It’s possible,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “They didn’t have much time to describe anything in detail to me, but they did say a lot of work had already been done.  Justin said they were doing a lot of digging under the sides of the valley, so I guess that would be where they’re living.”

“Like an even bigger version of their home under the rosebush,” said Teresa.

“Maybe they have treehouses too,” suggested Cynthia.  “That might be fun.”

“Come on, Cynthia, that’s silly,” said Martin.  “Rats living in trees, like squirrels?”

“Actually, that’s not so silly,” countered Timothy.

“Oh, you always take her side,” said Martin dismissively.

“No, really!  It could happen.  Maybe not now, but once they’ve been there awhile, when they’ve really settled in, who knows?”

It was at times like these that Mrs. Brisby wished that all her children learned things at the same pace. She never wanted to play favorites or heap praise on one child over another, but Timothy never ceased to impress, even astound her with the observations he’d make, the ideas he had that just seemed to come to him right out of the blue—again, almost exactly like his father. His talent as a storyteller had emerged at a very young age, almost as soon as he could talk; at first mostly to entertain his twin sister Cynthia, but before long his talents earned him fans among the rest of the family as well. Even Martin, who tended to be dismissive and even tactless, always settled down and listened without interrupting when Timothy began spinning his tales. He could take seemingly anything and use it as a springboard, whether it was something based on personal experience or completely made up. Since this spring he’d especially blossomed, being the one to most take to the books the Rats had left them. They’d really broadened his horizons, as Johnathan might have put it. Already she believed that he would be the one to benefit the most from this visit, from being among the Rats, with all they could teach him.

Shortly, they continued on along the same northerly path, though it wasn’t long before they felt a greater need to consult the map Justin had provided them, which Martin carried in his pack. The day before, he’d at one point bragged, “We won’t need that! I’ve memorized it, and I could lead us there with my eyes closed!” His mother couldn’t help but wonder if this were more than idle boasting, though she wasn’t ready to put it to the test just yet, and Martin had no real objection to having the map with them now.

The first day of their journey took them through mainly forested territory, in some areas quite thick, with little daylight filtering through, in others thin and park-like; and occasionally there were open meadows as well, often with rocky outcroppings.  They stopped occasionally to converse with local residents, usually other mice, who were always curious as to why this strange family was passing through the area.  Some likened them to that extremely bizarre procession of rats that had passed through this past spring.  What a sight that was, they related to the Brisbys: males, females and children alike, all moving steadily and determinedly along, carrying and pulling along all manner of belongings, many quite strange, and all in a very ordered and even fashion, with great singleness of purpose; hardly stopping to rest, let alone explain to curious locals what this was all bout, though most of them were reluctant to do anything but observe guardedly from a distance.  The family was pleased to hear all this, as it confirmed that the Rats had carried out their move at least this far successfully, and that they themselves were now well on the right path to Thorn Valley.

These encounters, unfortunately, also brought to mind a possibility which Mrs. Brisby had been afraid to consider: that the Rats’ move hadn’t been a success, that maybe something had happened along the way so that some or all of them never reached Thorn Valley. This had, in fact, first occurred to her several weeks ago, and she’d always tried to put it out of her mind. Yes, it was true that she’d had no confirmation that they’d made it safely, but it was a possibility she dared not consider. And not just the entire group as a whole: there was also Mr. Ages and the pair of Rats who had stayed behind to help him prepare his lab equipment for transport, which happened after he’d declared Timothy to be recovered from his pneumonia. How Ages would have managed to cope with such a move she found hard to imagine, but right now she could only imagine all made it safely.

By sunset they had reached a patch of thick, dark woods, largely oak and maple.  Mrs. Brisby had Martin bring out the map again so they could verify their position one last time before it got too dark to read by.  After spreading it out on the ground, they easily found where the woods was indicated; and quite prominently, a particularly large, sprawling oak at its center.  Other significant details about the woods were also indicated.

“Children, remember Jeremy’s and my visit to the Great Owl?”  Mrs. Brisby asked.  “Well, we’re right on the edge of his woods.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Martin.  “Do you think we’ll see him?”

“I hope not,” said Cynthia, shuddering.  “After all, owls eat mice, don’t they, Mommy?”

“Oh, I’m sure we won’t have a thing to worry about,” Mrs. Brisby reassured her.  “I’m sure he’d remember me if he sees us.”  She herself wasn’t particularly afraid of meeting up with him again, though seeing him that first time still stuck in her mind as being very unsettling and intimidating.  Strangely, though, she’d sensed there was something tragic about him, as if he knew that his own time was short.

“I wonder if he knew Dad,” remarked Martin as he refolded the map.  “He didn’t really say, did he, Mom?”

“He just said he knew of him, but nothing more specific.”

“I’ll bet he’d know us right away,” speculated Timothy.  “He might even know we’re here now.”

“I wouldn’t know, Timmy,” said Mrs. Brisby, “but either way, we’d best be off.”

They’d gone a little further into the woods before they began searching for a place to camp for the night.  Mrs. Brisby knew that what they had most to fear were land-based predators like weasels and badgers, so their best bet was to find a hollow log, or any kind of shelter with an entrance just big enough for them but too small for intruders.

“This one looks good, Mother,” offered Teresa, indicating one log she was examining cautiously, making sure there wasn’t anything or anyone already inside.

“Hmmm…that might be suitable, but the hole seems a bit…”  She stopped suddenly as she felt the fur on the nape of her neck rise.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” asked Martin, seeing her suddenly alarmed expression.

“Shh! Get in, quickly!” They obediently scampered for the log and piled inside after Teresa, who had already ducked inside. Mrs. Brisby turned her head, and almost simultaneously, the weasel was bearing down on her, already so close she could feel its breath on her back. She scrambled for the hole, and just barely made it inside in time. It was barely a large enough hollow for all five of them. They were all pressed up together at the rear of the hollow, finding themselves barely able to breathe, out of fright as much as from being crowded.

“Mother, wh-what’ll we do?” Teresa stammered, petrified.

“Just don’t move, and maybe he’ll get discouraged.” She tried to sound as reassuring as possible, but the hole was larger than what was suitable, as she’d suspected; and once the weasel had his head completely through the hole, the rest of him would follow. And he was determined, pressing his snout through the hole, trying to work his whole head through. All too soon, he would succeed, Mrs. Brisby knew. The children averted their eyes. Their mother held her breath and hoped the end would come swiftly and painlessly, simultaneously thinking, No, not now!  It can’t end like this, not when there’s still so much to know and learn…

They all heard a thump, followed by what sounded like a rush of beating wings; and then near-silence. Mrs. Brisby opened the eye that faced the hole and could feel the slight rush of a nighttime breeze through it. Was the weasel truly gone? She listened closely, still frozen to the spot, barely breathing, but she could only hear the normal ambient forest sounds. What just happened? everyone wondered.

After about two minutes, she began edging slowly towards the hole, limbs still trembling. The children began to stir. “Stay here,” she whispered to them, and cautiously peered outside. No weasel directly outside, and the scent was beginning to dissipate. A thought briefly came to her, about a similar experience long ago, and about the one who’d brought it about. She had a brief impulse to say his name aloud, but then realized how foolish that would be; and yet, considering the reason for this trip…

She buried the thought and ventured out still further, looking the area over.  Still no weasel.  Finally, on impulse, she looked up to the branches of the surrounding trees.  There, at the base of one heavy limb was a great hulking figure, bent over something she couldn’t make out; a figure that made her gasp in recognition.  Its head turned to one side, facing directly toward her.  It spread enormous wings, seeming almost to float effortlessly from the limb, and swooped down to the ground, landing no more than a foot away, its eyes glowing with a feral light that seemed to originate from them.

Instinctively, Mrs. Brisby backed away a few steps, trembling, simultaneously wondering: Was Timothy right? Did he know we were here? Then, as the enormous figure continued to stand its ground and make no moves forward, menacing or otherwise, she herself stepped forward, still cautious but increasingly confident that he indeed meant no harm, especially as the realization of what had actually happened dawned on her.

“So…it’s you,” she murmured tremulously, almost inaudibly.

“Mrs. Brisby,” came the booming voice of the Great Owl.  “So we meet again.”

“I…I don’t know how to thank you.”

“I witnessed your plight from yonder limb, and thought it looked like you and your family.  I am pleased to see I was right.  Please, call out your children, and let me meet them.”

“Children!  It’s safe to come out.  It was the Great Owl, he saved us.”

Martin peered out first, eyes widening as he saw this enormous, powerful figure looming over his mother, who seemed unafraid of him.  He emerged cautiously, a silent “wow” forming on his lips.  He was followed by Teresa, equally determined not to show obvious fear or reluctance, gaping silently in astonishment.  Timothy was next, equally awestruck but with virtually no fear, and little if any caution.  Cynthia was a bit harder to convince; even when Timothy patiently tried to coax her out, she would emerge no further than just inside the hole.

After their mother introduced them to the Owl, he said, “I was extremely pleased to see that your home was successfully moved, and your family safe.”  She thanked him, and then he asked, “Now, why are you here, so far from home, and where are you bound?”

Knowing that he had known the Rats, she saw no harm in telling him that they were bound for Thorn Valley to visit them.  Then she asked him if he knew anything about their own trek there and their current progress.

“Yes, they were entirely successful in their move, and are making great strides on their own now.  I hadn’t told you when last we met, but I first met Nicodemus and some of his fellows when he first went scouting for a new site for their colony, and I suggested Thorn Valley to him.  I was quite fascinated by them, you see, and by the prospect of their building their own civilization.  I oversaw much of their move, and have made occasional fly-bys since.  Because of your own close ties to them, I now offer my protection to you.”

“Lucky for us,” Martin said under his breath.  Though he often bragged about being unafraid of the Great Owl—among other things—and though still given to that kind of bluster on occasion, he was now just as awestruck and wary as his siblings.

“Shh,” Mrs. Brisby lightly admonished him. “Can you show us a place for us to sleep tonight?” she asked the Owl.

“Yes, I will lead you to it, and watch over you from now until you leave my woods.”  He again spread his wings and began flapping them furiously, creating so much turbulence that the mice had to lean against the log and each other to keep from being bowled over.  He made off towards another nearby hollow log, one much more spacious on the inside, and beckoned to it.  Mrs. Brisby urged her brood toward it, and the Owl returned to the limb to finish off his kill.

The interior wasn’t much larger than the one they’d sought refuge in, but no one even thought of complaining, least of all Mrs. Brisby, who found a renewed sense of optimism. Not only did the Owl save them from perhaps the worst fate imaginable, but they now knew, beyond a doubt, that the Rats would be waiting for them in Thorn Valley. As they made themselves as comfortable as possible, all feeling more relaxed than they’d have believed, especially considering their so-recent brush with death, she could only hope for continued good fortune upon reaching their destination.  As long as that doesn’t happen again, like two nights ago, she thought, that strange dream or whatever it was, that got us all up…

Having reminded herself again of her own principal motivation for this journey, she again tried to push the thought aside and relax her mind enough to drop off to sleep, reminding herself they’d be in good hands, or rather claws, for the night.

Chapter 4 - Jeremy and Beatrice

The following morning the Brisbys continued on, following the remainder of the route that took them through the Great Owl’s woods; and the Owl, as he’d promised, escorted them to the outer fringes.

As they emerged into more open surroundings, regarding the distance that still lay ahead, the Owl again landed before them. “I wish you and yours luck, Mrs. Brisby. As for myself, I must now leave you, for these woods and I have been part of each other for many years, and my remaining time grows short.”

They all looked at each other in disbelief.  Martin, by now much bolder, asked him, “You—you mean you think you’ll die soon?”

“The oak tree where I make my home, Martin, is very old, and has been dead for several years.  Any time now it could topple completely in a strong enough wind.  It in particular and I are so much a part of each other; and I myself feel the weight of years heavily upon me.  When it finally does topple, I shall certainly go with it.”

Mrs. Brisby and the children alike hardly knew what to say.  Finally she said, “I feel so bad for you.  You’ve helped us so much, I wish I could properly repay you.”

“My calling in life has ever been to help and advise others, Mrs. Brisby, and my reasons have ever been my own.  Now I must return home to rest, but you will have further aid for the remainder of your journey.  Farewell.”

The Great Owl rose into the air, the Brisbys bracing themselves as he did. They watched him gliding over the treetops until he disappeared from view, each wondering if this was the last they’d ever see of him. Then, silently, they turned and resumed their journey.

Mrs. Brisby reflected on his words, particularly on the sad irony of how the pronouncement of his eventual demise so closely resembled their own predicament last spring.  The children, especially Timothy, realized the same thing.

As they continued on through this area of sparser vegetation and many rocky outcroppings, they remained mostly silent, partly in continued reflection of the Great Owl’s situation, and partly due to increased wariness with the loss of his watching over them. Soon, Timothy broke the silence: “Mama, what did the Owl mean by ‘further aid?’”

Mrs. Brisby, in her reflections, had nearly forgotten his very last words to them.  “Why, I have no idea.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.”  They looked ahead to the largely open, rocky area before them that eventually gave way to more forest, and to the mountain beyond which lay Thorn Valley.  It seemed to loom before them; yet, in spite of its seeming so close, she knew they would require at least one more day’s journey to reach it.  She couldn’t help feeling a sense of urgency, but also knew there was no sense in rushing things; they could certainly afford to take their time.  But then, there was still the ever-present danger of predators, day and night, last night’s incident bringing the point home like no other.  She had known this from the outset, and had impressed upon the children—and had to keep reminding herself—to not become preoccupied with other matters.

They hadn’t gone much further, less than an hour after the Owl had left them, when Martin said suddenly, “Mom, I think I see a hawk!” He pointed almost directly upward, and they all saw it. Mrs. Brisby unhesitantly directed everyone to a grouping of large boulders, where they all nestled into a hollow amongst them. They waited there, trying to keep the hawk in sight as best they could, knowing they’d be safe from a direct strike, but hoping all the same that they hadn’t been spotted.

The hawk swooped a bit lower, but as it did, two other birds appeared. One of them connected in midair with the hawk.

“Mom, what’re they doing?  Attacking it?”

“I’m not sure, Martin.  It looked more like they…collided with each other.”  The newcomers were crows, and now she had a strong suspicion about which crows they were. She smiled to herself, and could just imagine hearing “Excuse me, pardon me,” after the one’s collision with the hawk, who had apparently been sufficiently discouraged and left the scene.

The two crows continued downward, and their rather jerky flight patterns were by now quite unmistakable.  “It’s definitely safe to come out,” Mrs. Brisby told the children, and after they did, she began waving her arms, trying to get the crows’ attention.  The children were baffled by her behavior at first, but soon they too realized the crows’ identities.  They reacted accordingly, and joined their mother in catching the birds’ eyes.

It seemed to prove successful.  The crows began a downward descent, apparently directly toward the mice.  “Look out below!” one of them cawed, and both of them, in rapid succession, swooped into a nearby thicket with all the grace of a pair of albatrosses.  The Brisbys approached the thicket as the two birds extricated themselves.

“The turkeys!”  Cynthia giggled.

“Why, Mrs. Briz!” came the familiar greeting.  “And your children, too!  I’ll bet you’re surprised to see us, eh?”

“The Great Owl sent them?”  Martin asked disbelievingly.

“Shh.  It’s good to see you again, Jeremy and Beatrice,” said his mother.  “We didn’t know quite what to expect when the Great Owl said he’d send help, but we certainly didn’t expect…”

“Aw, no need to thank us, Mrs. Briz.  The word got around to us that you were out here all alone, and we got to worrying about what might happen…”  Jeremy paused, trying to disentangle some creepers from around his neck and feet and wings.

“Yes, we were glad to help,” Beatrice added, almost tripping, spreading her wings to steady herself.

Mrs. Brisby smiled and nodded as she remembered the first time she’d met Jeremy: seeing him hopelessly tangled in red string, his self-image as being charming and dashing versus the reality of his being a total klutz, his finally—and abruptly—meeting Miss Right…it all never failed to bring a smile to her face. She also recalled how much he’d helped her, and how ungrateful she must have seemed to him during the previous spring’s crisis, sending him off to unnecessary tasks twice because, worried and desperate as she was, she had to be sure that things wouldn’t go wrong; and so she’d decided that, essentially, his non-involvement in the house-moving would be best. She and the children had met with him and Beatrice several times after that, and on one such occasion, she’d discussed this matter with him, and apologized.

Now, as the children helped the crows in disentangling themselves, Mrs. Brisby continued conversing with Beatrice about what they’d been doing since their last meeting.  Martin was on Jeremy’s back, and as he bit through a creeper, an idea came to him.  “Say, Jeremy, you know that we’re on our way to Thorn Valley, right?”

“Yeah?”

“So…you could fly us there!”  The other children, overhearing this, reacted enthusiastically, and Teresa went to get their mother’s opinion.

Her first impulse was to voice a flat “no,” recalling her old fear of heights. But then she considered: Jeremy had flown her to and from the Great Owl the previous spring, and had given her and the children a ride once after Timothy had recovered from his illness, so she wasn’t nearly as reluctant of flying as before; plus, it would probably be less risky or tiring than continuing to walk through all this unfamiliar territory, and would certainly get them there that much faster… Suddenly, she realized she’d managed to talk herself into it.

Feeling almost as enthusiastic as the children, she asked the crows, “Is it all right with both of you?”

“Why, sure!”  they both replied cheerfully.  “It’s nothing at all.”

“Then we’d better get prepared.” She and the children selected some sturdy vines to tie around the crows’ necks, securely though not too tightly, to give themselves more to hang onto, and soon everyone was ready. Mrs. Brisby and Cynthia climbed onto Jeremy’s back, and Timothy clung to his leg, assuring his mother that he’d be strong enough to hang on by himself; and Martin and Teresa climbed onto Beatrice’s back. As soon as the mice had secured a firm grip, the crows pushed themselves upward, flapping their broad wings. Higher and higher above the rock-strewn meadows they ascended, the sensation of being carried aloft proving for their passengers to be as thrilling as ever.

In just a few minutes, they could look below and see the more open territory give way to forested foothills, which led toward the cleft between mountains which formed the easiest access to the southern end of Thorn Valley.

The children shrieked with delight at seeing the world rush by so far and fast beneath them, with the warm summer breeze rushing through their fur, flattening everyone’s ears back.  Twice Martin shouted in mock terror, “Oh no!  We’re gonna crash!  Agghh!”  which annoyed Teresa to no end.

Mrs. Brisby asked Cynthia how she was holding up, while trying not to let her own apprehension show; and she replied that she was a little scared, though enjoying the ride.  She then called out to Timothy, who was cupped in Jeremy’s claw while holding on tightly to his ankle.  He replied that he was fine, adding how terrific the view was from down there.  His mother thought about the run of good luck they’d had on this trip, and felt almost guilty about not being able to do much in return.

“Hey, Mrs. Briz,” Jeremy asked at length, “when you get to the Rats, are you going to get that sparkly back?  You know, the one you gave to what’s-his-name?”

For a moment, she was baffled, but then remembered what he referred to. The Stone, the red amulet, to which Jeremy had taken such a shine when she had possession of it briefly. “Maybe, Jeremy, maybe,” she replied, thinking it best not to say any more on the subject in front of the children, who might ask questions she herself couldn’t answer right now. When Timothy heard this exchange, though, he grew thoughtful, though his mother couldn’t tell.

Soon they were soaring high above the cleft between the mountains, which hid this valley from the sight of so many, untouched as yet even by humankind, and specially chosen by Nicodemus for its remoteness.

All at once, Thorn Valley lay before and below them.

Mrs. Brisby and the children alike grew breathless at the vista spread before them. She recalled a brief description of Thorn Valley from Justin; he had said it was an impressive enough sight from the ground upon first entering it from the high pass. He should see it from up here, she thought.

The valley was about four miles long and two wide, almost completely ringed on all sides by sheer cliffs, and laid out in a northeast-southwest direction.  The floor was mostly forested, broken here and there by an occasional clearing, and several ponds fed by natural springs.  Mrs. Brisby remembered Justin’s description of how their new colony had already been started by digging into a mountainside, under some rock ledges.  But this was quite a large valley, and there was a lot of mountainside.  Unfortunately a more precise location wasn’t marked on the map; nor did Justin, in his haste to lead the Rats in vacating the rosebush, tell her verbally what part of the valley they’d be located.

“Jeremy, have you or Beatrice noticed any great amount of activity around here anywhere?” Mrs. Brisby asked.

“Oh, you mean the Rats? Oh, sure, over by the north end.” They continued on in that direction. Mrs. Brisby glanced over to Beatrice and her passengers; Martin and Teresa were still obviously both enjoying the ride immensely. At her side, Cynthia was clearly less apprehensive, craning her neck for a better view. Her mother then looked over Jeremy’s shoulder to the ground, by now far less apprehensive now that she was concentrating more on actually finding the Rats’ colony and curious to see what if any signs of it could be discerned from the air. A small group of deer walking through a meadow caught her eye. Below, Timothy also spotted them, remarking how they looked like little bugs from way up here. Mrs. Brisby continued to scan back and forth, looking for visible signs of rat habitation.

Further north, a larger pond which could be more accurately described as a lake came into view, with a large meadow nearby. “We’ve seen a lot of moving around in this area,” Jeremy observed.

Upon closer approach, areas where there were cultivated crops became evident. Corn and wheat were especially visible, a sure sign that they were in the right neighborhood. And what was that on the lake’s surface, Mrs. Brisby wondered as her eyes continued scanning the area.  Could it be a boat, possibly?  A rat-sized boat, like the ones they used underneath the old mill?  She made a mental note to ask Justin about it.

“Well, then, I guess you can take us down anytime, Jeremy,” said Mrs. Brisby.  She was not particularly worried, but landing for these two was a genuine concern.  It had been duly noted for some time that Jeremy and Beatrice were certainly two of a kind; though they both had little problem in taking off, landing was often a rather shaky proposition.  “Make sure you land where it’s good and clear,” she reminded him.

“Not to worry, Mrs. Briz! Now hold onto your hats, everyone, we’re coming in!” As one, the crows began their descent. Mrs. Brisby hung on tightly, partially tucking Cynthia under one arm. Jeremy closed his claw a bit more securely around Timothy, who held on more tightly himself.

On Beatrice’s back, Teresa and Martin were equally braced.  “Yeeeehaaaaa!”  Martin hollered as the ground came up to greet them.

At least it started as ground.  They were landing where it was clear, all right—clear over the lake!

“Jeremy, what are you doing?”  Mrs. Brisby demanded, scarcely able to control her voice, half expecting them all to be submerged in the next few seconds.  They were only about a foot above the lake’s surface when the crows swung back up and over dry land again, descending light as a cloud onto the meadow.

“Well, here we are, safe and sound,” Jeremy announced as he and Beatrice folded their wings.

Safe, at least, thought Mrs. Brisby, still a bit dazed, heart beating like a triphammer after the escapade.  She made to dismount, still holding onto Cynthia, and Jeremy crouched to allow them to do so more easily.  Timothy was already walking around in little circles, getting his “land legs” back.

“Wow, that was great!  Let’s do it again sometime,” Martin exclaimed as he and Teresa slid off of Beatrice’s back.  Teresa looked almost ready to hit her brother.

“Martin, please,” Mrs. Brisby said in only half-hearted annoyance.  Still, she couldn’t really be angry with the crows, since they had willingly flown the mice here, and brought them down safely; and they’d just saved them considerable legwork in reaching their destination.  The children were all laughing excitedly, even Teresa, and their mother found their laughter infectious. After all, she had to admit, it was very exhilarating as well as just plain fun.

“Thanks again for your help,” she said to the crows.  “It would have been an awfully long walk otherwise.”

“Aw, don’t pay it any mind, Mrs. Briz,” Jeremy replied with his usual jocularity. “Anytime you need our help, just holler.” He started to take a bow but, as he drew his right foot back, succeeded only in throwing himself off what balance he thought he had, landing in what could charitably be called a graceful heap.

“My Jeremy, the rock with feathers,” Beatrice said with a giggle as Jeremy picked himself up.  The Brisbys couldn’t help being amused either; but Jeremy just took it all in stride, with no offense, and gave Beatrice a playful push.

“Where are you going now?”  Teresa asked the crows.

“We’ll stick around the area for awhile and look in on you from time to time, in case you want a ride back when you’re ready to leave,” replied Jeremy as he and Beatrice prepared for another takeoff.

The children’s enthusiasm was again heightened, and their mother knew by now that there was no point in arguing, even if she wanted to.  Both crows snappily saluted, bid the Brisbys farewell, and began flapping their wings.  They rose in quite graceful spirals into the air, the mice waving goodbye as they watched the crows sail off toward the south end of the valley.

Chapter 5 - The Rats of Thorn Valley

The Brisbys now turned their attentions toward their immediate surroundings.  They were in an area close to part of the valley perimeter, where there many rocky outcroppings and overhanging ledges.  This may very well be the right area, but where to begin?

“We’ll just have to look for signs of life, I guess,” Mrs. Brisby concluded.  “If the Rats live in this area, some of them are sure to be out and about.”  Seeking a higher vantage point, they found a four-foot-high boulder and clambered up to its summit.  From there, they could see one of the garden areas, where someone had to be tending the fields.  They thought they might have seen some movement within, but they couldn’t be sure.

Martin shaded his eyes and scanned the lake.  “Hey, Mom, it looks like someone’s down that way, going for a swim or something.”  Looking where he pointed, they could clearly see visible ripples on the surface, close to the shore, followed by splashing and laughter.  Definitely rats, they were able to discern.

“Are we going to go talk to them, Mommy?” asked Cynthia.

“Perhaps…it would be better if we try to find their actual colony first.  It can’t be too far away.”  Figuring that they’d easily know it when they saw it, Mrs. Brisby directed her brood back to ground level and towards the valley perimeter.  They’d seen from the air that they were surely in the right area, and the presence of the swimmers all but confirmed it; but still, she had no desire to wander aimlessly, though they had arrived without any kind of prior announcement.  But sooner than she expected, their search came to an end.

As it happened, they were found first.  Just as they’d rounded a thicket of wild blackberry bushes, Mrs. Brisby heard herself being paged.  They all looked toward the voice’s source and saw a rat, wearing clothing blue and white in color, running on all fours toward them across the meadow.

“Children, we’re here!  We’ve arrived!” she exclaimed.  They all felt their anticipation again rise at seeing the rat, but not without some caution; they were, after all, strangers here, but at least they shouldn’t have to wait any longer than this initial meeting before they’d know how they’d be received.

The larger rodent stopped a foot in front of them, stood upright, and spread his arms in greeting.  He paused to catch his breath.  “Welcome, Mrs. Brisby.  Welcome, children.  We’ve been expecting you for months.  Come follow me, I’ll lead you to our new colony.  Oh, and my name’s Melvin.”

She wouldn’t have been able to say if she recognized Melvin from the Rosebush; there’d been so much else to deal with that day, and picking out one face from among dozens of unfamiliar rats’ faces was simply beyond her ability. But, Mrs. Brisby knew, that didn’t matter, for Melvin certainly knew all about her; and if his greeting, delivered with such a high degree of respect, was typical of what she could expect from his fellows, then she knew there’d be little or no cause for concern. They were clearly as welcome here in Thorn Valley as she’d hoped.

So, looking straight up into his face, she unhesitantly extended her hand. “We’re very pleased to meet you, Melvin,” she said as they shook hands, surprising her children and herself with the degree of confidence she showed. “And we’re so looking forward to seeing everything and everyone.”

“Well, then,” he said, straightening, “the sooner we get started, the better.  Right this way, everyone.”  As they started off, he quickly added: “Oh, and if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.”

Melvin led the family past a tangled, brushy thicket, towards the valley perimeter, which upon closer approach prompted much upward gazing at what they would come to know as “The Wall,” which dominated this side of the valley.  In this area it ranged from a nearly vertical cliff to obtusely-angled “steps,” all with little, if any, vegetation growing upon it.  On ground level, plant life also thinned out, and now well-worn trails crisscrossed the area, including the one they now followed.

“Say, Melvin,” Martin said along the way, “I’ll bet you saw us coming in, didn’t you?”

“In fact we did.  We have sentries who scan the area with telescopes, earth and sky both; and when one of them spotted your crow friends, it didn’t take long for him to tell that they had passengers.  ‘Report anything out of the ordinary’ is our foremost rule, and this most definitely was.  When you hopped up on that boulder, we were able to recognize you right away.”

“I…I see.” Mrs. Brisby found she felt uneasy about their being “spied upon,” even knowing it was a perfectly legitimate response on their part. This was their home, after all, and they’d be justifiably wary of strangers. Dismissing the thought, she said, “I didn’t know you were aware that we were friends with those crows.”

“Nicodemus was aware, and…” Melvin paused, sighing; and when he continued, his voice was noticeably heavier.  “…and he passed it on to us.  I’m sorry, Mrs. Brisby, it’s just that we all miss Nicodemus very much.  He was like a father to us all.”  More than certain actual fathers, he added silently.

“That’s all right, Melvin, we understand.  Perfectly well.”

With scarcely a pause Timothy piped up, “Did you know our dad?”

Melvin stopped and turned.  “I certainly did.  He meant a lot to all of us, Timothy, and we miss him greatly, too.”

“That’s…a big part of why we’re here,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “To hear all about this side of his life, with you rats.”

Melvin grinned hugely.  “And we’ll be only too happy to share it with you…once we get you situated.”  With that, he motioned for the family to resume following him.

Shortly, Cynthia spoke up.  “Uh, Melvin…we saw some rats by the lake, but no more, other than you.  How come?”

“Hey, yeah,” added Martin.  “Where is everybody?”

“Good question. You caught us right in the middle of an emergency preparedness drill. Usually, at this time of day many of us are outside, but everyone should have been inside for this. The ones you saw won’t get in any real trouble, but they’ll likely be in for a bit of a lecture.”

“Emergency…what kind of drill?”  Timothy gazed up at the Wall as if expecting something to happen.

“Emergency preparedness drill,” Melvin repeated.  “And if I’m not mistaken, it should be about wrapping up.”  He followed Timothy’s lead, scanning the wall expectantly.

The others did the same.  “What’s going to happen, Melvin?” asked Teresa.

“Wait for it…” Seconds later, a rumbling and grinding sound was heard coming from within the Wall. The mice instinctively stepped back, but Melvin quickly assured them they were safe.

Before five pairs of astonished eyes, a small portion of the Wall, a few inches above and directly in front of them, was actually moving, sliding to the right. So disorienting was it to look upon that Timothy had to reach out to steady a tottering Cynthia. Seconds later another portion of seemingly solid stone, several inches to the left, joined the first. Another one directly above the first was next, followed by another, and another…

“Melvin, what’s this all about?” Mrs. Brisby finally asked; but when they all looked again at the section in front of them, the truth was quickly revealed.  The apparently-simulated stone panel had slid aside to reveal…a window, rectangular in shape, seemingly identical to the ones so ubiquitous in human-made buildings, but in miniature; and quite different from the one in their cinderblock home.  The same thing was happening to the section to the left, to the one above, to all of them.

“Hey,” observed Timothy, “someone’s inside!” He pointed to the one they still stood in front of. The faces of two Rats were now looking back: one of them waving to Melvin, the other immediately taking notice of his companions and nudging the first. Looking around, the Brisbys could see faces at all the windows, all quickly noticing the newcomers and all seemingly ready to give them a big welcome—a thought that caused some trepidation in Mrs. Brisby.

As they proceeded, she brought herself up to walk alongside Melvin, and—by now seeing in him someone she could comfortably confide in—told him that she hoped she and the children wouldn’t be mobbed.  She’d known from the outset how likely this was; though she herself had long treated the matter of her warning the Rats about NIMH’s imminent arrival as being attributable to luck and timing, she’d had much time for pondering on their journey here, and now knew there was no point in kidding herself.  The Rats of NIMH would very likely regard her as a hero, as much as they did Johnathan, and would not treat her visit in a casual or low-key fashion.

“It’s already taken care of,” Melvin assured her.  “Justin made it a standing order: that upon your arrival, everybody should—simply put—back off.  Take it easy, give you all breathing room.”

“That’s a relief.  Thank you, Melvin.”

“You’re welcome.  Oh, and speaking of Justin, you’ll be escorted straight to him, if he doesn’t meet us first.  Another part of his standing order.”

“We’re looking forward to it.”  This was the first Justin’s name had been mentioned, let alone confirmed as the Rats’ leader, and Mrs. Brisby again felt buoyed and encouraged that coming here was the right thing to do.

They continued on a path that ran parallel to the Wall for several more feet, passing more uncovered windows, and with them more Rats reacting to the mice’s presence. “Wow, everyone seems really glad to see us, Mom,” observed Martin.

“They do indeed.”  No doubt about it, she thought: By the time we’re inside, word will have spread to the whole colony, if it hasn’t already.  The prospect was still unnerving, just a little, despite Melvin’s assurances.  Well, she rationalized, it’s still better than an unfriendly reception.

“Main entrance, just ahead,” Melvin announced presently. The mice already noticed three Rats just ahead of them, dressed like Melvin in the Guard uniform of white shirt and blue tunic, standing in front of what already appeared to be an entrance in the Wall and already taking notice of the newcomers. More significantly to Mrs. Brisby, though, was the fact that she actually recognized one of them from her previous time with the Rats; indeed, how could she possibly forget such an encounter, let alone such a Rat?

But Melvin, well aware of the specifics of that previous encounter, was well prepared to head off any possible anxiety in her.  “Don’t worry,” he said quietly with a grin as he leaned down closer.  “He’s just a big lamb once you get to know him.”

Martin came up alongside his mother, taking her arm.  “Mom, is that who I think it is?”

“Boy, he is a big one, isn’t he?” added Cynthia with more awe than fear.

“Now, remember your manners, everyone.” Feeling sufficiently prepared, Mrs. Brisby straightened, her gaze unwavering toward the large Rat who approached them, standing a head taller than his fellows, smiling with arms spread in greeting.

“Mrs. Brisby!  So it is you!”  He turned to his two companions.  “Kevin, Lol, go tell Justin to roll out the red carpet.”

“The small one, Captain,” Melvin reminded him.  “Remember?”

“Of course.” Brutus turned and nodded to Kevin and Lol, who both bowed in greeting before turning and darting inside. Turning back to the mice, Brutus said, “Mrs. Brisby, you and your children are our most honored guests. Follow me, please.”

“Thank you, Brutus,” she replied, amazed at how totally at ease she felt in his presence.  Such a contrast with their first meeting, which she couldn’t forget if she lived to be a hundred: swinging that enormous spear as he chased her away from the Rosebush’s underground archway, as if to slice her to ribbons.  She inwardly shuddered at the memory; and yet, she had seen him, only minutes later, defer to Mr. Ages and offer a brief apology before letting them both pass; and later still, as she and Justin prepared for her “Dragon duty,” he told her how Brutus’s actions were reflective of the Rats’ wariness and fear of being discovered, though he told her he’d given Brutus a stern lecture on the subject of overzealousness—specifically, his.  And finally, he had participated in moving the cinderblock, and had fought as hard as the others to prevent it from sinking in the mud, which did much to make up for any earlier impropriety.

They paused for a moment before the main entrance: a wide archway, seemingly carved from the solid rock, several inches taller than Brutus. One more Guard Rat, who Melvin addressed as Philip, stood sentry duty there, greeting the family politely. Mrs. Brisby realized she recognized him as one of the two who temporarily stayed behind on the farm with Mr. Ages. They passed through the entrance into a short corridor. At its end was another, narrower doorway arch, beyond which much moving about could be seen.

“I don’t see a red carpet,” commented Cynthia.  Martin snorted with suppressed laughter.

“Now, children,” their mother admonished lightly, “I think what Brutus meant was that they’re going to give us a big welcome.”

“Indeed we are,” answered Brutus.  “Within reason, of course,” he quickly added.  “But you’ll always hold a high place of honor with us, Mrs. Brisby, for all you did for us back at the Rosebush.”

“No exaggeration there,” agreed Melvin.  “None of us would be here otherwise, or at best just a handful of us.”

Even now, Mrs. Brisby hardly knew what to say, for all she’d expected this; but such thoughts would wait. By now, they’d passed through the inner doorway to another corridor, running perpendicularly, and were immediately met by more of Thorn Valley’s citizenry; all of whom, it seemed, were calling out to her by name, with shouts of welcome abounding. The children were bemused by all this attention, but she hoped fervently that Justin’s standing order and the Guard Rats’ presence would be enough to keep things from getting out of hand. Perhaps later, after she’d gotten to know these people and their home better, she wouldn’t find this kind of situation to be so unnerving. In fact, she realized, she hoped it would be so.

“All right, people,” said Melvin with arms spread, “you know Justin’s orders.  Yes, the Brisby family is here, and you’ll all get to meet them later after they’re settled in.”

“This way, everyone,” said Brutus, ushering the family down the corridor. Just ahead, to the right, was another doorway through which, they could already tell, a much larger chamber lay. Once stepping through it, they were astounded; and Mrs. Brisby was instantly taken back to four months ago, when she’d first viewed the Rats’ Rosebush colony. Then, it was with a mixture of wonder and apprehension; now it was with far more of the former.

What met their eyes was a high-ceilinged, well-lit chamber from which other rooms and corridors branched.  Here and there were staircases and ramps leading to upper levels with mezzanines and balconies.

“Welcome to our main foyer,” Brutus announced. The mice were turning heads every which way, trying to take in all of the spacious room, the largest they’d ever seen. All the while there was the steady traffic of Rats in and out, some carrying papers, tools, many items the visitors didn’t recognize. A few were pushing wheeled conveyances like shopping carts loaded with building materials or foodstuffs. Here, too, nearly all recognized their new guests and called out greetings, and more than a few lingered there in the foyer, apparently just to get a closer look. Mrs. Brisby just smiled and waved, all the while scanning the crowd for one that she hoped would arrive soon, and thankful for the Guard rats’ continued presence until then.

They didn’t have long to wait.  Presently the crowd parted to let one particular Rat through.  Teresa took her mother’s arm.  “That’s him, isn’t it?”

“Yes…yes, it is, dear.”  Her eyes widened and heart leaped as he came into view, patiently advising the crowd, as the Guard Rats did earlier, that they’ll get their chance to meet their new guests and they should now carry on with their own business; quite handsome by Rat (and mouse) standards, dressed in a crisp white linen shirt and brown-and-indigo vest, which, Mrs. Brisby already guessed, was probably his best outfit, worn specially for the occasion; and finally, taking notice of his guests, locking eyes with Mrs. Brisby and smiling broadly.  Both of them moved forward, meeting in the middle; he crouched and greeted her with a big hug, seemingly oblivious to the curious and bemused looks of those still passing by, some of whom clearly thought he was displaying a distinct lack of decorum.

“Oh, Justin, it’s so good to see you again,” she said as she threw her arms around his neck.  She could barely get the words out, and she was surprised at how emotional she’d become.  Certainly there had been some worry and anxiety in her over how the Rats had fared in Thorn Valley, and Justin in particular; but were the tears welling in her eyes now merely from relief over his safety and apparent good fortune, or was there more to what she was feeling?  As he relaxed his embrace so they could look upon each other, she decided, for now at least, that she was simply very thankful that she was once again in the company of the one who was perhaps the dearest friend she’d ever known…second only to Johnathan, of course, who was almost certainly Justin’s best friend as well.

“It’s wonderful to see you too,” replied Justin, finding the moment every bit as emotional for himself. “Ever since that day, I’ve wondered how you and your children were getting along. I have to admit…I couldn’t help worrying sometimes.” To him she looked scarcely different than she did four months ago, and he briefly wondered: could it be possible that she wasn’t aging like a normal mouse, as everyone had assumed? She hadn’t undergone the NIMH treatments, so it couldn’t be true…could it? Banishing the thought, he looked past her, acknowledging the children, who approached slowly, nudging each other, unable to completely conceal their amusement at how their mother greeted Justin but also eager themselves to meet him. Though they had met before the Migration, it had been so brief—long enough for quick hellos, leaving a few gifts, and quick goodbyes—that they would find this present meeting to be the same as meeting for the first time.

Justin literally welcomed them with open arms, and as he gave each of them one of his patented bear-hugs, he was surprised to find that he was able to remember all their names, and to put the right names to the right faces, which delighted them all. He stood upright. “It’s so good to have you all here, and looking so well…I just don’t have the words.”

He abruptly switched to a more officious mode. “So…welcome to Thorn Valley, everyone. We’ve set aside one of our apartments as guest quarters, for when you’d come to visit. It’s yours for as long as you like.” He turned to the Guard Rats. “If one of you would be so kind, and take their bags up there for them…”

Melvin immediately stepped up.  “I’d be happy to.  We’re your humble servants.”

At these words Mrs. Brisby froze.  The last time that phrase, or one close to it, was spoken to her it was from one whose subsequent actions nearly brought ruin to everyone: herself, her family and her newfound friends and allies alike.  The children, amazed at this (comparatively) royal treatment, were ready to hand over the small bundles they’d been carrying on their backs; but Teresa was the first to notice their mother’s hesitation.

“Mother?  What’s wrong?”  Teresa placed a hand on Mrs. Brisby’s arm.

Quickly finding her voice again, she said, “I’m sorry, I…guess I’m still…feeling a little overwhelmed.”  It was by no means a lie; but how could she tell them what had actually alarmed her?  It was just…coincidence.  Yes, it had to be.  Jenner is gone, and Melvin is definitely not him.  She removed her own bundle and added it to the ones Melvin had already collected.  “Thank you, Melvin, for everything.”

“It was my pleasure, Mrs. Brisby.  And I’m sure we’ll see more of each other.”  He turned and headed for the nearest ramp to the next level.

“I have some other business to attend to, Mrs. Brisby,” said Brutus, “but the same definitely goes for me.”

She clasped her hands around his much larger one.  “Thank you, Brutus, for being so kind.”  Brutus just smiled and nodded, and Mrs. Brisby thought she could detect a trace of embarrassment as he turned away.  “Big lamb” indeed, she thought, bringing a hand up to her face to hide her amusement.

“So,” Justin said, “I guess you’re all wondering: ‘Now that we’re here, what next?’  Well…first of all, I know you must have a ton of questions, so feel free to ask away.  Now, if you’re hungry, lunch will be served shortly.  You can eat in our communal dining hall, or we can have food sent up to your quarters.  If you’re not hungry, I can start you on the grand tour…”

“Let’s eat!” piped up Martin, having already taken notice, as had they all, of the cooking odors wafting in from the kitchen. Justin turned to him, unsurprised, having expected such a reaction following his deliberate pause. “Uh…please?” Martin finished.

The rest of the family agreed on the dining hall, and so Justin led them down another corridor which, they quickly realized, took them in the direction from which they’d approached outside. Before they’d left the foyer, Mrs. Brisby and the children alike had begun taking more notice of their surroundings. The main foyer was certainly spectacular to behold, but overall it and the adjacent hallways didn’t strike her as being as ornate or elaborate as the architecture in the Rosebush colony.

Justin took notice and asked, “So what do you think so far?”

“It’s amazing, Justin.  I really didn’t know what to expect, but…so far it’s wonderful.  You must be proud of what you’ve done.”

“Thank you, we all are.  But the true credit goes to Arthur, our chief engineer.  I believe I mentioned him to you last time.”

“Hmm…I do remember your saying some of you were already here, getting the place ready.”

“That’s right, and he headed up that crew.  All you see here is the direct result of his vision…though he doesn’t care too much for that kind of talk.  We should even be able to catch up with him sometime.”

“I hope so, he sounds very interesting.” She looked up to the ceiling. “I was wondering about the lighting in here. At first I’d even wondered if you had electricity, but I guess you don’t.”

“Not yet we don’t.  But one of these days, that may be another feather in Arthur’s cap.  Right now we have our oil-burning lamps, which get more use at night; and our skylights, which you saw in use in the foyer.  In some places, they’re used in combination with concave mirrors, which distribute the light even further.”

At this point they’d reached the dining hall; which, though not as high-ceilinged as the foyer, was easily more spacious and larger in terms of cubic footage. Justin directed their attention to the serving line, where apron-clad Rats, both male and female, could be seen bringing large bowls, tubs and vats out from the adjacent kitchen and food-preparation rooms. On the outside of the serving line, where patrons would be served cafeteria-style, some had already begun queuing up, and Justin steered them toward the end of the line.

Mrs. Brisby found she still felt genuinely uneasy—just a little—over the enormity of it all; but the children’s constant stream of enthusiasm for all they were experiencing was definitely influencing her, just as it did upon their arrival, following their “crowback” ride.  And Justin’s continued presence was definitely helping.  Her trust in him was near- absolute, despite the brief time they’d spent in each other’s company up till now; almost as much as Johnathan, from the moment she’d met him.  The thought immediately prompted another: the matter which she’d kept in the recesses of her mind most of the day, but not consciously since their arrival here.  She looked up at Justin; no, now wasn’t the time, not when there was still much she genuinely wanted to see and do, every bit as much as her children.  And, like them, she definitely had an appetite for lunch right now.

Two Rats had come to the end of the line just before them: male, female, telling each other about their mornings with many smiles and gestures; obviously very much in love. It was a sight that made Mrs. Brisby sigh with vicarious pleasure, perhaps even a touch of envy. They were hardly inattentive to others around them, though, and so they greeted Justin and the Brisby family with aplomb. Mrs. Brisby quickly realized she’d already seen him before, partly because he was still in his Guard uniform.

“Everyone, this is Kevin and Alcina,” said Justin. “Kevin is in the Guard, as you can see; I think you already met him briefly. In his spare time, he and his fellow Guard Lol are our most gifted musicians. I don’t know how much exposure to music you’ve had, but I really think you’ll like their work when you hear it. Alcina works for her father, Tallus, who’s our head librarian and archivist.” The pair volunteered more information about their jobs and families, with no prompting from Justin, eager to share their lives with their guests.

Shortly it was the mice’s turn to be served, and a minor problem quickly presented itself: the trays, dishes and utensils were all Rat-sized. Most of the Rat children don’t eat lunch here, Justin explained, but at their school’s own cafeteria; and at other meals appropriately sized-down implements designed for the smaller children were brought out. Since these would also do nicely for mice, one of the workers, who Justin addressed as Theodocia, went to fetch some—again without prompting from Justin.

After everyone had been served, Justin led them to a table and chairs that were also sized down for younger Rats. They were seated near one of the several windows lining the Wall, all of which faced southeast and allowed plenty of light to flood the room. They quickly realized that this window was one of those they passed by on the outside, and possibly the first one they saw revealed by the sliding panel. Justin, Kevin and Alcina brought another table closer to the Brisbys’ table before sitting down, so they could continue to converse easily.

They all settled down to dine with gusto on their lunch. It was simple fare: corn, wheat, a variety of fruits and vegetables. There was even a hot entrée, the fragrance of which had been calling to them so tantalizingly: an “improvised chowder,” Justin called it from the kitchen staff’s own description, whose main ingredients were summer squash, cucumber, corn and kidney beans.

“They’re always trying different things in the kitchen, constantly tinkering and experimenting since we got the ovens and stoves up and running. Every day, literally, they come up with something new. Pretty soon, I’m told, they hope to have baked goods like bread and muffins on a regular basis. We’re all looking forward to that.”

“Was this all grown here?” asked Mrs. Brisby after taking a sip of the herbal tea she’d chosen for a beverage.  “We noticed on the way in that you were growing a lot of crops.”

“Yes, it’s all home-grown,” replied Justin with no small amount of pride.  “We’ve been growing our own food since last year, when Arthur and his crew began their work here.  Bryant was the one in charge of clearing away the tract of land we needed for planting—at first small, then increased in size gradually—then he began the planting.  It was midway through the summer before they could get started, so it was mainly crops that would grow quickly, like carrots, tomatoes and beans, and they also planted the winter wheat that would sprout in the spring.  They supplemented that with native-growing berries and grapes, and even starting catching fish from the lake, so nobody starved out here; they were even able to lay in enough supplies for the winter.  As Arthur said, it was an effective test for how we could ride out the winter out here; but of course, this winter, it’ll be everybody and not just a crew of twenty-some.  Bryant, by the way, is still the one overlooking all farming operations; he oversees a crew of around forty now, though most of us help out sometimes.  Yes, even I get my hands dirty once in a while.”  Justin chuckled.

“So he says,” said Kevin half-under his breath, nudging Alcina.

“Honest I do,” Justin countered, taking their ribbing in stride.  “Last Wednesday, I pulled up two turnips all by myself.  Now, may I continue?”  After the Brisby children’s chortling had died down, he did so.  “Once we were all settled here, they really got down to business.  Not just a wider variety of food crops, like corn, but the cotton, flax and hemp that go to our textile plant, where they weave the fabrics to make into our carpets, drapes and clothing.”

“It sounds like you’ve learned to do…a bit of everything,” remarked Martin in between spoonfuls of chowder.

“Very much so, Martin, and a lot of it by necessity.  It’s really all about discovery, even more so than at the Rosebush.  We’re living entirely self-sufficiently these days, no more stealing from Farmer Fitzgibbons or anyone else; though, admittedly, we had to steal some more in order to get our crops started out here.  But now, we’re finding out, a little more each day, what we can and can’t do.”

“Justin,” ventured Timothy, “how did our dad fit in with all this?”

Justin looked upon him and his siblings with a broad smile. “I’m very glad you asked, Timothy. I don’t believe I mentioned it last time, but Johnathan Brisby—and Mr. Ages, for that matter—were both major architects of the Thorn Valley Plan, offering many suggestions, most of which were implemented.” After a mouthful of chowder, he added, his tone wistful, “Oh, there’s so much I could tell you about him, I’d hardly know where to begin. I’ll tell you what: I’ll probably have other things calling for my attention later; but after things wind down, I’ll be happy to share with you anything I can about him out of these old memory banks. For as long as you want, too.”

“That’s wonderful, Justin. We’re looking forward to it.” Mrs. Brisby looked around at the children, who all expressed their approval for the idea; though Timothy looked a bit disappointed, possibly over this session being later rather than sooner.

Suddenly it occurred to her: that other, all-important reason for their being there, thus far known only to her, she would most certainly want to discuss with Justin in private; which would mean that, at some point, she would need to turn the children over to another’s care. She was surprised to find the idea far less troubling than she would have not all that long ago. In the short while they’d been in Thorn Valley—barely a half-hour—she found within herself a great sense that she could entrust her children to the care of anyone here, and they’d be in good hands. The Rats had made them feel so welcome, and they clearly thought highly enough of her and hers to treat them almost like royalty; and her children were, after all, hardly helpless infants anymore. Martin and Teresa were on the edge of adolescence and clearly craved more independence, and Cynthia and Timothy weren’t far behind. She could also imagine that they wouldn’t object to taking a break from her for awhile. She couldn’t help feeling troubled by the thought; they were, after all, all she had these days.  And yet…would it always be that way?  Would it have to be that way?

Even as she silently questioned why that particular thought would come to mind, she suddenly realized how preoccupied she’d become—something her children had come to expect lately, but somehow even Justin didn’t seem terribly surprised.  Quickly recalling the thread of their conversation, she asked, “And how is Mr. Ages lately?”

“Much as you remember him,” said Justin with a knowing grin. “He still lives and for the most part works alone, in separate quarters along the Wall, south of our colony. That may soon change, though; we’ve been drawing up plans for a full-fledged medical facility; and, whether he likes it or not, he’ll be a big part of it.”

Mrs. Brisby nodded knowingly. “I’d like to thank him again, for staying at the farm to help with Timothy.” She recalled how Mr. Ages had opted to stay in his old home beneath the threshing machine for a while longer while Timothy recovered from his bout with pneumonia. Two Guard Rats—brothers Philip and Darwin—had also stayed behind for that period. They’d kept a low profile—Mrs. Brisby had briefly seen them but twice, and almost didn’t recognize Philip back at the colony entrance—but ensured Ages’ safety while NIMH was still poking around the property. They’d also begun dismantling Ages’ equipment as the Rosebush colony had been, preparing him for his own move to Thorn Valley. During this period—which, as Ages had originally prescribed, worked out to three weeks—he’d been surprisingly forthcoming with her, even—arguably—more sociable. On his last visit to her, in which he’d examined Timothy and pronounced him fit for travel, she’d felt emboldened enough to ask him why he’d treated her as he did when she first came to him for medicine for Timothy. He actually apologized, saying that his abruptness stemmed from his and the Rats’ being at a critical point in their operations, and that he harbored some anxiety over the role he was to perform the next day: putting his own sleeping powder in Dragon’s food, though this hadn’t been the first time he’d done it. None of this, he admitted then, excused his treating his old friend and comrade Johnathan’s widow in such a rude manner. She accepted his apology, even giving him a hug of gratitude and for good luck, which he didn’t seem to mind; clearly, recent events had forged unbreakable bonds among them all.

“I’m sure he’ll show his face, once he gets the word you’re here,” said Justin.

Everyone concentrated more on their lunches for the next minute; then Martin said, “I just remembered: outside, Melvin called Brutus ‘captain.’  Does that mean he leads the Guard, like you used to?”

“Exactly right,” replied Justin.  “It wasn’t until a few weeks after we’d all made it out here that we elected a new captain, and we all agreed he was the most qualified.”

“Just because he was bigger than me,” put in Kevin with a wink.  “No, actually, he was.  Eminently qualified, I mean.  And he genuinely wanted the responsibility.”  They went on to describe the functions of the Guard, and how their duties had expanded since the Migration: from sentry duty and security details to roving patrols which covered a wide amount of territory adjacent to the colony; including the valley perimeter, higher up on the ridges, where any aircraft making its way over the valley would be immediately spotted and reported upon.  This was certainly a chilling scenario, despite its unlikelihood; for Thorn Valley was part of a vast National Forest preserve, over which aircraft were forbidden from flying—exactly what Nicodemus had in mind when he chose the location for their colony, only two years ago.

The discussion led to how Nicodemus had made the choice: the research that led to the fortunate discovery that the Thorn Mountains National Forest, upon which the Fitzgibbons farm lay on the outer fringe, held vast swaths of territory that saw little or no human traffic; and the long hikes which he and others would make into this territory to seek out sites for a possible new colony, culminating in the one where they gained a valuable new ally.

“Lol and I were on that particular hike,” said Kevin, “when this huge, dark shape swooped down from above, landing right on top of him, pinning him on his stomach.  He gave a loud cry of alarm, and all of us immediately set upon his attacker with sticks.  It was a great horned owl—larger than we’d ever seen—and we put it to him straight: back off now or he’d regret it, and a couple of us drew our blades to emphasize the point.  Yes, he backed off, and he told us straight out that he’d never known mammals such as us, who would defend their own like that.  We told him we had a mission, and not even one such as he would bar the way.  We moved on, but he kept tagging along out of curiosity.  We couldn’t really blame him for that, and we were glad that he wasn’t interested in attacking us anymore. But Nicodemus wasn’t as quick to dismiss him; he saw in this owl a potentially valuable ally, one that might even help us on our mission.  So Nicodemus told him we were seeking a place far from human habitation where we hoped to build our own civilization.  We were never certain why, but he agreed to help us, and immediately recommended a suitable area.  Yes, you guessed it.”

Kevin and Justin described further how the Great Owl had pointed them toward Thorn Valley—though they knew the way from the map they’d brought—and once they’d crossed into it, they quickly saw it as being eminently suitable for their needs; and so began the Thorn Valley Plan.  Inevitably, the subject of Jenner’s disagreement with Nicodemus and the Plan came up, and Mrs. Brisby immediately recognized and sympathized with Justin’s reluctance to discuss this part of the story in detail.

Martin rather casually brought up the fact that they’d encountered the Great Owl on their way here, which came as enough of a surprise; but when they described how this encounter followed the weasel attack, Justin looked almost ready to choke on the slice of tomato he’d just put in his mouth.

“That must have been terrifying for you. Thank God he was there, and got you out of that safely.”

The family went on to describe their trip here in greater detail, culminating in Jeremy and Beatrice’s safe delivery of them and Melvin’s friendly greeting.

“Say, Justin,” said Martin, “What about those…sliding panels, Melvin called them.”

“Ah, of course,” said Justin, turning and motioning toward the window nearest them.  “Another of Arthur’s crowning achievements.  We’d only recently begun installing them, and the purpose of today’s drill was in large part to test them out.”

“And to disrupt my day,” came a new voice.  They turned to see a female Rat, clad in a stained white apron and matching scarf over a beige skirt and blouse.  Already Mrs. Brisby got the sense that she was a contemporary of Justin’s, one of the colony elders; and that there was no real contempt in her words.  “Impeccable timing, as usual.”

“Just trying to make your life interesting,” said Justin, grinning.  “Everyone, this is Matilda, the undisputed ruler of the kitchen.  Matilda, meet five more fans of your cooking, otherwise known as the Brisby family.”

Matilda dropped the dour façade, stepping directly up to Mrs. Brisby’s chair.  “It’s wonderful to have you all here.  Welcome to Thorn Valley.”

“Thank you, Matilda.”  Mrs. Brisby shook Matilda’s hand, then introduced her children.  “I believe we may have met, back at the Rosebush.  Was it at the meeting?”

“No,” Matilda answered surprisingly quickly, “definitely not.  It was a little later, in one of the corridors.  I had…stopped attending council meetings some time before.”  She glanced knowingly at Justin.  “I think I heard my son’s name mentioned; in the best possible terms, I hope.”

“Oh, do you mean Melvin?” ventured Mrs. Brisby.  Matilda nodded.  “Yes, he was very helpful and kind.  You must be proud of him.”

“Very much so; him and his brother George and sister Melinda.”

Somehow—she couldn’t explain how or why—the question next on Mrs. Brisby’s lips died there, but her children all too well remembered both Melvin and Justin’s invitation to “ask away.”

“Who’s their dad?” Cynthia inquired innocently.

“Stepfather,” Matilda replied; again rapidly, as if to correct her.  “That would be Bryant.  He’s the master farmer.”

“Ah…we’ve heard about him.”  Mrs. Brisby looked around at the children, giving them a look which told them they should refrain from further inquiries about Matilda’s family; again, something she wouldn’t have been able to explain.  “So you both work with your food supply.”

“Yes, it works pretty well for us. Sometimes we’ll have disagreements, in areas where our jobs may clash; but we never bring work problems home with us, and we never go to bed angry. In fact…” Matilda looked a bit hesitant, then continued: “…your husband gave us advice to that effect, just before we were married.”

Mrs. Brisby felt her breath leave her briefly.  “That was…what we always did.  Or rather, did not.  Thank you for saying so, Matilda.”

“You’re welcome.  So…how did you find everything?”  The mice expressed their satisfaction with the meal.  “We’re glad you enjoyed it.  It was pretty much thrown together, but we’re trying out more and more actual recipes these days, as I’m sure Justin told you.”  During further discussion, the subject of the lake and how the Rats were utilizing it came up.  The mice described how, from the air, they’d seen at least one boat out on the water; and, after landing, they’d noticed some Rats enjoying a swim.

“You’ve witnessed our two primary uses of the lake:” said Justin, “as another food source, in the form of fish and crayfish, and for recreation. In the first case, we naturally continued what Arthur’s crew had begun, and the latter we’re just starting to develop. Recreational facilities and activities had to take a backseat when we first arrived, as I’m sure you can imagine. But with summer arriving, going for a cooling swim quickly emerged as the easiest way for us to unwind after a hard day’s work. We’ve set aside one area, a cove of sorts, for swimming, and are in the early stages of developing that, and we have plans for a diving dock further from shore.”

They continued to discuss matters regarding their food supply and kitchen operations, and other aspects of their lives here, until after everyone’s plates and bowls were empty. By meal’s end, Mrs. Brisby realized she’d gained a very strong sense of what everyday life was like in Thorn Valley; while noting that they’d seen very little of the colony so far, not even their own temporary quarters.

That latter detail would soon be addressed, as Matilda returned to her duties—“otherwise the place would descend into chaos,” she said in jest—and after Kevin and Alcina excused themselves, Justin led his guests out of the dining hall and into the corridor and back to the main foyer, where they ascended one of the ramps to the second level. Along the way, every Rat they passed continued greeting them politely, all seeming happy to see them—something Mrs. Brisby was increasingly seeing as genuine, consequently making her feel more at ease.

A short walk down another corridor brought them to the guest quarters. Justin opened the door upon a room which, while being of modest size for a Rat family, was of much greater space than what the Brisbys were accustomed to. They stood at the doorway, gaping in disbelief as they took it all in.

“Justin,” Mrs. Brisby said incredulously, “this is at least twice the size of our summer home! Are you sure this is right? Oh, I don’t want to sound ungrateful…”

“Wellll…we could probably arrange something smaller, if you like…”

“Aw, no way, Mom!” protested Martin.  “This is perfect!”

“Oh, don’t worry, Martin.  Justin, we love it, it is perfect.  Thank you.  I just wasn’t expecting…this much.”

“Well, this is a community built for Rats, so at least some of the furnishings are a bit outsized for smaller guests.” There was furniture—chairs, a table, a desk, stools, ottomans—which, like those used in the dining hall, were designed for Rat children.

The apartment’s three beds, however, were a different matter: obviously built for Rats, but the Brisby children were undaunted. Martin led his siblings in trying them out, hopping right up on one of them to test out its tensile quality. Their mother sighed in half-hearted dismay but knew it was useless to try dissuading them. She looked up at Justin helplessly, but he only smiled and reminded her, “It is built for Rats.  I don’t think a few mice bouncing around will do much damage.”

In short order, they’d all decided upon their sleeping arrangements. The children had no objections to sharing beds—the boys in one, the girls in another—since they’d done so all their lives, and these beds would easily accommodate more than two mice each. Their mother looked upon the one designated as hers, noting their five small packs, sitting there where Melvin had left them. Suddenly she was lost in thought again, sighing with a visible look of melancholy as she contemplated how much bigger the bed would be for just her, and her alone.

That look—however briefly she wore it—didn’t escape Justin’s notice, and he was unknowingly able to pick up on its exact meaning.  How she misses him, he thought.  If only there was a way…but no, of course it’s impossible…

The moment passed, and she looked up at him again, smiling.  “It’s big, but I’m sure I can get used to it.”

Justin went on to describe and demonstrate the use of some of the other furnishings, including the oil lamps and wash basin, which was equipped with running water—“another feather in Arthur’s cap,” he described it, “courtesy of the natural springs in the area which we were able to tap; definitely his pride and joy.  Not only does it bring us water for washing and drinking, but it even powers some machinery, including the fans that provide air circulation.”  He was quick to notice that this explanation was definitely whetting his guests’ appetites; they clearly wanted to see more of the colony, not just hear about it.  “So…if you all want to rest up for a while, that’s fine; otherwise, I can resume the tour anytime.”

By way of reply, the children hopped off the bed and dashed across the floor, quickly clustering in front of Justin, eyes wide and shining.  “What are we waiting for?” said Martin.

“I guess it’s unanimous,” said Mrs. Brisby.  Cynthia let out a little belch, making her and Timothy giggle.  Though everyone was still full of lunch, clearly no one was ready for a nap or any real rest yet.  Their level of excitement had been quite high all day, ever since Jeremy and Beatrice had made a good part of their trip easier; and so Justin led everyone back out into the corridor.

Chapter 6 - The grand tour

“My own quarters and office are just up the hall, by the way,” Justin remarked, pointing.  Mrs. Brisby made a definite mental note: there would be the best place to discuss that matter, she knew, with him alone.  Again, she felt that, when the time came, it would be easy for her to leave her children with others.  For now, though, she, as much as they, looked forward to seeing more of the Thorn Valley colony.

They were not disappointed, as Justin led them along the sometimes confusing maze of corridors, which even he admitted getting lost in sometimes, since they’d been living here a relatively short time. The second and third levels south of the main entrance were almost entirely given over to living quarters. Along the way, he showed them how the colony, as a whole, was partially excavated from the mountainside, and partially set up within naturally occurring cavern spaces. The latter enabled them to set up some facilities which could indeed be described as “cavernous,” such as storerooms for food and other goods; workshops for furniture making and glass manufacturing; the textile plant, the water-powered fan room. They made a return visit to the dining hall, mainly while en route to the kitchen, where Matilda was only too happy to show off their pantries, cookstoves, ovens and a seemingly-endless number of tables for food preparation. A never-ending task, keeping this community fed, she told them, but one she clearly loved, and everyone on her staff appeared to feel the same.

The next major facility Justin showed them was the meeting hall: again, not as ornate as its Rosebush counterpart, but impressive nonetheless.  It was a multi-tiered amphitheater, which, Mrs. Brisby correctly guessed, was likely large enough to accommodate the entire populace at once, if not more.  It was used most often, he explained, for general meetings—meaning everyone was free to attend—though occasionally there were those reserved for council members only.  When neither type of meeting was scheduled, anyone was free to use it for any size group, for any purpose.

They moved on to the library, which Mrs. Brisby remembered briefly from the Rosebush colony, though this new facility was much larger. Alcina met them and largely took over showing them how the place was organized, section by section, and described how everything here was transcribed word-for-word from human-made books, and printed and bound here. The sheer volume of books was impressive enough, but the children were clearly getting ideas on what they could do here. Timothy, especially, gave his mother the impression that he’d like to move in here permanently, as he took in his surroundings with an almost worshipful expression. It hardly displeased her, since she’d long recognized that he’d likely be the one to benefit the most from being here; but to her surprise, his siblings were showing at least as much fascination. Clearly, they all shared his thirst for knowledge, or at least were curious and impressed with the place and how it all came to be.

Those details wouldn’t be long in coming. In one corner were several tables around which sat several rats, and the tables were seemingly covered with papers, some of which the rats were writing upon with quill-tip pens. One among them, clearly at the center of the proceedings, was another Mrs. Brisby was able to recognize from the Rosebush; he’d been at the meeting, arguing perhaps the most vociferously against Jenner’s latest attempt to sway the council from the Plan.

“This,” Alcina explained quietly so as not to break anyone’s concentration, “is where everything originates. Or more specifically, from the extraordinary mind of the one at the center table—otherwise known as my father, Tallus.”

“And who would you be talking to, daughter?” said Tallus, at first not looking up from the paper in front of him; then looking up, and with a swiftness and familiarity that somehow didn’t surprise Mrs. Brisby, calling out: “Mrs. Brisby!  How wonderful to see you!  I’d heard tell of your arrival, but hadn’t the chance to get away.”  He got up from his chair with a spring that belied his appearance—that of one of more advanced age than most of his fellows, though nowhere near that of Nicodemus—and approached the mouse family.  “I am Tallus.  Welcome to my ‘domain,’ as they say.”

“Thank you, Tallus. I don’t remember too many faces from the Rosebush, but I do remember you.” He and Alcina described and showed firsthand their operations here, how his photographic memory enabled him to absorb like a sponge everything he’d seen, experienced and—perhaps most importantly for one in his line of work—read. Justin had already told them something of the Rats’ pre-Rosebush era—commonly referred to as the Wandering Days—and now he and Tallus described in greater detail for their guests how several months were spent in a human house, the Boniface estate, whose owners were away. It had an extensive library, and though they’d all agreed this was their biggest stroke of luck in making this place their temporary home, it was Tallus who’d benefited the most, not only first realizing his unique ability there, but discovering what a great passion he had for the amassing of recorded knowledge. During that period, he had read—and memorized—every last book in the library; or so he claimed, though none had reason to doubt him. It was a task that Tallus took to with relish, at times seeming to prefer reading to eating. Nicodemus was quick to realize what a tremendous asset this would be to them and their future as a people. All this knowledge Tallus had absorbed played a major part in planning and developing the Rosebush colony and later the Thorn Valley Plan. His gift was still being utilized now, years after leaving the estate; as he continued to “call up” his memory for books he’d read “back then,” which would be transcribed to paper, bound, and become the latest additions to the library. The common impression one would receive of the place was one of organized clutter, as if it were constantly in a state of reorganization—which was true, for the most part. Yet, Tallus claimed, he knew precisely where everything was at all times, and again none doubted him.

During this discussion, Timothy’s attention had started to waver until his curiosity got the better of him, and he began perusing the books on the nearest shelves, taking one down, leafing through it and moving on to another.  It wasn’t until Justin and Tallus had finished their narrative that Mrs. Brisby noticed her younger son’s attentiveness toward their surroundings.  Cynthia quickly followed her brother’s lead, and their older siblings also began exploring the shelves.

“It seems, my lady, that your children are making themselves at home here,” said Tallus good-naturedly.  “Of course, you’re all as welcome as anyone.”

“Thank you, Tallus,” said Mrs. Brisby as she approached her two youngest.  “I guess…I always knew we would be.”  As she looked over their shoulders at the book that currently occupied their attention—about the various classifications of insects—the phrase Tallus had just used lingered in her mind.   Just how long would they make themselves at home here in Thorn Valley, and to what degree?  It was a matter that had been in the back of her mind since before they’d begun this trip, and the very thought had made her uneasy; as if she were afraid of her children wanting to abandon her for a new life here, among those with whom they would likely prove to have just as much in common as with her—and perhaps more.  Now that they were all here, she was realizing more and more how silly and irrational that line of thinking was.  All of them—she included—had been welcomed with open arms by the Rats, and it was increasingly clear that they wanted her family to stay indefinitely, perhaps even—dared she even consider it?—making themselves at home in an even greater sense.

She looked up at Justin, who looked ready to show them more, and was reminded of other matters—or more accurately, just one.  She forced the thought further back in her mind.  It was too much for her to consider now, and until that other matter was resolved—if it could be—such a drastic change in all their lives would have to wait.

“If I may, Mrs. Brisby,” said Tallus, “I would suggest that our school be the next stop on your tour—that is, unless you’ve done so already.  My wife Angeline and our friend Simone were the ones who founded it, back at the Rosebush.”

“No, we haven’t been there yet, but I’m sure we will.”  She looked up at Justin again.

“That would have been my suggestion.  Great minds think alike, eh?”  He grinned and added, “Now if we have unanimous approval…”  The children all rallied behind the idea—though Timothy was a little hesitant to leave at this point—but all looked forward to meeting some of the colony’s children, having met very few yet.  So they temporarily abandoned the books they’d been perusing, though Tallus made sure they knew they’d be welcome anytime.

As they ventured out into the corridors again, Mrs. Brisby again took notice of the reactions of other Rats to her family’s presence: it was much as before, with all greeting them politely and wishing them a pleasant stay. But now she began taking more notice of how the colony’s young and presumably unattached females seemed to regard Justin. They all greeted him by name, politely and respectfully; but there was definitely more, she noted with some small amusement—and, perhaps, some small dismay. The looks in their eyes were unmistakable: they were clearly waiting for him to make a choice. He can’t help but notice, she thought, and yet it’s as if he doesn’t notice—or won’t. Certainly his duties as leader keep him busy, and yet…he must feel lonely at the end of the day. She caught herself. Clearly, the two had this much in common. There had even been times, these four months past, in which she’d picture herself in his company, as someone she could lend comfort to, and he to her, though not necessarily to the degree of herself and Johnathan. It was still very much like that, and yet…there was a subtle change to it, one she couldn’t define. Could these strange dreams, or whatever they were, have something to do with it? And again she forced the thought back into the recesses of her mind.  It will all come out later, she vowed silently, once we can meet in private.

They approached a set of double doors, above which a banner-style painted sign declared, “Welcome to Thorn Valley School.”  “We just put that up,” said Justin, motioning toward the sign.  “More and more, this place is becoming a great source of pride for us.”  He opened the door, ushering the Brisbys through and into another corridor.  The entire facility, he explained, was entirely self-contained, with classrooms, its own cafeteria (as already noted), an administrative office and an indoor playground.  They moved quietly down the hall, unable to resist a look or two through classroom doors, all equipped with long panes of glass running most of the length of each.

One of the doors opened, and a female rat emerged, wearing a matching sky-blue blouse and skirt.  She immediately noticed Justin and the Brisbys and came right over as if expecting them that very minute.  “Welcome, welcome, everyone!” she said cheerily as she approached them with arms spread.  It was a greeting Mrs. Brisby was increasingly becoming accustomed to; “welcome with open arms” was by now much less a figure of speech.

“Everyone, this is Simone,” said Justin.  “Just like Matilda in the kitchen and Tallus in the library, she’s the supreme leader of the schoolhouse.  The schoolmarm, if you like.  The principal, to be more official.”

“And if he were one of my students,” she said, indicating Justin, “he’d be the class clown.”  The Brisbys all laughed as Justin muttered something about demerits, then he introduced everyone to Simone.  “I believe we met back at the Rosebush, at least in passing,” Simone told Mrs. Brisby.  “At least once in a corridor, plus I was at that council meeting…the one I’m sure you remember as well as we do.”

“I couldn’t forget it if I tried,” Mrs. Brisby replied, “and I do remember seeing you.”  Suddenly she found herself recalling Matilda’s earlier words, how she’d said she had been boycotting council meetings.  Jenner’s words had so dominated that one, and now Mrs. Brisby couldn’t shake the feeling there was more there, perhaps a more direct connection to Jenner.

“Well, I’ll be only too happy to show you around,” Simone said, interrupting Mrs. Brisby’s musings.  “This place was a true labor of love,” she began as they moved further down the hall.  “Angeline and I began it, way back when; and for most of our remaining time at the Rosebush, we were the only two teachers.  We decided, early on, that we’d want an education program for our children that would be planned, mapped out from start to finish, as it hadn’t been for us.  As the colony expanded, some of the Original 22 helped out with teaching on a temporary basis. Even your husband helped teach a class or two.”

All were surprised and pleased to hear this; clearly, they all knew, there’d be many more stories and anecdotes about Johnathan to come, and this was just scratching the surface.  “Simone, ma’am,” Timothy said tentatively, “you said ‘Original 22’; do you mean the ones that escaped from NIMH?”

“Exactly right, Timothy.  It’s a designation we adopted early on.  Sometimes we’re just referred to as the elders.”

“Or the OT’s, for short,” remarked Justin, with a “wink” in his voice.

“Or the OT’s,” Simone repeated, sounding as if she were reminded of something she’d sooner forget.  “Someone in our second generation coined the term, and it stuck.”  She sighed.  “Personally, I think it’s less than dignified.”  She laughed as they approached the next classroom door.

“Here’s Angeline’s English class.  By the time we’d moved here, she’d opted to keep on teaching, while I took over the administrative end: planning the curriculum, maintaining student records, and so on.  It’s an increasingly complex job; I’m glad I have an assistant these days.  I still teach two classes, though, to keep a hand in.”  They all clustered outside the door, watching Angeline explaining a rule of grammar while writing on the chalkboard.

Mrs. Brisby watched the children’s reactions closely, and it became clear that they wanted to do more than just observe.  Timothy in particular had an expression almost of longing, and his mother knew she hadn’t the right to deny them the chance to further their education; or more accurately, to begin it, at least formally.  As for what would happen later, the further they got into it…again, it was too much to consider right now.

They moved on, and Simone described how she and Angeline had begun training some of the second-generation Rats as teachers back at the Rosebush, and how it had continued here; they now had a staff of nine, including themselves and Simone’s assistant, with two more currently in training. The next class they looked in on was being taught by one of two male teachers, Silvio. They continued moving on from door to door, and Simone provided the names of each teacher: Melinda, Miranda, Eamonn, Phyllis, Zora. The atmosphere varied greatly from room to room; in one, there was a very lively and animated discussion in progress; in the next, all the students were hunched over their desks, concentrating intently on a pop quiz.

In each case, at least one of the Brisby children—though usually Timothy—would look at their mother, and from their expressions it wasn’t hard for her to guess the first question on their minds. They definitely wanted in on all this. They clearly had an appetite for learning, and their mother understood it perfectly, for there was a degree of it within her as well.

Simone next led them to her office: though not spacious, it was large enough for her purposes, at least for the time being—“until the next round of expansion becomes necessary,” she told them.  As she said this, her assistant, a young female—though, to Mrs. Brisby, all the second-generation rats looked young—came up from the office’s back room.  “Isabella!  You haven’t met our guests yet, have you?”

Mrs. Brisby realized that Isabella’s was another face that she recalled from the Rosebush.  The girl-rat’s expression brightened upon seeing the group; though, it seemed to Mrs. Brisby, it was largely in reaction to Justin, whom she appeared to lay eyes upon first.  By the time she found her voice, she’d turned her attention to their visitors.

“Mrs. Brisby!  I saw you briefly just after you arrived, but I didn’t get the chance to say hello.  I’m so happy you could come.”

“So are we.  It’s good to see you again, Isabella.  You do remember me from the Rosebush?  In the library?”

“I certainly do.  I actually asked you if you were…” She paused, giggling to herself, covering her mouth.  “…a spy from NIMH!”  They shared a laugh while the children looked on, bemused and perplexed.

“A spy from NIMH?” said Martin, scratching his head.  “How could our mom be a spy from anywhere?”

“Of course it’s silly,” agreed Isabella surprisingly readily.  “But I was little more than a child then.  I’ve learned a lot since those days.”  As she spoke, her eyes traveled back and forth between the mice and Justin.  Mrs. Brisby stepped in to introduce her to the children, who seemed to take to her quite readily, especially Timothy and Cynthia.

Their mother recalled further the “spy” incident in the old library, in which she’d been placed while awaiting the arrival of Justin and others who would explain the cinderblock-moving plan to her in greater detail.  Isabella had chanced upon her and became suspicious, solely because Mrs. Brisby was a stranger to her.  When Justin arrived and explained who she was, Isabella’s attentions were suddenly focused solely on him, and the fact that he remembered her name and asked how her schoolwork was coming along.  She’d become so flustered that she dropped the papers she’d been carrying—twice.  Mrs. Brisby could easily picture her, after she’d left the library, pausing to sigh over the attention Justin had paid her.  She wondered how one such as Isabella, whom some might describe as flighty, had made it through something as arduous as the Migration and the Rats’ early days here.

They continued to converse—small talk, really—about how Isabella liked her job—which she’d had for a little over a month—and what the Brisbys had seen and done so far; and Mrs. Brisby found herself observing more and more the looks that passed between Isabella and Justin. She clearly still relished being the object of his attention—as did many other young, single females, it had been already noted. Justin had seemed largely unconcerned about the attentions of those they’d passed in the corridor; but from the moment Isabella stepped into the room, the look on his face had hardly changed.

Mrs. Brisby was certain, or almost certain, that there was more there than simple admiration. Hadn’t she seen that very same look in Johnathan’s eyes, from the day they’d met? She caught herself. Is this really any of my business? And almost instantly she answered herself: Well, why not? Justin was a dear friend to her, of course she’d be concerned about his love life—if indeed that was what was developing. And again she caught herself. There were other matters she needed to address with him, or rather one in particular; one for which she was feeling an increasing sense of urgency.

The opportunity to do so, she couldn’t have known then, was about to become greater.  Simone steered the conversation toward another matter which Mrs. Brisby had observed a short while ago.  “I noticed,” she said, “how interested you children were in what was going on in our classrooms.  And so…provided your mother approves…how would you like to sit in on some of our classes?”

The suggestion immediately met with unanimous approval, all four of them exchanging excited glances.  They all looked to their mother, round-eyed, raising a chorus of “Can we?  Please?”

Mrs. Brisby looked up at Justin, then Simone.  Suddenly the opportunity was at hand, she knew; and yet she couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt, as if she were trying to get rid of her children.  She pushed the thought back as best she could.

“They’ll be perfectly safe,” Simone assured them, “and I have every reason to believe everyone will like and accept them.”

“Oh, I’m sure of that, really,” Mrs. Brisby answered, though she didn’t want to appear too quick to give her approval. “And I know you all really wanted this,” she added, looking over her offspring’s faces full of eager anticipation.

“They’ll be in the best of hands,” Justin assured her.  “I guarantee it.”

“Well, then,” she said, looking at Simone one more time, then back at the children, “I hope all of you enjoy yourselves.”  They all thanked her profusely, amid many kisses and hugs.  Simone and Isabella quickly decided upon which classes to take them to, and in short order Isabella led them back out into the corridor.

“Have a good time,” Mrs. Brisby said as they left.  Almost immediately the pang of guilt returned; it was hard to shake the feeling that she was abandoning them, even knowing they were in good hands.  Stop thinking that way, she told herself.  They’re perfectly happy with this, and now you can meet with Justin alone, just like you wanted to.  She knew it was her prerogative as a mother to worry—leaving her children in the care of others who were still relative strangers.  She looked up at Justin and Simone again; she in particular recognized Mrs. Brisby’s anxiety.

“I understand perfectly.  I have eleven children of my own.”

Here was a subject to which she realized she hadn’t given much thought, and yet it made sense; after all, there were originally twenty rats, so it would follow that all the mated couples would have rather large broods. Still…eleven? She couldn’t imagine having that many to care for, let alone give birth to. Then, too, these rats had much lower birthrates than their natural counterparts—something she’d already had explained to her—due to the genetic changes wrought by the NIMH treatments, with twin births emerging as the norm. So it had been with her and Johnathan, it seemed as well. And once again, she’d reminded herself of what she was increasingly regarding as her mission.

“You know,” said Simone, “it occurs to me that there’s no reason why you couldn’t sit in on a class yourself.”

