By David Leemhuis


Chapter 1 - The Davis family reunion

Through the tall grass and tangled briars that lined this part of the riverbank, a small figure wended his way home, or what he’d come to know as home. Now and again he glanced above, even as his senses of smell and hearing were constantly on the alert, all to ensure his not becoming a midafternoon snack for a hawk or fox; or a weasel, for which he especially needed to be alert—deadly efficient, lightning-fast and nearly silent killing machines that they were. He hadn’t seen or otherwise known of any in this area since he’d moved in, but that didn’t mean he’d let his guard down for anything; not after having had two close calls with weasels in the past, in the two years since he’d left home…or rather, the only place he’d ever really regarded as home.

He glanced up at the overcast sky, and thought of his sisters: the two who, up until recently, had been his constant companions on this journey. He wondered if they really intended to stay where he’d left them, some three weeks before. Certainly they both were tired of the seemingly-endless wandering, and wanted to settle down, even if they hadn’t reached their goal yet. Just as certainly, he himself was tired of what had become routine: following the Greenlee River south, stopping every few days, and staying anywhere from one day to several weeks at a time. So why was he still on the move, when they’d apparently decided to settle down? They’d both recently become acquainted with two to whom they’d seemed to become mated for life, and consequently desired more permanence, or at least less of a nomadic lifestyle. They did, however, allow for the possibility of moving on and seeking out their goal…but not today.

He’d seen how happy they were; yet, though they tried to convince him that he should stay with them, he declined. It was a definite dilemma, but ultimately he decided to move on. But why? He told them, as he’d continued to tell himself, that it was most important to seek out this ultimate goal for which they’d set out long ago: this place where, their father was certain, others like them dwelled. Their parting, though outwardly amicable, wasn’t entirely without ill feeling. He saw no reason why all four of them couldn’t accompany him, especially now that he was sure that they were closer than ever to their goal.

Since then, though, he wondered, more than before: why hadn’t he himself taken a mate? Before, he’d tried to rationalize that, if he had, it wouldn’t be in the best interests of either of them, if he were to continue his commitment to his quest. But since leaving his sisters and their new mates, with his questioning of why they couldn’t continue accompanying him, he knew that argument didn’t hold water anymore. Could it be, then, that the trouble his parents were having, the disagreements which snowballed into open warfare, still affected him in some way? He realized that they surely much have patched their differences since then; it was two years ago, after all. Yet, he couldn’t deny the feeling, deep down, the fear that if he ever got that close to anyone, the same thing could happen to him and her. Or was that just an excuse? Was he just shy, then? One thing was definitely clear: it had been a much lonelier journey since he’d been carrying on alone. If nothing else, he missed the companionship of his sisters, having someone to talk to. Perhaps he could return to them, stay near them for a while longer, perhaps even try to convince them further that they should all continue on…or would that just be a waste of time? After all, if he was this close…

Now, he asked himself: just how close was he? Had he followed the river far enough south? Or had he gone too far? Obviously, continuing this route much longer wouldn’t take him any closer; he had to be in the area where continuing east would take him there. And if he had gotten himself off-track, he reasoned, surely he’d meet others who could steer him in the right direction. The presence of rats and mice such as the ones he sought would create quite a stir; there’d be many stories about them among their ordinary counterparts, perhaps quite a reputation, enough to lead him to them. All right, that’s it, he decided. Tomorrow, first thing in the morning, he’d find a good place to cross the river and strike out for the east, and he’d continue on with only brief stops until he reached his goal.

Suddenly he realized: he’d been sitting still for the past few minutes, so wrapped up in his own thought had he been; so much so that he probably wasn’t as cautious as should have been. He shook his head, inwardly chastising himself. It certainly wouldn’t do to make all these elaborate plans and then get picked off like a berry on a bush, now would it? He resumed his journey to his latest temporary shelter.

On the way he wondered: this was the first time he’d really given so much thought to matters like these. Perhaps it was a sign; perhaps his situation would face a major change, hopefully one for the better. Yes, he would definitely be heading east come tomorrow. He was steadily becoming more excited at the prospect; perhaps he’d not even wait until then. He again thought of his sisters upriver; why, he could even bring one or two of the rats back there with him; it would certainly show them this wasn’t a wild goose chase, and could even be enough to convince them to return with him. Even now, he couldn’t believe that he’d never see them again, that their parting was final. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, he thought. Let’s get back home first…home in the loosest sense of the word, of course.

Soon he was approaching the dense thicket within which the den entrance lay. He paused there to sit and examine himself for ticks and other external parasites. What I wouldn’t give to live in a place where I wouldn’t have to do this every day, he thought.

Before he was finished, he stopped. There was a strange scent about. He raised his snout high, whiskers twitching. Strange, but not totally unfamiliar; definitely another mouse. He moved about the area surrounding the thicket, and found the scent to be increasingly familiar the stronger it got. Definitely female…Michelle? Or Myrna? No…it was almost like them, but not quite. More like…another of his siblings? But how could that be? Unless one of them happened to pass this way in her own journey…

“Hello? Who’s there? Come out and show yourself.” No immediate response…then there came a faint rustle from behind a nearby stump.


He whirled to face the source of the feminine voice. Alongside the stump stood a slim, pretty young girl-mouse very much like Michelle or Myrna in appearance, but subtly different. She gasped, looked delighted and rushed forward to embrace him. It still took a few seconds before her identity registered.

“Karen? Is it…is it really you?”

She drew back to face him. “Yes, it’s me! Oh, you’re looking so well, it’s so wonderful!” Karen kissed her older brother’s cheek, then embraced him again, nuzzling his neck. He responded in kind as full realization came to him.

The two sat down. Michael shook his head, laughing and shaking his head incredulously. “Just look at you! You were a little slip of a thing when I left home; you’ve gotten so…so grown!”

“So have you!” Karen replied with a laugh.

“How did you ever find me?”

“Well, we had help…”


“Come on out, Mom,” Karen called over her shoulder. Out from behind the stump came another familiar figure, and again it took a few seconds for the identity to fully register with Michael, even as he heard how Karen addressed her.

“‘Mom’? Mother?” As the two embraced, Michael knew beyond a doubt that this was their mother, Patricia.

It was a joyous moment for all three, just to be together again; but for Michael, one matter took precedence. “Mother…are you and Dad…er, have you…”

Patricia smiled warmly and again embraced her second-oldest son. “Oh, sweetheart, everything’s fine now. Your father and I settled all that long ago, not long after you left.”

Michael was relieved but confused. “All this time…I’d wondered whether or not…” He shook his head. “I feel a bit foolish, admitting it now, but…” He sighed. “How could I think that…it would go on and on, that you and Dad would never make up?”

“Oh, Michael, don’t blame yourself. The both of us…your father and I had gotten so caught up in our own beliefs, each of us, that we didn’t think of how it affected you or the other children. Especially you. You were always so much more sensitive. I think, even at that time, we were aware that our fighting had pushed you to leave when you did. If only we’d made up sooner, you and the girls might not have left when you did, and…”

“Mother, let’s…I think we can probably put all that behind us now. You still haven’t told me how you all got here.”

No sooner had he said this when he caught something out of the corner of his eye, like a flash of lightning. He turned and gave a start as he saw two unfamiliar figures approach: a male mouse dressed in a tan-and-grey vest, with a red jewel set in a pendant hanging from around his neck; and a male rat dressed in an outfit that gave Michael the impression of a uniform—a white shirt and blue tunic.

“I think we can clear that up,” said the mouse. “How do you do, Michael. I’m Johnathan Brisby, and this is Melvin.”

As it did with Karen just days ago when she and Martin Brisby first met, the first name’s familiarity immediately registered with Michael. And so, for the next several minutes, he was told of the amulet’s capabilities and how they were employed to seek him out, and how his siblings would be sought out the same way. He was brought up to date on the basics of his parents’ situation, and how the rats and two of the mice had long ago left NIMH together, founded their first colony in a rural location not far from here and were later forced to abandon it, had settled down in Thorn Valley and prospered over the following years until just the day before, when circumstances similar to those that forced their first move took them to another dimension, another world. Michael was pleased to hear that the rats had indeed settled in Thorn Valley, confirming his father’s suspicions, but was confused by much of the story. It finally occurred to him to wonder why his father wasn’t here now, and he brought this up.

“He…wasn’t feeling well, from all the excitement and everything,” replied Patricia. They hadn’t yet told Michael of the extent of Kimball’s injuries.

“Oh. Well, I hope he’s feeling better soon. Wow…I still need to…to absorb all this.”

“We all know the feeling,” said Melvin. “It’ll become clearer once you see our colony for yourself. Provided, of course, you do want to come along with us.”

“We won’t force you, of course,” added Johnathan. “It’s entirely up to you.”

“Do you have to ask, Johnathan? Of course I’ll come! It’s what I’ve been living for these past two years! That ‘other world’ business, though; that’s going to take some time to sink in completely.”

As the others discussed that aspect of the colony’s new location in greater detail to Michael, Karen reflected on the events of the past few hours leading up to the beginning of this quest. Before everyone had spent their first “night’s” sleep on Lahaikshe—not literally at night because of the time difference, which everyone had yet to completely adjust to—the party for this “gathering” quest was set to consist of Johnathan, Patricia, Kimball and Melvin. This “morning,” however, Kimball complained of feeling a bit ill and tired. He’d participated in the previous day’s mission to bring home Martin’s friend Lambert, move his family’s belongings out of their old home and learn Vincent’s final fate. Mr. Ages, though, had protested Kimball’s participation, and had warned him of a possible relapse; and when it arrived, it landed Kimball right back in his old bed in the medical ward. He encouraged Karen to take his place in the party; and Timothy Brisby, who had done much to boost Kimball’s morale during his first stay in the ward, took it upon himself to keep him company, as a “bedridden buddy,” having been in much the same situation in his younger days. It was deemed important to have a member of the Guard on the mission, one who would also represent the Rats as a whole, and so Melvin was chosen for the honor.

Martin had originally planned on coming along, but ultimately he decided to opt out in the hours before the search was begun. Karen now recalled the conversation the two of them had just before they’d begun; and even though it had felt like morning to them, it was an hour before midnight here, and so it was by moonlight that they had this brief conversation. Martin assured her they’d be safe, and so he led her to a more private spot not far from the Rat colony.

* * *

“Karen, I can only wish all of you the best of luck on this quest. I’m really looking forward to meeting all of your sibs. As for me, well…I still have a lot to think about, and…I really need to do it alone. Don’t get me wrong, I think it was best that you kept after me like you did yesterday. Even though…what I did to you wasn’t good, and…well, you understand what I’m trying to say, don’t you?”

“Yes…I think I do, Marty. In fact, I know I do. I won’t hinder you this time. We all need solitude once in a while. You take all the time you need.”

“Thanks, Karen, for understanding…for everything. Well…I guess you should get back so you can all get started.” They embraced briefly before she did so, Martin wishing her and the others good luck in their search.

* * *

“Well, I guess we can get started anytime,” said Michael as he got to his feet. “Just let me gather a few things together.” Karen offered to help him, and so the two made their way through the thicket to his den. As they packed, Karen explained that, if he liked, they’d take him with them to seek out Michelle and Myrna, or else he could be transported to the colony straightaway. Either way, there would be a welcoming party ready to orient them to their new surroundings. Michael opted for the former, saying that he wanted to apologize to his sisters for his attitude before they’d parted company (“I was a bit of a pain those last few days,” he summed up), but also he wanted to prove to them firsthand that he was right, that they were indeed very close to the Rat colony; or rather, had been close.

“Boy, I sure didn’t expect to have representatives of it come to me first though, especially with you and Mother along,” he remarked as he held open his small pack for Karen to drop in his meager belongings. “I’m still reeling over all this. And to think that just before you arrived I had a hunch that something was going to happen, some kind of turning point. I was planning to take a hike to the east pretty soon because I knew Thorn Valley lay that way, or close. Imagine if I had, and what I’d have found there, or not found. You say it’s like a big chunk of land just scooped right out?”

Karen described in more detail how the colony was transported to its new location and some of the possible problems they expected to face there.

After they’d finished packing and returned outside, Johnathan told them, “I’ve pinpointed our exact location in relation to Thorn Valley, and—are you ready for this?—it’s not only about three or four days’ journey from here, but a much shorter distance from the point where you ladies and Martin crossed the river. In fact, it’s only a short distance upriver.”

“Why, that means we could have met you, Michael, on our way to Thorn Valley a few days ago, if our route had taken us a bit further south!”

“Quite possibly, Patricia.” Johnathan paused to look around at everyone. “Well, Michael…since we’re all ready, we can begin the next phase of this operation. Patricia, concentrate with me, like you did with Michael, and that’ll give us Michelle and Myrna’s whereabouts.” Patricia laid hands on the amulet, and both concentrated for a few seconds; then, they opened their eyes to see the images on its face. They saw a mouse busily gathering straws, evidently to line a nest.

“That’s Myrna!” cried Patricia, though she didn’t recognize the other who soon came into view to help her. Michael did recognize him as Stollie, her new mate. Through his rapport with the Stone, Johnathan could tell that they were indeed not far away, to the north.

“Now for Michelle,” said Johnathan; but when he and Patricia looked upon the amulet’s face this time, they both suddenly looked away, embarrassed; and Johnathan turned it face down. “Caught her and her new fella in a…well, more private moment.”

“Ah,” said Karen, raising an eyebrow. “Newlyweds…right, Mom?” she said, unable to resist a chuckle. She again found herself thinking of Martin. Michael could find humor in it as well.

“Oh, indeed, dear,” said Patricia with a laugh. “Well, Johnathan, I guess we’ll be calling on Myrna and Stollie first.”

“I guess that would be prudent. There’s definitely a downside to being able to look in on any location like this.” He looked again at the amulet’s face; it was now normal again. “Okay…is everyone ready? Good. Now, I think we can make a little sightseeing tour out of this next leg.”

“What do you mean, Johnathan?” asked Michael as Johnathan began concentrating anew.

“You’ll see,” replied Karen, “and you might want to brace yourself.”

Michael made to ask why, but suddenly felt a peculiar easing of pressure on the soles of his feet. He glanced down, exclaimed “Whoa!” and grabbed Melvin’s leg.

“It’s all right, dear,” said Patricia. “You’ll like it once you get used to it.” The Stone’s power was lifting all five of them off the ground, slowly at first; then, at an altitude of about three feet, they all moved towards the nearby river. Michael acclimated himself quickly, grinning sheepishly at Melvin, on whom he eased his grip. He looked all around and shook his head in disbelief as they all moved over the water, gliding swiftly northward.

“Johnathan, is there anything that stone of yours can’t do?” Michael asked at length.

“Oh, plenty of things; but I think you’ll find the things it can do come in pretty handy.”

It was quite the thrill ride for all of them, especially for Michael, as they sailed over and around low-hanging branches, occasionally skimming the surface of the water or going higher, skirting the treetops. At one point Johnathan brought up a force-shield around them, and after alerting the others to it, he sent them all plunging into the river! Though he assured everyone they would all stay dry and otherwise unharmed, it was still startling at first to experience an underwater view in this fashion. Melvin described how, after Johnathan moved to Thorn Valley and began experimenting with the Stone, he would explore the depths of Lake Nicodemus in the same fashion, often bringing others along, including Melvin.

For the next few minutes they continued upriver in this fashion, darting past water plants, surprising many fish who scattered at their approach, coming close to the muddy bottom (where Johnathan had the amulet provide illumination against the murkiness) and encountering several crayfish, and attracting the attentions of other river denizens like muskrats, a curious river otter (who followed them for a time but was soon outdistanced), and a snapping turtle.

As they approached their destination, Johnathan brought the party back into the open air, to a height of three feet above the surface. Patricia and Karen began looking out for one particular landmark, and soon spotted it dead ahead: the tree which had fallen almost perpendicularly across the river, laying near where the Stone’s “guiding” power had carried them and Martin a few days ago, and which had, days before that, provided Martin and Lambert with a way across. Johnathan announced that it was only a short distance further where Michelle and Myrna and their mates were settled. Patricia and Karen could only shake their heads at the irony, that they’d passed so close to three of their family without any of them knowing.

It was another area very close to the river, one with rocky outcroppings, upon which they ended the “sightseeing tour.” Michael, still feeling giddy from the trip and buoyed by all that had happened to him in just the past hour, immediately and enthusiastically left the others to meet Myrna and Stollie first, as agreed on the way over. He found them still engaged in finding furnishings for their home.

“Stollie, look! Look who it is!” Myrna dropped the bundle of straws she was carrying and ran to greet the approaching figure. “It’s great to see you again, Michael,” she said as they embraced, “but why’d you come back? I thought you were dead set upon your search.”

“Well, Sis, that ties in with why I’m here now.”

“Well, look at who came crawling back,” said Stollie with a grin as he approached.

“Great to see you again, too, buddy,” said Michael, giving Stollie a brief hug. “You’re being good to my little sister, I hope.”

“Nothing but,” he said with his usual breeziness. Myrna was quick to assure Michael that they’d been very happy together.

“That’s great,” said Michael. “So…to get right to the point: there’s someone else close by that you haven’t seen, for a much longer while.”

“Who’s that?” asked Myrna.

“Oh, just our mother and our sister Karen, and two others who’ll prove that I was right.”

Stollie took this rather casually, but Myrna was less restrained. “Michael, don’t pull my leg. You know I don’t like that.”

“I know you don’t. That’s why I’m asking you to follow me so you can see for yourself.”

“Well, all right, I’ll bite. But if you are leveling with me, we should get Michie and Brummie first…”

“Get us for what, Myrna?” came a voice from behind them. “Who’re you talking to…Michael!” Michelle rushed forward to greet her brother.

Michael repeated his cryptic statements to Michelle and Brummie, adding, “I’m glad you two finished…er, I’m glad you showed up when you did, it saved us all a little time.” He then led the four of them to the river’s edge, where an unexpected and happy reunion awaited.

After they were given the gist of the situation concerning their family, the search for the remainder of it, the Rats’ colony and the offer to move there, both couples were a bit skeptical; not of the truth in the account, but about the idea of moving from where they were, especially when the different-world factor was taken into account. Despite assurances that Lahaikshe was much safer than where they were now, there was certainly a small amount of fear of the unknown. Johnathan and Melvin continued to assure them, and told them that it need not be a permanent move; they were encouraged to at least give it a try, and then decide to stay or return.

This proved convincing enough, and in short order there were five mice and their belongings preparing to be transported. “Okay, once more:” said Johnathan. “You may feel a bit strange once you get there, possibly a little weak and woozy, but you should be over it quickly. And it will be disorienting, suddenly finding yourselves in a completely different place. But there’ll be a welcoming party waiting—my wife Madeline, Mr. Ages, the Rats’ leader Justin and his wife Isabella and some others—and they’re all eager and impatient to meet you and welcome you, and they’ll do all they can to acclimate you to your new surroundings. To be honest, we’re all still getting used to it ourselves, especially the time difference. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there, but if you’re still willing to join us, we’re only too happy to accommodate you. Now, is everyone ready?”

