Out of the Mist

By David Leemhuis

Contents

Prologue

Somewhere, on a plain featureless and heavy with mist, a conversation resumed.

“Rollo? How are you feeling?”

There was no reply from the smaller figure, who continued to sit, silently sulking.

“All right, I understand. This hasn’t been easy on either of us.” The tall figure turned and started to walk away.

“Wait. You…you’ve been looking out again, haven’t you, Teacher?”

The tall one sat down beside him. “Yes, I have. I just finished a few minutes ago.”

“Did you…see anything different? Does it look like they’ll come soon?”

“I’m afraid not. They—”

“I knew it!” The small one sighed, placing his head between his knees. “We’re totally helpless. They’ll never get here.”

“Now, Rollo, you know what I’ve told you. I cannot observe anything away from our world. I have tried, believe me, but—”

“Our world? Yours, maybe, or what used to be yours. This is all the world both of us know, or will ever know.”

“Rollo, please. You must believe that this cannot last. Nothing lasts forever, you know.”

“No. I don’t know. You’re always telling me about the world outside, what it’s like out there. What good will any of that knowledge do me if I’ll always be here?”

“Rollo, Rollo…have you so soon forgotten what your two visitors told you?”

“No, I haven’t, and I haven’t forgotten what I did either. I tried to say your name, and look what happened.”

“And that means you should give up trying? You’ve come a long ways since then, whether you realize it or not.”

“How long has it been ‘since then’? Has it been a…a month yet? That’s when they said they’d be back. You understand time better than I do. Has it been a month yet?”

“Well, it…”

“It has been, hasn’t it?”

The tall one sighed. “Yes. It has been. But—”

“I knew it! They’ll never come back.”

“Rollo, listen to me. They promised they’d be back, and I can vouch for the sincerity of at least one of them. When he says he’ll be back, you can believe he will keep his promise.” The tall one’s tone was still patient but ever-so-slightly sterner.

“But why is it taking so long?”

“There may be any number of reasons. I’m sure they’ve been very busy and simply lost track of time. Believe me, Rollo, when they do arrive, you’ll be ready. In fact, I daresay if they were to arrive tomorrow, you’d do beautifully.”

“You really think so?”

“You know I could never lie to or mislead you.”

“Just…scratching in the dirt would be enough, then?”

“Perhaps. But we must keep practicing your verbal abilities as well, just to be absolutely certain. And you must keep in mind all that awaits you as well.”

Rollo sighed. “All right, Teacher. I’ll do my best. I just…I know none of this is your fault, but…to just keep going on and on like this, while you keep telling me it will change soon…I just wish that you could tell me exactly when.”

“My feelings precisely, my young friend. Now, let us resume your lessons.”

Chapter 1 - Anticipation

The midmorning stillness along the forest trail was gradually being interrupted by the sounds of arriving traffic. Though this area had long been, and continued to be, sparsely populated, this trail had, in recent days, seen more traffic than it ever had; and as this latest party of travelers drew ever closer to its destination, excitement grew anew among its younger members.

The mode of transportation was typical for this part of the world. There were two carriages, each carrying one family and drawn by a haisk’ve—a widely domesticated animal not originally indigenous to these parts, vegetarian but powerfully built. To human eyes, they might appear bearlike in overall body shape but with a short coat of russet fur with large beige spots and a head almost lizard-like in overall shape.

“Phoooeeet!” came the shrill whistled command, and with an accompanying flick of the reins from the driver, the lead haisk’ve increased its pace slightly. The other soon followed suit.

Inside the lead carriage, the faster pace drew an immediate response. “We’re almost there, aren’t we, Dad?”

“We sure are. Not out of the forest yet, but once we are, it shouldn’t be too much longer.” Though he was looking forward to reaching their destination as much as his children, he couldn’t help feeling some slight anxiety, which he again tried to dismiss.

“Sithpha! Children! Come out and see, we’re almost out,” came the voice of the one holding the reins. Again there was a response, one even more immediate, as the children scrambled for the front of the carriage to get a good view of what lay ahead, heads bobbing up over their mother’s shoulders and on either side of her. From there, they could see the vegetation flanking the trail thinning out, and already the landscape beyond could be seen.

“Is that it, Mom? Is that the edge?” asked Bointha.

“Yes, it is, dear.”

“What’d you think it was, silly?” said Eephray.

“At ease, buddy,” said Sithpha. “We’re all a bit cranky from all this riding, but it’ll be all over with soon.”

Dinilom glanced over her shoulder to smile at her husband, with whom she’d shared the driving duties since they’d departed their home the day before, along with their friend Pinphila. They and the other family had traveled almost nonstop since, the only pause of real length being an overnight one, when both carriages had spent the night in a trailside clearing. Now, both families were very much astir, their interest in the outcome of this trip renewed by its imminent finish.

“Get ready to shield your eyes, everyone,” said Dinilom, who carried the youngest, Gwinthri, on her lap. Abruptly, the forest canopy seemed to fall away as they emerged into this radically different environment which the children greeted with open-mouthed disbelief, for all their parents had prepared them for it. Dinilom gave the reins a tug, bringing the haisk’ve to a full stop. The other carriage pulled up alongside them and stopped, and the two families exchanged small greetings and thankfulness for the near-end of their journey; then, with everyone shielding eyes from the sunlight, they gazed back and forth, scanning from horizon to horizon what lay before them.

It was a broad, almost-entirely flat and nearly featureless and arid-looking rust-colored plain which now welcomed them. The edge of the forest stretched away to the left; and as they gazed slowly across the horizon to the right, low hills could be seen, then more forest, joining with the forest’s edge on the right. Their greatest concern, though, was with what lay almost directly in front, still a good half hour’s ride away: a large plateau, or what appeared as such from this vantage point, rising abruptly from the plain, as if it had just fallen from the sky one day—an impression that had more than a ring of truth about it.

“Well, Morobphra,” called Sithpha towards the other carriage, “is everyone over there ready?”

“When you are.”

“Let’s roll, then.” With that, both Dinilom and Morobphra spurred the haisk’ves into motion.

“Are you sure that’s it, Dad?” asked Eephray.

“It sure doesn’t look like much from here,” concurred Tuintwom.

“Well, unless we got our directions completely messed up, that’s it dead ahead.” Sithpha turned to Pinphila, grinning. “Just kidding, buddy.”

“Next time I’ll be sure to lead us straight into Thaveras Gorge,” Pinphila retorted, taking Sithpha’s barb in stride.

Gwinthri was more concerned with their more immediate surroundings. “Daddy, where’d all the trees go?”

“They just don’t grow too well in this kind of ground, sweetie,” replied Sithpha. Indeed, no one was quite sure why landforms like this existed in the world, with fertile land abruptly giving way to virtual deserts. There was some plant life here; most noticeable were the scattered scrubby, stunted, windblown trees that looked barely alive, most growing singly.

As everyone else discussed what they were expecting from this trip, or what they knew of their destination and its inhabitants, Sithpha thought again of his own experiences with some of those inhabitants. Again he felt a small amount of anxiety, which he knew was related to the prospect of seeing them again. But why? He and his family had become good friends with them in the brief time they’d spent together, over two years past, at the home of their sorcerer-friend Gwinthrayle; and so they’d jumped at the chance of again seeing not only them, but their entire community as well. But there were other experiences that still pained him to remember, that were associated with that first meeting. None of them were the fault of his new friends, and he was sure that whatever unpleasant memories he still retained from those days, they would not affect his enjoyment of this visit. After all, he was genuinely looking forward to this reunion; and, though the planning for this cultural exchange had already triggered memories that he’d rather have left behind forever, they hadn’t stopped him from moving forward with the trip, which he was positive would be nothing but life-enriching.

The small caravan rolled on; and though the sun shone quite brightly out here, it wasn’t significantly hotter either. The closer they approached the “plateau”, the more they could see how much it appeared to be part of the surrounding landscape, in spite of how out of place it appeared at first, and actually did still.

“It’s just like you described it, Pinphila,” observed Dinilom. “The outside looks just like the rock surrounding it, and they even seem like they’re part of each other, like the whole thing sprang up out of the ground.”

Sithpha stared at the place. “…sprang up out of the…” He found that his wife’s words, though casually spoken, triggered some uneasiness in him. He closed his eyes, shaking his head. Get ahold of yourself, man. You were told about this, you expected it.

“Sithpha? What’s wrong?”

“Uh…nothing, Dini. I’m all right. I knew what to expect, but…this is reminding me of so much, good and bad. But don’t worry, I knew from the start this might happen. This is all going to work out fine, you’ll see.”

The carriages advanced slowly, too slowly for some of the children, since they could continually see their destination, standing out so prominently on this flat, otherwise near-featureless plain, but it always seemed too far out of reach. Soon, though, they were approaching the point where the ground—really mostly-bare rock—began to ever so slightly curve upward. By now Sithpha found that what uneasiness he’d felt was significantly reduced, as they all noticed what appeared to be large windows in the wall, through which daylight could be seen. It increased everyone’s curiosity to see what lay within, and apparently it was mutual: small figures were visible at the windows, waving arms in greeting, some with light-colored cloths in their hands. Their visitors waved back eagerly.

As they drew closer, they all looked up, marveling at the sheer rock walls, anticipating all the more their first look at what lay within. Pinphila and his friend Dornphinsal—who accompanied Morobphra’s family in the other carriage—had told them it was like a whole different world, though they hadn’t elaborated too far, not wanting to spoil the surprise. Of course, Sithpha and his family knew well that it was literally true.

As the carriages drew to within about a hundred thilm of the plateau’s base, they began concentrating on seeking a way in, since it was not immediately obvious. Knowing they were assured of there being an easily-accessible entrance, they directed the haisk’ves to circle the place until it came into view.

“Mom! Dad! There it is! Do you see it?” shouted Eephray. They all did. “It” was actually “them,” two features that stood out prominently. The first was an unexpectedly even- and smooth-sided chamber, set into the side of the bluff, raised slightly above plain level. The garage, Pinphila had called it, the space designed for the express purpose of storing their carriages. On closer approach, they could see it was indeed wide enough for both of them, side by side. The second was the covered ramp that traveled up the side of the bluff, which would take them to their destination, the entrance of which was nearby. Due to the bluff’s roughly-circular shape, the top of the ramp couldn’t yet be seen, but it was still an impressive sight.

Both drivers gave the haisk’ves slight tugs on their reins. As they drew nearer at a slowed pace, they briefly wondered if anyone was going to meet them there, since no one was immediately visible.

Then, two figures emerged from the garage, waving in greeting; two whose physical appearances contrasted greatly from their visitors’ slim, graceful build and smooth, light blue skins…but also were notably different from each other. Though all in the party were prepared, the sight of these two drew many fascinated stares, though not at all apprehensive, including those from Morobphra and his family, who were the only ones who hadn’t seen these people before. Sithpha’s earlier anxieties were all but left behind now as he recognized his two old friends. He was more certain than ever that nothing would spoil this reunion.

The two greeters were different in size but shared many common characteristics. The bodies of both were covered in brown or grey fur; had faces with elongated snouts with longer and thicker hairs on either side, prominent ears and front teeth, and long, thin, nearly hairless tails; and bodies that overall seemed better suited to quadrupedal locomotion, yet they seemed to have no difficulty with walking upright. The larger one wore a brown and white tunic, and the smaller one was dressed similarly, though his garment was fashioned much like the ones Sithpha and the other male visitors wore—a sight pleasantly familiar to Sithpha and family, since it was one of the vests he’d taken to wearing during his previous stay on this world, styled like that of his own people. Both now came forward as both carriages came to a complete stop.

“Greetings, one and all,” the tall one said cheerily, with arms spread. “My name is Justin, for those of you who don’t know me.”

“And I’m Johnathan Brisby. Welcome to our home.” Sithpha and Morobphra and their families were already disembarking, and once everyone was out, Pinphila and Dornphinsal began unhitching the haisk’ves from the carriages after greeting Justin and Johnathan. Outside, the introductions and reintroductions continued as the two drivers/guides unloaded the two families’ bags.

Sithpha came forward first, grinning broadly. “Wow. It’s sure been a long time, Justin…Johnathan. You guys haven’t changed a bit.” He and Dinilom embraced each of them, followed by their three oldest children, who greeted the pair like favorite uncles. The fourth was a little more shy; her mother scooped her up and introduced her as Gwinthri. Her parents introduced Morobphra and his family, none of whom could hide their fascination for their hosts’ appearances, especially the children.

“You have lots of hair, like a haisk’ve,” observed Gwinthri, staring round-eyed at Justin as her mother held her.

“Gwinthri! That’s not polite,” said Sithpha.

“It’s all right,” said Justin. “It’s all part of learning about each other, and that’s what this visit’s all about.” He allowed Gwinthri to reach out and touch his arm, and explained how he and Johnathan represented the two races living here, Rat and Mouse respectively.

With introductions done, Justin said, “Well, there’s no reason to stay here much longer. We’ll leave the carriages parked down here, and the haisk’ves can come upstairs with us, bringing your bags with them.” This had become the regular practice in previous visits. The two animals rested in a crouch, waiting patiently as Pinphila and Dornphinsal secured the bags across their backs with netting. The same two animals had been employed on previous trips and seemed to anticipate what would follow.

As Justin and Johnathan led their guests toward the ramp entrance, Sithpha noticed something that had escaped his attention in the midst of their reunion—something hanging from around Johnathan’s neck. “Johnathan, that…that pendant you’re wearing, with the red jewel… It’s the one from…from before, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Sithpha. And it’s at work right now, too, enabling us to communicate like before. There’s a lot more to tell about it, and us, but right now let’s get upstairs and get everyone situated.”

Pinphila and Dornphinsal had just finished pushing the carriages into the garage, and now led the haisk’ves at the rear of the group making their way up the ramp that spiraled up the side of the mount. It was a completely enclosed tunnel, some four feet wide and four tall, with several windows to provide daylight. The pathway wasn’t at a uniform incline all the way, but instead alternated between inclined and level, to give climbers plenty of chances to rest where it was level and overall make for a less tiring climb. Some of the children began charging up the ramp ahead of the others, and their parents told them to slow down and not stray out of sight.

On the way, Justin and Johnathan discussed the previous cultural exchanges conducted over the past two months. The first one was precipitated when two curious Rusay—the dominant race of this world, Lahaikshe—made their way here one morning a few days after its sudden appearance there, where they were quickly noticed by two of their sentries. “That was before the Wall was made, and the ramp under our feet,” Johnathan remarked. The pair’s arrival also precipitated the creation of the Wall, a project given top priority after one of the sentries, Darwin, took an unexpected spill while standing too close to the plateau’s raw edge, which was susceptible to soil giving way. Johnathan used the amulet to bring Darwin and the two natives “upstairs,” and over the next three days the two Rusay were treated as honored guests. Their hosts explained how the inhabitants of this land had all come from far away, and, after some of them had previously spent some time on Lahaikshe and taken quite a liking to it, hoped to be able to make their home here permanently, assuring their guests they meant no harm to them or anyone else. The pair was so impressed by their hosts’ hospitality and generosity that they invited some of the “colonists” to come back with them and spend some time in their home community of Timphon. It seemed only logical, and paralleled their own plans; since, if they intended to make this world their permanent home, getting to know the natives was essential, even though they were rather isolated geographically. In their native world, they felt compelled to stay hidden from the dominant race, humans, believing that, by and large, they wouldn’t be accepted as they are, despite their being equal in intelligence. The main problem was that humans are so much larger in size and had held sway over their world for many millennia, whereas these creatures had only been in existence in their present form for a few years, the product of human experimentation that had succeeded too well, and would therefore be considered unnatural and be subject to fear and suspicion. But on this world there would be no such preconceptions; and with the Rusay being equal in stature, it would be much easier to go out and meet them as equals. This had already been done, in fact, during those previous visits Johnathan and others had made to Lahaikshe, but it had been on a very limited basis. Since their arrival, the council had agreed that more extensive visits could and should be arranged, which were hoped to become true cultural exchanges.

This hope had since been borne out. The first two visitors were, of course, Pinphila and Dornphinsal, who returned to Timphon, bringing a Rat family with them. They returned to the colony with a report of a highly enlightening and informative visit, one which made it seem more certain than ever that these Rats and Mice would be welcome here. Subsequent exchanges quickly graduated from a few individuals staying a few days to the present one, with two entire families staying two to three weeks. Pinphila and Dornphinsal had, all the while, been serving as drivers/guides for these exchanges, shuttling Rusay and “colonists” alike back and forth; and would be doing the same with the latest party, which was set to leave shortly after this group’s arrival.

Following this explanation, Sithpha came up to Johnathan to talk privately. “Johnathan, there’s something I need to know right now. Was…all this created by the Stone, the Wall and everything surrounding your land, just like it did with…the prison Ghormfisk created?”

“Yes, it did. I hope that doesn’t upset you too much. I knew it might bring back some painful memories for you.” He fingered the pendant that lay against his breast, in which was set the object commonly referred to as simply “the Stone.”

“Well, it kind of did, a little. But I guess I’ve pretty much dealt with it already. In fact, I guessed on the way over here that’s probably how it was done. It’s good that you were able to use it for something that’ll benefit everyone.”

“As long as my wife and I are in charge of it, that’s the only way it’ll ever be used.”

“Great. How is she, anyway? Mrs. Brisby?”

“She’s fine. She’s really looking forward to seeing all of you again.” Johnathan made to add something else, but the conversation was interrupted by some of the children’s entreaties for a lift so they could see out the window. By now they were almost halfway up the ramp, and they paused on a level section, where Sithpha, Morobphra, and Justin obliged the childrens’ request, allowing them to see across the plain to the low hills on the horizon, a view which impressed them very much.

“When we get all the way inside,” said Johnathan, “You’ll be able to look from the top of the Wall, and it’s an even better view from up there.” They all resumed the climb.

Finally they could see the light at the end of the tunnel; not directly, but visible from where it made a left turn a few more feet ahead. All hastened their paces slightly, and Justin took the lead. “In our old world,” he explained, “we didn’t have a real name for our community; generally, we simply called it The Colony. But now that we’re here, and a true part of this world, and especially since we’re not hiding anymore, we thought it only fitting and proper that we give ourselves a more proper name. And so…”

He led everyone around the bend, where everyone could see the tunnel finally giving way to open space. They all gathered underneath the arch, viewing the scene before them—in the case of the newest guests, with wide-eyed disbelief at the vista.

“Friends…welcome to Freethorn.”

Chapter 2 - Coming to Freethorn

They all stood on a ledge from which a panoramic view of the entire colony could be seen. Freethorn was roughly circular, entirely enclosed by the rock wall which, from the outside, gave virtually no hint as to what lay within. On the west side lay a good-sized lake. On the east side, the rock wall was lined with windows and appeared different in color and texture from the rest of the Wall. There was much vegetation, which not only was strange in appearance to the visitors’ eyes, but seemed oddly proportioned as well, as if most of it were too large. On the south side, directly opposite them, another entrance arch like the one they stood under could be seen through the foliage. At ground level, about two feet below, a sizable crowd had gathered, others like Justin and Johnathan, many waving and calling out in greeting.

It was completely unlike anything the Rusay visitors had ever seen before, as if they had suddenly entered a completely different and alien world, and all were gaping, speechless. Of course this initial impression was quite accurate; and as with past exchange parties, Johnathan and Justin were reminded of their own reactions when each had his first look at Lahaikshe. They now led their guests down another short ramp to ground level, Pinphila and Dornphinsal still leading the haisk’ves.

As they made their way down the short incline, Sithpha again sidled up to Johnathan. “It really did all of this, didn’t it, Johnathan? The Stone! It brought all of you here, and all this land, too, and made the Wall!”

“That it did, Sithpha, and a lot more. You’ll all get the full lowdown later. Right now, let’s meet your new temporary neighbors.”

The size of today’s welcoming committee was a little larger than usual; knowing who would be in this latest group, many were curious to meet the Rusay family who had befriended and shared an adventure with the party that had traveled to Lahaikshe over two years ago to bring Johnathan home. Likewise, Sithpha and Dinilom quickly recognized some familiar faces.

“Hey, Sithpha!” called out one Rat, arms spread in greeting. “Remember me? Willis?”

“Sure do. How’ve you been, old buddy?” The two gave each other a big hug, and then Dinilom and their children greeted him likewise.

“And now…this gorgeous creature is my wife Sabrina.”

“Hello, Sithpha…Dinilom.” Sabrina clasped both their hands. “Willis has told us so much about you. Welcome to Freethorn.” More quietly, she added, “Willis wanted to call it ‘Son of Thorn Valley’.” She rolled her eyes, smiling, as Willis chortled to himself.

Sithpha looked puzzled and was about to say “I don’t get it,” but then both Rats introduced their children: Fergus, Rico, Marlene, and Tori. The last two were still just babies, three months old now; and though they and their brothers were by now accustomed to their Rusay visitors, they were all round-eyed with fascination for them, especially since there were children in this latest party.

“Oh, look, Sithpha!” called Dinilom, pointing. “Here’s Melvin and his family!”

“Great to see you again, Mel! How’re you doin’?” Sithpha and Dinilom greeted Melvin and Judith eagerly. Unlike the others in that first party that came to Lahaikshe over two years ago, this was actually the third time Melvin had met the Rusay family, since he, Judith and their six children—Spencer, Mia, Cecilia, Kyle, Ford and Hollis—formed the very first exchange party from Freethorn two months ago. While in Timphon, the Rat family had dropped in on their old acquaintances and invited and encouraged them to sign up for a future visit to their old-but-new home on Lahaikshe.

Morobphra and his family—wife Miatati, sons Iadorpha and Thamayle, daughters Tisphi and Duphinss—were also meeting their new neighbors. None could resist reaching out to touch each other, to compare skin texture, especially the children. Their differences in clothing were noted as well. The male Freethorners wore mostly long tunics or vests together with shirts, both long- and short-sleeved, and the females wore dresses of varying lengths, or skirt-and-blouse sets, or simple robes tied about the waist. The Rusay were firm believers in dressing for the weather, favoring clothing that left arms, legs and midriffs bare: the males in short trousers and vests tied at the bottom; the females in vests styled more like halters, and either short trousers or skirts; and all wearing footwear that looked like fairly simple sandals but were well-designed for extended walking. The Rusay in this part of Vitrono, the continent on which they lived, were widely noted for their expertise in making footwear that was both comfortable and functional.

Presently Justin’s wife Isabella and their children Ferdinand, Greta, and Mina joined the welcoming party, helping to introduce their guests to more of their temporary neighbors. Some of the Rat children were already making plans for activities they and their young guests could share later, some even now initiating them in games, which they took to with curiosity and eagerness. These feelings were fully shared by their parents; indeed, throughout these initial get-acquainted meetings, there was utterly no sense of reluctance among the Rusay visitors, once more affirming what the Freethorners had known for some time now: of the high degree with which the Rusay were unthreatened by and accepting of people unlike them in appearance, with next to no xenophobic tendencies.

They were now hearing how the newest residents of Freethorn, all Mice, were found and brought here by use of the amulet, and they were also meeting some of them: Patricia and Kimball Davis, some of their children and grandchildren, and others who were the children of the now-deceased Vincent. Among them was one family who had much in common with the Rusay visitors: Patricia and Kimball’s oldest son Norman, and his children Martha, Carla, Lisa, and Todd. They, along with a Rat family, were the ones who would be departing later today for the Rusay town from which the visitors came. The visitors were naturally curious about Kimball’s missing leg, and he was forthcoming about telling him that a dangerous animal was responsible, adding that creatures of that sort was part of why they were thankful to be living here on Lahaikshe now, where there were none such.

The two haisk’ves were quite aware that these were completely different surroundings, gazing upward quizzically at the tall grasses and weeds, smelling them and sampling a nibble here and there. They were still being attended by Pinphila and Dornphinsal, who had already unloaded the visitors’ baggage from the animals’ backs and would keep an eye on them until it was time to leave. These two had been employed on most of the previous trips and so were familiar with these alien surroundings, and likewise most Freethorners had been acquainted with them too. Those that hadn’t were encouraged to come forward and meet them, assured they were friendly and docile.

The Rusay were equally amazed at the differences with their native foliage. They’d already gotten the impression that everything was oversized, and Willis explained that this was very much the case, that on their native world, all plant and animal life was proportioned differently. Even the smaller plants here were analogous to the tsuraph, minphiss, and other plants that grew small and low to the ground on the “outside.” They were told more about the local plant life, in particular the ones grown and cultivated especially for food in Freethorn’s garden areas. Some of them yielded edible portions that the Rusay would find enormous, like corn, tomatoes and celery. They were also told of the measures necessary after their arrival here, to ensure they could continue to successfully grow food.

“…and then Gwinthrayle got that spell underway; and so now, nothing that grows here will grow in native Lahaikshe soil, and vice versa.”

“Uh-huh. Was it really that necessary, though, Johnathan?”

“Well, you see, Sithpha, sometimes on Earth humans would introduce plant and animal species to other parts of the world that they’re not native to, and sometimes they can really disrupt things, throw the whole local ecosystem for a loop, even overrun the place.”

“In the parts we came from,” added Willis, “there’s a vine like that, called kudzu. We never got it in Thorn Valley, but…”

Willis was interrupted by the appearance of several other Mice, approaching them from further up the nearby trail and calling out greetings. Sithpha’s expression brightened at the sight of the one at the head of the group.

“To those of you who haven’t met her,” said Johnathan, “I’d like you all to meet my lovely wife Madeline. Maddie, I know you remember Sithpha and Dinilom and their kids…”

Madeline Brisby, wearing her favorite pale green dress, smiled radiantly, arms spread wide in greeting. “Oh, I certainly do. It’s wonderful seeing all of you again.”

Sithpha was already on his knees, ready to give her a big hug. “Mrs. Brisby—I mean Madeline. I sure can’t forget how kind you were to me, when…all that rough stuff happened,” he said as they embraced.

“It was an awful experience for us all, but so much good came out of it.” They smiled with great affection at each other as they came out of their embrace. Madeline greeted Dinilom and their children with equal affection, surprised and pleased to find that there was a new addition to the family.

Both Rusay families and the others in the Mouse group were introduced to each other. In the latter were the Brisby children: the four older ones, Martin, Teresa, Cynthia, and Timothy, and their younger siblings Shawna, Lyndon, Vanessa, and Kirk; Teresa’s young sons Tyler and Eric Jr.; their family friend Sarah; and three more of Patricia and Kimball’s children: Karen, who was married to Martin, Michael, and Lucy.

Shortly they prepared to show the visitors to the guest quarters, so several in the ever-growing welcoming party picked up the two families’ bags. As they set off, Pinphila and Dornphinsal stayed to keep an eye on the haisk’ves until it was time for the returning exchange party to leave.

As she walked alongside Sithpha and Dinilom, Madeline said, “So Gwinthri was born after we saw you last.” She looked up at the little Rusay girl riding on her father’s shoulders and sucking her thumb, surveying her surroundings. Her eyes met those of Mina, riding on her father Justin’s shoulders, and the two waved and smiled at each other, giggling.

“That’s right,” said Dinilom. “I guess you could call her our little love child.”

“Well, all of them were, really,” said Sithpha, looking over to Eephray, Tuintwom and Bointha, smiling. “But you know how it is.” Madeline thought he sounded almost embarrassed. “We were so happy to be home and safe again after everything that happened, and, well…”

“Oh, yes, we do know. That’s how it was with Johnathan and me, when we were back together. And a few weeks later, along came Shawna and Lyndon, and later Vanessa and Kirk. Ah…her name’s a lot like Gwinthrayle…”

“We were going to name her after him, if she’d been a boy, but since she’s a girl, we called her Gwinthri. After all he did for us, we had to honor him in some way that was lasting and would always remind us of him, after all that business with Ghormfisk.”

“Ah, yes, Ghormfisk…” said Justin. “Some of us were still a little bitter about him and what he’d done to us.” He glanced over to Melvin, who only nodded in agreement.

“I can’t blame you guys, Justin. But we’d seen the other side of him, Dini and the kids and me, while he was staying with us. We still think about those times, and you might think it sounds funny, but that’s what we concentrate on if we think about him at all. We were actually glad to learn that it really wasn’t his fault.”

They all knew the story well, how Ghormfisk had been the last hope for the remnants of his people, the Sut’hrim, on their dying extradimensional world, Ihrvass; but the sorcerous powers he employed to bring them all to a new one where they could thrive—which happened to be Lahaikshe—had gone awry, sending them all to what he’d believed to be their deaths. The resulting psychological trauma caused him to develop a second personality, Uhrstegg, one dedicated to making mischief and creating chaos. He migrated to Lahaikshe and deceived his way into taking control of the Stone, the red amulet, an object of great power, by impersonating the Rusay sorcerer Gwinthrayle and purloining it from his fellow sorcerer Birantha. This led to his coming to Earth and becoming involved with Johnathan Brisby and the Rats of NIMH. His ambitions shifted and his mind alternated between the two personas during this period, but his stay there ended with his return to Lahaikshe, sent there by the Stone. With him went Johnathan, for reasons still unclear to him and his family, leaving everyone to believe him dead. While on Lahaikshe, Johnathan was taken in by Gwinthrayle as a houseguest. Ghormfisk’s personas continued to switch back and forth, and during an extended period when the more docile one was in control Sithpha’s family took him in as their own guest. When the search party led by Madeline made the extradimensional jump to seek out Johnathan, Uhrstegg took charge and ensorcelled Sithpha into leading the party to him, whereupon he retook the Stone and used its rock-shaping capability to entrap the search party. They were rescued by Gwinthrayle, Johnathan was happily reunited with his wife and friends, and Uhrstegg was confronted and the Stone retaken. Gwinthrayle was able to heal Ghormfisk’s mind of its dual personalities, and after he told his story some important truths were revealed: the soul-self of the Stone’s creator, Pharsal, had been residing within the Stone, directing some of its actions from within; and Ghormfisk’s people were alive and well after having been redirected—exactly how remaining a mystery—to another extradimensional world, where they had since thrived. Though still troubled by the memories of his actions, Ghormfisk had little other choice but to rejoin his people, so Johnathan sent him to “New Ihrvass” via the Stone, and he and his wife and friends were free to return home.

“We’ve always wondered how he’s done since then,” said Dinilom. “Have you found out anything, Johnathan?”

“I’m glad you asked. We’ve used the Stone to look in on him from time to time, and he appears to be doing quite well. He’s married now with a family, and appears to have given up using magic, just as he said he would.”

“That’s great, Johnathan,” said Sithpha. Their children were pleased to hear it as well, since they’d all seen Ghormfisk’s gentler side, having remembered him best this way. “But have you actually visited him there?”

“We’d considered it, off and on, but we’ve always concluded that it’d be better to just leave him be.”

“Yes,” agreed Madeline. “He’s happy where he is now, and we think seeing us again might be troubling for him, and that he’d rather leave the past behind completely.”

“You’re probably right,” agreed Sithpha. “And we don’t know how his people would react to others not like them. ’Course, there’d be only one way to find out.”

Johnathan chuckled. “That’s true. You know, Sithpha…there’s something I was going to mention before: you seem…well, a bit more worldly now. Less of a…well…”

Sithpha laughed. “Less of a country bumpkin, eh? Well, you’re right. After all I learned from you, your coming from another world, and Ghormfisk too, I realized I wasn’t content to just be concerned with my own small corner of the world, and how little I knew of the rest of the world; and that’s just this world, too, never mind all those others that are out there. So I set out to learn all I could; both of us did, really, learning alongside our kids. We read every book we could lay our hands on, and did a lot more traveling, too, as much as we were able.”

“That’s great, Sithpha. It’s always important to never stop learning.”

“That’s something we all know well,” added Justin, “considering that we’ve only been around, in our present form, for a few years.”

“That still seems so strange, all that you’ve told us about that,” observed Sithpha. “But we’ve all seen for ourselves what you’re like, the kind of people you are, so that’s good enough for us.” Dinilom and their older children voiced their agreement.

“We heard plenty about you before we signed on,” added Morobphra. “And we knew Sithpha and Dinilom had a lot of experience with you all already. If they vouch for you, that’s just as good for us too.”

“Thanks, all of you,” said Justin. “We really appreciate that. But we definitely aren’t like most rats and mice on Earth. In fact, none of them are like us now, because we’ve managed to gather together here all those that are. And since then, we’ve continued to learn and grow, in a lot of ways.”

“You can say that again, Justin,” said Karen with a laugh, patting her abdomen, swelled beneath her maternity top.

“She’s due to deliver any day now,” added Madeline. “That’s what Mr. Ages said, didn’t he, Karen?”

“That’s right.” Karen looked over fondly to Martin, who rubbed noses with her.

“We didn’t know you were having a baby, dear,” said Dinilom. “I guess we still need to recognize that in your people.”

“That’s okay. And actually, I’m probably carrying two.”

“Twins! Really?”

“Uh-huh. That’s the way it is with us.”

“Twins are actually the norm around here,” explained Johnathan. “Maddie and I have had four sets of them, believe it or not.”

By now the group was passing by the Mouse community, and Johnathan explained how the amulet was used for most of the digging and reshaping here, as well, adding that they’d come to the guest quarters soon, and that the amulet was used there, too. They continued their explanation of their birthrates, how all of the Original 22—the group that escaped NIMH long ago—quickly found twins to be the norm when they began having children, though there was the occasional single birth and a few sets of triplets, as well. Justin and Isabella, for example, had one set of twins and a single—so far.

“Well, here it is,” announced Justin after he handed Mina over to Isabella, “your home-away-from-home for the next two weeks. It’s gotten rave reviews from our previous guests, so we’re sure you’ll be pleased with it too.” At first glance, the guest quarters appeared to be a free-standing structure alongside the rock wall, but upon closer examination it could be seen to have been “grown” from the rock, as Johnathan mentioned. The walls were of solid stone, two stories high with a flat roof, and even had thick plate-glass windows. “We made it like this because we thought you’d feel more at home in a house out in the open than in guest quarters within our colonies, which are almost completely underground.”

He and Johnathan led the Rusay families inside, showing how there were two separate apartments, one for each family, upstairs and down. “Take all the time you need in getting settled,” said Johnathan, “and as soon as you’re ready, we’ll give you the full guided tour.”

After the two families made their choices—Sithpha’s family upstairs, Morobphra’s down—they began unpacking. As they did, Sithpha took Johnathan and Madeline aside, admitting that he’d felt a bit hesitant about staying here, knowing of the Stone’s use in its creation, but feeling certain it wouldn’t trouble him now. Madeline told him of similar misgivings she’d had over the idea of their home here being created the same way—which in the end it wasn’t—and how she’d rationalized the same way, that this capability of the Stone was being used in positive ways.

With everyone moved in, all agreed to get the tour underway, since none felt especially tired from that morning’s short stretch of travel, and all were eager to see more. It began with the Rats’ community, where the visitors were shown living quarters, manufacturing and food storage areas, spaces for dining and recreation, the amphitheater-shaped main assembly hall which doubled as the usual chamber for council meetings, and more. Throughout the tour, the Rusay visitors met more of the Rats, though of course they wouldn’t be able to put everyone’s names to faces right away. They were amazed at the architecture of the place, with its confusing-seeming maze of corridors, and at the fact that such an elaborate community had been set up underground. Justin explained how it was all related to the fact that natural rats and mice live either underground or otherwise hidden from sight, and that this tendency simply carried over from that. Although, he pointed out further, that since they’d lived in Thorn Valley, and even more so since moving to Lahaikshe, their lifestyles had changed considerably, marked by much more time spent above ground in broad daylight.

This part of the tour concluded with everyone being treated to lunch at the dining hall, where the Rusay visitors had their first experience with Earth food.

Chapter 3 - Unexpected meetings

After lunch, the tour resumed with the visitors being shown all around the exterior, including the garden areas, Lake Nicodemus, Oak Park and other areas set aside for recreation, the ground-level observation posts that they’d seen from the outside, and the Mouse community. Shortly afterward, it was time for the exchange party from Freethorn to leave, and their just-arrived Rusay counterparts were among the group gathered at the north entrance to see them off. Pinphila and Dornphinsal had finished loading the party’s baggage on the haisk’ves’ backs and now were bidding them farewell, reminding them that they would return in around fifteen days; then they led the haisk’ves down the ramp to ready them and the carriages for the return trip. There were many goodbyes for Norman Davis and his family, and for the Rat family—Jordan (Isabella’s twin brother), Portia and their children Lena, Alison, Doris, and Conrad. Among the well-wishers was one who took Norman aside to say goodbye in private, out of sight of the others behind a nearby tree.

“Teresa,” said Norman as they sat on a round stone together, “you’ve really done a lot for us; getting us prepared for this trip and everything, the bits of advice. It’s really going to help us a lot.”

“It was my pleasure, Norman, thank you. That’s nice of you to say. I’m…really going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too. You know, I…really don’t quite know how to say this, but…well, since Vera died, I’ve wondered if would ever feel as strongly for anyone again, and…since I met you, I’ve really begun to think that…”

“Daddy!” called out Carla from the opposite side of the tree. “You almost done? We’re all ready to roll out here!”

Norman laughed. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good time after all.”

“We’ll definitely talk later, after you all get back, won’t we?”

“Count on it. Now, you take good care of those two little ankle-nippers of yours, won’t you?”

Teresa laughed. “Always. And all of you have a good time out there, but be careful, too.” They gave each other a goodbye hug and returned to where the rest of the party waited.

All of the Davis clan was now present. “’Bout time, big bro,” said Bertie with a grin and a wink.

“Down, boy,” said Lucy.

“Be sure to take plenty of notes,” said Jessica, Norman’s twin sister. “We wouldn’t want you to miss any details.”

Norman rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mother.”

“Even if you don’t see anything as exotic as the place where Martin and I had our little honeymoon retreat,” said Karen. “They say Timphon’s a pretty ordinary place, as Lahaikshean towns go.”

“Well, it’ll all be new to us, so…”

“Hey, look who decided to join us,” said Bertie. Everyone turned to see three more mice approach: Boris, one of Vincent’s children, and his wife Seelah had been expected to show up, but the presence of the one accompanying them prompted a few raised eyebrows. It was Boris’s half-sister Lilia, shading her eyes and squinting against the bright light, but looking pleased at seeing everyone.

“Without her shadow, no less,” added Bertie under his breath.

Ellis nudged him in the ribs. “Let’s not make a big scene about her being here.” He and most of the others, though, wondered what measures had to be taken to get her away from Reuben for a while, knowing well how protective her twin brother was of her, in spite of how unnecessary it was here.

“I agree,” said Timothy quietly. “I’ll bet this is a sign that things are improving for them.”

Boris and Seelah greeted the departing group effusively, wishing them a fun-filled and educational trip; and Lilia, predictably, said little, but didn’t seem reluctant or to have been coerced into coming. Rather, she looked as cheerful as she did upon her and Reuben’s arrival in Freethorn, smiling and waving to everyone. And again, as on that day, she seemed especially pleased to see Ellis, seemingly reserving her most audible greeting for him, which he returned, adding that it was nice to see her. She again replied only with a smile, and continued to glance his way over the next few minutes as farewells and well-wishings continued. No doubt, something was mutual here, thought Ellis; but what? He couldn’t drive the matter away, as he watched her meet the Rusay visitors. There was mutual fascination there, too, since her snow-white coat was unique among the citizens of Freethorn. Ellis wondered if now would be a good time to simply ask her to spend some private time, once they’d seen off the exchange party.

The Rusay visitors gave the departing group some more bits of advice; and soon, the two families were on their way down the ramp to the awaiting carriages. Most of the group, including the Rusay, went to the nearest observation post, or else opted to climb to the Rooftop—actually the top ridge of the New Wall—to watch the carriages’ departure across the plain. Sithpha began taking notes with the pen and pad he’d brought, saying that he would try to record his impressions of their stay as much as he could. Thinking she should avoid direct sunlight, Lilia opted to watch the departure from the observation post with her friends, which she did quietly but eagerly.

Many watched until the carriages were mostly out of sight, though most had other duties to return to before then. When they were finished watching, Lilia said quietly to Boris and Seelah as they were leaving the observation post, “I wish…I could go out there too, sometime.” She sighed.

“Well, there’s no good reason why not,” said Boris, noting the tone of resignation in her voice. “Johnathan says we should all get a turn eventually.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’ll…ever happen…”

“Why not?” asked Seelah. “You shouldn’t have to worry about—”

“Lilia! There you are!” Approaching them was Reuben, to little surprise from anyone present. “You shouldn’t be out here like this, in all this sunlight! You know it’s not good for you!”

“She hasn’t been out here that long, Reuben,” said Boris. “She’s all right.”

“How do you know that? I know what’s good for her better than anyone!”

“Reuben,” Boris said patiently, “we’re not your enemies. I’m your brother, in fact, and hers, in case you’d forgotten. All right, half-brother, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all the same. We’re all family, and we all want what’s best for each other.”

“That’s right,” added Lucy. “Stop being such an old stick in the mud.”

“We know you care about her very much, Reuben,” said Timothy. “But like Boris said, we all want what’s best for both of you.”

“Please,” said Lilia, “don’t…don’t make a fuss over me. I really shouldn’t be out so long.” She came up to Reuben, who took her arm and started to lead her away.

“Well,” said Boris with a baffled shrug, “if that’s what you really want…”

“Now wait a minute!” Lucy stepped up to Reuben and Lilia. “Lilia, this is nuts! This is the first time since you two have been here that we’ve been able to get together for more than a few minutes, and you’re cutting it short now?”

“Take it easy, Lucy,” said Timothy, hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be okay.”

“Lucy, please,” said Lilia, “it…it’s all right. I’m glad I was able to see this much. We…we’ll get together again soon.” She waved goodbye to everyone, Reuben’s expression remaining stern and impassive as they turned to head back to the Mouse community. Lilia glanced back and smiled at Ellis one more time, leaving behind a mixture of disappointment, bafflement, and disbelief.

“How long has it been now…five weeks, six, that they’ve been here?” Lucy shook her head as the group headed down the trail.

“You would think they’d have loosened up more by now, especially Reuben,” agreed Dana, a rat friend.

“But it’s hardly any different than when they first got here,” said Bertie.

“Not quite,” said Boris. “We did get Lilia out here for a while, and she came willingly. She actually seemed eager to get away for a while.”

“Hmph. I think we should’ve sat on Reuben to keep him from dragging her back so soon.”

“Oh, come on, Bertie.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “In case you didn’t notice, she did go back with him willingly. And she said herself she’d probably spent enough time in the daylight.”

“That’s right,” agreed Boris. “She would know best, wouldn’t she?”

“I’ll admit,” said Timothy, “that I was hoping this meant Reuben had willingly let her go with you, but even so, it’s still a good sign. Maybe this’ll help to give her the will to assert herself more in the future; hopefully the very near.” The others nodded or voiced their agreements; Timothy had become, for this circle of friends, something of an “elder statesman,” owing partially to his well-known intuitive ability: to sense a positive outcome in a crisis situation. Lucy even teased him about this sometimes, calling him her “old wise one” and such; but this was one situation she took every bit as seriously.

Bertie grunted. “I still say it’s not fair. That’s no way for her to live, always jumping when Rube-boy says jump.”

“It may not be fair, Bertie,” said Boris, “but he was right about one thing: he knows her better than any of us. They’ve been together their whole lives. A few weeks are nothing, compared to that.”

“Still sounds like a crock to me, if you—”

“What’s all the hubbub?” Everyone turned to see a group coming down from the Rooftop, led by Johnathan, who had spoken, followed by Madeline, Cynthia, Michael, and some of the younger mouse children. Boris explained how, after afternoon classes were dismissed early so that anyone who wished to could welcome the arriving and see off the departing exchange parties, Reuben and Lilia had gone straight home instead, to little surprise. Boris and Seelah had decided to visit them to try to convince them to join them out here, but Reuben had just stepped out on an errand; and so, after some deliberation, they had cajoled Lilia into joining them by herself. The others joined in describing how Reuben had come and left with her, and their uncertainty in knowing how to deal with the situation. Cynthia was disappointed at having missed her.

Only Ellis was silent, the memory of Lilia’s (seemingly) special attentiveness toward him still fresh in his mind. He’d been thinking about her more and more in recent days, and accordingly his patience was wearing thin. How much longer would he have to wait for Reuben to “loosen up,” since he seemed to be so firmly in charge of his sister? Would she assert herself and tell him that she was going to live her own life and not always defer to him? Was either of them even capable of changing? The latter question was the most pessimistic view, no doubt; and he was starting to consider it a definite possibility, in spite of his wholehearted support of Timothy’s assertions that it would all work out eventually.

“Well,” said Johnathan, “remember what you’ve all been told about free choice.”

“Of course, Johnathan,” said Lucy. “‘As long as no one is hurt, and the community as a whole isn’t jeopardized’…”

“Sure,” allowed Bertie, “but after all this time, why does Reuben still have to constantly hang over Lilia like that? She doesn’t deserve it.”

“I’m with Bertie, for once,” Ellis finally said. “She doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of free choice herself.”

“Can we really say whether that’s true or not, though?” asked Johnathan. “It may not be our place to judge the way they live their lives. I agree it’s odd that they haven’t changed their ways much since coming here, but give them time. Maybe they just need more than the rest of us to adjust.”

“Tim’s been telling us the same, and I agree,” said Boris. “Lilia was quite happy about being able to come out for a while, to mingle and enjoy the view. She’s definitely starting to come out of her shell.”

“I know she wants to,” said Cynthia. “I could see that back when I first met her and Reuben. I think the more we keep encouraging her, the better.”

“What about Reuben, though?” asked Ellis. “He’s still the ‘constant chaperone.’ He hasn’t changed at all.”

As the discussion continued, it was Bertie who was silent this time, uncharacteristically for him. Some of Johnathan’s words had struck a responsive chord within him, reminding him of another matter near to his heart. He now excused himself, leaving quickly.

“Funny that he’d take off so quickly,” said Lucy. “He sure had some loud opinions about all this.”

“He must be late for an important appointment,” said Timothy. Or perhaps a date?

“I’ll bet I know what he has in mind,” said Cynthia lightly, “or rather who.”

Lucy nodded. “Oh, yeah…boy, that still seems pretty strange, those two getting together like that.”

“Maybe, but…as long as no one is hurt, right, Daddy?”

“That’s true,” said Johnathan. “And overlooking the obvious, it’s no different than the rest of us.” Cynthia nodded, smiling at Michael.

* * *

Alongside the lake, a young rat walked through a thick grassy grove, negotiating her way carefully, knowing the ground would drop off suddenly. She didn’t want to go for a sudden, unexpected dip in Lake Nicodemus, like the first time she stumbled across this spot. Though she knew it couldn’t possibly be a “secret” place, she still liked to think of it that way.

Soon, she came up to the edge, where she looked down to the small patch of bare ground below. She gave a quiet whistle, waited for a reply; and, confident that she wouldn’t be landing on anyone’s head, jumped down. She looked around. This patch of ground lay within a tiny inlet of the lake with overhanging sod above. Not only was it hidden from sight on this side of the lake, but it was largely hidden from the opposite side as well.

She sat down, sighed, and waited, thinking about how the day had gone so far; then, after about five minutes, she heard rustling in the grass above. She stood up and looked, craning her neck to see who it was, though she couldn’t see too far onto the bank without stepping out into the water, where she would be sinking a bit. Soon she could make out the top of the figure’s head. “Come on down, I know it’s you. I’d know that forehead anywhere.”

“Oh, thanks a lot, Sherlock. You take the fun out of everything.”

She laughed. “You know you can’t sneak up on me that easily. And what do you mean, ‘everything’?”

“Ahem, well…”

“That’s what I thought you meant. Now, will you come down here already?”

“Only if you promise to catch me.”

“Oh, all right.” She took a couple steps backward into the nearby shallow. “Go ahead.”

The smaller figure stepped off the edge of the sod bank right into the rat’s arms. She promptly lost balance and tumbled backwards into the lake.

They crawled back on shore on all fours, soaking wet, laughing. “Well, that was perfect. Sort of brings back memories, doesn’t it?”

Tara shook herself. “Oh, Bertie, just come over here, will you?” The two sat down together, Bertie on Tara’s lap, his head against her chest, her arms around him.

After sitting silently thus for a minute, Bertie looked up and said, “You’re beautiful when you’re wet.” He nuzzled against her torso.

“And you’re just stinky.” Tara nuzzled his ear. “So how was your day? Did you go to see your brother and his kids off?”

“Yeah. Hope they have fun out there.” After a pause he added, “You won’t believe who showed up. You know Lilia, the white mouse? Boris and Seelah got her away from Reuben for a while, but after Norm and the others left, Reuben showed up and took her away with him. Can you beat that?”

“What did she have to say about it?”

“That’s the weird thing. She didn’t seem to mind at all, she just went along with him, all smiles. Heh…I think she’s sweet on Ellis, though. No accounting for taste, I guess.”

“Speak for yourself, shorty.” Tara laughed and gave him a squeeze.

“So how’d swim class go?”

“Great. We just graduated Susanna, my niece. You should see her, she’s just like a fish. She swims so far out now, and all the way to the bottom of the cove too. You’d swear she’s grown gills, she’s so much at home in the water. Right now, Regina Ages is the ‘senior’ swimmer. She’s almost ready to graduate herself. We had a couple new students just starting today too.”

“Mm-hm. Are you going to bring in some of the Rusay kids too?” Some of the earlier exchange parties included children that hadn’t learned to swim yet, and they were allowed to participate in swim class as well.

“Maybe. That’s always kind of a challenge, because they have different bodies than ours, more like humans, so they use different techniques of moving about in the water.”

“Mm-hm.” Bertie’s tone was at once thoughtful and playful. “Speaking of ‘different bodies’…” Bertie nuzzled Tara’s neck, caressing her chest and belly and making “hungry” noises.

“You little maniac.” Tara laughed, responding in kind to his ministrations, bringing her face down to his so they could kiss.

After a few minutes, Bertie said, “You know…I still feel like we’re trying to hide…almost.”

“Why? Just because we want a little privacy, to be alone for a while?”

“It’s not that. I mean, we did stop trying to hide, and we’ve let everyone see us together, but, well…I don’t think anyone really believes that we’re…well, this close. They think we’re just good friends.”

“That’s probably true, in spite of our telling anyone who asked that we are in love. We haven’t exactly gone out and announced it. Then again, would we need to? We love each other, Bertie. Let’s just let that be.”

“That sounds good, but…would everybody else let it be?”

Tara sighed. “I know what you mean. Everybody’s pretty accepting about a lot of things around here, but…I can’t help wondering if there’d be some, at least, who wouldn’t want us to be together.”

Both continued to hold each other, and to think back to that day, nearly a month before. Bertie had just had an argument with Ellis and Lucy, the latest in a long series. How it started he barely remembered now, but he’d stormed off to be alone, and eventually made his way to the lake—though not this “private” place—and sat down along the shore, not far from the swimming cove. After about twenty minutes, Tara came by, on her way home after class was dismissed for the day. She saw him sitting and sulking, and just to be polite asked what was wrong, calling him by name, which was as far as she knew him. You wouldn’t understand, he replied. Her reply Bertie initially thought sounded patronizing, and so he dismissed her. As she was leaving he reached out with his foot, tripping her as she walked in front of him—again, for reasons he couldn’t explain well or scarcely even believe now. She reacted just in time to prevent herself from possibly injuring Bertie’s foot, but since she was right on the edge of the bank, it was enough to throw her off-balance and send her into the water. She emerged sputtering and fuming, demanding why he’d do such a thing, since she’d never meant him any harm. He replied that since she’d spent all day in the water, a little more shouldn’t hurt her any. She just gave an indignant grumble and stalked off, leaving Bertie to think that it served her right, since she shouldn’t have been poking her nose where she had no business.

After a few minutes, though, after trying in vain to work out his earlier problems, he found himself feeling bad about the way he treated her, realizing that she’d only wanted to help. He resolved to do the mature thing and try to put things right with her. He also felt inclined to make up with his siblings, and so spent the rest of the day with his family.

The next day, though, he met Tara at the same time and place, telling her, not without a little nervousness, that he was sorry for dunking her, and she was surprisingly agreeable to his apology. They took a walk, and ended up spending the next few hours together, talking about many things, and finding out how much in common they had. For instance, she too would sometimes get impatient with others. Bertie asked if this was a good way to be for someone who works with children. Point well taken, Tara agreed; but she added that with children, she has no problem, because their minds and personalities are still growing, and so they’re expected to not understand everything right away. With adults, she figured, she shouldn’t have to take as much time in getting a point across, especially one she believed to be obvious. She admitted that this is an unpleasant trait, and one which has made her feel isolated and alienated from friends and family at times. Bertie admitted to being much the same way, and feeling the same sense of isolation sometimes, and wishing he could control it better. They both felt a degree of relief at being able to confess to each other like this, and pleasant surprise over how comfortable they were in each other’s presence.

They resolved to keep on seeing each other, and over the next few days, they spent as much time as they could together. Bertie would sit in on swim class, and watch Tara at work, admiring her more and more. It gradually dawned on both of them that there was a connection stronger than mere friendship here; and, some two weeks after their first meeting, admitted that it was true love. The absurdity of it was hardly lost on them, but neither cared. After all, they rationalized, the Rats and Mice of this colony were intellectual and emotional peers, with no real differences in their thought processes. Why, then, should their love be wrong? They realized, of course, that there would surely be some who would object, for no other reason than species difference. This was why they hadn’t been especially vocal about it to everyone since then, though they appeared together in public often and did admit it to anyone who asked outright. Everyone in Bertie’s family knew, and seemed to approve and wish them well. Tara’s older siblings admitted how strange it seemed to them, but thought much the same as her; that if it was genuine, then why shouldn’t it be? Her parents Derek and Claire felt much the same way as well, but expressed doubts out loud whether it could truly last, especially considering they couldn’t conceive children. Perhaps not, the young lovers admitted; but for now, they’d do all they could to make it last, just as anyone in love would do. There seemed to be a largely favorable reaction throughout Freethorn; yet, in spite of this amount of approval, they’d often sensed an undercurrent of objection, taking the form of whisperings as they passed by, or forced nonchalance. At least, this was how it looked to them.

Now, the two of them discussed what they should do about this, if it was as serious a matter as they thought. Soon, they agreed that they would make their love as obvious as anyone else would, and let the chips fall where they may.

“Well, this sounds like a good plan, all right,” said Tara. “But…I don’t know, there’s something about it that still bothers me…”

“Nothing to worry about,” said Bertie, standing up. “Darn it, Tara, we love each other, and I don’t care who knows it. If anyone gives us any grief about it, we’ll deal with it.”

“You’re right.” Tara smiled as she got up. “How bad can things get, anyway?”

“That’s the spirit.” They joined hands and began making their way up the bank. “Come on, let’s make ourselves obvious.”

* * *

“Our first day in Freethorn is at an end, and it’s been every bit the learning experience we expected it to be. Those feelings of uneasiness I had before we arrived are totally gone, and I can concentrate fully on absorbing all I see and hear around me. And is there ever a lot to absorb! All the strange vegetation, these people’s way of life, the fact that it was all brought here from another world, another dimension. Probably the wildest of all, though, was the story of not only how they came to be here, but of how they came to be. We learned much of the story two years ago, when we were all guests at Gwinthrayle’s house.

“As I’m writing now, we have just returned from the home of Justin, his wife Isabella, and their children. There, they, Johnathan, and some of the other Rats and Mice gave us the story in even greater detail, beginning with the time they spent in that laboratory, kept prisoner by those scientists who performed experiments on them that gave them intelligence and lifespans far beyond what they had before. They were able to escape, educate themselves and found their first colony. Their old leader Nicodemus had gained unusual abilities like being able to move objects with his mind, and may have had magical abilities as well; they said he had never given his fellows a straight answer on that. We already knew well the story of how Johnathan found the red amulet (which they usually call simply the Stone), which played such a large part in later events, especially what he calls his “exile” period, when he was stranded here on Lahaikshe for several months while his family and friends believed him dead. Madeline and Justin told us more of the time she came to the Rats for help, not knowing of Johnathan’s connection to them, and in the process saved them all and found her own ability to command the Stone; the Rats’ move to a new home where they would be undisturbed for two and a half of their years; how Madeline discovered Johnathan’s true fate and how to follow him to Lahaikshe.

“I remember well what happened afterwards, since I was involved directly: she, Justin, Melvin, Willis and I were trapped by Ghormfisk, another traveler from another dimension that Dinilom and I took into our home just because he seemed lost and needed a friend, but then his personality changed and he forced me to act against these strangers so that he could take over the Stone’s power. This all ended well, with the arrival of Johnathan and the sorceror Gwinthrayle (who we named our youngest daughter, Gwinthri, after). We found out why Ghormfisk behaved the way he did, and soon everyone was back where they belonged, and the Stone was back in Johnathan and Madeline’s hands, apparently for good.

“Though we knew some of the preceding story from that time, we only learned today all that’s happened since. The Brisbys made their own home in Thorn Valley alongside their good friends the Rats. They continued to prosper there, and things went well for them until just a few months ago, when they learned that humans threatened them again. They learned it from one of their own: Kimball Davis, a mouse they had thought long gone. Ultimately, the whole affair turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Johnathan’s son Martin and a friend had left Thorn Valley for a while on a trek to see the place where their people had become what they are. He brought the Stone with him, to prevent his parents from finding out where they were really going. As it turned out, they really could have used it after Kimball found their colony, almost dying to get there, and warned them of the danger they were in. Martin discovered the danger for himself, and hurried back to the colony, with Kimball’s wife Patricia and daughter Karen, whom he’d met on the trip. They returned safely and just in time to allow Johnathan to use the Stone to bring the entire colony here, to Lahaikshe, the first time it had been used for such a huge task. It was then used to track down the rest of Kimball and Patricia’s children, and their mates and children; and the children of Vincent, another old comrade who, unfortunately, was himself found to have died only recently. The colony, which they’ve renamed Freethorn, has since continued to prosper in its new location, becoming more and more a part of this world, and, they say, less and less connected to the old one.

“These cultural exchanges are a big part of it all, and though our differences are many, we’ve all been finding much to like in these Rats and Mice from Earth. This isn’t just my opinion: we’ve all agreed that there are far more similarities than differences. We have found some, though, that we don’t find shocking but still might take some getting accustomed to. For example, there is less reserve in displaying affection openly in public. It’s a difference most of us really hadn’t thought about much or at all before coming here. From what we’ve seen so far, it seems more common among the Mice than the Rats. Speaking for myself, I hadn’t thought about it being a matter of being more or less modest; I guess it was just accepted in our society that we’re a bit more private about such things, with not much else to compare it to.

“It really first came to the attention of Dini and myself earlier this evening. We were taking a stroll along a trail further away from the Rat and Mouse communities, one that we’d been told was being called “Lovers’ Lane” these days. We saw two of the mice—Cynthia, the second Brisby daughter, and Michael, one of the Davis sons—sitting on a rock, locked in a loving embrace, carrying on as if no one else were around. They were kissing, caressing and nuzzling each other without a care in the world. We almost said something out loud to them, but instead we chose a spot to sit—another rock a little further away—and observe from a distance. We told each other that it was to see how others reacted to this, but I think we were both embarrassed to admit how fascinated we were by the sight. We didn’t want to be voyeurs about it, but, I think we both told ourselves, we couldn’t completely turn away either. When we discussed it later, we justified ourselves by saying that they weren’t exactly trying to hide anything; and, after all, this is why we’re here, to learn about these people and their ways and customs.

"At any rate, those that passed by took it pretty casually. Some hardly seemed to notice at all. Others would just smile, and a couple of times some younger ones would nudge each other and then whisper and giggle. These two seemed completely oblivious to it all. Finally, after a while, they suddenly got up, and without saying another word to each other, took each other’s hand and ran off quickly. We didn’t have to wonder why for very long; obviously they needed to get to someplace more private quickly. We realized that they weren’t completely without modesty, or what we consider modesty.

“This was surprising enough, but after we’d gone a bit further down the same trail, here was a really unexpected sight: another pair of young lovers, again in plain view of everyone, but with a major difference. One was a Rat, whom we’d met earlier: Tara, one of the swimming instructors. The other was a Mouse: Bertram, or Bertie, one of Michael’s brothers. Again we stopped to observe passersby; Dini felt that maybe we shouldn’t, saying it didn’t feel right; but I reminded her that we were here to observe the customs and everyday lives of these people. We both wondered if this were commonplace here; I thought it probably wasn’t, since there weren’t many mice here until recently. But we both agreed that it might be more interesting to observe the reactions these two would get.

“That quickly proved true. Only a few took it casually; everyone else showed some surprise, either doing a double-take and moving on, or stopping for a moment to stare; one female Rat even stopped, looking as if she were going into shock and would start shouting out loud at them any second, before leaving in a huff, shaking her head. Obviously this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. For our part, there was no sense that these two were doing anything wrong; how could there be? Yet, we couldn’t help but wonder if more of their fellows might react more strongly. I’d rather hope not; maybe that one woman’s reaction was in the minority, but could others feel the same, but be keeping it to themselves? I’d hate to think of an incident like this leading to some kind of trouble. I guess time will tell.”

Sithpha paused from his writing, took a deep breath, yawned, got up from the desk and walked to the open window. He gazed out at the half-moon, shining beautifully, as if needing to be reminded that he was still on Lahaikshe. Then again, there is a moon much like this where the Freethorners come from, he remembered them saying; so this one probably reminds them of their old home as well.

Might as well call it a night, he thought; though he was finding it difficult to stop writing when there was so much more he wanted to express. He’d have to force himself; but after tiptoeing into the next room and seeing Dinilom already asleep, he knew it wouldn’t be too hard. Just the sight of her reminded him to take things more slowly and not overwork himself; they were, after all, here to enjoy themselves as well as learn. He removed his clothing and slipped quietly into bed beside her. There’ll be plenty of time to get everything down, he thought as he lightly kissed his wife’s forehead. She moaned quietly as he settled in beside her. Soon both were asleep.

Chapter 4 - Child of the moon

The moon continued its nightly watch over this out-of-place patch of land like a roving sentinel. Though most of Freethorn slept, a few of its residents were active—mostly members of the Guard, who these days were beginning to question the continued need for their roving patrols. Others, though, actively sought the nighttime as their preferred time of day. While this could be attributed to the fact that the Freethorners’ natural counterparts on Earth gravitate toward night, any of these Rats or Mice would say if asked that they simply felt more comfortable, and that’s that. Many are drawn by the beauty of a starry sky, finding it inspirational in many ways. For others, there is the occasional bout with insomnia, a result of their systems still adjusting to Lahaikshe’s 29-hour cycle; or else brought on by problems and uncertainties which, they would hope, a nighttime stroll would help them solve.

This night, one from the latter category was making his way along the trail past the Rat community’s main entrance up to the meadow on the south side of the lake. Ellis Davis didn’t have the meadow, or any other specific place, in mind for a destination. All he wanted was to try to make sense of the day’s events. Several times, he’d asked himself if he really needed to, since it didn’t affect him directly. It was something for those two to work out themselves; or was it? Should everyone just accept that they’d both loosen up more eventually and become more a part of the community, as Johnathan and Timothy maintain, or should there be a more active role taken in bringing them out? One thing was clear: seeing Lilia today, brought out to meet her fellow Freethorners only to be dragged back by Reuben, was definitely having an effect on him. Was Bertie right? Should they have forcibly kept Reuben from taking her away? Yet, she did appear to leave entirely willingly; but could that be because she felt she had no other choice? Does Reuben have that much of a hold over her, that whatever he says goes? He thought about how much protest Bertie raised over the matter, and he couldn’t help smiling; he never thought he’d be agreeing with Bertie so much. And yet, his contention made perfect sense: she only needs to be shown that she can make up her own mind. Could it really be that simple, though?

As he approached the blackberry thicket that lay on the edge of the meadow, he felt no closer to an answer. He looked up to the sky, as if the moon and stars could provide it. Other matters were momentarily forgotten as he admired the view. He stopped for a moment to take it all in. Gazing upon the moon, he studied its features, comparing it with the one seen from Earth, hanging up there in the night sky, glowing white like…

He brought his gaze back down to earth level. Admit it, Ellis, he almost said aloud. Like Lilia. Ever since the day she arrived, there hasn’t been a day when—

He gave a start, as something moving about in the meadow caught his eye; something decidedly out of place. He ducked down among the bushes, wincing as a thorn poked him in the side. He let no sound escape, though; the almost-instinctive need to conceal himself from possible danger was too strong. Through the briars, he sought to keep the anomaly in his sight. There it was still, something pale and wispy, moving from side to side. An afterimage of the moon? He closed his eyes; there was one still there, but it had faded greatly, too much for what he still saw upon looking out over the meadow again. No, something was definitely there, something which still made him feel apprehensive, though he knew it wasn’t necessarily anything that posed any danger. He wondered: there are said to be areas in this world where strange manifestations crop up at night, such as the ones Karen and Martin described in that place where they had their honeymoon. There hadn’t been anything remotely like that reported here, and yet…

Wait a minute… He raised his head for a clearer view. This was no magical manifestation, no wispy wraith. This was definitely something flesh-and-blood; another mouse, no more than three feet from where he still concealed himself. Could it be, possibly… No, it couldn’t be her. It was the moonlight making this one’s fur appear so pale. Yes, it had to be; he couldn’t imagine her behaving this way, dancing with such abandon, body swaying to and fro, spinning around with arms spread upward, sinking down to the ground and suddenly springing up again, as if to snatch the stars from the sky.

For his part, Ellis was transfixed, hardly aware of himself anymore, so fascinated was he by this display, to the point where he was no longer making any great effort to keep out of sight. He had, in fact, almost completely emerged out into the open; and suddenly, he realized that this could indeed be only one person after all. No one else here has fur that would appear this way at night; no one but…

Suddenly the mouse’s gyrations ceased. She turned her head and was now looking straight toward him. “Ellis! You came! How wonderful!”

Ellis’s surprise was great, not only because the identity of this midnight dancer was now confirmed, but also because he was in no way prepared for such a greeting from her, one in which there wasn’t a hint of hesitation or inhibition, nor any surprise at seeing him. It was enough to leave him staring in open-mouthed silence for several seconds; then he answered, “Ah…uh…Lilia! What are you…uh…I mean, I never…expected anything like this.”

Lilia laughed, but her tone wasn’t at all mocking. “You startled me! But that’s all right. I’m really glad to see you.” The two approached each other.

Ellis’s confusion was by no means abated. He startled her? She stood smiling in front of him, dressed in nothing but her own fur. He looked her up and down as if still needing to confirm that this was truly her. Like all the recently-arrived Mouse residents of Freethorn—including himself—Lilia had only just begun wearing clothing, especially when at class or work or otherwise doing business in and around the Rat community, but obviously old habits or tendencies were hard to break—not that going unclad was ever completely frowned upon here. Ellis had seen her this way before, of course, from her first day here, but somehow it was so much different now.

She seemed oblivious to the effect she was having on him as she spun herself around, sighing deeply and gazing upward. “Oh, isn’t it just the most beautiful night?”

“Er…it sure is, Lilia. Listen, I was wondering…”

She seemed to ignore him, continuing to dance and leap about, as if it were her sole reason for living. Ellis was equally confused and fascinated now. What could have changed her so drastically? He never would have imagined such behavior from her before now, and could even now scarcely believe what his eyes and ears told him.

“Lilia,” he said more emphatically, coming up closer to her, “would you please…hold still for a minute? I want to talk to you.”

“Oh, of course, Ellis.” She stopped and quickly dropped to the ground, stretching out on her side. She smiled up at him coquettishly and patted the ground beside her invitingly.

Ellis accepted her invitation, sitting down. “Lilia, I…don’t quite know where to begin. I never expected to see you like this. I mean, I know you spend some time out and about at night, but…I didn’t think this is how you spend it.”

Lilia laughed, again in a manner that seemed completely carefree and innocent. “How could I not spend it this way, Ellis? I love the night, and everything about it.” She sighed. “The stars are so different here, so clear and sharp. And the moon…sometimes, I feel like it was made just for me, and I for it.” Again she sighed, gazing up at the celestial orb, stretching arms out and bringing them in, as if embracing it to her breast.

Ellis was too fascinated to say a word as Lilia suddenly got to her feet and urged Ellis to join her in her nocturnal celebration. He found himself actually wanting to join her, forgetting momentarily any unanswered questions; after all, he well knew, he could use a little “loosening up” himself. He got up even as she had already resumed her cavorting, and spun himself around.

“That’s the way, Ellis,” said Lilia, taking his hands and encouraging him further.

As they spun each other in circles, Ellis found himself laughing with her, actually losing himself in the spontaneity of the moment, as if whatever it was that inspired Lilia toward this behavior was having the same effect on him. Shortly, though, he became aware of himself again, how he would look to anyone observing, and felt a touch of embarrassment. It wasn’t quite enough to make him cease dancing and frolicking completely, but he did remember some still-unresolved matters.

“Lilia,” he began as he continued dancing with her, “I’d still like to know…well, how it can be that you were so shy before, hardly saying a word to anyone, and you’re so completely different now? And when I first came upon you here, you weren’t the least bit surprised to see me. It was almost like you were expecting me, and you weren’t even embarrassed about my watching you, like I thought you’d be.”

Lilia laughed. “What’s there to be embarrassed about? I love dancing at night. I feel so secure, just like I’ve felt more secure about everything since coming here.”

“Well, I can understand that, but…what about the rest?”

Again she laughed, something Ellis was quickly becoming accustomed to hearing before she spoke. “Well, I guess I’m just coming out of my shell. Hmm?” She giggled and turned a cartwheel.

Ellis felt a bit embarrassed; obviously she, and probably Reuben as well, hadn’t been oblivious to what others had been saying about them. He fumbled for a few seconds, then said, “Well, that’s…that’s good, really good. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I like this change in you, I really do. It’s just that it’s…so sudden.”

“I can’t really explain why myself. I can only go by what I feel, and this is how I feel.” She leaped straight up in the air; and upon landing, appeared to collapse upon the ground, all in one graceful, fluid movement.

Ellis felt he needed to catch his breath just from watching her. Something about this entire night, especially Lilia’s uninhibited manner, was stirring something within him he couldn’t articulate. He glanced up at the moon, then at her; and for a moment, it seemed they really were as one. She seemed so far removed from the one he saw this afternoon so briefly, before being led away by…

He clenched his eyes shut for a second, shaking his head. “Say, Lilia…” he began as she got to her feet again, quickly following suit himself, “what about Reuben? Does he know you…you’re doing this? Or that you’re even out here?” He could scarcely believe that this was the first time since seeing Lilia tonight that Reuben had entered his thoughts at all.

“Oh, we needn’t worry about him. Can you do this?” Lilia broke into a sprint across the meadow, then gave a graceful leap several inches in the air, making a complete turn and landing equally gracefully, then dashing back over to Ellis, though the image lingered still in his mind. Again she seemed far removed from her more familiar self, and not even so much a mouse as a sprite, a pixie, a creature of human mythology. By now Ellis felt certain that if she were to sail upon the wind like a dragonfly, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“Wow…Lilia, that was amazing. I couldn’t even touch that, not anywhere as good as you.”

“Thank you, Ellis. If you liked that, then—”

“Lilia! There you are!”

Though the voice gave Ellis a start, it was hardly unexpected. Déjà vu, he thought as Reuben approached.

“Are you crazy, girl, prancing about in the open like this? You never know what could suddenly spring out or swoop down! Come along with me, now!”

“Oh, all right,” said Lilia, again seeming entirely willing, taking this intrusion—as Ellis saw it—very casually, as a matter of course. She took his hand and started to leave with him.

Again Ellis was dumbstruck. After all this, even now, she still allows him to order her around like this? Certainly it proved that she was very much the same Lilia, but still…

He started after them. “Now, wait a second, you two!” The siblings stopped briefly, Reuben looking impatient, Lilia still looking perfectly content; but, Ellis noted, definitely not as she did this afternoon, when Reuben led her away before. This seemed like only a momentary distraction to her, one which she would not allow to dampen her spirits.

“Come on, Reuben,” continued Ellis, “you know it’s not like that at all here, not like on Earth. Nothing’s going to jump out of the shadows and snatch anyone. It’s perfectly safe for her to be out here. And besides…it’s night and so she’s not being exposed to sunlight. Isn’t that your usual excuse?” It was incredible to him that Reuben would use either excuse, especially the one about predators.

“Just how sure are you that it’s safe? Do you know everything about this world, and everything that’s out here?” He seemed to ignore Ellis’s latter point.

“No, I don’t, but there are others who do, and they’ve had a lot of firsthand experience. Johnathan, Madeline, Justin, Melvin, Judith, several others…and they’re the leaders of this community. If they say it’s safe, that’s good enough for me.” That should do it, Ellis thought. What could he possibly say to that? Indeed, Reuben looked as if he were considering the point deeply and thoughtfully.

“Well…maybe it is for you, but…even they can’t know everything. Come along, Lilia, let’s go home.” They turned to walk away.

Ellis’s disbelief and astonishment had never been greater as he watched them depart. He shook his head. How could he still be that way, denying and defying all logic and reason? And if this was how he regarded his new surroundings and his new neighbors, who should be his friends as well, then why was he even here?

He felt close to anger and almost shouted that very question out loud to him; but as he made to, something else unexpected happened. Lilia turned her head, apparently unnoticed by Reuben, and gave Ellis a nod and a wink, gesturing with her hand toward him with a knowing smile; or pointing actually, and more toward the ground than toward him. Ellis frowned, and almost asked out loud what she meant; but since she apparently didn’t want Reuben to notice, he kept silent. But what was that all about?

He sat down, watching the receding figures, and tried to sort it all out. So much about those two made no sense. Here was one who almost seemed to have two personalities which were polar opposites of each other, and another who was protective of her to an irrational, even fanatical degree. The more he thought about them, the more determined he was to explore the mystery further. He wondered if he weren’t the first one in Freethorn to become this involved with them; even Boris or Seelah didn’t seem to know about Lilia’s little nighttime celebration, and they’d seemed to have gotten closer to her than anyone else. Maybe tonight was the first time she’d behaved this way.

Ellis thought back to her parting gesture. Wait a minute…could she have meant that she’d be here again tomorrow night, and that she wanted me to meet her then? Yes, that made sense, and it was just the sort of thing she wouldn’t want Reuben to hear. He looked up to the sky again, mind drifting back to their shared revelry of only a few minutes ago, and was pleased to find that the near-enchanted mood of this night had not been entirely destroyed by Reuben’s abrupt entrance.

“All right, Lilia,” he said quietly. “I’ll be here.” He considered whether or not to tell anyone else about this, and quickly decided to keep this between himself and Lilia for the time being, feeling that it should be a private matter, as he was sure Lilia wanted it. There were no doubts left in him that there was a mutual attraction here, one which he felt strongly compelled to explore further. He began making his own way home, mind still filled with the unforgettable images this night had left him with.

Chapter 5 - Tribute and celebration

“All right, Teacher. I’m ready to start again.”

The tall figure smiled. “Excellent, Rollo. But I’ve told you, you’re welcome to address me by name.”

“I know. But I feel I should show you that much respect, after all you’ve done to help me, especially lately; and especially after all the times I haven’t shown you much respect. But…I do remember all you’ve taught me about respecting others, and treating others with kindness when they’ve shown kindness toward me.”

“You’ve learned well, very well indeed. And now…since you are ready…”

Rollo sat down, growing still and erect. He closed his eyes, concentrating intently. Teacher did the same. Soon, a new setting was visible to Rollo, as if he were viewing it through another set of eyes completely—which in fact he was, in a manner of speaking. The new view was completely different from the featureless, mist-shrouded landscape that had been home to them both for so long. It was fairly typical for a mouse’s den: dimly lit, very sparsely furnished. In its midst sat its occupant, rocking slowly back and forth, as he became aware of other sensations, particularly the sudden cold, which aided him in focusing his thoughts on what to do next. Soon, he abruptly got to his feet and walked to the entrance. Outside, there was a thin layer of newly-fallen snow on the ground, and he went to an area where there was flat and smooth dirt underneath. His attitude was now full of purpose, much different than before he’d gotten up, when he’d seemed barely aware of his surroundings. He crouched down, picking up a nearby twig. With it he began scratching at the snow, but not randomly; he very slowly and carefully made figures in a very methodical fashion, figures which to some would be recognizable and very familiar, as they were to the one observing now from his most unusual vantage point. The mouse scratched one straight line, another at an angle, another straight line; still another straight line separate from the previous ones; another which he had initial difficulty with, seemingly unsure of which direction to take it, then bringing it down to form a semicircle; and finally, one which he had the greatest difficulty with, which started much as the previous one, but which ended, with one continuous line, back where it began, a full circle. He then drew his hand back, and his attention seemed to waver; then, apparently forgetting all about what he’d done and the work he’d put into it, he suddenly got up and walked back inside, where he went to his food stores, selected a weed seed, sat down and began eating.

The tall figure opened his eyes. Again he looked upon the misty terrain, and then at Rollo, who still sat still and quiet, but was even now coming out of his state of intense concentration.

He looked up. “Teacher? Did you see? How did I do?”

The tall one crouched down in front of him, hands on Rollo’s shoulders. “You did very well, Rollo. Excellently, in fact.”

“Really? I did four this time, didn’t I? Were they all right?”

“I already said you did excellently, Rollo. Yes, you did four, and they were very legible. You’re definitely on your way.”

“Wow…I never thought I’d get that far! But will it be enough?”

“It may well be. I cannot give a definite answer. When your visitors return, they may look at four figures, and understand your meaning. But perhaps it would be best if you continue your practice until you’re up to five or six, just to be safe.”

Rollo sighed. “I guess you’re right. I can stay in control a lot longer than I could at the beginning, but…it’s still tiring.”

“I know you’ve been giving it your all. But it will pay off, and soon, I assure you.”

“Yes…I guess so.”

The tall one smiled and embraced Rollo. “You rest for a while, and then I’ll have some more stories to tell.”

Rollo smiled. Teacher’s stories of his past life always enthralled him, and not only provided some relief from the constancy of his existence, but gave him much to look forward to when that long-promised change finally arrived. He sighed, lay down and curled up in a ball, and closed his eyes.

* * *

Dawn saw most of Freethorn up and about bright and early, including the Rusay visitors. Both families dressed and left the guest house together, where they would have breakfast at the Rats’ dining hall after a brisk morning stroll. Along the way, they observed much activity: Rats gathering acorns under the oaks; Rats and Mice in the garden areas, tending to newly-planted corn, radishes, peanuts and other crops, weeding, adding liquid nutrients and spraying organic repellents for insect pests; early-morning swimmers starting the day with a dip in Lake Nicodemus; two young Rats busily bringing building materials up a beech tree—“For a treehouse, of course,” they replied when asked about it. All the while, they asked plenty of questions, and Sithpha and Morobphra took plenty of notes—especially Sithpha, though Dinilom told him he should slow down a bit, reminding him that they were here to enjoy themselves as well as learn. As with the previous day, all that they saw and everyone they talked to were giving them the impression that things were going quite well here, and that everyone was happy here and optimistic about the future. Sithpha again wondered if the incident he and Dinilom witnessed, with Tara and Bertie and the reactions of others to their being together, could possibly trigger some kind of trouble within Freethorn; though it hardly seemed possible, with all they were seeing now. Later on, they would attend the general meeting Justin told them of, which they knew should prove especially enlightening.

* * *

“Mother Pat! Are you ready?”

“In a moment, Lula, dear.”

Soon, the two were making their way from their home in the Mouse community, toward a location opposite the way to the Rat community. This had become a frequent ritual for most of the Mice, and some of the Rats as well; but for these two—the matriarch of the largest extended Mouse family, and this young adolescent girl who had been essentially adopted into it—it was a daily ritual. Along the way, Lula chattered away almost incessantly, making all manner of observations, asking all manner of questions, hardly giving her foster mother a chance to answer them. But Patricia didn’t mind at all; as one who’d raised thirteen children of her own and was currently helping to raise fifteen grandchildren (with more to come), there was probably nothing where children in general were concerned that was outside her ability to deal with.

“I still can’t get used to the idea that we’re in another world. Every time I look out over the red plain, I have to remind myself it’s true. You seem to be used to it, Mother Pat, how do you do it?”

“Well, I guess I just keep reminding myself, just like you.”

“I guess you’re right, I know it’s silly. It’s as real as anything else I’ve seen, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right; though sometimes, I—”

“Wow. Just think of what Norman and his kids are seeing right now. I can’t wait to go out there myself sometime, and…oh, did I interrupt you again? I’m so sorry, I can be stupid sometimes…”

“Oh, no, Lula, you’re not stupid. You’re just…excitable, a bit high-strung. You’re also very sensitive and caring. If you weren’t, we probably never would’ve brought you here.”

Lula smiled and shrugged. “If you say so. Oh, look, we’re almost there.”

Their destination was a mostly-hidden grotto ringed by a rock wall that was partly natural, partly “amulet-grown”. Lula took Patricia’s arm as they passed through the narrow archway. The air was heavy with the scent of wildflowers, some of which had grown here naturally, others which had been specially planted and cultivated. While this was certainly a beautiful and tranquil place where one could pause in reflection, the true purpose for their visit lay a bit further within.

A smooth, rectangular slab of granite with rounded corners and sides stood close to the rear of the grotto, flanked on either side by others that were similarly shaped. All bore inscriptions with names and other words. To human eyes, this whole setting would appear as no less than a cemetery, a final resting place where one could pay respects to departed loved ones. Further actions by these two would certainly confirm the impression, as they kneeled down in front of the monument they approached.

They closed their eyes and spent several minutes in silent prayer and reflection, all in remembrance of the one interred here: Desmond Davis, the third-born son (with his litter-mates Orland and Karen) of Kimball and Patricia, who had passed away far from and unseen by the rest of his family. Fortunately, he hadn’t died alone; or—presumably—unloved, as Lula’s family had taken him into their home after he’d become separated from his traveling companion Orland and needed a place to stay overnight. Temporary though the arrangement was, it was long enough for Desmond to win a place in their hearts, most notably with one of the children, Lula, who’d become so enamored of him that she slipped away from her family in the morning and followed Desmond as he resumed his journey. He convinced her to return to her family, but while escorting her back they were attacked by a weasel. Desmond was able to drive it off, but not before sustaining serious injuries which, after he was able to return Lula home, ultimately proved fatal. He was mourned and buried nearby; and after his family learned of his fate, Johnathan, Patricia and Orland came to visit Lula and see Desmond’s grave. Lula had been cast out by her family, and with no other place to go and having been touched so deeply by Desmond’s brief time in her life, she was brought back to Freethorn, becoming unofficially adopted by the Davises.

Presently the pair opened their eyes, looking at the headstone again. They smiled and hugged, and Patricia told Lula one more funny anecdote about Desmond. Soon, with both feeling cheered, Patricia and Lula got to their feet and prepared to leave, taking another look at the surrounding headstones, some of which marked the actual graves of those whose names and epitaphs were inscribed upon them, others there solely to honor their memories, even if they had never lived in Thorn Valley or Freethorn.

Finally, they again regarded the most recent addition to the memorial garden, the one that read, “DESMOND, THE LITTLE CHARMER. MISSED GREATLY BY FATHER, MOTHER, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, AND THE ONE TO WHOM HE’D GIVEN HIS LIFE TO SAVE.”

The two mice exchanged sad smiles, embraced, and turned to leave the garden.

* * *

Not far away in Oak Park, beneath the shade of the big burr oak, a young mother spent a peaceful, if not especially quiet interlude with her children. Teresa Brisby rolled around on the grass, laughing as Eric Jr. and Tyler climbed all over her and crawled in circles around her, giggling and shrieking all the while. She gave a mock growl as she lifted Eric Jr. above her as Tyler clung to and mouthed her leg.

In a few minutes, the youngsters had settled down and indicated they were both hungry; and so their mother undid the blouse she wore, arranged them on her lap and held them close so they could suckle. She stroked their heads, cooing to them as they quietly nursed. “It’s getting a bit crowded down there for both of you. You’re both growing so fast.” The pair were two weeks old—that is, two Earth-weeks—and increasingly energetic and rambunctious. Teresa sighed as she thought about how, not so long ago, she and her siblings would play-wrestle with their own parents, right up to the time they were all fully grown. She couldn’t help feeling sad as she again thought of the boys’ father, and wished he could share this moment, here at the place where they first confirmed their love for each other. But she knew she could take great consolation from the fact that his sons were perfect pictures of health and had displayed none of their father’s aversion to living on Lahaikshe.

Her thoughts fell to other new Mouse parents in Freethorn. Michelle and Brummie, and Myrna and Stollie became new parents just last week, within two days of each other: the former had twin girls Jillian and Megan, the latter a single baby boy, Liam. And, nearer and dearer to her heart, there was Martin and Karen. The word on her, for the past five days, had been “any day now.” Being married to her and preparing for fatherhood was obviously doing her brother a world of good; in the eight days since her and the boys’ return, she’d never seen him so happy and content.

She looked down at her sons, who had finished nursing and were curled up on her lap, dozing. Her thoughts fell to her own future here; after discussing the point with Simone, the principal at Thorn Valley School and her erstwhile boss, they’d agreed that she’d put her teaching career on hold for the time being, at least until after the boys were weaned. The boys’ aunt, Sarah, who lived with them, was growing surprisingly independent of Teresa, finding new friends and throwing herself wholeheartedly into her schoolwork; every day lately she would happily chatter Teresa’s ear off about what she’d done and learned.

She thought again about Karen’s impending birth, smiling as she pictured the boys playing with the cousins they’d soon gain; and then, something out of the corner of her eye brought her attention upward. She gave a small start, soon relaxing as she saw the mhys’haspa circling low over the treetops. Knowing she had nothing to fear, she watched its graceful aerial ballet and sighed, recalling her family’s friendship with Jeremy and Beatrice back on Earth, and how she particularly enjoyed the rides the two crows would give to them, soaring above the highest trees and over the hills and mountains, so high that the rivers and streams looked like shining ribbons, the forest like a bed of moss. She wondered if it were possible to make friends with a mhys’haspa, and fly with it as she did with the crows. Gwinthrayle once mentioned that only a few Rusay had succeeded in that. Mhys’haspas are peaceful vegetarians that had never been known to intentionally do harm to Rusay or any other animal life; yet, in spite of their docile nature, and though they were big—about the same size as a crow, in fact—and strong enough with sufficient lift to carry an adult Rusay, they didn’t take to passengers very well, and so were notoriously hard to “break.” No, Teresa decided, it would definitely be too risky. Oh well, one can always dream.

Suddenly, something in her peripheral vision again caught her attention. The mhys’haspa had come down to ground level and was now browsing in the tall grass in the nearby meadow only a few yards in front of her. Teresa instinctively drew her arms around her sons, though she was certain they were in no danger. A more realistic concern was over the fact that mhys’haspas, having sometimes voracious appetites, were something of a problem the first few weeks after Freethorn’s arrival on Lahaikshe. They had found some of the Earth vegetation to be pleasing to the palate, and would have to be chased out of some of the trees, where they would eat the leaves and other parts, and away from some of the grasses and shrubbery as well. The restoration of the garden areas was still in the beginning stages, and there was some concern over there being a possibly larger mhys’haspa problem once these crops were well underway. Fortunately, they were found to be largely cooperative; communication with them proved to be almost as easy as with many of the Freethorners’ fellow Earth creatures, and the Rats managed to impress upon them that though they were welcome to visit anytime, they would be doing too much damage if they were to partake of the colony’s flora.

The one who had now chosen this Freethorn meadow to settle upon was definitely proving to be one who had already gotten the message, apparently only wanting to use it as a rest stop. He groomed himself almost like a cat, just taking idle nibbles at the grass in between finding impurities in his coat and carefully smoothing the fur down afterwards. Tyler and Eric Jr. had by now also taken notice of this visitor, staring in wide-eyed wonder, and Teresa decided to give them all a closer look. She gathered up the boys in her arms and stood up, approaching the great winged beast who paused to watch them for a few seconds before returning to his grooming. They came to a large boulder which was only about eight feet from the mhys’haspa and afforded a better view above grass level; and so Teresa lifted each child up to it before climbing up herself. She noted how this boulder was the same which Eric had fled to and hidden underneath just after the colony’s arrival on Lahaikshe. She pushed the thought back, returning her attentions to the magnificent creature in front of them.

From this vantage point, they could better see the mhys’haspa’s sleek build, the large, leathern bat-like wings folded at its side, its blue-black and russet pelt and head that was close to horse-like in overall shape, but with almost lizard-like features, including a mouth fixed permanently in a dolphin-like grin. With its forelimbs and mouth he continued grooming himself with great care, pausing again to gaze at the three mice, appearing to take to their presence very casually. Teresa was reminded of descriptions of dragons of earthly lore, though she supposed that no one imagined a dragon that was furry and ate plants.