“Thank you, Simone, I’m sure I will sometime, but…there are other places I have in mind for now.  Oh, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Brisby.  You are our guest, after all.”

“And if you want to call the shots for a while,” added Justin, “absolutely feel free to do so.”

Call the shots. Make her own decisions. For so long, especially during the two and a half years she’d spent with Johnathan, it seemed she’d had little or no opportunity to do so. After she’d lost her parents and before she’d met him, she had to depend on herself—though with a little help from Auntie Shrew—just for simple survival. But after they’d set up housekeeping together, he’d insisted on doing nearly everything for both of them, doing almost all the gathering of food and materials for the den himself. He’d showered her with so much love and affection that she’d gone along with it willingly, hardly questioning the situation; but, unfortunately, it had all left her unprepared to deal with his sudden departure. She’d had to relearn so much; and she’d done quite well, bringing her family through the first winter without him. When last spring’s crisis reared its head, she’d had to do so much just for their survival, especially Timothy’s. She’d had to call on reserves of inner strength she didn’t know she had; and that phrase Nicodemus had used—courage of the heart—she hadn’t understood fully what it meant at the time. But after she’d recovered from utilizing the Stone’s power to save her children, she understood full well; for the experience had left her with an enormous sense of confidence in herself, that she could handle whatever crisis came along. Certainly there’d be times when she’d need help, but she’d had no doubts that making her own decisions would be an easier process from then on.

Now, she looked up at Justin, smiled, and took his hand.  “Justin…I’m ready to go now.  Simone…I’ll definitely be seeing more of your school.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Mrs. Brisby. See you later.” Simone looked on, a little amused at the sight of Justin being led away by their guest.

“So what did you have in mind?  We’ve seen most of the colony, but there’s plenty on the outside you haven’t seen up close yet…”  Justin’s voice trailed away as they both noticed, just up the hall, a rat couple embracing.

“Who is that, Justin?” she asked quietly; then she realized she recognized the female as one of the teachers—she couldn’t remember which one, there were so many names and faces to put together—but the male she was certain was one she hadn’t met yet.  Already it seemed clear that he was someone whom Justin wanted her to meet, as he led her straight toward the pair, as if unconcerned about giving them privacy.

“Arthur!” Justin said jovially.  “Somehow I knew that when we caught up with you, this is where we’d find you.”

Mrs. Brisby’s eyes widened.  So this was Arthur, the famous chief engineer whom Justin had been speaking so highly of all day, though this wasn’t exactly how she’d expected to find him.  He certainly looked the part: though not as tall as Justin, he was more muscular, with a leather satchel full of tools slung over his shoulder.

The pair looked up, smiling, not at all embarrassed.  The teacher waved hello as Arthur replied, “And what brings our fearless leader here today?”  Almost simultaneously he noticed the one accompanying Justin.  “Why…you must be Mrs. Brisby!  I’m sorry I haven’t been able to meet you sooner, but it’s a pleasure to meet you now.”

Justin introduced everyone, and once Mrs. Brisby learned the teacher’s name—Melinda—it registered where she’d heard it before, via its similarity to her mother’s name, Matilda, and her brother, Melvin.  Recognizing their guest’s curiosity, Arthur told her that he and Melinda weren’t married, but they might—and they both emphasized the word—make things more official before too long.  “So,” he asked her, “what do think so far?”

“Of the community?  It’s amazing, Arthur, what all of you have done here.  Justin told me something of your experiences out here, getting the place ready.  I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.”

“I’ll definitely make time for it.  Melinda has to get back to her class now, and I have a few more bits of business to get to, but we could get together at dinnertime, if you like.”

“Well, I don’t know about that yet, but I’m sure we’ll get together sometime.”  She was genuinely interested in hearing Arthur’s stories, but right now she had a definite plan for the immediate future; and though its outcome was decidedly indefinite, she wouldn’t be deterred.  Not now.

The three of them exited the school together.  Briefly they stood outside the double-doored entrance chatting; then, after Arthur left, Mrs. Brisby and Justin proceeded up the hall a short ways before she told him, quietly: “Justin…there’s something I really need to speak with you about alone.  Can we go to your own quarters?”

Justin was a bit surprised by the directness of her request; up till now, she’d seemed content mostly to be shown around and introduced to everyone.  “Well, I see no reason why not; and you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity.  Right this way, then; by now, I’m sure you could show me the way there.”

She laughed.  “You may be right.”  After going a bit further, she said, “Arthur’s one of the Original 22, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is.  Why?”

“Well…it’s a little surprising that he isn’t already married.”

“Well, if you knew him as long as I have, you wouldn’t be surprised.  Since before we founded the Rosebush colony, his singular vision, his true love, was to see us all in a real, legitimate, civilized community.  But there was always someone who would advise him to slow down, stop and smell the roses.  More and more, he’s taking the advice seriously.  It’s my guess that he and Melinda are more serious than they’re letting on…but hey, I’m no gossip-monger.”

They both laughed, then Mrs. Brisby asked, more casually than she would have before arriving here today: “And…how about you, Justin?  Is there someone who you’ve been…well…”  Her voice trailed off as she realized she may have crossed a line.  “I’m sorry, I’m getting too personal.”

“No, don’t be.  Actually…there may be someone.  Maybe.”  He looked down at her, emphasizing the last word with a smile and a wink.  She smiled back as they entered the main foyer, still bustling with activity.  She felt satisfied with his answer, and silently vowed not to bring up the subject again until he did first.  Still, the looks between him and Isabella were unmistakable.  Suddenly she again felt a pang of guilt for leaving her children back at the school, and again she dismissed it as irrational, pushing the thought away.  Right now they are exactly where they want to be, she reminded herself, and they’re in the best of hands.  Justin even guaranteed it.  And almost immediately, the thought triggered another, which she gave voice to.

“Justin,” she said as they finished climbing the ramp to the second level, “by the time Johnathan left us, the children were certainly old enough to attend classes.  Do you think…that would have happened?  Would they have had an education with the rat children, if he…had stayed?”

Justin, taken totally off guard by the question, looked at her; and seeing her disquieted expression, steered her toward a bench against the back wall of the mezzanine.  As they sat, he replied, “I wish I could give you a definite answer.  He did tell me, more than once, that he was well aware of how smart they were, how much potential they had.  I’d like to be able to tell you that he had some kind of definite plan for them, but…of course, if he had, it would have meant…well, you know.”  He placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I know.  Oh, Justin, why did it have to be so hard for him to tell us the truth?  About himself, about you?”  She sighed.  “I’ve thought about it so many times, and always concluded that our aging difference wouldn’t have mattered.  But I guess there’s no way to know for sure if it would have.”

Justin was unsure for a moment what to say next; then he said, “Was this…the matter you wanted to discuss in private?”

“Oh, no.  This was…oh, I just thought about the children back at the school, and it got me to thinking: once they’ve seen what it’s like, they’ll probably want to stick with it, and that means…”

“…that they’ll want to stay here longer than you planned for.  That’s not a bad thing, is it?”

She looked up at him, expression suddenly one of both hopefulness and bemusement.  “Why, no, of course not.  Did I…sound like I thought it was?”

“Maybe just a little.  I know you do want what’s best for them.”

“Oh, of course I do, Justin.  There’s just been so much else to think about, that I…”  She looked away, expression distant; then she placed her hand on his, still on her shoulder.  “Let’s…move on, shall we?”

She started to stand; then Justin said, “Wait.  There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, too.  It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit, but…well, what’s your name?  Your first name, I mean.”

Mrs. Brisby stared round-eyed at him for a moment; then, she laughed, looking a bit embarrassed herself.  “Johnathan never told you, did he?  And I never told you, back at the Rosebush; or today, either.  All right, then; Justin…my name is Madeline.”

“Madeline,” Justin repeated to himself.  “I like it, it suits you.  Do you mind if I…”

“Not at all, Justin.  Thank you.  There was a reason, actually, for my not telling you before.  I wanted everyone to call me simply Mrs. Brisby, after Johnathan…after he was gone.”

Justin nodded thoughtfully.  “As a legacy…in his memory,” he said carefully.  “Madeline, that’s beautiful.” He felt his throat tighten.  “Well,” he managed to say, “if you want this kept between us, you got it.”

“For now, yes, I would.  Thank you, Justin.  So…shall we go?”

“Of course.”  They stood and proceeded down the adjacent corridor.  Shortly they passed the guest quarters, and Justin asked if she needed anything from there.  She didn’t, so they continued three more doors further down until they came to one which appeared as ordinary but for a plaque, engraved with Justin’s name, bolted to it.  “Be it ever so humble,” he said as he opened the door for her.  They entered the room, Justin closing the door behind them.

“It’s very nice, Justin,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “I like what you’ve done with it.”  The office portion was just inside, the living quarters on the other side of an archway a few more steps in.  On the left side of the office were two wall-mounted lamps, a carved wooden desk, several chairs, a file cabinet; boxes stacked here and there, most labeled; stacks of books and several documents rolled in scroll-fashion.  Even at a glance, Mrs. Brisby thought she recognized Nicodemus’s journal in one stack, and the memory of when she’d seen it last she found none too pleasant; more specifically, it was the particular entry within it Nicodemus had directed her to read.  It was a terrible moment, learning for the first time exactly what had happened to Johnathan, and in retrospect it seemed almost cruel of Nicodemus not to have prepared her better.  Painful though it was, it again reminded her of why she was here.  She directed her attention to the opposite side of the office, which was dominated by a wide table, with blueprints, reports and other documents spread across it.

From the several chairs around it, Justin brought out two of them as he thanked her for the compliment.  He led her to the smaller one, which was just her size, and placed the other so that it faced her.  “Can I get you anything?  Something to drink?”

“No, thank you.”

“Well, then,” said Justin as they both took their seats, “I guess we can get down to business.  So...Madeline, what was it you needed to discuss?”  Clearly, addressing her like this would take some getting used to.

“Well, it’s…another reason I wanted to come here, to Thorn Valley,” she began hesitantly. “I guess you could even call it the main reason. The children…and myself, certainly…we’d all been looking forward to coming here finally, after all this time, but…well, I’d always made one excuse or another for not coming. I guess it was mostly that it was such a long trip to make, and I wasn’t sure we could handle it. But now…well, something came up, and…” She breathed in deep. “Oh, it may be nothing, but I felt I had to see you, to see if you could tell me anything. I never mentioned it to the children, because I didn’t want to possibly alarm them; in fact, I’d managed to keep it off my mind for most of the trip, because we had to concentrate on so much else. But now that we’re here…well…some strange things have been happening to me.”

“What sort of things?”

She inhaled deeply again.  “I guess I should start from the beginning.”

Chapter 7 - To find the key

There was a knock at the door.

Justin sighed, shaking his head.  “Talk about great timing.  Excuse me,” he said with a grin as he got up to open the door.

“Justin.  Mr. Ages has arrived, and is on his way up right now,” the rat at the door announced.

“Thanks, Darwin.”

Mrs. Brisby waved at Darwin, recalling him as another of the Guard rats who’d stayed behind with Mr. Ages.  “Good to see you again, Mrs. Brisby,” he said with a wave before he left.

“Well, I guess you’ll have the chance to thank him in person,” said Justin.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said with genuine sincerity.  Ever since learning of Ages’s ties to the Rats, she’d felt closer to him; with he being the only one of the eleven mice, outside of Johnathan, who’d successfully made the escape attempt from NIMH with the Rats.  It made him seem almost like family to her now.  Back at the farm, he’d led rather a reclusive, though hardly unproductive life, utilizing materials from local plants to mix his medicines and potions which helped not only the Rats in times when any of them took ill, but occasionally the other animals of the field as well.  Plus, he continued to lend his assistance to the Rats in a variety of matters; and not only medical ones, such as helping to deliver their babies.  As Mrs. Brisby had already learned, he became a major architect of the Thorn Valley Plan, and it was agreed that Ages would make the Migration with them.  When circumstances forced the Migration to be made months ahead of schedule, it was with no small reluctance that he agreed to come with them; certainly he was more reluctant than most of the Rats just to pull up stakes, but Timothy Brisby’s illness also played a large part.  He genuinely wanted to make sure Timothy would recover from his pneumonia, or at least be well on the road to recovery, before he moved on; plus, there was his mother’s hands, burned from her use of the Stone, that also called for his care.  So, it was quickly arranged for two of the Guard rats—the maximum that could be spared—to stay behind to ensure Ages’s safety and help him move.  When the three-week period was over, Mrs. Brisby had wished him the best of luck, but with some reluctance.  What if Timothy were to take ill again?  The chance was surely there, given his past health history, but luckily the worst seemed to be over for him.  Once reaching Thorn Valley, Ages set up shop in much the same fashion: this time in a cave space which was again separate from the Rats’ colony, by his own choosing; and, as before, he would willingly lend his aid whenever he was needed.  As Justin had already told her, plans for a full medical facility were well underway, and this would surely mean a greater amount of time for Ages to interact with the Rats.

Justin was about to bring up that very point just as a familiar figure entered the room: a mouse, mostly gray in color but with prominent white whiskers and eyebrows, apparently of more advanced age than most of the Rats but nevertheless quite able-bodied and with a great amount of spring in his step; dressed in his perennial lab smock and with a thick pair of rimless spectacles perched on his muzzle.

“Well, Justin!  I understand we have a visitor from out of the area,” Mr. Ages said in his familiar gruff-sounding manner.

“Right you are, you old curmudgeon,” Justin said with a grin as he shook Ages’s hand.

“Hmmph,” snorted Ages indignantly, but his expression visibly brightened as he saw the visitor, who had just risen from her chair.  “Well, Mrs. Brisby!” came his greeting, sounding actually cheerful.  “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“My, but it certainly has.  It’s so good to see you again, Mr. Ages.”  They embraced each other, the closeness that the two had developed those last few weeks on the farm still very much intact.  “Thank you so much again for all you’ve done for Timothy.”

“You’re quite welcome.  He is much better now, I trust?”

“Very much so.  Stronger, getting lots of exercise, a very healthy appetite.  He’ll want to thank you, too.”

Ages just nodded, muttering, “Good, very good.  And how are your hands?”

“Much better, thank you,” she said, holding them out for him to examine.  “They’re still a little tender, but the salve you gave me was a real wonder.”  As Ages looked them over, he nodded silently.  As always, he felt awkward at accepting gratitude, and would usually try to hide behind a crusty and seemingly antisocial manner.  But Mrs. Brisby was well aware by now that he was in reality rather shy; and this, combined with his near-obsessive dedication to his craft, is what earned him that reputation in those who didn’t know him nearly so well.  But his unswerving willingness to help his fellow creatures was widely known, and was enough for most to overlook any perceived character flaws.

Mrs. Brisby filled Mr. Ages in on the basics of her and the children’s journey.  When she told him that, just as he’d arrived, she’d been preparing to discuss a matter she felt that would be best discussed with Justin alone, he volunteered to leave until they were through; but she told him that she felt it right that he stay and listen as well.

“All right, if you insist,” conceded Ages; then, addressing Justin, he added, “Actually, the main reason I came here was to discuss something with you as well.  But since she was here first, I’ll let her speak first.”  He nodded at Mrs. Brisby, then added, “What I came to you about can certainly wait; it’s probably nothing.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ages,” Mrs. Brisby said, and found herself wondering about the last words he spoke, so much like her own to Justin minutes earlier.  Had he experienced similar things?  She banished the thought as she watched him pull over another mouse-sized chair.

“Well,” said Justin, returning to his chair, “if you’re ready, Ma—er, Mrs. Brisby, then go ahead.”  She smiled at Justin, acknowledging that he’d reminded himself—in the nick of time—of the matter they’d agreed to keep between them.  Clearing her throat, she proceeded with her story.

“It started...probably about two months ago. Yes, after we’d been back at the creekside home about two months. There had been many times when I’d think about…about Johnathan; well, every day, really. I would just remember things about our life together, nothing unusual.” She paused, acknowledging Justin and Ages’ looks of sympathy. “But then…it’s hard to describe, I…it was like…something in the back of my mind suddenly…bursting forth when I wasn’t even thinking about Johnathan, and then it would be like…like Johnathan’s voice calling me. Not like either of you talking to me now, but…almost like I could feel…his mind. I…I know it sounds strange, but there’s no other way I can describe it. And…sometimes I’d get a…an impression, I guess I’d have to call it, of someone else along with him.

“This happened several more times, but after a while it didn’t bother me too much; I thought it was just because I missed Johnathan; and I didn’t want to alarm the children, so I didn’t tell them about this.  But then, just about three, four weeks ago, it…it was different.  This time it came to me in my sleep, right in the middle of a dream; an ordinary one, nothing unusual about it.  But then, all at once, he was there, calling my name, imploring me, as if he were standing right in front of me.  I couldn’t see him, but…I felt him.”

She was doing much gesturing with her hands, trying to describe the indescribable, her voice increasingly tremulous with the emotions that describing these bizarre experiences were bringing to the fore; but she pressed on, determined to relate these events to the best of her ability.  Both Justin and Ages were completely absorbed, taking in every word of her account with keen interest; and with no trace of skepticism, which she might have expected.

“The…impression was even stronger this time, and it shook me awake almost instantly.  But even then…though it started to fade, I could…I could still feel him.”  She paused again, inhaling deeply.  “I had similar experiences three more times over the next two weeks, each while I was asleep; but…but the last one, two nights before we left on our trip, was the strongest yet.  It was so intense I…I woke up shouting his name out loud.  I was in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf.  The children, bless their hearts, they all came up to my bed, asking what was wrong; but…I was hardly even aware they were there at first, because the…the aftereffects were so strong…”

She choked on her words, and Justin offered his hand in comfort.  She took it, squeezing it, and looked up to him gratefully as she wiped away a tear.  “I’m sorry, I…I should continue…”

“It’s all right,” said Justin gently.  “Just take your time.”

She nodded, then continued:  “Anyway…I managed to pull myself together enough to assure them I was all right, that it was just a bad dream; which was true, of course, but…I knew then, and I still believe, that it was more than that.  I sent them back to bed, but…I couldn’t get to sleep...not for over two hours or so.  All I could do was think about this…this experience and what it meant.  I think I might also have been afraid to go back to sleep.  But I did eventually, and…it didn’t come back; though I did sleep later in the morning than usual.  And it hasn’t happened again the past two nights, but… Justin, Mr. Ages…it was more than a dream.  All these experiences were.  I believe that strongly.”

Both her friends had listened closely, silently absorbing her every word; but now Ages said, “It looks, then, like we’re here for similar reasons, after all.”  He said this in a near-casual manner, but to Mrs. Brisby it had the effect of a thunderbolt.

“You mean…the same things happened to you?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes, though not nearly as intense as those more recent ones of yours. Mine have all along been more like how you described your early episodes. I had some hunches about their cause, which I, like you, thought coming here might shed some light upon.” He adjusted his spectacles. “So we both show up here with much the same problem, at the same time; more than a coincidence, I’d say.”

Justin had been nodding silently and scratching his chin, and now he said, “Well, coincidence or not, whatever’s happening isn’t limited to yourselves.”

Mr. Ages and Mrs. Brisby looked agape at each other, then at Justin.  “Justin, not you too?” they both asked, almost in unison.

“I’m afraid so. The way you described them, it sounds like mine have been more like yours, Ages, all along. There’s not much more I could add about them.” The three looked at each other silently for a moment. “So…the big question is: what could all this possibly mean? All we do know for sure is that we each thought these were unique experiences, but all three of us have had them, and Mrs. Brisby’s were the most intense. So…ideas, anyone?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Brisby replied slowly. “I can’t say if this means that somehow…Johnathan has something to do with this, in some strange way; but the feeling I got when I lay awake after the last one was that somehow, the Stone, the red amulet, is somehow the key. I can’t say how, but I feel the answer lies there…somehow.”

Ages and Justin were mystified by her convictions, but Justin said, “At this point, I’m willing to believe just about anything.  There’s still so much about the Stone itself we don’t know.  That was why you left it with me, after it had manifested its power through you.  You thought I was better equipped to get to the bottom of its secrets; but so many other things have occupied my time, I’ve hardly had the chance.  I’ve tried, several times, to see if I could get it to work through me, and each time it was no go.  I’d concentrate hard to see if I could make it levitate something, like it did with the cinderblock, or to do anything at all.  But at this point, I’m not sure I could learn anything more about it.”  Mrs. Brisby just smiled sadly in reply.  “I know that’s hardly what you wanted to hear, but I’m afraid that’s all I have.”

“That’s all right, Justin.  In fact, I can’t really say I’m surprised.  But there is a lot about the Stone that neither you nor Nicodemus had the chance to tell me, like where it actually came from.”

“Would you believe…that none of us could tell you that precisely, Nicodemus included.  But we can say for sure that your husband found it first.”

“Justin,” Mr. Ages said, “I think we should start from the beginning, don’t you?”

“Of course.  It all started over two years ago, in early spring.  It was, I believe, a few weeks before Johnathan came to us with the news of Cynthia and Timothy’s birth.  He was on his way to the Rosebush to give us the latest news on how things fared with his family.  Even though we hadn’t met you yet, we, or at least some of us, were always concerned with your welfare; and of course we’d always hoped he’d finally tell you about us someday.  Anyhow…on this day he’d been following the creek out of the woods, from your home, towards the old mill—the same route he’d taken many times.  This time, as he passed a large stone, one he’d often hop onto when he wanted a look down into the creek, he felt…something strange in the air, as he put it.

“Then something else caught his attention, something decidedly anomalous for where he found it:  on the ground, directly in front of the stone, was this strange pendant, like a miniature of the decorative jewelry humans often wear.  He picked it up, looked it over; and of course, the obvious questions came to mind, of where it came from and who could have lost it; but then something else out of place grabbed his attention: a scent.  Definitely an animal scent, but unlike anything else he’d smelled before, he told us.  He looked all around and thought he caught a glimpse of something moving about in the deeper vegetation.  He moved closer to the area, still holding the amulet, and climbed a sapling to see if he could see anything.  But he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and he concluded that the matter wasn’t worth pursuing.

“Back on the ground, he looked the amulet over again, and he was so fascinated by it that, as he told it, he’d practically forgotten about this ‘mysterious presence,’ or of the possibility that there could be a connection between them.  He was more concerned, right then, with what he should do with it; and at first, he decided he’d go home and show it to you, his wife, perhaps give it to you as a gift.  One could only imagine what might have happened if he had; but after he’d gone a short ways, he changed his mind.  The fact that it had suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere and was so out of place made him decide that he should show it to Nicodemus first, and get his opinion.  So he proceeded on to the mill.”

“And this is where it really got strange,” Ages remarked as Justin paused.  “But I’ll let you tell the rest of it, Justin, you’ve always been better at it than me.”

“Thanks.”  Justin gave a wry smile.  “So…since, by that time, we were utilizing the mill a lot more—or more accurately, the waterways that had formed at its foundation—Johnathan went there first to see if any of us were there.  By that time, we were in the beginning stages of the Thorn Valley Plan, and at the time he’d already given his input on it.  Later, he would prove to play a major part in it, as we told you earlier; offering many suggestions which were later implemented, even though he would never come here himself.  Making use of the mill would become part of the Plan too, which is why he swung by there first instead of going directly to the Rosebush.  Sure enough, a group of us were there, including myself.  Even though Nicodemus wasn’t there, Johnathan apparently thought it was all right to show the amulet to us first.  He had it around his neck, this red polished stone set in a pendant of gold, or some metal like gold.  In fact, we determined later that it might actually be iron pyrite, or fool’s gold.  We all thought much as he did: that while it was definitely anomalous, it would prove to be only a curiosity, nothing more.

“Well, what happened next blew that theory to pieces.  One of the elders that you’ve already met—Derek—was on a high beam up in the mill itself.  Some of us, including Johnathan, had come up there and were just starting to discuss how we might or might not use the upper parts of the mill in our operations.  Suddenly we heard a startled cry, and we looked up to see Derek, who had taken a bad step, falling to what we all knew would be possibly serious injury, or death.  And just as suddenly, the amulet, hanging from Johnathan’s neck, glowed bright red; then, there was a flash of white, almost blinding to look at.  We all averted our eyes, but this strange, unexpected light display was over just like that.  When we all looked up again, Derek was on the ground; out of breath, but safe and sound, without a scratch.

“And Johnathan…he was flat on his back, unconscious; but only for a minute or so.  When we were able to rouse him, his first words, as you might imagine, were ‘What happened?’  The last thing he remembered was seeing Derek fall, and wanting to be able to save him; then nothing.  We told him how the Stone glowed, and the next we all knew Derek was safe; as if some power from within it, acting through Johnathan, was responsible.  He complained of feeling weak, and he couldn’t even stand for a couple of minutes; but when he looked at the amulet again, he reported a strong feeling that what seemed to happen did: that it acted upon his desire to save Derek, making it feel as if it were his own physical efforts that accomplished it.  He knew this to be true, but couldn’t explain how; it was as if the amulet ‘explained’ it to him, but not with words.”

Mrs. Brisby nodded, fascinated by the account, silently urging Justin to continue.

“So, of course, we all knew this was no mere piece of jewelry he’d found.  He remembered that he‘d intended to show it to Nicodemus; so as soon as he felt strong enough, he set off to do so.  On his way out…”  Justin paused, visibly reluctant to continue.  Mrs. Brisby thought she detected a flash of anger in his features.

“I think you’d best not leave out this detail, Justin,” said Mr. Ages.  “I know how it bothers you, but…”

“You’re right.  On Johnathan’s way out…Jenner, who was one of the others present, said, rather offhandedly, that he wondered about the level of power the Stone might potentially contain.  It was, really, not much different than what all of us were thinking; he…just happened to be the first to say it aloud.  As for Johnathan, he took the amulet to Nicodemus and gave him a full account.  From him, I learned later that Johnathan told him about the ‘mysterious presence’ he’d sensed at the time he’d found the Stone, something he hadn’t told us.  He realized that, given everything that happened afterwards, he shouldn’t leave out any details, and Nicodemus agreed that if there was a connection, this ‘presence’ might try to retake the amulet, if that was its intent.  It didn’t make much sense, they agreed, that this creature seemed to just leave the amulet lying around, as if for someone else to find; if he, in fact, existed.  At any rate, Nicodemus passed the word on to me and the rest of the Guard to be on the lookout for any such creature.  But nothing like it ever seemed to turn up, even after Johnathan gave the best description he could of the strange scent, which is all he really had to go on.  And yes, we did investigate the area where he’d picked up the Stone, but we couldn’t detect any strange scent there, or any other evidence of this creature.

“As for the Stone…Johnathan confessed to having a feeling that it was meant for him to find, which had grown stronger after he’d ‘conferred’ with it following the incident at the mill.  In spite of this, he took Nicodemus’s advice that he—Nicodemus—should be the one to retain it.  Part of the reason was because he believed he was better equipped to understand its power, whatever secrets it held; but also—as I’m sure you can imagine—if he held onto it, he’d have to explain it to his family.  It was one more thing he…didn’t feel ready for.”  He looked at Mrs. Brisby sympathetically.

“It’s all right, Justin,” she assured him.  “Please, go on.”

“So…Johnathan did check in from time to time with Nicodemus, who’d let him take the Stone ‘for a spin,’ as he put it…” Justin gave a small chuckle. “…to see what else he could do with it. Simple levitation, much like Nicodemus’s own ability—which you saw for yourself—was only one thing it could do. I’m sure not even Johnathan ever fully learned what it was capable of, and if Nicodemus learned more of its secrets, then…they died with him. There was nothing in his writings on it, beyond what was generally known about it by those of us who witnessed its power that first day.”

Again he looked reluctant to continue. “Eventually…Jenner showed more than just a passing interest in the Stone’s power, and Nicodemus saw more of a need to keep its location a secret from him. At council meetings, he’d talk openly of it, and what they—or rather, he—could possibly do with it.”

Justin’s voice was taking on an increasingly angry edge, and it became clear that relating these past events was bringing back feelings that he’d been keeping in check; but suddenly they boiled over, as he got up from his chair, turning away and quietly cursing to himself, slapping his fist into his other hand.

“Justin, what’s wrong?” Mrs. Brisby asked, though it wasn’t difficult to guess.

Justin faced them again, not meeting their eyes at first.  “I’m sorry you had to see that.  It’s just…I thought I’d pretty much put it behind me, but…I still can’t help thinking that if I had known, that if I’d foreseen the kind of treachery Jenner was capable of, that Nicodemus…would still be with us.”

“Oh, Justin, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” Mrs. Brisby said sympathetically.

“She’s right, lad,” agreed Ages.  “Even I never imagined him going as far as he did.”

Justin took a deep breath and thought for a moment. “I know you’re both right…of course. I know self-recrimination is useless, that it’s no one’s fault…but his. Nicodemus practically left himself wide open to his treachery. I don’t know if it was because the two of them used to be friends, or not; they went back a long ways together, from before our capture by NIMH. But, still…”

He paused, shutting eyes tightly, recalling his own words to Ages that fateful day: “Nothing will come of it, it’ll pass,” and writing off his concerns about Jenner as those of a “suspicious old goat.” Unable to hold back the memory, Justin winced at once again seeing Nicodemus struck down and buried beneath the moving equipment; at his own inaction afterwards, numb from the shock, oblivious to Jenner’s attempt to rally the others toward abandoning the move, barely noticing even Mrs. Brisby calling his name when she arrived at the scene; and being forced to do battle with Jenner after he’d threatened Mrs. Brisby’s life over the Stone.

He shook his head, facing his friends again. “I’m sorry, I guess we’d best return to our immediate problem.”

Mrs. Brisby said hesitantly, “This is probably not the best time to bring this up, Justin, but…what more can you tell me about the night Johnathan…I mean, I know Nicodemus told me it was while he was putting the sleeping powder in Dragon’s bowl, but…he didn’t have time to tell me much more.”

Justin looked upon her with concern as he returned to his chair. “I don’t mind your asking, but…are you sure you want to hear this?”

“Please, don’t spare my feelings.  I have to know.”

“All right.  That’s certainly your right.”  He took a deep breath.  “It was on one of those nights in which our plans brought us out into the open.  We had several wagonloads of food, tools and other supplies all ready to go, bound for Thorn Valley and Arthur’s crew, something that definitely would have attracted Dragon’s attention.  So once again we called upon Johnathan to carry out his usual assignment in the farmhouse kitchen.  Three of us—Melvin, Willis and myself—consulted with Johnathan in the Guard office before he set off.  He had the amulet with him, which was unusual; at that time, it was either Nicodemus or I who retained it, all the while careful to keep it from Jenner’s attention.  I hate to have to say it now, but this was a directive from Nicodemus that I went along with purely out of loyalty to him; I thought he was being overly cautious, though I never actually told him that.  But he believed that Jenner had designs on it, with the possibility that he could even try to take it by force.  We’d either keep it on our own persons, or use different hiding places.  On this night, we even made sure, by Nicodemus’s order, that Jenner would be called away to other duties, to keep him as far away as possible from Johnathan while he held the amulet.  He told us that Nicodemus had a strong feeling that he should have the Stone that night, and that he agreed but had misgivings over how safe it would be for him to wear it while carrying out the drugging; he thought it might possibly…slow him down.  But he promised Nicodemus he would, and since he’d carried this out many times previously without a hitch, we weren’t especially worried.  We even joked a bit about it.  So we wished him luck, and off he went…and that was our last conversation, the last…any of us saw him again.”

“I thought…one of you may have gone with him under the kitchen cabinet,” said Mrs. Brisby carefully, “like you did with me.”

“One of us should have, I know,” said Justin wearily.  “But it would have made little difference.  Anyhow…he was to meet us at a prescribed location and time afterwards, but when it got to be ten minutes after that time, then fifteen, then twenty…we knew something had to have gone wrong.  We wanted to check on him right away, but it would still be another hour or so before we’d be able to go completely inside the farmhouse, after the family was in bed.  So it was then that the three of us—still Melvin, Willis and I—made our way into the house through an unlocked kitchen window.

“First we had to make sure Dragon wouldn’t interfere; he didn’t respond to our entrance through the window, and when we saw him dead to the world on the kitchen floor, we knew Johnathan had to have succeeded once again. Willis even went right up to the cat and poked one of his paws, but he wasn’t the least bit roused. But where was Johnathan? We searched the kitchen high and low, calling out quietly, and even started on the other rooms, until…Willis called our attentions to something he’d found in the broom closet, just off the kitchen.”

Justin paused, again looking upon Mrs. Brisby with great concern, but she silently urged him to continue.  “On the closet floor, in a corner, we saw…the Stone, just lying there, with Johnathan nowhere in sight, and no evidence of his presence.  At least we thought so until we found…the dried drops of blood on the floor.  There was no other trace of Johnathan there that we could see or smell.  All we could do was bring the Stone…with the bad news, back to Nicodemus.”

Mrs. Brisby looked down, her expression sad but also thoughtful.

“I’m really sorry,” Justin said, getting up and placing a hand on her shoulder.  “I wish I didn’t have to tell you, but…at the same time I wish there was more I could tell you.”

She looked up, eyes brimming with tears, but managing a smile.  “It’s all right, Justin.  I really appreciate your telling me.”  She reached up, pressing her hand on his; then, with hardly a pause, she asked: “Where is the Stone?”

“Right over here,” Justin replied without skipping a beat, having been prepared for her to ask since she’d first brought up the subject.  He walked over to his desk and quickly produced a small, ornate hinged chest with a stylized “N” on its lid.  Mrs. Brisby immediately recognized it as the one Nicodemus stored the amulet in when he first presented it to her.  Justin took out its contents and brought it over to her.

Mrs. Brisby felt herself grow breathless as Justin handed it to her, every bit as entranced by its beauty as the first time she laid eyes upon it: this round red stone, polished and flawless, opaque yet whose interior, to anyone who gazed upon it, seemed of untold depth, untold secrets; set in a pendant of gold-colored metal with a looped chain of the same metal attached.

Mr. Ages had gotten up from his chair and now stood at her shoulder.  “You know,” he said, “looking at that now even makes me think that, somehow, you’re right.  Maybe it does…‘know’ something.”

Mrs. Brisby nodded and stood, clutching the amulet to her chest.  “I guess you could call it another ‘unexplainable’ feeling, but…just seeing the Stone again gives me such a feeling of hope, like I…like we will find out why all this has been happening…just like when my children were in danger, and I knew, I just knew that its power could save them.  It was almost instinctive; just like how you said Johnathan knew he could use it to save Derek.”

“Well,” said Justin, “that’s one thing we do know: that it works the same through both you and him.  Why just you and him—apparently—that’s another matter.  And who knows if we’ll ever learn why.”

She looked at its face again.  “Somehow, Justin…I think we will.  I know I’m saying ‘somehow’ a lot, but…the more I look at it, the more I get that feeling.  Maybe not only why I, or we, have had these strange experiences, but perhaps more, like…if Nicodemus really had anything to do with its power.”

Justin raised an eyebrow.  “If so, that’d be news, because its origins were a mystery to him too, as far as we know.  Do you…know something we don’t?”

She looked up at Justin with sudden realization.  “That’s right, there was something I didn’t tell you about that night on the farm.  I did tell Mr. Ages while he stayed on, but…after our home…sank into the mud, and the Stone flew up from it, towards me…I saw, or I thought I saw…Nicodemus’s face in the jewel.”  She paused as Justin’s jaw began to drop.  “And I seemed to hear his voice, too, reminding me of its power: ‘Courage of the heart is very rare; the Stone has a power when it’s there.’  And I knew instantly…somehow…what I had to do, even after the heat from the Stone burned me.  I knew I couldn’t let go, couldn’t stop until our home was raised and my children safe.”  She clearly was still awed by the memory, for all she still didn’t understand of the experience.

“Well, that is news to me, all right.  But you said…that you may have ‘thought’ you saw and heard him.”

“Yes, and I still can’t be absolutely sure if it happened, or if I was just remembering his words right then.  Everything about that night was so strange, so unexpected.  I guess that’s why I didn’t tell you; that, and just the fact that there was so much else happening.”

“No need to remind us of that,” Justin said with a laugh.  “I can see why it would have gotten lost in the shuffle.  And in any case, the results were what really mattered.  But if Nicodemus really had something to do with all that, then it’s definitely something we’d need to know.”

Mrs. Brisby looked upon the jewel’s face again.  “It could be that he did; and yet…I don’t really believe that.  It’s…one more ‘unexplainable’ thing, I guess, but I’m sure that Nicodemus has little or nothing to do with it.  But these…dreams, impressions, or whatever they are…I still feel we’ll get answers for them.  For why Johnathan has been…calling us…”

She said this very casually, much more than such words should have warranted; and it took a few more seconds before she seemed aware she’d made them, as she looked up to the startled, gaping expressions of her friends.  “Mrs. Brisby,” Ages said, “you can’t be serious! Do you actually believe…that Johnathan…”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that.  I don’t know why I said it.  I know that those experiences made me, and you, think of Johnathan, but we know that he can’t actually be…”  Her voice trailed off as she gazed upon the amulet’s face again.  “Johnathan…if it is you…why have you been calling us?”  She sounded only half-serious, giving a small smile and shaking her head.

Suddenly her eyes grew wide, and her face looked as if she were going into shock.  A second later the Stone dropped out of her hands, and she gave a frightened gasp.  She surely would have collapsed to the floor were it not for Justin, who was at her side in an instant.

“Mrs. Brisby, what’s wrong? What happened?” Supporting her by her armpits, he led her to her chair as Ages picked up the Stone, looking at it in puzzlement. “Let’s get her some water,” Justin suggested. Ages put the amulet on the table and dashed to the adjoining room.

Mrs. Brisby was almost catatonic; still conscious, but breathing shallowly.  Justin told her gently to take deep breaths and try to relax as he stroked her shoulders, trying to imagine what could possibly have brought her to such a state.  By the time Ages returned with a cup of water, she seemed a bit more composed, taking more normal breaths.  She accepted the cup shakily and took a couple of sips; then Justin asked her, “Now, can you tell us what happened?  Did you…see something in the Stone?  Like before, with Nicodemus?”

She nodded, taking another sip.  “I did.”  She swallowed hard.  “I…I saw a room; a strange room, like none I’d ever seen.  There was a…figure sitting by a window.  It turned toward me, and I could see his face, and…and…”

“Yes, go on,” Justin said softly.

“Justin…Mr. Ages…it was…it was Johnathan!”

They looked at each other, agape.  “Johnathan!  Are you sure?” Ages asked.

She nodded.  Another sip of water, and then she set the cup on the table.  Her expression of shock was gradually being replaced by one of conviction and determination.  “This can only mean one thing: Johnathan is alive.  Somehow, somewhere, he survived that night in the farmhouse.  And…that is what sent him there!”  She pointed toward the amulet; then she got to her feet shakily and grabbed it off the table.  “And I know, too, that this is nothing like that other time. I did see Johnathan just now. I know I did! And I know exactly what it means, too!”

Justin and Ages looked at her and each other for a moment, silently weighing her convictions.  Then Justin said, “You know…I think I believe you.  From all we’ve seen, and all we know, it makes sense.”

Ages frowned and fiddled with his chin-whiskers.  “Now let me get this straight.  You believe that the amulet…took Johnathan away, sent him somewhere?  Why, the idea is preposterous.”

“Preposterous?” challenged Justin. “We all saw its power lift the cinderblock from the mud. I was there when it saved Derek. If it could do those things, who’s to say it couldn’t have transported Johnathan somewhere?” He had no doubt that Mrs. Brisby had indeed seen that image of Johnathan, and that her convictions were valid.

“Justin’s right, Mr. Ages,” agreed Mrs. Brisby, the Stone once more around her neck. “I know I can’t entirely explain why and how I’m so sure, but I can’t deny what I feel.”

Ages grumbled to himself.  “Well…all right, let’s say the Stone could, and did, do what you believe it did.  Why would it do such a thing?  What would be the point?”

“I don’t think ‘why’ is the most important question right now,” said Justin thoughtfully.

Mrs. Brisby nodded in agreement.  “What can we do about it?  I think that’s more important.”

“Well…I suppose that next you’ll suggest that we use the Stone to go after him and find him.”  Ages said this with more than a little dismissive tone, and only for the sake of argument.  But there was nothing dismissive or casual about the looks on the others’ faces as both of them, especially Mrs. Brisby, stared round-eyed back at him.

She went up to him and placed hands on his shoulders.  “Mr. Ages…what did you say?”  Justin seemed equally impressed.

Ages looked back and forth between them. “Oh, now, wait a minute! You’re not serious…are you?”

Mrs. Brisby didn’t answer right away; she was gazing at the amulet again, looking almost enraptured.  Soon she looked up, a small, determined smile on her face.  “Yes.  I believe we can do it.

The three continued tossing ideas about until the basics of a plan took shape. Finally Justin said, “I’m going to call a meeting immediately: for the council and as many of the Guard who can attend.”

Some fifteen minutes later, the three of them stood in an antechamber just off the meeting hall.  Justin looked around the corner of the doorway, then faced Mrs. Brisby and Mr. Ages.  “It looks like everyone’s here that’s going to be.  Arthur just walked in, and I see Matilda managed to get away from the kitchen for a few minutes.  Even Bryant came in off the farm.  And it looks like most of the Guard have made it.”  He rubbed his hands together.  “So…is everyone ready?”

Mr. Ages just grunted and nodded, and Mrs. Brisby said, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”  She looked around the corner.  “I know it’s not a very large crowd, but…”  She paused, breathing in deep, the memories of her previous time before the Rats’ council still very strong.  Though she knew very well that this meeting should have none of the tension and hostility of the one beneath the Rosebush—not to mention no Jenner—she couldn’t completely dispel her nervousness.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” Justin reassured her.  “I’ll be doing most of the talking anyway.”

“I know.  Thank you, Justin.”  She briefly regarded the group assembled in the chamber again, then looked down at the amulet around her neck.  “Let’s get it over with.”

Without a further word the three of them entered the more spacious room, going straight to the slightly-raised dais at its center, regarding the group of over thirty rats before them, clustered together in the lowermost seats.  The subdued but steady buzz of conversation died down as Justin made ready to speak.  All present had wondered: why were the Guard rats called here as well as the Council?  And why was this meeting called so abruptly?  The time of day—late afternoon—wasn’t unusual, but the abruptness was.  It must be some sort of emergency, everyone pondered, to warrant such a swift gathering.  Many took notice of the Stone around Mrs. Brisby’s neck, more cause for curiosity.

“Friends,” Justin began, “let me first say that this is not an emergency meeting in the usual sense.  We haven’t uncovered evidence of anything drastic or threatening; least of all the worst-case scenario of human intrusion.  Rather, it very directly concerns our honored guest here:  Mrs. Johnathan Brisby.”

He turned smiling upon her; she returned his smile, actually feeling far less nervous than she’d expected; aided, she realized, by not only his presence but her own continued determination.  In the last two hours, she’d had the steadily-increasing sense that she had a mission to carry out: disclosing to Justin her recent bizarre experiences.  Now, with what she’d so recently learned, it became even more so; and nothing, she knew, would stop her until it had been fulfilled.  She scanned the crowd, pleased at the sight of all these faces that, in such a short space of time, had become those of friends as well as acquaintances.  All but a few of them she recognized, but there was no doubt left in her that all welcomed her presence and would continue to do what they could to help her.

“As you all know,” Justin continued, “she and her children arrived for a visit late this morning, and I want to take a moment to thank you all again for making them welcome.  Many of you have gone out of your way to make them feel at home here.  But now…around an hour ago, she confided in me that, once again, she’s come to us for help, of a much different kind than four months ago when her home and family was in danger.  This time…it doesn’t involve her home, but it definitely involves family.”

There were many baffled and curious glances exchanged as Justin went straight to the point: “Friends…she—and Mr. Ages and I—have reason to believe that Johnathan Brisby is alive.”  A collective gasp rose from all assembled.  Justin lost no further time in describing the “impressions”—which had become the word of choice to describe them—which she had received in recent weeks; the similar but less intense experiences he and Ages had received; her conviction that the Stone held the key to discovering their origins; and the image of Johnathan which Mrs. Brisby had seen in the jewel’s face; and her even more solid conviction that it meant her husband hadn’t perished that awful night in the Fitzgibbons farmhouse.

“And now, what we’ve decided is that we have a mission to carry out,” said Mrs. Brisby, in a voice which, though still soft-spoken, was surprisingly even and without tremor.  “Justin has already agreed to come with me on it, and there are things which we need to ask of all of you now.”  She looked up at Justin, unconsciously reaching up to touch the Stone against her breastbone.

“Two requests, specifically,” he told them.  “First, we need to ask for the strictest confidentiality on what we discuss in here today.  Do we have it?”

Everyone looked around at each other, after which a resounding “Aye!” echoed through the hall.  Justin, Mrs. Brisby and Mr. Ages then detailed how they believed the mission would be carried out, though they admitted there was still much that was unknown; not the least of which was exactly where they’d be going.  But all along, Mrs. Brisby was adamant that it could be done.  Once the specifics were mapped out, the second request was made: that two of the Guard volunteer to accompany them.

There was a mixture of mutters, whispers, and throat clearing in the room.  None were visibly nervous, and clearly none wanted to admit openly of any reluctance or fear in joining this mission.  But this was, after all, a journey into the unknown, and therefore not a decision to be made lightly.

Soon, though, two did come forward, rising out of their seats and approaching the dais.  One of them, the one Mrs. Brisby could readily identify, she was pleased to see.  To Justin, their identities came as little surprise.

“I think it’s only fitting,” said Melvin, “considering it was on our watch when he left us.”

“And he’s got a lot to answer for,” added the other one.  “He never returned my chisel.”  He looked straight at Mrs. Brisby, winking.  She had no idea what he was talking about, but felt instantly at ease with him all the same.  “How do you do, Mrs. Brisby.  I’m Willis, and I guess you already know Melvin.”

“I’d be honored to join this mission, ma’am,” added Melvin.  “Johnathan was a valuable ally and genuine friend to all of us.  And you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity about what really happened to him.”

“What he said,” added Willis.  “I don’t know about Mel here, but I’m ready to start anytime.”

“Thank you, Willis…Melvin.”  Mrs. Brisby looked at Justin.  “I guess there are still some details to take care of first.”  It was just dawning on her that, for her, the greatest detail would be how and what to tell her children about this mission.  Considering its purpose—to bring their father, whom they all believed would never return, back into their lives—what could she possibly say, considering how much was still unknown, not only to her, but to all of them?

Justin, meanwhile, had already chosen Orson, another of the elders, to take over the administrative details of running the colony in his absence.  There were still the matters of what everyone else should be told, and more mundane matters such as what to bring with them.  Melvin, the only one of them who was married with children, was already wrestling with what to tell his family; Mrs. Brisby expressed her sympathy to him.

In short order, it was decided that, for anyone who asked, they would be told that the four of them had to leave suddenly on a secret mission, one whose purpose would be for the greater good of them all.  The term had such a dramatic connotation; but what else to call it, since it would be near-impossible to go into specific details?  Even Mrs. Brisby agreed that it would be better that they don’t say it was a specific person they were looking for, let alone disclose his identity.  There was little more they’d be able to say other than that they’d be back as soon as possible.  Once this was settled, Justin again reminded everyone that their confidentiality on the whole matter was paramount.  Once certain he had it, he adjourned the meeting.

Everyone but Justin, Mrs. Brisby, Ages, Melvin, Willis, and Orson filed out of the hall.  Simone paused on the way out, telling Mrs. Brisby that she’d do all she could to help with the children.  Justin had Ages take Melvin and Willis up to his office to brief them on further details of what had been discussed there and what happened afterwards.

After they left, Justin noticed the anxiety etched on Mrs. Brisby’s face; it wasn’t hard to guess its source.  “Are you all right?”

She sighed.  “Oh, I guess I’m still uncertain about how much to tell the children; what to tell them, in fact.  But I guess I should do it right away.”

“I can come with you, if you like.”

She smiled, squeezing Justin’s hand.  “Thank you, but…no, it’s my responsibility.”  She started to turn to leave the chamber; then she stopped, removing the amulet from around her neck.  She handed it to Justin.  “It would probably be better if they don’t see me wearing it.”

“You’re right.  It would probably lead to too many questions.  I’ll take it back up to the office.”  After she left the chamber, Justin began briefing Orson on various administrative details.

*      *      *

By mid-afternoon classes were dismissed for the day, and Mrs. Brisby found herself arriving back at Thorn Valley School just in time to see all the classroom doors opening almost simultaneously.  Somehow the sight struck her as funny; then a small amount of anxiety crept in as she looked for her brood amongst all the rat youngsters pouring out as one into the corridor.  All of them were by now aware of her presence in Thorn Valley, though very few of them had met her since most had been in class all day; and for a moment she wondered if they would mob her.  But the teaching staff had done their job well.  All who passed her now knew who she was but greeted her politely in much the same manner as their elders, but with looks that reflected enormous respect, even awe.  She realized that the story of what she’d done, back at the farm, had become, in the space of four months, the stuff of legend.  Briefly she wondered: how would it be regarded in the future?  It was only starting to dawn on her just how much she was revered here, certainly as highly as…as Johnathan?

Just as she’d reminded herself why she was here, she spotted Timothy and Cynthia, who rushed to hug her, obviously impatient to tell her all about their afternoon. Martin and Teresa soon appeared, and all had to be reminded not to all talk at once. Simone quickly intercepted the family, and allowed them the use of one of the now-empty classrooms to talk privately. The children entered before her, and before Mrs. Brisby followed, Simone briefly had a word with her in the hall, about how the classes they’d sat in on were specially chosen so that they’d be among children of approximately the same age; but they were likely to be behind their peers in overall knowledge, having lacked the rat children’s formal education. For now, she’d observed, it didn’t seem to matter too much to them; and so far at least, their mother couldn’t tell if the matter troubled them either, though she knew that may come up later. Her conversation with Justin, just after they’d left the school, returned to her. How could she have known that, just within the past hour, she’d no longer be pondering what Johnathan would have done for his children’s education, but—dare she think it?—what he might yet do?

She shook her head, trying to rid her brain of the thought; it was too much to consider now, not when such a task as the one that lay before her—a decidedly unpleasant one—had to be carried out.  Simone instantly understood and said, “I’ll leave you alone with them now, Mrs. Brisby, and when you’re finished, we can make arrangements for them while you’re gone.  Good luck, and,” she added more quietly, “I sincerely hope you and the others find Johnathan.”

“Thank you, Simone.”  She squeezed the rat’s hand and turned to join her children, closing the classroom door behind her.  Immediately they told her more, with great enthusiasm, about all they’d experienced and learned.  Martin and Teresa had sat in on a history class, Cynthia and Timothy in a reading and spelling class.  She listened attentively, proud and happy that they’d had this chance and knowing they’d have more like it, but she couldn’t completely disguise the fact that other matters were on her mind.  It was Timothy—ever-observant Timothy—who finally called everyone’s attention on it.

“Mom…did something happen while we were in class?”

“You do look…a little sad, Mommy,” added Cynthia.

Mrs. Brisby managed a smile.  “Something…did happen, and now…”  She thought hard, suddenly regretting not rehearsing this moment better.  She knew this wouldn’t be easy, but she was at the point of no return now and could only forge ahead as best she could.  “There was something we found out, Justin and I, something that’s very important to all of us.  And now…I have to leave you all for…I don’t know how long yet, probably—most likely—a day or two at the most.”

“Leave?”  Cynthia looked alarmed, and for a moment her breath left her; Timothy reached over and squeezed her hand.  All four quickly raised a chorus of whys and wheres.

“I…can’t tell you why, exactly.  I can tell you that where I’ll be going…will be away from Thorn Valley, and that Justin and two of the Guard rats, Melvin and his friend Willis, will be with me, so I won’t be in any danger.  I’ll be perfectly safe.  You can trust them, just as I trust them.”

“We do trust them, Mom,” Timothy assured her.

“Yeah, we do,” added Martin, “but—”

“—but why can’t you tell us more?” finished Teresa.

Again their mother thought hard. What did she tell them on another recent occasion—another one of great import—when she had to leave them alone for more than an hour or so? It didn’t take long to recall. “Remember how, back at the farm, when you were ill, Timothy, and I first went to the Rats for help? Now, I couldn’t tell you everything then, either, because…there was so much I didn’t know at the time, mainly if they would even want to help me or not. But now, just like then, this is something I’m doing for the good of all of us, and I promise you that when I return, you will know everything. And I will be back. I can’t say exactly how long I’ll be gone, but I will be back.  All of us will.  What I’m really doing is asking you all to trust me, and Justin, and the Guard rats.”

“We do, Mom,” said Timothy without hesitation.  The others all voiced their agreement.

“Good.  Now, you’ll be well looked after while I’m gone.  Simone will make sure of that.  Just think of the fun you’ll have.  And I know…you won’t mind having a little more time away from me.”

The looks they gave each other were enough for their mother to tell that the point struck a chord with all of them.  Even Cynthia, who tended to be the clingiest of them, seemed to approve, though there were a few tears forming.

Teresa drew herself up, shoulders square.  “We’ll be fine, Mother.  Won’t we, guys?”  Timothy agreed most readily.  Martin was clearly fighting back a scowl but voiced his agreement as well.  It took a bit more encouragement from Timothy before Cynthia, determined to be as brave as her siblings, made four.

Mrs. Brisby found herself unexpectedly taken aback by the relative ease by which they agreed, as if she’d wished they’d have put up more resistance.  This is what they want, she reminded herself, and you can and will let them go for a while.  Putting the thought into action, she said, “Now, let’s meet with Simone, and she can get started on getting everything set up for you while I’m away.”

They all got up and left the room, to where Simone, Isabella, and two of her teaching staff, Silvio and Miranda—who, incidentally, were married to each other with children of their own—were waiting in the corridor.  The three younger rats, Simone explained, would be the ones most directly involved in looking after the Brisby children and scheduling their activities.

Their mother had already seen how well they’d taken to Isabella; and seeing how much they all seemed to approve of what was in store for them, she felt sufficiently buoyed to let them go.  It was difficult to tear herself away completely; but finally, she gave them each a goodbye hug, and one more reassurance that she loved them and would miss them while she was gone and that she would return to them soon.  Simone, Isabella, Silvio and Miranda gave their blessings and good luck—though they knew not exactly for what—and once more assured Mrs. Brisby that her children were in the best of hands.  After goodbye waves, she left through the school’s double doors.

Just outside, she paused; then, steeling herself, she began making her way back up to Justin’s office.  She made it only a few more steps before pausing again.  It had taken a supreme act of will to remain outwardly stoic since coming here to begin the process of letting go; but as she’d made her final goodbyes, she could feel the façade beginning to crack.  Now, she brought her hands up to her face, resisting the urge to break down completely but unable to hold back the doubts she’d felt since leaving the meeting, as if they were an entity inside of her, determined to break her spirit.  But these doubts weren’t so much about leaving her children in the care of others as they were about the mission itself.  Angrily she tried to force such thoughts away.  Of course there were risks, and they had no real idea where they were going, but this has to be worth any risk.  This is Johnathan we’re doing this for—Johnathan, who you and the children love dearly and want to be back with you again.  This has to succeed.  She brought her hands down, taking a deep breath.  Again she steeled herself and made to continue on to Justin’s office.

“Mrs. Brisby?  Is everything all right?”

She turned with a start to see Miranda standing there.  “Oh, I…I’m all right, Miranda, thank you.  I just needed to…think over some things first.”

“Well,” said Miranda, kneeling at her side, “I don’t know anything about this mission, or why Simone and everyone else who was at the meeting is so secretive about it, but…I could tell back there that it wasn’t easy for you.  I just wanted to wish you good luck once more.”  Mrs. Brisby smiled and nodded, but before she could say anything, Miranda gave her a little clap on the shoulder and said, “Now, go on!  The sooner you leave, the sooner you can return!”

Mrs. Brisby could only gape in surprise at the young rat’s audacity; then the moment passed and she smiled, feeling almost like laughing.  “Thank you, dear.  I think...I needed that.”

“I’m glad I could be of help.”  The two parted company with one more wave goodbye.

No doubt, she thought, that was just the push I needed to break out of the doldrums.  With that thought, she continued on toward the main foyer, going straight to the second-level ramp.

Upon reaching the second level, though, she again felt torn.  Spotting the bench at the back of the mezzanine where she and Justin had paused before, she sat upon it again, gazing up at the ceiling.  So much hinged upon her, and what she’d felt to be true; not an absolute, unquestionable truth, but a feeling, an instinct.  Could she really be sure that that image of Johnathan truly meant he was alive?  Could it have been only an image, drawn from her own memories?  And yet, the room in the image was completely unfamiliar…

“Madeline?  Are you all right?”

The voice, though spoken quietly, almost a whisper, nonetheless gave her such a jolt she almost fell off the bench.  “I’m sorry, I thought I was quiet enough…”

“Oh, that’s…all right, Justin.  I guess…I almost forgot I told you my name.”

“I understand.  Are you ready to come up yet?”

She looked away for a moment, then squarely at him. “Yes,” she said decisively and got to her feet. “Oh, Justin? Can we keep that just between us for now? My name, I mean?”

“Of course.  As long as you like.”  As they started off, he said, “So how’d it go with the children?  I thought you might possibly have had…well, some kind of difficulty.  That’s why I came to meet you halfway.”

“It…wasn’t easy, Justin.  I know they’ll be all right, but…well, you know.  I am their mother, after all.”  Yes, that was all, she forced herself to think.  No doubts about the mission.  No need to bother Justin with such nonsense.

“Of course.  Melvin just finished breaking the news to Judith and the kids.  They didn’t take it too well, but I think I was able to calm and reassure them enough.  It’s one of my talents, I’m told.”

Outwardly Mrs. Brisby gave a small laugh, at the same time thinking, Why don’t I find that comforting?  She tried not to think too much about anything as they came up to the second-level corridor she was finding increasingly familiar.

As they passed the guest quarters, en route to Justin’s office, two young rats, children themselves, approached. They were sharing a joke, giggling to each other until they saw the two approaching figures. Suddenly they became very serious, and Mrs. Brisby could tell it wasn’t just from being in the presence of their leader; in fact, their round-eyed expressions were just as much for her, if not more.

“Are you…are you Mrs. Brisby?” one asked with awe in her voice.

“Yes, I am, dear,” she replied as they passed by.

“My dad says you…you saved us? All of us?” the other said, barely above a whisper.

Again her first impulse was to state something along the lines of “right place, right time”; but instead she said, “Yes, I did, because that is what friends do: they help each other, and sometimes they even save each other’s lives.”

“All right, Hermione, Ophelia.  She and I need to talk right now, but you’ll have your chance to meet her later.”  How much later, though, Justin didn’t want to hazard a guess right then.

They both thanked Justin and continued on their way, whispering excitedly.  “We actually met her!” one was heard to exclaim.

“I think that’s still going to take some getting used to,” confessed Mrs. Brisby, “though I know I can’t blame them for feeling that way.”

“You handled it beautifully,” Justin said as they drew up to his door.  “The answer you gave, I couldn’t have put better myself.”

As he put his hand on the doorknob, though, she said, “You go on ahead, Justin.  I just need…another moment.  I won’t be too long.”  He nodded and passed through the doorway.

Again she found she couldn’t completely hold back the thoughts that had assailed her while on the bench.  Doubts about the true meaning of the image of Johnathan, the uncertainty of where they’d be going…and again, for what seemed like the hundredth time today, she forced the thoughts away.  The near-reverent reactions of Hermione and Ophelia, which had definitely given her spirits a much-needed lift, Justin and the others’ continued support…it was all helping her, it couldn’t do anything but help.  She clenched her eyes shut and hands into fists.  No more of this nonsense.  Now screw up your courage and get your tail in there!  Thus self-admonished, she placed her hand firmly on the doorknob and strode boldly into the room.

Justin, sitting at the table, smiled upon her.  “Glad you could join us.”  Ages, Melvin and Willis had been deep in discussion while awaiting her arrival, and it all but ceased in reaction to her entrance.  Justin took the Stone from the table and handed it to her as she approached.  She replaced it around her neck without comment.  It almost seemed to Justin that she looked a little less certain of this mission than before; then he figured that it was perfectly valid.  Considering there was so much about this undertaking that was uncertain, he couldn’t deny a small amount within himself, and Melvin and Willis almost certainly felt the same way.

Laying the thought aside, he said, “Well, then…if everyone’s ready, let’s go over this one more time.”  He looked to Mrs. Brisby, and as agreed, she began.

“Well, first of all,” she began, striving to sound as confident as possible, “I believe that the Stone acts upon the wishes of the wearer, but…not with just anyone. That seems to have been already proven, since Justin tried a few times to make it do something, but without success. But it has worked through Johnathan and through me. Whatever there was about us that’s special, I can’t imagine…” She paused, giving a small chuckle. “…but so far we seem to be the only two.” She paused again to look upon its face. “Anyway, if Johnathan was…taken away by it somewhere, maybe we can repeat the process. I believe that it could take several of us, not just myself, to where it sent him. If I concentrated hard enough, and all of you with me…”

“But how do we know…” Willis interjected. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Brisby, didn’t mean to interrupt. But if it did send Johnathan away, then it stranded him wherever it sent him, because it stayed here. I know we already discussed this, but still…couldn’t it pull the same thing with us?”

“I don’t blame you for being skeptical, old chum,” said Melvin.  “I was a bit myself, at first.  I’ve long been inclined to only believe in what my five senses inform me.  Take Nicodemus, for instance: I’d long thought that that power he had—telekinesis, that’s what he called it—was done by some kind of sleight-of-hand.  But then we all saw the Stone raise the Brisbys’ cinderblock home from the mud.  How could that have been explained by the five senses?  And as far as that goes, look at us.  We’ve figured it was near-astronomical odds that the NIMH scientists chanced upon the right combination of compounds that made us what we are today.  They never meant for it to happen, at least not the way that it did; but it did.  So…for my money, if Mrs. Brisby believes that the Stone has the power to do this, it’s good enough for me.”

“I wish…I could be that sure, Melvin,” Mrs. Brisby said.  This single, soft-spoken statement seemed to have a ripple effect, with everyone suddenly staring in mute surprise.

“I know we’d discussed that if I concentrated, wished hard enough, that the Stone would take us—and itself—to wherever it sent Johnathan.  But…”  She turned to Justin.  “Oh, Justin, it’s been…like a rollercoaster with me since I first saw that image.  At first, I was so confident, knowing that Johnathan was alive and that it was possible to find him.  But then…what with having to tell the children I was leaving, and not being able to tell them why or where, and not knowing when I…we’d return...”  She sighed greatly, unable to completely prevent tears from forming.  “I just wish there was some way I could know for sure.”

None knew what to say, but Justin was particularly at a loss.  He wanted certainly as much as her to find out if Johnathan was indeed alive; but if she were this unsure, would they ever know if it were so?  What could he possibly say to encourage or comfort her?  Ever since the day she’d first come to the Rosebush seeking help, he’d felt protective towards her; at times in the months since, he’d even wondered if it was love he felt for her, of the same kind that Johnathan—perhaps the best friend he’d had in the world—had felt for her.  Now, he was beginning to realize, if it was love of a kind, it was the unselfish kind—the kind that wanted her to have whatever, or whoever, it would take to make her happy; and he was committed to seeing that she—and everyone else who missed Johnathan, not the least of whom were their children—would have that “whoever” back.  Perhaps, he thought, we should emphasize that point to her, that we’re seeking Johnathan not just for her, but for so many others.  She hadn’t completely given up, it seems; she was just wrestling with last-minute doubts, that’s all.  Understandable, considering everything…wasn’t it?

Mrs. Brisby, meanwhile, had been looking over the amulet again, idly turning it over and over.  Then she stopped, frowning as her eye caught sight of something, but—oddly—not on the jewel’s face.  Then, to all who observed her, a highly visible, instantaneous change came over her.  Her shoulders no longer stooped.  She looked up, meeting everyone’s eyes, the old look of determination returning to her own.

“Justin…everyone…let’s go find Johnathan.”

“Are you sure?  Do you mean it?” Justin asked, as his and the others’ expressions brightened.

With a confident smile, and tone to match, she replied, “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”  There was no reservation, no trace of doubt left in her, as the words of the inscription, that near-forgotten dedication that Johnathan had had engraved on the amulet’s back, rang in her head: “You can unlock any door if you only have the key.”

Minutes later, all was in readiness.  Justin, Melvin, Willis and Mrs. Brisby were giving each other one more review of the procedure as Orson and Mr. Ages looked on.  Each carried a satchel or backpack full of provisions and supplies—at least one day’s supply of food and water, blankets, cutting tools which they hoped wouldn’t need to be used as weapons.  It was difficult to determine exactly what and how much to bring, especially on such short notice, since none knew exactly what awaited them.  There had already been discussion of the possibility of postponing their departure until the following morning; but ultimately it had been decided, by mutual agreement, that the mission couldn’t begin soon enough.  This was, after all, for Johnathan Brisby; and his status among the Rats of NIMH, as well as that of she who had been until recently called his widow, was all that was needed to give this mission a sense of urgency.

With the briefing finished, Mrs. Brisby said almost casually, “Well…is everyone ready to begin?”  All answered affirmatively, and so all six—Orson and Ages included—left Justin’s office.  Into the corridor, down the ramp into the main foyer they went, while others in the Guard ran interference for them, gently steering away curious onlookers and potential question-askers.  It was all to keep their departure as low-profile as possible, though they could imagine how the rumor mill would be running full-tilt in their wake.  With all the mystery surrounding this mission, it was unavoidable.  At least leaving in this fashion should take some of the mystery out of it; they’d considered actually beginning the process in Justin’s office, but decided against it.  Otherwise no one except for Ages and Orson would have seen them leave; this way, it would look more like a conventional departure “away from Thorn Valley,” as Mrs. Brisby had told her children.

At the main entrance they were joined by Brutus, who took his place at the forefront of the group.  They all moved along in a southwest direction, alongside the Wall, Melvin and Willis making sure none followed them.  There was very little conversation; everyone’s mind was on what and who they were leaving behind and what may lie ahead.  On they marched through the early evening, soon passing Mr. Ages’s house, their destination not a fixed point but one they’d consider a “safe” distance from the colony, into territory over which the Rats held less influence and where they’d still be considered strangers.

Their reason for putting Brutus at the front of the line—and having him along at all—soon became more evident.  Other residents of Thorn Valley—naturals, they’d recently taken to calling them—reacted to the mysterious still-relatively-new residents of the valley with caution and outright fear, though absolutely no threats, overt or implied, were made.  Mostly smaller rodents like voles and chipmunks, they would scurry away from these strange rats from the north; whose existence, to many of them, had been only rumored until now.  The sight of Brutus alone was more than enough to convince many of them to steer clear of the strangers.

“I have to say, Justin,” said Mrs. Brisby at length, “it does bother me a little that we’re frightening them like this, even if we’re not threatening them at all.”

“To tell the truth, me too,” Justin confessed.  “During our Wandering Days, we’d get reactions like that, and some of us—myself included, I have to admit—would actually find it funny.  Laugh-out-loud funny, even, at the—I hope you’ll pardon the expression—‘lower creatures’ regarding us with fear and loathing.  But we’ve had many experiences since then that have shown us the folly of that kind of arrogance, not the least of which was the one that involved you.”

“Thank you, Justin.  That really means a lot.”

“You’re welcome.  In this case, though, it’s more practical, to make sure as few as possible see us when we make our actual departure.”

Some fifteen minutes after leaving the main entrance, Brutus said, “Justin, do you think this is far enough?”

“It’s as good a location as any.”  They all stopped.  “So, everyone…I guess we can really get this underway now.”  They stood beside a tangled thicket of blackberry bushes, still close to the Wall, with only a little early-evening daylight filtering through; certainly a location where they weren’t likely to be observed.

“Let’s do this,” said Willis, and without another word Mrs. Brisby, Justin, Melvin and Willis all joined hands in a circle.

Justin said, “Orson, hold down the fort while I’m gone, all right?”

“I’ll keep things running smoothly, Justin, don’t worry.  Just be careful, all of you.”

“We will.”  Justin breathed in deep; the others followed suit.  “All right, this is it.  Is everyone ready?”  The four looked to one another, nodding silently.

“Then let’s all concentrate,” Mrs. Brisby said quietly. She looked down at the Stone against her chest, glinting in the remaining daylight; then she said, still quietly: “Johnathan…Johnathan Brisby. We need to find you. We need to go to the place where you are now.” At the same time, she and her three companions closed their minds to all thoughts except those of Johnathan, where the amulet had sent him, for the amulet to take them there, and—perhaps most importantly—for it to accompany them there.

Though she hadn’t been absolutely sure if it would be necessary for all four of them to be concentrating “in sync” like this—as opposed to her alone—for the amulet to work as they hoped it would, Mrs. Brisby figured it would have to be of some help; at the very least, it couldn’t hurt. Ever since that moment back in Justin’s office, when she’d laid eyes upon the inscription on the amulet’s back, there had been a rise in confidence in her like she’d rarely experienced in her life. How to describe what she’d felt? If she were inclined to discuss the point, she’d likely describe it as one more “unexplainable” thing, unable to say if this change was brought on by simply reading the inscription; but right then she didn’t question it. Rather, she and the three rats concentrated on carrying out the procedure as planned, to the letter.

There was to be no trace of doubt in anyone’s mind of their success, nor of skepticism. All of them had agreed to accompany Mrs. Brisby on this mission out of as great a need to know what had happened to Johnathan as her, and—in Justin’s case especially—out of a genuine desire to see them reunited. Johnathan had been a devoted, selfless friend to all of the Rats, and most of them would do most anything for him as well—now as well as when he was still among them.

Some two minutes after they’d begun, Orson whispered to Ages, “How long is this supposed to take?”

“I’m not sure.  Maybe it would take more time for something like this, or…wait, I think it’s…starting.”

The Stone was starting to glow red, quickly growing in intensity, seeming more and more to fill the entire area, the glow radiating outward as if it were a living thing, until it seemed to envelop the four companions.   Orson, Ages and Brutus looked on, fascinated, nearly mesmerized, until they could no longer look directly upon the sight.

Abruptly there was a flash of even brighter white light, not unlike a bolt of lightning.  When they looked up, the early-evening sunlight was once again the only source of illumination.  They moved forward slowly, one step at a time, heads swiveling, taking in the entire area, quickly confirming what they all knew was supposed to happen.

“Hello?” Brutus called out.  “Is anybody else here?”  But there was no reply.

“Good lord, Ages,” said Orson with awe, “they…they actually did it.  They were actually able to use it to…to go somewhere else.”

“Yes,” Ages said slowly, “just as Johnathan did…so it now appears.”  He looked all around the area where the four had stood a minute before.  “And…it appears the Stone went with them, just as they wished.”  He breathed in deep, voice taking on an uncharacteristically emotional edge.  “Godspeed, my friends.”  Without another word, the three began the trek back to the colony…unaware that the entire scene hadn’t gone completely unobserved.

As for the four friends, they were now in darkness; and suddenly they found themselves unable to stay on their feet and collapsing to the floor.

Chapter 9 - A new world

They were all conscious but feeling a variety of symptoms: dizziness, weakness, nausea, or shaking as if from hunger.

“Whew…anyone get the number of that…oh, skip it,” said Willis into the dark.

“Whouf…does everyone feel as lousy as me?” asked Melvin, feeling out of breath from just asking.

“I don’t feel all that great, but I think I’ll live,” said Justin.  Then, his tone becoming more urgent, he called out: “Mrs. Brisby?”

“I…I’m here, Justin. I’m…flat on my back, I can…hardly move a muscle.” She swallowed hard. “Something strange has happened to us…but what?”

“Whatever it is, at least we’re all together and in one piece,” said Melvin.

“You’re in one piece,” said Willis.  “I’m in at least 23.”

“Well, we did at least half-expect to feel like this,” Justin reminded them.

Mrs. Brisby cleared her throat.  “Where are we, though?”

“We’re not where we were, that’s for sure,” said Justin.  “This…feels and sounds like a cave.  I’d say we’re definitely underground, but…not anywhere in our colony, probably…nowhere in Thorn Valley.”

“I was about to ask if anyone else couldn’t see besides me,” said Willis.  “I guess we haven’t all gone blind then…have we?”

“Sure is dark in here, all right,” said Justin.  He grunted as he moved his head and shoulders a short ways to the right.  “I think the best thing right now would be for us to…”  He paused, then added urgently: “Wait a minute!  What about the Stone?  Did it come with us?”

As if in answer, a red glow began to illuminate the chamber, faint but enough to enable them all to see each other.  The three rats looked toward Mrs. Brisby.  Sure enough, there was the source of the glow, still around her neck.

“All right!” exclaimed Willis.

It was an enormous relief to everyone, but Justin reminded them: “We’re not out of the woods…or rather cave, yet.  We have no idea which way is out, or where to begin looking for Johnathan.”

“And we still all feel like overcooked broccoli,” added Willis.  He gazed all around at their surroundings.  “Maybe this is somebody’s stomach.”

Melvin just grunted at Willis’s jest.  “But we are guaranteed our ticket home now…and we can see each other.  That’s not too bad a start.”

“As I was saying,” said Justin, “we should all get close to each other, to help each other up…as soon as we can move more than one muscle at a time.”

All reported feeling improved since they’d arrived here, and soon they were helping each other to their feet, albeit shakily, and getting their bearings as best they could.  The chamber they now found themselves in was definitely part of a cavern: about four feet wide, four feet long, roughly circular and varying from two to three feet high.  Most of the interior surface was quite smooth.  There were two passages branching off.

Willis began taking “baby” steps around the chamber on still-shaky legs.  “You know…we wished for the Stone to take us to where Johnathan is now, but apparently it didn’t.  I can’t get any scent that smells like a mouse or any living creature here.”

“No reason to assume the worst yet,” said Melvin, who had begun examining the walls and ceiling more closely.

“Perhaps,” offered Justin, “it could only drop us off in one location. It sure knows how to pick ’em.” He looked over to Mrs. Brisby, whose attention seemed occupied by the two branching passages, one of which almost certainly led to a way out. Suddenly aware that she’d been mostly silent since he’d helped her to her feet, he asked, “Mrs. Brisby, do you…sense something different?” By now, they’d all come to trust in her judgments; it was clear by now that this still little-understood connection she had with the Stone would be their primary guide in this mission. Considering how correct she’d been about what she herself had begun to doubt as a hunch or assumption only an hour ago, none could think about doubting her now. Look at what had just happened: the Stone had actually transported them to who-knows-where in the blink of an eye. After such an accomplishment, they were now ready to not only follow her, but follow her anywhere.

She barely seemed to notice Justin’s question, or even his presence until he touched her shoulder.  She looked up at him though didn’t seem startled.  “This way,” she answered, pointing to one of the tunnels.  “This way will lead us out.”

“How…can you tell?” asked Willis.

“I…I’m not sure; I just sensed it, like the Stone was telling it to me.  Not like I hear your voices now, but…”  Her voice trailed off as she again contemplated what it might all mean.

“That’s enough for me, troops,” said Justin, adjusting the shoulder strap of his satchel.  “Let’s make sure we haven’t left anything behind, then we’ll be off.  Anything must be better than this gloomy place.”  Rodents such as themselves, even these genetically-altered ones, weren’t uncomfortable with being underground per se, but all would admit to a small feeling of claustrophobia, owing largely to the place’s unfamiliarity; so no one was sorry to leave it behind, especially with all that must lie before them.

They made their way along the tunnel in single file: with Melvin in front, followed by Mrs. Brisby, then Justin, and Willis bringing up the rear, the faint but steady glow from the Stone still providing more than adequate illumination. Almost immediately, they found the tunnel to be bringing them upward at an angle that was steady but not steep, seeming to confirm that it would bring them above ground.

For the first minute or so they were mostly silent, all filled with anticipation of what they’d find “out there.”  Mrs. Brisby finally said, “You know…it’s been only fifteen minutes or so since the Stone brought us here, but we all feel fine now, don’t we?”

“It’s pretty remarkable, all right,” said Justin, “considering how much it took out of you last time you used it.  You were out cold for the better part of an hour.”

“And that was just from raising a cement block from the mud,” said Melvin.  “Now it actually transported not only you, but three ‘passengers’ somewhere else.  I’m still a little shaky, but I don’t doubt it’ll pass.”

“And let’s not forget the first time Johnathan used it,” reminded Justin.  “It knocked him out too, but when he used it later he felt only a little weakness; then none at all, so he told me.”

“And nobody got their fingers burned either,” added Willis.  “Maybe you’re more…I don’t know, ‘in tune’ with it or something by now, Mrs. B.”

“Somehow,” she replied, “that makes sense, Willis.”  She couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle.

“I…get the feeling you don’t quite believe that.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean…I’m sorry, Willis, it’s just that my crow friend Jeremy is the only other one who calls me ‘Mrs. B’.”

“Oh, I see!  Well, excuse me, pardon me…”  They all shared a laugh as they trudged on through the tunnel, which continued to be a very easy passage, as if deliberately made for creatures their size to follow.

Mrs. Brisby then said, “The more I think about it, the more I believe that is true.  It’s as if the Stone and I are more ‘used to’ each other.  In fact…”  She drew in breath sharply.  “I just realized…I might have felt so doubtful before because…I didn’t have it with me when I went to tell the children about our leaving; it was still in your office, Justin.”

“That could be,” said Justin.  “Speaking of the children, how are you holding up?”

“Pretty well, Justin.  I’m thinking about them a lot, of course, but…if I say I’m worried, it’d be like an insult, almost, to you.  But…”  She chuckled.  “…it is my job to worry, isn’t it?”

They all agreed; then Melvin shared more details about his family: his wife Judith, who was Isabella’s older sister, and their twin children Spencer and Mia, who were only four months old when the Rats evacuated the Rosebush.  At the mention of Isabella’s name, Mrs. Brisby thought she could detect a sigh from Justin but dismissed it; the way the quietest of sounds were amplified in this narrow tunnel, it could have been just a normal exhalation.

The conversation turned to Melvin’s mother Matilda and stepfather Bryant; then Mrs. Brisby casually observed, “By the way, Melvin, I just realized…I never did learn who your father is.  Would I have met him today?”

The question met with near-silence for a few seconds, and she briefly wondered if she’d touched upon a sore subject; but before she could ask, Melvin replied, “Yes, actually, you have met him, Mrs. Brisby, but…not today. My father…was Jenner.”

She gave a very audible gasp and momentarily stopped dead in her tracks; Justin had to be quick to avoid bumping into her.  “I guess…you had to learn eventually,” he told her.  “We probably should have told you sooner, but we agreed, before you came to my office, that we’d tell you directly only if it came up in conversation.”

Mrs. Brisby was silent for a moment, then sighed.  “I’m sorry, Melvin, all of you…for reacting that way.  I know by now that you’re nothing like your father.”

“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Brisby.  There’s no real way around it; it’s a part of who I am, and I can’t deny it.  But you’re right; I am not, nor will I ever be, anything like him.  His ambitions would have brought us all to ruin: my wife and kids, my friends, all of us.  But in spite of all that…I sometimes wonder if…it was someone, or something none of us ever detected, some influence, that made him that way.”  He sighed.  “Well, I guess we should keep moving, eh?”  The four resumed their journey.

Mrs. Brisby reflected on his words; she knew he probably would rather not discuss his father anymore, but couldn’t help wondering what Jenner was like in the early days of the colony.  She’d heard little thus far, outside of his being Nicodemus’s best friend from before their capture by NIMH, that he was present the day Johnathan found the amulet, and now that he and Matilda had three children.  Her mind drifted back to their lunch with Matilda, whose words she now viewed in a new light: her past avoidance of discussing her children’s father; and her boycotting of council meetings, which had to be because of Jenner’s domination of the proceedings.  Mrs. Brisby also recalled her own near-instinctive caution in making further inquiries about Matilda’s family.  She wondered: there must have been a time—there would surely have to be—when he was a loving and devoted husband and father, and an asset and great contributor to the Rat community.  So what could have turned him into the ruthless, deceptive and vengeful murderer he ultimately became, bringing him to his own demise?

It was a genuine mystery, she decided, but now wasn’t the time to pursue it.  Instead, she asked: “Willis, would you mind if I asked you to tell me more about yourself?”

“Yes!” he answered with an exaggerated lilting tone.  “Emphatically yes!”

Justin and Melvin both groaned.  “Oh, come on, Willis,” added Melvin.  “Every time?”

It took a couple more seconds before Mrs. Brisby understood the joke, and then she laughed.  His sense of humor was reminding her more and more of Johnathan’s, though it was obvious Melvin didn’t find it nearly so endearing.  Of course, Willis was only too happy to oblige, so he began by telling about how his parents, Norriss and Charlotte, were one of three couples among the Original 22 who had “gotten busy” and borne children before they’d established the Rosebush colony.  He regretted that he was far too young to remember those days, which they all knew were filled with adventure.  He and his twin sister Deena were born about five weeks after the first second-generation rats, Melvin and George; and shortly before they’d settled at the Rosebush, the third litter—Bryant, Silvio, and Bernadette—were born to Tallus and Angeline. Mrs. Brisby was startled to hear how Bryant—now Melvin’s stepfather—was not one of the Original 22 and was in fact several weeks younger than him.