All five replied yes, buoyed by the debriefing and pep talk, and so Johnathan began concentrating.

“Goodbye, children,” said Patricia. “See you soon.” With a flash all were on their way.

Karen sighed. “Well, Mom…three down, nine to go.”

“Yes…but from what we’ve seen here, there’s sure to be more. It’s funny, but I really hadn’t thought much about any of you having mates, and probably children too. Norman and Jessica especially, and probably Marie and Louann, too, since they’ve been away so long. Your father and I are suddenly going to find ourselves to be instant grandparents, I just know it.”

“And we’re going to find ourselves with a whole second colony,” added Melvin. “Before it was just the Brisby and Ages families, and suddenly it’s become a lot more complicated.”

They all nodded in agreement; Johnathan had been aware from the outset that there were adjustments to be made, and they would be considerable. But for now, all in this party would concentrate on the task at hand, which all were eager to resume. He looked at Patricia, having left to her the decision of which of her children to seek out next. She’d settled upon Michael first partly under Karen’s suggestion, since she’d wanted to let him know right away that things had been long settled between her and Kimball. Michelle and Myrna naturally followed; and now she suggested that they locate any others that may be close to Thorn Valley, just to see if any had made it that far. Everyone who had heard Kimball’s story a week ago, of how all of his children had set out to discover the Rats’ whereabouts, had been curious to learn if any of them had come that close, or if not, why not.

So Johnathan instructed Patricia to concentrate on and picture in her mind her other nine children while he pictured Thorn Valley and his surrounding environs in his; and the process quickly narrowed down and pinpointed the location of the next one they’d go to meet.

* * *

The four materialized in a rocky gorge heavy with vegetation and having very steep and smooth walls. The immediate impression was that it would be difficult if not impossible for one to leave this place were one to stumble into it.

“It looks rather like Thorn Valley in miniature,” remarked Melvin.

“It does look familiar, though, somehow,” added Johnathan, “and not just because of that resemblance.” He held up the Stone. “I’ll see how close we really are.”

Melvin gazed all around from the two-foot-high boulder upon which they all stood. “Now that he mentions it, there is something familiar about the lay of this place. In fact, if we are close to Thorn Valley, then this could be—”

A startled cry from below interrupted him. All except Johnathan looked down to see a mouse emerge from a clump of weeds, staring round-eyed up at them, and then scurrying away. Karen and Patricia jumped down to the ground and started after him. Melvin quickly followed, as did Johnathan, having finished his last bit of information-gathering.

Karen, leading the way, managed to keep the strange mouse within sight. “It’s all right!” she called out. “We don’t mean any harm, we just need information!”

Still he didn’t slacken his pace; at least, not for another minute or so, when he reached the entrance of his den, nestled within another rocky outcropping. “Strangers!” he shouted toward its interior, then stopped at the entranceway and turned to face his pursuers, expression fearful but defiant.

Karen and Patricia stopped about a foot away and silently observed the scene as they caught their breaths, touched by this display of devotion and wanting to place the stranger at ease. “Please believe us,” said Patricia calmly and evenly, “we mean no harm to you or your family. We’re just looking for someone.”

“Yes,” added Karen. “You may know her. Her name’s L—”

“Teelo? Who is it? What do they want?” The voice from within interrupted Karen, and she and her mother looked at each other, delighted.

“Louann? It is you, isn’t it? Please, come on out, it’s your mother, and your sister Karen.”

“Mother? Sister?” Teelo scratched his head. Though his fear was steadily giving way to curiosity, still he blocked the entrance.

“Mother? Karen? It’s really you? But how could…Is this a dream?”

“Oh, no, sweetheart, it’s really us. Come on out, let us see you.”

Karen turned to Johnathan and Melvin, who had hung back until Teelo had calmed but now had just made a closer approach. “You were right, Johnathan, it did bring us close to her, but not too close.” They all looked toward the entrance, where Teelo’s fearful demeanor was renewed upon seeing the two new arrivals, especially Melvin.

“They got…ther—there’s a rat with them. He’s big…”

“A rat? Really?” Louann’s voice wasn’t the least fearful, but still Teelo stood his ground. The next few seconds were spent in silence as they waited for Louann to make her way outside. “It’s all right, love. You needn’t be so protective. It’s really them.”

Teelo glanced nervously between the entrance and the visitors. “I—I thought your family lived far away from here, in that town with the…the…”

“The humans, Teelo. That’s right, they do, or they did, but I just know it’s my mom and sister. The other two have to be friends. Now will you stop being so silly and let me come out and meet them?”

Teelo glanced once more at the visitors, now looking a bit sheepish; then he disappeared inside. A few seconds later he reemerged slowly with another mouse on his arm.

Patricia almost didn’t recognize her daughter—second-oldest with her twin Marie—at first. Her right ear was misshapen and scarred, and she seemed unsteady on her feet as if unable to stay upright without Teelo’s assistance. Her eyes stared straight ahead, but they didn’t focus on her callers, for reasons that quickly became clear to them. Though nobody in the Thorn Valley colony had ever suffered blindness, these four knew enough to recognize it when they saw it.

Patricia, upon realizing this, almost burst out crying at seeing Louann in such a state, so soon after finding Kimball to be permanently crippled; in spite of her awareness, and frequent self-reminders, that such a thing was realistically possible. But what tears there were from both her and Karen came mostly from just seeing Louann alive and well again, as they embraced. As for Louann, the scent and feel were unmistakable, confirming what her ears told her: this could be none other than her mother and sister.

Teelo could only look on perplexed, scratching his head for a moment before all were introduced. Afterwards Louann said, “Well, Mom, Karen…I know I must look a sight. I know you weren’t expecting me to look quite like this.” Her tone was almost casual.

“Oh, Louann, darling, I…don’t quite know what to say.” Patricia stroked her daughter’s cheek.

“It’s…probably a long story, isn’t it?” ventured Karen.

“It is, and…I know I might’ve made you uncomfortable right now.” Louann looked apologetic.

“Oh, please don’t think you have to apologize.” Patricia held her close. “However it happened, we’re so happy to see you again.”

“Me too. But now…there’s someone else you have to meet.” As Louann said this, Karen thought she saw something else moving just inside the den entrance. “Girls? Come on out, it’s all right.”

Patricia and Karen looked at each other, again delighted. They both crouched before the entrance, where two small figures were now visible, venturing forth slowly, shyly, staring unblinking at the four unfamiliar visitors. Their mother encouraged them some more, and when they were all the way out she introduced them as Sharla and Tess.

“Are…are you really our grandma?” asked Sharla.

“Yes, I am,” answered an open-armed Patricia. Then both children rushed forward to her as if they’d known her all their lives. They were equally thrilled to meet one of their aunts.

After Louann, Sharla and Tess had met Johnathan and Melvin, Johnathan brought up a matter he’d almost forgotten: how close they were to Thorn Valley. The Stone had pinpointed the location of this gorge at only a day’s journey north of there. He’d also realized why it had seemed familiar: one of the expeditions outside of the valley had come across it—though, understandably, no attempt had been made to venture down into it—and though neither he nor Melvin had been on it, they both remembered the gorge’s description. Upon hearing this, Louann was genuinely surprised, actually struck speechless for a moment.

“I was…that close? How…how did you know? Did you all come from Thorn Valley?”

“We all have long stories to tell each other, dear,” said Patricia. And so, after everyone sat on nearby stones, the young family was then given the greatly-condensed version of how this reunion came about.

When Johnathan invited them to join them at the colony in Lahaikshe, though, Teelo’s initial reaction was immediate but a bit disheartening. “We can’t leave here, it…it would be too much for Lou, too much of a change for her, she won’t be able to take—”

“Teelo, don’t worry so much. I’ll be all right.” He seemed to relax a bit at Louann’s reassuring tone, enough for Johnathan to gently suggest that he and Melvin take him aside and explain more thoroughly the advantages of moving to the colony. Teelo allowed this, glancing again at his mate and children as they led him a short ways away.

Louann smiled, shaking her head. “He’s such a dear. So devoted, but more than a little overprotective. But I do hope they convince him. I’d really love to see this colony of yours.” She gave a small laugh. “Bad choice of words, I suppose.” Sensing the others’ uneasiness, she added, “I know you’re all wondering how I came to be here, and…and like I am now. You remember, I’m sure, when Marie and I left home together, over three years ago. Well, there’s a lot more to tell about that, and what happened to her. About a year into our journey, we got separated, and I haven’t seen her since…but I guess if I was able to survive, then she could have too.”

“Well, we’ll definitely be looking for her today too,” said Karen. Both she and Patricia felt like asking how they became separated but decided to hold off until later. “So how did you come here?”

“It was over a year ago, in the spring. After I had to carry on alone, I continued following the Greenlee River south for a long while, like you said Michael and Michelle and Myrna did, then headed east when I got so far south. I had my share of adventure along the way, of course, a few close shaves; but nothing like on that one day…the last day I could still…” She paused, sighing.

“If…you’d rather not talk about it, sweetheart…”

“No, it’s all right, Mother. I don’t mind talking about it. I miss not being able to see, but I’ve had no choice but to get used to it. Anyway, I’d just been talking with this one mouse I’d met, one who’d heard stories of unusual rats living somewhere to the south. It was the most definite word I’d had in quite a while, so I’d just started heading that way when I found myself being chased by a fox. He came really close to me one time, and I was able to give him the slip, but I was so intent upon putting distance between myself and him that I…should have been more careful about where I was going. I jumped through a clump of grass and…suddenly I found myself falling straight down. In another second everything turned black; I think I must have landed right squarely on my head, and on some pretty rough stone too.

“When I came to, I was in an absolute world of pain. My ears were ringing, and I couldn’t see clearly, but I could tell that I was inside a burrow, and that someone was tending to me. I still can’t say why Teelo took it upon himself to take me in like that—neither can he, really—but I tried to let him know, as best I could, how much I appreciated his care and compassion.

“I soon realized just how much damage that fall had done. There was no sight at all in my left eye, and only very limited vision in my right. My right ear was damaged, and the fall affected my sense of balance too; I still have trouble standing upright, as you saw. In spite of this, I tried to leave here as soon as I could get out of bed; but Teelo told me how difficult it was, if not impossible, for many animals to make their way out of the gorge, especially ones our size, what with the sheer and steep walls. That’s what had happened to his own parents, in fact; they’d made their way into the gorge but couldn’t get out. I couldn’t accept that, and actually tried finding my own way out, going all around the perimeter and trying to climb up in a couple of places. I just couldn’t accept that I was trapped here, not after all I’d been through and when I’d come so close to my goal.

“But after about a month or so, I had to admit defeat. My sight and balance weren’t getting any better, and it became clearer that even if I hadn’t been injured, it still would probably be impossible to leave. I’d been so enthusiastic before I’d come here, so full of anticipation, to think that Thorn Valley was so close. And now, knowing I couldn’t leave, I was in…just total despair for a while, depressed and crying for hours on end, hardly eating…and at times I really gave Teelo a hard time, even shouting at him to leave me alone a time or two.

“And bless his heart, he still wouldn’t give up on me. All the while, almost from the day I’d come into his life, he’d done his best to convince me that it wasn’t so bad, and that I could be happy here. It still took a while for me to realize just how much he really loved me, and when I did I would have kicked myself if I could for not realizing it sooner. Before long, I felt just as strongly for him. Even so, for a while I still thought of myself as a prisoner here; though not his prisoner, by any means. But eventually I pretty well accepted that I was here for the long haul, and my disabilities too.”

Louann paused, sighing, and pulled Sharla and Tess closer to her. “And…I guess you can tell the rest for yourselves. We wanted children, of course, but we weren’t sure if I was strong enough to handle being pregnant, giving birth; but eventually we were both sure the time was right. Since then, I’ve been quite content with my lot in life, and having this pair of angels has a lot to do with it.” She paused to kiss each of them. “And Teelo…he’s been so patient and loving all along, through the good and bad.”

She looked in his direction; he was still in discussion with Johnathan and Melvin. “He’s so devoted to me and the girls, more than he needs to be. I…I owe him everything. I do hope he decides that we should move, but if not…I’ll gladly stay right here.”

“I don’t think it need come to that, Louann,” said Johnathan, who’d overheard some of her story. “Tell them, Teelo.”

“Uh, yeah…they talked me into it, at least to give it a try.”

“Oh, Teelo, thank you so much!” Louann carefully got to her feet to embrace him. “We won’t regret this, I just know it!” The children were also greatly curious to see this place and to meet more of their mother’s family, so the decision was unanimous. Patricia couldn’t keep from crying, not just from the fact that another of her children had agreed to return with them, but from the poignancy of her tale, and of Teelo’s great selflessness and devotion. She embraced him as one of her own children and told him how grateful she was to him for being so good to her daughter this past year and a half. Karen was again reminded of her and Martin’s relationship, and anticipated all the more their reunion.

Again there was the gathering of belongings, the briefing on what immediately awaited them, and the sendoff. And again it was left to Patricia to decide whom to seek out next. After hearing about how Louann had become separated from Marie, she was momentarily undecided between seeking her first choices next or Marie. The former won out, and so she concentrated with Johnathan on their next subjects.

* * *

Many miles to the north, three small figures wended their way through a backyard vegetable garden. Feeling the first few droplets of rain, they paused in their travels underneath a cabbage leaf. One sat down abruptly, arms folded, looking indignant and fed up.

The other two followed suit. “So,” said one, a girl, to one of the others, a boy, “how long has it been now?”

“Oh, about five weeks, give or take a day.”

“You knew that!” snapped the indignant one. “Why do you have to keep asking all the time?”

“Give it a rest, Bertie,” said the girl. “Why do you have to take things so seriously all the time?”

“Because this is a serious situation, Luce,” replied Bertie. “Because I’m tired and cold.”

“It’s not that cold,” his sister Lucy put in quietly.

Bertie ignored the remark and went on, “And have either of you thought about what we’ll do when it gets really cold? We won’t be able to keep going like this, you know.”

“So we’ll hole up someplace for the winter,” said their brother Ellis. “We knew this was gonna take a while when we set out, and you were in it for the long haul just like Lucy and me.”

“Sure, Ellis, sure. Just like we knew ex-actly what we’d be in for. If you ask me, it’s getting worse the further we go.”

“Nobody did ask, Mr. Chronic Complainer,” said Lucy, rolling her eyes.

“Look, I can’t help it. You know, neither Mom nor Dad thought we were quite ready to leave when we did. Maybe they were right.”

“Hmph. This coming from the first one to insist we were old enough?”

“Will both of you give it a rest?” interjected Ellis. “We’re supposed to be in this together, and it seems like I’ve done nothing but step into your arguments.” He sighed. “Bicker, bicker, bicker…”

Both Lucy and Bertie had to admit, silently, that they were tired of seeming to be constantly at odds with each other. But how to settle what seemed to boil down to the very basic matter of whether or not to continue further or turn back, especially when they’d agreed at the outset to stick together—a vow they all took very seriously?

For a minute all were silent; then Lucy said quietly, with a grin, “So…are we there yet?” Bertie replied only with a dirty look. “Look,” she added, “I know we all agree on one thing, and that’s whatever we decide to do, we all do. Maybe…we should turn back.”

Bertie raised an eyebrow in quiet surprise; but Ellis gave voice to his own. “You think we should? After all that show of optimism, and always making jokes, saying that it’s better to laugh about the situation than whine?”

“It’s not like you think; not quite, at least. There’s an idea I’ve had for a while. Before Marie left, she told me she was thinking of trying to get on board a human vehicle, and use it to make her way south.”

Ellis and Bertie looked at each other, open-mouthed. “Holy cow,” said Ellis. “She always was a bit of a chance-taker, but this… You think she really could have tried that?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking…it’s certainly possible, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t give something like that a try.”

Bertie stared at Lucy in disbelief. “You’re out of your… Let’s just throw ourselves in front of a moving cat while we’re at it! It’s the same thing!”

“Maybe, Bert,” said Ellis, “but what do you say we at least hear her out? What exactly did you have in mind, Luce?”

“Well, we could—” Lucy broke off suddenly as they heard a door open, accompanied by a distinctive jingling. She leaped agilely to the top of the cabbage head for a look toward the house. “Oh, crap,” she whispered, and returned below. “It’s a dog, all right. We’d better lie low.”

“What if he comes out here?” asked Bertie. “Once that nose gets to work, that’ll be all she wrote.”

“We should move back the way we came in. If we can make it past the bushes, then out to the woods, we’ll stand a better chance, even if he does get our scent.” None could disagree with Ellis’s plan; they could ill afford to spend time arguing over a matter of simple survival, so they moved off furtively.

Between the edge of the garden and the woods were several feet of lawn, bisected by a couple of spiraea bushes about halfway between. As they darted across the first strip of lawn, they continually glanced over, keeping tabs on the dog’s position. They paused at the bushes, sizing up the remaining distance for a moment, then continued on.

What happened next was one of those things that one can never accurately predict, and which easily disregards one’s best efforts to prevent. About two feet short of the nearest tree, the dog spotted the three mice and immediately began barking loudly and giving chase. They made a beeline for the tree: an untrimmed spruce with close-set branches, the lowest ones against the ground. Perfect, they hoped. The dog, a small terrier mix and therefore one that could pose a greater danger than a larger breed, closed in on them just as all three had reached the trunk and already gained enough altitude to place them out of reach of those snapping jaws. They ascended rapidly, aided by the many branches radiating from the trunk, until they could feel truly safe.

At a height of about six feet, they stopped to more fully regard their predicament. Ellis stuck out his tongue and threw a mocking gesture at the dog. Lucy just looked relieved. Bertie just looked disgusted and said, “Well, this is a fine mess.”

“Glad you like it,” said Lucy. “Don’t you dare say that I got us into it.” Bertie just grumbled in reply.

“Boy,” said Ellis, looking up at Lucy, “any dog is bad enough, but don’t you hate these small yappy types? Eugh! Wonder how long before he gives up?”

“As long as it takes, I guess,” replied Lucy. “Maybe his owner will call him away. In the meantime…”

Lucy was interrupted by a sudden flash from above them. They’d almost forgotten that a storm was brewing, and now took it for lightning. But the greater surprise immediately followed.

“Need some help, cousins?”

The voice, coming from about a foot above them, caused them all to look up in surprise; but for one, it had the added effect of causing him to lose his grip and tumble downward.

“Bertie!” shouted Lucy. She and Ellis watched helplessly as their brother came perilously close to the dog’s level before securing a grip on a lower branch. Luckily the dog, being on the opposite side of the trunk, didn’t notice this until Bertie began ascending again, faster and more frantically this time. It sped around the trunk and tried climbing after Bertie, barking incessantly, jaws snapping.