Eric Jr. squealed with excitement and gestured toward the “dragon,” but Tyler seemed more cautious, watching quietly but with just-as-keen interest. Teresa smiled. It was a bit ironic; she could easily imagine their father reacting more like Tyler if he were here now, rather than his namesake. Though he wasn’t really the inhibited type, he was cautious about things unfamiliar to him. All at once she was lost in thought, hardly even noticing the mhys’haspa; but after about a minute, another shriek from Eric Jr. brought her back. She shook her head. She’d been trying to avoid reminiscing about Eric too much, but she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t that she was trying to forget him; far from it. It seemed that thinking about him was—it was hard to say—holding her back, perhaps. Certainly she’d had plenty to do since coming here; being a new parent was enough of a full-time job, and she greatly looked forward to resuming teaching. Yet, she’d found herself wanting more. She thought about Norman, and how she’d felt as if she needed to have some kind of definite answer for him upon his return to Freethorn. But an answer to what? They’d spent a fair amount of time together since she and the boys had arrived here just over a week ago; and lately she’d been wondering if she and Norman would, one of these days, become more than just good friends, and was sure that he’d been thinking along similar lines. Neither had been forcing the issue, though, or were trying to rush the other into any decision of that nature. Still…were memories of Eric holding her back from taking her relationship with Norman any further? Could his memories of his late wife, Vera, be having the same effect upon him? All along, she’d been telling herself what her parents had advised her and her siblings long ago: to allow things to grow naturally, and not force anything. She sighed. Maybe things were proceeding at a natural pace; maybe the situation would change by the time Norman and his family returned, and her feelings for him clearer…or maybe not. For now, perhaps it would be best if…

This time it was Tyler who returned her attention to the here and now. He was fixing his attention to something behind them; or someone, as she found out. Another family of mice—including one that continually glanced nervously at the mhys’haspa, who still quietly groomed himself, another that held his arm and walked with the aid of a stick, and two little girls—were approaching from in back of them. “Hi, Louann. Hi, Teelo…Sharla…Tess. Come on up here and join us, there’s plenty of room.” Noting the apparent caution in their approach, she added, “Don’t worry about the mhys’haspa, he’s just passing through.”

“That’s really a mhys’haspa out there, Teresa?” asked Louann as Teelo helped her up, before he and the girls followed.

“Sure is. Looks like he just wanted to stop for a rest.” Teresa moved herself and the boys over to make room.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to having those things around,” said Teelo. “Brrr! They give me the willies.”

“Sure wish I could see it better,” said Louann. Sharla and Tess began describing it to her. Teresa still marveled at how casual their mother could be about her near-total blindness, uncertain if she’d be able to handle it as well.

Over the next few minutes, many others—Mice, Rats, and Rusay—had gathered at the site. Most Freethorners hadn’t seen a mhys’haspa up close before, and so this one was creating quite a stir. The object of their attention remained nearly oblivious, and by now had curled up and dozed off.

With everyone assured of their safety in this creature’s presence, some got quite brave. Siblings Torrance and Hazel, two of Vincent’s children who were in their early adolescence and quite the adventurous pair, came right up to him and touched him on the side. The mhys’haspa made a low rumbling sound almost like a cat’s purr, and turned one eye toward the two curiosity-seekers, who backed off slightly. He only turned his head the other way and continued his slumber. The two exchanged gleeful smiles and fell back to join their friends, to whom they excitedly related their escapade.

Over the next hour, those present had taken this gathering from simple, curious observation to a spontaneous, celebratory affair in honor of this native visitor who chose this place to rest his bones. An ever-increasing number of Rats and Mice, coming from their daily tasks in midafternoon, were joining in, many bringing picnic meals. Youngsters who’d finished their classes began organizing games which were, for the most part, as loose and freewheeling as this whole affair. The Rusay visitors were also quick to join in, seeing firsthand what they’d already been told: that the Freethorners were very freely given to celebration, and would use almost any occasion as an excuse, especially since their arrival on Lahaikshe.

One who was especially thrilled at this visit was Patricia Davis, who, once she’d gotten the word, rushed out here as fast as she could, bearing pencils and sketchpad. She’d largely forewent her artful pursuits for her first few weeks here as she and the rest of her family adjusted to their new lives in Freethorn, but had always intended to pick it up later. Now, she happily joined those other artistically-inclined Rats and Mice in putting to paper their images of this magnificent creature. During the years when her family lived in close proximity to humans in the town of Sampson—home to the NIMH facility that had been their previous, unwilling home—Patricia had sketched many pictures of her family and other mice, as well as other species of animals, even humans. She’d had little opportunity to do the same with native Lahaikshean species, though; she hadn’t even had the opportunity to sketch a haisk’ve, despite the several times they’d been here to help shuttle the exchange parties. The one mhys’haspa drawing was of a distant silhouette, floating in midair high above Freethorn; but now here was the real thing before her, as big as life, an opportunity not to be missed. Her husband, children, grandchildren and others shuttled in and out behind her, watching the portrait’s progress, knowing not to distract her overmuch but thrilled at watching it take shape. Timothy, whose own art had also taken a backseat lately, was working on his own creation and attracting an audience, primarily Lucy.

The mhys’haspa paid little heed to any of this and, when he took any notice of the goings-on, seemed barely interested or at best indifferent. Eventually he got to his feet, stretched, yawned, and flexed his wings. He flapped them several times, and after pushing himself upward, was airborne. Below, his departure hardly went unnoticed. There were many shouted goodbyes, but it certainly didn’t mark an end to the revelry. Any celebration, Justin and Johnathan had explained to the Rusay visitors, was really in honor of their continued good fortune in this world, and hope for more of the same.

The Rusay found it odd that the Freethorners seemed to regard the mhys’haspa almost as an equal, whereas they considered creatures like them to be essentially wild beasts, much as humans consider any form of animal life. Not that the Rusay didn’t carry a degree of respect for their fellow creatures—it was actually quite considerable—but it still seemed odd to them. It was Sithpha who voiced this matter aloud to Justin; and in reply, Justin reminded them that they were not originally as advanced as they are now, but still consider themselves to be contemporaries of natural rats and mice in many ways. Though they could read and understand at least one language of humans, they could also still communicate with their ordinary counterparts and many other animals as well. Since coming to Lahaikshe, they found they could do the same with some of the native animal life, including mhys’haspas. The degree of respect accorded to them was simply an extension of attitudes well established for years.

In the wake of the mhys’haspa’s departure, several of the children were pretending to be mhys’haspas and other Lahaikshean animals. Willis was one of the adults getting into the act, giving a “haisk’ve” ride to Lula and Stuart, oldest son of Jessica, walking on all fours with a heavy, lumbering gait and grunting as their friends rolled on the ground laughing. Nearby, Patricia and Jessica watched, laughing and applauding. The two families who had “begun” this gathering had since come down from the rock and joined them. Many came by to admire Patricia’s finished sketch of the mhys’haspa, a more detailed version of which would follow, and she was looking forward all the more to seeing more of the local plant and animal life.

They also commented on how fond Lula and Stuart were of each other, as they’d been since shortly after Lula’s arrival. Though they certainly approved, there were still lingering concerns over how well Stuart would treat Lula. Patricia (and others) still couldn’t help feeling protective of her, since she was a natural mouse with no connection to anyone here other than her professed love for Desmond, and so had been a total stranger to the ways of the Freethorners. Jessica, especially, had been concerned that Stuart might not be sensitive enough in dealing with Lula, knowing how brusque and even rude he could be to his own siblings and “close” cousins (Norman’s children). However, he often confided in his mother, especially since his father’s death, sharing his feelings with her to a degree the others would find surprising; and though he was clearly becoming more interested in members of the opposite sex outside of his family, it wasn’t really known just how he’d behave with one. Now, he was surprising everyone with the great patience and kindness he was displaying toward Lula, helping her with her schoolwork and doing a considerable part in orienting her to life here. He was the perfect gentleman, and she’d become very fond of him as well, though it clearly wasn’t the same as with Desmond. Thus far, she regarded Stuart as a close friend, far differently than with Desmond, as if she were consciously taking things more slowly with him; obviously she was quite happy and content with that.

Nearby, Teresa, Louann and Teelo were keeping a close watch on their children’s playing together, to make sure it didn’t get too rough for the little ones. Presently, two other mice approached.

“Hello, Michael and Cynthia,” greeted Patricia.

“Sit down and join us for a while,” invited Jessica. The pair had arrived on the scene just before the mhys’haspa’s departure, having been detained by duties elsewhere.

After they complied, Patricia said with a wink, “Well, is there any, oh, announcement you’d like to make?”

Michael gazed upward. “Oh…perhaps,” he said with a knowing smile.

“Mother! Don’t embarrass them,” said Jessica.

“That’s all right, Jessie,” said Cynthia quickly. “What were you talking about just now?”

“Oh, ah…about how well Lula has adjusted to living here, and how well Stuart’s been treating her. It’s almost hard to believe.”

“I knew he had it in him to be a gentleman,” said Michael. “I think he was ready for it.”

“He reminds me of Martin at that age,” said Cynthia, “and look at how he’s turned out.”

“I guess so,” said Jessica. “It’s almost as surprising how well Lula’s adjusted, considering how little she’d really had to do with the rest of us.”

“Yes,” said Michael distantly. “Reminds me of old ‘No-Name’. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I wonder how he’ll adjust, if he ever decides to come here…if he’s ever really able to decide.” He paused, briefly recalling his unsuccessful assignment to convince this unnamed child of Vincent, the only one living that wasn’t presently living in Freethorn, to come here.

“It’s too bad you couldn’t convince him,” said Jessica. “I’d like to meet him.”

The others voiced agreement; then Michael said, “I wish we knew more about his exact condition. Then maybe, next time, we’d have a better idea of how to deal with him. He seemed to be in his own world, and we had no idea how much of what we were saying was getting through.”

“Tallus said it could be…autism, right?” said Cynthia.

“That’s what he thought.”

“I’ve read about that,” said Patricia. “It’s supposed to be not an uncommon condition among humans.”

“That’s right,” added Jessica. “But there’s no precedent for it among mice, is there?”

“There’s a first time for everything,” said Michael with a small laugh.

“And we’re all living proof of that,” said Patricia.

“True, but…I can’t help thinking…if I hadn’t grabbed him and shouted at him like I did, after we escaped from that cat, he might not have said no.”

“I still don’t believe that, Michael,” said Cynthia. “After all you’d told him about Freethorn, why would he refuse just because you yelled at him? And you did apologize, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did. Maybe that is silly, but…there’s one thing I’m sure of. There was definitely something more he wanted to tell us, but he couldn’t make himself understood. When Johnathan and I left him, when we were leaving his den…I looked back at him one last time, and he was sitting there again, like he did so much of the time. Only this time, I could swear his expression was different, almost like he was…sad, like there was more he wanted to say, but couldn’t. I thought at the time that when he said ‘no’, he might not have been actually replying to our offer. I still think that’s possible.”

“Well, whatever the case, it’s almost that time again, isn’t it?” asked Jessica.

“For us to check on him again? I guess, though it’s hard to tell if it’s been a whole month yet, with this Lahaikshean time.”

“Would he know the difference?”

“Maybe not, Jess. But we did tell him we’d see him in about a month, and a promise is a promise. I’ll bring it up to Johnathan next time I see him.”

“I hope you can bring him here this time,” said Jessica. “I’m willing to bet we have the resources here to help him in any way he needs. He just sounds so pathetic and hopeless; he definitely needs our help.”

Conversation turned to lighter fare. Presently Kimball joined them, and everyone continued whiling away the afternoon. Shortly, Michael and Cynthia left, having appeared a bit restless and preoccupied before, leaving in their wake a bit of discussion on their behalf.

“Everyone knows how crazy they are about each other,” said Patricia. “And they make such a great couple. I don’t know why they don’t just come out and announce it.”

“Oh, relax, Mother,” said Jessica, patting her mother’s arm. “They’re probably just playing a game with us. When they’re ready, they’ll announce it. And in a big way, too, I’ll bet.”

“Oh, I know, Jessie. But can you blame me? We never really got the chance to see any of you children fall in love, and take a mate. Oh, there was Karen and Martin, of course, but the circumstances were so different with them, what with our frantic rush to get to Thorn Valley, and not knowing what we’d find…brrr! I wouldn’t want to go through that again for the world, despite all the good that came from that whole debacle.”

“Not the least of which, dear,” pointed out Kimball, “is the fact that it brought all of us together, including Michael and Cynthia. For all that, I can honestly say it was worth everything I went through, including losing my leg, for us to be able to relax like this now, all of us together, without fear of being suddenly snatched away and eaten, or captured, or anything to keep us from living free.”

“But if there had been an easier way, Dad,” said Jessica, “you would have taken it, wouldn’t you?”

“In a heartbeat, Jessie,” replied Kimball with a hearty laugh. “In a heartbeat.”

As the group continued watching the children’s games and chatting about other subjects, Jessica became lost in thought. Talking about Michael and Cynthia had reminded her of what was missing in her life. Although there was the stimulation of new surroundings, a new career, new friends, new challenges, she was sure she was ready for a new love affair herself. There was a marked shortage of eligible males, though; and although there had never been rules set down about having more than one mate, and the practice wasn’t frowned upon for the handful of Rats who did, she wasn’t too fond of the idea when applied to herself. Oh well, she thought, maybe the cliché about good things coming to those who wait does apply here. She wondered briefly if she weren’t being a bit selfish; then thought, no, not at all. Everyone needs to feel close to someone, the way she did with Harley. She knew he would want her to find someone new; he told her this himself, not long before his death.

Nearby, Teresa’s babies were napping on a blanket as their mother conversed with Hermione, her closest friend among the Rats, and her fiancé Garner. Jessica found herself feeling a pang of jealousy as she thought about how close Teresa and Norman were becoming these days. Surely, she was happy for them, and yet…

“Hey, here comes another happy couple,” said Hermione.

“They don’t look too happy to me,” observed Teelo.

“Who is it?” asked Louann.

“It’s Bertie and Tara,” said Teresa. “I wonder what the trouble is.”

As the two approached hand-in-hand, everyone could tell they were upset; yet, for all they genuinely wanted to help, and though none in this group disapproved of their being together, some still had to make an effort to be nonchalant about it since, after all, they were still quite the odd couple to look at.

As they drew closer, Patricia made to ask what the trouble was; but before she got in a word, Bertie said urgently, “Has anybody here seen Justin?”

“It’s really important,” added Tara. “We need to see him right away.”

“He and Isabella and the kids came by a little while ago, just for a few minutes,” said Jessica. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Yes, why would you need to see him so urgently?” asked Patricia.

Bertie sighed, sounding exasperated. “We just do, okay?”

“Now, Bertram,” Kimball said patiently, “I don’t know why you think Justin should be the only one to hear you, but you know you can tell us anything. We are your parents.”

“Yes,” added Patricia, “and I think you really do want to.”

Bertie looked befuddled. If there was anyone who knew him as well or better as he himself did… He looked at Tara and shrugged. She nodded, and they both sat down.

“Well,” began Tara, “we were just finishing up swim class, and had just excused everyone…”

“And I was just sitting there, watching and waiting for her to finish.”

“I finished drying off and I saw where Bertie was waiting for me, and then I waved to him; and then Thurman—you guys know him, right?” Tara indicated Hermione and Garner, who nodded; Garner, in fact, was Thurman’s nephew, though they were close to the same age. “He came up to me and said…he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you stick to your own kind?’ And then he just walked away.”

“And I was right there, within earshot,” added Bertie. “And he just says this like I’m not even there.”

Tara continued: “I…I didn’t know what to do for a moment, then I hollered back at him, ‘Why, you lousy little…I’m gonna get you!’ But then Jarman and Lothar came up to me, and they tried to calm me down. They’d heard what Thurman said too, and they know me when I’m angry. They said to just let it go, that he was just being a loudmouthed jerk and that it wasn’t worth getting this upset over. Well, I managed to cool down a bit, but I couldn’t just let it go, not completely.”

“I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, too, but then she said she had a better idea, that this is something the council should know about.”

“That’s right, take it right to the top. I don’t know exactly what they might be able to do, but we’ve got to nip this in the bud.”

Reactions were mixed; there was silent head-shaking, expressions of sympathy, and others were already weighing possible implications.

“Tara,” said Patricia, “I assume you know Thurman quite well already. Are you sure he really meant any harm?”

“That’s just it, Patricia. I’ve known him since we were little more than babies, since we could walk. We grew up together, we were always playing together. I…I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back. He’s never talked to me that way before.” Tara tried hard to keep tears from her eyes. Bertie laid his hand on her arm.

“So…” ventured Teresa, “how did you conclude that the council should know this?”

“It’s not just Thurman,” said Bertie. “Every day since we’ve been going together, it’s whisper, whisper, whisper, and snicker, snicker, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. You all know what I’m talking about.”

“Yes, we do, but not everyone’s like that,” said Jessica.

“That’s right, we’re not,” added Louann.

“But you still think it’s strange, don’t you?” said Bertie. “A rat and a mouse getting cozy like this…”

“Of course it’s unusual, son,” said Kimball. “And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still finding it a bit hard to get accustomed to. But that doesn’t mean we don’t approve, or aren’t happy for you, or wish the both of you every happiness in return.”

Bertie’s feelings were mixed. Surely, as well as he knew his own family, he could hardly accuse them of laughing at Tara and him behind their backs. Still… “What about everyone else, though? It may be okay with you, but…if that’s Thurman’s attitude about it, how many others are out there who feel the same way, but are keeping it to themselves?”

Kimball gave a thoughtful sigh. “You do have a point there…”

“Sure, some of this whispering and nudging and pretending to be nonchalant might not be anything, but…some of it’s got to mean something more serious.”

“And it could be a sign of something really unpleasant, that most of us wouldn’t have believed was possible here,” said Patricia.

“Or maybe not,” added Kimball. “But you were right, Bertram, to think that this was something worth bringing before the council. However serious this is, or isn’t, it should be brought out into the open.”

“We’re glad to hear you say that, Kimball,” said Tara with genuine respect. “I guess we can’t do much more here…”

“I’ll talk to Thurman, if that’ll help,” offered Garner. “He and I have always gotten along well, and I know he’ll listen to me.”

“Thanks, Garner,” said Tara, patting his shoulder. “Guess we’d better get going here.”

As she and Bertie made to leave, Teelo spoke up. “You know…for what it’s worth, you guys, I think it’s all right. I mean…there’s a lot about the ways of everyone here—the way you all understand and go about things, and so on—that’s still strange to me, but I’m learning to live with it, just as I’ve learned to live with Louann, and she’s one of those that’s different than me. And I love her and Sharla and Tess more than anything. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that, to me, it’s just another different way of doing things here, you two being together.” He looked down at his daughters, tickling each of them, to which they responded with squeals and giggles.

“You know something, buddy?” said Bertie. “I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Thanks.” He patted Teelo on the back and stood. “Come on, Tara, let’s go find Justin.” The two left, looking considerably more optimistic and in better spirits than when they arrived.

For some of those in this group, though, the mood was near-opposite. Discussion continued about this new situation, and it was definitely causing some uneasiness, as most realized its possibly very serious implications. There were expressions of hope, though, that it would be resolved without too much trouble.

Chapter 6 - Inspirations by moonlight

For the second time in as many nights, a rendezvous by moonlight would be made, though this one was entirely planned. Ellis made his way along a route which would eventually bring him to the meadow on the south side of the lake, close to the garden areas. This was not one of the more highly-traveled pathways; it really wasn’t a pathway so much as an obstacle course, winding around close-set shrubbery, through tangled briars, over roots and stones. If asked, he wouldn’t be able to say precisely why he took this route. Certainly, he wanted some extra time for solitary reflection on the day’s events before going to see this new one through. He thought about Bertie and Tara, and their determination to have this crisis of theirs—as they saw it—taken seriously and right to the top. He hadn’t been there when they discussed the matter with their parents—though he had seen the mhys’haspa—but he’d heard plenty afterwards, including how they’d gone straight to Justin with their concerns. He could well understand why they were taking it so seriously, though his view on their pairing was much like Teelo’s. Strange, unexpected things were happening these days since they’d all found each other in this displaced piece of Earth, something Ellis knew very well.

He paused to gaze upward; it was every bit the beautiful, star-filled night that it was the night before. Looking upon the half-moon, he was again reminded of Lilia. He took a deep breath. He couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous. Lilia’s behavior last night was so unexpected and out of character that several times today he could have sworn he’d dreamed the whole experience. He’d wondered if she would approach him some time during the day; but she never did, and he in turn didn’t deliberately seek her out, though he’d glimpsed her coming to and from classes. He’d felt compelled to keep their meeting a secret, and had apparently succeeded, since he’d heard nothing to indicate that anyone else besides Lilia and Reuben knew about it.

Now, as he moved on, he tried to analyze the nervousness he felt now. Was it possible that Lilia was playing some kind of game, or pulling some trick on him? Perhaps she planned on standing him up, fooling him into showing up at the meadow and making him wait and seeing how long before he’d give up. That, he realized, was the main reason he was taking this out-of-the-way route, to stay out of sight in case her intentions weren’t entirely on the up-and-up, and he might catch her if she and possibly others were planning something more elaborate and devious. But was Lilia capable of something so conspiratorial? He thought of her words and actions last night, her attitude of complete innocence and honesty and wanting only to have fun and enjoy the night. No, Ellis decided, Lilia honestly did want to see him again, here tonight, and he wanted to see her. She’d had an effect on him that, though he still couldn’t define it, was so compelling that he couldn’t resist coming here if he tried. He recalled fondly her smile, her laughter, her beautiful scent, her gracefulness, and that coy and rather cryptic final gesture she’d given him.

Now here was a new source for uneasiness. What if he’d misinterpreted whatever she was trying to tell him? He thought it through, picturing the incident in his mind again, walking himself through it step by step. No, he concluded, it couldn’t have meant anything else. He was sure she wanted to see him again; and she’d enjoyed being out here so much, that this had to be where she wanted them to meet. Okay, Mr. Logic, he thought, let’s not worry anymore. If, by some chance, she’s not there, then we’ll wait a half hour or so, then leave. He hoped he hadn’t misunderstood her, but if so, it wouldn’t be his fault. She didn’t come right out and say what she wanted, and he did the best he could. Of course, he wished otherwise, because he wanted to find out more about her, find out why she behaved as she did, just…be with her.

There was still Reuben, though. What if he showed up to drag her away again? Well, just let him try, Ellis thought. He would intervene this time, do all he could to convince Reuben that his sister was in no danger and could go where she pleased, even if it meant wrestling him to the turf and sitting on his chest until he gave in. Ellis snickered at the absurd image, but he would do it if he had to.

He moved further out into the open, by now much more certain that there was nothing untoward going on and that Lilia would be waiting for him. Though uncertain of precisely what this night would hold in store, his anticipation rose.

Finally, he approached the thicket in which he’d hidden last night. Rounding it, he was again looking upon the meadow, though Lilia was nowhere in sight. He walked out a little further, scanning back and forth. Okay, he told himself, this is nothing to throw a fit over; there’s no reason why she should show up at the exact same time; though he did somehow believe that she’d be waiting for him, and already dancing up a storm. He sighed, looking at the moon again. Looks like I’ll be waiting after all, he thought; might as well get comfortable. He made to sit down.

“Ellis! You came!”

He literally jumped straight up, almost stumbling as he touched ground. He recovered quickly enough, though, and turned to face the voice’s source. “Lilia! I was…I mean—” Before he could say more, she rushed to him, embracing him and nuzzling his ear. Ellis was completely at a loss at how to respond, at least verbally; for now, he simply went with the moment, embracing her in turn. He thought about how her abrupt greeting was just one more unexpected turn in the exploration of the mystery that was her and Reuben. He was soon distracted, though, by the scent and feel of her nearness, her breath in his ear, her heart beating close to his—and the fact that she was again going “nude.”

He found himself thinking about exploration of another kind; then, she suddenly broke away, as if this passionate-seeming embrace were just her way of saying hello. “Oh, I’m so happy you came, Ellis. I think tonight’s even more beautiful, don’t you?”

Ellis fumbled in his reply, trying to regain his composure. “Yeah, uh…yeah, Lilia, I…I suppose it is. Right. Uh, listen, did you have to…” Again he found it hard to maintain a straight line of thought, as Lilia launched into a series of handsprings, somersaults, and simple rolls along the ground. Ellis was once again enthralled by her, and silently watched her performance for over a minute before remembering his “place”.

“Lilia,” he said with a laugh, “you’re getting away from me again.” He took hold of her arm.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ellis. Were you going to say something?” She sat down, wearing the same coquettish expression as before.

Ellis joined her. “Yes, I was wondering…did you have to…well, sneak away from Reuben?”

“Oh, he was no problem at all,” she replied with her characteristic laugh. “He probably doesn’t even know I’m gone.”

Ellis nodded, wondering how she could be so certain of that, knowing of Reuben’s diligence in keeping track of her whereabouts; but he decided not to ask it aloud for now. “Lilia, I…still can’t help wondering…how you can be so different than before. I mean, not different than last night, but…well, you know. Before that.” He sighed. “I know, I sound like a broken record.”

“You can say anything to me, Ellis, I don’t mind.” Lilia grabbed her ankles, rocked back and forth twice, and did a backwards somersault back onto her feet. “I just feel free here, and secure, like I can do anything I wish. I can’t explain it any other way.”

Ellis stood up. “That’s what you said last night, too, and…it’s not that I don’t believe you, but you just let Reuben drag you away like that. It just didn’t seem to follow.”

“I was just humoring him, Ellis.” Lilia took his hand, and they began walking together across the field. “He’ll see things more my way eventually. In the meantime, why waste the night?” She suddenly began running across the field; and Ellis followed, without losing his grip.

Why indeed, he thought. The question that was on his lips, about whether she would allow Reuben to interrupt them tonight, was quickly forgotten as he allowed himself to be gloriously lost in the magic of this night. The two young mice continued running and dancing across the meadow, hand in hand, laughing with the carefree attitude of two that only lived for the moment.

Amidst it all, Ellis was able to step back and observe himself; not enough to stop his revelry, but enough to make him wonder: what if someone else did come upon them? What would either of them say? He thought that Lilia would possibly ask them to join in too, and he decided that he would say the same in that event. He hoped that wouldn’t happen, though; he wanted this moment to be shared only by the two of them. He even supposed that some might have seen them already, perhaps last night too. There were others who spent some time out and about at night, including members of the Guard on their roving patrols. Freethorn wasn’t that large, after all. None of that mattered to him right now, not while he was with this one who had inspired him to such a degree, who had showed him how spontaneous and unconstrained he could be. He had yet to find out, though, just how high a degree.

Finally, Lilia separated herself from Ellis, spun herself around in a graceful pirouette, and seemed to collapse upon the ground, though Ellis quickly realized it was entirely intentional. She stretched out full, sighed deeply and reached out with both arms towards the moon above. She drew them in again with eyes closed, as if she imagined she’d just plucked the moon from the sky like a berry, and were now clutching it to her breast.

Ellis was transfixed at the sight. His breathing was still a bit labored from the past several minutes’ non-stop cavorting; but now, it was increasingly so from seeing Lilia as she was now, with feelings and desires never before felt so strongly for anyone coming to the fore. His heart leapt as Lilia began running her hands over her entire body, her own breath quickening as much as his own, though he knew it wasn’t from the past few minutes’ activity, but from the same feelings in her that were rising within himself, as much as he knew there had been something mutual between them all along. He placed hand over chest, feeling his heart beating like a triphammer.

Lilia let out a gasping sigh, then opened her eyes. She looked straight at Ellis and smiled, expression almost pleading, arms outstretched. Her eagerness, her arms welcoming him in, her scent, and all that had preceded this moment… It had all become overwhelming for him, and he could no longer control his actions if he tried. He sank down onto the meadow beside her, drawing arms around her, feeling the heart inside her lean, athletic body beating as fast as his own as she threw her arms around him, drawing him in tightly.

Lilia gave an unrestrained cry of joy and passion as Ellis nuzzled her neck and ear and the side of her face. “Oh, Ellis, yes! Oh, I need you so much…” Hardly any further words were spoken as the two continued their celebration of the night, with no further concerns over anyone else seeing them here, with thoughts of any kind of interruption completely irrelevant. Their whole world consisted of each other and their own mutual pleasures.

* * *

Near the swimming cove on the east side of Lake Nicodemus, two others sat close together, watching the dappled reflection of the moonlight on the water.

One sighed and leaned her head on the other’s shoulder. “Oh, Tim, I could sit here like this all night.”

“It is beautiful, isn’t it, Lucy?”

“Yeah. It’s just too bad…that even though we can have moments like these, there still has to be any kind of trouble at all here.”

“You mean, like with Bertie and Tara?”

“Yeah. I know you said not to worry about it, and that it’ll turn out all right, but…ooh, I’d like to give…what’s-his-name there a piece of my mind. ‘Your own kind’…Uhhrrgh! I mean, what is it with guys like that? Why do they want to deliberately cause a lot of bad feelings, especially when no one’s done anything to deserve it?” She sighed again. “Sorry, Tim, I guess…now I’m the one who’s bringing things down.”

“That’s all right, Lucy. Bertie’s your litter-mate, you don’t want to see him hurt. I’ve felt the same way when someone made some thoughtless remark to Cynthia. Anyway…let’s try not to worry about anyone or anything else for a while, okay?”

“Okay. Still…there’s something…not about Bertie and Tara, but about Ellis. I don’t know, I’m not really worried, but something’s going on with him too, I’m sure of it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Whenever I saw him today, he seemed to have something on his mind that just preoccupied him totally. A couple of times he’d go spacey right while we were talking, just forget what he was saying.”

“So now you’re wondering what my intuition has to say about him.”

“Well, yes. So tell me, O wise one, O great fountain of wisdom, what does the future hold for my dear brother Ellis?”

Taking her teasing in stride, Timothy replied, “Well, let me think about him, and picture him in my mind the last time I saw him today…” He closed his eyes, concentrating intently; and Lucy, despite her mild sarcasm, was genuinely concerned, and interested in hearing the answer. Upon opening his eyes, Timothy said, “Well, I…don’t quite know how to describe what I’ve just felt.”

Lucy frowned. “But…Ellis is in no kind of trouble, is he?”

“He’ll be all right, I’m sure of that. But there’s something else…it doesn’t seem to be related to what Bertie and Tara think might be a problem, but…it’s something that’ll affect everyone here, and…I can’t say if it’ll be in a good way or not. Maybe it’s too early to tell. I can say that someone, one individual, or possibly two, are at the center of it. But I can say for sure that Ellis isn’t one of them.”

“And there’s nothing more you can tell right now?”

“Wellll…there is one thing I’m worried about…”

“Oh?”

“I’m worried about what might happen if you keep teasing me like you were a minute ago while we’re sitting this close to the water.”

“Oh, really? And what might happen, O great exalted guru of the mountain?” She shifted position next to him.

“Oh, perhaps something like…this, maybe!” They were sitting at a spot where the bank rose about a foot above the water, unlike at the cove where a sloping beach had been maintained over the past two-plus years. So now, having caught her just off-balance enough, Timothy was able to tilt Lucy right over, in the direction that would take her right over the bank. Right in mid-teeter, though, Lucy was able to reach out a hand and grab Timothy’s foot. Thus partially stabilized, she was able to reach out her other hand, grab his other foot, and send both of them tumbling over the bank.

It quickly became clear to each of them that the other had expected a course of action like this. Neither really cared, though, as they filled the next few minutes with laughter and frolicking in the shallows. They swam and dived, splashed each other, and otherwise—in their own way—celebrated this night’s near-magical quality.

After climbing back on the bank, they shook off as much excess water as they could, then sat down together again and took turns toweling each other dry. “This is so amazing, Tim,” said Lucy as he dried her back. “I still can’t get over how we can do all this at night, without worrying about being attacked by anything.”

“I know, right? Not even in the relative security of Thorn Valley could we have a moonlight swim.” He sighed as he spread the towel out on the grass. Both sat down on it, arms around waists, gazing up at the starry sky. “Mom and Dad always like to tell us about how much they loved starry skies, and the effect it had on them.”

“Mm-hm. So did my folks.” They looked upon each other, smiling; then an errant breeze came their way, making them both shiver slightly. They laughed, hugging each other more tightly. They gazed into each other’s eyes again, and in a moment of sheer spontaneity pressed their lips together. They kissed gently, tentatively at first but feeling increasingly comfortable even as they felt their whole beings tingle with the newfound sensation.

“Did you like that?” asked Timothy when they’d finished.

“No,” said Lucy, looking uncertain; then she dropped the façade. “I loved it.” They quickly picked up where they’d left off.

When they paused this time, Lucy said, “Oh, Tim…I had no idea you could kiss like that.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, lady.” Timothy grinned, rubbing her nose playfully. “Actually, I didn’t know I could kiss like that.”

“That was your first? Wow, I’d never have guessed. Wasn’t there ever…anyone else?”

“No, not really. The closest was…boy, you won’t believe this. When we first came here, I had…a big crush on Isabella when she was our chief babysitter.”

Lucy gaped, shaking her head and giving Timothy’s shoulder a push. “Get out! Isabella? Our First Lady, married to Justin?”

“The very same. She was just so…so nice, there’s no other way to put it. I’d never met anyone like her, mouse or rat. I knew I’d never have a chance with her, especially when she and Justin made it clear to everyone that they were a real couple. But I guess…that’s why I want to see Bertie and Tara accepted as a couple. They should be able to make it work just like any of us.”

“I feel the same way. And does that include…you and me?”

“You bet.” They kissed again, and then resumed looking out over the lake and sky. They were silent for the most part, but both were thinking about others in their families who were in loving relationships: Martin and Karen, who were as deeply and passionately in love as their own parents were in the beginning and very much still; and Cynthia and Michael, and how serious they were becoming about their love affair. Though they were happy for their respective siblings, they both felt, without actually discussing it aloud, that they were in no hurry in their own relationship, taking things easy, letting things grow and develop without forcing anything, as their parents had long advised. But just because they didn’t put their mutual feelings on display to the degree their siblings did, or hadn’t yet taken it to such a physical degree, didn’t mean their love was any less strong, or getting stronger.

When both started yawning, they agreed it was time to call it a night. They gathered their things and began a slow and easy stroll back to the Mouse community.

Chapter 7 - A rude awakening

Still half-asleep and unaware of his surroundings, Ellis stirred, making low grumbling sounds. He stretched out and felt a slight chill, which brought him to complete wakefulness. Upon opening his eyes, he was disoriented for a moment at seeing the open sky above and the grass that surrounded him; then he realized he’d spent all night here, and in another instant realized why. Lying on his right side, he could see that the sun had already risen, though it wasn’t yet visible over the Rooftop ridge.

He turned to his left and immediately saw her, though she wasn’t lying down; she was already awake and sitting upright on her haunches, with her head down. Ellis smiled as he recalled what they’d shared last night. “Lilia…good morning,” he said quietly as he sat up. But there was no apparent reaction from her. Maybe she’s still asleep, he thought; maybe she normally sleeps sitting upright. “Lilia…are you awake?” he said a bit louder. “It got a bit chilly overnight, didn’t it?” Still no reaction. Ellis came up beside her, touching her arm. “Lilia…what’s the matter? Are you all right?” She raised her head slightly, turning one eye toward him, and shrank away from him.

Ellis was incredulous, in no way prepared for this kind of reaction. “Lilia, please talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Without warning she shot to her feet and started away, sprinting on all fours toward the colonies. Ellis instantly began to follow. “Lilia, wait! Why are you leaving?” He suddenly found he had to run to catch up with her. When he did, he took her arm, bringing her to a standstill. “Lilia, please tell me what’s wrong.” He put both hands on her shoulders, facing her directly, but she wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Was it me? Did I hurt you in some way? If I did, you…you have to believe I didn’t mean to. I thought that you and I…both wanted to…”

Lilia backed away from him. “I…I really have to go. Please…just leave me alone.” She darted off again, leaving Ellis’s mind in a jumble and too mystified to follow her; at least at first. What just happened? What went wrong? After all they’d shared last night, all of which they’d both done willingly, even eagerly, how could her attitude toward him have changed so radically? It was as if she were repulsed by his very touch; indeed, by his very presence. Was he responsible? He had to have answers.

With renewed determination, he resumed following her, calling out her name. He still had her in his sight; he saw her approach the end of the blackberry thicket, and go completely around it and out of his sight for a few seconds. Ellis put on a burst of speed to catch up again, but when he rounded the thicket himself, Lilia was nowhere in sight. He glanced back and forth, scratching his head as he slowly scanned the area. It was a mostly open area, so she shouldn’t have been able to slip away from his sight so quickly. Unless…maybe she ran around the other end of the thicket, and would double back to try to throw him off. He made for the other end, rounded it…and suddenly met with something solid which shouldn’t have been there, which sent him sprawling.

It quickly became clear that this was someone, not something. Lilia? But another moment made it clear; it was another mouse—but not just another mouse—who sat on the ground in front of him, rubbing at his forehead where it had connected with Ellis’s.

“Whoa…Reuben. Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“You should watch where you’re going.” Reuben got to his feet, brushing himself off. “You shouldn’t go rushing around blind corners like that.” His tone was no different from the usual: flat, unexpressive, austere.

“Hey, I’m sorry, okay? You know I didn’t mean it. I was looking for Lilia, I thought she might have…” He paused, noticing the expression on Reuben’s face—not angry or accusatory, but still very stern and intense—and simultaneously realized, with a sinking feeling, what Reuben’s presence right here and now might mean. “Uh, Reuben, did you…I mean, were you here…uh, last night, when…” What, or how much he’d actually seen Ellis could only guess.

Reuben only nodded, expression still grim, as if he would explode in anger any moment.

Ellis sighed, resigned to not being able to talk his way around the matter. “So I guess…you know already about Lilia and me. Look,” he added quickly, words tumbling out and over each other, “I never meant for any of that to happen, it…it just happened. All the dancing and everything, the sky, the moon and…and her. She was just so…so beautiful, so…enticing. I didn’t force her into any of it, you gotta believe me; any more than she forced me. Come on, Reuben, say something. Don’t just stare like that.”

Abruptly Reuben’s expression softened, showing more confusion than anger or resentment. “I…don’t understand, I just don’t understand…” He walked past Ellis, seeming to ignore him.

Ellis followed. “What…what don’t you understand?”

Reuben glanced at Ellis, looking annoyed at the question. “I don’t know what’s happening with her lately. This is not like her at all, this sneaking out at night without my knowing. And now this.”

“Maybe she’s just…coming out of her shell since coming here.” Ellis knew how lame this sounded, and by now clichéd, but didn’t know what else to say.

Reuben shook his head. “All I know is she needs help. I’m not sure exactly how, but I’ve got to try.”

“Well, let me help, too. There’s a lot of us that want to.”

Reuben stopped and looked directly at Ellis. “She’s my responsibility. I’m her brother, I know her better than anyone.”

“Are you really sure of that? You just said she isn’t acting like herself lately.”

Reuben glared at Ellis and started to walk away again. Ellis followed again. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. The point is, you’re not the only one who wants to help her, and I think you know that as well as I do.”

“Ellis, please just leave us alone. Don’t try to see her anymore.”

Reuben increased his speed, and Ellis stood confused, at a loss for what to say or think as he watched Reuben race away. Now what? There were still too many unanswered questions, and he knew his mind would not be at ease until they were no longer so. He thought of last night, the moments of passionate tenderness they’d shared, after which they’d curled up together staring up at the star-filled sky before falling asleep. He could not comprehend how it all could have led to her rejection of him just minutes ago. Maybe this is all due to some change within her that would have taken place regardless of whether or not they’d met. But he still couldn’t help feeling he himself was at least partially responsible. He thought of how he’d regarded Lilia and Reuben the night before last—as a mystery to be explored. He never would have believed he’d become this involved—intimately involved, no less. And he hadn’t a clue as to what to do next.

He again thought of Lilia, of how small and terrified she’d looked just minutes ago, and felt close to tears at the thought that he might be responsible. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her, in any way, and he had to reach out to her, somehow. But Reuben said not to see her. All right, Reuben, he thought, maybe that would be best. For now, at least. But what about himself, and all that he was going through now? He had to talk to somebody about this. Reuben said nothing about not telling anyone else about this, not that Ellis would let that stop him if he had.

He sighed as he approached his clothing, lying where he’d shed it last night. He was already late for breakfast; and as he put his tunic on, he recalled how he’d told his parents that he’d probably be staying out late, and he knew they likely wouldn’t be worrying too much about his whereabouts all night. Maybe—no, make that definitely—they should be the ones he should talk to. It may not be easy—at least for himself—but he could see no alternative. He was certain that if he were honest about everything, they’d understand.

* * *

“And that’s about it, really. I couldn’t do anything but just stand there for a minute, and then I knew the best thing would be to talk to you.” Ellis sighed and finished his floor-pacing, joining his parents on the divan. “I just can’t help feeling responsible, somehow. I wish I’d never come that way the night before last. I just saw her, and…and I couldn’t turn away. That first day, when she and Reuben arrived, there was something there, some connection. I’d only seen her a few times after that, very briefly, but each time…there was still something there. I knew she was interested in me. I was never sure why, but…she fascinated me, too. And when I saw her out there, acting like I’d never expected her to act, I just…” He paused, shaking his head. “I don’t know what to think now.”

Kimball and Patricia looked at each other thoughtfully. Of course they were well aware of their son’s fascination for Lilia since her arrival, and had advised him as they had all their offspring when pursuing a possible love interest. He’d promised them he’d be kind and patient with her—not that there was any doubt—and in light of how little she and Reuben had changed since their arrival, they and others could understand if his patience was starting to wear thin. But when Ellis quietly asked to talk to his parents privately at breakfast, after which they returned to their quarters and he told them all about what happened last night and this morning, including the more personal details, they found these new developments just as baffling as Ellis.

“Ellis,” said Kimball, “what…exactly did Reuben say when you saw him this morning? About Lilia, I mean.”

“Well…he said that even he didn’t understand the way she’d been. And he’s the one who’s supposed to know her better than anyone. That’s the weirdest thing about all this. And he still thinks he’s the only one who can help her.”

“Whatever is wrong with her,” added Patricia, “It has to be something serious, something that Reuben won’t be able to deal with on his own.”

“That’s exactly what I thought. I want to help her, but when he said to stay away, I thought that, well, maybe he could help her on his own, in some way. But if he can’t, how long before he’ll admit it to anyone? If she’s hurting, I couldn’t stand the thought of that going on any longer than it has to.”

Patricia patted her son’s hand. “We’re so proud of you, dear, for being so compassionate. But…I think we should consider Reuben’s feelings too. It sounds like he’s worried sick over Lilia, just like you are. And he is her brother.”

“And he knows her better than any of us, I know.” Ellis sighed, nodding.

“This may seem an abrupt question, Ellis,” said Kimball, “but just how do you feel about Lilia? Do you love her?”

“I…really can’t say, Dad. I do care for her; after last night, how could I not care for her? I know that you’re…probably not too crazy about…what we did, that we both should have been sure we were in love first…”

“No, that’s all right, Ellis. It’s not the same for everyone, and we’re not going to judge you on that. Look at Vincent; he’d mated with all those females, and he apparently had no desire to be a husband to any of them.”

“And Lilia’s his daughter,” added Patricia. “I wonder…is there some connection there? With all those things that seemed odd about Vincent… Ah, I’m…not sure how to put this…”

“I think I know what you’re trying to say, Mom,” said Ellis. “Most of Vincent’s children seem pretty normal—Boris, Torrance, Hazel, the younger ones—but these two are definitely something different. But I’ve already decided that I can’t turn away from them, Lilia or Reuben. I’ve become too involved in their lives, whether Reuben likes it or not. I’ve got to see this through.”

“So what do you plan on doing, right now?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I said I’d stay away from them for the time being, but how long should that be?”

“Perhaps,” suggested Patricia, “You should give it at least a day, dear; and we should, too, as well. I know how much you want to help her, but we should also respect Reuben’s wishes. Maybe he can help her, in some way.”

“Yeah, maybe. All right, I’ll try to take it a day at a time.”

“Things will be clearer tomorrow, son,” said Kimball. “I really believe that.”

“I guess. Say, that reminds me: has there been anything new found in Vincent’s notes? Something that might shed some light on what’s going on lately?”

“Very good question.” In recent days, research and organization of Vincent’s notes had resumed after a several-week period of relative inactivity, during which other matters took a higher priority. The last major discovery had been that of Vincent’s outside activities during which he’d fathered several offspring; and now that work on his notes had picked up again, Kimball had been one of those that had all but taken over the task, along with Johnathan and occasionally Ages. “It’s something we’d suspected before, but some notes we’ve recently discovered would seem to confirm it. In most of them he’s not very forthcoming about his feelings, but we found a few pages in which he articulates them very well, in at least one case to a…rather disturbing degree. Based on these, we believe he might have been agoraphobic.”

“Meaning he had a fear of…”

“Of open areas, and leaving home. Of being too far away from where he felt the most safe and secure.”

“And that would be inside a place like NIMH? Go figure. Still, it does explain quite a bit.”

“Indeed. Not the least of which is why I could never convince him to come live with us.”

“Or why he wouldn’t come with you to Thorn Valley,” added Patricia. “The prospect of such a long trip must have been terrifying.”

“It’s just another thing he couldn’t tell me,” said Kimball, sighing. “He said that his ‘mission’ had to go on, but he might have been trying to cover his fear of leaving home. He might have been too ashamed to tell us the truth.”

“And not even in that last message that he left for me, that Karen, Martin and I found. It’s all so sad. He should be here now, with us, with the children he never knew. I just know he’d be proud of them.”

“I know he would too. Every time I visited him, he’d always extend his best wishes to our whole family, and one time he said he envied me for the domestic life I had.”

Ellis nodded thoughtfully. “I guess, then, he’d want us all to take care of his kids, to look after them, and help them if they were in any kind of trouble.”

Kimball smiled, putting a hand on Ellis’s shoulder. “There’s no taking your mind off the subject, is there? That’s quite all right, though. We’re proud that you’re willing to take on this kind of responsibility.” He gave his son a quick hug.

“We certainly are,” added Patricia, following suit. “But you still won’t try to see Lilia today, though?”

“No. I’ll give it at least another day. Uh, Mom, Dad…I really appreciate all this. It wasn’t easy, admitting all this stuff.”

“You know you can tell us anything, anytime,” said Patricia. “And we’re glad you did.”

Most human observers would surely find much of the content of the preceding conversation to be hard to believe, even outrageous. But in contrast to much of human society, these creatures have little or no problem with discussing such matters openly. By and large, parents will very readily accept their children’s sexuality as a matter of course, as much a part of life as eating or sleeping, work or play; and when a true attraction is there, they will accept that as well, with little interference.

“Thanks, Mom,” Ellis now said. “Well…I’ve got a few classes to get to, and I’ll probably help out with some planting today, too. So I guess there’s plenty to keep my mind off this for a while.”

“All right, son,” said Kimball. “But don’t forget the general meeting. It’ll start just after lunch.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks for reminding me. See you later. Love you guys.” He waved goodbye, and walked out the front door of their quarters. As caught up in his own problems as he was, he had almost forgotten about Bertie’s situation with Tara, and the matter they felt warranted a general meeting. Though he and Bertie were often at odds and didn’t always see eye to eye, Ellis wouldn’t dream of not supporting his brother in his time of need.

Chapter 8 - Encroaching ills?

Justin cast his gaze all about the amphitheater-styled assembly hall, smiling as he regarded the crowd. The overwhelming majority of the Rats were present, of course, as were most of the recently-swelled Mouse community, and many children accompanied their parents. This time, the Rusay visitors, gathered in a small cluster in the lowermost seats, added to the variety. This increased diversity reminded Justin of the principal subject of this meeting, and how some among the council were skeptical about the Rusay’s participation and about children attending. There could be some unpleasant truths revealed, it was argued, that could taint the image that had been projected to previous visitors. But, it was further argued, no one here had been trying to present Freethorn as a completely idyllic society, without so much as a cross word between two individuals. It was true that most would try to be on his or her best behavior when any of the Rusay was around, but that was simply part of everyone’s inclination to show hospitality. However, it was widely agreed that there shouldn’t be a concentrated effort made to gloss over or try to put a façade on any internal problems that may exist. They had nothing to hide from their visitors; this was their world, after all, and too much secrecy could be misinterpreted as a plot toward something sinister or harmful. So ultimately it was agreed to let the visitors sit in, and let the chips fall where they may. Indeed, it should prove enlightening; it would be an excellent showcase for how the Freethorners went about finding solutions to their problems.

On the floor and around the dais, some councilmembers carried on some conversation before taking their seats. One approached Justin. “Well, Justin, I think it’s about time, don’t you?”

Justin turned. “I guess so, Colbert. It looks like anybody who’s going to show up has already.” He looked toward the ones whose concerns prompted this meeting, seated on the lowermost row, and they exchanged nods. He stood up, and the steady buzz of conversation in the chamber began to die down.

“Good afternoon, everyone. We’re glad you were all able to come. Now…it would be my guess that most of you don’t know why this meeting was called. But instead of my telling you, I’ll now turn the floor over to someone better qualified, whose firsthand experiences have led to our being here today. Most of you know them: Bertram and Tara.”

The pair, seated in the lowermost row, stood up and walked to the dais, amid renewed whispering and muttering, as well as some applause. Bertie climbed up on a chair so he could be seen a bit better, Tara beside him; and as they faced the assemblage, both felt some butterflies, and swallowed hard. They’d been determined to see this through, but now that they were here, they couldn’t help feeling some apprehension.

“Let’s not forget, Bertie,” Tara said quietly. “I know it feels like we’re being judged, but we’re not on trial here. Our complaint’s legit, one hundred percent. Let’s not forget that for a second.”

“Yeah. Okay…” Bertie turned to face the crowd. “Can everyone hear me out there? Okay. Something happened to me ’n’ Tara yesterday, and we thought the council should know about it. Then, they decided everyone should hear about it. So…here goes.”

Each of them took turns describing the incident, though not mentioning Thurman by name. Afterwards, Tara said, “Now we know all of you think it’s unusual for us to be this way. We think so too, honestly. We didn’t mean for any of it to happen; but how is that different from anyone else here? Did any of us plan to fall in love? Of course not. But that’s what has happened here, just like any of you. We are in love, and it’s as genuine as it is with any of you who are in love with one of ‘your own kind’.” Tara paused as she and Bertie moved closer to embrace each other; then she went on: “That’s why we wanted it all brought out in the open like this, so that there wouldn’t be any doubts in anyone’s mind about what’s going on with us.”

“And now that that’s done,” said Bertie, “I think there’s somebody else here who has something to share with everyone…and he knows who he is.” They both looked straight toward one particular face in the crowd, having already picked him out.

By now, there were others who were aware that he was the “culprit” in this incident, either as witnesses, like Jarman and Lothar, or by word of mouth. Now, Thurman found himself the target of a growing number of eyes in the room, and it was having a noticeable effect. He glanced back and forth nervously, fidgeting. His own friends and relatives quietly encouraged him; and soon, realizing he’d been backed into a corner with no other way out, he stood up to face the one he’d wronged. He glanced down to the lower rows, spotting his parents Orson and Lucretia looking up at him, offering their own silent show of support.

Clearing his throat, he began, “Uh, look, Tara, I…I didn’t think you’d be that upset. I—I’m sorry. Really.”

“All right. I guess I can accept that. But why’d you say it in the first place? If you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, then what were you thinking? What were you trying to prove?”

Thurman looked up, appearing genuinely unsure of how to answer. “I don’t know. I’m just…I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” He shrugged and sat down. Numerous quiet discussions ensued throughout the chamber.

Tara herself was unsure of what to say or do next. Though she was glad to have gotten a very public apology out of Thurman, she felt unsatisfied. Looking at Bertie, she could tell he felt much the same. They both turned to the councilmembers seated in front of them. Tara’s parents Derek and Claire and older brother Godfrey, and Bertie’s parents and siblings gave smiles and nods of approval and encouragement.

Then Justin stood up and called for everyone’s attention. “Friends…I know some of you are thinking, ‘What more needs to be said? He apologized, didn’t he?’ Well, we didn’t encourage everyone to attend this meeting if we thought that nothing more than an apology was in the offing. That much we agreed upon last night, when Bertram and Tara came to us with their problem. No, we believe this may go beyond one individual’s thoughtless remark. We’ve heard evidence that there are those who may harbor attitudes that could prove unhealthy to the harmony and stability of this colony, and we want to get to the bottom of them, and bring them out into the open.”

Bertie and Tara, who had since returned to their seats, exchanged knowing glances.

“We have reason to believe that there are others who, for whatever reason, resent the idea of a relationship like that of these two, but unlike Thurman, aren’t as vocal about it. Now, everyone has a right to his or her opinion, and we don’t want to pin accusations on anyone or persecute anyone for them. All we want is an exchange of ideas here, to try and understand why anyone might feel that way. So, to anyone who does…we want to hear from you.” Justin looked back and forth across the chamber. Everyone was doing the same, waiting for someone to stand.

One young female rat stood. “Well…I think it’s all right, that Tara and Bertie are going together, if they really feel that way about each other. But at the same time…it seems almost wrong, just because they’re of two different species, and couldn’t have children together. I don’t know why, but I can’t help feeling that way.” She shrugged and sat down.

“All right, Veronica,” said Justin. “That’s perfectly valid. Anyone else?”

Two others stood and admitted that they felt much the same; then, from among the council seated at the center of the room, another stood and announced she had something to add.

“Go ahead, Velma,” said Justin to his mother-in-law.

She cleared her throat. “I have…no especial problem with these two being together, but…well, must they be so…so open about it?” This question met with a curious murmur throughout the crowd. “I mean, there they were the other night, carrying on without a care, right where everyone can see…”

“Ah, Velma, my dear,” said Colbert, who came up beside her, “I don’t recall your having any objections to you and me behaving in a like manner when we were courting.”

“But we never carried on that…that obviously.”

In the stands, Sithpha and Dinilom exchanged glances, having witnessed for themselves Velma’s display of indignance two nights previous.

“But haven’t we always shown affection publicly, without worrying about what others think?” brought up Charlotte.

“Yes, that’s never been an issue before,” said her husband Norriss. “Why should it bother you now, Velma?”

“Or does it only bother you in this case?”

Velma looked aghast. “Charlotte! What are you accusing me of? Am I the one who’s on trial here?”

“You needn’t be so defensive, dear,” said Colbert. “No one’s accusing you.”

“I guess I should remind you, Velma,” said Justin, “That we’re only trying to arrive at some mutual understanding, or at least acceptance here.”

“I do wonder, though,” said Norriss, “why you would make it sound as if someone is on trial.”

Velma glanced among their faces. “Why, I didn’t mean it like that. I only meant…I was just…” She put her head down, her shoulders visibly sagging. “All right. I admit it. I do have a problem with Tara and…and Bertram being together like that. It just…seems wrong. I can’t really explain it. A rat and a mouse who can’t have children together, who can’t do anything except…”

“…Except give each other all the love and affection they have,” finished Colbert. “Just like yours and mine.”

“And which your daughter and I share,” added Justin, smiling at Isabella.

Chastened and more than a little embarrassed, Velma was unsure of what to say for a moment. “So…what great conclusion have we made from all this?”

“Well, I had one small idea,” said Tallus, standing. “It’s that same old bugaboo, that’s cropped up time and again since we founded our first colony.”

Johnathan Brisby joined him. “You mean, that old instinctive feeling, that because we’re two different species, there’s only so much we can do together, and living in close quarters to each other being foremost among those things we can’t do…or perhaps, think we can’t do.”

“Exactly, Johnathan. And yet…perhaps this is only my observation, but I think that since the Mouse population has grown so much larger of late, it’s an inclination that has proven to be largely irrelevant. We work together in our shops and fields. We Rats have all made close friends among the Mice. Our children attend classes and play together the day long. Why, except for our living quarters being separate, ‘that old instinctive feeling’ has virtually fallen by the wayside.”

“Obviously, though,” added Johnathan, “it remains stronger in some of us than in others.”

“Would you say then, Velma,” said Justin, “that Tallus’s theory holds true in your case?”

“Oh, I suppose it does. I mean, I understand the point of it all, intellectually. But it still bothers me.”

“Ask yourself this, then:” said Tallus. “If Bertram and Tara were merely friends instead of lovers, would you be as bothered?”

“Why, no. Of course not.”

“Consider, then, this too: we’ve long agreed that this instinct is derived from the way our ordinary counterparts relate to each other. Natural rats and mice don’t coexist the way we do; so why do we cling so tenaciously to this idea when it comes to actually living close together, or being more than friends? We do so many other things unlike our ordinary counterparts; why, then, should this still be a problem?”

Simone stood up next. “I was thinking back to a discussion we had long ago, just after the Escape, when we first tried to decide where we’d go and what we’d do now that we were free. We agreed that we couldn’t go back to where we came from before NIMH captured us, because it wouldn’t seem like home anymore to us, because everyone we knew would be gone. It was Jenner who brought up the more relevant point: that we couldn’t go back to the way we lived before, because we were no longer rats or mice; we were the creations of the NIMH scientists. In the nearly three years that we were the subjects of their experiments, we had ceased to be as we were before. Essentially, we had died and were reborn. We’d all realized, in that time, that we’d never be the same again, but it wasn’t till we’d had that discussion that we knew how much we all shared that same realization.

“And look at how it’s been borne out since then. If we thought our lifestyle became removed from that of natural rats while we lived on the Fitzgibbons farm, look at how much further it went after we moved to Thorn Valley, and even more so since we came to Lahaikshe. Since we’re no longer on Earth, we no longer live in fear of human discovery. Consequently, we spend more time outdoors in broad daylight. As time goes by, we’ll eventually be as far removed from our natural counterparts as humans are.”

The point touched off many small discussions throughout the hall, with others lending much support to Simone’s point.

From Brutus, Captain of the Guard: “We still maintain the Guard, and conduct our roving patrols day and night. But with the greatest threat here being an occasional ‘pantry raid’ by a mhys’haspa, there’s been talk of disbanding it. With everyone feeling so safe and secure, with nothing to guard against, is it still essential? But I suppose that could be the subject of a whole other meeting.”

From Tallus: “Three of my grandchildren are working on a treehouse, which they say one or two of them might actually move into permanently one day. When they first told me this, I thought: rats living in trees, like squirrels? Whoever heard of such a thing? Yet, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, for the very reasons we’ve discussed today.”

From Anna: “We spend so many more hours these days outdoors, day and night. This was certainly a case where we made a conscious and determined effort to change old habits. There’s less and less that we think and do that could be attributed to instinct.”

From Teresa Brisby: “When we first came to Thorn Valley, just before Dad returned to us, we wondered how much we’d have in common with all the Rat children. It didn’t take long to realize how much we were the same. And since then, it’s only gotten better.” She reached out to join hands with some of her Rat friends.

From Boris: “It’s been the same with us, Seelah and me, and my siblings, just in the short time that we’ve been here. I’d never have believed before that I could make friends with any rats so easily.”

Finally Bertie Davis added: “You know, yesterday someone told me something that I thought hit the nail on the head. I told him that, and I still think he’s right. He said that Tara and I being in love is just another example of how things are different here. It was Teelo, my sister Louann’s husband, who said that. And he’s one of those that some of you call natural or ‘ordinary’.”

Some in the chamber, including some in the council, seemed a bit embarrassed, not wanting to admit that they’d been talking as if they’d forgotten that several naturals—mostly mice, but a handful of rats as well—made their homes here. Still, there was widespread agreement of Teelo’s observation, with many saying so out loud.

Justin thought briefly of how fond he’d become of Madeline Brisby on the occasions when she’d come to him for help so long ago; even musing, at one time, that if he’d been a mouse, or she a rat, that they could have been more than just the best of friends. In those days, he’d never have seriously entertained the notion of their being lovers; but what love he did have for her manifested itself in unselfish ways: in his concern for her family’s welfare when their home was threatened, for her safety when she volunteered for “Dragon duty” and was captured in the process, when Jenner threatened her over possession of the Stone; and, once Johnathan was determined to be still alive, for he and her being reunited. He had been open with both of them about this, and they understood, with no jealousy or tension on anyone’s part. Though he thought it probably inappropriate to bring up now, the foregoing discussion inevitably brought it to mind.

“Well,” said Simone, “I’d say we’ve come to a definite conclusion now.”

“I agree.” Justin addressed the crowd. “All right, then. If no one else has anything to add…” He paused for a moment. “Then let me conclude by saying—”

“Excuse me? Justin?” came a voice from the crowd, a bit hesitantly.

“Oh! Go ahead, Veronica.”

“Well…” The young girl-rat cleared her throat. “I understand the point of all this, and it really makes sense. I never would have thought that old instinctive thing ever applied to me in any way. But it just doesn’t seem to explain…some other things I’ve heard.”

“What other things?”

“Well…remarks here and there, about there being so many more Mice around here now.”

There were many surprised expressions throughout the hall, especially among the Mice. What could she mean? There had been nothing to indicate, since their arrival, that they’d been anything but welcome with open arms here. Everyone quieted down to better hear what else Veronica had to say.

“I mean, most of the things I’ve heard said about the mice in general have been complimentary, and I’ve heard a lot of good things said about individual ones. And I’ve made friends among them myself. But I’ve also heard things like, oh…‘Boy, there sure are a lot more of them around here lately’, said in a tone of voice that didn’t show a lot of approval. Or, ‘Every time I turn around, I’m tripping over them,’ or—this is the one I can hardly believe—‘Those little twerps always seem to be underfoot everywhere.’”

There were many very audible gasps, and other signs, verbal and visual, that this was disturbing news indeed. Justin and other councilmembers brought everyone to order to allow Veronica to continue.

“Now, I consider some of the Mice to be friends as good as some of the Rats I grew up with. I didn’t think much of Bertie and Tara’s relationship; I said it bothered me, but I understand why now. But I would never say anything like that. That’s just, like, downright hateful.”

“Veronica, why didn’t you ever say anything about this before?” asked her mother Zora, seated next to her.

“I wasn’t sure if it meant anything really important. But after everything else we talked about here, I thought it might after all.”

“Well, you were right to bring it to our attention, Veronica,” said Justin. “Thank you. Now…” He again cast his gaze across the chamber. “I think, just as Thurman was big enough to own up to his indiscretion, someone else has something to say right about now.” He made a sweeping gaze around, seeing a lot of heads turning this way and that curiously. After nearly a minute, one young rat stood, waving tentatively to gain Justin’s attention; one whose identity came as little surprise to some.

“I might have known,” Cynthia Brisby whispered to her mother, instantly recalling her run-in with this same individual, over an indiscretion which she already suspected would be similar to the one he was about to admit to.

Herbert, oldest son of Jemial and Francine, scratched his arm nervously. “Yeah, uhm…I was the one who said that they…you know, the mice, seem to be underfoot everywhere.”

“I see,” said Justin. “Tell us, then, Herbert…how exactly did you word that statement? Just as Veronica described?”

Herb looked down, fidgeting. He sighed. “Okay, so I did. I won’t deny it. But what of it? Those’re just words, I didn’t mean anything by them.”

“Didn’t you now? Just as you didn’t mean anything by some other statements you’ve been known to make, including that one while we were in the middle of the Hiding Plan, when we all had to especially cooperate with each other and rely on each other? Sure, we were all tired and feeling uncertain and on edge then, but still…”

“But I already apologized for that one. I don’t know what else I can say, Justin. Besides, you heard Veronica. I’m not the only one who’s said things like that.”

“He is right,” said Tallus, joining Justin on the dais. “And I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not symptomatic of certain things of which we discussed the possibility yesterday. We thought the incident with Bertram and Tara could possibly mean more than simply one person’s thoughtless remark, and…” He shook his head sadly. “…this new information would seem to lend credence to that theory.

“Now, we’ve long prided ourselves on being above the human race in many ways. Yet, for all their sophistication, their history is continually rife with cases of gross inhumanity, terrible things that they’ll do to each other. And why?” Tallus began pacing the floor, gesturing as he spoke. “Because of the perceptions of one group of people toward another, that they are superior because their customs and beliefs are so much better or ‘higher’ than those of the other group, or because they consider themselves inherently superior due to racial or ethnic differences, or ‘chosen’ or ‘favored’ by their deity. They think this perceived superiority justifies treating the other group as if they were less than human. None of it changes the fact that they are all human, and yet it all goes on, year after year, century after century; not only the attitudes, but what they lead to as well: wars, riots, mass starvations, grudges held for many generations. Admittedly, there are many who are willing to get to know each other as individuals, and not as one of a ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ group…but not nearly enough to enable them to completely overcome their differences.”

“So, Tallus,” said Justin, “your point?” He knew full well, though, where Tallus was going with this discourse.

Tallus nodded, smiling confidently. “We, on the other hand, have actively taught our children to respect the differences of others unlike us, and emphasize what we hold in common over our differences. We have our ways, they have theirs, and we let it be. But with this new information, we must face the possibility that, along with intelligence and emotional makeup that is more humanlike, we may also have gained some of the ills that plague humankind. If this is true, then ‘gain’ is definitely the wrong word. It would be a loss—a terrible, tragic loss.” Tallus abruptly stepped down to take his seat, and for almost a minute hardly anyone spoke out loud as his words took effect.

Then Justin again spoke. “Friends…if this theory holds true, then you don’t need me to tell you how potentially serious it is. I’m not going to call for anyone else who has expressed sentiments like Herbert’s to come forward; at least not yet. But if you’re out there, it’s you I’m speaking to, and you know who you are. Now, there is the possibility that this is one more attitude that can be attributed to ‘that old instinctive feeling.’ I’d rather hope that it is; and yet, isn’t it also possible that we’re using that as a too-convenient excuse these days, something to fall back on instead of admitting to our shortcomings? Either way, it’s something that’s got to be overcome. Just as we’re bearing less and less resemblance to natural rats and mice, we must also not allow ourselves to fall prey to the darker aspects of humanity. We’ve always considered ourselves above all their social ills, and that we’re not so short-sighted as to let them befall us; we’ve even been a bit smug about it at times. Let’s keep it that way—preferably minus the smugness. You’ve all been taught that this is true; and I don’t believe there’s a single Rat or Mouse here who wants to live where there are those who resent others, openly or not, just because they look different or have different ways.”

Herbert was now standing and waving, looking like someone desperate to be heard. “Look, I don’t know about anyone else who might have said something like this, but I don’t think of mice that way. I don’t mean anyone any harm, and I sure don’t hate them. Yeah, I called them little twerps, and all that other stuff, but I didn’t mean to be insulting. I was just…kidding around, honest.”

“So it didn’t even occur to you,” said Johnathan, “that some of us, Mice and Rats alike, might find such words offensive or insulting? Laughter at the expense of others is not my idea of kidding around.”

Tallus stood again. “You can say, Herbert, that you weren’t serious, and we won’t dispute that. But you must realize that many statements made in jest won’t be interpreted that way by some, and sometimes the consequences can be serious, even tragic. You’ve been told before about how small disagreements or misunderstandings can feed upon themselves and grow into large ones. I’m not saying that’s inevitable here, or even remotely possible. Just food for thought; that’s all I’m offering.”

Matilda spoke next. “This reminds me of Jenner, and how we all thought his protest of the Plan was all his doing. We all know about Ghormfisk, the ‘mystery creature,’ now, but if he hadn’t tampered with Jenner’s mind, would everything have happened just the same? I thought I’d gotten that whole matter settled long ago, but all this talk now…it’s gotten me wondering all over again.”

From the stands, another stood to voice his views. “As you all know,” began Lambert, “when Martin and I made our trip to Sampson, we got separated, and I was forced to run with a gang of rats who could be really mean and vicious, to mice as well as other rats. Not all of them were that bad, of course; some believed they had no other choice except to be a part of the gang. But others—especially their so-called leader, who was no more than a common bully—could be really cruel. I saw firsthand their handiwork, some while it was being committed, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it, though I did manage to convince them to go easy a couple of times. I’ll tell you now, there’s absolutely no way I’ll go through anything remotely like that ever again. Maybe there’s no one here who seriously thinks that all the mice shouldn’t be living here, just because they’re a different species; but if there is—and there are a lot of us who feel this way—then someone’ll be packing his bags, and it won’t be me.”

Many cheers of agreement greeted Lambert, who went on: “There’s no room here for that kind of intolerance. We plan on starting our family soon, Bertha and I…” He glanced down at his fiancée, who beamed back. “…and our kids are not going to grow up in an atmosphere like that.” He made to sit down, then added: “Oh, and by the way…I thought I’d mention in passing that these two sitting next to me are probably my two closest friends, next to Bertha.” Lambert sat down, clasping hands with Martin and Karen.

Nearby, Teresa stood. “Lambert took the words right out of my mouth. I didn’t bring my babies here to have them grow up with that kind of prejudice…or any kind of prejudice. If there is anyone who really does feel that way, then…stop. Please…just let it end.”

Colbert spoke next. “And if there are any of you who truly resent their presence, for whatever reason, might I remind you that if it weren’t for the sacrifice and enormous suffering one of them made for you—and for all of us—there’s a very good chance none of us would be having this discussion now. Rather, some or even all of us would be dead or in captivity. Think on that!” As his final words, delivered sharply but without anger, reverberated throughout the hall, Colbert looked toward Kimball in the lowermost row, and the two gave each other an approving nod.

Simone came out to the dais again. “And if you try, and still find having mice living among you intolerable, then please feel free to leave anytime, just as Lambert said.”

“I agree,” said Justin, “but let’s keep a proper perspective on this, everyone. We don’t want to turn this into a witch hunt.”

Another mouse stood. “This may be straying from the subject,” said Marie Davis, “but in my travels after I left home, there were several times where I saw how bad some humans could be to others. Once, I saw a man threaten another that if he didn’t hand over his wallet and other things, he’d shoot him. I could see the gun in his hand. Even though the other man did as he was told, he still got hit very hard over the head with the gun. Maybe that was better than if he’d been shot, but it still hurt him badly. Someone called for an ambulance, so I suppose he did recover. I don’t know why that man would do such a thing, what would drive him to it, just for a few material things. But the thought of any of us turning as bad as that, showing such coldness or disregard for others…it just chills me to the bone.”

“Yes,” continued Tallus, “listen to this young lady, everyone. She and her whole family have lived close by humans all these years that the rest of us regularly saw only one family of them, so she knows whereof she speaks. Even I, for all my professed wide body of knowledge, have little or no firsthand experience in many areas in which I’ve been called an expert.”

“I know beyond a doubt that Marie has witnessed some bad things,” said Johnathan. “But it seems to me that throughout this whole meeting, we’ve painted rather a bleak and negative picture of humankind…and we all know that’s not the whole picture.”

“Yes,” added Teresa, “They’re not all that bad; in fact, most aren’t. Look at Howard Travis.”

One of Tallus’s sons, Eamonn, mathematics teacher at Thorn Valley School, stood. “Yes, and I was one of those who thought that we shouldn’t have become so friendly with him while he was here. By the time he left, I had to admit that he wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I said to Jenni-Lynn that he would have made a good rat.”

There was some laughter from the crowd; then Johnathan said, “And of course, there was that spell of Gwinthrayle’s, which placed Howard’s and my minds in rapport. There are many specific details I’ve forgotten about that whole experience, but I can say without qualification that Howard is one of the finest examples of humanity there is: kind, helpful, generous, considerate of others, close to his family. He’s not perfect by any means; he doesn’t think of himself that way. He’s made many mistakes in his life—things he said out of turn, times when he was sure about his way and later seeing where he went wrong. But he was never intentionally cruel to anyone. Most of the things he’d done wrong could be chalked up to youthful inexperience.”

This elicited some more low discussion; then Colbert spoke. “You know, that reminds me of an incident from long ago, during our journey from NIMH. We were following a road, staying out of sight, when several humans, all children, approached from the opposite direction, walking along the shoulder. There were four of them, all boys, as I recall, and one of them was walking ahead of the others, and looking rather upset. Simone, you remember this, don’t you? We were the ones who were closest to the road.”

“Yes, I do, now that you mention it. Those other kids weren’t very nice, were they?”

“That was my immediate impression. The first one looked as if he only wanted to be left alone, but the other three just wouldn’t oblige. They called him all manner of rude names, they threw stones at him, said ugly things about his family, and even I knew they couldn’t be all true. I had to wonder, what had he done to those other three boys to warrant such cruelty? There were no clues obvious to us; to look at him, he didn’t seem especially different from them in any obvious way. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lad had to endure this sort of thing every day, and about the effect it might have on him in later years. We both concluded that the others were heartless, pathetic little wretches who had some perverse need to cause pain. But later on I realized that they probably just hadn’t received proper guidance from their elders, that they hadn’t been taught to respect the feelings of others. It’s not something they’re born with innately.”

There was more quiet discussion in the chamber; then Justin said, “Well, everyone…it’s just possible we have reached a conclusion now.”

“So,” ventured Norriss, “is that also true with some of our children? That any untoward remarks made about mice can be attributed to youthful indiscretion? And…that perhaps some of us have failed to teach them properly?”

“I don’t have a definite answer. I don’t think any of us do. But at least we’ve brought these matters out before everyone and discussed them openly. As Tallus said, we’ve given everyone food for thought. To reiterate: if there is anyone who honestly believes that Rats and Mice shouldn’t be sharing Freethorn, then remember free choice. As long as no one is hurt and the community as a whole isn’t placed in danger, then everyone is free to do as he or she will. Since our earliest days at the Rosebush Colony, this has been our foremost edict. I think we all agree that such attitudes as we’ve discussed fall outside both categories. But whether anyone seriously feels that way or not, we all need to be more careful in what we say to each other, and make sure that we’re not misunderstood when we really don’t mean any harm. So…does anyone have any other comments?”

Willis stepped forward. “Just one. I don’t want anyone to think I’m making light of this whole matter, because I’m not. But there’s an element to all this that we seem to have overlooked. Is it possible that, sometimes, we take the words of ourselves and each other too seriously or too literally? Just a little?” He turned and sat down, leaving more discussion in his wake.

Bertie and Tara looked at each other, wondering if this didn’t apply to them. Had they been too thin-skinned? Neither was a stranger to having friends and family tell them they needed to lighten up.

Justin smiled to himself, and his eyes met Madeline Brisby’s; she smiled back, both having been reminded of his own contention, back when they’d first met, that the Rats tended to take themselves too seriously. He, and others, came to realize how true that was; and while it was widely recognized that they were overall less reserved and more carefree these days, it was possible that they still had a ways to go. “Well, on that note,” Justin finally said, “I can only say we now have more food for thought. This meeting is now adjourned.”

Rats and Mice began filing out of the chamber, though the Rusay visitors still remained, the adults still busily engaged in note-taking, though some of the children were a bit restless. Many small discussions continued, and the overall mood was upbeat; few seemed to believe that the subjects of the past hour’s discussion entailed any real crisis.

As Bertie and Tara made to leave, she remarked with amazement on how their relationship managed to spark so much lively discussion. Bertie was about to reply when Ellis caught up to them.

“Hey, you guys, that was really something, the way you stood up for yourselves back there.”

Tara thanked him, then Bertie said, “Yeah, Ellis, I wasn’t sure that, well…that you cared that much.”

“Are you kidding? It’s not like there was ever really any bad blood between us. You know I’d support you, especially in a matter like this. You know I’m happy for you both. And this whole thing has definitely given me something to think about. So I’ll see you later, okay?”

After goodbyes, Tara said, “Did it seem to you like he was in a hurry?”

“Yeah. And all day yesterday, he seemed to have something on his mind.”

“Maybe he’s meeting someone.”

“Can’t imagine who. Unless…no, that’s impossible. Reuben would hardly let him so much as look at her.”

“Oh, you mean Lilia. You did say that they’d been making eyes at each other from day one.”

Any further discussion of the matter was postponed as other friends and family members of both came up to them to offer their encouragement and congratulations. Amidst this, though, Tara found herself thinking about Thurman, and how he’d appeared genuinely sorry. She wanted to believe it, since the two had been longtime playmates and friends, but she vowed to be cautious. Perhaps if he made no more such remarks, and kept a civil tongue, she would be able to accept his apology as thoroughly in her heart as she’d expressed aloud to him.

Chapter 9 - Ellis takes action

In the past several weeks since its creation, Freethorn’s Rooftop had become more than an observation post for viewing the colony’s interior or the outlying lands. Certain areas had been established as flower or vegetable gardens after soil and sod had been trucked up there, following suggestions that to leave it as just bare rock would make it too drab and dull, not to mention hard. These Rooftop gardens were becoming steadily more popular as spots where one could spend a quiet moment or two; families, young couples, or someone desiring solitude were equally welcome to enjoy them, provided they were willing to make the climb. They had been lovingly tended and nurtured, and those visiting them were respectful of the work being put into them, taking care not to sit on or trample or uproot new sprouts.

One particular spot’s current visitor lay on his back, lost in thought, idly gazing at the clouds drifting past, as he’d been doing for over an hour. All afternoon Ellis had tried to concentrate solely on his school- and gardenwork, but nothing could completely banish the unresolved matters from this morning.

Presently, he sat up. Oh, that does it, he decided. Enough lying about, it’s time to take action. He’d given himself plenty of time to decide the best course of action; and so now, full of purpose, he literally sprang to his feet and began making his way down the trail to ground level. On the way, he thought back to the general meeting. Though he couldn’t precisely define how the matters discussed and conclusions reached related to his own situation with Lilia and Reuben, he felt that attending helped him work things out. It was possible that, just as the reasons for the untoward remarks from Thurman and Herbert shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value, perhaps Lilia really did want his help in spite of her apparent rejection of him this morning. It’s possible that even Reuben wouldn’t mind his intervention, or would even welcome it. There was only one way to find out, and so he now resolved to pay a call on them today. Yes, he’d told his parents that he’d wait till tomorrow at the earliest. But they’d also told him how proud they were of his sense of responsibility in this matter. He genuinely wanted to help Lilia, but there was also his own peace of mind at stake. He couldn’t rest till he knew whether or not he was responsible, if only by a small fraction, for the state Lilia was in. Her anguish and apparent fear this morning still weighed heavily on his mind, and he knew it would continue to haunt him until there was some kind of resolution. It just couldn’t wait until tomorrow.

This kind of maturity, this willingness to put others’ needs ahead of his own, was actually not uncommon among those of Ellis’s ilk. Though he and his litter-mates Lucy and Bertie were as mature physically as human children of 14 or 15 years, he and many other Mouse and Rat children of Freethorn far outshone their human contemporaries in emotional and social maturity.

Once on the ground, Ellis took the trail along the perimeter which would bring him to the Mouse colony. Just coming up was the memorial garden, and he decided to make a stop there. Inside, he paused to look over the stone markers and admire the colorful and fragrant wildflowers growing there. He stepped in quietly, quickly coming upon Vincent’s marker. Standing in front of it, he silently addressed the one it memorialized. Your son and daughter are going through a difficult time and need help. I’m not entirely sure what I can do, but I’m going to try.

Suddenly, he was aware of someone else’s presence in the garden; someone was speaking low a few feet away. Curious, he quietly moved toward the voice’s source. There, on the ground in front of another headstone were Boris and Seelah, sitting close together and quietly conversing. He made to quietly announce his presence, but they saw him first.

“Ellis! Come on over and join us a minute.” Boris patted the ground beside him. Seelah waved hello, looking pleased.

“Okay. I thought for a second I might be intruding.”

“Oh, not at all. We were just reminiscing over some good times we had.”

Ellis looked up at the marker, the most recent to be placed here, and read its inscription silently to himself: DORIS. BELOVED SISTER TO BORIS. GREATLY MISSED BY HER BEST FRIENDS AND FELLOW TRAVELERS IN LIFE. He looked up at the pair it referred to. “Wow. That’s beautiful. This is the first I’ve seen it since it was put in.”

Boris nodded. “You know, I still miss her a lot…”

“Both of us do,” added Seelah.

“…but we don’t feel quite so sad anymore about her, especially now that we have this. Now, if I ever feel down, I look at it, and it lifts me right up. It reminds me of all the good times we had together.”

“I can imagine,” said Ellis. It was common knowledge how close the two siblings were.

“There was a game we often played, where after I’d have one of my visions, I’d describe it to her, and she’d make up a story about it. It would get really elaborate and drawn-out sometimes, but never boring. I just don’t know where she’d get it all from.” Boris shook his head, smiling.

Their story was well known by now, of how Doris had known Seelah for a short while before introducing her to her brother. The two took to each other readily, but shortly afterwards Doris was killed by a fox, a tragedy witnessed by Boris. He was devastated, but Seelah was there to comfort him; and as their mutual sorrow eased, so their love for each other grew. Boris wondered if Doris had introduced Seelah to him because she knew the two were right for each other, and even possibly because she knew she would die soon and didn’t want him to be alone. Just as he experienced visions that seemed to be definite, clear-cut images of other places, so Doris would have intuitive feelings or hunches about how a situation would turn out, similar to Timothy’s. They would almost always come true; and Boris wondered to this day if she’d had a premonition of her own death, and was so sure that it couldn’t be avoided that she kept it from him to spare him any worry or anxiety about something he couldn’t prevent. Some of what had been revealed about their father, especially his apparent premonition of his own demise, made it seem all the more likely.

Boris and Seelah continued describing to Ellis things that Doris had said and done; then, about fifteen minutes after entering the garden, Ellis remembered his mission. He made to excuse himself, but then he decided it might be worthwhile to tell someone else of his intentions. He felt the need to confide in someone other than his parents, and these two had become good friends to him since their arrival here, and so were perhaps better candidates than anyone, especially since they’d managed to get close to Lilia, by a small degree. So after asking for and receiving their confidentiality on the matter, at least until some greater resolution was reached, he told them of his experiences with Lilia over the past two days and nights, and what he hoped to accomplish now.

“Ellis,” Boris said afterwards, “our prayers are with you. I can’t imagine what it is that’s troubling her, but I hope you can help. And if you need our help, we’ll be there.”

“Thanks, Boris…Seelah. Well…I guess this is it. See you later.” He embraced both of them and swiftly exited the memorial garden.

* * *

Minutes later, Ellis stood in front of a door in the Mouse community, raising his hand to knock upon it. There was a moment’s hesitation; should he wait till tomorrow, after all? He did, after all, promise his parents he’d wait, and that was turning out to be, essentially, a lie. But no, he decided, it’s now or never. Steeling himself, he rapped upon it, waited… Unsurprisingly, there was no immediate answer. He knocked a second time, and this time the doorknob was seen and heard to be turning slowly. The door opened just a crack, enough for Ellis to see an eye and little else.

“What do you want?” came the greeting.

“Can I come in, Reuben?”

After a pause, Reuben replied, “I told you already, I don’t need your help.”

“Look, I just want to know how Lilia’s doing. Is she feeling all right?”

“She’s…she’s fine. Just…go away, please.”

For a moment, Ellis considered doing just that; then he said, “Well, can she come to the door? At least let me say hello to her.”

“She’s in her room, she doesn’t want to be disturbed. Now will you leave us alone?” Reuben started to close the door.

But Ellis was undaunted. He’d noticed the hesitancy and hint of worry in Reuben’s voice, distinguishable from the flat, inflectionless tones he normally spoke in; and he was sure that things weren’t any more right with Lilia now than they were this morning. He wouldn’t give up until he’d at least seen her with his own eyes. He hoped his persistence wouldn’t make him an enemy to Reuben, and that he could succeed in making him understand that he was doing this because he genuinely cared for Lilia. So he stuck his foot in the door. Reuben was clearly not expecting this much persistence, and hardly resisted as Ellis pushed himself in the rest of the way.

“Now look, Reuben,” said Ellis quickly, not allowing Reuben to try dissuading him further, “we both know she’s not all right, and keeping her cooped up like this isn’t going to make her any better. And I wouldn’t be this insistent if I didn’t care for her. I think you know that.”

Reuben sighed heavily. “Why can’t you just leave us be? I’ve taken care of her all these years, and I don’t need anyone’s help now.”

“I just told you why,” said Ellis patiently, “and I’m not leaving till I at least see her.”

Reuben glared silently at him, looking ready to explode; then, after about a half minute, his expression softened, as if he were ready to give in. He sighed again and sat on a nearby couch, suddenly appearing resigned to Ellis’s continued presence. Ellis joined him.

“She’s…been in there all day,” Reuben began hesitantly, voice conveying more feeling. “I brought her food, but she hardly touched it. I asked her what was wrong, but all she would say was that she wanted to be left alone.” After a pause, he added, “She’s always been happy and contented, I just don’t understand any of this.”

How could she be happy and contented, the way he keeps her hidden away? He almost said it aloud, but instead said, “Well, how about you at least let me look in on her, and if she says to go away, then…then I will.”

“I…don’t know…”

“Reuben…you know I want to help her. I couldn’t make it any clearer. I think…I might possibly have something to do with…the way she is now.”

Reuben stared hard at him. “Then maybe that’s all the more reason you should leave.”

“Reuben, give me a break here! I don’t know how much you saw last night, but…uh… Wait a minute, how much did you see?”

Reuben continued to stare silently at him a bit longer; then he looked to one side and said, “When…I got there, at first I just saw her, dancing around; and I almost called out to her, but then I saw you. I saw her fall to the ground, and…reach out for you. Something kept me from calling out. I guess I was so surprised, shocked even, that I couldn’t. Then you…joined her on the ground, and…I couldn’t look anymore. I just sat down among the bushes, trying to understand why she’d behave this way, and eventually I fell asleep there. I woke up when I heard you calling out to her, when she ran from you.”

“And…when you caught up with her, what did she say?”

“She just said…nothing except she wanted to be alone.”

“Then she didn’t say anything about me, or if I’d hurt her, or anything like that?”

“No. She didn’t. That should satisfy you, shouldn’t it?”

“Reuben, like I told you this morning, I didn’t force myself on her. She wanted me to join with her. If I’d known that any of this would happen, I would have resisted. Look, I told you I’d leave if she wanted me to. At least let me look in on her.”

Reuben stared into space for a moment, then said, “All right. Go ahead. But I’ll be right outside her door.”

“Okay. Fair enough.” They got up and headed for one of the curtained doorways down a short hallway. Ellis pushed the curtain aside just enough to see Lilia lying on her side in her bed, facing the other way. He took a deep breath. “Lilia?” he said softly. “It’s me, Ellis. Can I come in?”

Lilia’s head rose slightly, and she looked over her shoulder toward him. She made a faint, inarticulate sound that seemed to be an affirmative answer. Ellis glanced back at Reuben, who just nodded, with an expression that seemed to indicate he still didn’t fully believe in Ellis’s sincerity. Still undaunted, Ellis entered the room quietly. Again Lilia glanced back at him, giving no apparent sign that she wanted him to leave. Maybe that’s a hopeful sign, thought Ellis as he sat in a chair beside the bed, noticing the mostly-untouched plate of food on the nearby nightstand. “Lilia? Can we talk?” he said quietly.

Again there was a backward glance, but it was a bit longer this time. Still she said nothing.

“Lilia…you must believe me when I say I want to help you. And not just me. Reuben, Boris, Seelah, Cynthia, her parents, my parents…almost anyone else here. We all care for you, and worry about you. You know that, don’t you?”

Again she replied only with silence, but Ellis wasn’t about to give up.

“At least tell me one thing. This morning, when you ran from me…was it because of something I did or said? Because if it was, you’ve got to believe me…I never meant to. I couldn’t think of hurting you. Remember that first day, when you and Reuben arrived? Something…seemed to draw us together, like there was a strong connection between us. I can’t say for sure what kind, but…I do know that…I feel I need to help you, and know what’s wrong, and why you feel so bad now.” Ellis half-expected to still get no response, and was prepared to get up and leave if so; then, Lilia turned around, half-sitting up, facing him.

“N-no, Ellis,” she murmured. “It’s…not you, it’s not your fault. It’s me.”

Ellis felt some small relief to hear this, but also confusion. “What makes you say that?”

“I…I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I…” She looked away, eyes closed, seeming to struggle with her next words. “I…feel like I’m…two different people lately. And…and I don’t understand why…” She began to weep softly, and Ellis offered his hand in comfort. She unexpectedly drew her arms around him and leaned her head against his chest. Though he comforted her gladly and willingly, he was as confused as ever; and he wasn’t alone. Reuben was now just inside the doorway wearing a stunned expression. Ellis looked at him and could only shrug helplessly.

After a minute, he told her that he needed to speak with Reuben for a minute. She protested, and he had a bit of difficulty extricating himself from her, but he assured her that they’d both be nearby. She seemed reassured, and so the two returned to the front room.

Reuben wheeled to face Ellis. “What did you do? What sort of power do you have over her?”

Ellis stared in disbelief. “Power? What do you mean, power? You saw and heard everything. All I did was talk to her.”

“But she hasn’t said a word to me all day! And now you come along, and look what happens!”

“All right. What did happen?”

“I’m asking you!”

“And I’m telling you, Reuben, I honestly don’t know.”

Reuben folded his arms and turned to one side, scowling.

“Look, let’s try to keep it down. I don’t think Lilia needs to hear us arguing about her. Now…we do agree on a couple of things. She does need help, but neither of us knows what to do for her. I think both of us need to find someone who does. What do you think?”

Reuben threw up his hands and began pacing the floor. “We should never have come here, to this colony. To this world. Look at what’s happened since. Maybe we should just return to where we came from.”

“You don’t honestly believe that…something in this world changed Lilia?”

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“No, but that’s why we should talk to someone who might, like I said. Besides, I don’t think you’d really want to go back to the life you had before, and I’d bet anything Lilia wouldn’t, either. Come on; what do you say? Are you with me?”

Reuben stopped pacing, and looked directly at Ellis. He looked away and said, “All right. I’ll try.”

Ellis placed a hand on his shoulder. “We do need to work together on this. Can we agree on that much?” Reuben nodded. “Okay. I think we should start right away, then.”

“Right now?”

“Well, sure. The sooner the better, don’t you think?”

“I guess, but…someone should be here, to watch her.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got someone in mind, and I know they’ll be happy to lend a hand.”

Ellis returned to Lilia’s room, where she sat upright on her bed, idly grooming her tail. She looked actually pleased to see Ellis again, though she smiled only faintly. Ellis quickly explained that he and Reuben were going away for a short while, and that Boris and Seelah would look after her until they returned. She was reluctant, but she did trust Boris and Seelah, and so she agreed, actually managing a small smile. Ellis then left to fetch his friends, a couple of doors down, privately congratulating himself for having the foresight to enlist their help.