Melvin joined the discussion at this point, speaking with both humor and great fondness over how Bryant had been a great source of comfort to his family when Jenner had begun to grow away from them, and eventually had become, for his mother, more than just a shoulder to cry on.  There was no divorce as humans would know it, but in the months before the Migration, Matilda and her children had grown completely apart from Jenner, and she had taken up housekeeping with Bryant, with whom she had more children—all to Jenner’s apparent indifference.  This last aspect of the story Melvin described matter-of-factly, but he couldn’t speak glowingly enough about how one of his old playmates had become “Dad” to him.

“One thing we’ve observed about us so far,” said Justin, “is how, once our children reach maturity, they seem to age very little, so differences between generations make little difference.  Melvin’s brother George, in fact, is married to Anna, another of the Original 22, and is Brutus’s stepfather.”

“Really?  Well, Justin,” Mrs. Brisby ventured, “I guess you know what my next question would be…”

“Of course.  You may not believe this, but…Brutus’s father is Nicodemus.”

She gave another very audible gasp.  “Why, I never thought…It didn’t even occur to me that Nicodemus would have had any children!  Somehow, it seems…almost fitting.  Brutus is so…unique, and Nicodemus was too.”  She couldn’t help thinking how terrible it must have been for him, being on the scene when his father was killed.

“Well, that’s rather a detailed story, maybe a bit too much to get into now. In fact…perhaps we should keep it down a bit, listen for sounds that might give us a clue as to where we are.” All agreed to Justin’s suggestion, and so they continued on a bit more quietly. Thus far no really noticeable difference in their environment had presented itself to the four companions’ senses, but by now they noticed how the further they went, the higher the temperature rose. Over the next few minutes it had increased past the point on the thermometer that they’d left behind in Thorn Valley.

None voiced it aloud yet, but it began to dawn on them that they were indeed quite a ways from home.  One surprise after another today, thought Mrs. Brisby; and she knew beyond a doubt that the familial relationships among her new friends were only the beginning.

“How long have we been at this now?” she asked at length.

“About twenty minutes, give or take,” said Willis.  “Something had better happen pretty soon.”

“I think you’re about to get your wish,” said Melvin. “Take a look up ahead.” Sure enough, there was a faint glow of daylight around an upcoming bend—the most welcome sight imaginable right then. They picked up the pace to a fast trot, all anxious to see where the Stone had brought them. They rounded the bend and had to squint for a few seconds as the direct daylight greeted their eyes. They all brought themselves up to the cave mouth…

…and were greeted by a sight that defied all their attempts at description. For almost a minute, as their eyes became re-accustomed to the daylight, they could only stare in silent wonder as they viewed these new surroundings all around.

Mrs. Brisby was the first to voice aloud the questions forming on all their lips.  “Where…has the Stone brought us?  What is this place?”

“Beats me,” said Willis distantly.  “You didn’t bring the map, did you, Mel?  I told you to bring the map…”

They were standing on a ledge outside the cave mouth, which opened out on the side of a cliff or mesa. The ledge directly attached to a trail that led down to ground level, which was covered by a forest which stretched almost from horizon to horizon. From their vantage point, they could see it was broken by a lake which lay far off to the left; to the right, a broad, flat, bare-looking plain. Scattered here and there were strange rock formations, jutting from the forest vegetation. This was the strangest sight of all: plants unlike any known to them grew everywhere. The rise in temperature they’d felt during their passage through the tunnel was better understood. It had been a relatively cool day in Thorn Valley, but here it was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Looking up to the otherwise familiar blue, mostly cloudless sky provided a real jolt: it was early evening back home, but here the sun was several degrees higher in the sky than it should be.

“It’s so strange, and yet beautiful at the same time,” said Mrs. Brisby.

“It’s certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen on Earth,” agreed Melvin, “either where we’ve been or in picture books.”

“You know, that reminds me of something Nicodemus once hinted at,” mused Justin.  “Other worlds, other places of existence; I think this could be what he was referring to.”

Mrs. Brisby was clearly mystified by the concept.  “I don’t understand…other worlds?”  Melvin and Willis were similarly baffled.

“I’m not sure I get it either; but apparently, just as the place we left, that we’ve known all our lives, is one world, this is one more world…a different world.”

“You mean another planet, like Venus or Mars?” asked Melvin.

“I don’t think it’s quite like that.  I mean, it’s not like one of those planets that we can see in the night sky, but…somewhere else entirely, like a different version of our own world.”  Justin shook his head as he shaded his eyes, scanning the forest.  “Or something like that.”

“Well, whatever or wherever it is, we’ve got our work cut out for us here,” said Willis, adjusting his backpack. “Mrs. B, is the Stone still talking to you?”

“It doesn’t really talk, Willis, it…oh, never mind, I know what you mean.” She looked down upon it. In the bright daylight it was impossible to tell if it was still glowing, but she knew implicitly that she’d be able to sense some kind of activity from it all the same. “But I haven’t gotten any… No, wait… Yes, I know where we should go now.” She turned to the right, looking down the trail that ran steeply down the rocky outcropping to the forest level below. “Johnathan,” she said distantly, “I know you’re out there somewhere. Be patient, my love. We’re coming for you.”

With that, she led the way, carefully picking her way down the trail, the unfamiliar surroundings apparently not daunting her at all. The rats clambered after her, all feeling some apprehension at the prospect of just plunging headlong into such alien territory; but this was overshadowed by curiosity, a sense of adventure, and—to Mrs. Brisby especially—the need to confirm whether her husband was indeed alive.

At ground level, they found themselves on an apparently well-beaten pathway that took them directly into the forest.  Instantly they fell into a mode of high caution, the Guard training of all three of the rats coming into play, though Justin was officially not in the Guard these days.  The differences between the plants they’d known back home and what met their eyes here were even more apparent at close range; not only for their basic appearance, but for the fact that everything seemed smaller.  Those which reminded them of familiar plants grew in a fashion which suggested that, if the four travelers were human-sized back home, these plants would appear more normal.

The more familiar-looking ones took the form of plain-looking grasses or their equivalent lining the trail; and there were leaf-bearing trees, shrubs and vines, all scaled down in size from what they were accustomed to. Others were far from ordinary: there was one, basically treelike but with tubercle-like growths radiating from its trunk in succession, like a spiral staircase; another, also treelike, with a trunk that expanded and contracted regularly as if it breathed as they did; a flowering plant with a thick, squat trunk that was topped by an enormous, spreading two-petaled blossom, colored a dazzling orange and yellow.

Mrs. Brisby continued to lead the way, but sometimes their passage was blocked by vines which they had to negotiate their way around.  They’d brought machetes, on Melvin’s suggestion, in case of a situation like this very one; and yet, they somehow found themselves unwilling to use them now.  It didn’t really seem necessary, not only because they could make their way around the vines easily enough without cutting them down—at least thus far—but also because doing so seemed almost disrespectful.  They were, after all, only visitors here, and it was mutually decided that their goal of finding Johnathan could and would be carried out without wreaking havoc on the landscape, or at least with as little as possible.

At one point they encountered what appeared to be a tangled series of green tendrils crossing their path; that is, moving across their path as opposed to lying across it.  It moved entirely of its own volition, and it raised their caution level considerably.  Melvin and Willis already had their hands on their machete handles.

“It’s not a threat yet, guys,” cautioned Justin.  “Let’s just stand back and see what it does.”  The green mass stopped momentarily, waved some of its tendrils in front of them as if regarding these strangers silently, then it continued on its way as they looked on in silent fascination.  After it disappeared into the forest, they moved on.

“Do you think it’s as intelligent as us?” wondered Mrs. Brisby.

“There was something there, beyond a doubt,” said Justin with no small tone of wonder.  “And it just goes to show: we can carry out this mission without doing battle with the locals, even if they don’t look anything like us.”

“Yes, I’d hate to think of us attacking and hurting that…creature back there, if it didn’t mean any harm.”

“I’m with you, Mrs. B,” said Willis, “but still, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the strangest ‘local’ we’ll encounter.” No sooner had he said this when he swatted at something stinging his arm. “Well, some things here aren’t unfamiliar, but still annoying.” He drew his hand away to view the culprit, and sure enough it was an insect, or at least insectlike creature not unlike a gnat or mosquito, but—as with the plant life—scaled down in size.

Over the next few minutes they all were “attacked” thusly, and Justin was quick to make an exception to his doing-battle-with-the-locals edict. Here was a definite cause for concern: they knew that some insects back home carried communicable diseases, and these could just as easily do likewise. It was one more reason to feel uneasy in this unfamiliar environment, but all knew there was no turning back. Thankfully, they had packed insect repellent, so out it came; they hoped it would prove effective on the peskier inhabitants of this place.

Other insects made their presence known: other tiny flying ones that didn’t bite or sting but just seemed to like crawling on them, larger ones not unlike dragonflies flying about, others which crawled along the ground or on the forest vegetation. Others that could be classed as arthropods, centipede-like, crossed their path occasionally. Forms of life which would be considered higher were noticeable too: small flying creatures darted by, reminding the companions of bats more than birds. There were others that appeared to be mammal- or reptile-like, skittering across the trail or up tree trunks.

“You know,” Melvin pondered, “if all life is scaled down here, some of those little guys could be…like us.  You know, like rodents.”

“At this point, nothing sounds unlikely anymore,” said Justin, “including the possibility that this is a whole different world we’re in.”

“Uh…Justin? How about those?” They all looked up to where Willis pointed. All grew breathless at the sight. Hovering above the treetops were two large flying creatures, roughly the size of crows; but even at this distance, it was apparent that they were quite unlike birds, and that they seemed to be following the four companions.

“Do you think…they’re just curious?” asked Mrs. Brisby.

“I hope…that’s all,” said Justin cautiously.  “If so, it’s certainly mutual.”

“I don’t like this,” said Willis.  “They’re putting me in the mind of vultures.”

“Even though we’re not dying?” countered Melvin.

“I think it’s best if we continue on, and see what else they do,” suggested Justin. They did so, continuing to glance over their shoulders; and after only about a minute, the two flying creatures settled onto thick tree limbs, and stayed put as the four travelers moved on. Only curious, it seemed, they concluded with relief. They began to wonder if there were any creatures here that would prove hostile.

It had been about an hour and a half since their arrival—including the twenty-minute “tunnel trudge”—and the day was hot, with at least two hours of daylight left. Clearly a break was in order; so when they came upon a patch of ground along the trail which was mostly clear, with a kind of mossy growth for covering and ample shade, none had to openly suggest they rest there. All it took was one look, passed among the four companions; and then they all sat down at once, removing satchels and backpacks as they did, giving a collective sigh of relief at giving their tired feet a break, especially in this heat.

“Aaaahh!  Blessed relief!” Willis exclaimed as he stretched out full on his back.  Melvin wasn’t ready to relax quite so fully yet, looking around at the surrounding foliage as he drew his canteen from his pack.  He didn’t begrudge Willis, though, knowing that he was as alert as ever to anything out of place, despite his relaxed and casual demeanor.

“I just can’t get over the native life here,” said Justin.  “It’s as if it’s all scaled down in size from what we know.”  He took a swig of water from his own canteen, then passed it on to Mrs. Brisby.

“If I had any doubts about your ‘other world’ theory, they’re definitely gone, especially after that walking pile of tendrils,” said Melvin, drawing out a packet of raisins.

“Strange as it all is,” observed Mrs. Brisby, “I can’t help feeling…that we’re safe here; at least as safe as I felt when we arrived in Thorn Valley.”  She looked over to Melvin, smiling, then up at Justin.

“I’ll second that,” said Willis, now sitting up and helping himself to the contents of his pack.  “Though those big flying critters don’t exactly tug at my heartstrings.”

“Yeah,” agreed Melvin, “even if they were just curious.”  He popped the last bite of his raisin into his mouth and reached for another.

Mrs. Brisby looked away distantly for a moment, again lost in thought as she’d been for most of the trek since they’d left the cave.  Justin looked upon her and was reminded of Johnathan’s predilection for suddenly lapsing into deep thought at the drop of a hat.  She had indeed been mostly silent lately; and though she’d been just as aware of their surroundings as the others, and just as fascinated by the pageantry of strange new life passing by, her thoughts never strayed far from the purpose of this mission and all that had led to it.

These past ten months, she’d tried as best she could to accept that Johnathan was gone and would not be coming back, and that she and the children would have carry on as before, but without him; but there was no denying that his sudden absence had left a tremendous void in her life, a hole in her heart that could not be adequately filled by anything short of his actual return. But then, along came those “impressions” which increasingly seemed like messages from another place, and which invariably made her not only think of Johnathan, but actually “feel” the essence of his personality as well. Small wonder she’d broken down and cried that time two weeks ago as she’d reminisced about their first meeting. These impressions were bringing back feelings she thought had been settled, or at least made manageable enough to enable her to carry on; but it became increasingly clear that they hadn’t been. When the more intense incidents began, it was even worse for her, growing almost to the point of obsession; because now it seemed that Johnathan was calling her from somewhere, though she hadn’t yet believed that it meant that Johnathan was communicating from beyond the grave, or that he was actually alive. But then came the most intense episode, three nights past, which precipitated the trek to Thorn Valley and seeing Johnathan’s image in the Stone. From then on there was no turning back; she couldn’t rest until she knew for sure, her last-minute doubts notwithstanding. She was positive now, as she’d said earlier, that those doubts were attributable to the fact that she didn’t have the amulet with her at the time; and the more she had it with her now, the more confident she felt of the truth of the situation, and that she’d continue to be so, right up to the moment when she’d hold Johnathan in her arms again. It was certainly to her credit that throughout all of this—even when she hadn’t held the Stone—she never once doubted what her senses told her, nor her sanity.

Another thought had occurred to her: other mice had lost loved ones, so why did she mourn Johnathan’s loss with such intensity, certainly as much as they loved each other with? After all, the threat of sudden death without warning is constant in a mouse’s life. Love is certainly there, but if a loved one is suddenly lost, life has to go on for those who are left, for their lives are too short to spend a long time in mourning. But she’d known from the day they’d first met that Johnathan was so much different. It wasn’t until she’d learned of his connection with the Rats of NIMH that she realized why: along with the longer lifespans and increased intelligence level, they’d gained more complex and humanlike emotions as well. In their first few days together, she’d felt that just being with Johnathan was influencing her in much the same way; her own emotional range was broadened and had become more complex, something she’d realized when she found herself mourning her parents’ deaths months before with greater intensity than she ever had, even on the day it happened. After she and Johnathan had first consummated their love, it became even more so; and here, too, was a change. The act of mating had taken on added dimensions: no longer to simply satisfy a biological urge, now it had become an expression of their love for each other as well.

She’d also found herself asking why she hadn’t found another mate since losing Johnathan; these past few months, she’d made virtually no effort to, and if any unattached males showed any interest in her, she hadn’t noticed.  After what she’d felt with Johnathan, could another truly replace him?  And was it possible, too, that, deep in her heart, she’d never truly believed that Johnathan was dead, and that they would be together again someday?  Could the Stone have influenced her thinking in that area, since both she and Johnathan had a connection with it?

And now, there was the all-but-confirmed probability that Johnathan was here, in this strange new realm. How was he holding up, being separated from all he’d known and loved for so long, especially knowing that everyone had probably believed him dead? She couldn’t help comparing their situations: she and his children and friends believed him dead, never to return; whereas he was trapped where he was, alive and presumably well but unable to come back—at least by conventional means. Obviously these impressions had to be the result of attempts by Johnathan, and whoever was helping him, to communicate with her and his friends and let them know that he was alive and well. This had to be true, and yet…she couldn’t help wondering if, after all this time, things could truly be the same after their reunion. He would almost certainly find her to be changed, to have grown, with her increased self-confidence and renewed decision-making ability. Could that possibly pose a problem? No, she was certain their love could survive these changes and would still be as strong as before. But what about the children? How would they react to their father being alive “again?” Almost as soon as the thought occurred, she’d dismissed it. She’d already vowed to avoid any such negative thoughts and to believe that nothing but good could come of this. After all, this mission was just as much for them—Johnathan’s children—as it was for her, and anyone else who’d mourned his “death” ten months ago.

Now she looked up at Justin again, and then she stood and whispered in his ear.  He nodded, and then announced: “Guys, if you don’t mind…the lady would like a few words alone.”

“Sure, Justin,” said Melvin without hesitation.

“No problemo, Mrs. B,” agreed Willis. They both moved a little further down the clearing to give the two leaders of this expedition more privacy.

“Well, once again you’ve piqued my curiosity,” said Justin, chuckling.  “You’ve been pretty quiet since we’ve been on the trail.  I know you must have a lot on your mind.”

“I do.  This place certainly has me curious to see more of it, but…at the same time I want us to find Johnathan and bring him home as soon as we can.”

“I feel the same way.  The way we left, having to be so secretive, really bothers me.  But the way you saw Johnathan, in that room, leads me to think that, wherever he is, he’s perfectly safe.  I’ve thought about those impressions we received, and I have to conclude that however they got to us, someone is definitely trying to help him get home, or at least let us know he’s alive.”

“I know.  I can’t wait to meet him myself.  This friend of his, I mean.”

“He’ll get all our thanks, that’s for sure.  Now, if only things continue to go as smoothly as they have, we should be back, with Johnathan, by morning; morning back home, that is.”

“Yes,” she said, looking wistful.  “Justin, do you remember that conversation we had about the children’s education, whether Johnathan might have sent them to your school?  Well, before I left the children I had a thought: that he might yet see that happen.”

“He just may at that.”  He paused, recalling her previous reluctance to discuss the subject at length—understandable, considering what a major change it would be for all of them.  He continued: “There was a thought I had, when I first showed you the guest quarters, that…oh, I hope this isn’t getting too personal, but when you first saw that huge empty bed I knew you just had to be thinking about…not being able to share it with Johnathan, and I found myself thinking, ‘If only there was a way, but of course that’s impossible.’  I’d wondered since then: why would I be even considering the possibility?  I figure it must have been the impressions that did it, that led me to think there could be a way Johnathan could be alive.”

“That’s…beautiful, Justin; and no, it’s not too personal.”  She paused.  “I’ve also thought about the children, and how well they’re getting along with Isabella and her friends back at the school.  I know they’re treating the children well; but I can’t help thinking that Martin might give them a bit of a hard time.  He can be a handful when Auntie Shrew’s looking after them.”

“I think they’ll handle him just fine.  Why, you should have seen Isabella during the Migration.  Not only did she shoulder her share of the load as well as anyone, but she really kept up spirits…hers and everyone else’s.  Or at least most of us.  Now her mother, Velma…you remember her from the textile mill, don’t you?  Boy, was she a major complainer.  But Isabella…the girl’s a real trouper.”

“She is quite a remarkable girl. She seemed to have made it through the last few months really well.” Mrs. Brisby noticed the obvious pride in his voice, and how quick he was to talk about Isabella. She was even more certain now there was more there, certainly as much as she’d detected the last time they’d seen each other.

Feeling emboldened and almost playful, she added, “Justin…I remember your saying there…‘may be’ someone special back home.” She cast her best blue-eyed gaze upon him, the same that had so beguiled Johnathan so many times, and suddenly he knew he hadn’t a chance of deceiving her.

He sighed. “‘May be’,” he quoted, “and is. Madeline, I couldn’t lie to you if I tried. I think…if you could put a percentage on it, I’m 90 percent sure that Isabella’s the one.”

She took his hand, squeezing it, but managed to keep her reaction low-key.  “Justin, that’s wonderful!  Why, back in Simone’s office, I was sure of it.  Please, don’t wait.  The first chance you get to tell her how you feel, just do it.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, Mrs. Brisby.  But I kept your name a secret, so let’s keep this between us for now too, okay?”

“Of course.”

Both were silent for a moment; then Justin said, “When you arrived this morning, and I first saw you, one of the first things that came to mind was that…you don’t seem older than last time.  How are you feeling these days?”

“You know, it’s strange, but…as much as I’ve thought about that aging difference between Johnathan and me, ever since Nicodemus told me about it…I don’t feel like I’m growing older, at least not as much as I thought I would.  It’s almost as if…oh, I’m almost afraid to say it aloud, and then find out it isn’t true.”

“Then I won’t bring it up again,” said Justin decisively.  “If there is a genuine mystery here, then we’ll solve it another day, certainly after we have your husband back.”  He recalled, though, how Nicodemus had once told him, not long after Johnathan first came to the Rats with the news of his marriage, that Johnathan felt that he was influencing Madeline emotionally by virtue of their being mates, something that she’d noticed herself.  Nicodemus had suggested that this could be a unique characteristic, brought on by the NIMH treatments, and had considered the possibility that this influence could extend to other areas as well.

Laying the thought aside, Justin added: “And we will have him back.  Keep thinking about how badly he wants to be with you and the children again.  And just imagine his surprise when he sees you again; come to think of it, he won’t be expecting any of us, and certainly not us and you together.”

Mrs. Brisby couldn’t help but laugh.  “I know.  Thank you, Justin.  And it’s not hard to imagine.”

“Did you know…the night he left us, I’d considered going to your house in person to tell you.  I suggested it to Nicodemus, but he didn’t think it was a good idea.  He wasn’t really definite on why.  I followed his orders out of respect, but I confess I did consider going against him on it.  And I wasn’t the only one: would you believe Melvin considered it too?  He didn’t come out and say it, but I’ve suspected he wanted to as an act of defiance to Jenner.  He didn’t think too much of Johnathan being married to—you’ll pardon the expression, again—a ‘lower creature.’”

Mrs. Brisby only replied with a wordless half-sigh.  Clearly Jenner was a subject neither wished to talk about any more than they needed to.  Justin went on:  “But as far as I’m concerned, no ‘lower creature’ could have done all you’ve done lately.  In my book you’re one of us, as much as Johnathan and your children.”

“Do you really mean that, Justin?  That the children and I are one of you?”

“Absolutely.  I couldn’t think otherwise.”  Mrs. Brisby said nothing but stood and kissed Justin on the cheek.

By now they both felt they’d run out of subjects for more private conversation, so they rejoined Melvin and Willis; and after a few more minutes’ discussion they all agreed it was time to move on. They all stood and gathered their gear.

“We’ll have to remember that spot,” remarked Willis as they resumed their journey.  “Great for a picnic.”  There was still plenty of daylight left, and all looked forward to what lay ahead.  They continued to be on the alert for any out-of-place sound; although it was becoming increasingly clear by now that, for this place, what could possibly be considered out of place?  Especially if this really was a whole different world they were exploring?

If there were any lingering doubts as to that point, they were soon to be permanently banished.  Willis was the first to alert the others to a faint rustling just inside the right side of the trail.  They all froze, the rats with hands on machete handles, feeling more cautious expectation than fear.  Whatever it was all could soon hear to be coming closer, and a strange but definitely animal scent was evident.

Presently, the foliage parted to reveal a creature which, in the last vestiges of daylight, appeared initially to have a body much like a snake as it emerged onto the trail in front of them. It didn’t appear scaly but was instead covered with short brown fur. The caution level among the four travelers suddenly spiked to its highest level yet as they stood their ground, ready to spring into defensive action if the need arose. The creature turned its head toward them, showing a face most un-reptilian but actually more canine in appearance, with short but erect ears, almost like a fox. It regarded them silently for a moment before moving on, slithering off to the other side of the trail, revealing the total length of a body that was indeed serpentlike, about a foot and a half long. Once completely on the other side, it coiled its body and continued watching them as they took tentative steps forward, the rats’ hands still on machete handles. Still it seemed content to study them, allowing them to pass without incident, its eyes expressive and intelligent.

Mrs. Brisby said, “I think…it’s fascinated by us.  Curious, just like those flying creatures.”

“It’s definitely mutual,” added Willis.  “Boy, who would have thought that a critter like this, looking like a combination of two of our greatest enemies, would turn out to be this benign?”  In spite of these words, they knew they’d remain on their guard in case it turned out to be less harmless than it seemed initially.  But as they moved on, they weren’t followed, either on the trail or through the forest foliage.

As they put more distance between themselves and the “snake-fox,” they almost felt like laughing; if this was the level of danger they could expect, then the remainder of the mission should be a snap.  “We should be able to find Johnathan, thank his friend for his hospitality, wish ourselves home the same way we came, and still get a good night’s sleep in our own beds,” Melvin remarked breezily.

All agreed, but Justin couldn’t help thinking: Has this all gone too easily?  Could something still happen?  Considering they still had no idea why the Stone sent Johnathan here, wasn’t it possible that… But no, he told himself, looking upon Mrs. Brisby.  She still had great optimism for the outcome; could he do no less?  Remain cautious but not pessimistic, he told himself, and we’ll get through this just fine.

Some forty minutes after resuming their trek, they were presented with a dilemma; one for which, thankfully, an easy solution was forthcoming.

“Oh, brother,” said Willis as they looked upon the fork in the trail, just ahead.  “Not this again.”

“So we have a choice again,” said Justin.  “Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

Before he could say another word, Mrs. Brisby said as she pointed to the branch on the right, “This way.  This is the one that’ll take us to Johnathan.”  Against her chest, the amulet could be again seen to glow faintly in the escaping daylight.  As one, all followed her down the path, and none doubted it was the correct one.

*      *      *

Not all that far away, a figure sat on a bench in a dark, dingy room, the only illumination coming from the pendant in his hands. He stared at it intently, hardly blinking, as if his very life depended upon careful examination of every detail presented upon its face. Seemingly oblivious to all else, he continued thus, hunched over this miniature viewscreen—not unlike another seemingly-mystically-powered device being utilized by a group of four companions—even as another figure, completely different in appearance, emerged silently from another room, moving slowly, taking the utmost care at preserving his captor’s apparent inattention.

He moved on tiptoes across the room, thankful that it was a tiled floor and not made of wood, which would likely creak in a house this old.  But there were bits of debris here and there—dead leaves, bits of junk left by the place’s long-departed occupants—which he had to avoid stepping on.  For all he knew—for all he understood why he’d been brought here, which was to say not at all—his own life may very well depend on this escape attempt.  With heart pounding, almost to the point of distraction, he continually glanced from where his next footstep would land to his captor to the front door.  He could not give in to fear, not now; and in fact there was still a great amount of confusion in him over the situation, over why one he’d thought to be a friend would act as he did.  He pushed the thought aside, eyes returning more and more to the door, just a couple more steps ahead now.  As for what he’d do once outside, he had no idea; he could only think about escape right now.  One last glance at his captor, still focused on the pendant; and finally, hand on the doorknob, he began turning it ever so carefully…

In a flash he felt the massive hand gripping his upper arm, yanking him off his feet and sending him sprawling on the other side of the room.  In another instant, the other, larger figure was looming over him.  “Sithpha, Sithpha…now why,” he asked in mock hurtfulness, “would you want to leave so soon, before I tell you why we’re here?”

Sithpha got to his feet, carefully rubbing at his shoulder, a little sore from the rough treatment, which he’d likely be feeling for a day or two. “Why…did you take me like that, why…didn’t you just ask me, Ghormfisk, if you just needed a…”

Again Sithpha’s arm was in the viselike grip. “Never…never!...call me by that name!” His captor put his face up to Sithpha’s, with barely any space between, his eyes fiery with rage. “If I didn’t have a task for you that required you to be undamaged, I would surely…” He backed off abruptly, releasing Sithpha. “Come over here,” he said in a much milder tone. “I have something to show you.” He turned toward the pendant he’d left on the bench. Picking it up, he sat down, patting the space beside him. “Come along then, I haven’t all day!”

Sithpha brushed himself off, wincing as his hand contacted his elbow, skinned where he’d been tossed to the floor.  He looked toward his captor, stepping forward shakily.  Why, he asked himself, did Dini and I ever take him in?  Because he seemed so lost and confused, that’s why, and now…  He sat next to his captor, who showed him the viewscreen, pointing to the figures moving about in the image it showed, figures as physically different as he was to Sithpha.  “Now, Sithpha…the task I referred to regards these very creatures.  They have something I have great need of, and all you need do is lead them here.”

“But then what will you do to them?”

Again the fire returned to his eyes, and Sithpha braced himself for a blow which never came. Instead his captor sighed and said, “I had honestly hoped you’d be more willing. Well, one can’t have everything.” He placed a hand upon Sithpha’s forehead. The next words from his lips were completely unintelligible, and Sithpha thought at first that these were merely words in Ghormfisk’s own language; then he felt his will slip away completely.

Once certain Sithpha was completely subjugated, his captor very calmly explained Sithpha’s task to him.  When this was finished, he asked, “Now, do you have any questions?”

A smile crossed Sithpha’s features.  “When can I start?”

His captor laughed heartily.  “Why, right now, of course!  Be off with you now!”  Sithpha unhesitantly rose from the bench and made for the door, heading out into the late evening.

*      *      *

Further still away, to the northwest, in another room, dimly lit but much more habitable, two figures sat across from each other on the floor.  The room was heavy with the scent of burning ajinaph leaves, which were especially conducive in helping put one in a meditative state.  The floor was decorated with symbols written in chalk, and here and there lay an open book of arcane lore and other paraphernalia.

Soon, they both opened their eyes.  One of them, the one smaller in size, took a deep breath and said, “What happened, Gwinthrayle?  It was almost as if we couldn’t make any kind of contact this time.”

“Yes, Aphonjal, I’m afraid you’re right.  This spell, like all we’ve utilized, is specifically geared toward your home dimension.  But we couldn’t reach your wife and friends; some of them, anyway.”

“But why?”

“It was almost as if…they weren’t there to be contacted.”  Gwinthrayle’s eyes narrowed as he considered the implications.

“Meaning what, exactly?  That they’re not where we expected them to be, or…not on Earth altogether?”  Aphonjal rubbed at his whiskers, as was his wont when trying to make sense of complex matters.  There was a third possibility, he knew, but to suggest it out loud was unthinkable.

“All I can say beyond a doubt is that their location is not the same as before.  I believe there is one more spell we may utilize to give us a more specific answer.”

“Well, if it’s all the same to you…I’d just as soon save it for tomorrow.” Aphonjal rose to his feet, yawning and stretching.

“Yes, perhaps both of us should call it a day.” Gwinthrayle got up to extinguish the burning leaves.

“Well…if I don’t see you before I go to bed, I’ll see you at breakfast, Gwinthrayle. G’night.” Aphonjal turned to leave this room, heading for the one that had become his private sanctuary for the past ten months. One which, despite the great sense of peace and safety he’d always felt here, he wished fervently he could leave behind for the ones he loved.

Chapter 10 - Sithpha and Uhrstegg

“Martin, will you simmer down?  Some of us are actually trying to sleep over here!” Teresa said in whispered tones, but irately, from her and Cynthia’s bed.

“Aw, I can’t help it.  They go off on an adventure, leave us here, and we have to wait, wait, wait…”

“I’m not crazy about it either, but you heard Mother.  They’ll probably be back tomorrow.”

“Sure, they’ll be back.  But back from where?  What was the big secret, anyway?”

“Don’t ask me.  Ask Mr. Ages, or anyone else who was at that meeting…for all the good it would do.”  There was no mistaking the discontent in her own voice; but, always striving to set a good example, she added, “But we’ll just have to trust them.  Remember what Mother said: that it was for the good of all of us, and that we have to trust her.  You’re not going to say you don’t trust her, are you?”

Martin made his trademark sour face.  “No.  No, of course not.  It’s just…”

“You’re worried, just like the rest of us.  It won’t kill you to admit it once in a while.”

Martin almost hid his face entirely.  Admitting to something like worry, it was well known, was something he was unaccustomed to; but there was more on his mind than just the withheld details of the mission.  “What about…when she said we probably wouldn’t mind having some time away from her?”

Teresa gaped in disbelief.  “Why, I thought you’d be the last one to gripe about that!”

“Sure, but…what if she decided she wanted a vacation away from us?”

Teresa’s eyes rolled upward.

Then Martin had another idea.  “Hey…maybe Tim can tell us something.”  Knowing full well his little brother’s predilection for “funny feelings,” which always seemed to indicate an insight or observation that would invariably prove true, he turned over to Timothy’s side of the bed, so oversized for these mouse children that he had to do a sort of sideways crawl to get to where his brother lay sleeping, ignoring Teresa’s entreaties to not disturb him.

But the other side of the bed was empty.  “Hey, Tim, what happened?  Did you fall out or something?”  Martin jumped down to the floor.  Thinking that his brother might have overheard his suggestion and was hiding, he said, “C’mon, squirt, joke’s over,” and peered under the bed.  No Timothy.

“Where’d he go?” asked Teresa.  Martin shrugged and started to walk around to the other side of the bed.  “This is so unlike him,” she added.  “Why would he be hiding?”

Martin suddenly took notice of the mild sarcasm in his twin sister’s voice, but before he could inquire about it, a small grey shape shot out from under the girls’ bed and yanked Martin off his feet. As Timothy engaged his brother in their impromptu wrestling match, to the delight of both of his sisters—Cynthia having taken notice of the situation by now—he took a second to throw Teresa a look of thanks for not giving him away half a minute earlier, as he made his quick and stealthy crawl on all fours from under the boys’ bed to just under the girls’ bed. Soon, everyone was laughing, quickly gaining the attention of their babysitter, coming over from the opposite side of the apartment.

“All right, you kids,” said Isabella with as much authority as she could muster.  “You know we have a full day ahead of us tomorrow, so settle down and get some sleep.”

The boys obediently rose from the floor, smiled at Isabella innocently, brushed each other off, gave each other a quick hug, and scampered back into bed.  Isabella smiled, shaking her head.  She could hardly blame them; her own childhood, after all, wasn’t that far behind her.

They all promised to settle down, and after they said their goodnights, all was quiet…at least for about two minutes.  Timothy moved closer to Martin’s side and whispered, “So...what was it you wanted to ask me again?”

“Oh…just if you had any idea what’s up with Mom and them.”

“Not much.  I just know they’ll be back soon.  In fact, I get the feeling…they’ll all be back.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?  Of course they’ll all be back.”

Timothy said nothing more and returned to his side of the bed, leaving Martin to shrug in silence and lie back, feeling more ready now to go to sleep.  Timothy did the same, a contented smile on his face.

*      *      *

As it grew closer to sunset, all felt an instinctive need to lower their voices and proceed more quietly.  The surrounding forest, conversely, grew steadily louder.  The onset of twilight brought out a cacophonous chorus of night creatures, the ones here sounding very similar to the crickets, katydids and spring peepers they’d normally hear back home.  For all it provided a sense of familiarity, none of them was kidding himself or herself: this definitely was not the world they knew, and they wouldn’t take anything for granted.  There was another, far less pleasant element of familiarity brought on by this time of day: a rise in the activity of tiny flying creatures inclined to bite or suck blood, that earlier encounter with such pests proving to be only a warm-up.  And so back out came the insect repellent, which thankfully had already proven to be most effective.

As far as their provisions were going, the four companions had enough food and water for about three days, since they had no idea of how available or accessible they would be where they’d be going.  Now, in this utterly unfamiliar environment, they knew it would be risky to sample any of the local fare without knowing whether or not any of it would be harmful or even fatal to their own systems, so they strictly rationed their own provisions.

The twilight was growing ever dimmer; and with nightfall imminent, they knew they’d have to make camp soon, and were now looking for another reasonably open area just off the trail, hoping for one similar to where they’d spent their earlier rest break.  Minus that break, the four had been on the move now for nearly four hours, and none could completely stifle yawns.  All were clearly ready for a good night’s sleep, but they’d agreed that one of them would have to stand watch, and so Melvin and Willis were already discussing who would stand the first one.

“How about drawing straws?” suggested Melvin.

“Sure, why not?” agreed Willis.  “We’re already drawing flies…”  He swatted at and missed one nipping at the back of his leg.  “…or whatever you’d call these little buggers.”  He brought out his bottle of repellent and started applying more to himself.

Justin and Mrs. Brisby, who’d been walking ahead, approached the two Guard rats from a little further up the trail.  “There’s a pretty good spot right up here a short ways,” announced Justin.

Melvin turned to Willis.  “I guess drawing straws is good enough.”  He made to get on all fours, but Willis stopped him.

“No, allow me.”  Willis dropped down and began making his selection.  He paused as he heard a slight rustling in the branches almost directly above them.  “Hey, did one of you suddenly grow taller—”

“Shhh!”  With Justin’s silencing, everyone started backing away quietly from the spot beneath the rustling branches, which everyone could now hear very clearly.  Willis was still on all fours, moving away crab-style.

Before they could prepare themselves further, something they couldn’t see clearly jumped down—or fell down—with a whooping cry that sounded like “Yeeahooie!” and landed directly on top of Melvin!  But he was partially prepared for something like this, and was able to assess the situation quickly enough as the two fell to the ground, rolling around together twice before stopping, at which point Willis leaped into the fray.  In seconds the two had wrestled the newcomer to the ground while Justin and Mrs. Brisby looked on anxiously.

“Do you think he means any harm?” asked Mrs. Brisby as their “guest” struggled vainly in the Guard rats’ grip.

“Only one way to find out,” said Justin, drawing closer.  “Okay, guys, let’s have a better look at him.”

Melvin and Willis drew back a short ways but still kept a firm grip, pinning the stranger’s arms and shoulders down.  There was enough daylight remaining to allow them to see that he—presumably male, as far as they could tell—was about the rats’ size though was more humanoid in form.  He had skin light blue in color, no hair on his head and was of a thin, wiry build, and his face was basically humanoid, though with wide eyes that were rather catlike, and other facial features that gave him an almost reptilian appearance.  The fact that he wore clothing—a partially open vest that was tied at the bottom, leaving most of his midriff bare, and short trousers, both apparently of woven plant fibers, and shoes of some undetermined material—indicated that his was a civilized race.  He spoke quickly in a language unintelligible to the four friends, but he seemed to sound almost indignant about being restrained like this.

“I’d almost forgotten there’d be a language barrier,” said Justin.

“I think it’s safe to let him up, don’t you?” Melvin asked.  By now the stranger had ceased his struggles and seemed to be simply waiting for his “captors” to free him.

“Please, I was just getting comfortable,” said Willis.

The newcomer seemed to mean no harm and actually appeared quite curious of them. Seeing no other reason to keep him restrained, Justin gave the go-ahead. The two guard rats loosed their grip and quickly got to their feet, backing away warily; but the newcomer just calmly stood, dusted himself off and said a few more gibberish-sounding words to them, his demeanor still as one who’d simply made a social blunder.

“So far, so good,” said Justin as their new acquaintance continued speaking in a normal conversational tone, with noticeable curiosity showing through and no overt sign of hostile intent.

“If only we could understand each other,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “Think of what he could tell us of this place.”

Then, once again as if on cue, the amulet began glowing, at first brightly and then dimming and fading almost completely, all in about five seconds.  Everyone present noticed, of course; but before the others could say a word, the newcomer said, “Well!  What was that all about?”

“Well, that was just a…”  Justin cut himself short, looking wide-eyed at the stranger, as did the others, as they all realized what had just taken place.

“We understand you!” Mrs. Brisby exclaimed. “Do you understand us?”

“Yeah, I sure do,” the stranger replied.  “Why’d that stone glow like that?”

There was a moment of hesitation; none wanted to admit outright that they hadn’t expected the Stone to act as and when it did.  Then, thinking fast, Mrs. Brisby told him, “It’s…making us understand each other.”  She knew implicitly that this surely was the truth, but thought it best not to show surprise about it, and she glanced at the others to make sure they knew this.

“Hmm…if you say so,” said the stranger, visibly impressed but not too startled.

“Do you have a name?” asked Justin.

“Sithpha.  What’s yours?”

The four each introduced themselves to Sithpha, and they were both impressed and puzzled by the almost-casual manner in which he seemed to accept these newcomers to his world, as if their physical appearance, completely different from himself, was perfectly normal.  Surely, they must be as strange to him as he was to them, and yet…

“You look awfully strange.  Guess you’re not from around these parts.”  Despite these words, Sithpha still spoke as if he addressed visiting out-of-towners.

“No, we’re not,” Justin replied.  “We’re from a long, long ways from here.”  He figured that the simple answer was the best answer for now.  He then added: “Now…why were you up in that tree?”  He made sure he asked this in a manner that was more curious than accusatory.

“Well…I don’t live far from here, see, and I saw you coming and I got curious.  I just wanted to get a closer look at you all.”

“If that’s all you wanted, then why’d you jump on me?” asked Melvin.

Sithpha looked all around at their faces, and to them his facial expression and body language instantly registered embarrassment, as he reached under his vest to scratch his back.  “Well…it’s like…I guess I just…sort of slipped, you know, lost my grip.  It’s getting pretty dark, and hard to see, and, well…”

The four travelers looked around at each other.  It certainly didn’t sound unlikely, and his embarrassment seemed genuine.  Melvin half-expected Willis to make some further remark about “just dropping in,” but he refrained.

“What do you think, everyone?” said Justin.

“I think it was just an accident,” said Mrs. Brisby.  The others nodded their agreement.

“Sure, that’s all,” said Sithpha.  “Just an accident.  I’m really sorry about that.”  He was clearly eager to change the subject, and so quickly added, “So what brings you all around here?”

“We’re looking for my husband.  We believe he might be in this area.  His name’s Johnathan…Johnathan Brisby.  Have you heard of him, or know anything about him?”

“Hmm…Jah-nuthin…Brizz-bee…gee, I’m sorry, the name doesn’t ring any bells, but…you all look like you need a place to crash for the night.  I think I can accommodate you, if you like.”

The four friends looked at each other.  He seemed sincere enough, and entirely guileless; the story of his curiosity giving way to his “accident” sounded convincing, as did his apology; and his offer was easily more tempting than the prospect of spending the night out in the open in alien territory.  But Justin, especially, still harbored misgivings, knowing full well the potential for treachery that can lay behind even the most genial and affable manner.  Certainly he wanted to trust Sithpha; he was likable enough, and seemed harmless, and yet…

The four conferred in private, and an agreement was soon reached: they would accept his offer but not let their guards down.  So once they’d told him this—the former part—they resumed their journey, now led by Sithpha.

Along the way, Willis said privately to Melvin, “So, the Stone’s a portable translator, too, eh?  Next I suppose it’ll conjure rabbits out of midair.”  Melvin just nodded with a grunt.  All of them reflected on this unexpected turn of events, and how it was the Stone that had brought it about, and wondered what further surprises it held in store for them.

They would soon find out, to their regret.

“So, Sithpha,” Justin said, “since we are new to this area, what can you tell us about it; like, where most of the people live?”  As agreed, they didn’t want to let him know that they were not of this world—unless, somehow, he already suspected it—so they refrained from asking questions about the world in general.

“Hardly anyone lives ’way out here, in the sticks,” Sithpha replied. “Verenphor is the biggest city in this area, north of here. I’m from Timphon, myself; that’s a smaller town off to the east. I’m kind of a country boy, myself.”

“Didn’t you say,” said Melvin carefully, “that you didn’t live far from here?”

“I did, didn’t I?  I meant I’m from Timphon originally, most of the time.  Right now we’re fixing up an old place out here; me and, er, a friend of mine.”  Again the four’s caution level was raised.  He might still be sincere, maybe a little nervous…but his answer sounded uncomfortably like he was making it up on the fly.

“It’s a real fixer-upper.  We just started working on it, so it’s still pretty rough; but at least it’s a roof over your head.”

“For one night, I think we’ll do just fine,” said Justin, sounding as casual as possible.  If there’s any danger where we’re going, I’m sure we’ll be able to deal with it.  He wondered about these people’s level of technology, and was already getting a sense that it might be roughly on a par with Western human civilization of around the 18th Century; or for that matter, of their own back in Thorn Valley.

Mrs. Brisby was equally cautious of what might lie ahead, but was able to allow some more time for reflection, especially upon looking up and seeing the stars beginning to emerge.  There were relatively few visible due to the narrowness of the trail and the surrounding treetops, but they were enough to remind her of her and Johnathan’s first night together as husband and wife.  She couldn’t suppress a sigh at the memory; right then, she couldn’t believe that this invitation they were accepting out of the blue was anything but, at worst, a momentary deviation from their mission.  Who knows, she thought, Sithpha and his friend might even be of help to us in some way, even if they don’t know Johnathan.

The four travelers continued chatting with their new acquaintance about their current locale, all the while careful not to appear too unfamiliar with it. Sithpha made occasional references to local plant and animal life, and they could only wonder as to which ones referred to ones they’d already encountered.

Eventually they were led off the main trail and onto a narrower, less traveled branch.  “We’re almost there,” Sithpha announced, and shortly they came upon a clearing, at the edge of which was a small building that was roughly circular and built of stone.  The entire area—house and clearing alike—had the general appearance of having been abandoned months, perhaps over a year, ago.  One wouldn’t know from the near-total lack of upkeep that there was anyone living there; there was tall, untrimmed vegetation almost right up to the front door.  Through the one window visible, dim light could be seen.

“Well, Sithpha,” Justin said as they began moving along the inlaid trail of flat stones leading to the door, “you weren’t kidding about it being rough.”  Again he took care to sound only curious, with no suspicion, but still couldn’t help feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  He almost involuntarily felt the handle of his machete.

“Definitely a fixer-upper,” added Willis.  He and Melvin exercised equal caution.

“How long have you known this friend of yours?” asked Mrs. Brisby.

“Not…er, not too long.”  Sithpha stopped about a foot short of the door, putting a hand to his forehead, appearing to be in genuine discomfort.  “Think I’m getting a bit of a headache.  Anyway, he kind o’ likes it looking more natural-like around here.  I’m sure he’ll welcome all of you.”

“Are you all right?” asked Mrs. Brisby, genuinely concerned though still cautious.

“Sure,” Sithpha replied as he reached for the doorknob, “though  I think I’ll need a bit of a lie-down pretty soon, after—”

Before he even touched it, the door opened to reveal his “friend.”  The eyes of all their guests grew wide.  The lamplight from inside, combined with the remaining twilight, was enough to enable them to see that he was of a totally different species from Sithpha.  He too was basically humanoid in form but stood a bit taller than Sithpha or the rats.  His skin was covered in a short, velvety dark green fur, and his face was even closer to that of a human except for two tusks projecting upward from his lower jaw.  His hands were also very humanlike.  While not fat, he was certainly of a stocky build.  A thick, lizard-like tail, long enough to touch the floor, completed the “totally different” image.  He was dressed not unlike Sithpha, but in longer, knee-length trousers and a sleeveless tunic.

Could he be as much a stranger to this world as we are? they all wondered.  Another thought occurred, almost as quickly: What was their precise relationship to each other?

“Well, Sithpha,” he said in quite the hospitable manner, “I see you’ve brought guests.  Welcome, everyone.  I am Uhrstegg.”  The four could hear from this that the Stone was still translating for them.  “You are obviously strangers to these parts, and have journeyed a long way.  Please come in, and we’ll try to make you as comfortable as possible.”

Despite his rather fearsome appearance, they couldn’t see any harm in accepting his hospitality; though, of course, they would remain on their guard.  So, following Sithpha, they entered the dwelling.

The room immediately inside was illuminated by two lamps, apparently of the oil-burning type, not all that different from the ones they used in Thorn Valley, an element familiar enough to actually make them feel somewhat at ease.  There seemed to be no furniture except for two benches, having the appearance of antiques, along the wall just inside the front door, and a table with two chairs off to the right.   There were doorways leading to two other rooms in the back.  It didn’t look like a place where an ambush was likely, though all were reluctant to venture too far inside.

Still, they were determined to be good guests, if cautious ones, so they introduced themselves one by one to Uhrstegg, who invited them to seat themselves along the two benches.  As they did so, Sithpha excused himself, still complaining of not feeling too well.  For a moment Uhrstegg seemed to take a special interest in this fact, looking almost alarmed; though it was hard to tell in such an unfamiliar countenance and in such dim light, to which the four visitors were quickly becoming acclimated.

The moment passed and he said cheerfully, “Well, when you’re feeling better we can begin preparing accommodations for our guests.” He then brought one of the chairs over to where his guests sat, and sat himself down in it.

“My apologies for the lack of amenities,” Uhrstegg said, again very graciously.  “I’m sure those benches are ruder than what you’re used to.  Sithpha told you already, I trust, that we’re attempting to make this house livable again.”

“He did say that,” said Justin.  “Are you going to live here yourself?”

“Yes, I expect to.  I have come from a place quite far away, where I don’t expect to return anytime soon, and for now I would enjoy the solitude this place would bring.”

“We’re…from far away ourselves,” Justin said, figuring they should be as vague about their precise origins as they were with Sithpha, and hoping Uhrstegg would be just as satisfied.

“And what brings all of you here?”

“We’re looking for a friend of ours that we believe might be in the area.  He’s also Mrs. Brisby’s husband: Johnathan Brisby.”

Uhrstegg mulled the name over for a moment.  “I’m terribly sorry, I haven’t heard the name, nor seen another that looks like you.  Perhaps in the morning, I could aid you in your search.”

“That’s very kind of you, Uhrstegg,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “Thank you.”

For a few more minutes Uhrstegg gave more details about what he was hoping to do with the house, and how he’d met Sithpha and enlisted his help.  His guests told a bit, without going into great detail, about the valley they lived in and how their “wandering friend” Johnathan had lost his way.  As they talked, Uhrstegg’s head turned continuously, making eye contact with each of them, though it seemed that his eyes settled the longest on one of them in particular; or perhaps, on what she was wearing.

Finally, he said, “Mrs.…Brisby, is it?  I couldn’t help noticing the pendant you’re wearing, with that beautiful red jewel.  I’ve never seen one quite like it.”

“Oh…thank you, Uhrstegg.”  She looked down at it, fingering it; she had indeed noticed his interest in it, for throughout almost their entire conversation it seemed as if his eyes never strayed too far from her and it.  It could be no more than a simple interest in jewelry, and yet she couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable at his attentions; but, she told herself, it was probably just because they were all still getting used to his unfamiliar appearance, in spite of his generous and hospitable manner.

“If it’s all right with you, I would like a closer look at it.”

Naturally she was hesitant; she looked toward Justin, and she could see that he wasn’t keen on the idea, but was reluctant to deny him outright.

“Please, rest assured that you have nothing to fear.  It obviously means a lot to you, but my interest is only out of simple admiration for beautiful things.”  He continued to sit patiently, waiting for a definite answer.

Again Mrs. Brisby looked at Justin.  He gave a small nod, concluding that since the Stone only worked through her, what could Uhrstegg do with it?  Still she couldn’t help feeling some small caution; then, she stood, taking one step closer to him, and said, “If you don’t mind, Uhrstegg, I’d prefer to keep it on, but you may still look at it.”

“Perfectly understandable, my dear.  Thank you.”  She lifted it, bringing it closer for Uhrstegg to view; and he placed it in the palm of his hand.  “Aaah, yes,” he said to himself as he examined it.

For a couple of seconds he closed his eyes as if concentrating hard; then he started mumbling some words, quietly but audible enough for the others to hear…and get a sense that something was wrong.  They couldn’t understand his words now; if he was speaking in his own language, why wasn’t the Stone translating?  The three rats exchanged uneasy glances, instantly sensing what each other was thinking: Something is definitely wrong.

Mrs. Brisby felt this to an even higher degree, even an alarming one, feeling the Stone “speaking” to her again; but whereas it was guiding her before, now it felt like a warning of dire consequences to come.  With scarcely a thought she acted upon it, backing away from Uhrstegg; but he stepped forward as if he’d anticipated this move, all the while quietly-spoken and unintelligible words continuing to issue from his lips.  Without warning he clasped the Stone firmly; and in one deft movement, lifted it from around Mrs. Brisby’s neck.  The three rats leaped to their feet—all feeling, in the backs of their minds, that they should have better heeded their earlier misgivings—and drew machetes from their holders.  They moved as one toward Uhrstegg…

…And never reached him.  There was a sudden bright flash from the Stone, momentarily blinding all of them.  Though still reeling from the flash, they continued to advance upon Uhrstegg, but seconds later found themselves bouncing off something that shouldn’t have been there.  It seemed to be an invisible barrier that had gone up between them.  Before they could fall to the floor, the barrier pushed against them in a very definite direction: straight out the front door, which had somehow become open.  All four of them were deposited unceremoniously onto the lawn.

It had all happened so fast that they barely had time to react, let alone come up with any plan. They thought they’d be ready to face any danger that would come along…but this! They all got to their feet and moved towards the door, but again were stymied by the invisible barrier. Uhrstegg now stood at the door, the Stone now around his neck, a look of triumph upon his features.

“You treacherous slime!” shouted Justin angrily.  “And we trusted you!”

“Why?  Why are you doing this?” asked Mrs. Brisby pleadingly.

More to himself than to his “guests,” Uhrstegg said, “Too long have I waited.  Now nobody will stand in my way!”

The amulet glowed brightly, and before any of them could react further, the ground rumbled and shifted beneath them. None of them had experienced an earthquake before, but it became instantly clear that this wasn’t what was happening now, as the vegetation and the very soil peeled away beneath them, knocking them all off their feet again. Then, a circular wall of rock, several inches thick, sprouted up as if growing right out of the earth. It completely surrounded them and swiftly rose to a height of almost ten feet. Outside, Uhrstegg stepped out from the doorway and looked up admiringly at his handiwork.

Sithpha, having emerged from the other room after hearing the start of the commotion, had observed almost the entire scene and was aghast, fists tightly clenched.  The spell Uhrstegg, or Ghormfisk, or whatever he was calling himself now, had started to wear off just as he approached the front door with the ones he’d been compelled to bring here.  At first it had felt like no more than a headache and slight nausea, but as the symptoms lessened he quickly understood what had been done to him.  Maybe it was too late to help them, but there had to be something he could do.  Spying a broken table leg, he grabbed it and rushed out the door.  Now, raising the club over his head, he prepared to bring it down upon the head of his “master,” but was stopped cold as the others were.

Uhrstegg whirled to face him.  “You’d dare assault me now, knowing what I could do?  Especially now that…I’ve got this?”

“They did you no harm!” Sithpha shouted, anger and revulsion overcoming his fear.  “It was bad enough that you forced me to deceive them, but…now you do this to them?”

“Very well,” Uhrstegg said contemptuously.  “Since you’re so concerned for them, you can join them!”  He willed the amulet’s power to hurl Sithpha upwards to the tubular prison’s top opening.

Chapter 11 - Shanghaied

The ground vibrations had died down enough to enable the four friends to get to their feet and assess the situation, though the seriousness of their predicament had yet to be fully absorbed.

“He…he shanghaied us!”  Melvin said disbelievingly, brushing himself off.  “Just like…like…”

“…like rats in a trap,” finished Willis, almost falling down again after stumbling against the wall; outside, there was still a bit of twilight, but in here, with the only possible source of light ten feet over their heads, it was pitch black.

“Shut up, Willis,” Justin snarled angrily.  “It’s happened again!  Again!  When we get out of here, nothing will keep me from him!”

“Justin, please calm down,” said Mrs. Brisby, alarmed at such a hostile tone coming from him.

“I’ll calm down,” he replied sternly, “as soon as I see that Uhrstegg lying dead!”

Mrs. Brisby, Melvin and Willis felt their hearts turn to ice at his virulent words.  She realized that it had to be memories of Jenner’s treachery that had brought him to such a state; certainly it was understandable to a degree, since they had believed Uhrstegg to be harmless.  But before anyone could comment or even think any more on the subject, a cry came from above: a familiar one.

“Yeeahooie!”

Their heads all turned upward, and even in this blackness they could get a sense of an object falling straight down towards them.  Melvin and Willis, reacting quickly, rushed underneath where they could sense it, or rather he, would land.  Sithpha connected with them, and the three collapsed in a stunned, crumpled heap.  After a few seconds, they picked themselves up, reasonably unhurt except for a few superficial scrapes and bruises.

“What else did we break besides his fall?” asked Willis into the dark as he brushed himself off again.

“I don’t know, but it’s getting to become a habit,” replied Melvin.

None could see how livid Justin was becoming, but his voice shook with rage.  “How…can you two joke about this?  This…this worm is the one that led us into this mess!”  He fairly spit the words out as he pointed at Sithpha; and though he couldn’t see Justin, nor understand his words with the loss of the Stone’s translating capability, he was already getting a sense that those he’d unwillingly deceived might blame him for their predicament; and Justin may be the one blaming him the most.

“Where is he?” Justin demanded.  “When I get my hands on him…”  Without another word he reached for his machete handle.  Through the confusion brought on by the suddenness of these events and the pitch blackness, a sound was heard that riveted the two Guard rats’ attention: a machete blade making contact with stone—apparently after having been withdrawn from its holder and most likely being handled with less care than it should under these conditions.

“Justin, if you’ve got your machete out,” said Melvin, “for God’s sake, be careful!” He, Willis and Mrs. Brisby alike could scarcely believe what they were hearing. The whole situation had already become, in such a short span of time, the stuff of nightmares; but now…Justin on the verge of murder? How could such a thing be possible?

In reply he only said: “Where are you, Sithpha?  I should take care of you right here and now!”  Sithpha, obviously aware of Justin’s fury, cried out unintelligibly but with obvious fright.  Mrs. Brisby, laying aside her own fear, tried to move closer to Sithpha.  Melvin and Willis made their way closer to Justin, taking the chance that he wouldn’t be swinging his machete blindly.

“Justin, stop!”  Willis called out with a hint of desperation.  “Put your blade down!  You can’t do this!”

“He’s right, Justin,” added Melvin.  “It’d be murder!”  At about the same time, he and Willis made contact with Justin, one on each side, grabbing him by both arms.

“No, Justin, please don’t do it!”  Mrs. Brisby cried out plaintively, from directly in front of him.  “What good would it do?  We’re all trapped here together now.  Please!”

Sithpha, by now cowering against the wall, let out an anguished cry that stopped all of them in their tracks.  His entire body shook with wracking sobs as he collapsed in a heap, shielding his face with his hands.

“You hear that, Justin?” said Willis.  “Sithpha’s not to blame for this.”

“He’s right, Justin,” concurred Mrs. Brisby.  She carefully reached out, her hand touching Sithpha’s trembling shoulder.  “I don’t know how or why all this happened, but…I think he’s just as much a victim as we are.”  She continued stroking his arm and shoulder, speaking gently to him.

Melvin and Willis felt the tension lessen in Justin’s arms, as if draining away completely.  They loosened their grip on him, and the machete fell from now-limp fingers, clattering on the hard floor.   Justin turned around, shuffling wearily toward the opposite wall, where he sank down to the ground shakily, every fiber of his being growing numb as the full realization of what he’d almost done slammed full into his face.  He held his head in his hands, eyes clenched shut.

Melvin and Willis carefully made their way to him, crouching down beside him.  Justin looked up; if they could have seen his eyes, they would say they’d never seen such fear in them.

“Wha…was that me?”  Justin’s voice was a trembling, breathless, near-whisper.  “That was me…wasn’t it?”

“I’m afraid…” Melvin could only say, “…it was, Justin.”

“Oh, Lord,” said Justin with a ragged gasp.  “I can’t believe that was me, that…raving maniac…”  He looked toward the opposite wall, able to picture Sithpha and Mrs. Brisby there.  “I…almost killed him, I…wanted to kill him, just like…like Jenner killed Nicodemus.  Just as cold-heartedly.  And…and you, my friends…I yelled at you, treated you like dirt…and you, Mrs. Brisby!  My god…”  Tears began forming.  “I feel like I’ve betrayed you…all of you.”  He lowered his face in his hands again.  “Some leader I am.  Look at how I’ve acted!  I could have hurt you, waving that blade around.  Even killed you.  Look at what I’ve…gotten you all into.”  He let out a deep, trembling sigh.  “This is all my fault.”

They all vehemently disagreed. Mrs. Brisby had already left Sithpha’s side, feeling her way over to the others. “Oh, no, Justin, you can’t say that,” said Willis. “We were all taken in by Uhrstegg.”

 “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine,” said Mrs. Brisby, her hand on Justin’s shoulder.  “I let him look at the Stone.”

“No, Mrs. Brisby, Willis is right,” said Melvin, his hand on her shoulder.  “The fault lies with none of us.  We were prepared for some kind of action by Uhrstegg, but...for all our Guard training, we had no idea he’d do anything like that, or that he could do it.  But even if you hadn’t handed the Stone over to him, he probably would have taken it from you by force anyway.  For now…the most important thing is that we’re all in this together now, the five of us, and among us we’ve got to come up with a way out of here.”

Mrs. Brisby put her arms around Justin’s neck, head on his shoulder.  “Oh, Justin…my dear friend.  It just breaks my heart to see you like this.  You must believe it isn’t your fault.  And I don’t believe that you’d have really done it, even if they hadn’t held you back.  I can’t believe that you really could have…done that to Sithpha.  You’re so much better than that.”

“What she said,” agreed Willis.

“I couldn’t have said it better, Justin,” said Melvin.  “You haven’t failed us.  You’ve done all anyone could do, given the circumstances.”  He put his hand on Justin’s other shoulder.  “Please…come join us.”

Justin looked up to his friends with tear-filled eyes and managed a grateful smile.  He placed one arm around Mrs. Brisby, pressing her closer to him, and squeezed Melvin’s hand.  “I just don’t know how I deserve friends like you.”

“Well, you do, Justin,” said Willis.  “Believe me.”

“Thank you,” Justin managed to say.  “All of you.”  He took a deep breath.  “Well…does anyone have any ideas?”

“Well,” Melvin began, “the most obvious way in or out is up there.”  He looked up, able to make out a few stars through the top opening.  “As for less obvious…”  He crouched down, feeling his way around the floor of their prison.  “It seems to be bare, exposed rock all around down here.  If there’s a way through it, some gap or crack…”  He sighed.  “I don’t know, it’s so dark right now…I hate to say it, but our best bet is probably to wait until morning, so we can get a better idea, at least see to put some plan into action.”

“Say,” observed Willis, who’d also dropped to all fours, “right here it’s dirt.”  He dug into it and added, “Dare I say…all dirt?”  He continued digging, and Melvin joined him.  Everyone’s mind raced with the possibility: could they dig their way out?  Could it be that easy?

“It’s going to be all right, Justin,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “They’ll find a way out.”  None could be sure, of course, since this whole experience was utterly without precedent; but all needed to grasp at any hope, however slim.

For a good five minutes the two Guard rats continued digging their way down, trying to place the dirt they were bringing up into one pile.  Their efforts brought only more rock at every turn.  At one point Melvin reported feeling a small gap, right along the wall, that seemed as if it might go further underneath it, but it was far too small for any of them to fit their entire hand through.

Finally, with a tone of resignation, he said, “There doesn’t seem to be a way out this way, but…I’m not prepared to say that’s the final word.”  After a pause he added, “Maybe we’d better take stock of what we have with us now.  I never took off my backpack in the house, so I’ve got all my supplies with me.”

“I hate to admit it,” said Willis, “but I wanted to get comfortable, so I took mine off.”

“I still have mine,” reported Mrs. Brisby, “though it doesn’t hold as much.”  She paused.  “Justin?”

“I left mine behind too,” he said flatly.  “I didn’t take it off, but it must have fallen off when we were getting tossed around.”

“It’s all right, Justin,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “So…what do we do now?  What can we do?”

“Well…” began Melvin, “we could take inventory of everything we have on hand; though that’s probably best left for morning.  We’ll definitely have to ration what we have.”

“I’ve got a suggestion,” said Willis.  “Which of us can yell the loudest?”

“For help, you mean?  Who would hear us?  Sithpha and…”  Justin almost snarled the next words: “his friend…are the only ones we’ve met so far.”

“I don’t think it could hurt to try,” said Mrs. Brisby.  “Though maybe that would be better in the morning, too.”

“You’re probably right, Mrs. B,” said Willis.  He looked up into the blackness.  “What the hell is this all about?  We’ve never seen what’s-his-name, Urpstuff, before.  Right out of the blue, he does this to us, what we wouldn’t do to our worst enemy.”

“He knew all about the Stone, that’s for sure,” observed Melvin.  “Mrs. Brisby, did you ‘hear’ anything from it, before he took it?”

She was silent for a moment; then she gasped.  “Yes…yes, I did!  It’s almost like it was warning me, when he first starting saying those strange words.  I felt like I should get it away from him, but…I wasn’t quick enough.”  She felt Justin’s hand on her shoulder.

“None of us…expected any of this,” he said as consolingly as he could.

“And he still probably would have tried to take it from you anyway,” added Melvin.  “But he knew, he definitely knew what it is and what it could do, and how to take it over.”

“And if he could do that,” added Willis, “I can easily believe that he put something, a spell or whatever, over Sithpha to make him bring us here against his will.”  He looked over to where their alien “cellmate” sat, still against the opposite wall.  “Magic, sorcery, whatever it is we’re dealing with here…we’re definitely in over our heads.”  He sighed.  “No pun intended.”

“I wonder…what Nicodemus would do, how he’d handle this situation,” mused Justin.  “I have to admit…I never fully understood those abilities of his, what their exact nature was.  It would be my guess, though, that this place, all of this, he knew nothing about.  Or what really happened to Johnathan.”

“Yes, he thought Johnathan was dead, too,” said Mrs. Brisby soberly.  “Like we all did.  I wonder…”  She suddenly gasped again, feeling as if the answer to a long-pondered mystery was close at hand.  “Is it possible…that this place, this world, is where the Stone came from?”

After a moment of silence, Justin said, “That could be true, considering…the way Johnathan found it, as if it came out of nowhere. If it can travel between different worlds, then it probably came to him, to Earth even, the same way.”

“Maybe,” said Melvin, “Uhrstegg is its original owner, and now he’s reclaiming it.”

“Somehow,” said Mrs. Brisby with conviction, “I don’t think so.  I guess it’s just my own connection to it, but…I don’t believe that.”

“Well, I’d say you have a more legit claim to the Stone than he does,” said Willis.  “You and Johnathan, I should say.”

“Yes.”  She said the word distantly, as if from a trance; then, suddenly, she added: “Johnathan!  If he is here, in this world, and in this area…”

Justin quickly picked up her train of thought.  “…and his friend, too, the one who’s been helping him…”

“Yes!  They may be our best chance of getting out of here!”

“If they could communicate with us like before, across…dimensions, I think that was the word Nicodemus used…then finding us here should be easy!”  Justin still had lingering feelings of shame over his threat on Sithpha’s life, but allowed himself a degree of hope; having been touched directly by those impressions, though not to the degree of Mrs. Brisby, he could well imagine such a solution to their predicament.

After some further discussion, the four companions joined hands in the dark and, in the same fashion as at the beginning of their trip, concentrated as one on Johnathan, with the hope that they would all find each other.

Sithpha, still sitting against the opposite wall, wondered what the foregoing discussion was all about, and why they had grown so quiet now.  Though they could no longer understand each other’s speech, he was sure that none of the four strangers was angry with him anymore.  It was clear why Justin, at least, had been, and he could hardly blame him.  He thought back to that awful moment when Uhrstegg had pressed a hand against his head, spoken a few words; and his own will, his ability to make his own decisions had slipped away like sand through his fingers.  He’d fought with all the will he could muster, but it was as if he were watching, from off to the side, as another who looked and sounded like him set out into the forest, climbed the tree overlooking the trail and waited for the four strangers to pass beneath him.  He’d wanted so much to warn them that there was one who meant them harm, though he hadn’t any idea what kind of harm it would be; and by the time the effect wore off, it was too late.

Again he asked himself: Why did we ever take him in?  We’d never seen a creature of his like before, we should have just left well enough alone.  But he seemed so lost and confused, and our compassion got the better of us…and we had no idea he’d turn against us like that, or that he had abilities like that.  Just…flying off like that, like a mhys’haspa, carrying me… Sithpha shook his head, smiling in spite of himself; he had to admit, the flying part was actually interesting.  It might even have been fun, were it not for the strangeness and uncertainty of the situation; and, no doubt, the worry and anxiety it had caused his wife and children, who’d seen it happen and were probably looking for him right now.  Maybe, he thought, they could find someone who could help us out of here…if they even come here to this area.  Maybe…that hermit, some call him, who some say is a sorcerer, will get wind of this.  He felt some small relief over this conclusion and even felt ready for some sleep, not knowing that his unwilling “cellmates” were pinning their own hopes on the same individual.

The four friends had concluded, for now, their collective attempt at calling attention to their plight, and now all realized how tired they all were.  It was some two or three hours past their normal bedtime on Earth; and that, combined with the past few hours’ travel on foot and the bewildering uncertainty of their present situation had suddenly made it all but impossible to keep their eyes open.  So, exhausted by their trials—physical, mental, and emotional—they made themselves as comfortable as possible.

As they closed their eyes, their thoughts were quickly on home and those they knew and loved.  Mrs. Brisby’s were immediately on her children, and were soon accompanied by feelings of anxiety and worry.  She forced them defiantly, even angrily, to the back of her mind, for she knew their source: it was not from how the children were getting along or how they were being treated, but from the thought that she and her friends might not make it out of here and her children wouldn’t ever see her again.  We will be free, she told herself resolutely.  One way or another.  Soon all were asleep.

Chapter 12 - New mornings of hope and despair

The four Brisby children were led out into the corridor by Isabella, who herded them towards the down-ramp leading to the first level and the dining hall, where breakfast awaited them all.  Getting them up hadn’t been nearly as difficult as getting them to settle down to sleep; the younger two were awake before their babysitter.  It was a bit more of a chore for the older two: even now, she noted with a smile, Teresa and Martin were still bleary-eyed and yawning; adolescence was definitely coming upon them.

“So,” Isabella asked cheerily—she was definitely a morning person—“how did everyone sleep, your first night here?”

“Pretty good,” “Great,” “I slept like a baby,” “The bed was really comfortable,” came the glowing replies.

“I think the place is kind o’ getting to me, though,” Timothy added quickly, “but not in a bad way, just a funny way.”

“How so, Timothy?” asked Isabella.

“I had a dream that I was using a…kind of a slingshot to get rid of a snake, and doing other weird stuff. It seemed like I was supposed to be in Thorn Valley, but it didn’t look much like the real thing. And Martin was acting and talking really…odd…”

“Nothing unusual about that,” said Teresa teasingly.  Cynthia giggled while Martin made his sour face.

“All right, girls,” said Isabella with some amusement herself.  “What else do you remember, Tim?”

“Not much else; something about a gift of cheese, though I don’t know why.  I’ve never eaten cheese in my life.”  He shrugged. There were a few other details he remembered, but he thought they were too personal for everyone to hear; he decided he'd probably tell Cynthia about them later.

“Speaking of food,” said Martin, “what are we having for breakfast?”

“Well, they usually have oatmeal with raisins and walnuts,” replied Isabella. “And there’s plenty of fresh fruit.”

“No fresh bread yet?” inquired Timothy, remembering Justin’s mention of it yesterday.

“One of these days, they promise. We’re all looking forward to it.” They continued chatting all the way to the dining hall, through the serving line to their reserved table. Much of their conversation centered upon the children’s further activities yesterday, after the “expedition” had departed: recreational time in the school playground and at the lake’s swimming area, the latter of which they especially welcomed; the sumptuous evening meal; the time put in at the library, almost right up to closing time, coinciding with their bedtime. Through it all, Isabella, Silvio and Miranda had noticed little visible worry from them about their mother. Timothy’s continual optimism had been a tremendous influence upon Cynthia, and though it had been less so for Martin and Teresa, they’d all been so fully occupied that any other concerns had been firmly pushed to the back-burner.

Now, though, there were signs that, in Martin’s case especially, some anxiety was starting to creep back.  He ate mostly in silence, though his trademark sullenness was nowhere in sight.  When Isabella asked him how he was feeling out of pure concern, he only answered that he was okay.  Timothy quietly advised Isabella that when he’s like this, it’s best to just leave him be.

They were soon joined by Silvio and Miranda, who briefed the children on their class schedule for the day; and shortly after they all left to get it underway.

*      *      *

Willis was the first to awaken, at first wondering why the surface he’d slept upon was so hard; then his eyes snapped open to what little daylight filtered into what had become their unwilling home since last night.  Okay, so it wasn’t a dream, he thought, as if I didn’t know. He looked around and saw Melvin alongside him, Sithpha flat on his back against the opposite wall, Justin on his side next to the nearer wall, and Mrs. Brisby lying with head pillowed against Justin’s abdomen—all still slumbering away. He looked up to the top opening of their prison and the small circle of morning light and sighed, recalling their attempts last night at assessing their situation and already getting a sense that it wasn’t about to get much easier.  Looking around at the others again, he was torn between letting them wake on their own and getting them up himself.  They all looked so peaceful; who’d want to wake up to a reality like this?

A moment later, the choice was taken out of his hands.  Justin woke suddenly with a jerk and a groan, instantly rousing Mrs. Brisby.  The small sound was also enough to rouse Melvin, and even Sithpha began to stir.  All became quickly aware of their surroundings, and even in this small amount of light the dismay on their faces was all too visible.

“Anyone who’d rather go back to sleep,” said Willis, “I couldn’t blame you.”  He moved his arm around in circles, trying to relieve a crick in his shoulder.

“Ordinarily,” said Justin, “I’d be wishing everyone good morning, but…”  He rubbed at his eyes.

“…but there’s not much good about this one,” finished Melvin.

“It sounded like you may have had a bad dream, Justin,” Mrs. Brisby said privately as Justin brought himself upright.

“I…think I did.  It was all dark, like this place, but…oh, I’d rather not talk about it.”

“I understand.”  Mrs. Brisby got up and, seeing Sithpha stretching and sitting upright, walked over to him.  He smiled at seeing her, remembering her kindness to him last night, and spoke a quiet greeting.  “We’re not angry with you, Sithpha.”  She’d felt the need to reassure him of this even though he was likely already aware.  She gently patted his shoulder, then rejoined the three rats.

“So…where’d we leave off last night?” said Willis.

“Well…we tried reaching out to Johnathan and his friend just by sheer will,” said Melvin. “Apparently that didn’t quite take.” Reaching for his pack, he added, “I guess we’d better take inventory.” He emptied it out onto the floor. Mrs. Brisby did the same with hers. For food, they had raisins and other dried fruits; and a variety of nuts, mostly peanuts, walnuts and pine nuts. The contents of Mrs. Brisby’s pack had been almost entirely food, but no water; and in Melvin’s, there was enough water for the better part of a day, possibly into the next—but only if it were for his use alone. Since this was all they had, they agreed, they’d have to do all they could to ration it to the barest minimum. All three rats knew, though none said it aloud, that they’d willingly do without to provide more for Mrs. Brisby; to better ensure that she, at the very least, would be reunited with the object of their search. There was still enough insect repellent, and Melvin had packed one blanket, though there hadn’t been much need for it.

Sithpha tentatively ventured closer, curious at what they were doing.  Melvin beckoned him to sit with them, to let him know that they were all in this together, even if they couldn’t understand each other’s language.  He did so, looking around at everyone, unsure of which was the one who’d been angry with him; but none appeared so now.  By now aware of what they were doing, he reached into his trouser pockets, but came up with nothing but a pocket knife.  His vest had pockets as well, but they were empty.  He shrugged and looked apologetic.  Willis, sitting closest to him, patted his shoulder reassuringly.

“All right,” said Justin, “now that we know what we’ve got, what kind of action can we take right now?”

“I think,” said Melvin, “since we tried calling for help last night mentally, maybe now’s a good time to try the more conventional method.”  They looked around at each other, nodding; and so Melvin led the charge, shouting “Help!” at the top of his lungs.  The others joined in, including Sithpha, who was again quick to pick up on what they were doing.

After about a minute or so, they stopped, pausing to listen for any possible response.  Hearing nothing, Melvin said, “How about we do that once, say, every fifteen minutes or so?”

“That sounds reasonable,” agreed Justin, “but I just had a thought: we may want to draw it back a bit, to save our strength.  Because if it gets as hot as it did yesterday…what’s it going to be like in here?”

The others looked at each other.  “I see what you mean, Justin,” said Melvin.  “With no ventilation, it’ll be…”  He’d come close to saying “…like one of the ovens in my mother’s kitchen,” but instead breathed in deep and said, “I don’t even want to say it out loud.”  None had to try hard to imagine it.

They began rationing out their food supplies, sharing some with Sithpha. There was some concern over their food possibly having a harmful effect upon him, similar to the food allergies that some humans suffer from, but all agreed they couldn’t let him starve either. He cautiously sampled a peanut and found it pleasing, showing no ill effects. As they ate, they began discussing what happened last night, picking up on the threads of conversation from just after they’d been trapped, hoping to gain some small understanding of why it happened. Why did Uhrstegg behave as he did—putting Sithpha under a spell of some kind, compelling him to lead them to him; and not just taking the Stone, but imprisoning all of them? Obviously he knew all about it, including how to take command of it, proving beyond all doubt that others besides Johnathan and Mrs. Brisby could command its power. Apparently it had all been sorcery, as little as these four understood it. But probably the more important question, and the one most beyond their comprehension, was: what had Uhrstegg to gain by trapping them, as if they were the greatest of his enemies? There seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason behind the act, especially his carrying it out to such an extreme degree. Indeed, when he took control of the amulet, his words and actions seemed sheer madness personified; and if he were this unstable, what else might he do with it? This apparent madness of his made their situation all the more bewildering.

“He said,” recalled Mrs. Brisby, “that nothing would stand in his way.  His way of what?  What did he need the Stone for?”

“Wait a minute,” said Justin.  “Remember when we discussed how the Stone could have come from here originally?”

“We did talk about that,” said Mrs. Brisby, “the way Johnathan found it so suddenly.”

“And he thought someone, some ‘mysterious stranger’ was there when he found it?  He’d caught a strange scent in the area, and glimpsed someone running away.  Maybe…is it possible that stranger was Uhrstegg?  He lost it, and now he’s reclaimed it?”

“Now that does make sense,” agreed Melvin.  “It doesn’t explain how or why it got away from him, though, or why he seemed to just let Johnathan have it.”

“He is the only other one who seems to have a claim on it,” said Willis, “but…Mrs. B, didn’t you say you thought that Uhrstegg isn’t its original owner?”

“I did,” she recalled, “and I still do.  In fact…he may be just as much a stranger to…to this world as we are.”  They looked at Sithpha, all believing it likely by now that his people were the dominant species here, as humans were on Earth.  “If only we could talk to each other like before.  I’m sure he could tell us something that could help us.”

“Like how he knew Uhrstegg,” said Melvin, “or if he knew him.  Maybe Uhrstegg needed a cat’s-paw, and just picked Sithpha at random.”

The four of them had gotten so far into this discussion that they barely noticed Sithpha moving away from them, toward the area where the small amount of dirt Melvin and Willis had scraped away last night was piled.  He’d been well aware, from the names coming up, that he and Uhrstegg had been the subjects of discussion; and now he was smoothing the soil into a flat, even surface.  Justin first noticed this behavior and called the others’ attentions to it; and when Sithpha noticed he’d gotten their attention, he motioned for them to come closer.

With all of them gathered around, it quickly became clear that he wanted to convey what information he could to them. He began scratching pictures in the dirt with his finger: the first a figure to which he pointed with one hand, and to himself with the other, saying, “Sithpha.” Obviously it represented himself. Next were other figures: one about his size and shape—possibly female—and three smaller ones, all of whom he seemed to put names to. His family, they realized. Nearby he put in another figure, larger and bulkier, with a tail. They knew it had to represent Uhrstegg; but he spoke another name: “Ghormfisk,” followed by the name they knew, which he spoke with a dubious, uncertain tone and a shrug to match.

“Now this is getting interesting,” observed Willis.  “It’s as if he has two names, but Sithpha seems to be familiar with only one of them.”

“So maybe,” considered Melvin, “the two of them have known each other for a while.  But why the two different names?”

Sithpha resumed scratching in dirt-pictures, starting with a series of lines obviously meant to show a building, drawn over the figures he’d already scratched: apparently his family’s home. But did this mean it was also Uhrstegg’s home? (Or Ghormfisk’s?)

“Maybe,” pondered Melvin, “the big guy was a guest in their home.”

“Like I’ve been a guest in yours,” added Mrs. Brisby.

“Yes,” said Justin, scratching his chin, “but maybe it was all a deception.”

Sithpha added a new picture: a figure, they knew again, standing for himself, and another standing for his “guest,” with the latter in a pose seemingly of domination over the former.  He was running out of room on his “drawing board,” so he rubbed out the first picture and replaced it with one that seemed to show Uhrstegg carrying Sithpha.   He motioned with his hands in a manner that implied flying, embellishing it with “whooshing” sound effects.

“Urpstuff flew away with him?”  Willis scratched his head.  “I didn’t see any wings on him, did you?”

“Probably some technology that’s beyond us, or possibly more sorcery,” said Melvin, surprising himself with how quick he was to accept the possibility of the latter.

Sithpha then scratched in another building, pointing towards the wall of their prison.  They quickly realized he meant the old house just outside their prison.  Between further gestures and pointing at the figures representing himself and Uhrstegg, a good portion of the truth emerged: Uhrstegg had exercised some kind of power over Sithpha, which forced him to go out to the four strangers and lead them into Uhrstegg’s trap—very much as they’d already suspected.

Once he’d successfully conveyed this much to them, Sithpha again drew in the figures of his family; then he pointed to them, looking sorrowful, hugging himself.  The four looked at each other; if anyone had still held him to blame, even in the slightest, for their predicament, the thought was now completely banished.  Nor was there any doubt that they were all in this together.