Then, once more, the unexpected struck. A strange red glow emanated seemingly from nowhere and enveloped all three mice; then, it and they vanished, leaving the dog snapping and barking at an ordinary, unoccupied spruce.

When the three siblings opened their eyes, they gave a start at the new surroundings. The spruce had been replaced by a space on the ground between a building and an old rusted-out truck body. They all embraced in thankfulness of their safety, but knew not what to make of this apparent rescue.

Before any could ask “Where are we?” (or anything) another voice was heard: “Bertram! Ellis! Lucille!”

The three looked toward the voice’s source in disbelief. Who else would address them by their given names except…

In a second the entrance of a familiar figure confirmed what their ears told them. Their mother, Patricia, rushed forward to greet her three youngest children. She was quickly followed by their sister, Karen, who told them their escapade with the dog had been observed and that they were glad to have arrived in the nick of time. All well and good, the three agreed, but how did they get here, and who was that in the tree whose sudden entrance had startled Bertie so much?

“That would be me,” answered another mouse who now joined them, followed by a rat. Johnathan Brisby and Melvin introduced themselves, and Johnathan apologized for inadvertently frightening Bertie, and possibly placing his life in danger, admitting that he should have just brought them here straightaway instead of going there himself first. Melvin’s appearance was initially startling to all three siblings, but everyone was quick to assure them that he was nothing like the rat-gang they’d had to avoid in their old neighborhood in downtown Sampson, and that there were plenty more like him where they came from.

Johnathan told them of the Stone and how it had brought them here, and how they were employing it to seek out the rest of the Davis family; and of their own present living arrangements. “And…you three are cordially invited to join us.”

Lucy and Ellis agreed the most readily, but Bertie had reservations. “I don’t know… You say that stone is the only way to take us there? That thing and you suddenly coming upon us in the tree just about got me killed!”

“Come on, Bertie,” said Ellis, “Johnathan already said he was sorry.”

“And I truly am sorry, Bertie. It was just poor judgment on my part. We all make mistakes. I can assure you, there’ll be no problem in using the Stone to take you to the colony.”

Patricia embraced Bertie. “You’re still pretty shaken up, dear, I know. But please, give it some thought. You know we all love you, and want you to join us.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to, Mom, weird as all this is, all at once. It’s just…oh, I don’t know what it is.”

“Give it a try, at least, Bertie,” encouraged Lucy, hand on his shoulder.

Ellis was about to add something but Bertie spoke first. “Look, none of you have to convince me. I’ll come along. Let’s just get it over with, okay?”

“Sounds good to me,” said Karen, “unless any of you can think of any reasons to stick around here.” She took Bertie’s impatient tone in stride, accustomed as were all in her family to his usual difficult-to-please manner.

As they prepared, Lucy said to Patricia, “You know, Mom, just before we had to run from the fearless protector of the home back there, we were talking about how maybe we ought to turn back and how you thought we might have been too young to set out when we did; even Bertie admitted to that.”

“Well, just the fact that the three of you have made it this far without a scratch shows that we raised and taught you all well,” said Patricia, hugging her youngest daughter once more. “Oh, my babies…I’m so proud of you all.” Johnathan couldn’t help smiling, recalling Kimball’s contention that their youngest children took umbrage at being referred to in such terms. But it didn’t seem to bother them now.

“Thanks, Mom. And you did teach us well. So…as far as turning back goes, I guess that’d be pretty useless now, wouldn’t it? But there was another idea I had…” Lucy recounted Marie’s pre-departure talk of the possibility of stowing away on a human vehicle to take her part of the way to Thorn Valley, and how she’d wondered if Marie would have really attempted such a thing for real, or if it was just speculation. Lucy was incredulous when her mother said it most certainly was possible, since she, Karen, Martin Brisby and (separately) Kimball had themselves done it successfully.

Johnathan had heard this exchange and now offered that Marie be the next subject of their search. Patricia instantly approved, and Lucy then asked if she could join them in this next leg instead of being transported to the colony right away. None could see why not, and so Johnathan asked if Ellis or Bertie wished the same.

“I’d just as soon get this part over with, too,” replied Ellis, “and you’ll let us know how it turns out anyway, right?”

“Of course. And Bertie, I guess we have your answer already.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Uh, listen, Johnathan, I just want to say I really am grateful for your getting us out of that jam. I…I’m sorry I made it sound like you scared us on purpose.”

“Well, we all still have things to learn. As for me, I’ve gotten so used to being around those who have at least some familiarity with the Stone and what it can do, that I’d forgotten how alien and strange it would be to others.”

“I just thought of something,” said Ellis. “Just how far from home did we get? Our old home, that is.”

“Say no more.” Johnathan immediately “conferred” with the amulet, and the answer he got came as little surprise, but was nevertheless disappointing to some.

“Four miles?” Bertie shook his head. “No way! We weren’t going that slow! In five weeks’ time, we only got four miles from home?”

“You don’t give up, do you?” said Lucy with a laugh. “Johnathan, please get him out of here—fast!”

Johnathan couldn’t resist a chuckle himself. “I swear, you two go at it just like two of mine in their younger days. Some things never change.” He briefed Bertie and Ellis on what awaited them, there was a round of goodbyes, and the two brothers were on their way.

Once sure they’d made it safely, Johnathan and Patricia concentrated on their next subject. Karen quietly explained to Lucy how, after the amulet had pinpointed Marie’s location, Johnathan would will it to take them close by there—as opposed to right where she is now, so as not to frighten her by their sudden appearance—and again cautioned her on how disorienting it would likely be.

About half a minute later, a small dog came by to investigate a strange flash of light that he happened to catch sight of, coming from behind the rusted-out truck body next to the disused outbuilding. Immediately catching a very strong rodent-scent in the space between, he began digging and scratching frantically, determined not to let his quarry vanish on him this time.

* * *

The routine thus far was for the amulet to bring them to a location not only a short distance from the subject, but a safe one as well, away from humans or would-be predators. Even so, there was the added precaution of a Stone-generated force-shield to protect them, as extra insurance against unpleasant surprises. But the surprise awaiting them at this locale, while not unpleasant, was still highly unexpected.

Lucy gave a small yelp of surprise and gripped her mother’s arm tighter. “Whoa…that was weird…”

“Hey! Who turned out the lights?” asked Karen.

“I think you mean the daylight,” answered Melvin.

Sure enough, the only source of light was the full moon, now being partially eclipsed by a swiftly-moving cloudbank. It was windy and a bit chillier than they’d expected, here on the almost-bare rocky ground on which they stood, and as they adjusted to the reality of the setting, it soon dawned on them as to what it had to mean.

“If it’s the middle of the night here,” began Patricia as they huddled closer together, “then we’re on the other side of the world.”

“This is where Marie wound up? Are you sure the Stone’s not on the fritz, Johnathan?” Melvin looked all around at the surrounding rocky landscape. In the semidarkness, mountains and thick forestland could be seen.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything, but I’m sure this isn’t it.”

“Where are we exactly, Johnathan? Can you find out?” asked Lucy.

“Well, let’s see…” Johnathan “communed” with the Stone for a few seconds, then he announced: “Folks…welcome to South Korea.”

Everyone looked at each other, bemused. “Korea, eh?” said Melvin. “Well, I’ll be looking forward to hearing all about this one.”

“But she is truly here?” asked Patricia. Shortly, Johnathan was able to verify that as well, and so he led the way to a nearby pair of boulders. There was a narrow gap between them, and there was certainly evidence of mouse activity here, and a strong mouse-scent.

Lucy, eager to take an active role in this search, volunteered to go inside first, to at least check the place out. She ventured through the tiny opening and followed a twisting path, the scent which was noticeable at the entrance growing stronger all the while; there was definitely a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar about it.

Soon she sensed, in the pitch darkness, a spacious chamber before her, within which the sounds of slumbering mice could be heard. Quietly she called out: “Marie? Is that you?”

“Wha…who’s there?” came the semi-conscious reply.

Delighted at hearing the familiar voice, she responded, “It’s Lucy, Marie. Your baby sister. You’ve come a long ways, haven’t you?”

“L-Lucy? No, you can’t be…how…”

But within the next minute, the two had indeed confirmed each other’s identity; and then Lucy led a pleasantly surprised but bewildered Marie, as well as an equally confused mate and two sleepy-eyed children out to meet some other visitors, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Marie introduced everyone to her husband, Newell, and their children Tony and Kimball; then she invited everyone indoors where they could explain how they’d come to be here. Since Melvin was too big to follow them inside the conventional way, Johnathan gave a small demonstration of the amulet’s power so that he wouldn’t have to wait outside, and to better illustrate how they’d come here. He let Marie and her family know that Melvin would suddenly appear in the chamber with them, though the effect was still startling. Johnathan had the Stone provide illumination.

After giving them the gist of how they’d all come to be here together like this, Lucy asked impatiently, “So how’d you ever get to the other side of the world, Marie?”

“Well, Lucy, I guess you’d have to call that a long story.” Marie and Lucy spoke the last three words together as her little sister guessed the answer; she felt a bit foolish for blurting her question as she did.

“Well, we’ve listened to plenty of those lately,” said Johnathan, “and we still have plenty left, so I guess one more won’t hurt. But if you’d like to tell it to a larger audience, then by all means be our guest.”

“You mean…come along with you to this colony of yours, don’t you?”

Once more the offer was put forth directly, and once more there was the by-now expected indecision, the hesitancy to make such a big change immediately, in spite of the assurance that it wouldn’t have to be permanent, that they could at least give it a trial run. Soon all agreed to come. Newell was far less hesitant than Teelo, and the children were hugely curious, especially Kimball, who was thrilled at the prospect of meeting his grandfather and namesake. Marie, for her part, wasn’t especially averse to leaving this place, having spent a good portion of her life traveling since she and Louann had left Sampson, though she and Newell had been living here for over a year.

“I think I’d known, deep down, that the next really permanent home for me would be where others like me lived.” She reached out to squeeze hands with her mother and sisters.

Newell was confused and even a bit offended by this statement, as if she’d meant that she wanted to go without him and the children, and that she considered herself so much different than them; he’d long been aware that she was different in the way she learned things and viewed the world around them, and that she’d claimed to have seen more of the world than he knew existed. Marie and the others quickly stepped in to assure him that she merely meant that it was important for her to be among others like her, but that these new developments had not and would not lessen the importance of him or the children to her. It was taken pretty much in stride; Patricia and Karen and the “colonists” alike were accustomed to dealing with naturals—what some would patronizingly call “lower creatures”—in a genuinely non-patronizing manner, letting them know that they had intelligence too, but of a different kind, that concentrated on the more basic needs of life. Newell was soon won over, once he was sufficiently assured that he wouldn’t be the only natural mouse at this place, and that he was every bit as welcome.

He was a bit more reluctant than Marie to leave but agreed that he’d come if it would make her and the children happy. Again in short order, after necessary preparations, another group of new and hopefully permanent colony residents was sent on its way.

“Well,” began Johnathan, looking around at the other three mice and one rat in the chamber, “how many left does this make?”

“Let’s see,” answered Karen, “Bertie, Lucy, Ellis, and now Marie…uhm…four. Eight down, four to go.” She shook her head, laughing. “I think it’s time we took a breather.”

“Oh, I agree.” Patricia literally did so and shook her own head. “We’ve been going at such a whirlwind pace, it’s getting to be a bit much for my poor brain. Not just from seeing all my sons and daughters again, and meeting their mates and children, but…all this traveling around, seeing all these different places so quickly, in such a brief time…it’s all been going so fast.”

“We have accomplished a lot in only…what, about four hours’ time?”

“More like three and a half, Karen,” said Johnathan. They all agreed to rest here for about a half hour. None of them had eaten since they started; so as they snacked on some of the food they’d brought along, Johnathan and Melvin discussed some of the changes they’d all have to adjust to in the colony’s new location, not the least of which was making provisions for all these new arrivals—provided, of course, they’d all decide to stay on. They assured Patricia and her daughters, though, that they’d never have agreed to this undertaking if they didn’t think the colony’s resources could support a sudden influx of new residents. They also described more details about Lahaikshe, which the three ladies found very absorbing; especially Lucy, to whom all this was completely new.

Karen and Lucy stepped outside for a moment, still finding it hard to believe that Marie had wound up here, in this mountainous Korean wilderness, and looking forward to hearing the full story behind it all. They looked up to the full moon suddenly reemerging, and Karen thought about how she’d heard that moonlight often has a romantic effect on humans, and again looked forward to seeing Martin again.

They went back inside to find Johnathan and Patricia engaged in seeking out the next subject. Karen quietly explained to Lucy how they were going about this, then they waited with Melvin for the results. They’d already discussed who would be next: Desmond and Orland, Karen’s litter-mates who had left home together over a year ago, so she especially looked forward to the results.

Before long, however, it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right. They were both deep in concentration, but signs of anxiety seemed to show in their expressions. Abruptly, both opened their eyes at once.

Patricia spoke first: “What—what happened, Johnathan? We found Orland, but…why couldn’t we find Desmond?” She asked this as one who already knew the answer but feared hearing the truth of it.

“I’m afraid there’s…only one possible explanation, Patricia. I’m sorry, he…”

“No, there’s still some chance, isn’t there? That he’s still alive?”

Lucy jumped to her feet. “Johnathan, no! It’s not true, is it?”

“I’m afraid it is, Lucy, he’s…Desmond’s gone.”

They all comforted each other, trying their best to deal with this loss, which at this moment seemed so sudden, but which they knew may have occurred at any time within the past year since Desmond left home.

After about three minutes Patricia was the first to speak, haltingly at first. “I guess…I guess we did expect something like this. With all of them out on their own, unprotected…not all of them could have survived. Look at what happened to Louann, and…and Kimball, too.” Going unspoken was yesterday’s discovery of Vincent’s demise, uncovered in the same way. Karen and Lucy looked up from comforting each other, and both seemed to agree, though they remained silent.

Melvin then suggested, “Maybe, Patricia…if you’d like, we could stop this now, and then seek out the others another day…”

“No, that’s all right, Melvin, thank you. I want to keep going. Especially now, I need to know that Jessica, Norman and Orland are alive and waiting for us.”

“Well, we’ll start again when all of you are ready,” said Johnathan. “Oh, and Patricia, we can find out, like yesterday with Vincent, how Desmond…”

“No…no, thank you, Johnathan, I’d rather not know…at least not now.” Karen and Lucy again looked over, at first looking as if they would protest this; but they both nodded, realizing that her choice was best for the time being.

“We’ll have a proper memorial service for Desmond when we get back,” said Melvin, “just as we’ve already planned one for Vincent.” He sighed. “I only wish we could do more.”

“That’s quite all right, Melvin, dear,” assured Patricia. “I know there’s nothing any of us could have done, not knowing where Desmond, or any of them were…” She dried her remaining tears, and then looked to Johnathan, her look of resolve showing through again. “Let’s continue with Orland.”

“We’re ready too,” said Karen as she and Lucy joined them.

“Let’s…get this done.” Lucy sniffled and wiped away a tear. “We’re looking for Orland next, aren’t we? I wonder if…oh, never mind, I guess…it’ll come up.”

“Do you mean…since he and Desmond left home together, that Orland might know what happened?”

“It’s possible, Karen,” answered Patricia, “and I guess we’ll need to prepare ourselves, just in case. Well, I’m ready when you are, Johnathan.”

* * *

A flash of light again heralded the arrival of the search party to its latest location: alongside a creek, among a moderately-forested area, mainly oak, maple and beech; and once again in daylight.

Lucy had to sit down for a moment. “Whoo…it still feels so strange, traveling this way…but it’s kind of exciting.”

“I suppose so,” said Patricia, “though I’m not sure I’ll ever really get used to it.”

“To tell the truth, me neither,” added Johnathan. “I’ve never let myself become jaded to the Stone’s power, take it for granted, in all the years I’ve had it. I’m still in awe of what it…can do…” His voice trailed off as he began looking all around at their new surroundings.

“Is…something wrong, Johnathan?” asked Patricia.

“No, but…there’s something familiar about this place, but…not like where we found Louann. This really does look very familiar, as if I’d…” He snapped his fingers. “Of course!” He laughed. “Well, we thought Marie’s turning up in Korea was unexpected, but this is almost as much. We’re due south-southwest of Thorn Valley this time; and it’s familiar because we used to live here! My family and I spent the best years of our lives in this neighborhood, we loved it here. Our old home is just a short ways from here, under one of those big oaks. Wait till Maddie hears about this!” He began leading the party downstream.

“I’m not as familiar with it as you, Johnathan,” said Melvin, “but some of us in the Guard would sometimes swing this way, staying downwind and out of sight, to check up on you and your family during the summer.”

“And sometimes meeting me directly for brief updates. I remember.” Along the way, Johnathan and Melvin told the others about the nearby Fitzgibbons farm a short ways from here, where the Rats made their first colony beneath the old rosebush and the Brisbys made their winter home.

“But Desmond and Orland left home last year,” observed Karen. “How did Orland get this far? But then,” she quickly added, “how did Marie bring herself to Korea?”

Johnathan laughed. “There’ll be some great story-swapping the next few days, all right. Right now, let’s go find Orland. I get the feeling we won’t have to…”

“Hello! Do I know you folks?”

The four mice and one rat turned at the sound of the voice, a familiar one to the three females. “Orland!” cried Lucy and Karen at once, rushing to greet him, followed by Patricia. It was an especially emotional reunion for them, having just learned of Desmond’s fate.

With the expected barrage of questions came the suggestion that Orland lead them to his home where they could bring each other up to date more thoroughly and comfortably. Orland agreed, and so shortly they all came upon a den entrance located snugly beneath the roots of a giant oak.

“Well, I’ll be…I know this place!”

“Er…we know that, Johnathan,” said Melvin.

“No, I mean we used to live right here! This was our old summer home, before we moved to Thorn Valley over two years ago. Wow…and I thought I’d just swing by here briefly while we were in the neighborhood, and it turns out you’ve actually made it your home, Orland. As if your being in the area weren’t coincidence enough!”

The sense of coming back home continued for Johnathan as they drew nearer. Patricia was the first to point out the plastic window panes, guessing correctly that Johnathan had installed them himself. Orland led everyone inside the cozy but spacious den (though it was rather a tight fit for Melvin).

“Actually, I’ve only been here about a week since I arrived,” said Orland as they all sat. “Geez, listen to me babble, getting all redundant and stuff…”

“That’s all right, sweetheart,” said Patricia. “We’re excited to be here, too.”

“So you say you’re looking for the rest of the family with that jewel, huh? Wow, that’s…really strange. But great, really great. Say, you haven’t run across Desmond yet, have you?”

The others looked at each other; they’d hoped the subject wouldn’t come up quite this soon. “We…already looked for him,” said Johnathan.

“Oh, yeah? So you already sent him to this colony of yours, eh? You…you did, didn’t you? Is something wrong?”