Two minutes later, as Ellis and Reuben were leaving, they paused by the front door. “Come on, Reuben, let’s go. Believe me, she’s in good hands.”

Reuben was finding it difficult to tear himself away. “I know, but…it’s just so hard…”

“Just remember, we’re doing this for her.”

The two started off, through the winding corridors of the mouse colony, which still consisted mostly of living quarters, some built to accommodate larger families, others as small as Lilia and Reuben’s apartment. They passed Teresa and Sarah’s place, with its interior courtyard modeled after the home she briefly shared with Sarah’s brother Eric in Thorn Valley; the one shared by Zenia and Amelia, two of Vincent’s temporary mates, the five children he’d sired between them, and their older half-siblings Torrance and Hazel; the one Ellis himself shared with Bertie and Lucy, their parents and Lula; next door, Martin and Karen’s, one of the first to be created, one level up from Louann and Teelo’s; the home of Johnathan and Madeline Brisby, around which the rest were built, shared with all their children but the two oldest (at least for the time being); several more modest units, housing Patricia and Kimball’s other children and their growing families; and a few vacant units, which could be easily and quickly adapted for living and other uses.

Finally, they reached their destination, or at least first stop: the home of Mr. Ages and his family. He wasn’t home, though, and his wife Alma told them he was still at the medical ward. Alma was surprised but pleased to see Reuben, and after visiting briefly with her and her children, he and Ellis moved on, leaving the Mouse community through its south entrance, bound for the Rat community.

Along the way, Reuben said, “This is the first time since we arrived that I’ve seen some of the other homes here.”

“Really? You need to get out more, pal.”

Reuben sighed. “Yes. So I’ve heard.” After a pause, he added, “Ellis, I…probably should apologize.”

“For what?” They both stopped.

“For some things I’ve done and said, to you and almost everyone else I’ve met here. Everyone’s done kind things for us, and…we’ve just taken it all for granted. And to you, especially, for thinking that you were responsible for…for Lilia’s problem.” He glanced over his shoulder, as if he could see his sister from there. “I was…out of line to accuse you of…having some kind of power over her. And you called me ‘pal’… After all this, you would…consider me a friend?”

“Well, there’s no reason for us to be enemies.” Ellis patted Reuben on the back, actually raising a small smile from him. “But that’s okay, Reuben, you were just concerned for her.” He made to start off again. “Ah…you’re still coming with me, aren’t you?”

“Yes…yes, I still am.” They continued on. “It’s just so hard. I feel I have to stay with her, especially now.”

“You can do it. I’m a bit reluctant myself, but she’s not all alone back there.” Ellis couldn’t help thinking how remarkable it was that he and Reuben could find themselves in this position—here and now, together. “And as for why she opened up to me like that, I still can’t say. But as I said to her, there’s been some kind of connection all along. Johnathan was telling Lucy and me about when he and Madeline first met, and it was like it just clicked instantly for them. Almost right off, they felt that they were the right mate for each other.”

Reuben stared. “Is that…how you think of Lilia?” he asked incredulously.

“I honestly can’t say yet. It’s just possible that’s how she sees me, though. But would it be so unbelievable? We’re all growing older, Reuben. We’re not kids anymore.”

“I know what you’re saying. I just find it hard to think of Lilia that way. Even…even after seeing you and her last night.”

“We all need to feel close to someone, to want a mate. If I don’t now, I will before too long; and I’m sure Lilia does too. Like I said, I’m not sure if it’s that way with her and me, but…what about you, Reuben?”

Reuben sighed. “I don’t know. I’d rather not talk about that, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, no problem. Say, there’s the main entrance just ahead.”

Chapter 10 - Vincent’s “new” abilities

For several weeks now, one of the anterooms off the main library had been converted to a center for researching and organizing the copious writings, these stacks and stacks of paper left behind by the ever-mysterious Vincent. This was Vincent Central, home to a project which had been spearheaded by Tallus, beginning the day after the arrival of all this material after Johnathan Brisby and the Stone brought it from Vincent’s secret hideaway in the selfsame NIMH facility that had essentially been the birthplace for this very civilization. Since then, the project had proceeded at an irregular pace; with the move of this entire colony late of Thorn Valley to Lahaikshe, with all its resulting complications, progress had to be slowed for days and even weeks at a stretch. Even now, much of this material hadn’t been read or even glanced at yet, and so much of the work involved simply reading it before classifying and cataloging it. Now, though, it was proceeding apace, with many taking turns with the still-considerable task. A team of four Rats that included Tallus’s daughter Alcina were currently putting in three to four hours a day on it, but Johnathan, Madeline, Kimball and Ages were devoting some of their time as well.

Tonight, Johnathan and Ages were so engaged, helping out Alcina’s team. The all-but-official diagnosing of Vincent as agoraphobic was the last discovery made that clarified some of the mysteries still surrounding him, and it was hoped that other such discoveries were forthcoming.

Johnathan glanced up from the mouse-sized table, brought from Vincent’s lair along with his writings. He nodded as Tallus approached. “Well, this seems to be all of the August 12th entries,” he said as he placed several pages, face down, on top of one stack.

“Excellent, Johnathan. You know, you look ready for a break, I’d say.”

“I suppose, Tallus. But if I look tired, I guess it’s mainly from poring over all these pages that probably only made sense to Vincent.” He sighed as he regarded the stacks still left to cover. He said this knowing how likely it was that those unread stacks might yield writings that could clarify the meaning of some already-read ones. So far, establishing a linear narrative for all these writings had been a daunting if not impossible task, in spite of the fact that most of the pages were dated.

“Something will come up, my friend, I’m sure of it. But you really ought to slow down. Barring accidents, none of this material is going anywhere.”

“I know, I know. It’s just…I can’t forget what the Stone showed me, the last thing he ever did. There’s just got to be something here, maybe something we’ve overlooked; maybe if we do some more reading between the lines…”

“Johnathan, I know you’re hoping for some sign that his actions weren’t as they appeared to be; but that note he left for Patricia…”

“…doesn’t prove a thing. I know it seems pretty conclusive, but I just can’t accept that he sought his own death. I don’t believe for a minute that that was a suicide note.”

Of late, Johnathan had given much thought to those earliest discoveries made about Vincent, which even now stood as perhaps the most disturbing ones to date: a certain journal entry that had, remarkably, been specifically addressed to Patricia, as if he’d expected her to discover both it and his hideaway; and that haunting scene revealed by the amulet, the one that had disclosed Vincent’s final fate: his death at the paws of a stray cat. Combined, the two seemed to reveal that he knew of his fate and offered no resistance to meeting it; or even that he could have been rushing toward it willingly.

“Of course, I’d rather not believe it either, but…just what do you have in mind, Johnathan?”

“Well, maybe he… Say, look who’s here.”

Tallus looked up, genuinely delighted at the sight of the pair entering Vincent Central. “Why, Ellis! And Reuben! How are you lads this evening?”

“Okay, Tallus,” answered Ellis. “Hi, Johnathan. We were told Mr. Ages is here. We need to see him.”

“He’s over here, and about ready to call it a night,” came a voice that didn’t sound especially receptive to company, from behind a stack of papers on the opposite side of the table. Nevertheless, Ages came out to meet the two mice.

“There you are! We looked for you in the ward, but Bernie told us you’d be here.”

“Well, you’ve found me. So what can I do for you?”

“Can we…go someplace more private and discuss this?” said Reuben.

“Actually, Reuben,” said Ellis, “it occurred to me on the way over that Mr. Ages isn’t the only one who might know something. Tallus or Johnathan might be able to help us too, as long as they’re here. It’s up to you, of course.”

Reuben stared off to one side as Ages said, “Whatever it is, I don’t see why it should be for my ears only.”

“He’s right, Reuben. What do you say?”

“Oh, all right. I suppose everyone will know about it eventually.”

Shortly, a small conference was called in an adjoining room, one regularly used for meetings and conferences. Ellis began by describing the previous two nights’ incidents with Lilia—with some reluctance over going into great detail about the previous night’s—and how he decided to visit her today against Reuben’s wishes. Reuben described how withdrawn she’d been this morning, and both described what she’d told Ellis. Lilia’s own contention that she felt like two people lately, in particular, caused some eyebrows to be raised.

Afterwards, Tallus spoke first. “It sounds rather like a case of multiple personality disorder. There have been many such cases among humans.”

Johnathan paused in fiddling with his whiskers. “And some of us have had first-hand experience with it.”

“Our old ‘mysterious stranger,’ Ghormfisk, of course,” said Tallus.

“The very one. But he was from an entirely different world and race. With us, who knows?”

Ages grumbled. “Well, considering how little we know of Vincent, there could be a precedent there.”

Johnathan turned to Reuben and Ellis. “I hope you don’t mind this kind of talk, Reuben. Vincent was your father, after all.”

Reuben shrugged. “I never knew him, Johnathan. But do you think this…multiple whatever is what’s wrong with Lilia?”

“There’s only one thing to do if we’re to make any kind of determination,” said Ages.

“I think I understand,” said Reuben.

Johnathan nodded. “Let’s get back there, then.”

Without further ado, the five rose from the table; and after Tallus told Alcina’s team they were leaving for a short while, they began making their way out and over to the Mouse community, just as night was beginning to fall.

“You see, Reuben?” Ellis said along the way. “Didn’t I tell you that we weren’t the only ones who wanted to help her?”

“Yes,” replied Reuben, managing a smile. “Yes, you did.”

As discussed, Reuben and Ellis entered the apartment first, as the others waited out in the corridor. They all agreed it was best that Lilia be told gently that there were others here to help her, rather than having everyone barge in all at once. The others thought they’d soon be told, “Yes, she’s ready to talk to you” or possibly “She doesn’t wish to see anyone else now” or that she’d only want to see one of them; but they were in no way prepared for the announcement that did come.

Ellis poked his head out the door. “She’s not here,” he reported.

“What?” said Johnathan.

“How can that be?” said Ages as they all entered the apartment, where Boris and Seelah just stood by the doorway of Lilia’s room, looking mystified. “Didn’t you two watch her at all?”

“Of course we did,” said Boris. “Not every second, but we looked in on her when we first got here, and there’s no other way out of her room.”

“We thought she was still there,” said Seelah. “We had no reason to think otherwise. She asked us to leave her alone, to think. We didn’t know she was gone until just now.”

“All right, we’re not accusing you of being careless,” said Johnathan. “But she had to get out somehow.”

“And where is she now?” asked Reuben, face etched with worry.

“Perhaps we should alert the Guard, put them on the lookout for her,” suggested Tallus.

“Maybe that won’t be necessary,” said Ellis. “She pulled a similar disappearing act this morning, and I’ve got a hunch about where she is now.”

They all headed back outside, taking the trail leading to the south meadow. On the way to check out Ellis’s hunch, it was conjectured that, with the seemingly precarious mental state Lilia was in, there was no telling what she might do. Ellis sounded so confident, though, that they’d agreed to hold off on calling for an all-out search until his hunch was confirmed or disproved.

They approached the blackberry thicket, rounded it, and began scanning the meadow. No one could see any sign of anyone moving about, and Tallus was about to leave to alert the Guard when Ellis, appropriately, called the others’ attentions to something. It didn’t take long for everyone to recognize the dancing figure, which everyone could swear wasn’t there a moment before; and Ellis, for all he’d expected and hoped to see her here, nonetheless couldn’t help feeling some surprise. She’d been so troubled, even traumatized before, apparently by her own earlier behavior; and now, here she was again, just as she was last night, as if the past day’s troubles had been experienced by…a different person entirely.

The Rat and six Mice approached her slowly; and Ellis, if he hadn’t trusted his own senses so thoroughly, could swear that this was an entirely different entity before them now, once again dancing up a storm by the light of the mostly-full moon. Not even the presence of this many disbelieving onlookers seemed to cause her any great concern; but as she took notice of them, one did cause her to react with more than indifference.

“Ellis! You’re here again!” Lilia rushed forward delightedly to embrace him.

Ellis could only stammer, “Uhbm…uh, yeah, Li-Lilia. I’m here…”

“Oh, wasn’t last night just wonderful? Mmmm…” She sighed deeply, contentedly, maintaining her hold on him.

Ellis’s confusion was by no means abated. How could she possibly… Did the past day’s events, from this morning on, not happen to her at all?

Before he could voice any of the innumerable questions on his mind, though, Ages stepped in. “Now, Lilia, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Mr. Ages! Have you come to celebrate the night with me too?” She noticed the others, waving to them delightedly.

“Lilia, please. I need to know how it is that you can be like this now and over the past two nights, and during the day you’re so…withdrawn and shy.”

Lilia laughed with the same tone Ellis was now familiar with, the bluntness of the question not bothering her a whit. “Oh, that poor timid creature. It’s a shame she can’t enjoy her life like I can.”

Johnathan spoke up next. “Who…do you mean, Lilia?”

“Oh, that’s not important. Does anybody else want to join me?” Without waiting for an answer, Lilia dashed away, did a perfect cartwheel, and resumed her usual dance.

Everyone else looked between her and each other, at a loss for what to say or even think. “That…that’s not her,” muttered Reuben. “It can’t be her.”

“Easy, Reuben,” said Johnathan. “Well, what do you think, Tallus?”

“I…” Tallus shook his head. “Perhaps a few more questions are in order.” He stepped forward, right to where Lilia was in the midst of a pirouette. “Lilia, I’d really like to…” Finding her spinning distracting, he reached down and swept her right up off her feet.

“Oh, hello, Tallus!” she said, undaunted. “Would you like to toss me? I’ll land light as a feather, just watch!”

“Er, no, thank you, Lilia. But I would like to ask you: just how did you leave your room, when Boris and Seelah were there the whole time, and would have had to see you leave?”

Lilia looked at him as if he’d asked the silliest possible question. “I wanted to come here, so I came. What else could I do?” She reached up, giving one of Tallus’s whiskers a playful tug. With her impish grin, she now seemed more like a cheerfully mischievous child, especially cradled in his arms as she now was.

“I see,” he said as he set her down. No, I don’t, he thought as Lilia bounded away, gazing upward and spinning herself around again. Tallus turned to the others. “I think we’ll gain little by questioning her further, especially now.”

“But what can we do?” asked Ellis.

“Yes, we can’t just leave her here…can we?”

“Actually, Boris,” said Johnathan, “she’s not doing herself or anyone else harm; and we’ve definitely got more to discuss now, but not here.”

“Someone should probably keep an eye on her,” suggested Seelah.

“How about you two, then? You can stay here, while the rest of us try to figure out what’s what and who’s who here.”

“Well, that’s only fair,” said Boris, “since that’s what we set out to do tonight.”

“I should be the one to stay here,” said Reuben.

“We all will,” said Boris. “All three of us.”

Reuben agreed, so while he, Boris and Seelah sat on the ground, Tallus, Johnathan, Ages and Ellis made to return to the library. As they started off, though, Lilia paused in her cavorting to call out to Ellis, expressing mild disappointment that he couldn’t stay. Certainly he wanted to, not only because he wanted to keep an eye on her as well, but there were also the still-fresh memories of last night, the moments of heartfelt tenderness which he knew he’d always cherish, no matter what happened afterwards or what may yet happen. In the end, though, he thought it best to stay away for now.

* * *

Back at Vincent Central, Alcina’s team was still plugging away. Tallus told them that, if anything especially noteworthy turned up, they should feel free to interrupt their own discussion in the next room anytime.

“First of all,” began Tallus, “does anyone still believe that Lilia’s problem is purely a case of mental illness?”

“Well, I still think it’s possible,” said Ages. “Sure, there’s no precedent, as we said; but we, as a race and culture, are still in our infancy, and there’s plenty of room for all possibilities.”

“But what can we do for her right now?” asked Ellis, worry etched upon his face and present in his voice.

“We know how much you want to help Lilia, Ellis,” said Johnathan. “But we have to determine exactly what’s wrong, so we can all help.”

“I know. I just…feel like we’d be doing more if we stayed out there with her, instead of sitting here and talking about her. She needs us, and she seems so helpless, like she’s being pushed and shoved around by forces that she can’t do a thing about.”

“Oh, I agree. And that reminds me of one idea I’ve had. Could there be something mystical in what’s happened to her? We’ve known for a long time that there are magical ‘hot spots’ on Lahaikshe, where odd manifestations crop up, like the place where my family and I stayed overnight a year or so ago and where Martin and Karen spent their wedding night.”

“How exactly do you think this relates to Lilia, Johnathan?”

“I’m not sure, Cyril. But these ‘hot spots’ can sometime have…unexpected effects, Gwinthrayle once told me. Not the ones in this area, though; those are supposed to be pretty benign. But others, in other parts of the world, are something else again.”

“But, Johnathan,” said Tallus, “didn’t Gwinthrayle also say that this, right here where we set down Freethorn, is not one of those spots?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Then how are you supporting this theory?”

“How would you explain Lilia being able to come and go the way she has? Ellis, this morning, when you last saw her, you could have sworn that she got away from your sight more easily than she should have, right?”

Ellis nodded. “Yeah…after we both went around the blackberry thicket, it’s like she vanished into thin air.”

“And what about tonight? She left her apartment right out from under Boris and Seelah’s noses. I’ve been around this sort of thing too much to dismiss this…ability of hers as just trickery or stealth.”

“Are you saying it may be…magic, sorcery? How would she have come across anything like that, Johnathan? She and Reuben pretty much lived like ordinary mice before we found them.”

“It’s only a theory, Ellis. But if it is a magical ability, she almost certainly came by it after coming here, in some way.”

“I don’t know about all that,” said Ages, “but as far as this new personality is concerned…well, in humans, when one develops this kind of condition, it can be the result of an especially intense emotional or psychological trauma.”

“Not unlike what happened to Ghormfisk,” pointed out Johnathan. “The way Lilia was talking about her more reserved personality out there sounds just like Ghormfisk, when his Uhrstegg personality was in charge—as if the other one were a whole different person.”

“True,” added Ages, “but it can also be the result of a trauma that’s sustained over a longer period.”

“Yes,” said Tallus, “when one has endured one or more forms of abuse over a long period of time—emotional, physical or sexual, or a combination thereof—it’s the only way the mind can cope with it.”

Ellis looked thunderstruck, shaking his head. “Oh, no…no way. You’re not suggesting… You don’t think Reuben could possibly… I mean, he’s so protective of her, he wants to keep her from any harm. I can’t believe he’d be capable of anything like that.”

“None of us want to believe that, Ellis,” said Johnathan. “But we’ve got to look at all possibilities. That’s why we’re here right now.”

“Well…what about the Stone, Johnathan? Could it prove any of this, somehow?”

“As a matter of fact, it could. I can use it to view Reuben and Lilia’s past, and see if there’s anything there that may have led to what we’re seeing now. I’ll get right on that as soon as I get home tonight. On one hand I hope it’ll give us something useful, but if anything like what we’ve just discussed comes up…I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Be that as it may,” said Tallus, “it should still provide a good start. In the meantime, I’ve wondered…Lilia is Vincent’s progeny, and there’s so much we still don’t know about him, for all the writings he’s left us. There might very well be a hereditary factor in all this.”

“My folks said something like that this morning, when I told them about Lilia,” said Ellis. “You think there’s really something to it, Tallus?”

“Well, as Johnathan said, we should examine all pos—”

“Father! Everyone! Come and see this! I think we’ve got something big here!”

The four looked at each other in surprise, and then they all got to their feet. In Vincent Central, the four Rats were talking excitedly among themselves as they clustered around Alcina at the main table. She looked up, smiling as she saw her father approaching.

“Well, you told us to interrupt if anything important turned up. We think this fits the bill nicely.” The others drew aside to allow Tallus to see the page that drew their attention. “This one was almost on the very bottom of a stack,” Alcina continued. “I was expecting another page full of abstractions or some kind of his usual ramblings, but…well, read it for yourself.”

Tallus did, out loud for everyone to hear. The date on the entry, from over two years before, was enough of a surprise, since it had been assumed that all writings from that long ago had been catalogued already. But the contents were a major eye-opener. Vincent described, with detailed clarity, how he’d just had a close call with one of the NIMH personnel and wished there was a way he could evade them more easily. Shortly after, he lay down to rest and think more about what could be done. Suddenly, he found himself in a space beneath the floor under the bed! Though it startled him, he immediately concentrated hard in an effort to return to where he was before, as if knowing that was all he had to do. It worked! He was back in his bed. He immediately tried to repeat the effect on purpose, and found that he could literally pass through walls and floors by becoming seemingly immaterial. He wondered, of course, how these abilities came upon him, but didn’t question the fact that they were now his, and immediately began to see their potential. As he put them further into practice over the next several hours, that potential was realized; and surpassed when he discovered he could will himself to become invisible as well, confirmed as he passed by a shiny aluminum surface and saw no reflection.

Tallus lowered the page slowly as he finished reciting, meeting the thoughtful expressions of the three mice.

“What did she tell you, Tallus?” said Colin, one of the other team members, excitedly. “This explains so much of what we’ve read already, like where he’d describe going out for food or furnishings for his den, without any kind of mention of having to look out for danger or evade any kind of obstacle.”

“And there were older writings that were full of that sort of thing,” added Alcina. “In the later ones, he’d say things like ‘I passed between this room and that,’ but we never knew what he really meant until now.”

“And there were all those meetings with Kimball,” added Johnathan, “like that first one with him and Patricia, where Vincent seemed to come and go like a spirit, like when he’d just pop up out of nowhere at their meeting place in the woods.”

“Indeed.” Tallus nodded thoughtfully. “Alcina, Colin, Ophelia, Clayton…let’s let this new discovery be the capper to a fine day’s work.” Some were reluctant to leave at this point, but all were convinced easily that everything would still be here tomorrow. All were ready for a good night’s sleep, some already yawning.

When Tallus and the three mice were alone in the chamber, he said, “Well, was I right when I sensed that all four of us hit upon the same realization, about what this discovery may also mean?”

“About how it may relate to Lilia, you mean?” Johnathan looked at Ages and Ellis, who nodded. “I believe you’re right.”

“The way she gave me the slip this morning, and then escaped from Boris and Seelah…it’s got to have something to do with those abilities of Vincent’s!” Ellis’s voice rose in excitement. “No, make that everything to do with it.”

“It is too much to be a mere coincidence,” agreed Ages. “And yet, she and Vincent never met, as far as we know. How could any of this have come to pass in the first place?”

“And those abilities…” mused Johnathan. “It looks like they just manifested themselves all of a sudden in him, because they took him totally by surprise.” He shook his head incredulously. “We’ve got a whopper of a mystery on our hands, folks. But whatever started all this, I’d go so far as to say that we’ve solved the first clue.”

“I agree,” said Tallus. “Perhaps we should call it a day as well. I believe our next step should be to question Lilia further in the morning. Perhaps she can tell us about these abilities of hers, when she first noticed them…”

“If she feels up to it,” said Ellis. “If it’s like this morning, then she may not be able to tell us anything.”

“Ah, yes…if she follows the same pattern, and she returns to what we could consider her ‘daytime’ persona. But whatever happens then, Ellis, we should pass on this discovery to Reuben and Boris and Seelah.”

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that; and I’ll tell my folks, too. Dad, especially, will want to hear this.”

“And I’ll look for possible evidence with the amulet, as we discussed earlier,” said Johnathan. “It always seems like spying, but if it’ll help her…” Abruptly, he began rubbing his whiskers. “That reminds me. We’ve used it for Vincent before, to view scenes of his life. I wonder why we never saw him doing any of those things, passing through walls and such. I guess…maybe because we ‘ordered’ it to show more-or-less random scenes, and they just happened to not include any of those scenes.”

“Or it may be one more part of the puzzle,” said Tallus. “At any rate, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

With that, the small group said their goodnights and broke up for the day. Ellis headed straight for the meadow, but before he got there, one of the Guard rats, Jerome, approached him, relaying a message Boris passed on to him: to tell Ellis that they’d already gone home after Lilia tired herself out. So he returned to Reuben and Lilia’s quarters, where Reuben, Boris and Seelah were taking turns keeping an eye on Lilia, who was already asleep. They told him that she had continued dancing and cavorting for another hour after the others had left, and when she stopped after saying she needed to rest, they’d convinced her to come home with them. She’d seemed agreeable, and had gone to bed shortly afterward, but now they were watching her “just in case.” Ellis told them about the new theory about Lilia’s abilities and the new discoveries about Vincent. Afterwards, he went home to tell his parents the same. On one hand they weren’t entirely happy that he’d gone back on his word to wait till tomorrow to try to see Lilia, but were fascinated by the discoveries and theories, and looking forward to what would come next.

* * *

In the Brisby residence, Johnathan and Madeline, after putting in some playtime with the younger children and sending them to bed, settled into bed themselves with the Stone. Johnathan willed it to show any event in Lilia’s life that would have led to her present condition. It showed nothing especially startling, least of all any kind of abuse by Reuben. There were two instances where Reuben was seen scolding or lecturing her, apparently about venturing from their den alone; but nothing, thankfully, to indicate that Reuben was anything but concerned for her well-being, albeit to the point of being overprotective. Oddly, though, the amulet showed several scenes of Lilia dancing and tumbling acrobatically about the den when she was alone; and, presumably later, doing the same in Reuben’s presence. Obviously, she’d been fond of this kind of activity for a long time, but how could that have led to her present condition?

It reached a point where they decided they’d seen enough; and so, shrugging, Johnathan put the amulet away. He and Madeline stayed awake a short while, discussing what they’d seen before going to sleep; little knowing that if they’d pursued the matter further, they would likely have been shown much more, scenes that may have resulted in a sleepless night for them and others.

Chapter 11 - Lilia opens up

“Lilia?” came the voice, barely above a whisper, from the doorway. “May I come in?”

Lilia turned her head, glancing toward the door. “Cynthia?” she murmured.

“Yes, it’s me. Is it okay?”

“Mmmm…all right.”

Cynthia Brisby ventured through the curtains and approached the bed, where Lilia was much as she was the previous day, lying on her side, facing the opposite way. Cynthia pulled up a chair and sat, smiling, stroking Lilia’s shoulder. “How’re you doing today?” In spite of how disheartened she’d felt upon hearing about Lilia’s troubles, and seeing her this way now, she, as always, strove to maintain an upbeat attitude.

“I…I’m not sure.” Lilia shifted herself around to face her, still lying on her side.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Lilia sighed. “I’m so…mixed up, I…don’t know if I can.”

Cynthia took her hand, clasping it gently. “Remember when I first came to you and Reuben? You were really curious about me, and where I’d come from; you felt like we had a real connection, and that you could trust me. You still believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes…I do, Cynthia.”

“Great. Now…you’re probably aware that there’s, well, rather a lot of us now that know what’s been happening with you.”

Lilia looked away for a moment. “I…guess so.”

“Well, you can trust me when I say that all of us want to help. Ellis told you that, too, and you trust him, don’t you?”

“I…yes, I do.”

Cynthia explained carefully about what they needed to learn from her so that they could begin to help her; and though Lilia still outwardly appeared reluctant, she agreed. She was coaxed into eating a bit of food; like yesterday morning, she hadn’t felt up to going to breakfast. Soon they were joined by Madeline and Patricia, who had been waiting in the front room. It was Patricia who had suggested, at this morning’s meeting of those who were working on Lilia’s “case”, that Lilia might be more receptive to female company in disclosing details of her past. So it was now that the three of them—with Cynthia sitting up in bed beside Lilia, Patricia in the chair, Madeline sitting at the foot of the bed—gently and patiently encouraged Lilia to confide all she could recollect.

“Well…” she began in a voice barely above a whisper, “when we were really small, after Mama died, Reuben started to take care of us…but I guess you know that already. It…was sometime after that, a few months later, when I…I really noticed a change.” Though she was clearly ill at ease at talking about herself, she also appeared determined to get her story told. “Before, I was always so…so scared of just about everything and everyone. I barely even…stepped outside of our den. But after that…” She sighed, shaking her head. “Oh, this is so embarrassing…”

“It’s all right, dear, no one’s going to ridicule you,” assured Patricia.

“She’s right, Lilia.” Cynthia placed an arm around her shoulders. “You can say anything to us.”

Lilia looked among them, managing a smile. She swallowed and continued: “This change, I don’t know where it came from, or why; but one night, when Reuben was out gathering food, I felt strange, dizzy. I sat down, and after a few minutes, I wanted to…to jump for joy, I just felt so good. I didn’t feel I had to hide or be fearful anymore. I stayed right there, because I still felt I had to obey Reuben, and I didn’t want him to worry if I was gone when he returned. I felt like going out, but instead I danced around the den, and sang to myself; I had to express how I felt some way. I settled down after Reuben returned, but I still felt…joyful inside, and very calm, and not so fearful of almost everything, like before.”

“Do you remember when this happened?” asked Madeline.

“It was…oh, it had to be…around three years ago, I guess.”

“And it’s been like that ever since for you?” asked Patricia.

“Well, yes. At first, I tried to keep it from Reuben; I wouldn’t do any of my dancing around while he was in, but later I did.”

“And what was his reaction?”

“He was surprised at first, but he seemed to accept it. As long as I kept it inside and quiet, he didn’t mind.”

“And how did you feel about this…change in you?” asked Patricia.

“I was a bit confused at first, just because it came all at once like that; but I felt so good, so confident and content, that I really didn’t think much about how I was before. It didn’t seem to matter.”

“Lilia,” began Cynthia thoughtfully, “you said that Reuben wouldn’t let you behave like that outside. You must have been a little displeased with that.”

Lilia sighed; she was clearly uncomfortable with all these inquiries into how she felt. “I guess I was, some. I mean, it’s hard to describe. I was still wary of strangers, though not really afraid of them. And I understood why Reuben wanted to keep me concealed. He knew my white coat would put me in greater danger from predators, and that my eyes and skin were sensitive to daylight. He…he wanted to protect me, we were all we had.”

“But you did feel that he was…well, overdoing it a bit?”

“Why are you attacking him, Patricia?” Lilia’s voice trembled, and she looked close to tears. “He was just looking out for me! He loves me. A-and I love him.” She buried her face in her hands.

“Lilia, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. We’re just trying to understand both you and Reuben a little better.”

Lilia looked up, wiping away a tear. “I know. I just…I just don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t understand at all.”

“That’s why you need to tell us all you can,” said Madeline, “so that maybe we all can understand.”

“Can you tell us,” said Patricia, “about how long Reuben has been this protective of you?”

Lilia looked a bit surprised. “I told you that he started taking care of me after Mama died. It’s been that way since. Well…not exactly the same way…”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I said before that I was afraid to even step outside; he really didn’t have to do or say much to keep me from harm. But later…he’d tell me, almost every day, how important it was to keep from possible harm, and cautioning me not to go outside unless I absolutely had to; and when we’d have to move, he’d constantly look all around while we were about, trying his best to get me from one area to another where I’d be out of sight. Even though I’d tell him I could look out for myself, he’d insist he would do the ‘looking out’ for both of us. And I pretty much accepted it all.” Lilia sighed. “Maybe…a little too easily. But all along, I still felt…happy and content most of the time.”

Patricia looked away thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “Lilia…you said there was a definite change in Reuben. Would you say it happened all at once, like that change in you?”

“Why, I…hadn’t really thought about it, but…yes, I suppose it did.”

“And how close did it happen to the one in you?” ventured Cynthia.

Lilia looked off to one side. “It was almost…the same time. I think I even noticed it then, but…I hardly thought about it since.”

The other women looked at each other, all realizing the same thing. “Lilia,” said Patricia, “we may have a clue here as to what’s happening with you?”

“Do you…really think so?”

“It could be. Unless it’s just a coincidence. But somehow I don’t think so, if there really was a change in your…way of thinking, I guess you’d say.”

For a moment they hesitated, unsure of where to take their line of questioning next. They’d agreed beforehand not to directly ask about her apparent change in personality, at least not right away. Then Madeline spoke. “Lilia…you were able to slip away from Boris and Seelah last night, without their seeing you. Both Reuben and Ellis said that you did the same with them. Can you tell us how you were able to do this? If you don’t mind…”

Lilia shrugged. “I really don’t know. I just thought it, and…I did it.”

“What…exactly happens when you do it?” asked Cynthia.

“Well, I…just thought about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and…I disappeared, and I…walked through the wall, and no one saw me.”

None could conceal their surprise at this. “You mean,” continued Cynthia, “you turned invisible? And you could slip right away, just like that?”

“I…yes.”

“And then you’d go out to the meadow?”

Lilia hesitated, looking uncertain and again close to tears. “Yes…I mean…oh, I don’t know. I wish…all this would…just stop…” She hid her face again.

“Oh, Lilia, I know it’s hard for you,” said Patricia, stroking her arm and shoulder. “But we need you to tell us all you can.”

She lowered her hands slowly. “Do you really know, Patricia? Do you know what it’s like to feel like…like there’s someone else inside of you, making you do things that…that don’t even feel like you?” She shook her head.

“Lilia,” Patricia said carefully, “we didn’t want to bring this up, this…different behavior of yours, because we thought it might upset you. But I guess there’s no way of avoiding it, if we want to get to the bottom of things.”

“I know, Patricia. What…else did you want to know?”

“Well…when did you first notice these…new abilities of yours?”

“Only since we came here, and then it wasn’t right away, but a few days after. It startled me at first, but I wasn’t frightened or anything. But it was only about a week ago that…that other thing started happening.”

“Was there…any peculiar feeling that came to you, like that other time?”

Lilia thought for a moment, then her eyes grew wide. “Why, yes, there was. It was about three or four months ago. A feeling just like that. But nothing seemed to happen. Although there were…those dreams…”

“Dreams? Can you tell us about them?” asked Madeline.

Lilia nodded. “They weren’t all the same, exactly. There were a few of them, over several days, and…they all seemed to take place in the same…place, a building. A human building. And it’s…funny, but I knew that’s what it was supposed to be, even though I’d never been in one before. While I was in there, I would see…humans moving about, but they wouldn’t see me. And…I would drift through walls and floors, just…just like I really could later.”

“Can you remember any details about this building?” asked Patricia.

“No, not much, except that…there were many rooms, some large, some small…long hallways. There was…in one of them, one of these dreams, a very small one, that seemed to be made just for me, like it was my home. It even felt like it belonged to me, just like…like in all of these dreams, it all felt very familiar, like I’d actually been there a long time. Even after I’d wake up each time, it would still feel that way…at least for a while. I knew I couldn’t really be familiar with that place, because I’d never been there in my life. It was all very strange, but…after these dreams stopped, I didn’t think much about them until now. Do you think…they might mean something?”

Patricia stood, smiling. “I certainly do, Lilia.”

“So do I,” said Madeline. “In fact…they might just be the key to all of this.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” said a bemused Cynthia.

The three of them excused themselves and adjourned to the front room. Patricia and Madeline had managed to keep their reactions low-key, but now they briefed Cynthia on the discoveries that had been made last night among Vincent’s notes, and the striking similarities they bore to what Lilia had just related to them. Next door at Boris and Seelah’s, others waited to hear the report the women would give about this meeting, and they now agreed that they’d go there immediately. Cynthia returned to Lilia to tell her what was going on and that she’d stick around a while longer to provide further company.

Next door, Madeline and Patricia gave their report to Johnathan, Reuben, Ellis, Boris and Seelah, going over the basics of what Lilia had told them. All were thunderstruck over Lilia’s contention that she’d “disappeared and walked through the wall.” Johnathan immediately declared that this was information too vital to delay passing on to the Vincent Central crew.

They all immediately prepared to go to the library, but as they were leaving, Lilia and Cynthia met them in the corridor, Lilia appearing to have something urgent to share.

“Please,” Lilia said shakily but with conviction, “let me come with you. If you think that…this is that important to…to me, and why all this has been happening…I should be there too.”

There were some concerns, especially from Reuben, but she assured them she felt up to it. No good reason why not, all agreed; and Lilia was visibly delighted at being allowed to attend this meeting. Why not, indeed? It did concern her greatly, and this was the first time she’d been this forthcoming about something she truly wanted—at least in what was still considered her “normal” persona. It was clearly a sign that she was feeling less distressed about her other one, and that talking out the matter had done her a world of good.

On the way, Lilia stuck close by Reuben, but continually cast admiring glances at Ellis, who was relieved to see that she still regarded him highly. He’d been reluctant to sit out the questioning in favor of the women, knowing how much she trusted him yesterday evening and had been reluctant to have him leave then. But the main thing, he knew, was that she was feeling better; and this meeting should help all the more, if it proved to yield the results that Johnathan thought it might.

Chapter 12 - The connection

At Vincent Central, research had continued apace since breakfast; for not only those writings yet unseen, but into those already catalogued, for any possible clues that may have been overlooked. The same team of Rats led by Alcina was on the job again, minus Ages, who had medical duties, but now joined by Kimball, who was especially enthusiastic in light of last night’s discoveries.

Tallus approached him now, pausing momentarily to take in the sight of him sitting on the floor, nearly surrounded by papers spread in a semicircle, intently studying the one directly in front of him. “Sorry to interrupt, Kimball,” he said, “but I believe I have the last of the ones you want.”

Kimball didn’t seem to hear at first, but then he looked up, appearing mildly startled. “Oh, sorry, Tallus. Did you say something? Oh, are those the rest of them?”

“Yes, they are.” Tallus handed them to him. “You’re going at this with quite a vengeance.”

“Yes, I guess I am.” Kimball only briefly glanced up as he leafed through them, already poring over them intently. “Can you blame me, though? I was the only friend Vincent had in the world, but there was so much he could not or would not tell me. And now we have this discovery from last night. There must be more we can find out, Tallus. We now know how he was able to get around inside and outside NIMH so easily. There’s got to be more we can find out right here. I’m certain that all it would take is a bit more careful reading.”

“Yes, Johnathan believes so too. But there are still many pages yet unseen, that haven’t had so much as a perfunctory glance. Among those, and these in front of you…but I’m preaching to the converted, aren’t I?”

“That’s all right, because it’s the absolute truth.”

“Have you found anything yet which might be significant?”

“Well, there’s this one…” Kimball returned his attention to the notes spread before him—pages that were accounts of dreams or seemed to be, or were undated, or otherwise deemed unclassifiable, mostly due to content that seemed indefinite or even unintelligible—and took one from the top of one stack.

“This is one of the undated ones. Listen to this.” He cleared his throat. “‘It all rings so hollow for me now. How much longer will I continue to make excuses? I am as a carrion bird, picking and scraping away at a skeleton that has lain bleaching in the sun for months. There is no more for me here, save all that I now survey. Is it still enough? Not long ago, I would have had no doubts. Now, recent events have placed me at a crossroads. Day by day it feels more and more as if this desk, this bed, chairs, carpet, all these damnable journals, are all that keep me here. This world, which is my singlehanded creation, my child, has become my burden. The desire to leave is in constant conflict with the desire to carry on as I always have. But will I be able to, if I do stay? When I weigh all of this against what I know would welcome me out there, the former desire grows ever stronger. They are out there, those who would take me to their bosom and welcome me as one of their own. But the times I have tried, to make a life outside of this monolithic human-made monstrosity, to go to them and stay with them, only to return time and time again, drawn by that weakness in me that keeps me here…it all serves to increase my determination to overcome it. Yet, it also causes my shame to likewise grow, especially since I’ve realized that I very likely have offspring of my own waiting for me out there. One day, I will overcome this fear once and for all, and—oh, damn it all. Damn it all.’”

Kimball paused, lost in thought; though he was one of the first to read this entry when it was uncovered a few days ago, and all of them were familiar with it by now, it still haunted him. Before this one had been uncovered, there had been few entries in which he’d honestly described his feelings in any substantial fashion, and that in itself made this one nearly unique; but more, it had all but clinched the diagnosis of Vincent’s agoraphobia, and illustrated—probably more than any other—the frustration he felt at not being able to rein it in, coupled with the realization of the ways he’d touched the lives of those he’d met on the outside, including Kimball’s own family. But was there more to this entry?

“I can’t help but wonder,” he said presently to Tallus, “if there’s some special importance to when this was written. I mean…what if he wrote this shortly before…he met his end? It could prove that he wasn’t rushing to meet it, and that he was going to try to leave again, possibly for good.”

“You and Johnathan are of one mind on this, aren’t you?”

“Of course. Neither of us wants to believe that—”

“Hello? Are my ears burning? Is someone paging me?”

They both looked toward the door. “Over here, Johnathan,” said Tallus. “You’ll want to hear this. Rather a larger crowd than I’d expected.” He welcomed the nine mice in, reserving a special though not exorbitant greeting for Lilia, wanting her to feel at home but not uncomfortable; there was no big scene made about how unexpected her presence was. For her part, she was fascinated by these new surroundings; Cynthia was reminded of her family’s first look at the Rats’ library two years before.

“So what’s the latest poop?” asked Johnathan, with most of the other mice gathering around. Kimball described his theories about the by-now familiar undated entry he’d just recited aloud, after which he asked Johnathan what he thought.

Johnathan paused in his whisker-fiddling. “Well, maybe this’ll come in handy after all.” He reached in his shoulder-bag and pulled out a familiar red amulet. “We’ve used it before to view scenes from Vincent’s life, but there were no great revelations,” he explained, mostly for the benefit of Reuben and Lilia, who had never before sat in on any of those sessions. “But now…”

“We can use it to find out when he made this entry, can’t we?” suggested Madeline.

“Exactly.” Without further ado, Johnathan began concentrating. All present gathered around for a good view. The amulet began glowing, and an image soon followed: Vincent, sitting at his desk writing. Upon closer view, the page he was working on could be clearly seen to be the one in question. It was mostly completed, four lines short of the end, when he was seen to pause and gaze upward, expression grim and intense. Ellis glanced toward Reuben, reminded of similar expressions he’d seen on his face recently.

“Johnathan,” asked Kimball quietly, “how exactly will we learn when he was writing it, just from observing him this way?”

“I’m not sure yet. We’ll see how it goes from here, at least up till he finishes the page.”

“That’s…that’s really him, Johnathan? Our father?”

“Yes, it is, Lilia.” She and Reuben showed an especially keen fascination, since this was the first they’d seen the amulet used in this fashion, let alone used to view their father. This was also the first they’d seen him as he actually was, outside of drawings by himself and Patricia.

Vincent was seen to resume writing, going as far as the next-to-last line, then stopping again. Then he shook his head and finished the page, expression reflecting the frustration expressed in that disturbing last line. He got up from the desk, picked up the page he’d just finished, and held it in front of him as if he would crumple or tear it up; but instead, he brought it over to a stack of papers and placed it close to the bottom of the stack. Then, he walked to the center of the room and said something out loud, then headed for the doorway. Out of his hideaway he went, determination in every step as he made his way up the stairs to the hidden entrance in the utility closet. With hardly a pause, he made his way out to the hallway.

It was at around this point that three of those observing the scene began to feel strangely uneasy. Kimball was the first to say out loud that there was a disturbing familiarity about this scene; and soon neither he nor Johnathan nor Patricia doubted why. “Johnathan…that hunch of mine, about when he made that entry…I had no idea it was that soon before…” He looked at Patricia, who was holding her hand over her heart over what she knew would follow.

Johnathan quickly explained for everyone else’s benefit what the amulet was likely to show next, cautioning them that it was a pretty horrible sight.

“Johnathan, are you sure that this is that occasion? The exact same one?”

“Maddie, I couldn’t forget that scene if I tried.” While everyone else elected to look away, Johnathan kept watching to confirm absolutely that they weren’t wrong, for all he wished otherwise. He continued viewing after Vincent had reached the outside, up to where he approached the dumpster; then, when the cat came into view, Johnathan closed his eyes, covered the Stone and silently “ordered” it to cease. He looked up, nodding sadly to everyone.

Everyone was silent for another moment. Then Patricia said sadly, “I guess this…this proves that Vincent was choosing to meet his end, after all…”

“No, Patricia,” said Kimball, unexpectedly sharply. “This still doesn’t prove that.”

“But the other note, that he addressed to me, definitely said that he knew the end was near…”

An end, Patricia. That didn’t necessarily mean his own death.” He paused, sighing. “I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but…I knew him better than anyone else here, and I can’t believe that he was suicidal.”

“Neither can I.” Johnathan looked down at the Stone, fingering it in his hand. “There’s only so much this can show. We can observe his actions, but without knowing what was in his head or heart, we can’t draw any definite conclusions.”

“Instead, we’re left with more questions.” Kimball looked down at the papers he’d been going over on the floor, and went back over to them. “We still believe that there are more answers to be found, don’t we? I say we shouldn’t let this be a setback.”

“He’s right,” said Johnathan. “Let’s remember what we came here to do.” With that, all of the mice and Tallus filed into the adjacent conference room. Johnathan had to coax Kimball away from his renewed studying, assuring him that he’d want to hear this too.

“It does explain one thing,” said Patricia as they filed in. “Why we didn’t see that page when we found his hideaway; though not why he concealed it like that.”

“Yes,” added Kimball, “and I can understand why he was tempted to destroy it, but…I guess it’s a good thing he had a change of heart.”

After all were seated around the table in the conference room, Madeline and Patricia began describing what Lilia had told them about when she’d first noticed the changes in her and Reuben, and the dreams she’d had preceding her most recent changes. Johnathan and Tallus took an especially keen interest in the latter.

“Dreams…” Tallus mused aloud afterward. “Passing through walls and floors, in a human building…”

“…which Vincent was doing for real,” finished Johnathan.

“When she told us this,” added Madeline, “we knew you’d have to hear it immediately.”

“What does it mean, though?” asked Ellis. “What sort of connection?”

“One definitely more than that of blood,” said Tallus. He explained to Lilia and Reuben what had been discovered about their father last night, after which he asked, “Lilia…do you remember when you first started having those dreams?”

“Well…it was in late summer, or early fall. I couldn’t say the exact day. I’d never learned months or days until after we came here. But I guess it would have been sometime in September.”

“Yes…” Tallus stroked his chin. “Yes, thank you, Lilia. Now…” He got up and began circling the table. “When did we estimate Vincent met his end?”

“Around September the 20th,” replied Johnathan instantly.

“Are you suggesting that…when Vincent died, he…passed those abilities on to Lilia?” asked Cynthia.

“It is looking that way, is it not? I wonder…” Tallus paused in his floor-pacing. “Johnathan, the amulet could prove whether the two events were linked, could it not?”

“I guess so, but…it still wouldn’t tell us how or why.”

Reuben raised a hand. “If this is true, why did it happen to Lilia and not me?”

“Or me, or any of Vincent’s other children?” wondered Boris.

“However it happened, or why, there are forces at work here that we must understand fully before we can solve the mystery. Let’s see…Lilia dreamed of being inside a building that could very well have been the NIMH lab. Reuben…do you recall having dreams that seemed…well, as if you were someone else entirely, experiencing something completely outside your own personal experience?”

“I don’t remember most of mine,” said Reuben. “Although…there was one I had a couple of years ago that really stayed with me, I don’t know why. I was leading…a group of rats somewhere, to a place of safety, I guess.”

Nearly everyone showed surprise at this. “Rats? Really?” said Johnathan.

“Yes, and that’s the strangest part. At that time I didn’t really know any rats, nor had much contact with any. That’s probably why I remember that one so well.”

“That would stand out in my memory, all right. Any other details you remember?”

“Not many. We were all in this place I can’t really describe. Sometimes it seemed more like a human-made place, sometimes not.”

“But you were leading these rats,” said Tallus, resuming his pacing. “Fascinating. Ah, Boris, how about you? You sometimes have these visions that—”

He interrupted himself as all suddenly noticed that Boris was sitting stock still, gazing straight ahead but with eyes half-closed. “I think he’s having one now,” Cynthia whispered to Lilia.

Seelah silently motioned for everyone to stay quiet until it was over. Everyone was fascinated by the sight, which most hadn’t seen before, anticipating what would come of it.

After almost a minute, Boris’s eyes flew open. He shook his head rapidly and rubbed at his brow as Seelah placed an arm around his shoulders. Soon he noticed everyone was sitting silently, with attentions focused on him. He quickly collected himself, clearing his throat. “I just saw…someone, two figures, sitting and talking. It was hard to make out any features, because there was so much fog, so much mist. It was all very gloomy, but, they were…well, one was larger than the other. It almost seemed like the smaller one was a mouse, but it was hard to tell.”

“Can you recall any of their conversation?” asked Tallus.

“I…can’t really remember specific words, but…no, there was something about…being hopeful that things would be different soon. I guess their conversation was less gloomy than the landscape.” Boris looked around at everyone. “I’ve had so many like that, which didn’t mean all that much to me personally, but…could this be another piece of the puzzle?”

“We can’t afford to discount any possible clues,” said Tallus. “I wonder…could some of Vincent’s, er, ‘dream reports’ provide any further ones?”

“I can’t help but wonder,” said Johnathan, rubbing his whiskers, “if hearing Reuben describe his dream, or any of this discussion in general, was what triggered Boris’s trance now.”

Before anyone could say more, an outside voice chimed in. “Uhm…is it all right to come in now?” It was Colin, one of the research crew, standing at the door.

“Of course, Colin,” said Tallus. “What do you have for us?”

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t interrupting. As for this…” Colin held up the page in his hand. “This is one of the last pages we hadn’t gone over at all. I thought it should go in the ‘dream stack’, but I had…a hunch, I’d have to call it, and I figured you’d want to see it first.” He handed it to Tallus.

“Thank you, Colin. Ah, for the life of me, I’ll never fathom the system Vincent used.” He chuckled. “Providing he had one, of course. Even with my memory, I doubt that I could…” Tallus’s voice left him as he began examining the page.

“What is it?” Johnathan came up behind Tallus’s chair after he sat down again. Soon everyone was either standing on either side or had clambered up onto the table, curious for a view of the page.

Here was what seemed to be a straightforward description of Vincent using building materials, of wood and stone, but not handling them directly; rather, he described using his own will to hold them while others used nails and other fasteners to secure them in place. Certainly it was an account which, to most, would seem dreamlike; but it was the description of those others that gave those reading it now pause, especially Tallus and Johnathan. They were rats, and upon reading this some looked at Reuben curiously. He could only shrug.

Tallus looked at Colin, still standing nearby. “You were right to bring this to my attention, my friend.”

“It sounds just like your descriptions of…Nicodemus, how he’d use his powers of…telekinesis to help build your old colony,” observed Madeline.

“Tallus and I were both there to see that happen,” concurred Johnathan. “But Vincent wasn’t. As far as we know, the only contact he had with any rats was at NIMH. Either way, he didn’t openly refer to this as an account of a dream, but what else could it be?”

“But the way he describes it,” said Kimball, "it’s as if he’s…standing in for Nicodemus, as if those are his own powers.”

“I’ve been around this sort of thing enough to not just chalk it up to coincidence,” said Johnathan sagely. “But what else could it be? Vincent was living there at NIMH all the time we were building the old colony.”

“And yet,” Tallus pointed out, “Lilia here dreamed of experiences that seemed to be those of another; of Vincent, no less. And Reuben did too, though his seemed to be those of…someone else entirely.”

“And that someone, at first blush, would appear to be Nicodemus,” Johnathan observed. “But what could he possibly have had to do with Vincent? How could he?”

“You’ve always told me,” Madeline reminded him, “that he still seemed to keep mysteries to himself, things that he didn’t even tell those closest to him, like you and Justin.”

“That’s true. Too true,” agreed Johnathan, sighing. “We’d suspected that he had other abilities besides the ones he’d openly display to us. Maybe it’s only because he insisted on solitude so much, especially in his later years, but…there had to be something there. It seems so incredible to suggest…a real connection between the two.”

“I wouldn’t even try to propose exactly what kind of connection, Johnathan,” said Kimball. “But didn’t you say that that green fellow, Uhrstegg—or Ghormfisk, correct?—had tampered with his mind?”

“He did,” Johnathan said, a bit wearily, obviously preferring to not discuss the matter but knowing it couldn’t be avoided. “He told us himself that the spell he put on Nicodemus made him forget certain things, mainly details about the Stone, by exploiting the fact that he was aging faster than the rest of us. He was becoming more subject to lapses in memory, and the spell exacerbated them, made him forget specific things. I don’t think even Ghormfisk knew the full extent, though, of what the spell did to Nicodemus, especially the last few months of his life, when Ghormfisk and I were out of the picture for a while.”

“It’s all so complex,” said Patricia. “Can we possibly solve this here, now, with what we have?”

“I couldn’t say at this point, but…I do believe a council meeting is in order.”

“We’ll hold it right here, where all of Vincent’s notes are,” said Tallus. “Let’s put the word out immediately.”

* * *

“And that’s what we’ve found, and theorized thus far. Everything seems to point to a connection among him, and Vincent, and at least some of his offspring.”

“Tallus,” said Velma, “in case you’d forgotten, Nicodemus is dead. We were all there when it happened.”

“None of us possibly could forget, Velma, but…so is Vincent, and he is undoubtedly part of the equation.”

“At one time, Velma,” said Arthur, “I’d have been every bit as skeptical. But I’ve seen and experienced too much, especially lately, to dismiss any theory out of hand, no matter how unlikely it sounds.”

“Let’s not forget,” added Angeline, “that a few months ago we and this entire patch of land were in another world, and that none of us believed that it could all be moved intact.”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” said Velma. “But what does it all mean? What sort of connection are we looking at?”

“Obviously one of a mystical nature,” said Tallus. “But its origins are still a mystery.”

“My guess is that it originated with Nicodemus,” theorized Justin. “Something he set in motion before his death, maybe.”

“But with Ghormfisk’s tampering,” said Tallus, “how could he have done something that elaborate? Unless he did it before then.”

“He had to have known about Vincent and his children, at any rate,” said Kimball. “And if so, it’s possible he knew of Patricia and me and our family as well.”

“Yes. But if he did know, he had his memory wiped clean of that knowledge, just like Ghormfisk’s spell forced him to forget so much else.”

“Isn’t it strange,” said Justin, “that so vital a piece of the puzzle, that one page, lay unseen until now.” He gave a small laugh. “Almost as if Vincent were playing with us somehow, making us scratch our heads and puzzle over all this before springing it on us.”

“But it’s not the final piece,” reminded Ages. “I’ve got a hunch…” He got up and headed for the door. “Let’s hold that thought. I’ll be right back.”

Many small conversations cropped up. Justin looked all around the room at the mix of rats and mice, taking special notice of Reuben and Lilia, sitting with Boris and Seelah in a corner, looking rather small and bewildered but also fascinated by the proceedings. He walked over to them.

“Reuben…Lilia. It’s good to see both of you here. I know this must seem strange, maybe even overwhelming to you.”

“It is strange, Justin,” said Reuben, “but it involves us, so we need to be here.”

“I never thought,” began Lilia almost inaudibly, “I’d be part of something so important. I feel like this is something that…will affect everyone here.”

“Well it might,” said Justin. “Who knows, it might even—”

“I don’t believe this!” came a shouted voice from the next room. “Were you all asleep? How could you not notice such a thing?”

Justin started toward the door, but Ages came storming through first, waving another of Vincent’s notes in his hand. “Preposterous, is what it is! To think that such a vital detail would fly right over everyone’s head!”

“Ages, what are you ranting about?” demanded Tallus. “And I’ll thank you not to abuse and demean my crew. They’ve all been working hard on this project.”

“Apologies can wait, Tallus. Look at this!” Ages set the page on the table, where Tallus immediately recognized it as the one discovered only last night, wherein Vincent described the onset of his new “phasing” abilities.

Tallus told everyone this was that page, then asked Ages, “We know all about this already. So what have you found?”

“First…what day was it that Madeline Brisby came to you for help, Nicodemus died, and you had to vacate the Rosebush colony?”

“We all know that,” said Justin, who had returned to his seat. “It was March 12, 1983.”

“Tallus…if you would, please read to everyone the date at the end of this entry.”

Tallus turned it over, and his eyes grew wide. “March…thirteen, nineteen eighty-three.”

This met with renewed discussion throughout the chamber, until Justin called everyone to order. “I believe this should prove, beyond a doubt, that Nicodemus had a connection with Vincent and his children.”

“You know, Justin,” said Johnathan, “maybe there’s something to that ‘playing with us’ theory.”

“I’ll agree that the coincidence of dates is remarkable,” said Velma, “but couldn’t it still be just coincidence?”

“Of course,” agreed Justin. “But we can’t write it off, not with everything else we’ve uncovered.”

“I don’t recall,” said Colbert, “Nicodemus ever displaying powers such as those Vincent described. I mean, passing through walls and floors like a phantom? Turning invisible?”

“Nor did I,” said Simone. “But he kept many secrets from us, even before Ghormfisk got to him; and after, he couldn’t reveal what he couldn’t remember.”

“Not the least of which was the extent of his involvement with magic and sorcery,” said Justin. “He may have forgotten those particular abilities.”

“But Vincent still seemed to have ‘inherited’ them,” said Johnathan, “just as Lilia in turn seemed to get them from him.”

“And there’s Reuben’s ‘leading rats’ dream. I wonder: did this connection stop with them, or could it have extended further?” He looked straight at Boris.

“Could it be… Is this where my visions come from? And what about Doris, or our younger brothers or sisters?”

“Or…” said Johnathan, rubbing his whiskers, “one other that we’ve almost forgotten…”

“Who’s that, Johnathan? Ah…wait, you mean our other brother, who’s still on Earth, don’t you?”

“‘No-Name,’ yes. And if I’m not mistaken, we may be a little overdue to pay him a visit again.”

“We were just talking about him the other day,” said Cynthia. “Michael wasn’t sure if it had been a month yet.”

“But if all this had any effect on him,” wondered Ages, “I wonder if his condition is a factor. Provided, of course, that this isn’t all just coincidence.”

“Either way,” said Johnathan, “we’ve no excuse now to put off visiting him any longer.”

“Michael was his sponsor; I wonder if he’d be able to tell us anything more about him?” wondered Tallus. “Something that might provide any other clues?”

“It’s possible. Cynthia, could you—”

“I’m out of here, Daddy.” Cynthia had already left her seat. “I know just where’s he’s working today. Be right back!”

After Cynthia had raced from the room, Tallus said, “Well, while we’re waiting, I believe someone mentioned ‘apologies’…” He looked directly at Ages.

It took another moment for Ages to completely pick up on Tallus’s meaning; then he stood, grumbling to himself as he returned to Vincent Central.

* * *

“…and after we told him we’d be back in a month or so, we said goodbye and left. I wouldn’t know what else to tell that you haven’t heard already, except…well, a couple of things that may be just hunches, but anyway… Some of you have heard this already. As we were leaving, I glanced back at No-Name, and he was just sitting there, like he did so much of the time, except that it seemed like his expression was sad, like he had more he needed to say, but couldn’t. When he said ‘no,’ I said to Johnathan that he might not have meant that as the answer to our offer. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe it’s true.”

“But when you do see him again,” brought up Ages, “what will you do if he says ‘no’ again?”

“Well, maybe I’m alone in this, but…I’d be willing to spend as much time with him as it would take to really get through to him, get to know him, till I’d know for sure what he really wants.”

“That’s very commendable, Michael,” said Tallus. “But something like that might be better conducted here, for reasons of safety, and that he’d have all the resources of Freethorn to help him.”

“I know how much you respect his wishes, and don’t want to force him to come here,” said Johnathan. “But we should consider what’s best for him.”

“I am, Johnathan, and I understand your point. It just bothers me that we could be bringing him here against his will.”

“And if he’s the same as when we last saw him, we won’t know what his will is. But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Michael…we’ve already told you about our newest discoveries about his father, and this strange link that seems to exist among him and some of his other children, and the Rats’ late leader. We believe that our friend there might provide a further clue as to why this link exists. We’re not sure how, but it’s possible his condition has something to do with it.”

“But…when we used the Stone to look into his past, he seemed to be that way his whole life.”

“This is true,” said Tallus. “And granted, we did learn some vital details about his life. We know that his mother couldn’t handle him and left him to fend for himself, and that he had a brother who cared for him for a while before he was killed by a cat; but no clues as to the origin of his condition, outside of its occurring naturally.”

“But that’s enough reason right there to bring him to us,” said Boris. “He had someone to look after him before, his brother, but now he’s alone. But he needn’t be any longer.”

“Well, Michael, said Johnathan, “as his original sponsor, we’re leaving it up to you. What do you say?”

Michael mulled the point for a moment, then said, “All right. Let’s do it. I guess it would be best for him, and who knows? You’ve sure got me curious with this mystery, and he just might provide a clue after all. He could even provide the key to it all.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Tallus, “but now that it’s decided, we need to determine when and with whom we carry this out.”

It didn’t take much further deliberation to decide that it should be done as soon as possible, and that Johnathan and Michael be the ones to go again, this time joined by Justin. All that was left was to put out the word that Freethorn would probably soon gain another resident.

“And let’s not forget,” said Justin before the meeting adjourned, “what was discussed at the last general meeting. If there’s anyone who objects to his presence here, for whatever reason, encourage him or her to bring it out into the open; but blind, unreasoning prejudice will not be tolerated, either for the fact of his being a mouse or possibly for his condition. As Johnathan said, I may be getting ahead of myself here; but we must prepare for any possibility. Now…Johnathan, Michael…what do you say we get started?”

Chapter 13 - Scratching to salvation

“Soon, Rollo, very soon.”

“Really? You know it’s true, absolutely? No, don’t answer. I know, you wouldn’t say it if you didn’t think so.”

“I cannot precisely describe how I know; but somehow I felt that, a short while ago, we were being observed.”

Rollo sat silently for a moment. “Yes…I felt something too, now that you mention it. Does it really mean we’ll be free, though?”

“I cannot honestly say, but…any change should be one for the better, wouldn’t you say?”

“You’re the one who can really say, Teacher.”

“Of course, Rollo. I’m sorry. Even in my present state, I’m still capable of forgetting things. Now though, perhaps you should prepare yourself again, maybe even for another practice run; or, dare I say, the real thing.”

Rollo nodded. As weary of these sometimes-pointless-seeming exercises as he was, Teacher had convinced him of their importance. After all, he’d worked his way up to five figures; perhaps that would be enough, but certainly the more he could scratch, the better he’d get their message across.

* * *

“Well, here we are again.” Michael shook his head rapidly, to help acclimate himself to the suddenness of their new surroundings and to shake off the slight disorientation caused by this most unusual mode of transportation. “I’ll never get over this way of traveling, Johnathan.”

“Truth to tell, Michael, me neither. Well…you go first.”

In front of them lay the cement foundation of an abandoned farm outbuilding. This was the more out-of-the-way side, where surrounding vegetation was thicker. It was late morning back in Freethorn, but here the sun hadn’t yet risen; not that it probably would be seen anyway, owing to the current weather conditions. Around them a light snow was falling, adding to the thin blanket that had already formed. The two mice and one rat shivered against the sudden cold, a helpful reminder that they wished to accomplish this quickly. As Michael headed for the secluded entrance to their destination, Justin looked all around, feeling almost nostalgic in spite of the gloom and inclement weather. This was only the second time he’d been back to Earth since the Migration, having briefly visited Thorn Valley with Johnathan last week; and, for all that everyone enjoyed their new home on Lahaikshe, there was a degree of homesickness in everyone, and Justin was no exception. Johnathan felt it too, but they both knew they couldn’t let it distract them.

They followed close behind Michael as he searched for the entrance hole. He soon found it and disappeared inside. Seconds later, his head popped out, and he beckoned for Johnathan to follow. Justin waited outside, since the hole was too small for him, and they didn’t feel right about widening it. It was expected that this wouldn’t take long enough to bother with the effort anyway. So Justin leaned against the foundation with arms folded, keeping a lookout, especially mindful of the farmyard cat that had menaced Michael and No-Name last time, the same one that had killed No-Name’s brother around two years before.

Inside, Michael and Johnathan took a minute to allow their eyes to adjust to the dimness; then they approached their charge, greeting him with quiet hellos. They’d wondered if they weren’t calling on him too early, but No-Name looked as if he’d been up for some time. He crouched at the opposite side of the den with back turned, eating a berry. He turned partially, with one eye facing them, but not interrupting his repast. Upon finishing, he carefully cleaned and groomed his hands and face, then faced his visitors directly. They waited for him to make the next move. Though it was hard to tell, they couldn’t really discern any change in expression that might show recognition. As noted before, he seemed unable to express emotion, at least in a normal way. Still, there was nothing for it but to reintroduce themselves, and hope for better results.

Michael approached him first. “Do you remember me? Michael? If you do, I guess you know Johnathan too. We visited you some time ago.”

No-Name only gave each of them a prolonged stare; then he walked past them, toward the entrance. His visitors were prepared to follow him outside, but instead he paused to lean against the wall.

“He recognized us, Johnathan. I’m sure of it,” Michael said quietly.

Johnathan nodded. “Well, I guess we’d better try to sell ourselves and Freethorn again.” Johnathan cleared his throat as they both approached No-Name. “Well, if you remember us, then you probably know why we’re here. We really believe you’d like it where we come from, much more than here. The weather’s mild year-round, and the food’s a whole lot better; and you’d be among friends…and family. Did you know you have brothers and sisters? Well, we know you had one you were close to, and we know what happened to him. We’re really sorry about that, but…there are no cats where we’re from, or anything else that would attack or hurt you. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

No-Name continued looking away from them for a few more seconds; then, he looked at Johnathan with the same impassive expression, then at Michael. Obviously he acknowledged their presence, but how much of what they told him was getting through?

“I wish you could tell us,” said Michael, touching No-Name’s arm, “just how you feel and what’s on your mind. We want to help you in any way we can, but we can’t tell if you really do want to come with us, or if you’re—”

Suddenly No-Name reached up to place his hand on Michael’s; softly at first, then with an unexpectedly strong grip. He began moving toward the entrance, and Michael could do naught but shrug at Johnathan and follow along.

Outside, Justin was a bit surprised to see them emerge this soon, especially with No-Name leading. “Well, hello. I’m Justin, in case you hadn’t been told about me already.”

He crouched down in front of No-Name, who, with Michael still firmly in tow, stopped, seeming to respond almost instantly to Justin’s voice. He gave Justin that same prolonged stare, and then he resumed his purposeful path. Michael could only give the same shrug.

Justin scratched the back of his head as he and Johnathan followed. “Johnathan, what’s going on?”

“Near as I can tell, he wants to show us something.”

They walked out only a short ways to where the snow was thicker. Then, No-Name released his grip on Michael and looked around. He picked up a twig, then stood staring off into space, as if unsure of what to do with it; then, he crouched down, extended the hand with the stick, and began scratching at the thin layer of snow. His three guests approached more closely, observing intently.

“I could almost swear,” Justin whispered, “that he recognized me back there. I know it’s more likely that he just hasn’t seen many rats before, but…”

“Wait a minute…” Johnathan leaned in more closely. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s making…letters.”

So far, the figures he traced with the stick gave every indication of being such. There, before them in the snow, was a very legible N, followed by an I. The next one looked as if it would become a circle, but stopped halfway around; a C? Then, another that curved; another C? No, this one was a circle; an O, beyond a doubt.

“Where would he have learned to spell?” mused Justin. “He never learned to read or write, did he?”

“Maybe his brother taught him a little,” suggested Michael. “But if he didn’t learn either…”

“Never mind that,” said Johnathan. “Is he spelling out what I think he is?”

He and Justin were especially spellbound by what they were witnessing. No-Name seemed to waver with the next figure; partway through it, he seemed unsure of which way to continue; then, there emerged what his guests knew to be the outcome, though they had no idea how. They recited the string of letters to themselves, unable to comprehend how such a thing could be.

With the next figure, though, they had no doubt as to what No-Name was telling them, though they were no less mystified. Three short parallel lines, another connecting them; then No-Name simply stopped, the stick hanging limply in his hand, then dropping to the snow.

Justin shook his head in awe and disbelief, spelling out the message aloud. “N…I…C…O…D…E…”

“The key to the whole mystery,” said Michael distantly. “I wasn’t really serious, but now…”

Now, No-Name abruptly stood, turned and looked at his guests with the same empty stare; then, he crouched again before them with head down, reaching up to take Justin’s and Johnathan’s hands in his.

The three looked at each other, with no further comprehension of why this was happening; but one thing was understood perfectly. Their course of action had become plain as day; it didn’t matter that they didn’t understand the whys and wherefores. This was the clincher; they knew what they had to do.

Justin crouched down, placing an arm around No-Name’s shoulders. “My friend…we will all leave now. All four of us.”

None said another word. Johnathan nodded, they all joined hands; Johnathan concentrated on the amulet, and with a flash, all were gone.

Chapter 14 - Reintegration

The word had been put out: not only that there was a very good chance of the arrival of the last child of Vincent to come to Freethorn, but of the discussions about the connection Vincent and some of his offspring seemed to have with their late, revered leader. In Oak Park, a good portion of Freethorn’s populace had assembled: Rats, Mice, and Rusay guests alike, most standing or sitting in small groups, talking quietly but excitedly, some with picnic lunches spread before them. It seemed that everyone had some theory or conjecture about the nature of this connection. Some were even placing bets on it. Some shared Michael’s theory that “No-Name” held the key to solving it, with varying degrees of seriousness. One thing had been agreed upon by everyone: that when or if No-Name arrived, he probably wouldn’t expect such a large turnout to see him and might be nervous or frightened with everyone crowding around him, perhaps more than other recent arrivals. Therefore, only his half-siblings and some of the other mice would greet him first, and even they would do so with caution, until everyone had a better idea of how he would react to his new environment. Ages and Cynthia were waiting with another batch of the Dip, prepared to be gentle with him and hoping he wouldn’t find the procedure—necessary for controlling external parasites—too unsettling. Captain Brutus and other members of the Guard were in charge of crowd control, already ensuring a wide enough perimeter would be maintained upon the group’s return, hopefully with No-Name in tow.

Though he looked forward to this meeting, Boris’s mind was very much on this morning’s discussion about the “V-Nic Connection,” as some had already dubbed it; especially the vision he’d had right in the midst of it. He discussed this aloud with Seelah and their friends, speculating that perhaps the reason it nagged at his mind so much now was because he, and possibly everyone else, might understand it after No-Name’s arrival.

Overall, the atmosphere was festive, with much anticipation; though much of the discussion centered around what might be done for him, what with his not-entirely-understood condition and the difficulties it might produce, both for himself and others.

Much sooner than expected, the moment arrived. There was the familiar bright flash, and when everyone looked toward its point of origin, there stood several figures—Justin, Johnathan, Michael…and yes, definitely one other, a third mouse, who blinked and gazed at his surroundings, wide-eyed but with a seemingly impassive expression.

“Well, we’re here. This is it,” said Michael to the newcomer. “Nice and warm, isn’t it?” He and Johnathan kept their arms linked with No-Name’s, though not too tightly. Ages and Cynthia came forward, speaking quiet greetings as Johnathan and Michael steered their charge toward the tub of Dip, explaining what it was for and assuring him it wouldn’t hurt a bit. No-Name showed no adverse reaction to the smell of the stuff and took to the treatment docilely, even when being scrubbed, albeit gently, around his face. He even closed his eyes without being asked.

Among the crowd, still waiting patiently at a distance, some were starting to wonder if this newcomer was worth all the anticipation. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in helping him; all knew of his condition and many actually looked forward to doing what they could for his special needs. But would this alleged connection with his father and, more incredibly, Nicodemus, actually pan out? If this was the way he is all the time, how would such a connection be revealed?

As all manner of speculation was being brought out, Justin had already gone over to where some of the councilmembers waited, where he gave all the details about what had happened on Earth. None could completely contain his or her surprise at the final detail.

Tallus slapped his forehead. “He tried to spell out…that?”

“Where would he have learned of Nicodemus?” said Anna. “If you or the others never told him…”

“And even if you did, what would the name mean to him?” said Colbert. “But at least it seems to confirm there is a connection.”

“No argument there, however we’ll uncover it,” said Justin. “But for now, let’s concentrate on the welcome wagon.”

All the while, even as Ages and Cynthia began the “rinse cycle,” No-Name’s would-be benefactors continued speaking to him, quietly explaining more details about his new home, though how much was getting through to him they couldn’t know. They could swear, though, that he was smiling slightly, as if enjoying the attention. It continued as Johnathan helped towel him dry.

Presently Johnathan indicated to the Guard Rats that they were ready to allow “visitors.” “See those mice over there?” he said, directing No-Name’s gaze to the group closest to them, who were already on their feet and talking excitedly among themselves. “They’re the ones we told you about. They’re your family.” No-Name just continued to stare impassively.

His half-siblings showed far more interest. “That’s really our brother, Boris?” said Ronjack, one of the younger ones.

“Yes, that’s him. I guess it’s okay to meet him now.” They all moved forward slowly and cautiously. Shortly, Boris stopped in his tracks and took Seelah’s arm. “That’s him, I know it is!” he whispered urgently.

“That’s who?”

“The one in my vision! The small one, anyway. I…don’t know how exactly, I couldn’t see his face at all, but I just know it’s him! But I guess I should keep that between us for now.”

Some of the other Mice joined No-Name’s half-siblings in quietly introducing themselves and even touching him. Some had to be reminded to refrain from making sudden moves or loud sounds, especially the younger children; perhaps an overly-cautious reminder, but necessary. So far he seemed untroubled by all the attention.

“We’ve all been looking forward to your arrival,” Boris was now saying to him as he clasped his half-brother’s hand. “Anything we can do to…to…” He fell strangely silent, with an expression almost as blank as No-Name’s.

“Boris, what’s wrong?” But Seelah received no answer, only the push of his hand away from him; not forceful, but enough to leave her in a state of great confusion.

Reuben and Lilia came forward, walking past her with the same expression, as if responding to a silent call. Most of those present were already aware that something most unusual was happening. Boris had already joined hands with No-Name, and Lilia and Reuben were now following suit.

Johnathan exchanged a bemused glance with Michael, then asked, “Hey, uh…guys, what’s going on here?”

Barely had the words left him when all four mice seemed simultaneously gripped by some invisible force. They all tensed as if enduring great pain, though none uttered a sound. No-Name seemed to be bearing the worst of it; his whole body shook, and he looked to be on the verge of convulsing, but he didn’t loosen his grip on Boris or Lilia.

Then, abruptly, it was over. All of them collapsed to the ground, finally losing their grip on each other as they all fell unconscious.

None knew how to react for a few seconds; then Seelah rushed forward. “Boris? Boris, speak to me!” She cradled his head in her lap. “Oh, what’s happened to you? Lilia, Reuben…are you all right? Somebody, help!”

Johnathan and Michael quickly joined her, and many others, Rats and Mice alike, were on their way. Johnathan examined Boris, and quickly assured Seelah that he was all right; his pulse and respiration were normal, though perhaps a bit slow. The same was true for Reuben and Lilia; but No-Name was a different matter.

Michael was the first at his side, followed closely by Ages. “I can still detect a pulse,” he quickly reported, “and he’s still breathing. But they’re both much slower than normal.” He looked up at Johnathan and Madeline, his bafflement plain to see. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if he’s entered into a hibernation-like state.”

The Brisbys looked at each other, the description instantly striking a familiar chord. “That sounds just like what the Stone endowed upon us,” Johnathan reported. “We saw it happen two years ago, when Maddie’s life was in danger, and that’s what saved her.”

As she approached, Teresa was reminded of more recent circumstances: “Could it be…similar to what happened to Eric?” None knew how to answer.

Michael was close to tears as he held up No-Name’s head. “He’s…he’s dying, I know it. We never should have brought him here.”

“Calm yourself, Michael,” said Ages. “We still don’t fully understand the situation here.”

“But what if this is like…what Teresa said? Eric couldn’t stand it, he thought that if he stayed, he’d—”

“Michael, please,” said Johnathan patiently. “We’re not jumping to any conclusions here. They’ll be all right. They are still alive.” As reassuring as he tried to sound, he couldn’t completely repress the memory of Madeline lying so close to death in Ghormfisk’s prison, after he’d been forced away from her for so long. He closed his eyes, trying to banish the image from his mind. Cynthia joined Michael at No-Name’s side, continuing to reassure him.

“And even if that were the case,” added Ages, “it wouldn’t explain why the others behaved as they did, and then all passed out like that.” He moved over to examine Reuben. “No change here. Perhaps…all we can do is wait for them to come around.”

“But there must be something we can do right now,” said Seelah, voice still full of worry, looking down at Boris.

“Well, we could try bringing them around, I suppose…”

“I’ll go look for some water,” said Johnathan, jumping to his feet, knowing that someone must have brought some with their lunch.

As he left, Seelah continued to stick close by Boris, as did Ellis with Lilia. The two exchanged glances, at once concerned and reassuring; and Ellis was reminded once more of how much Lilia was beginning to mean to him. He looked down at her still form as he cradled her head and held her hand. Though he believed Ages’s and Johnathan’s assurances, he still had no intention of leaving Lilia’s side, any more than Seelah did Boris. He looked over to Reuben, feeling almost as much concern; the two of them had found much common ground since yesterday, enough for Reuben to be considered a friend. Ellis looked over to where No-Name lay, tended to by Michael and Cynthia. He found he shared their concern, though he’d never seen No-Name before today. “How’s it going with him?” he asked. “Is he any better?”

Michael shook his head. “Not really. But he’s got to get better. I feel responsible for him.”

“We’re all doing what we can, Michael,” said Ages. “All we can do is wait.” He looked up to see two rats approaching with a litter. “It’s all right, Merrill, Andrew…I don’t think we’ll need it, at least not yet. There’s a chance they might—”

A sudden groan interrupted him. “It’s Reuben!” reported Ellis. “He’s coming to!” He laid Lilia’s head down gently and turned toward her brother.

Reuben’s eyelids fluttered, then opened wide. “Uhh…Ellis? Where am I? What happened?”

“We were hoping you could tell us,” said Ages, “but we can discuss that later. How do you feel, Reuben?”

Reuben sat up with another groan. “A bit light-headed, a little tired…but I guess I’m all right. So what…” He noticed Lilia, still unconscious. “Lilia!” he cried out, almost pushing Ellis over to get to her side. “Lilia…what’s wrong with her?”

“Reuben, calm down,” said Ages. “It was the same thing that happened to you and Boris, so they should come around too.”

Reuben noticed Boris in the same condition; but before he could voice any further questions, Boris began to stir. Shortly, Lilia regained consciousness as well. They both reported feeling the same as Reuben: basically fine, but very confused. All were told of how they had all collapsed after joining hands with No-Name. They all directed their attention toward him now. Though there appeared to be no change, Ages quickly found his pulse and respiration to be improved.

“He’s going to pull out of it,” said Cynthia, squeezing Michael’s hand and giving him a loving, reassuring look.

By now, many others had gathered around and listened as the three recovered mice were asked what they remembered. At the same time, Johnathan returned with a pitcher of water, and was brought up to date. The three mice shared a drink from the pitcher, feeling much improved; and recalled how they all came forward to meet their brother, but suddenly each of them felt the exact same sensation of their free will leaving them, with their only thought being to join hands in a circle; and then, absolutely nothing until just the last few minutes. Now, though they all felt fine, there was a strange, undefinable feeling as well. Lilia described it as feeling similar to something having left her, and the others said that was close to how they felt as well.

“So,” mused Tallus, standing over Johnathan and No-Name, “when he wakes up, I wonder what he’ll be able to tell us.”

“What makes you think he’ll say anything?” asked Johnathan as he sprinkled droplets of water over the unconscious mouse’s face, to no noticeable effect thus far.

“Or that he’ll be able to?” added Michael.

“Well, nothing except the fact that so much has already happened that’s unexplainable.”

Everyone waited, mostly silently; then, only a minute or so later, a low, rasping moan issued from No-Name’s throat. Michael gently patted the side of his face. It seemed to speed things along; No-Name’s eyes came open all at once, then screwed tightly closed, then reopened. He continued to moan inarticulately; then, with a suddenness that surprised everyone, he sat up, completely on his own. The effort seemed to cost him; he held his head with both hands, rubbing at his temples.

“Easy, friend, easy,” said Ages. “Don’t try to do too much at once.” Johnathan offered a drink, which No-Name very readily accepted; taking a small sip, then taking large gulps, slurping it down greedily. Then, after catching his breath, he looked up, gazing at his surroundings, expression no longer vacant but full of inquisitiveness.

“How do you feel?” asked Johnathan, though he wasn’t expecting much of an answer. No-Name seemed to notice him for the first time, studying his face intently; then he abruptly turned away, looking confused, and put his hands up to his head again as if in pain. More sounds issued from him, at first the same moans and grunts, but soon giving way to ones that riveted the attentions of everyone within earshot.

“Ohhh…I…I’m not just looking outside this time. It’s really happened.”

Johnathan gaped for a moment, as did everyone else who heard; then, finding his voice, he said, “You…you spoke. You hardly said a word before.”

No-Name again turned toward Johnathan. “It is you,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Johnathan… Johnathan Brisby. Oh, my dear friend…it really is you.” He reached out, touching the side of Johnathan’s face, as if to confirm the reality of what was before him; then, he embraced Johnathan as he would a long-lost friend.

“Uh, yes, it’s me,” replied Johnathan, almost stammering. “But…what’s your name?” Though the voice he heard was clearly that of a nearly-fully-mature mouse, there was something in it that was strangely familiar; something in the delivery, the cadence…

The younger mouse broke free of the embrace and sat down again. “My name…” He rubbed at his forehead. “Oh, so much…so much to assimilate…my thoughts, my memories, and others…the others I resided within… Yes…yes, that was what happened. But…” He brought his hand down, and looked all around, noticing most of the others present for the first time. “But…that’s all past now. Oh…oh, yes it is.” One Rat in the crowd suddenly commanded his attention. “Justin! It is you, isn’t it? And the one next to you… Could she be Isabella? Ah…I remember her mother saying how taken she was with you.”

Justin and Isabella looked at each other, slackjawed. How could he have possibly known something like…

Before they could question him, he said, “Oh, so much, all at once! Tallus! And Arthur, and Norriss, Charlotte, Angeline…Anna. I know you all! Or most of you.” He turned to Michael. “Ah, Michael, my friend…though I don’t know you nearly as well, it’s you I have to thank, perhaps more than anyone except Johnathan.”

He turned toward the Rats again, and acknowledged the confused stares, head-shaking, and dozens of small discussions his cryptic words had initiated. “Well…now that the reality of my situation has become clearer to me, I should make it clearer to all of you as well. I know I’ve caused great confusion, and I apologize.”

Justin stepped forward and crouched before this puzzling stranger, the one Michael once called “a four-legged riddle,” who seemed so much more so now. “I think apologies can wait. Who are you?”

“I should have made that clear right away, I know. But even that would be difficult, I fear…”

“Please…try.”

“Of course. The mouse you see before you is named Rollo…but he has a second name, one that you know very well.”

And Johnathan found himself saying: “Nicodemus?”

“Yes, my dear friends. Nicodemus.”

Chapter 15 - The return

A collective gasp rose from the crowd. How could such a thing be? Many of those present were there when the cinderblock that was the Brisby winter home on the Fitzgibbons farm was being moved, and the operation was sabotaged by Jenner, causing the equipment to collapse, and strike and kill their former leader. Afterwards, his body was borne with almost everything else in the Rosebush colony to the Rats’ new home in Thorn Valley, where it was interred in their memorial garden along with those of Jenner and Sullivan.

And now, here was this young mouse who, up until the past 15 minutes, had seemed to be burdened with an apparently lifelong condition that kept him from communicating his thoughts and feelings to others, claiming to actually be no less than their former leader.

“Well, Tallus,” said Norriss, “now that you’ve found out what he had to say, what do you think?”

Tallus could only stare speechless; but once everyone’s initial shock and surprise wore off, some reacted with less restraint than others. Brutus stepped forward, looking close to anger. “This…is some kind of trick! It must be! How…how can this one be Nicodemus? Nicodemus is dead!”

“Ah, Brutus, my son, I know this is difficult for anyone to understand…”

“Don’t call me ‘son’!” Brutus almost shouted as he loomed above the one who made this preposterous-sounding claim. “The only ones who can call me that are my mother…and Nicodemus. And he’s dead. I saw him die!” The differences in size between the two—a rat, larger than any other in Freethorn, and this mouse, normal-sized though thinner and leaner than most—made the claim seem all the more unlikely.

Justin stood up, placing a hand on Brutus’s shoulder. “Brutus, take it easy. I don’t know what’s going on yet, none of us do. But so far, it’s just words. We shouldn’t let ourselves get so aggravated.”

“I’m sorry, Justin, I’ve no wish to cause him any harm, but…how can we let him make a claim like that?”

The young mouse got to his feet. As Johnathan did the same, he said, “Well, I’m sure he has plenty of words to back it up. Don’t you?”

“Indeed I do.” He seemed untroubled by Brutus’s boisterous challenge, as though he fully expected it.

Another rat stepped forward. “Wait…I think there may be an easier way to find out.”

Brutus scratched his head. “Mother? Don’t tell me you believe this wild story of his?”

“No. Not yet. But I think we can settle it very easily.”

“What do you have in mind, Anna?” asked Justin.

Anna crouched in front of the one who held claim to two names and said, “If you are Nicodemus, then you should remember something…very special between us, some very special words we once exchanged.” She leaned in to whisper in the young mouse’s ear, and then she turned her head and leaned in closer to allow him to whisper in hers. He did so, her eyes grew wide, and she whispered something back. More words were exchanged thusly over the next minute or so; and then, Anna clasped the mouse’s shoulders and said, “You are him. You really are Nicodemus.” She stood up and announced to everyone, “I don’t know how or why, but…he is who he claims to be. We just exchanged words that only he and I would know. He is Nicodemus.”

As nearly everyone present began talking quietly among themselves, Johnathan had one other very important question for the newcomer: “If you are Nicodemus, how is it that you don’t seem surprised to see me here?”

“Ah, of course.” He clasped Johnathan’s shoulders. “While it was true I’d believed you dead as the rest of us did, I eventually learned that you were merely…relocated. To a world called Lahaikshe, I believe, where you were the guest of one named Gwinthrayle?”

“Yes…that’s right.” Johnathan could only stare silently for a moment. “All right,” he said decisively, “I’ll reserve further judgment until we’ve all heard your story.”

“Thank you, my friend.” The young mouse cast his eyes about the crowd, more of which were venturing closer. His eyes met those of Brutus, but the large Rat quickly turned away, looking almost apologetic. Looking around to the others closest to him, it quickly became obvious that many were not nearly as ready as Anna to accept him in this form; nor, perhaps, to take Anna at her word. He approached her again, concerned that her credibility might be called into question. But the look she gave him was enough to tell him that she was unconcerned with such details.

“Tell your story,” was all she said, smiling confidently. Those closest to them voiced their agreement. His own confidence buoyed, he thanked them; and as the word spread that he was readying to speak, the crowd quieted down.

“I know you’re all wondering,” he announced, “just how it is that I could be interred in your own memorial garden, after that terrible event where I was struck down by our own equipment; and yet, here I stand before you in this body, speaking to you now. Oh, it’s a long and involved tale, my friends…my children. I know it seems absurd, too, that a mouse not quite fully mature would be addressing you as ‘my children.’ But I’ve already voiced my claim, and Anna has verified it; and now you’re all wondering why and how. I do believe it is time. So you may want to call for anyone else who would want to hear the tale.”

Several did leave to spread the word, including Johnathan and Brutus; and in the meantime, some acquaintances were renewed. “Mrs. Brisby…Madeline. It’s wonderful to see you again.” He embraced her. “For all the time that you were part of Johnathan’s life, and indirectly part of ours, it’s a shame that we only really knew each other for so brief a time.”

“Yes. But I guess that…we can make it up now, can’t we?”

“By all means. Oh, you’re still confused, child, I know.” He gave a small laugh. “Ah, there’s that irony again. You could be mother to this one,” —he indicated himself, or more accurately, the body he inhabited— “and here am I, addressing you as ‘child.’”

“It’s all right…Nicodemus. I mean, I guess I can accept you like this, but it’s still so strange.”

“All will be revealed in time. Now…this lovely creature must be Teresa. And these little ones are yours?”

In short order, he met the rest of the Brisby family, pleased to see how they’d all grown. He was pleased to meet Sarah, and he offered condolences for her and Teresa’s recent loss, and congratulated Martin and Karen on their happy marriage and impending new arrival. “The continuance of new life, and the furtherance of my dream,” he called the upcoming event.

“I always wished I could have met you,” Martin said with a touch of awe, “but I never thought that it would happen, let alone like this.” Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy could only nod their agreement, their brother having spoken for all of them. The question of his apparent lack of surprise at seeing their father alive went unspoken for now, though it was surely on all their minds.

He was pleased to meet the four youngest Brisbys, though they were less impressed and a little confused. “I thought you were…an old rat,” said Lyndon with all sincerity, to his mother’s and older sibs’ dismay, but the mouse merely laughed gently, stroking the boy’s head.

“I was an old rat once, my little friend, and there’s much more to tell…for all of us to tell.” One important detail strangely seemed to evince little surprise in him: that, even as he recognized their surroundings as a portion of Thorn Valley, he knew that it and they were now in this world located in a completely different dimension, which he already knew to be Lahaikshe. Perhaps a bigger surprise for the others came when he was introduced to Kimball and Patricia and more of their extended family, and he claimed to actually recognize them, again reminding everyone that there was much more to tell, on that subject and many others.

“I am well aware,” he told his old friends and colleagues, “that a spell that tampered with my memories, selectively eliminating some and subtly altering others, had been placed upon me. May I assume it was the ever-elusive ‘mystery creature’ whose presence Johnathan had detected the day he found the Stone?”

Melvin, who happened to be within earshot, perked up. “It was,” he said, “and some of us actually met him face to face, and learned just how much his…activities affected all of us.”