Mrs. Brisby went up to him and again touched his shoulder.  “All he wants…is to be with his family again,” she said with a catch in her voice.

“No different than you or me,” added Melvin.

“And to think…” Justin said heavily, “I almost…”  He crouched down by Sithpha, putting hands on both of his shoulders, unable to completely keep tears from flowing.  “I’m so sorry, Sithpha.  I’ll do all I can—all of us will—to get us all out of here.”  Sithpha smiled back, instantly grasping the intent of Justin’s words.

Taking those words to heart, they resumed looking for any possible avenue of escape.  Melvin and Willis resumed their work from last night, searching the area where they’d scraped away the thin layer of dirt, examining it closely for any possible gaps or holes.  None immediately presented itself.  Justin and Mrs. Brisby searched the stone walls for any possible gap or crack.  None could be found.  Justin then used his machete to find a possible weak spot, first pounding the wall with the machete handle, trying to find a spot that might indicate thinness or hollowness.  Melvin and Willis joined him in this, but the wall seemed to be of a uniform thickness all the way around.  None wanted to admit it at first, but just knowing that their prison was certainly of solid stone made it unlikely that going through it would be possible.

So what else was there?  The only other avenue of escape—at least for escaping on their own—was ten feet above their heads.  Rats can leap great distances when they need to, but this chamber was so narrow, from top to bottom, that even if one of them could leap that far, keeping a completely vertical trajectory might prove difficult.  Willis put it to the test first: with Justin and Melvin prepared to catch him, he sprang upward, giving it all he had—and not only fell short of the top opening by a good two feet, but was unable to keep from colliding with the wall.  He wasn’t badly hurt—except for his pride—and was caught successfully.  Justin and Melvin each made his own attempt, but the results were much the same.  Sithpha was quite impressed at this ability, but knew he had nothing to match it, or even come close: he demonstrated the point by leaping up himself, but only managed a few inches.  What about climbing out?  The sides were almost perfectly smooth, without the slightest irregularity with which to secure a grip, so it was quickly agreed that wasn’t an option.  Could they make their own irregularities?  The tools they had—their machetes—had already proven woefully inadequate, only able to make the barest nicks and scratches in the stone.

All these unsuccessful attempts were certainly a blow to everyone’s morale; and for another minute they could only look around at each other, dispirited; then Willis said, “So…who’s up for some more yelling?”

Mrs. Brisby couldn’t help but laugh in spite of herself.  Everyone looked around, silent but nodding; there was nothing to lose at this point.  When they were finished, they paused to listen again; then Justin said as resolutely as he could, “Everyone…no matter how hopeless this looks, we can’t stop trying.  Anything we can do, anything any of you can suggest, no matter how unlikely you think it is…say it.  We’ve got to continue trying, as long as we’re able physically and mentally.”

“I guess we can give the purely mental approach another shot,” suggested Melvin, “like we did before we went to sleep.”  They agreed, and so the four joined hands and tried putting out as much positive mental energy as they could, focusing their concentration on Johnathan and his friend and their previous efforts to reach them.  Though Sithpha was again left out, he had a greater sense of what they were trying to do, now that he could see them.

After some fifteen minutes, they stopped, looking around at each other in silence again.  So, what now? was the question on everyone’s mind.  If they couldn’t escape on their own, what was to become of them?  If there was no one to free them, there could only be one answer, horrible as it was to contemplate.  But if someone did discover them…

Melvin decided to revisit a subject they’d earlier discussed: “I wonder…is it possible that Uhrstegg, or  Ghormfisk, or whatever he’s calling himself today, could have a change of heart?  I figure, at the very least, he’d return to the scene of the crime.”

“If he did,” said Willis, “it’d be only to gloat, probably.”

“As unstable as he must be,” said Justin, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s forgotten about us by now.”

“Why do you think he’s like that?” wondered Mrs. Brisby.  “I know that probably sounds naïve…”

“No, it’s definitely worth speculating about,” said Melvin.  “It might be some kind of mental disorder, like humans sometimes experience.  Maybe even something he can’t help.”

“No, he knew what he was doing,” said Justin decisively and bitterly.  “He had to, the way he planned it all out: making Sithpha lead us here, pretending to be polite and harmless, and then…this…”  It was obvious that there was still smoldering anger there, just below the surface.

Mrs. Brisby understood it well; after Jenner, who could blame him, especially since she’d seen for herself Jenner’s own pretenses? She laid her hand on Justin’s forearm.

He looked upon her, sighing. “I’m so sorry I got you into this,” he told her.

“No, Justin, you shouldn’t—”

“Please, let me finish,” he said gently but urgently.  “I know we all came along with you because we believed your own belief about Johnathan.  There was too much evidence that it was all true, that it wouldn’t become a wild goose chase.  I still believe that.”  As he paused Melvin and Willis murmured their agreement.  “But we also came to provide protection, and…ultimately, it means I failed as leader.  I know, there’s no way any of us knew what Uhrstegg was capable of.  But it all comes down to my decisions, my judgment…and in that I failed.”

Mrs. Brisby looked at him sorrowfully, sighing.  “All right, Justin, I can’t stop you from feeling that way.  But what else can we do right now, except look ahead?”

The others gave their agreement, and Justin abruptly switched to his more officious mode.  “All right, everyone.  As I said, any ideas you may have, bring them out.”  None wanted to admit out loud, though, that they very likely had exhausted any ideas for escaping on their own; so that the only ones remaining would lie with others.

Over the next few minutes, there was more moving about and looking up, examining the wall and floor for any detail, however small, that may have been missed.  Finally Melvin said, “Justin, don’t think for a second that I’m giving up, but…given all we have to work with, what we have on hand…”  He could only throw his hands up helplessly.

“We’ve given it all we’ve got, Justin,” added Willis.

“I think,” Mrs. Brisby said carefully, “all we can do now is…wait.  Wait and hope that Johnathan and his friend might yet discover us here.”

“I have to agree, Justin,” said Melvin.  “If they live in this area, then that’s our best chance, that all this could come to their attention, one way or another.  After all, here’s this strange stone tower that hadn’t been there before.  That’s got to get someone’s attention.  And who knows, but Uhrstegg could indeed have a change of heart, however unlikely that may be.”

“He’s right,” agreed Willis.  “We may have run out of ideas, but we’re not throwing in the towel yet.”

Justin finally had to admit that in the area of affecting their own escape, they were right; but there was still something to hold on to, still room for hope. And yet, there was no denying that something could still blunt that hope, even destroy it completely…but no, pessimism and defeatism were never his style; otherwise, how could they have made it as far as they have in Thorn Valley? And yet, even as the temperature in their prison inched upward slowly, that estimation he’d made earlier about how hot it was likely to become came back to him…

*      *      *

“Okay, everyone, we’ve still got a half hour before lunch, so let’s concentrate on your assignments till then.”  Eamonn needed to leave the room then, but did so with confidence that his students wouldn’t fill the time of his absence with joking around and goofing off, something that many of his human counterparts would find near-impossible to believe.

The students in Eamonn’s mathematics class went at it with varying degrees of enthusiasm, most of them forming little groups; though the two newest students, who were still considered guests, were a bit hesitant at first to join in.  But they’d already seen plenty of how accepting the Rat children were of them: yesterday, they’d very readily invited them to join in on any and every activity, both at school or at play.

And so, Teresa was brought in on one study group that included Hermione and Ophelia, who told her how they’d met her mother with Justin last night before they left on their “secret mission.”  Neither, of course, could say any more about that, but Teresa told them it didn’t especially bother her, and in fact she was willing to let herself be surprised upon their return.  They concentrated on their schoolwork, and Teresa was surprised to find that she understood much of the particular area of study the others were on, in spite of it being beyond what she’d studied from the books the Rats had left them on the farm.

Martin, meanwhile, had been invited to join another group but declined as politely as he could.  At first, upon beginning classes this morning, he’d shown great interest and enthusiasm; but as the day wore on he’d become preoccupied, interacting less and less with teachers and students alike.  Now, the student who’d made the initial offer to him, Lambert, made his way over to Teresa’s group.  After introducing himself to her, he asked if she knew why he was being this way.

“I think…he just doesn’t like being left out, not being told more about the ‘secret mission.’  I mean, I feel the same way, a little, but…”  She glanced over to her brother, who hadn’t yet noticed this discussion going on.  Suddenly she felt she shouldn’t say more; despite their differences, it didn’t feel right talking about Martin like this behind his back.  “Look,” she said to Lambert, “maybe for now you should just steer clear of him.  He’ll get over it.”

“Well…okay, but it seems to me that he could—”

“What’s going on here?” came a voice from behind Lambert, not shouted but definitely irate.  In a flash Martin had come right up to Teresa’s desk.  “What are you doing, turning everyone against me?  If I wanna study by myself, I’ll study by myself!”

“What are you talking about, ‘turning everyone against you?’  Lambert here was just asking me about you, and I answered him.”

“She said you didn’t like this whole secret mission thing,” Lambert said quickly and truthfully.  “And I couldn’t really blame you.  If it were me, I wouldn’t like being left out either.”

Martin suddenly found himself feeling pacified, even a little ashamed.  “Sorry, sis,” he said before returning to his desk, where he returned his attentions to the math problems before him.

Lambert returned to his own desk nearby, and after some hesitation said, “Look, Martin, I know what it’s like when adults don’t tell you everything or think you won’t understand.  We’ve all been there.”  Martin just continued to appear solely interested in his schoolwork, not even glancing up.  “Okay…I’ll leave you alone now.  I thought…you just looked like you needed to talk.  You still can, if you want.”  Lambert returned to his group.

It took a few more seconds; then Martin looked toward Lambert and his friends, got up, and pushed his own desk in their direction.  “Hey, guys…is it too late for me to get in on this?”

“No, not at all,” they all replied almost at once.  Lambert and his twin sister Mary Louise pushed their own desks aside to allow Martin’s to join their circle.

“Okay,” said Martin, “I just about get how decimals work, but I’m a little stuck on doing the actual math…”

“It’s easy,” said Lambert.  “It’s really just like working with whole numbers.  It’s just knowing where the decimal point goes.  Here, let me show you…”

When lunchtime arrived, the Brisby children adjourned to the school cafeteria with their new classmates.  All four of them met in the hallway before moving on, describing animatedly to each other what their mornings were like.  Along the way, they passed Simone, who was pleased to hear how well things were going for them.  They refrained, however, from asking her for details on the “secret mission” or when their mother and the others might return.  In fact, they were specifically asked to refrain from questioning anyone on the subject, assured that as soon as those immediately in charge of them—Simone, Isabella, Silvio and Miranda—learned anything, they would share it with them.  All of them, including Martin, had readily agreed to this, at least outwardly; but though no one was genuinely worried yet, their caregivers couldn’t help wondering how long it would last, especially if the mission dragged on longer than two days.

As they chatted, Lambert and Mary Louise passed by.  “How was your morning, dears?” Simone asked them, initially startling the Brisbys with the greeting’s degree of familiarity.

“Great, Mom!” came the reply from both.

“Enjoy your lunch.  See you tonight!”  The two continued on, leaving in their wake four surprised mouse children.

Then Teresa said, “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that you’d have kids of your own.”

“That’s right; eleven, to be exact.  So there’s bound to be some of them still in school.  I think you met Ophelia; she’s one of mine, too.  And Zora, your English teacher, is their big sister.  But I can assure you they’re treated no differently than any other student.  No special privileges, no special treatment.  After school hours, they’re my children, but in here, they’re just more students.  So…” she said with a smile and a wink, “don’t all of you have bellies to fill, too?”

They certainly did, and so they moved on to the cafeteria.  There was no special table reserved for them as in the communal dining hall, but they made do with a combination of extra cushions and textbooks to boost them in their chairs.  This way, they could more easily mingle with their fellow students, something they were increasingly comfortable with.  Martin sat with a group that included Lambert, Teresa with Hermione and Ophelia; and the younger pair, who had spent the morning in history and geography classes, was also in the company of those who appeared well on their way to becoming fast friends.

The main lunch entrée was a vegetable soup, similar to yesterday’s, which as usual was prepared in the communal kitchen and brought to the school. As everyone dug in, the Brisbys and their new friends conversed about their lives at the mice’s creekside home, on the Fitzgibbons farm and in Thorn Valley, continuing to find much in common.

At one point, Martin leaned over to Lambert and said, “Say, Lambert, your Mom didn’t…well, put you up to any of this, did she?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…she didn’t ask you to talk to me back there in class, did she?”

Lambert looked absolutely stricken.  “No way!  I just thought you looked like you wanted to talk, like you needed a friend, just like I said.  Boy, I’m starting to wish I hadn’t bothered.”

Martin looked away, his ears turning crimson with embarrassment, realizing he’d put his foot in his mouth again; then he said, “Lambert, I’m sorry.  I just…don’t think sometimes.  Your mom even told us that she doesn’t treat you and your sibs any different in school, just because you’re her kids.”  He sighed.  “Look, I’ll even let you call me a bonehead.”

“And then we’re even?”

“Then we’re even.”

“Okay.  Martin, you’re a bonehead.”  Both of them grinned broadly, then laughed and shook hands.  “Now, where were we…oh, yeah.  You were going to tell us about your family’s trip through the Great Owl’s woods.”  Martin began the tale, relieved that Lambert took his thoughtless remark in stride and didn’t hold a grudge.

At a neighboring table, Cynthia and her new friends Natalie and Mary Louise were laughing over a harmless prank a fellow student played on another on the indoor playground a few days ago.  When they were finished, they paused to resume spooning in more soup; then Mary Louise said to Cynthia, “Your brother Martin made kind of a scene this morning in math class.”

“I’m not surprised,” Cynthia replied in between mouthfuls.  “He’s always doing stuff like that.  I tease him sometimes, and sometimes I think he doesn’t know I’m doing it.”

“Really?” said Natalie.  “How’s that?”

“Oh, I’ll say things like…when we left home, I said ‘Goodbye, house.’  I think he thinks I really mean it when I say stuff like that, but I just do it to bug him.”  She giggled and took another spoonful of soup as her friends did the same.  When she spoke again, her tone was more serious.  “He doesn’t think I’m very smart, but I know I’m as good as he is in a lot of ways.”

“You did pretty well in reading and spelling yesterday,” observed Natalie.

“Thanks.  I’m really learning a lot here.  I just wish that…”  She sighed, suddenly looking downcast.

Mary Louise picked up on her meaning.  “You’ll be leaving here, won’t you?  After Justin and your mom get back?”

“I guess.  I don’t really know how long.  We weren’t really planning on that.  Maybe a week, two weeks, I don’t know.”

“Maybe,” Natalie suggested, “after they return, you could try to convince her to stay longer.  Maybe even…stay here for good.”

Cynthia’s eyes grew round; she almost forgot to swallow her latest mouthful of soup.  Could it be possible?  Certainly they’d miss the old creekside home, the fall and spring Moving Days; and yet, they’d seen and experienced enough in the one whole day they’d been in Thorn Valley to know that there would be great advantages to staying on here.  She looked over to Timothy and his friends at the next table, and instantly knew there was no doubt he’d agree.  And Martin and Teresa would surely have to as well.

“I’ll have to…ask her about that.”  Cynthia was almost breathless, actually feeling giddy from the possibility.  Since last night, she’d surprised herself with how well she’d been able to cope with their mother away, but now she found new reason to be impatient for her return.

*      *      *

It was now some six hours since they’d awakened, and the situation was looking no more encouraging.  Not only had there been no signs that rescue was imminent, but as Justin had predicted, the temperature in their prison had risen steadily.  The heat was now near-stifling, making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on much of anything, let alone an escape plan.  They’d made more collective cries for help, and more attempts at reaching out mentally; but the more the day dragged on, the more it looked as if simply waiting was the only option left.

They shared their food and water sparingly, told stories of their home and families to pass the time; but none could deny the feeling of despair that was beginning to creep over them.  Everyone did what he or she could to stave it off, but their situation was looking increasingly hopeless.  All of them managed to allow themselves at least a glimmer of hope, but it was hard.  Willis’s natural-born sense of humor, which usually helped keep everyone’s spirits high, was all but forgotten.  Both he and Melvin felt as helpless as day-old children over their inability to find a way out, for all their Guard training, and so their frustration grew as well.  Justin was beset with many conflicting emotions: lingering shame over his threat on Sithpha’s life, his still-smoldering desire for revenge on Uhrstegg, the not-entirely-banished notion that all this was his fault.  And then there was that conversation he and Madeline had at the “picnic spot,” or rather one small part of it, the one which had returned again and again; and with it, the realization that there was indeed one he himself might love, as more than a friend, one whom he may never see again nor have the opportunity to know better.

As for Mrs. Brisby, she had remained the most optimistic thus far, and still was.  Though she was as aware as the others that they might not be rescued—and thus knew she might never see her children again, nor find out whether or not Johnathan was truly alive—she also remembered well that there was this same feeling of hopelessness and reaching dead ends in this past spring’s crisis.  The Great Owl had told her, after she’d explained her predicament to him, that there was no other way to save Timothy’s life other than to move her family, thus risking his life; then he found out who she was.  She’d been chased away by an overzealous Brutus, but Mr. Ages had enough influence to allow her to enter the Rats’ colony. And then there was her captivity, which proved beneficial, allowing her to warn them of the danger they were in. And then Jenner and his machinations…

No, she told herself defiantly now, there will be a way out of this.  The words inscribed on the reverse side of the amulet came back to her, unbidden; the words that had helped so greatly to refuel her ambition over this mission.  They could not—must not—give up hope.  They would yet find the key.

*      *      *

Uhrstegg looked back and forth, still unable to get over the sight of the land passing by beneath him.  He’d utilized the flight spell before, most recently yesterday, but it was so much easier now, with far less concentration.  Why, with this stone I truly can do anything, take whatever I want, with no one to stop me!  It had been over five minutes since he’d left the marketplace, and now, looking at the sack in his hand, he was reminded of why he’d conducted that little raid: simple hunger.  “Well,” he said aloud, “maybe the Stone can’t keep me from going hungry, but one can’t have everything.”  He spotted a clearing ahead, as good a place as any to feast on his ill-gotten gains; and so he willed the amulet to bring him down to earth.

He sat on a flat-topped boulder and reached in the sack, pulling out a skuvurnee.  During his time here he’d grown quite fond of the melonlike fruit, and so took a big bite.  Relishing the flavor and texture, he swallowed and took another enthusiastic bite.  After he’d finished it, he reached for the basket of roasted sessvits, popping several into his mouth at once.  “I think,” he said to himself, “I may just stay here after all.  The food is so much better.  Why, even Ghormfisk would agree that—”  He caught himself.  “Why would I be even thinking about that…that milksop, that crybaby?  Let him go his own way, do what he wants.  It’s no concern of mine.”  He took out another skuvurnee.  After taking a bite, he looked down at the Stone, then at the area of mostly-bare ground directly in front of him.

Spotting another boulder, he willed the Stone to lift it several feet, where it hung stationary for a moment; then he sent it flying straight up, allowing it to land further away. The earth shook as it connected, raising a cloud of dust.  As he took another bite of skuvurnee, he suddenly had an inspiration, and the ground shook again.  A pillar of stone, reshaped from what lay beneath it, thrust upward some two feet.  Two more identical pillars followed.  He walked up to them, nodding, looking satisfied.

“Now if I did want to stay here, what kind of house would I want to live in, what would it look like…” Again he willed the amulet to reshape more stone, forming a pyramid-shaped stage. He climbed to its top; and now, with an improved view of the surrounding landscape, he set about recasting it as he saw fit, forming walls, rooftops, staircases, balconies, balustrades—a virtual palace.

This was a thinly-populated area, with a few villages scattered here and there; but this bizarre activity did attract a small amount of attention: a small group of travelers in a haisk’ve-drawn carriage who paused in their journey when that first boulder shook the ground with its impact, sending up that dust cloud.  They watched from what seemed a safe distance, but it was difficult to tell if it truly was, since this sort of thing was unprecedented in this area.  What in all of creation, they asked each other, could possibly be the purpose of such activity?  There seemed to be no malice in his actions; being out here all by himself, he didn’t appear to mean any harm to anyone.

Indeed, if those he’d entrapped could see this, they’d be asking the same questions.  But there’d be additional ones as well: For this he’d left them to die?  What did any of this have to do with them?  His actions then seemed the stuff of pure madness, with neither rhyme nor reason to them.  But his present activities, incomprehensible as they were, seemed only to have a deep sense of purpose behind them, as if from one fully in control of his mental faculties.

But, by now—just as they had feared—he seemed to have forgotten all about those he’d entrapped.

*      *      *

It was another thoroughly pleasant summer day in Thorn Valley, actually a degree or two cooler than yesterday, with just enough of a refreshing breeze.  After a full day of classes, all four Brisby children and many of their new friends and classmates were ready to spend an hour or so before dinner by the lake.  When they’d come here yesterday, they’d at first settled for mostly swimming and diving and generally cooling off, all the while observing what kind of aquatic games their new playmates favored.  They were pleased to find that the rat children liked things a bit on the rough side, too, though they never let things get out of hand, especially since there were plenty of adults present.  The mice’s smaller size was a factor as well.  Most of the adults were there to unwind as much as their children, with at least one to act as designated lifeguard.  Today it was mostly the same, at least at first.

The Rats had fashioned a gently sloping beach along a naturally-occurring cove, some sixteen feet long and four feet wide.  From elsewhere in the area high-quality sand had been carted in and spread along a good portion of the beach, though not yet completely.  Where one ventured into the water, it deepened very gradually except for one area designated, with posted signs, as the diving area: the “deep end.”  Plans for a diving board were already on the table, and in fact there would be room for at least three.  In addition, Arthur and his engineering unit were also planning an offshore diving platform, though work on it probably wouldn’t begin until next year.  More formal swimming instruction was also being planned, a necessity with more and more children to raise.

The Brisby children and their new friends enjoyed themselves hugely with water tag, marco-polo, tossing balls back and forth, and generally horsing around.  The mice even let the rats toss them headfirst into the deep end, once assured that coming back up was no problem for them.  After about an hour, though, all of them felt the need to just kick back and relax, allowing the late-afternoon sunshine to dry their fur.  Some of the rat youngsters joined them.

Relaxing out in the open like this was a luxury they couldn’t afford back on the Fitzgibbons farm, but even here there was a certain amount of caution.  The Brisbys had been told much about how predators such as foxes, badgers and hawks had been largely chased away from this part of the valley, beginning the previous year with the arrival of Arthur’s crew.  Early encounters had sometimes come close to resulting in loss of life; the first one involved a hawk which had one rat pinned to the ground but which was quickly discouraged after being set upon by half a dozen others wielding clubs and knives.  The raptor was told in no uncertain terms that these rats had every intention of making the north end of the valley their own.  Another encounter of note involved a particularly stubborn weasel who would not be reasoned with, refusing to back away until the end result was his own death by the rats’ hands, after which he was skinned and cooked for their dinner that night.  This incident in particular had passed around the local predator “community” as confirmation that these new arrivals, these strange rats that worked together in teams to help and protect each other, were not to be trifled with, and that easier prey could be found elsewhere.  Though this had become a much safer place to live and work in since then, nothing was taken for granted.  Even now no one went outside alone, day or night; and everyone, down to the youngest members of the community, was taught to recognize signs—by sight, sound or scent—that a predator may be about.  Danger was especially minimal at this time of day, though, and in an area where many were present to look out for each other.

“Do you really think she’ll agree?” Timothy’s friend Quincy asked.

“I think…probably not.  At least not at first.”  Timothy spread his toes, waving his feet back and forth.  “But I’ll bet that when she hears about how well we’re all doing in school, she may change her mind.  I know I’ll miss our old home, especially our summer home by the creek.  And she really loves it there.  I guess it’s still pretty early, but we all hope she’ll say yes.  But if she doesn’t, that’s okay too.”  He quickly added, “At least at first.”

“Well, I like having you here, Tim, so I hope so too.”

“Thanks, Quincy.”  Out of the four mice, Timothy had found a new friend with whom he’d found perhaps the most in common: both had lost fathers at a young age.  Quincy’s father was Sullivan, who had allowed himself to become too deeply involved in Jenner’s schemes and, on that fateful March night, had paid for it with his life.  At the time and since then, neither Mrs. Brisby nor her children had even known the name of the one who’d been Jenner’s accomplice before he backed down and helped Justin defeat Jenner; but in the past day, they’d heard plenty about him, and had become acquainted with members of the family he’d left: his widow Jolene and their seven children.  None had been judgmental over their father’s crime, for which he had, in the end, redeemed himself; Timothy, in fact, had specifically sought out Quincy as a friend because they were close in age and what he’d learned they held in common.

The two continued chatting away, as did the other Brisbys with their friends.  At one point Teresa, after giving her fur a little brushing and fluffing, moved off toward the area where she and her siblings had left their clothing, a shady spot next to a bush.

As she did, she noticed some small movement, right where their clothes were neatly folded.  Instantly alert, she called out: “Hey!  Those are our clothes!”  It was two mice, obviously natives to the valley, who backed off, retreating to the other side of the bush’s base.  Seeing that they meant no real harm, she added, “It’s okay.  I won’t hurt you.  If you’re just curious, that’s all right.”  She stood her ground, waiting for a response.

After a moment, the two moved tentatively around to her side of the bush, at first looking timid, uncertain; then one said to the other, “See, Eric?  I told you there were both rats and mice here!”

“You sure did, Sis.”

It was clear to Teresa that the newcomers were children, younger than her; then it occurred to her: of course they’d have to be younger, much younger.  She and her sibs inherited the NIMH-altered genes from their father, so they aged more slowly than other mice, such as Janice’s children and this brother-and-sister duo as well.

“And,” the young female went on, “they wear those things on their bodies just like the rats do.”

What things?  Teresa thought; then she realized: of course, this was something these mice probably know little or nothing about.  “It’s called clothing,” she told them.  “We put it on our bodies to show…who we are as individuals and for…dignity, that’s how my father once put it.”

The pair looked unimpressed.  “I don’t see what the big deal is,” the boy said.

“I guess it isn’t, not really,” Teresa agreed.  “But we do take them off when we swim or bathe.  So…I’m Teresa.  What are your names?”

“I’m Sarah,” said the girl, “and this is my brother Eric.”  The conversation had by now attracted the attention of others, in particular three other mice who drew up behind their sister.  Eric and Sarah backed off slightly, but Teresa quickly introduced them as her equally-harmless and -curious siblings.

“We live down this way a ways,” said Sarah, pointing toward the south, looking upon Martin with noticeable admiration.

“And our Mom’s probably gonna tan our hides if we don’t get home soon,” said Eric, suddenly looking nervous.  “This was your idea, remember!”

“Maybe,” she allowed, “but it was worth it.  It was great meeting all of you.  I guess we’ll be off now.”

“Hey, wait,” said Eric. “What about what you saw yesterday?”

“Ah…I’m not sure that I even saw what I said I…”

“You were pretty sure last night!  Even if Mom thought you were making it up!  And isn’t that why you came here, ‘cause you wanted to find out more about it?”

The Brisbys’ curiosity was definitely piqued. Sarah had seemed the bolder of the two at first, but now… What could she have seen that brought on this sudden reluctance, and that the Brisbys might know about? “What did you see?” Teresa asked.

“Well…” Sarah began carefully, “yesterday, I was over that way, where the big rocks rise so high, and I see some rats coming by. They were wearing…clothing, like you, so I knew they were some of the ones from here. One of them was bigger than the others. Our mom told us to run away from them if we saw them, but instead I just hid and watched them. They stopped, and I kept on watching, and I saw a mouse with them too. A lady mouse.”

“Really?” said Timothy.  “What did she look like?”  They were all suddenly curious to hear the rest.

“Just brown, mostly.  And…she wore clothing, too.  A piece that was red, tied around her neck.  There was another mouse, too, a man mouse.  He was mostly white.”

The Brisbys looked at each other, all instantly realizing the identities of this mixed group Sarah had seen.  “And then what did they do?” Teresa asked.

“Well…some of them took each other’s hand and stood in a circle; real quiet, not saying anything.  It was some of the rats, and the lady mouse.  And then…there was a glow.  A red glow.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Then there was a flash of real bright light.  I had to look the other way, ‘cause it was so bright.  When I looked again, they were gone…just the ones in the circle, I mean.  Then the others turned around and went back the way they came.”

The four siblings were dumbstruck for a moment more; then Martin said, “And that was it?  You didn’t see the other ones after that?  The ones that went away?”

“No, I didn’t.  I went over there to the spot where they were standing before, and I looked around, but I guess that was it.  I don’t know where they went.”

None knew what to say for another moment.  Cynthia looked ready to go into shock.  Timothy tried to reassure her, rubbing her shoulder.  Finally Teresa said, “I guess…if you two need to get home, you’d better go now.  Your mother’s probably worried.”  Eric and Sarah agreed, so they said goodbye and turned to leave, apparently oblivious to the reaction Sarah’s account had raised in their new acquaintances.

“Wha-what does this mean?” Cynthia was finally able to say.  “Where did Mommy go?  Did they all just…vanish?  Into thin air?”

“I don’t know,” the other three said almost at once.  “Somebody’s gotta know,” Martin added.  “Brutus and Mr. Ages do, I’ll bet.  They were there, weren’t they?”

“That’s right,” Teresa agreed.  “And that other rat…”

“Orson, that was his name,” piped up Timothy.

“Come on, everybody,” said Martin, reaching for their clothing.  “We got some people to talk to.”

*      *      *

By late afternoon, there was still no key in sight.  There was also very little hope left.

They still had provisions which they were rationing at the same bare-minimum rate, but there was an increasing feeling that it was only a token effort to forestall the inevitable.  And perhaps worse, the heat was beginning to take its toll.  They could do no more to make themselves more comfortable than remove their clothing and try to fan each other.  Sithpha seemed better able to withstand extremes in temperature, but the others were becoming increasingly delirious, even starting to hallucinate.  Melvin even caught himself looking at Sithpha and contemplating maintaining their own survival in a fashion he’d never have considered otherwise.  They were already past the point where their foremost desire was just a respite from the heat.

At one point Mrs. Brisby was saying to Justin, “I hope…the children will forgive me…if they ever learn about…what happened to us.”

“I think…they would.  We may…even be able to tell ‘em in person…just yet.”

“Oh, dear God, Justin.  I know I want to.”  She struggled to stand upright.  “But it’s just so…so…”  Her head swayed, and suddenly she pitched forward directly against him.

“Mrs. Brisby?”  Justin carefully laid her out on her back.  “God, no…”  The others quickly took notice and crawled on all fours toward them.  She was breathing shallowly, eyes still open but seeming to stare sightlessly.  Justin reached for his canteen and carefully poured out a few drops of water, wetting her lips.  They were all aware of the symptoms of heatstroke; and knowing that this had to be what was happening, tried to make her comfortable, but feeling helpless all the same.  The heat was unrelenting, and sunset was still some hours away.  Damn it, it’s not fair, Justin thought bitterly as he cradled her head with his hand.  Out of all of us, she doesn’t deserve this.  She should be the one to live through this.  If you’re out there, Johnathan, why won’t you come?  Where are you?  Almost immediately, he asked his old friend to forgive such thoughts.  But would anyone find them here?  Or was the only respite from the heat, from this whole horrible situation—death?

*      *      *

“I can’t believe they couldn’t tell us anything,” lamented Cynthia, picking idly at the salad in front of her.

“Or wouldn’t,” added Martin ruefully.

The four Brisby children sat at their reserved table in the dining hall; and unusually, had asked that they be given some privacy.  They could see their friends, seated at other tables, looking over curiously, obviously wondering why.

They had told Isabella, who had accompanied them to the lake, that they needed to see Mr. Ages.  They weren’t specific about why, and she didn’t press them, something they were thankful for; Simone probably wouldn’t have let them off that easily.  They found Ages easily enough, in Justin’s office, meeting with Orson.  Knowing that both of them had seen the travelers off, they didn’t waste the opportunity; but both claimed to not know anything other than the expedition had just gone outside the valley.  Even when the children described what Sarah had told them, the two essentially dismissed the account, saying that the naturals in Thorn Valley are unfamiliar with the Rats’ ways; and so Sarah probably misinterpreted what she saw, especially given her young age.  They also happened to catch up with Brutus, who told them essentially the same thing. Isabella had accompanied them the whole time—though she’d allowed the children to conduct their meetings privately—and afterwards took them to the dining hall, though their disappointment took a toll on their appetites.

“Maybe,” Cynthia now ventured, “they were right.  Maybe Sarah didn’t really see it like she said.”

“But why would she make up something like that?” asked Martin.

“They never said she might have made it up,” pointed out Teresa, “just…misinterpreted it.”

Martin grumbled, sampling a small bit of cantaloupe.  He suddenly looked thoughtful.  “So what do you think, Tim?”

Timothy had been mostly silent since they’d left the lake, seeming content to let his older siblings do the talking while he just took it all in.  Now, hearing the noticeable respect in Martin’s voice—and appreciating the value he must be putting on his little brother’s answer—he said, “I think…all we should do is just wait, because we really have nothing to worry about.”

Martin rolled his eyes.  “That’s it?  We just pretend that Mom and them didn’t just…disappear, poof?”

“We don’t really know that Sarah actually saw them disappear,” Teresa said.

“Actually,” said Timothy, “she might have been right.”  He paused to acknowledge his siblings’ stares.  “She said she saw a red glow, right?  The Stone glowed red when Mom used it before, didn’t it?”  They looked at each other, nodding.  “So they could have been using it again, but in a different way.”

“It saved our lives before,” recalled Teresa, her tone hushed.  “If they are using it again, then it must be for something good.”

“Mommy said that…before she went away, that it was for the good of all of us,” said Cynthia carefully.

“And she said to trust her,” reminded Timothy.

Cynthia nodded, looking somewhat satisfied, taking a large forkful of lettuce and tomato. The others dug into their own dinners with renewed enthusiasm. Clearly, the idea of the amulet’s use made a great amount of sense and brought them some amount of satisfaction. All of them craved something more concrete, information-wise, but at least their appetites had returned. Timothy then suggested they keep the theory to themselves for the time being, and the others agreed.

Presently, Silvio and Miranda were just coming off the serving line, and the children perked up.  On the way here Isabella had promised that she and her friends would try to find out what they could, and would certainly let the children know immediately when their mother and the three rats returned.  The latter had been the promise they’d made all along, but after hearing the details of Sarah’s account and seeing the impact it had upon them, Isabella agreed that perhaps the children should be given more information, and had convinced her friends of the same—or at least seemed to.  The pair approached the Brisbys’ table with their trays, and all felt some expectation.  They barely waited for the pair’s greeting before beginning their barrage.

“Did you hear anything?” asked Martin.

“Are they back yet?” blurted Cynthia.

“All right, everyone,” said Silvio evenly as he set his tray down on a neighboring table.  “First of all: no, they’re not back yet, and—”

“Then why even bother to say anything to us?”  Martin growled, suddenly taking a big mouthful of cantaloupe.

“Whoa, easy there, buddy,” said Miranda.  She threw Teresa a look saying “Is he always like this?” to which Teresa replied with one that spoke of a sympathetic “yes.”

“Have you heard anything else?” asked Timothy.  “Like about where they went?”

“Or why…” said Cynthia, a trace of despair in her voice.

“No,” replied Miranda sympathetically.  “No one’s told us anything.  It’s still being kept very hush-hush.  Rumor has it that Mr. Ages, Orson and Brutus are the only ones that do know, and they’ve been so tight-lipped you’d swear they’d gone mute.  And Simone and everyone else who was at the meeting say the same thing.”

“We wish we could tell you kids more,” added Silvio, “but…we can’t do any more than pass on what they’re able or willing to tell us, and so far—”

“Why do you even bother us then?” Martin said sharply, bits of cantaloupe flying from the corners of his mouth.  “If all you can say is, ‘Uuuuhh, I dunno,’ then why—”

“Martin, that’s enough!” interrupted Teresa.  “It’s not their fault, and you know it!”

“Your sister’s right, Martin,” said Silvio.  “Don’t kill the messenger here.”

Martin looked at him, his bafflement overcoming his frustration.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means we just brought the bad news.  We didn’t make it, we’re not responsible for it; so it doesn’t make much sense to bite our heads off for it, does it?”

Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy all looked at each other, nodding at how much sense this made; but Martin’s reaction surprised everyone with the degree at which it seemed to pacify him. He looked straight ahead as if stunned, as if he’d experienced a major revelation; then he concentrated on finishing his dinner, which he would do in near-complete silence.

His sisters welcomed this, but Timothy was left wondering why.  He knew better than to ask him, though, at least for the time being.  All felt satisfied enough to discuss post-dinner plans, for activities that would very likely keep their minds on things other than where their mother and the rest of the mission party had “disappeared” to.

Chapter 13 - Rescue

The creekside meadow always brought a measure of comfort.  Since his arrival here, he’d spent a great deal of time here either deep in meditation, reminiscing about home, or going for a refreshing swim.  He’d finished cooling off in the creek a half hour or so ago and now lay on a towel on the shore, allowing the sun to dry his fur, again bringing him back to happier times.  Presently he sat up, flexing his muscles and noting how hot the day had continued to be, even this close to sunset.  No doubt, I wouldn’t want to be anyplace where I couldn’t cool myself down, not on a day like this.

Just as he reached for his vest, a small glowing point of light, emitting a curious ringing sound, began hovering in front of him, as if waiting to ascertain it had his full attention; then it sailed away towards the house. Must be something important, for Gwinthrayle to send one of his little messengers.  He donned his vest and buttoned it, then stood and picked up the towel, rolling it up neatly and placing it in his backpack, which he then put on.  He looked up the trail ahead of him, leading into the surrounding vegetation, with his host’s dwelling just barely visible above the treetops.

He started off, but before reaching the meadow’s edge a shadow fell upon the ground, crossing the short-cropped minphiss before him.  He looked up, and immediately his suspicion was confirmed: no, not a mhys’haspa this time; definitely Rusay.  And not just one, either.  Birantha, he thought; and it looks like he’s brought guests.  More lost travelers, I suppose.  From where he stood, there looked to be at least three others, children definitely among them; probably an entire family.  He could clearly hear laughter and excited conversation among them, and hastened his pace toward the house, curious and eager to hear why they’d been brought here, wondering if their entrance was related to Gwinthrayle’s message.  He’d met other Rusay before besides Gwinthrayle, of course, going back to his first day on Lahaikshe, and was always impressed by their calm acceptance of one like himself, so physically different from them.  His admiration for them was such that he’d even adopted a Rusay name for himself.  Though still not ready to accept that the remainder of his time would be spent here, he had nonetheless developed a strong kinship with these people and their world.

He began climbing the familiar terraced hillside toward the tan-and-silver edifice at its summit.  Home sweet home-away-from-home, he thought.  He couldn’t hear the voices of Gwinthrayle’s guests; evidently they’d already been admitted inside. He looked forward to meeting them, especially welcoming the presence of children, always finding a measure of comfort in their presence. He dropped down on all fours, finding the climb easier this way, especially on a day as hot as this.

* * *

“…and that was the last we saw of him, with Ghormfisk just...floating away toward the west, carrying Sithpha along with him.  We followed, in the same general direction, in our carriage.  We searched and searched, asking anyone we saw along the way if they’d seen them, but now…I just can’t imagine what might’ve happened…or why he did this, after we’d taken him in, trusted him…”  The Rusay woman sighed deeply, cupping her face with both hands.

“Can you find him, mister?” asked her son.  His siblings chimed in with their own queries.

Gwinthrayle smiled and nodded.  “I have the means close at hand to do just that.”  His new guests’ expressions brightened.  “Quite a simple matter, as you will soon see.”  He steered the family toward a nearby sitting-room, inviting them to rest and make themselves comfortable while he conferred with his fellow sorcerer.

“I would have used my own portable orb to locate them,” explained Birantha, “but they were in need of rest and shelter as well, so I thought it best to bring them here first.”

“No need for justification,” Gwinthrayle was quick to remind him, since those genuinely and honestly in need of aid were always welcome in his home. “Apparently this stranger, this Ghormfisk, is our…‘mystery creature,’ the one who’d impersonated me and stolen the amulet from you years ago and who had bedeviled Aphonjal as well. From our lady’s description, it’s most likely.”

Birantha nodded with a grunt of agreement.  “My suspicion as well.  And speaking of your houseguest...”  He looked out the window in time to see the one he referred to, resuming walking upright as he approached the door.  Gwinthrayle indicated he wished to speak to him privately, and so Birantha returned to the sitting-room to further brief the family he’d just brought here as Gwinthrayle opened the door upon his friend.

“Gwinthrayle!  How goes it?  I see we have guests…”

“First of all, Aphonjal, I’ve made some further discoveries, though I’m only beginning to determine how they may all fit together. First, further investigations have all but confirmed that, near as I can discern, your wife and at least one of your friends that we’ve been attempting to contact are no longer on your world, as we’d suspected yesterday.”

“Wait, now, you don’t mean they’re…”

“Oh, no, not deceased.  With these latest spells, I can discern whether or not they are deceased, or not in that dimension anymore.  And…somehow, the latter would appear to be the case.”

Aphonjal scratched his head. “But how can that be? Where did they go?”

“I believe I may have at least part of the answer.  I’ve also utilized the spell to seek out the amulet, and it, too, has vanished from your world.”

“It’s gone, too?  But how…wait a minute, you think there’s a connection?”

“I can’t say at this stage, but there’s more.  The amulet, as you know, is an object of great power, great enough to enable me to trace its movements.  And I’ve traced its presence here, in our dimension, beginning in the Cavern of Change.”

Aphonjal felt his brain reeling from the implications. “It…it’s here? Now, on Lahaikshe?” His voice rose along with his excitement level. “Gwinthrayle, do you realize what this means? It’s my ticket home, at last! But…you said beginning there, in the Cavern of Change. Where is it now?”

“I’ve only just begun tracking its path.  From the cavern it followed the footpath that leads through the forest south of here, the one you followed when you first arrived here.”

“That’s why you sent your little messenger.  So now what?”

“I suspect our new guests’ arrival may provide yet another piece of the puzzle, perhaps the final one.”  Gwinthrayle filled his friend in on the basics of his new guests’ situation before taking him to the sitting-room to meet them.

“So this creature that they took in, Ghormfisk…you really think it’s him?  The stranger from the closet, just pretending to be lost and confused, and then turning on them?”

“If one of his kind is unique on our world, then it’s most likely.”

“I just realized something else…the amulet didn’t come by itself, did it?  If anybody did come with it…”

Gwinthrayle had already considered the point, but didn’t elaborate; and Aphonjal knew it was best not to make any more guesses or presumptions now.

Gwinthrayle’s new guests looked up from Birantha’s briefing to see their host, joined by one whose appearance was initially startling but already generating great curiosity: roughly half the size of an adult Rusay, his body covered in two-toned gray fur, with ears and teeth seemingly outsized and long furless tail held out behind him, but dressed in a vest typical of Rusay males.

“I have another name,” he said, “but right now, the one I favor is Aphonjal.  I saw your arrival, and Gwinthrayle has filled me in on your situation.”  His host introduced the Rusay family—Dinilom and her sons Eephray and Bointha, and daughter Tuintwom—after which Gwinthrayle led them all to another room down an adjacent corridor.

He explained the basics of the process to Dinilom, after which he took her hand and made a sweeping motion with his other arm in front of what appeared to be no more than an ornately-framed oval mirror—his Orb of Disclosure.  As per his instructions, Dinilom concentrated on her husband Sithpha and the moment she’d last seen him, picturing him as best she could in her mind’s-eye.  Behind them, her children were almost as interested in Aphonjal as the results of the Orb’s search for their father, finding it hard to resist touching him, fascinated by this creature who walked and talked like them but was covered in fur like a haisk’ve or tysthal.  Aphonjal took their attentions in stride, even welcoming them.  But soon, as images filled the Orb that weren’t a reflection of the room’s contents, everyone’s attention was riveted on what they revealed.

“You may open your eyes now,” Gwinthrayle told Dinilom, and everyone now viewed a scene which was happening now and would show them Sithpha’s present whereabouts.  A small house of stone which, Gwinthrayle told them, lay to the southeast, came into view. It showed no obvious signs of present habitation, judging by the vegetation growing up to its front door.

Aphonjal looked more closely at the Orb.  “That’s the one you guys checked before, when I first thought the stranger had followed me here, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, though it showed no signs of recent habitation.” It still appeared abandoned, but what riveted everyone’s attention was what lay just outside its front door: a stone cylinder or pillar, looking decidedly out of place.

“Definitely an anomaly,” observed Birantha.  “Could this have always been there?  I doubt it.”

“You’re right,” added Aphonjal.  “Look at the soil at its base.  Recently torn up, as if it had just sprung up, literally, from the ground.  Either that, or whoever lives there has odd tastes in lawn sculpture.”  Gwinthrayle brought the view all around the anomaly’s exterior, which showed no distinctive markings of any kind.  “Can we see it from the top, Gwinthrayle?”

“Of course.”  The view traveled up to the anomaly’s summit, over twice as high as the house’s roof, rivaling some of the nearby treetops.  There they could see, in the waning daylight, the hole at the top.  “Cylinder” was definitely the more apt description.

“It looks like a smokestack,” observed Aphonjal.  “Could the amulet…or whoever has it, have created this?”  Suddenly a feeling of creeping dread came over him.  “The stranger…could it be him?  He was trying to get it from me, that time in the broom closet…”  He shuddered as the full implications sank in.  If he does have it, he could use it to...

“Please, Aphonjal, let us reserve further speculation…”

“Until we get definite answers, I know.”  He breathed in deep and forced his attention back to the Orb.  “I wonder if anything’s in there.”

“Or…anyone,” said Dinilom, a tinge of fear in her voice. “Can we…” But Gwinthrayle was already “ordering” the view to shift downward, into the cylinder’s depths, where less and less light penetrated, especially this late in the day.

“I’ll provide us some illumination.” A gesture from Gwinthrayle, and soft white light enabled them to see what lay further within. They observed how the sides were smooth as glass, and Aphonjal couldn’t help wondering: was someone being held prisoner in there, as Dinilom believed? As Gwinthrayle brought the view down further, he wondered if it would stop at ground level, or would it reach even further before hitting bottom?

Hardly had the thought occurred to him when answers began to present themselves. Dinilom drew in breath sharply, stepping closer to the Orb. Her children saw it, or rather him, too, as they came up beside her, touching the glass, speaking to him as if he could hear.

“He is in there!” she almost shouted.  “But…who’s that with him?”  Sure enough, there were others there as well, as greatly different in appearance as Aphonjal was from her; and now it was his turn to gasp, his heart leaping into his throat.

“My God…Gwinthrayle, I know them!  They’re my friends from Earth!  That’s Justin, that’s…Melvin, and I think that’s Willis…”  He turned, grasping Gwinthrayle’s arm with both hands.  “We’ve got to rescue them, Gwinthrayle!  They look like they’re dying, there’s no telling how long they’ve been in there!  How they must have suffered!”

“Calm yourself, my friend.  We will see to their rescue immediately.”  Another gesture, and the images from the Orb of Disclosure faded, replaced once again by an ordinary mirror-view.

“Will you need help, Gwinthrayle?” asked Birantha.

“Perhaps it would be best if you stay here, with our new guests.” Gwinthrayle looked at Aphonjal, knowing there’d be no way of talking him out of aiding in the rescue. Birantha agreed to the plan, and so Gwinthrayle began a brisk pace out of the room, down the hall toward the outside door, Aphonjal at his heels. As they left the house, Gwinthrayle began gesturing and incanting, as his friend’s mind reeled anew with questions of how this all came about. He realized that the amulet had surely brought his friends here, and that the stranger, the “mystery creature,” now likely had it and had been responsible for entrapping them; but the most important thing now was that they were suffering greatly and had to be rescued.

As the spell of transportation took effect, the two felt themselves being lifted into the air, carried aloft as if in giant invisible hands, and began moving swiftly through the twilit evening, above the treetops, toward the southeast.

“If this creature…Ghormfisk, whatever his name is, is responsible for this, then let me tell you, Gwinthrayle, he’ll live to regret it.  No one treats Johnathan Brisby’s friends like caged animals!”

*      *      *

Sithpha looked up, wearily regarding the escaping daylight visible through the top opening of their stone prison.  He looked down at the others sharing it.  The three larger ones seemed to be asleep; one of them, the one they called Justin, lay close by Mrs. Brisby, who still lay flat on her back.  He was sure, though they couldn’t communicate directly with one another, that they felt as he did: that there was a very good chance they wouldn’t be rescued and would never see their homes and loved ones again.  It was her he especially felt for; she’d come here specifically looking for her husband, and now look at her.  She didn’t mention children, but she probably had some, just as he had a family who missed him greatly, and now…

He moved toward her and gently placed a hand on her chest.  Her heart was still beating, but slowly.  He wished fervently that he could do something for her, for all of them, anything that might make up for his leading them into this; it would be the least he could do.  He knew there was next to no way of preventing it; he’d tried to fight Uhrstegg’s control with every fiber of his being, but the spell was too strong.  Still he couldn’t help feeling responsible; but if there was a chance, however slim, that they could escape, he’d do everything in his power to see their captor pay; especially if he outlived them.  But that possibility now seemed more and more remote; and it seemed, more and more now, that the only real one was to simply wait for death to claim them.

Again he looked at the small circle of twilight above, too far above their heads.  At least the night would offer some relief from the heat.  He leaned against the wall, sighing deeply.  He lowered his head and closed his eyes.

Several minutes later, though Sithpha’s eyes were still closed, he sensed something was different; it almost seemed as though it were growing lighter.  He opened his eyes.  There seemed to be a faint glow in the chamber.  It couldn’t be morning already, he thought; then he looked up, and his eyes grew wide with disbelief.  Could it be?  Was this really happening?  He went around to the others to shake them awake.  Mrs. Brisby, though, would not wake; indeed, she seemed more dead than alive.  Briefly he wondered: were those her final heartbeats he’d felt earlier?

The source of the light, which grew steadily brighter as it got lower, proved to be two figures, apparently floating on air, down toward them steadily.  One was a Rusay man, apparently older than Sithpha; it was from him that the light seemingly emanated.  His smaller companion looked to be of the same race as Mrs. Brisby.

“It is them, Gwinthrayle!” the smaller one exclaimed urgently, though Sithpha couldn’t understand his words.  “I could hardly believe it before, but…Justin!  Melvin!  Willis!  It’s you!  It’s really you!”

The three rats raised swaying heads slowly, looking up to the voice’s source.  Did they know that voice?  Or were they imagining it?  Justin was the first to speak.  “Johnathan?” he croaked deliriously.

The two newcomers settled down on the floor.  “It’s really me, fellas!  Johnathan!  This is Gwinthrayle, he can get us all out of here.  And not a moment too soon, from the looks of…”

His voice suddenly left him as his eyes fell upon—and recognized—the fifth unwilling occupant of this prison: the one that neither he nor Gwinthrayle, in their haste to begin their rescue, had noticed in the Orb.  Recognition was followed, in quick succession, by disbelief: No, she cannot possibly be here; then by shock and the feeling that his heart was simultaneously rising in his throat and dropping to his feet, and as if the floor were giving way beneath him.  All the while his mouth moved wordlessly, unable to issue any sound; until, only seconds after he’d first laid eyes upon her but seeming like an eternity, he finally found words:

“Madeline…My God, Madeline!”  He rushed over to her, feeling weak and about to faint as he shakily came down by her side.  He lifted her head with one hand, frantically searching for a pulse with the other, putting his ear to her chest.  He looked down upon her face, the sight of which he’d longed for all these months, so beautiful but now so still and insensate.  “No…no!” he cried shakily as tears began welling.  To have been separated for so long, and now to see her like this: ill, and perhaps dying, if not dead already, was more than he could bear.

Gwinthrayle came over to them, surprised to see Mrs. Brisby, wondering briefly how he could have overlooked seeing her in the Orb.  He quickly assessed the situation and said, “How is she, Johnathan?”

He looked up, his expression one of sheer terror as he fought back the panic threatening to overwhelm him.  “There’s o-only a faint heartbeat, Gwinthrayle.  You’ve got to…please…she’s…”  He began weeping openly now as he held her close to him.

Gwinthrayle placed a reassuring hand on Johnathan’s shoulder.  “I sense she and your friends will recover fully, Johnathan, but only if we bring them to my home as soon as possible.”  He began concentrating anew on his spell of transportation.

The three rats had looked upon this entire scene, still not entirely sure if it were real; now Willis said, “Madeline…he said Madeline, didn’t he, Mel?  I thought her name…was…”  Then all of them, including Sithpha, gave a start as they found themselves being lifted from the floor.

Johnathan managed to tear his attention away from the one that lay still and limp in his arms, looking around at the others.  Somehow he managed to tap a reservoir of his characteristic cool self-possession. “Don’t worry, guys,” he managed to say.  “We’re all getting out of here now.”  He himself had no doubt about Gwinthrayle’s reassurance of Madeline’s and the others’ recovery, but all the same would not leave her side.

Sithpha and the rats looked all around, bewildered as they and what remained of their gear and provisions rose higher and higher; then suddenly they knew nothing more, as Gwinthrayle cast another spell, one that put them into a dreamless sleep.

In seconds they’d reached the top, and then Uhrstegg’s once-prison was dark and empty.

Chapter 14 - Recovery and rediscovery

Dinilom had tried really hard, for the sake of her children, to remain calm in the face of such uncertainty, and had actually succeeded quite well; but as the minutes dragged on, she wondered how much longer she could maintain the façade.  She walked over to the window of the sitting-room, taking a sip of her rivwil.  This blend of the tea-like drink was Gwinthrayle’s own invention, Birantha had said, and had been a considerable help in keeping her composed.  Or maybe it was more from just being here; both her hosts had said that it was an ambient characteristic of this place, that one felt more at peace here.  She was certain now that her present calm was attributable to more than just the power of suggestion.

She looked out at the mostly-clear twilit sky that overlooked the terraced hillside, and found herself looking forward to seeing it in full daylight; she’d seen the surrounding compound only briefly when Birantha had brought her and the children here, and hoped—indeed, felt surprisingly confident—that they and Sithpha could and would all see it together.  She looked over to the children, sitting in a circle on the floor, absorbed in their game of gluph-ri-gluph.  As unworried as she felt, she was well aware that that place where her husband and Aphonjal’s friends were trapped must have been terribly hot; she hoped fervently that all would make it out alive.

Suddenly, without warning, Birantha burst into the room.  “They’re almost here,” he announced.  “They will arrive momentarily.  Follow me!”  Instantly, Dinilom set down her rivwil-cup and the children abandoned their game, following Birantha down the hall to the side entrance they’d come in an hour ago.

They stepped outside and looked up, just in time to see this party of seven, silhouetted against the twilight, settling down to earth gently but swiftly.  Both sorcerers sprang into action, utilizing another floating spell to bring the five rescuees inside.  Dinilom briefly noticed the small one—the one like Aphonjal, who stayed close by her as they all went inside—before she and the children noticed Sithpha.  Gwinthrayle quickly assured them that Sithpha and the others were all under a perfectly safe sleep-spell which would remain in effect as he and Birantha treated them.  It was all happening so quickly, but Dinilom and the children instantly felt assured, pausing to embrace in thankfulness before following.

The one who’d introduced himself to them as Aphonjal, meanwhile, stayed close by the group as they drifted gently but swiftly down the hall toward the room where their treatment would begin.  More accurately, it was one of the group he remained close to, as he walked alongside on legs that threatened to give way beneath him, his anxiety level still very high, holding her hand as he had since they’d left the cylinder.

Finally, as they reached the treatment room, Gwinthrayle told him, “You must leave the rest to us now, Aphonjal…Johnathan.”

“We will do all we can for them, my friend,” added Birantha.  Their five patients were laid on five flat surfaces, very much like examining tables in a human hospital.  Johnathan had seen this room before, but could have sworn there were only two such tables before.  Now, though, he couldn’t have cared less; all that mattered was that she—the one whose hand he released so reluctantly—get better.  He looked around at all five patients, suddenly realizing that he’d almost forgotten the others, that they were among his dearest friends…that Madeline wasn’t the only one who had suffered.

He sat down shakily on a long bench along the wall opposite the tables, silently chastising himself, then forcing the thought away.  Of course she’d be the one I’d be the most concerned about, he told himself, especially since she looks to be the worst off.  The thought brought a new reservoir of tears to his eyes.  Dear God, please don’t let her die...  He took out a handkerchief, drying his eyes, determined to follow every detail of her and the others’ treatment.

He watched as Gwinthrayle and Birantha produced a supply of finely-crushed ice, seemingly out of nowhere, which they packed around each patient—an aid in bringing their body temperatures down, he realized.  The two moved from table to table, laying hands on each patient while alternately gesturing and incanting, and speaking quietly to each other.  On the way here, Gwinthrayle had told them that a regimen of treatment both mystical and medical would be used; and now, seeing it put into action, Johnathan felt his earlier adrenalin-fueled anxiety lessen.  He now recalled how Gwinthrayle had said that since heat-related ailments are common this time of year, he’d long dealt with travelers who’d needed to be treated for them, and so had become quite the expert.

He took a deep breath and looked to the others seated beside him on the bench and realized he’d all but forgotten them as well.  He looked at Dinilom, her three children surrounding her, all hanging on to each other as if they were all they had left; though their loved one, whose name presently slipped his mind, had clearly been in much better shape than the others back at the cylinder.  His eyes locked with hers, and he smiled reassuringly.  “He’ll get better.  They all will.  Gwinthrayle and Birantha know what they’re doing, they’re the best.”

“Thank you, Aphonjal,” said Dinilom, reaching over to touch his arm.  Her children expressed their thanks as well.

“Please,” he said quietly, “call me Johnathan.”  He explained briefly how he’d come to use his adopted Rusay name; then all returned their attentions to the drama continuing to unfold in front of them.  They noted, with an increasing sense of relief, how calm the two sorcerers were, showing no sign that their patients’ lives were in any real danger.

The minutes ticked by.  The ice, which had remained frozen and hadn’t melted at all, was removed after some ten minutes, whereupon the two announced that the worst was definitely over for them.  “All that’s left for Sithpha now,” Gwinthrayle announced to his family, “is for him to awaken from my sleep-spell within the half-hour.”

Dinilom stood, taking his hand.  “Thank you so much, Gwinthrayle.  We’ll always cherish you for this.”  Her children all clustered around him, ready to embrace him as they would a favorite grandfather.

“You’re quite welcome, my lady.”  Turning to Johnathan, he added, “Aphonjal…your three friends responded equally well to our treatment and should awaken soon as well.”

“Thank you, Gwinthrayle.”  Johnathan stood and threw his arms around the sorcerer’s waist; then, as his precise words registered, he looked up at him, mystified and feeling some anxiety return.  “Wait…what about her?”  Even as he spoke, he watched Birantha pick his wife up from the table.  “Where’s he going with her?”

“I’ll explain as well as I can.”  He turned to the Rusay family, telling them they could stay there to await Sithpha’s awakening.  Then he bade Johnathan follow him and Birantha, who cradled Madeline gently in his arms as he walked out into the hall.  “We’ve determined that your wife will take somewhat longer to awaken, and until then she will be placed in your room, in your bed.”

“But…she will be all right?”

“As right as the day is long.”

Johnathan found himself unable to say a word, instead embracing Gwinthrayle again, tears of joy soaking the fur beneath his eyes and dripping from his whiskers.  When he felt more composed, they followed Birantha to Johnathan’s room, where he was already making Madeline as comfortable as possible.

“You may remain here until she awakens if you wish,” said Birantha, “but it may be some time yet.  But make no mistake, Aphonjal, she will awaken; and, I trust, be filled with joy to see you again.”

“Thank you, Birantha,” Johnathan said, voiced still choked with tears.  He began pushing a chair over to the bedside.  “And please…call me Johnathan.  I think…I’ll be ready to leave that other name behind soon.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t hate it…”  He managed a small chuckle.

“Understandable, my friend,” said Gwinthrayle, hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“Now…you said it will take her longer to awaken.  Is that because…she was worse off than the others?”

“That is certainly a factor.  She suffered serious heatstroke, worse than the others…but there is more to it, another factor I haven’t fully discerned.”

“What do you mean?” Johnathan reached over to squeeze his wife’s hand gently.

“It would seem to be…a state resembling hibernation, as if her bodily functions slowed to allow her more time to recuperate.  This…is not a normal characteristic of your species, I gather?”

“No, it’s not.  Are you sure?  I never would have imagined…I have no idea where she’d have gotten such a thing.”  He looked upon her face, looking very peaceful, indeed seeming only to be in the midst of a calm, dreamless sleep, though her breathing was noticeably slower than normal.

“I have no other explanation, either.  But it’s surely the thing that saved her life today, as much as our treatments, if not more.”  Gwinthrayle looked at Birantha.  “Now…I’m sure you won’t mind if we leave you alone now.”

Johnathan just nodded, whispered “Thank you” once more, and resumed gazing upon his wife’s lovely face and form, her head upon his pillow, lying with a single sheet covering her up to her neck, one arm outside, his hand continuing to enclose hers. With the crisis over, his mind returned to matters that had come to him only fleetingly since that awful moment, only a little over an hour ago, when he’d seen her lying unconscious and possibly dead in the cylindrical prison. The fact that she was here, in the company of his friends, brought implications he’d barely begun to consider. Obviously she’d come to know them since he’d left; perhaps they decided to introduce themselves to her, or she’d come to them for some reason. Either way, surely she now knew about their aging difference, the one thing that had kept the two halves of his life separate; the one thing that, in the last year or so he’d spent with her and their children, had created so much worry and anxiety. Most troubling had been, and still was, the realization that it may very well have been unnecessary.  He couldn’t bring himself to tell her at the beginning, fearing, as their love grew deeper, that she would reject him; and as the months went by and their love remained strong and their family grew, it became ever more difficult.  And yet, he was well aware that it may not have mattered to her.  Procrastination, he thought ruefully; Who needs it?  He chuckled bitterly.

Suddenly it occurred to him, as he continued gazing upon her: she really didn’t appear that much older than when he’d left, ten months ago.  Could it be possible… Was there some way that she was aging like him now, perhaps something Nicodemus had discovered?  The thought triggered a long-ago conversation the two had had, the day he came to the Rats’ colony to announce his union with Madeline.  He’d described how her emotional makeup had seemed to change and broaden, just from being with him, especially after they’d first mated.  Nicodemus had surmised that this could be a capability, perhaps unique to him, attributable to the NIMH treatments.

Johnathan had practically taken it for granted that it was true; but if it was, could there be more to it?  Could he have passed on more to her than either he or Nicodemus suspected?  It sounded too good to be true, but…no, he decided, if answers are forthcoming, let them come as they will.  It was too much to consider now.  Right now, he vowed, he would simply wait for her to awaken.

As he continued holding her hand, he brought his head and shoulders down onto the mattress, making himself as comfortable as possible.

Some minutes later, he was jolted to attention by a hand touching his shoulder.  He looked up, blinking, to see Gwinthrayle standing over him, smiling.  “Your friends are awake, Johnathan; and they’re asking for you.”

He looked up at Madeline, realizing that he’d almost fallen asleep; his hand still clutched hers as she continued her own peaceful slumber.  He wanted to go to them, surely, but found it difficult to turn away at this point.  If she were to awaken in the next minute or so, then…

A new thought occurred to him; and though it was still difficult to leave her, he nonetheless looked up at Gwinthrayle, said “all right” barely above a whisper, slowly loosed his hold on his wife’s hand, and stood.  The two left the bedroom, heading for the treatment room.

The first thing Johnathan saw upon entering was the Rusay family sitting on the bench; now, though, they were five strong: the husband and father Sithpha sat with his wife close by his side, their children gathered around. Happy as clams, he thought, allowing the sight to buoy his own spirits. They were further lifted as he viewed the activity on the other side of the room: by the examining tables, Justin, Melvin and Willis were just finishing putting their shirts and tunics back on. They all turned as the two entered, and as one grew wide-eyed, for all they’d expected to see the one accompanying the aged blue-skinned one.

“Johnathan Brisby…as I live and breathe!”  Justin crouched, his arms open wide as one of his oldest friends, perhaps his dearest, came to him, expecting a rib-crushing bearhug and not being disappointed in the least.  When they looked upon each other, they noted the fur growing damp around each other’s eyes, neither caring a whit about how sloppy and sentimental they’d become.

“I can’t believe you guys are really here,” Johnathan managed to say.

“To tell the truth, neither can we,” Justin replied, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve.  “Not only out of that…damnable place, but in this whole different world.”

“So what took you guys so long to find me?” Johnathan asked in as serious a tone as possible before breaking out in a broad grin.

All three rats laughed heartily; there’s that sense of humor, still intact.  “Well, we’d have been here sooner,” answered Justin without skipping a beat, “but we got sidetracked by a few minor things, such as, say, migrating to Thorn Valley to keep NIMH from finding us.”

Johnathan’s eyes widened at this.  “NIMH was after you?”  He put a hand to his forehead.  “Oh, man, we’ve got so much to catch up on…”

“Like acknowledging our royal presence,” said Willis.  “Or did you forget us already?”  Assuring them he hadn’t, Johnathan greeted him and Melvin with more bearhugs and laughter.

“So,” he said after initial greetings were done, “it was the Stone that brought you all here, wasn’t it?”

“The very one,” confirmed Justin.

“And it was you that commanded it, wasn’t it?  You actually got it to work through you?”

Justin looked upon him seriously.  “Johnathan, it wasn’t me.  Nor Melvin or Willis.  It was your wife, she did it.  She did so much with it, not only bring us here, but…oh, it’s so much to tell, my friend.”

Johnathan looked down, jaw dropping.  Never in a million years would he have thought…and then he caught himself.  Why not?  After all, why did it “choose” me?

“Speaking of Mrs. Brisby,” brought up Willis, “how is she?  Your new friend here—Gwinthrayle, is it?—told us she’s still asleep.”

Gwinthrayle described his assessment of her condition for them, as he did for Johnathan; then the five of them prepared to leave the room.  On the way out, Gwinthrayle told Sithpha that he and his family could accompany them if they wished.  Sithpha looked at the group, his eyes settling the longest on Justin with a touch of apprehension.  Certainly he was concerned for her, recalling the kindness she’d shown him in Uhrstegg’s prison; but considering the part he’d played in putting them all in there…

But Justin gave a reassuring smile and said, “If it’s all right with Gwinthrayle and Johnathan, it’s fine with me.”

Johnathan smiled in agreement.  “Right this way, everyone.”  Though he hadn’t known Sithpha or his family before today, he couldn’t think of excluding them after everything they’d all been through.  And so, a group now doubled in size adjourned to Johnathan’s room.  Along the way Melvin noted how they could all understand each other again, and Gwinthrayle confirmed it was his own translation spell in effect.

In Johnathan’s absence Birantha had continued to look after Madeline, who still slumbered peacefully.  Johnathan returned to the bedside chair while the others sat on chairs and couches.  With everyone updated on her condition, none was certain about what to say next.  So much to tell, indeed, Johnathan thought as he clasped his wife’s hand; but where to start?

Finally he said:  “Friends…I know there are a lot of stories to tell, but…I propose we wait until all of us can hear them.”  He looked at Madeline, then all around the room.  All were clearly impatient to hear more now, Johnathan included; but all agreed to the plan out of the great respect they held for both him and her.  He then added with a yawn, “In fact…I know we could all use a good night’s sleep first.  Believe me, we’ll all feel more up to storytelling in the morning.”

None argued that they all needed it; a good, peaceful night’s sleep in comfortable lodgings was definitely in order.  But their host realized that other, more immediate needs required attention, and so Gwinthrayle left to bring food and drink.  In only about a minute he returned with two trays floating on air before him, all laden with bowls, platters, pitchers and cups.  He assured them that their contents, though unfamiliar to the three rats, were all safe and nutritious for them.

Once Johnathan confirmed this, Willis was the first to dig in, giving a skuvurnee the briefest of cautionary sniffs before taking a big bite.  He confirmed it was delicious, and Melvin and Justin quickly followed his lead in sampling some of the many culinary pleasures of this world.  Johnathan, as well as Sithpha and his family, guided them from one to the next.  He gave special attention to his favorites: not only the skuvurnee, an aromatically flavorful melonlike fruit, but also the th’ving, which was almost exactly like a miniature banana; the sessvit, a protein-rich nutmeat with a rich cashew-like flavor; Gwinthrayle’s own blend of rivwil, a brewed tealike beverage.  Gwinthrayle promised that in the morning, at breakfast, there would be more varieties for them to sample.

At length, Justin, after swallowing a bite of th’ving, said, “Gwinthrayle, I don’t know how to thank you.  I think…all of us who were trapped…back there thought you and Johnathan were a dream when you showed up.”

“Or else we were just crazy from the heat,” Willis added in between bites, feeling surprised at how easily he was able to speak jokingly, or at least lightly, about their ordeal.

Gwinthrayle smiled and nodded, acknowledging their gratitude with great modesty.  “It was some very simple spells which enabled you to recover so quickly.  As for your wife, Johnathan, I expect she’ll be fully recovered by morning, or very close to it.  She may not awaken until then, or she may yet awaken tonight.  Of this I cannot be certain, since her current condition is unprecedented in my experience.”

“But she will awaken,” said Johnathan.  It was a statement, not a question, since he had every reason to believe in the accuracy of the assessment of her condition.  “I’d just thought of something, when I was in here before: maybe…Justin, if you and the others are the first ones she sees upon awakening, that might be best.”

“You mean, instead of you?” Melvin asked.

“I can hardly believe I’m suggesting it myself, but…she’ll be expecting to see you guys, but she probably won’t be expecting me.  And if she doesn’t wake until morning, well…”  It was not a thought he relished; he wanted so much to sleep beside her tonight, but if she woke in the middle of the night to find herself in a strange bed, with one beside her she couldn’t readily identify, it might be frightening for her.  They continued discussing the point quietly as they ate and drank; but only minutes after they’d settled the matter, it was looking much closer to being completely resolved.

It began with a moan, issuing very quietly from her throat.  It was so low that none heard it but Johnathan, whose heart nonetheless leaped in response.  Instantly he called for everyone’s silence.  There was a slight change in the rhythm of her breathing.  She moaned again.

“I think she’s starting to come around,” he said quietly but loud enough for all in the room to hear.  All too reluctantly, he drew his hand away from hers again and stood, backing away from the bed, expression reflecting his reluctance.  Justin, conversely, stepped closer.

*      *      *

“I think she’s starting to come around.”

It was the first real voice she’d heard in a seeming eternity, though she didn’t realize it was real at first.  Other voices, speaking quietly and whispering, followed.  Other senses returned slowly, deliberately.  Her body stirred, and she could feel beneath her something soft and comfortable.  She breathed in deep, and felt the pleasant sensation of air that was fresh and cool entering her lungs.  She quivered with pleasure; it felt wonderful, so much more pleasant and cool than—

In an instant it all came back to her in a flood: her friends’ and her own entrapment, the feelings of helplessness and despair, very little food or water, and the awful, overpowering heat.  Were these new sensations only a dream?  Was she still trapped there?  With a feeling of rising panic, she forced her eyes open.  And immediately saw a familiar and friendly face.

“J-Justin?”  It hardly sounded like her own voice to her, so strange did it feel to speak again.

“Yes, it’s really me.  You gave us all quite a scare.  Welcome back to the world of the living.”

“Oh, Justin!” she exclaimed as she threw her arms around his neck.  He in turn embraced her as she noticed how weary she felt, just from that small effort.  He helped her lay back again, bulking up the pillows so she could sit upright.  “Ooh…I feel so tired.”

Justin smiled and nodded.  “You’ve been through a terrible experience; we all have.  But Gwinthrayle says you’ll be much better soon.”

She looked all around.  She was in a small, very comfortable bed in a room that seemed strangely familiar; then she saw Melvin, Willis and Sithpha standing by as well.  They each took turns welcoming her back.  Four other figures, all of Sithpha’s race, followed; immediately she realized that they had to be his wife and children.  He confirmed it, introducing them as Dinilom, Eephray, Bointha and Tuintwom.

She breathed a huge sigh of relief.  “For a moment, after I could hear your voices, I was afraid that…it wasn’t real, that we were still trapped.  But it’s really true, isn’t it?  We’re free from there.  But…where are we now?”  Justin’s last words to her finally registered.  “And…who is…Gwinthrayle?”

A new and unfamiliar figure stepped forward.  He was one of Sithpha’s race, though apparently of more advanced age, with face more lined, and dressed in a multicolored tunic with oversized sleeves and tan trousers.  She was immediately reminded of Nicodemus, though he moved toward her bed with more youthful vigor and no falter in his step.  Another, who looked to be of the same age but slightly shorter in height and stockier of build, followed.  “Mrs. Brisby,” spoke the first one, “I am Gwinthrayle, and you and your friends are most honored guests in my home.  This is my longtime friend and associate Birantha.  It was I, along with another friend, who rescued you from where you’d been trapped.  I’m very pleased to see you’re almost recovered.”

“Hello,” Mrs. Brisby said politely but with some confusion.  She looked toward Justin questioningly.

“Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly, touching her shoulder.  “He’s being modest, but if it weren’t for him and Birantha, none of us might even be alive now.  We’re definitely among friends here.  And…more than friends.”

From behind Gwinthrayle one last figure stepped forward, one who recognized his cue.  “Hello, Madeline,” a voice spoke quietly, breathlessly.

She was still looking at Justin, but when she heard the voice there was a brief moment of confusion.  She’d told Justin her first name, but who else here would know it?  Who else but… And then she turned to face the source of the voice.  It was a voice she knew; one she realized was one of the ones she’d heard before she opened her eyes.  And a face she recognized.  She gasped as she did, and one more realization came to her: that this room had seemed familiar because it was the room she’d seen as an image in the Stone.

“Johnathan?”  She barely said the name aloud.  Then the full realization came upon her in a rush.  The impressions, which made her “feel” his personality, the trip to Thorn Valley with the children, the image of him in the Stone…this was what all that was leading to, this moment for which she’d felt such longing and anticipation.  She’d been right!  She’d been right all along!

Johnathan, unable to contain himself any longer, rushed forward, quickly climbing onto the bed beside her.  Even at a moment like this, he was mindful of her condition, taking her into his arms gently, tenderly.  “Oh, Johnathan, it is you!  You’re alive!  Alive!” she cried as she threw her arms around him.

In an instant, all the trials and terrors she’d experienced in the past day were forgotten.  There was nothing else now, nothing but each other, these two long-lost lovers who’d found each other again.  Neither could say a word, so overwhelming was their joy.  Just to feel each other so close again after all this time, to rediscover and reaffirm the love they’d each believed they might never know again, was all they needed.  Time stood still for them, the world melting away as they drew strength and comfort from each other as they lay in each other’s arms, taking no notice as the others discreetly left them alone.  Within minutes they had drifted off peacefully into a well-earned sleep.

*      *      *

As he quietly closed the door behind them, Justin couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, so infectious did he find the Brisbys’ joy at their reunion.  He felt better than he had in months, he realized.  “Gwinthrayle,” he said, “at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I don’t know how to thank you.  You not only saved all of our lives, you and Birantha, but you’ve brought a dear friend back to us, and a husband back to another dear friend.”

Melvin and Willis seconded the sentiment.  Willis was actually quite choked up, taking out a handkerchief and dabbing at his eyes.  “Willis, you sentimental softie, you,” said Melvin.

“It takes one to know one,” he managed to reply, emitting a loud honk into his handkerchief.

Turning to Gwinthrayle, Melvin said, “I never would have believed it, just how much has changed so fast, in just a couple of hours.  We thought we were goners for sure; but except for Mrs. Brisby, we’re totally recovered.”

“Otherwise, we’d be baked potatoes right now,” added Willis.

“It’s all a matter of knowing the right sciences, my young friend,” said Birantha.  “Practicing the right mental disciplines to perfection, having the sensitivities to work the world’s ambient energies, of which most go through their entire lives unaware.”

“Indeed,” agreed Gwinthrayle, “though knowing some techniques purely medicinal in nature is of considerable help.”

“I still can’t get over it,” said Willis, glancing at the closed door behind them. “Johnathan alive…wow. I have to admit there were times, while we were trapped, that I was starting to believe it wasn’t true.”

“I think we were all guilty of that, to some degree,” agreed Justin.  “Even me.”  The admission brought to mind other ways in which he’d weakened.  He looked at Sithpha, who, with his family, had hung further back down the hall; they appeared to be just as touched by the Brisbys’ reunion.  Turning to Gwinthrayle and Birantha again, Justin said, “So Mrs. Brisby—Madeline—should be better by morning?”

“As good as new, as Johnathan might say,” said Gwinthrayle with a small smile.

“I would daresay that it should be a much faster recovery now,” said Birantha with a wink, nodding towards the closed door.

Justin chuckled, feeling a bit choked up again.  How they deserve this, he thought, after all they’d been through.  He found himself thinking about one he looked forward to seeing again, and the thought led to another, on the matter of how, or even if he’d be able to.  If the Stone were their only means of returning home, then… He realized that since awakening here, he’d practically forgotten the entire matter of it being purloined by Uhrstegg.

Melvin proved to have the same matter on his mind, giving voice to it first.  “What about the Stone, Gwinthrayle?  I know we’re all ready for a good night’s sleep here, but if Uhrstegg has it, shouldn’t we be doing something now?”

“He’s right, Gwinthrayle,” said Justin.  “You must know something about him, and why he did what he did to us.”

“Not to mention,” added Willis quickly, “why he seems to have two names.  And what’s he doing with the Stone, now that he has it?  And for that matter, why is Johnathan even here?  And how did you and him get together?”

Gwinthrayle raised both forearms, palms out, and they all felt slightly embarrassed for barraging him like this.  “All perfectly valid questions, and ones for which answers are forthcoming.  For now, let me assure you that as far as Ghormfisk—or Uhrstegg—is concerned, no one is in immediate danger from him.  In the morning, we will all learn from each other what we know.  For now, you must all rest.  I will show you to the quarters which we’ve prepared for all of you.”

These were two more spacious rooms—suites, actually—located off the same corridor, with the three rats in one and Sithpha and family in the other.  Impressed and thankful for the accommodations, they all said their goodnights.  Before retiring, though, Justin asked Dinilom if he could borrow Sithpha for a few minutes.  The two remained in the hall, talking quietly.

“Sithpha,” Justin began, his hand on Sithpha’s shoulder, “I just wanted to say…first, how sorry I am again for threatening you the way I did.  I was just so full of…hate and resentment for Uhrstegg, and it had all happened so suddenly, and you were the most convenient target after he trapped us, even though you were in the same boat as we were.  I hope you can forgive me.”  He still winced at the memory of his actions, of feeling no better than Jenner, but it wasn’t as painful as before to talk about it, something he found rather surprising.  Gwinthrayle and Birantha’s treatments did their work even better than they thought, he decided.

“Sure, I forgive you, Justin.  I really do understand.  After what I’d done, I couldn’t really blame you for wanting to lop my head off.”

“I’m not sure that’s fair.  Gwinthrayle says you were under Uhrstegg’s spell, under his control, and there was nothing you could do.”

“Yeah, maybe not.  But it was like…I was watching myself, off to one side, doing these things, going out and leading you all to him, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop him…or rather, stop me.”  He sighed.  “I tried, I really fought hard, but…it was no good.”

“That’s okay, I believe you really did try your best.  And I want you to believe me, too, when I say that I’m glad you’re all right too, and that I hope you and your family get home all right when all this is over.”

“Why, thanks, Justin, that means a lot.  I’ll bet you’ve got someone waiting for you back home, don’t you?”

Justin paused, smiling wistfully.  “As a matter of fact, I do.  Well…see you at breakfast, then?”

Minutes later, after he and his roommates had settled into bed, Justin took a few minutes to lie awake in silent reflection.  Such a sharp contrast this was: this cool, comfortable environment compared to what had come before.  Upon awakening from Gwinthrayle’s sleep-spell, he and the others had hardly believed it real at first, matching Madeline’s reaction half an hour ago.  The feeling of emancipation had been, and still was, so strong that he’d only begun to absorb the impact of Johnathan’s being alive, for all he’d believed Madeline’s convictions.  Seeing him with his own eyes, alive and kicking, was still a moment he’d remember the rest of his days, though of course it couldn’t compare to what Madeline must be feeling.  He thought of the two of them, and recalled his own words to Sithpha minutes ago; no, he wasn’t lying about having someone waiting for him.

“The first chance you get to tell her how you feel, just do it,” Madeline had told him yesterday before their entrapment.  Did he truly love Isabella, and she love him?  He’d never talked with her at great length or depth about much before, though he’d long admired her.  A physical attraction was definitely there, and mutual; but why hadn’t it gone any further?  There had been so many things vying for his attention, to be sure; but was that the only reason?  Had he been unintentionally neglecting her, or could it be partially intentional?  He wanted so much to see her again, to talk these and other matters over.  A fierce resolve rose within him, to find Uhrstegg, take back the Stone, see Sithpha and his family back home, and everyone else back where they belonged.  He pictured Isabella before him; and strangely, found that thinking about her put his mind more at ease rather than keep him awake.