Johnathan looked to Patricia, who nodded sadly; then he answered, “I’m afraid he’s…he’s gone. Desmond’s dead.”

“No…no, don’t tell me that! He…how can he…” Orland shook his head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, but it’s true. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know he won’t be joining us.”

Orland sank down onto a flat stone, head in hands, and his mother and sisters gathered around to offer him comfort. After he felt a bit more composed, he brought up another subject they’d hoped wouldn’t come up so soon: “Is there…any way we can find out what happened to him?”

None could see any use in holding any information back, so Johnathan answered, “The Stone can show us how it happened; but your mother and sisters agreed to let it go, at least for the time being.”

“We decided to wait at least until after we’d finished our search, Orland, especially after…your father is told about it,” said Patricia. “We hope you understand, and that you’ll agree with us. Please…”

Orland was ambivalent for a moment; then he said, “Well…all right, Mom. I guess that’s only fair. I’ll do it for you and Dad.” He shook his head and sighed. “It’s just that…it was such a short time ago, couldn’t have been more than a month since I last saw him.” As the others reacted with surprise at this, he went on: “We’d just hitched a ride with that deer, and he fell off after we’d gone a ways, and I couldn’t convince him to turn around…the deer, I mean. Start of rutting season, I guess, he was all hormone-happy…” He managed a small laugh. “I don’t know, I guess…if Desmond was the only one we lost, then that’s something.”

“Well, we all hope so,” said Patricia. “We still have Jessica and Norman to find.”

“I guess our next question, then, Orland,” said Johnathan, “would be about your joining us. If you want to, you’re more than welcome.”

“Well, Johnathan…I would, sure as anything; I know you really got my curiosity up, with your colony, and your all being together, how this all came about…”

“…But…?” ventured Lucy.

“Yeah, Luce…there’s a ‘but’ in this, all right. I said I’d only been here about a week; actually, I probably would have moved on sooner, but…something came up that… Well, someone, actually…”

Patricia raised an eyebrow and smiled. “It’s a girl, isn’t it?” Karen and Lucy looked at each other, smiling and nodding, looking ready to tease their brother.

Orland nodded. “Her name’s Lana, and…she’s the first one I’ve met who…I really feel I could spend…a lot more time with. The rest of her life, certainly, ’cause I’d probably outlive her…”

“So…what’s the problem?” asked Lucy. “You could bring her with us.”

“That’s right,” added Karen, “just like with Michelle and Myrna. And Marie and Louann…they brought their mates and kids with them.”

“And I’d sure like to meet them right away. But, the thing is with Lana…well, she’s not nearly as interested in me as I am in her, at least not right now. I’m so sure, since we met, that she’s it, the one, but she needs just a little more time. I’d been planning, after we did get together, to take her away with me to Thorn Valley, ’cause I’d heard stories of unusual rats living out that way. I guess I’d have to alter those plans a bit, eh? But as long as we’re together…that’s the main thing. And I just know it, I just know we can make this work, Lana and I.”

There was so much longing in his voice, made all the more heartfelt after learning of his brother’s demise, that Patricia couldn’t help embracing him again; and any thoughts Karen or Lucy—especially Lucy—may have had about teasing him fell by the wayside, as all three wished Orland the best of luck in his quest for love.

Johnathan explained that they could easily check back on him later, in as many days as he felt would be enough. Orland agreed to this, adding that he was a bit skeptical that it was as simple as all that, and that he would be looking forward to hearing everyone’s stories in full. Soon, it was decided that they’d check back in two weeks, upon when he hoped to have won Lana over, and convinced her to accompany him. He also told Patricia that he would very likely want to know, by that time, what had happened to Desmond. Patricia agreed, saying that even if she weren’t ready, she wouldn’t deny him his right to know. They also passed along some other details they felt they shouldn’t keep from him, since he wouldn’t be joining them right away, most notably Kimball’s current condition, about which they assured Orland that his father was well on the mend.

Just before bidding Orland good luck and farewell for now, they allowed him to observe how they’d seek out Jessica and Norman—the firstborn Davis children, but strangely, they now realized, the last to be “chased down.” Again Johnathan and Patricia concentrated; and soon images of some familiar figures again appeared on the amulet’s face. There was quite an amount of thankfulness over this, for their being alive and well as knowing that this was the last leg of the search. Patricia wasn’t surprised that both of them had stayed together all these years; the two siblings had always been close.

One more assurance to Orland that they’d see him again in two weeks, and then the four mice and one rat were gone with a flash. Orland shook his head at the sight, blinking as if to confirm its reality. Sure looks simple enough, he thought; then, deciding there was no time like the present, left to look for Lana.

* * *

The large party of tiny travelers paused and sat down next to a stump, underneath a large shelf fungus.

“Good choice,” said one of the younger ones. “It’s definitely gonna be pouring pretty soon.”

“And it’s high time you got ‘replenished,’ and good.” One of the two elders of the group reached inside his pack and drew out a small vial. “Mine’s still holding out pretty good…”

“Yeah, just my luck…”

“Stuart! Mind your uncle.”

“Aw, Mom, this stuff really stinks,” said Stuart as his uncle began sprinkling droplets from the vial onto him and rubbing the liquid into the fur of his shoulders and upper back.

“Maybe it does, but you wouldn’t want to do without it, would you?”

“Especially after a few days ago, with that snake?” reminded his uncle.

Stuart shuddered at the memory of the incident, so fresh in all their minds, when his cousin Lisa came within a hair’s breadth of becoming that black racer’s midafternoon snack. It was the first real test of his mother’s repellent solution against larger predators, after having proven effective against insects and other smaller crawling pests. “Okay, okay,” admitted Stuart, “but it still stinks to high heaven.”

He sulked in silence as his uncle continued applying it to him, and thought about the more recent incident when, during a rest break, he was approached by that pretty girl-mouse. He’d soon realized he wanted to get better acquainted with her, and the feeling seemed mutual at first; but after they’d talked only about a minute, she began backing away slowly, and soon left, saying she had other things to do. He knew she was likely reacting to the scent his mother and uncle insisted they all wear on their travels. It repelled pests and predators, all right, but it was having much the same effect on more benign creatures as well, including other mice. Since then, he’d questioned the need to wear the stuff constantly, even after what almost happened to Lisa. He had no regrets in making this trip, nor had any of them; but he would definitely be glad when they’d reached their destination.

“Give Mom a break, Stu.” It was his twin sister Shirley who broke his train of thought, as she sat rubbing their little sister Diane’s tired feet. “You know as soon as we’re settled she’s going to work on a scent that won’t smell as bad but will be just as effective.”

“I know, I know, sis. I just wish this wandering could be over and…”

“Shh!” Their uncle’s call to silence interrupted all conversation. All ten mice listened intently for any sound that could signal possible danger approaching. But all they could hear were snatches of conversation and other sounds that indicated nothing dangerous; other mice, evidently.

“Maybe one of us should check it out,” suggested their mother.

“I can do it, Mom,” whispered Stuart, getting to his feet.

“Are you sure, Stuart? I’m not sure if…”

“He’s old enough, Jess, and it should be safe enough.”

“Thanks, Uncle Norm. Besides, I just got replenished, I’m the ripest one here.” With that, Stuart climbed to the top of the shelf fungus and then to the top of the fallen log from which it was rooted, pausing to listen twice before reaching the top. There, he could tell there were several of them, definitely mice or mostly mice, but they weren’t all together; and now one was coming closer to the log, through a patch of wintergreen. He waited silently, more curious than cautious; something in the bits of talk he’d been able to make out seemed unusual.

Soon, the one approaching emerged into Stuart’s view, down on all fours, sniffing about constantly, as yet unaware of his presence. He smiled to himself; it was a girl-mouse, a bit more mature than himself. “Hello. I’m up here,” he said quietly.

The stranger’s head jerked upward. “Oh! Hello,” she said; then, almost instantly, she made a quick turn and dashed back the way she’d come.

Stuart gaped. He’d half-expected a reaction like this, but this quickly? Grumbling out loud, he turned to climb back down. He grumbled so loudly, he couldn’t hear the girl-mouse call out to her companions that she believed she’d found the ones they were looking for.

As Stuart rejoined his family, they could immediately see his swift return to a sulky mood. His mother asked what happened, and he described the incident, adding, “It was stinkbomb city all over again. One whiff, and she was out of there.”

“Oh, Stuart!” exclaimed his cousin Martha. “How do you know that’s why she left?”

“She’s got a point,” said her father. “If there are others with her, she might have been just—”

“There! That’s them, isn’t it, Mom?”

“Yes…yes, it certainly is, Lucy!”

They all looked up to see four more mice and one rat approach from around the log. For a moment, none of them knew what to make of this encounter; then, scent-recognition confirmed what the two older ones initially found hard to believe.

For a few more minutes, there was no need for detailed explanations, as Patricia became joyously reacquainted with her two oldest children, and met her oldest grandchildren; as Jessica and Norman met their sisters for what seemed to be the first time, since Lucy and Karen were so young—one and two years respectively—the last time they’d all seen each other; as the children met their grandmother and aunts; as Lucy introduced herself properly to Stuart, and apologized for running off as she did and giving him the wrong impression about why she did; as Johnathan and Melvin introduced themselves and briefly explained how they’d all come to be here together now.

Another matter, immediately noticeable by the newcomers but going unsaid, was now addressed by Patricia: “We, er, couldn’t help but notice…that’s a very, well…interesting scent you’re all wearing…”

“And some might say it stinks to high heaven,” said Jessica with a laugh. “It’s just a little something I whipped up that’s come in really handy.” She described how it protected them from predators, and Johnathan and Melvin were especially impressed by this. Mr. Ages had tried several times to develop such a repellent, but he never perfected it to the point at which these mice all claimed. They all sat down under and around the shelf fungus as Jessica and Norman described, as briefly as possible, how their lives had gone since they’d left home over three years before.

The pair had immediately begun wending their way south in the spring of that year. They concentrated heavily, especially in the early days, on using the rural roads that connected the small towns and villages to guide them along. It wasn’t long, however, before circumstances prompted them to slow down the pace of their travels, and even settle down for extended periods.

Three months out, both had met other mice, within two weeks of each other, with whom they quickly fell in love and “officially” became mates. Children naturally followed, and within a little over a year each pair had four offspring: Jessica and her husband Harley had Stuart and Shirley (first litter) and Clifford and Diane (second litter); and Norman and Vera had Martha and Carla, and Lisa and Todd. Even during their early childhood, there was some travel further south, but never too far or too fast. Inspired by the “learning excursions” their own parents had taken them on, Jessica and Norman did the same with their children during a lengthy stay in one town, smuggling themselves into the local library and elementary school. Harley and Vera were baffled by much of this behavior, but accepted it, just as they’d accepted that their mates were rather unusual, and seemed to know about a lot of things they didn’t understand. Jessica and Norman had already leveled with them on many things, including why they wanted to reach this place to the south where they hoped rats and possibly other mice like them lived. Even so, for a long while, there was relatively little travel involved, mostly because the children were still quite small.

But the situation changed radically almost a year ago, when—again within just days of each other—Harley and Vera both passed away from natural causes. This, too, was something that their mates had expected and had leveled with them and the children about, so they’d all known it would happen eventually; but even so, it was a terrible blow for them, and they all mourned for many days. Soon, though, it was time to move on, in life in general as well as physically. Just before Harley and Vera died, they’d urged their mates to let nothing bar the way of taking themselves and the children to this great destination to the south. The children were all for the idea, of course, and their surviving parents were sure they were just as ready for more extended travel; and so the following February saw the beginning of a journey which had continued virtually unbroken…until today.

During one of their extended “layovers,” Jessica, who had a longstanding interest in medicine and chemistry and had begun to pursue it in earnest, had come up with her repellent solution, which had already been tested successfully on relatively benign creatures, like a kitten, and was therefore hoped to be equally effective on more dangerous ones. This hope eventually was borne out just days ago, when this party of ten had been surprised by a black racer. It advanced so swiftly upon them they barely had time to run for cover in a crevice. Lisa stumbled short of it, though, and her family watched with horror as the enormous serpent prepared to engulf her. Lisa curled up in a ball, eyes closed, prepared for the worst…which never arrived. Horror turned to intense relief as the snake stopped short, smelling its intended prey with its tongue for a moment before backing off—almost, it seemed, in distaste—and slithering away. Since Jessica had begun her experiments, some in her extended family had expressed skepticism that such a solution could be developed; but if there were any doubts left, they was immediately banished following this incident. Lisa gave her aunt the longest hug of gratitude any of them had known; in the past, Jessica had developed herbal remedies for when any of them took ill, but this incident confirmed what a crowning achievement her repellent solution was.

It was a tale fascinating yet poignant; and Johnathan couldn’t help comparing it to his and Madeline’s early years together, when he couldn’t bring himself to tell her about their aging difference, since proven to be false. He made a mental note to have a detailed discussion with Norman and Jessica on that subject; he had to admire them for leveling with their spouses on their situation right away.

Patricia told them they’d already sought out the rest of the family, and that they were the last; and that all but Desmond were successfully found. There was a moment of silent reflection from all to his memory; and afterwards, there was no need to put the all-important question to them before Jessica and Norman answered it. They and the children were only too happy to come along to the colony, with no reluctance stemming from its new otherworldly status.

And so it was quite a sizable party—fourteen mice and one rat—who now prepared to make the last “dimension-hop” that concluded this mission on a more-than-satisfactory note.

“So,” said Johnathan to Patricia and Karen, “we’ve done it. Our mission’s accomplished, your family’s back together. How’s it feel?”

“Just wonderful, Johnathan. In spite of Desmond, of course, but…it’s all done, and in just a few hours yet. And we couldn’t have done it without you, or the Stone. I still don’t understand all about it, but it’s such a wonderful thing to have come into your hands.” She embraced him, followed by Karen. “Oh, Johnathan, my dear friend, I just don’t have the words in me to thank you enough. I wish there was a way we could properly repay you.”

“Patricia, believe me, this was just as much a pleasure for me, and that’s its own reward. Now what do you say we all get out of here?” Johnathan briefed the latest emigrants to the colony on the process that would take them there; then it was begun.

Chapter 2 - Orientation

In front of the Rat colony’s main entrance an orientation area had been set up. It had been proposed to have it inside, in the spacious main foyer, but ultimately it was decided that an outdoor location might be better for the new arrivals, as the colony’s interior might be overwhelming for them at first, at least for some.

The first difference that was obvious to everyone (with the exception of Marie’s family) upon arriving on Lahaikshe was that it was the middle of the night. The time difference between the two worlds, due to the 29-hour days here, was thoroughly explained, as was the anticipated period of adjustment for everyone’s biorhythms, which were still attuned to a 24-hour cycle. Throughout it all, the point was emphasized that none of them need stay here permanently; thus far, though, none had indicated any desire to go back.

Oil lamps posted on poles had been brought out to illuminate the area, with help from the full moon. The first order of business for all the new arrivals was a complete, head-to-toe scrubdown for possible external parasites, like lice or ticks, using a pleasant-smelling herbal-based solution specially developed for the purpose. Some found the idea a bit degrading at first, but all agreed to it after its importance was explained patiently. Some, like Teelo, still just barely tolerated it; though others, like most of the children, actually enjoyed it. Some got through it with good humor, laughing as they slopped it over each other. Michelle joked about “mouse dip” and submitting “sheepishly” to the procedure.

Afterwards, they all gathered to reacquaint themselves with each other and meet each other’s families. Several of the rats had volunteered to take the mice on tours of the colony and generally acquaint them with the area. Kimball had continued to be confined to the medical ward the whole time, so naturally these tours also included many happy reunions with more of his children and meeting “new” grandchildren, visits which certainly would do much to help him spring back from his relapse. Timothy, who had been keeping Kimball company most of the time, helped his parents in detailing to the newcomers what the world outside the colony was like.

So it was that, some five and a half hours after the mission’s commencement, Johnathan, Melvin, Patricia and Karen—since joined by Lucy—arrived, still during Lahaikshe’s night, with the latest and last group of new arrivals. All five of them—not just Lucy—dutifully submitted to “the dip” with Norman, Jessica and their children. Jessica was impressed that they’d developed such a solution, not unlike the one she’d developed as a repellent. Afterwards, Johnathan and Melvin left to give a detailed report of the mission before the council, and Patricia and Karen joined in getting everyone settled.

The family and anyone else present was informed of Desmond’s death, and it unavoidably cast something of a dark cloud; though all agreed that he would want them to go on and not spend a great deal of time in mourning. Of course Kimball had to be told as well; but ever since he’d learned that the Stone could be used to reunite the entire family, he’d been prepared for the possibility. Through his sorrow, it made him all the more thankful for being able to be with all twelve of his surviving children again. Plans were already being made for a proper memorial service for Desmond.

As the new arrivals got further acquainted with their new friends and neighbors, a fact surprising to some came to light: that the four oldest Davis children—Norman, Jessica, Louann and Marie—were now the oldest second-generationers in the colony, having been born before the most senior of their Rat counterparts, Melvin and George. On the basis of that status alone, it was half-seriously proposed that all four be put on the council. They all politely declined, feeling they needed to spend more time as a part of the community first before taking such a major step.

It wasn’t long before Karen realized that, in the past hour or so, she’d nearly forgotten a matter very close to her heart, and so she approached Madeline as she gave Jessica’s daughter Diane her scrubdown. “Madeline, is Martin…has he returned yet?”

“No, not yet, Karen,” replied Madeline with a smile, recognizing the tone of concern bordering on longing in her voice. “He told me before he left, though, that he was headed for…well, the edge, I guess we’d have to call it now.” She pointed toward the perimeter, away from the colony. “And that used to be east, and now it’s west.” She chuckled. “It’s so much for us to get used to.”

“Yes. Of course, I can only imagine, having just got here yesterday. You and Johnathan, all of you, know a lot about this world.” She looked up at the moon, so like the one they were more familiar with.

“Yes, we do. Johnathan grew to love this world during his first time here…his ‘exile,’ he still calls it. Much of it is beautiful, the people are nice, and it’s completely safe; it’s going to be great for all of us.”

“I’m looking forward to it, and…other things.” She felt herself blush, then she said: “I’m not going to try to go looking for him, or anything. Martin, I mean. I’ll wait for him to come back. Though I do wonder…he’s been gone quite a while. I know you say things are pretty safe here, but…”

“Don’t worry, Karen. Some of the Guard have seen him while making their regular rounds, and he’s perfectly all right. He does have to be careful, though, about not straying too far to the edge, because some of the soil might be loose; and of course it’s still night. But I know he’s taking care, and…he’s looking forward to seeing you again, too.”

Diane giggled, either in reaction to Madeline’s last statement or her hitting a ticklish spot, or perhaps both.

Karen took it in stride, stroking her niece’s head. “Thank you, Madeline, for telling me. I…guess I can keep busy in the meantime.”