“Not the least of which was what he’d done to your father, Melvin, leading to his own demise. Yes…perhaps worse than what he’d done with me. But the effects of his spell are long gone now, and I’m able to recall everything I’d previously forgotten.”

This mouse, whose claim to such an unlikely-seeming identity was looking more and more likely, continued reacquanting himself with familiar faces: Arthur, who had spearheaded the advance party to Thorn Valley and so wasn’t present at the time of Nicodemus’s death; Tallus, who was still at an uncharacteristic loss for words, for all his long-standing meticulous chronicling of their people’s history; Matilda, who had found out so much that was troubling about why her once-happy marriage to Jenner had failed.

As he watched this mouse with the outrageous-sounding claim meeting friends old and new, Justin was mostly silent. Isabella understood well the implications and asked her husband to share his thoughts, though the gist wasn’t hard to guess.

“I’m all right, Izzy,” he said reassuringly. “I think…for now, we should just concentrate on gathering everyone to hear his story.” There was so much more he wanted to say right then, and he was far from the only one; anyone in Freethorn who had looked up to, even idolized their former leader had thoughts he or she was impatient to share with their family and friends, and with him. But for many, including Justin, there would not be full acceptance that this was really Nicodemus, apparently having taken full control of this mouse’s body and mind, until after his story could be told and properly evaluated, its truth or falsehood decided.

Those who had left to spread the word were returning with many others, and they all reported to Justin that they had covered every part of Freethorn’s interior and that everyone who could make it here had been informed and should be now assembled. For the first time since Anna’s consultation with the mouse, Justin spoke directly to him—though saying nothing of any real consequence—as he led him to a large rock that he would speak from so that all could see and hear him better. The steady buzz of conversation lowered as the mouse climbed upon the rock. There was more nearly everyone wanted to ask, but Justin assured them many of their questions would be answered in the forthcoming story, and that there’d be plenty of time for any that may not. Whether his claim was thoroughly believed or disbelieved, all agreed to at least hear him out. And so, once he had everyone’s undivided attention, with virtually all of Freethorn’s citizenry arranged around the rock, sitting or standing, the story began.

“I guess it all really began with a conversation you and I had, Johnathan. It was close to three years after we’d moved into the Rosebush colony, in the spring of that year. It was a few weeks, six to eight, perhaps, after the arrival of your newest children, Cynthia and Timothy. This was also around the time when we’d just begun discussing the possibility of self-sufficiency and not living as unknowing dependents of Farmer Fitzgibbons, paving the way for the Thorn Valley Plan. The purpose of your visit was ostensibly to share your family’s latest good news, but of course we had much more to discuss, and not just the formative stages of the Plan. In our private conversation, you mentioned, for the first time in quite a while, how you wished the other mice from NIMH—the Lost Nine, we’d taken to calling them—could be there to share this life with us. Do you remember, my friend?”

“Yes…yeah, I do remember.”

“Well, after you left, it prompted me to think further on the matter. It had been the first time almost since the Escape that I had given it so much thought, and the possibility of at least some of the Lost Nine escaping after us intrigued me more and more. This sudden fascination of mine would prove crucial some time later.

“But now…I feel the need to digress, and I apologize for interrupting at this point; but I believe I owe all of you an explanation regarding many details of my own life. I had, undoubtedly, raised many doubts as to whether I’d been fully truthful with you: about my powers and abilities, and whether or not they were truly mystical, supernatural in their origins. During the winter we, the Original 22, had spent at the Boniface estate, I made no secret of my interests in such subjects—magic and mysticism, psychic phenomena—interests which were shared by others of you, but perhaps none more than yourself, Johnathan. Oh, there were skeptics among you; your argument was that human science couldn’t definitively prove such things existed. But I’m sure you all recall the case we made for this particular field of study: that humans would not have written so extensively on these subjects, over many decades and centuries, if they were purely the stuff of fantasy and imagination; plus their science couldn’t definitively disprove their existence.

“Now, as I know all of you who were a part of our intrepid band remember well, my own abilities first manifested some weeks after we’d departed the estate, when Johnathan’s and my lives were threatened by a falling limb during a strong wind. Even now, I can still only describe it as a premonition of imminent danger that prompted me to act to save us both: my pushing—actually almost throwing—Johnathan out of harm’s way and redirecting the limb away from us both by sheer force of will.

“The incident was not directly witnessed by any of you; and, partly because of that and also because the onset of these abilities was so sudden and unexpected and frankly bizarre, I felt inclined to keep them a secret, at least for the time being. While I was not fearful of them, I confided to Johnathan how they inspired a certain degree of uneasiness in me, and that I would prefer to keep them secret until I could be sure that openness about them would not adversely affect my leadership status. It was some weeks before I felt more comfortable with these abilities and more willing to accept them as a genuine part of me; and before much longer I’d disclosed them to the rest of you, even ‘showing off’ my telekinetic abilities in open demonstrations. Over the subsequent weeks and months, I tested their limits; and by and large, they proved to be no obstacle to my continued leadership.

“All along, now as well as then, I could only attribute their manifesting as an extra benefit of our treatments at NIMH, just as most of you have developed a special talent or inclination above and beyond boosted intelligence. Because mine were so unique and radically different from any of yours, I’ve speculated that they may be attributable to something that came along later, something completely unrelated to the treatments; even now I cannot definitively explain them any other way. I’d even speculated that my earlier fascination for those subjects could have been a factor—a fanciful notion, perhaps. And you, Johnathan, suggested, albeit facetiously, that it may have been something I ate or drank.”

Johnathan just looked at Madeline, and they both smiled and nodded, recalling the memorable conversation he’d had with Nicodemus years before and recounted for her later, regarding his apparent influence over his new mate, and speculating over whether it extended beyond just a broadening of her emotional range—and later finding out that it did, in the most wondrous way, so that she would be as intelligent and as long-lived as he. Nicodemus hadn’t brought it up yet; and Johnathan considered doing so now but decided to hold off. He already seems to know so much about what went on after he left us, like Ghormfisk, my survival, Jenner’s death; and he wasn’t surprised at seeing Madeline still young and healthy. So what else does he know? He looked forward all the more to hearing his story.

Nicodemus continued: “By the time we’d established the Rosebush Colony, I’d continued testing my abilities, even using them in building operations, as I’m sure Arthur well remembers. And yet, as comfortable as I’d felt with these abilities, they were proving to have their darker side.

“At the time of our capture by NIMH, I was in my prime, as fit and healthy as any of you. The treatments had essentially ‘frozen’ each of us at our individual level of maturity at the time. Yet, well after the Escape and within a few months after we’d established our colony, I was undergoing changes which appeared to be unique to me, as much as my abilities: I was tiring a bit faster, experiencing more aches and pains and lapses in short-term memory, the occasional grey hair. I’d sought to conceal this condition as long as possible, at first only confiding with Johnathan and Justin. I had come to believe that my special abilities were very likely wearing me down physically, which was why I’d come to age more quickly than the rest of you. I will admit to feeling some distress over the matter, and worrying over the future of our people; but eventually I’d come to resign myself to the possibility that I’d grow old and pass on before the rest of you, and that I would need to groom a successor—which ultimately proved to be Justin. And…all that I see now is ample proof that my choice was the right one.”

He paused to look upon his successor, smiling with pride. Justin, clearly more ready to accept this mouse as his beloved mentor and surrogate father, just smiled back and nodded politely as Isabella stroked his arm and leaned against his shoulder.

“Some of you had wondered why I chose Justin over Jenner. As you’re probably all aware by now, I often experienced premonitions, which generally pointed toward specific events that would come to pass in the near future. But eventually there was a shift in this ability, marked by feelings of impending disaster, of something that could cause everything to crash down upon us. It was very imprecise and undefined…at least at first.

“One night I awoke from a sound sleep…and I knew. It still wasn’t a premonition as I’d known them from the outset, but now the feelings of impending doom and disaster centered around one specific individual: Jenner. I had already chosen Justin over him as my successor, purely on the basis of Justin’s superior qualifications, as I’d seen fit. But now I had to wonder: if this intuition was entirely correct, if Jenner was to someday bring us all to doom, would it stem from simple jealousy on his part? It would be a while before further insights would present themselves.

“Meanwhile, there was the matter of my accelerated aging. This of course was the impetus behind my agreement with Anna, the result of which was another whose accomplishments are an enormous source of pride for me.” He paused to look with fondness upon Anna, seated near their son Brutus. She placed her hand on his arm, and Nicodemus believed Brutus looked more ready himself to accept the truth of his father’s return. Brutus’s wife and children looked up beaming to him.

“So,” he continued, “as you know, some two and a half years after we’d begun the Rosebush colony and within a several-week period, there was a confluence of events that would come to affect all of us, in ways we’d never have been able to predict—not even I, who had continued experiencing hunches, premonitions, though still not really visions of events to come. To that last point, however, the feeling I’d had concerning Jenner would coalesce further.

“The first of these events was the Stone falling into Johnathan’s hands after appearing as if out of nowhere, and his entrusting it to my custody the majority of the time, having believed I was better suited to uncover its secrets. It was only the next day that the feeling concerning Jenner also encompassed the Stone. Though I’d been able to determine next to nothing about it, I realized that Jenner could very well have designs upon it, prompting me to keep its exact location secret from him.

“Secondly, we began openly discussing this feeling that had been growing steadily, regarding how we—or at least some of us—had come to feel troubled by our way of life, living off the farmer’s resources and becoming his unknowing dependents. As you all know, this conviction would quickly give rise to the Thorn Valley Plan, of which Jenner would eventually become quite vocal in his opposition, further reinforcing my sense of caution concerning him. It was also during this period that Johnathan and I had the aforementioned conversation in which the Nine Lost Mice came up. But more important was the third event, which followed that conversation and would prove to influence further events so drastically.”

Briefly, he made a sweeping view of the crowd, settling briefly on Kimball and Patricia, acknowledging their impatience for him to return to the subject he’d interrupted.

“As I said, after Johnathan left I further pondered the matter of the Lost Nine, and considered, for the first time in far too long, the possibility if any of them had indeed survived. I was on the verge of calling a council meeting on the matter, for all I knew it would meet with skepticism, since it was little more than a whim on my part. As I said, this fascination would prove crucial, but…not this day.”

“I had not seen any need to protect myself against any sort of attack mystical in nature, since I hadn’t any enemies of that nature—or so I believed. I’m sure many of you know of the one against whom I would have needed to protect myself: our aforementioned ‘mystery creature.’”

There were several nodding heads in the crowd. “Ghormfisk…alias Uhrstegg,” Justin was the first to respond out loud.

“We heard the whole story,” said Johnathan, “from his own lips to our ears.”

“Ah, yes, I’d suspected you might; and I know you’re wondering about the extent of my knowledge of all that had transpired with you during my absence. Suffice it to say for now that at that time I had virtually no idea anything untoward was happening, but later I’d become very much aware of nearly all the details.

“So…I was preparing to leave my office and call the meeting…when Uhrstegg, our mystery creature, made his move. His spell…” He paused and sighed. “…made me forget so much, most notably many details which related specifically to the Stone. Due to the nature of this spell I was unaware—one might say blissfully so—that anything had changed, and would not be aware that my memories had been tampered with until sometime later; nor was I aware that he had tampered with Jenner’s mind as well, fueling his opposition to the Thorn Valley Plan. I would also, for the time being, continue to consider the Lost Nine to be permanently lost. Thankfully, the spell did not have a great effect on present concerns. I know you’ve said that Uhrstegg took actions which he admitted were seemingly arbitrary, their object only to disrupt and make mischief; but also, that when his meeker and more fearful persona took over, he would hide himself away, rarely venturing forth. One can only speculate what might have happened had we discovered his existence during those periods.”

“So…over the following year, our energies were devoted heavily to the Thorn Valley Plan, to which an increasing number of us had become dedicated…with one notable exception, of course. I had participated in some of our exploratory hikes into the surrounding countryside, which were becoming increasingly taxing, physically; but it was the last of these that proved the most fruitful. Of course, it was the one in which we gained an important ally in the Great Owl, who led us to Thorn Valley, which we quickly determined to be the most ideal location for an eventual new colony, for which we would soon send Arthur and his crew to begin construction and otherwise pave the way for the rest of us.

“It was in late summer of that year—after Arthur, Bryant and their crew began their work in Thorn Valley—when Johnathan paid a visit, a most memorable one, as it was in the wake of a potentially serious family health crisis: recently, his younger son Timothy had been bitten by a spider and brought to Mr. Ages in time for him to successfully treat the boy, an incident that still had him shaken. Our conversation turned, for the first time in over a year, to the Lost Nine mice and what it might be like for them if they were with us.

“After Johnathan left I continued sitting in my study, still contemplating the matter…when all at once, I felt something that might be best described as akin to an ‘attack’ that wasn’t physically painful, but feeling as if my mind were being assailed from within. It wasn’t enough to render me unconscious, and the best I can describe it now would be of…restoration, a sense of things that were unclear or confusing before being made clear…though what those things were, precisely, I wouldn’t have been able to say, then or now. Mixed with it was a feeling like déjà vu. It all left my senses reeling, but after only a minute, when the initial ‘burst’ was over…that latter feeling remained. It seemed to center upon the conversation I’d just had with Johnathan about the Lost Nine. I meditated for a time…and that seemed to be all it took to remind me of our earlier conversation over a year past. This was accompanied by a feeling of increased power within me, the nature of which I have never been able to precisely define, but…I felt a strange compulsion to construct…something.”

His eyes sought out one face in the crowd; he was already nodding, recalling that day well.

“Vernon, as most of you know, was the head engineer at the Rosebush in Arthur’s absence; and so I told him I needed his help in constructing a device for me—for which, at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to describe its ultimate purpose. All I could tell him was that it was an experiment of sorts, whose result, I was sure, would be of great benefit. He was understandably baffled, but willing to indulge my latest eccentricity. And so we put together this strange device out of scrap metal, one which I always kept in my office and which only a handful of you have had the privilege of seeing in operation.”

Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other, knowing already of the device of which he spoke, and that they were two of the “handful.”

“Once it was complete, I thanked Vernon for his assistance; and once alone, I put it to the test; and again, I cannot explain precisely how I knew what to do or why I required solitude for my test, but…I placed my hands upon it, concentrated…and there came a near-blinding display of light which I knew originated from within me, as little as I understood it. What I did understand was that this feeling of power within me was manifesting now and that my device was a receptacle and a conduit for a portion of that power. As best as I understood it, then and now, is that this power may be attributed to an inclination or aptitude enabling me to tap into forces imperceptible to most, perhaps the ambient energies of the Earth itself. Additionally, I understood the purpose for my device: to enable me to view events of the present and past that involved me and others I know. I recalled my past and recent curiosity about the Lost Nine, and I seized the opportunity; what better way to put it to the test, I realized, than to use it to investigate whether they had indeed perished? So I concentrated, the device began to spin; and, seemingly in midair, the images appeared.

“I willed it to trace events that followed that terrible moment when those nine mice tumbled backward through the airshafts to an unknown and presumably final fate. What I discovered was astounding. Six of them had indeed perished, sadly; but I witnessed you, Kimball and Patricia, saving yourselves and finding each other, and smuggling yourselves out of NIMH.” He paused, smiling upon the pair.

“So that’s how you knew about us,” said Kimball. “I suggested to Johnathan once that with your abilities, you might have been able to find us.”

“But something happened, didn’t it?” said Patricia. “And you couldn’t contact us.”

“And Vincent?”

“I was just coming to him, and the reasons for my lack of contact.” Nicodemus cleared his throat. “I was filled with joy at the discovery; and so, encouraged by this, I searched for any others who had survived, and I observed Vincent also escaping the airshafts. Strangely, though, he apparently chose to remain inside NIMH and make his home there. I investigated further the directions your lives and his had taken since then. I was pleased to see the happiness that Kimball and Patricia had found together, but I was perplexed at Vincent’s continued way of life. As a result, I devoted the bulk of my attention toward him. I observed his comings and goings in and around the building to obtain what he needed; his cleverly-concealed hideaway, which reminded me of our Rosebush colony in the way it was hidden; and this ‘mission’ of his, characterized by his listening in on conversations and after-hours examination of NIMH personnel’s notebooks and documents, and his own writings based on these findings. But I suppose you’re all aware of those details already.

“At any rate, I got to wondering: Kimball and Patricia were very well along in raising their family, but Vincent had none—at least none that lived with him. I could see that he was leading a solitary life, but in spite of this, I had to wonder if he had sired any children. It was too vital a matter to overlook, so I delved further into his past. My suspicions were confirmed when I found that he had indeed ventured from NIMH long enough to mate with at least four different females, three of which bore his children. At the time, I didn’t understand why he seemed to choose this way of life—regarding the NIMH laboratory as his home, leaving only long enough to mate but not actually taking a wife—but mainly I was concerned with finding and eventually, I hoped, contacting our lost mouse brethren.

“So, I continued my investigation with seeing how Vincent’s children presently fared. There were six of them, the youngest only a little over a year old; three sets of twins, one for each of the mothers. One was an albino”—he nodded and smiled toward Lilia and Reuben— “a fact unique and surprising enough, but there was another I took an even keener interest in.

“This child—Rollo—appeared to be afflicted by an unusual condition, marked by being able to respond to only basic needs—to eat or sleep—and was largely unresponsive, at least outwardly, to most anything his mother or brother said or did. It was truly a sad situation: his mother, Maisie, seemed unable or unwilling to give him the special care he needed, almost to the point of neglect, from what I observed in that short space of time. He didn’t seem to be starving, though he appeared thin and undernourished. His brother Ardo, at least, seemed to be more attentive to his needs. Ardo was more normal—that is, more like the rest of us—but Rollo was unresponsive to most outside stimuli. In tracing their early days I found that this difference had been there since they were infants. Maisie seemed to be doing everything she could for him, but was baffled at this marked difference between her children, and at some point appeared to all but give up on him. I was taken with the boy’s plight immediately; I suspected there was more to his condition than what met the eye, and therefore I endeavored to help him in any way I could.

“Of course I continued to devote my attentions to their kin, the other children Vincent had sired. I discovered how Reuben and Lilia, who were the oldest pair, were currently living on their own, their mother Nina having died quite recently. Boris and Doris, the youngest pair, seemed to be living a more comfortable existence with their mother Daria.”

He looked toward those he’d just mentioned, and all three present were wide-eyed with surprise. Anticipating their question, he added, “And yes, I probably should have made it clear by now that I was able to learn your names. How, I will relate later.

“I’d become so absorbed in all of these discoveries that—and this is the most regrettable aspect of this whole matter, one that I have no one but myself to blame for—by the time I was certain I’d seen enough, it was only then that I decided to call a council meeting to share my discoveries. Already I’d begun to formulate plans for my next investigation: tracing the Stone’s origins. But that would wait. The viewer responded immediately, shutting itself down; and I was preparing to leave my office when…I felt a sudden, overwhelming need to lie down and rest. I assumed, reasonably so, that these recent efforts were responsible for my sudden tiredness; as it was, I was well aware of how the accelerated aging I’d been experiencing was having detrimental effects on me; physically, certainly, but also marked by increased forgetfulness and the occasional error in judgment. I’ve since realized that I should have shared these latest discoveries with the council right away, and most certainly with Johnathan and Ages, before going so far into my investigation. Had I done so, subsequent events surely would have played out much differently.”

“My ‘rest’ became an actual nap, something that was a rarity for me at the time; and I was awakened, less than an hour later, when Tallus tapped on the door, reminding me of some matters regarding the Thorn Valley Plan I’d needed to attend to. I told him I’d be along in a minute; and after he left, I took stock of my situation. Somehow, I was aware of everything concerning the viewing device: its operation, the fact that it was a conduit for my own powers; but of the discoveries I’d just made I had no clue. I wasn’t even aware that I’d just used the viewer, let alone what and whom I’d discovered. All I’d learned about Vincent, about Rollo, about Kimball and Patricia, or any of our lost brethren, had fallen away, ensuring that they would continue to be unknown to us for some time more. I’d fallen into ignorance, though arguably not blissful, of all that I had learned of our old friends, and any plan to bring them into the fold had died before it could be enacted.” He paused to look apologetically upon Kimball and Patricia.

“To this day it’s a mystery as to what precisely happened to me that day. Did Uhrstegg’s spell wear off temporarily, enabling me to regain memories previously lost? Did it fall away completely, and then did he renew it, causing me to lose those memories again? Did Uhrstegg have anything at all to do with it? To that last question, I’ve since come to believe that if he had made a move against me then, I’d be aware of it now. Whatever caused the effects of Uhrstegg’s original spell to be lifted, it’s clear to me now that it was temporary, because they were back in full force.

“But of course, at the time all I knew was that I was tired and needed to rest; although I had surmised—correctly, I’ve since realized—that use of the viewer was hastening, ever so slightly, my accelerated aging, and so I vowed to be sparing in its further use, calling upon it only when I deemed it most necessary.”

Nicodemus paused, swallowing and clearing his throat. “I’ve talked rather long, haven’t I? Certainly more than this body is accustomed to. Could I trouble someone for some…” But one rat was already on her way to him with a pitcher of water and a cup.

“Thank you, Jenni-Lynn,” he said after he’d drunk his fill. “That was most refreshing.”

“You’re welcome, Nicodemus,” Jenni-Lynn replied, delighted that he’d remembered her name; clearly she’d become another ‘convert’ to the reality of the mouse’s identity, if she hadn’t already. She left the pitcher and cup with him and returned to her seat beside her husband Eamonn and their children.

As Nicodemus readied to resume his story, Johnathan spoke up. “So if it weren’t for this relapse or whatever it was, you certainly would have made plans to contact our old comrades then. But after what we saw today, it’s obvious you had to have made some kind of contact with them later on.”

“But how, with your memories of us gone?” asked Kimball.

Nicodemus smiled. “I understand well your impatience. But all your questions will be answered soon, I assure you. Now…for some time afterward, the possibility of any of the Lost Mice still living did not even occur to me again, despite the fact that I still possessed the means to investigate the possibility as I did before, and that I still thought about them from time to time. Given the circumstances, there may have been nothing I could have done to alter what had happened; but there’s no disputing that if I’d shared my first experience with the viewer with even one of you, events surely would have played out differently.”

As he paused again, Patricia felt the need to say, “It’s all right, Nicodemus. We’re not judging you.”

“At least not until we’ve heard the rest of your story,” added Kimball. “Though in the end I’m sure there’ll be nothing for you to apologize for.”

“And,” added Johnathan, “it occurs to me that if Uhrstegg had learned about our missing friends, he may have tried to manipulate them in some way, as he did you and Jenner.” Clearly, Johnathan realized, he was by now much more willing to accept that this really was their beloved ex-leader before them now.

“Excellent point, Johnathan. Thank you, my friends.” Nicodemus paused, for a moment feeling a need to say more on the subject; but instead he continued with: “So…by this time, work on the Thorn Valley Plan was continuing apace, with construction and planting already underway, in spite of opposition from a small minority led by Jenner. I have since become aware of how Uhrstegg had targeted Jenner as well as myself for his manipulations; and I was still aware of Jenner’s potential for treachery, and I retained the strong sense of caution that the Stone needed to be kept hidden from him without knowing the precise reasons why. Most certainly I was unaware that Uhrstegg had passed on to him the knowledge of how to take command of the Stone. That spell he’d placed upon me, as you know, had fragmented my memory so that some recollections would be lost completely and others would be altered without my being aware; and apparently subsequent conversations I had with anyone about matters I’d deem confidential, usually Johnathan or Justin, did not give any indication that there were any gaps in my knowledge or memories, at least none of any great consequence.”

As he paused, Johnathan raised his hand and asked, “Something we’ve been curious about a long time is…just how much did you learn about the Stone? There was nothing in your own journals that indicated that you knew…well, anything at all.”

“Yes,” added Justin, “and whenever either of us asked you directly, you’d either say that you hadn’t been able to make any new discoveries, or that other things were calling for your attention. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but it sounded…almost as if you were making excuses.” Justin was very much aware of his own hesitancy; just like Johnathan, he was himself increasingly ready to accept that this really was Nicodemus.

“More excellent points, my friends. To your first question, I was able to discern, largely through use of my viewing device, that it was otherworldly in origin. But such was the nature of Uhrstegg’s spell, that I was able to use the device to explore the past—though, as I said, I continued to use it sparingly—but the results of my investigations were often foiled, especially those concerning the Stone and my then-unknown enemy. But I am aware of them now, though there was still precious little I found out, since my observations were limited to Earth only. This was enough for me to determine that the Stone’s origins were unearthly, but anything more of its capabilities, let alone its origins, were beyond me. And yes, at least one of those observations actually revealed our enemy, though his origins were closed to me as well; plus I was unaware that he was an enemy. And in any case, my memories of these discoveries did not last long.”

Justin raised his hand. “So, Uhrstegg, or Ghormfisk, was able to keep moving against you with impunity, always keeping out of our sight. We heard all about it from him directly, and even after Gwinthrayle was able to cure him and bring back his original personality…it still rankles, even to this day, to think of how much he was able to manipulate you…and all of us, really.” Many others voiced their agreement.

“And it hardly stopped there, of course,” added Johnathan, speaking as one who knew what would follow.

“Yes,” Nicodemus said regretfully. “That most fateful night, when he acted against me in the most direct fashion to date. Having no reason to suspect such an attack, I was in no way prepared for the sleep-spell he placed upon me while cloaked in invisibility, in order to extract information from my mind. Nor would I learn, again until much later, that he had impersonated me when Johnathan visited me for briefing on his assignment that night; and that this was his chance to retake the Stone when Johnathan held it, a decision he made when I told him of my premonition of possible danger that night, for which the Stone might protect him.

“And…of course…this was the night when Johnathan disappeared, and all of us—his beloved wife and children, his friends, and I—believed him dead. The blood evidence left behind in the Fitzgibbons broom closet, by all appearances, supported this conclusion. And yet, one may reasonably ask, could I not have made use of my viewing device to confirm it?

“The truth, I would imagine, would come as little surprise to most of you by now. I was able to confirm, via the viewer, that Johnathan had not perished, but rather disappeared, and that the blood was shed by the cat that had supposedly killed him. But this all-too-vital piece of information barely had time to present itself to me before it slipped away like sand through my fingers. And it would have been so easily prevented, had I a witness to my use of the viewer; but, as before with my discovery of the lost mice, the spell affected my judgment of such matters, and so this was one more piece of vital information that was lost to us.”

As he paused again, Johnathan spoke. “It would have made little difference, since nobody there would have been able to trace where I’d gone to.”

“And no one, including me, knew that I could command the Stone too,” added Madeline. “I would have had even less of a clue.” After a pause she added, “I’m sorry, I know that’s not much consolation.”

“Thank you, my friends, but…what’s past is past. Now…I, and consequently everyone, was not only in the dark about Uhrstegg’s existence, but also that he had left the scene along with Johnathan. So, though this unknown bane to our existence was no longer around to bedevil us, his ‘legacy,’ unfortunately, lived on.”

“It didn’t go away with him,” said Justin. “His spells over you and Jenner were still very much in effect.”

“Indeed,” added Brutus. “Ach! What I wouldn’t have given to have a crack at him myself, after all he’d done…even if it wasn’t his fault, ultimately.”

“Even after we all learned what had driven him to all that,” added Justin, “some of us still harbored lingering frustration, because he’d kept himself secret from us so well and there was nothing we could do to change what he’d done.” There were more sounds of agreement, the loudest from Melvin.

“Very understandable,” said Nicodemus heavily, “and his final gambit was yet to come, some six months later, when Madeline Brisby and her family were in a dire predicament, which I know many of you recall very well.” Nicodemus turned toward her. “I knew of your needs early on, my dear, but instead of having one of us contact you so that we could have helped you that much sooner, I allowed you and your crow friend Jeremy to visit the Great Owl and seek his counsel. In retrospect, this could be seen as an error in judgment on my part, another result of Uhrstegg’s tampering; but at the time, I believed it profitable for you and possibly even for us. I knew that upon learning your identity, he would direct you to us, and that knowing him could benefit you and your family directly. At the time, I hadn’t considered the risk of your being killed by the Owl before he could learn who you are, even if you saw him before dark.”

“It’s all right,” said Madeline. “Everything did work out as you’d hoped.”

“And it did benefit us, eventually,” added Timothy.

“Ah, of course. A few months later, when the Owl saved the lives of all five of you.”

Madeline gasped. “You—you know about that too? But,” she added, laughing nervously, “I guess that’s not too surprising by now.”

“All will be revealed, I promise you. Now…perhaps more serious a lapse took place after your arrival, when you came to me to learn of Johnathan’s connection with us, and I presented the amulet to you. It seems likely now that in the course of my studies of it, I had discerned that it specifically targeted Johnathan due to his special qualities of character—his ‘courage of the heart.’ The fact that it contained great power was obvious; I saw that for myself, when Johnathan would ‘practice’ with it in my presence. I told you that Johnathan had meant for you to have it, believing its power would protect you, though I was consciously unaware that it would ‘choose’ you as it did Johnathan; it’s possible that I did know, deep down, that it would eventually.

“But…that lapse I spoke of occurred when I disregarded the necessity of keeping it concealed from Jenner, and my failure to caution you on such a vital point when I gave it to you. I still believed strongly that he had designs on it, but the true nature of them was still unclear; likewise, I was oblivious to the possibility of his making an attempt on my life—or possibly on yours as well, in his attempt to take the Stone.”

“We’d suspected that it was Uhrstegg’s spell behind that,” said Madeline. “It was one of the first things I thought of when we learned about it.”

“Very astute, my good lady. Well…” Nicodemus paused, sighing. “…both possibilities became reality, as you all know. The best I can recollect now is that I had a direct premonition of Jenner using our moving the Brisby cinderblock home to cause an ‘accident’, but I had forgotten it so quickly that it was as if I had never had it at all…all due to Uhrstegg’s influence. Whatever the case, you know what happened next. One brief moment as I saw the equipment collapsing and striking me down…and then blackness.”

Chapter 16 - Into the mist

The young mouse paused, closing eyes tightly, inhaling deeply. The crowd was mostly silent as well; many remembered that awful night as if it were yesterday. He’d already related so many details that spoke so closely and accurately to those he’d declared were his old friends and followers, so could there be any left who doubted his claim to be their former leader, in spite of the fact that he was, in essence, relating the final moments of his life…or previous life?

“Then…I cannot say how much later, but awareness, of myself and my surroundings, returned. I was in a strange, mist-shrouded place that felt at once spacious and confining. All around was grey nothingness, with no discernible features save for the ‘floor,’ a mossy, slightly yielding surface, and the constantly drifting, swirling fog with no discernible sky. Where could I possibly be? I wondered. Gathering my thoughts, I found myself remembering everything that had befallen me, including those events I had forgotten in recent months, and that the reason was not simple age-related forgetfulness. I recalled how I had actually discovered that three of the Lost Mice had survived, and had uncovered the existence of Johnathan’s mystery creature and that he was the likely culprit; though from where he’d come I had no clue, at least not yet.

“But it didn’t explain how I’d come to be in this place, whatever and wherever it was. Well, there was nothing for it but to explore the place further. I felt I would gain no answers just standing there, so I started walking. As I did, the full realization that I was now a disembodied spirit fell upon me, and simultaneously, I began to suspect that this landscape was not what it literally appeared to be. I also wondered if I was alone here, and shortly I began to feel very strongly that I wasn’t.

“Barely had I realized this when I saw him: a small figure, sitting with head down, as if resting. I drew closer, and almost called out loud to him, but instead I approached silently, and gently touched his shoulder.

“He instantly sprang to life, turning his head quickly to face me. For a moment I wondered: was this someone I knew? Suddenly, dumbfounded, I realized I recognized this child, this mouse child who, I also realized instantly, was the only other inhabitant of this place. He was the one, or at least a part of the one, an aspect of the one whose plight had so moved me when I’d discovered him and all those other lost mice the previous summer; the one with the unusual, unresponsive condition.

“He was frightened and shrank from me at first, mainly because my presence was so completely unexpected to him. He quickly warmed to me, though, after I explained to him that I was essentially a lost traveler and I asked him what he could tell me of this place. He seemed grateful just to have the company, but all he could tell me was that he’d been there as long as he could recall, trying to find his way out; and that he knew of a world ‘outside’ which, if he thought hard enough, he could see or hear or touch, or even taste or smell; but he believed that…he should be able to live it more, as he put it.

“As he described this existence of his, I understood at least part of the truth. This child, who was aware of the name his mother had given him—Rollo—was actually that part of his psyche that possessed a sense of self, and realized the differences between himself and other beings that interact more fully with their fellow beings and the world outside; the part that longed to be a part of that world. This world—this mist-shrouded nothingness was essentially an allegorical representation, without an actual, tangible existence, and was in reality entirely within Rollo’s mind.”

“Most extraordinary,” observed Tallus. “As incredible as it sounds, it’s no more so than your being before us now, speaking in the voice of one so familiar to us.”

“But,” ventured Johnathan, “it still didn’t explain…how you’d come to be there, or why…”

“…I wasn’t dead,” finished Nicodemus. “Or at least not in any way I would have expected. So…my next step was to find precisely what I could do in these new environs, and perhaps gain clues as to how and why I had come to be there. I considered that if I truly was, in essence, a part of Rollo, would I be able to influence him in any way physically? Even then I was certain I would have the chance to put the idea to the test. There had to be a reason I was co-inhabiting his body; he gladly welcomed my presence there—‘within’—but there had to be more to all this.

“I reasoned that if he could ‘see’ outside with the right concentration, perhaps I could as well. I was pleased, and more, to find that I could not only view Rollo’s immediate surroundings, as he could, but a much wider area as well—much, much wider.

“So now I had a connection to the material world, even if I could not interact with it; and I immediately set about finding out how far I could cast my gaze. I could not tell how much time had passed since I was struck down; but the matter of Rollo’s and my physical location was quickly established: we were several miles away from the Fitzgibbons farm, and I found myself not only seeing, but also hearing what was taking place there. It was only minutes later, and the drama continued to unfold in a small corner of it. There was Jenner, discovering that Madeline possessed the Stone. I felt heartsick, watching helplessly as he threatened her, knowing if I’d cautioned her, so much of what followed might have been avoided. Of course, at the time I had no idea who was ultimately to blame; I could only watch helplessly as events unfolded which I could only attribute to Jenner’s lust for power. He continued to act violently against Justin as he did me, forcing them to do battle, ultimately resulting in his and Sullivan’s deaths. I wanted to help but could only observe, despite my best efforts. At least these tragedies were balanced by the pleasant surprise of Madeline being ‘chosen’ by the amulet, enabling her to save her children, and by seeing everyone work to vacate the colony in time.

“But…now what was I to do? Obviously there was much about my situation—that is to say, everything—that was a complete mystery. Why was I now, in essence, a part of this young mouse? It couldn’t have been coincidence that Rollo, who had suddenly commanded so much attention from me after being completely unknown to me, was the one I was co-inhabiting, however this outlandish situation came about.

“Still, this was my current situation; and I realized that until further reasons became clear to me, I needed to explain myself more fully to Rollo. I had—quite unintentionally—all but ignored him since shortly after my appearance, having been so busy observing those I had left behind, and of course he was intensely curious. I told him as much as I thought he could understand about me, and where I came from, and what we held in common—outside of our new shared existence, of course. I found that, strangely, I felt the need for rest, in spite of my spiritual, or perhaps more accurately spiritlike, existence. So I told him that after we’d both felt more rested, I would tell him more, and would continue trying to investigate the reasons for our being this way.

“I made good on that promise, telling Rollo more about my life, mainly our adventures after the Escape and the founding of the Rosebush Colony; and he continued to prove what I had suspected: that he was as intelligent as any of us, but there was another reason for his seeming inability to relate to others. But Rollo—or this internal aspect of him—was more than satisfied just to have my companionship. In the outside world, as we both regarded it, he couldn’t relate to others as you or I could; but ‘inside’, he now had me, and knew for the first time what it was like just to have someone to talk to and relate to on his level. Of course I was happy to oblige him, but I certainly did not wish this to be a permanent situation. I was honest with him about this, saying that I needed to look outside again, to look for further clues about how the situation might be changed—hopefully for the better.

“So I began by examining more closely the matter closest to home: Rollo’s own ‘outside’ situation—both by asking him and by looking outside. Though he was still a child, he was living alone now. Apparently his mother had essentially disowned him, kicked him out, leaving him to fend for himself. It wasn’t the most surprising development, from my past observation, but it was still dismaying. He still wasn’t starving, but it was clear he was not getting enough to eat. He had some food stores; it seemed that someone was providing for him. Rollo believed it may have been his brother, whom he knew dropped by occasionally. But in spite of this, he seemed to have some difficulty in keeping himself fed. This, of course, was probably the most important thing I could try to do for Rollo: to help him care for himself better. I considered that if he were to fall ill and die of malnutrition, then what might become of me? Even now, I cannot say precisely how I would have been affected, but of course that’s irrelevant now.

“In the course of investigation of my, or rather our situation, I discovered that, since Rollo and I were, in effect, sharing a brain, I could, with the right concentration, explore and analyze its makeup. And I concluded that—as I’d suspected—there was a congenital defect there; the physical and chemical makeup of his brain was not ‘ordered’ as it should have been. Whether or not this had anything to do with the reason for my being there as I was, I hadn’t a clue. But I continued exploring every aspect of this strange shared existence of ours, hoping to determine or at least gain some clue to its nature or cause.

“In the days and weeks that followed, I looked ‘outside’ often, casting my gaze over a wider and wider area. In the process I was able to find those others to whom I’d given special attention months before: Vincent, his temporary mates, and his other children. I began with Rollo’s mother and brother, and found them living a short distance away. I quickly noticed how the relationship between Ardo and his mother was…well, less than harmonious, even at this early age. He would ask her questions about his father, and she would respond as if he were crazy or had no business asking such questions. That was only a part of it. He would ask about Rollo as well, and showed visible resentment when she told him not to talk about Rollo, and warned him he’d be punished if he tried to pay Rollo a visit.”

Many expressed surprise at this. “Why, that’s terrible,” said Patricia. “How could she be so cruel? What harm could it have done?”

At her side, Lula frowned thoughtfully. “She sounds like my mother,” she said quietly, sullenly.

“Near as I can tell,” continued Nicodemus, “it was hard for her to deal with youngsters that were so unlike ordinary ones, and she harbored resentment toward Vincent for the situation. But as you might already know, Ardo reacted to his mother’s edict with a degree of rebelliousness.”

“Meaning he did manage to sneak away a few times and gather some food to bring to Rollo,” added Johnathan. “We saw that through the amulet.”

“Yes. And I’m sure you’re aware of later developments as well. But I’ll return to them later.

“During this same period, I continued to monitor those I had left behind, and was proud at how smoothly the trek to Thorn Valley had gone, and your establishing the new colony. I kept track of Kimball and Patricia, and their children, and the occasionally tumultuous times they experienced. But more than this—at least during this period—I felt compelled to turn my attention, again and again, to Vincent and his children. As I observed them, certain details gradually became clearer to me. Now, I hadn’t the chance to observe them very long before the…‘accident’; but even so, there were certain things I was seeing that seemed to show a connection other than familial.

“There was Reuben and Lilia, for instance. The degree of protectiveness he projected toward her seemed to be, as I’m sure it was to you, rather a lot for one individual. The secretiveness with which they went about their lives was at a higher degree as well. There was precocity there, too; though both were still children, Reuben handled the situation in a very efficient and very mature manner, as if instantly ready to take charge of their lives.

“I know you’re aware of the changes in Lilia as well: her newfound enjoyment of life, dancing and singing to herself when left alone. Early on, I realized there was a conflict here, though the two had an outwardly amicable relationship. I would learn later exactly what was involved here, and what it would result in, though precisely why I still wouldn’t be able to say.”

Nicodemus began to talk about Boris and Doris, but was interrupted by Reuben, who asked in a near-demanding tone what he meant by “conflict.” Others were curious too, but he assured them that other details needed to be told first. He did apologize, though, for piquing their interest unnecessarily.

“Now…Boris and Doris were of considerable interest to me as well, for the abilities that seemed to come naturally to them: Boris’s visions of places far away and unfamiliar, Doris’s seemingly boundless imagination. But there was more: other, subtle ways they behaved that suggested there was…more there, something that implied an outside influence, as with Reuben, Lilia and Ardo. There was a great, near-insatiable thirst for knowledge in them, about the world outside their immediate surroundings. This could have been solely attributable to their higher intellectual capacity, but I sensed more. Plus, in some of the visions and stories they described, there were elements quite familiar to me, even very close to my own experiences, as I’m sure you’ve already noted.

“I could not help but sense very strongly that there was a connection among them, something they all held in common other than being family. But it wasn’t long before I concluded—correctly—that there was a very good reason for my own inclination to give the bulk of my attention to these mice, greater than that I gave to the Davis family.

“During this period I also uncovered the existence of two more offspring of Vincent’s, not too surprisingly, not yet a year old and still with their mother.” He looked for Torrance and Hazel in the crowd, smiling as he spotted them. They nudged each other, delighted as they realized he referred to them. “And though they, like the others, were very much as we are, I could not sense anything…well, ‘extra’ about them, not as I did with their older siblings…or their father. Oh, yes, Vincent was a different matter, as I’m sure you may already attest.”

Tallus spoke up. “The day after you…you left us, Vincent gained some new abilities.”

“Yes, I observed them too: his ‘phasing’ through solid objects, and becoming invisible at will. He used them quite readily, as if he were born to them; and on first observation I was stunned, unable to fathom their origins. But after repeated observation I could sense…something akin to familiarity. I did not have abilities like this, and yet I could not help feeling a connection—to them and to Vincent—as strong as the ones I was feeling for his six oldest children.

“All this observation led me to a conclusion that fell upon me all at once: an epiphany, a moment when everything ‘clicked.’ What I’d realized was that my spirit, the essence of my being, had become fragmented, with aspects of my personality, talents and abilities spread among Vincent and his six eldest children. Reuben’s natural tendency to be protective of Lilia became augmented by my own similar tendencies. Just as I was protective toward my loved ones—the entire colony—Reuben now projected a higher degree of protectiveness upon Lilia, perhaps too much for one individual, as I said before. Likewise the higher degree of secrecy; this stemmed from our own, in the way we conducted our lives after the Escape from NIMH and in the old colony, and from my own secretiveness about myself, to everyone else.

“The part of myself within Lilia was harder to define at first; but I’ve since realized that it was my own lust for life, my enjoyment of life’s sensual pleasures. But just as it was stifled in me by the accelerated aging, so it was held in restraint in Lilia by her natural-born shyness; though not entirely, as evidenced by her less-inhibited behavior when alone, and later in Reuben’s presence.

“Here is where the conflict I spoke of comes in. It was almost as if two aspects of my persona were at odds with each other. Lilia wanted to be out and about more, to explore her world more thoroughly, but Reuben…well, he allowed her virtually no freedom of movement outside of their home.” Nicodemus turned to the siblings. “If I am making the two of you feel at all embarrassed and uncomfortable by bringing this up, I apologize most deeply. But this is an important part of the story, and a key element to understanding what came later.”

“It’s all right…I guess,” said Reuben. “If it’s true, that I acted as I did because a part of your mind was a part of my mind.”

“Yes, Reuben, and for that too I feel I should apologize.”

“With all due respect, Nicodemus,” said Justin. “I see no reason for you to have to apologize for anything.”

“I agree,” said Johnathan. “Whoever’s fault this is ultimately, it can’t be yours. Maybe Ghormfisk’s spell had something to do with it. After he’d been restored to normal by Gwinthrayle, he never told us anything like that; though we’ve already discussed the possibility that even he didn’t know its full effects.”

“Perhaps not, my friends. And perhaps in time the full reasons will be revealed. But, though any apologies at this point are probably unnecessary, I still feel compelled to, since, at present, I am the only one present who can, until one more suitable presents himself…or herself.

“Now, to continue: I said that I sensed more in Boris and Doris’s thirst for knowledge than something that came completely naturally. This, I concluded, was also from me. Do you recall, Boris, how one day you and Doris suddenly knew of human books and libraries, despite not living near any human dwellings, and having little prior knowledge of them?”

“Yes, I do. But I thought that was just another of my visions.”

“Ah, but this one you felt inclined to act upon. Both of you wanted very strongly to seek out things like this, and partake of the knowledge they had to offer.”

“You’re right, we did. But we couldn’t really act upon it, because our mother wouldn’t let us. She thought it so much nonsense, our claim of wanting to see such a place, and we were still pretty young.”

“But the situation did change later, of course.”

“Yes, after our mother died, we made our way to the library in Sampson, and spent quite some time almost living there; and coming close to meeting members of Kimball and Patricia’s family, according to Johnathan and the Stone.”

“Those were my observations as well. And there were also some of the visions that came to you, Boris, and some of the stories that came to Doris, that reflected my influence.”

“Like…the big white building? Johnathan thought that could’ve been the NIMH lab. Was that from you, too?”

“Yes. Make no mistake, Boris, that was, from the beginning, a natural-born ability of yours to see these visions, as was Doris’s predilection for highly imaginative storytelling. But at this time, my own memories began influencing them, sometimes in more subtle ways, sometimes more overtly.

“I probably have not made it clear as yet, but I know now, beyond any doubt, precisely how I had influenced each of you, just from having been within each of you. I’ve even retained certain memories of yours, and of Vincent; I believe I made reference to this just after I ‘awakened.’”

“Didn’t you say,” brought up Johnathan, “something about…something to assimilate, and…memories of others you resided within?”

“Exactly, Johnathan. It seems, though, that just since my awakening, that those memories are beginning to fade. But, as I said, just the fact that I felt so drawn to observe Vincent and his children, more even than my old friends and comrades or the Davis family, convinced me that there had to be a connection among us.

“I’ll return to that connection momentarily; but first, there was also Ardo. My influence over him manifested mainly in his rebelliousness against his mother, and his compassion for his brother. This was derived mainly from my own desire for all of us to be free from oppression and a stifling and confining environment, and that we should all care for and provide for one another. Again, it was a case where these qualities were present already, but augmented by my own. Without them, later circumstances may possibly have been quite the same; but at any rate, it led eventually to Ardo’s breaking away and staying with Rollo, as you know.

“There is more to that story as well, but now we must come back to Rollo. The part of myself that resided within him was in some ways the one that had the most influence upon its host, and in some ways the least—at least at first. It was the core of my spirit, my soul-self, if you will; the part that possessed self-awareness. But, as I said, I could do virtually nothing to affect what Rollo did ‘outside’, although I still had the ability to cast my gaze outside.

“This was hardly the way I spent all or even most of my time, though. I continued teaching Rollo all about other rats and mice like us, and of the world in general; and even, eventually, all about myself and my abilities before, and what little I could tell him of how I’d come to be there with him. He was an eager and attentive pupil, and a very close and loving relationship developed between us. I continued to make it clear, though, that I would do everything in my power to help him out of his present situation, even if there was nothing I could do at that point except see outside and keep Rollo company.”

Chapter 17 - Toward reintegration

Nicodemus paused to pour himself another drink of water. After he’d drunk his fill, he continued: “So…it wasn’t long after I’d had that aforementioned epiphany that I reached another conclusion that would prove to be a turning point, and ultimately the correct one. All that was required was to bring everyone together in one place, to meet one another—Rollo, Ardo, Reuben, Lilia, Boris, Doris, and Vincent—and then all these parts of myself that resided within each of them could be all pulled together and unite as one. The precise results I couldn’t yet discern, though I suspected they would turn out much as you are seeing now.”

“Just as we all witnessed them a little over an hour ago,” said Tallus. “Though some of the principals couldn’t be here, unfortunately.”

“Yes. So now all of you know how I came to be speaking before you now.”

“But there is more to the story, isn’t there?”

“Oh, yes, Johnathan. Upon reaching this conclusion, the obvious next step presented itself. But how to bring everyone together, when most weren’t aware of the others’ existence, and in some cases lived quite some distance apart and weren’t inclined to travel very far? The connection linking myself to all of them, I concluded, was what had induced me to observe Vincent and his children so readily, and had helped me deduce that a part of me was within each of them—something that, in everyone but Vincent, would have been too subtle to notice from simple observation. With the connection this strong, I reasoned, would it not be possible to apply the right concentration to induce them all to come together, to have them all converge there at Rollo’s den?

“Over the next few weeks, I repeatedly put the idea to the test, to no discernible effect. Then one day I managed to apply just the right type and degree of concentration; and casting my gaze outside, I observed the results. Vincent left his hideaway, once again temporarily overcoming his great reluctance to leave home. At first I thought he could be leaving to seek another temporary mate, but when I noticed similar activity among his children, I realized that all of them had to be responding to my ‘call.’ But it was difficult; I quickly found that I could not maintain the proper concentration and continue such close outside observation simultaneously. Even without the observation, it was extremely hard, and I could not maintain the summons. I realized later that this was largely due to the fact that I had to, in part, make use of Rollo’s brain in this exercise, and because of its imperfections, it was not up to the task; plus, I knew that there was a possibility of causing injury to him by pushing things too far. At this time, though, all I could do was look outside again, to see how breaking the summons had affected everyone. I felt that, since I had managed to elicit a response from all of the principals, perhaps some of them would feel inclined toward continuing to seek out and even find Rollo. Reuben, Lilia, Boris…perhaps you remember that day, and what happened afterwards.”

Reuben and Lilia gave each other a knowing nod. “We do,” he answered. “We wandered away from our den for a short time, even though it was broad daylight and we didn’t really know where we were going, or why. After a while we stopped, and asked each other what was going on. Neither of us could say why we were acting like this. We did both feel like someone was calling us, but it was fading out. We didn’t understand it, but we couldn’t see any other reason to be out there, so we returned home.”

Nicodemus meant to say more, but Lilia raised her hand. “I…I wanted to keep going. I felt that…I knew just where to go, but…Reuben, well, thought we should return. I guess I…really didn’t say much, though. Probably would have lost my way, anyway.” She gave a small laugh, looking a bit embarrassed. Reuben didn’t add anything, but did appear troubled by his sister’s confession.

Boris spoke next. “I remember it, too. Doris and I were still with our mother, and we started off without telling her, but she caught up with us after a couple of minutes, and said, ‘You’re going off to this library place, aren’t you?’ We said no, that’s not it, it’s something completely different. We didn’t know exactly what, but we felt we had to go. Well, that went over as well as the library thing.” He laughed. “We pleaded with her, even telling her that it felt like someone was calling us. That really did it. She dismissed it as just our imaginations running wild, and forbade us to leave the house for the rest of the day, even after the feeling faded away.” He sighed. “I’ll always miss her, but I just wish she’d tried to understand us better. At least now I understand why she didn’t.”

“Yes, yes…” Nicodemus nodded, pleased to hear these confirmations. “Well,” he continued, “I was dismayed at first at not being able to maintain the summons and that the three…rather, four of you couldn’t go any further on your own. Vincent, though, continued on after the summons faded, apparently deciding to turn this into an excursion to seek another mate, after all—again, a temporary one, and an encounter that ultimately ended in tragedy.”

“Oh, yes,” said Johnathan. “She would be the one who was killed by a predator just a few weeks later.” He looked regretful over bringing it up.

“Sad but true. But it was balanced somewhat by what happened next with Ardo. Like Boris and Doris, he stole away without his mother knowing, but was much more successful. Since he already lived close by, and had been wanting to help Rollo anyway, the fading of the summons had little effect. He was most of the way there anyway, and so decided to turn this into another unauthorized visit to his brother, which turned out to be for more than just to gather food for him. Ardo still felt as if he’d been summoned there, and tried harder to communicate with Rollo, with all the patience he had exercised with him since they were yearlings. He seemed to come to a definite decision; and so, he told Rollo that he had to go home but would return soon for another visit.

“Of course, their mother Maisie was furious with Ardo for sneaking off, but Ardo made no secret of where he’d been, and voiced his intention to keep on visiting his brother. She told him he was grounded, and at first he appeared to agree to it, but then he went to his room and began packing his things. He started off, without trying to sneak out, and when she physically tried to stop him from leaving, he pushed her away, saying that he had a responsibility to his brother and she could not prevent him from carrying it out. He then left, and it was the last they saw of each other. It was a shame they couldn’t have settled their differences; she died of natural causes about three months later. Yet, in her final days, it seemed to matter little to her; she simply resumed her life, but now without children.

“But it was a far different story for Ardo, who was happier than at any point in his young life in his new role as caregiver and companion to his brother. Like Reuben, he took on this role with a maturity that belied his tender years. I was pleased as well, of course, because it meant less of a burden on me, and it gave Rollo someone to care for him on the physical plane as well as ‘within.’ Since Ardo knew Rollo better than anyone, he knew best how to communicate with him, and probably could best teach him how to care for himself better. This was borne out over the following weeks, as Rollo learned to gather food for himself, to feed himself, and even be able to look out for and run from predators. During this period, I continued to try exerting more control over Rollo’s body, hoping to get him to indicate in some way to Ardo that I was within Rollo and needed to have their father and half-siblings brought there so I could become whole again; a daunting task, to be sure, for even if I could have had Rollo convey something so complex, would Ardo have been able to do anything about it?

“Tragically, none would ever know, because Ardo’s time was short as well. Only four months after he’d moved in, he was attacked and killed by that farmyard cat, a tragedy not directly witnessed by Rollo, who had heeded Ardo’s warning and reached safety in time, but which I had seen on just a routine outside observation.

“Outwardly, he didn’t seem greatly affected; but inside, within the mist-shrouded plain, the part of Rollo that I knew best was near-inconsolable after I told him what had happened. He had learned so much from Ardo, and was sure that, in time, he could have learned and been able to do much more. He was grateful to him, more than he could ever express to me, and had been frustrated at not being able to tell him how grateful he was and how he loved him; and now he never would. He seemed at one point ready to give up, but I convinced him that that would only sully Ardo’s memory. He needed to utilize the survival skills he’d learned, combined with the knowledge I’d imparted to him, so that he could continue to better himself. He soon agreed that this was what Ardo would have wanted. Though I never admitted it to Rollo, I was a bit nervous about Ardo’s departure, even as I was confident that Rollo could take care of himself better now. But I genuinely shared his sorrow; Ardo was one of us, and he died before he could learn of his heritage and that there were others who would welcome him into their fold.

“Well…with the added benefit of Rollo’s newfound skills, things went very much the same for the two of us. I was no more successful in leading Rollo out of the mist, or improving my own lot; but it was tempered by the companionship we continued to provide for each other. There were other changes in Rollo, though. There were days when he would be restless and moody, largely due to his not being completely over his brother’s death. But also, I realized that all I was teaching him was making him long for the outside world, and be able to enjoy all it had to offer. I had promised him at the start that I would do all I could to help him in any way I could, but after all these months, I was no closer to a resolution to our situation. Several times I attempted to correct the condition in Rollo’s brain, each time without success. Though this seemed to confirm my earlier theory—that if my spirit-self were whole and not spread among all these others, I would be able to correct it—it was no less disappointing each time. Well I could understand Rollo’s restlessness; but events were around the corner that could very well turn the tide.

“In further outside observation of those I’d left behind, I witnessed Madeline Brisby’s journey to Thorn Valley with her children, some four months after my current situation had begun. I saw their close call with a weasel, and the Great Owl saving their lives; and their ride the rest of the way in via their crow friends. I followed them closely, out of curiosity as much as concern; I suspected there was more to their visit than simply a social call. This was confirmed when Madeline told Justin of her strange experiences, leading to her reacquaintance with the amulet’s power. You all know what happened next; and I was overjoyed to see Johnathan’s return days later, not only for his being home and safe with those he loved; but now that both he and Madeline were much more aware of the amulet’s capabilities, it was much more possible for them to use it to seek out their lost mouse brethren, which could possibly lead to Rollo being discovered and brought to meet the rest of his family. Alas, it seemed that Johnathan, like everyone else, still firmly believed them dead, and that the chance of such an investigation was slim.

“But a slim chance was a chance, after all; and, as before, I leveled with Rollo on this matter. There was always the chance that Johnathan could make such a discovery by accident, if for instance he had the amulet with him while reminiscing about his old friends. For the time being, though, I contented myself with Johnathan’s reunion with his children, and the story he and those who sought him told of how he was found on Lahaikshe. I don’t believe I made it clear, but these observations of mine were limited to this world only—or rather, Earth only; I’d almost forgotten we’re on Lahaikshe now. So I could not observe firsthand what had happened.

“I was, however, able to listen in on your accounts of your adventures there: your run-in with the ‘mystery creature,’ Ghormfisk, alias Uhrstegg, and his entrapment of you after taking control of the amulet; how Johnathan had lived with his benefactor, the sorcerer Gwinthrayle, and how he and his associate Birantha told you of the amulet’s origins; how you were able to retake it and learn of Ghormfisk’s origins and the reasons for his actions. It was remarkable enough, learning so much about the Stone after my own lack of success in that area; but it was astounding to learn that the soul-self of its creator, Pharsal, had been within the amulet all that time—not unlike my own situation, I realized. I’d even heard how he had, essentially, impersonated my image in the Stone in order to encourage Madeline. It was remarkable to hear; so much that was unclear and mysterious revealed and resolved, after all that time. I wish I could have been there to see it all firsthand.

“Of course, I was able to see Johnathan moving his family to Thorn Valley, and other happy events in the lives of all of you. I continued being a teacher and companion to Rollo, and making my observations, which by now were almost equally made among the colony, the Davis family, and Vincent and his children. I witnessed events happy and sad: more children for Johnathan and Madeline, your wedding ceremonies, Justin and Isabella’s marriage, making yourselves more and more at home in Thorn Valley. Mr. Ages finding a mate; Louann’s near-fatal accident that led to her new life; Marie’s journey across half the world to her new life; Vincent fathering triplets with Zenia; Boris and Doris settling near the town library, and her sad fate a few months afterward; the trouble Kimball and his family had with that band of hostile rats; Vincent’s next—and last—major excursion outside NIMH, where he met she who would be the mother of his last two children.”

Nicodemus’s eyes sought and found Amelia, who sat with her young sons Thomas and Grey. She seemed unable to meet his eyes, and looked downcast, as if he’d brought up a tender subject. “Amelia, my dear…I am aware of the time Vincent spent with you, and of your feelings for him. I was not my wish to cause pain by discussing this matter, but it does play an important part in later events.”

Amelia looked up at him, suddenly curious, as were many others. “It does? How?”

“You will know very soon. Now…during this time I had continued to teach Rollo about the outside, and tell him of all that I was seeing, and impress upon him that there would always be a chance of our being discovered; and just a few months later, events began to unfold which brought us one step closer.

“I know you’re all well aware of the events that precipitated your relocation of the colony to this world, beginning with Vincent’s discovery of possible human intrusion. I witnessed Vincent’s overhearing of the NIMH personnel’s conversations, and his transcriptions of same; and I must confess, it had me worried, for unless Vincent himself tried to reach you, how would you be warned in time? And even if he could bring himself to leave, would he be able to reach you at all? I didn’t tell Rollo of this at first, just in case of further developments; and in a few days, one arrived. That one was Kimball, as you know, who quickly left on his mission. I was relieved that someone was setting out to warn you, but I feared for his safety, knowing the odds were so overwhelmingly against him. Again there was some relief, as Kimball boarded a vehicle that brought him very close, and more as I saw him disembark safely. But there was still a lengthy journey on foot, and all manner of hidden dangers awaited.

“I endeavored to reach out to him mentally, to guide him if nothing else, the same as I did with Vincent and his children. It seemed to have no effect, probably because there wasn’t the connection I had with them; but I was impressed at how he was able to keep going, in the right direction, despite repeated close calls. I continued to try reaching out to him, though, as well as to someone in the colony, but this proved just as fruitless. I was not about to give up, though; as Kimball’s physical condition grew worse, and I grew more worried about his being able to reach Thorn Valley at all, I knew I hadn’t the right to give up.

“In searching for an alternative plan, I reasoned that perhaps I would be more easily able to influence an animal of normal intelligence into helping in some way. I had also theorized that, with the rapport we had shared for so long, Rollo might actually be able to help me in such an operation if he joined his will with mine with the right concentration, though I hadn’t put the theory to the test as yet.

“As I saw Kimball’s encounter with a group of rabbits, I thought this would likely be my best and perhaps only chance to test both theories. These rabbits were curious about the quite horrendous condition Kimball was in, and why he was so driven to reach this Thorn Valley he spoke of. When I heard one rabbit, an elder of the group, say that he knew of the place, I knew beyond a doubt that I—or rather we—needed to act now, and quickly. I urged Rollo to concentrate with me, and once certain that our minds were in the proper state of synergy, I reached out, centering my concentration on the elder rabbit. It worked! He told his fellows that he would take this strange mouse the rest of the way to Thorn Valley, though he could not explain precisely why to them. He urged Kimball to climb onto his broad back and hang on tightly; then he sped off, running over hill and dale, hardly stopping though often slowing to an amble, taking as direct a route as possible. At one point Kimball did lose his grip and fall off, but the rabbit stopped immediately and nosed him back on. Eventually I could feel our concentration slipping; I prayed that we could maintain it long enough for the rabbit to make it all the way down the other side.

“Alas, it was well before they reached that point that we found we couldn’t maintain our concentration any longer. The rabbit stopped, suddenly confused over why he had gone to so much trouble for one mouse; but fortunately, he decided to keep going a bit further, probably because he figured he’d come this far and may as well take Kimball the rest of the way. When he reached the upward slope, though, he stopped, dropping Kimball off and telling him he was on his own now and his destination was just over the slope. I guess since he’d come this far and was obviously quite tired, he didn’t have the energy to make it all the way up. After the rabbit left, Kimball, only half-conscious but still determined, began making his way up the slope. He reached the top, of course, and had only begun the journey down when his senses left him altogether. He tumbled down to where your sentry Kevin found him, and again I feared for him; were all our combined efforts in vain? Fortunately, he was still alive, and you were able to treat his injuries in time for him to make a full recovery.”

Nicodemus paused to allow everyone time to fully take in this new information. Kimball and Patricia and their children all looked at each other, speechless. Then Justin spoke. “Well…Nicodemus, it seems that we now have you to thank for all our lives; or at least, those of us living in the colony at the time.”

Many voiced agreement to this view; then Nicodemus replied, “I appreciate your kind words, everyone; but you know I cannot take full credit. Vincent had gleaned the information originally; Kimball relayed it to you; the elder rabbit brought him to you; Kevin found him on the slope and alerted your medical staff, who nursed him back to health. Plus, it was Rollo’s will combined with mine that kept the effect going as long as it did. So it was very much a team effort.”

Justin made to reply, but Kimball spoke up first. “Be that as it may, Nicodemus, that rabbit would probably never have taken me the rest of the way on his own; and if he hadn’t at all, I surely would have died on the way. You can be as modest as you want, sir; but the facts are plain as day, that I wouldn’t have made it if not for you…and Rollo, of course. And if I hadn’t made it, there’s no telling what the humans would have done.”

“So,” said Tallus, “though we had no idea of your continued existence, you were still guiding us.”

“I guess you could say that, Tallus; and I do appreciate your kind words, Kimball. Well…” Nicodemus again addressed his entire audience. “Once I knew Kimball was going to be all right, I felt relieved; but it wouldn’t be total until all of you were out of danger. I continued to monitor the situation there, and also began keeping a closer watch on Martin and Lambert, once I realized how much hinged upon their return, and the fact that Martin held the amulet. I also kept Rollo up to date on what was happening ‘out there.’ He had been touched greatly at being able to help me in getting Kimball to Thorn Valley, and wanted to know every detail of my observations. You’re all aware of what I observed, so I need not go into great detail there.”

Martin Brisby raised a hand. “Nicodemus, I got to wondering…when Lambert and I found the alley where we got separated, and I met Karen and Patricia, did you have a hand in that?”

“I cannot take credit for that, Martin. Your tracking abilities are exemplary, and served you well on your journey, so it’s possible they were at work in leading you to other mice like yourself, without your knowing consciously. Kimball has theorized that it was a similar talent that enabled him to find his brethren in Thorn Valley; so might you be similarly gifted. Or it might have been coincidence; that is for you to decide.

“I did observe your separation from Lambert, though, following your run-in with the hostile rats, and your meeting with the ladies, and much of subsequent events. After you made your discovery at NIMH, I considered trying to lend aid in a similar fashion as we did with Kimball; but when I saw how you felt guided by the amulet, it seemed less necessary. Throughout this, I realized that when the amulet was back in Johnathan and Madeline’s hands, it would mean not only salvation for all, because it would surely be used to track down all the other mice, including Rollo. I didn’t tell him directly that we were this much closer to being emancipated, but…” He laughed. “Bless his soul, the boy figured it out on his own. By that time, there was little, if anything, that I could hide from him. He was very excited, of course, and looked forward to the day all the more.

“I continued my monitoring, and was again anxious as I saw the helicopters arrive; but proud as I saw the efficiency with which you carried out your Hiding Plan. Martin, Karen and Patricia arrived presently with the amulet, and you discussed using it to move the entire colony. In spite of this, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat shocked at the extent with which you carried it out. For a short time, I wondered if you had made it safely to Lahaikshe, since I couldn’t see it; though I realized that such a feat might mean a longer period of ‘recharging’ for the amulet, and consequently a more lengthy wait before you’d be able to tie up any other loose ends on Earth. Thankfully, it was only a matter of hours before I saw the return of that human you’d inadvertently brought along, and your retrieval of Lambert. Rollo had been concerned at one point that if all of you were no longer on Earth, it could mean they wouldn’t look for any more of their brethren still on Earth. We were both very relieved to find out he was wrong.

“Our relief was short-lived, though, as we learned of Vincent’s death. I had not witnessed this directly, mainly because I was so engrossed in following Kimball, and then everything else. It was distressing to both of us, especially Rollo, who had been looking forward to meeting his father at last. I continued to encourage him, saying that he still had much to look forward to, especially in light of the fact that there would be extensive research into Vincent’s writings, meaning that discovery should be even more imminent, and likely.

“I wondered, though: what had become of the mystical abilities Vincent had ‘inherited?’ If they had indeed been passed on from me to him, then did they die with him, or could they have been passed on to another? It would be some time before I would know the truth.

“Next came the tracking down of the remainder of Kimball and Patricia’s children, yet another cause to be hopeful, in light of how willing and eager they were to join the colony—which, of course, they did in short order, with the tragic exception of Desmond. So could Vincent’s children do any less?

“So now I was entirely limited in my observations to Vincent’s children, because there was no one else of us left on Earth! It was only a matter of weeks, or possibly days, I told Rollo; and when I observed Reuben and Lilia being found by Cynthia and Johnathan, I knew our time was at hand. We were both joyous over knowing we’d likely be next, but there was still work to do. I’d long figured that Rollo would have to be able to convey to his guests some indication that he’d want to go with them; and yet, for as long as we’d been together, Rollo still had great difficulty in articulation. I’d tried, back when Ardo was with him, to get him to speak aloud, and he couldn’t manage anything intelligible. Still, there had been slight improvement, and I thought it could be enough; but he would need to practice saying my name. Rollo went to it with great determination, knowing how it could pay off.

“A few days later, Michael arrived. This was it, we knew; but Rollo was extremely nervous, afraid he might botch the job, and spent almost an hour trying to form the word.” Again Nicodemus singled out one in the crowd. “Michael…I know how well you remember this part.”

“Yes…you, I mean he, just sat there looking as if he were concentrating very intently. A few times there’d be a very quiet, low sound from his throat, but nothing close to any word. And when he got up and went outside, he was just…taking a break?”

“Exactly. He felt he needed to refresh himself, and then maybe he’d be better able to speak. But again he couldn’t bring it out. He took another break, and Michael followed, only to find himself under attack by the farmyard cat. Rollo was able to run away in time, since Ardo had done well in teaching him self-preservation. Michael, you remember what happened next, don’t you?”

“Yes, I was still pretty shaken up, even though I knew Johnathan took care of the cat, and I grabbed Rollo, shook him, shouted at him… It just seemed unbelievable that he could not even acknowledge my presence, and yet run from danger.”

“Well, though he didn’t appear shaken from the encounter to you or Johnathan, he definitely was. Inside, he vowed to redouble his efforts, and Johnathan’s appearance strengthened his resolve. He again sat down and tried to speak my name, and finally a distinct sound issued forth; but it came out sounding very much like ‘no’…”

Before Nicodemus could say more, Michael jumped to his feet. “I knew it! I knew he didn’t really mean ‘no!’ He was trying to say your name, not that he didn’t want to come with us!”

“Precisely, Michael. Unfortunately, neither of you had any way of knowing this. I knew that you’d not wish to force Rollo to come, and so you’d be waiting for some kind of definite reply from him. I realized, after this, that something as complex as my name would be too much for him, all at once, and that it would have been better if I had taught him to say ‘yes’ or even to simply nod his head.”

“Well, you’re here now, Nicodemus,” said Johnathan, “you and Rollo both, and that’s what counts.”

“Thank you, Johnathan. Well…of course, Rollo was crushed at the time. To have worked so hard and come so close, only to have the attempt fail so utterly, and all because of poor articulation, was such a bitter blow. For the better part of a day, he wouldn’t speak to me at all; and when he did, he said, ‘I can’t make my body say anything right, so why should I say anything here?’ It was understandable, but I would not allow him to give up at this point, not when he’d come this far.

“When this mood passed, I encouraged him to continue his verbal skills. Shortly after, though, I realized that the more effective approach might be for him to form letters in the dirt or snow. So, over the next few weeks, this was what we concentrated on. Again I had him work on my name, certain that he’d have an easier time spelling it than saying it. Oh, there were still times when he felt ready to give up, despite my frequent reminders that Michael and Johnathan had promised to return. But we continued working hard at it; and, as they witnessed, he was able to spell enough letters to ensure success.

“But of course there was one final, critical step to be taken: having Vincent’s remaining children bring together all of my individual aspects. There had been times when I doubted the plan would work: Had I miscalculated? Was I relying on idle assumption? Likewise, I had no way of knowing whether it might do some harm to its participants, if it did work.

“And yet…work it did, all according to plan; and the results were witnessed just a few hours ago, by these two and Justin.”

Chapter 18 - Furtherance of the dream

Nicodemus paused, growing visibly more emotional, and he sipped some more water. He looked across the assemblage and said, “So…now you all know how I came to be here. And now that I am…I wish I could properly convey how I…how it feels to be among you all again.” His voice became heavy, eyes glistening with tears. “Not only those I’d left behind, and their children yet unborn, but all of us…all our lost brothers and sisters, now where they belong…where we all belong.”

There was another minute of mostly-silent reflection in the crowd; and some, like Velma, couldn’t help recalling their reactions toward Bertram and Tara becoming more than friends. It all seemed so petty and trivial now, after hearing about how much Nicodemus had sacrificed, and the enormous effort he put in, just to help this one mouse. He’d been through so much just to be speaking before them now. Many even felt ashamed, resolving on the spot to apologize to the two seemingly-mismatched lovers, and even to Nicodemus, knowing how ashamed he’d be of them for thinking in such a way.

Still, though this story had reached an end, some matters were yet to be resolved. “What about Lilia?” asked Ellis. “We already figured that Vincent passed those powers on to her, but it doesn’t explain everything.”

“Ah, of course.” Nicodemus stepped down from the rock and over to where Lilia sat with Ellis and Reuben. He took her hand. “Lilia, my dear, I am aware of the problems this situation has caused you. I know how, in recent days, you have felt as if you were two different people. How do you feel now?”

“Mm…well, a bit confused, but somehow I feel like…like I’m over all that now. Am I?”

“Quite possibly, my lady. If you’re still not certain, I guess you would know by tonight…”

“Wait…how would you know about any of that?” asked Reuben. “None of that stuff happened to her until we came here, and you said you couldn’t see into this world.”

“You’re exactly right, Reuben. But I also said that having been essentially a part of each of you, I know of the effect these different aspects had upon you, and I still retain certain specific memories of your own feeling and experiences. In your case, Lilia, there were other elements that combined with those…tendencies I passed on to you, that resulted in your condition. Even I cannot say precisely why it happened; but as near as I can tell, that part of myself, my enjoyment of life’s pleasures that couldn’t find full expression finally manifested itself in an entire second persona that allowed you to—”

“It was me, wasn’t it?” interrupted Reuben. “I caused that to happen to her, by keeping her from…from doing what she wanted.”

“Reuben, Reuben…as I’ve told you, you were affected by me as well; and if the blame lies with anyone, it is Uhrstegg. And he, or rather that aspect of him, is no more.”

Reuben shook his head, looking downcast. “I want to believe you. But…if you had never been…inside me, or her, it wouldn’t have been much different. I’ve always…wanted to…protect her, keep her safe.”

“It’s true that I cannot say how your lives would have turned out otherwise. But it does no good to lay blame upon oneself. I had said that I cannot say precisely why this free-spirited second personality of Lilia’s developed, but from the memories I still retain from her, I believe it’s highly possible that there are certain mystical energies present in this world that played a large part. I’ve found that I have a sensitivity to such energies, here as on Earth. At present I would need to study the matter further, but it’s possible that such a situation may have developed without my influence.”

“Maybe that’s true, but I still must have had some part in it, didn’t I?”

“Please, Reuben, you must believe that you were only innocent victims of circumstance: you, Lilia and Boris. If you feel the need to blame anyone, let it be me. I spoke earlier of conflict between you two, how Lilia outwardly was entirely cooperative with Reuben’s edict to stay at home and allow him to handle all outside chores. Deep inside, though, she longed for more freedom. There is much I cannot give definite answers to, but so much happens that is dependent on the capriciousness of fate, and there are infinite possibilities in how circumstances may have differed. But one thing is certain: all three of you are completely free of my influence now, free to go on with your own lives, to start afresh. You must not allow the mistakes of the past to taint your futures, especially when those mistakes were not your own.”

“He’s right, Reuben,” said Lilia. “None of it could be helped. I think…just from hearing this talk of his, that things will be all right for us now.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Reuben sighed, got to his feet, and began filing through the crowd.

“Where are you going?” asked Johnathan.

“Just…” Reuben sighed again, looking impatient. “I don’t know, I…just need to…think about this alone.”

“Then take all the time you need, my friend,” said Nicodemus, “and know that when you return, we are all with you.”

Reuben just nodded and continued on.

“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” Ellis asked Lilia.

“I think so. If he says he needs to think, that’s what he’ll do.”

“Good. Well…” Nicodemus returned to the rock and regarded the crowd, some of whom were engaged in discussions of their own. After some of the others helped in calling for everyone’s attention, he said, “Now that I am here, I suppose there is one more matter to be settled right away, namely…what will you do with me?” He gave a small laugh, but the question met mostly with quizzical head-shaking.

Then Justin said, “You mean…regarding leadership of the colony?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Justin. I have no intention of usurping your authority, or anyone’s. No, my only desire is to share in the company of friends and family again. More immediately, though, I would like to see more of your accomplishments here.”

A small group quickly formed to take Nicodemus on a tour of Freethorn, but just as they were about to begin, a small commotion arose, beginning with a gasp and sounds almost of distress from Karen.

“Karen, are you all right?” asked Martin, though he already suspected what was about to transpire.

“I think…somebody wants out.” She was out of breath, but sounded happy about this new development.

Instantly Martin and several others were galvanized into action. Ages instructed Merrill and Andrew to go and prepare the birthing chamber in the Mouse colony. As they sped off, Lambert volunteered to carry her over there. Nicodemus told her and Ages he’d like to be in attendance as she gave birth. None could see why not, and Karen told him in between gasps that she would be honored. Martin surely felt the same, but he was too busy fretting about how Lambert was carrying Karen and generally being nervous to express approval. He was partially pacified when his parents reminded him how, just before he and Teresa were born, Johnathan had become even more unglued.

The birthing chamber was a miniature version of a similar room in the Rat colony, equipped with a low table, clean towels, running water and subdued lighting. Karen was set down on the table, and all around her, the chamber quickly became a bustle of activity as a rather large group prepared for the blessed event, either to assist in the birth, to stand by with towels and water, or to encourage her or just hold the expectant mother’s hand. Unlike most human births, these creatures don’t especially mind having spectators at a blessed event, and so didn’t discourage having around anyone who wanted to be witnesses.

In general, births were easier for second- and third-generation Rats and Mice in this community than for the first-generationers—those that began their lives as naturals, before the NIMH treatments. Karen was being reminded of this now by her mother Patricia and big sister Jessica as she paced her breathing, nervous but simultaneously giddy with anticipation, ready to begin pushing at the right moment. Martin, always close by, went over with her the names they had decided upon as he held her hand. Cyril Ages, firmly in charge of seeing to the babies’ safe arrival, anticipated the moment as if they were his own, something he’d gladly experienced for himself twice with his wife Alma.

Soon, the moment came; and Martin and Karen became the proud parents of the two newest residents of Freethorn. “It’s a girl…and a girl,” announced Ages. “Congratulations, you two.” The tiny, whimpering newborns were instantly handed over to Jessica and Bernadette, who ensured that their airways were clear. After being gently toweled dry, they were handed over to the new parents. Karen could only cry softly with joy and relief, and Martin was also tearing up, speechless as they held their naked, fragile offspring.

“Wow, you’re a daddy, Martin,” said Teresa. “How’s it feel?”

“Great, Sis. Strange, but great.” He paused to wipe away a tear. “I guess I…wasn’t expecting them to…both be girls.”

“We wanted at least one boy,” said Karen, sounding tired but contented. “I would have named him Desmond. But these two little girls will do just fine.” She lifted up the one she held to kiss her lightly.

“So what are you naming them?” asked Jessica.

“Oh, yes. Victoria…” Karen indicated the one she held.

“And Elizabeth,” finished Martin. “Welcome to the world, you two. Well…this world, anyway.” He shook his head in disbelief, holding his daughter close to his breast for a moment before transferring her to her mother’s arms, knowing that she and Victoria needed their first feeding.

As they suckled, Nicodemus, who had stayed mostly out of the way, stepped forward. “Ah, Martin…Karen. My heartiest congratulations, my friends, and the best of luck in this new phase in your life.” After they thanked him, he laid hands on the two newborns. “Elizabeth, Victoria…no matter what trials you may face in life, may you always know love.” He looked up, smiling at the new parents. “Well…if you will all excuse me, there is still much catching up for me to do.” He bowed and exited the chamber as Teresa began introducing her sons to their new cousins. She was followed closely by both sets of grandparents.

Once all the way outside the mouse colony, Nicodemus paused to take in his surroundings. As he directed his gaze from the cliff-face rising behind him, to the surrounding trees, shrubbery and rocks, to the white cumuli drifting above and past the sun, he was filled with an enormous feeling of elation that he found himself unable to contain. He rushed forward into the nearby clearing, arms spread as if to embrace the whole world. The joy of being alive and among friends and family again, of seeing the success of his hopes and dreams, culminating in what he had just witnessed…it had become too much for him, as he expressed this joy in dancing and spinning about, shouting inarticulately and roaring with laughter. Naturally, this invoked some curious stares from passersby. Some scratched their heads in bemusement, though most easily understood this display of emotion, in spite of its being uncharacteristic of Nicodemus. The lust for life he’d spoken of, which until a few hours before had been within Lilia, was now finding much fuller expression within him than it had since the time just after the Escape.

Soon he became aware of the small crowd that was gathering at the edge of the clearing. Most weren’t sure of what else to do or say, not wanting to spoil the moment for him. Now, though, as he noticed their attention, some of them began moving away, smiling and nodding with a few looking slightly embarrassed. He paused in his cavorting as sudden realization swept over him. He turned away and began staring off into space. Those who observed this wondered if he weren’t just being self-conscious, but a few realized there had to be more to this abrupt change in mood. One of them stepped forward now.

“Well, Nicodemus, this has really been a red-letter day for us all, hasn’t it?”

“Yes…it certainly has, Justin.” In spite of these words, Nicodemus could only manage a faint smile.

“Is…anything wrong? We couldn’t help noticing how happy you were a minute ago.”

“Yes, it’s…difficult to explain, Justin. I…I’d never considered that it would ever come to this…”

“Say, what’s all the hubbub out here?” came a new voice behind them.

“Johnathan…would you and Justin come walk with me for a while?”

They did so, Nicodemus explaining as best he could his abrupt turnaround in mood. After they made their way to a secluded spot just off Lovers Lane, they all sat down, and Nicodemus began concentrating intently, until he seemed oblivious to his companions and all else.

* * *

It was with an unlikely mixture of reluctance and satisfaction that he again found himself on the mist-shrouded plain. With the reintegration successful, he wasn’t even sure that it was possible, considering that it was only a part of his soul-self that was contained within Rollo’s consciousness before, and now he was in full control of Rollo’s body. But that fact served all the more to remind him of why he was here, and so he put to the task at hand knowing the conversation to come was necessary. The main topic was one he’d already shared with everyone in his story; but he’d touched upon it so briefly that it had little or no impact, nor did he state out loud its full implications or its aftermath.

He looked down at his body—or more accurately, his perception of it—and found himself feeling a bit surprised at seeing his old aged rat’s body, again reminding him of his purpose here. And then, there he was: the one with whom he’d have this so-important conversation, sitting in much the same manner as when they first met. The young mouse quickly perked up, jumping to his feet and smiling broadly as the aged rat approached.

“Teacher! You’re back! Did it all go well? Did you go all the way out?” He dashed forward delightedly.

“Oh, yes, Rollo.” The two embraced and sat down. “All I had suspected turned out to be true.” He explained how the colony had been moved, and how his estimation on how their past situation might change had been fulfilled.

“Now, though,” he went on, “I am finding it not as simple a situation as I thought.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now that I have tasted life again…now that I am reunited with those I’d left behind and beginning to experience life’s pleasures again, after all these years…I am finding myself facing a dilemma that I thought would be, at worst, a minor problem. Now, you know what my original intent was, Rollo: that, once I was fully reintegrated within you, I would be able to heal your brain, restore it to where you could function and interact normally with others; meaning, of course, that you would be fully in charge of your mind and body…as I am presently. But there is that stipulation of which I told you. Do you remember it?”

“Yes, that when you had begun to heal my brain, you would have to keep at it until it’s done, and then you’d…you’d have to leave for good.”

“Yes. And I have not yet begun the process. You see, I knew that once I was…‘together’ again, and among those I loved, I would want to stay with them for a while; and that when the time came to begin the process to relinquish control to you, I would be able to do so easily.

“But now… Oh, Rollo, I’m finding it so hard to bear, the thought of leaving so soon after returning to life again. There’s still so much I want to see and do, and it’s become the greatest dilemma of my life, knowing how I’d promised you, for all our time together, that I would turn control over to you as soon as I could. I know it sounds selfish of me, but…I cannot help it. I never thought it would be such a problem. However it is solved, I felt the need to be completely honest with you about it.”

Rollo didn’t appear at all dismayed by the news, but only nodded thoughtfully. “Well…actually, Teacher, I don’t mind. In fact, I sort of expected it.”

“You did?”

“Yes. I knew that you’d been…‘out there’ before, living more normally, and that you missed your friends a lot; so I figured you’d want to spend quite a bit of time with them again once you were able to. I have never lived that way, as fully as you have. You’ve told me so much about what it’s like, and I want it very much for myself. But I’m used to living this way; all my life I’ve been this way. And if your staying in charge of my body a while longer is the only way you can be with your loved ones again, then…I guess it won’t hurt me to stay this way a while longer.”

Nicodemus was incredulous for a moment. “Rollo, I cannot ask you to do this for me. This is your body, not mine; your desires must take precedence.”

“But you didn’t ask me. I’m telling you, Teacher, this is what I want. For you. You taught me to think of others, to consider what they want as well as what I want. So this is what I want: for you to spend some time with your loved ones.”

“You’re very sure of this, Rollo?”

“Yes. I want this for you.”

“Rollo, I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting this, knowing how much you wanted to be free. And yet…you were expecting this of me.”

“You often said how much you wanted to see everyone you knew again.”

Nicodemus couldn’t help laughing. “I’m truly beginning to wonder which of us knows the other better. Rollo, I cannot thank you enough. You won’t regret this decision, I promise you. I will stay in charge no longer than the period we agree upon. Now, as for how long that will be…”

“Well, you understand the passage of time better than I do…”

After some brief negotiation, a period of two weeks—fourteen Lahaikshean days—was agreed upon. Nicodemus also assured Rollo that he would let everyone know of this agreement, so that there would be ample time for everyone to prepare for his departure. Of course, there would be those who would want him to stay past the two weeks, and even to stay with them and never leave; but there would surely be others who would want him to fulfill his promise of his original intent to help Rollo, even if it meant his leaving forever. No matter what was to come, he now promised Rollo, nothing would bar him from fulfulling that promise when the agreed-upon period was over.

“Then…I guess we’ll see each other again in two weeks?”

“Unless there is some unforeseen development, then yes, Rollo, two weeks. Once again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.” They stood and embraced, and Nicodemus walked away, turning and waving once more before walking into the mist and out of Rollo’s sight completely.

* * *

Finally, the young mouse’s eyes came open; and for a moment, his friends wondered whose words would issue from him.

“Justin…Johnathan. I…have just been within, and I talked things over with Rollo.” Nicodemus described their discussion, after which the three got to their feet and started off back to the colonies.

“So…two more weeks,” said Johnathan. “I guess that gives us plenty of time to get used to the idea. But still, even though we all heard your story, and know why you’re in Rollo’s body…it’s too bad both of you can’t stay with us.”

“Well, that would surely be my wish, were it possible. But now…this is a matter that must be shared with everyone.”

“Yes, and since most of us heard your story and know how you’d intended to help Rollo, it should soften the blow.”

“Yes.” Nicodemus turned to Justin. “I suppose we should put the word out as soon as possible; wouldn’t you say, Justin?”

“Yes, I…suppose so.” Justin sighed. “It’s just…well…essentially, what we’ll be telling everyone is that, in two weeks, you’re going to die…again. And so soon after you’d returned to us.”

“It will be hard for many, Justin, but this will not be the same. I died once; this time, I will be merely turning over this body to its rightful owner, and in the process, enable him to truly live for the first time in his life.”

“I understand that, Nicodemus, intellectually. I really do. But not everyone will.”

“Let’s give credit where it’s due, Justin,” said Johnathan. “I think once we explain it carefully to everyone, they’ll accept it pretty well. And the sooner we do, the better.”

Neither could dispute the last point, and so Justin said he’d call another general meeting for later in the afternoon. Nicodemus reminded them that the emphasis should not be placed on his leaving in two weeks, but on his being here among them for two weeks. As they continued on, he looked up and saw two mhys’haspas, which he gazed upon with open-mouthed amazement as they wheeled overhead. As Justin and Johnathan told him more about them, Nicodemus was again reminded of all he wanted to see and do before his time was up, and this certainly included seeing more of this world that was now home to those he’d considered his followers at one time, but now were akin to an extended family.

He thought of Anna, and their long-ago mutual decision to start a family, but not necessarily raise their child together. There was much about this matter that he never discussed with her, mostly because he felt he couldn’t; but while his soul-self was trapped within Rollo, he’d thought much of how different their relationship might have been. Now, he resolved to meet with her and hopefully resolve the matter for both of them. He thought of the private moment they’d briefly shared after his arrival, when they’d recalled the words they’d exchanged the night he’d approached Anna with the offer that the two of them have children together, even knowing that they might not become permanent mates. Yes, he had many more words he needed to say to her now and hoped to devote a generous amount of time to them.

As the trio continued along the trail, two figures, a Rat and a Rusay, approached. The Rusay, not one from the visiting families but hardly a stranger, stepped forward, dressed in his familiar outfit of multicolored tunic with oversized sleeves and tan trousers. He was visibly more aged than the visitors but there was still much youthful vigor in his step. His expression brightened upon seeing Justin and Johnathan.

“There you all are,” said Bryant. “I guess Nicodemus hasn’t met our guest yet…”

“Thanks, Bryant,” said Justin. “We’ll take introductions from here. Nicodemus…this is the one we’ve told you about, who’s done more for us than anyone else outside the colony. This is Gwinthrayle. Gwinthrayle…this is Nicodemus.”

Gwinthrayle crouched, smiling upon the young mouse. “Nicodemus…I’m honored to meet you, young sir. May I assume you were named for the late leader of your group?”

“Well, not quite, my friend. You see…I am their former leader, and I am only in charge of this body temporarily.”

“Indeed?” Gwinthrayle straightened and looked at Justin and Johnathan with eyebrows arched, then back at Nicodemus. “So you are truly… Well, I’ll be looking forward to hearing your full story.”

“I guess we should apologize for the near-deceit there,” said Justin. “But yes, this is our former leader, returned to us in a form which is every bit as unexpected to us.”

“I see. I’d known the details of how your…previous existence had ended, and so I never would have believed that the mystically-imbued presence I’d sensed here would turn out to be yourself. Now, this new existence of yours is not unheard of, at least among us Rusay…”

“Oh?” Nicodemus cocked an ear, looking very interested.

Johnathan explained to him how many Rusay have a very strong belief in reincarnation, with many well-documented cases in which individuals would claim to remember, often in vivid detail, the lives of others who had lived and died in earlier times, as if they were those others reborn. In almost every case, investigation would bear these claims out.

“This is most fascinating, but it wasn’t quite a case of reincarnation with me, Gwinthrayle.” Nicodemus gave him the condensed version of how he’d come to be in this young mouse’s body, emphasizing that it was conditional upon his ability to heal Rollo’s brain two weeks hence, after which he’d have to vacate for good.

“We have yet to share his decision with everyone,” said Justin, “so we’re having a general meeting on the subject later on, and you’re invited to sit in on it if you like.”