As they all drifted into sleep, Justin felt more at peace with himself than in ages, in spite of all these questions and unresolved matters.

Chapter 15 - Revelations

The following morning, the three rats, Sithpha and his family awakened to a feeling of unparalleled vigor and well-being, a ready-to-take-on-the-world feeling.  When they all met in the corridor, they remarked on this; and they agreed, with a certain amount of awe, that this was indeed a house of healing.  Upon passing Johnathan and Madeline’s room, they realized they might not be up yet; and it was mutually agreed that if not, they deserved to be left undisturbed and so they’d leave the couple to join them at their leisure.

Dinilom knew the way to the dining room and so led them there, where they found a sumptuous breakfast laid out buffet-style on a wide, round table, with many foods different from what they’d sampled last night, as Gwinthrayle had promised.  She and Sithpha familiarized the rats with these new offerings.  They found the note Gwinthrayle had left for them, informing them that he and Birantha were occupied with monitoring Uhrstegg’s current activities, and that they still seemed to indicate that he wasn’t putting anyone in danger by them; and, of course, to enjoy their morning meal.

In Johnathan and Madeline’s room, he awoke first, seeing the daylight spilling into the room, as he had every morning for the last ten months; but almost immediately he knew that this one was so much different.  He turned to look upon his dear wife still asleep beside him, and literally felt the need to pinch himself.  How many mornings, since coming here, had he awakened thus, but turned to find the other half of the bed empty?  How many times had he been jolted awake by an especially disturbing dream, and then reached over to her only to find her not there?  But that was all past now, he reminded himself; no matter what fate ultimately held in store for them, they would never face it apart; never again.

Gazing upon her now, he was brought back to the morning after they’d spent their first night together, over three years ago.  The setting was radically different—a far less luxurious burrow underneath cherry-tree roots—but what filled his heart now was certainly equal to that earlier morning, if not greater.  Still the most beautiful thing in all of creation, he mused.  The gentle rhythm of her breathing was music to his ears, her lovely scent a thing of beauty in and of itself.  Tears again filled his eyes, especially as he realized what these past ten months must have been like for her, believing him dead.  How could I have left her and the children like this?  He knew full well the irrationality of the thought, since his departure was completely unexpected and unplanned, and absolutely the last thing he’d want to have happen; but what it must have done to them!  No, he forced himself to think, no more of this.  That’s all in the past now, and the future—our future—is what’s important now.

As if sensing his thoughts, she began to stir; and shortly she yawned and flexed muscles.  She opened her eyes and almost immediately they locked with Johnathan’s.  For another moment they could only gaze upon each other silently, both sets of eyes filling with tears, both needing another moment to convince themselves that last night’s reunion wasn’t just a happy dream; then they quietly embraced, holding each other for two more minutes.  Neither wanted the moment to end, but more practical considerations quickly came to their attention.

“Johnathan,” Madeline murmured, “was that your stomach growling?”  Hardly had she said this, though, when she realized how hungry she felt herself.

Johnathan laughed quietly.  “I guess we can’t stay here all day, can we?”  He sat up, stretched, and helped her upright.  “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

“I think…yes, I do feel stronger than last night.”  They both made to get up, Madeline assuring Johnathan that she didn’t need help.  She stood a bit shakily, but her step didn’t falter as she moved about the room, taking it all in.  Johnathan brought her red cape to her, the one he’d given her seemingly a lifetime ago, tying it around her neck for her; then, he led her to the french window that overlooked the terraced hillside leading down to the gardens that surrounded Gwinthrayle’s home.  “It’s so beautiful here, Johnathan,” she said, admiring the view.

“When things settle down, I’ll be happy to show you more of it.”  They gazed upon each other again.  As they embraced, they silently reminisced about last night, still finding it hard to believe: to be together again after so long; to see, hear, feel each other again, to smell their scents upon each other, feel their hearts beating as one—sensations they found to be every bit as strong now.  Other sensations quickly took precedence; Madeline hadn’t had a thing to eat since her entrapment, and Johnathan was more than ready for a hearty breakfast himself.  They adjourned to the dining room.

As they strolled the corridors arm-in-arm, Madeline continued taking in their surroundings and briefly thought: At least he had a nice place to stay while he was away.  She found herself feeling a pang of something like envy.

As they entered the room, all eyes turned.  “Hey!  Here’s the lovebirds!” said Willis in between bites of kiatheio.

“Hope you saved some for us,” said Johnathan as he and Madeline strolled into the room, to everyone else’s greetings.  The whole “gang” was present, minus the two sorcerers.  They could easily see how much stronger Madeline was, looking almost fully recovered; and the glow that she and Johnathan radiated together.  Justin felt a renewed surge of optimism at just seeing them together.

As they sat down, Justin explained how Gwinthrayle and Birantha were engaged with monitoring Uhrstegg’s activities.  “I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit antsy about our not taking some kind of action now, but they say the situation isn’t especially dire…yet.”

“I know how you feel, Justin,” said Johnathan as he pushed his chair closer to his wife’s.  “But believe me: they’ve got the situation well in hand.  And in the meantime, we’ve all got plenty to catch up on.”

Johnathan began the catching-up process by introducing Madeline to this world’s many culinary delights. Observing how the three rats had already taken to them with gusto, she had no problem following their example.

Presently Gwinthrayle entered the room. “Well, the heartiest of good mornings to you all!” came his greeting, spoken with more jollity than was the norm for him.  “It does me proud to see you all looking so much refreshed…especially you, Madeline.”

“Well, you know who we have to thank for that,” said Johnathan.  As she chewed a mouthful of th’ving, Madeline looked at Gwinthrayle, finding herself at a loss in knowing how to properly express her own gratitude.

Gwinthrayle again expressed great modesty at this; then he announced, “Birantha and I have traced Uhrstegg to a location many klivaphs to the south.  As we had observed last night, no one is in immediate danger, though we have confirmed that he is indeed in command of the Stone and is utilizing its power.  Birantha is continuing to monitor him now.”

“How is he using it, Gwinthrayle?” asked Justin.  “Shouldn’t we be going after him now?”

“For now, Justin, I believe the stories that all of you as well as I need to tell each other are the more pressing matter.”

They all looked at each other, all knowing full well just how burning with curiosity they were, but hardly knowing where and with whom to begin. Justin, as well as Melvin and Willis, still didn’t feel totally convinced that they shouldn’t be taking more immediate action, for all they were willing to take Gwinthrayle and Johnathan at their word; but they were as curious as the others to hear everything.

Madeline finally spoke up.  “I guess I’ll start.  I…hardly even told Johnathan anything last night,” she said, smiling upon him.  Unaccountably, she felt herself blush.

“Nor I her,” added Johnathan, pulling her closer to him.  “We couldn’t have said much of anything if we tried…not that there was any need for words.”  He leaned over, kissing her on the cheek.  They clearly were still intoxicated by each other’s presence, so much so that the others felt almost like voyeurs in their presence.

Madeline began by telling about the night Johnathan vanished, ten months ago.  “Auntie Shrew broke the news to me that Johnathan had died, after she’d heard it from one of the other animals of the field, who had heard it from another, and so on down the grapevine; and I had no reason to doubt that it was true, from previous experience…even though there’d been no word about what happened to him, exactly.  None of us wanted to believe it, of course, but…”   She sighed deeply.  “I soon realized that I’d have to accept it, especially after it got late, well after the time he said he’d be back.  We all ended up in the same bed that night; all of us…just cried ourselves to sleep.”  She paused, still finding it hard to describe the experience.  Johnathan stroked her arm and shoulder.

She continued: “The next day, once I could bring myself to it…I asked everyone I knew if they could tell me anything, but…no one seemed able to give any more details; so I stopped asking after that day. It…was very hard for awhile for us, the children and me, but we managed. Bless their hearts…I’m sure I’d never have made it without them. And they seemed able to bounce back pretty well, though Timothy I was especially concerned for, after his spider-bite accident. Once I was sure I’d…have to go on raising them alone, I practically abandoned my first name. I told Auntie and everyone else we knew that I wanted only to be called Mrs. Brisby, as a loving legacy to Johnathan’s memory.” She kissed his cheek.

“She’d already told me this,” remarked Justin, still touched deeply by the account.  “That’s really beautiful, Madeline.”

Melvin nodded.  “And it makes perfect sense.  Funny how it never occurred to us.”

“Just like neither of us geniuses even thought to ask her what her name was,” said Willis, nudging Melvin.  “But you probably wouldn’t have told it even if we had; right, Mrs. B?”

“Oh, I probably would have,” said Madeline with a laugh.  “But you can all call me Madeline now, if you like.”

“So,” Johnathan prompted, “I’d always wondered how you made it through last winter, while I was here in…the next thing to paradise.”  There was an unmistakable tinge of guilt in his voice.

Madeline gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and continued.  “Well…we couldn’t make our winter home in the one we’d used before, but we were really lucky in finding a mostly-buried cinderblock in the Fitzgibbons’ garden patch…”

Johnathan looked stunned.  “Wait a minute…cinderblock?  You mean the one by the big…‘wave’ stone, we used to call it?”

“Why, yes!  Did you know about it?”

He nodded, smiling incredulously.  “I not only knew of it; I intended it for us.  I made it into the home you knew.”

“Johnathan!  I’d had a feeling that it was meant for us to find, almost; and even that you might have had a hand in it, somehow.”

“A happy coincidence, it sounds to me,” commented Gwinthrayle.

“Maybe,” mused Johnathan, “or perhaps more.  In any case, that’s an interesting story in itself, one you’ll hear later.  But now…you obviously made it through the winter, in the cinderblock…”

“Yes.  Justin, I guess you can tell him what happened back at the rosebush…”

Justin obliged, telling Johnathan the Rats’ side of the night he vanished, describing what they’d found in the farmhouse’s broom closet, and subsequently how everyone, Nicodemus included, believed him dead.  Johnathan looked ready to interrupt at that point, but he held his piece as Justin described further how both he and Melvin had considered contacting the family directly, but Nicodemus vetoed the idea; how Jenner had continued his campaign against the Thorn Valley Plan, which was—until a certain March day—nothing but rhetoric; and how the Plan continued unabated, with supplies continuing to be sent out to the valley, where Arthur and his crew were well along in constructing the new colony.  “I hadn’t completely abandoned the idea of contacting Madeline and her kids directly, but as it turned out…just the opposite happened.”

“She came to you?” said Johnathan, incredulous.  He turned to his wife.  “Maddie, I guess it’s time for you to take up the story again.”

“Yes.  Well…I knew there were rats living under the rosebush, because I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of one or two ‘sneaking about,’ as Auntie Shrew would have put it.  But I might never have met Justin or any of them, if it weren’t for things that happened this past spring, which, come to think of it, led to our being here now.  It all started when Timothy…got sick again, so sick we were…afraid he’d die.  I went to Mr. Ages, and he told me it was pneumonia that he’d caught.”

Johnathan looked stricken and pale at this news, and now it was Madeline’s turn to comfort him, rubbing his arm and shoulder as he did hers.  “He gave me medicine for it, and…well, if it were simply a matter of his getting better, so much would have turned out differently.  But as it was, it happened just before Moving Day, and because of Timmy’s pneumonia, he couldn’t go outside.”

Madeline told in detail the subsequent events leading up to her first meeting with the Rats of NIMH: her finding a loyal and dependable ally—if a slightly demented one—in Jeremy the crow, and their narrow escape from Dragon; her attempt to stop the tractor (which Johnathan could hardly believe, remarking, “Even I wouldn’t attempt that!”); and her meeting with the Great Owl, who directed her to the Rats, who he told her would be able to move her house.  Justin joined in again at this point, and together they detailed her initial difficulty in getting help, at first courtesy of an overzealous Brutus; then of Jenner, who’d lately begun steering others toward his point of view regarding the Plan, but appeared perfectly willing to help Madeline out of her family’s predicament.  They described how they’d shown her the details of the operation, moving the cinderblock to the side of the “wave stone” where it would be out of the plow’s path.

At this Johnathan looked ready to interrupt again, but again he allowed Madeline and Justin to continue the tale, though it wouldn’t be the last time he’d feel moved to interrupt.

Madeline described her meeting with Nicodemus, who told her the basics of the Original 22’s origins and presented her with the Stone: a gift Johnathan had intended for her, he’d said.  Her impulsive volunteering for “Dragon duty” and subsequent capture Johnathan found especially alarming, given what had happened to him in the course of doing the same six months earlier; but it was only the beginning of surprises and shocks for him, as she and Justin told of how she’d so fatefully learned of the impending danger the Rats were in, and of her escape; and the treachery of Jenner, who’d caused the death of Nicodemus in an attempted grab for power, and whom Justin was forced to battle to the death after he’d threatened Madeline’s life over the amulet—something he still found a bit difficult to discuss, though he knew Johnathan had to know.  The account of how the Stone’s power, through Madeline, had saved the children left Johnathan nearly breathless.

Melvin and Willis helped Justin in telling, as briefly as possible, of the Rats’ desperate but successful scramble to vacate the Rosebush colony and cover their tracks to avoid detection by NIMH; and of their journey to Thorn Valley, and how well they’d settled in over the past four months.  Madeline described how she and the children had fared over the same period, including the “impressions,” the more-than-dreams she’d experienced which led to her and the children’s own sojourn to Thorn Valley, Justin’s giving her further details about the Stone leading to their discovering firsthand what else it could do in her hands, and so on up to their rescue from Uhrstegg’s prison.  In deference to Sithpha’s wife and children, they left out the part about Justin’s threatening Sithpha’s life following their entrapment; and later, the five of them would agree to share that detail of their ordeal with Johnathan only.

The full story left Johnathan shaking his head in disbelief, with some lingering shock over some of the details.  “I never would have believed Jenner was capable of going that far,” he remarked. “I knew he was becoming cold-hearted, practically abandoning Matilda and his children, railing against the Plan at every turn; but resorting to murder?  And Nicodemus…poor Nicodemus, what a way to die…”  He continued shaking his head.

“I know it’s not much consolation, Johnathan,” said Justin, “but none of us, myself included, thought it would come to that.”

“Or his own children,” said Melvin soberly.  “He’d been practically dead to me—and Mother and George and Melinda—but in spite of his schemes almost bringing us all to ruin, I can’t deny that after he was gone, there was…a void, something missing.  We all hated what he’d done, of course, but…he was our father.  And I still can’t help believing that there was something, or someone, that may have gotten to him, changed him, influenced him for the worse.”

“You know, I’d like to believe that’s true,” said Johnathan, speaking as one who had already given the point some thought.  “We all remember what he was like at the beginning.  During the Wandering Days, he was staunchly loyal, looking out for his fellows as much as any of us.  He’d have very practical ideas about what we should do, what direction to take ourselves.  He was the first of us to suggest that we consider ourselves a whole new society, and settle down someplace where we could grow and flourish.  To an individual, we all agreed; but then, after you’d been there at the rosebush awhile…I don’t know what happened.  I remember Matilda saying it seemed to happen literally overnight: one day he was as loving and attentive to her and his kids as he’d always been, and the next he treated them, his own family, with near-total indifference.”  He looked at Melvin sympathetically; he could only nod in agreement.

Suddenly Johnathan felt almost like a hypocrite; considering how he’d kept his own family in the dark about who he was for so long… But no, he told himself, their situations were completely different.  And yet…if Jenner had been changed to a different person against his will, Johnathan couldn’t make a similar claim.  He could have leveled with Madeline about the aging difference and his origins, but it was his own choice not to.  He tried to force the thought aside.

“Well…Johnathan, I guess it’s your turn,” said Madeline.

Johnathan nodded, clearing his throat, feeling grateful for the chance to tell his own story.  Everyone now looked toward him with anticipation.

“My last night on Earth,” he began, “started when I left the house, our home by the creek, just before sundown.  I just told Maddie and the children…what I’d told them many times before: that I had some business to conduct, friends to visit.  She was always…so tolerant of my little secrets.”  He paused, sighing; it was clear to his friends that there was a lot he had yet to forgive himself for.  “I’d long regretted being so vague to her about so much; and this night in particular, as I made my way from our home to the farm, to the rosebush, I had a lot of time to think, as usual.  One thing in particular was the usual one: that when I’d finished this latest assignment for the Rats, I wouldn’t put off telling my family the truth any longer.  I can’t really say whether or not I’d have followed through; the point would become moot, anyway, as we all know.  But there were other concerns: I’d been scouting for a location for a new winter home, since the last one was a bit cramped for a growing family; and that evening, I came across one I was sure was ideal.

“Of course, it was the cinderblock we all know.  But I think, at this point, I should come clean about a thing or two, where Moving Day was concerned.”  He smiled at his wife, letting her know that this would be mostly for her benefit.  “I’d told Maddie that this was my idea, to help make things easier for us during the winter, to give us access to an easier and more plentiful food source.  But that was only part of the story.  When the Thorn Valley Plan was in its early stages, the Rats needed my help on it more and more, and not just for my input and ideas.  When it really began in earnest, it involved moving about in the open more than before; and however discreetly we may have been doing it, Dragon still proved to be a major problem in that area.  So we had to come up with a non-lethal way to deal with him; and of course, the solution lay in Ages’s sleeping powder.  Before long we’d had the regular routine of one of us, either Ages or myself, putting it in his food bowl on the kitchen floor at his regular mealtime.  It had to be either him or me because the only way to get into the kitchen unnoticed was through the little hole underneath one of the cabinets, and we’d decided that widening it, so that it would be big enough for one of the rats to fit through, wasn’t an option.  But with the duty falling to me more and more, I had to be there more often.

“Now, I’d been reluctant to move away from the creekside home altogether, since we’d all become pretty attached to it.  So Nicodemus suggested that, since we’d observed some of the local animals of the field moving closer or further from the farm with the seasons, I could do the same with my family.  During the months when we lived on the farm, and closer to the Rosebush, I’d more easily be able to help them out when they needed me.  It would also take considerable pressure off Ages, who certainly had his hands full with other duties.  So, essentially, our seasonal Moving Day was partially a compromise between the Rats and me.  Of course, I would still come to help out when absolutely necessary during the months when we lived at the creekside.”

Madeline nodded thoughtfully.  “I guess I’m not really surprised.  It does explain a lot.  But you were talking about the cinderblock…”

“I was, wasn’t I?  Well, then…once I’d found it, I realized it had probably been simply dropped there by Farmer Fitzgibbons, and apparently forgotten.  I immediately saw the potential for a near-perfect winter home, one that would provide plenty of insulation against the cold, especially after seeing that no one was already occupying it.  ‘If only it were a bit more spacious on the inside,’ I said to myself, ‘and entirely enclosed.  Maybe it’s not as perfect as I thought.’  I was hardly discouraged, though, and kept it in mind for future reference as I moved on to the Rosebush.

“I know you guys already told Madeline some of what happened next: how Nicodemus had had this strong feeling that I should have the Stone with me as I performed my ‘Dragon duty’ that night, something I didn’t usually do.  He didn’t say why, exactly, but I agreed to it, especially since it involved keeping it out of Jenner’s sight, and lately I’d begun to believe as Nicodemus did, that keeping it hidden from Jenner was in our best interests.”

If Justin had anything to add, he kept it to himself; but all were well aware of how deeply he regretted not taking that matter as seriously as he should have, and that he’d likely carry it with him the remainder of his days.

“So,” Johnathan continued, “after I got the Stone from him, I started to get a strong feeling myself that I should have it that night.  As you know, I’d allowed Nicodemus to hold it most of the time, in spite of the feeling I’d had, almost from day one, that it was meant for me, owing at least partially to the strange circumstances under which I found it.  I’d even said that I wished I could take it home and show it to Maddie, and possibly even—once I’d told her and the kids the truth about me—give it to her as a present.  Almost every time I’d come to perform my Dragon duty or some other risky job for him, I’d tell Nicodemus that, in case I didn’t make it, I’d like him to give the Stone to her, because I believed its power would protect her.  He always promised he would, though he had doubts that it would work through her as through me; but considering all that’s happened since, maybe I knew something, deep down, that Nicodemus didn’t, or that my own conscious mind didn’t.  Perhaps the Stone ‘told’ it to me, like it ‘told’ Maddie so much.”  Madeline responded with a knowing look.

“So…I repeated this wish to Nicodemus, one last time, before leaving his office, the last…I’d ever see him.  Right then, it would be a good hour before I’d need to perform my duty.  At first I intended to go straight to Justin, to consult with him beforehand as I usually did.  But I had arrived a little earlier than usual, so I had more time to kill than usual.

“Right away, I had the thought that there was something else I could do in the meantime, and then I had it: the cinderblock!  I wasn’t sure at first exactly what I could do with it; at the time I wasn’t as familiar with what-all the amulet could do, but I thought that, just maybe, it could help in some way.  Once I got there, I thought about the improvements I’d like to make on it; and then the Stone started to glow.  It was utterly unexpected, but right away, I was aware of what was happening, even as the cinderblock started to glow as well.  I’d wished that it were entirely enclosed and roomier, and now the Stone’s power was acting on that wish, reshaping it before my eyes.  As astonishing as it all was, I quickly began to more closely direct the task.  The concrete flowed like water, the outside walls seemed to slide down over the open areas, its substance redistributing itself until the block was completely enclosed, as I’d wanted.  It needed an entrance, so I created one on its roof.  On the inside I added more touches: a staircase from the roof entrance down, and an arched doorway connecting the two rooms. What would make it really homey, I thought; and then I remembered something I’d glimpsed outside: a discarded glass soft-drink bottle. Let’s see how this looks, I thought, and I willed the amulet to remove the bottom from it, smooth it out, and incorporate it into the cinderblock’s wall.

“It made a dandy window, all right; but then I thought I should be getting back. Didn’t want to keep you guys waiting. I vowed right then that I’d definitely lead Maddie and the kids to it when we were ready to seek a new winter home; but also that, for the time being, I wouldn’t let on that I’d had anything to do with it. I figured they wouldn’t question its reshaping either. So, one last thing to do, and that was to make it less outwardly conspicuous, so I willed the Stone to sink the block most of the way into the ground, then I concealed the remainder that still showed with leaves and other debris.

“On the way back, I marveled to myself how much such a little stone could accomplish.  I wondered if this was the reason for Nicodemus’s hunch, and then my own, that I’d need to have it that night.  Of course, the night was far from over.”

He paused, acknowledging the reactions the story had prompted.  “As I said, this was the first I’d known the Stone could do such a thing, reshaping stone or metal; so when we found the place you’d been trapped in, right away I thought it might be the Stone’s handiwork.”

“I’d sometimes wondered,” said Justin, “how much you actually knew about what it could do.”

“Well, that was probably the strangest capability that I knew about…at least before what happened later that same night.  It looks to me like when Madeline had it in her hands, she found out more about it than I ever did.”

“You’re probably right," said Madeline.  "You know, it’s funny; I thought hearing you talk about using it that way might bother me more, considering that’s how Uhrstegg used it to trap us.  But you used it in a good way, so I guess that makes all the difference.”

“That’s true.  And, Maddie, you and the kids found it entirely on your own, and you even thought I might have something to do with it.  Maybe it was ‘a happy coincidence,’ but…its precise location turned out to be a problem, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did.  But, Johnathan…”  She paused to rub his arm again.  “I hope you’re not blaming yourself for that.  You couldn’t have known it would be a problem.  You had so much else to think about that night.  And…I’ve had plenty of time to think about this, and if the house weren’t in the tractor’s path, I’d never have met the Rats, and, well…”  The three rats all nodded; there was no need to spell out the rest, and Johnathan realized it too.

“No, I’m not blaming myself for that one.  So, to get back to my story: I returned to the Rosebush, specifically to the Guard office, where I met with the three of you. You thought it odd, Justin, that I had the amulet with me, and I told you about Nicodemus’s hunch, that I’d need it with me, and that I was starting to feel the same; but you’ve probably heard this part already, Maddie.” Madeline confirmed it with a nod.

“So…I left to get the whole thing over with—or so I thought—stationing myself at the hole under the cabinet with my packet of the sleep powder, and waiting for Mrs. Fitzgibbons to step away from the bowl. I still felt I should have the amulet on my person, even while making my dash for the bowl; even considering the possibility it could slow me down, something I’d told you guys.

“When the moment came, I raced forward with the packet, as I usually did; and even now, it’s hard to say whether having the amulet around my neck did slow me down, or not.  But the indisputable fact is that I was a second or two too slow.  I guess the odds were against me, after having carried it out successfully so many times.

“Just as I emptied the packet into the bowl, Dragon came in; and at the same time Mr. Fitzgibbons called to Mrs. Fitzgibbons from the other room, and she left the kitchen.  Billy was nowhere in sight—he was probably upstairs, in his bedroom—so none of the family saw what happened next, for all the good it did me.  Dragon, of course, did see me and made a beeline for me, and at that moment I was sure I wouldn’t make it back under the cabinet before he’d snag me.  So with only a second to decide, I headed away from the cabinet, trying to keep as much distance as I could between us.  Ahead was the broom closet, just off the kitchen.  The door was ajar, and I realized that if the door were closed, I could have squeezed under it and Dragon wouldn’t be able to follow.  But it was still my best chance right then, so I ducked inside.

“Sure enough, Dragon followed, pushing his nose through, opening the door wider.  I ducked behind the upright vacuum, momentarily out of his sight; and I don’t mind telling you, I was scared stiff, my adrenalin level as high as it’s ever been; but I wasn’t about to give in without a fight.  At the same time, though, something else registered with me: there was a strange scent in the room, definitely an animal scent.  But right then, Dragon was all that mattered, and I had to do something, and quick.  I felt something underfoot, and in a flash I had me a weapon: a discarded straight pin.  Dragon found me, putting his face into the gap between the wall and the vacuum, and I didn’t hesitate: before he could get a paw in, I jabbed the pin toward him with hardly a thought, and it hit home, right in his upper lip.  He screeched and reared back, definitely not expecting me to put up a fight.  Predators are all alike, aren’t they?”

Despite these words, Johnathan was shuddering from relating this encounter, as much as his audience. Madeline leaned her head against his shoulder and rubbed his back. He kissed her forehead, and then he continued.

“I hoped that would be enough to discourage him, maybe even get him to leave the closet; but in the next few seconds, something else got my full attention.  There was that strange scent again, and suddenly I realized it was familiar: the one I’d smelled the day I found the amulet, apparently belonging to that creature I’d barely glimpsed then.  And a second later, that creature was there; or something was.  I could feel these hands on me, but I couldn’t see anything, in what little light there was in there, as if it were invisible.  I felt its hands groping about my chest and neck, and the first thing I thought was that it was trying to strangle me.  As if the situation weren’t enough of a nightmare with Dragon, now here was something I couldn’t even see trying to get me as well!”

As he paused, Justin said, “That was it, wasn’t it?  Our ‘mystery creature,’ whose existence none of us were able to confirm?”

“And that was Dragon’s blood we found on the floor, too,” said Willis.  “We’d assumed the worst, that it was yours.”

Johnathan nodded.  “I’d expected you probably would.  But back to the ‘mystery creature’…I knew it had to be him.  Even after all that time, I couldn’t forget that scent, not ever.  I tried to push him away, but since I couldn’t see it, or him, it was like trying to fight smoke.  And I still had Dragon to contend with.

“A few seconds later, he returned, and I could see I’d given him a bloody lip. Even amidst all this, it occurred to me that ‘Mr. Invisible’ might not be trying to kill me, but rather get the Stone from me. I realized later that it couldn’t be a coincidence: he’d first made his presence known the day I’d found it, and now here he was trying to take it back. At the time, though, all I could think of was my own survival. Mr. Invisible had managed to knock the pin out of my hands, Dragon was closing in again, and…all I could think of was that I really needed to be away from there, anyplace but. My last thought before what I thought was the end was one of defiance and denial; after all I’d been through, it couldn’t end like this. But there was also a fervent wish that my family be well protected and looked after. Dragon brought one paw forward, Mr. Invisible was still trying to grab at the Stone…” Johnathan felt the need to pause for breath.

“…and then it was glowing red, just before there was a near-blinding flash from it. And then I felt the strangest, most indescribable sensation, followed by blackness. I was flat on my back, feeling weak and nauseous, almost ready to pass out. My mind was in a swirl, it was near-impossible to make head or tail of where I was or what was happening. I was vaguely aware that something or someone was there with me, wherever I was, and it was again groping at me. I realized later that it had to be Mr. Invisible again; but after only a minute, I figured later, he was gone. I was in such a state, I’d thought at first that I’d gone blind, but soon I was able to think more rationally. Where was Dragon? Why hadn’t he killed me? Where was I? Clearly I wasn’t in the closet anymore, but what had just happened? As I gradually felt better, getting my bearings though still in total darkness, I remembered feeling the stranger groping at me in the dark again, and I remembered what came before. If he was after the Stone, did he actually get it from me? And somehow I knew, even after feeling it not on me, that neither of us had it. It had sent me, and my apparent adversary, somewhere else, but it had stayed and not come with me.

“Well, as you’ve guessed, I found myself in the same cave that welcomed all of you here. Once my head cleared and I was able to stand, I tried to get the lay of the place as best I could, and then I sought a way out. I went through the same ‘tunnel trudge’ as you all did; and when I got my first real look at where the Stone had sent me…well, even with all I’d seen and done in my time, nothing prepared me for this. In retrospect, that first look was spectacular, beautiful; but at the time, I was scared witless, as much if not more than I’d ever been, just because everything about this situation was so totally incomprehensible. I recalled how I’d wished, just before everything went black, that I were anyplace but the closet, any place as long as it were safe. And this was how the Stone answered my wish, if that’s what it did?

“Well…seeing my new surroundings, combined with the knowledge that it was the Stone that got me into this fix but now couldn’t get me out, I was ready to give up, give in totally to despair. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t give up, I didn’t have the right to give up. As long as I still breathed, I’d do all I could to find out why this happened and how I could get home. Till then, I was determined to make the best of the situation.

“The first thing I did was head back inside, to get back to the point where I’d arrived, to try to uncover some clue, anything that might help.  On the way, I thought about Mr. Invisible again, wondering if I’d really felt him pawing at me after I’d arrived, or if it was part of the delirious state I was in.  It would be a while, but eventually I had definitely confirmed it; but more on that later.  It didn’t take long before I gave up trying to find some evidence in the cavern; even if I had a source of light, it probably would’ve proven fruitless.  The more practical considerations of survival in this new environment became more important, so I ventured out into the area just outside and set about carefully sampling the local plant life for food.  I knew the potential for danger, since everything was unfamiliar, but I wasn’t about to starve myself either.  I sampled one or two things that didn’t quite agree with me, but luckily that’s as bad as it got.  I found I had a pretty good instinct for what was good and what to avoid.

“It would be another whole day before I left the area altogether, but overnight I took shelter just inside the tunnel entrance. That first night I slept fitfully, waking more times than I could count.  Not knowing what was out there, the possibility of an attack during the night, and worst of all knowing that…my family, my friends had no idea what really happened to me…it didn’t make for a restful night.  I can assure you, Maddie…you and the kids weren’t the only ones who cried yourselves to sleep.  I realized that, given the circumstances, you’d all have every reason to believe that Dragon had killed me.  But I also realized that if the Stone stayed there, in the closet, there was a thread of hope there: that once it was back in Nicodemus’s hands he could possibly figure out what really happened.

“By the time I left the tunnel I’d noticed how much longer the past day had been—by a few hours—and that was when it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t my world. Nicodemus had hinted about such things, that there may be other dimensions, reachable by those with the proper knowledge and abilities, with worlds that would be, essentially, other versions of the world we knew. The realization didn’t bring much comfort; if I were actually someplace on Earth, I might have been able to figure where I was geographically, and then find my way home, by hook or by crook. But a whole different world? It was a major effort, those first few days, to avoid sinking back into despair, and I’m still amazed that I managed as well as I did. But I forced myself, time and again, to take the matter rationally; and I realized that there had to be a reason the Stone sent me here, to this particular world. It couldn’t have been an accident, I told myself. And could there be, somewhere, someone here who might be able to find a way for me to return home? Plus, my curiosity quickly overcame my initial uncertainties; I wanted to see more of this world, and I couldn’t see any good in hanging around the tunnel.

“So I set out wandering.  The weather at that time was cooler than now; we’re at the height of summer right now, as it is back home right now; but then it was early winter.  In this part of the world we don’t get really extreme swings in temperature from season to season, so the going was quite pleasant.  I found out later that the years are a bit longer here as well, making for longer seasons.  The actual name of the world, by the way, is Lahaikshe; just one of many things I’d find out later from my benefactor.”  Johnathan indicated Gwinthrayle.

“There were many other things I found to like about this world as well, just in my first day of wandering. I encountered many of the same native animals you’ve seen, and thus far none of them seemed to be carnivorous. I also found out that there was a civilized race of people here—Rusay, they’re called—which, like just about everything else, is sized down here, as you saw for yourselves. The first time I encountered them, I couldn’t believe my eyes: looking so much like human beings, but the size of rats! Who’d have thought it?

“So, of course, my first instinct was to hide; I was walking alongside a road that’s not far from here—well-maintained, paved with finely-crushed gravel, my first real sign that there was a real civilization here.  I ducked behind a tree when someone approached: a carriage pulled by a creature that put me in the mind of a miniature bear when I first saw it.  As they passed, I could see several on board the carriage, adults and children, probably a family.  Somehow that sight was enough to assure me that maybe they wouldn’t react to someone like me with fear.

“I vowed that, next time, I wouldn’t hide; and later that same day I had the opportunity to put the idea to the test. I was on a foot trail when two of them approached me. As planned, I simply kept moving along normally; and I could see them react with some surprise, but no outward fear or hostility. On closer approach they stopped, spoke to each other and then to me, all the while appearing only curious. I was amazed; there was the language barrier, of course, but they sounded as if they were trying to give me advice or directions, as if I were simply a lost traveler. After a couple minutes, we went our separate ways, but I couldn’t get over how casual they were over seeing someone so different from them.”

Madeline and the rats looked toward Sithpha and his family; this was something they knew well, from their initial encounter with him.

“This first meeting set the tone for those that followed.  I came across other Rusay, either on a trail or road; and one I encountered late in the day, a kindly old fellow, managed to communicate to me his invitation to stay at his place overnight: a modest little place in the middle of the woods, where he and his wife put me up in their spare bedroom.  I’d been prepared to find a place to camp out in the open, but though I knew I’d have to be on my guard, this couple proved to be as kind and generous as they appeared.

“I lay awake for awhile, reflecting on what a remarkable first day this had been.  I’d had nothing but friendly encounters with the natives, no animals regarded me as an hors d’oeuvre with legs, the weather was pleasant and there was some gorgeous scenery; overall, this world seemed made for people our size.  I found myself wishing that when I got back home—even then I was thinking when, not if—I would bring my family here for a visit, if I’d be able.  I slept much more easily that night.

“It was only the next day, after I’d bid my hosts farewell and started off again, that Gwinthrayle found me.  It was pretty startling at first: I’d paused to rest beside a creek when behind me a voice said to me, in English, ‘My friend, you appear lost.  I believe I can be of assistance.’  He explained that he’d observed me from afar; that he was a worker of the ambient energies of this world—a sorcerer, if you will; and that he had hosted others like me over the years, and he’d be happy to do so with me.  Almost off the bat, I felt I had nothing to distrust in him, largely because the powers he’d displayed reminded me of Nicodemus.  Certainly I had nothing to lose, since he might prove to be the one I’d hoped to find.  So I accepted his offer, and I had my first experience with his floating spell, as we rose above the treetops and sailed off toward his home.  I found to my surprise that it was quite a thrill, despite having nothing I could see underneath us.”

Madeline laughed nervously.  “I’m not sure I could handle that, even after flying with Jeremy.”

“We may yet find out,” Johnathan said with a wink. “So…on the way, Gwinthrayle told me how, for reasons he couldn’t completely fathom, this world—Lahaikshe—had long attracted travelers from other dimensions, particularly ones our size. This was enough to give me a great amount of hope that I would get home, and he promised me that he would do what he could. He went on to tell me how some of those past interdimensional travelers had the means to leave on their own, and some didn’t; but in all cases the cave that all of you, and I, had arrived in—the Cavern of Change, he calls it—was the entry point; again, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to him. I guess it’s best described as a interdimensional hot spot, a way station of sorts.

“Well, when we arrived, he was as gracious a host as he’s been to you.  I soon began telling him my tale of woe, and…well, here’s where the plot really began to thicken, as the cliché goes.  I began with the condensed version of how we’re not the dominant sentient species on our world, and of our time at NIMH and what had happened since.  He was fascinated by the account; it was totally unlike any he’d heard before, he said; but it was when I got to the part about finding the Stone that the story had more of a personal interest for him.  When I described it to him, he said it had to be the one—the one he and Birantha had known quite well.”  Johnathan paused to acknowledge his wife and friends’ expressions, which were not so much of surprise than of having solved a major portion of a puzzle.

“Quite so, Johnathan,” Gwinthrayle said.  Turning to his newest guests, he added, “The Stone did have its origins on Lahaikshe, and Johnathan’s ‘mystery creature’ has had much to do, maybe everything to do with its becoming part of your lives.  And he’s the one, by whichever name, who trapped all of you to regain it.”

Chapter 16 - Birth of the Stone

The news, though not especially surprising, brought a renewed sense of urgency to Gwinthrayle’s guests, who, amidst all the storytelling, had practically forgotten about their entrapment.

“I know you said that he’s not hurting anyone right now, Gwinthrayle,” said Melvin, “but…I’m sorry, I can’t help thinking we should be taking some kind of action instead of just sitting here.”

“I have to agree,” said Justin.  “Couldn’t he do to someone else what he did to us, maybe hurt or kill someone?”

“As long as he continues to use the amulet exclusively and not his own abilities, no one’s life should be in direct peril from him.  Birantha is continuing to monitor his activities, and in fact is on his way to Uhrstegg’s location now.”  Prepared for the reactions this news would evince, Gwinthrayle went on: “There is a condition placed on the Stone which will prevent serious injury or loss of life, save perhaps for the user.  And Birantha will not engage Uhrstegg directly until we join him there.”

“I know that probably brings more questions than it answers,” said Johnathan, “but I’ve come to trust Gwinthrayle’s judgments in these areas.  You should too.”

“I believe you, Johnathan,” said Justin to his old friend, “and you know I’ve always respected your own judgments and opinions, and I still do.  It’s just that you didn’t spend a whole day in that hellhole of his.  I can’t help feeling we’re just allowing worse things to happen.”

“Your impatience is wholly understandable, Justin,” said Gwinthrayle, “and we will confront Uhrstegg directly soon, and perhaps find the answers to other mysteries in the process.  But first…I know you’ve all had many questions about the Stone, and the time for answers is at hand.

“From the beginning, then: several years ago, in a town called Tharvel, located elsewhere on this continent which we call Vitrono, lived two brothers.  Their names were Pharsal and Arvasa, and the two of them pursued interests similar to those of Birantha and myself: of arcane lore, of mysticism; but alas, their motivations were more along the lines of gaining personal power, though not necessarily toward subjugating or dominating others.  Pharsal in particular had always been regarded as an outcast of society, at least in his own mind, tending away from the company of most others; with the exception of Arvasa, who’d always supported him and looked out for him.  The two were virtually inseparable.

“In their studies, they’d learned of an extradimensional world possessing a mineral resource reputed to have the potential for great power, even a small portion of it. This world has an environment very hostile and inhospitable to life as you or I know it, so much so that even the most powerful sorcerers would be hard pressed to protect themselves: constant violent storms, a corrosive and highly acidic atmosphere; yet those were only half the danger. It would seem incredible that a world so hostile to life could actually support a form of life, yet exist it does. These were said to be bodiless, formless wraiths which would psychically attack any visitor.

“This mineral they sought was said to have the unique quality of being a receptacle for magical properties which could be applied by one possessing the proper skills and knowledge, after a piece of it, even a very tiny portion, was cut away.  Once this process was begun, this individual would be the only one who could continue applying properties to it, up until his or her death.  These properties, once applied, could not be altered or revoked; they would be permanent.  They would take essentially two forms: ones that would perform specific functions as willed by the user, and ones which would in time pass characteristics of a permanent nature upon the user.

“In spite of the enormous risks, these brothers endeavored to make the journey to this world—the Dark World, it was called in the texts they’d consulted—for a sample of this mineral. They knew that one with the proper skills, which they were certain they had, could apply virtually unlimited capabilities to it. Why, one may ask, would they risk their lives for something which, it had been said, none had ever succeeded in obtaining? It wasn’t lust for power that drove them nearly as much as a sense of youthful adventure and daring. They were aware of the stories of others who had made the attempt unsuccessfully, but were confident that their own skills were sufficient to protect them long enough to enable them to obtain what they wanted.

“Soon Pharsal and Arvasa were ready, or so they believed.  They pierced the dimensional barrier, protected by a spell which shielded them from the pervasive violent storms and corrosive atmosphere and enabled them to breathe and see their way around.  They wasted no time; they knew, from their preliminary research, that they were in the right location for a sample of the ore, which was available on the surface; no digging or mining required.

“While Arvasa maintained the dimensional gateway, which allowed none but themselves to pass through, Pharsal blasted away a small chunk of the ore, drawing it within his protective barrier.  But just as he did, they were discovered by the Dark World’s inhabitants, the formless wraiths who set about attacking their very minds.  They’d believed their own spells to be enough to protect them, but they proved to be woefully inadequate.  Both found it nearly impossible to maintain control over their protective spells as they felt their very sanity slipping away.  Pharsal used what little strength of will he had left to maintain the gateway, even as he and Arvasa’s control over their physical shields completely fell away, exposing them directly to the Dark World’s unbelievably harsh elements.  With only instants to live, Pharsal used what physical strength he had left to pull Arvasa and himself through the gateway, through which the wraiths couldn’t follow.  It automatically closed after they were completely through, back safe on Lahaikshe.

“Their injuries were grievous, the acidic atmosphere having begun eating away at their very flesh, but Pharsal was able to initiate a healing spell before the pain became too intense. It began taking effect just as he mercifully lost consciousness, and it kept him in a coma-like state for several days as the greater of his injuries healed, his very flesh being regenerated.

“Upon awakening, he quickly recalled their ordeal and, though still quite weak, got up off his bed to see how his brother fared and quickly noticed a strongly unpleasant odor in the house. Fearing the worst, he found Arvasa’s body, lying where they’d both returned. Pharsal’s healing spell could only help him, and Arvasa hadn’t been able to initiate one of his own in time; the wraiths had very likely destroyed most of his mind by then, so he’d died on the spot. Because they lived in a very out-of-the-way location and were so reclusive, no one had discovered them in the intervening days.

“There was nothing for Pharsal to do but carry the pitiful remains to their backyard and bury them, after which he sorrowfully continued his convalescence and pondered what he was to do now.  How could he go on without him? he thought.  He looked at the ore sample they’d collected and asked himself if his brother’s life was worth this lump of rock, and in a fit of anguish tossed it in a corner.  His magicks would, in the next few days, speed his physical recovery, but the emotional scars would be slower to heal.”

Gwinthrayle paused in his narration for a drink of water.  Johnathan and Madeline could certainly sympathize with Pharsal, both having lost family members and almost losing others, and held each other a little closer.  “He knew the risks; they both did,” commented Melvin.  “But they didn’t deserve that, even if their motives were selfish.”

“Indeed, Melvin,” said Gwinthrayle solemnly, “but I believe you’ll agree that, ultimately, Pharsal did redeem himself.

“So…over the following weeks, he pondered the ore sample. He had the skills to give it most any capability he wished, but was at a loss for what its purpose should be. He used his powers to cut and polish it, and set it in a pendant of his choosing, bringing it to the form of the Stone of which you’re familiar; but even after this, he still hadn’t a clue for what to do with it. Along with these uncertainties, he’d felt terribly alone since his brother’s death, and this developed into a growing bitterness and cynicism which, for a time, dominated his thoughts about the Stone. He considered using it for purely greedy purposes, and began applying capabilities to it, the first ones, toward that end: the shaping of nonorganic matter like stone and metal, for instance. But he soon gave up on that idea, believing it would only sully Arvasa’s memory. He did apply further capabilities to it, still without a specific plan for its ultimate purpose. These included the power to levitate objects; to provide simple illumination; to provide a protective force-shield against any physical threat; to show images upon its face depicting scenes that occurred in the past—though how far in the past, I’m not certain it’s been put to the test yet—or in the present, and not only in the same world, the same dimension, but in different dimensions as well. He also gave it its translating capability, and that of self-protection, making it virtually indestructible. Some of these things he could already do using his own knowledge and talents, but the Stone would make them so much easier, with no more than a thought.”

Gwinthrayle’s audience looked at each other, nodding knowingly, most having witnessed all of these capabilities in action; or employed them, in Johnathan’s and Madeline’s cases.  “You didn’t mention travel between dimensions,” brought up Justin.  “That must have come later.”

“It did, Justin; and along with it, an actual purpose. For Pharsal was not a cruel or vindictive man; he had no genuine desire to hurt anyone. Thus, the bitterness that had driven him at the beginning had given way, over several weeks of soul-searching, to a realization that there was much good one could do with an object of such power. But he was certain that he would not be the one to do it; he believed that the bearer of the Stone should be one possessing especially strong and genuine heroic qualities: bravery, selflessness, altruism, putting the well-being of others before oneself; all qualities which he believed were not in himself. This person would be able to utilize the full range of the Stone’s capabilities, to be the true hero he believed he could never be.”

Madeline looked upon Johnathan, astounded as she realized how this had to apply to both of them.  The phrase “courage of the heart” crossed her mind again, and she wondered: did Pharsal specifically choose her and Johnathan to be the amulet’s bearers?  How could it be, when she’d never met him, at least not knowingly?  She almost asked this aloud, but Johnathan just nodded knowingly; she was reminded that he had to have heard the story already, and so further questions would certainly be answered soon.

“Once Pharsal had made this decision, he added more capabilities to the Stone, one of which he deemed necessary due to a quality of the mineral which he’d discovered in the course of his studies: that individuals who knew the correct spell—little more than an incantation, really, spoken in the correct frame of mind—could take over the amulet for his or her own use. This was an inherent weakness of the mineral, and so he could not place a quality upon the Stone which would resist such a takeover. But he came up with an alternative: since the qualities he’d already applied couldn’t be altered or revoked, he couldn’t give it one which would inhibit those it already had; but he could apply a “fail-safe” characteristic to it, preventing the user from using the Stone to injure or kill another. The fail-safe would manifest in two ways: if one’s life was in danger from the Stone’s use unintentionally, that one would be automatically protected from harm; for instance, if the user threw debris and someone was right in its path, the debris would be diverted and none would be harmed. But if the user intended to maim or kill someone with the Stone’s power, it would be turned back on the user, possibly resulting in the user’s death.”

Gwinthrayle paused again, allowing realization to sweep over his audience. Apparently Uhrstegg had learned of that inherent weakness and of the spell which he used to take over the Stone for himself, and this was what Gwinthrayle had meant when he said none were in danger from its use, save perhaps Uhrstegg himself.

“Once certain he’d given the Stone all the capabilities necessary for its chosen bearer to be a true hero, Pharsal gave it one last one, the one which would put his whole plan into action. It would now, in effect, “choose” its bearer once it was in his or her hands, of its own volition. Plus, there could be more than one “chosen one,” but no more than two. When this last capability had taken hold, Pharsal knew what his next step should be—finding the right user—but was at something of a loss for how to go about it.

“It was at almost that precise moment when he had a visitor: our friend Birantha.  He had sensed the presence of an object of potentially enormous power in that area, and he was prepared for a possible battle with Pharsal, not knowing of his true intentions.  But Pharsal had known Birantha by reputation and was aware that he was someone who could be trusted with the knowledge of the Stone and all he’d done and planned on doing with it.  So he confided to Birantha everything, giving him all the details of the Stone’s origins just as I’m relating them to you today.  Pharsal believed Birantha to be better qualified to seek out one worthy of the Stone, so he willingly bequeathed it to him.

“Birantha brought it to his home but instead of going out and selecting someone worthy to be its bearer, he essentially put it away for safekeeping; something he later admitted to me with a degree of embarrassment, since for a time he’d essentially forgotten about it.

“Well…more time passed, during which I was not yet aware of this development.  Though Birantha and I had known each other for years, we lived some distance from each other and sometimes went weeks without communicating.  But before long I would become aware of the Stone, through some highly unexpected means.

“My normal means of travel at that time was via haisk’ve-drawn carriage; the haisk’ve, for those of you who have yet to see one, being an animal widely domesticated and used largely for travel.  Johnathan has already described seeing them upon his arrival.  On one such occasion I was traveling along a thoroughfare many klivaphs to the west of here, on my way to visit Birantha, when I was flagged down by a fellow…traveler, one might call him, though not an ordinary one.  One glance, and I could see he was not of this world: taller than the average Rusay though dressed very much like us, skin covered in short, dark green fur, face not unlike that of a Rusay but for two tusks that projected upward from his lower jaw, a long thick tail.  I’d met and often played host to extradimensional visitors, but this was the first of his kind I’d seen.”

Again Gwinthrayle paused as everyone, down to Sithpha’s youngest child, looked at each other, all aware of the identity of this stranger.

“I see I needn’t tell you who this was. Once we’d established mutual communication he confirmed that he was lost in our world without the means to reach home. Out of caution I didn’t tell him of my own abilities and in fact gave him a false name, but I did tell him that I knew of one who could possibly help him find his way home, though I didn’t specifically name Birantha. I invited him on board and we continued on. I never asked his name, and he never volunteered it or said much else, seeming content just to take in his surroundings.

“But after only about two or three minutes after we’d continued on together, he suddenly spoke a series of unfamiliar words; an incantation, I realized too late. Briefly I cursed myself for a novice…and then I knew nothing more until I awoke in the forest just off the highway some hours later: ten or eleven, as I reckoned, since last I knew it was late morning, and now it was close to sunset. Immediately I thought of Birantha and what this stranger might want with him, so I employed the transport spell to take me straight to his home.

“When I got there, he greeted me in a fashion that was initially perplexing: ‘Did you forget something, my friend?’ were his first words, as if we had only parted company earlier that day. We quickly compared accounts and realized we’d both been duped. The green stranger had put a sleep-spell upon me and then had assumed my face and form, or at least had maintained an illusion convincing enough for Birantha to believe he was me. Not expecting any kind of deception, he’d welcomed the stranger, whose apparent aim was to uncover secrets or information unobtainable outside our circle.

“And uncover he did. Among other things, Birantha had told him all about this amulet that had fallen into his possession some months before, knowing that this was something I’d likely need to know about. The imposter had seemed especially fascinated by the account, and so together we checked to find the Stone not in its place of safekeeping, confirming Birantha had been deceived and the amulet stolen. Shortly thereafter we traced its current whereabouts to a location not far away: a forest glade to which we’d arrived just in time to see, all too briefly, a figure which I immediately recognized as the green stranger. We were close enough to see the Stone around his neck, glowing red and then flashing bright white, but too far away and too late to prevent his escape. When we looked again he was gone, obviously having used the amulet to flee to another location, perhaps another dimension; something even adepts such as ourselves were never able to do with our own abilities. We were later able to confirm that he was indeed no longer on Lahaikshe, and so we could only imagine why he needed the Stone or what he would do with it.

“So…this was the account I related to Johnathan on his first day as my guest.  Together we’d concluded that ‘his’ amulet and the one created by Pharsal and stolen from Birantha had to be one and the same.” Gwinthrayle drank some more water.

“And not only that,” continued Johnathan, “hearing about how the ‘green stranger’ had used the amulet to leave Lahaikshe, and the way it had turned up on Earth, got us doing the math…and we found that those two events happened very close to each other, possibly the same day. So Gwinthrayle’s green stranger and my ‘mystery creature’, my Mr. Invisible, were most likely one and the same, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed. But there were questions: Why did he come to Earth? Did he intend to specifically? And why’d he seem to just…let the Stone go? Did he actually lose it, somehow, or did he intend to let it fall into someone else’s hands? And after all that, why’d he try so hard to get it back? Even in all this time, we haven’t come up with any answers, but…after hearing about how Pharsal set it to ‘choose’ someone worthy, and that someone turned out to be me…I knew that it couldn’t be coincidence that the Stone came to Earth and into my hands. Nor could it be coincidence that it brought me here, to where it came from.”

“What about Birantha?” asked Justin.  “I take it he didn’t know much more.”

“Gwinthrayle contacted him, and he arrived and I first met him later the same day.  But you’re right, Justin, he couldn’t offer much more.”

“What about Pharsal?” asked Melvin.  “The way you’ve been talking, it’s as if he completely dropped out of the picture.”

“That’s because he did,” said Johnathan.

“Some months after he gave the Stone to Birantha,” elaborated Gwinthrayle, “he died of an apparent accident; a fall from a ladder outside his home, as I was told.”

“Sounds a bit hard to believe, after all he’d done, that something so mundane would be the end of him.”  Justin sighed.  “It’s too bad.  I would have liked to meet him.”

“So would I,” agreed Madeline.  “I would have thanked him.”

Johnathan rubbed her shoulder, nodding in agreement. “In spite of the trouble it’s caused us; the Stone, I mean. I’ve said to Gwinthrayle more than once that I wished I’d never laid eyes on it, even knowing that it saved me from becoming a kitty treat; but now I know its power saved our children as well.”

The others added agreements and amens.  “So, Johnathan, you were able to confirm that your Mr. Invisible, Urpstuff or whatever, did come here with you?” asked Willis.

Johnathan paused to chuckle. “‘Urpstuff’…Well, at the time I still hadn’t made up my mind whether or not I really felt him groping around at me in the cave, though Gwinthrayle and Birantha thought it could have happened. It would be awhile before we could confirm it; but in the meantime they set about seeing what they could do to send me home. Birantha was able to give me a full rundown of the Stone’s capabilities, most of which I didn’t know about yet. He and Gwinthrayle agreed that it was powerful enough to traverse the dimensional barriers, something they were attempting with their own abilities but without any luck. But they promised to do anything they could to help.”

Johnathan paused to look upon Gwinthrayle fondly. “I’ll tell you, guys…it still amazes me how, in a world so different from ours, that so much can be the same. From my first day here, I could see it so clearly: from the Rusay I met on the way here, to Gwinthrayle’s willingness to help a total stranger…and they didn’t come stranger than me.” After the others finished laughing, Madeline the loudest, he added, “The capacity these people have for friendship, benevolence, love…it never ceases to amaze me.” He looked at Sithpha’s family, seeing in them all that was right with this world.

“Over the following weeks, I’d go out on little excursions around the countryside, visiting little villages and hamlets, meeting with the people; sometimes with Gwinthrayle accompanying, sometimes by myself.  For all that I longed for my own home and family, and for all that I’d find to remind me of what had been taken from me, I found more and more to endear me to this world and its people.  During one trip, I introduced myself to one Rusay man who had trouble pronouncing my name, so he essentially picked a more Rusay-style name for me: Aphonjal.  It was amazing that he’d honor someone so different from him like that, as if I were one of them.  It just seems to be an inherent quality of these people, to be accepting of others unlike them.  Xenophobia, apparently, just isn’t in their makeup.  Anyhow, the name stuck, and I kept on using it every time I went out in public.  I even began dressing more like them; I started wearing vests like the one I’m wearing now.

“All this did much to assuage my loneliness; but I’ll admit I had my days where it got to be too much, when I’d just want to be left alone: when I’d hardly even come out of my room, or else I’d spend most of the day outside, staying within Gwinthrayle’s compound and in adjacent areas, not caring if I saw anyone else or not.  Sometimes—and Gwinthrayle can certainly attest to this—I was honestly pretty lousy company, and I’ll always be grateful for his tolerance and understanding when one of my blacker moods took over, and he never took things personally.  Eventually I told him that I’d prefer to be addressed by my adopted name, Aphonjal, all the time, even by him and Birantha; especially after the weeks and months dragged on and I was actually starting to wonder if I’d be here for the rest of my life and I’d have no choice but leave my old life behind.  I’d no doubt that Gwinthrayle—sometimes with Birantha’s help—was doing all he could to get me home, but when he seemed to reach one dead end after another, it could be difficult.  I guess when one’s in such a state, it’s hard to be rational.  Sometimes I’d get to thinking about Maddie and the kids, and what difficulties they might be experiencing—especially while it was winter back there—while I was here, living in near-luxury.  In spite of the fact that my coming here was completely unplanned and against my will, I’d actually feel guilty.  It seems pretty silly now, but…no matter what else, at the end of the day, I’d apologize to Gwinthrayle and he’d always manage, one way or another, to help in keeping me going another day.

“Now, around two months ago, things happened which would change the status quo, as I’d come to know it.  Gwinthrayle had come upon a spell which could be worked in tandem with one of similar skills and abilities in another dimension, and this would be used to physically send me home.  When he told me this, I immediately thought of Nicodemus.  Even I was unaware of how much he knew or practiced, or whether or not he actually had mystical knowledge to match Gwinthrayle’s; but it seemed to be our best shot.  But how would he go about contacting Nicodemus?  There was another spell he’d learned of which would use a ‘message in a bottle’ approach, putting my thoughts and feelings in contact with individuals of my selection in my home dimension, to let them know I was ‘somewhere out there.’”

“We began work immediately on this spell, but its target—Nicodemus—could not be reached,” Gwinthrayle continued.  “It was a mystery at first, but after two more tries, both of which proved fruitless, we knew there could only be one conclusion, the last one we wanted to admit.”

“I had hoped,” Johnathan went on, “that if it truly meant that Nicodemus was dead, it would have been of natural causes. So I guess that hearing that he had died wasn’t that great a shock, but how it happened…well, I’d rather not go into that again, though I still wonder about that image of him Maddie said she saw in the Stone, and what it really meant. But…for our current problem, there was another alternative. We agreed that if we couldn’t contact Nicodemus, the next best thing would be to let other of my friends and loved ones know that I was alive and well.”

“And the results,” Gwinthrayle added, “I believe some of you know quite well.”

“The ‘impressions’ that Justin, Mr. Ages and I received!” exclaimed Madeline.

“Exactly, my dear.”

“Because my feelings for you were the strongest,” Johnathan told her, “that must have been why yours were the most intense.”

“I apologize for the great anxiety and discomfort they caused you,” said Gwinthrayle, “but I knew of no other way.  Contacting you in this fashion was the last alternative I could see at the time.”

“It’s all right, Gwinthrayle,” said Madeline.  “I don’t mind.  After all, the results are what really matter.”  She smiled at Johnathan, kissing his cheek.

“True,” agreed Gwinthrayle, “even though those results were quite unexpected, to us at least: that the second bearer of the Stone, as decreed by Pharsal, would turn out to be none other than one of those we’d contacted, as well as his own mate, the one he loved most; and that she would then use the amulet to seek out the one contacting her.”

“I still have to wonder,” said Justin, “why, given all we’ve learned about the Stone, it chose Madeline instead of, say, one of us rats for its second bearer.”  He quickly added, “No offense to either of you, but I wonder if it had anything to do with your being mates.”

Both Brisbys shrugged.  “It may be coincidence, or not,” said Johnathan.  “And why it burned Maddie when she first used it, and it didn’t me, I haven’t a clue.”

“I’m starting to wonder,” added Madeline, “whether there really is…someone within it, the way we’ve all been talking as if it were a living thing.”

“Yes,” added Melvin thoughtfully, “and if so, could that someone be Nicodemus, especially considering that you saw his image in it?  I wouldn’t be surprised if Pharsal left out some details to Birantha about what he set it to do.”

“That’s right,” agreed Justin.  “Who’s to say it couldn’t have…absorbed Nicodemus’s spirit, or something like that?  And Pharsal may even have had other plans for it, some whole other agenda.”

“Getting back to Nicodemus,” added Willis, “could he really have been a sorcerer like Gwinthrayle here?  I know he was starting to become more reclusive in his last few months, leaving more of the day-to-day details of running the colony to Justin, Arthur, Tallus, all the department heads; but did that really mean he was learning magic in his spare time?”

“Justin and I were certainly the closest to him by that time,” Johnathan said, “and even I couldn’t say for sure.  It may have all started way back when we were staying at the Boniface estate, with its huge library.  I don’t know how much of this story you’ve told Maddie yet, but there were many books on psychic phenomena, and magic and mysticism there, and both Nicodemus and I found these subjects to be, frankly, pretty fascinating.  Whether or not he was actually experimenting with things he’d read in those books, I couldn’t say.  He always told me that his abilities of telekinesis—moving objects about using only the power of the mind—came to him totally out of the blue, for the first time when he saved both of us from being struck by a falling limb during a strong wind.”

“A lot of us saw that ability in action,” agreed Justin, “during our early days at the Rosebush.”

“Yes,” said Johnathan, “but there was a precognitive ability there too, seeing or ‘feeling’ things that would happen in the near future.  He never said so to me, but I’ve sometimes wondered if that was a factor in his initiating the Thorn Valley Plan.  He always maintained that he couldn’t see any further into the future than, say, a day or so, but…I’ve no doubt that he had his secrets.”

“Even to those of us closest to him,” added Justin.  “And he was the closest to a father I’d known since before NIMH.”

“You and me both,” agreed Johnathan.  “Oh, he was still was a very effective and efficient leader, and still a good friend to me; though as time passed, there was more and more about him that seemed odd and eccentric, even mysterious.  I even have to wonder now if…he may have foreseen his own death.”

Justin looked at him in disbelief. “I…can hardly believe it. No offense, Johnathan, but you weren’t there. The way he left himself open to Jenner’s attempt, he couldn’t have known; he’d have done his best to avoid it…wouldn’t he?”

“Of course he would have, Justin.  It was…just a thought.”  Neither wanted to voice the other possibility: that he had foreseen his death and allowed it to happen…as if he were suicidal?  No, it was unthinkable.  “So…to get back to Willis’s original question: he could have been learning magic and mysticism, but to what extent is still open.”

“What about Uhrstegg?” ventured Melvin.  “You said earlier that you eventually confirmed that the Stone had sent him here with you.”

“I was just getting to that. On one of my excursions in the area, one that took me a little further away from home than usual—home-away-from-home, I should say—I was tramping about in the forest south of here when I thought I caught something moving away from me quickly through the foliage. It immediately brought to mind the day I picked up the Stone, and almost as soon as I thought of it, it became even more so. I picked up a scent, one I hadn’t encountered in the area before but one I couldn’t forget. Yes, it was the one I knew from that day some two years before and from the incident in the broom closet. For a moment I considered trying to track him; then I realized Gwinthrayle would have to know about this ASAP. So I rushed home, running almost all the way, and when I could catch my breath I told him what I’d smelled and seen. Immediately he brought me to his study, to his Orb of Disclosure. I don’t think any of you have seen it yet, but this is his device for viewing events taking place elsewhere at the present time, functioning much like the one Nicodemus used. He brought the view to that area, setting it to pinpoint the movements of any large creature; and after about two minutes, I got my first clear look at the mystery creature, Mr. Invisible, though he wasn’t invisible now. For Gwinthrayle, it confirmed what he’d suspected: he recognized him as the one who’d gotten the drop on him two years before and then impersonated him, after which he’d stolen the Stone from Birantha.

“He contacted Birantha, and soon all three of us were searching the area, making as wide a sweep as we could to uncover this one who may or may not have been our enemy, to question him at the very least.  But we couldn’t find hide or hair of him.That area, by the way, included a certain stone house that some of you are familiar with.  Even then it had been long unoccupied, though there were signs that someone may have been squatting there recently.  But we couldn’t come up with any concrete evidence that he was the one who’d been there, let alone actually spot him.

“Back at Gwinthrayle’s that night, though, we got quite a surprise. An hour or so after sunset, the house was attacked. It sounded like sudden, intense thunder and lightning. The whole place shook, though no worse than a mild earth tremor, I’d imagine, and the whole event lasted under a minute. I was in my room at the time, and then I met Gwinthrayle in the hall. ‘What in the world was that?’ I demanded, and he told me that he’d expected something like this and had planned accordingly, erecting a barrier to protect his house and compound from any mystic attack.”

“In truth,” Gwinthrayle continued, “I was surprised at how relatively feeble the attempt was; but feeble or not, Birantha and I continued trying to ferret out our aggressor.  But in subsequent days, our efforts still yielded nothing.  Whether the aggressor was truly Johnathan’s mystery creature or not, he continued to prove elusive, for reasons that are still a mystery to us both.”

“Did he try to attack again?” asked Justin.

“He made no further attempts, and in fact seemed to disappear completely.  Before yesterday, neither Birantha nor I could detect him at all.  Evidently, he’s quite accomplished at keeping his presence cloaked, even from us.”

“That brings us almost up to date,” said Johnathan, “but not completely until we hear from one more party who’s dealt with our ‘green stranger.’”  He looked toward Sithpha and Dinilom, who were clearly glad that their turn had come and eager to share what they knew.

“Well,” began Sithpha, “it was a few weeks ago, back in Timphon; that’s our home town, remember?  We were taking a stroll through the marketplace, Dini and I, picking up some fresh produce, meeting friends; and then we started for home.  We passed an alleyway, and Dini said she caught a glimpse of something moving further back in it, something that didn’t look Rusay.  We went in for a look, very cautiously, and found huddled in a little alcove this creature, the likes of which we’d never seen: short, green fur, tusks coming out of his mouth; I guess you know it well by now.  He seemed afraid of us, and we debated a bit about whether we should just leave him alone…”

“…But we decided,” continued Dinilom, “to continue speaking quietly and gently to him, to see what he’d do.  He spoke to us, in a language we couldn’t understand, but he sounded more confused than frightened.  We motioned to him that he could come with us if he wanted, and then we started to move away slowly.”

“We kept motioning to him, and suddenly he got up.  It was kind of startling at first, seeing him upright, but he still didn’t seem to mean any harm, any more than we did to him, and he seemed to want to come with us.  We noticed for the first time this pendant he wore around his neck, which had what looked to us like ordinary glass set in it.  He let Dini take his hand and lead him out of the alley, and then we continued on to home.  We took a route that was a bit out of the way; we thought it best if no one else saw him, and we didn’t meet anyone else along the way.  When we got there, the kids were there already, real curious about who this was, and we told them all we could, which of course wasn’t much.  We managed to learn each other’s names, and let him have dinner with us.”

“He had very good table manners,” commented Dinilom.

“He was as civilized as us, we could tell that much,” added Sithpha.  “And by the way, Ghormfisk was his name, at least the one he gave us.  Anyway, over the next few weeks we taught him some words of our language, and we learned some of his, and near as we could tell he was from someplace else far away.  He couldn’t seem to tell us where, exactly.  But he definitely seemed grateful for our help.”

Dinilom continued: “We kept him there, as a guest in our home, for the next few weeks, and he would help us with chores, entertain the kids; he seemed to become like a member of the family.  But we knew we couldn’t keep him a secret from everyone else forever, and it didn’t seem fair to him either.”

“But then,” said Sithpha, “just the night before last, he seemed to come to a decision of his own. He suddenly got up and walked out our back door without saying a word. I followed out of curiosity, and he was just standing there, looking as if he was listening to something I couldn’t hear. I asked him what was going on, and he didn’t seem to hear me. Then I noticed the pendant that he always wore was flashing on and off, like there was some kind of light from within it. I asked him what that was about, and then he looked at me, said something like, ‘Yes…at last!’ And then he grabbed me, picking me right up off the ground. I shouted ‘Hey! Put me down!’ and then he put his hand over my mouth. Behind me, Dini and the kids came out of the house to see what all the commotion was about, and just about the same time Ghormfisk said something in his own language and he started to…float away, up into the air, still carrying me.”

“They went higher and higher,” continued Dinilom, “and we shouted at him to come back; we were more concerned with why he was doing this and where he was taking Sithpha, rather than how he was doing it.  We watched them…flying further and further away, toward the west.  We could only look on in shock, we didn’t know what to make of any of this.  Then I decided we should try to follow as best we could, so we hitched up our haisk’ve to the carriage and set out on the road heading west of town.  We asked anyone we met along the way if we saw anyone flying through the air while carrying someone.  We got a few funny looks, but we let everyone know we were completely serious.  Nobody seemed to see anything, but we kept searching, kept asking if anyone saw or heard anything strange.  We kept it up until after dark, and soon we were tired enough that we decided to wait until morning to resume our search.  It was hard; we were so worried, because this whole situation was so unlike anything we’d dealt with before.  We knew it had to be some kind of magic or sorcery, and though we hadn’t dealt with it before, we knew there was at least one who lived in the area who was said to know of such things, and who might be able to help.  So we camped overnight just off the road, though none of us got much sleep.”

She paused, clasping Sithpha’s hand, and he picked up his side of the story. “Well…just after Ghormfisk carried me off and floated away he made us invisible, from a spell he put on us; that’s what he told me later, even though we could still see each other. I asked him where he was taking me, what this was about; and even then, I didn’t think it was for anything really bad. It was actually kind of exciting, flying through the air like a mhys’haspa. But when we’d been going like this for maybe a half-hour or so, I was starting to get worried, even thinking that our taking Ghormfisk into our home like we did wasn’t the best idea in the world. I didn’t dare struggle, and risk him dropping me. All the while, he hardly said a word, not about where we were going, or why; though he did look at that pendant of his a time or two. Finally, just before sunset, we come to this little abandoned house in the middle of the forest. We went inside, and he told me to stay in a back room until he needed me.

“Now I was really starting to get scared.  All I could think was that, whatever he needed me for, it couldn’t be good.  So I tried to escape.  He was studying his pendant really close, and I thought that was my best opportunity but he caught me, knocking me around a bit; and when I called him Ghormfisk, he got really angry; and then he showed me this image that was in the pendant.  It was Mrs. Brisby and her friends, and he told me my job was to lead them to him.  I asked him what he’d do afterwards, and then he puts his hand to my head and…my mind just sort of went off to one side.  Like I was telling Justin last night, it’s like I was watching myself do things that I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t do a thing to stop myself.  I went out to intercept you on the trail, climbed that tree, and…well, I guess you all know the rest from there.”  Sithpha sighed greatly.  “I know you all understand, and forgive me for what I did, but…I think I’ll be sorry about it for the rest of my life.”

Dinilom gave him a quick, reassuring hug, then continued her side of the story. “Well, the next morning, we continued to ask anyone we met if they’d noticed anything, though there aren’t many living out this way. We did get directions to Gwinthrayle’s house from a man named Asortha, though, and we knew we had to be on the right track. He offered to hold our carriage and haisk’ve for us, and then we continued on foot, following his directions. We followed the foot trails wherever we could, but we were totally unfamiliar with this area, and I think we got lost after a while. The kids had been holding up pretty well, but as the day dragged on we were all starting to feel pretty upset.

“But then, just as we were almost ready to give up, Birantha found us. We thought he was Gwinthrayle at first, but he said he was a friend of his and would take us to him right away. So then he used the same kind of floating spell that Ghormfisk used on Sithpha, and away we went. That was enough to give our spirits a lift, and when we got here we told Gwinthrayle everything we knew, and he was able to track down Sithpha, and the others Ghormfisk had trapped.”

Everyone looked around at each other.  “Looks like we’re all up to speed now,” said Johnathan.

“We’ve all learned more about the Stone and each other and a lot of other things this morning,” said Justin, “but there’s still you-know-who, and why he’s done what he’s done.”  He added with a touch of bitterness, “Especially with us.”

“For a while, I was thinking we could be dealing with two different beings here,” said Melvin.  “But from what our new friends here have told us, our mystery creature not only goes by two names, but seems to have two different personalities as well.”

“That sort of thing’s been known to occur in humans, as the result of some kind of severe and sustained physical or psychological trauma, or a mental condition that one can’t help,” observed Johnathan, “so that very well could be Ghormfisk’s problem.”

“You mean it could be some condition he couldn’t help,” said Justin with a clearly skeptical tone.  “Even with the way he planned out our capture?”

“With all we’ve read about mental illness, Justin, I’m willing to concede the possibility.  When I first heard Dinilom’s account last night, I thought he could have been shamming being lost and confused, and then being like a ‘big lamb’ up until he abducted Sithpha.  But now…we’ve got to allow for other possibilities.”

“When he was with us,” said Dinilom, “There was nothing in his behavior that told us something like that was possible.  He was always…gentle, docile; he responded to our kindness to him with more of the same.  I don’t think he was faking it, any of it.”

“And he was with them for several weeks,” observed Willis.  “If he was just faking being a ‘big lamb,’ why keep up the act for so long?  What was he waiting for?”

Johnathan would say later that, at this moment, one could almost see the collective lightbulb switch on above the heads of nearly everyone in the room.  He was the first to voice the idea aloud: “If he was waiting for anything…it would be the Stone!”

“Indeed,” said Gwinthrayle carefully.  “It could scarcely be coincidence that this sudden ‘change’ in him would occur the same day that Madeline’s party arrived on Lahaikshe.”

“Well, whatever his reasons or motivations or whatever you’d call them,” said Justin, “I’d say we can’t afford to wait much longer to confront him.”

“I have to agree, Gwinthrayle,” said Johnathan. “Last night, when we were tracking Sithpha’s location, I first got the idea that the Stone could be in Ghormfisk’s hands, and that he could use it to leave Lahaikshe altogether. And if he did, and never came back, it would effectively strand all of us here.”

“That’s right,” said Justin with a tone almost of alarm.  “That’s all the more reason we should take action now!”

“But you say he’s doing little more than just playing with it, not putting anyone in danger,” pointed out Melvin.  “He could still use it to leave Lahaikshe any time he decided to, couldn’t he?”

“Indeed he could, Melvin,” said Gwinthrayle, his tone as even and calm as ever. “But I have every reason to believe that he will continue as he has since gaining the amulet. But the time for confronting him is indeed close at hand, my friends.” He stood. “If all of you would please follow me to my study, I will show you Ghormfisk—or Uhrstegg’s—current activities.”

He led everyone out into the corridor, down a few doors to a room Madeline, the three rats and Sithpha hadn’t seen yet.  He directed them straight to an ornately-framed oval mirror.  “My Orb of Disclosure, for those of you unfamiliar with it.”  He made a sweeping motion with his hand, and the Orb instantly responded, showing them a scene taking place, he told them, many klivaphs to the south.  A klivaph, Johnathan quickly explained for the newcomers, was a unit of distance roughly equal to a fifth of a mile; but everyone was more concerned with the scene now visible on the Orb’s face: Uhrstegg, standing with arms raised, waving them this way and that as if conducting an orchestra; the Stone, hanging from around his neck, glowing all the while; and—what especially riveted everyone’s eyes—the stone and earth in front of him seemingly re-forming itself like self-shaping modeling clay.  Gwinthrayle willed the Orb’s view to pull back so that they could see more of his handiwork.  Everyone gasped as one as they took it all in: Uhrstegg had built himself a virtual town, apparently all “grown” from the native rock, some of the architecture quite bizarre to the eyes of Rusay and Earthling-visitor alike.

“Well, I see what you mean about his wanting to keep doing...whatever it is he’s doing,” said Justin thoughtfully.  “For whatever reason he’s doing it.”

“And he doesn’t seem to be doing harm to anyone,” observed Melvin.  “He’s more like a kid with a new toy.  But the simple fact is we need the Stone back.”

“But didn’t you say,” brought up Willis, “that he could do harm to himself if he tries to hurt someone with it?  That ‘fail-safe’ thing, right?”

“Yes, but he may not be aware of it,” said Gwinthrayle.  “Or if he is—if his past actions are any indication—he may forget or disregard it, and consequently be injured or killed himself by the stone which he’s reshaping.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen,” said Justin dourly, “after all he put us through.”

Madeline looked up at Justin, aghast.  “Justin, that’s terrible!  Uhrstegg may not be responsible for his actions.  He may just be…ill.  We should take the Stone back from him before he hurts himself.”

Johnathan’s eyes widened, surprised and a little amused at such a scolding tone from her, at least as directed to Justin.  “I have to agree, Justin.  At the very least, we should take him alive to get some answers from him.  I, for one, would be really interested to hear his story, if he’s inclined to tell it.”

“Remember,” Madeline said, “just before he imprisoned us, Justin, when I asked him why he was doing this?  I’d still like to hear his answer.”

“What she said,” added Willis.

Justin looked around at everyone, seeing naught but agreement to the point, even from those Uhrstegg had imprisoned and the Rusay family whom he’d deceived—intentionally or not.  “All right,” he conceded.  “It’ll be worth finding out, and maybe we’ll learn why all of this has been happening, since he’s been so involved all along.”

“I do have one question, Gwinthrayle,” said Madeline, “about this ‘fail-safe.’ Why didn’t the Stone turn its power back on Uhrstegg when he trapped us? Wasn’t he trying to hurt us, or even kill us then?”

“No, only imprison you.  Your lives were not in immediate danger, and so the fail-safe didn’t take hold.”

“That makes sense.  So…are we going to leave soon?”

“As soon as everyone feels up to it.  Are you feeling strong enough, Madeline?”

“Yes, very much so, especially after such a wonderful breakfast.  Thank you so much again, Gwinthrayle.  Right now, though, I’d like a few more minutes alone with Johnathan.”  She took his arm, smiling; he clearly approved of the idea.

“We will make final preparations in the meantime,” Gwinthrayle told them as the mouse couple headed for the side door through which they’d all entered last night.

Sithpha turned to Dinilom and the children.  “I have to go, too, Dini.  I have to see how this is going to end.”

“Oh, Sithpha, must you?  After what already happened…it could be dangerous.”

“It could be for us too,” interjected Justin, “but we’re all going, for the same reason he told you now.”

“It should be safe enough,” Gwinthrayle assured Dinilom.  Especially if our confrontation with Ghormfisk plays out as I suspect it might, he thought.

Looking satisfied, Dinilom gave her approval, and her children agreed.  “I promise I’ll be careful, Dini,” said Sithpha, embracing his wife and children.  “I’ll bet,” he added quickly, “you’d all like to hear more about where Justin and his friends came from.  I know I would.”

Though a little chagrined at his abrupt deflection of the subject, Dinilom couldn’t deny her own curiosity about this one.  The three rats were happy to oblige them.

*      *      *

“Your friend has such a lovely home,” said Madeline as she and Johnathan stood under a small pavilion overlooking the rolling, forested hills that surrounded Gwinthrayle’s home.

“This world is beautiful, at least what I’ve seen of it.  When this is all over, I’ll almost hate to leave it.  I’ve come to regard it as very much a second home.  But, for all that Gwinthrayle’s friendship means to me, it means so much more to be with you and the children again.  And I know he didn’t plan on my staying here permanently any more than I did.  I’ll always cherish him for all he’s done for me, and especially for you: saving your life, and the others’…Oh, baby, I thought, when I saw you lying there like that, that I’d…lost you forever.  It just…shook me to the core, it was the single worst moment of my life.”  He looked into her blue eyes, again unable to stop tears from welling in his own.

They embraced tightly.  “Oh, Johnathan…it’s all right.  All of this will be all right.”

“I know I shouldn’t dwell on it, but…if I’d lost you last night…I don’t know what I’d have done.”

After a pause Madeline drew back to face him.  “I know just what you’d have done.  You’d have gone home to our children, to raise them and love them, and be strong for them, because that it is the only thing you could do.”

Johnathan looked at her in surprise.  Later, when looking back at this scene, he’d realize her statement shouldn’t have surprised him so much.  Now, he could only kiss her on the nose and say, “Of course, you’re absolutely right.”  He shook his head, smiling.  “I think…I’m going to have to get to know you all over again.  I’m really looking forward to it.”

Madeline chuckled.  “Oh, I haven’t changed that much.  I’ve had to make a lot of decisions on my own, and I think…after my experiences with the Stone, I feel more confident than before, about a lot of things.  But I still have my four children and, once again, a husband, all of whom I love dearly.”

They embraced tightly again, silently; then she added, “I wonder what the children are doing right now.  I’m not really worried about them—well, maybe just a little—but I can’t help thinking they’re worried sick about me.”  She drew back to face Johnathan.  “We couldn’t tell them exactly where we were going…mostly because we didn’t know.  And I so wanted to tell them that we were going to find their father, but we all agreed that part of it would have to be kept secret.  So there’s so much we had to keep from them, and very little I could tell them.  And I’ve also wondered…maybe I’m being foolish, but…how will they deal with your being alive?  Will they greet you with open arms, or think you abandoned them?”

“Things have happened so fast, I’ve hardly had the time to consider that myself.  They may handle it just fine; but then…”  He looked out over Gwinthrayle’s gardens, momentarily lost in thought.  “When you told about how Timothy had caught pneumonia…Lord, that’s definitely something I should have been there for, despite everything else.  I have to admit, I’ve even thought the same thing, that I’d left all of you at the worst possible time, almost like I’d abandoned you; and that they might find it hard to forgive me.”

Madeline put a hand to his mouth, suddenly determined to forestall that line of thought in both of them.  “Johnathan, did you mean to leave us?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then there’s nothing to forgive.  When we see them again, we’ll make sure they know that you couldn’t prevent what happened to you.”