They continued chatting, the subject turning to Teresa. Karen noted the irony of how Cynthia had embraced her as a sister upon her arrival, and a few hours later her real older sister had to leave with Eric; it was as if one had been traded for another. All hoped that Teresa and Eric’s absence would be temporary, no more than a few weeks; but there was so much that was changing around them, so much to adjust to; and Teresa herself would likely say that their leaving was the least of it.

Everyone kept busy, with most of the new arrivals—which totaled twenty-six—gathering to hear more stories of the Rats and the places they’d called home. Some of them, especially the younger children, were becoming bored with all this talk and wanted to see more of the colony, or else they were tired and cranky from all the excitement and extreme changes in their lives. Clearly, there would be varying degrees of culture shock in the new arrivals, but still none expressed any desire to return to their old lives.

At one point, almost all other activity ground to a halt when one of the children—Tess, Louann and Teelo’s daughter—came up missing, and some of the Guard and anyone else who was available were dispatched to find her. She was found inside the Rat colony, huddled in a dark out-of-the-way niche after, she said, having become lost in the maze of unfamiliar corridors and becoming overwhelmed by it all. She was intimidated by the Guard rat who found her, but when Cynthia Brisby happened by, Tess allowed her to approach and talk with her. Cynthia assured the girl that though it may be hard to get used to having all these rats around, they were all friends here; and everyone here, rat and mouse alike, helped each other. After a little playful teasing and tickling, Tess felt reassured and relaxed enough to be coaxed out and taken back to her parents. She apologized to them for letting her curiosity get the better of her and promised not to again go off by herself in unfamiliar territory.

Soon dawn broke, the sun rising over the peak on the colony side of this patch of “new” land. With the advancing daylight came the first clear view for the newcomers of the land as a whole, and the “island” effect, with the bare, arid-looking landscape that surrounded it. Most of the newcomers were taken around the perimeter for a better view, and they all were pleased with what they saw, and their curiosity about the rest of this world was heightened. When everyone was gathered again, Johnathan told more of his experiences with the Stone and his “exile.” Many of the Rats, meanwhile, were continuing work to return the colony to, as close as possible, the state it was in before the Hiding Plan was initiated. The overall mood in the community was much less of uncertainty over whether they’d chosen right by moving themselves to Lahaikshe and whether they’d make it here, and more of wanting to keep busy to make things work right. There was more of a celebratory mood as well, after all they’d been through since Kimball’s arrival, with the knowledge that their concerns over human intrusion were now a thing of the past.

A great concern was the organization of temporary quarters for the extended Davis clan until permanent ones could be set up. Johnathan was spearheading the effort, and he and the Rats’ chief engineer Arthur would, in ensuing days, work out further plans for permanent quarters, including the degree to which the Stone’s power would be employed in their construction.

Some of the newcomers, even after plenty of preparation, found the presence of the Rats to be a little unnerving, mostly due to there being so many of them, and all in this strange, civilized setting. But after several hours of being shown nothing but kindness and hospitality, all were won over. The children, especially, were quick to find many friends and playmates among both their rat counterparts and the mouse children; including Tess, whose earlier scare became all but forgotten.

Many friendships were being struck up among the adults and near-adults as well. Lucy had very quickly taken a shine to Timothy, and the feeling was immediately mutual. Her litter-mates Bertie and Ellis also took to him well, and he personally took all of them on the grand tour around the colony.

When the first batch of newcomers arrived, Cynthia was among those who’d helped conduct their orientation; and, recalling Kimball’s description days ago of Michael’s close physical resemblance to his father and finding herself anticipating meeting him in the flesh, she was pleased to find it was true, and was barely able to conceal her excitement at finding out that he was unattached; plus she was certain there was more than a spark of interest in him for her. She’d had other duties that kept her from getting further acquainted with him, but her fascination with him hadn’t waned—something she confided to her friends, who encouraged her to pursue him.

Upon learning that, just after sunup, he’d gone off by himself much in the same fashion as Martin, she actively sought him out. She caught up with him in the patch of woodland on the now-north side, just sitting lost in thought. At first he seemed to not welcome her company, though he did remember her name, to her barely-concealed delight. She told him that if he wanted to stay here, his problems and concerns were everyone’s, and no one had to carry a burden alone.

Michael was quickly convinced—much more easily than Martin had been with Karen the previous day—and so they talked for over an hour. He told Cynthia that he’d needed to sort out his feelings on recent developments, his attitudes and actions leading up to them, and where he’d go from here. He said that he’d felt alone much of the time since leaving home, even though Michelle and Myrna had accompanied him for most of the trip. But he admitted that he felt much as his father did when he’d first arrived: that the longer he was here, the more it felt as if he’d come home. It was a sentiment shared by all of his siblings as well, and not just because Thorn Valley had been their eventual goal. Michael told Cynthia that she was doing much to make him feel that way. In turn, she told him all about herself and her life, even describing in detail the so-fateful night of the house-moving back on the farm two and a half years ago. Both expressed how happy they were that their families had found each other; and though neither discussed it aloud, it was clear that the two had established a strong emotional bond and would be seeing a lot more of each other.

Some three hours after sunrise, the greater portion of the storytelling, for the newcomers’ benefit, was being finished, much of it still being conducted outside the Rat colony’s main entrance. Karen, as did many others, was astounded by many of the details, even though she’d heard some of them already. And the one from whom she’d heard them? Again she fought down the temptation to go and seek him out; she’d promised, after all, to await his return, and wouldn’t renege, not after all the talk about holding each other to promises. She wasn’t really worried, but…

“Say, Aunt Karen,” came a voice beside her, interrupting her thoughts, “who’s that over there? Have we met him yet?”

She turned to Stuart, then looked in the direction he indicated. As she recognized the approaching figure, she heard some nearby rats call out in welcome. Her heart leaping, she added her voice to theirs: “Marty!” It was Martin, just emerging into the clearing. As she ran delightedly toward him, he stopped, smiling broadly with arms wide to receive her; clearly, he’d missed her company as much as she did his.

As they met, he lifted her right off her feet…for all of two seconds, before he tilted over backwards, the two of them landing in a heap. As they sat themselves upright, several good-natured whistles and cheers greeted their ears. Their eyes met, and both began laughing hysterically.

After taking nearly a minute to recover, Martin managed to say, “That…didn’t quite come off right, did it?”

“How about…like this, then?” Karen moved toward him, and the two of them, still kneeling, locked in a tight embrace.

For another minute, they silently reveled in the scent and feel of each other, their hands stroking each other’s back. Martin whispered in her ear, “Oh, Karen, it’s so good to see you, to be with you again. It’s been so long…well, not that long, only a few hours, but…”

“But a lot can happen in a few hours, right?” Karen drew back to face him. “Like finding some more of my family…and doing a bit of thinking? Oh, and…I really missed you too.” She brushed a lock of hair back from his face, only to have it fall back again.

“I did have a lot to think about. About things I’d said and done, things others have said to me, and done for me; about how things are going to be for all of us, living here; and about you and me. And I reached some conclusions…” Martin paused, taking care to choose each word carefully. “And the most important one is that…nothing’s more important to me than the ones I love. My family, my friends…and you.” He breathed in deep. “I love you, Karen.”

“Oh, Marty!” Karen embraced him anew, almost tilting them both over again. “I love you.” She nuzzled his neck.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he said quietly. “It’s so easy to say the words, but…it’s like I couldn’t admit it, to you or myself before.” He drew back, gazing into her blue eyes. “It just hit me: no more misgivings, no sense that…it was wrong, somehow. I thought about what you said yesterday, that you and I belong together; but I didn’t have to think very hard. We really do; I’m sure of it now. I’ve made some quick decisions in my time, but…I don’t have any doubts about this one, no second thoughts.”

“Me neither. Even if there are some details for us to work out, I know I can easily spend…the rest of my life with you. Mates for life.”

“Mates for life…wow.” Martin paused. “It seems a little strange to think of it that way; not that I don’t want it. I guess it’s because it’s only been…what, a week since we met?”

Karen thought a moment, counting to herself. She laughed and shook her head. “Less than that. Five days. It does hardly seem possible that we’ve found ourselves like this, so soon, but…it all seems so right.”

“I know. And my folks knew each other for less than that before they were sure.”

“It sounds…almost like we’re taking this casually, isn’t it? Like it hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

“You’re right, I’m not sure it has either.” Martin laughed a bit nervously, then looked at her seriously. “Karen…considering, you know, how I treated you…are you absolutely sure? I mean…I couldn’t blame you at all if…you had second thoughts.”

“Marty, it’s like I told you before: I understand what made you that way. All you have to do is keep on having your deeds speak for you. You keep on treating me the way you want to be treated, and we’ll get along very well. And…if you still have any doubts…maybe this will help.”

Karen placed a hand on the back of Martin’s head and brought her lips to his. They closed their eyes, both sighing as they reveled in their first kiss. If Martin had anything further to add, it fell by the wayside. He’d never been kissed like this before, and he felt his whole body tingle with the newfound sensation, as did Karen.

After about a minute they broke it off, gazing upon each other. “You taste good,” said Martin, grinning.

Karen laughed quietly. “We learned it from watching humans, and it’s a bit different for us mice, with our front incisors. But from all we’d read about it, it’s very important, not to be taken lightly…the first kiss of love.”

“Yeah. And…how about the second?”

Martin initiated this one, after which she said, “That one was nice, too.”

He stroked Karen’s face with both hands. “Would you believe…my folks didn’t discover it until just a couple years ago. And after that, there was no stopping them. So…I guess…this makes it more official, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does. But, Marty…before we go any further, maybe we should meet some people first.” As she said this, the sound of sighs and cooing met their ears. They looked to see several rats and mice looking in their direction and then turning away as if embarrassed, though they also noticed that most in the crowd had hung back to allow them a degree of privacy. But the couple just laughed; it’s not as if they were trying to keep their mutual affection a secret. They took it as a cue, getting to their feet and walking hand-in-hand toward the clearing, where many came forward to greet them, including many mice as yet unfamiliar to Martin.

Seeing most or all of her siblings and their families in the crowd, Karen called out, “For those of you who don’t know him…this is Martin Brisby, Johnathan’s oldest son; and he’s the one whose actions, in part, led to all of you being here now.”

She introduced him to all the unfamiliar faces, and he showed genuine enthusiasm in meeting everyone and hearing the sometimes amazing stories her brothers and sisters had to tell, including the basics of how Marie and Newell had come to live in Korea, and Louann’s bittersweet story. Martin took it all in with keen interest, and expressed genuine sympathy for the loss of Desmond, and hope that Orland would be successful in his own pursuit of happiness and would join them soon.

When told that Orland was living in the old Brisby creekside home, and that the object of his affection was named Lana, Martin reached the same conclusion that Timothy and Cynthia had earlier: that she may very well be one of the children of their old neighbors Janice and Kory, since one of them was named Lana. Both Johnathan and Madeline admitted that some of those names had slipped their minds in the past two years. Of course, when they would visit Orland again, this would be proven or disproven, and they might possibly see some of their old neighbors again.

In short order, Martin and Karen made that all-important announcement to everyone. Congratulations abounded, but the greater amount of celebration, in honor of both their betrothal and the new residents, would come later. It was getting late in the day, at least in the “earth-day,” and it would still be a while before everyone’s systems were attuned to this world’s 29-hour cycle. Knowing of this from the outset, it had been advised for everyone to forego strict schedules of work or any other daytime activity, and to simply go home and get some sleep whenever one felt the need; and eventually new patterns of sleep and wakefulness should establish themselves in everyone. Accordingly, most were now feeling the need for a few more hours’ sleep, including Martin and Karen. Though they had many plans to make, they wanted to be well-rested before becoming too involved in anything.

Hours later, after nearly the entire colony had gotten a good night’s worth of sleep, it was again well after dark. A general meeting was held in the assembly hall; and Justin began it by saying that the council had made a conscious decision to forego any drawn-out speeches about starting over and new beginnings and new challenges, for there was little that needed be said on that subject that hadn’t been already. Instead, he said, all should concentrate on celebrating their freedom from humankind’s unwanted attentions, the bringing together of old friends and comrades; and one particularly happy event to come, centering around two of their citizens. What ensued would be the largest celebration of any kind since Johnathan’s return from his “exile” on this very world two years before.

Chapter 3 - The honeymoon retreat

“Martin Brisby…do you take Karen Davis to be your lawfully wedded wife; to love, honor, respect and cherish; to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad; as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

“And Karen Davis…do you take Martin Brisby to be your lawfully wedded husband; to love, honor, respect and cherish; to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad; as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

“Then…by the power vested in me by the good people of the Thorn…er, of this good community, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

The new couple embraced, then kissed tenderly. Justin crouched and embraced them both and wished them the best of good fortune, after which the community’s newest married couple walked arm-in-arm under the archway that had been hastily but expertly prepared for the occasion: fashioned from cornstalks and festooned with flowers, it symbolized the new couple’s passage into the new life they would embark upon together.

After they did so, they paused to embrace and kiss again, to applause and cheers from all assembled. Friends and family came forward, with more hugs and kisses following. Many felt like saying that they were rushing into this, but none said it aloud—least of all Martin’s parents, who would have felt like hypocrites if they had. When Martin and Karen had told everyone concerned that they wished to be married as soon as possible, there was some concern that it was too short-notice; but they made it clear they weren’t concerned with any elaborate ceremony that might take days of preparation, opting to keep things simple and no-frills. The main thing was that they make their love official, and Justin was only too willing to fulfill their need. It had been only the latest in a series of wedding ceremonies he’d performed these past two years; but this one, however simple, would be one of the more memorable because it was the first in the colony’s new environs, and one of the participants was a newcomer to the community and one whose existence was unknown a week previous. It brought an even greater sense of unity to the community: not only had all these previously “lost” brothers and sisters joined with the larger community, but one of them was now joined in matrimony to one of its more longtime residents.

The parents of both the bride and groom were the first to offer their congratulations, Kimball having been deemed well enough to attend the ceremony, provided he take things easy. Certainly it further boosted his morale, and in fact he was believed to have shed more tears of joy than the other parents.

After Martin’s one-time temporary den-mother Isabella congratulated the new couple, Martin confessed how, on his family’s first visit to Thorn Valley, he’d scoffed at how close she and Justin were becoming. “That was a different Martin Brisby,” he now told her matter-of-factly. “Even when my folks told me that when I fell in love, it would be the most important thing in my life, I still dismissed it. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it was true, and now I think that may have been part of why I wanted to make the trip out of the valley, whether I was really aware of it or not.”

“And just look what he found on that trip,” said Karen, kissing his cheek.

“Well, I’m really happy for you both,” said Isabella, hugging them both. “It’s too bad Teresa couldn’t have been here to see this.”

“I know,” said Martin with genuine affection and concern. “She wouldn’t have believed this possible a couple weeks ago. And, yeah, I know; she’s not the only one.” Any further comments on the matter were postponed by his youngest siblings and the Ages children offering their simultaneous congratulations, almost clambering over the pair, who took it all in stride. Karen clearly enjoyed being around mouse children this many years younger than her; and Martin realized that if she was looking forward to having children with him, he shared that desire at least as much. And when Lyndon again posed the question to him about whether he and Karen were in love—more kiddingly this time—Martin just grinned and said, “You’d better believe it, shortstuff,” and both of them bear-hugged him.

Martin’s best friend Lambert and his lady Bertha now approached the new couple, offering their best wishes and mentioning that, though no date had been set, they were making their own plans for marriage. As other rat couples congratulated them, Martin realized how much he liked the idea of joining the company of all these “old” married couples.

Watching the scene, Justin was again reminded of why he so enjoyed this particular duty, and of what a splendid idea it was to begin the tradition of a formal wedding ceremony—though, of course, the degree of formality was left to each couple. Fancy or not so, it had been a genuine pleasure for him, these past two years, to unite the thirty or so couples in matrimony. And though he wouldn’t dream of taking the credit, all those couples showed all the signs of being very happy together, their marriages stable.

As Isabella approached him with their children in tow, he fondly recalled the day, two years ago, when Johnathan Brisby had presided over their own wedding, after it had been put to a vote for the one who would do the honors, the other “candidate” being his wife Madeline. She’d lost by a very slim margin, but she always said she didn’t mind, since Johnathan had known Justin so much longer, and she might have been too nervous anyway. Since then, Johnathan hadn’t done the honors for anyone else, preferring to leave them to Justin, but allowed for any future possibilities.

As Justin embraced and kissed Isabella, his eldest daughter Greta announced, “This makes thirty-two, Daddy!” He laughed and stroked her head, not at all surprised that she’d kept track of the precise number better than he had.

* * *

Several festive hours passed as the celebration continued. It was not only in honor of the colony’s newest married couple but also of the newfound sense of freedom nearly everyone was feeling. Consumption of foodstuffs was not at the level of a feast, since they believed they had to reserve their present food supply as a precaution, at least for the time being, until they could be certain they’d be able to grow all or most of their usual crops here. A significant subject of discussion was why it was such a big concern that they be able to grow food crops brought with them from Earth, when there were many foods native to Lahaikshe that they can eat. They concluded that it was mainly due to the unfamiliarity most of the colonists, and the new residents especially, had of this world, and that having familiar foods was a good way to ease the transition. Upon their arrival on Lahaikshe two days ago, their Rusay friend, the sorcerer Gwinthrayle, had placed a spell of biological isolation over the land that was hoped to prevent the environment within the colony from interfering in adverse ways with the land without, and he had every reason to believe it would prove a success.

There were many games and matches played, much music-making and dancing, and more storytelling—some of it fictional, but much of it describing more of this world, for the benefit of the newcomers and those others inexperienced in the ways and characteristics of Lahaikshe and the Rusay. All of it strengthened the sense of community, and seemed to all but silence those younger rats who’d talked of striking out on their own. The effect was heightened by the knowledge that they could carry on this celebration in the open, in broad daylight, in contrast to all that had preceded it in recent days, marked by such strong feelings of anxiety and dread; and even more significantly, by the near-lack of dangers here on Lahaikshe—a state of being that, many felt, meant that the Rats and Mice Formerly of Thorn Valley could truly advance as a society.

For the newcomer mice, all were by now willing to stay on, though some, like Teelo, still felt some misgivings. But he was willing to concede to Louann and their children since they had very much fallen in love with the place. They and the other newcomer mice had especially taken well to Lake Nicodemus, and all of them had taken turns relaxing at the swimming cove. Though some of them could swim, many never had the opportunity to learn, and these were promptly signed up for swim instruction, with classes resuming almost immediately.

As the celebration wound down, there were many who wanted to continue with restoring the colony exterior and the fields to their pre-Hiding Plan state, and with other duties that they felt couldn’t be put off much longer. At one point, Johnathan and others stood at the beach watching a crew transporting the parts of the offshore diving dock in boats to be reassembled, when Martin approached him. Obviously it was a matter of a somewhat private nature, since Martin tried to steer him away from the others in a low-key fashion, as if he were embarrassed to discuss it in front of just anyone.