After Gwinthrayle accepted the invitation, Johnathan decided that he needed to return to his new grandchildren and the new parents for a while, leaving Justin to take Nicodemus on that promised tour of Freethorn, accompanied by Gwinthrayle.

Chapter 19 - Catching up and sorting out

Nicodemus was highly impressed, and even brought to tears several times over—something he seemed prone to much more readily in this body—upon seeing how the colony had thrived in his absence. He’d been to Thorn Valley only once, on the first expedition in which the Great Owl had led them there, before he’d become unable to travel far from home; and so, though the actual work on the new colony had begun months before the move there, this was his first look at all the new facilities, many of which were improvements upon their original counterparts. And it hardly ended with the physical aspects; Nicodemus had noticed from the beginning how much less cautious everyone seemed, and more carefree. He correctly surmised that this was due to no longer having to conduct all activity secretly and out of sight of humans. Justin confirmed this, adding that the old ratlike instincts of staying hidden had become increasingly irrelevant, and had become virtually nonexistent since the move to Lahaikshe.

Along the way they filled him in on more of the details of how their conflict with Ghormfisk/Uhrstegg was resolved, and he expressed regret that he hadn’t been there. They also told him some more about Lahaikshe, and the adjustments made following the move, especially Project Replenish, which maintained the supply of fresh water to the community and Lake Nicodemus, and the creation of the New Wall. He was pleased to hear how he’d been so honored: “A magnificent body of water, worthy of my name,” he remarked with good humor, but also genuine admiration, as they paused along the lakeshore.

Gwinthrayle was unaware that Sithpha and his family were among the current exchange party; and they were likewise surprised and pleased to see him when they caught up with each other. Dinilom, always grateful to Gwinthrayle for saving her husband’s life, gave him a long hug and a kiss on the cheek, after which she introduced him to his near-namesake, their youngest daughter Gwinthri. Morobphra, Miatati and their children were also happy to meet him, having heard so much about him already.

Since lunch was being served—though preparation for it had been understandably delayed—Sithpha and family accompanied the trio to the dining hall, where Nicodemus was treated to his first meal here: the most delectable variety of “Freethorn Gumbo” Matilda and her talented kitchen staff had concocted over the past two-plus years of tinkering and experimenting, along with freshly-baked cornbread and a variety of fresh fruit, including some specially-imported native varieties. It was the finest, most sumptuous meal he’d eaten in seeming ages, he later remarked, and certainly the finest this body had ever ingested in his short life while Rollo controlled it. The sheer, sensuous pleasure of eating an especially excellent meal tempted him to overdo, and made him reluctant to leave, something he admitted with some embarrassment. This was also his first experience with everyday Rusay, and so he was very interested to hear all about even the more mundane and routine details of the Sithpha family’s lives. Gwinthrayle was genuinely interested in catching up with them since their last meeting over two years past, but Nicodemus was eager to see the rest of Freethorn, and so they resumed the grand tour after about an hour in the dining hall.

One facility that Nicodemus took an especially keen interest in was the school. Though Thorn Valley School still operated inside the Rat colony, many classes were held outside these days, weather permitting. Virtually all had been suspended today after Nicodemus returned, so now some were being conducted a bit later than usual. In each class he observed, he would tell the teacher and students to carry on as if he, Justin and Gwinthrayle weren’t there. He was impressed with how professional all the instructors were, and how well they engaged their students, taking particular notice of the younger ones who’d begun teaching since the move to Thorn Valley.

Some of the students held a special interest for Nicodemus as well. Beforehand, Justin had told him how well the natural mice in Freethorn had done in their studies, every bit as well as anyone else. School principal Simone verified this and described to him how some, admittedly, were slow starters; and some, like Teelo and Brummie, were reluctant to enroll at all at the beginning, uncertain they’d be able to keep pace with the “advanced” rats and mice, including their own children. But now Nicodemus was seeing for himself how their insecurities were unfounded. In a reading and spelling class, three of these mice—Teelo, Zenia, and Brummie—were alongside their children and were clearly not falling behind but enjoying the experience, displaying as much eagerness and enthusiasm as any of the youngsters. At the end of the class the teacher, Phyllis, posted the results of the test her students had just taken, and Brummie was one of those who had achieved a perfect score, something he was very proud—as well as loud—about.

After class was dismissed, Nicodemus and Justin chatted with Phyllis, Simone and Isabella (who had been Simone’s assistant since shortly after the Migration) about school matters in general, but discussion soon gave way to speculation over what the academic achievements of Brummie and his ilk could imply. By comparison, Madeline Brisby had done every bit as well academically, unsurprising since she’d been found to be as “advanced” as her husband, solely by virtue of her being his mate. More surprising had been how well Alma Ages had done; so it had been speculated that these mice’s associations with their mates had the same effect. Or was it just from being in the company of all these advanced rats and mice? Or could just living here on Lahaikshe have something to do with it? Phyllis admitted that she wasn’t nearly as concerned over the whys and wherefores as much as seeing all her students do well, a point Simone and all staff teachers agreed with.

* * *

One of those students—one of the newcomers—was now engaged in a search for another who had slipped away earlier. Peering through a mostly-uncleared gap between two boulders alongside the New Wall, he thought he glimpsed something pale and out of place within. He crept in for a closer look; then, certain of what—or rather who—was within, he ventured in further.

“Lilia? Do you mind if I come in? I really need to talk to you.”

As Ellis came right up to where she sat on a flat stone, she looked up, smiling silently; obviously he wasn’t intruding, and she actually seemed glad to see him. But before he could say another word, she suddenly got to her feet and almost leaped at him, throwing arms around him in a warm embrace. Ellis couldn’t think of a word to say at first; then he simply went with the moment, both of them sighing contentedly.

After about half a minute, he found words. “Well…Lilia, I was about to ask how you were feeling, but…I guess you’ve answered it for me.”

She drew back to face him. “Oh, Ellis, I…don’t know how to describe it. I feel so…so free now, like I’m a whole person now. There was…so much of Nicodemus’s story that I didn’t really understand, but…I really feel like that part of him that was inside of me has left…left something. Something good.”

“That’s great, Lilia, I’m happy for you.” They both sat down. “I was a bit worried, the way you took off so suddenly after they took Karen to the birthing room.”

“I guess I just needed time to be alone, to think, like Reuben. I thought about how it seemed that all those strange things that happened to me are all…behind me, as I said to Nicodemus. Even he wasn’t sure why it happened, why I was like two different people, but I know…I just know that tonight, it won’t be like before. I won’t suddenly become…someone else. I’ll be just as I am now.”

“You do seem…different than before, but in good ways. When you said that Nicodemus left something inside you, I guess…well, it looks to me like…you’re more confident now, and less reluctant to enjoy yourself, enjoy life.”

“Yes…I guess I am. I still feel the same in some ways, though.”

“And…what about, er…how you feel about me, and…what happened between us the other night?”

“Well, I…” She looked away, seeming unsure of what to say for a moment. “That…was one of the things I needed to think about. I can’t be sure, because I’ve never…felt this way about anyone before, but I may be…ah…in love with you.”

Ellis was unprepared for such forthrightness from her. “Lilia, I…don’t know what to say.”

“You…don’t mind, do you?”

“No, I’m flattered, really. And I do care for you very much. It’s just that…well, I can’t honestly say yet if I feel the same. I guess…I’m still bothered by…I know it’s silly, but…I still feel almost like I took advantage of you that night.”

Lilia looked startled. “Why? How?”

“I mean, I saw you lying there, so inviting, and…I couldn’t help myself. I just…I wanted you so much at that moment, that I had to…to be with you. And finding out later about Nicodemus’s influence, it seemed even more like that. I mean, I know he said it was a combination of factors that made you act as if you were two different people, but…I still can’t help feeling that I took advantage of you at a time when you couldn’t help yourself, when you had no control over your own actions.”

“But that was me, Ellis. That…‘other self’ was a part of me that had been inside a long time, waiting to come out. I’m still not sure why it came out the way it did, but it was a part of me. And it…she’s still here.” She laid both hands on her chest. “Maybe I’ll never be exactly that way again, but…well, I probably could have controlled myself better too. But it did happen, and we were both doing what we wanted.”

“I know, Lilia, no one forced us. Still…” Ellis shook his head, laughing. “Oh, I don’t know, this whole thing, this whole situation has been so crazy. I never would have believed I’d ever have to deal with anything like it. I guess…it’s useless to go on about what’s done, and…well, I do want to be with you, and get to know you better, so…what do you say we just start anew, and take things one day at a time?”

“I’d like that, Ellis. I want to know you better, too.” They embraced, holding each other silently for another minute.

“So,” said Ellis as they got to their feet, “they’re still serving lunch, so how about you and I go together? You must be pretty hungry.”

“Oh, yes. I only had a little breakfast.”

“Let’s go, then. Say, you haven’t seen Karen’s babies yet, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“You really should see them, it’s incredible. They’re so tiny, with no fur at all; it’s hard to believe they’ll grow up to look like us. We can go there after lunch.”

“I’d like that,” said Lilia as they made their way outside. “I missed seeing Michelle’s and Myrna’s babies when they were just born, so…aah…” She shielded her eyes from the sunlight. “I guess…some things will be the same.” They both laughed as they walked off arm in arm.

* * *

High on the south side of the Rooftop, another mouse lay on his back, gazing up at the late afternoon sky and wondering if he would ever be able to completely make sense of the day’s events. They all thought they’d simply be gaining a brother, and maybe another clue as to why so much of this strangeness had been happening. That was what they got, all right, but there was so much more, and not all of it welcome. Perhaps Nicodemus was right in saying that they were all innocent victims of circumstance; and yet, he couldn’t escape the notion that he could have been partly to blame for Lilia’s developing that strange “other” personality. Yes, a part of Nicodemus had been inside him as well as her, and supposedly it had the adverse effect of making him more protective of her than he would have been otherwise. Nothing could change the past, of course, but…the thought that his wanting to keep her safe from harm, whether “augmented” by Nicodemus or not, could have actually caused her harm…he wondered if he could ever free himself from it, whether it would haunt him the rest of his days.

“Reuben? Uh, I’d…like to have a word with you, if you don’t mind.”

Startled, Reuben sat up quickly to face the source of the new voice. “Oh…Martin. What do you want?”

“Well, I was just in the area, and I saw you sitting here, and…” Martin paused as he noticed Reuben’s look of disbelief mixed with impatience. “Okay, just kidding. Actually, I came up here because I thought you and I might have something to talk about. You know, similar experiences.”

“Oh?” Though Reuben’s expression changed little, he was obviously interested.

“Yeah. You see…” Martin sat down beside him. “Before you and all the other mice joined us, my buddy Lambert and I went out to…but I guess you know most of that story already. The main thing is that when it was over, and we’d all moved here to Lahaikshe, I felt I needed to get away for a while, just like you did now, and do some soul-searching, think about things that had happened to me, to all of us, things I’d done and said.”

“Like what?”

“Well…there was so much that we went through, Patricia and Karen and I, and I put the blame on myself for a lot of the stuff that went on back home while we’d been out, mostly because I took the amulet with me, at a time when they really could have used it. And then…after we’d all moved here, I was even blaming myself for our having to do that.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because…” Martin breathed in deep. “Well, this is where those ‘similar experiences’ come in. Something happened while we were returning to Thorn Valley, where I…I panicked, I lost it completely, and almost abandoned Karen and Patricia in the process. After they brought me back down to earth, I couldn’t believe what I’d done, I…couldn’t believe it was me that acted that way, that…that hurt them that much.”

“They did say that it was…pretty rough on you.” Reuben spoke in his usual near-monotone, but was obviously interested in hearing more.

“It was. But that wasn’t the worst of it. After we came here, and we found that human that got brought along with us, and I…attacked him; I’d never been that…that violent with anyone. But even that…wasn’t the worst. I took off in a huff after that, Karen came to me to…help me, and…” He paused, taking a deep breath and looking down for a moment. “Reuben, I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to promise not to tell anyone else. Can you do that?”

“All right, I guess…”

“I want you to promise me. When I tell you, you’ll understand why.”

Reuben nodded. “I promise.”

“Okay. The only other ones that know this are my folks and Karen’s. After Karen came to me that day, she tried to get across that I couldn’t go it alone, that I needed to talk to somebody, but I wouldn’t listen; and when she kept after me, I…struck out at her, I…pushed her away, and she fell down against a tree root, and…” He sighed, still pained by the memory. “It just knocked the wind out of her, but…for a few seconds I could only think the worst.

“Well…that really brought me back to my senses. I had to think long and hard on…well, everything, really, my whole life. I realized just what she meant to me, just how important everyone here is to me, my family, my friends. If there’s one thing that came through to me the loudest and clearest, it’s that I can’t go it alone, and that there are a whole lot of people who are ready and willing to help me.

“Do you see my point, Reuben? You’re beating yourself up because of something bad that happened to Lilia that you think you may have been responsible for, and…there’s no doubt, no getting around the fact that I definitely was responsible for something bad that happened to Karen. And I have to live with that for the rest of my life. I swore to her that if anything like that happened again, I’d go away forever, exile myself, because I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting her, or anyone else I love, like that again. I wouldn’t trust myself. The more time I’ve spent with Karen, though, the less it seems it’ll ever come to that. But that vow I made still stands; because that was me, and no one else but, that did those things. There was no…fragment of someone else’s persona in here. No one else can shoulder the responsibility.”

Reuben stared off to one side, expression growing noticeably more thoughtful.

“Well, I guess I’ll stop bending your ear now. I hope I’ve given you something to think about.”

“Maybe you have, Martin. Maybe you have.”

“Good. Say, speaking of responsibilities, I definitely got some new ones waiting for me. I guess you didn’t hear that I just became a…a father.”

Reuben finally looked straight at Martin. “Really? Karen…had her babies?”

“And mine.” Martin shook his head, sighing. “I think it still has yet to fully sink in, but I just know I’m gonna enjoy the experience.” He patted Reuben’s shoulder and got to his feet. “Well…I’ll see you later. Come see us soon, okay? Before they get too much older?”

Reuben gave a small smile. “I’ll try…Martin. In fact, I think I really will.”

“Okay. ’Bye now.”

For several more minutes, the words continued to resonate within him. Surely, with all Martin had gone through, and being so willing and eager to go on with his life, what was his own situation in comparison? Perhaps it was time for him to start anew. If Lilia is all right now, and happy, maybe that’s all that matters. He looked out over the surrounding red plain, to the low hills to the west, to the forest to the east. Suddenly, he was filled with a resolve that he wouldn’t be able to articulate precisely, but was nonetheless very strong. He got to his feet, more certain than ever that changes in his life were necessary, and that he was quite capable of making them.

* * *

After Justin took the tour back outside, the trio soon made their way back to Lake Nicodemus. At the swimming cove, swim class had resumed; and Nicodemus looked forward to going for a refreshing swim himself later, after lunch had settled in his system a bit more. As they watched the instructors teaching their young charges, Nicodemus said, “You know, Justin, the more of this community I see, the more I realize what a wise choice I’d made in selecting you as my successor.”

“Thanks, Nicodemus, but I couldn’t possibly take all the credit. It was very much a team effort, with everyone doing his or her part to make this colony what it is today. And there have been mistakes, like not doing more to prepare for possible human discovery. Everyone must share responsibility for those, as well; though sometimes I do feel as if there’s more I could have done. I guess…it all goes back to…that day, when we lost you. I guess you probably know, from your observations, that I blamed myself for that for a while afterwards.”

Justin, Nicodemus and Gwinthrayle paused and sat on a bench alongside the bank. “Then,” Justin continued, “we learned so much about what was behind it all. But even after that, I’d still think about it now and then, and still question whether I could have done more…even knowing that you and Jenner had both been used. I suppose the fact that you’re here now renders a lot of that moot, and one can’t spend his life regretting his mistakes, but still…you spoke earlier of ‘infinite possibilities,’ and I guess everyone ponders them from time to time.”

“And don’t think I haven’t done so myself, my friend,” replied Nicodemus with a laugh. “I daresay I’ve had plenty of time, not only to consider what might have been, but my own mistakes, going all the way back to NIMH, where we hadn’t made the proper preparations for the mice to escape with us. Oh yes, I knew quite early on that a successor to my leadership was in order. And you, Justin, were the one possessing the qualities I believed qualified you to best guide us into the future. I honestly and thoroughly believe that what I am seeing here and now is a direct reflection on that leadership. I witnessed how you spearheaded the move to Thorn Valley, utilizing different routes for separate groups in case there were humans on your trail, to throw them off and better ensure that at least some would make it. I saw how, after the groups were traveling together again, everyone rallied around you, accepted your leadership without question, and how it had continued upon your arrival in Thorn Valley. And all this at a time when you had to deal with my demise, and the blame you unnecessarily placed upon yourself. The fact that you were able to put that behind you long enough to lead everyone to safety speaks volumes of that leadership.”

“Well, thank you, Nicodemus.” Justin paused, putting his hand to his forehead. “Oh…it’s just so strange, bizarre even, hearing you refer to your…‘demise’ almost casually.”

“I’m sorry if I upset you, my friend.” Nicodemus laid his hand on Justin’s arm. “But ‘bizarre’ is most certainly the correct word, especially considering that I am still in the dark about how my situation came about. But that was also my reality, the only one I knew for the better part of three years.”

“I know. It’s still going to take some getting used to, and by the time I do…” He paused, sighing. “Well, in any case, you’re here now, back where you belong, with us.” Without another word Justin embraced the young mouse. Nicodemus was a mite surprised at the spontaneous show of affection, though he knew it was very much typical of him. But he went with the moment, his feelings very much matching Justin’s.

Gwinthrayle, who had been content to mostly observe and take in all that he saw and heard, looked on, seeing for himself what he’d known for some time, that Justin—and Johnathan and many others—had always regarded Nicodemus as a surrogate father as well as mentor. Obviously Justin was well past any of his earlier skepticism.

“However it happened,” Justin finally said, “and for the time you’re with us, it’s so good to have you back, Nicodemus. So many of us…loved you and missed you so bad.”

“Thank you, Justin.” They came out of the embrace, tears visible in both their eyes. “Well, as I was saying,” Nicodemus said with a laugh, “there should be no question of the quality of your leadership. All that I’ve seen here speaks volumes.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus, but certainly, any major decisions were put to the Council, even more so than in the old colony.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt about that. And I’ve no wish to diminish the importance of everyone’s contributions. Oh, there was some small skepticism about your being my heir apparent before that day when everything changed for us, but how irrelevant that’s proven to be.”

“It’s strange, but…it didn’t occur to me until now, but…we’ve often speculated and even debated whether or not you’d have approved of our making this latest move. You’d always anticipated the day when humans and we would meet again, and whether we’d be able to coexist. And now…we not only fled from their attentions, but to a place where they’d never find us.”

“Yes. But you’d led this community, Justin, since my departure, and given the pressure you were under, your options were few, and arguably not the best possible ones. But you and Johnathan acted as was deemed best under the circumstances, and I see little if anything now to indicate that it was wrong. I cannot make that judgment, especially now. Had I still been your leader, I cannot say whether my decision would have been any different. And had it been someone else other than you or I, it may still have been the same. Or…perhaps not.”

Justin immediately picked up on his meaning. “Oh…Jenner, of course. If there was only one who considered himself more qualified, it was him. A lot of us were expecting you to name him to succeed you, including me. I guess it was mostly because you and he were old friends, from before NIMH.”

“This is true. But some time even before the early stages of the Plan, even before Uhrstegg put his spell upon him, I’d realized that he wasn’t the best choice. There were signs, even then, especially in his difficulty in handling disappointment when unable to have his way. When we first discussed moving to Thorn Valley, and I couldn’t convince him that it was in our best interests to do so, I was more certain than ever that I chose a’right.”

“Hmm. That explains a lot of why he came to resent both of us so much, though not so openly until just before you…you left us. I know Uhrstegg had fanned those feelings, but…”

“But they were there to begin with. Were it not for Uhrstegg, Jenner probably would have simply left the colony to make his own way in the world.”

Justin nodded. “A lot of us have figured the same. I’ve also thought that his resentment of me may have stemmed in part from that incident when we still lived at the Boniface estate, when, well…I stumbled across him and Matilda…”

“Oh, yes…” Nicodemus paused to chuckle. “…at a moment when they would have preferred privacy.”

“Yes. Well, all water under the bridge, eh? It’s strange; at one time I’d have resented any discussion of Jenner, and even have cursed mention of his name. But since I’d learned why he acted as he did, I can actually feel sorrow for him. Sometimes I actually miss him. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have been aware that he was being controlled and manipulated, and tried to fight it. Sullivan, too; we know now that he’d just allowed himself to get in too deep, that he was just as surprised and shocked that Jenner would resort to murder. If not, he’d still be with us too.”

“Yes. I too miss them. Uhrstegg’s machinations cost us dearly, though he couldn’t know the ultimate results.”

“Which would surely have been the deaths of all or most of us, were it not for Madeline Brisby’s warning.”

“Quite.” Nicodemus turned to Gwinthrayle. “It seems we’ve all but forgotten you, my friend.”

“No offense taken, Nicodemus. I know you’ve all much catching up to do.”

“True, and not just with everyone here. In fact, when you’re ready, Gwinthrayle, I’d like very much to see your home, and more of Lahaikshe.”

“I would be honored if you would be my guest,” Gwinthrayle agreed, and so they arranged for Nicodemus to pay a visit three days hence. Before the three resumed the tour, though, Gwinthrayle brought up a matter that, it turned out, had been in the backs of all their minds.

“I’ve been so intent upon seeing everyone again, and conveying as best I could the circumstances of my return, that I hadn’t the chance to put that to the test. Well, then…” Nicodemus looked around them and, spotting a nearby rock twice his size, he extended his arm, staring at it intently. Before his companions’ astonished eyes, the rock lifted from the ground as if by invisible hands for a few seconds before being lowered just as gently. Nicodemus looked up at Justin and Gwinthrayle, his own face conveying a degree of astonishment.

“Well, that settles that,” said Justin, nodding.

“Indeed,” added Gwinthrayle. “Apparently this ability was so much a part of you that you retain it even in this form.”

Nicodemus looked back at the rock. “And it feels every bit as natural, with little effort on my part, as it did before. And it serves to reinforce what I’d come to believe in my old life: that this ability has its origins from a source different from the NIMH treatments. And in fact…” He spoke almost as one on the verge of a major discovery. He closed his eyes, suddenly in the midst of intense concentration. Justin almost asked what the matter was, but kept silent.

The young mouse’s eyes snapped open, he drew in breath sharply and looked as if that major discovery had been made. “My friends…I believe we may say…‘abilities’…plural.” He again closed his eyes, and before four astonished eyes, appeared to vanish into thin air!

“Nicodemus!” Justin immediately called out. “Are you…still here?” He looked back and forth rapidly.

A familiar but seemingly disembodied voice sounded. “Yes, I am, Justin. You cannot see me, then?”

“I can hear and smell you, but…you turned invisible, then? Just like Vincent?”

“So it seems.” He reappeared in the same spot, looking down at his arms and torso. “Extraordinary. You could not see me, and yet I could still see…this body.”

“So,” ventured Gwinthrayle, “do you believe…that this ability is completely new to you at this place and time, or…”

“I cannot say precisely how or why,” Nicodemus said in careful, measured tones, “but I believe that this was an ability that…lay dormant within me, in…my old body, my old existence; and that here, now, for whatever reason, it is now available for me to use freely.”

“So,” Justin said equally carefully, trying to follow Nicodemus’s logic, “they were passed on to Vincent, and then, apparently, to Lilia, after Vincent died. But I wonder why you couldn’t use it in your old life? You could use your telekinesis, but not…” He and Nicodemus looked upon each other, wide-eyed.

“I believe…I can anticipate your next question, my friend.” Nicodemus concentrated again, and startled his companions once again by again slipping from their sight. This time, though, it was by, to their eyes, sinking down into the ground below their feet, but leaving it undisturbed.

Justin gaped. Intellectually, he knew this was possible, following Lilia’s use of a similar—or exactly the same?—ability to slip from the sight of others, along with that of invisibility. But the sight was still one he’d never forget, if he lived to be a thousand. “Johnathan should see this,” he could only say.

A moment later the young mouse popped right up a few inches away from where he’d sunk into the ground, his fur as clean as before, as if he hadn’t been completely enclosed by soil and rock. He spread his arms, smiling, even laughing, looking more as one who was truly born to this form, a brash youngster showing off before friends and family. Both Justin and Gwinthrayle found his laughter infectious, and—as before, when he had his great moment of joie de vivre following the birth of Martin and Karen’s children—Nicodemus suddenly felt inclined to rein in his feelings a bit.

“Well, now I’m sure we’re all wondering: what else?” Barely had he said this when an answer—not necessarily the final one—came to him. Holding his palms parallel to the ground, he floated straight up until he was two feet above their heads. “Of course…simple levitation, for myself as well as other objects…or people.” With his expression again playful, his companions found themselves levitating to Nicodemus’s level. Gwinthrayle couldn’t resist a chuckle as Justin grabbed for his arm; the Rusay sorcerer routinely employed the same ability to cover greater distances, and though Justin had experienced the sensation before in Gwinthrayle’s company, he wasn’t expecting it now. Looking around, all three could see they were attracting a bit of attention: cries of “Hey, look!” were coming from the swimming cove.

“Perhaps further such activities should be kept more private, for the time being,” Nicodemus said more seriously, willing them to return to earth. “At least, until I’ve determined what other abilities may yet lay dormant.”

“A wise choice,” agreed Gwinthrayle. “And I will most certainly be looking forward to your visit to hear your report.”

“We should have plenty more to discuss by then, to be sure. Right now, Justin, I think we can resume the grand tour. I would especially be curious to see your memorial garden. I know there are many there I’d like to pay honors to.”

“Of course,” said Justin. “But I’m sure you realize that…well…”

“That my own grave is there. My headstone, and…my own body interred below it. Yes, my friend, I am quite aware. And I assure you: it will not disturb me to see it. But I believe that general meeting is in order first?”

“You’re right. I’ll start getting the word spread. Many won’t be expecting another one so soon after the last, but…this shouldn’t be delayed much longer.”

* * *

In short order, nearly the entire populace of Freethorn was again gathered in the main assembly hall, and Nicodemus got right to the point, feeling the need to get the matter over with. As expected, there were many who were dismayed by the news; but there were also many who remembered Nicodemus’s mention of his intention to help Rollo. Overall, reaction to the news was not without sadness, but was still more favorable and accepting than Johnathan and Justin had expected. After taking further questions, Nicodemus reiterated how, if it were within his power, he and Rollo would both remain here. But he’d made that promise long ago, and as long as he co-inhabited his body, he was beholden to it.

The meeting was over in half an hour, and though many had returned to their normal daily tasks, no one’s thoughts were far from the events of this most memorable and special day. For all that it was special, though, it was tempered by the knowledge that Nicodemus would only remain with them a short time. Otherwise, the overall mood in Freethorn would surely be more celebratory. As it was, there was widespread acceptance of his agreement with Rollo, especially among the younger ones and those who hadn’t known him previously.

Chapter 20 - Monuments

“Justin? Are you all right?”

“Yes…yes, I’m all right, Nicodemus. It’s just that standing here, in front of this one, with you standing next to me…I can’t help it, it’s a little unnerving. But I’ve got to get used to your leaving again as much as anyone else, maybe more.” He looked upon the headstone in front of them, still finding it hard to grasp how this monument to their fallen leader could be here at the same time and place as the one whose name it bore, even though his form was much different.

“And you were concerned with how I would handle it,” said Nicodemus with a smile. “Not to be flippant, of course, but…well, perhaps we should move along.”

Isabella, who had joined them after the meeting, took Justin’s hand and smiled reassuringly. Gwinthrayle had gone to visit the Brisby family and tell them of Nicodemus’s newly-discovered abilities and meet the two newest grandchildren, so now these three moved on to some recent additions to the memorial garden: headstones honoring Eric, Teresa’s mate; Doris, Boris’s sister; Harley, Jessica’s mate; Vera, Norman’s mate; and, most recently, one which as yet bore no name, but was placed here when it was learned that Rollo had a brother who had perished.

“We didn’t know his name was Ardo until we heard your story,” Justin explained, “and of course we didn’t know Rollo’s either. But we had this prepared, because we figured we’d learn it eventually. Now it’s just a matter of putting it on here, along with an appropriate epitaph. We knew he deserved a really special one, for all the good he did Rollo. And now that you’re here, Nicodemus…”

“I’ll be happy to compose it, my friends. And in fact…” As before at the lakeside, he abruptly fell into deep concentration. Isabella looked at Justin inquiringly.

“Wait for it,” he replied quietly.

True to Justin’s suspicion, Nicodemus looked up, turned to Justin and Isabella with a knowing expression, and pointed a finger at Ardo’s marker. “You may want to shield your eyes,” he told the pair. “It may be brighter than I expect.” Again he concentrated; and Justin and Isabella gasped and shaded their eyes as brightly-hued fingers of flame danced across the granite slab’s face. It was quickly apparent that letters were being burned into the stone, but strangely, without a great amount of heat, and only with the brightness of burning embers.

In a minute and a half, it was finished. Nicodemus looked up to the Rat couple, who were almost gaping. “Well, that’s one more thing I never knew you could do,” understated Justin.

“And it may not be the last,” agreed Nicodemus. He stepped aside to allow the pair to see the inscription the stone now bore.

Isabella read it aloud: “‘Ardo, who gave of himself freely and generously, beloved brother to Rollo.’” She looked at Justin and Nicodemus, smiling.

“I like it,” said Justin. “I think that…Rollo will too.”

“Thank you, Justin. It was with him in mind that I wrote it.”

The three moved on to another headstone, one of four which marked a place of actual interment. Nicodemus laid a hand on the carved letters forming the name. “Ah, Jenner. Would that I had been able to take action before Uhrstegg made his move…on both you and me.” He sighed and sat down. “Even if I couldn’t stop you from disagreeing with the Plan, or leaving the colony altogether, as you almost surely would have otherwise.”

He looked up at the surrounding bushes. “So long ago, before the Capture, he and I would go out on food-gathering trips together, sometimes not so much out of necessity as for the sheer adventure, just to see how much we could get away with. On one occasion, we were conducting a raid on someone’s vegetable garden when the owner’s dog began barking at us from inside the house. In an instant, the owner was after us with a flashlight, yelling and waving a stick. We escaped, ducking into some bushes and then through the chain-link fence into the neighboring yard. After the man had gone back inside, we talked excitedly about our escapade as we feasted on our ill-gotten gains. Jenner remarked on how easy it had been to carry out, and that nothing they could do would ever keep us from doing what we wanted. ‘Let them set their old traps,’ he said, ‘and chase us, and send their dogs after us. Just let them try to get rid of us. They may get some of us, but not all, and definitely not you and me.’ Though my attitude toward humans was more cautious and respectful, I couldn’t help admiring Jenner for being as he was. It’s ironic that this quality I admired, this defiance of forces more powerful than we, was what ultimately led to his downfall; beginning with his disagreement with the Plan, and ending with both our deaths. In some ways, the treatments at NIMH didn’t change us at all; though in his case, I truly wish they had.”

“I know, I do too,” said Justin. “He could be really practical-minded at times, with very sensible ideas for what would be the right thing for us to do, and where we should go. But when it came to humans…that was his major blind spot. You know, I didn’t realize he was that way that long ago until you just now mentioned it. We’ve all discussed so little about those days before the Capture that I hadn’t really thought about what life was like for the two of you, though we all knew you’d been friends and were captured together.”

“Those days meant little to us after our ‘rebirth,’ Justin. With whole new worlds for us to discover, of what use to us was reminiscing about days when our whole world consisted of raiding gardens and garbage cans, and living in filthy crevices and holes in walls? And yet…that was our world, for all we tried to deny it. We were the same beings as before, however much we’d changed.” Nicodemus got to his feet. “Of course, none could have predicted a change of this magnitude, eh?” He laughed as he indicated his body. “Well, I suppose that should be enough of this for now.” He turned, laying a hand on the headstone. “Rest in peace, Jenner. I guess it could be said that you’ve earned it. It’s possible that a part of you, deep down, was aware of what Uhrstegg had done to you, and was even deeply defiant of it. You may even have believed—perhaps wrongfully—that death was the only release.” Nicodemus sighed. “Goodbye, old friend.”

The three moved on to the next headstone, the one marking Sullivan’s grave. They discussed how he’d been taken in by Jenner’s plan to move against Nicodemus and thus was indirectly affected by Uhrstegg’s spell. Justin told Nicodemus how, in discussion over the years, they’d realized how fortunate it was that he had been the only one and that he had proven to be a most reluctant partner-in-crime. Isabella recalled how she and her family had discussed a troubling possibility after learning of Uhrstegg’s machinations: that just as Sullivan had been less than enthusiastic about the Thorn Valley Plan and so had been unwittingly roped in, so might had been her mother Velma as well. She’d gone along with the Plan but wasn’t shy about voicing her displeasure over all the work necessary to prepare for it.

“It’s hard to imagine Mother going along with something so…so vile, so awful. She never completely agreed with Jenner, but still… Brrr! I still shudder to think of the possibility.”

“We can thank whatever fates had intervened that it didn’t come to pass,” said Nicodemus. They all said more words about how valuable an ally and friend Sullivan had been, concluding with a similarly-respectful farewell from Nicodemus. As they moved on, though, they became aware that they weren’t alone in the garden.

“Amelia!” called out Isabella welcomingly. “Hello. You can join us if you like.”

The mouse came forward a bit shyly, but looking like one who had urgent business. “Hello, Isabella…Justin. Ah, Nicodemus, I wondered if you could tell me more about…well, what you said earlier, during your story…”

Nicodemus put a hand to his forehead. “Of course, Amelia…about Vincent. Please forgive me. I guess, even in my present state, I’m still not immune to forgetfulness.”

“About Vincent, eh? Is it something the rest of us should hear?”

“In truth, Justin, it is. But for now, I believe Amelia should be the first to hear it, in private. Trust me, everyone will know soon. In fact, since you’ve shown me all around the colony already, I would ask that I be left to myself for the nonce, as there are many others I wish to meet with on a more personal basis.”

“Whatever you say, Nicodemus,” said Justin as he and Isabella made to leave. Though both were curious as to the nature of what further information he had on Vincent, they recognized his need to be on his own.

When he and Amelia were alone, Nicodemus offered his arm, and the two walked slowly together through the garden. “You did say, didn’t you,” began Amelia, “that you knew what Vincent thought and felt?”

“Yes, my dear, and I still retain many of his memories, and this is why I chose to meet with you in private. I know that he spent more time with you than any of the other ladies who bore his children, and that his feelings for you were stronger; very likely because of the fact that he was able to spend more time with you. Now…you are aware of why he could not stay with you, or the other ladies?”

“Yes, he couldn’t stand to be away from his home, in that NIMH building, for very long.”

“Yes. Do you remember, Amelia, how I said that Vincent’s time with you played an important part in what came later?”

“Of course. That’s why I came to you now.”

“Well…what I have to say now may upset you, so please prepare yourself. Are you also aware of the last piece of writing he made, in which he described how much he wanted to leave, and be with friends and family, but felt trapped by his irrational fears?”

“Yes. They told me about that. But there was also that one, where he…said he knew he was going to die.”

“Ah, but there is more to both of those entries than what meets the eye.” They paused in front of Vincent’s monument, where they sat down on a nearby bench. “In that earlier entry, he described how he knew he’d be meeting a dire fate before long. But he knew not what it would precisely be, nor that it was necessarily his death; only a nameless, formless dread of something he was sure would befall him if he remained there.

“Shortly thereafter, though, he reasoned: only if he remained there. If he were to leave, could he not escape this fate? The idea appealed to him greatly; but almost immediately came that dilemma that tore at him, tormented him. He thought about you, of the time you and he had spent together, of how happy it had made both of you, however brief it was; and found himself wishing, even longing, to return to you and build a life with you and the children he’d sired. But, he thought, what if he did make it back to you, only to leave you again? He could hardly bear the thought, because he knew, from so many times in the past, the likelihood of his returning to the home he’d made in NIMH, of giving in to that compulsion in him, which he saw as a weakness. His thoughts were so filled with the matter that he hardly slept those last few days.

“He described this dilemma in his last writing, as you know; he thought writing about it would help him deal with it better. Well, it could be said that it did, but not in the way he planned. He was suddenly so overcome, unable to bear the torment any longer, shouting out his frustration and almost tearing the page to shreds. He managed to resist, though, remembering that he still believed in that other premonition he’d experienced: that Patricia would come there seeking Kimball, and he felt he owed it to her and her family to preserve all his writings. He didn’t want it to be the first one she would see, however, and so he concealed it in another stack. Then, filled with a resolve to equal Kimball’s when he left for Thorn Valley days earlier, Vincent left his hideaway without looking back. He made his way out of the building almost recklessly, thoughts on only one thing—right up to that moment, that terrible moment when his doom-filled premonition came true. That one thing, my dear…was you.”

Amelia looked away, open-mouthed, looking ready to break down. “Then he…was leaving NIMH to see me, to…to return to me; not to meet his death.”

“Yes, my dear, and he might yet have escaped it; but with the state his mind was in, compounded by the insufficient sleep he’d had, his reaction when confronted by that cat was much slower, and was more one of defiance than fear. He wanted nothing to stand in his way of this new life he wanted for himself, and so he forgot just how much danger he was truly in. Even those powers he’d ‘inherited’ from me could not save him. His…very last thought was…how much he truly loved you.”

Amelia could contain her feelings no longer, burying her face in her hands, crying quietly but intensely, hardly seeming to notice as Nicodemus took her in his arms to comfort her.

“I’m so sorry, Amelia. I wish there had been some way to soften it, to break it to you more gently; but I knew how much you wanted to know all about Vincent, and that you wouldn’t want me to spare any details.”

Amelia managed to look up to him, eyes still brimming with tears but with gratitude showing through. “I…I did want to know, Nicodemus. I…thank you.” She buried her face in his chest as he stroked the back of her head.

After another minute or so, he helped her to her feet. “Come, let me see you home.”

“No…wait.” Amelia came up to Vincent’s monument, laying her hands on it with head down. She stayed thus silently for a minute before looking up, touching her lips to the stone, and saying a quiet goodbye. She told Nicodemus she was ready, and they left the garden together, Amelia vowing to spend the rest of the day holding her sons close to her and never letting them go.

* * *

As one pondered a love that might have been, two others were continuing to explore their own in full.

Cynthia sighed languidly as Michael stroked and smoothed the fur on the back of her head. “That feels good,” she murmured.

Michael just made a grunting sound, followed by a small laugh.

“That was articulate.” Cynthia began to laugh herself.

Both of them sighed and shifted position on Michael’s bed so they could gaze into each other’s smiling faces. They kissed gently. “Oh, Cynthia…what’s happening to us?”

“Why would you ask that? Unless there’s a problem with our always wanting to be together, and being unable to keep our hands off each other…”

“Among other things. I think we might have set a new record in the last few days.” Michael laughed again as he stroked Cynthia’s face. “No, it’s not a problem at all. I guess what I meant was that…the way this feeling has just…taken us over like it has. There’s this feeling I get…I don’t quite how to put it. I guess…it’s like what you said about wanting to meet me just from hearing my dad talking about me. As if we were destined to meet. It sounds clichéd, I know, but…I do know we belong together. It’s not just that we’re this much in love, but…oh, it’s just beyond words.”

“I know just what you mean.” They kissed again for almost a minute.

“Cynthia…I was wondering, sweetheart…you’ve been living with these people longer than me. Is it this way with all of them?”

“You mean…how they fall in love?”

Michael nodded.

“Well, it’s not the same with everyone. With Justin and Isabella, for instance, their feelings for each other developed more slowly.” She laughed and sighed with the memory. “Teresa and I were so tickled pink to watch it grow and develop, it was just the sweetest thing. But for others…it can hit them more quickly. I’ve seen it happen myself.”

“Like, for instance…?”

“Well…there was the day Daddy returned to Earth from Lahaikshe, after he’d been stuck here for ten months, and the Rats threw a big celebration to honor his return.”

“Like the one they had after we all came here to Lahaikshe.”

“That’s right. Anyway, we were all in the dining hall, we had music and dancing going full-steam; it was so much fun. Things began to slow down after dark, and Willis and Sabrina were dancing close and slow. They went on like that for the longest time, it was so cute. I think I was the only one actually watching them so closely; it’s a little embarrassing to admit now.

“So…after a while they stopped dancing, and for a good minute they just stood there gazing at each other. Some of the other rats were starting to take notice, but they didn’t say much; it was like they knew what to expect. From what I learned later, they definitely did.”

“So…what did they do?”

“When they were through staring at each other, they took each other’s hand, gave us a quick goodbye, and raced out of there just like that. By now, all of us kids had seen them ‘acting funny’ and leaving suddenly, but we didn’t know what to make of it. ‘Where’d they have to go in such a hurry?’ Martin asked. Daddy said he’d explain later, after the festivities died down.”

“And…did he?”

“Yes, he did. It was probably a bit more than we needed to know right then, but he did say it was something like what happened with him and Mom when they first met, though not quite so quickly and urgently.”

“Wow.” Michael lay back, gazing at the ceiling of his bedroom. “So that was the first they were, you know…?”

“Yes, even though they’d known each other since they were babies, and were always friendly with each other, they weren’t really interested in each other as mates. But after that, they were almost inseparable.”

“And that’s how it is with us now?”

“Oh, I do hope so.” Cynthia leaned over close, stroking Michael’s abdomen and resting her head on his chest. He drew his arms around her. “Oh, Michael, let’s make it official, let everyone know how much we want to be together, stay together, have a family together.”

“Oh, Cynthia…you’re right, there’s no reason to delay it any longer. Except, well…all of us should be here…”

“Oh, that’s right. Norman and his kids are out there, and Jordan and Portia and their kids too.”

“Yeah. Especially Norm. In fact, they don’t know about Nicodemus, either, come to think of it.”

“You’re right. Say, how ’bout we talk to Daddy about going out there with the Stone and bringing them back early, before Nicodemus has to…to leave us?”

“That’s a great idea. Otherwise, when they come back, they might miss him. And they really should know that he’s here.”

“Yeah. Let’s go suggest it right now.” Renewed energy infused the room as they both got up off the bed. As Michael handed Cynthia her robe, she added, “Actually, he or Mom could do it; either way, the council would probably want to know about it.”

“I guess so,” said Michael as he buttoned his tunic. “But we won’t actually announce…us yet. Agreed?”

“Okay. We’ll just tell them that everyone should know about Nicodemus, and meet him before he goes.” She sighed. “That still bothers me…you know, that he has to leave us. But if it’ll help Rollo, then it’s only fair, I guess.”

As they left Michael’s “bachelor pad”—which they both knew would soon be losing that designation—Cynthia suddenly stopped cold, drawing in breath and covering her mouth as if to stifle a scream.

“Cynthia…sweetie, what is it?”

She looked back and forth; and, once certain no one else was listening, she replied breathlessly, “I just realized…that with Nicodemus here…he could be the one to…to marry us, to officiate at our wedding!”

Michael clasped her shoulders. “Cynthia, that’s a great idea! I bet he’d be only too happy to perform it. When should we ask him?”

She thought for a moment, and then said, “I think…it would be best to wait until after the exchangees return, both for asking Nicodemus and for making our official announcement.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. But you know, sweetie, I feel so much like announcing it to the whole world that it’s not going to be easy, keeping it under wraps for that long.” He took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly before they moved on down the corridor, heading off to look for Johnathan and pass along their suggestion.

They greeted a few other Mice and Rats along the way, unconcerned over whether anyone saw them leaving Michael’s place together. Such was the nature of these people that open knowledge of this pair’s intimacy, unlike human society in general, was treated as little more than just the way of things, with virtually no guilt or stigma attached. For these two, such moments were—perhaps—more frequent than others of their ilk, but none judged them as anything other than two people deeply in love.

* * *

“And that, my friends, is why and how Vincent met his end as he did. And again, my apologies for not informing you all sooner.”

“None necessary, Nicodemus,” said Johnathan, looking around the chamber. Everyone in the hastily-convened council seemed to agree.

“Yes,” added Justin. “That was very thoughtful and considerate of you to break it to Amelia first.”

“Nicodemus, I…I’m not sure what to say, how to feel,” said Kimball. “I’m happy to learn, finally, that Vincent didn’t seek his own death, and that it was, in fact, just the opposite—he sought to begin a new life for himself. And that’s what makes it so sad, too.”

“He should be here now,” said Patricia, wiping away a tear. “After all he—he’d been through, he deserves to be happy.”

“A sad case, truly,” said Gwinthrayle, who’d been allowed to sit in again. “But most fascinating. I’ll need to return home presently, but I will look forward to hearing more about it, Nicodemus, during your visit.”

“As will I to tell it, my friend.”

“At least,” said Tallus soberly, “this makes more of his writings clearer, especially that last entry. He said he longed to join those who would welcome him, and now it seems he referred to Amelia and her children. No offense, Kimball, Patricia; I know you wanted him to come and live with you.”

“That’s all right, Tallus,” said Kimball. “Either way, he’d probably be alive now.” He sighed. “If not for that damnable cat! But that’s losing perspective, I suppose, considering that others of us have…met a similar fate.” He recalled his own close calls during his journey to Thorn Valley, how Louann had been injured making a similar escape, the numerous close calls he and his family had with Boonger’s rat-gang and with other predators after leaving home; and those who hadn’t been as lucky: Desmond, Ardo, Doris.

“And that’s probably the most important reason we have for staying here on Lahaikshe,” said Justin. “Without that kind of threat hanging over us, we can concentrate more fully on matters of how our society should develop, where we should go from here.”

“And on just simply breathing easier, no doubt,” said Nicodemus. “My friends…I would like to propose that we honor Vincent and our other fallen comrades further, beyond the monuments in your memorial garden. Perhaps this day could be set aside each year, in remembrance of their sacrifices.”

Ensuing discussion was highly in favor of the proposal; some had been thinking along similar lines already. Although there had been no holidays so designated before—and some were reluctant to embrace the idea just because of that—the council put it to a vote, and ultimately, everyone was unanimously in favor. Along the way, it was explained for Nicodemus’s benefit the Lahaikshean system of months and days, and how the cycles of the moon marked an approximate unit of time, as on Earth. This day—the 21st day of the month of Visthrip—would hereafter be set aside not only as a day of remembrance for deceased brothers and sisters, but to commemorate Nicodemus’s return as well.

Before adjourning, Johnathan brought up a matter suggested to him by Cynthia and Michael, who had approached him shortly before the meeting: that the exchange party be recalled early, so they could meet Nicodemus and be apprised of his situation before the two weeks were up. Again, the proposal was approved unanimously, and a date set—three days before Nicodemus’s departure—for the recall.

Gwinthrayle bid everyone farewell for now, and the meeting was adjourned. As everyone filed out of the chamber, Nicodemus approached Anna and told her he needed to discuss some things with her alone. Gwinthrayle accompanied them part of the way, chatting with them until they were all the way outside. He bid them farewell, and they watched as he levitated over the east side of the Rooftop and out of sight.

Anna decided that would be an ideal spot for their discussion, since Nicodemus hadn’t been to the Rooftop yet, and so they made their way up to where it curved around what had come to be known informally as the Peak, the larger and taller section of the original Thorn Valley wall that had been brought here with the colony. The two paused where they could see the western sky, where it wasn’t blocked by the Peak. It was about an hour and a half before sunset, and the sun was currently obscured by a cloudbank, from behind which the sun rays radiated in a strikingly beautiful fashion.

Shortly, though, Nicodemus made it clear that he wished to discuss more than sunsets. “Anna, my dear,” he began as they sat down on a bench, “when I was within Rollo’s mind, I had much time to reflect on my life; and some of it, perhaps too much, was spent mulling over past mistakes, regrets. One that I returned to again and again was…you and I, and the life we could have built together. As you know, we never formed the emotional bond that the others did, not even after we’d consummated our agreement. But what you may not know was that part of that was a conscious decision on my part. I wanted to spare you, you see, the pain of the loss you surely would have received, much earlier than what would have rightfully been.”

“Because of your faster aging, you mean, don’t you? I didn’t know, Nicodemus; not at first. But I had a lot of time to think about it too, and I realized just how much of what didn’t make sense about our relationship now did. Before that time, we all knew that was happening and realized some of the truth; but you still don’t know why it happened, exactly, do you?”

“No, it’s still a mystery to me. Even during my stay within Rollo, I still believe it likely that it was my special abilities that were the cause. And their origins still aren’t entirely clear, whether they’d resulted from the NIMH treatments, or something else; or why I was the only one thus affected. But I’m also aware that I was something of a mystery to everyone, Anna; and, yes, I’m also aware of how closely this parallels Johnathan’s reluctance to be completely honest to Madeline about their perceived aging difference. Their situation was resolved in possibly the best way imaginable, by never having existed to begin with; but in the case of you and me, I feel inclined to apologize for my own lack of honesty.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus, but I do understand, really. After all, I never formed an emotional bond with you either. That almost…sounds heartless now, just a bit…”

“And yet it was the case with us both. Oh, make no mistake, Anna, there was love for you here.” Nicodemus placed a hand on his chest. “But I must confess, it was of the kind which I felt for everyone in the colony, though not precisely the same. You always held a special place in my heart, Anna, as the mother of our son. You raised Brutus well; though, of course, you had no shortage of help in raising him, especially from George, son of my oldest friend. I’m very happy to see that you and he are still happy together.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus. I am proud of Brutus, how he’s grown, what he’s become. Still, there have been many times, over the years, when I wished that you and I could have been…a real family. I was sure, for a while, that we could have made it work. Even after we all knew you were aging more quickly, I still believed it. The one time I actually brought up the subject of marriage with you, you declined because you thought you couldn’t be a proper husband and father to us.”

“Yes, I remember it well. Brutus was about a year old then, and though everyone knew he was my child, I could never form a parental bond with him like the rest of us.” He sighed. “I’ve wondered if…whatever it was that triggered the accelerated aging was also responsible for my being unable to develop true familial bonds; and then too, Uhrstegg’s tampering may have also played a part later on. There was a time when I’d truly wished to have been able to, Anna; though, of course, I’d seen how happy you and George were together. I’d truly believed that being colony leader would preclude my having a true family life.” He paused, looking wistful. “I’d spoken earlier of ‘infinite possibilities;’ and in any number of them you and I may have had a true family together. But I know that the present, right here and now, is all that can be changed—not the past, not the future, but only the present. Oh, there will always be regrets, a wish for a life that could have been, but can never be. Know this, though, Anna: though I may not have been able to express it properly, I have always loved you, and I always will—for however much time each of us has left, and beyond.”

“Oh, Nicodemus…” Anna embraced him, kissing his forehead. They spent a long moment thusly, both filled with thoughts they could not express aloud.

Afterwards, they gazed at each other smiling; it was a bittersweet moment for them both. Then Nicodemus said, “I suppose I should go now; I don’t have any real commitments, but I’m sure you do…”

“No, please stay. There’s a lot that you haven’t been told about…our lives, our experiences during the Move, after we’d settled in Thorn Valley. I know you witnessed some of it when you…‘looked outside’, but…”

“But I couldn’t look everywhere, of course. Anna, I’d be delighted to indulge you.”

Anna began by relating aspects of the Move, with many anecdotes and other observations. She described vividly the mad rush to tear down and deconstruct everything in the Rosebush colony even while they had to deal with the deaths of three of their number, and how they quickly realized that mourning would have to come later, after they were well away from the Fitzgibbons farm. She described one especially chaotic scene, while the whole operation was still being organized, marked by adults milling about almost blindly; children, many scared and bewildered, some crying, as their parents tried to explain why they all had to leave the only home they’d ever known; and all while one chamber was rather noisily being torn down, with much dust. She contrasted this with a later scene where she and the rest of a hastily-appointed committee were in charge of deciding what materials would be brought along and what would be broken down further and buried far away, well into the forest. By this time the colony was running like a well-oiled machine, with everyone giving his or her all to see that the colony was vacated by morning. She described how they all had to fight fatigue as they hauled the materials to be buried, over several trips, out to the woods; and even more so as they made the final rounding-up of what was to be brought along to Thorn Valley.

Nicodemus listened enthralled by Anna’s descriptions of the procession through the woods; which, after crossing the creek, separated into several groups, as he’d already observed. She told of the almost nonstop traveling the first day; and of the relief everyone felt when all the groups had reunited, not only from seeing everyone safe, but also from the fact that none had reported seeing or noticing any evidence of pursuit by their would-be captors. She told of passing through the Great Owl’s woods—an intimidating experience for some, both before and after the Owl himself began keeping watch over the procession, until everyone had been reassured that he truly meant to ensure their safe passage through the woods. She described how she and Jolene, Sullivan’s widow, and their children comforted one another over their losses.

All this and more Nicodemus listened to with the attentiveness of an eager pupil. As the story drew to a close, both finally noticed it was well after sunset, and the moon had already risen above the opposite horizon. As the two made their way back downstairs, Nicodemus knew there were many stories to be told, and that he was looking forward to meeting with everyone personally and hearing as many of those stories as possible.

Chapter 21 - The first day winds down

On ground level the moon soon became visible above the east rim of Freethorn; and as this day drew to a close, this day that had brought so much change to so many, two that had been especially affected by it were taking a stroll in the south meadow. They quickly took notice as the moonlight spilled across the sward, turning to look upon its source, as if in anticipation.

“So, Lilia…do you really think it’s the moon that made the difference?”

“It…did feel like it, almost. It seems a little silly now, but…” She paused as she seemed to give it her undivided attention.

“So…do you feel any different now?” asked Ellis after about a minute.

“No…just…just the same as…before.” She looked at him, suddenly looking delighted. “It’s really true, Ellis. I’m not becoming someone else now. It’s…just me now. I’m me!” She sounded near-ecstatic as she rushed to hug him.

“That’s great, Lilia, it really is.” They’d wondered if the change in personality had possibly been triggered by the presence of the full or nearly-full moon, rather than the onset of night. But either way, the point seemed to be academic now, even as Lilia broke away and spun herself around, laughing.

“Oh, Ellis, now I really feel free, like there’s nothing I can’t do.” She made to say more, but suddenly noticed two other mice approaching. She instantly rushed toward them. “Reuben!” she shouted, rushing into her brother’s arms.

Both Reuben and Boris looked at Ellis, bemused, slightly confused; but as Reuben noticed that Lilia seemed to being crying softly on his shoulder, the old familiar look returned to his features: stony, almost accusatory.

Ellis was about to say to him that he hadn’t done anything to make her feel bad; but before he could, Lilia looked up to her brother and said, “Oh, Reuben, I…don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve never been so happy.” She sighed.

It seemed to reassure Reuben, and she and Ellis explained to him and Boris about how her earlier estimation seemed borne out by the onset of night. The four of them sat down, and the three children of Vincent began comparing notes on how this day’s events had affected them.

Reuben reiterated what he’d been discussing with Boris, that he felt less inclined to be protective of Lilia, and more able to let her go her own way and do what she wanted. He would always want her kept safe from harm, of course, but he was sure he’d hereafter be able to keep from overdoing it, and to be aware when he was overdoing it. He was also sure he’d be able to more easily let go of his own reserve, and make friends more easily. Just since he’d been visited by Martin, come down from the Rooftop, and been visiting with Boris and others, he’d proven how possible it was. Seeing Lilia now, with her own renewed, more cheerful and confident outlook, he was all the more certain, since it seemed to confirm his earlier conjecture, that if Lilia were happy and content with her lot in life, he could more easily make changes to his own.

Boris, for his part, felt little changed by the departure of the part of Nicodemus within him. Of course, any visions he would yet have wouldn’t be influenced by Nicodemus’s memories; but he was certain there would always be a great thirst for knowledge within him, as strong as before.

The four of them were soon joined by Seelah, and later several other Rats and Mice; even for a short time by Nicodemus, who was pleased at Reuben and Lilia’s renewed outlook. As the gathering grew, both were surprised at how comfortable and at ease they both felt at being among their fellows—talking, playing games, even laughing and joking.

After some of the others left, Ellis and Lilia told the others they wanted to be alone for a while— “just to talk,” Ellis told Reuben, who gave his approval though cautioning both to be careful. Their moonlight stroll took them around the eastern perimeter and into one of the ground-level observation posts on the east side. They spoke little at first but mainly just enjoyed each other’s company, admiring the starry sky and gazing across the flat plain, which appeared to glow slightly in the moonlight. Lilia again mentioned how much she wanted to see for herself what was “out there,” sounding more hopeful than a few days ago about the eventuality of such a journey. Ellis promised that when the time came, he would definitely accompany her. He described some of what he’d been told of Lahaikshe, and she said how much she looked forward to resume attending classes tomorrow—something both she and Reuben had neglected in the past two days—and was sure he’d be just as willing to join her.

Before long they decided to call it a night. On the way back to the Mouse community, they came to another mutual agreement on a subject Ellis was a bit hesitant to bring up, but one that Lilia was, surprisingly, willing to discuss in detail, regarding their moonlight encounter two nights ago. Though both agreed it had been enjoyable and was not something they regretted, they now made a vow of abstinence until they were more certain of their feelings for each other. They knew well the possibility of her being pregnant now from that encounter; and though neither felt quite ready to be parents yet, Ellis promised her he would stand by her all the way if she were, and of course they would receive plenty of guidance in helping them adjust to their new situation.

Back at the colony, they said their goodbyes for the night; and though they both took their vow seriously, it was difficult to part, after all that had been said and done. Neither voiced their reluctance aloud, though; and after parting, both felt some satisfaction at being able to keep it to themselves.

* * *

“Words just can’t describe how incredible this day has been, the events we’ve all witnessed. It reminds me of a case I once read about that happened in Jinjidya. It was supposed to be the best-documented case of reincarnation ever. A boy named Shanithphatsura began describing, almost as soon as he could talk, places and things that would seem to be the product of a vivid imagination. But when he claimed to actually know these places, his parents got to wondering; and it was eventually discovered that he was describing real places. When he was brought to them, he went even further, describing people and events also found to be real, and even remembered a name he said he used to answer to. Finally, he met those he claimed were his children and grandchildren in his former life. It created quite a stir, and thought to be a hoax by some; but eventually, after no connection could be found between the boy’s family and his ‘old’ family and town, it was concluded that Shanithphatsura was telling the truth.

“A few years ago I’d never have believed such a tale. But in a way, that experience with Ghormfisk was the best thing that could have happened to me. With everything it led to, it opened my eyes to so much, so many possibilities. Some of us had, over the years, made contact with other beings that are much different than Rusay in appearance, but we’d generally assumed they were simply from uncharted lands. But different worlds? After my experiences with Gwinthrayle and Johnathan, I know beyond any doubt that it’s true.

“And now this—the Rats’ former leader, Nicodemus, returned to them in a completely different body. Though this gives him much in common with Shanithphatsura and those other celebrated cases of reincarnation, so much is different. He planned this, though it didn’t quite turn out as he wanted. Who can imagine what it was like to have had an existence like he had up till today? And now alive again, in this new body. He says he will give it up to its rightful owner after two weeks, but I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be that sure when the time comes. I guess it’s not my place to speculate, though; his old friends know him better, and it’ll be his decision. Some do want him to stay, and others want him to be able to help Rollo without his leaving. Maybe he will find a way; a lot can happen in two weeks.”

* * *

Since his return, he’d been on the go almost nonstop, hardly pausing for so much as a minute’s rest. But though he certainly felt the need for sleep now, and was even looking forward to it, he found himself lingering in front of the full-length mirror in the quarters provided for him. It was the first real chance he’d had to examine this body closely, and in spite of himself, he couldn’t curb the fascination his current physical state held for him. He turned from side to side, examining as much of himself as he could. Though this body was thinner and leaner than that of most mice—a situation which would no doubt be alleviated soon, what with the abundance and variety of foodstuffs he was being treated to here—it was otherwise the picture of health, young and in its prime. Such a contrast with the old one: not only a different species entirely, but frail and lame, barely able to walk without the aid of his staff, his mind subject to frequent lapses in judgment and memory, made worse by Uhrstegg’s tampering. But now, though this present situation was what he’d hoped for once he’d determined how to change his previous one, he still couldn’t get over this fascination of the fact that he was now in charge of this body. As he ran hands over it, it seemed as if anything were possible, that there was nothing he could not do now. Thoughts and desires he’d not had in seeming ages were coming to the fore, and he was filled with a resolve that he would fulfill and satisfy all of them in the two weeks that—

Suddenly he clenched his eyes shut, and his hands ceased their wandering. He opened his eyes and shook his head rapidly. He sighed and walked over to the bed, settling into it after turning off the lamp. He stared upward into the dark, wondering how he could have let himself forget so easily. You’re only a tenant in this body, Nicodemus, he told himself. You shouldn’t allow yourself to think this way. Then again, he countered, perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. He laughed softly; after all, he’d certainly expected there to be moments like this.

Perhaps it would be best to concentrate on his plans for tomorrow, he thought. He expected to pay more lengthy visits to the various workshops in the colony, and in particular spend some time with Ages and his staff. He’d only had a cursory introduction to the medical department, and was interested in seeing how it was organized and run, since it had been built from the ground up after the Move; in addition to fulfilling his promise that he’d submit to a full physical exam. There’d been further changes since Jessica added her own experience and knowledge, especially in the area of organically-extracted potions and solutions, some of which overlapped in areas already explored by Ages, and some which were new discoveries. There were many more stories to be told, of course, and he was looking forward to hearing all of them; it should be quite a full day.

With that thought, Nicodemus turned on his side and prepared to slip away into slumber, a delicious sensation he looked forward to experiencing after so long. And yet, there were still thoughts that impeded the progress of sleep—and foremost among them were those centering upon one person. He remembered how, during the telling of his own story, his eyes continually met Jessica’s; and then later, during the last, brief council meeting, there was that same repeated eye contact. Was it his imagination, or was there something there, some silent message between them? Certainly she’d been no less attentive, and interested in hearing his story as anyone there; but he just couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d made some kind of connection. In the brief time that they’d spoken to each other, she seemed to look forward to seeing him again; but was it any more or less than what everyone else expressed to him? He’d been roundly welcomed by everyone here; anyone who’d spoken to him had said how good it was to have him among them again, both those who’d known him from his old life, and the children and new residents meeting him for the first time.

Maybe it was his imagination; yes, it could very easily be. He breathed in deep; Let’s just sleep on it, he decided. Yet, even as he felt his consciousness slip away, an image came to him: a picture of grace, beauty and intelligence personified. Yes, he very much looked forward to seeing her tomorrow. The realization jolted him wide awake; and before eventually drifting off completely, his thoughts returned again and again to her…

* * *

All across Freethorn, nearly everyone paused to take stock of the events of this day. For some, especially those who had known him before, it was for the extraordinary fact of Nicodemus’s resurrection; to others, it was the all-too-brief span of time he would spend among them; to still others, it was the confusing but fascinating nature of his return; to one small group, it was knowing that when it was over, they would be gaining a brother. All these groups, though, were aware that for many others the same event would signal the loss—again—of a beloved ex-leader and friend.

Some in that group were presently in the midst of their almost-nightly socializing. Melvin and Judith and their children were with Arthur and Melinda and their children in the latter family’s quarters, with Melvin engaged in a game of “hide and spook”—hide-and-seek played in pitch darkness—with the older children. Melvin was currently “it” and now feeling his way around gingerly, groping about almost blindly but not too abruptly so as to not knock anything over. At one point he heard a giggle directly in front of him, followed by small footsteps dashing away, out of his reach. “I’ll get you, Lysette!” he growled; then he fell totally silent, tiptoeing to one end of the room, alert to the faintest sound.

Then, abruptly, another small figure crept out, directly in front of Melvin, brushing up against his leg. There was a yelp of surprise, and in a flash, he’d grabbed the interloper by the arm. “Gotcha, Kyle!” he proclaimed triumphantly as he wrestled his son to the floor, both of them laughing. “So, I wonder who’s it now?” he asked rhetorically.

“You still are!” another young voice shouted, and the other children charged forward from their hiding places, shouting as they joined in the fray, leaping as one onto Melvin. The game often ended this way, with everyone joining in a noisy free-for-all.

Melinda turned on the lights so that everyone could view the mayhem. Soon everyone was laughing and applauding at the sight of this disciplined Guard rat, one of the first so designated back at the Rosebush, being brought low by seven giggling and shrieking youngsters who obscured him almost completely from sight with their bodies as they clung to him.

Of the other three adults, Arthur was laughing the loudest. Melinda and Judith looked at each other and smiled before Judith left for the other room to pour some tea for everyone. Melinda hugged and kissed Arthur, as always gratified to see how easily her husband could allow himself to relax and unwind these days. He was still every bit Freethorn’s highly dedicated chief engineer, committed to maintaining the colony’s infrastructure; but since his marriage to Melinda, there were far fewer remarks about work being his hobby.

Shortly after Melvin finished peeling the last child from his person, it was apparent that the night’s festivities were just about over, at least for the children, most of whom were already yawning. Except for Melvin and Judith’s youngest two, Ford and Hollis, they were all soon prepared for bed right there in Arthur and Melinda’s quarters; sleepovers were very common with these children. Afterwards, the adults settled down to discuss the events of this day.

“With only two weeks left, he’ll be awfully busy,” said Arthur. “Places to see, things to do…If I knew I had only so much time left, I don’t know if I could even think about anything but.”

“It is what he wanted,” added Melvin. “He knew what he was getting himself into.”

“Yes, he did…” said Melinda, sounding disconcerted. She looked over to her nephews Ford and Hollis curled up asleep on the couch between her and Melvin.

“Anything wrong, Min?” asked Arthur. But Melvin already had a good idea about what was bothering his sister.

“Oh, no, no,” she said quickly. “It’s just…can we talk about something else?”

Judith returned bearing a tray of teacups. “I thought you were happy to have Nicodemus back with us, Melinda,” she said as she set the tray down.

“I am, but…” She sighed. “Can we please talk about something else?”

Melvin almost suggested that he and Judith should probably be leaving soon, but instead he carefully switched places with Ford and Hollis without waking them so he could sit beside Melinda. He placed his arm around her shoulders. “Come on, Sis, you can’t fool me. What’s up?”

Melinda sighed again, smiling and shaking her head. She and her brothers Melvin and George had always confided in each other from an early age, especially after they’d been estranged from their father. Deciding that there was no cause for this matter to be an exception, she answered, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to bring this whole evening down. But there’s just something about his being here that bothers me. Well, actually, it’s not so much Nicodemus, it’s…I guess, just that he’s here, and someone else…isn’t.” She took a sip of tea.

Melvin and Arthur looked at each other, nodding. “Your father,” Arthur said quietly.

“They both died that day, and…I know it’s irrational, but…it just seems unfair, that Nicodemus can be here and Jenner can’t. Especially since he’d probably be free of Uhrstegg’s influence now. There’ve been so many times I’d wished he were here to see all we’ve done, and how successful the Thorn Valley Plan was.”

“I know, Min,” said Melvin, stroking her shoulder. “I believe that, and I know Mom and George do, too.” Judith gave her agreement as well.

“And let’s not count out this old Rat, either,” said Arthur with a laugh. “It may have been Jenner’s opposition to the Plan that led to Uhrstegg getting his hooks in him; but I knew him from the beginning, so I have no doubt either.” He kissed Melinda on the cheek.

“I just know that he’d be happy here, especially now,” maintained Melinda. “He never would have wanted to do something so crazy as to attack humans, not without Uhrstegg’s influence. I just know that he would want us to live as we do now, without any trouble from them, or the possibility of it.”

“Maybe all of you could get together tomorrow, and talk it over,” suggested Judith.

“I guess so. Mother especially would understand.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Arthur. “In fact, you could even talk it over with Nicodemus as well.” Noting Melinda’s surprised expression, he added, “Believe me, he’d understand. Don’t forget that he and Jenner go back further than anyone else here. Justin told me that he’d spoken at some length earlier today about how much he missed your father. So it’s a loss both of you definitely share.”

Melinda said she’d sleep on it, and the conversation then turned to lighter fare. Before too much longer all were ready to call it a night. After looking in on Spencer, Mia, Cecilia and Kyle one more time, Melvin and Judith bid their hosts good night, taking Ford and Hollis with them.

Chapter 22 - Propositions and plans

Though he’d been shown the medical department yesterday, it was really only a cursory look. He’d wanted to see as much as he could the first day, but he knew there’d be enough time to see certain parts of Freethorn—and beyond—more in depth. Now, as promised, Ages, Bernadette, Jessica and the rest of the medical staff were showing Nicodemus the facilities in much greater depth.

First, as he'd promised, he submitted to the physical exam, conducted by Ages and Bernadette. For the most part, they were all business, asking him plenty of questions about how well he and Rollo had taken care of this body; and when they’d finished, they were quite impressed, pronouncing him the picture of good health, though, as noted, slightly underfed.

With the exam complete, Nicodemus complimented his hosts on how well-organized the department was on first blush; and as the full tour got underway, he was fascinated by the accounts of each new advancement. There were many anecdotes of how certain powders, potions, salves, and other methods of treatment were discovered and applied. Ages grew visibly excited as he described how they’d only scratched the surface of what was yet to be discovered—in many ways other than medically—here on Lahaikshe, and how many experiments had been already conducted utilizing native plants. He described in detail how Kimball had been treated after he’d stumbled half-dead into Thorn Valley, as well as how others were treated for more routine ailments and minor injuries. Overall, they explained, none of their number had ever been laid up with any really serious illness, either on Earth or Lahaikshe. This was attributed mainly to the overall robust health the original Rats and Mice had enjoyed while captives at NIMH, and which had been maintained since through the increased knowledge of those practices and habits that are conducive to good health and those that are not. A certain amount of good luck was a factor, too, of course; but since moving to Lahaikshe, there was an overall feeling, almost to an individual, that everyone would enjoy excellent health for the rest of his or her days. It was generally agreed that this feeling derived from the increased senses of freedom and not having to hide that prevailed these days.

But there was more to it, some felt. Jessica described how she and some others had experienced dreams which were all hard to describe as far as visual details go, but which all had one thing in common: “It was like an overriding, all-embracing feeling of security, that someone was watching over us and taking care of us, and always would be.”

The conversation continued with conjecture of how significant, if at all, this was to them; but to Nicodemus, her words struck a responsive chord within him, something he himself couldn’t put into words, but which endeared her to him greatly. It reinforced the idea that there was some connection there, and he resolved silently to discuss it with her in private later on. For now, he brushed the matter aside.

The discussion soon turned to another important matter, that of aging. Though it was still far too early to tell, it seemed likely that everyone here could look forward to a life as long as that of humans, or close, or even possibly longer; with the exception of most of the natural rats and mice among them, all of whom were very aware of the situation and had seemed to accept it pretty well. It had been observed as far back as the Rosebush colony that some of the children grew and matured at different rates than others, some more quickly than what was by now considered the norm, and others more slowly. It was actually fairly common for some children to reach sexual and emotional maturity ahead of their peers. For growth in physical stature, the most remarkable case was Brutus. Nicodemus recalled how most of that growth was from a spurt that began shortly after Johnathan left them; over the next six months, he was nearly half-again his previous weight. Ages remarked on how Johnathan, upon returning from his ten-month absence, did an open-mouthed double-take upon seeing Brutus, disbelieving that he’d grown so huge.

As the discussion continued, it soon became far less “talking shop” and more a simple get-together of friends and acquaintances. Though Nicodemus genuinely enjoyed passing the time this way, other matters were still very much on his mind; and when the others needed to go on to other duties, he lost no time. He asked Jessica if she would come with him to some place they could talk privately. She agreed, saying that what she was about to do could easily wait, and inwardly curious about his purpose. On their way out, they paused to chat briefly with Cynthia, who was busy with some mixing and blending, taking time to compliment her on what a fine and talented young lady she’d become, before heading out into the corridor.

In their wake, Cynthia couldn’t help thinking back to his arrival, only a day ago, in which she’d helped with his dip treatment, and how it contrasted with how he was now: the same mouse, but also so much more. She found herself wondering what he and Jessica could possibly need to talk privately about. She quickly dismissed it as the workings of her imagination, fueled, no doubt, by recent developments in her own love life. She briefly paused in her work, sighing as she thought of getting together with Michael after work.

The two walked the Rat community’s corridors, comparing notes on their first impressions of the place, until they reached an out-of-the-way corridor that still didn’t see much traffic. After they sat down on a bench, though, there was a moment of awkward silence. “Well,” began Nicodemus, “so here we are.”

“Yes, so we are.” Jessica gave a small laugh.

Nicodemus appeared ready to say more, then looked away. He laughed, shaking his head. “Jessica, my dear, I had every confidence that I’d be able to…directly address the matter I’d wished to discuss, but…”

“It’s all right, Nicodemus. You can say anything to me.” She placed her hand on his. “It’s not something too painful or embarrassing, is it?”

“No, I suppose not. If I could sum it up …” He sighed. “Oh, I should just come right out with it. I’ve piqued your curiosity enough. Well…as you know, in my…previous life, I had grown more aged, more lame, nearly infirm, due to factors that I have never precisely pinpointed. Another facet to this condition was that I had all but lost any…mating urges, any desire to have a lifemate, or scarcely any need or desire for closeness or intimacy with another. For the last…three years or so, it was hardly an issue with me at all. Otherwise, I certainly would have made a domestic life with Anna and Brutus, as I was telling her last evening.

“But now…here, in this new body, I find myself feeling things, seeing things as never before. Thoughts, desires I was sure I’d not know again are very much on my mind, very strong. I have resolved that, in the little time I have left, I would satisfy them.”

Jessica nodded thoughtfully. “And…this is where I come in?”

Nicodemus again turned away, almost hiding his face in his hands before again facing her directly. “Oh, I know this is horribly presumptuous of me. It’s just that…when I saw you yesterday, all the while I was telling my story, I thought…there was something there between you and me. And among the Mice, you are one of the few females who isn’t…currently mated to another. I know it hasn’t been that long since your—Harley, that was your man’s name, wasn’t it?—since he died. As I said, horribly presumptuous; I wouldn’t blame you if you—”

Jessica quietly interrupted him by holding up her hand. “It’s all right, Nicodemus, I told you you can tell me anything. And I’m not offended. In fact, I’m flattered that you think of me that way. And I can understand how…there really wasn’t any other way to bring this up other than just…coming right out with it.”

“Jessica, I’m so glad you understand. I guess, then, you know what my next question would be.”

“Well…” She breathed in deep. “As I said, I’m flattered, and…since Harley died, I’ve never really been…intimate with anyone. Still…”

“I’ve no wish to put undue pressure on you, Jessica. I knew this was a matter you would need to give more thought to—though I will understand if you say no.”

“Well, I haven’t said no…yet. But I know you’ll need a definite answer before too long.”

“Yes, quite. Well…I’ll leave you now to think it over.” Nicodemus gave Jessica a quick hug and bid her farewell; and, feeling the need to be outside, he headed for the main entrance. Just outside, he paused to gaze upward at the partly-cloudy sky, thinking back to last night and the awareness of his current physicality that had come upon him so quickly. He hoped fervently that he hadn’t erred in making this offer to Jessica; he knew very well what her agreeing to it could lead to. But no, he decided, he’d come this far. It had been so long—too long—since he’d had a young, healthy body, he only had 13 days; and, when all’s said and done, he’d earned this, after all he’d been through. He was well aware of the risks, that he could be getting himself into something that might make him reconsider his pledge to Rollo and make him more reluctant to leave this new life. But it was, at best, a borrowed life, after all. He’d have to keep on reminding himself that he was only a tenant in this body. He resolved to put the matter aside until Jessica gave her answer, since he had quite a full schedule today, including a meeting with Matilda, Melinda, George and Melvin this evening. Perhaps I’ll have to start keeping an appointment book, he thought to himself as he headed back to the Mouse community.

On the way, he heard himself being paged. He turned to see a rat and mouse approach. He had to search his memory for a moment; there were still so many reacquaintances to be made, and though he could remember everyone’s name and face in his old life, many who were children were adults now.

“Ah, Tara! Daughter of Derek and Claire! And you must be…Bertram Davis, of course. A pleasure to meet you at last.” He shook hands with both.

“Thanks, Nicodemus. And call me Bertie, everybody does…’cept my folks.”

“Of course, Bertie. And Tara…ah, what a spirited and willful child you were. I always knew you’d grow to become a rat of unique and special talents. I’ve heard much of your prowess as a swimmer and how at home you are in the water.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus. I guess you’ve heard…other unique things about me…and Bertie.”

“Oh, yes: your relationship with each other. I needn’t ask, then, what you need to discuss…” The three sat down on a nearby flat rock in the shade as Nicodemus told them how he’d been told the basics of how apparent controversy over the affair of these seemingly-mismatched lovers had led to a general meeting to determine whether there was a genuine problem. Bertie and Tara described for him now in greater detail those events.

“And now…” said Tara after they’d finished, “there’s still some things we’re not sure about.”

“We thought we’d worked everything out between us pretty thoroughly,” added Bertie, “but in the past few days, there’s just…I don’t know, I guess things aren’t as clear as we thought.”

“We hoped that…well, you’d have some kind of…insight, I guess,” said Tara a bit tentatively.

“I’ll endeavor to do my best, my friends,” Nicodemus said cheerily.

“I guess it’s mainly that…well, we do love each other as much as any other couple,” Tara continued. “Our feelings are real, of that we have no doubt. But it feels…well, biological as well. It’s as much a physical attraction as with anyone else. So why would it come upon us? A rat and a mouse?”

“It definitely feels like a biological urge, let me tell you,” said Bertie with a sly wink.

“Don’t get him started,” said Tara with a laugh. “I practically have to fight the little maniac off sometimes.” They nudged and pushed each other playfully.

After allowing himself a chuckle, Nicodemus said, “It does sound as if we may have another mystery on our hands. It’s possible that it’s a natural result of the fact that our species are equals in emotion and intelligence: an emotional bond becoming a physical one.”

“But if it’s like a mating urge, for propagating the species, then why us?” said Tara. “We can’t have kids together, so why’d we get…pulled together like this?”

“Sure, it feels real and good and natural for both of us,” added Bertie, “but…yeah, like she said. Why us?”

“Well, as I said, it may be another mystery to be solved; but just since my return, I’ve already heard of many, many discoveries that have made about us in my absence, to add to those made during my previous lifetime. Different talents, abilities…it seems that where we’re concerned, the possibilities are practically endless.”

“I’ve been learning that,” said Bertie. “Me and all my sibs, since we got here. But where do we fit in?”

“I know you approached me hoping for definite answers, but all I can tell you is…to follow your hearts, and perhaps you’ll find the answers you seek in time. And I can tell you’ve also been wondering…what I think about your being together. I will admit it’s unusual, but there are endless possibilities, and it’s the height of absurdity to think of such a development as…not normal. What is normal or abnormal where we’re concerned, after all?” Nicodemus chuckled. “As I said, follow your hearts. If your feelings are genuine, you won’t be steered wrong.”

Tara and Bertie looked at each other, smiling and nodding.

“I must also commend you on the courage and determination you’ve shown in the face of opposition.”

“Thanks, Nicodemus,” said Tara. “But we don’t really think courage came into it at all. We were just trying to make things work between us, just like anyone else.”

Nicodemus smiled. “As you wish. Well…I hope I’ve been of help to you. I have other commitments now, but I’m sure we will talk again.”

“I hope so,” said Tara as she and Bertie got to their feet. “I’ve got a swim class to get to now, but we’re looking forward to talking again.”

“Yeah,” agreed Bertie. “By the way, I heard you’ll be going over to…whatshisname, Gwinthrayle’s place for a visit.”

“Why, yes, two days hence. I know there are many here who haven’t seen it yet. Are you interested in coming along?”

“I was thinking about it, and I know some others who’d be interested too, if it’s okay.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought much about having an entourage on my visit, but now…yes, it’s a splendid idea. And I’ve been told that Gwinthrayle isn’t averse to hosting several individuals at a time. He’ll have to be notified in advance, of course, but I’m sure he’ll be agreeable.”

“Yeah, I hope so. What d’you think, Tara?”

“That might be fun. I’m sure I can get Lothar or Jarman to cover for me for a couple of days. I really have to get going now, but I’ll give it some thought.”

“Cool. And I’ll get the word spread.”

Nicodemus bid the young lovers adieu and left to meet his next scheduled appointment.

* * *

Alma Ages sat at the cove’s edge, with toes dipped in the water, along with several others who watched today’s swim class come to a close. Some of the instructors were staying there to watch over those students who wished to stay after class to play and frolic. Alma’s two oldest children, Regina and Turlough, were among them, and were most eager to demonstrate for their mother what they’d learned this week. Alma wasn’t always able to meet them as they finished class for the day, so now she watched with delight as they swam, dove, floated on their backs or just splashed the afternoon away. She noted the diversity of the group, especially how greatly the Rusay children, with their smooth, bare, pale blue skins, contrasted in appearance with the mouse and rat children. She thought back to the general meeting two days ago, and couldn’t understand how anyone could harbor any kind of resentment toward those not of “their own kind,” especially when they all had so much in common. Certainly the scene before her now proved that beyond a doubt; just look at the good times these children can all have together. And it certainly made things more interesting than if there were all rats or all mice here.

She continued watching the aquatic games, laughing and applauding as one of the Rusay adults, Morobphra, acted as a living diving board for Turlough and Regina, holding them up in his outstretched arms and giving each a little flip; though Jarman cautioned against their showing off too much.

Presently Tara came by, and the two chatted for a bit; then Tara said that while she usually would stick around a while longer after class, she was feeling a bit out of sorts and wanted to go home and rest. She excused herself and left.

After about fifteen more minutes, Alma called for her children to come on out, as it was close to dinnertime. As she helped them dry off, they talked excitedly about their day. Turlough expressed a bit of jealousy at Regina’s greater progress in their lessons; but Alma, not wishing to show favoritism, assured her eldest son that before he knew it, he’d be as far along as his twin sister.

After chatting with Morobphra and Miatati for a few minutes, the children got dressed and they and Alma adjourned to the dining hall. Ages met them on the way in the corridor.

“Daddy! You should have seen me today!” said Regina breathlessly as she and Turlough ran up to greet their father. “I swam all the way out to the diving dock and back, an’ held my breath underwater for almost two minutes, and—”

“—and I dived all the way to the bottom,” cut in Turlough, “and pulled up some weeds to show everyone I did it!”

Ages laughed, hugging his two eldest offspring. “All right, I know you both did splendidly.” He reminded them that they were to meet their younger siblings at the dining hall, after Madeline Brisby had been looking after them for the last two hours. Regina and Turlough dashed ahead of them.

As their parents watched them race off, Alma said, “Oh, Cyril, I’m so proud of how they’ve turned out; how all our children have turned out.”

“So am I. But I don’t know why Regina needs to be so…self-centered and wanting all the attention, in spite of our not playing favorites with any of them.”

“It’s probably just a phase. Madeline tells me Martin was rather like that, and he grew out of it.”

“Well, we can always hope,” Cyril said lightly. He paused to kiss Alma; and as they proceeded down the hall, he added, “You know, dear…Nicodemus was saying to me this morning about how much…I had changed since he’d last seen me, and it started me thinking about…well, a lot of things…”

“I have too, since he came. In fact…” Alma paused as they entered the dining hall, where they immediately saw Celia, Paul and Milo waving exuberantly from the table reserved for them and the Brisby family, some of whom were already there.

As they waved back, Cyril said to Alma quietly, “I think this is a discussion we can save for later.” Alma agreed, and they proceeded to the end of the line.

Once they’d reached their table, they were pleased to see that Nicodemus was joining them. Subsequent conversation was kept light, mostly concerning plans for the next few days; and in particular his upcoming visit to Gwinthrayle’s home. The younger children were especially interested in hearing about his invitation to have more than just Nicodemus as a guest, and it didn’t take long before some of them, especially Lyndon and Shawna, were all but begging their parents to be included. They just told them, for now, that they’d think it over.

After dinner and some more socializing, Cyril and Alma finally had a moment alone after the children had gone elsewhere to play. For his part, he couldn’t help feeling somewhat relieved. It wasn’t because of the absence of his children; everyone knew how devoted he was to them. But for all that his life had changed these past two years, he still preferred the company of a few over many. So now, he and his wife sat together on their living room sofa, each curious to hear what the other had to say before their earlier conversation was interrupted before it had truly begun.

Ages went first. “Well…Alma, Nicodemus just basically said…what you’d probably expect, that he’d never expected me to become this…settled into this new life; domesticated was the word he used, rather ironic choice when you think about it. Anyway, I realized it had been a while since I’d given the matter much thought. I’ve pretty much taken each day as it came, and hadn’t really done much comparing. But now…when I think about how different my life was then, I…wonder how I could have been satisfied. It’s so much better, a…fuller life I have now, and it’s you I have to thank for it. And the children…why, the very thought of my being a father would have been absurd. I said words to that effect to Johnathan on more than one occasion, but now it seems like the most…right and natural thing to be. Alma, I do love you; I know I don’t say it often enough, but…you do know that, don’t you?”

Alma laughed gently. “Of course, Cyril, and you don’t have to say it at all. You do so much else that tells me that, and more.” In spite of that, she knew it wasn’t always this easy for him to be this forthcoming, even with her, and would treasure the moment. She kissed him, and they embraced and sat quietly for a moment; but when she pulled back to face him again, her smile had faded a bit.

Ages adjusted his spectacles, frowning. “Alma? Is something wrong?”

“Oh, Cyril, after all you’ve said, I hate to make you feel bad, but…”

“But what?”

She sighed. “It’s just that…hearing how Nicodemus has to leave us so soon, it reminded me that my time left will probably be shorter than yours, and…” She sighed again.

“Oh, Alma, I didn’t realize…I thought both of us had accepted it pretty well all along. I didn’t know it was causing you so much worry.”

“Well, actually, it’s not that so much that I’ve been thinking of. When I do go, I want you to…find someone else, and settle down with her. I want you to be happy, Cyril, and go on with your life.”

Ages was speechless for a moment. “Well, I…uhrr…I don’t know what to say…”

“Jessica, maybe. She and you get along pretty well, you work together…”

“Whoa, girl, we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves here. We do work well together, and I do like her, but…let’s take this a bit more slowly, shall we? Don’t get me wrong, I know you have my best interests in mind.”

“I do, but…I guess I shouldn’t have put so much on you so soon. But you will think about it, won’t you?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Remember that we have to consider what she wants as well.”

“I know. I was just using Jessica as an example.”

Ages knew this, but he was nonetheless reminded of how, during Nicodemus’s visit to medical, it almost seemed as if… No, it must be his imagination. Jessica was no more or less friendly or forthcoming to Nicodemus than anyone else. And surely, with his time so short, as everyone was well aware… No, the very notion is absurd. And yet, because his time is so short, there are many things he’d want to do and accomplish…

“What are you thinking now, Cyril?”

“Er, nothing, dear. Nothing at all.” He kissed her lightly, and Alma knew he would say no more on the subject, though he clearly had something on his mind. She knew well his dislike for discussing matters that had no solid basis in fact, and that was very likely the case here.

* * *

“Please, Mom, pleeeeze? I promise I’ll be good, I’ll do what the grownups tell me, I’ll be real quiet, I—I won’t say anything, I’ll be…uh…tactful! Yeah, that’s it, I’ll be real tactful! I won’t make fun o’ Tim ’n’ Lucy anymore! C’mon, Mom, please? Say yes?”

Madeline Brisby looked down at her next-to-youngest son on the floor, almost prostrate and clinging to her ankles; nearby, Johnathan could barely conceal his amusement at the spectacle. She couldn’t help feeling the same, but she was also touched by Lyndon’s eagerness to please and how excited he was at the prospect of going on this trip. She reached down to help him up. “Oh, Lyndon, you don’t have to beg like this. But we do have to know a few things first. Timothy, who else is going besides Nicodemus and you and Lucy?”

“Well, let’s see…so far, Bertie and Tara are definite; Tara’s niece and nephew, Susanna and Marcus; Ellis, most likely, and he’s going to ask Lilia and probably Reuben, too; even Kimball’s considering it, ’cause he hasn’t really been out of Freethorn at all.”

Johnathan nodded. “Well, Gwinthrayle was very receptive to the idea, but would prefer the number not go over 25.” Earlier in the day, shortly after Johnathan got wind of the idea of Nicodemus having others accompany him on his visit, he used the Stone to take him to the sorcerer’s abode to get his approval.

“Well, they’re passing the word that it shouldn’t be too high a number,” said Timothy, “and that it’ll be first-come, first-serve. Somebody’s bound to get turned away.”

“But not me, right? Right?” Lyndon looked back and forth between his parents anxiously.

“Welll…there’ll certainly be plenty of adult supervision…”

“Sure, anything, Dad. Just lemme go, please?”

“What do you think, Maddie? He is asking us really nicely…”

“Well…if you promise to behave, Lyndon...brush your teeth, get to bed on time, do what the grownups tell you…”

“I promise, Mom, I promise!” He danced about like he needed to relieve himself.

His parents looked at each other, smiling. They didn’t want to appear to give in too easily, but now both knew it was time to let Lyndon off the hook. “Well…all right,” said Johnathan. Madeline accompanied with an approving nod.

Lyndon jumped and shouted with glee, thanking his parents profusely and giving each a big hug. They reminded him that the trip wouldn’t be until the day after tomorrow, so he shouldn’t get too excited about it now, though they could hardly blame him. They knew he’d been anticipating any trip away from usual surroundings, ever since they were still in Thorn Valley; and that he’d been a little peeved when Martin couldn’t fulfill the promise he’d made, just before Lambert’s and his sojourn outside the valley, that he’d take Lyndon along on a future trip out. He didn’t resent Martin for that, but everyone still hoped this trip would make up for it.