Johnathan was beginning to feel a strong sense that her experiences these past ten months, all the trials she and their children had lived through, had brought out the real Madeline Brisby; and that she was more like him and the Rats of NIMH than either had suspected. He’d already noted that she’d scarcely seemed to have aged, and listening to her now… Was it possible that she’d become like him, even from their earliest days together, merely by virtue of her being his mate? Or could the Stone have had a hand in it? Or both? Neither had brought up the matter with each other; yet Johnathan was unaware that Justin had brought up the same subject with her, and that she had indeed thought of it since their reunion. Nor could he know that both of them had decided that they wouldn’t bring it up until after they’d regained the Stone.

“Something else occurred to me, Johnathan,” she now said, “after you described how the Stone stranded you here.  What if…the same thing had happened to me, if I’d been wearing it when I was doing the same thing you were when you went away?”

Johnathan had felt almost grateful for her interruption of his previous train of thought; but now both of them shuddered as the full implications of her scenario sank in.  She probably would have been reunited with Johnathan that day, but at what cost?  She wouldn’t have been present to warn the Rats of the danger they would face from the men from NIMH; nor would she have been there, armed with the Stone, to save her children from suffocation, trapped in their house, as it sank into the mud.  A worst-case scenario, to be sure, but the possibility had been there.

Again they held each other.  “Let’s just be glad it didn’t,” said Johnathan.  “There’s been so much in our lives that seems to have gone as it did according to fate.  I’m starting to believe, more and more, that that’s true.”  He looked toward the house.  “Well…I guess we should get back to the others.  After all, we’ve got a life to get back to.”

Chapter 17 - The amulet regained

“Are you sure about this, Martin?” asked Timothy.  “It sure didn’t work yesterday.”

“That’s because we didn’t go about it right.  I’ll just bet that as long as we can get him alone, it’ll be okay,” Martin said confidently.  “I just know it will.”  He turned to Cynthia.  “Now you know what to do, right?  And when to do it?”

“Sure!” Cynthia clearly had more enthusiasm about this operation than her big sister.  Teresa brought up the rear of the group as they made their way up a corridor in a section of the Thorn Valley community which, so far, was still largely unused and undeveloped, with many chambers still empty.  She’d gone along with her siblings mostly as a show of solidarity; having believed it best, since yesterday, that they simply wait for the return of their mother and the others from their “secret mission,” especially since Timothy had advanced his theory that the Stone was involved and they’d used it to take them someplace.  None of them believed that anything bad had happened to the mission party, but the idea that they’d used the amulet in such a fashion had fired their imaginations greatly, especially Martin’s; and so he’d hatched a new plan.  Timothy had seemed at best lukewarm to this plan, and Martin had uncharacteristically talked Cynthia into becoming his most willing partner on it.  After another full day of classes, they’d managed to talk their temporary guardians into allowing them a little unsupervised time; and now, Martin hoped, they would get better results than yesterday.

“Okay, this is the place,” he announced quietly as they came upon the door they knew to be the right one.  He knocked upon it, calling out: “Mr. Ages?  This is Martin Brisby, can we come in?”

After a moment of silence a familiar fretful voice was heard:  “Yes, yes, come in.”

The Brisby children poured through the open door without hesitation.  Mr. Ages was seated on a sofa with plans and documents spread out on a low table in front of him.  Around the room were tables, apparently destined for use in examinations, and other furniture; many boxes, some stuffed with file folders, some with bottles and jars; and many items the children couldn’t readily identify.  They knew well, though, that much of it had been brought here directly from Ages’s old headquarters beneath the old thresher, mostly courtesy of Philip and Darwin, who had helped him make the move to Thorn Valley; and that all this would one day become the fully-fledged medical department he and the council had envisioned.  It was not a plan he especially relished, having always lived and worked alone; but he’d agreed it was necessary, as much so as his moving to Thorn Valley, where he’d have the support he knew he’d need and which he’d lack if he’d stayed at the Fitzgibbons farm.

“Well, what can I do for you children?” he asked, affecting the most hospitable tone he could.

“Remember yesterday, in Justin’s office?” Martin said as they all drew near, Timothy and Cynthia making themselves at home on either side of Ages on the sofa.

“Yes, I do,” Ages replied without hesitation, “and I’ve already told you all I know about where your mother went.  Now, if you want to know more about our plans here, I’ll be glad to…”  His voice trailed off as Martin, to his stupefaction, came up to him and began, unaccountably, tickling him along his sides and midsection.

“Are you gonna talk?” Martin said, sounding entirely serious.  “Are you gonna tell us what really happened?”

Teresa, standing by, put her hand to her face, her ears turning red, wishing fervently that she’d gone swimming with Hermione and Ophelia instead.

But Ages just looked up at Martin, expression reflecting only growing impatience bordering on smoldering anger.  “Martin Brisby…just what do you think you’re doing?”

Martin ceased his ministrations, straightening.  “Uh, er, not much.  I just thought that…well, that you’d…”

Timothy shook his head, almost as embarrassed as Teresa.  I told him it wouldn’t work on Mr. Ages like it did on Jeremy.  Guess I’d better get right to the point.  “Mr. Ages, we know that Mom and Justin and the others used the Stone to leave on their mission.  There was a red glow, then a flash of bright light, and that must have been the Stone that did it.  It couldn’t have been anything else.”

“It’s true, Mr. Ages,” added Teresa.  “What else could have done that?”

“Well, it was those two native mice who told you, wasn’t it?” brought up Ages.  “And they were much younger than you.  You can’t be sure they really saw what they said they did.”  He said this even knowing that that argument didn’t carry much weight anymore—if it ever did—and that they had him dead to rights.

“But how could they mistake something like that?” countered Timothy.  “Even if they are native mice, and just kids?”

“Yeah, it’s like you’re saying they’re dumb, just because they’re not like us,” said Martin, having recovered from the aftermath of his ill-considered attempt at torture.  He gave Cynthia a knowing glance.  “Or like we’re dumb.”

“Mr. Ages, that’s mean!” Cynthia wailed.  “You don’t think we’re dumb, do you?”  Tears began flowing as she threw her arms around Ages’s torso.

Timothy could barely suppress a smile. She’s quite the actress after all.

Ages, totally taken aback, was dumbstruck, utterly at a loss as Timothy leaned up close to him, giving him his own best soulful-eyes look, well aware of what a soft touch he was underneath his crusty exterior. “Well, I…” He cleared his throat, collecting himself as best he could.  “All right, listen, all of you.  I’m not saying you’re dumb, you’re definitely not.  And I’m not saying your new friends are either.  It’s just that…”  The words immediately on his lips died there: They’re naturals, and just children, they misinterpreted what they saw… He realized there was no way these children would buy the idea anymore.  The four sets of eyes bore into him, and he sighed helplessly, face reflecting the resignation that had fallen upon him.

“All right.  They did use the Stone.”  The Brisby children looked all around at one another, expressions brightening—including Cynthia, who had “turned off the waterworks” by now.  “That much is true.  They used it to…to go someplace far away.  But I still cannot tell you exactly where they went.  None of us can tell you that.  Even your mother, and Justin, Melvin and Willis didn’t know exactly where they were going.”

“But why did they go there?” asked Martin, quite reasonably.  “There must have been a reason.  Were they looking for something?”  Or someone, thought Timothy.

“That,” Ages said with all the authority he could muster, “I cannot tell you.”  He gently pushed Cynthia and Timothy from him and stood.  “Now as you can see, I have plenty of work to do, so if you’ll all run along…”  He motioned with his hands.  “Go on, go on…”

Martin, as usual, felt the least satisfied; though he knew, as did his sibs, that they’d gotten the answer to the question foremost on their minds.  They all thanked him, Cynthia the most profusely, giving Ages a big hug.  “Come on, everybody,” said Teresa.  “We can still get in a little swim time before dinner.”

They all departed, leaving Ages with a mixture of annoyance over the fact that they were able to worm the information from him; reflection on what their mother and the three rats might be facing right now, including whether they’d actually found Johnathan; and something almost like wistfulness or longing, a wish for something more in his life.  He caught himself.  You’re just letting Cynthia’s tears get to you, he decided.  He sat again, trying to return his full attention to his paperwork.

*      *      *

Uhrstegg was talking to himself again.

In front of him, the fruits of his labors lay before him, sprawled across a wide area of the rocky plain that had essentially become his home over the past day and a half.  “It is coming along well, is it not?”  He started to turn to one side.  “Now all it needs is—”  He cursed to himself as he almost tripped over some loose stone.  “Well, we can’t have this, can we?  Why, it’s all barely over a day old, and it’s already a mess!”  So saying, he willed the Stone to gather together a large pile of loose rock and other debris.  With the amulet glowing, he willed it to fuse and compress the entire pile into one huge boulder.  He raised it into the air, enveloped in the red glow, and carelessly sent it flying off to one side, unconcerned with where it was heading, taking for granted that no one was there to care one way or the other.

“Look out, Mother!”  The older son saw it coming first, and pushed his mother and younger brother to the ground, trying to shield them from injury with his own body.

“Wait…look!” the younger brother yelled.  He’d looked up as the projectile came bearing down on them, with no time to comprehend fully what would surely follow in the next moment; but now all of them saw it swerve from its downward path, as if a giant hand had batted it away, and fall to earth harmlessly several feet away.

The three looked at the boulder, then toward the strange village that had sprung up practically overnight from what had been almost-bare rock.  They could see the one who had been responsible for both moving about the town’s perimeter, apparently oblivious of what he’d almost done.  The boys’ mother hugged her sons close.  “He could have killed us,” she exclaimed.  “And he didn’t even notice!”  The trio got to their feet and headed swiftly for their carriage, already noticing—and thankful—that their haisk’ve hadn’t been spooked by the commotion, their immediate goal to put much further distance between themselves and the stranger.

The scene, however, did not go completely unnoticed.

*      *      *

“Johnathan, I will never, as long as I live, get used to this kind of travel.”

“Not much choice, Willis,” Johnathan said, “and it does get us there.”

“Are we almost there?” asked Madeline tremulously.  Her earlier estimation, that she’d have difficulty with this form of travel, was proving all too accurate, as she clung close to Johnathan, covering her eyes.

“We will be soon, sweetheart,” Johnathan assured her. “Just a few more minutes.” If it were anyone else, he might be at least mildly amused at her discomfort. But this was Madeline, the mother of his children, the one he loved most; and after what she’d just lived through, seeing her in any amount of discomfort wasn’t easy for him, for all he knew of her own strength, that she was no delicate flower.

She reminded him of this now.  “Then I guess…I’d better get used to it.”  She opened her eyes, easing her grip on her husband’s arm, and braved a look around at her surroundings.  It was definitely a wondrous sight to behold, though she still reminded herself to avoid looking down.  It was a firm but slightly yielding surface they all sat on, comfortable but making the whole experience more than a little unsettling, at least to her and Willis, simply because they couldn’t see it.

Gwinthrayle’s spell of transportation was taking them all, all seven of them, many klivaphs to the south of his home, over land was still mostly undeveloped and untouched by Rusay civilization, with forested land alternating with more open country, frequently crisscrossed by rivers and streams and dotted with small lakes; overall not mountainous but with many rolling hills.  They watched it all roll by beneath them with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Johnathan’s perhaps the highest, being more accustomed to it.  If the children liked flying with those crows, they would probably love this, he thought.

They passed over a small town that lay on the edge of an area with little vegetation, giving way to an almost-bare, rocky plain.  Looking ahead, the seven could already see something that was definitely out of place, an even greater anomaly than Uhrstegg’s previous handiwork with the Stone.  Gwinthrayle willed the spell to slow them down and bring them closer to earth.

“There,” he said, pointing to a high bluff that overlooked the anomaly. “This is where we’ll rendezvous with Birantha.” Already they could see each other; Birantha waved to them as they approached, but even while they were still in the air, everyone’s attention was increasingly drawn to the anomaly.

“Just what is he doing with the Stone?” wondered Melvin.  “And why?”  The questions very easily came to mind, of what this could possibly have to do with them, of why this was worth leaving them to die.  Gwinthrayle brought them down the remaining feet to the bluff as Birantha came forward to greet them.  All the while he’d taken care to keep the whole group out of direct sight of their adversary.

They all settled down gently on the “far” side of the bluff, the invisible surface seeming to melt away just as their feet made contact with the stone.  They reacquainted themselves with solid ground with varying degrees of relief and thankfulness.  While most of them began walking around in circles, Madeline had to stay sitting down for a short while before allowing Johnathan to help her to her feet.

Willis gave an overly-theatrical bow.  “Hallelujah!” he exclaimed before crouching down to kiss the ground.

“Cut the comedy, Willis,” said Justin, only mildly annoyed as they moved forward to the side of the bluff that directly faced the anomaly.  “We’ve got work to do.”  They all crouched low or lay down on their abdomens at the edge of the bluff to view the spectacle that lay before them.  The bluff sloped steeply down several feet, and across several more feet of level ground was their adversary’s handiwork.

It was indeed a spectacle, even more impressive than when they’d seen it in the Orb of Disclosure: just as he’d used the Stone to “grow” the cylindrical prison to entrap his “enemies,” now he’d used it to create an entire town, grown and shaped from the native stone, with one particularly large structure, a virtual palace, on its edge.  The architecture was comparable to what they’d seen of human cities and towns, though some of it was quite bizarre, even to these creatures’ eyes.  Uhrstegg himself, however, couldn’t yet be seen.

Birantha began briefing them, telling them how Uhrstegg had worked until late last night at his creation, then had gone to sleep, waking only two hours ago.  It was then that he’d made his own journey here, to more closely monitor his activities.  The three rats, especially, weren’t too pleased with the fact that they could have dealt with Uhrstegg while he was asleep, but both sorcerers were positive that there would be one best way to get him to give up the amulet.  They discussed this plan now.

Around the time they’d concluded, a familiar figure emerged out into the open, apparently having finished a session of surveying his domain.  Madeline, Justin, Melvin and Willis felt their emotions rise upon seeing Uhrstegg for the first time since his cylindrical prison had sprung up around them.  Gwinthrayle was quick to note their impatience, assuring them that they would soon confront him directly.

It was clear to everyone what Uhrstegg had done with the Stone, but now the questions that all of them had about this whole affair were raised anew, and they all boiled down to the simplest one: why?  Why did he imprison them, when this was his goal?  What did this have to do with them?  His actions two days ago seemed sheer madness personified, and seeing all this only reinforced the idea.

“It’s almost as if,” mused Johnathan, “he were trying to recreate the place he lived in back home, wherever he came from.”

“That makes some sense,” said Melvin, “but why shut us in and leave us to die to accomplish it?”

“There is a great sense of purpose behind his present activity, to be sure,” said Gwinthrayle, “and yet he’d entrapped the five of you for no apparent reason.”

“When you put it that way, Gwinthrayle,” said Justin, “I can believe that theory about some kind of mental illness at work here.”

“On the way here,” said Johnathan, “I wondered if there was still a chance he might decide to just leave this dimension with the amulet.  But after building all this up, I guess he won’t want to just abandon it.  I guess he is planning on staying awhile.”

“Hey, look over there,” said Sithpha, pointing to the right.  They all saw three figures, obviously Rusay and obviously curious, approaching the site slowly.  Their hearts leaped.  Would he allow them to approach without harming them?  With his mental state so unpredictable, what might he do?  They watched as he used the Stone to gather some debris and compress it in midair.  All had a strong sense of what he’d do with it next, but would it be in reaction to the three visitors?

In another second an apparent answer came.  Madeline gave a frightened gasp and pointed.  Uhrstegg had tossed the debris-ball straight toward the trio, one of whom could be seen throwing the other two and himself to the ground.  But the boulder appeared to fall around them, landing without touching them.

“They’re safe, thank goodness,” said Justin.  “It was the ‘fail-safe’, wasn’t it, Gwinthrayle?”

“Correct, Justin.  Uhrstegg hadn’t deliberately meant them harm, he was just careless; and so the Stone’s power protected them.”

“That could’ve been my wife and kids down there,” Sithpha said grimly as they watched the trio flee for their carriage.  “Maybe they couldn’t have gotten hurt, but he sure scared them half to death.  We can’t let him get away with any more of this!”

“I have to agree, Gwinthrayle,” said Johnathan.  “Whether he intends to hurt anyone or not.”

“Can we proceed with the plan, then?” asked Justin.

Everyone looked toward Gwinthrayle, who nodded.  “The time is nigh, my friends.”  He looked at Madeline, who nodded in reply, swallowing the lump in her throat.

“You’re sure she’ll be all right?” said an anxious Johnathan, who reached over to squeeze her hand.

“Uhrstegg  will not be able to harm her directly, Johnathan.  Now, Madeline, you know what to do and say?”

“Yes.  I can do this.”  She breathed in deep.  “I’m ready.”  She closed her eyes and felt his spell lift her into the air as everyone wished her good luck.

Uhrstegg continued patrolling the outskirts of his town, suddenly intent on neatening the area, gathering up another load of debris to compress and toss aside.  He did so as before, with no obvious regard for where it would land.

Just as it connected with the earth, a small, trembling voice came from behind him, causing him to turn on his heel:  “Uhrstegg?”

Madeline Brisby found herself fighting her instinct to turn and flee as she faced the one who’d almost been responsible for her death—intentional or not—just as much as if it were Jenner she faced, or even Dragon.  She’d believed Gwinthrayle’s assurance of her safety, but she knew it was conditional on his only using the amulet’s power and not his own.  She looked at it hanging around his neck, still glowing, and felt her resolve return.

For a good five seconds Uhrstegg could only stare in mute surprise.  “Mrs….Brisby?  Why, whatever are you doing here?”  His tone actually sounded genial.

She hesitated before answering.  Did he genuinely not remember what he’d done to her and her friends?  Remembering Gwinthrayle’s plan, she steeled herself and said, “I’ve come here…to ask you for the Stone.”  For a moment she wondered: Would he give it back if I asked him?  Could it be that simple?  The request had surely taken him by surprise, and she realized she could use this to her advantage, to plead her case.

Before he could reply, she continued:  “Please…my friends and I need it so we can return home.”  It was the absolute truth, so she had no trouble sounding sincere, her plaintive tone genuine.  He still appeared content to listen, so she went on: “My children will be expecting me back; they didn’t even know where I went.  All of us need to be with the ones we love again.  Please…”

Uhrstegg continued to just simply look upon her, face betraying no emotion.  Am I getting through to him? she wondered.  She’d been instructed to not directly address her entrapment at his hands, and now couldn’t help wondering if that was wise.  Could he be made to feel ashamed of his actions, enough to give up the Stone?

Then he answered: “Let me show you what I’ve done here.”  Madeline was understandably hesitant as Uhrstegg extended his hand, beckoning her to follow him further into the streets of his creation.  “Please…if it will help you understand.”

She took a tentative step forward, confident of Gwinthrayle’s guarantee of her safety, for all she was aware of the ways Uhrstegg could harm her through purely physical means, if he chose.  He sounded sincere, but he did that other time as well, just before the entrapment.  Still…he had what he wanted, and she couldn’t pose any real threat to him…and the others had her back. Again steeling herself, she followed Uhrstegg into the streets of his “private” town.

One of those who had her back followed stealthily across the nearby rooftops.  That’s it, Maddie, just keep him occupied, Johnathan thought.  God, I hope this works, and he doesn’t harm her before she can take the Stone back.  And if she weren’t able, he knew she still would likely come to no real harm.  Still he couldn’t help feeling sick at heart: So soon after we’d found each other again, there she is, defenseless against whatever he…  He forced the thought away, recalling the discussion they’d had only minutes before, in which she insisted she could do this, that if they were to retake the Stone with the least amount of trouble, she was the best suited for the job.  That had been Gwinthrayle’s assessment, and Johnathan had trusted his judgment; but all the same he was loath to let her out of his sight.

“Anyone who will come, is welcome to live here,” Uhrstegg explained to Madeline as they strolled side-by-side down what could be considered “Main Street.”

“But…who will live here?” Madeline inquired, quite reasonably.

“Why, anyone who wants to, given the right incentive.  I may even invite that weakling Ghormfisk to live here.  Plenty of room for everybody!”  He made a grand sweeping gesture with his arms.

Madeline’s eyes grew wide.  She’d been told to expect this: Uhrstegg referring to Ghormfisk as if he were a different person entirely.  Nearby, Johnathan felt his caution level rise, on both his and her behalf.  But she’d also remembered what to do in this event: play along.  “Where…is Ghormfisk?” she asked carefully.  “I’d like to meet him.”

“Naaagh,” Uhrstegg said dismissively.  “All he wants to do is hide from the world and feel sorry for himself.”

“Why?  What is he sorry for?”

He looked upon her, expression unchanging, eyes darting back and forth.  “That’s not important.  What is important is that this will be my domain, mine and mine alone.  Now, let me show you the house I’ve made for myself to live in.”

As they continued moving up the street, Madeline glanced over her shoulder and immediately caught sight of Johnathan on a nearby flat rooftop.  As their eyes met, she felt a surge of confidence, and felt the time was right for the next step.  She pictured her children worrying about where she’d gone and whether she was indeed coming back, and it tapped a new wellspring of tears.  She stopped in her tracks, her face in her hands, crying her eyes out.

“Why do you weep, my dear?”

For a moment her tears were also of anger: How dare he call me that?  Then she looked up at him, expression pleading.  “Please, Uhrstegg, I really need to go home.  Won’t you please help me?”

He approached her, actually appearing sympathetic, kneeling before her.  “But I need the Stone.  My own plans are so important, I can’t carry them out without it.”

She’d been prepared to say that now that he’d built his town, he shouldn’t need the Stone anymore; but actually, she wasn’t surprised that he wouldn’t give it up that easily.  Genuine as her own feelings were, she hadn’t lost sight of the plan.  Composing herself, she continued:  “Well…if you can’t give the Stone back to me, then…may I at least look at it one last time?”  She looked directly in his eyes, wishing she could read his feelings better and get an idea of what he might do.

He glanced down at the amulet, then back at her. “You may. And then…well, you and your friends might even consider living here yourselves. You may like it.” He held the Stone out for her, and she stepped forward, one hand extended, her heart rate increasing.  Will this really work, just by my touching it?

On the nearby rooftop, Johnathan’s thoughts matched hers.  He bit his lip, watching with bated breath.  Turning on the tears had been no problem for her, but would it do the job?  No doubt both would be amused if they knew that, back in Thorn Valley, their younger daughter had recently employed a similar technique on Mr. Ages to get what she and her siblings wanted; though, of course, the stakes were so much higher in this case.

A bit further away, the others observed this scene via Birantha’s portable Orb of Disclosure, which could be shrunken or enlarged in size, hoping Madeline would succeed but prepared to take action if necessary.

Madeline reached out her hand slowly, hoping this would work but trying to appear impassive and not let any nervousness show; nothing that might betray the real plan.  Her hand came ever closer to making contact with the Stone.  Everyone who observed held their breaths.  Justin recalled the fierce resolve he’d felt last night before going to sleep, that this whole situation be wrapped up quickly, and hoped fervently that this was the beginning of it.

Abruptly, Uhrstegg yanked the Stone up and away from her before she could touch it.  “You think I don’t know what you’re doing?  All you need to do is touch it, and it’s yours again!  Well, I won’t have it!”

All observing, especially Johnathan, felt their hearts drop.  Gwinthrayle and Birantha had known the possibility that Uhrstegg would be aware that Madeline could retake the Stone that easily, but they’d hoped that, given Uhrstegg’s seemingly erratic state of mind, he’d overlook or even forget that.  But now, what might he do to her?

Madeline backed away, the same question on her mind, unable to say a word for a moment.  Then, remembering what to do in this event—mainly, to not try denying what she was attempting—she said, “Please, Uhrstegg, you must understand.  Isn’t there some way…we can both use the Stone to get what we both need?”

“Absolutely not!  Especially not after trying to deceive me!  Begone, now, before you suffer the fate of…”  He looked away as if distracted, as if someone else were speaking to him.  When he looked toward Madeline again, another had joined her, coming up beside her, taking her arm.

Uhrstegg’s eyes widened.  “Johnathan Brisby?”

“So you do remember me.  If so, you must remember the day you left the Stone to me, and the day you went invisible and tried to take it from me, and both of us ended up here on Lahaikshe.  You do, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.  But none of that matters now, none of it!  I have the Stone now, and none may take it from me!”

“And what will you do with it, Uhrstegg?  What is this grand plan you speak of?”

“That’s none of your affair!  Leave me now!”

“You don’t know, do you, Uhrstegg?  Or should I say Ghormfisk?”

“Don’t speak that weakling’s name!”  Uhrstegg shouted.  He raised his hand, and Johnathan and Madeline felt themselves pushed through the air, down the street, as if by an invisible cushion, stopping abruptly several feet away, still on their feet.

“Are you all right?” Johnathan asked his wife unnecessarily as they steadied each other.

“Yes.  Do…do you think it’s working?”

“So far, he’s reacting just like they said.  Now, if the others come through…”

Uhrstegg, having turned away from those he’d rejected, continued on down Main Street, only to be confronted by others that he had already come to see as adversaries.  “Remember us?” asked Justin, he and the two Guard rats stepping out directly in front of him.

“Party’s over, Urpstuff,” said Willis.

“You’ve become accustomed to dealing with those who can’t fight back,” said Melvin.  “How’s this for a change?”

Uhrstegg, his expression more desperate, raised his hand again, and the trio was pushed away as the Brisbys were, again coming to a stop harmlessly.  He moved on, only to be confronted again by all five of them.

“Now how do you expect to get people to live here in your town,” said Johnathan, “if this is how you treat prospective tenants?”

“You’d never make it in real estate,” added Willis.

“Now, friends, I believe he can be reasoned with,” came a new voice.  Gwinthrayle (who had spoken), Birantha and Sithpha stepped out from behind a building.  “Uhrstegg…I believe we may still be able to come to terms.  You have what you want, you’ve built your town…”

“Is this the only way I’ll be rid of you?” Uhrstegg interrupted.  The amulet glowed again, and before anyone could react a wall of rock grew from the street, completely surrounding them, quickly forming a dome around them.  The eight of them found themselves abruptly crowded together in this dark, cramped space, this time with no openings.

“Not again!” said Justin.

“No,” said Gwinthrayle, “the wall is not very thick, and I can easily get us out.  Right now, it’ll provide us time to assess the situation as it stands.”

“If you ask me, Gwinthrayle,” observed Melvin, “this seems to be pretty much your show.  What can the rest of us do?  I know we had a plan, but it looks like you and Birantha are the only ones with the power to deal with him.”

“What happens next may well depend on any one of us, though.  Trust me.”

“But he’s so unpredictable!” Madeline said.  “What can any of us do?”

“He wouldn’t let Maddie or me near the Stone, and that looked like our best chance,” agreed Johnathan.

“Please believe me, this will play itself out,” Gwinthrayle assured them.  “Now we must concentrate.”  He and Birantha did so, and the dome shattered into hundreds of pieces, all landing harmlessly away from the eight.

Uhrstegg turned at the sound of stone clattering, his demeanor noticeably angrier, looking more capable than before of committing actual violence against his “enemies.”  “I see my mistake now,” he said unexpectedly calmly, this time willing the amulet to send all of them except the two sorcerers flying to the flat rooftop of a nearby building.  The entire top floor detached with a cracking sound and began flying away swiftly from the scene.

Unpredictable indeed, thought Gwinthrayle, as Uhrstegg grinned cruelly, briefly watching the building section fly away with its six surprised passengers before turning to the two sorcerers.

“Now, it’s just the two of you,” he said mockingly.  “Frankly, I don’t believe you can even—”  He stopped as Birantha used his spell of transportation to take him swiftly away from the scene, in the same direction as the building section.  “Correction, just one of you.  I like those odds better.”

Gwinthrayle began his own spell to take him away from Uhrstegg, prompting much laughter from his opponent as the sorcerer flew between two buildings.  Uhrstegg immediately gave chase, continuing to use the amulet’s power in his pursuit, actually seeming to relish the chance to play cat-and-mouse.  But it wasn’t cowardice that had inspired his adversary’s flight; Gwinthrayle was positive he could keep Uhrstegg occupied until the others returned, and by that time the whole matter should be more easily brought to a conclusion.

“Everybody hang on!”

“To what?  We’re on a flat roof!”

“They’ll do something, they’ve got to!”

The six of them, deliberately dispatched from the scene by Uhrstegg so that he only had to deal with the two that possessed mystical abilities, all kept a grip on each other as they lay flat on the rooftop, all remembering they should be safe from any real injury or death but hoping all the same that help would come soon.

In seconds it came.  Birantha caught up with them, instantly expanding his protective invisible field to the six, slowing their flight but not the building section.  They all came to a stop, and for a few seconds they all hung still in midair, watching the building section continue on its path away from them, showing no immediate signs of slowing.  “I believe I may be getting a bit old for this,” Birantha remarked as he directed everyone back toward Uhrstegg’s town.

Justin caught his breath enough to say, “I don’t know what he thought he’d gain by this.  He had to know you’d come to rescue us.”

“I’m starting to not care if I ever hear his story,” said Melvin, stopping short of saying that he hoped Uhrstegg would die first.

“Oh, man, Dini’s gonna kill me when she hears about this,” Sithpha said.

Gwinthrayle, meanwhile, continued to keep Uhrstegg occupied, using every spell in his arsenal to elude him; and each time Uhrstegg rounded a corner or went inside a building or otherwise thought he’d had the Rusay sorcerer cornered, only to find he’d slipped away again, his rage and frustration grew—exactly what Gwinthrayle was counting on.  He was even starting to break apart some of his own handiwork: more and more, walls and rooftops were being torn away and tossed aside by the Stone’s power, all in an effort to find and punish the one who defied him so audaciously.

Finally, though, Uhrstegg had Gwinthrayle cornered at the end of an alley’s dead end and used the Stone to throw up a force-barrier around him.  Gwinthrayle tried to free himself but to no avail, and actually appeared as if he knew he’d been beaten.  “Well, let’s bring you out of here, shall we?” Uhrstegg said with mock cheerfulness, and they floated upward, back out into the open street.

Gwinthrayle knew that the amulet had enough power to override his own, and so he’d allowed himself to be cornered and taken.  But would Uhrstegg continue to rely on its power, rather than use his own abilities?  So much now depended on the others’ return.  “Whatever you do, Ghormfisk, the rightful bearers of the Stone will prevail,” said Gwinthrayle, hands flat against the barrier as if it were a window.

“I told you not to call me that!” Uhrstegg screamed.  “You will be taken apart, piece by piece, and your friends will witness it all!”

He didn’t have long to wait, for even as he spoke, Birantha and the others were just returning, quickly settling to the ground a few feet away.  Everyone recovered quickly from the adventure and took in the scene with both trepidation and anticipation.  “As I was saying: your friend here, this all-powerful sorcerer will not last much longer.  All of you will see his death, and then—”

“You may as well give up the Stone, Ghormfisk,” said Johnathan.

“We’ll have it back one way or another, Ghormfisk,” added Justin.

The fiery-eyed look that Sithpha had seen just before Uhrstegg had put the spell of subjugation on him was upon Uhrstegg as it never had before. All who saw him now half-believed he would literally explode.

“I—am—not—Ghormfisk!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. “You will all pay for mocking me!” With the amulet glowing, he pointed at one building, the largest one in his town, the one he’d intended to inhabit himself; and with a cracking and splintering sound even greater than when he’d performed a similar act minutes ago to send some of his “enemies” away, it rose into the air and was compressed into a massive debris-ball. It rose several feet into the air and began falling straight toward them.

They all comprehended the significance of what Uhrstegg had just done, and they remembered and still believed Gwinthrayle’s assurance of their safety; but even so, the sight of a several-hundred pound boulder bearing down on them was enough to paralyze most of them with fear.

Uhrstegg’s eyes were filled with mad satisfaction as he viewed his latest handiwork, anticipating how it would eliminate all his enemies in one stroke; then they grew wide with disbelief as he watched it veer from its downward path and begin falling towards him.  Too late, a thought occurred: They meant this to happen, to make me forget…

Johnathan knew it could come to this; he’d hoped that their plan would not result in such an extreme action from Uhrstegg, but now he saw his duty clearly.  It wasn’t out of fear of the Stone being lost or damaged, for it was virtually indestructible; no, he did what he did now simply because it was the right thing to do.

Time seemed to freeze for him as he suddenly dashed out toward Uhrstegg.  He could hear Madeline gasp in horror behind him, but there was no time to think about anything except the one in front of him, who could only stare upward, paralyzed by fear and disbelief.  Johnathan leaped, aiming himself upward towards the level of Uhrstegg’s chest, wondering briefly if this would be enough, with their differences in body size and weight.  But his leap carried sufficient force and momentum against Uhrstegg’s much larger frame; and this, combined with Uhrstegg’s great shock, was enough to push him off-balance and send both of them tumbling, over and over on the ground, as they felt the shock waves from the boulder meeting the ground.

For a moment both of them lay unmoving.  Then Johnathan sat up shakily, with hand over chest, heart beating wildly, trying to catch his breath.  He glanced over to his left to see Uhrstegg partially upright, supported on his elbows, staring fixedly at the debris-ball which almost snuffed out both their lives and now lay imbedded in the earth scant inches away.

The others moved slowly forward as Johnathan got to his feet, unsteadily at first. He unhesitantly moved closer to Uhrstegg. This massive figure, who’d seemed so confident in his power before, now seemed almost catatonic and offered no resistance—nor even seemed to notice—as Johnathan reached over and took the amulet from around his neck and replaced it around his own. For the first time since that awful day in the broom closet ten months ago, Johnathan once more held the Stone; but there was no exultation in the moment, only an enormous sense of relief, especially in himself and Madeline. Finally, he turned to face her, and they rushed into each other’s arms.

“Oh, Johnathan, I thought I’d lost you again, so soon after…Oh, please don’t ever do anything like that again.”  She was trembling just as much as he was.

“It’s all right, darling, everything’s all right now.  I hope I’ll never have to.”

The others drew up to the mouse couple and Uhrstegg.  After Johnathan assured his friends he was none the worse for wear, with only a few bumps and bruises, Justin said, “This is it, Gwinthrayle, isn’t it?  It all went the way you and Birantha planned?”

“Indeed, and much of the credit must go to Birantha, after having done the greater part of observation and study of Uhrstegg’s habits and tendencies.  He’d estimated that our friend would be so intent upon the creation of his town that he’d be likely to want to remain here on Lahaikshe; and after hearing everyone’s accounts of how he’d affected your lives, we knew it was obviously a case of dual personalities we had; and hearing of how much Uhrstegg—the less stable personality—resented Ghormfisk, all that was needed was to goad him into taking actions that were increasingly born of anger and frustration, and increasingly reckless as well.”

“Until he was so blinded by anger that he completely forgot the ‘fail-safe,’” added Johnathan.  “Although I’d have much preferred it if Madeline had been able to retake the Stone by simply touching it.”

“So would I.”  Madeline again embraced Johnathan, face pressed to his chest.

“So now what do we do with him?” said Melvin. “Maybe shake a little sense back into him?” They all looked at Uhrstegg, still half-sitting as before, expression still near-blank, staring straight ahead.

“I’d say he’s been sufficiently shaken,” said Willis, “and stirred.”  Indeed, he seemed so pitiful now, so utterly defeated, that it would be easy to dismiss him as having ever been dangerous.

Sithpha came right up to him, once more seeing in him the seemingly-harmless stranger he and Dinilom had befriended weeks ago. “I wonder if he’s back to normal now. Maybe from the shock of what almost happened to him?”

“I would suspect it’s not that simple, my young friend,” said Birantha, “especially since we don’t know quite yet what’s normal for him.”  As he said this, Uhrstegg’s lips began moving wordlessly.  Gwinthrayle made a gesture and quick incantation, and Uhrstegg’s eyes shut and he flopped backwards.

“Gwinthrayle!” said Justin.  “He was starting to talk.”

“And he’ll get his chance, Justin, with as much time as he’ll need, back in my home.  But the healing process will begin here, with my sleep-spell.”

The others looked perplexed for a moment.  Healing process?  Then they remembered what they’d been told of the rejuvenating properties of the site upon which Gwinthrayle’s home is built, which they’d experienced firsthand; and that Uhrstegg—or Ghormfisk—was truly ill, from a condition which would require healing.

“Are you sure it’s safe, bringing him into your home?” asked Melvin as Birantha initiated anew the spell of transportation.

“I can assure you all it will,” said Gwinthrayle, “and there is little alternative.”  All of them once more felt the invisible surface form under their feet and lift them up over the streets of Uhrstegg’s town.

“I wonder if anyone will actually try to live there now,” mused Willis as everyone made themselves comfortable. He looked around at the others’ faces, all of which registered relief at the greater part of the crisis being over at last. “I know. Who cares, right?”

Madeline managed a laugh, reaching over to pat his arm.  She settled easily into Johnathan’s arms, not even minding now the lack of a visible surface beneath them.

For a time everyone was largely silent, enjoying the ride and the glow of their success. At length Justin said, “I know we’re all waiting to hear what Uhrstegg has to say, but I can’t help wondering, Johnathan: now that we do have the Stone back, could it take us all home right now?”

Both Brisbys looked at Justin and each other, surprised that they—out of all of them—hadn’t considered the point yet.  “Well, it’s been a while,” said Johnathan, “but I believe I can find out pretty easily.”  He closed his eyes, looking as if he were in silent communion with it; which he in fact was, after a fashion.  He opened his eyes and announced, “Right now, it needs time to recharge, for want of a better word.  All that use Uhrstegg put it through was relatively easy for it, but there was so much use that it’ll be a while for something like travel between dimensions.”

“That’s good, though, in a way,” said Melvin.  “I’d like to see more of our host’s grounds, and—though none of us have done the math yet on the time difference—I think before too long it’s going to be pretty late in the day back home.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Willis.  “We sure wouldn’t want to come bursting in in the middle of the night.”

Madeline couldn’t suppress a sigh.  “I guess the children can get along without me a little longer.”

“They’ll be just fine,” assured Justin. "Just keep thinking of how surprised they’ll be to see both you and Johnathan.”

Madeline smiled at Johnathan, and he hugged her tightly.

Chapter 18 - Ghormfisk's story

They didn’t go straight to Gwinthrayle’s home, because Justin remembered one more detail, one more loose end to tie up; and so a side trip was made to a location not far from Gwinthrayle’s home: a certain stone house in an overgrown clearing and what lay immediately in front of it.

“So this is what it looks like from the outside,” said Melvin as they again settled upon the earth.  They all looked up at the ten-foot-high smokestack-like structure, which looked for all the world like a tree grown from the earth, but made of stone instead of wood.  It was a bit difficult for them to associate this outer view of the thing with what they’d gone through in its interior; but even so, they’d be satisfied just to get what they’d come for and go.

Two of them went about it immediately: Willis went inside the house to retrieve his pack where he’d taken it off, and Justin found his lying just outside the house where it had fallen off.  Both seemed to be mostly undisturbed, their contents intact.  Gwinthrayle took into custody one item left there by Uhrstegg: his viewscreen-pendant, which he evidently felt he didn’t need once he had the Stone, or else he simply forgot it.  The others continued looking up at the cylinder and the surrounding area, mostly in silence; until Madeline had an idea which she described quietly to Johnathan.

“We really appreciate your making this side trip for us, Gwinthrayle,” said Justin.

“It was no trouble at all.  Now, if everyone has what he came for, we may continue on to my home.”  They all glanced at the still form of Uhrstegg, slumbering away peacefully.

“Actually, Gwinthrayle,” said Madeline, approaching him, “there is something else.”  She described her idea to him, after which he nodded in agreement, actually smiling in approval at its appropriateness.  The others gave it resounding approval as well, and so Gwinthrayle prepared to carry it out.

Johnathan, though, interrupted him.  “Allow me,” he said; and so, using the Stone’s power in a way he’d seen Uhrstegg do, made a “slice” through it, going all the way around its circumference; then, making sure it was aimed properly, simply willed it to tip over.

“Tim-berrr!” Willis shouted as it fell to earth with a resounding crash.  All looked around at each other again, feeling a strong sense of satisfaction, especially since it was the Stone’s power that had created the prison and now that same power rendered it harmless.  With this done, all felt, they could truly leave.

There was a brief debate over whether or not to leave the house as it was, or to raze it to the ground; and they decided that, just perhaps, someone might decide to fix the place up and move in there, as Uhrstegg had talked falsely of doing.  They all took a brief view of the base of the once-prison, the five who’d been trapped there regarding it silently, noting the areas where they’d scraped the dirt away trying to find a way out, and the area where they’d gathered the dirt with some of Sithpha’s pictures still visible.  Justin looked over to Uhrstegg, and couldn’t help feeling irked; he’d have preferred him to be awake while the cylindrical prison which had almost killed him and his friends was toppled.

When everyone was ready, they again gathered together for Gwinthrayle’s transportation spell, which carried them away for the remaining leg of their trip.

In minutes the familiar tan-and-silver edifice came into view.  “It still amazes me,” Johnathan remarked to Madeline and the rats, “how this place can feel so much like home to me every time I return to it.”

As they came in lower, Sithpha noted with delight that Dinilom and the children were waiting for him under the pavilion just outside the side entrance.  Gwinthrayle brought them down to it, and the Rusay family all came together with relief and joy.

“I’m all right, Dini,” Sithpha assured her, “just like Gwinthrayle said I’d be.”  She didn’t need to hear details just then; she just embraced him tightly and planted her lips against his.  Johnathan and Madeline couldn’t help staring in surprise for a moment; he’d seen humans kiss like that before, and though they themselves used their mouths to express mutual affection, it was never quite like that with them.  They looked at each other, knowing what had to be on each other’s mind: maybe this was something they could try out for themselves sometime soon.

Dinilom noticed the sleeping form of Ghormfisk which Gwinthrayle “floated” inside the house, bound for the treatment room, and actually expressed concern for him, as did her children; something the others found a little surprising, until they remembered that when the family had seen him last, two days ago, he was still the seemingly-harmless “big lamb” who’d lived and bonded with them over the past several weeks.

“It’s true, isn’t it?” Dinilom asked as her family’s erstwhile houseguest was brought into the room to be placed on one of the examining tables. “He really was ill?”

“Indeed he was,” answered Gwinthrayle, “and now we hope to cure him of his illness, or at least minimize its effects upon him.” After placing Ghormfisk on the table, the two sorcerers began their work as the others all looked on, some wondering if it could truly be done, others speculating on what had made him this way. At this point, all were curious to hear his story; though some, especially the three rats, seriously doubted if they could truly forgive him.

After a few minutes, the two sorcerers appeared done for the time being.  “Now we will wait for him to awaken,” confirmed Gwinthrayle.  “It may take an hour, perhaps more, but by then he should be much more pacified, and ready to talk.”

“If not,” added Birantha, “we should learn his story one way or another.”

Everyone else went back outside to the pavilion, and for the next hour they were deep in discussion, which at times became quite spirited and lively.  They described for Dinilom and the children how their confrontation with Uhrstegg/Ghormfisk had gone, told more stories drawn from past experiences, and generally got to know each other better.

During the hour, two of the large flying creatures Madeline’s expedition had seen before came by, settling for several minutes in one of the higher trees.  Justin described how they’d been shadowed by a pair of them, possibly the same two they saw now; but Johnathan and the Rusay family confirmed that mhys’haspas are indeed harmless, and strict vegetarians.  At one point a small group of creatures emerged from the forest, ones the four hadn’t seen yet: tysthals, rabbit-sized though putting them in the mind of deer at first glance.  Smaller flying creatures, miniature cousins to the mhys’haspas, darted to and fro through the air; all of them were known generically as wilfajads.

Eventually the conversation returned to Ghormfisk/Uhrstegg, with more speculation about his story.  In the process, one important detail, voiced by Justin, came to light: “If he came to Earth with the Stone, just before Johnathan found it; and then came here to Lahaikshe with it and Johnathan…what was he doing in between?”

“Hey, that’s right,” said Willis.  “That was…what, a year and a half?  If he was there all that time, he must have been up to something.”

Johnathan nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his whiskers.  “And if he could turn invisible, he could have been walking among us all that time…providing he was able to mask his scent as well.”

“Maybe,” suggested Sithpha, “he was doing like he did with me, when he messed with my mind, making me do things I didn’t want to…”

All conversation ground to a dead halt.  All five temporarily-displaced Earthlings looked at each other, each certain the others had the same idea.  “Jenner,” they all said, almost in unison.  All recalled recent discussions they’d had in which Melvin had voiced his long-standing suspicion that some outside force could have changed Jenner for the worse.  Now they all looked to Melvin, who sat in stunned silence as he weighed the implications.

“Mel?  Are you okay?”  Willis put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“I’m…yes, I’m okay.  But if that’s true…if Uhrstegg really did affect Jenner that way, it’ll change so much of what we believed to be true.”

“For better or worse, though?” pondered Johnathan.  “If Jenner wasn’t really to blame for his actions, if they could all be put on Uhrstegg; and if his actions were the result of some mental disorder…”

“I guess we’d better wait to hear his story first,” Justin said decisively, “before we pass any judgment.”  He couldn’t deny, though, how deeply the idea was affecting him as well.  After all the blame he’d placed on himself for not seeing Jenner’s dissent of the Thorn Valley Plan and Nicodemus as nothing more than rhetoric, and for not being able to prevent Nicodemus’s death, this would indeed affect almost all they knew about Jenner.

They tried to steer their discussion toward less weighty matters, but the genie was out of the bottle, they all knew.  All were more impatient than ever to hear Uhrstegg’s story and had to resist the temptation to go inside and pester the two sorcerers about his progress.

Sooner than they expected, though, the point became academic.  When Gwinthrayle came out to the pavilion to inform them that Ghormfisk was awake—and docile—nearly the entire group leaped to its collective feet.  “He’s said little thus far, and he’s still a little bewildered and disoriented, but he has all the appearance of being willing and able to talk to us,” he told them.  “Birantha’s with him now in the sitting-room, giving him food and drink and keeping him calm.”  He led them all inside.

“Now, in his present state, he may still be unpredictable, so allow us time to insure that he’ll remain calm and be receptive to a large audience.”  Madeline unexpectedly found herself relating; she was reminded of her and the children’s arrival in Thorn Valley, and her anxiety over their being mobbed.  It occurred to Justin that, only this morning, he likely wouldn’t have believed Uhrstegg deserved such treatment after all he’d done; and now, he not only was interested in hearing his story, but was starting to believe it would reveal him to be much less the villain he’d been pegged to be.  And what it could reveal about Jenner…but he pushed the thought back for now.

Soon the entire group was waiting in the hall, outside the same sitting-room where Dinilom and her children were briefed upon their arrival yesterday. Everyone kept mostly silent as per Gwinthrayle’s request; but after only a minute he admitted them inside, instructing everyone to come in single file and sit quietly.

They saw Uhrstegg, or Ghormfisk, sitting on a sofa beside Birantha, eating a th’ving and appearing quite calm, expression largely impassive. Sithpha and family entered first, but when Johnathan, Madeline and the three rats followed he grew noticeably more tense, though they all were careful not to appear confrontational. Birantha reassured him that no one meant him any harm and all of them were only there to listen.

Ghormfisk’s eyes darted back and forth across what now seemed like a sea of faces, all looking upon him with expectancy.  “You may begin anytime you’re ready,” said Gwinthrayle as he seated himself beside him.  It seemed unclear whether that time would arrive soon, as Ghormfisk continued looking around nervously.  His eyes briefly settled upon the red amulet hanging from Johnathan’s neck, though he showed little visible reaction to it.  The three rats exchanged glances.  Though they’d been assured that there’d be no trouble, they wondered if checking their blades at the door, as Gwinthrayle had requested, was such a good idea. 

A good two minutes after everyone was seated, Ghormfisk looked ready to say something; then he buried his face in his hands.  “I’m…sorry, I’m…so sorry I…caused you all such pain…”  He looked up, face streaked with tears.

Dinilom and her children looked ready to go to him, to try to comfort him; but the others weren’t as ready to believe his apology was for real.

“Ghormfisk,” Gwinthrayle said gently, “you did tell me you wished your story to be told.”

“I did,” he answered quickly, “and I will.  I…know it will help.”  He took a few more seconds to compose himself.  “My name is… Ghormfisk.  It always has been.  And I have wronged all of you.”  He cast his gaze slowly from one side of the room to the other, addressing everyone individually by name, including the children.  When he was finished, he said, “There is so much I need to say, so much more than an apology.  I will try to explain—the best I understand myself—my actions, which I realize have brought all of you here today.  It’s…hard to know where to start.”

“Perhaps,” suggested Madeline quietly, “you could begin with your home, where you come from.”

“Yes…thank you, Mrs. Brisby, I will.  Although…that home isn’t really home anymore, it doesn’t really exist anymore.”  Everyone’s eyes widened at this.  “The world I come from is called Ihrvass, existing in another universe, another dimension, just as Lahaikshe lies in one, and your Earth in another.  Its people, my people, are…called the Sut’hrim, and it is...was a world ruled over by the…basest, most short-sighted fools in all of creation.  I will not trouble you with the details, but suffice it to say that it was a combination of almost-constant warfare, often over the most asinine, pettiest arguments imaginable; and the most arrogant disregard for the consequences of plundering our world’s natural resources.  There were always those who spoke out against such activity, but they were written off as alarmists, crackpots, even called disloyal or unpatriotic.”  Relating this had clearly made him more agitated; and his audience could already feel a pang of sympathy, provided his account was all true.

“Well…eventually,” he continued, “just within my lifetime, all this led to the entire world, our Ihrvass, reaching such a state of utter depredation that…the entire world population was reduced to only some 1800 people…”  Ghormfisk paused, clenching his eyes shut, pained by the memory.  His audience could scarcely believe it, some even thinking he could be exaggerating to gain sympathy, but all silently waited for him to resume.

“Every one of them, every living Sut’hrim on Ihrvass,” he managed to say, “settled into the one small area left that was habitable, with the last arable land, and even that was gradually shrinking, to be eventually overrun by the surrounding desert.  Those of us who practiced the mystic arts were few and far between, and I’d become the only one left following the death of my mentor and teacher Strohair.  We’d already given up our Ihrvass for lost, and were working on a last, desperate plan to leave our own world, searching the dimensions for a suitable world in which our people might resettle.  The ideal one would be one in which there weren’t an intelligent, sentient species that already held dominance.  The search was long and difficult, and time was running out…first for my teacher, and for this last outpost of my people, who, within a matter of months, we’d estimated, would no longer be able to survive there.

“Only days before Strohair passed away, we found the most suitable world that we’d come across thus far, with a mild climate, natural resources rich and plentiful…the one possible drawback being that there was already an intelligent sentient species there, though with a population that was far from overrunning their world and that had appeared to be much more respectful of it.  That world…was Lahaikshe.”

He paused, acknowledging the surprised reactions of his audience.  “Yes, we set our sights on this very world.  We—or rather mostly I, since Strohair was very ill by this time—carried out tests for the series of spells that would relocate our people.  Rocks, other inanimate objects, all made the trip successfully.  By the time my mentor had passed on, though, I…had misgivings about my ability to carry through the entire procedure myself.  But times were getting desperate, and I knew I had no choice but to apply what I’d learned, and…hope for the best results.  I was certain, so certain…that since the tests were a complete success, I’d have as much success with people.”

He paused, closing his eyes, inhaling deeply.  “The day came, when everyone, the whole community, all that remained of Ihrvass’s people…were gathered, prepared for the Great Migration, as we’d taken to calling it by then, which would signal a new life, a new beginning for everyone.”

Ghormfisk’s audience was greatly absorbed in the tale by now, but none more so than the rats and mice from Earth, who were astounded at the parallels to their own people’s recent history: both groups forced by circumstance to resettle elsewhere, with the same word—Migration—used, at least as translated by Gwinthrayle’s spell.  But this was on so much a greater scale, with so many more lives at stake.  Some still inwardly questioned whether his account was the absolute truth, but none were ready to dismiss it and him completely.

“All was in readiness.  Everyone, all 1800 of us, every Sut’hrim was gathered in what had been an arena for sporting events.  I stood before them all, briefing them on what they could expect.  There was no dissention, none who wished to remain; all looked forward to the new lives they would embark upon.  As I spoke, my attention was especially drawn to one woman who stood at the forefront of the crowd with her two children beside her—a widow, I assumed—and it seemed as if I were speaking to them and only them.  I found it made the preparations easier, because it reminded me of my ultimate goal and what it was all really about.

“The moment came, and I set the spells in motion, by now confident that all would go as planned.  They began to take effect, and a glow surrounded everyone.  In a matter of seconds, it reached peak intensity; and then it was gone, along with…all of the people.”

For a moment Ghormfisk appeared unready to continue; then he said, “I immediately checked to see if they’d reached Lahaikshe, using the viewscreen that is similar to Gwinthrayle’s…but none of them were anywhere to be seen, in the location that we’d chosen.  I could only assume that they’d appeared elsewhere in the world, but a spell specifically geared toward locating any Sut’hrim turned up…nothing. They…they hadn’t made it to Lahaikshe.  They were just…gone.”  He clenched his eyes shut.  “And I…I was responsible.”  Again he lowered his face to his hands, sobbing.

Gwinthrayle and Birantha both consoled Ghormfisk, and the others looked at each other in shock; some, like Madeline, looked ready to break down themselves.  There was little, if any, doubt remaining about the veracity of his tale.

When he was ready to continue, he said, “I want to…thank the both of you…” He indicated the two Rusay sorcerers. “…for enabling me to relate this tale. In some other place, under different circumstances, I probably would not be able to tell it this easily; because…well, you’ve already heard this much of it, it’s such a tragic, painful story to tell. But it very much needs to be told.” Later, the two would explain more thoroughly how this—being able to relate such a tragic tale without being emotionally overwhelmed, even when its speaker was at its center—was part of the healing effect and the rejuvenating properties that prevailed here.

There was a question on the lips of some of them, and Johnathan almost voiced it aloud; then he remembered the advice they were given, to hold their questions until after Ghormfisk had finished his account.

“I had…every reason to believe the procedure would go correctly, but all I could think…was that I and I alone was responsible for the deaths of 1800 people whose lives I had wanted to save. My mind…could not cope, it could not take the strain of being responsible for the deaths of so many. I was traumatized so badly that…I know now that my mind had split in two, developed a second personality, with a name you all know: Uhrstegg. He was the one who had done this: Uhrstegg, not Ghormfisk, had sent all of these innocents to their doom. Uhrstegg, the self-centered, wily trickster who lived to manipulate and deceive, to use others as pawns, game pieces for his own amusement, with no regard for their feelings.

“This personality retained all my mystical knowledge but pledged to use it in malicious and reckless ways with no concern for the consequences.  He had…completely taken over—at least for the time being—but he…I was completely alone now on Ihrvass.  What was I to do now?

“I set about resuming work on trying to reach Lahaikshe myself, certain that I could accomplish this task easily, giving scarcely any thought to what so recently happened to my fellow Sut’hrim.  I was…completely detached emotionally from the event by then, only concerned with finding some new group of people to manipulate and exploit; and, knowing of Lahaikshe’s indigenous population, I thought this was as good a place as any.  I soon perfected the spell, and left Ihrvass behind without another thought.

“Upon my arrival on Lahaikshe I found myself on the edge of a forest near a road, which had many Rusay traveling upon it, by carriage or other conveyance, or on foot.  Almost immediately I sensed that there were those who work the mystic arts here, who would surely know many secrets, perhaps possess artifacts that I believe could help me in whatever cause I chose to indulge myself in.  And before long, one came along, on this very road, one whom I sensed would suit my purposes.  Perhaps this was why I’d appeared at this particular location.  This man, in a haisk’ve-drawn carriage, was one you know well…one sitting beside me now, in fact.”

This part of his account already sounded familiar to most of his audience, who had already realized that this had to be the moment, already heard from Gwinthrayle’s side, when the two had first met up.

“Once we were able to understand each other, I was able to convey to him that I was an interdimensional traveler without the means to return home.  I could tell he was skeptical of my story but he offered me a ride anyway; and at length he told me that there was one, living some distance away, who might be able to help me to get home.  I’m sure he’s told you much of this already, so you probably know what happened next.  I pretended to be simply lost in thought until I put upon him a spell which put him in a catatonic state—not unlike, I’ve since realized, the sleep-spell he put on me today.  With this spell I was able to extract information from his mind, and I learned that he indeed knew the sorcerer he spoke of—Birantha—and that he possessed something that he believed would be of great interest to Gwinthrayle.  I quickly devised a plan, one which made use of an ability which, in my old life, I rarely used, but one I would come to use quite extensively.

“This was a disguising spell which enabled me to take on Gwinthrayle’s appearance, and which I hoped would be enough to fool even his fellow sorcerer.  I quickly found that a spell to take me there instantaneously did not work in this dimension, but I was able to master quite readily the spell of transportation by air, one I believe most of you are familiar with.  I was able to stay out of sight until I had reached Birantha’s abode, whereupon I simply knocked upon his door.  He admitted me without hesitation, truly believing it was his friend he allowed inside his home.

“I had no definite plan in mind; I simply allowed Birantha to tell me about, and show me, recent developments in his life; and I, in turn, using the information I’d gleaned from Gwinthrayle’s mind, was able to do the same for him convincingly.  Among other things, he told me of an amulet—a potentially very powerful one, he said—that had recently come into his possession.  He told me the entire story of its origin, which I’m sure you all know by now, of the two brothers who’d sought out a sample of the mystic ore from which the Stone was made, and how the one who’d survived the trip gave it to Birantha, and then later died himself.  Birantha told me all he knew of it, believing I was Gwinthrayle; and though I still had no specific plan, I decided I had to have the Stone for myself, especially after hearing that someone not ‘chosen’ by it could gain control of it.  He trusted Gwinthrayle enough to show ‘him’ where he kept it, and to leave me alone with it; and when I had the chance, I took it and left.  He hadn’t expected me to just leave without a word, and though I could have maintained the pretense a bit longer, I didn’t want to take the chance that he’d detect the Stone on my person as I left.

“As it was, I knew that Birantha—possibly with the real Gwinthrayle accompanying him—would catch up with me before long, so I made my way to a forest glade that I’d hoped was remote enough to buy me adequate time to carry out my takeover, which I found to be astoundingly easy.  All it required was the right inscriptions, some easily obtainable materials, and an incantation spoken with just the right cadence and pitch and in the right frame of mind…and all the amulet’s power was now mine to command.  Or rather, Uhrstegg’s.”

Ghormfisk paused, having reminded himself and others that these were the actions of his erstwhile second personality, even though he narrated them as if there had been none—something he was finding quite surprising.  To emphasize the point, he added, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that I hadn’t killed or done any serious injury to either Gwinthrayle or Birantha or anyone else, although I could have.  This was an aspect of my Uhrstegg persona, that though he enjoyed manipulating others, committing deliberately cruel or violent acts was not in his nature.  Though at the end, when I…Uhrstegg was goaded into wanting to crush you all…that proved to be the exception.”

“Now…I had just completed the process when I sensed that one or both sorcerers would soon catch up with me, so I knew that I’d have to use the Stone’s transporting capability to take me away from there quickly.  I realized that whatever plan I might have for it, it should be elsewhere, since I knew the two sorcerers would continue to seek me out.  So I decided I should flee to another dimension entirely, where I had already become aware they wouldn’t be able to follow.  I carried this out just as they arrived on the scene; at the time, I felt gratified that they had arrived just in time to see me leave and be unable to prevent it.  I had felt like laughing in their faces.”  Ghormfisk paused, looking back and forth.  “No offense to either of you.”

Once assured there was none taken, he continued: “But what happened next changed—considerably—any plan I thought I may have had.  My destination was not any dimension in particular, only one with conditions hospitable to life, comparable to Lahaikshe; for now, I mainly wanted to elude the two sorcerers.  But when I entered this new dimension, the effect upon me was…unexpected.  I became weak, dazed…stumbling about, unable to focus on my surroundings…”

Welcome to the club, Johnathan wryly thought to himself.

“I knew this effect was possible, but it didn’t end with the weakening and disorientation. Apparently it was the shock, the sudden change, that caused… The only way I can describe it now is: my mind changed itself. It brought out my other personality, which was, in some ways, closer to my original one and still called itself Ghormfisk. But this one…I now had no mystical knowledge or powers, or at least I never tried to make use of them when this persona was dominant. Plus I now had no idea where I was or how I got there, remembering nothing about Lahaikshe, the two sorcerers, or the Stone. I was aware of a flowing body of water, some rocks, vegetation; but because it was completely unfamiliar, I was frightened beyond measure. And when I heard someone approach, all I could think to do was hide. I crouched down behind some thicker vegetation and waited for the stranger’s approach. He came into view: grey fur, only a tunic for clothing, large ears, a tail…”

He paused, looking toward Johnathan; he and the others from Earth had already anticipated this corroboration of Johnathan’s own story, and felt a great sense of the two halves of the story coming together.

“Yes, it was Johnathan Brisby, and I watched as he stopped in his tracks, as if he’d detected my presence.  I almost ran right then, but then I saw him reach down and pick up something; I’m sure you all know what it was.  I almost forgot my fear and caution as I watched him examine the amulet; I was held there by a fascination I couldn’t explain.  One thing I realize now is that one of my personalities would retain only certain bits of knowledge and memory from the other, and most of the time each would regard the other as a different individual entirely.  Right then, though, I felt some vague connection with the Stone, though I wasn’t consciously aware that it was what had brought me here, or that it had anything to do with me; I had no more idea what it was than Johnathan did.

“Suddenly, though, I had other concerns: Johnathan looked up abruptly, and I could see him smelling the air, and I realized that he could come close to discovering me, and I couldn’t allow that; I was still fearful of these new and unfamiliar surroundings, and though he certainly didn’t appear at all menacing, I was reacting on little more than an instinctive level. So I turned and fled toward the deeper vegetation without looking back for several more minutes, until I’d taken cover under a log. After I’d calmed a bit, I briefly pondered what I’d just seen, and wondered if that pendant that furry creature had found did have something to do with me, since it seemed as out of place as myself.

“Then I noticed some of the creatures I was sharing this space with: crawling arthropods that were much larger than any I’d encountered, and it frightened me so much that it triggered another change: Uhrstegg’s personality returned, and now he…I took stock of my predicament. My biggest concern was the Stone: it had brought me to this new world, but now this other creature had it. I realized that as I was stumbling about in a daze upon my arrival, it had fallen off from around my neck, and then…‘he’ had let it fall into another’s hands. Determined to get it back, I headed back toward the creek. Somehow I was able to remember the way there, and that Johnathan was walking alongside the creek, and once there I even recalled the direction he’d seemed to be traveling.

“So I continued on in that direction, and soon a huge, and I could already tell old, building came into view. I went inside, alert to anyone who might see me; then I remembered my old spells of invisibility and concealment. I’d also realized that these were creatures that relied heavily on scent-recognition, and so, how important it might be to conceal myself by scent as well as by sight and sound, so I brought to bear the full range of spells to do so. I entered the building, positive I wouldn’t be detected. Sure enough, I could hear some activity going on in there, and I made my way to an upper level to see Johnathan with some larger creatures—some of you rats—but what riveted my attention most was the Stone around Johnathan’s neck. How to get it back without being detected, I wondered; and then I witnessed a most unexpected sight, one some of you know well: it glowed red and slowed the descent of a rat who was falling. I realized what must have happened; I had learned from Birantha that this was possible—the Stone ‘choosing’ a worthy bearer—but that it was this creature, and that I had, in effect, delivered it to him, I found frankly astounding.

“At that moment I abruptly altered plans. For the time being I would remain concealed, observing these creatures, and learning about them. I’d already surmised they weren’t the dominant species here and that they were carrying on activities they wanted to keep secret from the species that was dominant. I heard the one known as Jenner remark on the power the Stone must contain, and that Johnathan intended to show it to another called Nicodemus; so I followed him, still invisible and undetectable by any of their senses, and ‘met’ the leader of the rats in their colony beneath the rosebush. I learned details of the Rats of NIMH’s origins, enough to convince me that I should carry on in this fashion and learn all I could about them.

“That first day, I’d been so absorbed in all this that I’d literally forgotten to eat or sleep; and when I finally tore myself away, I realized I’d need an actual place to stay.  I found a treestump just off the farm and used my abilities to hollow it out, making it into a compact but very adequate home for myself.  I gathered some food, having learned what was edible from my observations, and made myself as comfortable as possible.

“The next day I resumed operations, continuing to go about undetected; and over ensuing weeks learning more and more about these creatures, their everyday lives and future plans.  I still had no specific plan, content for the time being to simply observe; at times daring to use a disguising spell to move among the rats as one of them.  Sometimes I would slip slightly in refreshing my spells, and one of them would catch a momentary glimpse of me, which would always be dismissed as a trick of light and shadow; or sometimes one would briefly catch my scent.  But none of them, over the entire time I was on Earth—around a year and a half—was ever able to confirm my presence.”

“But my Ghormfisk persona would not stay buried.  Uhrstegg was in control most of the time, but on occasion Ghormfisk would be in charge; and when it happened, he—rather, I still retained no mystical knowledge and would retreat from my fellow creatures and the world as much as I could, not living in the hollow-stump home Uhrstegg had made for himself but in the abandoned burrow of an animal, living very much as one.  I now consider myself lucky that when the change in personality occurred, it was never while I was among the rats; otherwise I surely would have been found out and captured—though, I’m certain, not harmed.  On more than one occasion, Uhrstegg’s persona would resurface while I was in the burrow; and I’d suddenly wonder angrily why I was there, in Ghormfisk’s filthy hovel, and then I’d make my way back to my treestump home and resume my plans concerning the Rats of NIMH.”

Some of those whom he’d walked among looked at each other uneasily, knowing where his talk of “plans” must be heading but dreading hearing about it nonetheless.

Ghormfisk recognized their unease and said, “And…after several weeks, a definite plan was starting to form; and I know you may not want to hear about it…”

“…But we do need to hear about it,” finished Justin.  The others all agreed and encouraged Ghormfisk to continue.

“Very well. For those first few weeks, I wasn’t especially concerned with taking back the Stone; I was content to allow Nicodemus to retain it, as he did most of the time, and Johnathan to come to test it, all with no interference from me. It was when your Thorn Valley Plan began taking shape that a plan of my own did likewise. I would ‘sit in’ on your council meetings and observe how Jenner emerged as the biggest dissenter of the Plan. I knew of a spell which would work with a subject’s emotions, taking one or more of them and fanning them to a greater, even extreme degree. It would work with positive ones like love or hope, but also with more negative ones; and as I watched Jenner denounce the Plan more and more…I decided I had my subject. I put the spell on him, and watched as he slowly became obsessed with fighting the Plan and trying to sway your fellows toward his opinions. And all of this—and more—was purely for the sake of what amounted to a game. I said earlier that Uhrstegg lived to manipulate, use others as game pieces for his amusement, and this was the result.”

The news had the expected impact upon the rats and mice.  All looked at each other, stunned; but Melvin had grown noticeably more tense.  Johnathan, who sat next to him, noticed his right hand become a fist, then grow more relaxed.  Johnathan touched Melvin’s arm, looking concerned, and the rat looked over to him, managing a small smile and nodding.

Ghormfisk continued: “It truly, honestly pains me to say this now, but I enjoyed standing back and watching my machinations play out over the following days and weeks.  Not only was Jenner actively denouncing the Plan and Nicodemus, he’d also become estranged from his family, to the point where he eventually moved out of his family’s quarters, and did not seem to care even as another replaced him.  I know that he was your friend and ally from years past, and I’m truly sorry now for all I’d done to him; but at the time, it was all just…amusing to me, as if you were all just test subjects.  I’d been aware that you, or rather the Original Twenty rats and two mice had previously been exactly that—subjects for experimentation—and were adamant that you would never allow yourselves to become such again; and that, it pains me to say, just made it all the more entertaining for me.”

The comparison had already occurred to some of them, but hearing Ghormfisk describe it in this fashion was certainly raising hackles now.  They’d promised Gwinthrayle and Birantha they’d keep their emotions in check until Ghormfisk had finished, but it was especially difficult for one of them; others besides Johnathan were watching Melvin’s reactions now.

“I think you should know, Ghormfisk,” he said now, quietly but with smoldering anger, “that Jenner was my father.”

Ghormfisk’s eyes widened.  “Then you have my most humble apology, Melvin.  It is true that I gave no thought to the emotional impact my manipulations caused in those who knew and loved your father.  As Uhrstegg, I was incapable of pity, empathy, love…but believe me when I say that before that…shattering of mind that I suffered, I was not that way at all; just the opposite, in fact.”

“Let’s keep in mind, everyone,” said Johnathan, “that before that happened, he was trying to find a new home for the remnants of his people.”

“I know, Johnathan,” said Melvin, noticeably calmer.  “I just thought…he should know that about me.”

“Thank you, all of you,” said Ghormfisk. “But I must warn you that my initial…treatment for Jenner was only the beginning. I had recalled how he’d remarked upon the Stone’s potential power when he’d first witnessed it in action through Johnathan, and I wondered what it would be like if he actually could take control of it. So I passed on to him the knowledge of how to take it over for himself to command just as I had done for myself back on Lahaikshe. I figured there would come a time, quite soon, when he would have the chance and I’d be there to witness it. But Nicodemus kept the Stone well protected and hidden, and on the occasions when Johnathan would come to test it, it would always be done out of Jenner’s sight. The two of them had begun to suspect that Jenner would try to steal it, especially after work on the Thorn Valley Plan had begun in earnest. This, apparently, was in reaction to a premonition on Nicodemus’s part; I had overheard past discussions they’d had on the subject, so I was aware that he’d experienced them before. So they, or actually Nicodemus was doing his best to keep it hidden from Jenner.

“I decided to put on Nicodemus a spell similar to that which I’d put on Jenner.  He had a certain amount of mystical knowledge, though not to the degree of myself, as far as I could discern, in addition to other abilities that seemed to have come upon him following the humans’ treatments.  I believed that he could disrupt my current or future plans, and I’d suspected that he was beginning to detect my own presence.  Plus I believed he was learning more about the Stone than I was comfortable with, though I was never certain exactly how much he knew; to try to read his mind might reveal my presence before I was ready.  So…I was able to get physically close enough to put a spell on him, similar in effect to the first one I’d put on Jenner.  As I’m sure you know, he was aging more quickly than the rest of you, and with this came the normal effects of aging, including lapses in memory.  The spell exploited these effects to the point where he forgot much of what he did know about the Stone.  I’m certain that he may have forgotten the specific events of the day Johnathan found it; all that seemed to be left were Johnathan’s intention to give it to his mate someday, and that it should be kept away from Jenner, though without the specifics of why.  In addition, he would not be aware that he’d forgotten anything.  Apparently, any private conversations he’d have with Johnathan or Justin would not reveal any such discrepancies.”

Nicodemus’s friends and colleagues, though not shocked, were certainly dismayed by this news.  Still, ideas were starting to form about further ways this forgetfulness spell may have affected him.

“So…over the ensuing months, your Thorn Valley Plan was well underway; Johnathan spent most of his time with his family; the Stone was still in the custody of Nicodemus and Justin. All this was over a period of a year and a half. I guess if there was one good thing one could say about my Uhrstegg persona, it was that he was very, very patient, content to watch all of this unfold slowly. This was partially by necessity; near as I could determine, most of the spells I’d worked in that particular realm were slow to take hold and fully develop. But, as I said, there were still periods when the Ghormfisk persona took hold, so that I’d be hiding away from everything and living like a mere animal. One such period lasted several weeks. Another of those periods ended only one day before that fateful night you all know well.

“On that night, as Uhrstegg, I placed myself among you to see what I’d missed while I’d been away—and exactly where I’d been away to, I wouldn’t have been able to say; nor did I care that much, such being the nature of this condition I’d suffered.  I’d expected Jenner to have made a move for the Stone by then; so I decided to try a spell that I hadn’t yet tried in this realm: that which I employed to impersonate Gwinthrayle, but this time Nicodemus was my subject.  The procedure was mostly the same, except that he never saw me before I put the sleep-spell on him.  I extracted information from his mind and learned that there would be a major outside operation that night which would call for Johnathan to perform his cat-drugging duty; and more significantly for me, that he’d had a premonition that Johnathan would need the amulet with him as he performed it, though specifically why Nicodemus didn’t seem to know.  I had only a few minutes in which to do this before Johnathan arrived to meet with Nicodemus, whom I was able to conceal in his living quarters while I met with Johnathan, who never suspected me.

“I’d planned on using the opportunity to make it easier to bring the Stone into Jenner’s hands, but after learning of Nicodemus’s premonition my plans changed: I was curious to learn why he believed Johnathan would need it that night, since I was aware that he held it so rarely, and never while he performed that duty.  So after he left with the Stone, I dropped the disguise, looked in on Nicodemus—who would awaken very soon—and resumed my invisibility spell, though in my haste I’d failed to renew the one to conceal my scent.  I tailed Johnathan from the Guard office all the way to the farmhouse, where I made my own way into the kitchen.  I witnessed him, still bearing the amulet, fall short of his escape route and retreat to the broom closet with the cat in pursuit.  I followed, by now realizing that this could be the source of Nicodemus’s premonition: that this was the night that he might fail in this duty and face death by the cat.  But I also knew something Johnathan may not have been aware of: that with the Stone, he could use it to take him to safety, away from the cat, just by wishing it so.  I decided, on the spur of the moment, to try to get the Stone away from him and let the cat have its way with him.  But it proved to be not so easy; Johnathan fought back the cat with a pin he’d found, and when I tried to take the Stone, he put up resistance to me as well.  Soon I noticed it glowing.  Good enough, I thought; might as well let it take us both to safety.  But where it took us, as you now know, was someplace unexpected.

“Now we were both in the so-called Cavern of Change on Lahaikshe, dazed, weakened and disoriented from the trip.  My invisibility spell had fallen away in the transition, not that it was needed right then.  I made my way over to Johnathan in the blackness, but I found he wasn’t wearing the amulet, nor was it anywhere in that cave.  Once I’d determined this, I made my way out towards the daylight, all the while trying to reason what had happened.  Wherever this was, Johnathan certainly didn’t mean to come here; so why did the Stone send him here, and me with it?  To this day, this part of the experience remains a mystery; apparently to yourselves as well as me.  But once I’d realized I was back on Lahaikshe, I knew that I’d have to come up with a new plan soon, knowing there was a good chance I’d be stuck here a long time, if not permanently.

“But in the midst of all this…my Ghormfisk persona returned. He…rather, I had no previous experience here; but while it was all new to me, it was somewhat easier to understand and acclimate myself to than Earth, because of everything being scaled down to what I was accustomed to back on Ihrvass. I found myself considerably less fearful here, since much of it reminded me of my homeworld.” Ghormfisk paused, sighing and looking wistful. “I’d even found an abandoned stone house in the forest which I took shelter in. I’m sure you all know which one by now. I became, while living there, as much a recluse as I did on Earth, but at least I was in more comfortable surroundings. While I was Ghormfisk, it never occurred to me to try to reach out to any of the native people, whom I would learn later would have been certain to welcome me, or at least not shun me or drive me away. So I did little more than eat and sleep and explore the adjacent areas while I was living there; and in fact, I felt a measure of peace and contentment. I would even reminisce about my homeworld; though of its final days, let alone what I had done, I gave no thought to, as I had no real memory of it while in that persona.”

Johnathan had already heard much in the narrative that he could relate to, and after these latest details, he found himself feeling an even stronger kinship with Ghormfisk.  Both of them had been the only ones of their kind on this strange, unfamiliar world, missing terribly all that was familiar to them.

“I lived this way for several months, not once lapsing back to Uhrstegg; until one day while I was out on one of my excursions in the area, I sensed the presence of another nearby.  I concealed myself and observed…you, Johnathan Brisby, apparently doing no more than I, simply passing through the area.  But somehow I knew that you were one I especially needed to avoid, and again I fled from you as I did some two years before, unnecessary as it might have been.  Back in the stone house, I still felt so rattled from the near-encounter that it triggered the change.  With Uhrstegg back in charge, he…I realized that I would need to move on from this place, recalling that I was back on Lahaikshe and that meant Gwinthrayle and Birantha would try to seek me out.  It’s only now that I realize why they hadn’t detected my presence in all those months: as Ghormfisk, I used none of my mystical abilities, which had lain dormant and apparently undetectable by them until then.

“I endeavored to seek new quarters, so I did my best to erase all evidence of my presence from the stone house.  I once again made use of my cloaking and disguising abilities, hoping they’d be enough to mask my presence from the two sorcerers while I came up with a new plan.  I left quickly and made a new temporary headquarters in a cave some distance away.  I quickly found that certain spells work differently in this realm than back on Ihrvass or Earth, or not at all, and I soon perfected the spell of transportation we all know.  I traveled, cloaked, to what I’d sensed to be a center of great power in the area, and found it to be what I’d suspected: the home of Gwinthrayle.  I recalled how my attempt to take the Stone from Johnathan had brought me here, and when I realized that he was now living there as Gwinthrayle’s guest, I felt great anger and frustration, deciding on the spur of the moment to direct my ire toward these two whom I perceived as my enemies.  I directed a bolt of mystic energy at his house and compound, but it made next to no impact.  I realized he must have anticipated such an attack and prepared accordingly, but I figured later that my unfamiliarity with working spells in this realm also factored in the spell’s ineffectiveness.

“Seething with anger, I retreated quickly, returning to the cave.  There, I managed to calm myself down enough to realize that it might be worth my while to monitor the Cavern of Change.  I’d reasoned that it was likely that this was the point where travelers from other dimensions, especially that of Earth, regularly appeared in this one, something I was able to confirm later.  With Johnathan the first one the Stone had ‘chosen,’ I knew the second one would be revealed sooner or later, and that one might come here—with the Stone—to seek him out.  So I made no more direct and foolish attacks, instead continuing to use my abilities at a minimum, mainly to keep myself cloaked as before.  Apparently this succeeded, since I continued my activities undiscovered and undisturbed.

“I fashioned a device much like the one I’d used back on Ihrvass, and the Orbs of Disclosure the Rusay sorcerers use and a similar device used by Nicodemus, which I would wear as a pendant around my neck. I used it to monitor the Cavern of Change from a distance, but this quickly become boring and tedious; so I added a feature to it, one that would alert me to any new arrivals to this world via the Cavern of Change by simply flashing on and off. Having done this, I decided to explore this world further, ostensibly to see how I might manipulate these people for my amusement. I arrived in the nearest town—Timphon—having already disguised myself as a Rusay. I took myself some quarters there, and at first I only observed the townspeople, getting to know their ways and customs.

“But it had an unexpected effect: my Ghormfisk persona returned, triggered, I believe now, by my being among these people with their kind and peaceable qualities.  My disguise fell away and I became fearful of my new and unfamiliar surroundings, ducking into an alley, looking for an escape route.  And that, as you probably know by now, was how Sithpha and his family found me.  Somehow their kindness and patience managed to win my trust, and I responded to them and allowed them to take me into their home.  I lived with them for the next few weeks, learning some of their language, becoming almost as one of their family, as I’m sure they’ve told you.  All the while I was wearing the pendant, looking like it had a simple piece of glass set in it, the true purpose of which I had no idea…until that day when it began flashing on and off, at first seen only by myself.

“And again, I’m sure you’ve guessed what happened next: it triggered the change again. Ghormfisk knew nothing of this pendant’s function, but Uhrstegg did, and…I grabbed Sithpha, believing I could make use of him somehow, and used the transportation spell to take us closer to the Cavern of Change, where I knew someone had to have arrived—someone I hoped would be bearing a certain red amulet. I left with his family’s cries ringing in my ears, oblivious to all but my hoped-for goal: to regain the amulet for myself, by now almost forgetting all I’d done back on Earth and the lives I had disrupted there. Now I only wanted to see what I could do with it myself, though again I had no specific plan for it yet. The one thing I was sure of was that these two sorcerers could do nothing to stop me, since I knew that commands I’d make using the Stone could override most, if not all, spells cast by them.

“During our flight, I checked the pendant and was rewarded with the very sight I’d hoped for: you four emerging from the cavern entrance. I even recognized Justin right away, though I was surprised to see a mouse among them. I needed a temporary base of operations, so I brought us to the stone house, which was still unoccupied. I told Sithpha to wait till I needed him, then I continued monitoring the progress of the four newcomers.”

He paused, looking back and forth over his audience. “The rest I’m sure you all know well by now, or at least most of it. I treated all of you so badly: stealing away a husband and father from you; forcing you to act against your will; manipulating your friends and allies back on Earth, and then leaving the four of you to die. And you, Johnathan, in our last moments on Earth, trying to wrest the Stone and its protection from you, leaving you to face death alone. I can say now—honestly—that I am glad that didn’t happen, that you survived; that all of you survived. I must say again how sorry I am for the suffering I caused. I hope you can all find it within you to forgive me.” Ghormfisk closed his eyes, sighing and lowering his head.

Madeline got up and walked directly to him.  “If all you have told us is the absolute truth, then I forgive you, Ghormfisk.”