“Dad, I’d like to…you know, take Karen someplace where…well, someplace special, and…”

Johnathan smiled; he’d seen this coming, and so was quick to put Martin at ease. He hugged his son and said, “I understand perfectly, Martin. Is there a specific place you have in mind?” Martin replied affirmatively and described the place; and Johnathan, agreeing that it was an excellent choice, said, “So, I guess you want me to use the Stone to drop you off there, right?”

“Yeah. If you don’t mind.”

“I’d be happy to. You two just say when, and I’ll be ready.”

“Thanks, Dad.” They both turned, watching the rats unload the dock parts from the boats. “I…can’t believe I felt so embarrassed about asking. I mean, it’s not like it was a secret that Karen and I got married.”

“You’ll get over it. It’s still a lot to get used to, so suddenly. It’s a whole new life for you.”

“I know. Well, thanks again, Dad; I guess I’ll go get Karen and tell her the news.”

* * *

“This…is this it, Marty?”

“It sure is, Karen.”

The three mice looked all around at the site Martin had chosen for his and Karen’s “honeymoon retreat.” They stood at the bottom of a valley which was almost circular, with the ground sloping upward in every direction very evenly, almost symmetrically, giving one the impression of being in the center of everything. Were one to measure its precise dimensions, it would be found to be a nearly perfect half-sphere, though the floor where they stood was more flat, giving the valley a shape very much like a soup bowl, some 500 feet from lip to lip. A shallow spring-fed pond, part of a system that flowed back underground, lay in its center. Native plants of a seemingly-endless variety, all new to Karen’s eyes, grew in abundance, and she turned her head continuously, staring in open-mouthed wonder.

“Oh, Marty, it’s so beautiful, I love it! Thank you, Johnathan, for bringing us here.”

“It was my pleasure. Well…I guess I’ll leave you two kids on your own now. I’ll see you in about twelve hours, all right?”

“Twelve hours,” confirmed Martin. “Thanks again, Dad.” He and Karen both embraced him.

Johnathan just smiled and prepared to concentrate on the Stone; then he said, “You know…I really envy you two. I wish your mother and I had known about a place like this when…” He shook his head, laughing, recalling the “second honeymoon” he and Madeline had shared while staying at Gwinthrayle’s, following their reunion two years ago, a time that still held very fond memories for them. “Well, enjoy, you two. Be seeing you.” They all said goodbye, Johnathan concentrated, and with a flash he left the happy couple alone.

Karen continued looking all around the glade in wonder, and Martin conducted the guided tour, taking her all around it while explaining to her how he’d come to choose this place. On one of the Brisby family’s earlier trips to Lahaikshe, they’d come here on Gwinthrayle’s recommendation. It started as an early-evening picnic, but they ended up staying the night here. Small pockets of this world, Martin explained, are imbued with unusual properties, like the Cavern of Change that had first welcomed Johnathan, and later the party searching for him, which included his mother. This particular spot seemed to be a center for manifestations which, Gwinthrayle had confirmed, were entirely harmless and benign but wondrous to watch and experience, though only at night. Karen was curious about these manifestations, but he promised her that to describe them further now would spoil much of the surprise.

When it was about an hour before sunset, Martin suggested they make a food-gathering trip before it got dark.

He showed her the bavagdee tree, which had a trunk studded with tubercle-like growths arranged in a spiral pattern up its trunk. It had been said that the bavagdee had been designed specifically to frustrate any creature that desired its fruit; for though it was child’s play to scale its trunk, the fruit was difficult to reach from the trunk’s summit, from which radiated long, slippery limbs which were near-impossible for most any creature to secure a grip. The fruit itself has a tough, spiky shell, as hard as coconut, which surrounds the edible portion—the “heart”—which is widely considered to be a delicacy, and well worth the trouble in harvesting it. Martin and Karen tried procuring a sample for themselves, but succeeded only in some awkward slipping and sliding about, and even a couple of tumbles to the ground, though not to any injury. They took it all in stride, determined not to let anything dampen their spirits, and turned their attentions to more easily obtainable goods.

They weren’t terribly hungry right then but knew they would be later, and so they gathered enough to sustain them for twelve hours; and then some, having decided to take some back home with them. They gathered several of Martin’s favorites, including skuvurnees (which are melonlike, though much scaled down in size, like all plant and animal life here), jorthna berries (which resemble green grapes but taste like blueberries with spicy overtones), and th’vings (which are almost exactly like miniature bananas). They gathered these all in one area—their “pantry”—near where they planned to spend the night: the small meadow alongside the pond.

Occasionally they’d glance flying creatures circling overhead, initially startling Karen; but Martin explained that mhys’haspas are entirely harmless to them, and strict vegetarians. If sometimes they appeared to be following one around, it was only due to their natural curiosity. He related how a pair of them had shadowed his mother, Justin, Melvin and Willis when they first came here to search for Johnathan, and caused them some initial trepidation. On one occasion since then, he and his family had the opportunity to meet one up close, finding them to be as docile as they’d been told. Of course, since they were vegetarians, they now agreed, they would have to watch their food cache all the more closely.

They went for a swim in the pond before settling down to await nightfall, greatly curious to see what it would bring. Already, Karen said she could sense something unusual, in a way she couldn’t quite describe. They conversed quietly on many things, mainly on the life they hoped to build together; not just the two of them, but all the rats and mice that had chosen to make this world their home.

Mainly, though, they did talk of the two of them, still marveling at how they’d both become so sure of spending the rest of their days together after having gone through such a brief and admittedly stormy courtship. They agreed that the “stormy” aspect was something better left in the past, and that what truly mattered was the rightness they both felt about their future together. The subject of children inevitably came up, and both agreed, to each other’s surprise, that they were sure of being ready, and looking forward to, becoming parents. Karen told Martin that she was sure he’d make a good father after seeing how affectionate he was with his younger siblings; and Martin admitted that he wouldn’t have believed, at least in their first few days together, that Karen would have been the motherly type. Karen assured him that it was within her, and looked forward to proving it to him.

For a time they just sat together in the gathering twilight, silently admiring the view, arms around each other, sometimes pausing to kiss or gaze at each other. At length she said to herself, “Lahaikshe…Lahaikshe…” Martin looked at her questioningly but with amusement. “I just like saying the name,” Karen said. “It’s kind of a pretty name, for a beautiful world. Almost musical…”

As if in reply, they both heard a strange, upward-scaling whistling sound that seemed to originate from all around them, from every corner of the valley. They looked up. The evening twilight was very dark now, but through it, small multicolored lights could be seen dancing and hovering about like fireflies. Some of them were closer to the ground, while above them others seemed to be dancing among the emerging stars.

“It’s starting…isn’t it?” Karen whispered softly, as if afraid speaking louder would spoil the effect.

“It sure is,” Martin whispered back.

The strange music continued, accompanied by more of the lights, which continued to swirl about, eventually changing from small points of light to other shapes: some sprouting cometlike tails and traveling about randomly; some silently exploding in slow motion, sending branches radiating outward; all of them changing hue constantly, and often appearing to be “choreographed” to the musical sounds. The whole effect was like a silent fireworks display, breathtaking for both of them.

“Oh, Marty, it’s like…it’s all for us…”

“I know…I feel it, too.” They gave each other a squeeze before returning attentions to the aerial display.

There were mistlike patterns now, like cirrus clouds that swirled about, forming eddies and whirlpool patterns, as if on a liquid surface; sometimes coming lower, moving among the trees, over the pond’s surface, even around where the two mice sat. Some smaller points of light were still about, and some of them would dance and hover in front of them like fireflies.

The effect didn’t stop with the aerial display; all about them, the vegetation appeared to glow, in luminous shades of green and blue and yellow which also made constant, subtle shifts from one to another. Some of it, most noticeably the taller trees, actually appeared to change shape. Overhead, the stars in the sky seemed to get into the act as well, seeming to move about, forming new, often geometric patterns. The very air glowed with warm, inviting shades of orange and russet. The display changed and shifted constantly, never the same from moment to moment.

The pair continued to feel as if this were all for their own enjoyment; and whether it was or not, neither really cared, as they felt any inhibitions they yet had diminish more and more. Martin looked at Karen, the glowing effect highlighting her fur in orange, then yellow, then green.

“Oh, Marty, thank you so much for thinking of this place.” She embraced him, pressing her body very close to his. “I just don’t have the words, it’s so lovely.”

Martin felt her warm breath in his ear, quickening along with both their heartbeats. “I never thought…it would be anything quite like this,” he managed to say as he felt his own breathing grow quicker. “It was beautiful, but not quite like this last time.”

As the two gazed at each other, Karen couldn’t help wondering if there weren’t some subtext to his words, even as they both sensed that the magical qualities inherent in this place were responding to their love for each other, to the strong, passionate feelings that they could feel increasing. It all really did seem to be all for their enjoyment. Without another word they brought their lips together, sighing contentedly, caressing each other’s necks and backs.

They broke off their kiss after about half a minute, reluctant to draw their attention away from the “light show” for very long, but equally reluctant to interrupt what they’d started. They sank backward, resuming their kiss. They paused again to look upon each other, Martin’s face limned against the colorful display above them, Karen’s framed by the soft, mosslike greenery beneath. Each placed a hand on the other’s chest, marveling silently at how fast their hearts were beating. Then, they could see no reason to hold themselves back any longer, giving in completely to their mutual need. Time stood still as they gently, repeatedly whispered each other’s name, reveled in each other’s sweet caresses, responding to each one with another sigh of passion. Above and around them, the display continued, the trees and sky the only witnesses to this union, this joining in love.

The two lay together closely, silently afterward, gazing up at the night sky, with the aerial show a bit more subdued now, but no less beautiful to watch. Replete and blissful, neither wanted this night to end.

Finally Karen said quietly, “I guess…Marty, that if we still had any doubts about us, they’re gone. We were so beautiful together…” She rubbed his chest and nuzzled his neck.

“Yes,” Martin murmured. “I guess we were.”

There was something in his tone that Karen found a bit disquieting. Was it just understatement, or… “Marty, is anything wrong? Was it something I…”

“No! No, of course not,” he quietly but emphatically interjected. “It’s definitely not you. It’s just…” He paused, inhaling deeply. “Oh, I suppose I should have told you right away, after I returned. It was something I decided during my ‘walkabout,’ something that I don’t think I ever stopped thinking about completely.”

They both sat partially upright. “What was it?” asked Karen concernedly, placing her hand on his.

“I made a vow that…if anything like those two incidents happened again, when I almost abandoned you and your mom, and when I…struck out at you when you only wanted to help me… If anything at all like that ever happened again, I’d…I’d leave you, everyone and everything I know, banish myself; maybe for the rest of my life. I couldn’t trust myself around you or anyone ever again, if I treated you so bad again.”

“Oh, Marty…” Tears brimmed in Karen’s eyes as she buried her face in his chest-fur, at a complete loss in knowing what to say. Surely, if it ever did come to that point, heaven forbid, he wouldn’t have to take such an extreme measure. Yet, who else but he could make any decision on what to do in such an event? Certainly he had every right.

“Yet,” Martin continued, “ever since I made that vow, and you and I have been together almost every waking minute…I feel that the more I’m with you, the less chance that’ll ever happen.” He paused to caress her face. “God, you’re so beautiful, Karen, in every way…I couldn’t bear to think of hurting you, of anyone hurting you, in any way. There’s so much we can give to each other, so much we can share, so many good times…and looking at you, I can’t help but think that it’s only going to get better.”

“Oh, Marty, I’m so happy to hear you say that. I guess…as long as we keep our vows in mind, take them seriously…then we’ll be just fine.”

“That sounds like a plan to me.” They kissed gently, sighing and laughing, both feeling enormous relief over having reached some kind of resolution over the matter, and hoping it was the final one. These feelings quickly gave way to rising passions, and soon they were making love again.

Sleep overtook them afterward, though they didn’t stay asleep all of the time before morning broke. As the night wore on, the more dreamlike their whole experience seemed; and at one point during the night when they again resumed their lovemaking, neither was quite sure at the time if he or she were truly awake or still dreaming. For a long time to come, the young lovers would look upon this experience with great fondness, but also with doubt over the reality of some aspects of it. There’d be no doubt, though, of the promises made, the vows of devotion, the expressions—both physical and verbal—of their love for each other.

* * *

They awoke again just as dawn was breaking, and almost immediately viewed with wonder their surroundings; or more accurately, how they contrasted so radically with how they appeared last night. It heightened the sense of unreality of much of the experience. They’d eaten rather little of the food they gathered last night, and were now more than ready for a hearty breakfast. They had, after all, expended quite a bit of energy the night before, and had concentrated so heavily on making each other happy that they simply hadn’t allowed much time to replenish themselves. This task they now set to with gusto, though it looked as if a mhys’haspa had raided their “pantry” before they awoke—Martin could make out the faint scent—but there was still plenty left for them. Though they weren’t exactly sure how much of the allotted twelve hours was left to them before Johnathan would arrive to take them home, Martin, being more familiar with gauging the passage of Lahaikshean time, estimated that it wouldn’t be too much longer, perhaps around an hour.

They ate heartily, afterwards finding themselves making love once more. When they’d finished, lying with limbs still entwined, Karen began crying softly.

“Karen, what’s wrong?” Martin asked almost urgently.

She looked into his eyes, smiling radiantly through her tears. “Oh, my sweet, silly Martin Brisby…nothing’s wrong at all. I just…wish we didn’t have to leave so soon.”

Martin sighed, half in relief. “I know exactly what you mean. Right now I feel like we could stay right here forever, spend the rest of our lives just eating and sleeping and loving.” He nuzzled her ear.

“But…eventually it wouldn’t be just us, would it?”

“You’re right…and you’ve just found your family again. No…even if we were seriously contemplating that, there’s too much to draw us back.” They spent some minutes discussing what lay before them and the people they loved; and then they took another walk around the craterlike valley, again taking in the surrounding sights, sounds and smells as the sun began to peek over the rim, taking time for another refreshing dip in the pond. All the while they couldn’t stop marveling at how quickly they’d found themselves so much in love with each other, so committed to spending the rest of their lives together, so soon after they’d met. After all, Karen’s parents had known each other for quite some time while in captivity at the NIMH facility, before realizing, after the Escape, that they were in love. But, Martin reminded her, his parents had even more of a whirlwind courtship themselves.

Soon, and more than a little reluctantly, they prepared for Johnathan’s return, packing what few belongings they’d brought and the remaining food they’d gathered. When Martin asked Karen how she felt about returning here sometime, she replied that it would be nice, but not too soon or often; otherwise it might diminish the specialness of the place for them. They agreed, though, that the memories of this first time here would never die, even if they were to return next week.

Johnathan arrived presently, and true to Martin’s estimate, very close to twelve hours after dropping them off. “Well…I guess you young folks are ready to go anytime, eh?” He glanced upward and around at the valley rim. “Or maybe not; couldn’t blame you at all.”

“Oh, we’re ready, all right, Dad…but…I don’t know, I just don’t have the words, except maybe thanks again.” Karen echoed the sentiment in a less restrained fashion, accompanying her own thanks with a big hug for her new father-in-law.

“It was my pleasure,” replied Johnathan. “Now…when we get back, we’ve got a…well, I’ll let you see for yourselves.” Their curiosity piqued, the young lovers said they were ready right now; so all three mice linked arms, and soon were away.

Chapter 4 - A new colony

The three found themselves in a location by now familiar to all three of them: the courtyard of the Brisby home. After a couple of seconds to re-orient themselves, Johnathan invited his son and daughter-in-law inside. “Say, Dad, where is everybody?” asked Martin, noticing that no one else seemed to be around.

“You’ll see,” said Johnathan with just the right amount of “crypticness.” He steered them toward the left side of the room, past the table they sometimes used for informal dining.

“Step into my parlor…” said Karen, nudging Martin, unable to resist giggling at her own faux-sinister tone. Just then, she noticed something which, even after having lived here for two days, was unfamiliar to her. But Martin gave voice to it first.

“Hey, that door wasn’t there before. What’s this mean, Dad?” But he already had an inkling of to where it may lead.

“Well, let’s all find out, shall we?” Johnathan opened it, and Martin and Karen smiled at each other, willing to play along. Both noticed that beyond the door was pitch blackness, and took each other’s hand. Karen took Johnathan’s arm, then he closed the door quickly before his “guests” could discern any detail.

“What’s this all about, Johnathan? None of this was here before, was it?” Karen blinked, straining against the sudden darkness. She and Martin could tell this chamber was quite spacious by the echoes of their voices.

“Well, you’re right, Karen. In fact, it’s a…”

“Surprise!” The resounding cheer was accompanied by shutters and blinds being opened to reveal windows and skylights which allowed daylight to illuminate the chamber. Martin and Karen both jumped in surprise, catching and almost falling over each other; then, blinking, they gazed about the chamber. Here were Patricia, many of Karen’s siblings and nephews and nieces, Madeline, Martin’s brothers and sisters, the Ages family, and several rats; all gathered in this tall, spacious chamber in which two staircases lay on opposite sides, both leading up to an open landing. Everything was in solid stone, including the stairs, landing and railing. Martin was immediately reminded of the Rats’ main foyer, but on a smaller scale.

“This is it, isn’t it, Dad?” Martin looked at Johnathan, then noticed Arthur standing nearby, nodding knowingly. “You started work on the new quarters already, didn’t you?”

“That we did, son. And what you see before you is just the beginning.” He couldn’t quite suppress a yawn; he was visibly tired and clearly had more trouble sleeping overnight than did Martin and Karen, but nothing could wipe the smile of pride from his face as he surveyed his handiwork.

“At first we thought we’d be ready in another day or two,” said Arthur. “But your dad had a head full of ideas, and they were driving him insane.”

Madeline laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far, Arthur. But he was very eager to get started.”

So was Arthur, she explained to the couple, and so they were told how he and Johnathan put in some four hours on the project last night, beginning with the new chamber alongside the Brisby home, and the new side entrance that connected the two. Johnathan had used the Stone’s rock-shaping capability exclusively, with much input and advice from Arthur, in carving out this new chamber which would serve much the same purpose as the Rats’ main foyer, as Martin had suspected. For the time being this project was being conceived as largely a bedroom community, and whether it would stay that way depended on how large and fast it would grow. They had created new quarters on both levels, though some fixtures were yet to be installed, and they would next carve an outside entrance to this hall and extend the corridor further in both directions to serve projected new quarters, as well as incorporate the Ages home into the new community. Martin and Karen were invited to choose either of the newly-excavated quarters, upstairs or down, which Johnathan and Arthur expected to have finished later today.

Even with his own familiarity with the Stone’s capabilities, Martin was impressed at how much had changed in twelve hours, and how much the Stone had been employed. It was the first time it had been used to this extent, for this purpose; it had lent some stone-shaping to the Rat colony, though on a rather limited basis, and had been used in some minor remodeling of the Brisby home in the past.