Elsewhere, there were varying degrees of excitement over the impending trip; and nearby was one at least as strong as in the Brisby home, as Ellis brought the matter to Lilia and Reuben’s attention. Predictably, Lilia was beside herself, giving Ellis several hugs in between leaping and dancing about. Reuben’s reaction was more restrained, but he was very interested in coming along, too; and not just to play chaperone, Ellis guessed.

* * *

Nicodemus yawned as he removed his clothing and stretched out on the bed, thoughts filled with the day’s events. And what a full day this had been, starting with the medical tour, but marked largely by the stories—a seemingly unending succession of them. He especially found engaging the tales related by the newest Mouse residents. Though he’d had glimpses of their lives over the years while “looking out”, he was pleased to hear more about them from the sources. And they were far from over; he looked forward to hearing more about Marie’s globe-trotting adventures, and more about Johnathan’s “exile” on Lahaikshe. The Rats too, of course; though their experiences were for the most part shared, there were many individual slants on many stories.

There were more sumptuous meals eaten at the dining hall, including a few delicacies native to this world; time spent with the community’s children, giving them “living history” lessons at Thorn Valley School; and even a visit to the clothiers, where he came away with a few more outfits in addition to the one he’d been given yesterday. While they were crisp and new, they weren’t as fancy as what some might expect him to choose, though one of them was a robe styled much like his old one, which he’d worn most of the day.

Most fresh in his mind was the meeting with Matilda, Melinda, George and Melvin, family of his oldest friend, Jenner, and their spouses. He told many anecdotes, some of which even Matilda hadn’t heard before, of their early days together; and Melinda told him how it was her idea for them all to meet like this, an idea prompted by the feeling, which she admitted was irrational, that it was unfair that Nicodemus could have returned to life and not Jenner. Her mother and brothers admitted to feeling the same way, to a small degree. Nicodemus assured them it was perfectly understandable; and that he wished as much, if not more, that Jenner could still be with them. Matilda also brought up how discussion at the general meeting two days ago had led her to wonder, all over again, what Jenner would have done without Uhrstegg’s influence. Nicodemus told her he was certain that Jenner, at worst, would have left the colony, or might even have agreed grudgingly to the Plan and be pleased at the colony’s subsequent progress. All in all, it was quite a satisfying discussion.

As his thoughts returned to present concerns, he briefly remembered that there were only so many days left to him; then he again reminded himself of his vow to concentrate on each day’s activities, take them one at a time. He had every intention of enjoying his remaining time as much as possible, and there was no room to dwell on how short it was. He yawned again and drew a single blanket over himself, looking forward to the sensation of falling asleep again.

Ultimately, just before nodding off, his thoughts returned, as they had repeatedly this day, to Jessica and what they’d discussed. He hoped she wouldn’t be long in giving a definite answer. He still couldn’t completely shake the idea that his proposal was too presumptuous or even wrong, but again he decided he wouldn’t dwell on the matter. The deed had been done, and all he could do was to wait for results.

An hour or so after sleep overtook him, the dreams began again. He was leading the Rats away from possible human discovery, in a setting that was at once earthly, with very normal-appearing buildings, and unearthly, with bizarrely-shaped formations that seemed neither of stone nor plant. Abruptly, he was in his old Rosebush office again, where he walked over to his viewing device. Only mist could be seen within it at first, then his own reflection as he was in the final days of his previous life. This shifted into an image of Rollo, at first looking to one side, then turning to face him and smiling broadly—almost, it seemed, to himself as much as to his one-time teacher.

Abruptly, he awoke, immediately sensing the presence of another in the room. He started to call out “Who’s there?” but then gave a start as he saw her, sitting in the chair at the side of the bed, smiling down upon him. “Jessica? What are you—” He interrupted his question as he realized that there could only be one reason for her presence here and now.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. It’s just…well, I gave it a lot of thought, what we discussed, and I thought I should tell you right away. I know you were concerned about…well, being presumptuous and all, and…I understand your feelings, but…I also understand your needs.”

“Well, I…do appreciate your telling me, Jessica,” said Nicodemus as he reached out to touch her hand. “So…what have you…er, decided…” He found himself speechless as Jessica removed her robe and draped it over the chair; then she pulled back the cover, climbing into bed beside him. “I…guess I have your answer, then.”

“I guess we…both have needs, don’t we?” Jessica said, smiling warmly. “I am doing this out of kindness, but…well, do you remember what I told you that since Harley died, I…” This time Jessica fell silent, except for a sigh, as Nicodemus stroked the side of her face. She took his hand and kissed his palm.

“I guess, then, that we’re both a bit selfish, no?” he said as they moved still closer to each other. “Humans often write of selfishness as a negative trait, and yet…”

“Aren’t we all, in one degree or another? But when we want something…or someone, and there’s nothing or no one to stand in our way…”

“Why not, indeed.” Nicodemus drew up to her, pressing her close and nuzzling her ear. “Oh, Jessica,” he said breathlessly. “I can’t thank you enough. I just wish…”

She placed a hand over his mouth. He understood perfectly; the time for words had indeed past, to make way for communication of a less verbose variety.

* * *

Elsewhere in Freethorn, others were also receiving unexpected visits.

“Thurman?” asked a bleary-eyed Tara after opening her apartment door. “Wha…what’re you doing here? Do you know what time it is?”

“Look, I know it’s late, but this just couldn’t wait. I had to get this off my chest now.”

Tara yawned and sighed. “Oh, all right, come on in.”

After they sat down on her sofa, Thurman said, “I’ll try to make this quick. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about…you know, the meeting two days ago, and all that led up to it. And, yeah, about the things I said.”

“I already accepted your apology.”

“I know, but…there was more to it, things I didn’t want to say in front of everyone.”

“Like what?”

Thurman breathed in deeply. “Well, like why…I said what I did. I just…I know, everyone said it was just a thoughtless remark, but…I did have something…some reason, and…”

“Thurman, just relax. What are you trying to tell me?”

He sighed again. “I guess…I was jealous. I saw how cozy you ’n’ Bertie were getting, and I’d…well, I guess I thought because you and I had grown up together, and we’d always been pals, that I’d been expecting us to…eventually be more’n that.”

Tara looked away for a moment, unsure of how to reply. “Thurman, I had no idea. You never even hinted that you felt that way about me.”

“I didn’t think I had to...say much of anything. Shows how bright I am, I guess. I mean, we always had some good times together, I guess I thought that you and I…we’d get together, like it’d be the natural next step for us. But then Bertie came along, and…like everyone else, I didn’t think it was serious between you two. But then you guys started telling everyone you are, and…it started to look more and more like I’d…never have a chance with you. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind, but…I just couldn’t, I got so frustrated, and…well, you heard the results.”

Tara again looked away, expression a mixture of sympathy and confusion. “Thurman, I…I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, then…I guess I’ve said all I need to.” He stood up. “I’ll let you get to sleep now. G’night.” He headed for the door.

When he was halfway through, Tara said, “Thurman, wait. Let’s…there is more I want to say.”

Thurman turned, closing the door, finding it hard to conceal his delight that she had called him back.

Chapter 23 - The third day

Nicodemus awoke first. He stretched limbs and yawned, again relishing these physical sensations that he’d been so long denied. He immediately recalled the previous night, and turned to look upon Jessica, curled up and slumbering beside him, looking positively angelic. For a few minutes, he simply gazed upon her admiringly as he remembered the passion they’d shared; then he began wondering how he could properly thank her for her kindness and generosity. She didn’t have to do this, after all, and she knew there was some risk involved—a risk he shared in full, but of which both were very much aware beforehand. With the time he had left in this body, it certainly wouldn’t do to develop a deeper emotional attachment. He sighed. Perhaps that was all the more reason not to give too much thought to remuneration. Perhaps it would be enough for both of them that she’d agreed to spend a night of physical love with him, and that would be the end of it.

Presently Jessica awoke and exchanged good-mornings with Nicodemus. For a brief moment he thought he detected a glimmer of something like regret; then the moment passed, and they conversed quietly for a few minutes, mostly small talk, not directly addressing last night or what it meant to them. Then, as she rose from the bed, she said, “Well...I promised Marie and Newell I’d meet them for breakfast, so…”

“Oh, yes…and your children? Oh, that’s right, they slept over with friends.”

“And they’ll be there, too. So…I guess I’ll be getting ready to go now…”

“Of course. May I join you?”

Jessica was mildly surprised. “I…guess it would be all right.”

“I sense misgivings. If you think, for whatever reason, that we not arrive together…”

“Oh, it’s not that. Well…not much. I mean, I don’t feel that last night was wrong at all. But…I guess I didn’t think too thoroughly of how everyone else would react to…you and me.”

“I understand. And if you prefer it be kept between us, then no one else need know.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus. I’m glad you understand. Well…shall we go?”

“Of course, my dear.” They dressed silently; and as they made to leave, Nicodemus turned to Jessica. “I just wanted to say once more…thank you so much for last night.” He embraced her.

“I was happy to do this for you. It was an honor. But…only this one time, as we agreed.”

“Yes…yes, of course. Well, after you, my dear.”

Jessica emerged into the corridor first; and, seeing no one else about, Nicodemus followed. As they moved on, they continued to converse on matters unrelated to last night; yet, though neither admitted it out loud, both wondered, deep down, whether this really was the end of the matter.

* * *

“Deena, I am not avoiding him!”

“Then why haven’t you talked to him yet?”

“There are…there have been other things to occupy his time, other people he’s wanted to see, and that’s been left entirely up to him. And I’ve been busy too.” Brutus paused to make sure the collar of his uniform was straight as he and Deena prepared to go to breakfast.

“But he’ll stop and talk with anyone who approaches him. I’ve seen it myself.”

“Maybe, but…there’s plenty of time, almost two weeks.”

“True…but you are his son.”

“I…I know that.” For a moment, Brutus looked ready to protest his wife’s statement; then, their children Darrin, Lillian and Augustus approached, ready and a little impatient. The family left their quarters and proceeded to the dining hall.

As the children dashed down the ramp ahead of their parents, Deena resumed their conversation. “I think you should try to see him right away. Certainly if anybody should take priority, it should be Nicodemus’s own son. And you’ve said so yourself: the Guard haven’t had much to do lately. How busy can you be?”

Brutus sighed, not wanting to admit outright that Deena had, in her quiet fashion, once again wormed the truth out of him. “Well…maybe I could try to catch him this afternoon some time.”

Deena looked pleased, pulling herself closer to him and leaning her head on his arm. “That’s the spirit, big guy. I know he really wants to see you.”

“You…you’ve already talked to him?”

“Mm-hm. The kids too. He was really pleased to meet his grandchildren. He says we’ve raised them well.” Noticing Brutus’s thoughtful expression, she added, “Don’t worry, I didn’t tell him you were avoiding him, or anything like that.”

“But I haven’t—” Brutus gave a low grumble. “All right, I won’t start that again. But I promise I will try to see him.”

“Great. I know it’s strange, getting used to seeing him like this.”

“I suppose that’s…part of it.” As they continued on to the dining hall, Brutus continued detailing his misgivings to her.

* * *

Though it was only early afternoon, it had already proven to be quite a full day once again. After breakfasting with Jessica, her children, their friends Torrance and Hazel, and Marie and Newell and their sons Tony and Kim, Nicodemus spent more time acquainting and familiarizing himself with the Rat colony’s interior. All the time during and after the meal, he and Jessica had, as agreed, made no reference to their being together the previous night and would continue to do so, until such time that they mutually agreed it was necessary, if ever. Even when parting afterwards, they only gave each other a brief hug. Afterwards, he was shown the exterior of Freethorn so he could see up close how the “native” stone had been shaped by the amulet’s power up and around this patch of land, to shore up the raw edges and prevent erosion. He was highly impressed at the extent to which the amulet’s stone-shaping capabilities were used, even as he was well aware of its far greater task of moving this entire piece of land across the dimensions. He was also told in greater detail how Johnathan had used it to plunge himself into the earth and rock below Freethorn to locate the aquifer detected by Gwinthrayle, and to create a channel from it to keep Lake Nicodemus replenished and their supply of water steady.

Later, Nicodemus had lunch with Bryant and Matilda; and afterwards, it occurred to him how thus far today, he’d felt less a sense of urgency than he had the day before, and more a sense that he had plenty of time left to do everything he wanted and relax and take his time. Certainly he was inspired by the example of many of those around him, who had adopted a more relaxed attitude since the days of the Rosebush colony, and so much more so nowadays, now that human discovery was no longer an issue. But there was also the glow of last night; he felt renewed, he realized, even more than when he’d first reintegrated in Rollo’s body. Dear Jessica, he now thought; for the time I have left, I’ll always cherish her kindness. Again he wished he could do more to repay her, and again he told himself he probably had already. She’d told him, after all, that she’d done this for herself as much as for him.

After lunch, he’d requested a little “alone time”; and now, he was just approaching the edge of Oak Park, looking up in admiration at the big burr oak when the sound of laughter interrupted his reverie. A group of children—Rat, Mouse, and Rusay—were playing a very free-wheeling combination of tag, hide-and-seek, and elements of whatever other game seemed appropriate at the time, while two adult Rats watched over them. He immediately felt inclined to observe, so he sat down, leaning against a sapling, and watched the melee. He immediately got into the spirit and soon was laughing as the game progressed (or regressed) into a series of ambushes-from-bushes followed by play-wrestling matches, all accompanied by giggles and shrieks. Carefree as the scene was, Nicodemus noted how careful the Rat and Rusay children were to not play too roughly with their smaller Mouse playmates.

It wasn’t long before they took notice of his presence, and some came over to chat with him. Soon Sandra, one of the Rat youngsters, asked him to join them; and after a moment’s deliberation, he cheerfully accepted. This came as a surprise to the adults, knowing who Nicodemus was and what he represented to their parents, since they were children back at the Rosebush; but Nicodemus assured them that that was long ago, and right now all he wanted was to join in their games if they’d have him. They accepted.

Over the next half-hour or so, he thoroughly immersed himself in being a child again. He ambushed, was ambushed, pursued, was pursued, raced in circles, climbed, jumped, was leaped upon, and generally expended more energy than he had in ages…and he loved every minute of it. Would that his real childhood—or Rollo’s, for that matter—had been like this, he realized. The adults quickly joined in themselves; and soon, some other adults came by, ostensibly to watch and help supervise, but all joined in before long. No doubt, thought Nicodemus, everyone, or nearly everyone, is discovering his or her second childhood here.

Afterwards, when he and his playmates had sufficiently tired themselves out, most of them left with the adults, some to nap, some to quieter activities; and Nicodemus also felt inclined toward an early-afternoon snooze, partially due to the interdimensional time difference and the jet-lag style adjustment. He quickly decided upon a suitable spot, and so began climbing a tree trunk. Sure enough, there it was, as he’d discerned from below: a small hollow at the base of the lowest limb. He quickly settled into it, lying flat on his back, without a shred of dignity and not caring a whit. As he luxuriated in the feel of the sun on his belly, he thought to himself, no doubt, this is definitely one thing he needed to allow time for: just simply doing nothing. He sighed deeply, thinking again of how he would take a slower pace and avoid trying to cram too much into each day.

Inevitably, though, his thoughts turned toward those other things he still had planned in days to come. Of course, he greatly anticipated the trip to Gwinthrayle’s tomorrow, as did the group that would accompany him, whose company he would welcome greatly. A trip to Earth to visit old haunts was definitely in order as well. Johnathan had already agreed to accompany him, though a specific day for it hadn’t been picked yet.

As he grew drowsier, he again thought of Jessica, sighing as he again recalled their shared passion. He was suddenly more fully awake as he realized just how much he’d thought of her since they parted company after breakfast. Should he be thinking of her this much, he asked himself; and then he dismissed the thought. After a night like that, how could he not think of her with fondness? No, it’s no more than thought, he told himself; then, believing the matter resolved, he was better able to doze off.

After about an hour he awakened, yawned, flexed muscles, and spent a few more minutes staring up at the branches swaying in the warm breeze. Despite a conscious effort to keep from thinking about anything, though, his thoughts returned, perhaps inevitably, to her again. He sat up, shaking his head and laughing quietly to himself. Ah, Jessica, what are you doing to me, he thought, only half-seriously.

Then he became aware of some movement on the ground below. He peered over the side to see a larger-than-average rat walking around in circles slowly. “Hello!” Nicodemus called out. “Are you waiting to see me?”

The rat looked up. “Nicodemus. I’d heard you’d come this way.”

“Well, Brutus! I’ve been looking forward to this.” He began descending the trunk. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Only a few minutes.” Actually, it had been more than a few—more like a half-hour—but it was not the sort of thing Brutus would readily admit to.

“Good. Well…where should we begin?”

“Well…” The two sat down. “I suppose I…should apologize for the way I talked to you when…you came back and told us who you were.”

“No apology necessary, Brutus. How else could you or anyone be expected to react, when faced with such an unbelievable claim?”

“Hmmf. No other way, I suppose. It…is good to have you here with us again.”

“Thank you, Brutus, but…I sense a degree of uncertainty.”

Brutus sighed. He had rehearsed some of what he’d wanted to say, but still found expressing his feelings openly difficult. “Back when you…when we lost you, I was…as shocked as anyone, but...no more, I guess, than anyone. We all had to concentrate so much on everything else. But later, after we were on the way to Thorn Valley, I got to thinking how…unfair it was. I don’t just mean what happened to you.” He paused, looking unsure of how to continue, then went on: “I guess you know that…though I knew you were my biological father since I was old enough to understand, I had regarded George as my father since Mother married him. But…it’s hard to put into words. I guess…I’d always wished you could have been…more of an actual father to me. I mean, you were our leader, and you’ve said yourself how you regarded yourself as father to all of us. But…oh, I know it sounds ridiculous…”

“Not at all, Brutus. In fact, as I was just telling your mother two nights ago, I’ve wished that circumstances could have been different regarding my relationship with her and you.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Oh, there were the…physical changes to me in addition to my duties as leader of all of you, and I’m certain that otherwise, I’d have made a domestic life with your mother and you. Although, as I’m sure you recall, I always tried to spend personal time with everyone, including the both of you.”

Brutus nodded. “That you did. It’s not as if you were never around, after all. And you led us well.”

“Thank you, Brutus, but in retrospect, I’d have to say a lot of that was blind luck on my part, what with the increasingly muddled state my mind was in, especially those last two years. And of course, no major decision escaped the scrutiny of the Council.”

“Of course. But that Uhrstegg, or Ghormfisk…he’s responsible for so much ill that’s befallen us. I know he ultimately wasn’t responsible, but still…”

“I do share your frustration, son, indubitably. I recall your saying you wish you’d had a crack at him. But it’s all water under the bridge, of course.”

“Yes. And now you’re back among us…in this new body.”

“And…that is where some of your uncertainty comes in, correct?”

“I suppose. But I guess it’s no more so than anyone else. And I know you’re still getting used to it yourself.”

“Indeed.” Nicodemus looked to one side, and then changed the subject quickly, complimenting Brutus on how well he’d raised his children. The two continued to chat over the next half hour, quickly feeling more relaxed, even laughing and joking with each other.

* * *

“Lilia? Are you ready?”

“Just…just a minute, Ellis.” Shortly she emerged from her room, smiling radiantly. She seemed to Ellis, at that moment, as one who eagerly anticipated the rest of her life. They exchanged hellos and embraced.

“You look great,” said Ellis.

“Do you like it?” Lilia spun herself around. “Francine, one of the Rats, she made it for me. She and your mom gave it to me this morning, as a surprise.”

“Uh-huh. She told me. It looks great on you.”

It was a hooded cloak Lilia wore, colored wine-red, that stopped just short of touching the floor. “Thank you. I can spend more time out in the daylight now with this. The hood protects my ears; I think they…got a little sunburned the other day, while we were listening to Nicodemus.” She gave a small laugh as they left the apartment for the corridor, arm in arm.

“That’s good. I mean, not that you got sunburned, but that you like the cloak, and that you’re happy.”

“I am happy, Ellis. I feel like…I don’t know, it’s hard to say exactly what. I guess…like I can do anything now, like anything’s possible now.”

“That’s great, I’m glad you feel that way. You know, Lilia, that’s what a lot of us have been saying about being here. It seems like every day something new comes up, and the more we explore it outside of Freethorn, the more we’ll discover.”

“I guess so. Oh, Ellis, I’m so excited about the trip tomorrow. I can hardly wait.” They chatted a bit more about who else was coming and what they might expect; and almost before they knew it, they reached their destination, just a few doors down and one level up. Ellis knocked before he and Lilia let themselves in, having been expected.

As they crossed the spacious front room of Martin and Karen’s quarters, two rats came out to greet them. “There you are! Glad you two could make it. Right this way.” Lambert and Bertha led them to an adjoining room.

Karen met them at the door, greeted them and led them to where Elizabeth and Victoria were sound asleep in their cradle. Lilia had seen them briefly yesterday, but it was still an enthralling sight, this being the first she’d seen mouse babies this young up close. She was cautious, tiptoeing quietly; but Karen assured her that she wouldn’t disturb their slumber: “They sleep like rocks, at least until they’re hungry.” To prove it, she picked up Elizabeth and carefully handed her to Ellis. She barely stirred as he cradled her. Karen offered Victoria to Lilia, but she was reluctant, afraid she wouldn’t hold her properly or even drop her. Ellis reassured her, showing her how easy it was, and shortly, he’d coaxed her into it.

They all sat down and chatted quietly—about the trip to Gwinthrayle’s, to which Lambert and Bertha were already signed up; how Martin was presently out helping to restore the fields, accompanied by Reuben, who was quickly becoming fast friends with Martin and Karen; about the twins and how they were developing, especially the little ways they seemed different from each other already.

As if aware of the shift in conversation, Victoria began to stir and was soon loudly whimpering. Lilia was concerned that she’d done something wrong, but Karen assured her it only signaled feeding time. She removed her top and sat on the sofa. Lilia handed the mouseling to her mother; and hardly had Victoria begun suckling when Elizabeth began making a similar fuss.

“They must be sharing a brain, all right,” said Ellis, chuckling as he handed his two-day-old niece to Karen.

The conversation continued as Karen positioned Elizabeth to suckle alongside her twin. She hummed and cooed to them as she stroked and caressed them. Lilia quickly became distracted from the ongoing conversation and approached Karen a bit tentatively. Karen could see how fascinated she still was and invited her to come closer. Lilia sat on the floor in front of Karen.

“That is so sweet,” Lilia said with a sigh. “What…does it feel like?”

“Well…it’s just such a warm feeling all over. Not just physically, but…knowing that they’re totally dependent on me, and that I’m the only one who can nurture them like this.” She paused, sighing. “I think Marty gets a bit jealous, almost. But don’t tell him I said that, okay?”

“I won’t,” said Lilia with a laugh. She continued to watch, enthralled by the sight.

“If I didn’t know better,” said Lambert quietly to Ellis, nudging him, “I’d think Lilia was getting ideas there.” Ellis just cleared his throat and got up to sit on the floor alongside Lilia.

After another minute of near-silence in the room, Karen said, “You know…there’s another feeling or impression or whatever you’d call it, that I get. It’s sort of like…I’m not just feeding or nurturing them, but almost like…they and I are…tied more to this world, connected to its essence in some strange way. It’s hard to really put into words.” She paused, gently cleaning Elizabeth’s ear with her tongue.

“That sounds an awful lot like what I’ve heard from others,” said Bertha. “Two of us rats who’ve had babies since coming to Lahaikshe have reported much the same thing.”

“Michelle and Myrna too,” said Ellis.

“And some of us have had those dreams which gave that same kind of impression,” added Lambert. “Something’s definitely happening here, and I’d bet anything it won’t stop with this stuff.” Lilia suddenly looked away from Karen and straight at Lambert, as if his words had struck a chord.

“Uh…is something wrong, Lilia?” he asked.

“Ah…no, nothing’s wrong. It’s just…oh, I don’t know, it’s probably nothing.” She returned her attention to Karen and her brood.

For a moment, Ellis meant to press her further on the matter, but kept silent. He wondered: did it have to do with what she’d gone through in recent days? Nicodemus had said that something in the essence of this world may have been a contributing factor in it. Well, whatever it is, he decided, maybe she’ll confide in him about it later. Right now, it seemed little more than a momentary distraction to her, as she returned her full attention to Karen and the twins.

They continued discussing the point Lambert had steered them toward, and what it might mean for everyone here. Presently the twins finished nursing and their mother paused to burp them before getting up to place them back in their cradle.

As she did, Martin arrived with Reuben. “Hi, gorgeous,” said Martin, coming up behind Karen and pressing up close, nuzzling and caressing her.

She turned to embrace her husband. “Well, you smell earthy,” she said, kissing him. They both laughed.

“I guess you two would rather be alone right now,” offered Lambert, though he knew they always greeted each other like this, and weren’t in the least self-conscious about showing affection.

“No, no,” replied Martin as he and Karen came out of their embrace and looked down into the cradle. “You guys stay as long as you like.” They both continued to tend to their tiny brood, cooing and fussing over them.

Lambert smiled at Bertha, shaking his head, still finding it hard to imagine how different so many things were now; and people too, of course, especially Martin. Not even six months ago would he have imagined seeing Martin so thoroughly domesticated, constantly doting on his mate and children, seemingly living only for them. Speak for yourself, he thought. Aren’t you and Bertha at least as serious, or getting close? There is that about love, it was well known. Look at Mr. Ages, someone none had believed would lead anything but a solitary, celibate life until his and Alma’s surprise announcement two years ago. It comes to everyone, it changes him or her forever. Then too, an experience such as the one he and Martin had—leaving home to seek out the place where their parents originated, and meeting with experiences they never could have foreseen, all leading up to the mass exodus to Lahaikshe—would definitely lead to a change in attitude, a shifting of priorities. Both of them were more giving of themselves, less self-oriented; nothing was more important now than their families, their friends, and how everyone needed and depended on the other. The change was especially noticeable in Martin, who had been rebellious and moody before the fateful trip.

Lambert smiled again as he recalled that first night after his return, when he’d left the small celebration his family had thrown in honor of his safe return, and returned to his and Tremaine’s quarters to find Bertha waiting for him—ready to give him “a private welcome.” He’d been interested in her but was undecided between her and Karina, until that night. She’d thought about him almost nonstop while he’d been gone, she’d told him, and had worried at least as much as his family. She’d come to that all-important decision just before the alarm had been sounded for everyone to gather in the assembly hall and the humans had arrived in Thorn Valley; and after his return, she had resisted taking part in the celebration, instead taking Tremaine aside and cajoling him into letting her wait for Lambert in their quarters and into his spending the next several hours elsewhere. As for Lambert, he’d been puzzled by her absence from the party and by a couple of cryptic remarks Tremaine had made there. He’d found out that Karina had chosen another, and so had meant to look for Bertha after stopping briefly at his quarters. Of course, he hadn’t expected to find her there, but he was hardly disappointed; and so they spent the next few hours becoming better acquainted with each other than they ever had. At one point, when she mentioned that he seemed to be holding back, he confessed that he didn’t feel quite worthy of her because of the way he and Martin had essentially lied about their trip, and how they should have been here with everyone when the threat of invasion reared its head. He knew it was irrational, knowing that none could have predicted what would happen, and that his father had told him when they were reunited that whole matter was past history and should be considered laid to rest; but still he couldn’t quite shake his uncertainty. Bertha was quick to assure him that none of that mattered now, and that she was proud of the way he handled his predicament with Boonger’s gang. She let him know, in no uncertain terms, how much he was worthy of her and how much she wanted to be with him. She managed to convince him pretty easily.

He sighed with fondness of the memories of that night, and placed an arm around Bertha’s waist, leaning over to kiss her. Martin was now describing how work on restoration was progressing, and how Reuben had taken part in weeding and cultivating. “It was dirty work,” Reuben admitted, and though he said little more about it, he seemed proud to be able to do his part.

The conversation continued for some forty more minutes, during which Lilia seemed restless, continuously moving about the room and lingering by the twins’ cradle for several minutes at a time, talking quietly to them and touching them, smiling and laughing as they responded with contended sounds to her attentions. Eventually she told Ellis privately that she wanted to talk with him alone, and so they made ready to leave. Reuben came close to jumping up to leave with them, but he caught himself, instead asking if they were going for a walk. Lilia replied yes, and away they went. Reuben excused himself momentarily, saying there were others he needed to meet and thanking Martin and Karen for their hospitality. On his way out, he also took time to look in on Elizabeth and Victoria, seeming almost as enchanted by them as his sister. Lambert and Bertha soon followed, saying they also had much to say and do.

“Did you see Lilia back there?” said Bertha after they were back outside. “She just could not take her eyes off them. I don’t want to sound like a gossip, but I can guess what she wants to discuss with Ellis.”

“Yeah. I can’t say I envy him right now, but…they may have already discussed it, to some point. Whatever they decide, I hope they’re both ready.”

“Mm-hm. Just as we are?”

Lambert just nodded, smiling as he and his betrothed left for a more secluded area to discuss the matter further.

Not far away, Ellis and Lilia walked along, not saying much as yet, now and again chatting with passersby who expressed admiration for Lilia’s new cloak. Soon they worked their way over to a trail leading to the Rooftop, the one near Freethorn’s north entrance. Both recalled the events of five days ago, when they’d seen off the latest exchange party, including Ellis’s eldest brother Norman. Then, they’d watched through a ground-level observation post, saying nary a word to each other; and yet, they both knew now, it was a meeting of great future importance.

They were mostly silent until they reached the top, where they found a steady but not overwhelming breeze was blowing. In spite of this, Lilia couldn’t restrain her delight and awe at the view from up there, looking across the plain to the forest about two-thirds of a mile distant. They sat down, huddling close together and wrapping her cloak around them both against the breeze, which was blowing cooler than usual. Neither could resist chortling with childlike glee.

Soon, though, they knew the time for more serious discussion was upon them. Ellis was about to break the silence, but surprisingly Lilia spoke first. “Oh, Ellis, I…just can’t get over Karen and her babies. Look how helpless they are, and dependent on her in every way.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome, all right…”

“And just think, in a short while they’ll be walking and talking like the rest of us.” She sighed. “And look how happy Karen is. And Martin, too, but Karen especially, I think. It’s all so…so…”

Ellis knew exactly where she was going with the subject, and had been expecting it since they’d left Martin and Karen’s.

“Oh, Ellis, I…I feel kind of silly for saying this, but…I want that for me. I want to have babies so much it hurts. I want to hold and feed them, and love them just like that, and watch them grow.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Isn’t that what you want, Ellis? Doesn’t everyone want that?”

Ellis couldn’t help feeling slightly taken aback, not expecting Lilia to broach the subject in such rapid-fire fashion. “Well, uh…I suppose so, but are you sure that’s what you want? Right now, I mean? I’m not sure…either of us is ready right now.”

Lilia made to answer, and then hesitated. “Oh, Ellis, I’m sorry, I…shouldn’t have said that. I’m…putting too much pressure on you.”

“That’s all right, you needn’t be sorry. In fact, I’m glad that you’re making decisions about your future, all on your own. It’s a nice change for you. But this…becoming parents is such a big step, such a big responsibility.”

“I know, but we’d have help, wouldn’t we? No one raises children all by themselves here.”

“Yes, that’s true, but…I just think we should wait a while longer. I do want a future with you, Lilia. I love you. But I just think…you’re overreacting to what you saw back there. I mean, I know this is what you really want, and believe me, I do too. I’ve wanted children of my own for quite some time, and I want to have them with you. I just think we should give it a little more time, until we’re absolutely sure, beyond a doubt, that we’re both ready. So…what do you think?”

Lilia was looking thoughtfully across the plain. “I guess…you’re right, Ellis. I suppose I…wasn’t using my head too well.”

“We all think with different parts of the body sometime. Believe me, I know.” They both laughed. “They all say that we’re more rational beings than ordinary rats and mice, but even we sometimes are ruled by old instincts, old urges…” Ellis paused, looking into Lilia’s eyes, and suddenly felt a change of subject was in order. They resumed discussing tomorrow’s trip.

* * *

“…And when he turned around, and his gaze traveled all the way up, I thought he’d fall over backwards.” Brutus chuckled at the memory. “It took a few more seconds before he realized it was me. He couldn’t get over how much I’d grown since he’d seen me last.”

“Mm—yes. I daresay that was the least of the surprises awaiting Johnathan upon his return.”

“Oh, yes, very true.” The two paused as they approached the north end of the lake. “But they all pale compared to the one we all got two days ago.” They both laughed, then Brutus added, “You know…Father, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you took a certain amount of delight at the reactions you raised in us all.”

“Why, Brutus, you wound me,” Nicodemus replied, though he obviously wasn’t really offended. “If anything, I took interest in seeing how everyone’s reactions matched those that I’d expected to see. Then again…I suppose I couldn’t help feeling some amusement…”

“Wait,” interrupted Brutus quietly. “I think we have company.” He stopped and crouched. “I see you in there, come on out,” he said jovially. A young mouse ventured out from behind a bush, glancing between the two a bit nervously.

“Well, Lula,” said Nicodemus. “Lovely to see you, my dear. Please don’t feel reluctant to approach either of us directly if you want.”

“Ah…no, I’m not. I was…just in the area, and saw you pass by…”

“For a good two minutes, no less,” said Brutus, “since you started trailing us.” Nicodemus nodded, knowing as well of her continued presence.

Lula looked thunderstruck. “You knew I was…” She turned, hiding her eyes. “Oh, this is so embarrassing…I can’t do anything right.”

Nicodemus silently motioned to Brutus that he’d handle this, and approached her. “Lula, it’s all right. You’ve done nothing wrong. But you should never be reluctant to approach either of us, or anyone here.” He gently placed his hands on her shoulders.

She looked up at him. “I…I know, I guess I…just didn’t think that…I mean, you’re so important, you were the Rats’ leader, and…”

Nicodemus laughed gently. “Lula, Lula…that doesn’t matter, believe me. You’ll find me eminently approachable. Even when I was leader, I would talk with anyone about anything, and no subject was too trivial.” He embraced her. “Be at ease, child, no one’s going to laugh or scoff at you.”

After a bit she pulled away, managing a smile. “I know. Mother Pat tells me that, but it’s still hard…to get used to having so many care for me. I do…tend to go on, and make too big a deal out of things. Lucy says I…cry over spilled milk too much.”

“None of us are without our shortcomings, my dear. So…what did you need to talk about?”

“Well…it’s about…ah…” Lula was looking at Brutus uneasily.

“You’d rather be alone, I can tell,” said Brutus, straightening. “I’ll see you later…Father…Lula.”

“You may count on that, Brutus.”

After Brutus left, Lula said, “I…probably shouldn’t have made him leave. Now he probably thinks I…” She paused, sighing. “There I go again.”

“It’s all right, he understands that you wanted to speak to me alone. He knows it’s not personal.”

Lula gave a slight smile. “If you say so. You probably wonder…why I’m so weird like this.”

“Patricia has told me about the life you had before. I understand perfectly.”

“Actually, that’s…kind of why I wanted to talk to you.” They both sat down on a bench. “I’ve been thinking…off and on, the past couple of days, since we all heard your story, about where you described Rollo’s brother…ah…Ardo, that’s it, and how he and his mother…how they didn’t get along well, and she died without him even knowing about it. And then he died, too, and…it was all just so sad…” She couldn’t keep tears from her eyes, and Nicodemus offered his shoulder in comfort.

After a short while, he said, “And you were reminded of you and your own mother.”

She looked up. “Yeah, that’s right. How’d you…oh, I guess it wasn’t hard to guess, huh? Yeah, I…just don’t want her to…to die without knowing how I feel.”

“And how do you feel about her?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think I really hate her anymore. Maybe I never really did. I mean, she used to be so nice, she took good care of my brothers and me. We always…felt loved. That’s why I just couldn’t understand why she would…do like she did, throw me out just because I…missed Desmond. And I know she missed him, too; all of us did. That’s why I can’t understand it. I just missed him more, I couldn’t get over…losing him like they did. Why was that so bad?” She found it hard to continue, and Nicodemus comforted her again, stroking her head.

“I wish I could give you a definite answer, my dear. Obviously, Desmond touched something deep within you that he hadn’t with your mother, and it was just beyond her understanding. It was much the same with others of us who had become emotionally close to…what we’ve been calling natural mice and rats such as yourself, though I’ve seen for myself how irrelevant that term has become. Each of those individuals had become influenced by his or her mate, so that they experienced a wider variety of emotions, and even comprehended some things better, more complex things and concepts; or at least that’s the accepted theory.”

Lula’s expression brightened. “Madeline told me it was like that with her, when she and Johnathan met. Do you really think…that’s how it was with me and Desmond?”

“Well, they were able to determine beyond a doubt that Johnathan had influenced Madeline to the point of making her one of us in every way. In the case of others, such as our Mr. and Mrs. Ages, the jury’s still out, as they say. In your case, my dear, it may prove to be true, to some degree. I believe it may have baffled your mother, even frightened her, just because it was so unfamiliar and unexpected.”

Lula thought silently for a moment. “Desmond stayed with us for that whole day…with all of us…but I was the one who…felt this way for him? Why not my mother? Maybe…maybe it means that we…he and I really were meant to be together, mates for life. And I…he…” Tears welled up again, and she leaned against him, weeping quietly.

As he comforted her, Nicodemus felt a pang of guilt for going so far into the subject, but then he reminded himself this was what she wanted to discuss. Still, he hoped this wouldn’t set her back; Patricia had told him she seemed to be largely over her grief—which, of course, she and the rest of her family shared.

An idea came to him. “Lula…would you like to see your mother again?”

She pulled away, expression brightening. “Could it be done? Oh…I guess it could. Johnathan and that stone of his, he could take us there, just like he brought me here, and you too.”

“Yes, my dear. Any time you feel ready, just ask him. I know he’ll be happy to oblige. If you want me to ask for you, I can—”

“No, that’s okay, I can do it. Wow…I never thought I’d want to see her again, but I do. Thank you, Nicodemus!” She gave him a quick hug. “I’ll go find him right now!”

As she started off, Nicodemus said quickly, “Wait. Before you rush off, I wanted to ask you: would you like to have dinner with Brutus and his family and me tonight?”

“Oh…well, I guess I could. Sure. Ah…he probably didn’t tell you, but…when I first got here, he scared the dickens out of me. He was so huge, I’d never seen a rat like him before. I actually tried to hide behind Mother Pat—that’s what I call Patricia—but she told me how nice he was. I think he still gives me the willies, just a bit. I know it’s silly. ’Cause I’ve seen him with his kids, he seems really good with them.”

“Well, that’s all the more reason you should come dine and visit with us, so you may know him better.”

“I know. Well…thanks again, Nicodemus, sir. I’ll be there tonight.”

“Good. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me too. Okay, I’ll go tell Mother Pat, and then talk to Johnathan.”

As she was leaving, Nicodemus smiled to himself as he waved goodbye. Though she was still troubled by her recent past, it was obvious how much she was enjoying her new life, making new friends and becoming a true part of the community. He thought about what he’d been told about her family, and hoped they could reconcile their differences easily. Perhaps inevitably, though, his thoughts fell to the domestic life he and Anna might have had. It was a situation he’d given much thought to while trapped within Rollo, the life he’d imagined seeming so real at times it was as if it had actually happened, as if he’d opened a window onto another lifetime, another reality…one of the ‘infinite possibilities’ he’d referred to. Now he tried to shrug it off; after all, the time he had left here and now was what really mattered, and those he would spend it with.

And, even more inevitably, thoughts of Jessica came to him. He hadn’t seen her at all since breakfast, but thought that perhaps it would be best to have as little contact with her as possible. Not that he’d try to deliberately avoid her or turn the other way if their paths crossed; but he knew well, as did she, what could happen. True, she’d spent the night with him as a favor, but as favors go, this was something with potentially more serious repercussions than lending someone a tool or scratching someone’s back. But they were well aware of them and had discussed them, and they both knew that the less they saw of each other, the less risk there’d be of them coming to pass. No, he thought as he got to his feet, he’d always be grateful to her, but that was as far as it would go. And now, it was time to meet a few more friends, old and new, as he’d promised, before dinner with Brutus and Deena.

* * *

“She really said that?” Jessica laughed, shaking her head.

“Yes, she did,” replied Ages. “She had it all figured out. Of course, I told her that I couldn’t make any definite plans like that right now.”

“That’s really sweet of her, though. Sad, too, but…it’s good that she’s looking ahead like that.”

“We’ve all done that, but it seems she’s given more thought to the matter than I have, and she seems a lot more accepting of it too.” Ages sighed, seeming reluctant to say more; then he added, “She’s been…so good for me, Jessie, I don’t know how… But then, I suppose that’s not much compared to Nicodemus and his situation.”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Jessica; and she looked ready to add more, but refrained. This hesitation didn’t go unnoticed; but Ages, being a great respecter of privacy—his own and others’—didn’t question her about it, though he still recalled the sparks that seemed to fly between Jessica and Nicodemus yesterday. Almost at once, both seemed eager to change the subject, and so began discussing recent findings in their plant research.

Presently, Tara dropped by, complaining of a slight queasy feeling—not really nauseous, but enough to be distracting and give her concern that something wasn’t quite right. As Ages led her into the examining room, Jessica thought fleetingly: Could what was ailing her have something to do with—then she caught herself. Why, the idea was absurd. How would her love affair with Bertie have anything to do with how she was feeling now, as if he were somehow the cause? Come on, this is your baby brother you’re talking about, she told herself. Sure, none of us ever thought he’d be involved in anything like this, with someone like Tara. But why would such a thought cross her mind? After all, Tara’s wasn’t the first such complaint; others had experienced similar symptoms since moving to Lahaikshe, and they all seemed attributable to adjustment to a new environment. They also were distributed almost proportionately among the new arrivals and veteran Freethorn residents.

But then, there was also Eric. She’d met him briefly, when he and Teresa made their first return from Earth to test how he’d cope here; but sadly, it was as before, if not worse. Ages had examined him, but again there had been no apparent physical symptoms; he was seemingly in the grip of some unknown, nameless dread that he claimed came from just being here on this world, all the while insisting that he’d die if he remained. It troubled Jessica whenever she thought of it, especially considering his eventual fate. But she also wondered: that was only his contention that he would die if he stayed here. Was he just exaggerating his discomfort, genuine as it was? If he’d been forced to stay, would he have overcome it, after all? None would know now, of course. It was so sad for Teresa and her sons, who would never know their father, and for Eric’s sister Sarah as well. Both of them had had enormous support from everyone since their return, and Teresa at least seemed to be finding love again as well.

Jessica thought about the pang of jealousy she’d felt the other day while thinking about how close her twin brother Norman had been lately to Teresa, and suddenly felt an urge to apologize to both of them for it. It was so silly; this was something everyone needs, after all, and just because nothing was currently happening in her love life doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t…

She caught herself as she realized that her thoughts had come full circle, right back to Nicodemus. She laughed quietly to herself, and went up to the examining room door, telling Ages that she was leaving now, as she was about to do anyway. No doubt, she thought as she made her way to the outside, this was a matter that definitely needed resolving, and a walk around Freethorn just might help. She and Nicodemus had mutually agreed to see each other as little as possible without deliberately avoiding each other, but the way her thoughts kept returning to him, unbidden, almost to the point of distraction from daily activities…somehow, someway, this needed to be worked out.

She’d only gone a short ways outside the service entrance when she heard a cry of distress from a grove of oak saplings. She immediately rushed to investigate, and found one of the Rusay children, Tisphi, sitting on the ground, howling in pain and favoring her left foot. Jessica crouched before her, assuring her she’d be all right. As she examined the little girl’s foot, she thought fleetingly that she could use a distraction from thinking about Nicodemus, at least for now; maybe several distractions in a row. She quickly determined that Tisphi had a sprained toe, and fashioned a makeshift splint for it. As Tisphi calmed down, she explained how she was trying to climb one of the saplings when she slipped and fell to the ground. Jessica told her these Earth trees can be tricky to negotiate if one isn’t used to them. Presently her father Morobphra arrived, and Jessica quickly assured him it wasn’t serious. He picked her up, cradling her as Jessica led them back to Medical.

* * *

Before the expansion of the Mouse colony, the Brisbys favored a natural rock ledge above the entrance of their home as a spot to sit and talk and observe goings-on below, especially at the end of the day. Since the expansion, it had undergone some changes. It hadn’t become necessary to do away with it, though; on the contrary, it had been expanded to accommodate more than two mice, courtesy of Johnathan and the amulet. So it was now that Johnathan and Madeline were now joined by Kimball and Patricia, engaged in a mostly light-hearted discussion of recent events. The subject of Lula soon came up—how nice it was of Brutus and Deena to invite her and Nicodemus to share their dinnertime with her and then let her stay and socialize with them afterward; and the trip to Earth tomorrow to take her to see her family again, the idea of which they had all agreed to, in spite of the uncertainty of its outcome, given how acrimonious Lula had been toward her mother before, despite her outward enthusiasm now. It had been agreed who would accompany her: Patricia was a natural choice, and Madeline would use the amulet alone to take them there. This was her suggestion; she hadn’t made a solo “dimension-hop” with the amulet since that first trip to Lahaikshe to seek out Johnathan, usually choosing to leave that task to him. She and Patricia had discussed the possibility of Lula’s mother being more comfortable with Lula being in the company of only females for this visit; and Johnathan agreed to it, though he couldn’t resist pretending to be offended about it in a teasing manner. In spite of how long it had been, Madeline was confident she could handle guiding the amulet for an interdimensional trip solo, being as familiar with its capabilities as Johnathan.

Presently Lula came by accompanied by Nicodemus, who quickly excused himself, citing previous engagements. Lula joined the other mice on the ledge, speaking animatedly of her visit, how nice Brutus and Deena were to her and the fun she had playing with their children. Soon the subject of both trips tomorrow came up; Lula admitted being torn between joining Nicodemus on the visit to Gwinthrayle’s and visiting her mother, but knew the latter was probably more important right now as a matter to be resolved, and that there would be plenty of other chances to visit Gwinthrayle’s and other places outside Freethorn.

The subject of Nicodemus came up, as it did so often these days. It started as usual—”It’s a shame he has to leave so soon,” “I hope he has the chance to all he wants to do”—but then Kimball brought up a matter which, everyone was surprised to find, had hardly been considered: “After Nicodemus vacates Rollo’s body, how will Rollo adjust to living here?”

Everyone looked at each other, each realizing the same thing. “We’ve all been…thinking about Nicodemus so much, concentrating on him only…that we’ve forgotten that Rollo…that all this will be so new to him,” said Madeline.

“Yes, everything about our life here, even the normal, everyday interactions that we take for granted, he’ll be an absolute babe-in-the-woods about,” added Johnathan.

“It’ll take a lot of patience and understanding from all of us, for sure,” said Patricia.

“Of course,” said Kimball. “But let’s not forget that Nicodemus gave the lad plenty of coaching when they were…how should I put it…mind-mates?”

Everyone laughed; then Lula said, “I still don’t understand all of that, but…Nicodemus said, didn’t he, that he taught Rollo a lot about his life, and the world and everything?”

“That he did, Lula,” said Kimball. “But it’s like learning something in a classroom, and then going out ‘in the field’ and finding it’s not what you expected.”

“Yes, so we can only imagine how difficult a time Rollo may have,” said Johnathan. “Though I suppose we’re starting to sound a bit pessimistic; after all, Rollo may adjust as well as Lula here, or any of our other new arrivals who didn’t even know of us before. Rollo will at least have that advantage.”

“Quite true, Johnathan,” added Kimball. “But I’ve also wondered…will Nicodemus really be able to heal Rollo’s brain as he said? I mean, not to dismiss his abilities out of hand, but…well, there’s so much that Patricia and I never thought possible before coming here, so I guess it’s not much of a stretch, but still…”

“I know what you’re trying to say, Kimball. Knowing what we know of such brain defects in humans, it does seem like a longshot. But let’s not forget that Nicodemus was inside that brain for the better part of three years. He had plenty of time to determine what could or couldn’t be done.”

“Well, you know him better than the rest of us, Johnathan. All the same, I think we should prepare to deal with Rollo as he was before, just in case.”

“I agree,” said Patricia. “I hope this talk doesn’t bother you, Johnathan. I know how close you and Nicodemus were in the old days, and I know you really believe in him.”

“That’s all right,” said Johnathan. “We’ve learned the hard way recently how important it is to prepare for contingencies.”

“Like not doing enough to prepare for NIMH’s possibly finding us in Thorn Valley,” offered Madeline.

“Exactly. I really do feel strongly, though, that Nicodemus can help Rollo in the way he said. And when he’s done his part, it’ll be up to the rest of us. Personally, I can’t wait. I’m not looking forward to Nicodemus leaving us, but I would like very much to meet the ‘real’ Rollo, and do what I can to help him fit in, and understanding things.”

“As do we all,” agreed Kimball, “but we may need to curb our enthusiasm. The lad’s likely to be bewildered by so much attention, maybe even overwhelmed.”

Johnathan nodded. “I still think he may surprise us, though. I know Nicodemus has prepared him well.”

“He’ll still experience so much that’ll be totally new to him,” said Madeline. “Just speaking with others, being with all these strangers in a strange place, and feelings he’s never been able to express before…it’s almost like it was with me when I first met Johnathan, and then met the Rats.” She and Johnathan smiled and kissed lightly.

“And when love comes his way,” offered Patricia, “whoever it may be, think of what a totally new experience it’ll be. But then, how is that different from anyone?”

The two couples began exchanging more detailed accounts of the dawning of their mutual feelings and their respective courtships. Lula, meanwhile, sat quietly, listening with rapt attention to these exchanges, seemingly untroubled by them. Patricia was concerned that these stories might be upsetting for her, given her past feelings for Desmond; but Lula, without saying a word, let her foster mother know that they didn’t, seeming happy just to take it all in. Patricia was pleased that she seemed to be putting that aspect of her past behind her, and wondered to herself if someone else were starting to take that special place in Lula’s heart.

* * *

The evening wore on; and as it fell into night, many in Freethorn remained outside to enjoy it, at least until a rather thick bank of fog began to roll in, sending many inside. Though some of them grumbled about the damper being put on a perfectly nice night—no pun intended—others weren’t bothered at all, even preferring the cool dampness. Among them was Nicodemus, who was only too happy to be experiencing all manner of weather conditions, and was certainly used to being where he was surrounded by mist and fog, or at least the appearance thereof. He even told Tallus and Angeline, with whom he was socializing at the time, that he wouldn’t mind if it were pouring rain right now. Both Tallus and Angeline had visited Gwinthrayle before, and were now describing their visit to Nicodemus, who reminded Tallus not to go into too exacting detail, as was his wont; otherwise, he said with good humor, there would be little point in going himself.

Though obvious only to himself, Nicodemus was making a very pointed effort to keep from thinking about Jessica; and elsewhere, she did likewise about him, as she helped her younger siblings and others who were visiting Gwinthrayle with packing and other details, though she wasn’t going herself. It was only a favor, and just for one night, each told himself or herself when thoughts of the other did come up. And come up they did, time and again…

Eventually most Freethorners had retired for the night. Outside, the fogbank continued to enshroud the transplanted colony and surrounding plains. Were one to observe the scene from above, it would seem as if it had deliberately and specifically sought this location, like a meeting of two lovers, or—perhaps more accurately—a mother finding and embracing her child.

Those yet remaining outside would tell their families and friends the following day of the unique and strange quality of this night. Not all descriptions would be identical, of course; but everyone, to an individual, would tell of a sense of the fogbank bringing with it more than condensed water vapor. There was a quality hard to describe in it, and it would add to the growing list of experiences reported by Freethorners since the colony’s arrival on Lahaikshe, usually taking the form of dreams, that was increasingly giving the impression of their being welcomed as a part of this world, not only by its native population but by the world itself.

Chapter 24 - On to Gwinthrayle’s

“…and as we walked around, watching the mist roll in and swirl around us, one pair of rats, Vernon and Theodocia, asked us, purely out of curiosity, why we seemed to enjoy this kind of weather so much. None of us could give any really specific reason; we just always enjoyed walking around in the fog. Morobphra, especially, was surprised they even asked. I explained that many Rusay enjoy it, and it was a part of our culture that goes back centuries, and that no one’s sure how it began. As for what it signifies, I said most just find it an enjoyable thing to do, but some put a more special meaning to it that even they find hard to really pin down.

“We moved on, and the kids had fun with it; they were almost playing hide-and-seek in it, it was so thick. We met several others who didn’t care for it and sought shelter, but there were some who enjoyed it much the same as we did. But almost every one of these rats and mice said the same thing, that it made them feel more like they belonged here, or that it was a harbinger of good things to come. And all of them said that that still couldn’t adequately describe the feeling. We weren’t surprised to see Nicodemus still out there, and he said much the same. I remarked to him that it was almost mystical, the way everyone described this night. He said he couldn’t pinpoint the reason why, that it would take further study; but for now, he was content to enjoy it as the others did.

“The kids soon tired themselves out, so we returned to the guest house, almost losing our way once. Gwinthri slept on my shoulder all the way. We went to bed, and that’s pretty much how our sixth day went.”

Sithpha laid down his pen and looked over this latest entry. Though it was really no more than just his usual observations, he wondered if he hadn’t hit upon something that no one else in Freethorn had yet. Everyone who had been out there last night had reported receiving the same impressions. It had to mean something, like the way some Rusay impart a “special” meaning to foggy weather. It obviously strikes the same chord with them, and there’s definitely something supernatural about it. Nicodemus said as much himself.

Sithpha got up and looked out the window. The upper level provided an excellent view of the south meadow, where they’d frolicked in the fog last night. There was no trace of it now, but wondered if it would return, and get the same reaction next time it comes, and probably among more of them?

“Coming to breakfast?” came a voice behind him, making him jump slightly. “The kids are getting a little impatient…”

“Oh, uh…sure, babe, I’ll be right there.” Dinilom couldn’t suppress a giggle. “What? What’s so funny?”

“Oh, it’s just you…you with your head in the clouds again.” She pressed up close behind him and massaged his shoulders.

“Yeah, that’d be the right word for it, all right.”

“I’m positive I’ve never seen you think so much before we came here. But with all we’ve seen and heard…I guess I should speak for myself.”

“This place does bring it out, all right. It’s funny…we came here to learn about these people, and we’re getting so much more in the bargain; maybe even more about…about us, and how everyone fits in the world.” He sighed, looking out the window again.

After a pause, Dinilom asked, “So…I heard they’re serving kiatheios and skuvurnee muffins this morning. Does that sound all right?”

Sithpha laughed out loud as he turned around, embracing her. “I’m even forgetting my stomach these days. Thanks for reminding me, babe.” They walked arm-in-arm toward the stairs.

* * *

“…and Veronica, Susanna and Marcus make 23. So we must be missing…” Johnathan looked down at the roster.

Then Marcus spoke up. “My aunt Tara.”

“And Bertie too,” said Lucy. “Pretty odd, considering they’re the ones who had this idea in the first place.”

“How long do you think we should give them, Dad?” asked Timothy.

“Well, they knew when to show up, just like the rest of us. Maybe something came up.”

“Can’t we just go without ’em, Dad?” said Lyndon, his impatience showing in his dancing about as well as his tone.

“Now, Lyndon, we know how much you’ve been looking forward to this, but we don’t know what’s going on with Bertie and Tara yet. We’ll give them another five minutes, and then someone can go and look for them. We don’t want to leave anyone behind if we can help it.” Johnathan looked out through the trees from the spot where this party had gathered, at the base of the ramp leading to Freethorn’s north entrance. Everyone else continued to stand or sit—both those who had signed on for the trip to Gwinthrayle’s and those who were there to see them off—chatting about the trip to come and continually looking out for the missing members of the party.

After five minutes, Ellis and Kevin had volunteered to look for them and were just setting out when Bertie could be seen approaching. “We thought you got lost or something,” said Ellis. “So where’s Tara?”

“She…can’t make it, she said she wasn’t feeling well.”

“Wow, that’s too bad,” said Johnathan. “Uhm, don’t take this the wrong way, but if you’d rather stay here, you know, to look after her…”

“I offered to. But she said to go on ahead and enjoy myself, and that she’d be fine. I didn’t want to at first, but she convinced me, I guess, so…well, I guess we can get started.”

“Mm…well, if you’re sure. Okay, then. Nicodemus?”

Nicodemus stepped forward. Though he was very much at the center of this expedition, Johnathan had insisted upon carrying out the lion’s share of the organizational details, and so Nicodemus had been content to let himself be just another one of the Freethorners visiting Gwinthrayle. Now, though, he brought to Johnathan’s a detail he may have overlooked: that with Tara dropping out, consideration should be given to the next one on the list, who happened to be Barbara Anne, who was already there to see off her best friend Veronica and was now delighted at being able to go with her instead. She’d even had a small bag packed already just in case, knowing she was next on the list and hoping quietly that someone would drop out.

With this settled, Nicodemus again explained briefly how he would use the seemingly-mystical ability within himself to transport them en masse to Gwinthrayle’s; and, once sure he was ready to begin, he gave everyone time for last goodbyes before beginning. He asked for quiet, though not total silence, and everyone sat down; and after only a few seconds, a collective gasp issued from the group. Everyone was rising slowly from the ground, and, almost to an individual were grabbing for the one next to her or him. Opening his eyes, Nicodemus allowed himself a smile and told everyone they could converse freely now. As the group rose further, there was more laughter—some of it nervous—than conversation, amid more goodbyes between them and those on the ground. Few among them had experienced a sensation like this before, and everyone looked about him or her continuously, unable to take in enough of the sight of the trees and the Wall seemingly growing shorter, along with the peculiar sensation of moving through the air in this fashion. Soon, they were even with the highest treetops, including the big burr oak, then the Rooftop, and still they rose higher. Now it was quite a panorama spread before everyone on all sides: all of Freethorn, the red plain, the low hills to the north and forest to the east.

Soon they stopped ascending and began moving forward, across the plain toward the forest. Everyone shielded eyes from the sun, still quite low in the sky, and continued conversing excitedly about this experience. Nicodemus looked around at the assemblage, divided almost evenly between Rats and Mice, pleased that he’d been able to convince Johnathan that it would be worthwhile to make the trip to Gwinthrayle’s in this fashion, rather than having Johnathan use the Stone to do the job instantaneously, and thus make the trip all the more memorable. There was that human expression, after all: Getting there should be half the fun.

Everyone was acclimating to this form of travel quickly, noting that it seemed to be a cushiony but firm surface underneath them, though one they couldn’t see. Nicodemus assured everyone that while the spell was in effect, anyone could stand and move about freely as he or she so desired, though everyone seemed content to stay clustered in little groups, watching the plain roll by beneath them or looking ahead to the advancing forest. Though most in the party had been outside Freethorn, none had ventured further than the immediate forest or plain, so all were enjoying the view enormously. Lilia kept a tight grip on Ellis, taking a little longer to acclimate to this form of travel, though her fascination was as great as anyone’s. Reuben was proving adequately that he was growing less protective of his sister, looking relaxed and smiling as he viewed their surroundings all around, far more than he was viewing Lilia with Ellis. Likewise, Lyndon and his twin Shawna’s heads constantly turned back and forth, shouting and pointing at nearly everything they saw. Kimball was far more subdued but clearly as deeply affected, looking close to weeping and thinking of Patricia, wishing she could be here to share this with him, though he knew her trip to Earth to reunite Lula with her family was probably more important. Lambert and Bertha had initially wanted to come along only if Martin and Karen could accompany them, but when the Mouse couple had bowed out to continue caring for their newborns, they insisted Lambert and Bertha go on ahead and enjoy themselves for all four of them. This seemed to be the case already, as they listened to Timothy, who was the most familiar with this world in general and this area in particular, as he eagerly took on the role of tour guide, describing what passed beneath them and what lay ahead.

By now they were over the forest, and Timothy soon pointed out one especially noteworthy landmark: a rock formation that jutted above treetop level, with a cave entrance close to its summit and a trail down its side, connecting it to ground level. That entrance, Timothy explained, led to the Cavern of Change, the place where his father had found himself when he first entered this world unwillingly via the amulet, as well as his mother, Justin, Melvin and Willis after they traced him here.

Here and there the forest was broken by other unusual rock formations, and further away to the south, a small lake could be seen—Lake Vin’hag, Timothy called it. At his request, Nicodemus steered them toward it. Timothy explained how his family had visited this lake on an earlier visit to Lahaikshe, and how he wanted to at least see it again, as it had been nearly a year. On closer approach, they could see the distinctive trees that grew in abundance along the shoreline, dominated by one species, the fildig, that grew especially high, with a palm-like trunk and a crest that made it look like an oversized cattail. A few small houses, some with boats tied up to nearby docks, dotted the shoreline. The opposite side of the lake, where the river flowed into it, contrasted greatly in appearance, being dominated by marshland and even more exotic-appearing vegetation. Long-legged wading creatures, heron-like in shape but flightless and more reptilian than avian in appearance, could be seen browsing in the shallows: ta’nakrivs, Timothy called them. Some looked up as the group passed overhead, heads bobbing back and forth quizzically on long necks.

They continued moving northeast, Timothy steering Nicodemus in the right direction. It was mostly more dense forest they passed over now, and soon they picked up some traveling companions: a pair of mhys’haspas, flying alongside for several minutes, turning heads toward them as questioningly as the ta’nakrivs but seeming, with their fixed dolphin-like smiles, to approve of these newcomers with their odd mode of travel. The two youngest rat children in the group, Glenda and Nadine, were at once wary and fascinated, staring almost unblinking at the mhys’haspas while sticking close to their parents Kevin and Alcina.

Nicodemus was highly impressed: “Such magnificent, handsome creatures,” he said out loud, remembering how seeing one flying overhead the day of his arrival had whetted his appetite for seeing more of them and the world they now all shared.

After a few minutes the mhys’haspas veered off in another direction; and soon the group was flying over a wide forest trail which led off in a northeast direction, with haisk’ve-drawn carriages and smaller wheeled conveyances, like bicycles and tricycles, upon it. If they followed this road, Timothy mentioned, it would lead directly to Timphon, the hometown of the Rusay visitors and where Freethorn’s exchange party was now staying. Lucy half-seriously suggested they take a swing down that way to say hello, but agreed that it was probably best not to interrupt their exchange visit at this point. Again their passage drew attention; many travelers looked up, shading eyes, even waving at these passing strangers, seeming quite casual in spite of the method of these strangers’ passing. Nicodemus was a bit surprised, but then remembered being told how it was part of the Rusay nature to be accepting and trusting of others unlike them; plus, sorcerers like Gwinthrayle were very readily accepted as well.

They soon found the foot trail again, the one leading from the Cavern of Change entrance. Timothy said they were now retracing the path his mother, Justin, Melvin and Willis trod when they used the amulet to seek out Johnathan. The path presently split in two: “The one on the left eventually leads to Gwinthrayle’s, but there’s something else along the way I wanted everyone to see.”

As Nicodemus directed the group above the path, Timothy told him privately, “You know, Nicodemus, it still feels kind of odd; not our mode of travel—well, actually, that does feel odd, but what I really meant was my directing you like this, considering what and who you are, and used to be, and what you mean to everyone.”

Nicodemus smiled and placed an arm around Timothy’s shoulders. “Perfectly understandable, my boy, but as I’ve said, the mantle of leadership had passed from me; but you, Timothy, and perhaps everyone else, at one time or another will be in the position to lead. The mantle is upon you now, because of your familiarity with this area. So you need not feel misgivings, even if I’m to be the one you’re leading.”

“I guess I knew that. I suppose I needed to hear it from you personally.” Timothy smiled and sat down next to Lucy, who was curious to know what he’d told Nicodemus. They talked quietly, laughing and hugging as they did. From behind, Lyndon tried to listen in till his “uncle” Kimball called him to his side, reminding him what he’d promised his parents. Lyndon sulked for a moment, reminding Timothy of Martin in his younger days, until Shawna helped to return his attention to their surroundings.

Timothy directed Nicodemus down another path that branched from the main one, leading to an abandoned stone house with a long, cylindrical pipelike structure lying in its front yard. “It was six, seven months after my dad returned from here,” Timothy explained, “when he brought all of us here, to see this place for ourselves. He thought it was important, he and Mom both, so that we’d better understand the sacrifices they made—Mom, Justin, Melvin and Willis—so that Dad could return to us.” They descended almost to ground level so that they could see the cylinder’s hollow interior, both ends completely open.

“It looks so…innocuous, so harmless,” said Kimball, “like something for children to play upon. And yet…”

“It came so close to…becoming a death trap,” finished Timothy. Well everyone knew the story, of how an interdimensional traveler, the same one that had so bedeviled Johnathan, Nicodemus and Jenner, had taken control of the amulet and used it to imprison the four and Sithpha. The heat and near-lack of food or water would surely have killed them were it not for Gwinthrayle and Johnathan’s timely intervention.

Everyone gave a moment of silent contemplation; then Lyndon said quietly to Timothy, “That’s it, isn’t it, Tim? If Mom hadn’t gotten out of there…”

“We…wouldn’t be here, would we?” finished Shawna. Timothy just nodded and clasped them both to him. They were already well aware of just how personally this story affected them.

Soon it was time to move on, and as they ascended once more, Nicodemus found he had gained greater insight into how much Gwinthrayle meant to virtually everyone in Freethorn, not just the Brisby family. What a considerable moral blow it would have been, had all three of the rats who’d accompanied Madeline died as well as she. He recalled his meeting Gwinthrayle the day of his arrival and looked forward to their second meeting all the more.

The terrain below was growing increasingly hilly, a sign that their destination was near. Timothy told how his family and friends had spent much time on past visits exploring not only the extensive gardens of Gwinthrayle’s compound, but some of the surrounding countryside as well. Soon more familiar landmarks came into view: the creek that flowed through the compound and the adjacent meadow, always a great recreational spot, and some of the specially-cultivated garden areas. Nicodemus brought them down lower so everyone could see some of the native plant life more closely. The strangeness in appearance of many of them was raising more oohs and aahs; Timothy explained how some were quite rare, gathered from other parts of the world. A small group of tysthals, animals about the size of rabbits but putting everyone in the mind of deer upon seeing them, looked up as the visitors passed over.

Soon their destination was in sight: in a small clearing, but with some vegetation growing up close, was a tan-and-silver colored building, roofed with several domes, shape dominated overall by flowing curves with few sharp angles. The house sat atop one low hill, with several terraces surrounding it.

“I was expecting something more like the human dwellings I’ve seen,” said Claire. “This is much nicer.”

“Indeed,” agreed her husband Derek. “If I were to live in a surface dwelling, I’d want it to look much like this.”

Nicodemus brought them lower still, so that they were circling the house slowly. Soon, as expected, a familiar figure waved to them from one of the terraced areas. Nicodemus waved in return and brought them all down to solid ground again.

“Well, it looks as though you all had an enjoyable trip,” said Gwinthrayle as he stepped forward, arms spread in greeting.

“That we most definitely did, my friend,” said Nicodemus. Behind him, everyone was re-orienting themselves to moving about on solid ground again, many laughing as they realized how accustomed they’d become in such a short span of time to floating on air, to the point where returning to the more familiar mode of locomotion was feeling strange.

After everyone gathered under the pavilion outside the side entrance of Gwinthrayle’s abode, Timothy took charge of introducing those who hadn’t met Gwinthrayle before or had only seen him briefly three days ago. Lyndon and Shawna had met him before but were still very much in awe of him, knowing what he meant to their very existence. Gwinthrayle was aware of this and told them that they needn’t regard him that way, and that they should think of him as they would a kindly old grandfather. Derek and Claire were the only two of the elder Rats who hadn’t yet visited Gwinthrayle’s home and so were as enthusiastic and curious as the youngsters.

Gwinthrayle went around to meet and chat with all his guests, many of whom excitedly related details of their airborne journey. Afterwards, he invited everyone inside to show where they would sleep, and to show them the interior overall. When Timothy pointed out the room Johnathan stayed in during his first extended visit (and again on subsequent visits), some of the younger ones wanted to hear more about those times, to which Gwinthrayle gladly obliged them. He led them to the dining room, where foodstuffs were already laid out—all from native plants, some of which some of the Freethorners hadn’t tried yet. Gwinthrayle invited his guests to eat their fill as he told them of how he’d taken in Johnathan and sought the means to send him home. He described how he tried different spells over those several months to send Johnathan home, at one point attempting a spell that would make contact with Nicodemus back on Earth, but it proved fruitless.

“I know how familiar you all must be with the rest of this story,” said Gwinthrayle at this point, “and how much many of you wanted to see the rest of the grounds. So…” Leading his guests back outside, he steered them toward the nearby trail leading down the gently-sloping hill into his gardens.

* * *

“Wow! What’s this one, Gwinthrayle?”

“That, Lucy, is a bavagdee tree, a variety which bears a fruit with a most delectable, delicately-flavored center—the ‘heart’—well worth the trouble one would take to reach it.” Even as Gwinthrayle explained further, Lucy was already halfway up its trunk, ascending via the tubercle-like growths that adorned it in spiral-staircase fashion. Other of the youngsters followed her lead. Nearby, Timothy described for others in the group some of the other plants in the garden. Adults and children alike were awestruck at the variety and strangeness in appearance of some of them.

As he and Claire admired the hivari bushes, Derek said, “All the while we’d been awaiting Justin and the others’ return from who-knows-where, they were seeing all this. Small wonder old Johnathan was a bit reluctant to leave.”

Everyone was finding more and more to endear them to the place. Kimball remarked on the sense of well-being and how easy it was to feel relaxed and at ease here, in spite of the differences with Earth and the land they knew. Indeed, the fact that all life here was scaled down in size was something many of them still had difficulty adjusting to, though there was no reluctance or apprehension in anyone. Even Reuben and Lilia—more so than some of the others, in fact—were intensely curious, exploring practically every square inch of their surroundings.

In an area with a wide patch of short-cropped minphiss—the equivalent of earthly grass—Lilia was almost enraptured by it, walking around in circles, spinning and laughing, seemingly unable to get enough of its feel under her feet. She turned cartwheels, flopped down and rolled around upon it; and Ellis, who soon joined her, was reminded of their moonlit nights on the south meadow. She appeared as carefree now as she was then, but it was so much different now.

“If we were human-sized,” explained Timothy, “This is what walking on grass would be like.” Soon almost everyone in the group was walking in a circular procession on this small patch of ground, like human children on a freshly-cut lawn.

Soon, the party continued moving on leisurely, with plenty more up-close examinations of the local flora, as well as its animal life. Several species of wilfajads, the generic word for a class of creatures analogous to birds, could be seen flying about; and other than them or the tysthals they’d seen coming in, other animal life was represented by small crawling and flying insects; and as with the plants, smaller than those they were more familiar with.

At one point Lucy and Bertie were crouched at the edge of the trail, examining a hard-shelled beetle-like insect. “Almost like a stag beetle,” said Lucy, “except it’s got eight legs.”

“All the insects here do,” said Timothy from over their shoulders. “I don’t remember the exact name for this one, but—”

Without warning, Lucy gave a sudden yelp and jumped back, almost knocking Timothy off his feet, looking startled but not fearful.

“What is it, Lucy?” Timothy and Bertie asked almost at once.

“Something in there, in the grass, minphiss, whatever. It looked at me!”

Before anyone could get a closer look, something emerged from a taller stand of vegetation. At first glance, it could be taken for a tiny flightless bird, its overall shape being birdlike though it had arms instead of wings, seemingly a tiny cousin to the ta’nakriv. It had neither feathers nor fur, but gold skin so shiny and polished in appearance that one could swear it was cast from a living precious metal. It looked at Lucy quizzically, cocking its head to and fro.

“Ooh! Tim, what is it? What is it?” Lucy crouched low in front of the creature, going head-to-head with it, instantly charmed.

“A waktini. They’re quite common around here. They’re wilfajads, too, one of the flightless species like the ta’nakriv.” As Timothy said this, more of them emerged, until there were five of them regarding this larger group, in both size and number, with unmistakable curiosity, which was definitely mutual. It didn’t take long for everyone to gather around, many shaking their heads in disbelief that these could be living, breathing beings as they were.

“Oh, they’re so precious,” said Susanna. “It’s too bad we can’t take one or two back with us.” Her brother Marcus tried to coax one of them closer to him. Claire smiled and nodded, pleased at how all the Freethorn children had learned the foremost rule regarding the native fauna: simply put, leave them be, in their natural habitat.

“I’m sure they’re very happy and content where they are now,” said Nicodemus, “although humans keep other animals as pets. I wonder…”

“Including rats and mice, lest we forget,” added Derek. “Perhaps not as bad a fate as being experimental subjects, but it’s still a form of captivity.”

“Hey, look at this one,” interjected Lucy. She had held her hand down in front of the “lead” waktini, which then walked onto it and climbed up her arm to her shoulder, where it was now smelling and gently nudging her ear, raising a giggle. “He’s tickling me.”

“It looks like you’ve made quite a friend, dear,” said Kimball.

“A friend as opposed to a pet,” added Nicodemus. “I do greatly prefer that idea.” He invited a waktini to climb onto him, which it obliged just as with Lucy.

Though everyone was feeling more and more relaxed the more time they spent here, and though Gwinthrayle never stated explicitly that everyone should stick together, none of his guests felt inclined to stray from the group, since no one wanted to become lost or miss any vital details Gwinthrayle might give about their surroundings, as everyone was most eager to learn.

There was a brief moment of anxiety when Shawna was startled by, of all things, a tree, though hardly an ordinary one. The umatay, Gwinthrayle explained, has a trunk that swells and contracts continuously, giving the appearance of breathing, as its way of transporting nutrients from the soil to its upper branches. He reassured Shawna that many Rusay are also startled upon seeing an umatay for the first time.

The party continued this leisurely tour of the grounds, gaining more familiarity with the plant and (occasionally) animal life. Soon they came to the wide meadow alongside the creek, a spot that had been a favorite of Timothy and his sibs since his first visit here, as it had been for their parents. Gwinthrayle told everyone they could stay here to relax as long as they wished. Even the ones who had been less inclined to take a leisurely pace at the beginning were perfectly sanguine at removing their clothing, laying back on the soft minphiss and basking in the sunshine, listening to Timothy discuss more of his family’s previous visits here; or taking a dip in the creek, as adolescent sweethearts Ephraim and Ophelia were the first to do, running hand in hand over the bank, making a resounding splash and howling with laughter.

Almost at the same time, two tysthals, probably from among the herd they’d seen on the way in, emerged into the clearing, staring quizzically at the two young Rats splashing about in the brook as if they’d come out for the express purpose of observing this rather odd behavior up close. Afterwards, they began nonchalantly grazing, even allowing some of the visitors to approach and touch them. As some of the others joined Ephraim and Ophelia in the brook, Tremaine, Lambert’s younger brother, engaged his sibling in an impromptu wrestling match on the lawn as Bertha watched, laughing heartily.

Presently, Ellis joined Bertie at the water’s edge. “Well, what do you think so far?” he asked as he sat beside his brother.

“It’s great,” Bertie replied simply.

“It sure whets my appetite for more, I can tell you,” said Ellis, undaunted by Bertie’s lukewarm response. “Just think of it, a whole world where it’s like we’re not so small anymore, not at the mercy of so many other creatures, though it’s pretty different in other parts of the world, Johnathan says. Boy, Tara is sure missing a lot.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Bertie sighed, sounding almost annoyed.

Misreading his brother’s tone, Ellis said, “Hey, c’mon, Bert, it wasn’t her fault she didn’t feel well. Everybody gets a little—”

“That’s not what I meant. Look, let’s just drop it, okay?”

Ellis was only slightly taken aback. “C’mon, this is your brother talking to you here, your litter-mate. There’s no reason not to share whatever’s eating you, and if you want it kept secret, you got it.”

Bertie looked away with a sigh. “Look, I’m sorry I yelled. It’s probably nothing, anyway.”

“Maybe. But it could be something really important, too, if you feel that strongly about it.”

Bertie again looked away, silent; then he said, “She said she wasn’t feeling well, but…I just get the sense that…she stayed home for some other reason.”

“You mean Tara? Like what kind of reason?”

“You’ll think it’s silly.”

“I’ll decide that.”

“C’mon, Ellis, look at us. Her and me. How could I think…how could either of us think it could go on?”

“I don’t quite follow you…wait, you mean you think she’s seeing someone else?”

“I don’t know. But she said she wanted to spend some time alone yesterday. I mean, it’s not like I was spying on her or anything, but…”

“But what? That’s a worst-case scenario for sure. She has other friends, some of whom are male rats.”

“I know, I know. I suppose…I should just come out and ask her tomorrow when we get back.”

“That’s the spirit.” Ellis patted his brother’s back. He looked over to Lilia and Reuben, sitting a little further down the bank, talking quietly before both of them stood, preparing to go for a dip in a shallow area. Lilia locked eyes with him, smiling and waving. Ellis smiled back, suddenly feeling inspired. “Hey, remember what she told you?” he asked Bertie. “To have a…”

“To have a good time for both of us, I know.”

“Aaand…what’s something she does for enjoyment?” Ellis began moving his arm behind Bertie, who was squatting rather precariously.

But Bertie was prepared, recalling the day he and Tara had met. “Something like…this, maybe?” Just as Ellis gave Bertie a push forward, Bertie grabbed him, sending both of them pitching forward, though Ellis didn’t really resist being dragged into the creek.

Chapter 25 - Turlokeen’s story

After about a half hour, everyone was ready to move on. Even those among them who had still been reticent and reserved before let their enthusiasm show after the interlude by the creek; perhaps none more so than Bertie, whose water-soaked horseplay with Ellis—and others who were only too happy to join in the fray—had lifted his spirits considerably.

Their resumed tour through the gardens soon brought them to an area dominated by a row of plants, brilliant red and orange in color which gave the impression of jets of flame—“Hence the name flaming akphrav’chis,” Gwinthrayle told them. They were impressive enough, many of the visitors touching the plants carefully as if to confirm they were real; but the anomaly in their midst was beginning to generate its share of curiosity.

“And what have we here?” said Derek.

“It’s like something out of our memorial garden, isn’t it?” observed Lambert, running fingers over the ornately-carved obelisk, as tall as they, with what seemed to be writing in an unfamiliar alphabet carved into its face. He turned to Gwinthrayle. “I think I know what this is. I remember Martin telling me there was someone buried here.”

“Indeed, Lambert. Johnathan Brisby was not the first interdimensional visitor to this world, or to my home. But this poor fellow was the only one that met his end here, to the best of my knowledge; and so it was here that I felt he should be properly honored and laid to rest.”

“I know the story, but not everyone here does,” said Timothy.

“Ah…I would be only too happy to relate it to all of you now,” said Gwinthrayle. “But I must warn you, it is rather a tragic tale, one which the younger ones among you may find upsetting, although it could be said that it ends on a hopeful note.” The younger children were all asked if they wished to be taken elsewhere, but all agreed to stay, feeling that they were adequately prepared.

“Some eighteen years ago,” Gwinthrayle began, “there arrived on Lahaikshe, via the Cavern of Change, a fellow named Turlokeen, one whose physical appearance, I’m told, is very much that of creatures on your world that are enemies of your kind. Some of those Timothy and his family had since met not long ago; I’m sure they’ve told at least some of you about those meetings.” Many in the crowd indicated they had.

“Turlokeen was from an extradimensional world known as Tikinda, home to two civilized cultures whose existence was unknown to one another, save for a small circle of individuals in the smaller race, the Kantiri. A sorcerer named Gondlonico, his apprentice Tugrelho, Turlokeen’s sister Kalfomenda (who was Tugrelho’s lover and later lifemate), and another named Dirndrayo were the main players in this drama, the details of which I gleaned later from some of the principals.

“Tikinda’s larger race, the Ginsteem, occupied the outer coastal areas of the continent the two races unknowingly shared, and they regarded the interior with superstition and so did not venture or settle very far inland, keeping the Kantiri’s territory inviolate from invasion. There were workers of sorcery among the Kantiri that had discovered that they were not the only civilized race in the world, and in time an inner circle of some twenty individuals were the only ones who knew of the Ginsteem’s existence, including those I’ve already named. But some in the inner circle believed the status quo could not last: that eventually the Ginsteem would seek to expand their territory, make inroads to the interior and that they likely wouldn’t be willing to coexist peacefully with their smaller neighbors. Eventually a vote was taken, and some in this group went on scouting missions to seek evidence that the Ginsteem might be on their way.

“On one such mission were Turlokeen and Dirndrayo, the latter of whom was a sorcerer, though of less experience than Gondlonico. They made the journey partially on foot and via Dirndrayo’s abilities, which included command of other creatures for short periods, including one particularly fierce one known as the flintarak. I believe Timothy knows something of them, perhaps firsthand.” Gwinthrayle paused and gave Timothy a knowing look.

“Their assignment was to take them close to the nearest Ginsteem community, a tiny outpost that was as far inland as they normally settled. However, on the way, the pair, who were only acquaintances, had, after some discussion about the mission, found themselves disagreeing over the matter of approaching any of the Ginsteem directly. They’d been specifically instructed not to engage or to approach at all, but Dirndrayo believed it could be of some benefit to them, in spite of all the discussions and observations from afar which resulted in the inner circle’s conclusion that the Ginsteem would react to them with superstition and fear. The argument became so heated that Dirndrayo made use of a spell intended to send Turlokeen away a short distance.

“But…let’s say, perhaps a bit charitably, that Dirndrayo was not the most competent worker of magicks. His spell succeeded not only in sending Turlokeen away, but away from Tikinda entirely! He found himself, as you may well guess, in this very world, in the Cavern of Change that welcomed Johnathan Brisby and others to this world; and like Johnathan, Turlokeen arrived utterly bewildered by what had befallen him, but soon left the cavern area, reasoning that someone with sorcerous powers might help him. Much as Johnathan would do later, he wandered more or less aimlessly, exploring this world he’d unexpectedly found himself a part of. And, as with Johnathan, I soon became aware of his presence here, keeping track of his activities from a distance, though not constantly; there were other matters that had me distracted a good portion of the time. But I was certain he was in no danger, at least not from any Rusay.”

Gwinthrayle paused, looking lost in thought for a moment, and then he went on: “So…I observed Turlokeen venturing forth, seeming determined to make the best of his new situation. He quickly found the main road that comes closest to the cavern area—the one you saw on the way here—and almost immediately came upon a scene that spurred him to action: a haisk’ve running at a seemingly headlong pace toward a small Rusay child. In an instant, without considering how startling his appearance might be, Turlokeen rushed forward and snatched the boy up and out of harm’s way—or what he’d thought to be so. The boy gave a startled cry even as Turlokeen set him down, and then he raced toward his parents, who were nearby. They weren’t fearful at this stranger’s appearance, but wondered what he thought he was doing, after the child described what he’d done.

“Of course, there was that language barrier, but Turlokeen quickly understood the situation better as he saw the boy approach the haisk’ve, and stroke and pet it. He had mistaken the beast’s approach as one dangerous to the child, who was in no danger; it would have slowed down very quickly before it would trample him. Of course, the Rusay couple could not convey all of this information to Turlokeen, but it was obvious to them that he was a stranger to this land and knew not how to get home. They offered to let him accompany them for a while, and over the course of that day, he learned some of our language, enough for them to convey to him that there was someone, one they didn’t know personally but knew of as one who might possibly help him to get home.” Gwinthrayle smiled, acknowledging the realization in much of his audience.

“Yourself, I presume.”

“Exactly, Kimball. My reputation at that time was a bit different than it is now. I ventured outside my home and met and visited with the people much more often, and so I was more widely known as one who knew of many things most are not privy to. This Rusay couple knew not of my home’s precise location—then, just as now, I prefer to maintain a certain degree of privacy—but they knew where it was generally.

“Just after sunset, Turlokeen’s hosts, whose names were Sorisphila, the father, his wife Jaymli, and son Vorntha, arrived at their home, where Turlokeen met others of this extended family, who invited him to stay on as long as he wished. He was grateful for their hospitality, and fascinated by his hosts’ utter lack of fear or reluctance of one so different in appearance, but he made it clear that he wished to move on soon, to find this one who could help him.

“Though he genuinely wanted to stay longer, Turlokeen set out on his journey early the next morning, accompanied by Jaymli’s younger brother Toronpha, who had the greatest familiarity with the area. As some of you know, it is terrain that is quite hilly, often with jagged rock formations, in the area that our two young travelers crossed. As I said, there were other matters which called for my attention, which I believed were more important, and so I believed that there was little need to monitor their progress on more than an irregular basis, at best; and I was sure Toronpha was eminently capable of leading Turlokeen to me without incident. Unfortunately, there were incidents, the details of which I learned later via my viewscreen and from Toronpha himself.

“The two made their way at a fairly leisurely pace, down well-defined trails and the occasional shortcut, conversing much of the time and learning more about each other’s people and home; and Toronpha, while not an excessive braggart, exercised no small amount of youthful enthusiasm for his own tracking abilities and familiarity with the area. Alas, as is so often the case, his enthusiasm led to overconfidence…something he admitted to me himself.

“While passing through a particularly rocky area, Toronpha opted to lead Turlokeen through another shortcut which he insisted was safe enough for him to have successfully crossed before. He did emphasize that one needed to take every step carefully, and so they continued on. Turlokeen, as I’d heard later, was not unfamiliar with this kind of terrain, so he wasn’t especially reluctant; but it was Toronpha who took a misstep that sent him tumbling down a steep hillside. It wasn’t a sheer drop, but it was painful enough for him, and Turlokeen immediately made his way swiftly but carefully down the incline to lend aid. He knew enough of first aid to assess his new friend’s injuries, and found them serious enough that moving him could risk further injury. Toronpha was certain, though, that I could be of assistance, and was able to give Turlokeen further directions for the rest of the journey. So Turlokeen treated Toronpha’s injuries—mainly a badly sprained leg—as best he could, and then resumed the journey alone, vowing to return as soon as possible…accompanied by me.

“Well…he had gone only a short ways, some 20 minutes after leaving Toronpha, when he came to a narrow gap between two large boulders. Toronpha had warned about what lay on the other side, and so Turlokeen was prepared for the sheer drop—straight down, with a very narrow ledge to proceed upon. I think he must have paused to reflect on the situation for a moment—no doubt, on how he was suddenly thrust into seeking help for someone who was still an acquaintance, of a race whose existence he was unaware of two days before, in a world completely different from his own, and all at possible risk to his own health, and even considering how natural an impulse it was for him to help others. And yet, in observing him later, I’m positive that it was this brief instant of being lost in thought that led to what happened next.

“As he made his way along the ledge, he looked to one side to see a large, dark shape advancing upon him. He’d had seen mhys’haspas and had been told of them, that they were harmless to other animal life and were by nature curious; but this one’s sudden appearance was so startling, understandably so, that it was all it took to cause Turlokeen to lose his balance completely and topple over the edge.

“It had been only minutes before that I had made my most recent periodic check on the two travelers’ progress. I had observed Turlokeen now moving on alone, and Toronpha propped up against a tree with his leg in a splint, looking anxious but apparently not in great pain. I immediately left, borne by a spell of transportation that I hoped would speed me to their aid to avert any further trouble. I knew the area Turlokeen was passing through to be a potentially hazardous one, so I resolved to come to him first, since Toronpha seemed safe for the time being. But alas, my worst fears were confirmed when I arrived on the scene.”

Gwinthrayle paused, sighing. “On the ground below he lay, and I could tell that he had to be gone already, or close; he’d landed on some jagged rocks, and from such a great height that he had to have sustained massive internal injuries. As I examined him, he opened his eyes, and I’m sure he was aware of my presence and that I’d come to help. He started to say something I couldn’t make out…and then he was gone. I immediately initiated a spell to fan any spark of life that may remain, but it was too late. I lay Turlokeen’s head back, cursing myself for not having observed his progress more closely; I was so certain that he would have been led straight to me without mishap. It was then that I noticed the mhys’haspa crouched nearby, wings folded, expression almost sorrowful in spite of its fixed smile, apparently having stayed close by since Turlokeen’s fall, as if it felt responsible but knew not how to help him. I resolved to put behind me any sense of blame I had for myself, and so placed a protective shield around him, and left to find the other who required my assistance.

“In short order, I’d brought Toronpha and Turlokeen’s body to my home, where I helped speed the healing of Toronpha’s injured leg. He was devastated, naturally, about Turlokeen’s death, since he’d considered himself responsible for Turlokeen’s safety, being his guide, and also knowing that Turlokeen had left to get help for him; but, perhaps most importantly, because the two had taken quite a liking to each other in spite of their many differences. I leveled with Toronpha on the reasons for my not going out to meet them before their troubles began. He didn’t hold me to blame, though, and in fact we helped each other greatly in assuaging any guilt either of us may have felt. Then, too, there was a more practical consideration: what to do with Turlokeen’s body. We quickly decided upon burial in my own gardens, since it was virtually impossible for it to be sent to his home dimension.

“So…I brought Toronpha home, meeting with his family to explain what had befallen him and Turlokeen; but, some days later, I would have my second meeting with one of his race.

“But first…there is the matter of those he had left behind on Tikinda. Dirndrayo, unaware of his blunder that had banished Turlokeen from their world, made his way to the small Ginsteem community, a frontier settlement inhabited by fewer than a hundred. He still believed it was possible to approach them; but his first attempt almost cost him his life. A Ginsteem spotted him, little more than a glimpse through some thick foliage, but enough for this one to advance upon him quickly, brandishing a garden implement, probably believing Dirndrayo to be some common vermin. He was able to get to safety easily enough, but needless to say he had second thoughts on a direct approach.