It took Johnathan a moment to overcome his surprise; then he remembered how well she’d played her part at confronting him earlier, while he was still Uhrstegg.  “The same goes for me,” he added, “despite everything.”  Sithpha and family readily voiced their agreement as well, though the three rats still had reservations; and none more so than Melvin, who sat in stony silence, arms folded.

“Ghormfisk,” said Justin evenly, “are you aware of what happened to us on Earth after you came here with Johnathan?”  Without waiting for an answer, he described how the spell on Jenner increased his lust for power until the end result was the deaths of Nicodemus, Sullivan and himself, and the near-deaths of so many others.  After hearing this, Ghormfisk regretfully admitted that, as Uhrstegg, he knew full well that this could easily have been the result of his machinations.  It was hardly a satisfying answer—as if he expected one—but Justin knew it would have to do.

“What about,” Willis brought up, “that whole town you grew from the earth?  What was the point of all that?  And why trap us the way you did, if that was all you wanted to do with the Stone?”

Ghormfisk inhaled deeply. “There is…so much about Uhrstegg’s activities that I cannot definitively explain. I think he…I eventually hoped to induce some of the local population to live there. I was—possibly—trying to recreate a portion of Ihrvass here on Lahaikshe, and I’d become so consumed with it that I completely forgot those of you I’d trapped. Before I did, I do clearly remember you, Mrs. Brisby, asking me why I was doing this; and I wish I could give you an answer more satisfying, to you or myself, than that it was an aspect of my condition, that it was…a whim on the part of Uhrstegg. He…I was subject to wild mood swings and flights of logic that made sense only to him. I can only reiterate…how sorry I am.”

It occurred to Justin how all of this resembled a legal proceeding; and how willing the “defendant” was to throw himself on the mercy of the court. And yet…for all the two sorcerers’ assurance that Ghormfisk’s condition had been cured or at least brought under control, would he be willing to pronounce him not guilty?

“There’s still something I don’t understand,” said Johnathan, “and that’s why the Stone brought him to Earth.  An hour after it fell into my hands, it had ‘chosen’ me, made me a conduit for its power, saving Derek’s life.  Pharsal set it to do this, to choose someone with the right qualities, and it turned out to be me, and later Madeline as well.  But I can’t help feeling that it was meant to fall into our hands, and only ours; and for better or worse, it was Ghormfisk that made that happen.  It just doesn’t seem like a random event.”  He fingered the amulet as he looked down upon it.

“And then it sent you and Ghormfisk here, when you were cornered in the broom closet,” said Justin. “You only wanted to be away from there, to go someplace safe.”

“That’s right.  If it did act upon that wish, why send me to another dimension?  Why not just send me to my own home?  And that dimension happened to be this one, where it came from.  That can’t be coincidence.”

“Random event, or coincidence, or something else,” mused Gwinthrayle, “perhaps, with the Stone back in your hands, Johnathan, a more definitive answer may come forth.”

Johnathan looked at him, ready to ask “How?” but instead he looked at the Stone more closely; then he removed it from around his neck, studying it silently for a moment; then he turned to his wife.  “Maddie…didn’t you say that it seemed to you almost as if there could be…something or someone inside of it, like someone’s spirit?”

Justin felt his heart skip a beat.  “And didn’t we theorize that that someone could be Nicodemus?”

Melvin finally broke his long silence.  “We sure did.  Is it possible, Johnathan, that you—both you and Madeline, in fact—could find out for sure?”

“As the ones chosen by the Stone,” said Gwinthrayle sagely, “the answer could indeed be yours to reveal.”

The two mice looked at each other; then, sitting closer together so they could both lay hands upon the Stone, they closed their eyes, concentrating as one, the silent question on both their minds: Who are you?  If you are here, let us meet you.

After less than a minute both opened their eyes and looked at each other. “Gwinthrayle…everyone,” Johnathan said decisively, “there is definitely someone in there.”

Madeline nodded.  “And…he told us: ‘I am ready to leave here…and reveal myself.’”

Chapter 19 - The Spirit in the Stone and the fate of the Sut'hrim

There was another minute of discussion, muted but excited, after which Gwinthrayle and Birantha concluded that they could use their talents to create a spiritual “touchstone” that would draw out this entity from the amulet.

They each laid a hand upon it while Johnathan continued to hold it out in front of him, spoke quiet incantations…and shortly a wispy, wraithlike form rose from the Stone, making everyone gasp.  It looked like multicolored steam at first, but instead of evaporating, it continued to swirl in the air, soon coalescing into a more definite, solid-appearing form, looking more and more as one with a real physical existence—or perhaps one that once had one.

Sithpha and family gazed upon the sight, fascinated, having never seen anything close to this before.  Ghormfisk looked on, equally attentive and curious as to the identity of this stranger.  The five from Earth looked unblinking upon the figure, soon “standing” in midair in the center of the room, studying every detail as it took shape, looking very much like out-of-focus film footage slowly coming into focus.  Nicodemus? they all wondered even as a figure most un-rat-like became revealed; until, finally, one other among them, one not from Earth, gazed upon it with recognition.

“Pharsal!” said Birantha barely above a whisper.  “I honestly cannot say I’m surprised.”  The figure was now easily recognizable as Rusay.

“Wait…Pharsal?”  Justin scratched his head.  “The one that created the Stone, with his brother?”

“The very same,” confirmed Birantha.  “Apparently he did indeed leave out some details before giving it to me.”  He stepped over to the figure, by now very much a sharp, distinct image of a Rusay male, dressed in the conventional clothing of one, or at least appearing so.  “Pharsal…can you speak?”

“Yes,” the figure replied, in a voice that sounded surprisingly ordinary.

“And…do you remember me, my friend?”

“I…do, Birantha,” the figure replied, looking all around, acknowledging the reality of everyone in the room as they did him. “I…am Pharsal, and…I have existed within the red amulet since…the day my corporeal body died. It was…a condition I put upon it, one that I believed needed to be kept secret, even from you: that when I died, my soul-self would be drawn within it, even as it was in your possession. I felt…at the time that it was the only thing left for me to do. You see, I considered the amulet to be…the ultimate achievement of my brother Arvasa and me, and I wanted to be with it to see what it could accomplish once it had ‘chosen’ its pair of worthy bearers.

“At first my intent was simply to observe from within; but later, after Ghormfisk discovered it—when his new, unpleasant personality was directing him—I tried to see if I could direct the amulet’s actions from within.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to gain complete control over it, but with Uhrstegg directing it, I knew I had to try to mitigate some of what he might do with it, because I knew some of it might be bad.  Even in the brief time he controlled it, I could tell this much about him.  But because of the chaotic and fragmented state his own mind was in, there was little I could tell about why he behaved as he did, or what led to his condition…at least at that time.”

Johnathan stepped closer.  “And was it you that directed the Stone to take him to Earth, so that it would fall into my hands?”

Pharsal looked genuinely baffled.  “I cannot say, Johnathan.  I hope…you don’t mind my speaking to you with such familiarity, but…during the time it, and therefore I as well, were on Earth, I came to feel as if I knew you very well; and later, Madeline just as well.  But you believe it was not a random occurrence, that the Stone brought Uhrstegg to Earth, to where it would ‘choose’ you after you found it.  As near as I can explain, it was random.  Even existing inside the amulet, being essentially one with it, I could not discern the reasons for some of its actions.

“But with it—I suppose I could say us—on Earth, and among you and your people, I witnessed many events in your life. Every time you held the amulet, I would find myself in rapport with your own mind, learning about how your life had gone recently. Your struggles became my struggles; your triumphs, mine. The love you had for your friends, your family, and most of all, your mate, I felt for myself. I’d…had much time to ponder my old life, and I realized how badly I’d squandered much of it, blaming the whole world for what I’d believed was its rejection of me. I realized that, because of this, I would have reason to feel envious of what you had—all these things that I’d never had for myself in my old life. But it wasn’t that way at all. Rather, I found that experiencing these feelings vicariously served to deepen my resolve to help you in any way I could.

“So…though I knew of Ghormfisk’s presence on Earth, I knew next to nothing of his activities; I could not ‘see’ very much of what was taking place outside the amulet.  It’s only now, in fact, just since Johnathan and Madeline regained it, that I’ve become more fully aware of what he’d done to Nicodemus and Jenner; though at the time I would sense Johnathan’s feelings of caution and distrust where Jenner was concerned, including the possibility that he might have designs on the amulet himself.

“Now…I know you must also be wondering if I know why the amulet sent Johnathan to Lahaikshe, and Ghormfisk with him. I knew that it acted upon your desire to be taken to a place of safety, but again I can’t say precisely why that place was Lahaikshe, in an entirely different dimension, nor why it didn’t accompany you. Perhaps it was related to Lahaikshe being its place of origin. But I was well aware that it would ‘choose’ another; and on that fateful day that Johnathan’s mate met the Rats of NIMH and Nicodemus presented the amulet to her, I knew, from my long association with it, that she was the one, from the moment she held it in her hands. I was happy to finally ‘meet’ her, knowing Johnathan’s deep feelings for her, and…I understood fully why Johnathan loved her. And when I learned of your predicament, the danger your family was in, I resolved that the amulet could help you out of it somehow.

“From having experienced the moment the amulet chose Johnathan, I anticipated the same for when it would do the same with Madeline, but it was slower; apparently that’s another inherent quality of the mineral, or perhaps the fact that Ghormfisk had taken command of it before was a factor.  At any rate, when I could see that this was happening, I sought to ‘rush it along,’ have it choose you sooner than it would on its own.  I’d been able to do very little, up to that point, to influence the amulet’s actions in any way, but I had to try, knowing the urgency of your situation.

“As I increased my efforts, I observed your bravery and selflessness…and the great danger you were in when Jenner threatened your life.  I tried so hard to exert more control then, but failed.  I was relieved when Justin came to your rescue and defeated Jenner; but then your children were in mortal danger.  I couldn’t bear to witness any more tragedy that day, so I redoubled my efforts…and finally succeeded.  The amulet ‘presented’ itself to you in a much more overt manner than it would have on its own; and because it was ‘pushed’ prematurely, the task of saving your children necessitated that it borrow some of your own life-energies, which left you exhausted afterwards, and with burned hands.  I am deeply sorry about that, but it couldn’t be helped; apparently it’s an inherent quality of the mineral, that it generates actual heat in such situations.”

Madeline’s eyes widened at these words. “Then…it was you who really…saved our children, you we really have to thank. And…that image of Nicodemus that I saw in the Stone…”

“I know, Madeline, that you’d hoped that, in some way, it really was Nicodemus; but I must admit, that was also my doing.  I thought it would be a help to you if a familiar face encouraged you.  My deepest apologies for having been so deceptive.”

“How could I possibly be angry with you over that?” asked Madeline.

“She’s right,” added Johnathan.  “How could we be anything but grateful?  Timothy, Cynthia, Martin, Teresa…if it weren’t for you, they’d not be here now.”

“Well, I must confess…” said Pharsal, rather self-effacingly, “that in my own way, I’d…come to love you, Madeline, even in that short space of time.  I wanted to do all I could for you and yours, any way I could.  Knowing what had really happened to Johnathan, and that you’d thought him dead, I wanted to see you and him reunited.”

Pharsal’s account struck a special chord with Justin, with its description of how his love for Madeline had been entirely unselfish.  It matched exactly his own feelings for her, with his own greatest wish for her being to see her happy with Johnathan again.

“After this first, enormous effort, it would be a while before I’d be able to exert even a small degree of control over the amulet again.  I’d have much preferred that it stay with you, but I couldn’t prevent your giving it to Justin.  If you had kept it…but there’s no point in that line of thought, I suppose.  During its time in Justin’s custody, I found I was still able to ‘see’ outside the amulet, and I was pleased to see the Rats’ progress in their new home, though I couldn’t extend my view all the way back to you on the farm.  So I was very pleased when you did come to visit the Rats, when you needed the amulet again.

“And everything after that, you all know well: you came to Lahaikshe, and Ghormfisk made his attempt to take over the amulet, at first trying to persuade you to hand it over willingly, Madeline.  I managed to exert a small amount of control, and so I was able to pass on a message to you, warning you of his intentions, which you’d felt on little more than an emotional level.  Alas, it proved to be too little, too late; and so Ghormfisk succeeded and used it to trap you and then to construct his town.  Again I managed to make contact with his mind as I did with Johnathan and Madeline, and I have to say it was not pleasant.”

Pharsal looked toward Ghormfisk.  “I am glad our two friends were able to cure you of this condition.  But I learned something of the events that brought it about.”  As he said this, Pharsal’s image grew noticeably less distinct and more distorted and blurry.  “My time in this form…is almost at an end, I feel.  I cannot return to the amulet, so my time on this plane will end shortly.  I would like to say how sorry I am for all the disruptions the amulet has brought to your lives, and all the anguish this whole business has put you through.”

“Well, for what you’ve done for us,” said Johnathan, knowing he spoke for his entire family, “it makes up for anything else that affected us in a negative way.”

“For what it’s worth, Pharsal,” said Justin, “I’m glad I had the chance to actually meet you.”

“Yes,” said Madeline, finding herself choked with emotion.  “And now I can say to you…thank you, Pharsal, from the bottom of my heart, for saving our children.  Thank you…so much.”  Johnathan took her in his arms as her tears flowed freely, and he could only nod in agreement, filled with emotion himself.

“You’re quite welcome, my friends.”  Pharsal’s image grew even more blurry as Melvin stepped up closer to it.

“Wait…you were starting to say something about what you learned from Ghormfisk’s mind.”

“Oh, yes…about what he did, or thought he did, to his people.  Could they have gone…somewhere else?”  His image abruptly became even more indistinct.  “I must…leave you now.  Goodbye…”  The last syllable seemed to linger in the air, even as his image twisted away in the air, looking like ordinary mist before fading completely.

Everyone was silent for another moment. Then Johnathan said, “What he last said…I got the same idea while Ghormfisk was telling his story.” He turned to the Sut’hrim sorcerer. “Ghormfisk, is it possible that your people went someplace besides Lahaikshe? Like, yet another dimension?”

Ghormfisk looked away, appearing genuinely astonished.  “But…my spell was specifically geared to this dimension.  It just couldn’t have… In all the practice runs, it…” He put his hand to his forehead.

The others looked on, bemused and astonished themselves.  Was it possible?  It seemed an obvious point, and yet…

Ghormfisk looked up.  “I had been…tired, overworked; the stresses on body and mind…I could not accept that it had gone so completely wrong.  They…they had to have gone to Lahaikshe, how could…”  He shook his head.  “It was all I could believe at the time, that if they didn’t make it, then I…was responsible, I had to be responsible for their deaths.  And yet…”

“…Yet,” Johnathan said carefully, “they couldn’t have just vanished without a trace.”

“I hate to put it like this,” added Justin with equal care, “but whether they arrived dead or alive at their destination, wherever it was, they must have gone somewhere, physically.”

Ghormfisk looked at Justin, then Johnathan; then his eyes widened and he leaped to his feet, making them both leap back in surprise and think they may have crossed a line.  “The Stone!  It can locate them, if they truly are alive!”

Recovering quickly, Johnathan held it up, looking at it. “It can show…images from the past, and in other dimensions… Yes, I think we can do this!”

“Are you sure, Johnathan?” asked Justin.  “You’ve never seen his people, how will you know what to look for?”

“Maybe,” Madeline suggested, “if you do like we did when we started our journey.”

“Of course!” Willis exclaimed.  “We all joined hands and concentrated on the same thing.”

“A similar technique could work here,” said Johnathan with rising optimism.  He described how it would be carried out; and soon, Johnathan held out the Stone in front of him and Ghormfisk stood opposite him with one hand on it.  Johnathan willed it to show them the moment on Ihrvass, only over two years ago, just before Ghormfisk’s original spell sent those 1800 Sut’hrim into parts unknown.  They and everyone else present hoped that the two of them concentrating “in sync,” with the Stone drawing on Ghormfisk’s memories of the incident, would succeed in summoning the image they sought.  The two Rusay sorcerers stood by, alert to the possibility—however remote it may be at this point—that Ghormfisk could revert and make another play for the amulet.  Everyone else clustered in back of Johnathan, eyes locked on the already-glowing Stone, though it was a little difficult for everyone in such a large crowd to have a good view of such a small screen.

In less than a minute’s time, their efforts were rewarded.  They saw on the Stone’s face, an image of a figure all recognized as Ghormfisk, standing before a large crowd of his own people.  The scene played out exactly as he described it: a glow surrounded the crowd, they vanished; but then, as Johnathan willed it, the scene followed the progress of those 1800 Sut’hrim—and suddenly, parts unknown became parts revealed.

“Come look, everyone,” said Johnathan excitedly, making sure that Ghormfisk had the ringside seat.  His eyes widened as they all saw this same group of people standing in an open field: some looking all around at the land and sky, some dazed and disoriented, some expressing their joy by leaping about or embracing each other.

“There you are, Ghormfisk,” said Johnathan.  “Wherever they went, they definitely got there safely.”

Ghormfisk could only stare breathless, speechless.  “They…they’re alive,” he finally managed to say.  Overcoming his initial shock, he said urgently, “But this is when…they arrived. What about now?  Can you…”

“I can bring the view right up to the present,” Johnathan said as if he’d been doing this all his life, and immediately the image shifted.  “This is that same spot now,” he announced, and all saw it had been completely transformed: a town now stood on the spot, with people bustling about, carrying all manner of goods or transporting them in wheeled conveyances, conversing with friends.  Johnathan willed the view to travel about the area more widely, allowing them to see new homes being constructed, farmers tilling the earth, families picnicking and relaxing by a stream.  All around was an air of happiness and contentment, as if no one took for granted their good fortune.  Johnathan then brought the view to what appeared to be a town square.

“Hey, looks like they put up a statue,” Willis observed.  Johnathan “zoomed in” on it so they could see that it was of a Sut’hrim man.  Ghormfisk? they all wondered.  It was hard to discern from the image, but when they saw the plaque at its base, written in his language, Ghormfisk confirmed the statue was indeed erected in his honor.

“Ghormfisk, they love you,” Madeline said, hand on his arm.  “You’re a hero to them, a savior.”

“So it…so it appears.”  Ghormfisk looked up, dazed; then he said, “I have…seen enough, Johnathan.”  He sat back down on the sofa, and Johnathan willed the view to cease.

“Look at how they’ve honored you,” he said. “And you deserve it, certainly more than if my friends had put up a statue of me in Thorn Valley.” He looked at Justin, grinning. “You didn’t, did you?” Justin replied only by grinning back and shaking his head.

For a moment all could only look on as Ghormfisk rested his forehead against his hands, trying to process all this information. “They’re alive,” he repeated, brokenly. “They’re alive.”

Johnathan approached him tentatively.  “So…what will you do now?  Will you go to them, join them?”

Ghormfisk looked up, wiping tears away with his forearm.  “I…guess I have little other choice, do I?  But…I’m not sure I could face them after I…”  He looked up, sighing.  “I didn’t even consider that they’d survived.  It’s as if I gave up on them; instead of even trying to find them, I gave in to my grief, let guilt consume me until I descended into madness.  I’d convinced myself that I’d done everything as I’d planned, and…”  He brought his fists down to his knees in frustration.  “How can I go to them now, after all I’d done?  Not only to them, but…to all of you?  All of the trouble I caused all of you, almost…killing you…”  He sighed deeply, unable to meet anyone’s eyes.

Gwinthrayle placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Ghormfisk, you are welcome to stay on here if you choose.  But there is another point to be considered.  You may very well have done everything correctly, to the letter, in evacuating your people.  But it may have been some other factor, an outside force that intervened and sent them to a different destination.  It may even have been something present in the makeup of this very world, something imperceptible even by those such as Birantha and myself.  But whether this is the case or not, you’ve already had more than your share of guilt and grief.”

“He’s right, my friend,” added Birantha.  “The past is immutable.  You must try to leave your guilt behind you, and build a future with those who will welcome you as one of them.”

“Take it from someone who’d made his share of mistakes, Ghormfisk,” said Johnathan.  “I’ve brought plenty of troubles on myself, by exercising bad judgment.  They were never as serious as what you’ve gone through—nowhere near it—but even if they haven’t made things easy for me or those I love, I intend to put them behind me as much as I can, and look to the future.”  He looked upon Madeline fondly, but also with—or so it seemed to her—a touch of melancholy.  It wasn’t hard to guess its source.

Ghormfisk continued looking down, then made another sweeping look at everyone; then, abruptly, he stood again.  “Johnathan,” he said, sounding as one who’d just made a major decision with no intention of backing down, “can the amulet send me there…just me?”

Johnathan’s face lit up.  “I haven’t used it that way, specifically, but…”  He looked upon the Stone, “communing” with it silently; then he reported, “Yes.  Yes it can, Ghormfisk.”

“Then, please…I ask you to do this for me, as soon as possible.  I’ve considered all your words, and you’re right.  I belong with them, and they will welcome me.  And what you said, Gwinthrayle, about an outside force bringing them there instead of Lahaikshe…I will consider that too.  What’s past…is past.  I must move on.”  His tone reflected more hope, even contentment now.

“You won’t regret this decision,” said Gwinthrayle, sounding pleased himself.  “So whenever you’re all ready…”

“…‘New Ihrvass’ awaits you,” finished Johnathan.

Ghormfisk actually managed a smile.  Though he maintained that he was ready now, he wanted to tie up some loose ends first.  He thanked Sithpha and his family for their kindness and hospitality to him, and for the chance to spend those weeks with them in a state of peace and acceptance and belonging.  Recalling this, he explained, was the primary factor in his decision to rejoin his people.  The children and Dinilom each gave him a goodbye hug, and even Sithpha wished him luck in his new life.  His only real possession was the viewscreen-pendant, and he told Gwinthrayle to keep it—he wanted as few as possible reminders of his old life, intending to leave magic and sorcery behind as much as he could.

“Ghormfisk,” said Justin, “I sincerely hope you find happiness where you’re going.  When this all started, I…wanted revenge on you in the worst way.  But now…we’ve learned so much, and we now know that your situation and ours have something in common.”

“What he said,” added Willis.  “Victims of circumstance, that’s all any of us have been.”

Melvin, who’d been largely silent, said, “I don’t know if I can ever entirely forgive you, but…I do understand a little better.”

“Melvin, I can never fully atone for all I’d done, especially to your father and to Nicodemus.  But that side of me is gone, I hope forever.”

“I hope so too, for everyone’s sake.  Well…good luck to you.”  This last round of well-wishing had felt awkward and forced by all three of them, Melvin especially.  Though they sincerely wished Ghormfisk well, what could they say to one who had been responsible for their near-deaths, all for the sake of what amounted to a series of whims on the part of a personality he no longer even had?

“Thank you…all of you.”  Ghormfisk wasn’t unaware of their unease, but didn’t comment on it; instead, he turned to the two mice, eager to get the process started.  They thought it best if both worked in tandem to command the amulet, and so they began by bringing back the image of the Sut’hrim’s new world.  They were able to establish it without Ghormfisk this time; apparently, this was due to a “learning” capability of the Stone that they were only now discovering.

Once this was established, they had Ghormfisk place a hand on it as before, and to concentrate on this world as his destination.  “Farewell, everyone,” he said with little obvious emotion, and the process began.  He looked at the image of his people—and recalled the woman with the two children who’d been at the front of the crowd back on Ihrvass, before the original spell was completed, and he smiled determinedly.  He would definitely seek her out, he inwardly vowed as the red glow from the amulet surrounded him.  Seconds later there was a bright flash from which everyone had been instructed to shield their eyes; and when everyone looked up, the mouse couple stood alone, the Stone still around Johnathan’s neck and glowing.

“So…did he make it?” Sithpha was the first to ask.  Johnathan was already willing the Stone to again show a scene of New Ihrvass; and sure enough, there was Ghormfisk, being approached by other Sut’hrim who definitely were happy to see him.  Everyone again clustered around for a look.  They watched as one in the crowd, a female, approached him, expression almost worshipful.  She was followed by two children, obviously hers; and Madeline recalled Ghormfisk’s description of the family at the front of the crowd back on Ihrvass as personifying the ultimate goal of his original spell.  She wondered if this was them, and if they had meant something even more to him.  For another minute they observed the ever-growing crowd around Ghormfisk; news of his arrival was traveling fast, and Madeline was further reminded of how the Rats of NIMH welcomed her in Thorn Valley, certainly as a hero of equal measure.  Thus far everyone seemed happy to see him.

“Looks like…he’s going to do just fine,” said Justin.

“I agree,” said Johnathan; and after making sure everyone had seen enough, he willed the image to cease.  He looked toward Madeline, smiling.  “Well…it looks like it’s just you and me.”  He looked up at the three rats.  “Yes, and you knuckleheads too.”  He looked down to the amulet as Madeline chuckled.

“Well, if you don’t mind this knucklehead asking,” said Justin, “What’s the Stone’s status right now?”

“Let me check…” Johnathan concentrated for about ten seconds; then he reported, “Well, after this last workout, it’ll be a little longer than before, before it’s recharged enough to take all six of us back to Earth.  But we’d been planning on staying a little longer anyway, right?  As much as I’d like to get home and see my children again, I know they’ll be all right.”  Madeline rubbed his arm, smiling in agreement.  “And I know you’ve all been wanting to see more of this place.”

“Just so we all know,” Melvin announced, “I’ve been doing the math in my head, off and on; and right now, I estimate it’s early evening in Thorn Valley, about seven, eight o’clock.”

“So,” said Justin, “by the time the Stone’s ready, it’ll be the middle of the night there.  I guess it wouldn’t be a good idea to go popping in then.”  A bit more negotiation, and soon all agreed they’d spend another 12 to 13 hours here before making the trip home, so that it would be midmorning, around 8:00, when they’d arrive.  Everyone would get another good night’s worth of sleep first, even though there would still be daylight for part of that time.

“It’s like a bizarre case of jet-lag,” remarked Johnathan as they made further plans on how to fill the time.  Gwinthrayle brought everyone to the dining room for more food and drink, where it was quickly decided that Gwinthrayle would lead his guests on a tour of his botanical gardens, after which Johnathan would introduce his wife and friends, both rat and Rusay, to his favorite spot on the grounds.

Chapter 20 - Repose and reaffirmation

After a light lunch everyone went outside. As promised, their host led the tour of his extensive botanical gardens, which contained plants from different parts of the world, mostly from the Vitrono continent, as well as ones that grew locally. Some were already familiar to the Earth visitors, such as the bavagdee, the one with the “spiral staircase” tubercles; and the umatay, the “breathing tree.” They also encountered another votrij, the walking tendril mass. Gwinthrayle, Birantha and Johnathan also provided names for some of the other creatures they’d seen: the “snake-fox,” for example, was called the min’hathio, a mainly nocturnal beast that had inspired a lot of lore over the centuries.

It was as hot a summer day as it had been recently; and so, around an hour into the garden tour, everyone was ready for some cooling-off time.  So Johnathan invited everyone to follow him to his favorite hangout for relaxation and contemplation, the creekside meadow.  On the way, though, Melvin opted out, saying he needed time to “think some things over.”  Though he wasn’t more specific, all were certain he was still working through his feelings for what they’d found out about Jenner, so it was quite understandable.

Soon the group arrived at the meadow, essentially a strip of lawn some eight to ten feet wide bordering the creek, covered by short-cropped minphiss, the sized-down equivalent of grass. Johnathan assured everyone that the creek had a slow, lazy current and was perfectly safe for swimming, and any and all were welcome to do so. Everyone picked a spot on the shore to settle upon, though there wouldn’t be a whole lot of actual settling, as Sithpha and family were the first to take up the invitation to cool off. With no hesitation whatsoever, the three children stripped off their clothing and plunged into the creek, laughing and splashing each other as their parents looked on smiling. They looked at each other and kissed; then they followed their children’s example, removing all of their own clothing and joining their children in the water.

In later discussion, the two rats would say how surprising they found this to be; because of the Rusay’s strong resemblance to humans, they expected them to share a human sense of modesty where clothing is concerned.  For now, though, Justin and Willis decided their new friends had the right idea, and so they doffed their own shirts and tunics, and Johnathan removed his own tunic and Madeline untied her cape.

“C’mon and join us,” invited Willis.

“We will,” assured Johnathan, “in a little while.  You kids go on and have fun.”  Johnathan grinned.

Justin smiled back and patted Willis’s arm.  “Last one in’s…”

“…a drowned rat?” finished Willis.

“No, a rotten egg!”  Justin made a fast dash, leaping off the bank.  Willis immediately followed.

Madeline laughed quietly but heartily.  “‘Kids’ is right.  Will you look at those two?”

Johnathan chuckled.  “He may be our duly-appointed fearless leader, but that’s still Justin all over.”

“Well, I knew there was still plenty of child in him, ever since we first met.”  She described in detail the “reveal my name” game Justin had played with Mr. Ages, who had been even more devoid of humor than usual due to his broken leg; and his contention that “we tend to take ourselves a little too seriously.”  She went on to describe how, in contrast to her first impression of him as the cavalier, happy-go-lucky charmer, she saw plenty of his serious side firsthand, as subsequent events unfolded.

“That’s Justin, all right,” said Johnathan as they watched the two rats splash, swim and horse around with their new Rusay friends.  He turned to Madeline, placing an arm around her waist.  “You really care for him, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied without hesitation. “He’s done so much for me, and I’ll always be grateful. Even if he hadn’t saved me from Jenner, I’d…do anything for him.”

“I’m glad.”  They looked at each other, and again Madeline was sure she saw a look of sadness in his brown eyes, as she had when he told Ghormfisk that he’d made mistakes in his time.  But before she could comment upon it, he said, “Madeline, I know you’re well aware by now…of the aging difference between you and me, the one thing that I allowed to keep the two halves of my life separate; because I was so afraid of what the truth might do to you and the kids, but also…because I thought you wouldn’t forgive me for not telling you sooner.  I knew, all along, that there was a chance that you wouldn’t be angry or hurt, but…I thought it was too slim a chance, I guess.  And so I just kept putting it off more and more.  Procrastination knows no limits, right?”

The words had come spilling out nearly spontaneously, the last ones with a hint of bitterness.  He hadn’t planned on waiting for an occasion like this, but he’d been determined, since his vigil at her bedside last night, that the matter would be addressed, and soon.

But poorly timed or not, Madeline had been well prepared.  “Johnathan…my love…I understand why it was so hard for you; or at least I think I do.  But I’m sure you’ve noticed, just as I have, and even Justin brought up the subject with me…that I don’t believe I’ve grown that much older.  It doesn’t show in how I look, and I still feel young.  I’ve thought about it many times since Nicodemus told me about the difference, and now…I can’t help wondering if it…comes from you.”

Johnathan’s eyes widened.  The words resonated deeply, bringing him back to that long-ago conversation with Nicodemus: about how both he and Madeline had noticed how just being with him so closely and intimately had influenced her emotionally.  And last night, he’d wondered: could he have influenced her in other ways as well, possibly to the point where she had truly become…

Abruptly he grabbed the Stone, as if he were suddenly afraid of losing it, and held it out for both to see.  “If there’s a truth to be found here,” he said determinedly, “let it be revealed now.  The moment that it happened…that you became…like me.”  He hesitated to put it that way; though both had suspected this very possibility, neither wanted to find that it wasn’t true, as Madeline had told Justin two days ago.  But now both waited, near-breathless, till an image appeared on the Stone’s face.  It was a surprisingly mundane scene: the two of them sharing a strawberry—but one both recognized immediately, delightedly.

“Why, Johnathan!  That was the day we met!”

“It sure is!”  Amazing as it was to look upon, he couldn’t help wondering: Why this particular moment?

“It’s like a window into our own past.  I never thought we could use it this way.”

“Me neither.  But I can’t help but feel…that there’s more to this.  Could this really be…”  He trailed off as a new image replaced the first.  It was still the two of them; but now, instead of sharing food, it was a much more intimate moment they were sharing. If they were human, they might have been embarrassed at this scene; instead, realization washed over them both as they knew, beyond a doubt, why the Stone was showing them this, and its significance.  As the image faded, they gazed into each other’s eyes, unable to say a word for a moment; and when they could, they found they literally had to catch their breaths.

“I…I’ve been like you…all along,” Madeline finally managed to say.  “Johnathan…dearest…ever since our first day together, we’ve been…the same.  I’ve always been…one of you…you and the Rats.”  They both looked over to the creek, where Justin was floating on his back, and Willis was giving one of the Rusay youngsters a toss into the deeper water.  “It was all from our being mates.”  She brought a hand to his face, stroking his cheek.  “You gave me all your love, Johnathan, but also…so much more.  You gave me…life!”

She embraced him tightly, crying on his shoulder.  Johnathan wept just as openly and unreservedly, with no thought of anyone who might be watching them.

When both felt more composed, they again looked upon each other, then at their friends; apparently, none of them had seen them sharing a moment that could be misinterpreted as one of great sorrow.

“Let’s…keep this between us for now, shall we?” Johnathan suggested.  Madeline nodded, still sniffling.

Johnathan looked up at the treeline on the creek’s opposite side as the implications sank in.  “All those years I couldn’t tell you the full truth, and beating myself up for it…it’s as if it was all for nothing.  I…”

Madeline placed a hand to his lips.  “Johnathan, I know there’s so much to think about, so much that can be seen in a new light, now that we know this.  But what’s really important…is that we had two and a half happy years together…and God willing, we’ll have many, many more ahead of us.”

Johnathan managed a smile; small at first, then broadening, until he burst out laughing.  “Sweetheart…you’re absolutely right.  Darn it all, this is a time to celebrate!”  He added more quietly, “But let’s still keep it secret for, say, an hour or so?”

“Of course!”  Unexpectedly, Madeline jumped to her feet, tugging at Johnathan’s hand.  “Let’s join them, shall we?”  He nodded and removed the amulet, placing it with his tunic; and without another thought he took her hand and they dashed toward the bank, leaping as one into the creek.  The others responded with welcoming shouts, and for a while the mouse couple frolicked with their friends before swimming off on their own.

Justin paused for a moment as he watched them submerge completely, reflecting again on how much they deserved their newfound happiness; though it would be a while before he knew the full reasons for it.  Such a contrast with the Madeline Brisby he’d first met, four months ago: frightened, desperate, uncertain; and he was sure he’d never seen Johnathan as happy as he was now.  He was once more reminded of a mission of his own, every bit as important as this one: one he felt more determined than ever to pursue upon their return home.

Johnathan and Madeline broke the surface, meeting in an embrace; then they continued swimming and diving for a few minutes more before meeting on the shore, in a shallow just off the bank.  “I didn’t know you liked to swim that much,” he remarked.

“I didn’t either,” she answered with a laugh.  “I guess it’s just...this day, and all it has brought us.”  She wiggled her feet back and forth, burying them in the wet sand.  “It just seemed like…the right thing.”

They embraced; and then, facing each other, they allowed their lips to meet.  Suddenly inspired by their Rusay friends, they opened mouths slightly, bringing them together.  Both felt nearly breathless and their entire bodies tingle with newfound delight as they pressed their lips tightly together, feeling each other’s teeth with their tongues.

After about a minute they broke it off, gazing into each other’s eyes.  “Remind me again,” said Johnathan, catching his breath, “why we hadn’t starting doing that sooner.”

“Better late than never, I suppose.”

They both laughed, kissing again lightly; then Johnathan said, “That reminds me…there’s something I’ve been wanting to show you.  Wow, I can’t believe I almost forgot.”  He stood, helping her to her feet before they climbed back onto the bank.

“What is it?”

“It’s a surprise.  You’ll love it, I promise.”  He put the amulet back on; and, seeing Justin and Willis already looking over in their direction, gave them a wave goodbye which was also intended to convey a meaning of “Don’t wait up for us.”  Then, taking his wife’s hand, he led them into the deeper foliage of Gwinthrayle’s gardens.

“It really is true, isn’t it?”  Madeline said.  “About us, about what you’d done for me long ago.”

“The Stone doesn’t lie,” Johnathan answered happily. “It’s true that there’s so much that happened in the past that…could have been so different if I only…if we only knew what we know now. But right now…I couldn’t care less about hindsight.”

They’d already ventured away from the main trail, wending their way through the foliage; and Madeline was about to ask how much further his surprise was when he suddenly stopped. “We’re almost there. Okay, close your eyes. Promise you’ll keep ’em closed?”

“Of course, darling.”  They continued on a short ways before he had her drop to all fours with him.  He directed her into what felt to her like close-set vines into an area that was more enclosed and in semi-darkness.  Johnathan had her sit down and he sat beside her.

“All right.  You can open ‘em now.”  Madeline did, and looked almost bewildered as she cast her gaze all around the spacious but cozy chamber they sat in, a living grotto formed by a canopy of leafy vines, the sunlight filtering through giving the space a warm, inviting green glow.  Suddenly, with a gasp, she realized why it seemed familiar.

“Johnathan…this is just like…the one near my old home, where we…first said ‘I love you’; and…you proposed to me.”

He nodded, placing his arm around her waist.  “When I first stumbled across it, that was the first thing I thought of.  I guess it was partly because I was looking for something, anything, that would remind me of home; but it really does look like our old ‘secret hideaway,’ doesn’t it?”

“Oh, it sure does.  Even though we only met there four times, I believe…I’ll always remember it like yesterday.  And I’ll always remember this too.”  She embraced him and nuzzled his ear.

As he wrapped his arms around her, they realized this was the first they’d truly been alone together since this morning.  Then, she was recovering from that terrible ordeal that had almost claimed the lives of her and their friends; but now, she was not only as strong and healthy as before, but what they had learned about both of them, and how her being Johnathan’s mate had truly affected her; and now this place, reminding them both so much of their first days together…it had all become overwhelming for them, as they drew back, gazing into each other’s eyes, suddenly realizing how much they’d fought back their mutual need all day.  For a moment, time was irrelevant; both of them half-believed it was again three years ago and they were in love for the first time.  Without a word their lips met again, and soon they were kissing and caressing each other with an even greater passion than they had on the bank.  They sank back onto the ground, allowing their senses to carry them further, the world outside their tiny private heaven melting away…

*      *      *

Melvin gave a start as a distant but loud shriek reached his ears, though he quickly realized it was not one that indicated danger.  One of Sithpha’s kids, he realized. He also realized he’d practically fallen asleep where he’d sat down—and later lay back—under the sivanbri, a species especially prized as a shade tree, according to Gwinthrayle.  There were times when his Guard training was too effective, alerting him to any out of place sound, including more innocuous ones like this.  Well, he thought, I guess that’s enough for now.

He stretched limbs and got to his feet.  He paused before starting off, on one hand wishing there could be an easy resolution to the whole matter, but on the other satisfied that he’d taken the time to sort things out.  More sounds from the creek came filtering through the foliage, including shouts and laughter from Justin and Willis.  Sounds like they’re having fun; guess it’s about time I joined them.

Soon he came upon the creekside meadow, chuckling to himself upon seeing his fellow Guard and the Rats’ appointed leader frolicking in the shallows like children.  This place can really bring it out, he thought as he saw Sithpha and Dinilom sitting along the bank, their pale blue skins still wet and shining after having just climbed out of the creek.  They immediately noticed Melvin and called a greeting to him, getting the rats’ attentions.  He quickly took off his own shirt and tunic and joined Justin and Willis in the creek, where all three sat down close to shore.

“How are you holding up, Mel?” asked Willis with genuine concern.

“Pretty good, I think.  I know there’s still the matter of how we’re going to tell my mother and sibs…the truth about Jenner, let alone everyone else.  But just being straightforward about it would probably be for the best.”

“I’m sure it will,” said Justin.  “When we get back together with Johnathan and Madeline, we’ll iron out all the details.  We have yet to discuss a location yet; you know, whether to have the Stone bring us to a spot away from the colony or not.”

“How about we just ‘pop up’ in your office?” suggested Willis.  “Everyone will know soon enough that we didn’t just simply walk out of the valley.”

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Melvin.  He scanned the shoreline back and forth.  “I guess our lovebirds decided to put in a little alone time.  This is really the place for it.”  The three rats, along with their new Rusay friends, continued to discuss their friends’ good fortune, after which they joined the children for some more swimming and diving.

*      *      *

The reunited mouse couple continued to lie in each other’s arms, alternating between kissing and gazing at each other, murmuring endearments, reveling in the feel, scent and sight of each other.  Neither wanted this interlude to end.

“I love you so much, Maddie.  I still can hardly believe it all.  Did you know that I actually pinched myself this morning when I woke up?”

“Mmm…I can imagine.  Do you think…this…ability, I guess we have to call it, is unique to you?  Could any of the rats, or Mr. Ages, for that matter, do what you…did with me?”

Johnathan rose partially, supported on his elbows.  “I hadn’t really thought much about it.  But there was a discussion Nicodemus and I had just after our first night together.”  He described it to her for the first time in detail, adding that it could very well have been the NIMH treatments that gave him this gift: to not only pass on his broadened emotional range to her, but more, perhaps all of his advanced characteristics as well.

“That’s so fascinating, Johnathan.  I wonder…do you suppose that helped me to recover from…what we’d just been through, with Ghormfisk?”

At this his eyes widened.  He straightened to a sitting position, helping Madeline up.  “I’d almost forgotten…what Gwinthrayle told me last night about you.  He said that you’d gone into a state…almost like hibernation, and that’s what saved you; it’s what kept you going longer than you would have otherwise.  But whether that’s something that came from me, I don’t…”

He paused, suddenly feeling drawn to the amulet, still around his neck.  Without a word, he began concentrating; and shortly his eyes widened again.  “Maddie…it was the Stone!  I’d known, since Birantha told me, that it passes on permanent gifts to the ones it chooses, but…Pharsal wasn’t clear about what they were.  Well, this is definitely one of them!  It endowed upon both of us an enhanced recuperative ability, so that we can recover and heal faster.  Oh, Maddie…”  He embraced her again.  “I promise I’ll never complain about the Stone again, or any of the bad it got us into.”  He kissed her and said, “Oh, how I wish Nicodemus could be here to…share this with us.  Well…not all of this right here,” he quickly added with a laugh.  “You know what I mean.”

Madeline laughed.  “I do, and I agree,” she said, “even though I knew him so briefly.”

“I wonder…just how many ways Uhrstegg’s spell affected him.  Ghormfisk said it made him forget certain things about the Stone and who knows what else…”

“I think I may know.  When he presented the Stone to me, he said nothing about Jenner, to keep it out of his sight or anything like that.”

“That could be.  And then…it may have affected his judgment during the house-moving, made him oblivious to the possibility of any danger.  He’d always had premonitions that warned him of imminent danger; I’d seen that for myself that night we almost got hit by a falling branch, so it’s odd that he wouldn’t have been warned about Jenner’s treachery. And then later, Jenner tried to take it from you, and Justin had to fight him to the death.”  Johnathan shook his head.  “God, it was such a waste.  And the way Nicodemus died…”

He closed his eyes, shuddering.  “I should have been there.  Maybe the outcome wouldn’t have been much different, but still…”  He lay back down.  “You know, that’s the thing that still bugs me: why the Stone sent me here.  It’s not as if I asked for it, specifically; I didn’t know ‘here’ existed.”  Again he held up the amulet, concentrated…and then looked at Madeline with a shrug.  “Nothing.  It can’t tell me any more than what Pharsal did directly.”

“That’s too bad.”  Madeline began rubbing Johnathan’s chest with both hands.  “It doesn’t make sense, if all he told us was true.  He really cared about both of us and wanted us to be together, so he wouldn’t have wanted the Stone to separate us.”

He smiled up at her, stroking her left arm.  “Maybe we’ll never know, but…there’s so much ahead of us now.  I wonder…listening to you now, I can believe that I passed on everything to you: not just a broadened emotional range, and more years to your life, but also…”

“…your brains?”  she suggested with a laugh.  “I know I’ve felt for a long time that I can learn more complicated things.  There have been many times where I’d say something that other mice wouldn’t understand; they’d ask why I’d say or think such a thing.  Like our friends Janice and Kory: lately I’d found it hard to find things to talk about with them.  And in Thorn Valley, visiting the school, I realized I wanted to learn just as much as the children.”

“And that’s probably why: I must have passed on everything to you.  Although…remember when I started teaching you to read, just to see how well you could learn?  It didn’t seem like you took to it too well.”

“That’s right.  But the first time I actually got the chance to read from a book—Nicodemus’s journal—I found I could do it quite well, though I did stumble a bit.  If I wasn’t…‘advanced,’ would I have been able to read at all?”

“Probably not.  Oh, I know I couldn’t have known then; but with the right environment, you might have been able to learn quite a lot.  It’s almost as if I was…well, keeping you down, keeping you from finding your true potential.  I know, the past can’t be changed, and I’m not going to beat myself up for it.”

“I’m glad.  There is so much ahead of us, as you said; so much we can experience together.  I love you, Johnathan.”  Madeline settled onto his chest and kissed him.  Johnathan’s arms encircled her and caressed her back.

When their lips parted, Johnathan said languidly, “I could so get used to this.  But we really should get back to the others soon.  I know I could go for another dip in the creek.”

“Me too.  Oh, I don’t want this to end either, but…well, you did say we have a life to get back to.”

“That we do.”  They helped each other to their feet.  “Man, I can’t wait to see the kids again, and all that the Rats have done in Thorn Valley.  Sure is funny to think that you’re more familiar with their colony than I am, for all that I helped plan it out.”

“Yes, it is,” answered Madeline.  “Johnathan…can you…promise me something?”

He took her hand, squeezing it with both of his.  “Anything, sweetheart.  Just name it.”

“Let’s not have any more secrets between us.”

Johnathan grinned broadly, nodding vigorously.  It had been the exact promise he’d vowed to make to her, for almost all the time he’d spent here on Lahaikshe; he was impressed and pleased that she’d beaten him to it.  “You’ve got it, Maddie.  Absolutely.”

They sealed the agreement with one more kiss; then they made their way out of the canopy and back to the trail leading to the creek, strolling along with arms around each other, still reveling in each other’s nearness.  Along the way, one more agreement was made, regarding the matter they’d kept to themselves for the past hour.

“Hey!  Here’s the lovebirds again!” called out Willis as the Brisbys strode back onto the meadow.  They greeted everyone, especially glad to see Melvin, who assured them that he was sure he’d worked through his concerns about Jenner, though he wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news to his family.

Everyone ironed out the details of what they’d do back home, including where they’d make their arrival. With this much done, the Brisbys told their friends of what they’d recently found out about each other: that Madeline truly was one of them, all by virtue of her being mated to Johnathan.  Naturally the news was greeted with great joy; congratulations filled the air, accompanied by more bear-hugs.  Sithpha and his family offered their own congratulations, though they weren’t aware of all the details.

“Madeline,” Justin said, voice heavy with emotion, “I said before that you were one of us, just because of all you’d done for us.  Now you’re even more so, in every way.  When we get home, I’ll be proud and honored to tell everyone.”

“Thank you, Justin.”  She kissed his cheek, and he hugged both her and Johnathan once more.  The Brisbys, as planned, took the time for another brief swim in the creek, after which they and the rats agreed it was high time they’d gone back to the house, the Rusay family opting to stay and enjoy the creekside some more.  Once everyone was dressed, they began making the leisurely trek up the trail through the gardens.

At length Madeline came up beside Melvin, touching his arm.  “I do hope everything works out for you and your family, Melvin.”

“Thanks, Madeline.  I do too.”

“Did you know…during our tunnel trudge, I thought about what I knew of Jenner then; and I realized there had to be a time when he was good and loving.  I was glad to find out that it was true; and that it really was something else, or someone, that affected him, turned him into what he became.”

The others voiced their agreement; then Justin added, “It’s gotten me to wondering…what Jenner may have done, had Uhrstegg never sank his hooks into him.  His dispute of the Plan may never have become any more than a difference of opinion, and he may have gone along with it out of loyalty; or he may have decided to simply leave the Rosebush.  We couldn’t have stopped him or anyone else from doing so if he or she wanted.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Melvin.  “We might have convinced him not to leave, or he might have convinced us to come with him.  He and Mother might still have grown apart.”  He sighed.  “Who’s to say which was better?  These days I can’t imagine Mother not being happy with Bryant, or him not being part of our family.”

“So many possibilities, all right,” said Justin.

“And so many are based on the fact that not everything is exactly as it seems, or is as simple,” observed Johnathan.  “Look at Ghormfisk: if he’d known right off that his people had made it to their new home, his mind wouldn’t have snapped as it did, and the Stone may never have come into our hands; or perhaps it would have, but under different circumstances.  And it’s possible that he might have died without our knowing his full story, and we’d have been left thinking he was simply some mad creature.  I have to confess…that I’d contemplated revenge on him if Madeline had died in his prison.”

“I think,” said Justin carefully, “all of us contemplated that.”  He took a deep breath.  “I didn’t want to say it in front of our new friends back there, but…Johnathan, when we were first imprisoned, and Sithpha with us, I wanted, for a good minute, to…deal with him in a permanent fashion, because I blamed him for our predicament.  I just thank God your wife and the others were there to…bring me back down.”

Johnathan stared up at him.  “You, Justin?  I can hardly believe you could be that angry with anyone.”

“Neither can I.  But I’d blamed myself for what happened to Nicodemus all those months, shrugging off his own caution about Jenner; and then…I blamed myself for letting Uhrstegg trick us.  It just got to be too much.”  He breathed in deep.  “I found out the hard way how easy it can be to…get to such a state, where I could be just as capable of…hurting someone like that.  As easily as Jenner.  I guess…it’s within us all.”  He made to say more, then decided to keep to himself a point he’d already considered: Can I honestly say I’d have been able to hold back if the circumstances were different?  What if my friends weren’t there to beg me to stop?

Willis yawned.  “It’s too much for this poor brain.  Right now I just want to rest up and go home.”  Everyone agreed that though there was still plenty of daylight, they could all use some sleep.

They continued on up the trail, keeping further conversation light, mostly about the Brisbys’ newly-discovered good fortune.  Back at the house, they apprised Gwinthrayle and Birantha of their pre-departure plans and told them of Madeline’s new status as “one of them,” something even they found surprising as well as pleasing.  Gwinthrayle provided his guests a light snack and agreed to provide a wake-up call in about eight more hours, after which everyone retired to their rooms.

In their suite, the three rats lay awake for a time discussing those they looked forward to seeing again upon their return.  Willis admitted that, though he was still unattached, there was at least one young lady with whom there seemed to be a mutual attraction.  Likewise, he and Melvin managed to get Justin to admit that he might be ready to make a definite choice of his own, though he still wouldn’t name names.

In Johnathan’s soon-to-be-vacated room, he had just finished brushing his teeth in the adjoining washroom.  He approached the bed, where Madeline was already stretched out on her stomach, resting her eyes.  Unexpectedly, he found the sight brought back a memory which was the polar opposite of the warm feeling the sight should have brought to him.  She opened her eyes and smiled at him, turning on her side.  He sat on the side of the bed, bending down to kiss her cheek.

She studied his face for a moment.  In the old days, she could always tell when something bothered him; though, she was now aware, the answers he’d give her may not have always been the full truth.  Now, in spite of their long separation, she found that hadn’t changed.  So she asked him directly, reminding him: “No secrets.”

Johnathan sighed, shaking his head.  “I was reminded…just for a second, after seeing you lying here, of…last night, seeing you…back there, in Ghormfisk’s prison, and thinking, for an awful moment, that…I’d lost you.  It’s going to be a while before I’ll be able to completely get over it, but…it’s there, burned into my memory.”

Madeline sat up, hugging him tightly.  “I guess…I’ll have to do all I can to remind you that…I’m alive and well and I’ll always be here.  For you and our children and our friends.”

“I know, sweetheart.  I know that, with your help, I’ll be able to put it behind me.”  They settled into bed, lying on their sides, facing each other.  The discussion brought to mind a related matter which he knew would have to be addressed sometime: if one of them were to pass on for real before the other, how well would the one remaining be able to go on and rebuild his or her life?  He thought of the contrast in their respective experiences: she had believed him gone for good for ten months, much of that time not knowing precisely how or why; and he had believed, for that awful moment that seemed like an eternity, that she was lying dead before him, at a time and place where he hadn’t expected to see her at all.  It was hard to decide which was worse.  He vowed to discuss the matter with her before too long, but now definitely wasn’t the time.

Madeline stroked his chest.  “Let’s not forget, Johnathan: I, and the children, thought you were gone forever, and for a long time we didn’t know exactly what happened.  In some ways I suppose that’s not as bad as…the way you found me last night, but…either way, it’s nothing I’d wish on anyone.”

Johnathan was dumbstruck for a moment, that she’d in part read his mind; then he said, “I couldn’t agree more.  But I can promise you this: I’ll never, ever, willingly leave you or our children again.”

They kissed gently; then Madeline said, “I’ve been thinking…of how you saved Ghormfisk’s life, when you pushed him out of harm’s way; and I told you to…please never do such a thing again. On one hand, I hope you never will have to do anything like that again; but on the other, if a situation like that does come along…I guess it would be a matter of…doing what was necessary and what was right. Just as it was today.”

Johnathan smiled, impressed and pleased at this level of insight from her. “In our wandering days after the Escape, the Rats and Ages and I were constantly looking out for one another, and often we saved each other’s lives. It was something that had become ingrained in all of us; we couldn’t not care for and look out for each other to that degree. And now…from what Justin and the others told me, you’ve become a part of that too: warning them that NIMH was coming, and then…using the Stone to save our children…with Pharsal’s help, of course. Not to mention all that you’d done leading up to that.” He paused, glancing at the amulet sitting on the nightstand. “We’ve both done what was necessary.”

Madeline couldn’t speak for a moment; then she said, with tears welling, “Justin had told me that he considers me one of them, one of you…and before we left, I told someone, two of the rat children, that sometimes friends save each other’s lives.”

“That really says it all.”  Johnathan kissed her again as he lay back, pulling her on top of him.  They continued kissing with increasing passion, both beginning to get a sense that they may not get as much sleep as they’d planned before Gwinthrayle’s wake-up call…

*      *      *

Isabella closed the bedroom door, satisfied that the Brisby children had settled down; though she acknowledged, with a smile, that they may not actually be ready for sleep yet.  Well, if they want to stay awake and then be tired and cranky tomorrow, she decided, I can’t force them to go to sleep. But they were more willing and cooperative last night than their first night here, and during the past day they continued to show their appreciation for all their hosts were doing for them, even Martin.  His siblings had warned her and their other temporary guardians that he could be a handful, but all day he’d seemed content and patient with everyone.  It was a bit surprising in light of the way he’d blown up at Silvio and Miranda at dinner yesterday; but they’d managed, apparently with just the right words, to calm him down.  Since then he’d been a perfect angel, as much as his sibs; not that he was really a bad kid before.  There was a certain amount of culture shock, to be sure, that had made him cranky, combined with the uncertainty they all shared over this secret mission—the one their mother had left on so suddenly, accompanied by Melvin, Willis…and Justin.

Isabella paused in the middle of pouring a cup of herbal tea, still warm since she’d brought it from the dining hall.  She sighed, shaking her head as she finished pouring.  How many times, these past two days, had thoughts of Justin brought whatever she was doing to a dead halt?  Certainly she wasn‘t the only one curious about the nature of the mission; but with it being over two days since it began, she—and many others—were starting to worry.  It was silly and irrational, she knew; there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t return.  But after what the Brisby children learned from those two native mouse children—provided it was true what they had witnessed—there was that much more uncertainty.  Could they really have used the Stone to actually take them somewhere else?  Well she could understand the children’s concerns; she could hardly blame them for their attempts to worm the truth out of those they’d believed would know it.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a light tapping at the door, in a distinctive pattern.  She got up to answer it.  “Hi, kiddo,” came her older sister Judith’s greeting.  “Is everything all right in here?”

“They’re settled down, at least,” said Isabella with a grin as she stood aside to let Judith in.  “How about Spencer and Mia?”  She closed the door quietly.

“It took a while, but they’re asleep too.  It’s just about the only time when they’re not asking, ‘Where’s Daddy?  Where’s Daddy?’”  She chuckled as she poured herself a cup of tea; then they both sat down, continuing to talk quietly.  “Honestly, it can be a nuisance sometimes, but I can’t really blame them.  I want to know just as much as they where Mel and the others went to.”  She took a sip of tea.  “I mean, what’s the big secret?  We all believe in Justin, and he said it’s all to help Mrs. Brisby…and we all believe in her too.  But it’s all so strange, the way they left so suddenly; it’s almost…spooky.”

“It is.  But whatever it’s all about, Justin will make sure everyone comes back safely.  I…know he will.”  Isabella couldn’t suppress a sigh.  She took another sip.

“You really care about Justin, don’t you?”

“Why…of course I do.  We all do, don’t we?”

Judith grinned, touching her arm.  “You know you can’t kid me, Izzy.  I know that look.  It’s no secret that when he finally makes his choice, you hope it’ll be you.”

Isabella almost hid her face.  “I…all right, I’m not denying it.  But he has so many choices.  I know I’m not the only one.  He hasn’t tried to pursue any one of us, but…how can I be sure he won’t pick someone else?”

“Well, I’m not making any guarantees, but…I do know that every time I’ve been with both you and him, I see the same look on his face that I saw on Mel’s in the beginning.  When he does make his choice, I don’t think you’ll have a thing to worry about.”

Isabella stared for a moment.  “You…do you really…Judith, don’t tease me, not about something like this.”

“I’m not, sweetie.  In fact…I wouldn’t be surprised if, once everyone’s back from the mission, he’ll be ready to make a choice.  Just don’t hold me to blame if it’s not you.”

Isabella finished off her cup.  “I’ll try,” she managed to say, “but if you’re going to get my hopes up this much, then, well…”

“I’ll be prepared.  But seriously, sis, good luck.  I sincerely hope it happens.”  They both agreed to not discuss the point further and risk jinxing it.

After a few more minutes, both were ready for bed, but after Judith left, her younger sister found sleep just a bit difficult…

Chapter 21 - Homecoming

Some two hours before midnight, all eleven of Gwinthrayle’s guests gathered in the same sitting-room where many past meetings had been held and many stories told. It was past the Rusay family’s usual bedtime, but all of them—including the children, who were fighting to stay awake—wanted to be there to see off their new “furry friends.” The three rats were well rested, as was Madeline Brisby, since their sleep-cycles were still mostly on Earth-time; Johnathan, though, couldn’t suppress a yawn. Justin noticed this and grinned.

“Guess I’m not used to going to bed in late afternoon,” Johnathan explained.

“Makes sense,” said Melvin, “after being here for so long.”

“Are you sure that’s all, old rascal?” said Justin with a wink and a nudge to Johnathan’s shoulder.

Johnathan made to answer, but Madeline stepped in quickly. “Yes, Justin. That’s all,” she said with a smile and a don’t-go-there tone, though she took no real offense. At this point, she believed, she couldn’t be angry with Justin for any reason.

Neither could Johnathan, who just chuckled, nodding; then, holding up the Stone, he said, “Let’s give this another test.” It took only a few seconds of “communing” before he announced, “It’s ready. We can leave anytime.” For a moment, he could scarcely believe he was saying it.

“That’s wonderful, Johnathan!” exclaimed Madeline, hugging him quickly. “We’ll soon see our children again—both of us!”

Johnathan looked up, lost in thought for a moment. “It’s so amazing. To think that just since yesterday, so much could have changed. And yet…” He sighed. “I have to say, I’m really going to miss this place.”

He glanced at the small sack he carried over his shoulder, containing a few souvenirs of this place, all he really needed to bring with him. The others voiced their agreement; then, turning to face Gwinthrayle, he added, “A lot of that’s because of you, Gwinthrayle; and you as well, Birantha, for all your efforts to connect me with my loved ones again. But I’d say that’s equally due to the overall reception this world and its people had given me.” He turned to Sithpha and his family. “I’ve only known you folks since last night, but you represent all that’s good and right with this world.”

They all thanked him; then Madeline said, “You know, Johnathan…since we still do have the Stone, we could use it to come back here for a visit whenever we want. We could even bring the children with us.”

“I’ve thought of that, too; since my first day here, in fact. It would certainly be safe enough, in spite of what happened to you; but those were extraordinary circumstances. Anyway, as long as it’s okay with Gwinthrayle...”

“I’d be able to make accommodations in a minute,” Gwinthrayle said. “It would be no imposition at all. And I would very much like to meet them. But that, I assume, would be a decision reserved for much later.”

“That’s true. Well…” Johnathan looked around the room. “As I said, we can leave anytime, so…let’s get this road on the show.” Everyone began making their final—for now—goodbyes.

As the rats gave their farewells to the Rusay family, Sithpha took Justin aside, thanking him for leaving out the most unpleasant detail of their entrapment: blaming him for that, and his subsequent threat. “Dini was upset enough about my going along with you guys to confront Ghormfisk, so I’m glad you didn’t tell her that.” He and Dinilom congratulated the Brisbys over their reunion; then they explained how they’d be staying on here at Gwinthrayle’s through tomorrow and would leave with Birantha. Madeline kissed each of their children goodbye, though Tuintwom, the youngest, had already fallen sound asleep.

With barely a word, Johnathan gave Gwinthrayle and then Birantha a hug of gratitude. “You’ve both been as good a friend as any I’ve ever had,” he managed to say. “For all you’ve done for us—Madeline most of all—I’ll always cherish you.”

“God bless you both,” Madeline added. The two sorcerers crouched to allow her to kiss each on the cheek.

“We’ll always be grateful, Gwinthrayle…Birantha,” added Justin. “All of us. After saving our lives, well…I’m not sure what we could do to repay you, but I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

“It’s always been my duty and pleasure to help others in need, Justin. There’s no debt between me and all of you.”

Some, especially Willis, respectfully disagreed with the point; but now, everyone agreed, was the time for wrapping up not-necessarily-final farewells. With this done, Justin, Melvin, Willis, and Johnathan and Madeline Brisby all joined hands in a circle. With everyone concentrating on their destination, the by-now-familiar radiant red glow began issuing from the amulet; and again, as it did upon their departure from Earth, it seemed to spread outward as if it were alive, enveloping them all, until there was a flash of brighter light. Gwinthrayle and Birantha had warned Sithpha and family to avert their eyes; and upon looking up, all looked to see no one but themselves in the room—though Tuintwom had still slept through the event.

For a moment all could only look upon the spot where the five companions had stood; then Eephray said, “Did they really make it back to their world, Gwinthrayle?”

“Indeed they have,” he replied with conviction. “And now I know we’re all ready for a good night’s sleep.” His other guests agreed, and so Sithpha picked up Tuintwom from the couch. After goodnights, the family left for their quarters.

“It’s been an extraordinary time, hasn’t it?” said Birantha as the two sorcerers followed them more slowly into the hall.

“Truly it has, my friend. I believe I will miss Johnathan more than any others I’ve played host to over the years. He was a genuine friend, of course, but perhaps it’s due to his background making him so unique. I wonder…was it really those experiments he and his friends were subjected to that gave him that quality—the one that extended Madeline’s life—or is there some other element to it? It’s as if he were given the gift of life itself, beyond simply being able to procreate. A mystery, to be sure, but…they are both happy with this new turn in their lives, and perhaps we and they will have to be content with that.”

Gwinthrayle paused, looking back toward the sitting-room. “Fare you well, my friends. May you and yours know only peace, and freedom from strife and persecution.”

* * *

Mr. Ages had only just arrived in Justin’s office and hadn’t even had time to take his first sip of tea when there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” he said loudly enough, but a bit wearily.

Orson walked in. “No word yet?”

“You’d know as well as I if there were,” Ages replied irritably. He took a sip of tea as he sat down next to the table.

“Okay, okay. There’s no need to go Venus-flytrap on me.” Though Orson was as accustomed to Ages’s usual curt manner as anyone, it was obvious that the past two days—going on three—was starting to tell on both of them.

Ages swallowed his tea. “Yes, yes, I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that…if all they had to do was find Johnathan, wherever he is, then why would it take so long?” He got to his feet and commenced pacing the floor. “They, and we, all of us—had absolutely no idea where they were going or what they were getting themselves into. All they had to go on was that image of him in the Stone.”

“You sound almost like you don’t believe Mrs. Brisby saw it.”

“You’re wrong, I do. I guess…it’s mostly that it’s been this long.”

Orson almost said out loud that Ages was worrying more than the Brisby children over this, but thought better of it. Instead he suggested that Ages go work on his medical department set-up project for a while, adding quickly that he wasn’t trying to get rid of him. But Ages thought it a good idea; throwing himself into a personal project always brought a measure of peace to him.

“No need for both of us to be here, I suppose,” he said with a grumble. “Do you really believe that when they return, they’ll do it right here?”

“It could happen, here or anywhere. I do know there wouldn’t be any need to return to that same off-colony spot.”

Ages picked up his teacup. “Well, wherever it happens, we’ll certainly—”

It came so suddenly, this near-blinding flash, that Ages and Orson felt physically knocked off their feet, Ages spilling the rest of his tea on his lab smock. When it faded, their eyes widened as they surveyed the space in front of the table. Several figures stood there: five to be exact, looking dazed and disoriented, tottering a little, holding each other up, but quickly acknowledging their new surroundings.

“Johnathan, we made it! We’re home! You’re home!” one of them exclaimed, sounding almost ecstatic as she and another—the two smallest—embraced each other.

Orson and Ages stared, still a bit disoriented themselves. “Johnathan?” they asked each other as it sank in what had just taken place. They got to their feet to join these five in their mutual congratulations.

“You’re back! You’re really back!” exclaimed Ages, almost babbling as Johnathan and Madeline Brisby embraced him. “We were right all along! You’re still alive after all!”

“Cyril Ages, you old walrus! It’s so good to see you again,” Johnathan said with a hearty laugh as he again embraced his old friend and comrade.

Madeline looked at him in surprise. “Why, I never knew your first name was Cyril! That’s a very nice name.”

“He hasn’t always thought so, Maddie,” put in Johnathan, “but he’s known your first name for a long time.”

Madeline was surprised to hear this; but the matter would wait, as Ages turned to the three rats, who had just finished greeting Orson. “So what took you so long? I was worried sick about you!”

Justin crouched, pulling Ages to him in a bearhug. “I love you too, you old curmudgeon! ‘Worried sick,’ eh? You heard it here first, everyone!”

As Justin released him, Ages looked slightly annoyed, regretting his impulsive choice of words, but only for a moment; he was as caught up in the spirit of the moment as the others.

“Oh, man, have we got a story for you!” exclaimed Johnathan. He turned to Justin. “I know we planned on telling everyone in a general meeting, but…are you sure it would be wise to give everyone the full details, now that we know more of what the Stone is capable of?”

“I don’t see why not. By now, everyone knows some of what it can do, so its power isn’t exactly a secret anymore. But for now…you and Madeline have some little people to see first.”

“You’re right. Oh, man, you’re right. They should definitely hear the story first. So I guess if one of you could…” Before he could finish, Ages was already heading out the door. “That was quick.”

“Should I go fetch Judith and the kids?” Orson asked Melvin. This was what they’d planned on anyway, so he left as well.

Johnathan looked wistful, lost in thought, even a bit nervous. “Johnathan, are you ready?” Madeline asked him; they all knew what was necessary for him to do, much the same as when she awoke in Gwinthrayle’s home.

“Yes, I know we agreed to it.” Johnathan looked very reluctant as Justin led him to the adjoining room.

A few minutes later Mr. Ages returned. The door burst open, and ahead of him rushed Teresa, Martin, Timothy and Cynthia Brisby into the room, their eyes widening as they saw their mother. They all ran to her, and it was clear that all of them—including Martin, who’d long made a point of avoiding emotional displays—had been worried to one degree or another, for they were all crying with relief as they clustered around her.

She couldn’t keep the tears from her own eyes either, recalling how, at one point, she'd despaired of ever seeing them again; and now she wished, as she did almost every day, that her arms were truly long enough to embrace them all as one. Once the initial greetings were done, the children greeted Justin and the others, and were introduced properly to Willis for the first time. But there would be no keeping down their own urgent questions for very long.

Martin led the way: “But where did you go, Mom?”

“You smell different, Mommy, like nothing around here,” remarked Cynthia.

“Mother, we heard that you all just…disappeared, in a flash of light,” brought up Teresa. “Did you use the Stone to take you somewhere?”

Madeline and the three rats looked at each other in genuine surprise; this was a possibility none of them, with so much else to think about, had even considered. “Yes, we did. How did you learn that?” asked Justin.

“We heard it from two local mice named Eric and Sarah,” said Timothy. “They saw it happen, or actually just one of them. And then they visited us at the lake and told us about it.”

“Wow, so it really did happen that way!” exclaimed Martin. “I knew it!”

“Yeah, we didn’t even know it could do that!” added Timothy. “Mr. Ages tried to deny it, but we got him to tell us the truth!”

Cynthia went to Ages, impulsively hugging him as she’d done yesterday. “We weren’t dumb then, and we’re not dumb now!” she exclaimed. Ages could only stand there, ears turning red.

Her mother looked on bemused, but before she could ask her daughter what she meant, Orson returned with Judith and her children Spencer and Mia. Melvin dashed over to his family, greeting them with hugs and kisses.

Of course, they had just as many questions as the Brisby children, the next one being: why? What was the purpose of this “secret mission?” And if they did use the Stone, where is it now? Justin nodded to Madeline. She recognized her cue and said, “There is a lot to tell, about where we went and why, and…we’ve brought someone to help us tell the story. Someone we all know and love, and…who we all thought was gone forever.”

Teresa, Martin, and Cynthia looked perplexed, asking who she meant; but Timothy, unnoticed by his mother, grew wide-eyed, looking as one who’d solved a long-unanswered riddle.

In the next room, someone else recognized his cue. Johnathan Brisby had wanted so much to come right out and be reunited with them as soon as they’d burst through the door, and had choked back tears of joy upon hearing their voices again. But he and Madeline both knew it would be best for him to wait until after they’d seen their mother again.

And now, in response to their question, they heard a voice say, “Hello, children. I’ve…come back.”

They all turned at the sound of the familiar voice, and as one their jaws went slack. For a moment—a very brief one—all were silent as they regarded the face and figure before them, dressed in unfamiliar clothing but otherwise very familiar to them.

“Teresa, Martin, Cynthia, Timothy…it’s really me. It’s your father.” It was a major effort for Johnathan to keep his voice from cracking as his eyes took in the sight of his offspring for the first time in ten months, ten months during which they’d grown so much; still children, certainly, but well on the way to adulthood, all looking so beautiful and straight and strong.

Timothy was the first to rush forward, leaping straight into his father’s outstretched arms, encircling him with his own unexpectedly strong ones. Cynthia quickly followed, then Teresa, tears flowing freely from their eyes. Martin, however, continued to hang back, face still etched with disbelief, maybe even a touch of suspicion.

This was a possibility that had been planned for, though. Madeline, composing herself as best she could after witnessing this reunion, took his arm. “He didn’t mean to leave us, Martin, dear. It was completely unexpected for him.”

“It’s true, Martin,” added Justin. “Leaving you was the last thing he wanted, and he’s definitely back to stay now.”

Martin silently weighed their words, continuing to stare as his siblings clung to their father as if afraid to let go. All at once it became too much for him; whatever the reason, he decided it didn’t matter. He rushed forward to join them, tears flowing from his own eyes and not caring a whit.

His mother recalled her own anxiety, however small, about how the children would handle their father’s unexpected return; and now she knew it was for naught, as she watched Johnathan become happily buried under an avalanche of filial affection. It was almost as if he’d simply returned from a long trip; which was indeed the case, though it was hardly planned.

The others couldn’t help but be touched by the sight as well. Justin, especially, felt his heart swell at this accomplishment of their mission. Truly, this was the moment that made the past two days’ hardships worthwhile. Willis had taken out his handkerchief, dabbing at his eyes and blowing his nose. Melvin confirmed to Judith that this indeed was the goal of their secret mission; though their own children, too young to remember Johnathan, didn’t understand all the fuss. Orson confirmed that yes, everyone at that hastily-called meeting knew of the mission’s nature. And Mr. Ages, try as he might, couldn’t keep the tears from his own eyes. He’d known well how deeply Johnathan loved his children and that one would have to be made of stone to not be moved by the sight.

Then, to the surprise of everyone present, Timothy said as he looked straight into his father’s eyes, “I knew you’d come back, Dad. I always knew.” He snuggled into the fur of Johnathan’s chest.

Johnathan threw a surprised look at Madeline, which she returned with one to match. They both knew that this was a matter that would definitely warrant further discussion. But not now. The Brisby family was once again whole, and now all six embraced as one.

Johnathan had been wearing the red amulet around his neck the whole time, but tucked under his vest; now, Timothy was the first to finally “uncover” it, pulling it out for all to see. “Hey, here it is, everyone,” he announced. It was the first any of them had seen it since that fateful March day, but they knew well its significance, since it confirmed once and for all that their mother had used it to leave on their mission three days ago.

“But,” wondered Teresa, “does that mean that it sent you away, Dad?” Johnathan confirmed it with a nod.

“But it didn’t stay with you,” observed Martin, “like it did with Mom and the others. How come?”

“That, my children, is just part of a long story, which we’ll be happy to tell you as soon as you’re all ready.” Everyone indicated they were; and so Justin led everyone into his living quarters where everyone got comfortable on his couch and chairs and floor.

As everyone settled in, Johnathan took a moment to look upon his children and reflect on how much they’d grown: Teresa, looking so much more like her mother now; Martin, almost as big as him, likely to out-wrestle him if they met in “battle”; Cynthia, whom he’d long regarded as the “baby,” now almost as big as Teresa, and seeing in those shining brown eyes an intelligence he hadn’t seen before; and Timothy. He’d felt so stricken at the news of his bout with pneumonia that he couldn’t help feeling doubly moved at seeing how well he was now. Though still undersized—a bit shorter than Cynthia—he was clearly the picture of health now, and though he believed as Madeline did—that they shouldn’t play favorites with their children— Johnathan couldn’t help thinking that Timothy may have the brightest future ahead of him, out of all his children. He looked forward to hearing their own stories, and getting to know them all over again.

Now, as their mother had promised, they would hear the story of how their father survived, and her and the three rats’ adventures in searching for him. The children—and Ages, Orson, and Melvin’s family—listened attentively as Johnathan told how it all really began over two years ago, a month before Cynthia and Timothy were born, with the mysterious stranger leaving him the Stone, and how this selfsame creature tried to take it back that fateful night ten months ago. All listened with anxiety as he described his narrow escape from Dragon, and with wonder as he described the sights, sounds and smells of his new home, Lahaikshe. Madeline confirmed that there was indeed a reason for their journey to Thorn Valley beyond a simple visit, and that her shouting of their father’s name in her sleep was the result of attempts by their father and his friend Gwinthrayle to contact her.

As she and Justin went on about how she’d seen Johnathan in the Stone and their hastily-planned and –executed mission to find him, the children began to understand better all the secrecy surrounding it. They listened with trepidation as they heard about the party’s entrapment by the “green stranger” Ghormfisk and with relief on their rescue. As with Sithpha’s family, though, the travelers opted to leave out the part about Justin’s outburst of anger toward their new Rusay friend. None could keep tears from forming as they heard of the Brisbys’ reunion; but all were astounded to hear about the Stone’s origins on Lahaikshe, and the truth about their “enemy” and how his mind had developed a second personality after his believed-to-be-failed attempt to save his people. They condensed this part of the tale as much as possible, but they knew they couldn’t leave out the revelations about Jenner and Nicodemus. Judith understood the implications, and the necessity for Melvin to have a private conference with his mother and siblings later.

They continued with the revelations of Pharsal’s spirit within the Stone, emphasizing his part in saving the children’s lives; the true fate of Ghormfisk’s people, and one more that affected them the most personally: that Madeline would live as long as Johnathan by virtue of their being mated to each other. This brought a new wellspring of emotion from the entire family, knowing that they would likely now grow old together, and that both of them would be around to see their children grow to adulthood and raise children of their own. It also raised some skepticism in Mr. Ages; though he kept his reaction low-key, he understood full well the implications, and he couldn't deny the evidence of Madeline's continued youth and vitality. They also explained how they would have returned sooner but for the time necessary for the Stone to recharge and the time difference between the two worlds—“otherwise we’d have arrived in the middle of the night,” Justin told their audience. Indeed, as they’d estimated, it had been between eight and nine A.M. when they’d arrived.

Now, with the conclusion of their story for this smaller audience, it was now time to tell everyone else. Orson and Ages left immediately to begin spreading the word that a general meeting would be called shortly; and that attendance, while not mandatory, was greatly encouraged.

“Everyone will know, won’t they?” asked Johnathan. “After the way you all left so mysteriously, they’ll know it has to do with your return.”

“And some of them will know it’s about your return as well,” reminded Justin.

“Like Simone, I’ll bet,” said Martin. “She knew all along, didn’t she?”

“That she did,” confirmed Justin. “And Matilda and Tallus and many others you’ve met. I hope you’re not mad at us for keeping it from you.”

Martin looked as if he needed to think about his reply, but Teresa stepped in with, “No, we’re not mad, Justin. We understand why now.”

Johnathan could well imagine Martin being a bit peeved over the matter; but he was more curious to hear about the children’s overall experiences since the beginning of what he would come to call his “exile,” and especially all they’d done and seen here in Thorn Valley. They began doing so, and he was pleased to hear about the friends they’d made—not only among naturals like Eric and Sarah, but among the Rats as well—and how well they’d taken to the classes they’d participated in.

The discussion continued after Justin led everyone into a “secret” passageway he’d had built, one that led directly from his quarters to the antechamber just off the council chamber. There they would wait for all or most of the populace to arrive before repeating the story for the larger audience.

Chapter 22 - Celebration

Simone was never known to be the impatient type; patience was certainly a prerequisite for her job as school principal. And yet, it had been close to two hours now since Mr. Ages had come bursting in, practically demanding which classrooms the Brisby children were studying in. After Isabella had led him away, it was some two minutes later that he and the children left together, racing out of the school without another word. By the looks on their faces, it was obvious what it had all meant: the “secret mission” party had returned. But with or without their father?

Isabella had pestered her continually since then, not so much with words as with plaintive, doe-eyed looks until Simone was almost ready to fire her. But instead, there came a moment of mutual confession: from Simone, that the aim of the mission was to find Johnathan Brisby; and from Isabella, that she was mainly concerned about Justin’s safe return from said mission. Isabella—as well as Silvio and Miranda, whom Simone had decided should know as well—had promised to keep the detail about Johnathan a secret until it was time for everyone to know, but it had been a distraction from her work—and, increasingly, on Simone’s as well. She’d reasoned that the delay on any further word had to be due to the children having a private reunion with their mother…and father? It had to be so, and yet…

Further musings were interrupted by approaching footfalls in the hall, followed by the entrance of Simone’s husband Graham into her office. “Simone, dear,” he said, catching his breath, “there’s going to be a general meeting, and I think you’ll want to excuse all of your students.”

“So it’s true? They are back?”

“Not only them, but…him as well,” he said knowingly. “We’re spreading the word, Justin wants everyone to be there.”

He gave Simone a quick peck on the cheek and left, just as Isabella came up from the next room, having heard the tail-end of the conversation. In seconds the two of them began going around to all the classrooms; within three minutes Thorn Valley School had emptied out completely.

So it was all over the north end of Thorn Valley, not only inside the confines of the Rats’ settlement inside their underground complex, but outside as well, where roving Guard rats as well as farm workers were called in, by field holler or by mirrors flashing their reflected sunlight beacons. Everywhere there were those who knew what this all meant and impressed upon those in their charge how important it was, and so everyone essentially dropped what he or she was doing to attend this meeting.

It had now been some twenty minutes since Orson and Ages first left to begin spreading the word, and now the two of them, as well as Judith and her children, had taken their seats in the lowermost tiers of the meeting hall. Presently Isabella sat next to Judith, and the two sisters began exchanging excited whispers.

In the antechamber, a group of nine waited as Lol and Kevin stood at the door, watching the crowd continue to pour in. Some, upon seeing the two Guard rats standing there, couldn’t resist asking them about the ones they knew had to be waiting in the room behind them, but they would only advise everyone to be patient and take his or her seat.

“Sounds like a full house out there already,” said Willis, poking his head out the door behind Kevin’s shoulder.

“Just about,” Kevin replied. “We haven’t been keeping count, but it looks like nearly everyone’s here. I’d say we give it another minute.”

“Sounds good,” said Justin. “Well, is everybody ready?” Everyone replied yes or nodded enthusiastically, the children in particular looking like they were ready to shout the news to the whole world.

“Not everybody,” reminded Johnathan in mock irritation.

Justin grinned. “I know the waiting-in-the-wings bit is getting old, Johnathan, but this is definitely the last time.”

Johnathan smiled back and turned to his wife. “Maddie, are you all right with this?”

“Well, I’ve never been in front of this large a crowd, but I guess I’ll survive.” She laughed nervously. “I know there are some parts of the story only I can really tell.”

“You can do it, Mom,” said Martin, taking her arm.

“That’s right,” added Timothy. “Just pretend you’re talking to just us again.” His siblings added their chorus of agreement and encouragement.

“Thank you, dear,” Madeline said, kissing her son’s cheek. Not that long ago, she wouldn’t believe she’d be seriously taking advice from her younger son, but it was becoming clearer all the time how fast all of them were growing, intellectually as well as physically.