The new couple was shown the preliminary plans that had been drawn up, showing how all the new arrivals would be accommodated. All the newcomer mice were enthusiastic about the project, and even those like Teelo who still retained some apprehension were more openly showing gratitude over all that had done for them. There had been some concern over whether bringing the natural mice to Lahaikshe would affect them adversely as Eric had been, which would force them to return to Earth in order to function normally. But so far, the theory seemed to be holding up: that their long associations with their “advanced” mates were enabling them to make the adjustment.

While awaiting the new quarters’ completion, the newcomers were already being put up in temporary living quarters, mostly with the Brisbys and Ageses and with the Rats. One group—Michelle and Myrna and their mates Brummie and Stollie—had been emboldened by the claims of how safe it was here and found a place to sleep that was in a “wilder” area along the shore of Lake Nicodemus. All four reported waking to a feeling of enormous security, as if any worries about their safety, even in these unfamiliar surroundings, were all but irrelevant. All the newcomer mice agreed, though, that when the new quarters were completed, they would all move into them just as the old Mouse residents lived separate from the Rats, something that was accepted and understood implicitly by all now as it had been then; and it was just as well understood that everyone, Rat and Mouse alike, would work and play together, utilize all their talents and resources for the betterment of the community as a whole.

During the ensuing day everyone kept busy not only with getting the newcomers settled and properly oriented to their new surroundings, but getting said surroundings back the way they were prior to the Hiding Plan. Restoration of the fields would be the highest priority; though, as noted, starvation would hardly be an issue here, since there were many native foods that were very palatable and nutritious for them and could be easily imported. Still, getting their own crops growing again was of great importance, and it would be made all the more easy by the longer growing seasons on Lahaikshe. All of the newcomer mice, save Kimball, put in some time helping in the fields.

The matter of administration was also being addressed, and it was one of the main topics at today’s council meeting. There had been a question of whether the Mice would have their own elected leader as the Rats had theirs; as it was, Johnathan had already come to be considered the nominal leader, a role he seemed to fall into naturally. But in the end, it was decided that it didn’t really matter, since there really wasn’t the degree of administration in the community as most humans would define it, with its heavy bureaucracy. As yet, there was little need for the great amount of laws and rules and regulations that dictate nearly every aspect of human society. Whether this situation would change in the future was an open question, of course.

One vital issue that was discussed, another about sustainability like the food supply, was in regard to their water supply. In Thorn Valley, they’d tapped the local natural springs to give them a steady supply of fresh running water inside the colony. Here, they were cut off from that supply and would need to seek a new source. They had storage tanks which they’d always striven to keep full in case of emergency situations, and those were being tapped now, but they wouldn’t last forever. In addition, Lake Nicodemus wouldn’t last forever in its present state and would need replenishment. Possible solutions to both problems were discussed, the best short-term one being to collect as much rainwater as possible, something they’d sometimes done at their old location. Later in the day, Johnathan paid a visit to Gwinthrayle via the Stone to get his input and advice. He returned with a possible solution which they would put into action soon, Gwinthrayle agreeing to help them with it upon his next visit to the colony three days hence.

Some of the newcomers very naturally fell into new occupations, most notably Jessica. She and Ages compared notes, and he was so impressed with her knowledge of herbal medicine, most of which she possessed on almost an instinctual level, that he was only too happy to take her on as a member of his medical staff almost on the spot. It actually brought out a mood of petulance and near-jealousy in Cynthia, who was afraid that Ages wouldn’t need her anymore; but he was quick to assure her that while it was true that learning these skills may have come more naturally to Jessica, Cynthia was no less valuable to him. She got over it remarkably quickly, her characteristic optimism winning out, with further encouragement from friends and family, and from finding how much she and Jessica genuinely liked each other. She even admitted that she might be able to learn from Jessica’s expertise as well as that of Ages.

Patricia was pleased to discover that artistic endeavors were fully in bloom here, and that she and Timothy Brisby—among others—shared a love for drawing. Her enthusiasm was further fueled when he told her that the Rusay had many artisans among them talented in drawing, painting and sculpture. She’d long wanted to take up painting, and Timothy told her that arrangements could be made to have the right materials brought here. Johnathan and Arthur suggested that when Kimball’s and her permanent home was built, it could incorporate a studio with lighting especially conducive for working on her crafts indoors. She and Kimball instantly approved the idea.

Late in the day, Johnathan and Arthur were proud to announce that the first two set of quarters in the newly-minted Mouse colony were ready for occupancy, and they gave Martin and Karen first pick of either one, with the option of waiting for a later apartment that would be further away from the Brisby family home; but they had no objection to living right next door to Martin’s parents. Both were just the right size for a growing family, and they chose the upstairs apartment.

One outside area that had been tended by the Rats almost from the beginning of the move to Thorn Valley, but had become somewhat neglected in recent months, was also being restored and, it was hoped, would finally be given its proper due. This was their memorial garden, which had been established to give proper honors to Nicodemus, Sullivan and—though a minority had been against it—Jenner. The bodies of all three of them were interred here, though in the beginning there had been some brief controversy over whether they should be buried back on the farm. In the mad rush to vacate the Rosebush, there had been many decisions that had to be made in great haste, but for this one the Rats had elected to bring the bodies to Thorn Valley, including Jenner’s. Oddly, it was his former mate Matilda who had argued the most strongly for bringing his body there, even after she and everyone else were made aware that he’d murdered Nicodemus, and the overall realization that his attempted grab for power would have doomed them all if fate hadn’t intervened. In the end, the principal reason for bringing the bodies with them was a practical one: they needed to avoid discovery by the NIMH scientists, and that had included all of them, living or dead.

And so, upon the Migration of the greater population to the valley, an area was quickly but appropriately chosen where the bodies were given a proper burial, with markers which at first were simple large stones with the names engraved upon them and later replaced with more elaborate ones. The new memorial garden was located alongside the Wall in a natural grotto which, back in Thorn Valley, lay south of the Brisby home. It was largely hidden from view from the outside, though not so much from human eyes, so it had been camouflaged as well. Now there were plans to expand it and install memorials for others they had lost: in this day’s council meeting, it had been unanimously agreed to honor all six of the mice now confirmed lost in the Airshaft Massacre, as well as family members lost from the Davis clan: Harley, Vera, and, most immediately, Desmond.

Accordingly, the garden was completely cleared of the debris used for camouflage; and as promised, there was a memorial service held for Desmond in the early evening, attended by his entire extended family and many guests, Mouse and Rat alike. It was a simple ceremony, with his parents and all his siblings telling many stories and anecdotes of the one they’d lovingly called their “little charmer.” At the conclusion, Justin announced that there were more extensive improvements planned for the garden, with Bryant heading up the project. Upon completion, he promised, it would truly be a thing of beauty, one that would more greatly befit those who were honored therein.

By nightfall some in the colony felt ready for sleep, their systems beginning to become better acclimated to this world’s daily cycle sooner than most, it seemed. Among them were Martin and Karen, who discussed this point, agreeing that it made them feel all the more like they were a part of this world, that they belonged here, with far less regret over leaving Earth. Karen was pleased to hear Martin admit this, given his state of mind two days ago: that this radical step, moving the colony to an entirely different reality, was partially his fault.

As they lay in each other’s arms in their comfortable new bed in their spacious new bedroom in their new home, they discussed Teresa and Eric, expressing concern for their safety back in Thorn Valley and for their hoped-for early return to the fold. They talked about Vincent for a time, wondering what revelations might be found among his notes and other possessions. But mostly, they discussed their own future together, which looked more and more hopeful.

For a time they lay awake, mostly silently, watching the moon- and starlight filtering into the room, still finding it a little hard to accept that this was all theirs and had been all done especially for them. One more brief discussion on their plans for the next day, and soon both were asleep.

* * *

The next two days saw life in the former Thorn Valley community gradually falling into a regular rhythm once again, as its residents became more and more acclimated to the new daily cycle. Many remarked on how surprisingly fast they were settling into it, considering what a drastic change it was. Everyone had agreed that, for the time being, there was to be no rigid work schedule—or at least less so than before—and that everyone should continue to get some sleep whenever they felt the need for it. Everyone was working hard to restore the exterior of the colony to its pre-crisis state, with plans to make this entire plot of land their own to an even greater degree, now that there was no longer any need to hide themselves or their outside activities from possible human observation. Along with all this hard work, paradoxically a greatly relaxed, let-your-hair-down atmosphere prevailed, to the point that some even proposed facetiously that they could abolish the Guard altogether. Justin, Brutus and other council and Guard members listened to these suggestions and would always reply that there were no such plans as yet or in the foreseeable future; for, as safe as this world was known to be for them, none could precisely predict what was in store.

In the Mouse community, the new apartment construction continued apace. The unit downstairs from Martin and Karen became occupied by Louann and her family; and Johnathan, finding the process easier and faster the more he employed the Stone for it, completed five more units in a near-marathon session. All of the married couples moved into them, though there was some temporary doubling up until the next set was completed. One of them became occupied by Patricia and Kimball (who was by now well enough to leave the ward) and their three youngest children. As planned, it included a studio for Patricia to work on her drawing and painting, though she knew there’d be plenty of occasions when she’d want to be working outside, armed with an easel and sketchpad. She’d already tried out some different locations for sketching landscapes, though she and her family were putting far more time into getting to know their new community.

The area of education for the new arrivals was also addressed, beginning with a series of tests and interviews conducted to determine everyone’s grade level. Unsurprisingly, the oldest Davis children scored the highest, with little or no need of further education, having soaked up so much on the “learning excursions” their parents brought them on. Norman and Jessica, especially, were given an open invitation by Simone to join her teaching staff anytime if they so wished. The younger ones were found to need some remedial education in certain areas but all were expected to be brought up to speed quickly, in a matter of months, if not weeks.

The Davis grandchildren, of course, were instantly enrolled at appropriate grade levels, and all twelve were thrilled with their classes and making new friends among the Rats. The reactions were mixed, though, for the four naturals among the newcomers: Teelo, Newell, Brummie and Stollie. Though all declared that they were comfortable being in the company of rats as well as mice, they—in particular Teelo and Brummie—could not be convinced, at least initially, to enroll at all, claiming to feel too out of place. There had been some discussion over whether they could be educated as effectively as their NIMH-advanced classmates, until they were reminded that Cyril Ages’s wife Alma, had already been and had done very well. It had been something of a mystery how, though the popular theory was that having been Ages’s mate and living in this environment had much, possibly everything to do with it, just as Madeline being Johnathan’s mate had made her more like him. So while the jury was still out on how the four new naturals would be affected, all would be taught just like the younger “newbies.” Newell, in fact, took to his new classes with the most enthusiasm alongside his sons Tony and Kimball—who was generally addressed as “Kim” or “Kimmy” to distinguish him from his grandfather.

It was the reluctance of the others to participate that was a catalyst for a suggestion that would, in time, lead to a very popular practice: holding some classes outdoors. One Rat youngster put forth the idea that maybe the natural mice would be more comfortable being taught outside than in the confines of Thorn Valley School (the name of which, it was unanimously agreed, would be retained in this new setting, to honor the place which had provided such security to them, even for such a relatively short period). It proved such a success that it wasn’t long before all four of them were, in short order, cajoled into enrolling by their families and new friends.

* * *

Martin Brisby awoke with a jolt, propelling himself to a sitting position in bed so quickly, Karen’s initial impression upon awakening herself was that she was under some kind of attack. But, quickly remembering where she was, she looked over to the other side of the bed to see her new mate sitting with head between his knees, still breathing hard. She came up beside him, arm around his waist. “I’m here, Marty,” she whispered, placing her other hand on his. “It’s all right, it was just a bad dream.”

“Yeah,” he replied breathily. “Just a dream.” He looked toward her, trying to smile; but even in the dark, Karen could tell that what he’d just experienced affected him more strongly than “just” a bad dream.

As he made to lie back again, Karen did with him, sliding herself closer to him, head against his shoulder, massaging his chest gently. She felt his heart rate slowly return to normal, his muscles grow less tense, and he even managed to smile a little. She continued to comfort him silently without pressuring him, waiting for him to begin talking, though she was curious about what he could have dreamt about that would have affected him so strongly. Considering all he’d been through, she wasn’t terribly surprised; yet, in the two days since they’d moved in together, they’d been very happy, and there’d been nothing to suggest such a thing was forthcoming.

About three minutes after he’d awoken, he began with no preamble, “I dreamed…I saw you moving across the field on the other side of the lake. I was calling you, but it was like you couldn’t hear me, at least…not until you got right up to the edge, where the land gives way. I shouted as I ran toward you, ‘Karen, be careful! You’re too close!’ and you turned toward me. The look on your face…oh, it’s like…you were afraid of me, like you needed to get away from me. ‘Karen, it’s me,’ I said, ‘don’t go, don’t leave me.’ But you turned away from me, and…you didn’t fall over the edge, you just vanished. I called your name again and came right up to the edge. I looked down, to where our land meets the plain below. I couldn’t see you, but then I looked ahead, over the plain, and I saw someone way in the distance, and I knew it had to be you. I shouted your name at the top of my lungs. ‘Come back, I didn’t mean it!’ I hollered, like I was sure that you…that it was something I did that caused you to leave. I moved forward like I didn’t even care about falling, but I did, sort of…and the next thing I knew I was down on the plain level, and I could still see you, but you looked even further away. All I could do was…shout your name over and over, but you…”

Martin choked back a sob, and Karen reached for a handkerchief from the nightstand and began drying his eyes. “I shouted and screamed, but…I knew you weren’t coming back, ever. And that’s when I woke up.” He looked upon her, expression almost pleading, as if desperate for reassurance.

“Well, it’s over now, Marty.” She paused to embrace him. “I’m here, and I’ll never leave you.” In spite of her words, she knew well what this dream might mean: that there were still issues to be worked through on the part of both of them.

“Yeah…that dream’s over, but…what about the next one?” Karen was unsure of how to answer, but then Martin said, sounding surprisingly decisive: “I know what I have to do.”

Karen found herself feeling almost alarmed for a moment, but then he went on to explain his meaning; after which she said, “I guess that would be best. If you really think you should, then…I’ll be right there with you.” Martin thanked her, and they kissed goodnight and quietly exchanged endearments before falling back into sleep.

* * *

The next morning, the mouse families met for breakfast at the dining hall, where one of the main topics of conversation for Rat and Mouse alike was how well everyone was adjusting to the new daily cycle. Surprisingly, most found themselves able to function quite well, though quite a few felt they’d need to grab a nap before the morning was over. There was already widespread talk that a regular midday siesta would become the norm here, at least for the time being.

At one point Martin and Karen quietly informed both sets of parents that they wished to meet with them privately after breakfast. And so, the six of them found a secluded spot by Lake Nicodemus, where the new couple told them of an incident that had occurred after they’d arrived in Thorn Valley and moved the colony to Lahaikshe. Martin almost hid his face as he told of how he’d physically lashed out at Karen when she’d only wanted to help him get through the inner turmoil that was threatening to tear him up inside. Though both of them maintained that it was purely accidental, he made no excuses for his actions, acknowledging that he shouldn’t have let his misguided sense of pride rule his actions and keep him from allowing her to get closer to him, and that he’d known deep down that he could not and should not keep it all to himself. He even disclosed how he’d made a vow of self-banishment in the event that anything like that ever happened again.

This news made his mother all but burst into tears. Martin embraced her, and reassured her and everyone else that though he took the vow seriously, he felt increasingly confident that such drastic action would never become necessary. Patricia told him that while she believed his contention that he would never let himself lose his head like that again, she and Kimball would always hold him to that promise. His parents could do naught but agree, but they understood why he might want his indiscretions kept secret while praising him for admitting them. He also felt strongly that not bringing this out sooner may have been part of why he’d experienced last night’s nightmare, and that talking all this out now may go a long way toward preventing future ones. That nightmare, they now agreed, was probably due to his still having a deep-seated fear that he might commit some action that would endanger the new life he hoped to build with Karen. By the time they’d concluded this discussion, Martin felt greatly relieved, reporting that he felt as if a great burden had been lifted, more certain than ever that bringing this out in the open was the right thing to do.

The meeting concluded with the agreement that what they’d discussed would go no further than the six of them, and that it would be solely at the discretion of Martin and Karen to share it with anyone else.

* * *

That night, after an evening spent socializing with most of the Davis family, the two lay in bed talking a bit longer than usual—though, for them, “usual” was only the three-day period since they were married. Finally, they were silent, just cuddling and kissing for a while in the dark, content for the time being to feel each other’s warmth and nearness.

At length Karen said, “Oh, this is so nice, just lying here like this.” She nuzzled Martin’s ear.

“It sure is. You know, Karen…sweetheart…” He paused, laughing quietly. “It still feels strange to talk like this, but at the same time completely right. I used to think it was funny when my parents would exchange little endearments like that, though I never actually made fun of them for it.”

“It was the same with me. So now…it’s our turn, right?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Martin brought his lips to hers, then added, “As I was saying…I got to thinking: I may not have had things as bad as some of us here; heck, my dad spent nearly a year away from us, not sure if he’d ever get back. I thought for a while that it couldn’t have been that bad for him; even he admitted that Gwinthrayle made him very comfortable at his home. But since then…and especially now, I really do understand him a whole lot better.”

“I’m glad. Marty…do you still think… Oh, I probably shouldn’t even bring it up…”

“If you mean my vow, that’s okay. I guess…at this point, I can’t really say if I’d go through with it…even if, heaven forbid, I treated you so badly again. But I do know one thing: every time I hear your voice, see your beautiful face, smell your scent; and especially when we make love…I’m going to forget another bad thing in my life.” He kissed her again, their mouths lingering together longer this time.

When they parted, Karen said, “So, Marty…my love…are you sleepy yet?” She “walked” her fingers up and down his torso.

He picked up on her playfully suggestive tone. “Oh…not especially.”

“And…is there anything else you want to forget?”

Martin said nothing more but just grinned, pulling her closer to him, kissing her again. Any further conversation was promptly put on hold until further notice, most likely until the morning light.

Chapter 5 - The visitors

In the wee hours of the morning, with the sun still below the horizon, they arrived.

The two strangers approached cautiously, with more awe than fear, more sense of wonder than trepidation. They had shared many an adventure together, these two, from their early childhood right up into young adulthood. And so when the rumors began circulating about a piece of land that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, right in the middle of the Great Red Plain, there wasn’t so much as a second of debate; this they had to see for themselves. They’d taken a haisk’ve-drawn carriage to within a few klivaphs of their goal, stabling it at the home of a couple who routinely provided this service for visitors to the area; after which they proceeded the rest of the way on foot. They’d hiked to the forest’s edge and camped there overnight, even then able to see their goal faintly in the moonlight, but deciding to wait until morning to go any further.