“He carried out his assignment over the next two days, observing these people from a safe distance and assessing their possible intentions; and on his return trip, expected to meet up with Turlokeen, prepared to apologize for dismissing him as he did. But when he returned home to hear that Turlokeen was unaccounted for, a search using a device like my own Orb of Disclosure was conducted. But Turlokeen was nowhere to be found. It was determined that Dirndrayo had used the wrong spell to send him away, one that he’d only begun to master. As you can imagine, the others in the Circle were not happy with this turn of events, and Dirndrayo was barred from using sorcery indefinitely. Turlokeen’s sister Kalfomenda convinced Gondlonico to take her on as his new apprentice; and her lover, Tugrelho, was initially troubled by her new interests even as he was aware of how close Kalfomenda was to her brother and wanted to find him.

“Days later Gondlonico succeeded in recreating the spell that sent Turlokeen off to parts unknown, though he was unable to contact me directly. Kalfomenda convinced him to send her to Lahaikshe, determined to learn her brother’s fate. Tugrelho understandably objected, since she would be venturing into those same parts unknown, though he was assured that wherever Turlokeen went, it was a world hospitable to their kind, increasing the chances of his survival, so it would be safe enough for her as well. Tugrelho eventually agreed, though he was prepared to hold Gondlonico to blame personally if she were unable to return.

“Though Gondlonico could not communicate with me directly, we knew this was a spell to be worked in tandem that would send Kalfomenda to Lahaikshe, one which he would initiate. It succeeded, sending her to the Cavern as it did her brother. Unlike with Turlokeen, though, I immediately set out to meet her and bring her here upon her arrival. Of course I had no choice but to break the sad news to her, as I sought to explain as best I could about what had befallen her brother. I showed her where Turlokeen had been interred—this very spot—and allowed her all the time she needed to grieve before making any plans to send her home. In the meantime, I assured her, I would make her stay as enjoyable as possible.

“It was only later that day, though, that Kalfomenda approached me, almost begging me for further details about this world she’d found herself a part of. We compared notes on Turlokeen’s strange and unexpected transference, and we found much that was still mysterious. I told her of how interdimensional visitors were a fairly common occurrence here, specifically in this part of Lahaikshe, for reasons I’d never been fully able to fathom; and she told me how her mentor Gondlonico hadn’t fully gathered how Dirndrayo’s spell had gone so seriously awry. But for the time being, there was the immediate matter of the disposition of Turlokeen’s body. She wanted to bring it back with her to Tikinda, but I wasn’t certain it would be possible for both of them together, since this particular spell only worked with living subjects. Naturally she was dismayed, but she understood and thanked me for giving him proper honors. I offered to take her on a guided tour of the area; and she was remarkably keen on the idea, telling me that though she’d felt some anxiety over coming here at first, she was curious to see more, displaying a level of enthusiasm that frankly surprised me, given the circumstances.

“I must confess that Kalfomenda’s positive attitude and zest for life influenced me greatly, doing much to assuage my own feelings of having failed Turlokeen. She took very well to seeing more of her temporary home and meeting its people, every bit as much as would Johnathan when he would be my guest several years later, though it was for a far briefer time. By the time conditions were right to work the spell that would return her home, she had accepted that Turlokeen’s body would have to stay here, and so she directed me in carving the proper epitaph upon his marker, which you all see now.

“During our time together, she spoke at length of her world, especially how the Kantiri and the Ginsteem occupy different areas and are unknown to each other save for her inner circle. She told me of their concerns about the Ginsteem’s eventual expansion, and the last I’d been informed, it’s a matter that’s still known only to a select few and the source of some uneasiness among them.

“Kalfomenda spent a total of nine days as my guest, and when the time came to send her home, again working in tandem with Gondlonico, I must confess it was with some reluctance on both our parts. I would miss her, I knew, but she promised me that she would return for a visit if she could.

“And as some of you know firsthand, she made good on her promise. Some years later, after she’d become more practiced in the mystic arts, she again turned up on my doorstep, and not alone: she and Tugrelho had been married for some time and they arrived together; though without their children, unfortunately, since it was a spell that could only be worked under certain conditions and could only transport two. Their second visit, though, was perhaps of greater import. It was still the two of them, but by sheer chance, it coincided with another: the Brisby family, no less. And here was where the physical differences I’d alluded to earlier came into play: the first they laid eyes upon each other, it was not without initial trepidation in both parties; for the Kantiri bear a strong resemblance to canine species upon your Earth, such as foxes or coyotes, yet they are rat-sized. Conversely, your species, to the Kantiri, are essentially miniature versions of a creature I’d mentioned earlier, known as the flintarak, who are known to be dangerous to Kantiri. This initial anxiety wore off quickly, of course; and as Timothy has doubtless told many of you, they became good friends with his family and others among you as well. This led to other adventures when they used the Stone to visit the Kantiri couple on their world.

“So, while conditions with their people aren’t necessarily ideal on Tikinda, they still have good lives there. Time will tell, of course, if they can be maintained.”

Gwinthrayle paused, and most of his audience thought the story had ended; then Claire said, “Is this, then, the ‘hopeful note’ you spoke of at the beginning?”

“Partially, yes; but what I mainly referred to was an event that unfolded very quietly several years later, which only came to my attention by chance. You may find it astounding or difficult to believe, but I assure you it’s all true.

“It happened some years after Turlokeen had been laid to rest, around a year before Johnathan’s arrival. I was visiting one of the area villages, just taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the local marketplace. I was in the middle of buying a few supplies when I came across a young man of about 14 years telling a story to a group of children seated in a semicircle. Now this was hardly an uncommon sight, but I quickly felt compelled to listen in, and I was certainly rewarded for the effort. The boy told of a land beyond all lands known to the Rusay, with strange plants and animals; but when he described the people of this land, who held sway over it as the Rusay do here, I was frankly astonished.

“The description he gave was that of the Kantiri!” Gwinthrayle paused as audience members exchanged surprised expressions. “For a moment, I wondered if he had actually seen Kalfomenda or Turlokeen and had built this story around one of them. I quickly realized the impossibility of this, given the lad’s age; and as I realized the more likely possibility, I concentrated on listening further to his tale.

“Soon he was finished; and after his audience had left, I took him aside and complimented him on his storytelling prowess, and how he must have a vivid imagination to come up with such detailed and exotic imagery, as if he’d seen this place for himself.

“Maybe there was something in the way I spoke to him, but he instantly seemed compelled to tell me more about this talent of his. He confided that when he was around seven years old, he began…‘seeing’ things. Visions of other places, exotic locales would come to him unbidden, and he began to feel as if he’d been there himself, living a whole other life. Eventually the boy—whose name, by the way, was Neephra—could name people, places and things that existed in this land, including the name he thought he had in this other life.”

As Gwinthrayle paused, Kimball offered, “And that name…was Turlokeen, wasn’t it?”

“Indeed, Kimball.” There were more surprised expressions, with the exception of Timothy, who merely nodded with arms folded. “‘A strange name, I know,’ Neephra said to me, ‘but it’s the one that kept coming to me.’ He went on to give other names of people he seemed to have known among this strange race that appeared much like beasts that walked upright. It all felt so real to him, and when he first told his parents about it, they at first dismissed it as the product of an overactive imagination, but they did compliment him on his descriptive powers and did not discourage him. He hesitated to tell his peers about it, though, believing they would either react as his parents did at first, or make fun of him. He did, however, tell his closest friend Phornsa about what he’d ‘seen’ in this other existence, but without actually saying he believed he’d actually been there.

“Phornsa was captivated and wanted to hear more; and, as Neephra described it, something clicked in his mind. He decided right then and there that he wouldn’t try to convince others that he’d actually lived this other life, and instead just let everyone believe that he’d made it all up, completely out of his head. He’d already been told he had a genuine and engaging talent for storytelling; so, he reasoned, why not use that talent as an outlet for these visions of his? He admitted that, at first, it bothered him to pretend this other life didn’t actually happen, as real as it seemed to him. But it quickly didn’t matter; as he saw more and more the pleasure he was giving to others by telling these tales, he figured wisely, why ruin a good thing? And so he went on to gain quite a reputation far and wide as a master storyteller, even at his tender age. And never again did Neephra try to convince anyone, with the exceptions of his family and myself, that he’d actually led this previous life.

“He’s still very much plying his trade, by the way, and has become happily married with a child, his tales of faraway places as entertaining as ever.”

There was a mixture of reactions at the conclusion of this epilogue to Turlokeen’s story, ranging from amazement to mild skepticism. “Extraordinary,” said Derek, “to think that, not only was Turlokeen…reincarnated, reborn on this world not his own, but as a whole different being, a different species.”

“I guess it’s been said plenty,” added Kimball, “but Lahaikshe certainly has been full of surprises for newcomers like us, and there’s sure to be others in store.” Others expressed similar views but a couple still found the whole concept of a soul or spirit being reborn, let alone in a completely different species native to another dimension, hard to swallow.

“Ah, but what about our own Nicodemus?” Derek countered. “We’ve all seen for ourselves that it’s certainly possible for one to ‘come back,’ as it were, never mind the circumstances.”

“Didn’t you once say, Derek,” said Nicodemus, “that it’s always wise to maintain a healthy skepticism?”

“I barely know the meaning of the word anymore, old friend,” said Derek with a laugh, “and you’re only the latest example of why!”

“A fair assessment, indeed,” agreed Nicodemus. He gazed away, looking to some as if he had more to say on the subject.

Everyone agreed it was about time to return to the house for the midday meal, so the whole assemblage got to their feet to return to the main trail. On the way, few further words were spoken; everyone, even the younger children, had become reflective of the story of Turlokeen’s final fate. There was still more to see, though: other plants the visitors hadn’t seen before as well as animal life.

“Ooh, look, Lilia—two more mhys’haspas,” said Ellis, pointing above their heads at the two flying creatures wheeling through the air—not unlike vultures, as others native to Earth had already observed, though they were not known to be carrion eaters.

Lilia looked up, but didn’t seem especially interested, unusual for her.

“Are you all right?” Ellis asked. “It’s the story about Turlokeen, isn’t it?”

She smiled slightly, nodding. “I just…don’t know how to explain it. I don’t have the words.” She sighed. “It was so sad, but there was also something…about it that made me feel almost…hopeful, I guess, or safe…secure. That still isn’t quite it, but…” She sighed, disappointed over not being able to express herself better.

“I think I know what you mean. It’s pretty amazing. I mean…can you imagine actually feeling like you’ve lived a whole second life? That you were once a whole different…person…” Ellis’s voice trailed as he realized who he was talking to. “I guess…you would know, wouldn’t you? I’m sorry, Lilia, I wasn’t thinking.”

But Lilia actually seemed amused by the admission. “That’s all right, Ellis, I don’t mind. That was a part of me that’s still a part of me, and I accept it. It’s the part that…makes me want to be with you.” She took his hand, squeezing it.

“You know, what occurred to me,” cut in Bertie from behind them, “is that…when any of us die, and we’re here on Lahaikshe— if we’re here on Lahaikshe—could the same thing happen? Could any of us come back as Rusays?”

The three looked at each other. “Wow,” said Ellis. “I guess it’s possible, isn’t it?” They posed the question to Gwinthrayle.

“It most certainly could happen,” said Gwinthrayle, “though to the best of my knowledge, it’s only happened once. Of course…Turlokeen’s also the only non-native I know of who died here.”

“Hmm. That sounds like enough of a precedent to me.” Ellis turned toward Nicodemus, who walked alongside them and seemed, to Ellis, oddly silent; he figured this would be a subject to which Nicodemus would have plenty to add.

But Nicodemus had hardly been oblivious. “It is fascinating to ponder,” he said, “and if it can happen once…” He said no more, but in spite of this low-key manner, it seemed to Ellis that the subject meant more to him that just one of casual conversation. Indeed, in his case especially, how could it not?

“So, Ellis,” said Bertie, “Would you want to come back as a Rusay?”

“I don’t think I’d mind at all.”

“I don’t think I’d feel quite right without fur,” added Bertie. “Er, no offense, Gwinthrayle.”

Gwinthrayle chuckled. “None taken, lad. But I’m sure you’d find having a hairless hide would have its advantages also.” The mice laughed, not expecting Gwinthrayle to phrase it quite that way.

Chapter 26 - Lilia the explorer

The afternoon passed with more exploring of the grounds, more storytelling, more swimming in the brook and basking in the sun. At one point Nicodemus and Kimball began a lengthy discussion about Vincent, with Lilia and Reuben listening attentively, the siblings having become very interested in learning more about the father they never knew. Kimball initially admitted that, even though he knew Vincent better than anyone, Nicodemus probably could tell more about him since he possessed some of Vincent’s memories. This was borne out as the two detailed their differing perspectives, finding many particular events they both remembered in detail. Kimball described his and Patricia’s first meeting with Vincent, and the aura of mystery that surrounded his comings and goings in this and subsequent meetings—sudden, silent wraithlike appearances as if knowing where and when his guests would arrive, and evasiveness when asked how he managed this or the precise location of his home. This tendency toward secrecy, Nicodemus explained, was another way that portion of his persona influenced Vincent. Just as he was intent on keeping the Rats of NIMH’s existence and activities secret, so Vincent did the same about many aspects of his life. It was nothing he could have explained rationally; it just seemed to be of the utmost importance to him, and he wouldn’t even let those he considered his closest friends worm those secrets from him. It made clearer to Kimball many of the eccentricities in Vincent’s words and actions and how they seemed to border on madness, especially in regards to his self-appointed mission, to observe all that happened inside the NIMH lab. This, confirmed Nicodemus, was very much as it appeared to Kimball—“What some may call obsessive-compulsive behavior”—but also, as Kimball suspected, partially to cover for his agoraphobia and shame in admitting this perceived weakness to his friends.

Reuben brought up the question of whether that was Nicodemus’s influence at work when Vincent left the NIMH lab to meet his and Lilia’s mother and the other females he’d mated with. There was little if any influence from him, Nicodemus replied; that was very much Vincent’s own internal tug-of-war between his agoraphobia and the desire to find a mate and start a family. Why hadn’t he brought one of those females to NIMH to live with him there? Lilia wondered. This was partially due to the secrecy aspect, but also because—as Kimball and others had already surmised—Vincent feared for the safety of any mate or future offspring in living there, and felt they would deserve better than the life he had to offer. Nicodemus also reiterated how Vincent may very well have overcome his agoraphobia on that fateful day when he decided spontaneously to reunite with Amelia, the one out of all his temporary mates that he had genuinely loved. Tragically, the attempt to end his bachelorhood succeeded in ending his life altogether. As sad a tale as it was, all agreed, it was at least now understood much better.

These and more events in Vincent’s life were discussed, well past the time everyone gathered back at the house for the evening meal. There, Derek brought up a matter that many wondered about: “How is it for you, Nicodemus, having all those memories in you? Not just yours and Vincent’s, but some of Lilia’s and Reuben’s here, and other children of Vincent’s? Hasn’t it been confusing for you, keeping track of whose memories are whose?”

“Ah…I can see how such a situation would make for quite an identity crisis, as it were. But, no, it’s really not a problem. My own memories are quite easily separable from those others, for which I remember as if I were…well, I suppose the best analogy would be if I were standing close by Vincent or Boris or Ardo, experiencing what they did, but at the same time experiencing the same feelings and emotions as they. Somewhere between being an observer and a participant, I suppose.”

After the meal, sleeping arrangements were set up for everyone, with most of Gwinthrayle’s guests staying in the several rooms provided for them but with a few electing to try sleeping outside in the open (though Ellis or Lilia weren’t among them), something many of the visitors had become fond of doing in Freethorn. Then, while the others either further explored the house or spent more time outside in the receding daylight, Nicodemus asked Gwinthrayle if he could spend some time in his host’s private study, with its many rare and unique volumes of Lahaikshean history and arcane lore. Gwinthrayle generously obliged, allowing Nicodemus all the time he desired, but advising him to avoid trying out spells of his own, were he so inclined. Nicodemus gave his assurance that some solitary study was all he wanted.

One group of younger rats and mice decided, even as the daylight gave way to twilight, to get adventurous and explore some of the surrounding area that was off the beaten path. True to descriptions from Timothy and Gwinthrayle, the feeling of being completely safe from harm was very strong, in spite of the onset of night. Everyone was laughing, joking, teasing each other playfully as they climbed bavagdee trees, jumped up and down from rocks, and generally explored their way through their surroundings. No one wanted to get lost, though, so they took care to keep directions back to the house straight. Ophelia was an excellent tracker, as good as Martin Brisby, and was confident she could lead them back easily if they did lose their way. They also took care not to get too overconfident and not forge ahead blindly; accidents could still happen, after all, and Turlokeen’s experience had become regarded by everyone as a cautionary tale.

It became especially so as they abruptly came upon a very steep incline; not a sheer drop, though, and one they could certainly negotiate their way down carefully if they chose. All six of them looked over this new discovery as closely as they could in the dim light.

“Look at that one area,” observed Veronica. “I don’t think we’ve seen plants like those yet.” It looked like a mangrove thicket, with a tangled-appearing complex of roots on all sides, giving the impression of secrets concealed within.

“Looks strange, all right,” observed Barbara Anne. “Shall we?” she added with a grin.

“Sure, why not?” said Ephraim. “Looks like it would make a dandy hideaway.” He gave Ophelia a playful nudge.

“No way are we leaving you two alone,” said Veronica with a laugh.

“I don’t know,” said Ellis, “I wouldn’t want to make my way down a hill like this in the dark. Or up.”

“Yeah, maybe he’s right,” agreed Barbara Anne. “We can always come back tomorrow. We’ll have plenty of time.”

Throughout the discussion, Lilia continued gazing down at the thicket silently, imagination suddenly stirred, so intent that she didn’t even hear the others come to an agreement about returning to the house.

“Well, I suppose it’s unanimous, then,” said Ellis. “How about you, Lilia? Lilia?”

“Earth to Lilia; I mean, Lahaikshe to Lilia.” Barbara Anne chortled as Lilia looked up, a bit startled.

“C’mon, give her a break. The rest of us have decided to go back, Lilia. What do you think?”

“Oh, I guess so, Ellis. It is…getting late. We did almost…sneak away, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, and I’ll bet you anything someone’s got a search party together.”

“You mean Reuben, don’t you?” Lilia laughed. She took Ellis’s arm, continuing to discuss the point as Ophelia began leading them back to the house; and though Lilia didn’t seem overly distracted, Ellis did catch her glancing over her shoulder toward the ravine. He assured her they would come here again in daylight tomorrow, and she seemed completely agreeable to it.

Ellis took a moment to regard how much Lilia had changed for the better these past few days. Though her dismissal of Reuben being worried sounded like her temporary “nighttime” persona, he was sure it was different now. If all Nicodemus had told them was true, this was the “true” Lilia at his side now, one that was unfettered by old fears and restrictions, one that Ellis wanted to get to know all the more.

As the group approached the upper terrace, they saw a small group seemingly waiting for them. Sure enough, Reuben was among them, and they were preparing a search for the nocturnal adventure-seekers. Though he was outwardly calm, Ellis could tell he’d been more worried than he let on and so reassured him that his sister was in no kind of danger. Reuben admitted he was still having some difficulty in letting go of old habits.

After everyone was gathered inside (including Nicodemus, who had been in Gwinthrayle’s study for the past few hours and had to tear himself away), Gwinthrayle began a travelogue presentation of sorts utilizing his magic viewscreen—or Orb of Disclosure, as it was also known—taking his guests on a whirlwind tour of the entire planet, showing them landforms and climates as varied as those on Earth. When the screen showed one particular location, Gwinthrayle paused, appearing surprised to the others. They all looked more closely, but couldn’t see anything especially unusual—a dry, barren desert landscape, with barren rock, windblown sand and no vegetation in sight. Nicodemus asked if anything was wrong, and Gwinthrayle replied that he thought he was looking at one certain area, but must have been mistaken. The screen continued its “tour.”

After this, Lilia told Ellis and Reuben she was going outside for a while—just to think, she told them, and asked to be left alone for that time. They thought it a bit odd but agreed to it and would pass the word on to the others. She assured them she wouldn’t stray far.

Out on the terrace, Lilia lay on her back, gazing at the stars but with thoughts very much on other matters. She’d had so many strange and unusual thoughts and feelings these past few days, especially since coming here to Gwinthrayle’s. She’d discussed this with Ellis, but could only really scratch the surface; so much of what she was feeling was so indescribable. It wasn’t dread or uncertainty of the future; indeed, she felt hopeful, that there was much to look forward to. She thought back to her impulsive confession to Ellis about wanting children. She didn’t entirely regret it; she still felt that way. But certainly that was tied in with all these other strange feelings and impressions, which she couldn’t help thinking were themselves associated with…this very world, something in its very essence. She wasn’t the only one who’d been feeling this way; just yesterday, there was Karen and her description of feeling tied to this world while nursing her babies, and Lambert’s remark on the dreams some had had, which struck a chord with her, but not in a way she could express aloud. This was part of the reason she’d been so enthusiastic about this trip; she’d felt certain she’d get some answers away from Freethorn, and what better place than the home of one who must know many secrets and mysteries of this world? Yet, she’d been reluctant to talk to Gwinthrayle directly on these matters. She still felt shy about approaching relative strangers on such personal matters, though she knew it was silly, considering how kind and approachable Gwinthrayle was. More than that, though, she felt sure that answers were forthcoming and that they would come to her with no prompting from anyone, not even Gwinthrayle.

And now, there was this latest incident, seemingly triggered by seeing that strange, tangled thicket in the ravine. It had almost seemed to call to her; but why, with all the other strange and exotic plant life they’d all seen? What made that so special? Lilia closed her eyes, picturing it; and sighed as the feelings associated with that first sighting returned—a mixture of sadness, longing, a hint of déjà vu, but mostly a desire to return. She sat bolt upright, suddenly determined to satisfy this need; then she looked toward the house. Should she ask someone to come with her? No, not even Ellis or Reuben. Somehow—and again it was nothing she could explain—she knew this was something she needed to do on her own. But she did promise she wouldn’t go far; she didn’t want to worry anyone, but she knew where to go, and it wouldn’t take long to get there and back.

Her mind made up, she got up and looked around, recalling the way she and the others had taken before. She set out, unafraid and determined, feeling bolder, almost exhilarated, with every step. She looked up, smiling at the moon and stars which provided companionship aplenty. Even as she negotiated her way through this off-trail area, around rocks and shrubbery, through groves of tall, majestic vinthahak trees and tangled vines, she could still picture the ravine and wondered what answers, if any, she would find there. Even so, she took care not to lose her way.

Soon she was standing at the same spot as before. Though it was darker now, the thicket that held such fascination for her stood out just as prominently, owing as much to Lilia’s excellent night vision as to the greater amount of moonlight illuminating the scene. Again there was that odd mix of emotion, reinforcing her resolve; and so, taking a deep breath, she began making her way down the steep incline tail first, taking each step with care but still very mindful of her surroundings, which were slowly, subtly beginning to take on a new character. Strange sounds, odd lights floating about like fireflies but which didn’t seem to originate from any living creature, and still that mix of emotion drawing her nearer to her goal like a moth to flame. The unfamiliarity with the area and the overall strangeness of the situation bothered her not a whit, since she’d been comfortable with the night all her life, and especially in light of recent events, recalling fully her own feelings associated with them; though she was still uncertain, as was Nicodemus, of the precise cause of her previous apparent split personality.

Maybe the answer to that lies here, she mused; then, just as the thought crossed her mind, she abruptly found herself tumbling the rest of the way to the floor of the ravine. She managed to curl up in a ball and she soon came to a stop unhurt, after which she uncurled and sat up to get her bearings. She smiled and shook her head, even laughed as she wondered how she could have taken such a silly misstep. For a moment, she was reminded of Turlokeen’s story, and how his own misstep could certainly not be termed silly, and she realized she was lucky this was a place where one would have a much softer landing.

Oh well, it brought her to her goal that much faster, and so she got up and adjusted her cloak; she felt a bit dismayed that she might be getting it stained and unkempt so soon after it was given to her. But there was no thought of turning back yet; and so she turned to face her goal, regarding the grove’s tangled, arching roots and hoping they wouldn’t prove too much of an obstacle. In spite of this, there was still that “beckoning” quality to it, and she responded unhesitantly, the “firefly” lights and odd sounds, mostly like breathy whistles, continued as she began to negotiate her way through the tangle. At least they don’t have thorns, she thought as she pressed on, finding she was actually enjoying the challenge.

Soon she could clearly see more open space ahead, and all at once, her earlier suspicion was confirmed, that there was a clearing within, not especially large, but one that would make a dandy hideaway, as Ephraim suggested. But was there more? There had to be, otherwise why would she have felt so drawn to it? Some moonlight filtered through, but there was also another odd light manifestation—not the “fireflies,” but a blue-green glow that swirled about the clearing like a luminous cloud. Still she felt no apprehension, but the sense of wonder mixed with longing she’d felt before was becoming replaced with some confusion, and she began to wonder what drew her to this place so strongly, especially since there was nothing really unusual here that she could see outside of the strange glow, or no one. Oh well, she thought, might as well get comfortable; maybe things will become clearer soon. After sitting down, she thought: nothing that she could see. Maybe it won’t be like someone speaking to her, or giving her something, like a gift. But if not, what? Would she even know it when she received it, if it is something to be given to or bestowed upon her? Maybe if she just sat and waited, without thinking overmuch on what was going to happen…yes, that might be best.

The minutes ticked by, with nothing further happening, and no indication that anything was about to. Lilia sighed and thought of Ellis back at the house, and the others who might get worried and start looking for her if she didn’t return soon. Perhaps she should; after all, she’d wanted to satisfy her curiosity of the place, and now that that seemed to have been done, why stay any longer? There was no questioning her disappointment, of course; she’d expected, even hoped to find or see or experience something here that…

Then she heard it. A rustling of leaves, the distinctive sound of…something or someone brushing up against the vegetation. Lilia’s heart began racing. Was this it? Or was it…

“Ellis? Reuben? Is that…is that you?” No reply, but whoever or…whatever this was was definitely moving through the root-tangle as she did, and coming closer. “Who is it? Who’s there?” she called out quietly. Still her heart beat faster, but was it less from anticipation and more from…No, she told herself, there is nothing to fear, nothing that will you harm you here. It’s what everyone’s said since before you came to Lahaikshe. I’ll just wait here, and see whatever this is for myself.

Soon it came into view. She couldn’t make out a distinctive shape yet, but it was definitely larger than she. A tysthal? No, they’re not supposed to be active at night. In fact, if she didn’t know better, she could swear this creature’s body was shaped much differently, more elongated; and the way it moved along, so smoothly and sinuously, almost like…

Then its head came into view. Lilia gasped, unable to find her breath for a moment. It reminded her of nothing so much as that of a fox, almost canine in its shape. It moved into the clearing, only about a foot from where she sat; and as its body followed, she again found herself fighting down feelings of fear and panic. As she’d suspected, the creature’s body was almost exactly like that of a snake, and it was very much aware of her presence and moving straight toward her.

“It won’t hurt me, it won’t hurt me…” she said quietly to herself, trying hard to remember: did anyone tell her of a creature like this? If so, did she forget? Or wasn’t she paying attention? She tried to concentrate on searching her memories rather than on what it may or may not do. Still it drew nearer…and still she had to fight hard to suppress her fear. “Please…d-don’t hurt me…please…” It was so close now, only about two inches away, and still it drew nearer…

* * *

On one of the terraces, Bertie looked down from the night sky to see Lucy approach.

“You, too?”

“Yeah, Luce. Did Ellis say anything to you about what’s going on?”

“Nope. He just said he was gonna get Tim, then we’d be ready; for what, I don’t know.”

“I was just thinking…I haven’t seen Lilia around. This has got to have something to do with her.”

“Like she got lost? That makes sense. But why just us?”

“Let’s ask him ourselves,” said Bertie, pointing. Lucy turned to see Ellis and Timothy approach.

Before anyone could ask, Ellis said, “Well, this should do it. Let’s go,” without pausing in his pace.

“So,” said Bertie, as he and Lucy and Timothy followed, “do you think you could find it within you to tell us just what the heck is going on here?”

“I didn’t want to make a scene back there,” said Ellis as they started down the nearby trail into the woods, “but Lilia came out here well over an hour ago—just to be alone, she said—and there’s no sign of her now, even though she said she’d stick close by.”

“So you didn’t want Reuben to get in a big lather, right?”

“That’s part of it, Luce. I’ve got a pretty good idea of where she went, and I thought just a few of us could do the job.”

“Gwinthrayle could have located her just like that, I’ll bet,” pointed out Bertie.

“I know, but I didn’t see any need to involve him, not when there’s a good chance she’s where I think she is.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Lucy. “So…what do you think, O Wise One? Will we find her?” She gave Timothy a nudge, grinning.

But Timothy, rather than responding in kind to Lucy’s playfulness, had a faraway expression which, to Ellis, was not unlike that which he’d seen on Lilia earlier. “Yes, we will, and…much more, but…not now.”

“Well, that clears things up,” Bertie said wryly. “So where do you think she went?”

Ellis described the ravine they’d seen earlier, with the mangrove-like thicket at its center, and the effect seeing it seemed to have upon her, adding that, if she weren’t there, then they would tell Gwinthrayle.

Soon they were at its edge, looking down upon the grove. “Tsadavhis,” said Timothy. “Gwinthrayle transplanted them there long ago. Cynthia and I explored down there on our first visit here, though Mom wasn’t too happy about our doing it on our own. There’s an open area at its center.”

“Still, there’s nothing really special about them, is there?” asked Lucy.

“There didn’t seem to be then, but Gwinthrayle has said that…odd and unusual manifestations crop up in this area from time to time, sometimes concentrated in very small areas, which can have strange, unforeseen effects on one’s emotions, but not on everyone.”

“With all that’s happened with Lilia lately, I’ll buy that,” agreed Ellis. “So…are you all with me?”

The four began negotiating their way down carefully, noticing as they did the firefly-like lights and odd whistling sounds that seemed to greet them. Timothy assured them this wasn’t unusual, that it was very much part of the character of this area after dark.

Once at the bottom, Bertie said, “Well, if it is ‘hollow’ at the center, Lilia could be in there.”

“That’d be my guess,” said Ellis. The four began circling the grove’s perimeter, calling out Lilia’s name quietly, listening carefully for any response. After making a complete circuit with no immediate sign that Lilia was about, Ellis said, “Well, I guess at least one of us should take the plunge.”

“It’s tricky getting through the roots, but not too hard,” said Timothy.

“So what’re we waiting for?” said Bertie, venturing into the grove.

“I guess we don’t all need to go in at once,” said Timothy. “Holler if you see anything, Bertie, while we search the rest of the area.”

Ellis and Lucy agreed to the plan, though Ellis felt he should be the one to search first. Lucy and Timothy headed to the opposite end of the ravine to search through the thick vegetation there, both wondering if she were really here, considering she hadn’t answered their calls, though Timothy was still sure she was in no danger and would be found soon.

Ellis stayed closer to the grove, calling for her; and soon, someone—though not Lilia—called back.

“Hey, Ellis, I think I see her! Get the others!” Bertie called out emphatically, though he was clearly trying to keep his voice low. Ellis immediately called Lucy and Timothy over. Just as they arrived outside the area Bertie called from, he spoke again. “Yeah, it’s definitely her. She looks like she’s asleep. Wait a sec…there’s…something, I dunno what, with her, almost like it’s surrounding her.” At this, the others began making their own way through the root-tangle, curious and mystified.

“What is it, Bertie? What’s it look like?” called Ellis.

“It’s like…oh, boy…it’s definitely something alive.” There was a tone almost of dread in his voice, spurring the three mice on further. “Guys…I dunno if it’s good or bad, what I’m seeing…but you’d better see for yourselves.”

Soon all four were all the way into the clearing. A hint of a blue-green glow seemed to float in the air, and through it, at the clearing’s opposite end, was Lilia, her snow-white fur contrasting greatly with the creature that was in her company, its serpentlike body coiled around her, its canine-featured head resting against that of Lilia, who indeed seemed to be just dozing; but was this creature a newfound friend, or her captor?

Timothy quickly put any such fears to rest. “Aaah…a min’hathio. Haven’t seen one of them in a long time.”

“A what?” asked Ellis.

“A min’hathio. Don’t worry, Lilia’s in no danger.”

They all approached slowly, Lucy and Ellis still a bit apprehensive of the creature’s physical appearance. “It looks like…it just came here to keep her company,” observed Lucy.

“That’s probably true,” said Timothy. “They’ve been known to do that with lost travelers. The Rusay have a lot of lore about them.”

By now their presence was known to the mismatched pair. The min’hathio raised its head and looked at the newcomers with expressive, soulful eyes. The movement roused Lilia, who straightened, blinked and yawned as her new friend began to move away, seeming to give her “rescuers” a knowing nod.

“Oh…hey, don’t go,” she said groggily as it slithered away through the tsadavhi roots.

“I think he just needs to move on,” observed Timothy, “like his work here is done.”

Lilia looked up, startled, noticing the others for the first time. “Oh! Timothy…Ellis!” She got up to embrace Ellis as the others watched the min’hathio’s tail disappear from view through the roots.

“Are you all right?” asked Ellis.

“Of course, Ellis.” Lilia stroked his cheek. “Oh, what a gentle and charming creature!”

“Mmm…thanks, I try my best…”

Lilia looked confused for a moment, then laughed. “I mean him! The creature who was with me, he kept me company. I wish he’d stay longer…”

“Were you scared at all?” asked Lucy.

“I was at first. He came in, I saw what he looked like, and…I tried to tell myself that he wouldn’t hurt me, but I couldn’t help it. He came right up to me, and he just looked at me. I calmed down, and he came a little closer and just sort of nudged me with his nose, and gave me a little lick. I…guess I knew right there that he meant no harm. He…just curled up around me, but not tightly, and…well, it just all seemed so peaceful, I guess I dozed off. I know it sounds strange…”

“Well, a little,” said Ellis, “but…why’d you come here in the first place?”

“I don’t really know, I…just felt I should, like…someone or something drew me here, but…” Lilia paused with a faraway expression. “…but then he arrived, and…well, there’s really not much more to tell. I wish I could, but…”

Ellis looked around and said, “Well…I guess we might as well get back to the house. I’ll bet someone’s looking for us already.” As the five mice made their way back out, Timothy told the others more of what he knew about min’hathios. On the way back to the house, they discussed the animal life they’d encountered on Lahaikshe thus far, and marveled at its diversity.

As they approached the house, there was indeed a small welcoming party—including Gwinthrayle, who told them that he was very much aware that Lilia had gone off by herself and the others had left to search for her. “There is little, if anything, that happens here of which I’m not aware,” he told them.

* * *

Two hours later, most of Gwinthrayle’s guests, having already been given their room assignments, had bedded down for the night; and Ellis was about to do likewise when Lilia approached him and told him she wanted to speak to him alone outside on the terrace, assuring him she didn’t want to run off anywhere. Many of the guest rooms had long French windows that opened directly outside, and so they went just outside the room where they and many of the other mice were bunking together.

They sat down close together on the ground, admiring the moonlight illuminating the surrounding compound. “So…what’s this about, Lilia?”

“Well…it’s…I guess you could say I lied back there.”

“About what?”

“Well…not really a lie, but…not the whole truth, either.” She described, as best she could, the strange mix of feelings that came over her upon first seeing the tsadhavi grove, and how she felt compelled to return and wait there for something or someone. “When the…min’hathio, is it…when it came to me, and I was still afraid of it, I heard…someone talking to me, and it wasn’t the min’hathio. And it seemed almost like it was…inside my head, but at the same time coming from…the very air around me.”

“Really? What did it say?”

“Well, it told me I had nothing to fear, and it was so…so reassuring, I felt so much calm. And then she said…”

“Er…‘she’?”

“Yes, it seemed like a female voice. She told me…that she was sorry for any pain she may have caused me.”

Ellis shook his head in bewilderment. “And that’s it? No clue about who she was or what that was all about?”

“No. But it reminded me of…that conversation at Martin and Karen’s yesterday. And things others have said…about this world watching over us…it reminded me of that too.”

“Wow…well, I guess what Lambert said is true, that something strange is definitely happening here, and it looks like more of it’s being revealed bit by bit. I just wonder if… Say, we really ought to tell Gwinthrayle about this.”

“I guess so. It just seemed…well, sort of private; but I wanted to tell someone, and I knew it would have to be you.” She smiled, placing her hand on his.

“I appreciate that, but if anybody’s equipped to understand this sort of thing, it’s Gwinthrayle.”

“I know. But…can it wait till morning? I’d like it…to stay between us a little longer. It just…feels right, somehow.”

“Sure, Lilia. I’d be glad to.” Ellis yawned. “I know I’m ready to call it a night.” He looked at her smiling face illuminated by the moon, and for a moment he was reminded of that fateful night; then they stood and walked arm-in-arm back inside.

On an adjoining terrace, Nicodemus once more made to call after them just before they went inside, and again he stopped. The event Lilia described definitely struck a chord with him, and he wanted to let them know he’d overheard their entire conversation. Midway through, though, he’d hesitated, and again when Lilia said that it seemed like a private message. He didn’t feel too good about the fact that he’d ended up eavesdropping on their entire exchange, but he rationalized it was best to respect their wish to keep it between them for now. Could it have been a supernatural presence that Lilia had encountered? Her description of what it conveyed to her and how it made her feel was definitely in keeping with what he’d heard from others, and with some of the history and lore he’d read of in Gwinthrayle’s library. What did it all mean? It was almost as if there was some being, imperceptible by the common senses, that was watching over the residents of this world; and certain spots, such as the tsadhavi grove, were more receptive to direct communication with it. Or should that be her, as Lilia described? Nicodemus thought about what he’d read of earthly legends of similar beings, and was certain something like that could be at work here. The fact that this presence seemed to make itself known to a greater degree to the residents of Lahaikshe than any similar being on Earth did to Earthlings seemed to indicate that it couldn’t be exactly the same. And those Earth legends were just that, weren’t they?

Just thinking about seemed to remind him of how, during the “viewscreen tour,” Gwinthrayle seemed surprised at seeing that desert area, though he’d said it was essentially a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps he’d bring it up to him tomorrow in private. Nicodemus looked up to the moon, so much like the one orbiting the Earth, and could easily imagine origins and characteristics of the two to be identical. The two planets they orbited were so teeming with life and yet so different. The thought reminded him of another matter he’d wished to tend to before his time was up: a return trip to Earth to revisit old haunts, and perhaps more, since there were places that he’d always wanted to see for himself. It would mean imposing on Johnathan and the amulet, of course; or Madeline, if she chose to, but he was sure they wouldn’t mind. Oh, there was so much more to do and see, and though he certainly wouldn’t mind spending more time here, he looked forward to returning to Freethorn tomorrow, to see more of old friends and comrades, exchange more stories, spend some more time with…

Nicodemus looked up again and sighed. Admit it, he thought; with Jessica. Despite their agreement that they’d only be intimate that one time, thoughts of her would not relent, continually intruding upon other matters that occupied him. Was he falling in love with her? It was the first he’d put the question to himself so directly, and once more he admonished himself: You’re only a tenant in this body, and you cannot afford to have a relationship with anyone going any deeper than friendship. And yet…it didn’t really answer the question, did it? He yawned. Once more, sleeping on it would probably be best. It’s been a full day, and things will have to be clearer in the morning. He turned to enter his room.

Chapter 27 - Return and remorse

The next day carried on in much the same fashion: more storytelling and more extensive exploration of the surrounding grounds. There was a tense moment in midafternoon when Lyndon and Shawna came up missing, but they were quickly found splashing away happily in a shallow bayou not far from the creekside meadow. They were brought back and cautioned not to wander too far again.

Gwinthrayle entertained his guests with more tales drawn from his own experiences, including some about other interdimensional visitors he’d hosted; and his guests, in turn, regaled their host with stories of their own, which he found equally engaging.

There were, of course, stories closer to home that also needed telling. As they’d planned, Lilia and Ellis approached Gwinthrayle to tell about her experience in the tsadavhi grove. They were a bit disappointed, though, to hear that he couldn’t shed any more light on the nature of this supposed entity that seemed to communicate with Lilia. He did say that it was indeed very much in keeping with legends and lore already well established, but nothing whose existence he could confirm. This piqued their curiosity further, of course, and Gwinthrayle was only too happy to indulge them, regaling them with stories in which Rusay had unusual encounters similar to Lilia’s.

In turn, Nicodemus approached Ellis and Lilia, confessing that he’d overheard last night’s exchange. They took no offense, and thanked him for his discretion at allowing them privacy. He took great interest in Lilia’s experience, and left them with the impression that he’d gained some particular insight in having learned of it.

* * *

It was late afternoon when everyone was gathered under the pavilion to return to Freethorn. Most were reluctant to leave so early, especially the youngsters, but it had been decided early on that to stay much longer would be abusing their host’s hospitality. For his part, Gwinthrayle didn’t argue the point, though he did make it clear that future visits would be just as welcome, though not longer than two days.

Most were animatedly discussing what they’d experienced, though some were spending the time in quiet reflection. Lilia certainly had much to reflect upon, and Ellis respected this, the two of them spending their final moments here just sitting together quietly. Bertie’s mind was certainly on what, and more importantly who, awaited him back in Freethorn; though he did allow a bit of conversation with Veronica, who felt an obligation to make it clearer to him that she had nothing against his and Tara’s love affair.

Nicodemus and Gwinthrayle had spent nearly three hours together this day, among other things discussing what Nicodemus had read and learned in his host’s library, and Nicodemus’s plans over his remaining days. He now believed that he had a better understanding of his abilities and their nature, if not their precise origins. When he’d told Gwinthrayle about the viewing device he’d used back at the Rosebush colony and how it had served as a conduit for his powers, his host presented him with a portable version of his own Orb of Disclosure, one of two that he owned, that would serve the same purpose. Nicodemus accepted the gift, both of them understanding that it would only be for his aforementioned remaining days.

Nicodemus assured Gwinthrayle that this wasn’t a touchy subject and that he’d accepted his lot, and even looked forward to giving Rollo a chance at a more normal life. There was no masking the tinge of regret in his voice, though, but Gwinthrayle thought it best to respect his privacy in the matter and never broached the subject directly. He did tell Nicodemus, though, that he should feel free to discuss anything at all that was on his mind.

“There is one subject that troubles me, and unless I’m mistaken, it’s been troubling you as well.” They stepped away from the crowd a short ways down the nearby trail that led down to the creekside; and after making sure they had privacy, Nicodemus described how Gwinthrayle had seemed surprised by something he’d seen in his viewscreen yesterday.

“You were not wrong, my friend. There was an anomaly there—a serious one—in that part of the world; and, for the time being, I would ask you to keep the matter between us, at least until after I’ve investigated the matter personally.”

“Oh? Not even tell Justin or Johnathan?”

“I’ve considered the matter deeply since last night, and concluded that if this is a matter that will not affect this part of the world adversely, then no one else need know as yet. I will probably inform my colleague Birantha, though; he’s due for another consultation with me in a few days.”

“I trust your judgment, but…what is it you believe happened in that desert area?”

“Quite simply…that desert area lies in an area that shouldn’t be desert. It lies within a continent of the southern hemisphere, called Asarals, and in an area that’s covered by lush forestland, as much as this part of this continent, Vitrono. Something, some unknown force, has apparently laid waste to a swath of land there, reducing all the plant life to lifeless ash, and probably animal life as well.”

Nicodemus shook his head. “And it appears to have been from an unnatural cause, and not from, say, a fire resulting from a lightning strike or an out-of-control campfire?”

“It is most unnatural indeed. There were probably few, if any, Rusay lives lost, since it is a sparsely populated area; though it must have created quite a stir among the locals, however few.”

“And you believe that the same kind of disaster could happen elsewhere, in a more heavily populated area?”

“Precisely, and next time untold lives could be displaced or lost. So until I can determine its cause, even if I must travel to Asarals to do it, I must again ask you to keep this a secret for now. And, please, do not allow yourself to give in to worry. I assure you, the situation is in good hands.”

“We will speak no more of it today, then; except to say that I hope your investigation bears fruit.” So saying, they returned to the others to help them make final preparations for the journey home, which were little more than final, individualized goodbyes from their host.

When this was complete, Nicodemus approached Gwinthrayle one last time. “Well, Gwinthrayle, I hope we will see each other again before…my time is done.”

“You are most welcome here, my friend. And I certainly plan on being in Freethorn on that day.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it. I know that may sound strange, considering what will happen, but I’ve really no choice but look forward. And knowing what it’ll mean to Rollo, a new chance at life, is enough compensation.”

Nearby, a plaintive young voice was heard: “I thought we were gonna get going now.”

“Why, Lyndon,” said Kimball, “you’re the last one I’d expect to complain about staying here a bit longer.”

“Yeah, but we’re all ready to go, and we’re just sitting here.”

“Patience, my young friend,” said Nicodemus, “though point taken. Truth to tell, I’m not really one for long goodbyes myself.”

And so, in short order, final farewells were made and everyone was again gathered in a circle. Nicodemus began concentrating and spoke a few words, and again everyone was treated to the sensation of slowly rising with no visible means of support; disorienting at first, as before, but with everyone becoming quickly acclimated. Final waves and calls goodbye were exchanged as the assemblage cleared the treetops and began moving away from the compound. Their host watched their departure until they’d disappeared from view; then he returned inside, knowing his work was cut out for him as he headed for his study.

* * *

Timothy again guided Nicodemus on their route, this time taking everyone on a different course. Some suggested they fly through the area described in Turlokeen’s story; since Timothy knew the way he directed them that way first. It was still very sparsely populated, with only an occasional house dotting the landscape, each with its own garden; though most of the land was arable, it would give way here and there to rocky areas like the one Turlokeen and Toronpha crossed.

Soon they were over that area, and paused at the very spot where Turlokeen lost his life, with the narrow ledge plainly visible. Even most of the youngsters knew this had to be the spot, and everyone spent a moment in silence before moving on.

The return route took them over the occasional small village, whose inhabitants gazed up with wonder and waved as they passed. Eventually, they swung over to Lake Vin’hag again to have another look at the ta’nakrivs, and a closer look at the adjacent wetlands area, where even more exotic-looking vegetation met their eyes. Along the way, curious mhys’haspas again came by to escort them, two of them staying with the group almost up to Freethorn’s door.

All the while Timothy guided the route, he noticed Nicodemus seemed preoccupied. He almost asked him what was on his mind, but decided that wouldn’t be appropriate. It could be something intensely private, and if anyone deserved to have his thoughts kept private, it was Nicodemus. Even considering what Nicodemus had told him about treating him as an equal, he still couldn’t bring himself to be that familiar. Still…if he were going through a crisis of sorts, perhaps unrelated to his leaving Rollo’s body, then…

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the feeling came over him, similar to that he’d experienced a few days ago after Lucy asked him what Ellis may have been going through—that the outcome would be positive, but not for everyone involved. Timothy wondered if this were specifically tied in with his leaving a few days hence, or with some other situation he might be in. Either way, maybe it was just as well this intuition of his weren’t more specific in cases like this, as opposed to times where there is an obvious threat or the appearance of one. If it were, wouldn’t that be an intrusion on his privacy? Oh, perhaps I’m thinking too hard on this, Timothy thought. It would probably be best to wait a few days before saying anything to anybody, he decided.

* * *

Soon they were again closing in on Freethorn, clearing the Wall and descending to ground level in the very spot they’d departed from, in front of the north entrance. A sizable welcoming party was already waving and calling to them.

After touching down, the air was soon abuzz with much animated and excited discussion; phrases like “You just won’t believe…” and “It’s nothing like I expected” abounded. Yet, for all the excitement surrounding the party’s return, there were unmistakable signs that not all was well among some in the welcoming party.

“…and that one tree, that Jessica told us she’d seen before, the one that looks like it’s breathing…yeah, we saw that one, too,” enthused Lucy to her mother.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. You gotta see it for yourself,” concurred Bertie.

“That’s very nice, dear,” said Patricia in a more subdued manner than expected. “I’m sure I’ll look forward to it.”

“Is anything wrong, love?” asked Kimball. “Did…something happen while we were away?”

“Did somebody…uh…” began Bertie before thinking better of voicing the next word, “die.”

“It’s about Lula, isn’t it? Is she all right?”

Patricia sighed. “Well, she is, Lucy, at least physically, but…” She led the group toward a nearby spot where it was more comfortable to sit—her husband and children, Timothy and his parents and siblings and some of the Rats who were curious to hear how Lula’s reunion with her family had gone.

“Well, first of all,” began Madeline, “we didn’t use the Stone to check on Lula’s family beforehand, mainly because that’s what Lula wished. But I did will it to take us close to their den’s location, and she led Patricia and me to it from there.”

“But when we got there,” added Patricia, “we found two mice that Lula didn’t know living there. They said they didn’t know who lived there before they moved in, about two weeks earlier.”

“So I used the Stone to find her family, and…it couldn’t locate them.” Madeline sighed. “Patricia and I both knew what that implied. I knew I had to find out what happened.” Johnathan offered his shoulder for comfort.

“We found that…Lula’s mother and brothers were attacked by a weasel, just outside the den. It got all three of them. One of her brothers almost got away, but…he didn’t get far.” Patricia wiped away a tear as Kimball embraced her.

“Oh, man, that poor kid,” said Bertie.

Lucy sighed. “Poor all of them.”

“How’s she taking it?” said Ellis. “I guess that’s a pretty dumb question, isn’t it.”

“It’s all right, Ellis,” said Patricia. “She…well, as you’d expect, she didn’t want to believe it, and wanted to go off and look for them. It took several more minutes before we could convince her that it had really happened, that the Stone doesn’t lie.”

“We returned home,” added Madeline, “and just kept talking to her, telling her how much we love her and that she’d always have our support.”

“I’m sure she still knows that,” added Kimball. “Look at how quick she was to embrace total strangers as family at the beginning.”

“Where is she now?” asked Timothy.

“She went off to be alone for a while,” said Patricia, “to work things out, I guess. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to leave her alone at first, but we couldn’t see her doing anything drastic.”

“The whole time,” said Madeline, “she didn’t even cry. That’s why we couldn’t help being a bit worried, because she’s usually so emotional.”

“She’s won a place in all our hearts, all right,” agreed Johnathan, stroking his wife’s shoulder. “But as much as we all want to help her, we can’t force her to talk to us.”

“It’s got to be tearing her up inside,” said Patricia. “But right now, there’s not a lot we can do. She knows she can tell us anything, cry on our shoulders, pour her heart out all she wants, and that’s what we’re counting on when she’s ready.” She sighed. “She wanted so much to make things right with her mother, and in one moment, it just all came crashing down on her. But…since there isn’t much we can do right now, I guess we shouldn’t let it dampen your enthusiasm for your own trip too much. Please, tell us more about it.”

Everyone who had been on the trip was doing so, most of them gathered in Oak Park; and even as the sun was setting the area near the big burr oak was a cacophony of simultaneous conversations. Nicodemus was in the thick of it all, relating his perspectives on the trip with almost as much enthusiasm as the children. Having learned of yesterday’s tragic discovery, he knew he’d have to talk to Lula soon, since they’d already formed a special bond and he wanted to help her through this as best he could.

As Nicodemus described the sights, sounds and smells he and the others had experienced over the last two days, one set of eyes, approaching the periphery of the crowd, met his. Though neither’s expression betrayed any special attention to the other, both Nicodemus and Jessica knew they’d have to meet privately later. For now, she was content to listen with the others, as genuinely interested as the others in the finer details of the trip.

* * *

Where she lived on Earth, surrounded by forest, Lula had rarely seen sunsets in all their splendor. These days, every chance she had, she’d station herself at a west-facing observation post or—as she had today—climb to the Rooftop to revel in this almost-daily spectacle.

Until today. Though the varying hues of crimson and magenta highlighting the cirrus clouds spread across the western sky were an especially stirring sight for others today, Lula could only sit and stare blankly, as if blind, thoughts consumed by the terrible truth that had been uncovered today. She’d come up here at this time specifically because she thought it would help her to make sense of it all and sort things out, but she felt as confused and unable to focus her thoughts as ever. She sat curled up tightly against the breeze, her cloak wrapped around her, and put her head down, resting her eyes, hoping that would make it easier.

Her thoughts raced back to happier times, playing with her brothers Curry and Bron and knowing she was loved and cared for. Inevitably, she thought of Desmond, and the strange and wonderous feelings she’d experienced from just being around him; but almost immediately she pictured him on his deathbed, holding his hand as she shared his final moments.

Her eyes flew open. “No!” she shouted repeatedly, shaking her head and holding her sides. She got to her feet and looked back and forth, then walked to the guardrail, formed and shaped out of the same rock she walked upon, and for the first time acknowledged the sunset, noting how beautiful it was. Yet it brought no joy. It just didn’t seem right, because how could there be such beauty when there’s so much ugliness and tragedy? A thought crossed her mind, unbidden: she never even knew her mother’s actual name. She was always just “Mother” to her.

She directed her gaze from the horizon to the rust-colored plain far below. Suddenly she found herself wondering how it would feel, or if she would feel anything, were she to fall from here to there.

She backed away, shaking her head in disbelief, giving way to horror. How could she be thinking such a thing? Mother Pat, Kimball, all those others who have told her how much they love her and enjoy having her here: what would they think? And how would they react if she actually went ahead and did it? They’d be hurt, heartbroken for sure. She knew that, and yet there was that brief moment when she actually…

She looked up to the sunset again, and couldn’t contain herself any longer, sinking to the floor, weeping, sobs wracking her small frame, her mind a tangle of conflicting emotions. Why? Why did this have to hurt so much? She thought about how, without hesitation, she’d embraced Patricia and her family as her own. So why did this affect her so much, losing her original family? Why them and not her? Should she have stayed with them? But if she had, wouldn’t she have died too? Was she meant to die with them, or was she spared for a reason? How could this be the reason, to suffer like this?

Abruptly she jumped to her feet, wiping tears from her face. She went to the guardrail, again looking down over the edge, thoughts once again on what it would be like, how it would feel. And then…

* * *

The small group of mice and rats, some sitting, others standing or pacing back and forth but talking very little, continued their vigil. They’d gathered here some 30 minutes ago, at the bottom of one of the trails leading to the Rooftop, and some were becoming visibly impatient.

“Orland, please sit down. She may be coming back down any minute.”

“I can’t help it, Lana. I feel responsible for her.”

“He’s got a right to,” added Michael. “It was his idea to bring her here in the first place.”

“I know,” said Lana. “I just don’t see what the big worry is.”

“You don’t really think she’d do anything drastic, do you, Orland?” asked Cynthia.

“Oh, probably not,” said Orland, sitting down next to Lana. “But look at the spot where she chose to be alone. It’s a long first step from ’way up there.”

The others looked at each other. “What are you saying?” asked Cynthia.

“Say, there’s Philip,” said Mary Louise, one of Cynthia’s closest rat friends, looking toward the Guard rat approaching from up the trail.

“Well, this looks like a meeting of concerned citizens,” said Philip with a small chuckle.

“You could say that,” said Orland. “Have you seen Lula up there?”

“Yes, I have. That poor kid. I met her on the way up, and just told her to be careful up there. She just nodded and went on ahead. I looked in on her again, just a couple minutes ago, and she was crying her eyes out.”

Orland gave a sigh of dismay. “Oh, that tears it, I’m going up there.” He jumped to his feet and dashed up the trail without waiting to hear if anyone would object, though no one did.

“I was about to say,” said Lana, “that a good cry may be what she really needs. She was holding it back for so long.”

“That’s true,” agreed Cynthia, “but…there’s that other thing Orland said…”

“You mean, about it being a long first step…” said Michael.

“Did he mean…do you think it’s possible that she may want to jump?” pondered Mary Louise. Everyone looked at each other with varying degrees of alarm.

“Oh, I can’t believe that,” said Cynthia. “There’s so many of us that care for her, and she knows it.”

“Nevertheless,” added Philip, “There are many cases among humans where one would kill himself even when there were others that cared for him.”

“Maybe we should all go up there,” suggested Lana.

“I don’t think a crowd is what she needs to deal with right now,” said Michael. “Let’s just wait for Orland to return.”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Cynthia. “I wish Tim were here right now. Maybe he’d have a hunch about this.”

“Or Boris,” suggested Mary Louise, “with those visions he sometimes has.”

“It’d probably take too long to find them,” said Michael. “And by that time, Orland would have something to tell us.”

“So we just sit,” said Lana, sighing. “I know it makes sense, but I still don’t like it.”

So they continued to wait, mostly in silence. After about ten minutes, Cynthia said, “Boy, if I knew it’d take this long, I’d have gone to look for Tim or Boris. I just may do it yet.”

“It can’t be too much longer,” said Lana. “I think I’ll go see what’s keeping him.”

“Don’t bother,” said Mary Louise. “Here he comes now, and he’s not alone.”

Sure enough, there was Orland, with Lula holding his arm, looking for all the world like they were simply taking an evening stroll as they made their way down the trail. As they drew closer, Lula noticed the group ahead of them, and looked over to Orland smiling, appearing pleased to see everyone.

“Well, now we know what didn’t happen,” said Cynthia. It was certainly a relief, but why would she seem so cheerful now?

“Hi, everybody,” Lula said in her familiar lilting tone.

“It’s great to see you, Lula,” said Cynthia. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good. I’m still a little bit sad, but…I’ll be all right. I really will.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Michael. “Some of us were concerned for you, and that’s why we’re all here now.”

“That’s nice, Michael. I really appreciate that. Well…I guess I’ll go home now.”

“I can take you,” offered Philip. “I’m off duty now, so I could give you a lift if you like.” Lula eagerly accepted, squealing with delight as Philip hoisted her onto his shoulders. She waved goodbye as they moved off toward the colonies.

“Well, I guess we got all worked up for nothing,” said Lana with a laugh.

“It wasn’t what I expected, that’s for sure,” said Orland, “especially considering Philip saying he saw her crying her eyes out.”

“How did she seem when you first saw her?” asked Michael.

“At first, she just sat there with her eyes closed, and looking...well, really contented. I didn’t want to startle her, so I called her name real quiet, but she didn’t seem to hear, as if she were distracted. I came up a little closer, and she just opened her eyes, and looked at me and smiled, like she was expecting me. She said my name, and got up and gave me a big hug, and asked me if I was going to take her back down now. Well, there was only one thing I could say, so…there you have it.”

“It’s as if she worked everything out all by herself,” said Cynthia. “Good for her, of course, but it still seems a little strange.”

“Maybe somebody else did meet her up there and talk to her,” suggested Mary Louise.

“Could be,” said Michael, “but let’s give her a little credit. Whether it was someone else’s counsel or if it came entirely from within, look at the results.”

“I guess we don’t need all the analysis,” agreed Orland. “If she wants to talk about it with someone, then I guess she will.” With this much agreed upon, the “group of concerned citizens” adjourned for the night.

* * *

Nicodemus sighed as he settled into bed, more than ready for a good night’s sleep after such a full day as this. At least physically he was ready, but his mind wasn’t ready to shut down completely. All that he’d seen at Gwinthrayle’s, both in his gardens and in his library…he’d only begun to plumb the wealth of lore it contained. He could easily have spent, and still could spend, many more hours there, but of course there were only so many more before…

No, he told himself, shaking his head. He must concentrate on making the most of his time left instead of counting it down continually. There was certainly much more to consider right now. He thought of Lula, and how warmly she’d greeted him after Philip had brought her home, and how curious she was to hear about the trip to Gwinthrayle’s, with little mention of her family’s fate except to say that she felt better able to deal with it now. He was happy and relieved to see her in such good spirits, but it was as perplexing to him as to the ones who’d waited for her. Thinking about it now, he wondered: could she have had an experience similar to Lilia’s? Could Lula have also made contact with the same apparently supernatural presence? He would try to ask her tomorrow, hoping she’d confide in him as before. Perhaps he could even get the two of them together, if they hadn’t met already on their own; they’d certainly have plenty to talk about. Then there was Patricia, for whom he’d agreed to pose for a portrait. She’d begun experimenting with dyes and pigments native to Lahaikshe, and since she’d been very pleased with the results she’d gotten thus far, she thought he’d be the perfect subject for a more elaborate project utilizing them. He was flattered and only too happy to oblige, though he questioned whether this portrait would really be of himself or of Rollo. She’d replied cryptically that this would only be part of the project, and that she’d explain further tomorrow.

It promised to be another memorable day, all right, but there was that other matter that was never too far from his thoughts. That anticipated meeting with Jessica had never materialized tonight, making one tomorrow all the more likely. Certainly there was a lot to distract him, and she had her regular duties, but could she also be deliberately avoiding him? Whatever else happens tomorrow, he decided, he must see her and try to clear the air. It was too vital, not one that he could pretend will go away on its own. With that much decided upon, Nicodemus tried to relax and empty his mind of thought to hasten sleep. Yet again there was that intrusion, repeatedly foiling every attempt, as if an enemy, like Uhrstegg, was trying to wear him down, erode his defenses. But, of course, an enemy this most definitely was not. He sat up in bed and made to get to his feet; then he fell back again, fighting the impulse to go to her. No, now was not the time. He rubbed at his forehead and sighed. Could falling in love—if this were the case with him now—possibly be this way for everyone, filled with such uncertainty and self-doubt? No, of course not, for there were so many unique elements in this case. He couldn’t help wondering if she might come to him as she’d done three nights ago. On one hand he relished the thought, but on the other the notion filled him with dread…

* * *

As usual, many in Freethorn were up and about after dark, in most cases by choice. A few, though, like Nicodemus, simply had too much on their minds to sleep, and another of them now ventured outside the Mouse community. It was the first time she’d done this alone, and though she knew there was nothing to fear, she couldn’t help feeling a slight thrill, as if she were venturing out into the Great Unknown. She took the path leading toward the south meadow, taking a moment to admire the beauty of the moon- and starlight reflected on the surface of Lake Nicodemus, and could hear the laughter of two Rats along the shoreline enjoying a moonlight swim. She moved on, without any real goal in mind but still feeling compelled to do so, as if there were someone she was going to meet. Along the way, she met some others who were up and about, mostly Guard rats, all greeting her politely by name, some offering condolences. She simply told anyone who asked that she just felt like taking a nocturnal stroll.

Soon she approached the row of blackberry bushes and rounded the one at the far end. She looked out over the meadow and began to stroll across, looking up at the starry sky as she did. The streak of a meteor caught her eye, making her sigh with wonder. Hoping to catch sight of another or something equally moving to see, she moved on in this fashion, trying to take in as much of the celestial canopy as her eyes could handle, looking everywhere except at what lay in her immediate path.

Suddenly her left foot fell upon something that felt decidedly out of place. She heard a squeal of surprise, causing her to react in kind and lose her balance and tumble to the ground.

She looked up instantly. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I should’ve watched where I was going.”

“Oh, that’s all right. You’re Lula, aren’t you? I wasn’t even aware you were there until the last second.” The other mouse sat up, the moonlight shrouding her pelt in an almost luminescent glow.

“Lilia…it’s you. They told me you like to come out here at night sometimes.”

“Yes, it’s so lovely, with the moon and stars and everything.”

The two chatted about the shooting star Lula had seen and how often they appeared in the Lahaikshean sky. Lilia tentatively brought up the subject of Lula’s recent troubles; but Lula, as with everyone she’d talked to this evening, seemed almost eager to let Lilia know that she was past the worst of it. They chatted about the things they had in common, from the similarity in name to both losing parents at a tender age, to their both ending up living here. Lilia brought up how fond she’d lately become of Ellis, and Lula talked of her feelings for Desmond, something else she found surprisingly untroubling to discuss. She also talked of how the Davis brothers’ nephew Stewart was becoming such a close and dear friend to her.

When the subject fell to the trip to Gwinthrayle’s, Lilia at first described the incident in the tsadhavi grove in a more cursory fashion; but then, all at once, she felt inspired to confide in Lula the more personal details, as she’d done with Ellis and Nicodemus.

Lula looked thunderstruck. “Why, that’s so much like…like…” She wordlessly embraced Lilia, at once breathless, almost unable to speak clearly. When she felt more composed, she said, “That’s…that’s almost like what happened to me tonight! There was…like a voice inside my head, like my mother’s, or Mother Pat’s, but…so much more like that. I wish I could explain it better, but…”

“No, that’s all right. That’s like how I thought of it. What did she say to you?”

“Well, it was a lot like with you. She said, or…it was more like I felt…that everything would be fine and work out for me, and that I was important and loved. It was so strange…it was like something I felt, and at the same time, like someone talking to me.”

“Oh, I know. Oh, Lula, I’m so happy we found each other like this!” They embraced again. “We never talked much before, but we have so much in common now, more than before.”

“I know. But…there’s something else I didn’t tell you, something that I feel I should do now.”

Lilia looked wide-eyed at her. “It…she actually wanted you to do something? What?”

“Well…now I feel that…that I should leave here, return to Earth.”

Lilia’s jaw dropped. “Go back? Why?”

“I don’t know. I just feel I should.”

“I guess I understand, but…there’s so many here who’d want you to stay. I want you to. And it’s so much safer here, too.”

“Oh, I know, but…I’m sure I’ll be safe there too.”

Lilia thought for a moment. Certainly, from her own contact with this…being, presence, whatever one would call it, she could understand how any message it conveyed would be felt to be the absolute truth, that there’d be no doubting its veracity. “I guess…if you really feel you should, then you should go.” She embraced Lula. “I feel like I’m losing my best friend, even though we haven’t talked much before now.” Both admitted to some sadness, though there was no doubt this was the right thing for Lula to do.

They continued talking about many things—the possible reason for the “presence” wanting Lula to go on this mission, if it could be called such; other details of the visit to Gwinthrayle’s, experiences from past years, favorite things—anything the two new friends could think of, until they both grew sleepy and decided to camp out right there in the meadow. Soon they were both curled up side by side, fast asleep.

* * *

The next morning, Lilia and Lula arose and made their way leisurely back to the colony, picking up their conversation from last night, allowing themselves to get silly and nonsensical but never far from the question of whether Lula was serious last night. She confirmed that, yes, she was still planning on returning to Earth, and would talk to Johnathan about it after breakfast. She did, however, allow for the possibility, even inevitability, of her eventual return, since there was certainly plenty to draw her back here. Whatever was to happen, Lilia vowed she would not let her new friend’s departure cast a pall over this day. Lula, after all, saw this as very much a new beginning, looking forward not only to her new situation but to telling Lilia and everyone else about her experiences upon her return.

Chapter 28 - Sketches and confessions

“Well, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” said Nicodemus, shifting slightly in his chair.

“Then hold still!” said Patricia with mock sternness and a smile. She picked up a charcoal pencil and began sketching on the easel in front of her, the natural daylight spilling upon it through the window of her specially-designed studio.

Nicodemus breathed in deep and settled in, reflecting on this project he was now participating in. After seeing the preliminary sketches Patricia had already made, he tried to visualize the completed project. It would be in the form of a triptych—a three-paneled painting—depicting Nicodemus at three stages of his life—or rather, lives. The first would be of him in the early days after the Escape, the second as he was before his previous life ended, and the third as he is now, in Rollo’s body. She’d made sure she had his blessing before going any further on this project—which she’d gotten the idea for not long after his return—in case he may not wish to have such images preserved, for whatever reason. Rather, he was honored, and he was delighted at the results so far, to which some of the Rats had given considerable input in getting the likenesses just right. Patricia had shown him some of her recent works in which she utilized some of the native pigments she’d intended to use on this new work, and the results were stunning. He had little difficulty now in visualizing the finished project.

Inevitably, he had to wonder whether or not it would be completed before he had to depart. He didn’t want her to feel pressured, but naturally he hoped it would be at least mostly done by then. He again tried to drive away thoughts of his leaving over a week hence, and so asked Patricia facetiously if he’d be allowed to speak during this session, if not move. Of course, she replied with amusement, and they chatted as she sketched, mostly about her family’s experiences.

Soon, Patricia tentatively brought up his leaving, acknowledging that she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject or even if she had the right to, given the fact of who he was and that she didn’t know him as well as Johnathan or Ages or most of the Rats.

“Oh, you needn’t hesitate, Patricia, though I do understand. If ever there were a delicate subject, this would be it. And I do consider you and everyone else here to be dear friends…and equals.”

“Thank you, Nicodemus. I do hope that you can…do and see as much as you want to before you leave.”

“As do I. Johnathan, Justin and I have worked out a schedule of sorts, in fact. Nothing etched in stone, of course, there’s plenty of room for spontaneity. Yes…there’s certain to be plenty of things unforeseen…and unplanned.” He looked to one side, as if suddenly preoccupied; then abruptly looked at Patricia as if ready to make the most important confession of his life. “Oh, Patricia, I…I have to tell someone, I cannot contain this all to myself.”

He got up and sat beside Patricia, who had already stopped sketching, and told her of his initial offer to her eldest daughter Jessica, and how she’d spent that night with him. “Since then,” he continued, “though we both vowed it would be just that one night, I’ve found myself thinking about her continuously, though there’s been so much to occupy me. I think it’s possible that…I’ve fallen in love with her.”

Patricia made to reply but was utterly at a loss for several seconds. “I…I don’t know what to say. Under any other circumstances, I’d be happy for you, but…oh…”

“You see my dilemma, of course. And whenever I’ve seen her since then, I can’t help believing that she’s facing the same dilemma.” Nicodemus managed a small laugh. “Though perhaps I’m flattering myself. Oh, Patricia, I want so much to know for sure, but…if it’s true, it can only end in heartbreak for both of us, especially her.”

“Well, outside of your staying in Rollo’s body, I guess…there’s no other way you can stay with us, and you and she could be together.”

“None that I know of. I know I should just simply go and talk to her. After all, in a sense it would be a relief if she doesn’t have feelings for me. Then, at least one of us would be spared any pain.”

Patricia thought for a moment. “I guess I can’t really know firsthand how hard this is for you, but…if I were in your position, I wouldn’t want to spend my remaining time worrying about how things might have been, especially when there’s so much else I’d want to do.”

Nicodemus smiled and nodded knowingly. “I suppose I just needed to hear that…from a friend. Thank you, Patricia. I promise you I’ll see her later today.”

“That’s wonderful. Well, now that it’s settled…”

“We should resume your work, eh?” Nicodemus returned to the other chair, posing as before. “Oh, and I’m sure it’s not necessary, Patricia, but…” He made a “quiet” gesture with hand over mouth.

“Oh, of course. No one else will know about any of this unless you decide.” Patricia resumed sketching.

After some minutes, Nicodemus noticed Patricia still seemed ill at ease about something; and so she told him of Lula’s surprise announcement at breakfast of her decision to return to Earth, giving little reason except that she felt she had to, at least for a while, as if some kind of mission awaited her. “She didn’t specifically put it that way, but that was the impression we got.”

“Fascinating.” Nicodemus stroked his chin and nodded.

“I just can’t comprehend it, it just doesn’t follow, after all else she’s been through. We’re all she has now, so why would she want to go where she’d be completely alone?”

Nicodemus made to answer, then hesitated, wondering how much to tell Patricia about his suspicions that Lula may have had an experience leading her to this decision that was similar to what Lilia experienced out at Gwinthrayle’s, since he’d promised Lilia and Ellis he’d keep the “message” she seemed to receive confidential. They’d already told Patricia and others of all but that one detail, and it had created quite a stir; many were incredulous that Lilia could so easily make friends with such a creature as a min’hathio. But she wasn’t bothered by all the attention, instead answering everyone’s questions patiently. Nicodemus decided against telling Patricia about it now, but he made a mental note to talk to Lilia later about possibly sharing it with others, and impress upon her that this could be something the council and others in Freethorn might want to know about. He’d considered asking Lula about her own experience directly, but had since changed his mind, deciding it would be better if she volunteered the information to him if she chose.

“I won’t keep Lula from going, if that’s what she really wants,” Patricia went on. "But how can I keep from worrying? She seems so helpless, and she doesn’t really know anyone else.”

“Hmmm…or does she? Let’s give her more credit, Patricia. She was able to fend for herself before you took her in, and maybe there is someone else she intends to meet. If nothing else, I’d be inclined to let her go just to satisfy my own curiosity about this ‘mission’.”

“Well, I’ll admit I’m curious, but it’s just so strange that she’d be so determined about something so…indefinite, when weighed against all she has here. Look at all the friends she’s made, and keeps on making. She and Lilia...why, the two of them were like old girlfriends this morning. And Stuart…he’s been fond of her from the beginning, so I know he’ll be crushed.”

“I’ll admit to being taken with her myself, and yet…it is her decision. As I recall, the way you and Johnathan told it, it was more her decision to have you become her new ‘mother’.”

“Yes.” Patricia smiled. “She adopted us more than we did her.”

Nicodemus made to say more when a voice came from the doorway. “May I come in? If I’m interrupting too badly…”

“Come on in, Johnathan,” they both replied. They chatted as Johnathan admired Patricia’s work-in-progress. Then he told them, “I just got done talking with Lula, and she wants to leave in midafternoon.”

Patricia sighed. “I hoped it wouldn’t be quite so soon, but I suppose it was inevitable.” She and Nicodemus shared much of what they’d discussed about Lula; and Nicodemus considered telling Johnathan of his dilemma concerning Jessica, then deciding there was no need to involve him at this point. Perhaps after his meeting with her later; by then there ought to be some kind of resolution.

Johnathan soon left them, and Patricia put greater concentration into her sketching, saying little to Nicodemus, who was as content to avoid much conversation for the time being. After only a few more minutes, Patricia announced she was finished with the preliminary sketches and almost immediately began visualizing how the finished product would look, describing animatedly to Nicodemus which hues she’d try to use, where shadowing would go; and ideas she’d had for background details, to which Nicodemus now gave further suggestions.

Seeing her renewed enthusiasm lifted Nicodemus’s spirits as well. “Well, I can see you’re impatient to begin on the next step, so unless you have further need of me, I’ll be going now.”

“Yes, I think I can take it solo from here. Thank you so much, Nicodemus.”

They embraced. “The pleasure was all mine, my dear. And I know it will be magnificent in the end.” He started to leave, then paused. “Oh, and I’m sure Lula will do just fine on her own again.”

“I know she will. She may be a little flighty, but she has good survival skills. Oh, and good luck, Nicodemus, with…with Jessica.”

Nicodemus nodded. “I will see her at the earliest opportunity.” He exited, and Patricia paused a moment before going to her paint pots and choosing which pigments and hues she’d need to begin the next stage of the project.

* * *

“Okay, Regina. Just a little further, sweetie.” Tara continued coaxing the girl-mouse toward her as she stood in the shallows of the cove.

Regina Ages dog-paddled toward Tara until she was about two feet away; then, unexpectedly, she slipped under the surface and out of her swim instructor’s sight. Tara wasn’t afraid for her, knowing how capable and at home Regina was in the water. Still, she couldn’t help feeling a bit annoyed at the girl’s straying from the lesson.

Suddenly she felt the water swirl beneath the surface, followed by a tug at her tail, and she realized what had happened. Regina had swum between her legs and was now anchored to her tail. She turned in time to see a small mouse head bob above the surface. “Gotcha, Tara!” Regina said with a giggle.

Tara shook her head and laughed as she lifted Regina out of the water, finding she didn’t have the heart to lecture her. “You’re going to drive me crazy.” She cradled the girl against her chest.

“I’m almost ready to gradjiate, aren’t I? Why, I’ll bet I could swim to the other side of the lake from here!”

“Maybe you could, but not without a buddy, okay? But you’re right, you are almost ready. By next week, you could probably teach me a thing or two in the water.”

“Yay!” Regina snuggled closer to Tara. As she cradled her young charge, Tara glanced briefly at some Rat and Rusay children playing on the beach before an approaching figure caught her eye, someone who waved and smiled at her.

“Okay, I guess that’s enough for today.” She gave Regina a little toss onto the bank and then climbed out herself, reaching for a towel on a nearby bench to absorb the excess water from their fur. Tara finished drying Regina and herself until they were no longer dripping wet; and after sending the girl off to play with the other children, she went to receive her visitor, sitting on the ground nearby.

“Hey, Tara.”

“Bertie! How was the trip?” She crouched down so they could embrace.

“Oh, it was terrific. Wish you could’ve made it.” They sat down together on the bench. “I’d have come sooner, but we had a big family gathering last night, with all my sibs, and nieces and nephews, and they all wanted to know all about our adventures…”

“That’s okay, Bertie. I learned about it from Susanna and Marcus, and Kevin and Alcina and some of the others.” They spent the next few minutes discussing the trip, agreeing how strange and mysterious Lilia’s experience with the min’hathio was, and hoping both could go out there next time. It soon became clear to them, though, that both had other matters on their minds.

“Tara, I…” began Bertie hesitantly, “there is something else, and it’s something I’ve thought about since the trip.” He sighed. “I was thinking…that maybe if we spent some…some time apart, that we’d have a better idea, eventually, about…whether or not it’s really the best thing for each of us, our being together.” He looked into Tara’s eyes, only to find, to his surprise, that there wasn’t a great amount of surprise in them.

“Actually, Bertie…I’ve been thinking much the same thing, since even before then; I guess, even since the big general meeting.”

“Really? Wow, that’s…that’s good, I guess, in a way, I mean, that we can both agree on it. After all, let’s face it, there’d still be ways that our relationship could never be like everyone else’s.”

Tara nodded. “Children, especially. Oh, Bertie, I do love you, and I do want to spend time with you, but…maybe we do need time to sort some things out.”

“Yeah. So…I guess we won’t be able to completely avoid each other, but…if we see each other, we’ll just, like, say ‘hi’ and move on?”

“I think we can manage that. So…I guess this is goodbye for now.”

“Yeah. I’ll…see you around, okay?” The two embraced, and with little hesitation, Bertie got to his feet and walked away. He moved about five feet away, then hesitated; then he continued on, fighting back the impulse to rush back to her and say he didn’t mean a word. No, let her decide. He’d been told how she’d been seen with Thurman during his time away, and she does have other male friends, and she’s certainly wanted to have her own kids; all of which would seem to point toward her realizing that their relationship was at a dead end and they should both move on. And did he believe that himself, that an end was inevitable? No, he meant it when he said they needed more time to think things over. And yet, it would have to be her decision more than his, wouldn’t it? As far as a new love affair was concerned, she had far more options than he did. There were, after all, far more eligible male rats than female mice in Freethorn. Now, if more “ordinary” mice could be persuaded to join them from Earth… Then again, there has been talk of the gene pool being diluted too much, though others have doubted if that’s even a concern. Well, at any rate, he thought, if I’m going to bring up the subject at all, may as well wait until after she and I have reached a resolution. It was a good thing they had going here, and he wasn’t about to give it up too easily.

Tara, meanwhile, watched Bertie walk away with much the same mix of reluctance and determination. She had the same impulse as he, to call him back and tell him she had second thoughts. And yet, she had doubts, undeniably: not about their feelings for each other, but whether their physical attraction was…right? No, she told herself again, it’s there, it’s genuine. But how to explain how they’d been brought together, both experiencing the feeling that they were right for each other, in spite of their not being able to procreate? Could it be some kind of mistake, a biological misfire, as Tallus might put it? Was it possible that one of them was just in the wrong body? The idea was, in purely logical terms, absurd; yet, how else to explain their mutual attraction? Let’s let this be a test, then, she decided. There was still the matter of Thurman; he’d been carrying the torch for her for a long time, and after the time they’d spent together recently, perhaps she needed some time to decide whether she felt as strongly for him. Perhaps…was it possible that Bertie would be amenable to an arrangement where they continued as a pair, but allowing one of the rats to father her children? Would he even be open to the possibility of a three-way living arrangement? There were a few such threesomes in Freethorn, as accepted as any other relationship; there were no rules against bigamy. And yet, she wasn’t sure if the idea was right for her. The matter had been much on her mind since that night with Thurman, and it had greatly influenced her decision to bow out of the trip to Gwinthrayle’s. Yes, she’d told Bertie and others that she hadn’t been feeling well, but it had only been some queasiness, nothing really serious. She couldn’t bring herself to admit to him at that point that she had these doubts and that spending some time apart might help her deal with them. But now that they’d reached a mutual agreement on that, maybe a resolution to the situation wouldn’t be far off. She looked up to the children playing games in the water and on the shore, envious that they didn’t have to deal with such complex issues. Maybe it’s best not to think too hard about it now, she decided, and got to her feet to join the children in play.

* * *

Nicodemus returned to his quarters, ready for a brief rest, and lay on the bed. He reflected on the last few hours since he’d left Patricia to her work. He’d immediately gone to the medical department and discreetly left word that he wished to meet with Jessica privately, without actually seeing her right then, after she was finished there for the day. He’d had lunch with Zora and Darwin and their children, including Veronica, who’d spoken up so readily at the recent general meeting and had come on the trip to Gwinthrayle’s. He’d chatted with anyone he’d meet who wanted a word with him, so routine by now but hardly unwelcome. It had all kept his mind occupied, but now he had that inevitable meeting to prepare for, the one which neither could put off any longer. Of course, there really wasn’t much he could do to prepare except simply be here. He closed his eyes, trying not to anticipate anything and resolving to just take it as it comes after Jessica arrived.

After only about five minutes, though, he got to his feet and began pacing the floor impatiently. Shouldn’t she be here by now? He went to the door and opened it, expecting to venture out a short ways and meet her coming in, but instead was greeted by a gasp of surprise, which he immediately matched.

“Well! You must have heard me coming,” said Jessica with a slightly nervous laugh.

“Call it a hunch, I suppose,” said Nicodemus, stepping aside to let her inside. “Or a version of my old premonitions.” They sat down on the divan, and just smiled at each other at first, neither knowing where or how to start.

“I guess…I should begin, since it was I who arranged this meeting.” Nicodemus breathed in deep. “Jessica, I’ve had much to keep me occupied since my return, and it’s been the greatest joy to be in the company of old and dear friends again, after being trapped in that bizarre, fragmented state for so long. And not just old friends, but the many new ones I’ve made since…including you. That night we spent together was…just the most generous, unselfish thing anyone has done for me since my return. I knew, and I know you also realized that it was not to be taken lightly; it was a tremendous risk we were taking, it could exact quite the emotional toll upon us. And since then…” Nicodemus inhaled deeply again, closing his eyes. “Jessica, even with all I’ve had to occupy me, I’ve found my thoughts have continually returned to you. I’ve never, even in my previous existence, felt so strongly about, or so drawn to any one person…until now. Jessica…I think I’ve fallen in love with you.”

Jessica stared open-mouthed for a moment before turning away, looking up at the ceiling.

“You don’t need to reply right away. I realize you have much to think about, considering all this entails, the implications…”

“No!” she replied abruptly, looking back upon him. “No, I need to say something now. It’s been much the same with me since that night. I’ve tried to bury myself in my work, even volunteer for some of the duties Ages and Cynthia and some of the others normally perform, but I’ve thought about you, too; a lot, in fact, and…” She sighed, looking close to tears. “Now I have no idea what we should do.” She got up and began walking in circles. “Under normal circumstances, I’d throw myself in your arms and we could just wrap ourselves in each other, let ourselves be happy with each other.”

“But these are hardly normal circumstances, are they? Jessica, can you answer me truthfully and honestly…did we make a mistake? Were we a mistake?”

She closed her eyes, arms folded. “On one hand, I want to say yes, of course. How could I have been so foolish to become so intimately involved with one who…has so little time left, and who isn’t even…in his right body? I’m sorry, that wasn’t how I wanted that to come out.”

“No, that’s all right, Jessica. I am only a tenant in this body, something I’ve told myself many times. And perhaps it could be said that neither of us are in our right minds either. Isn’t that how it seems for many who are in love for the first time, or even the second or third?”

Jessica could only nod, and give a small laugh. “I’ll buy that. Maybe it was a mistake, but it was both ours to make.”

“But I was the one who…”

“Who approached me, I know. But I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. We’re both rational, thinking adults, and we both knew what it might lead to, and I still accepted your offer, and now…we’re both paying the price.”

“And yet…what might that ultimately be? Considering that after I’m gone, this body will again belong to Rollo, and will be staying here.”

“I…can’t believe I almost forgot that. Good lord, is it you I have these feelings for, or Rollo?”

“That is a very good question. After all, it was the physical needs and desires of this body that inspired me to make the offer to you.”

“And I responded by diving in head first. Oh, this is just so crazy. Maybe…for the rest of your time here, we should avoid each other.”

“Could we? I want to say yes, of course, it’s the only real and logical solution. But is logic enough to make it successful?”

“Maybe not, but all we can do is try. I’m willing if you are.”

“So am I, Jessica.” He walked her to the door, then stopped, touching her arm. She looked at him, their eyes locking, neither willing to part at this point, or willing to admit this was what they really wanted, in spite of their verbal agreement. Somehow, though, each found just that much more will, just enough to let themselves part with just a nod and a smile.

Nicodemus leaned against the closed door, fighting back the tears. Yes, intellectually, he knew that both were equally to blame for getting in so deep, but would he ever totally convince himself that he wasn’t solely to blame? He looked at his reflection, then whirled and picked up a cup and raised it. At the last moment he restrained himself, setting the cup back down and taking a deep breath. No, shattering the mirror would only be like punishing yourself, and there’s really nothing to punish yourself over. He thought back to when he first made the offer to Jessica, recalling how he’d believed he’d earned a night of physical love, after all he’d been through to be in a physical body again. He still believed that, and didn’t regret it. Now he’d have to bear the consequences that he’d always known were possible. He looked at his reflection again and thought about how strange it was that suddenly his own needs and desires were taking so much precedence, whereas in his old life the needs of the colony came before his own. Or was it so strange? It had to be a direct consequence of his being alive again in this younger, stronger body, combined with his no longer being leader and having so little time left. Yes…so little, and still so much to do and see. Perhaps that would be the best way to deal with the matter.

Chapter 29 - Old haunts, old enemies, new sights

“Are you sure that’s all you need, dear?”

“Sure, Mother Pat, I’ll be okay.”

It was the type of response Patricia had become accustomed to hearing lately. She watched as Lula picked up the small bundle—extra clothing and bedding, personal items like a hairbrush and a small mirror, and a small amount of food, mostly dried fruit and other treats—and hefted it over her shoulder. Outwardly, it certainly looked as if she’d prepared for a lengthy trip away from home, but her attitude was almost casual, as if she were simply leaving on an overnight sleepover. She took a deep breath and announced, “I’m ready.”

The two walked together silently out of their quarters into the midafternoon sun. Outside, they were joined by Kimball, Johnathan and Madeline. As they moved toward the trail leading to Oak Park, there was still not much conversation. None yet knew quite what to make of this conviction of Lula’s, this self-described sense of having a mission, but all were willing to respect it.

Soon after starting off on the trail, Nicodemus joined them. After greetings, he took Johnathan aside. The others paused, curious as they watched the two talking in private; then, after only about a minute, Johnathan announced, “Folks, we may have a slight change in plans.”

For over a year before Freethorn had been relocated to this world, Oak Park, especially the area beneath the big burr oak, had become a traditional spot for gatherings to welcome someone new to the colony or see someone off, or many other celebratory events such as weddings. In the three Earth-months since then, it had become even more so. Today, around thirty Rats and Mice had gathered on Lula’s behalf. About a half hour ago, Madeline had told them there would be a small delay, and though no one was really impatient, there was much speculation on what led to this change of plans. Now, as a small group of Mice approached, some gave voice to their curiosity, especially in response to the fact that two of them, besides Lula, were carrying small bags and were dressed as if they, too, expected to spend more time in the winter weather back on Earth than it would take to get Lula settled.

Nicodemus signaled he was readying to speak, and all became silent. “My friends…I know you’re all here to bid bon voyage to our young friend Lula. She has decided to return to Earth, at least temporarily, and I know you’ll want to wish her a safe and happy stay. As for the delay…I have decided to accompany Johnathan and Lula to Earth, and once we’ve seen her off safely, Johnathan and I will go on what you may call a grand tour. He’s agreed to use the amulet to allow us to visit many places on Earth that I have always wanted to visit or revisit. We expect the trip to take at least two days, and of course we’ll relate our experiences to all of you upon our return. For now, we want to keep our departure low-key, and for the emphasis to continue to be on the departure of our young friend.”

Nicodemus smiled at Lula, and she began making her goodbyes. There was still much curiosity over the purpose for her returning to Earth, and so she had to endure the inevitable questions. Those who had heard the word “mission” used were especially curious; after all, how could she consider it a mission when she really had no idea what it was about? She could only reply as before, that she felt it was what she had to do. She bid farewell to her friends and those of her adoptive family who were present, but surprisingly, reserved the biggest one for her new friend Lilia, giving her a long embrace and promising again to tell all upon her return.

In a few more minutes, all were ready. Madeline made a final word of caution to Johnathan, knowing of his past propensity for taking risks. Outwardly she was joking, but inwardly was sincere in her hope that this would be a safe trip for all of them. The fact that he was making this trip at such late notice, leaving his family and home, bothered her a little at first; but she’d given in in deference to Nicodemus, who’d been planning this trip for days with the agreement that Johnathan and the amulet would make the trip possible. The younger children were disappointed at being left out, but were looking forward to hearing about the details later.

As Nicodemus received well-wishings from the crowd, he saw her, standing apart from the others, as he did yesterday after returning from Gwinthrayle’s. This time, though, Jessica moved away quickly, as if deciding it was useless for her to spend another second there. Nicodemus thought briefly about the reasons for this sudden change of plans, deciding to accompany Lula to Earth now; then he pushed further thoughts aside as he continued making his own goodbyes.