Presently Tallus could be seen approaching the two Guards at the doorway and speaking quietly to them before leaving. “That’s it,” reported Lol. “Anyone else coming in now can be considered a straggler.”

“Showtime, everyone,” said Justin. Without another word everyone except the two Guards and Johnathan filed out into the hall. Applause and shouts of “welcome back!” immediately met their ears as the three rats and five mice gathered upon the dais.

Justin let it continue for about a minute before raising both forearms, calling everyone to silence. Outside of the council and the Guard, it was generally known that Justin, Melvin, Willis and Mrs. Brisby had gone someplace outside of the valley; and when pressed, they would say no more than that even the four of them didn’t know exactly where their destination lay. Now, with everyone looking to have his or her curiosity sated, and with the other rats and the Brisby family seated in a semicircle behind him, Justin began.

“Friends…we left here three days ago on a mission that we know very well came to be called ‘secret,’ and I know you’ve all wondered why. Some of you believed it had to do with Mrs. Brisby’s arrival earlier that day…and you are right. She came to us again seeking help, as she did last spring; and so the four of us left on this mission, and yes, members of the council and the Guard knew many of the details, but not even we knew everything about it, not even where we were going exactly. I know that sounds confusing, but…”

He’d been turning himself continuously so he could face different sections of the crowd; and when he faced the spot where Isabella sat with Judith, right there in the front row, he momentarily lost his place, suddenly wanting nothing more than to continue drinking in the sight of her.

Recovering as quickly as he could, he went on: “…but as I’m sure you’ve guessed, there’s a story to be told. First let me say that this mission was a complete success.”

He paused as a murmur ran through the crowd—curious, amazed, maybe a bit confused—but before he could elaborate, Martin Brisby jumped to his feet and shouted out proudly, “My dad’s back!”

Justin put a hand up to his face as if in embarrassment. Did someone say shout it to the whole world? He snickered to himself; after all, he had certainly felt like doing much the same thing. Ah, the restrictions of decorum, he thought. “Thank you, Martin,” he said, grinning. “Friends…it’s true. Our old friend and comrade Johnathan Brisby is alive and well.”

Once again responding on cue, Johnathan stepped forward from the antechamber into everyone’s full view. As he took his place on the dais, he was greeted with the expected gasps of astonishment, which swiftly gave way to cheers, huzzahs, and shouts of his name and—again—“welcome back!” He genuinely wasn’t expecting such a massive outpouring of adulation, and could only reply with smiles and waves and quietly-spoken thank-yous. His wife embraced him and children gathered around as they waited for the initial excitement to die down, after which Justin again called for everyone’s attention. He told everyone that, for anyone who wished to hear it, they would now relate the full account of Johnathan’s survival and the efforts of the mission party to find him, though they would try to condense it as much as possible since there was a lot to tell.

None showed signs of wanting to leave, so the five travelers began taking turns, as before with the children, telling the tale—though, once again, certain details were omitted. One important detail not omitted concerned Madeline Brisby; and, as planned, Justin told the assemblage that she was now and always one of them, in every possible way, by virtue of her being mated to Johnathan, with no embarrassment on anyone’s part. As expected, the news was roundly welcomed; if it were put to a vote, there would surely be unanimous approval of her being granted full citizenship of the Thorn Valley colony. The entire account took about the same amount of time as it did with the smaller audience—about an hour and a half—but everyone who came to listen stayed to the end. And listen they did; rarely was there a more attentive audience.

When the tale was again completed, it was put to a vote what should follow; and there was an overwhelming consensus that a proper celebration was in order. Johnathan almost felt like saying they needn’t go overboard, but he relented mostly out of curiosity. Back at the Rosebush, the Rats weren’t given much to celebration, due mostly to the inherent sense of caution associated with living there. Here in Thorn Valley—as he’d already been told—they were finding they could let go of that sense of caution, or at least enough of it to allow them to more fully enjoy the freedoms they didn’t have at the Rosebush. So Johnathan was interested in seeing just how this celebration would take shape.

A committee was hastily organized on the spot to get it started; many of the details, in fact, had been planned in advance by the council, in the event that the mission met with the hoped-for results. While some rats filed out of the hall, others came up to talk to the five, especially Johnathan; all were eager and curious to know what it was like in this other world. Among them was Brutus; and when Johnathan saw him up close for the first time in ten months, he looked to his family as if he’d tilt over backwards as he brought his gaze all the way up the towering figure—“I swear you’ve grown another inch or two since I last saw you!” summed up his reaction. Brutus agreed, with great humor, that it was true: he hadn’t stopped growing ten months ago, though since then it seemed to have ceased.

Silvio and Miranda were eager to give Madeline—and now her husband, as well—their report on how well the children had gotten along in their absence, speaking glowingly of how well-behaved they’d been. Including Martin? Madeline was almost ready to ask it aloud, but she refrained. In fact, there had been no indications thus far of any difficulty from any of them.

Already, here in the meeting hall as well as in the colony overall, a festive atmosphere was forming; though for some, the mood was more somber. During the storytelling, it had been mentioned that Uhrstegg had influenced Jenner but few other details were disclosed; now, Matilda, George and Melinda were all but demanding to hear more. As he’d anticipated, Melvin took charge, leading his mother and siblings—as well as his stepfather Bryant, who he decided also needed to hear this—out of the hall to where they could talk in private. He’d felt a small amount of dread for this moment, but now believed it might be easier than he’d thought.

All the same, his friends didn’t envy him the task; and as Justin watched them leave and then returned his attention to the Brisbys, who were now approached by a small group of inquisitive youngsters, he reflected on all that had been accomplished: two of his dearest friends in the world back together, their family again whole; exactly what they’d set out to do. He recalled how he’d thought himself such a failure, allowing himself and those in his charge to be trapped by Uhrstegg, but now he felt a renewed sense of confidence in his role as leader. He remembered, too, how he’d believed Uhrstegg to be no different from Jenner, and finding out differently about both of them. His friends’ words of reassurance to him following their entrapment and his threat to Sithpha also returned to him, and he realized more than ever the truth in them. No, he hadn’t failed them; it was just that he still had so much more to learn. Things would no longer be as simple for him, he decided, but he knew he’d be better able to deal with whatever came along. He’d realized as well that there was someone who could be at his side, to help him deal with life’s challenges; and as he saw her leaving the hall, she turned toward him, ever so briefly making eye contact. His resolve returned; now wasn’t the moment, but he vowed that before this day was through, he’d meet with Isabella and confess his feelings for her.

The Brisby children were eager to tell both of their parents, and show them, all they’d done, seen and learned these past three days; and so, once they’d gently extricated themselves from the group of Rat youngsters, the family left the hall. Johnathan was, of course, highly impressed with all the Rats had done here. Though he was seeing it all for the first time, he reported feeling a strong sense that he had come home, something he couldn’t explain. Madeline and—especially—the children reported that they’d been made to feel very much at home here: they’d all made friends among the Rats and native mice alike; they’d enjoyed hugely the recreational facilities, especially the beach; and the thirst for knowledge they’d felt their first day here had definitely increased.

Madeline had anticipated this matter with a mixture of great pride and a small amount of dread; indeed, as the children waxed enthusiastic about how well they done in their classes, how much they’d learned and hoped to learn, she knew the inevitable questions would come up about how long their stay here would prove to be. She recalled her own pondering of how Johnathan might deal with the matter of their children’s education upon his return; and when they had a brief private moment, they agreed they would discuss this so-vital matter in detail later. For now, though, there was much more to see, and they again allowed the children to lead the way.

After they’d gotten a bite to eat at the dining hall, they took the grand tour outside. Just outside the main entrance, where Philip was again on sentry duty, they paused as Johnathan got his first good look at the outside—also his very first look at Thorn Valley. Silently and deliberately, he surveyed the vista before him—taking in the sky, the sun, grass, trees, the lake, the cliffs that all but encircled the valley—as if he were a little child seeing it all for the first time. Discarding any trace of dignity, he leaped into the air and gave an inarticulate yell of unrestrained joy, initially startling his family.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?” Cynthia asked as his feet touched earth again.

“Absolutely nothing at all, sweetie,” he said, drawing her to him in a Justin-style bearhug. “It’s just so great to be back—with you, with the Rats, with everything.” He kissed Madeline and each of the children before they moved on. Along the way, they passed many other well-wishing Rats, most of whom Johnathan recognized readily and was able to greet by name. The festive atmosphere was alive and well out here, too; all work and classes had been suspended for the rest of the day, so there was already a larger-than-usual crowd gathered in the open area just outside the main entrance, setting up tables and chairs for the celebration to come.

They could already see some activity by the lake, and so Madeline and the children directed Johnathan to the four-foot-high boulder they’d used upon their arrival to get the lay of the place, and they all clambered to its summit now. From there they could better view their surroundings, including the garden areas. Neither parent had viewed them up close yet, so they decided to give them a quick perusal next. As they did, the children described how they’d already put in a little time with planting and harvesting; and saw up close, and appreciated, the hard work it took to keep the community fed.

Moving on to the lake, they visited the dock from which the fishing boats operated; but when Johnathan suggested they check out the swim area, the children chose to lead their parents to some other areas first; or more specifically, one area just south of the lake: a large clearing, much of which lay in the shade of a large spreading burr oak. This, they said, had lately become quite a popular spot for informal gatherings or just spending a little quiet time. There were already plans underway to develop it into an actual park.

Johnathan cast his gaze all around, nodding with approval. “I can already see this as a place for holding meetings, once they get more comfortable with the area. Or maybe…I haven’t suggested it to Justin yet, but if they decide to start holding actual wedding ceremonies, this would be the place for them.” He went on to describe what a typical human ceremony was like, adding that the Rusay have them too—and Madeline, drawing from these descriptions, found herself imagining such a ceremony involving friends of theirs. She hadn’t yet disclosed to Johnathan all of the confidences she shared with Justin, including his and Isabella’s mutual attraction. She found it bothered her a little, after their “no secrets” vow; but then, this one was between her and Justin, and if he wanted to share it with Johnathan, it’d be up to him. She was sure he hadn’t done it already; she and Johnathan had scarcely spent a moment apart since their reunion.

Martin found the discussion not especially to his liking, summing up with, “Sheesh, who needs all that?” Teresa would have been inclined to disagree, but she’d been busy scanning the surrounding area; in part from the sense of caution she and her sibs had had impressed upon them while in the Rats’ care, but also on behalf of far less hostile natives to the area. All of them, in fact, had the idea that this might be a likely place to meet them again, since they’d be coming from the south and this was just south of the lake, where they’d met two days ago.

Johnathan noticed Teresa’s apparent distraction and was about to remark that she looked as if she were expecting to meet someone here; but Cynthia, showing that said natives had been on her mind as well, nudged Martin and said teasingly in reply to his rhetorical question, “You might need it someday, Martin. You and Sarah…”

Martin made his usual sour face as their parents looked on with interest. “Something you want to share with us, Martin?” Johnathan asked with a wink.

“Oh, she thinks Sarah was making goo-goo eyes at me the other day.”

Madeline chuckled. “Well, whether she was or not, I’d really like to meet those two. From what I’ve been told, the Rats have had little traffic with the local creatures—the ones that aren’t hostile, that is.”

“Like that weasel Bryant was telling us about,” said Martin, “the one they finally had to kill after he wouldn’t leave them alone.”

“Mm-hm,” said Johnathan seriously. “I heard about that little incident. Hopefully that kind is far behind us…or rather, them.”

Madeline looked at him curiously at his choice of words, but before she could comment, Timothy said, “Hey, that looks like them now.” He pointed toward a bush at the clearing’s southern edge, around which some small movement could be seen: definitely young mice. Teresa and Timothy led the way in coaxing them into the open, after which they were confirmed to be their new friends Eric and Sarah. They ventured forth shyly, eyes wide as they looked upon the two adult mice warily.

Quick to put them at ease, Madeline spread her arms. “So you’re Eric and Sarah!” she said cheerily. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

Sarah’s eyes widened further. “I remember you!” she exclaimed as she and Eric approached. “You were with those rats that disappeared after that flash of light!”

Having already realized it would be useless to deny it, both parents confirmed that Sarah had seen what she thought she had, adding that though it was a secret how it was done, it was all done to bring Johnathan home to his family. Seemingly content with this explanation, the siblings warmed very quickly to the couple, though they were a little uneasy over having sneaked away from their mother, as they had two days ago. The Brisbys suggested it might be best that they return home—emphasizing that they weren’t trying to get rid of them—but Sarah told them it was okay, that their mother would allow them to be away for an hour or so. Madeline wondered just how much of that was true; but, taking their word for it, she and Johnathan suggested they accompany them to the lake.

Minutes later, both parents had their first look at the swim area. There were already many rats there, kids and adults alike, all greeting the family cheerfully. Johnathan looked all around with approval, immediately and favorably comparing it to Gwinthrayle’s creekside meadow and the creek near their summer home. The latter thought led to another, regarding their return there—probably tomorrow—but would the return be permanent? He’d already seen plenty of how Madeline and the children enjoyed being here, and he himself had found a strong sense of coming home since their arrival. “We’re home! You’re home!” his wife had exclaimed when they’d landed in Justin’s office this morning. Home in the sense of being back on the world of his birth, certainly, but home here in Thorn Valley as well? There was an increasing feeling of rightness about the whole idea.

He shelved the idea for now as his family told him how this swim area was one of the first things they’d seen upon their arrival three days ago, and their first real sign of the Rats of NIMH’s activities here. Johnathan told his children more about the hours he’d whiled away at the creekside meadow and how it had always brought him back to happier days. But he was equally pleased at what the Rats had done here. The family and their two little guests, who were still a little uneasy in the presence of so many rats, picked a spot to settle upon, and the children immediately threw off their clothes and coaxed Eric and Sarah to the water’s edge. In a minute all were splashing and laughing without a care.

“Well, should we join them?” asked Madeline.

“In a little while,” replied Johnathan. “But first…” He detailed the matter which had recently crossed his mind, and she agreed that now was as good a time as any to discuss it. Johnathan’s earlier “us…or rather, them” remark came up, and they agreed that both of them were feeling a strong sense that the Rats’ interests and theirs were very much the same; for Madeline, it had increased tenfold in the past day, now that they knew she truly was one of them. But now, knowing this, what were they to do? What would be their best course of action? The matter of the children’s continuing education—whether it could be continued, and under what arrangement—came up as well, this being probably the most important factor in the decision they’d ultimately make.

In a surprisingly short time, they’d reached an agreement on these points, a compromise of sorts, which they would discuss with the children that night. For now, though, the high spirits of those around them had become quite infectious, and so they shed vest and cape and joined their children for a wet, cooling interlude in the cove.

* * *

Inside, preparations for the celebration were proceeding full-tilt. Justin and Willis, who had found themselves sticking together since the meeting had been adjourned, stood in the corridor between the kitchen and the main foyer watching the bustle of rats to and fro, transporting trays and cauldrons of food on wheeled trolleys or carrying tables and chairs and other goods to the outside dining area. This was undoubtedly shaping up to be the biggest celebration seen yet in Thorn Valley, all in honor of their friend and ally and those who’d risked their lives to bring him back. There had been the mildest of objections raised about going overboard with the festivities from some of the “honorees”, but they didn’t last. “It’s okay with me—I’m hungry,” was Willis’s take on the proceedings. The amount of food that would be served would not be at the level of a feast, since they still needed to conserve their supplies; but there were plenty of other events planned that would make this a true celebration, one hoped to be remembered for years to come.

Some rats occasionally stopped to chat with the pair about the Brisby children’s recent activities and interactions with their own, other recent developments while they were gone; but, inevitably, the subject of Jenner came up repeatedly, including the effect the newly-revealed facts about him were having on his family and everyone else who knew him. Soon, answers to the latter subject were forthcoming: Willis first saw this group of eight rats, apparently heading for the kitchen and dining hall, and alerted Justin to their approach. Their own conversation was subdued but none appeared especially troubled.

Justin immediately drew up to the group, greeting each by name. “How are you holding up, Matilda? I know none of this was easy to learn; it was pretty intense for us too.”

“Thank you, Justin.” Matilda hugged him and added, “I guess…we’re all relieved in a way, and it does explain so much that had been so confusing and uncertain.”

“It’s too bad we couldn’t have known about it at the time,” added George, “though I’m not sure we could have done or said anything that would make a difference.”

“At least we now know the truth,” said Melinda. “It’ll change a lot of what we’ve been teaching the children about Jenner, but…I think it’ll be for the better.”

“In any case,” said Melvin, arms around Judith and Bryant’s shoulders, “now we’re ready to join the celebration.”

“And I’d better make sure the kitchen’s still standing,” said Matilda, grinning. The group continued chatting for a few minutes before going their separate ways, Melvin and his wife and children staying with Justin and Willis. The group moved on toward the main foyer.

“We might as well see how things are proceeding outside,” said Justin. It had already been made clear that the honorees were being essentially barred from participating in any of the preparations; they’d been all but commanded to take it easy and leave everything to everyone else.

Just after entering the foyer, they caught sight of the Brisby family coming in from the main entrance, just returning from the lake, all in very high spirits. Justin couldn’t help wondering how Madeline might be handling the increased attention since he’d seen them last, but she seemed as much at ease as her husband and children. “It looks like you all had a good time. So how do you like our beach? We do expect to improve it before the end of summer.”

“It’s shaping up great, Justin,” Johnathan replied. “I’d hate to sound disloyal to Gwinthrayle, but I could get to like it as much as his creekside meadow; maybe more.” The family went on to tell Justin about Eric and Sarah’s reappearance, and how they’d since returned home.

“I hope they come by again. I’d like to meet them,” said Justin in all sincerity, genuinely interested in fostering good relations with the local naturals.

“They were still a little wary of all these rats, with their strange ways, but they said they’d want to come back.”

“Great. Well, we were just heading outside ourselves, but…you all feel free to do what you want before they get the festivities started. If you want a little private time, you can certainly…” Justin’s voice fell away suddenly; his distraction was obvious to everyone, and one in particular had a very good idea of its source. Madeline looked in the same direction as he, and she immediately understood, with barely-concealed delight.

On the opposite side of the foyer stood Isabella and her friends Silvio and Miranda and their children, involved in their own conversation—until they noticed Justin looking their way. They exchanged more words before the young family headed for an adjacent corridor, leaving Isabella standing alone, looking a bit awkward but also with a look of anticipation. Madeline looked up at Justin—briefly, but with an expression that spoke volumes. Melvin, less interested in the source of Justin’s distraction, simply asked if he was coming along. At his side, Judith kept her reaction low-key, but was sure that the moment she’d advised her younger sister about last night was close at hand.

“You guys go on ahead, I’ll join you in a little while.” Maybe, he added silently before moving off, looking as one with urgent business. When Isabella noticed him heading her way, she at first looked away, feeling almost in a sudden panic, wondering if what she thought was about to happen really was.

The others looked after him curiously, still unaware of but not overly concerned about his sudden departure, though Melvin and Judith had noticed Isabella before; Johnathan, though, looked at his wife with equal curiosity. As they headed for the main entrance, he asked the children to allow him a private word with their mother.

“Maddie…sweetheart, darling, dearest…I have a sudden hunch that you know something I don’t. You wouldn’t be…I don’t know, keeping secrets, would you?” He said this in a playful tone, but she felt the need to put his mind at ease all the same.

“Well, I guess I would be, ah…what’s the word…?”

“...Technically?”

“Yes, technically. But this one wasn’t between us, it was between Justin and me, for the last two days.”

“Oh, I guess that’s all right, then. But why do I have the feeling it won’t be a secret much longer? To anyone? And if so, then, well…”

“...Well,” Madeline continued, her own tone playful, “If anyone here has a right to keep a secret...”

“You are never going to let me forget that completely, are you?” Johnathan laughed. "Come on, tellmetellmetellme...”

Madeline laughed. “All right, Johnathan, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” She whispered in his ear “The Secret,” after which he struggled to keep his reaction low-key.

“Get out of here! Justin and—her?” He briefly looked back over his shoulder. “Wow. You know, Maddie…I think…you and I were witness to a ‘carpe diem’ moment.” He explained the term to her.

“‘Seize the day,’” she repeated. “In other words…don’t wait. That’s just what I’d told him.”

* * *

The second-level corridor along which lay the guest quarters and Justin’s office was completely empty right now, unsurprisingly so given this special day. As Justin and Isabella walked along it in near-silence, he couldn’t resist a glance over his shoulder; no doubt, the appearance of the two of them together aroused no small curiosity in anyone who’d seen him approach her and offer her his arm before they went up the ramp together, and they could have been followed. Well, let them follow if they want, he decided. It’ll hardly be a secret for long anyway.

The whole time Isabella could barely say a word to save her life, still unable to completely accept that this was really happening. “There are some things I’ve been wanting to discuss with you, if you wouldn’t mind coming up to my office with me,” he’d told her downstairs; and she could only stammer, “Well, I…you…Yes, of course, Justin,” in reply. What was this all about? Did he really want to be with her in the way she’d hoped—at times, she’d believed, in vain—or was this work-related, like he wanted her to be his assistant, “stealing” her away from Simone? Or something else entirely? Either way, he’d made it clear that he wanted to meet her alone, in his office, and as they approached the door with the ordinary-looking plaque stamped with his name, she felt her heart leap; this would be the first time the two of them were truly alone together.

He opened the door, allowing her to enter first; and after he closed it behind him, she could only say, “This…is the first time I’ve been here, Justin, since we… Well, by myself, I mean. Or not by myself, with…just you…” She felt herself blush, but her embarrassment was not enough to make her turn and flee.

Justin gave her his best, most disarming and reassuring smile, and directed her further in, toward his private quarters. “It’s okay. I can’t blame you for being nervous.” He steered her toward his couch, where they both sat. “In fact…believe it or not, I’m a little bit myself.”

“You…you’re nervous, Justin? That’s a little…hard to believe…”

“Hey, even your fearless leader is subject to the ills that plague the rest of us. I’m no super-rat, even if humans might think of us that way. In fact…you could even blame the NIMH scientists, for what their experiments did to us…” What are you doing, he thought, stop beating around the bush.

Justin breathed in deep. “Okay…I know you’re wondering why I asked you here today, as the cliché goes…” He said this knowing that she likely knew full well, from the moment he’d approached her. “You heard our story, and…all that we went through to find Johnathan and bring him home.”

“Oh, yes. Some of that was pretty scary. Being trapped like that…brrr! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to…” She suddenly looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Justin, I interrupted you.”

“Don’t worry, Izzy. Nothing you do could offend me. But speaking of which…you don’t mind if I call you Izzy, do you?”

In fact she did mind it, in recent times, when family members such as Judith called her Izzy, though they’d been doing it since she was small. These days she preferred Isabella; but now she found her thoughts matched Justin’s, that he could call her almost anything and she wouldn’t mind, so she told him so.

“Okay, Izzy. Anyway, after all that we went through, I found that it gave me a lot to think about afterwards: about all I’d done, especially since we moved to Thorn Valley. We’ve all done well here; we’ve made this community, and are still making it, into what we’d set out to do since we began the Plan for it, to where we could grow and flourish…just as Nicodemus wanted. And it’s been the best experience of my life, seeing it all come to fruition, and being right at the forefront of it all.

“But…I’ve found, more and more, that it’s just…not enough, not for me. I guess…oh, how to put this…When we’d escaped from NIMH, it didn’t take long for all of us—or at least most of us—to realize just how much we needed each other. Not just for survival, not just to look out for one another, but…for close, loving companionship, as mates. And, as you know, there were twenty of us, including your folks, but not an equal ratio: there were eleven males to nine females. And that’s part of the reason that…yours truly stayed unmarried, but only part of it. I was the youngest among us, and largely because of that fact, I was essentially deferring to my elders when we began pairing off. Nicodemus and Arthur chose to stay single, at least as far as any of our conversations told; but it got to the point where Anna was the only unattached female, but…there just wasn’t that spark between her and me. To this day I can’t explain it entirely, but…I do know, more than ever these days, that…I do need that kind of closeness. Seeing Johnathan and Madeline Brisby together again—really seeing them together for the first time, in fact—and then with their children again, was what really did it for me.”

He looked straight into Isabella’s eyes, and her heart leapt anew, her thoughts racing. Could he really mean…Is he about to say that I’m…Is this really happening? Should I ask him if he…Should I wait for him to say… All at once, she saw the truth, as she gazed deeply into his eyes, just as she'd seen in that look he’d given her three days ago, before he left on the mission; but now it seemed to have been magnified a hundredfold. They’d barely noticed how, since they’d sat down, each had moved a little closer to the other; Justin had even placed his arm around Isabella’s shoulders. But now they were both acutely aware of their closeness and what this awareness had to mean.

“Isabella,” he finally said with lingering nervousness, but determinedly, “I think…you’re the one. I’d like to spend much more time with you, to find out…whether it’s true. Isabella…I think I love you.”

Her mouth moved soundlessly for what seemed an eternity. “Justin, I…” She actually felt unable to breathe for a moment. “…I’ve wanted you…I mean I’ve wanted you to say that for…for…” She could only sigh and move closer to him, drawing an arm tentatively around him. He did the same, and for the next two minutes they held each other closely, wordlessly, reveling in each other’s nearness.

Justin pulled back again, facing her. “Isabella…how do you feel? About me?”

She thought, just for a moment, that she’d stumble and stammer again, but instead the words came spilling right out. “Justin, I think…I’ve loved you since the Rosebush, when I was still a student. You’d smile at me, and I’d get so nervous and drop everything—literally—and I didn’t know what it meant then. But then I’d see other girls look at you like…well, you know, and you’d be nice to them, just as you were to me, and I’d feel jealous, just a little. But since then, just recently, I think I knew that I didn’t have to feel jealous. Somehow I knew that…you really…cared for me…not in the way you cared for them.” She thought of her conversation with Judith last night, how she’d all but guaranteed that she’d be his choice. And now…she was still finding it hard to accept that this was all real.

“Izzy…while we were away, my thoughts returned to you time and time again. I even confided to Mrs. Brisby that I thought you…were becoming something special to me. By the time we were ready to leave, I vowed that I wouldn’t put this off, that I’d meet with you and talk to you, really talk to you and get to know you, and…tell you how I feel. I really believe it now, that you and I…could be meant for each other.” Again there was that smile, the one that had so melted her heart every time they’d met recently. In reply, Isabella could only smile back as they again embraced tightly.

He drew back again. “There’s something else that I wanted to save for now…and see if you like it.” Having drawn inspiration from Sithpha and Dinilom, and following Johnathan and Madeline’s example, he placed his lips against hers gently. She responded easily to his kiss, sighing contentedly. An absurd thought came to him, fleetingly: Has she been practicing with somebody else? It fell by the wayside, never to return, as they continued reveling in the moment.

* * *

In the meadow between the main entrance and the lake, the celebration was just getting underway. Virtually the entire population of the Thorn Valley colony and their guests were either helping themselves at the improvised serving line or were already seated at the tables, digging in. Heading up the musical portion of the festivities were Guard rats Kevin and Lol, who were setting up and tuning their instruments—stringed, woodwind, and percussive devices largely based on human designs, devised and built by the rats. At a table reserved for the guests of honor were seated the Brisby family, Melvin and his family, and Willis.

Two chairs were still empty, one for the last guest of honor and one for his escort, and their continued state of emptiness had prompted much speculation; much of it centering around the fact that Justin had been seen with Isabella, apparently bound for a private meeting. While privacy in such circumstances was generally respected here, this was Justin, after all; and nearly everyone had wondered, since before the Migration, when he’d make a choice—not just the young unattached females who’d be most directly affected by his decision, but his fellow elders and anyone else concerned for his happiness. All of this, of course, hinged upon whether his meeting with Isabella was truly of such a personal nature; and if a poll were to be taken, it would be near-unanimously in favor of “Of course it is!” Meanwhile, the guests of honor weren’t spilling any details, and no one had gotten brave enough to ask any of them yet.

At the musical stage, Kevin and Lol were joined by the other musicians in their band: Kevin’s mother Jolene, his little brother Quincy, and Willis’s younger brother Jemial. Quincy waved to Timothy, who explained to his parents how most of Jolene’s children had musical talent passed on to them by their mother. Johnathan was pleased to hear this; it brought back memories of the Rosebush, where he’d sometimes pass Jolene in the corridors, all but oblivious to others, humming a tune over and over to herself; or find Kevin tapping out a rhythm with sticks upon whatever solid surface was nearby. Unfortunately, there was little chance for any of the Rats to fully develop artistic talents while living there; but now, such talents were being allowed to reach full flower.

As they prepared, Orson consulted with the other guests of honor to decide whether or not to formally announce the beginning of the festivities before Justin’s arrival; and they were literally seconds away from starting without him when a voice called out for most to hear, “Here he comes!” With no noticeable exception every head turned, and someone else was heard to say more quietly, “There they are!”

“They,” of course, were Justin, acknowledging the crowd with a smile and a wave, and his escort Isabella. The sight of the two strolling arm-in-arm elicited a mixture of reactions: some, especially those who’d noticed Isabella’s absence, were pleased that the rumors were confirmed; some seemed genuinely surprised; and some found it hard not to look dismayed, a reaction that seemed exclusive to some of the community’s young unattached females.

Justin, largely oblivious to it all, whispered something to Isabella, and she took her place at the table, beside Judith. The two sisters managed to keep their greetings low-key, but both were beaming at this new development. Justin stood in front of the musical stage and raised both arms. Once the crowd had quieted sufficiently, he began to speak.

“Friends…everyone…first of all, I…we appreciate your not starting without us. This is a day…long in coming, in more ways than one. As you know, our friends, the Brisby family, are once again a whole family with Johnathan’s return; and it has come to light that Madeline, his dear, loving wife, is truly one of us in every way. But—and this was their suggestion—let us also celebrate on this day our continued good fortune in this new land. Nicodemus saw Thorn Valley as a place where we could live more freely, without the sense of caution and even paranoia that prevailed at the Rosebush. Times were hard at first, and I won’t bore you with details that you all know very well. But though we’ve stumbled a few times, things have only gotten better; and all I’ve heard from department heads and the rest of you...is that life is good, and can only continue to get better for us.”

Spontaneous applause broke out, and Justin allowed it to continue for half a minute before he went on: “Now…to satisfy everyone’s curiosity: this young lady, Isabella, is my guest to this event today.” His eyes met hers, and she looked back adoringly. “And…we do expect to see more of each other. Now…let the party begin!” He turned to the musicians. “Hit it, boys and girls!”

The band launched into a largely improvised number with a moderate samba beat. A few got up and began to dance while others clapped hands and swayed to the music at their tables.

“About time, old buddy,” said Johnathan as Justin took his place at the table between Isabella and Madeline. Both he and Isabella were already bobbing heads to the rhythm.

“Well, we had a lot to talk about,” Justin said, looking over to Isabella, smiling and touching her hand.

“Mm-hmmm…are you sure it was just talk…old rascal?” Johnathan said with a sly grin and a wink.

Madeline gave him a playful swat on the arm, laughing. “Johnathan, you’re terrible!” Isabella covered her mouth, giggling, as did the Brisby children, even if they didn’t know what their father specifically implied.

“That’s okay, Madeline,” said Justin, looking as one whose spirits couldn’t be dampened by anything short of a sudden natural disaster. “I guess I deserved that one. And, by the way…” He gave her a small nudge. “…let me thank you once more for helping me see the light.”

“I’m glad I could be of help, Justin,” she said. “I’d already told Johnathan, by the way,” she added more quietly.

“I thought as much,” he said, grinning. Just then, two of the kitchen workers arrived with trays laden with food for the last two guests of honor, who dug in with gusto. As they ate, Justin and Isabella continued to converse as they did in his office, talking with increasing ease about whatever subject was on their minds, all the while not shy about allowing many gestures of affection to show: a squeezing of hands here, a caress of a cheek there, even stealing an occasional kiss. They were well aware of the stir they created, but neither cared. The other guests of honor, for their part, respectfully allowed them the space to converse without interrupting; though the two Brisby daughters could barely contain themselves, until at one point Cynthia went over to Isabella and told her how thrilled they were that she and Justin found each other. Teresa was a bit dismayed, but both Justin and Isabella only hugged and thanked both girls.

The band played on, and by the time they’d begun their third number most had finished eating; and the piece the band now played, a faster-paced tune with a sprightly, “jumping” quality, quickly had most of the crowd on its feet. The Brisby family watched with wonder as they watched almost all the Rats of NIMH, with few noticeable exceptions, move out to the area reserved as a dance floor and beyond it, dancing up a storm, moving their bodies to the music singly or in pairs. To Johnathan the moment was something of a revelation, crystallizing all he’d been told—and as Justin had just largely confirmed—of how the Rats had been able to let go of some of their sense of caution. He’d wondered just how this celebration would take shape, and now he had his answer.

It didn’t take long for the guests of honor, rats and mice alike, to join in. Willis made some dance moves involving a lot of wild flailing of arms and legs, though all in time to the music, that had some laughing so hard they almost collapsed. Whether they were laughing at or with him, he didn’t seem to care, though it would seem to lean toward the latter. Melvin and Judith danced less wildly but were clearly enjoying themselves, as were Justin and Isabella, who clearly relished the chance to share this first dance together. Even the Brisby children were persuaded by their new friends to join in, and in short order were twirling around in circles, laughing.

Soon their parents realized that they were the last holdouts. Madeline was clearly reluctant; though she’d enjoyed the music greatly—this being her first real exposure to music of any kind for any real length of time—dancing was something she’d never considered doing, though she couldn’t deny feeling a pull toward the dance floor, since everyone was enjoying himself or herself so much. In quite short order, Johnathan was able to persuade her, and soon they were jumping and twirling with the best of them.

The band was clearly caught up in the spirit of things, and kept this number—mostly improvised, like the first—going for some ten minutes before bringing it to a conclusion, after which they announced they were taking a break, since they’d had only a small bite to eat before. As they ate, many others came by to talk with the guests of honor. Arthur, as he’d promised Madeline, recounted some of his advance crew’s experiences here in Thorn Valley before the rest of the population joined them. Justin, as he’d promised, had stories about his and Johnathan’s experiences to share; though he hadn’t expected, three days ago, to be sharing them in Johnathan’s presence. Matilda and Bryant reminded him how he’d once given them the advice of “never go to bed angry,” and Matilda told him how she’d told Madeline this three days ago. Back on Lahaikshe, during the tunnel trudge, Madeline had been curious about the circumstances behind Nicodemus’s agreement with Anna to have a child together—Brutus—and she and her husband George, Melvin’s twin brother, were happy to share all but the most personal details. Brutus dropped by to chat as well; he’d had little chance to before now due to him and others of the Guard continuing to run security while preparations for the celebration were going on.

When the band was ready to start up again, Quincy invited his new friend Timothy to sit in on a number or two, handing him a couple of shakers. He accepted the challenge, and found himself able to keep up and stay in rhythm almost the whole time, which he found pleased him greatly. Music-making, he realized, was definitely in his blood.

During this number, which was slower, Willis was approached by a female that the Brisby family, including the children, was acquainted with: Sabrina, sister to Guard rats Philip and Darwin and oldest daughter of Orson and Lucretia. The two danced slowly together and progressively closer, and it became clear that she was the one with whom he had a mutual attraction, as he’d told Justin and Melvin back at Gwinthrayle’s. They shared the next dance as well, as closely as before; and at its end, the two looked to be as inseparable as any couple truly in love. Another couple that piqued the interest of many was Willis’s twin sister Deena, and Brutus, who, as a dancer, was actually quite light on his feet, surprisingly so to those who hadn’t known him too long.

The celebration continued through the afternoon and into the early evening. As well as music, there were many games and sporting matches, such as wrestling, all played with great sportsmanship and without grudge or envy. Not even the approach of rain clouds dampened any spirits; all were prepared to move the festivities indoors if necessary, and so anyone who could carry or push something was mobilized to do so—again, with the exception of the guests of honor.

Johnathan noticed Timothy talking with Quincy as the band was gathering its equipment, and suggested to Madeline that now would be a good time to address a matter with him that would be best carried out in private, since they’d already realized it may be difficult for him to talk about. She agreed, and they approached him just as he noticed them looking his way.

“Hey, Tim,” said Johnathan, “let’s go for a walk, just us three.”

“Um…okay, but shouldn’t we be getting inside soon?” He looked up at the cumulus clouds advancing from the southwest end of the valley.

“This won’t take long,” Johnathan said as he took his son’s hand and his mother took the other.

“Okay. Well, I guess I’m trapped now,” he joked.

As they strolled towards the swimming cove, Johnathan got right to the point. “Tim, when we were in Justin’s office, and…we first saw each other again…do you remember what you said to me?”

“Mmm, yeah…” Timothy replied hesitantly. “I said…‘I knew you’d come back,’ and…‘I always knew.’”

“Then,” Madeline said, “I guess you know what our next question will be.”

“You mean, how did I know that. Yeah…well…” He breathed in deep; he’d known this was coming, but still felt hesitant, though he wouldn’t have been able to say why, precisely.

“Tim, dear,” said Madeline, “we’ve all known about your ‘funny feelings’ a long time.”

“That’s right,” added Johnathan, “and this sounds to us like one of them.”

Timothy sighed. Suddenly looking decisive, he said, “You’re right. This is one of them, maybe...the biggest one I've ever had. I guess…I’ve kept it to myself so long, that it feels strange to share it. But…” He looked at the faces of both his parents, knowing well he had nothing to hide from them.

“…I guess it started the day you left us, Dad. After Auntie Shrew broke the news to us, we couldn’t…do a lot except just go to bed.” He sighed. “You know what it was like, Mom.”

“We both do, dear. And we know this may not be easy for you, but…”

“It’s okay. I want to tell you.” They sat down next to one of the bushes near the cove. “Anyway…in the middle of the night, I woke up, and I felt…strange. I don’t know how else to describe it. I got up without waking anyone else, and I started walking around the house. I looked out the window, and then I went to the front door. I opened it and just stood there for a while, looking up at the moon and stars. I thought about what had happened, and suddenly…I just knew. I said to myself, ‘Daddy’s not gone. He’s out there somewhere. And someday…he’s going to come back to us.’” He paused, looking at both his parents’ faces.

“I didn’t even need to think about it too much, it just came to me. I still don’t know why. I wondered if I should tell you, Mom, maybe even wake you up to tell you. But then I thought about it, and I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. I thought I’d need to explain it better than that, and that if I said it just came to me, you wouldn’t believe me, or else it would make you feel sad. So I thought I might as well just go back to sleep, so I did. I actually slept pretty well the rest of the night.”

“But you didn’t tell her in the morning, did you?” said Johnathan.

“No, I didn’t. I thought that if I did, she’d just worry about when it would happen, and I wouldn’t be able to tell her. But I was still sure about it. The feeling had really been with me all that time, from then right up until this morning. I even started to get the feeling, even before you came back, that the mission had something to do with you.” He sat closer to Johnathan, looking up at him, smiling. “I almost said so to Martin one time. And after we learned about your using the Stone, it was even stronger. I wanted to share it with somebody, maybe Cynthia, but I thought it’d be better if I just waited to find out for sure. And…when it happened, when I saw you…” Timothy paused to swallow a lump in his throat. “…I was just so happy that the words just came right out, and I didn’t care how they came out.” His eyes glistened with tears.

As he wrapped his arms around his younger son, Johnathan wondered anew about the potential in all of his children, Timothy in particular. His “funny feelings” had long been recognized and accepted by the family, and had always fit the same basic pattern: that at a time of crisis, major or minor, he would predict a positive outcome, and it would come true. When Madeline would go out on a food-gathering trip and it seemed to be taking too long, he’d say with conviction to his sibs that she would soon be returning safely. When he was recovering from his spider-bite, he’d tell his parents that they shouldn’t worry; and during his bout with pneumonia, he repeatedly assured his mother that all would turn out well. When asked how he knew these things, he’d just say he felt it, as much as he’d feel the pain of a stubbed toe, or the pleasure he’d get from eating a favorite food. But this one, this conviction that he’d kept secret for the last ten months…it may have been just another example of this ability of his in action, but it was almost as if he’d maintained a spiritual connection to his father as well, even while Johnathan was nowhere in the only world his family knew. At any rate, there could be no doubt now that this was a genuine and special talent of his, and everyone should continue to take it seriously. It was all the more remarkable for the fact that, at such a tender age, he’d had the maturity to realize the possible consequences had he not kept secret what he’d felt to be true. Johnathan recalled the thought he’d had earlier, just after their reunion, that Timothy might have the brightest future out of all of his children. It wasn’t as if he believed Tim’s siblings wouldn’t have great success, and he certainly didn’t want to play favorites; but he couldn’t deny the feeling, not completely.

As she stroked Timothy’s shoulder, Madeline smiled at the wonderful irony of it: that in recent days she didn’t want to upset the children by telling them about the impressions, and had withheld the details of the secret mission; and now here was Timothy sitting on his own little secret for the same reason; and for a much longer period of time, at that. Later, she and Johnathan would discuss how Timothy’s putting off revealing his secret compared to what Johnathan had been keeping from his own family, and they would agree that Timothy had the stronger case for procrastination.

The three continued talking over the matter, and Timothy agreed that it would be all right if they shared this information with his siblings, and maybe—eventually—Justin and some of the other rats as well.

Presently Kevin came racing up to them, advising them that the storm was advancing fast and they’d better come inside soon. They took the advice, all feeling very satisfied at the discussion’s conclusion.

Inside, some of the tables and chairs were left in the corridors to make room for more performance and dancing space in the dining hall, where the main part of the celebrating resumed well into the evening. Besides further performances from the band, which Timothy and others continued to sit in on, there was more dancing, further wrestling matches and a storytelling session which prompted the suggestion that Timothy entertain the crowd with one of his own. He was hesitant at first but remembered well his own advice, to pretend he was addressing just his own family. He launched confidently into the “cat invasion” story he’d regaled his family with the night before they began the trip to Thorn Valley, the fact that his father was hearing it for the first time making it easier. It was enthusiastically received by all.

By around nine o’clock the festivities had quieted considerably. The mood throughout the community was still joyful but more subdued and restrained, the steady light rain tapping against the window panes enhancing the mood. The Brisby family largely spent the waning hours of the day in the dining hall, and there was a steady stream of will-wishers; Johnathan estimated nearly everyone had come by to personally congratulate him on his return and convey their best wishes to him and his family. There were more stories told, real ones from Justin and Arthur, that kept the Brisby family enthralled, among them one which resolved a matter Madeline had strangely neglected to ask Johnathan about: the inscription on the back of the pendant housing the Stone—“You can unlock any door if you only have the key”— for which he had commissioned Arthur to inscribe it a month or so after if it had come into his possession.

It was clear that the day was beginning to tell on everyone, as adults and children alike had increasing difficulty suppressing yawns. There was one more slow dance from the band before they called it a night. Johnathan and Madeline took part, at one point doing little more than just embracing tightly on the floor, in fact barely moving; it was a moment they’d look back on as the perfect ending to the day. Nearly everyone else in the group joined in as well: Justin and Isabella, who would surely remember the moment in the same way; Melvin and Judith, both still full of thankfulness over his safe return; Arthur and Melinda, for whom the moment was still bittersweet after what they’d learned about her father. Willis and Sabrina created something of a stir when, at the song’s conclusion, they wished everyone the briefest of good nights and made a quick exit. Johnathan and Madeline were instantly reminded of their first night together, and their more recent interlude back in Gwinthrayle’s gardens.

Arthur had just completed one short tale of his crew’s preparations from last winter when those still remaining agreed to call it a night. Though the Brisbys weren’t planning on leaving early tomorrow, all still felt the need to rest up, and so everyone parted company for the day.

The Brisbys retired to the guest quarters, which Johnathan had only seen briefly today. On the way there was little discussion of future plans; if the children had questions, they kept them to themselves for now.

Everyone was almost finished taking turns using the washbasin for brushing their teeth when Johnathan, in the midst of giving the room and its furnishings the once-over, felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Uh…Dad? You got a minute?”

“Are you kidding, Martin?” Johnathan said with a broad smile. “Of course!” He gave his son a quick hug. “I know. You’ll be glad when I get over it, right? Well, right now I can’t see that happening for a while. It’s just so good to be back.”

“It’s cool, Dad, I understand. I like having you back too.”

“So, what’s on your mind?” They hopped up to the edge of the parents’ bed.

“Well…I know Mom’s already told you about the night you went away, and…how Auntie Shrew told us the news, after she’d heard it from someone else.”

“Ah, yes, Auntie Shrew. Your favorite and mine,” Johnathan said with a laugh. “I know she was always a help to us, but, well…I’m sorry, son, I interrupted you.”

“That’s okay. Anyway…well, I guess you know that I didn’t get along too well with her before…but after that night, I really didn’t get along with her.” He chuckled. “I mean, every time she came around, I just…I couldn’t help it, I’d feel like…I couldn’t stand her being there at all. I’d just get furious. Usually Mom would be there, and I’d…keep it all in. But there were other times, like last spring when Tim got sick, and Mom got the medicine from Mr. Ages…and Auntie Shrew came by, and I just…got so mad at her being there. Teresa tried to talk me down, but we really started to go at it. Then Mom returned, and Auntie Shrew left, and suddenly I…I just felt like I let her down, especially at a time like that, when Tim was sick and…we were all worried about him.”

He paused, sighing. “After all that was over, I got along with her…a little better, I guess; after all we’d been through, with our house sinking in the mud. We all could have died then, Dad, all of us, her and us kids. I never blew up at her like that again, but still…”

Johnathan placed an arm around Martin’s shoulders, musing silently about how he wished he’d been there. “So…do you think there’s a reason she pushed your buttons so bad?”

“Yeah, I do,” Martin replied with surprising conviction. “The other day, we were all waiting for some word, anything about Mom and Justin and the others, especially after we learned they’d used the Stone to go somewhere; and I kind o’ blew up at Silvio and Miranda when they couldn’t tell us anything. And he said, Silvio did…‘Don’t kill the messenger.’” Johnathan began nodding to himself, already seeing where this was going. “After he explained what he meant, it hit me all at once: that this was what I’d been doing…to Auntie Shrew. I wasn’t even aware of it, but it was like…I was blaming her for you, for your going away, and that was why…I resented her so much.”

Johnathan pulled his eldest son closer to him. “Wow. Martin, I’m really proud of you. We all have those moments, where we realize things about ourselves that we may not have even suspected; but it’s always good to face them head-on and admit them, and not keep them to ourselves.”

“Yeah. It actually feels good.”

“I’m glad. So…what’ll you do now? Or rather, the next time you see her?”

He squirmed a bit. “Oh, I’m…still working it out. But I’ll definitely talk to her.”

“Without losing your temper?”

Martin rolled his eyes. “Of course, Dad, I’ll be cool.”

The conversation turned to lighter fare, and soon father and son were laughing and joking with each other, and before long it turned into an impromptu wrestling match on the bed. The rest of the family, attracted by the commotion, came over, and almost immediately Timothy leaped into the fray. Cynthia was next, to her mother’s initial dismay; but after Teresa joined in, Madeline shrugged, deciding Why not? and followed her. After all, it had been so long since they’d all been able to play together in such a carefree fashion, and she couldn’t deny that they really needed this. And so for the next few minutes the bed became a laughing, shrieking, constantly-shifting blanket of multicolored fur with tails and limbs flying akimbo as the family allowed one final burst of celebratory energy.

After the commotion had died down, the parents described to the children in detail the agreement they’d decided upon earlier: that they’d return to their creekside home tomorrow, but would keep open the option to move here to Thorn Valley permanently, with a final decision to be made after about a month. They had already discussed the matter with Justin, and, of course, he gave it his instant and wholehearted approval. The children’s reactions were predictably and overwhelmingly positive, to say the least, with many thank-yous and other expressions of gratitude; though they were tempered by varying degrees of reluctance, on the part of each of them, both to leave Thorn Valley at this point and to leave their old home permanently. This was precisely why, Johnathan told them, they’d have a “trial” period before making a final decision. All agreed it made sense, and so, with everyone by now yawning anew, they made final preparations for bedtime.

Johnathan and Madeline lay awake a bit longer than the children, snuggled in each other’s arms, whispering about their near-future plans, still unable to say for sure if they’d want to move here permanently after the trial period; but not overly concerned, positive that it would all become clearer in 30 days. Madeline recalled how, upon first laying eyes upon the bed they were both sleeping in for the first time, she’d wished she could share it with Johnathan, for all she thought at the time that it was impossible.

“Sometimes wishes do come true, even the most unlikely-sounding ones,” he remarked, nuzzling her ear. He looked toward the nightstand upon which the Stone lay, after he'd spent virtually the entire day wearing it. “Did you know… the day after our first night together, when I had that conversation with Nicodemus, I told him that…I regarded you as a rare jewel. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? That was a whole year before I found another rare jewel.”

“Mm-hm,” she murmured thoughtfully. “And you started calling me a rare jewel, though neither of us knew what was in store.”

“Neither did Nicodemus. Would you believe…I told him I’d always love you, until one of us took a final breath…and then he told me that he hoped that day would be in the far distant future. I knew at the time that he was just offering me hope, but…it’s almost as if he knew we’d grow old together. He always maintained that he couldn’t see that far into the future, but…it does make one wonder.”

“We knew so little of what would happen, but now…everything is wide open for us, Johnathan, even if we still can’t predict the future.”

“Yes. And with the Stone still in our possession, it should make things interesting, to say the least. But the one thing that’s still certain…is that I’ll always love you.” He kissed her deeply.

They hadn’t even begun to consider what their continued possession of the Stone meant for them, or how they would use it. It was one more thing that was too much to consider now, not when their being together again was the most important thing in their lives. They slipped into slumber, looking forward to their first day in their own home again.

Chapter 23 - Back to the creekside

In early afternoon the next day the Brisby family was ready to make the trek back to their summer home. Johnathan paused for a moment to take in their surroundings as he’d done yesterday; then he turned to look upon the large assemblage of rats who had gathered just outside the main entrance to see them off.

It had been quite a full morning, much of it spent at Thorn Valley School, where the Brisby children and their parents alike had sat in on classes. Johnathan had joined Cynthia and Timothy in math class, followed by a history class, which in short order became something of a living history class, with a good portion taken up with Johnathan’s own perspective on events in the lives of the Original 22. Madeline joined Teresa and Martin in history and reading/spelling classes, and—confirming her earlier suspicions—she found herself understanding and learning much of the material just as her children were, and enjoying the experience so much that she felt herself all but ready to tell her husband that she was ready today to stay on indefinitely. But, she knew, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to him since he’d told her he wanted a resumption of his old life, even if it would only be temporary; and she wanted very much to return home herself.

They were all tempted to stay longer into the afternoon, or beyond, but they didn’t want to start the trip too late in the day. It was hoped that they could get as far as the Great Owl’s woods by dusk, though there were other modes of travel open to them, they knew, which would speed their journey home if they so decided. For now, they planned as if they’d be making the entire trip on foot.

Now came the final round of goodbyes and wishes for a safe journey. Of course, there were many best wishes from the Brisbys for friends old and new; and some reluctance to leave them, though all knew it wouldn’t be for good. Martin and his new best friend Lambert had an animated conversation that ended in a big hug. Teresa, though visibly sad, was already making plans with Hermione and Ophelia about what they’d do “next time.” Cynthia was less tearful than expected, including by herself, as she had final words with Natalie and Mary Louise. Timothy wrapped up his goodbyes to Quincy and his family, all of whom he’d groclose to. Their parents were gratified and proud to see the degree to which the children had been made to feel at home and made friends here these four days past. Madeline hadn’t been able to do so herself to the same degree, of course, but knew beyond a doubt that there’d be plenty of time. Meanwhile, she and Johnathan were busy making their own round of goodbyes, mixing in many heartfelt expressions of thanks to those most responsible for making the children feel so at home here, particularly Isabella, Simone and her teaching staff, and Tallus and his library staff, for allowing the children free rein over their facilities. “I don’t think we could have kept them away if we tried,” was how Tallus summed up the matter.

The children also said goodbye to their caregivers, expressing how much they enjoyed sitting in on classes and using the library, and how much they looked forward to their return here. It was gratifying for their parents to see how emotional some of these partings were; both imagined they’d grown closer to the friends they’d made here than the ones on or near the Fitzgibbons farm. It was unsurprising, really, given how much they had in common. Their parents watched as Isabella gave Timothy and Cynthia each a big hug, with accompanying tears from all three. The longing look Timothy gave Isabella was almost enough for Johnathan to think that Timothy wished the two were the same species, and he were older.

They’d saved for last their partings with those Madeline had become especially close to these four days past. After Isabella returned to Justin’s side, the two making no secret of their newfound mutual fondness, Justin said, “Johnathan…Madeline…children…it hardly needs saying, but…our door is always open to you. What’s ours is yours.”

“And our door will be open to you as well,” said Johnathan, “though we’ll understand if you’d rather stay away.”

“You all stay safe back at the creekside, okay?” said Melvin.

“Thank you, Melvin, we will,” said Madeline, giving him and Judith and their children a hug.

“But do us a favor, though, Johnathan,” said Willis. “Next time you decide to go on a vacation, make it someplace closer!”

“Sure, as long as I don’t have to look at you guys’ ugly faces!” retorted Johnathan. He and Willis and Melvin laughed heartily, hugging and smacking each other’s back. Justin found himself smiling, pleased that even he could find humor in their ordeal.

As she and Willis embraced, Madeline remembered something she’d almost forgotten: his very first words to her. “Willis, what was that you said about Johnathan not returning your chisel?”

Willis laughed. “Oh, I was just pulling your leg, Mrs. B. He sometimes borrowed our tools, but he always returned them.”

They said this out of earshot of Johnathan, and she made a mental note to ask him more about the matter later, curious about his precise use of the rats’ tools. For now, she turned to Justin, who’d just crouched in front of her. She suddenly found herself at a loss for words.

“Justin, I…I just wish I had the words to…to…” She suddenly rushed to hug him, face pressed against his chest. “Oh, Justin, I love you so much for who you are, for all you’ve done for all of us. God bless you.”

“Thank you, Madeline, I appreciate that. And I feel the same. But I think we should be careful, or else we might be making someone a bit jealous…”

“Not much chance of that,” said Johnathan without skipping a beat, “because I love you too!” He joined the embrace and Justin wrapped his arms around both of them.

“It was all I really wanted, throughout all this,” said Justin with equal affection, “or at least the most important thing, just to see you, my two dearest friends, back together.” He drew back to look at the mouse couple. “Now that that’s done, it feels like almost anything’s possible.” The pair could only thank him once more.

Their children had just wrapped up their goodbyes to Mr. Ages, who didn’t appear to be especially uncomfortable, even with Cynthia, whose farewell was the longest and most emotional. Their parents swapped with the children, who moved on to Justin.

“I don’t believe I actually told you this,” said Madeline as she embraced Ages, “but ever since I learned how much you and Johnathan and the Rats have in common, I feel almost as if you’re family to us.”

“She’s absolutely right, Cyril,” agreed Johnathan. “Why, the kids regard you like a favorite uncle now…whether you like it or not.”

“Oh, Great Jupiter, you two! You know how I really feel.”

“Of course! We just wanted to hear you say ‘Great Jupiter’ again.”

“Oh, be on your way, you two!” Ages said with his usual impatient tone, but there was no mistaking the affection in it as well.

“And you too!” said Johnathan as he embraced his brother-in-arms. “And we’ll be back, for sure. You won’t be rid of us that easily.” Ages added his own wish for the family’s safe journey home, even saying he looked forward to seeing them again. He added a few words on continuing work on the new medical department, and the Brisbys wished him all the best on the venture.

Brutus again offered to have a Guard unit escort the family part of the way, but Johnathan again declined, confident that such protection wouldn’t be necessary.

There was one more declaration to the crowd that they’d definitely be back, though they weren’t more specific; at the present, they wanted the one-month condition to be kept just between them and Justin. Then, after a final round of farewells, the Brisby family, bearing their packs and satchels, began the journey home, the last goodbyes from the Rats of NIMH ringing in their ears as they made their way toward the southwest end of Thorn Valley. There was reluctance in all of them, of course—Timothy especially looking ready to turn back outright—but all looked forward to a resumption of their old life with the family once again whole; though they knew that a return to the way things were was impossible now, especially for the children. Though the specific point hadn’t been discussed, all were sure that, 30 days hence, the last one to decide on where they’d continue to live would be Madeline, she being the one with the most reluctance to leave the creekside home.

They moved alongside the lake to its south end, quickly coming upon the big burr oak where they’d met Eric and Sarah yesterday. Everyone was mostly silent for a few minutes, the overall mood still a little somber over what they were leaving behind; until Johnathan reminded them of some vital matters: mainly, that in an emergency, they may need to use the Stone to get them to safety. They’d already discussed the possibility, the parents telling the children what to expect from its being used to transport them—i.e. the slight weakness and disorientation—and so decided to conduct a drill, doing everything but carrying out the actual transport: pretending there was an imminent attack, everyone clustering together, and Johnathan beginning his concentration on the amulet and then “cancelling” his command.

All this, of course, led to more discussion about the Stone. The children still had questions aplenty, but the parents maintained that they were still learning about its capabilities themselves. “An idea I’ve had,” said Johnathan, “is that we’ve both had our fill of it and its power for now. I think we should take a break from it, and let it ‘sleep’ for a time. We’ll still give it something to do in case of emergency, of course, but I’m hoping we won’t, because there are a lot of sights that I’ve missed that I’d like to take in again. What do you think, Maddie?”

“That does make sense, and I can understand, since you’ve been away for so long.” She thought about all the strangeness she’d become accustomed to these past few days, and how “coming back to earth” was itself actually feeling strange. She shook her head, smiling at her own easy acceptance of it all.

They’d gone a little further, approaching the edge of the deeper woods south of the lake, when Madeline laughed to herself. “What is it?” Johnathan asked.

“Johnathan…remember when we were discussing why the Stone sent you to Lahaikshe, and we wondered why it didn’t just send you to our home instead?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Well…just imagine if it did, and the explanation you’d have had to come up with.”

Johnathan thought for a moment, then he laughed out loud. “Yes, I can imagine! Sink or swim! ‘Well, you see, dear, I was just out risking my neck for the zillionth time, trying to drug a hundred-pound cat for a bunch of civilized rats, when I suddenly found myself back here! What’s for supper?’”

Madeline and the children all laughed, and Johnathan drew out the scenario into increasingly absurd directions. “‘Oh, and you’ll need to put on an extra plate, ‘cause I brought a guest, I hope you don’t mind. Don’t let the fact that you can’t see him throw you, he has a healthy appetite and very good table manners.’” He paused to laugh himself, then added: “‘Oh, wait, that’s his other personality. This one’s a real slob.’”

As her own laughter died down, Madeline said, “That’s not very nice. After all, Ghormfisk didn’t mean that to happen to him.”

“I know. Somehow, though, I think even he might find humor in it.” Johnathan looked up, making a sweeping gaze from east to west. They’d been scanning the skies continuously, and so far there’d been no sign of any airborne predators—unsurprisingly so—but also of any friendlier flying creatures. “We’re still holding out for your crow friends, aren’t we?"

“Yes, we are. They said they’d be sticking around the area over the next few days; I think ‘for awhile’ was how Jeremy put it, and that they’d look in ‘from time to time.’”

“And they’ll be able to spot us from the air like before,” said Martin, who was clearly the one hoping the most for a return “crowback” ride.

“That wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen,” said Johnathan. “I’ve done and seen a lot of things, but flying’s a new wrinkle; that kind of flying, at least.”

“I rather thought you’d enjoy that, Johnathan,” said Madeline, laughing, “the way you enjoyed Gwinthrayle’s transportation spell.”

They continued on, still scanning the skies. Teresa and Cynthia began their own conversation, sounding excited. Madeline turned to look at them and noticed Martin rolling his eyes while Timothy just gave a small, knowing smile. Before their mother could ask, Teresa told her they were discussing Justin and Isabella.

“Isn’t it great, Mother?” enthused Teresa. “Why, I’ll bet they’re married next time we see them!”

“And they’re so cute together!” bubbled Cynthia.

“Yes, they are,” said Madeline with a laugh. “And you may be right, Teresa. I’m sure they’ll be very happy together.”

“Mm-hm,” agreed Johnathan with a wistful tone. “I know he certainly deserves that kind of happiness. But then, who doesn’t?”

“Oh, c’mon, Dad,” said Martin, affecting as wounded a tone as possible. “Enough, already! Bleagh!”

“What do you mean, ‘bleagh’?” countered Teresa. “I think it’s nice.” The two continued discussing the point as only a brother and sister could, while Cynthia and Timothy just shared a laugh, again content to observe rather than join in.

“Music, sweet music,” said Johnathan over the din. “Everything is back to normal.” He squeezed Madeline’s hand, as both thought of how quickly Martin would be likely to change his tune, possibly in the very near future. Once love comes his way, they knew well, it will become the single most important thing in his life.

Once the discussion had quieted, Johnathan brought up a subject they’d largely neglected: “What will we tell our neighbors, when you show up with me? Maybe ‘I’m back from beyond the sea’?”

Madeline laughed. “Well, from beyond something. I guess…it would be best if we just say we happened to find you alive and well on our trip, and let it go at that.”

“What about where I’ve been, and why I’d been away? That might be a toughie, especially when it comes to you-know-who…”

“Oh, you mean Auntie Shrew. I think…that if we just hold firm, and tell her and everyone else that you were forced away by circumstances beyond your control, that would be enough. And if there are more questions, we’ll just change the subject.”

“You’re right. I’ll just say it was a bad experience, but it’s all over and I want to put it behind me. That’s hardly a lie, though the worst part of the experience was being away from you and the kids.” He leaned over, kissing her cheek.

She did the same to him, then she added, “And we probably shouldn’t say anything about the Stone, and what it can do.”

“Right again. I think we should keep all that a secret, just as we’ve kept the existence and location of the Rats of NIMH a secret. We’ll keep it out of sight as much as possible, but if anyone does see it, it’s only jewelry.”

“Did you all hear that?” Madeline addressed the children. “If anyone asks, we just say it’s a pretty stone and nothing more.” They all agreed to comply.

“Jeremy had a real thing for it,” commented Martin with a laugh. “I guess we’ll have to keep it out of his sight, too, if he and Beatrice show up.”

“That’s probably best, and—”

“Say, aren’t those a couple of crows up there?” interrupted Johnathan. Everyone looked to where he pointed, toward the upcoming treeline. Sure enough, two large, dark birds were approaching from the south end, just skirting the treetops.

“Hey, that is them,” said Teresa.

“I’d know the way they fly anywhere,” agreed Martin. Spotting a nearby boulder, they all made for it, clambering to its top and jumping and waving, as they did on the way to Thorn Valley. Johnathan confidently followed his family’s example. The crows flew lower over the ground after they cleared the treetops, and it quickly became obvious that they’d spotted and recognized their mouse friends, as they descended lower still.

“Wait till you meet them,” said Madeline to Johnathan. “You won’t soon forget it.” Johnathan, recalling Martin’s earlier remark, tucked the amulet underneath his vest.

The pair evidently took Madeline’s earlier advice and landed where it was mostly clear of vegetation this time, and so avoided entangling themselves in anything. The family hopped down from the boulder, and they and the crows approached each other.

“Hiya, Mrs. B,” came Jeremy’s irrepressibly cheerful greeting. “Hiya, kids. Toldja we’d be sticking around! Uhh…” Jeremy paused, suddenly looking intently at the group; then, using the tip of his wing, he counted to himself. “Hey, how come there are six of you?”

The children giggled and chortled. “Jeremy…Beatrice…” began their mother with a small laugh of her own, “This is my husband, Johnathan Brisby. Johnathan, Jeremy and Beatrice.”

“Pleased to meet ya. Your what?”

“My husband, Jeremy,” Madeline replied patiently.

Johnathan stepped forward, hand extended. “That’s right, I was just away for awhile, due to, uhm, unforeseen circumstances, but I’m definitely back for good." He shook Jeremy's wing-tip, then Beatrice's.

“Gee, I thought you always lived alone with your children, Mrs. Briz. Well, that’s okay, Mr. B, any husband of Mrs. B’s a husband of mine. Or something like that; I mean—”

“What the silver-tongued devil is trying to say is that we’re ready to give you a lift home anytime,” said Beatrice.

Of course, the children reacted in the expected manner, and Madeline, in spite of feeling some of her old reluctance of flying resurface, wasn’t about to raise any objection. She asked Johnathan if he was sure about this, since they’d at least half-planned on taking their time going home, making some or all of the trip on foot. But he was as enthusiastic as he’d indicated earlier.

In the next minute, the load was evenly divided, and soon all were ready: Johnathan, Teresa and Timothy would ride with Jeremy, and Madeline, Martin and Cynthia with Beatrice. The crows were better prepared for passengers this time, having brought plenty of string for securing them in place. Soon, all were airborne, and again the children yelled with the thrill of it all.

For Johnathan, it was as much a thrill, perhaps greater, and his elation at being reunited with his family and home was greatly enhanced. For Madeline, her feelings were much the same; and now it seemed that some words she’d once heard—from where she couldn’t say—were coming to her: something about dreams, flying, and coming home to those one loved.

* * *

Beneath the roots of a giant oak, near a creek, Johnathan and Madeline Brisby had just finished looking in on the children in their bedroom, and were minutes away from putting themselves to bed.

Their arrival at the creekside this afternoon had been uneventful. They’d had Jeremy and Beatrice drop them off a little ways north of the creek, to ensure their return would look as normal as possible to the eyes of any of their neighbors who might be about. It was a reasonably smooth landing, the crows seeming to make an extra effort to be careful for their new friend “the esteemed Mr. B.” For his part, Johnathan was quite impressed with the flight overall, and considered his family lucky to have made the crows’ acquaintance, while acknowledging privately that they, especially Jeremy, were a little eccentric, but in ways he found endearing.

Upon their arrival at the house, Johnathan had grown quite emotional at seeing “the old homestead” again, and everyone gave him a moment before they began restoring their front and back entrances. Just being here again immediately and inevitably brought him back to his last “Dragon duty” for the Rats—and his resolve that there’d be no more secrets was reinforced. As they worked on the restoration, Janice and Kory came by, and they were naturally very surprised to see Johnathan. The family gave them “The Story” just as they’d rehearsed it, and their friends seemed content with that. Madeline thanked them for looking after the house and invited them to dinner that evening.

During the course of the day, as the family adjusted to this new living situation, Johnathan had had several moments where he’d suddenly be lost in contemplation, and Madeline had quietly reminded the children to leave him his space and not disturb him unless absolutely necessary.

Eventually one more truth about the Stone and its influence on them came to light. Several times since their reunion, they’d found themselves thinking about the same things and feeling the same emotions, without always realizing that this was what was happening. Realizing there was a possible pattern, they “communed” with the Stone and found that this was another permanent change it had bestowed upon them: beginning with the moment they’d reunited, with their first physical contact after she’d awakened at Gwinthrayle’s home, they now had a strong empathic link, with an increased awareness of what the other was feeling, and to a lesser extent thinking, though never to jarring or disorienting effect. Once they’d established this, Johnathan remarked facetiously that this practically made their “no secrets” vow unnecessary. They knew this signaled one more sign that things wouldn’t be the same as before; but the sense of family unity was very much intact and stronger than ever. To reinforce this point, they had one more free-wheeling play session like the one they’d enjoyed last night, before making preparations for bedtime.

The other amulet-bestowed change had been discussed as well, that of their enhanced healing and recuperative ability. Madeline realized that it must have come into play three times during this spring's crisis: first, during her escape attempt from the birdcage in the Fitzgibbons’ kitchen, when her arm had been slashed by the wire holding its door shut; second, when Jenner had refused to believe her warning about NIMH and viciously swatted her aside, bruising her shoulder; and third, after the Stone’s power generated enough heat to burn her hands. All three injuries healed, in retrospect, more quickly that they would have otherwise; though, in the third case, the salve given her by Mr. Ages had helped tremendously as well. Johnathan remarked that Ages would wish such an ability would have helped him with his broken leg during that same period.

Now, Johnathan stood just outside the front door, gazing up at the stars visible through the treetops and listening to the murmuring creek a few yards away. Other sounds met his ears: two rabbits browsing on the opposite side of the creek, a distant owl’s hoot, an errant breeze causing a rustling of branches above and stirring dead leaves on the ground. He breathed in deep as the breeze reached the spot where he stood.

Madeline presently stole up behind him and pressed up close, arms encircling his chest. He smiled, sighing and reaching over to press her face close to his. They stood thus silently for a minute before he said, “It hardly needs saying, but...I really did miss all of this. In spite of the advantages of living on Lahaikshe, I wouldn’t trade being here again for anything. Although it’ll take some getting used to, having the sun set so early; but it’ll be worth it.” He paused, yawning. "Remember what I said back at Gwinthrayle’s, about jet-lag...”

“That’s right,” Madeline said, “they have longer days there.” She paused with her own yawn and added, “I wonder how he’s doing.”

“I can’t help feeling almost like I’d left him in a lurch, after all he’s done for me...for all of us. But then, we still have the Stone, and he gave us an open invitation, so we can pop in anytime.”

“Yes, and the children are so curious to see this place I’d been for three days, and you for ten months.” Madeline paused, smiling as she recalled their wide-eyed expressions upon hearing the descriptions of some of Lahaikshe’s native creatures, especially the mhys’haspa and the min’hathio. "Do you still think it would be safe enough to take them there? I know, I’m probably worrying unnecessarily. After all, you were there long enough to know.”

“And they’re not little kids anymore. They’ll be full grown before we know it. They’ve already taken on more responsibility than they had when I...left all of you.” Johnathan was momentarily lost in thought; then he went on: “Maddie, I’m so sorry I missed out on such a big part of their childhood. But...you’ve done such a wonderful job with them all by yourself. I’m so proud of them...and you.”

They embraced and kissed lightly, then turned back inside, closing the door. They briefly looked in on the children again, already—apparently—sound asleep, before they moved on to their bedroom. Both were silent as they undressed for bed, thoughts filled with the wonders they'd experienced these past four days—as well as the terrors—and how they’d all resulted in this new order in their lives: much changed from the old, but all for the better.

They both sat on the side of the bed. “Hello, Mrs. Brisby,” said Johnathan, grinning as he placed an arm around her waist.

“Hello, Mr. Brisby,” replied Madeline, smiling radiantly as she placed a hand on the back of his head, leaning over to kiss him. As they embraced, she said dreamily, “The first night together, in our own home again, in our own bed. Just a few days ago, I'd never have believed it.”

“That makes two of us.” They lay back into bed, drawing a single blanket over themselves before settling comfortably into each other’s arms. While this was actually the fourth time they’d shared a bed since their reunion, they both knew this time was truly special, simply because...they were home.

They spent several minutes quietly discussing other things that had been revealed to them, particularly how Ghormfisk’s attempt to save his people had resulted in the amulet coming into their lives, and how his experience compared to the Rats of NIMH’s tribulations; and how Pharsal’s spirit had been directly responsible for the Stone’s power activating at just the right time to save their children. The latter fact had affected them the most profoundly: they wished they could do something to repay him, but his soul-self could not return to the amulet—something Pharsal himself didn’t seem to mind, having appeared to have satisfactorily completed his mission.

“It still bugs me, though,” said Johnathan, stroking his mate’s head, “how so much of all this seems like a string of coincidences. Ghormfisk delivering the Stone into our hands, the big impact it had on both of us; then its sending him and me to Lahaikshe. Maybe it’s all just...fate, destiny. But it also looks as if we’re just...game pieces, subject to the whims of someone or something we can’t perceive, and possibly never will.” He paused, yawning. “I know I said I’d never complain about the Stone again, and all the good it’s done for us. And yet...”

“...Yet those questions are still there. I know, love; I have them, too.” Madeline yawned and nuzzled Johnathan’s shoulder. “But...they don't really worry me. But I guess...you know that, don’t you?”

Johnathan chuckled. “I do indeed. And I’m not worried either.” He kissed her cheek. Already both were adjusting to their newfound emotional rapport as if it were as normal as breathing. But even without it, neither need spell out precisely how they felt; for tomorrow was another day, the first of many they’d spend together, and together they’d face anything that came along. Some things, though, still needed to be said aloud.

“I love you, Johnathan,” Madeline murmured.

“And I love you, Maddie.” Re-settling into each other’s arms, they quickly drifted into sleep.

And within a small bundle, nestled beneath their bed, a certain red stone that had brought them from a strange and beautiful realm also slept...for now.

Epilogue

“Oh, there you are, Gwinthrayle,” said Sithpha as he met his host at the pavilion overlooking the terraced hillside.

“And here I am,” Gwinthrayle replied jovially. “Is your family almost ready for departure?”

“That’s just it. Our little girl, Tuintwom, managed to get away from us while Birantha was giving us his lowdown; you know, what to expect when he takes us away.” He didn’t sound worried, but his concern was plain to see. “I know it’s pretty safe around here, but...you know, none of us know the area very well...”

Gwinthrayle looked at the faces of his other guests, hopeful and anxious. “She does that sometimes,” said Eephray. “Wandering off...”

“She’s really just your average curious child,” said Dinilom.

“No need to explain,” said Gwinthrayle. "But there are areas where one could stumble or fall without the proper caution, so your concerns are well founded. But I will find her; there is little, if anything, that happens here of which I am not aware.” Without another word, he turned and began heading down the terraced hillside.

“He knows these grounds like the back of his hand,” assured Birantha. “I’d expect him back, with your child in tow, almost within the time it takes to say it.”

Gwinthrayle pushed his way in between two hivari bushes, moving further into the deeper vegetation, certain that he’d find the little one he sought at a specific destination, just ahead. Soon, he came upon it: a partial clearing dominated by his prize sivanbri, the best shade tree in his entire compound, the same under which Melvin had spent time in contemplation yesterday. And there, sure enough, was Tuintwom, standing under its canopy, gazing upward in admiration, head turning back and forth, until she heard her host approaching.

She turned, smiling, seeming not at all startled. “Hi, Mr. Gwinthrayle.”

“Hello, little one. I’m glad you enjoy my gardens so much, but...I’m sure your mommy and daddy have told you not to wander off like this.”

She suddenly looked apologetic. “I know. I’m sorry. I just...felt like coming back here. I just love this tree, it’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you, Tuintwom, I'm quite fond of it myself. But they are a little worried about you back at the house, so I believe it best that I escort you back there now. Your family’s ready to leave anytime. You do wish to return home, don’t you?”

Tuintwom sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” Gwinthrayle took her hand and began leading her out of the clearing and back to the main trail.

“I suppose I couldn’t blame you,” he said with a chuckle as they passed through the row of hivari bushes. “Your parents told me they wouldn’t mind staying on a little longer themselves.”

“Yes, I really like it here. And you...have done well in your stewardship of this land.”

“Well, thank you, I—” Suddenly Gwinthrayle was aware of Tuintwom’s abrupt change in voice and demeanor. He turned to look upon her; and almost instinctively, he released her hand, so startling was the sight that greeted his eyes.

She still looked like a Rusay child, but there was an additional, bizarre otherworldliness about her now, as if he were viewing her in more than three dimensions. He could only stare, speechless for nearly half a minute, as this child—and yet, he was already certain, anything but a child—looked up at him, still smiling as before, but with eyes no longer those of a Rusay but now seemingly illumined from within, glowing ice-blue. Somehow he knew: whoever or whatever this was before him now, the word “otherwordly” wouldn’t apply, for this was a being that was as much a part of this world as himself and the little girl it was using as its host.

Once certain of this, Gwinthrayle found enough composure to say, “You have taken control of this child. Why?”

“It...is necessary, for this brief time, to impart to you matters of great importance.” Her voice was still pitched high like a child’s, but with an additional “breezy” quality that seemed in almost perfect harmony with the normal portion. “This child will come to no harm and will be returned whole to her family.”

“I am pleased to hear this. And...how may I address you?”

“You may call me...Elle.”

“Very well...Elle. And you specifically sought my audience?”

“Yes, on matters which very recently involved yourself, and which will likely concern you in days to come.”

For a moment Gwinthrayle was ready to inquire about the “days to come”; then he thought better of it and said, “These recent matters... Do you mean the ones that involved...certain visitors to my home?”

“Those from...other realms, yes. Ghormfisk...Johnathan Brisby, and his life-mate and friends who had come seeking him. Their activities are of great concern to me.”

“But why? You still haven’t told me precisely who and what you are.” In fact he was beginning to get his own ideas about her precise nature—or more accurately, one idea—but it seemed so absurd, the stuff of bedtime tales to entertain children.

“I am...what I have always been,” was Elle's cryptic answer, and somehow Gwinthrayle knew he’d likely get nothing more specific from her; nor that he’d be able to, or need to, attempt to free Tuintwom from her possession—if that was the correct word—for he also believed by now that she would be true to her word and free the girl when she was finished.

“So...my lady...you know of these beings, whom I consider to be friends. How do they concern you, precisely?”

Elle appeared impassive for a moment, with only a child’s faint smile; then she began moving back toward the main trail, with Gwinthrayle following. “You...and they were still faced with...much that was still unknown. Johnathan...believed the changes he and his fellows had imposed upon them responsible for the replication of those changes in his mate. But it was I who had seen to this...personally.”

Gwinthrayle raised an eyebrow. “You, my lady? How?”

Again Elle hesitated before answering, something Gwinthrayle was finding almost familiar, as was the fact that her answer was not a direct reply to his question. “And the Sut’hrim... You knew of their intended fate...”

“Yes, of course. Ghormfisk’s spell would have brought them to Lahaikshe. But instead they...traveled to another dimensional realm." Already he anticipated Elle’s answer: that this was something else she’d seen to personally. He wasn’t disappointed.

“I ensured they would have safe passage; but not to this realm.”

“Then...it was you that diverted them to their new world. But why?”

Another pause; then Elle looked at him squarely. “They were not worthy of making their home in this realm; but...another race may yet prove to be.”

Gwinthrayle’s mind reeled with the implications. Whatever...whoever could she mean? Suddenly many questions, that could answer other matters mysterious, flooded his mind: why did the amulet bring Ghormfisk to Earth? Was it specifically intended to fall into Johnathan’s hands, and later Madeline’s? Did it bring Johnathan to Lahaikshe for a specific purpose?

“There is so much I need to know, Elle, especially if you are the manner of being I suspect you to be. And not only myself, but those others directly affected by...your actions, it would now seem.” By now, they had come upon the main trail that would take them back up the hillside to the house; and Gwinthrayle realized he’d given no thought to the reaction of Tuintwom’s family, were they to see her in this state.

“Answers shall be forthcoming, mage, as they will. But the time is not yet at hand.”

“Then, I must know, my lady, not only for my own sake, but also—”

“Gwinthrayle! Did you find her?”

With a start, he looked up toward the voice’s source: Sithpha, coming down the trail to meet him and...

A strange sensation passed over him: brief, but enough to make his head swim for about five seconds. He shook his head and looked down at the one accompanying him. Tuintwom merely looked up at him, smiling as usual.

“Are you feeling all right, Gwinthrayle?” she asked.

“Yes...yes, of course, little one. It was almost...no, it was nothing. But it was kind of you to ask. Here’s your daddy now, come to take you back.” Tuintwom dashed toward Sithpha, who was already kneeling with arms spread.

“I'm sorry I ran off, Daddy,” she said before Sithpha scooped her up in his arms.

“As long as you’re safe, sweetie.” He kissed her forehead and began carrying her up the hillside, Gwinthrayle at his side. “Thanks for finding her, Gwinthrayle, and...for everything else. I guess I got a little impatient. It just seemed like...it took a little longer for you to find her than Birantha said it would.”

“Perhaps it did, my friend; and you're welcome. We had a very nice chat by the sivanbri.”

“We all liked that spot, didn't we, sweetie?”

As father and daughter chatted, Gwinthrayle thought briefly about how it seemed—almost—that he and Tuintwom had more than just a casual chat; and how, just after Sithpha called out to them, he’d experienced that dizzy spell, something exceedingly rare for him; and how, accompanying it, was the idea—perhaps no more than an odd mental quirk—that his mind had been somewhere else entirely. He dismissed the idea; after all, he remembered their conversation quite clearly: Tuintwom spoke of how much she wanted to be back home and see her friends again, and the games they enjoyed. No, nothing at all unusual.

In short order, the family was all gathered at the pavilion, and Birantha initiated the transport spell that would take them all several klivaphs to the south, to the house of Asortha, the kindly gentleman who was looking after their haisk’ve and carriage. From there, they would take a leisurely ride back home to Timphon.

As the spell began lifting them all aloft, they made their final goodbyes to Gwinthrayle, the family thanking him again for his hospitality. As he and Tuintwom exchanged hand-waves, there was the barest twinge of that feeling again: that there was something in their meeting that he was missing or had forgotten. Again he dismissed it, as the party of six rose above the rolling hills on the edge of his compound, quickly receding into the distance. He watched until they’d disappeared from his sight completely.

He turned to go inside, not displeased by the sudden solitude but aware that this was the first he’d had no guests in his home since before Johnathan’s arrival. Almost accordingly, he began thinking about him, resuming his life with his family and friends, and looked forward to their next visit.