“Well, we’re ready when you are,” said Johnathan as he and Lula joined him.

“Very well,” Nicodemus said simply. The three joined hands. Johnathan concentrated on the amulet, and with a familiar flash, all were gone.

* * *

“So this is Thorn Valley, Johnathan?” said Lula after the three travelers had the chance to regain their bearings and view their surroundings. She shuddered with a “Brrr!” and laughed at her own reaction.

“Sure is, Lula. But it’s definitely not the one we knew.”

Johnathan led his companions from the spot the amulet had delivered them to something that had immediately grabbed their attention, where the ground could be seen to drop off abruptly. Bringing themselves near the edge, they could view the scene all around—an awe-inspiring one, not just for the sight in and of itself but also for the knowledge of what brought it about.

“Extraordinary,” said Nicodemus, shading eyes as he gazed back and forth along this decidedly unnatural-looking gorge, that looked for all the world as if an enormous scoop had dug out this chunk of land and adjacent mountainside, slicing through soil and rock with equal ease. On the opposite side, a handful of men and women could be seen moving about an encampment.

“They’ve been running tests for months now,” explained Johnathan, “and near as we can tell, they’re no closer to finding out what happened to that chunk of land as when they started.” He brought his hands up to either side of his mouth. “And you never will! Hahahahaha!” he shouted, making Lula jump backward. “Sorry, Lula. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He knew the humans couldn’t possibly hear the voice of one little mouse across the approximately one-quarter-mile diameter chasm, but he couldn’t resist.

Johnathan explained further how a large portion of the national forest, including Thorn Valley, had been declared off-limits to the general public, the official reason being given as its being part of a special research project which, in order for its success, meant that no human traffic would be allowed.

“Just imagine if word got out about this,” said Nicodemus. “There would be all manner of wild theories as to how such a thing could come about.”

“I’ll say,” added Johnathan. “I can just see the headlines in their less-reputable newspapers: ‘Quarter-mile-wide piece of land missing! Are aliens to blame?’”

Nicodemus laughed. “And let’s not forget a government cover-up! Which is true, to some degree.” He looked at Lula, who just continued gazing across the chasm. “I know this talk means little to you, Lula, and I’m sorry if it seems we’re forgetting the main reason we’re here.” Lula just shrugged, smiling.

Johnathan agreed it was time to move on, so the trio moved away from the edge toward another specific destination. “Since there are still humans here, Lula,” Johnathan asked along the way, “are you sure this is where you want to settle, rather than the area you lived in before?”

“Well, you did say that they would pose little danger to me, and it does feel right, somehow.” Lula again gave a smile and a shrug.

Soon they came to the spot Johnathan had in mind: a tangle of briars in front of three large boulders, underneath which lay a hidden pathway. They made their way through it to a natural grotto within the boulders.

“Wow,” said Lula, looking all around the space. “You were right, Johnathan, it does look just like Teresa’s home, or I guess it’s the other way around. And this is where she lived before, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Lula, and now it’s yours for as long as you like.” He showed her the actual living area through another opening. Before the trip, Johnathan had checked, via the amulet, to confirm the den was unoccupied and Lula was free to move in. Since Johnathan and Nicodemus could see she was ready to become settled, they began their goodbyes. It was bittersweet for Nicodemus, knowing that, depending on how long her stay here proved to be, he might be gone by the time she returned to Freethorn. The two embraced wordlessly for over a minute as Johnathan waited just outside the entrance. Nicodemus wished her good luck and expressed hope that she would find what she’d come for, then he joined Johnathan outside.

Neither could help expressing some uneasiness over leaving her all alone like this, or feeling that she’d convinced herself to take a course of action that might yield little or no results or even expose her to danger. Yet, what could anyone do? It was her choice, after all, even if there was so much about it that seemed odd, even mysterious.

Nicodemus decided to confide in Johnathan about his theory that it was an actual entity that had contacted Lula, and the possible similarity to Lilia’s experience with the min’hathio.

“Like a spirit of some kind, that resides within the planet itself,” mused Johnathan. “There have been legends about that sort of thing, that we read in those books back at the estate. You know, I’ve gotten the impression of something almost like that ever since my first time there. I’ve never really been able to describe it before, but that really comes close.”

Nicodemus nodded. “I thought you might have, since you’d spent so much time on Lahaikshe before the rest of us.”

Johnathan rubbed his whiskers. “Yes, and then there’s Gwinthrayle’s home, and the feeling of calm and tranquility that everyone experiences there; and other spots, like the conical valley we visited, where Martin and Karen made their ‘honeymoon’ retreat, where there’s such beautiful light phenomena…it all seems to point to something greater than natural phenomena, at least as we’d known it on Earth, as if there is some intelligence behind it. And then there’s that whole mystery of why the Stone sent me and Uhrstegg to Lahaikshe in the first place. And Pharsal—the Rusay that created the Stone—was inside it, his soul-self was; and he claimed it was a mystery to him too. I still wonder if he knew something he wasn’t telling. From time to time, I’ve even wondered if Gwinthrayle wasn’t holding something back. Or Birantha; he’d learned more about the Stone than either of us. I’ve never had any reason, anything concrete, to believe that, and yet…it couldn’t have been all coincidence or blind chance. And both of them have agreed with me on that all along.”

“This new world of ours does have its secrets, all right…as much as some of us have been known to have.” Nicodemus seemed lost in thought for a moment, gazing across their surroundings from the rock on which they stood, ending with one more look at the adjoining boulders where Lula made her new home. He sighed. “Well…I think it’s time we moved on, my friend.”

Johnathan took Nicodemus’s hand and concentrated on the amulet.

* * *

Their next stop was the remains of an ancient, sprawling oak in the woods south of Thorn Valley—the former home of their old and now supposedly deceased ally the Great Owl. Johnathan described how he’d come here about two months after he returned from his “exile,” just to pay a visit, and found the upper portion of the tree toppled over and the Owl nowhere to be found. He’d used the amulet to check his current whereabouts, but it was fruitless; and though he could’ve seen how the Owl had met his end, he chose not to. When he broke the news to his family, Madeline recalled how the Owl had predicted an end for himself that apparently had come true: that when the portion of the tree containing his home finally collapsed, he would go with it, as if he and the tree were one.

His two old comrades regarded the spot silently, paying their respects; then, they moved on to their next stop. The Brisbys’ old creekside home, which Nicodemus had never seen before, had been a big part of Johnathan’s life, and was continuing to be so for others: Orland and Lana, shortly before they came to live in Freethorn, and the home’s present occupants, another mouse family. They didn’t stay long, not wanting to impose, mostly long enough for them to wish the family good fortune.

Next they moved on to a place of which both shared strong memories: the Fitzgibbons farm. They first visited the abandoned threshing machine, beneath which Mr. Ages had his home and laboratory, shared by Johnathan before he married Madeline. It wasn’t much to look at now, parts of it having collapsed and caved in since being abandoned altogether. The tunnel leading from the lab to the Rats’ former Rosebush colony had been intentionally filled in the night of the Grand Evacuation, just as most of the colony itself had been, with all the elaborate facilities broken down and hauled out, with what remained reduced to the appearance of an ordinary animal burrow. The rosebush, of course, was also long gone, now replaced by a pair of lilac bushes.

Now they stood at the crest of the jutting rock in the garden—the wave stone—which, earlier that same fateful night, had been the site of so much activity—ordered and precise at first, but soon descending into chaos and even brutality. Though Johnathan had been absent, he knew the details of that night well enough as if he’d actually been there, and could see that being here again was having a definite effect upon Nicodemus, who was silent but shuddered, eyes closed.

“Are you all right?” Johnathan rubbed his friend’s shoulder. “If it’s too much, we can…”

“No…no, I’m fine, Johnathan, really. It’s just...I felt compelled to come here again, even though I knew I’d be facing some unpleasant memories.”

“I guess we all have those. Both of us faced what we thought to be our final ends, our swan songs, while living here.”

“All the Rats could have perished that night, Johnathan, lest we forget. And your own family as well.”

“Of course. But fate had other plans in store for us, didn’t it?” Johnathan laughed ironically. “Boy, has it ever. I’ve thought so much about that, especially since I’d returned from my ‘exile’ on Lahaikshe. Has there really been some unseen hand guiding us all these years? Was it just an accidental blend of chemical compounds that made us what we are? Was it blind chance that led us to establish our colony here? And Madeline…” Johnathan sighed fondly. “If all of the other mice had escaped NIMH alive, I certainly would have married one of them. Merisa, maybe; I did have kind of a crush on her, and I know she was fond of me, even though we were kept in separate cages and I couldn’t even touch her until the night of our freedom. At the same time…I can’t imagine not having Madeline for a wife. We’ve just been so perfect for each other. And talk about fate! If she hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to overhear the farmer’s telephone conversation…I just shudder to think about it.”

“Of course. But lest we forget, it was Billy Fitzgibbons that was responsible for her being there. Certainly we have him to thank for our continued survival as much as Madeline.”

“Oh, yes. Fate…blind chance…what it all really comes down to is making choices, taking one path instead of another. If we’d literally taken a different route after leaving NIMH, how different might our lives have been? And what I said earlier, about the amulet’s sending me to Lahaikshe…that may have been something I had no control over, but so much else… It’s all about making choices, and without always knowing if it’s the right one.”

Nicodemus looked ready to add something, but kept silent, unnoticed by Johnathan, who looked over the side of the stone to the ground. “And then this…” He indicated a cement block, a corner of which just barely showed above the surface of the weed-clogged patch of earth below the stone’s “lee” side. “I was the one who found this block, and used the Stone to fashion it into a home. If I hadn’t been sent to Lahaikshe that same night, I’d have presented it to Maddie and the kids the next day. But they found it entirely on their own. And then it turned out to be right in the path of the tractor. If I hadn’t had other matters to occupy me, I might have realized that and moved it right then. Yet, if I had done that, so much would have been different. Maddie wouldn’t have had to come to you for help, she wouldn’t have been captured…”

“…And wouldn’t have warned us of NIMH’s arrival. And Jenner may not have acted against me that night, though he certainly would have in time, had we survived. Such an intricate web…one event, one choice, can influence or create so many others. And sometimes even after the choice has been made, one cannot always decide if it’s the correct one.” Nicodemus sighed, gazing heavenward.

Johnathan placed a hand on his shoulder. “If there’s something you need off your chest, you know you can tell me anything.”

Nicodemus looked at him with a small smile. “Perceptive as always, my friend. Yes, there is something, which I’ve tried to bury, but with all this talk of fate and choices…” They both sat down. After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “I believe that I have truly…fallen in love for the first time.” He told the whole story, from his initial offer to Jessica up to their last meeting just hours ago.

“So that’s why you wanted to leave on this trip early.”

“Yes. To be that close, but knowing we could never truly be together…” Nicodemus sighed. “It may seem like simple avoidance, I know; surely I can’t stay away from Freethorn for the rest of my time here, and I don’t wish to avoid the company of everyone there on account of one. I just felt the need to go as far away from her as possible, as soon as possible, for all that I wanted to hold her close and…” He looked close to tears.

Johnathan placed his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Jessica’s a great lady, very talented and beautiful. Under different circumstances, I’d be congratulating you both, but…”

“Patricia said much the same. And I know you understand my dilemma as well as she. And now that I know for certain that Jessica feels as strongly for me, it’s made it so much worse, just knowing what she’s going through.” Nicodemus stood and stretched. “Continuing to avoid each other can be the only possible way for me, but could I really enjoy my remaining time without thinking about her? I’d be distracted, for certain, not very good company.”

“Well, you didn’t ask for advice, so I won’t give any. But if there was a way to remain with us and fulfill your promise to Rollo at the same time, would you take it?”

“Oh, without hesitation. But the only way I know of would be a compromise, both of us sharing this body and taking turns being in control.”

“I didn’t think that was possible. Didn’t you say that once you’d healed Rollo’s brain, you wouldn’t be able to stay?”

“That has been my estimation. A compromise might be possible, but I believe it more likely that with his brain in a more normal state, he’d find the presence of another mind, another persona, to be near-intolerable.”

“Hmmm…so it’s the state Rollo’s brain is in now that’s enabling you and him to share it so easily?”

“Precisely. Yet, even if we were able to share this body fully, even if Rollo were entirely agreeable to it, such a compromise would be patently unfair to him, after the life he’s had thus far. He deserves to live the rest of it to its fullest, and I intend to give it to him. Now certainly if another way were to present itself over the next week…” He managed a small laugh. “But perhaps I shouldn’t be burdening you with this, Johnathan. After all, you wanted to make this trip as much as I, and it’s my choice and mine alone in regards to Jessica, just as it was our mutual choice at the beginning. So…shall we explore more of the farm, or move on?”

“I’d like to stick around a bit longer, if it’s all right with you.” Inwardly, Johnathan wanted to say that he believed Nicodemus should spend as much time as possible with Jessica, recalling the pain of his own separation from Madeline three years ago. If, after all, their love was true, they should enjoy what time they have, even knowing how brief it must be. But would that be the wisest choice? Certainly, either way Nicodemus chose, someone would inevitably be hurt.

They took one more look around before descending to the ground, their feet crunching into the thin layer of half-melted snow. Johnathan described in greater detail the differences in climate between Earth and Lahaikshe; and how Vitrono, their new “home” continent, had generally pleasant temperatures year-round, though sometimes hotter than average. It was like this over a majority of the planet, without the extreme seasonal changes prevalent in Earth’s temperate zones (though this area where they used to make their home has relatively mild winters). Johnathan confessed that he missed them on Lahaikshe, and actually felt comfortable in winter temperatures as long as they weren’t too far below freezing, something Nicodemus remembered well from the old days.

They continued their walking tour of the farm compound, reminiscing over experiences from the old days as they went. It was early afternoon, and because of the time of year there wasn’t much human activity on the farm, but both knew well they needed to be on the lookout for Dragon. Neither was worried, of course, knowing they’d be well protected against any attack. Johnathan explained how, though he and his family hadn’t made any real visits to the farm after moving to Thorn Valley, he had used the amulet to look in occasionally, and so was aware that Dragon was still very much alive and active these days.

They had just left the barn and were heading toward the house when they saw him, making both mice instinctively duck for cover. Dragon was sitting just off the porch preening his two-tone grey fur, looking decidedly non-ferocious.

Johnathan chuckled to himself. “You know, suddenly I’m so in the mood for starting something with him.”

“Just like that time when you got a real ‘rise’ out of him, eh?” Nicodemus had already heard that story from Martin, dating from just before the family’s move to Thorn Valley, when Johnathan decided to get in a parting shot at Dragon, using the Stone to raise him several feet in the air and then drop him.

“Well, maybe not quite like that. Now, if he were to start an altercation; say, if we were just taking a stroll across the lawn, minding our own business, not bothering him a whit; why, then we’d have to do something to protect ourselves, wouldn’t we?” Without waiting for a reply from Nicodemus, Johnathan began such a stroll, whistling “Strolling Through the Park” to himself.

“Oh, Johnathan…” Nicodemus shook his head in mock annoyance. Impulsive as ever, he thought as he joined his friend. They walked side by side toward Dragon, at the same time mindful of anyone who might be watching from the house.

“Hey, Fatface!” Johnathan shouted. Dragon turned at the sound, immediately fixing them with a piercing stare. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Fatface? I meant to say…Fatface!”

Dragon crouched and hissed. Johnathan concentrated. Dragon charged straight toward them, and as his intended victims expected, was stymied by an invisible barrier some six inches from them. Dragon hissed and growled at this interruption.

“Yeah, you remember me, don’t you? You thought you had an easy snack when you cornered me in the closet, eh? And that time in the garden, when you went for a ride straight up?”

Dragon only gave a low moan in reply, moving back and forth and swiping at the barrier.

“Oh, I know you understand me, but you’re trying to pretend you don’t. You carnivores are all alike! It’s always ‘Oh, you are so far beneath us because we are the all-powerful predators and you are just the puny lit-tull prey.’ Well, we’re more than just hors d’oeuvres with legs, pal. We have hopes and dreams, families, loved ones. And that’s more than you cats can say, isn’t it? Oh, sure! You’re real faithful to your mates and children, aren’t you?”

Dragon still said nothing, but both mice could tell he was reacting to Johnathan’s words, growling louder and making more forceful swipes with his forepaws.

“Come on, say something, already! You’re getting every word I’m saying, I can tell…”

“Johnathan…exactly what do you want to hear from him? Or expect to?”

Johnathan caught himself, realizing how quickly his manner had become so serious. “Not much, I suppose. I know I’m just beating a dead horse. Some things’ll never change, or some creatures.” He began to concentrate on the amulet again, but then a new sound issued from Dragon’s throat.

“I…will get you…and kill you…”

“Well, Johnathan, there’s your answer.”

“Yeah, even if we’d tried to reason with him, or even sweet-talk him, the results would’ve been just the same.” Johnathan concentrated again, but not only to leave. Unable to resist another parting shot, he made the Stone scoop up a nearby heap of plowed-up snow and drop it right on Dragon. Neither could resist laughing at the sight of Dragon quickly fighting his way out of the sudden avalanche, looking back and forth, and taking off for the house.

Johnathan then brought both of them to the rooftop, where they could see all around the farm and to the surrounding forest. “I don’t know,” said Johnathan. “I guess what I was really angry about down there was…being reminded of Vincent, and the cat that killed him…and the one that killed Ardo, and cats and predators in general. If there’s one thing above all others that makes me glad we moved to Lahaikshe, it’s that. And yet, we came back here to take in some of the good things in this world.”

“Lest we forget,” said Nicodemus with a grin. “But I’ve heard talk since I’ve returned of a certain amount of regret in a few of us for being forced to move to Lahaikshe.”

“‘Forced’ is definitely the right word. But, yes, we all regret it one way or another. How could we not? This is the world that gave us life. Ideally, we should have just as much a right as humankind to make our own way in it. But would they ever see it that way? Because of the circumstances of our creation, they’ll never just simply accept us as we are, because we were an accident to them, something they didn’t intend—an unknown factor.”

“And it’s an all-too-human quality to fear the unknown or what they don’t understand. Ah, yes…you and I had many a spirited discussion on the subject leading up to the Thorn Valley Plan.”

“Oh, yes. And the actions I’ve…we’ve taken recently have added a whole new wrinkle to the matter. They’ve seen the results for themselves, and though they’ll likely never find out what really happened, certainly we couldn’t return to Thorn Valley even if we wanted to.”

“Of course. And many of those old discussions of ours concerned whether there are some humans who might accept us or even befriend us. What do you believe now?”

“I still believe that. But could we be absolutely sure none of them might not one day turn on us? The human propensity for betrayal is just too great. For every Howard Travis, there are any number who’d sell you up the river. Okay, maybe that’s laying it on a little thick. But as much as I’d like to believe that they’d let us live in peace, we just can’t take that risk, now that the secret’s out about where we were. Everyone on the council agrees, though Tallus has had the idea that with the right leverage, just the right bargaining chip, we could coexist on Earth. But with everything going so well on Lahaikshe, it’s nearly unanimous that we should only return if we absolutely have to.”

Nicodemus nodded thoughtfully. “And with no predators on Lahaikshe, and the general acceptance of our people there, you’ll be able to advance as a culture more readily, and find opportunities for cultural directions which, otherwise, you’d never have found or perhaps even thought of.”

“We’ve discussed that, too. But so far, we’ve been pretty much taking things one day at a time.” Johnathan chuckled to himself. “You know, since the Migration, we’d wondered if this was something you’d have approved of. And now that we have you again, and you’ve given it your seal of approval, it seems almost…well, unexpected.”

Nicodemus chuckled. “I’m not surprised. But though I cannot say how events would have played out had I been with you all along, your present success speaks for itself. You had acted as you deemed wisest, given the high-pressure situation you’d been forced into. I’d already discussed the matter with Justin, and he confessed that he’d barely thought of it, even after I’d been among you for several hours that first day.”

“Thanks, old friend.” Johnathan embraced him. “We may not know precisely what awaits us on Lahaikshe, but it’ll be exciting to watch it all unfold.”

A thought occurred to Nicodemus, one he had nearly forgotten: should he bring up that matter Gwinthrayle had advised him not to yet, about the dramatic change in that small area on the opposite side of Lahaikshe, something which could very well affect decisions about staying on that world? No, he’d promised Gwinthrayle, and felt he could trust him to choose for himself the right time to share the information. “So, Johnathan…about this ‘bargaining chip’ you spoke of: Did Tallus have something specific in mind?”

“Something we’d each thought of on our own: this little beauty right here.” Johnathan held up the Stone. “I’ve had plenty of time to consider its potential, and Maddie and I both feel we’ve only scratched the surface. For instance, with its capability to show images taking place in the present and the past, why…think of the boon it would be to the humans.”

Nicodemus raised eyebrows. “Unsolved crimes…like high-profile murders, missing-person cases…many other things that have long been mysteries to them, wouldn’t remain such for long. To say nothing of what a help it would be in saving lives, in rescue operations and the like.”

“Exactly. I’ve even pictured myself offering services to them—‘Johnathan Brisby: Amulet-Bearer for Hire.’” Johnathan laughed at the absurdity of it, but both knew such a situation was entirely within the realm of possibility.

“Yes, and in return for your services, our people remain free and inviolate, with a guarantee of being left alone with no human intrusion.”

“Exactly again. Yet, would even that be enough? I guess, though, that if we are to stay on Lahaikshe indefinitely—probably permanently—that we can shelve that whole discussion.”

“Yes. Now, as to that potential, I know you’ve considered as much as I how far you could take it, how much you could do.”

Johnathan nodded. “Until a few months ago, I’d never have believed it could move a quarter-mile wide piece of land, and everything and everyone on it, to a whole other dimension. Now…I’m almost afraid to speculate. How large an area of land or object could it move like that? At least, with its ‘fail-safe’ we can be assured no one would be hurt or killed…but to think that it could do so much, and all by the will of just one or two little mice…it’s such an awesome responsibility.”

“One which neither of you had asked for, obviously, but which you must shoulder nevertheless.”

“And I guess that would take us back to the question of fate. The Stone made its way into our hands, courtesy of Ghormfisk, and neither of us yet know why. Pharsal meant it to be commanded by persons of a certain character, and while we qualified, it doesn’t seem random. Was its ultimate purpose to be in our hands, so we could, perhaps, lead our people to a new world and a new destiny? Think of it, Nicodemus. On Earth, we had to keep our existence secret, or risk certain capture or death, in addition to having natural enemies, which we were still as vulnerable to as natural rats and mice. And now look at us on Lahaikshe: no enemies, acceptance by the Rusay and its other inhabitants, literally a whole world of possibilities, with the sky the only limit.”

“Excellent point, Johnathan. Perhaps this is another one that’s useless to speculate on, and may become clearer in time.”

Johnathan sighed. “I guess so.” He gazed to the north, toward Thorn Valley. “It’s strange, but when you said that, right away I thought of Lula. I suppose it’s because our leaving her is still fresh in my memory, but…somehow, I’m not as worried for her safety as I was.”

“Time will certainly tell with her, my friend. Now…shall we move on?”

Johnathan was equally ready, and after a brief overview of their plans and one last look around the Fitzgibbons farm—perhaps for the very last time for Johnathan as well as Nicodemus—they were away with a flash.

* * *

“Well, what do you think, Nicodemus?”

Nicodemus breathed in deep before answering. “The pictures we’ve seen…simply don’t do it justice, Johnathan.”

The two mice were drifting over the Grand Canyon, its granite walls burning so intensely red in the late-afternoon sun that it almost hurt their eyes. They could see whitewater rafters on the river below, and more people at a tourist station at canyon’s edge. They wondered if any of them had binoculars trained on these two out-of-place aerial travelers.

For several minutes, neither spoke a word. Then Johnathan said, “You know, I’ve taken Maddie and the kids to some different locations on Earth before, though we never came here…and certainly not to the extent that we’re about to do.”

“Perhaps that’s a situation you could change in the future, for whoever is interested.”

“That’s true. There hasn’t been that great a demand from the Rats for that sort of thing. I guess it’s because they don’t want to impose on Maddie or me, though most of them seem content to stay put and not do too much traveling. Still...moving off Earth doesn’t have to mean staying away completely, does it?”

They agreed that this was another matter that could wait until this trip was over. For now, they only wanted to continue drinking in the sight of this splendorous work of nature.

When both agreed it was time to move on, Nicodemus again had a specific destination in mind. Early on, it was decided he would choose each spot, though some Johnathan voiced some reluctance for, especially some large human cities. Nicodemus convinced him, though, that these were just as legitimate sights to take in: “For better or worse,” he had said, “there are many worthwhile monuments to human achievement, and they should not be excluded because of a reluctance to get too close to the ones that made them.” So Johnathan agreed, though he’d said Nicodemus needn’t have had to convince him, because he’d go along with any choice of destination he’d make.

Their next destination was a beach along the Gulf of Mexico, along Mexico’s east coast. Neither had seen a body of water this large before, at least on Earth, and they were as impressed with the sight as with the Canyon. They spent some time on the beach, swimming in the shallow tidal pools and encountering crabs and shellfish.

It was a spot both were reluctant to leave too soon, but Nicodemus was determined to take in as many spots as possible in the time they’d set aside, with the emphasis on variety and contrast. So for their next destination, they visited Antarctica, marveling at its harsh and stark beauty, its glaciers and hardy wildlife. Here, as in several other places they’d visit, the amulet was employed to shield them from climatic extremes.

It was quite the whirlwind tour they’d embarked upon. Over the next day and a half, they visited active volcanos in Italy and Hawaii (the former, Mount Etna, was oozing lava at the time); a Congolese rain forest glade inhabited by mountain gorillas; mountain tops in the Andes and the Himalayas; remote, unspoiled tropical islands in every ocean. They floated over the North Sea during a storm that whipped the water into a frenzy. They stood upon high dunes in the Sahara, with the surrounding landscape an endless sea of desert sand in every direction. They rode on the back of an elephant, who barely took notice of them, on the Serengeti Plain.

They plunged into the remotest sections of the Amazon rain forest, viewing up close its diverse and sometimes dangerous wildlife, at one point being charged by an ocelot from which they were able to protect themselves in time. Other encounters of note included meeting a larger “cousin”: a capybara, just coming ashore after a swim and rather indifferent to their presence.

It was, overall, as varied an experience as Nicodemus had wished for, as they visited Arctic tundra, Australian outback, snow-covered mountain terrain in the Swiss Alps that was more vertical than horizontal; stretches of golden beach in California, the Bahamas, Namibia, Brazil.

One type of environment they returned to the most was dense forestland, especially tropical and subtropical, in not only South America and Africa but also Mexico, Central America, Florida, eastern Australia, along the American and Canadian Pacific coast. But one that proved particularly alluring started when Johnathan suggested they not only view bodies of water from above, but from the inside as well, with the amulet keeping them dry and comfortable inside a bubble of air. They ventured among coral reefs off Australia, in the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean, “swam” with dolphins and numerous schools of fish, plumbed the murkiest depths with the amulet’s force-shield able to withstand the most crushing pressures and provide illumination so they could view the often bizarre-looking lifeforms that dwelt there.

Perhaps the most memorable experience of the entire trip came when they located a pod of whales, and simply traveled with them for almost an hour, hearing their mournful song, awestruck by their graceful underwater ballet. “Humans are so confident in their belief in their own inherent superiority,” remarked Johnathan at one point. “But if more of them could spend time as we have among these magnificent creatures…how could they not think differently afterwards?”

Nicodemus could only nod silently at first, unable to contain his emotions. “It’s almost as if…they speak with the voice of the planet itself.” The remark reminded both of them of their discussion of the supposed entity that may have contacted both Lilia and Lula, though neither would have been able to articulate why, precisely.

As planned, they also visited human cities and towns, taking time to view the activities of some of their inhabitants up close as well as feats of architecture and engineering, both modern and vintage. They viewed the Pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, centuries-old European castles and cathedrals, China’s Great Wall, the Tiahuanaco ruins of Bolivia. They soared over huge cities like New York, London, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo; marveling at the massive amount of work and toil to make them what they are today and simultaneously wondering how their inhabitants can live like this, seemingly far removed from the natural world; though they did note how some areas, like New York’s Central Park, were left “green.”

They visited rural areas and marveled at the contrast to the big cities, with their inhabitants’ slower-paced way of life. They visited farms that operated on a much larger scale than the Fitzgibbons farm, admiring the amount of work it took to grow so much food, but expressing far less admiration over those farms in which animals like hogs or chickens were raised under conditions in which they rarely if ever saw the light of day. Johnathan mused over how many animals in these fields that covered so many acres might have a “moving day” much like his family and others used to have.

Throughout this entire tour, the pair made frequent stops to eat and catch some sleep. On one such break, taken at the base of a tree near a beach on Florida’s Gulf coast, they mutually decided to end their tour and return home after they’d rested once more. Both were a bit tired and admitted they probably should have allowed more time for sleep, but once they’d begun it was an effort to keep from moving forward and taking in as much as they could in the time they’d allotted. Both were still excited over all they’d seen and experienced, but for Nicodemus there was some sadness too; for the reasons Johnathan suspected, but there was more to it.

“For all that we’ve seen that’s beautiful, even majestic, it seems as if humankind, by and large, can’t seem to truly appreciate what they have here. They have the means at hand—the technology, the intelligence—to make their world truly a paradise, eliminate all hunger and poverty.”

“First they’ll have to eliminate greed and willful ignorance,” added Johnathan, “and their xenophobic tendencies. It’s what’s kept them from advancing socially as a race, and consequently solving their most crushing problems.”

“Yes, and we certainly can’t solve them for them. Perhaps it’s just as well you’ve made Lahaikshe your home now.”

They agreed to shelve further discussion of the matter, not wanting to rehash old news, especially since both wanted to rest up before proceeding with the last leg of their trip. They found a cozy spot inside a storage shed in back of a seafood restaurant.

Once they’d been well rested, one last flash of light signaled the conclusion of this elaborate, wide-ranging “vacation” for the two mouse travelers.

Chapter 30 - New mysteries back home

They returned in Oak Park, though their arrival garnered virtually no notice; not that they expected much of one, since there was no set timetable for their trip. Johnathan looked all around to get his bearings before they moved away from the big burr oak toward the colonies. They could already tell it was midafternoon, close to two days—around 56 hours—since they’d departed.

“Wow, that was one amazing ride,” said Johnathan, patting Nicodemus’s shoulder. “But boy, there’s nothing like coming back home again. I wonder where everybody is? Usually somebody’s here in the park, at least to…”

He paused as he noticed that Nicodemus appeared ill at ease; but before he could ask, Nicodemus said, “There’s something…odd in the air, Johnathan. Something’s been happening while we were gone.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing ominous, I’m sure; we need not fear the worst.” No, he was sure it was nothing like any sudden, disastrous climatic change, as Gwinthrayle had warned him could possibly happen elsewhere on Lahaikshe. But this had to be something out of the ordinary.

“All the same, we haven’t seen hide or hair of anyone yet.” Barely had Johnathan said this when two rats approached: the Guard rat Melvin and his wife Judith. Upon seeing the two mice, they looked almost relieved and eager to share some vital information.

After greetings, Melvin told them, “We’re glad to have you back, Nicodemus. Maybe you can get to the bottom of what’s been going on around here. Oh, and you too, Johnathan, with the Stone. Didn’t mean to slight you.”

“That’s okay, Mel. Just start from the beginning.”

“Well, I guess it started two days ago, just after you left.” The four continued on along the trail. “Just after sunset, we started getting reports of all manner of strange sounds, things that shouldn’t have been where they were. Some of us were reminded of that weird fog that rolled in a few days ago, but these… Well, Philip was the first to report something. While he was on patrol, he heard a strange, tremulous wailing sound on the southwest ridge. But when he approached the area it came from, he couldn’t see or hear anything.”

“He didn’t report anything else strange,” added Judith, “but then others started reporting seeing things as well as hearing sounds that were out of place.”

“And each seemed to be more bizarre than the last. We had two separate reports of stone pillars with strange markings suddenly appearing, and then disappearing when they glanced away for a second.”

“My niece Sasha and her friend Jenine saw a strange, shimmering, glowing thing just floating in the air near the lake. They weren’t really scared at first until it started changing shape, and a face appeared on it: ugly, vicious-looking, with long sharp teeth. It looked right at them, opened its mouth and started moving toward them really fast. They took off running for home, but the first time they looked around it was nowhere in sight. They reported it to the first guard they saw, and they checked that area but saw nothing out of the ordinary.” Judith shuddered and gave a small laugh. “I’m not sure I’d have been as calm as the girls were.”

“They were all like that at first,” Melvin went on. “Someone would report something odd, we’d check out their claim, and find nothing. But by now we’re sure no one’s trying to pull our legs, because others of us in the Guard have seen things; and heard and even smelled, too.”

They described more such anomalies: a structure resembling a miniature human house that swayed, groaned, parts of its structure peeling away as if alive and wriggling like tentacles; an ordinary-looking treestump that, when approached, split in half, revealing a raw, red, throatlike passage that appeared to glow from within, with the most vile, rotten, noisome stench emanating from it, seemingly ready to swallow anyone who chanced upon it.

Perhaps the most terrifying was reported by a group of Rat, Mouse and Rusay children the previous night, just after sunset. They were on this very path between the park and the Mouse colony when something blocked their way: a grotesque creature lying on its back across the trail. It was roughly humanoid in overall proportions but with craggy, exaggerated features in both face and body, its skin a sickly yellow. It opened its mouth (“There seems to be a definite theme here,” remarked Johnathan at this point) and its features changed shape gradually, becoming even more disproportionate. Its mouth became a gaping aperture and though its teeth weren’t sharp, it was still terrifying for the youngsters who tried in vain to go around the creature. Seemingly every step they took threatened to take them right into its maw and down its gullet, as if it were everywhere at once. Only after they’d all huddled together and began shouting for help did the thing vanish without a trace, leaving the youngsters free to run for home.

A council meeting had convened only an hour before to discuss the apparent problem, but predictably no consensus was reached on how to deal with it. How could they deal with something that, thus far, appeared only to be a string of intangible illusions? They’d known about areas on Lahaikshe where strange, illusory events are routine, such as the conical valley. But none were this terrifying in appearance. Gwinthrayle had said there were several such “hot spots” on Lahaikshe, his own home located on one, but he’d been positive that Freethorn didn’t stand atop one of them. Obviously they were dealing with forces, perhaps entirely natural, which were beyond their understanding, and it had been suggested that Johnathan or Nicodemus contact Gwinthrayle after they returned. Tallus had put forth that whatever force was responsible (or whoever, if it could be termed as such) might possibly be trying deliberately to do no more than frighten them. They agreed that if it ever seemed that a genuine danger were present, some action, perhaps evacuation, would be called for; but if it continued as it had been, then it shouldn’t be a major concern.

Johnathan agreed to try using the amulet to possibly uncover clues to the nature of these anomalies. He was hesitant about involving Gwinthrayle at this point, though, and Nicodemus conceded, since Johnathan had known him longer.

Upon reaching the Mouse colony, they found that most of its residents (and the Rats as well, reported Melvin) were staying closer to home as much as possible, so it was quite a large crowd there to greet them. Nicodemus did the bulk of the description of his and Johnathan’s trip, while Johnathan—after greeting his wife and children—became occupied with trying to solve the “anomaly mystery” with the amulet. Though Nicodemus enjoyed relating all they’d seen and heard, he knew reminders of other matters weren’t far away. The first one was some of the mouse children in the group before him—Stuart, Shirley, Clifford, Diane—and the next one, their mother, arrived presently, Stuart whispering excitedly to her as she joined them. Jessica’s eyes met Nicodemus’s, and the unmistakable look in them—the same look he’d seen when last they’d parted—was enough to make him momentarily “lose his place” in his narration. He managed to sound unflustered as he resumed, but now he found himself more in a hurry to finish. Another council meeting, to let each other know where they stood, would be necessary, though he couldn’t be sure right then what he’d say. He soldiered on, pushing the matter back as best he could until he finished his story.

After he did, Johnathan announced that he’d done all he could with the Stone, mainly using its past-imaging capability to see those incidents for himself, but he could discern no source for them. They discussed the possibility of Nicodemus paying another visit to Gwinthrayle to get his input, agreeing to run it past the council first. Some of Nicodemus’s audience wasn’t ready to let him go yet, begging for more details on the trip, especially the encounters with whales and gorillas. Nicodemus and Johnathan promised to be more thorough later, though one among his audience sought some personal attention now.

“Diane! What may I do for you, child?” As he asked, Nicodemus scanned the area for her mother, but she had moved on along with most of the crowd. Diane motioned for him to let her whisper in his ear. After doing so, she dashed away, giving a slight giggle.

“Well,” said Johnathan, “if there’s someplace else you need to be right now…”

“Not immediately. There’s some business we should both attend to first.”

“Right.” As they headed off toward the Rat colony, Johnathan said privately, “If it’s about Jessica—Diane’s message, I mean—then I’m behind you all the way, whatever you decide.”

Nicodemus thanked him and they moved on.

* * *

Some three hours later, Nicodemus paced in his quarters. He paused to look in the mirror, taking a deep breath. Well, just like two nights ago, he thought, once again both anticipating and dreading the meeting to come. He tried to avoid any expectations, telling himself to take things as they come. He concentrated on the trip to Earth and the numerous wonders he and Johnathan had seen, to the point where he felt almost annoyed at the interruption when the knock on the door sounded.

Still, he unhesitantly asked who it was, and then he invited Jessica inside. There was no hesitation in her either as she entered. They said their hellos, and for a while only discussed recent events, mainly his and Johnathan’s trip and her and others’ reactions to the bizarre illusions.

“We can only hope they don’t go beyond illusion,” Nicodemus said. “If they continue, I’d like to see one of them for myself. Then, perhaps I’d be better able to trace its source, if my own abilities would allow it.”

“Yes. I’m sure you could.” By now the two were seated close together, and Nicodemus finally was able to look Jessica squarely in the eye to find once more that look: one of longing, of desire, one that fairly shouted out loud for him to take her in his arms, and stay and spend every remaining moment he had, waking or unwaking, with her.

“Your daughter, Diane,” he said at length. “What a sweet child. When she gave her message, how could she know what a serious matter this was, that would bring us together now.”

“I know. I just couldn’t approach you right then myself, but now...oh, Nicodemus, I’ve…tried to convince myself that we should keep trying to avoid each other, but it’s just no good. I think, if you’re willing, that we should spend as much time with each other as possible until you’re gone, even if it’s only for a few days. I know it’s crazy, but…I’ve never felt this way for anyone since Harley. I can’t deny it, I…I love you, Nicodemus. I want to make you happy, even if we have so little time. Please…say yes.” She clasped his hand.

Nicodemus sighed. “As I love you, Jessica.” He stood. “And that is precisely why we cannot be together, even for this short time. It would just be so unfair to you.”

“Unfair?” Jessica stood and took his arm. “Nicodemus, what’s unfair is that you only have a few days left before you have to leave us forever. But you’ve been telling me that you accept that, because you made a promise to Rollo and you want to keep it. And I’ve accepted that, too, I really have. I want to see you succeed in helping Rollo the way you want, so that he can live a more normal life. I don’t like the fact that you have to leave so soon, and I know you don’t either. But…” She faced him squarely, eyes imploring. “Why can’t we just try to make each other happy, to take comfort in each other’s company? Just a little happiness, that’s all. We deserve it.” She lowered her head on his shoulder.

He stroked the back of her head. “Oh, Jessica. You deserve so much more than a little happiness. You deserve a lifetime’s worth.”

“But—”

“Please, let me finish. I’ve seen and heard so much lately to convince me that a love affair that two can commit to for life, or at least for the foreseeable future, is how it should be, is real love. But my foreseeable future can be counted in days. This is why it wouldn’t be fair to you. Perhaps because this is the first I’ve truly been in love, this is why I feel this way. I don’t know. All I know is that I love you too much to have to have it end so soon.”

Jessica turned away for a moment, and then faced him, eyes glistening with tears. “I think I understand. You’ve always placed the needs of others before yourself. It’s just who you are, to be noble and unselfish. But just once, couldn’t you dispense with nobility? What’s wrong with being a little selfish, to want a little happiness—that’s right, a little happiness—for yourself? Especially—especially when you have so little time left?” She paused, then went on: “If you won’t even give it a try—give you and me a try—how will you know how bad it’ll be for me when you have to leave? And besides…a part of you will still be here. The body you’re in now. Rollo will be here for years to come, and every time I look at him I’ll be reminded of you. Don’t you think I’ve considered that? I’d be able to handle it, I know it.”

“I…don’t doubt that you would, Jessica. Yet, there is another matter we touched upon last time, that I’m sure you remember.”

“Whether it’s really you I’m in love with, or Rollo. I still can’t say. Maybe…after you are gone, I’ll know. But if we spend more time together now, that could be just as helpful.”

“Possibly. But as you know, the only way we could remain together would be if I stayed in Rollo’s body indefinitely. I will, by no means, consider reneging on my word on him.”

“But if there were a way that both of you could remain here with us…”

“I would take it, of course. I will admit to a certain amount of selfishness, just as I did that first night. And, too, perhaps…oh, I can scarcely believe I’m admitting to this…a touch of jealousy as well.”

Jessica’s eyes grew wide. “Jealousy? Who would you…”

“Who else? The thought that you may love Rollo, when I know that I—” Nicodemus managed a small laugh. “Absurd, so absurd. To think I could be capable of being jealous of the one whose body I inhabit, who has every right to live a normal life within it…” He shook his head.

“There are many things in this world, many mysteries, that have unfolded since we’ve come here. Maybe there’s something, some way, that you could find with your powers, that could help both of you. Most everyone here would want both of you to stay.”

“Thank you, Jessica, and…perhaps there may yet be something here that will advance such a development.” He went to the door and opened it. “If you would please leave me, I have much to think and meditate on.”

“You’re not backing down, are you?” Jessica asked at the door.

Nicodemus stroked her shoulder. “Rest assured, my dear, that if I reach any other decision, you’ll be the first to know.” He embraced her, not tightly though he certainly wanted to offer more than reassurance.

“I hope it won’t be too long.” Jessica turned and moved quickly down the corridor without looking back.

“As do I, my…my dear,” Nicodemus said quietly to himself as he closed the door. “As do I.” He took a deep breath, resolving to concentrate on greater and more immediate matters, the one that could affect everyone in Freethorn…everyone he loved, not just one.

So…where to now, he thought. Could there possibly be something here, on Lahaikshe, perhaps the intelligence that Lilia had contact with, that might provide a solution? And what was the likelihood of such a solution presenting itself in the next few days? Should that be his primary focus, to seek such a solution? Perhaps not, he decided, because even though he’s no longer the Freethorners’ leader, his first duty should be to them. And there are no less than two matters, both generated by unknown forces present on this world, that could be potential threats, to not only his former subjects but all life on this world. Whatever the cause of that sudden climatic change in that remote corner of Lahaikshe, that especially couldn’t be taken lightly. Unless Gwinthrayle was mistaken about that location, they both saw the results, as did the others watching his “travelogue”: no plant or animal life left, at least none immediately visible. He wanted to tell the council about this right away, though he trusted Gwinthrayle’s advice to wait until he’d had the chance to look into the matter himself.

Of more direct and immediate concern, of course, were the bizarre illusions many had witnessed and even been frightened out of their wits by, including children. No doubt, someone or something was deliberately causing this. He’d already inquired about it with the Rusay visitors, but the only thing they could compare it to from their own experience were those similar to what the Brisbys and some of the other Freethorners had seen in mystical hot spots like the conical valley, though not to that degree. Nicodemus had considered briefly the possibility of some kind of technology unique to this world, something the Freethorners hadn’t encountered yet…or even something from yet another dimensional plane.

Well, he concluded, whatever the source of the anomalies, they should be his top priority. And who knows what he’ll encounter in the course of any investigation? A solution to some other problem could crop up. If, as he’d already estimated, the nature of his own abilities were much as those of Gwinthrayle, it meant they drew upon the ambient energies present on Lahaikshe; and if these anomalies had an origin that was present in the very makeup of this world, then he may well be able to discern their purpose. All this was, of course, uncharted territory for him, with no clear procedure open to him; so for now, a period of meditation was in order. He sat in the middle of the floor and tried emptying his mind of all thought, expecting or anticipating nothing, to allow new ideas or perspectives to present themselves as they will.

* * *

Just outside one of the Mouse colony’s outer entrances, Jessica met Johnathan. She told him she’d just talked with Nicodemus, going into no further detail, and that he wished to be undisturbed for the time being. Johnathan said he’d help spread the word, though it was already generally accepted that when Nicodemus is in his own quarters, no one should visit him without an appointment.

“He does deserve that much respect,” remarked Jessica. “And so much more.”

Johnathan nodded. “If only there were some other way he could stay with us…but he’s determined to keep his promise.”

“And you’ve known him much longer,” said Jessica, voice quavering slightly. “So I guess when he makes a decision, he won’t…back down. That’s such a good quality, you have to admire that. Yep…steadfast, unwavering, never…change your mind…” She turned away, façade crumbling.

Johnathan could feel her tremble as he placed a hand on her shoulder. She wiped away a tear as he led her to a nearby rock. After they sat, he said, “I know it’s hard. I don’t want him to leave us either, but it’s his decision…and we all have to respect that.”

Jessica sniffled and finally said, “He…he told you, didn’t he? While he and you were away…”

Johnathan nodded. “I can guess what he just got done telling you.”

Jessica was able to describe the gist of their conversation, emphasizing his contention that it wouldn’t be a genuine love affair if it couldn’t be long-term. “I have to wonder if he really believes that, or is he…does he think he’s just sparing me pain? It just seems like he’s creating pain for both of us.”

Johnathan silently consoled her for a minute, then said, “The lives we lead now…longer, with deeper emotion…it’s changed our whole idea of love, hasn’t it? It has to be long-term, since we live so much longer now, courtesy of NIMH. How could they have known what their treatments would ultimately do to us, make us so much like them? And it seems like a blessing, truly a gift, most of the time. But in times when we’re separate, where one has to go away…or one is torn away unwillingly…it can almost be a curse.”

“Oh, yes. What happened to you, when you were sent away, and you couldn’t return home. I guess…that makes my situation look…I mean, our situation…” Jessica shook her head. “Neither of us wanted this to happen. I thought I was just being kind, doing him a favor. And we knew it could happen! Both of us did.” She sighed. “And I thought that if it did, that…that I’d be strong, that I could deal with it better than this.” She choked back a sob as Johnathan placed an arm around her shoulders.

As he comforted her, Madeline dropped by; and, owing as much to her emotional rapport with her husband as to observing him lending comfort to a friend, she simply asked what was wrong. After moving to a more out-of-the-way location, they asked for her confidentiality on the matter, and then they detailed Jessica’s problem to her. Her reaction matched that of Johnathan and Patricia, and she was at as much of a loss for how to console her.

“I guess…I’ll just have to see this through the best I can, for the sake of my family, my friends. I’ll just keep telling myself that this is a love that…that just can’t be, doomed from the start.”

“Oh, Jessica, you shouldn’t think like that,” said Madeline consolingly, squeezing her hand. “You will find love again.”

“Oh, I suppose so. Nicodemus did say that he’d try to find a way he and Rollo could stay. And if not, well, who knows? Maybe it is Rollo I’m actually I’m in love with. Oh, it’s all so crazy…”

They discussed the point further, and it led to their recounting a recent discussion in the council about how long the Mouse colony would be able to go on in its present state, with its relatively limited gene pool. Other mice could be brought in from Earth, but with no more mice in existence that have the advanced genes those that came from NIMH and their children share, how long would those mice’s advanced characteristics be passed on in full to their descendants? As with that earlier discussion, Johnathan concluded an unforeseen solution may be yet forthcoming—not unlike Nicodemus’s situation. It was an idea he felt strongly about, perhaps owing to this world’s influence, as it seemed to be influencing others in subtle ways since they’d settled here.

“I wish that if this world were really trying to pass on some kind of information to us, it would just make it more obvious instead of beating around the bush.” Jessica laughed at the absurdity of her own statement. “It’s silly, isn’t it? Talking about this world as if it were a living, breathing entity like us.”

“Not silly to me,” said Johnathan. “I’ve witnessed too much and spent too much time here to dismiss anything. And with these bizarre illusions we’ve been having here, that just reinforces the idea.”

“Do you really believe that it’s something in this world’s makeup, and not some individual, that’s responsible?” asked Madeline.

“Nicodemus seems to think so, and I’d have to agree. He’s going to try investigating them tonight, when they’ll likely appear again.”

“I hope he can come up with something,” said Jessica. “Anything.”

The conversation turned toward other subjects, till the Brisbys had to leave. Madeline offered Jessica further words of encouragement; then, after they’d gone and Jessica prepared to move on herself, she thought of their discussion of the mice’s limited gene pool; and how Madeline had essentially become one of them, solely by virtue of being mated to Johnathan. She’d spent enough time with her to see and hear for herself how indistinguishable she was, in her intellectual capacity and overall manner, from Johnathan or Jessica’s own parents. Was this something unique to Johnathan, or did all of the Mice and Rats from NIMH have this capability? Even years later, none could say for sure, especially since the Rats had always tended to be an insular and closed society, only allowing a handful of natural rats into the fold. As for the Mice, it was apparent that such a capability wasn’t inherited; even if Kimball and Patricia had it, Norman and Jessica certainly didn’t, since their mates Vera and Harley aged normally. The jury was still out on their other siblings’ mates: Brummie, Stollie, Newell, Teelo, Lana, as well as Ages’ wife Alma; yet, it seemed that since their arrival on Lahaikshe, some of them had undergone changes that seemed to point to similar development. Just two days ago, Jessica had lunch with Brummie and Michelle, and he couldn’t stop talking about his most recent test scores at the school. Brummie had gone from being reluctant to even enroll in the beginning, only doing so after considerable prodding from Michelle, to being at the top of his class, to the point where Michelle had to keep reminding him of what bad form it is to brag about oneself so continuously. He’d always say that he wasn’t trying to be a jerk, only that he couldn’t get over what he saw as a newfound gift, to be able to learn so much. So was there something to this theory about this planet itself having an influence on its inhabitants? Brummie regarding his new reasoning and learning capacity as a gift could be one more indication of such. But if it’s true, what about these recent illusions? Is “it” trying to tell them something with them? Do the two have anything at all to do with each other? Could Nicodemus figure them out, and possibly other things like…

Jessica shook her head and headed for the colony’s medical unit, suddenly feeling the need to bury herself in her work again.

* * *

Nicodemus paused for a moment outside the Rat community’s main entrance after having had dinner with Orson and Lucretia and some of their children and grandchildren. It had been one of the more delicious and sumptuous meals he’d been treated to thus far, filled with much laughter and good cheer as well as good food and drink. He breathed in the early-evening air and regarded the coming sunset, anticipating his expected tasks…and was unable to suppress a belch. He laughed to himself. He hoped, half-jokingly, that a full belly wouldn’t slow him down. He walked along the trail to the Mouse colony, greeting many along the way, stopping to chat now and again.

Presently he saw Stuart, Jessica’s eldest son, waving to flag him down. After initial greetings, he approached without hesitation; by and large, most of the new Mouse residents, while not impolite toward him, were more casual, having no prior experience with him in his old life. As they chatted, Nicodemus briefly wondered if his mother had sent him, as earlier with Diane. But it was quickly apparent that he had other matters on his mind.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, Stuart said, “I was wondering about…well, about Lula, and how she’s doing.”

They sat on the nearest bench. “Well, she seemed in very high spirits when Johnathan and I left her. She was very confident about this, well, ‘mission’ of hers.”

“Uh-huh. Did she say anything more about that?”

“I’m afraid not. It’s just as much a mystery to us as you…and apparently to her as well.”

“Oh.” Stuart looked downcast, sighing.

“I guess we’re all a bit worried about her, because of that mystery and especially because she’s all by herself.”

“I’m not worried about her, not…not much.” After a pause he added, “She sure acted like…like she wasn’t gonna miss me much.”

“Oh? Why, I saw her give you a very nice goodbye hug.”

Stuart turned away, looking embarrassed. “Yeah, but…I’ve been…we’ve been friends since she got here, and…”

“And you were expecting…a little more, perhaps, a greater goodbye than what she gave you?”

Stuart looked exasperated, then apologetic, genuinely not wanting to show disrespect. “I guess, but…it looked like she gave a bigger goodbye to Lilia, and they hardly talked at all before.”

“Ah…the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head.”

“Huh? Where?” Stuart looked all around them.

Nicodemus chuckled. “It’s only a euphemism for jealousy, my boy. And believe me, I know all about it myself.” Inwardly he added: And if I told you how, you’d never believe me.

“I’m not jealous, not…not really. Why should I be? I mean…” Stuart sighed. “Oh, I don’t know…I guess I am worried about her, just a little. I know she was able to take care of herself before, but…she’s out there all alone, where nobody knows her. What’s gonna happen to her? And the way she talked, she doesn’t even know why she’s there. Even she doesn’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Nicodemus placed a comforting arm around Stuart’s shoulders. “Even I cannot say what the outcome of Lula’s ‘mission’ will be. But I have every confidence that she will emerge from it safely, and return to us alive and well. And…if she could see you right now, and see how concerned you are about her, she’d be touched greatly.”

Stuart’s expression brightened. “You really think so?”

“She knows how much you care for her. Just a few days ago, when we had dinner together with Brutus and his family, she spoke of how helpful you’d been to her and what a great friend you’d been.”

“Wow…that’s great, but…it just looks like…Lilia’s her best friend now.”

“Lula’s made many friends here. I’m quite fond of her myself. Lilia’s just the latest one.”

“Okay…if you say so.” Apparently satisfied, Stuart changed the subject completely, asking Nicodemus what he thought about the recent illusions and what they may be all about.

Chapter 31 - Lula has a visitor

The weather had just changed earlier that day, and now the skies over Thorn Valley were mostly overcast, with conditions warmer and blustery, with occasional rain. From atop one of the boulders that topped her temporary home, Lula viewed her surroundings; then, with a sigh, began making her way back down to the den entrance. At least the weather is a bit warmer, she told herself. Mother Pat had always encouraged her to put a positive spin on any situation, and though this one wasn’t an especially bad one, there wasn’t much about it that was good, either.

The young mouse sighed as she made her way through the brush-covered entrance to the cozy interior. She lay back on the bed, musing briefly on the den’s previous occupants and how happy they were for that brief time they lived here. Her thoughts returned to her own situation, and she again wondered: What was she doing here? It hadn’t really been an issue until she woke up this morning. Yesterday, she was still committed to believing in this mission, even looking forward to fulfilling it. The fact that she had no idea of its specific nature or purpose wasn’t even relevant, and she didn’t mind waiting for some further sign or indication of it.

Today, though, there was a growing restlessness within her. Surely, she’d had no problems in gathering food, this den was safe and inviolate from predators, and she’d met other mice who’d been friendly with her. But there should be more, there had to be. She thought back to Lilia’s account of her strange experience with the min’hathio, especially how she’d felt compelled to visit the tsadhavi grove, just as Lula felt compelled to come here; and afterwards questioning why she’d gone there to begin with, again just as Lula was doing now. Was there another purpose to that incident, beyond this…entity, whatever it is, giving words of reassurance? Nothing seemed to present itself to Lilia yet (though, of course, it had been two days since they’d last seen each other). Maybe it’s too soon, for either of them. Her own contact with this presence, so similar to Lilia’s, had to mean something. There was a very good chance that, if not for it, she’d not be alive now. She’d been so consumed with despair over losing her family she’d actually considered pitching herself over the rock wall to certain death. The second time she’d looked over the edge, the “presence” had talked her down, calming and reassuring her until Orland came to get her. If it (she?) had done this much for her, then she owed this much to it, to continue to wait until her “mission” was made clearer to her.

Having reached this conclusion, she sat up in bed and said out loud, “All right, I’ll stay put. But I don’t have to pretend I like it.” She suddenly felt ashamed at her own display of petulance. But what could she do? Let’s face it, it’s boring and lonely here. She missed her adoptive family and friends, the games and storytelling, attending classes, even helping with the crops. She’d been feeling more and more at home in Freethorn, and now…

A thought occurred to her, one that made her heart leap: what if they forgot about her, left her here? No, she admonished herself, that’s silly. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. Johnathan can still use the Stone to check on you anytime, and you’ll be able to take care of yourself till then. They won’t forget you; how could they? Silly and irrational, that’s what Mother Pat would say.

She reached into her small store of dried berries, and picked one. As she chewed it, she decided that more time spent exploring the surrounding area would do her good. She picked up her mirror and brought it out to the courtyard with her, where the light was better. She looked at herself, smoothing the fur on the sides of her face. She smiled to herself, knowing it wasn’t really necessary here, but Patricia and others had impressed upon her the importance of personal appearance and good grooming. She set down the mirror and picked up her food-gathering bag.

As she headed for the door, she froze instinctively. She was about to receive a visitor, another mouse from the sound of it. Once certain of it, she called out: “Hello! Who’s there?”

In reply, a voice said, more to itself, “So somebody is here,” sounding more pleased than surprised. He emerged into the courtyard.

Lula approached him. “Hello. Have we met?”

“No, we haven’t. But I’m pleased to meet you all the same. My name is Eric.”

“I’m Lula. I’m pleased to meet you too.” Momentarily, she thought: Where have I heard the name before? Someone back in Freethorn? Yes, someone there knows an Eric. The thought fell by the wayside as he stepped directly into the shaft of daylight in the middle of the courtyard. She felt oddly drawn to him, and instantly at ease, in a way she couldn’t articulate, apparently just from his genial and disarming manner. “So…are you…uhm…d-do you…live here? I mean, in the area?”

“I used to. Right here, in fact.” He gazed all around the chamber, smiling, looking nostalgic.

“You actually lived right here?”

“Uh-huh. My mate and I. I sure do look forward to seeing her again. She’d have had her babies by now. Sure can’t wait to meet them.”

Instantly something clicked in Lula’s mind. “Wait a minute! Eric! I knew I’d heard the name! Your—your mate’s Teresa, isn’t she?”

Eric’s surprise equaled hers. “You know Teresa?” He clasped her shoulders, rattling off the names of Teresa’s siblings and parents, and some of the Rats’ names as well. Lula confirmed that she knew all of them. Eric was curious about why he didn’t remember her, and Lula answered that she, and many other mice, arrived after his time there.

“Yes, we’re all in this whole other world now. No matter how many times they explain it to me, I don’t think I’ll ever understand it totally. But it’s so great there, the weather and everything, and no predators—” She stopped abruptly. “But wait—I thought—oh, I can’t believe I forgot. They all said you were…well, dead.” But then again, she realized, they said the same about Nicodemus.

Eric just nodded, expression unchanging. “I’m not surprised. But every day I thank whatever it was that intervened that I am still alive. Now…there are some others I want you to meet, others like you. Will you come with me?”

Others like her? Whatever did that mean? But instead of asking it out loud, she answered, “All right. But I have to pack a few things first.” She picked up her mirror and carry-bag and went into the den, Eric following behind. “Oh, I have so many questions I feel like I’ll burst!” she said as she packed. “When I had Johnathan bring me here, I had no idea why, not really. But I’ll just bet that this here, wherever you’re taking me…this is where I’ll find out, I-I’ll know what this—this ‘mission’ is! It’s been kind of boring here, but, oh, I’m so excited now, I can’t wait!”

She came across one item and looked at it for a moment. It was a square of white cardboard with “I’M READY” written on it. “This was for Johnathan to see, when he checks on me with that red magic stone of his. When I’d be ready to return, I’d set it out, he’d see it and then come to get me.”

“Sounds like a good idea. But somehow, I don’t think you’ll need it where we’re going. I’ll be able to explain it better when we get there.”

As Lula finished packing, she wondered why she was so willing to place her complete trust in this one who was, after all, a complete stranger. Yet, he must be who he says he is; how could he not? Just looking at his face seemed to be enough to convince her that she could trust him. And that odd feeling she got when he first made his entrance: she still couldn’t describe it exactly, but at this moment she was willing to follow him anywhere. Even given all that, should she be on her guard? As the two made their way outside, Lula decided that as right as all this felt to her, she would be careful, and run away if something didn’t seem right, a situation she hoped wouldn’t materialize.

“So…where are these ‘others’?” she asked after they’d ventured all the way outside.

“Just take my hand, and I’ll show you.” Again there was that tone of absolute sincerity, with a friendly smile and twinkle in his eye to match.

Lula’s heart leaped as she took his hand. No wonder Teresa was so attracted to him! It was like a dream just being with him, almost like…like with Desmond? Was this love she was feeling? No, it couldn’t be. He’s Teresa’s mate, they have two children, and the way he talked, he had every intention of returning to her. But there was some kind of attraction. What was it that made her so willing to follow him?

Before she could muse further, she was aware of a peculiar, though not unpleasant sensation—a curious easing of pressure beneath the soles of her feet. She looked down and gave a yelp of surprise. Of all the situations she’d expected to encounter while at Eric’s side, this was the last one: her feet, and Eric’s, were no longer touching the ground, but already an inch above it and rising! She threw her arms around his waist, holding on for dear life. “Wh-wh-what’s going on? Why are we floating?”

“It’s all right,” said Eric, his demeanor as calm as ever. “Just keep holding my hand, and we’ll both be fine.”

Lula loosened her death-grip and took Eric’s hand again. “You—you’re doing this. You’re making us float. How could…how did you…”

“Oh, it’s just a little something I picked up.” He chuckled. “Guess that was kind of a pun.” They were rising faster and faster, soon clearing the treetops. Lula looked around at the cliffs surrounding the valley, the forest starting to resemble a bed of moss, the enormous pit where Freethorn used to be with humans moving in and around it like ants. By the time they’d reached an altitude higher than the cliff tops, they began moving in a northerly direction, directly over the pit and further on, soon passing out of Thorn Valley completely. Lula’s initial shock and disbelief were quickly being replaced by wonder and exhilaration, her head turning constantly, unable to take in enough of the sight of the world passing beneath them as the wind coursed through their fur and flattened their ears back. It was still cold enough, but she barely noticed it now.

“So this…so this is what it’s like…to fly…”

“When I first found out I could do this,” said Eric, “I finally knew what Teresa was so thrilled about, when she flew with those crows.”

Lula fought to catch her breath. “She—she told me about that. It sounded so thrilling, but I bet it was nothing like this.”

“That was my impression.”

She continued surveying their surroundings, below and above, marveling at how much bigger the sky seemed from up here, even more than from Freethorn’s Rooftop. They passed a group of blackbirds, and Lula thought she saw some of them do an open-beaked double-take upon seeing these two flying mice. Below, she spied a natural rocky pit, and was reminded of the place where Louann and Teelo were said to have made their home. I’ll bet that’s it right there, she thought, remembering it was supposed to be north of Thorn Valley.

They traveled some five miles out of Thorn Valley before Lula asked how much further they had to go. “Not that I want this to end anytime soon,” she added.

“Not far. We’ll be there in a minute or two.”

“I wish you could tell me what this is all about; these other mice you speak of, how you’re still alive, and this…this flying, my goodness!” She sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be bugging you so much.”

“Don’t worry about it. But it will become clearer once we get to the Safe House.”

Safe House, eh? thought Lula. I guess that’s a good thing to call it. Suddenly she recalled her earlier sense of caution. Could Eric be bringing her to some kind of trap? No, that’s silly. Why would he purposely seek her out, and bring her miles away just to do her harm? Why go to such trouble for one mouse? And yet, he did seek her out and speak as if there were something special about her, so he was going to a lot of trouble for her. She closed her eyes and concentrated hard. This had to be a part of her mission, it just had to be. Just thinking about it now brought her reassurance.

So caught up in these thoughts was she that she barely noticed when they started slowing down and losing altitude. “There it is, straight ahead,” Eric announced. Lula opened her eyes to see them coming upon a high bank overlooking a wide creek. When they’d descended to some 15 feet above the water, she could see the entrance to a small cave at the same level along the bank.

“Is that it? The Safe House?”

“That’s it. Everyone’s dying to meet you, and I think you’ll like meeting them too.”

“Yeah, I…sure hope so.” They came to rest on the lip of the cave, their remarkable trip ending as it began, as soft as a feather. Lula sighed, still excited and energized, but now a bit apprehensive as she remembered her earlier sense of caution, noting how there was no place for her to run if she needed to.

“Here we are.” Eric waved a hand toward the entrance. Recognizing Lula’s reluctance, he said, “I’ll go in first, and bring some of them out to you.” He disappeared inside, and quickly reemerged with two other mice. “They knew we were just about to arrive,” Eric announced.

One of the strangers, a female, greeted Lula effusively. “Welcome to the Safe House! My name is Sibelle, and this is my brother Dupree.”

“They’re sort of our official greeters,” explained Eric. “They’ll show you around and get you oriented.”

All four went inside, any apprehension Lula felt melting away after such a friendly greeting. They went a short ways through the narrow tunnel before it opened out into a much higher and broader cavern space. In the dim light Lula could tell that they stood on a ledge from which she could make out a scene which, to human eyes, would look much like a refugee camp. There were many other mice here, some resting on makeshift beds, others conversing or eating or supervising children. Some already noticed the new arrival and were calling out greetings. Eric indicated he was ready to speak. Everyone quieted.

“Friends…we have a new arrival. Her name is Lula, and she’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. Her arrival and her help mean our final destination is close at hand.”

Lula looked toward him, wide-eyed. My help? What could he mean? Why am I so important? But before she could give voice to her curiosity, Sibelle and Dupree began steering her down into the welcoming throng.

Chapter 32 - An anomaly challenged

“…And when I spoke to her, she looked up at me, said ‘Hello’ and then turned tail and ran. I thought she was snubbing me, but then I found out she was just going to get the others, and that she was my aunt Lucy. I thought she was just a cute girl. Well, she still is, but, you know.”

“She’d be flattered, Stuart,” said Nicodemus with a laugh. “So then Johnathan and the others made the offer to all of you?”

“Yup, and long story short, boom, we’re all here.” They both looked ahead to the trail they walked upon, and discussed further the early days of Stuart’s family’s time here. The sun had just set, and as the two wandered further toward the less-developed areas north of Oak Park, Stuart observed how preoccupied Nicodemus seemed, and ventured that he was thinking about the strange illusions. Nicodemus confirmed it, and described how he hoped to encounter one of them tonight and determine their true nature. He saw no need, however, to disclose that there was another matter on his mind, one that he’d largely managed to push aside, but that concerned one who was close to both of them, though Stuart was—presumably—unaware of this fact.

“I hope so, too,” said Stuart. “And I hope it’s a really scary one. Maybe even a real green-eyed monster.”

“Really? They’ve been so frightening to others. You wish to be frightened?”

“Well, yeah, kind’a. I mean…they’re supposed to be just illusions, not real, right? So they can’t hurt you, right? So it should be scary in a good way, like riding on a rollercoaster or something.”

“So it may be. But they’ve been getting more elaborate since they began, and progressively more frightening…to those who don’t wish to be frightened. Until we know for certain their true nature, we have no way of knowing whether or not they may become more than illusions.”

“Wow…yeah, I guess that could happen. You know, my cousins Tony and Kimmy were with the group that saw the one with the huge mouth, that—”

Nicodemus urged Stuart to silence as they heard a commotion up ahead. Someone was rushing toward them—two Guard rats, Devon and Alicia—and further on, strange sounds could be heard. Stuart would describe them later as a combination of a low-pitched howl and someone being sick to his stomach.

The pair paused in their flight. “Nicodemus, thank goodness!” said Devon breathlessly. “It’s right up that way. We didn’t like being driven away, but that thing was putting out actual heat!”

“We didn’t want to take chances,” added Alicia, “so we’ll spread the word for everyone to get below.”

“You’ve done well, my friends,” said Nicodemus quickly. “Stuart, you’d best go along with them while I investigate.”

“You’re taking that thing on yourself? Nicodemus—”

“I’ll be all right, Devon. Right now, time is of the essence for both yourselves and me. Please, go now. You have your duty.”

They dashed off in opposite directions. Nicodemus plunged forward toward the unearthly din. Was such a sound ever heard on Earth or Lahaikshe? he wondered. Soon he could see something moving about through the tall grass, silhouetted against the twilight but with a glowing pattern visible as well. He felt no apprehension, only a stronger resolve to solve this ongoing mystery.

Soon he stood before it, only two feet away. It appeared to be of the earth itself, a creature of mud and gravel, with patches of greenery on its upper parts, but with a reticulated pattern across its body, glowing deep red as if molten iron flowed through its veins—that is, Nicodemus noted, if it had veins, or a real, tangible existence, something he now hoped to disprove. So far it appeared not to notice him.

“Creature! Turn and face me!” Nicodemus shouted. It responded instantly—unsurprising to him, though he was still certain the thing was an elaborate illusion—showing a face much like a demon of some mythic underworld: eyes that glowed as red as its “veins,” horns and facial spikes that looked like blackened, rotted wood; and a mouth that opened to reveal no teeth or tongue, only more of the red glow which then turned paler, almost white. Already Nicodemus could feel the emanated heat Devon spoke of, and knew that, real or simulated, there’d be more where that came from. The creature’s body appeared to tense, and then it opened its maw wide and unleashed a shaft of what seemed not so much fire, but more like pure heat that could have come from the core of the planet itself.

But Nicodemus had been prepared to take action, and so he’d willed his body to phase into the ground below. In this state, sensations of heat or cold were all but negated, but he was close enough to the surface that he could see a red glow pass above him. This ability was still new to him, but he felt this to be an adequate test of it, emboldening him enough to bring himself back to the surface. The creature had turned to one side, seemingly unaware of him, and Nicodemus momentarily willed his body back to normal, instantly feeling the lingering sensation of heat. In spite of this, he was still unconvinced of the creature’s reality. From the descriptions of others of its ilk, he suspected even such tactile sensations to be as illusory as what had been seen, heard and smelled of those others. He noted the blackened and scorched state of the vegetation between him and it, and vowed not to let it faze him.

He strode confidently toward the creature, and it turned towards him. It shook its head and seemed to back off slightly, as if genuinely cautious or wary. “Now, my handsome friend, may the truth or falsehood of your existence be now laid bare.” So saying, Nicodemus fixed the creature with a determined stare, and more. It seemed to react to the challenge, again releasing a blinding shaft of light straight toward its tiny, frail-seeming opponent.

But Nicodemus was neither blinded nor consumed by any great heat; and in a matter of seconds the creature lowered its head as if conceding defeat, its image twisting and shimmering before revealing once and for all that it was indeed only an image, becoming a blur of light and shadow before vanishing completely.

As confident as he was of this very outcome, Nicodemus nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief as he viewed the area all around, nodding in satisfaction. The vegetation was perfectly normal—unburned, unscorched, showing no signs of being exposed to any great heat, or any at all except the normal heat of the day. “All part of the illusion,” he said aloud. He turned, ready to return to the colonies and give his report, looking forward to it but wishing it could be more informative.

“Wow! That was awesome!”

Nicodemus turned toward the youthful voice, not especially surprised at its owner’s presence. “Stuart…I distinctly told you to get to safety.”

A young mouse head emerged from the tall grass. “Well…yeah, but…I figured…y’know, since it was supposed t’be an illusion an’ all…” Stuart stood upright. “And you got rid of it, like it was never there! That was just amazing!”

“Thank you, Stuart, but there was still a danger to you and anyone else nearby. I was able to summon the will to resist believing the creature was real, but…you were able to feel some of the heat coming from it, weren’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but…”

“Anyone else present who did not wholly believe that the creature was unreal, despite how real it may have appeared, could have been seriously injured by it.”

“Wha…really?”

“This is my estimation. Before, these illusions were being seen, heard and smelled; but now, we have tactile sensations to consider as well.”

“But…they still aren’t really real, are they?”

“They have no real existence as we know it, but they are becoming more and more elaborate, more real-seeming; and if someone thinks it’s real, it could do real harm.”

“You mean…even though it’s not real, it could still hurt you…if you think it’s real?”

“Exactly. I still cannot discern their source, who or what is responsible for them. But for now, I must tell the elders, have them spread the word on how we should deal with the problem. And you are definitely coming with me.”

“Okay.” Stuart made no protest as they started off up the trail. “You won’t tell my mom, will you?”

Nicodemus pondered the question for a moment. “I see no reason to, as long as you heed the advice I’ve given you…and which I must now pass on to everyone.”

“You bet. Sounds like they’re getting too scary for me.” After a pause, he added, “You…like my mom, don’t you, Nicodemus?”

Nicodemus tried hard not to show surprise. “I…am quite fond of her, Stuart, as I am of you, and everyone here, as I was of everyone in my old life in the old colony.” The answer seemed to satisfy Stuart, but Nicodemus couldn’t help wondering how much he suspected. He’d certainly proven himself an observant lad, but Nicodemus hoped he hadn’t come too close to the truth. All the same, he found himself feeling a kinship with the boy, since both were experiencing the pangs of first love. But whereas Stuart would surely be reunited with Lula before long, how would he explore any future possibilities with…

“Nicodemus! Here he is, Devon, and Stuart’s with him.”

Nicodemus actually felt grateful for the interruption as he watched another Guard rat, Walter, approach, with Devon quickly catching up. As all four headed for home, Nicodemus apprised the group on the basics of what he’d encountered and what he believed needed to be done to deal with the problem, and assured them that he and Stuart were perfectly fine. After Devon mentioned that Jessica had been worried about Stuart’s whereabouts, Nicodemus said that he’d square things with them personally. He then turned to a worried-looking Stuart and gave him a reassuring wink. Walter told him that the council was already assembling to hear his report.

Before going on to the meeting, Nicodemus met Patricia and discreetly asked her to take Stuart to his mother, telling her that he’d been helping in making sure some of the other children got home safely, describing him as being brave and helpful. It was enough for Stuart to want to protest out loud, not sure that he was worthy of such praise. He genuinely hoped that he would be in the future, and felt grateful and slightly confused that Nicodemus regarded him so highly as to cover for him like this.

* * *

“…and so, my friends, to sum up: while these anomalies are illusions, they could still do harm to those who believe they can; I cannot as yet give a definitive yes or no until their true nature can be determined.”

Nicodemus paused to look around at the small assemblage of Rats and Mice, seated around the lower rows of the meeting hall, many reacting quietly over the report.

“But you do believe,” offered Tallus, “that it is something in Lahaikshe’s nature—or perhaps ‘super nature’ would be more accurate—that is responsible?”

“Of that I am positive. From some readings I’d done in Gwinthrayle’s library, combined with your own recent reports of the creature’s predecessors, I’d concluded that there was no intelligence or sentience of any kind there; at least, not in the creature itself, but there is definitely a sentience behind them all. I hadn’t read of any direct reference to such a creature, but of course I had only scratched the surface in the time I’d had.

“Now…from the past experience of some of you on this world, I believe there are locations where I may be better able to apply my abilities to determine the source. Therefore, I must leave you for a time; I cannot say how long I will be gone, but I hope it will be for no more than a day, two at the most.”

“So,” brought up Velma, “what are we to do until you return? Hide below after sunset, with no one showing faces aboveground until morning?”

“Depending on when I return and what information I have, such a drastic step may not be necessary. But just in case, perhaps some kind of curfew may be in order.” After further discussion, it was decided that effective immediately, all children would be kept inside after sunset, and all adults would avoid any unnecessary aboveground activity. Those on guard duty were already being instructed on what to do if they encountered one of the anomalies: summon up every iota of will power to resist believing the things are real, and calmly leave the area. Some questioned whether such a strict curfew would be necessary; but Nicodemus reminded them that it would only be in effect for as long as the anomalies still occurred, and he fully expected to be able to track down their origins, hopefully toward eliminating them.

Other matters were discussed before adjourning: the ongoing progress in cataloguing Vincent’s writings, which had continued apace since Nicodemus’s arrival, and which was nearing completion; and a reminder that their exchange party would be recalled to Freethorn in four days so they can meet Nicodemus before his departure.

* * *

As evening gave way to night, life in Freethorn wound down much as it usually did, with friends and families gathering to talk, play games, tell stories; but there was an undercurrent of uneasiness and uncertainty. Though none were trying outright to avoid discussing the bizarre illusions, none could deny feeling some anxiety over their continued presence. Where the subject was being discussed openly, questions were raised: What if Nicodemus couldn’t find their source? Or even Gwinthrayle, if he’s brought in on this? Would they continue to grow more elaborate, until even all the mental discipline in the world wouldn’t be enough to will them away? What if these things actually succeeded in driving them away from Freethorn? Worse yet, what if they followed them indoors, and began menacing them inside the colonies? Where would they go? Elsewhere on Lahaikshe, or even back to Earth? And, too, there were the calls for calm, and for avoiding worst-case scenarios. Most were confident that Nicodemus would be able to find answers.

There were many, too, who were rankled at being cooped up and not being allowed to confront any further anomalies head-on. In Brutus’s household, he and Deena discussed the matter at length after putting the children to bed. He admitted feeling that way himself but was satisfied that some of the Guard were on regular patrol and was confident that they were well prepared to deal with whatever they’d encounter.

As planned, Nicodemus left quietly with only a small party to see him off at the Rooftop, and a brief reiteration of what he hoped to accomplish. He regretted leaving Freethorn again—for the third time in five days—and spending so much more time away from those he loved. He told them this, but all knew this was for the good of the colony and understood the sacrifice he was making.

Again declaring that he hoped to return in no more than two days’ time, Nicodemus willed himself to float upward and away. Waving goodbye, he sailed off over the surrounding plain, immediately surrounded by inky blackness. Though the only sources of light were the moon and stars above, his sense of direction was unimpaired by the near-lack of visual cues. He was confident he could home in on the mystical “hot spots” Johnathan and Gwinthrayle told him of and hoped that through meditation, he’d meet with greater success in finding answers there than he had thus far. Since his arrival on Lahaikshe and subsequent discoveries of the powers and abilities that had apparently lain dormant within him for years and had “followed” him to this new body, he’d had several meditative sessions; and each time he felt as if he were just a bit closer to uncovering…something that, as Johnathan might put it, would really blow the lid off things, make everything that had been so mysterious less so, the least of which would be the whys and wherefores of his very own new lease on life. Yet, each time there was the sense that his efforts were meeting with what could be termed roadblocks, as if there was something or someone actively keeping him from something. It was nothing he could yet prove, and largely because of this he hadn’t discussed the matter at all with anyone, including his closest friends, because he felt the need to be able to report something more concrete, not the abstract impressions these sessions of meditation were leaving him with.

Now, with this new “anomaly crisis,” he felt an even greater need to make that his primary focus. Accordingly, he’d probably drop in on Gwinthrayle again. As noted, he hadn’t come across any direct reference to any such anomalies manifesting anywhere, but of course he hadn’t expected such a subject to come up. If Gwinthrayle had encountered such anomalies himself or could at least provide some insight, it would make a return visit worthwhile. An entirely different kind of anomaly, though, also called for his attention: another he’d need to consult upon with Gwinthrayle, one with more serious implications. He’d hardly thought about the matter in the eight hours since he and Johnathan returned, but if more of those sudden climatic changes occur, especially closer to home…

He paused in his flight, settling down upon the rust-colored plain, suddenly needing to feel solid ground beneath his feet again. Here was a possible new dilemma, one which could prevent him from keeping his promise to Rollo, or at least alter it drastically. He immediately sat down, deciding it best to not delay this meeting any longer.

He concentrated on drawing his consciousness within Rollo’s brain, further and further until he reached the grey, mist-shrouded plain that was Rollo’s subconscious; or more accurately, how it was seen by Rollo’s own consciousness, which regarded it more as home than the real, material world “outside.”

In short order, he and Rollo found each other. “Teacher! I knew you had to be here, I could feel you ‘coming in,’ like last time.”

As the two embraced, Nicodemus realized Rollo again saw him in the form of his old rat body. “Really? Obviously a change brought on by my being in charge of your body.”

“Has it been two weeks yet?” The two sat side by side.

“No, not yet. Only about half the time has passed so far.”

“It’s not…something bad, is it? Something that could keep you from…”

“No, no, my friend. The reason I’m here has more to do with the ones I’ve rejoined, and their new home.” He explained without going into more than necessary detail how Freethorn’s residents were in potentially serious trouble from two different fronts, one of which only he was presently aware of. “At present I cannot tell precisely how to deal with these matters, and so I cannot say how long it will take to resolve them.”

“So…it could be longer than another week before you can heal my brain?”

“And put you in charge of your own body, as should rightfully be done. I will do everything in my power to meet our original deadline; but if not, it will be because—and only because—I’ll still be fighting for my loved ones and their home. You do understand, don’t you, Rollo?”

Rollo looked disappointed, but also thoughtful. “Yes. It makes sense that you’d need to stay longer if you really had to. This place, their home…it’ll be my home too, won’t it? So, yes, do what you need to, Teacher, and take as long as you have to.”

“Rollo, I’m so proud of how patient you’ve learned to be. I felt it best to level with you immediately about this, and I’m very happy you understand.” Nicodemus reminded him that any delay was conditional only if recent crises weren’t resolved by the coming week’s end.

He took a few more minutes to tell Rollo some more of what he’d done and seen; then he got to his feet and said, “Well, much as I’d like to tell more, I really must return ‘outside.’ I want to leave you some surprises, after all.”

He made to say goodbye, then stopped. Should that be a matter to level with him about now? In another second, he’d made his decision. “Rollo…there is…someone who I’ve…someone who’d become more than a friend to me. Her name is Jessica, and…we’ve come to mean a lot to each other. When I leave, and you take over this body, she may be quite sad about my departure. But you will remain, and when she sees you, she’ll almost certainly be reminded of me. I guess…I’m telling you this now in the hope that you’ll be understanding and gentle with her. Although I suppose this is unnecessary…I’m sure you would be anyway.” At this moment, Nicodemus decided that any thoughts of jealousy regarding Jessica’s possibly being in love with Rollo were petty and irrelevant, and he vowed to not consider them again.

Rollo again looked thoughtful. “Jessica…I remember your telling me of the kind of feelings where you want to…just be with someone all the time, and think about her when you’re not. And…you said you’d never really had those feelings. Is this how it is with you and her?”

Nicodemus was momentarily taken aback by Rollo’s directness. “I fear, Rollo, that you have much to learn about tactfulness. Sometimes it’s best not to speak precisely what’s on your mind.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Teacher. I’ll try to remember that.”

“I know you will. However…since I brought up the subject to begin with…” Nicodemus sighed. “That is very much the way I feel about Jessica. But those other matters I spoke of are the ones which could…delay our agreement; the only ones.” He embraced Rollo. “Now…I want to say again how much I appreciate your understanding and patience. We will see each other again soon, I promise.”

“And…that will be the last time...won’t it?”

“Yes. It should be. Oh, I know it’s hardly an ideal solution, but it’s all we have, I’m afraid.” They both stood, said their goodbyes, and Nicodemus turned and strode off through the mist.

* * *

The small figure, seated in near-total darkness in the middle of this wide, flat emptiness, stirred and opened his eyes. He stood, regarding silently the forest’s edge still nearly a half-mile away. He took a moment to ponder the task ahead, again certain that, for all he was still unaware of the precise nature of his own powers or their source, this sabbatical may well provide answers to those very questions as well. He thought of Jessica, and how he was, in effect, avoiding dealing with her directly, for no less than the third time since they’d begun to realize their mutual feelings…and for all that she knew, as did everyone else, that this was for the good of all.

“Yes, Rollo,” he proclaimed out loud. “All we have.” Nicodemus concentrated, floated upward, and resumed his mission.

Chapter 33 - Timothy’s flintarak adventure

As with most everyone in Freethorn this night, there was an even greater sense of “strength in numbers” than usual; and in the Rusay guest quarters, the atmosphere was actually somewhat relaxed, even festive. For some, though, there was a certain amount of unease just below the surface, and perhaps none more so than the one who stood at the second-floor window, face pressed against the glass with eyes shaded against the interior reflection.

“See anything, Johnathan?”

He gave a small start, backing from the window. “No. Not really, Sithpha. I guess I wasn’t really expecting to see much from here.”

“That’s my Johnathan, the original worrywart,” said Madeline with a chuckle, coming up to him from behind, arms encircling his abdomen. “It’s really sweet, but unnecessary much of the time.” Quickly she added, “But, of course there’s good reason now.”

“Amen.” Johnathan took his wife’s arm as they turned away from the window. As he cast his gaze from one side of the room to the other, seeing the other mice and rats who were the Rusay visitors’ guests, he added, “I’ll try not to be too preoccupied with this illusion business, but…I can’t not think about it, not completely.” He looked down at the amulet against his chest, fingering it and turning it from side to side. “Just by virtue of my being able to command this, I feel I should be able to do something about it. It was my…our command of it that brought all of us, and this land, here, and shaped the very rock around it. And yet…I feel almost helpless.”

“Nicodemus will find out something, Johnathan,” said Madeline consolingly. “I know he will.”

“I’m sure he will, too. It’s just that, in an odd way, I feel responsible for this land and everyone in it, just because of my command of the Stone…almost like a champion or protector. It’s not a role I’d have chosen for myself, but it’s been thrust upon me; and I can’t help but feel that I should be doing more.” He breathed in deep. “But…” He smiled upon Madeline. “…I did promise not to think about it so much.”

“You’ll always be my champion and protector,” said Madeline, leaning over to kiss him.

“And you’re mine,” added Johnathan, rubbing noses with her.

Though hesitant to interrupt their spontaneous display of affection, Sithpha said, “You make it sound like you’re the only one who can command the Stone, Johnathan. I thought both of you could.”

“We can,” said Madeline. “But since we were reunited, I’ve…well, it’s nothing we made any formal agreement upon, but I’ve actually preferred to let Johnathan command it when it’s needed. I guess…using it hasn’t always felt quite right to me, somehow.”

Sithpha looked thoughtful. “Oh, yeah. I can definitely understand.”

“Even knowing that what Ghormfisk did was something he couldn’t help, I still…feel uneasy about using the Stone, even knowing all the good that it’s done us, and that when I do use it I’m protected from almost any kind of harm.”

“It’s been a long time now, but we were all traumatized, to one degree or another by what happened that day,” said Johnathan. “But these days it’s not so bad for her, like just the other day, when she went back to Earth with Lula and Patricia.”

“It was my idea,” said Madeline. “I wanted to use it by myself to prove that I still could, I guess. It was so sad to find out about Lula’s family, but I’m still glad I did it. It felt good to be able to help her like that, in spite of the results.”

The discussion continued quietly, mainly about Lula’s unexpected recovery from her own traumatic discovery and her “mission,” and how she might be faring in Thorn Valley now. They moved about the room as they did, over to where Sithpha’s two oldest children, Eephray and Tuintwom, were instructing some Mouse and Rat children on how to play gluph-ri-gluph, a board game popular throughout much of Lahaikshe; and whose loose translation, “ring-within-ring,” makes it sound simpler than it is.

Downstairs, where Morobphra and his family were staying, other discussions ensued in the spacious living area. The atmosphere was perhaps even more relaxed than upstairs, with everyone sitting around the table or on sofas or the floor, all enjoying good drink and conversation. As with the Freethorners, alcoholic beverages, while not outright frowned upon, were not greatly popular among the Rusay; and so, it was mainly non-alcoholic ones of Rusay origin that were being served tonight. The most popular were rivwil, a brewed tealike drink; girin, a blend of vegetable juices; and smilath, with a rich spiced-vanilla-like flavor, extracted from a bean like coffee or cocoa.

“So,” said Lucy after a sip of smilath, “most Rusay live around 55 to 60 years?”

“That’s right,” said Morobphra. “Though the oldest one I’ve ever heard about lived to be 84. That’s pretty rare, though. I had a grandfather who lived to be 68, though.” He finished off his rivwil-cup.

“And my father’s parents lived to be 70 and 72,” added his wife Miatati. “I guess that bodes well for both of us, and our kids too.” They smiled and squeezed each other’s hand.

“That’s not quite as long as humans back on Earth, though,” said Bertie.

“But remember, Bertie,” said Boris, “Lahaikshe years are longer than Earth years. So it probably works out about the same for both.”

“But you’re still not sure how long your people will live?” asked Morobphra.

“Well, some of the elders believe we’ll live as long as humans,” said Boris, “and the Rusay, for that matter. But it’s still pretty much an open question.” He took a swig of girin, swirling it around before swallowing it.

“At least it’ll be a longer lifespan than ordinary rats and mice,” said Barbara Anne. “They live so briefly, only about two to four years.”

“It still seems hard to believe,” said Miatati, “that all of you can actually be considered…new people, an entirely new race of people.”

“New and improved, that’s us,” said Lucy with a laugh.

“Seriously, though,” said Timothy, “we’ve all got a big future ahead of us here on Lahaikshe, and it’s going to be a great one, too, I think.” Timothy had already made it clear to most that he felt no real sense of menace in connection with the recent illusions, and so he was confident that they would not signal an end to their new life here and that they would not be driven away, either to a new location on Lahaikshe or back to Earth. His confidence had already proven to be infectious, and was continuing to be, though the overall sense of unease and caution wouldn’t be completely banished.

Another young rat, Garrick, agreed. “There was a group of us, before we moved here, who’d been talking about leaving the colony in Thorn Valley and starting a new one elsewhere. Now none of us are talking that way, at least not as loudly as we used to. But some of us are homesick for Earth to be sure, to one degree or another.”

They discussed further how they believed they could develop as a culture in years to come. Whenever the subject had been discussed already, it had generally been agreed that there would be no set plan; rather, they would simply continue much as they had already, with the old “free choice”