Now, as they drew near to less than a hundred thilm, they could see how, from this side, it appeared to be solid rock from the base up to the jagged peak which seemed to be its highest point. They both paused, scanning the top of the plateau, casting their gazes back and forth. From there they could see how it wasn’t solid rock all the way around; the rock dropped in height, giving way to soil and vegetation. They began walking clockwise around the perimeter, still keeping at what they felt to be a safe distance; though what possible danger there was, they hadn’t a clue.

Soon they could see that, overall, the plateau had a base of solid rock which gave way to a thick layer of soil further up. At the top, vegetation could be more clearly seen, including trees which, even at this distance, they could tell were larger and taller than the two had ever seen. It was all completely new; neither had ever seen or heard about anything remotely like this. Naturally they fell to speculating how it got here; obviously it didn’t drop out of the sky like a meteor. Nor could it have sprung up from the ground. One remarked to the other that it looked as if this entire piece of land had been picked up as if by a giant hand, and just placed here. Neither knew then how accurate this was, more than just whimsy.

“Do you suppose,” one said to the other, “it’s…not just land?”

“You mean…there could be someone living there…who came with it?”

“If all those plants came with it, I don’t see why not. There could be people there too.” He hesitated to say “people like us,” just because this piece of land was so out of place.

They continued scanning it back and forth, with no further signs of life yet visible. Then one of them said: “There’s someplace else it could have come from…”

“What’s that?”

“Well…how about from another world entirely?”

His more skeptical friend stared. “You can’t be serious, Pinphila.”

“Why not, Dornphinsal? You’ve heard all the stories from your parents, your grandparents. You know, the ones about visitors from other worlds.”

“Oh…right.” Dornphinsal looked a little embarrassed. “Those who are said to work magic, mysticism…they claim that such visitors are from…whole different realities.”

“That’s right. Different dimensions, I think that’s how they put it. They say there’s one of them that lives between here and Timphon; one of those wizards, I mean. And I’ve seen some of those visitors for myself.”


“That’s right. One day, last autumn, there was a group of them visiting the marketplace, just buying goods like anyone else.”

“Oh, okay, I think I heard about them. They were furry, with tails?”

“That was them. Some were our size, others were smaller. And there are others in the area that have met ones like them. They were always friendly, curious. There’s a family down the street from me who claims to have been good friends with some of them a couple years ago. Supposedly they all shared quite a big adventure together.” Pinphila looked up again at the plateau, suddenly finding new possibilities entering his mind.

Dornphinsal mulled over what they’d just discussed; then he and his friend looked at each other, each sensing the other’s next thought. If there was a way up there, so that they might see for themselves what lay beyond what little of the perimeter they could see now, should they not look for it? From this side it all looked the same, with no visible trail or some other means of entry.

Deciding to resume circling the perimeter, they set out again, continually glancing up for further signs of life, which weren’t long in coming. Before they got too far, they saw two figures on the rim; two who, even from this distance, could be heard exchanging words, or at least making vocalizations. It was obvious to Pinphila and Dornphinsal that they’d been spotted, and the two Rusay froze almost instinctively. There was nowhere to hide—not that they instantly believed these strangers to be hostile—but there was little else they could do except wait for the plateau creatures’ next move. Already they could tell that the strangers seemed to be about their size, though it was hard to tell from this distance, and that there was mutual curiosity, with neither entirely sure what to do next.

Agreeing that a friendly greeting couldn’t hurt, the two Rusay waved at the two strangers on the rim. The two strangers waved back. So far, so good, they thought. They approached slowly, cautiously over the next few minutes, ever closer to the base of the plateau. The two plateau creatures were soon joined by two others, who waved their own greeting. Further conversation ensued, obviously concerning their two visitors.

They were so close now that Pinphila was sure that these creatures were of the same race, or perhaps races, as the ones he’d seen at the marketplace. He said this to his friend, and their curiosity was heightened all the more.

“Hey, you know, Pinphila?” said Dornphinsal at length. “We still haven’t seen anything that looks like a way up or down. Maybe it’s because…they haven’t made one yet.”

“Oh, yeah…I guess that could mean that they really are new here. I wonder if…”

The discussion ceased, both of them gasping as they saw one of the creatures slip and start to tumble over the edge, apparently after standing on a spot where the soil gave way. The others could be heard to call after their hapless companion, who curled up in a ball, bringing all his limbs inward. There was enough of an outward incline to the lower part to enable him to roll with the fall until he finally reached the level of the plain before uncurling. The two Rusay, again reacting in a near-instinctive manner typical of their kind, ran toward the spot where the stranger fell to lend what assistance they could.

* * *

“They’re on their way, Phil.” Darwin lowered the walkie-talkie from his ear.

“Good. So…our first visitors, eh?” Philip looked down at the two curiosity-seekers, who could be seen gesturing and pointing, their voices audible from this distance.

“Yeah. Now if they could only find a way up.” Darwin said this half in jest, but he knew that this would be a matter that would have to be taken seriously in the days to come.

“Supposedly they’re working on it,” said Philip as he raised binoculars, aiming them at the Rusay pair. “I’ve heard that Johnathan’s planning on using the Stone to come up with something.”

As if on cue, a voice sounded from in back of the two brothers and Guard-rats: “And so it begins…” said Johnathan Brisby half-seriously. “They won’t be the first Rusay to have contact with any of us, but now…”

“Now,” finished Justin, “they’re visiting us on our home turf, but also on their world. We were already in the area, by the way.” All four drew closer to the edge, mindful of how fragile it could be, and regarded the two Rusay looking up at them. Johnathan and Justin waved a greeting, and their would-be visitors returned it.

“I guess we’d better hustle on those plans,” said Justin, “if we intend to have true diplomatic relations with them.”

“True,” agreed Johnathan. “It would be unseemly to shout at them, ‘Hey, welcome to our home! Just find your own way up.’”

“I heard Arthur has some ideas,” said Philip. “I just hope that—”

“Darwin, be careful! Get back!”

Justin’s warning came a second too late, as the soil beneath Darwin’s feet, which Justin noticed was starting to sag, suddenly crumbled away. The others, drawing up carefully to the edge, could only watch helplessly as Darwin, responding to his Guard training, drew his limbs in and curled up in a ball, tumbling the remaining seventy feet to the plain. Johnathan regretted leaving the amulet at home; he recalled the first time he’d used it, when he’d saved Derek from a possibly-fatal fall.

Upon coming to a stop, Darwin uncurled himself carefully, crying out from the sudden pain in his shoulder. I definitely wrenched something that time, he thought. Zora’s gonna love this. He raised the other arm, finding it less painful, and looked up, waving to those he’d left so unexpectedly, though he couldn’t see them right away. Then, hearing nearby footfalls, he remembered the two natives and looked to his right to see them making their way toward him. He knew he had nothing to fear from them, and in fact it looked as if they wanted to see what they could do to help.

Above, the others were at a loss for a moment; then Justin and Philip spoke quickly through their walkie-talkies, requesting anyone within range to have one person in particular come to the south perimeter and to bring one particular item with her. They knew Darwin was in no immediate danger, but were anxious to get help to him ASAP, not yet knowing the extent of his injuries.

A lightning-like flash heralded the arrival of the one they’d summoned. Madeline Brisby paused for a moment to take in her new surroundings as Johnathan approached her. He greeted her with a quick hug before taking the still-glowing Stone from her, putting it around his neck. “No time for explanations, love,” he said, and a second later he and it went over the edge, dropping the full two hundred feet to the plain below. Madeline couldn't help being startled, just a little, but it was only from the suddenness of it; she had no doubts about Johnathan’s safety. She had to suppress the urge to venture further to the edge to see what was going on, but followed the rats’ example, mindful of the possibility of more loose soil giving way.

On plain level, the two Rusay were at Darwin’s side, doing what they could to lend comfort. They looked up with apprehension at Johnathan’s sudden entrance, but it was more from the manner of his entrance than his appearance: it looked as if he was making a sheer drop, but he made a soft and safe landing before them. The Stone around his neck still glowed slightly, showing that it was at work, ensuring his safety; and now, its translating capability was eliminating the language barrier. And so, after introducing himself to the two Rusay, he quickly reassured them that they had nothing to fear from him or any of the denizens of this place.

“Right now,” he told them, “I need to bring our friend back ‘upstairs’ where we can treat him.” Darwin immediately informed him of the injury to his shoulder, which Johnathan could see wasn’t too serious. He asked Darwin if he could stand, and he did shakily, complaining of a few other scrapes and bruises but acknowledging how lucky he was to have escaped more serious injury.

The two Rusay took all of this in with great interest, appearing to accept the situation readily. When Johnathan invited them to come on up with him and Darwin, they at first looked disbelieving at each other, surprised that it could be this easy; then they accepted eagerly, with no apprehension at all, since it was what they’d come all this way for, after all. They introduced themselves as Pinphila and Dornphinsal; then Pinphila asked Johnathan if he or any of these people had been here before, citing the marketplace visit last autumn. He confirmed it, saying that he and his family and a few friends had indeed been there. Dornphinsal asked if he’d be taking them up the same way he’d come down. Johnathan answered affirmatively, actually not surprised at the near-casualness of the question, having considerable familiarity with the Rusay and their views on strangers, even those as different in appearance as the denizens of this land. With all four adequately prepared, he concentrated, the Stone glowed, and they all began to float upward. The two visitors gripped each other instinctively but quickly adjusted, enjoying the brief ride.

They soon alighted back “upstairs,” safely away from the edge, where Philip informed them that medical help was on the way. He sat down with Darwin, who was still a bit shaken from the ordeal. The two Rusay, in contrast, looked every which way, amazed at their new surroundings, unable to take in enough of the seemingly-outsized vegetation atop this patch of land and the creatures that inhabited it. Madeline, Philip and others in the steadily-growing group introduced themselves. Justin introduced himself as the leader of these people, and he and Johnathan explained how they had all come from far away and hoped they would be able to make their home here permanently, looking forward to being a true part of this world.

Pinphila and Dornphinsal, in turn, told more about themselves: how they’d been best friends since childhood, growing up in Timphon, the town nearest to the Great Red Plain; both still bachelors, not yet ready to settle down; and how, upon hearing stories of this strange new land, they’d decided almost on the spot to see it for themselves. Johnathan asked if they knew Sithpha and Dinilom, the Rusay couple with whom he, Madeline and Justin were acquainted two years ago. Pinphila replied that he knew them and in fact had consulted with them before he and Dornphinsal set out on this trip. He also further described how he’d seen a small group of their people at the Timphon street market last year, which Johnathan had already confirmed.

Presently Mr. Ages and Bernadette arrived to treat Darwin’s injuries, followed shortly by his wife Zora. They were all surprised to see the Rusay visitors, of course, but were more concerned with Darwin’s injuries. He was quick to assure Zora he wasn’t badly hurt and could walk back to the colony by himself, but all the same she insisted on helping Bernadette support him for the trip back.

Ages stayed behind to confer with Justin; actually, it sounded more like so much berating, since he’d solidly agreed with Arthur that they should not delay strengthening the raw edges of their land, since the effects of wind and rain, and more accidents like Darwin’s, could lead to erosion. “I may not have Arthur’s degree of engineering knowledge, but I don’t need it to recognize that. I don’t want to have to say we told you so, Justin, but we’ve just seen what could happen, and now did. And next time…”

“…it could be worse,” Justin finished, nodding, a little chastened. He looked over to Johnathan and Madeline, who were still chatting with their visitors. “All right, then…I think we all know what needs to be done, or at least a good idea. We want to make our new friends here welcome, but this is something that can’t be delayed either.”

And so, over the course of this day, these were both items high on their agenda, as Pinphila and Dornphinsal were treated as honored guests; and measures to, among other things, prevent future accidents such as Darwin’s were planned out. The two Rusay friends were given the grand tour, shown all around the colony and hearing many stories from their hosts, including the one giving the essential details of how they’d come to be here. Again they proved to be very accepting of all they were told, with little skepticism, very much in keeping with what Johnathan and Justin and others had learned about the Rusay in general: that, in spite of their physical resemblance to humans, they seemingly possessed little or none of humankind’s xenophobic tendencies. In turn, they related to their hosts much about their own daily lives. By day’s end, the two were highly impressed by their hosts' hospitality and generosity, so much so that they suggested that, after their visit, some of the “colonists” could come back with them and spend some time in their community. 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 further discussion, it was suggested that this could be the start of regular cultural exchanges between their peoples.

Arthur, meanwhile, spearheaded the plans for what had already been offered as the best solution to what many in the colony knew would become necessary but which now was taken much more seriously. A wall, in the simplest terms, modeled after the one that surrounded Thorn Valley, one that would provide greater security; not so much from hostile forces from without, since they had every reason to believe there were none such here; but for the sake of the physical integrity of this land.

Johnathan and Justin divided their time between playing host to the Rusay visitors and assisting Arthur in drawing up plans for the Wall Project. In an early-evening council meeting, it was given unanimous approval; and the council also gave the go-ahead for what was already being called Project Replenish—the matter of maintaining their water supply. Tomorrow when Gwinthrayle would make his already-scheduled visit, they would get his input on the latter. Both were deemed important enough to not delay much further, and Johnathan already anticipated quite a busy day ahead for himself and the Stone.

Chapter 6 - Reinforcement and replenishment

The trio looked up at the plateau before them, rising some seventy feet above the Great Red Plain upon which they stood. The plans had been their main topic of discussion since the previous evening, since Darwin’s accident. They’d known almost since the Great Migration that taking such a step would be necessary, given how they’d just plopped themselves right on top of the plain and were now raised so far above it. So it was now that Arthur unrolled the blueprint they’d brought along, and he and Johnathan and Justin went over the diagrams and notes one more time.

Once certain they were ready to carry this out, Johnathan concentrated on the amulet. As it began to glow, the three friends rose in the air until they were some fifty feet away from the side of the plateau and a hundred feet above the plain. He regarded the task before him, certain he was up to it. He’d used this capability of the Stone before, but not to such a great degree. But he and Justin remembered well how, two years before, Ghormfisk had made use of it after he’d stolen and taken control of the Stone. They’d seen for themselves the town he’d created, “grown” from the rock below; and, a year before, Johnathan himself had used it to reshape the cinderblock that his family later used for a winter home. So, they’d reasoned, after what they’d done with it only days ago—the greatest task it had ever performed—this shouldn’t present much difficulty. Obviously there was only one way to find out.

“All right,” he said decisively, “here goes everything.”

He concentrated anew, and the red glow spread outward from the Stone, appearing to settle around the base of the plateau. A low rumble could be heard, and seconds later, the bare rock of the plain appeared to bulge at the base, then fold and buckle. Before their eyes, a section of rock, some sixty feet wide, began to ooze upward like soft clay, like a lava flow defying gravity, up the side of the plateau—but cool, not red-hot. Johnathan had the Stone bring the trio upward, rising along with the top of the flow, until they could see the surface of the plateau and the many spectators who had gathered to watch the procedure from a safe distance.

Justin and Arthur looked at each other briefly, neither feeling the need to say it aloud: No matter how many times I see this, it’s still mind-boggling. Since moving to the Thorn Valley colony, Johnathan had used the Stone’s capability of “cold-shaping” inorganic material for some minor remodeling of his family’s home and for similar uses in the Rats’ community and the initial construction of the new Mouse community. But this, if carried out successfully, would surely prove to be the grandest use of the Stone yet, second only to the Great Migration. And it wouldn’t stop there: before the day was through, it would be used for one further task, one that may prove more daunting.

The section of rock continued to flow steadily upward, ascending further and further, exceeding ground level. When it attained a height of around thirty feet above ground level it stopped, and Johnathan willed it to level off and form a flat surface at the top, some twelve feet wide. As planned, he then brought the three of them down onto ground level, where the crowd of spectators waited. They looked up at Johnathan and the Stone’s handiwork, rising high above their heads, a familiar sight to all who had lived in Thorn Valley these two years past.

“This is only the beginning of it, people,” announced Justin to the crowd. “Before this day is through, we will once again have a wall around our home, like the high, steep walls that all but surrounded our old home on Earth. It was what we had become accustomed to, even regarded as symbolizing our place of sanctuary and safety. Of course, that eventually proved to be untrue; but now we’ll have this new one which will serve a more practical purpose: to reinforce the land, hold it together, prevent erosion at its raw edges. But even though it will conceal our land from the outside, it is not intended to hide us away; not that we’d be able to hide it, out in the open as we are. Rather, it will serve all the more to call attention to our presence; which is what we want, if we are truly to be a part of this world.” He turned to Johnathan. “So…shall we continue?”

“Anytime,” he replied. Johnathan had believed a brief rest in between sections might be necessary, but using the Stone in this fashion hadn’t tired him at all. So the three resumed operations, the Stone sending them floating off over the edge again, to oversee raising the next section. Johnathan had this one measure out to about a hundred feet wide, and it went as smoothly as before.

Section after section was raised in this way, “grown” from the rock of the plain below. When they got to the thick section of Thorn Valley mountainside, which housed the actual underground community and had been brought along with the adjacent land, Johnathan blended it with the native stone to make it appear a seamless whole. This section included a peak that rose some eighty feet above the adjacent land, and one hundred fifty feet above plain level; and they’d debated whether to redistribute it or leave it as is. The latter choice won out, at least for now. It was considered fitting to leave it in its original rough form, as a further reminder of their old, relatively brief life in Thorn Valley.

The end result made this piece of land resemble more than before a plateau or mesa, of uniform height except for a higher peak on one side; though, of course, this was only the first stage. The colony formerly of Thorn Valley was now completely surrounded by the “native” rock, but it wasn’t their intent to have it stay sealed off from the rest of Lahaikshe, as Justin had told the crowd of spectators.

So after a brief break, stage two began. Yesterday, Arthur had quickly drawn up plans for entryways that would provide easy access in and out of the colony; and so now, he directed Johnathan in bringing them to reality. Two entrances were created, one on the north side and one on the south, by shaping more of the stone into long covered ramps, as in a parking garage, that ran up the sides the entire two hundred feet, connecting the plain below to the colony’s ground level, enabling one to easily move between them—though, admittedly, it was quite a lengthy climb. At the top of each entrance a tall, majestic archway opened out onto the land within.

Further refinements to the new wall were created: trails were formed in several locations around its interior, providing easy access from the colony’s ground level to the top surface, where everyone making the climb would have an unobstructed, all-encompassing view of the surrounding lands. Slightly above ground level, “windows” were formed—actually hollows within the wall, spacious rooms which would serve as observation posts for those who might choose not to climb to the top of the wall. Either way, it would be an impressive view.

With this much done, Johnathan brought Justin, Arthur and himself down in front of the new south colony entrance, where cheers greeted their ears as they settled to the ground. “Everyone,” Justin began, “we are now more than ever a true part of this world, now that we can come and go more easily off this rock of ours.”

There was a mix of laughter and applause; and as Justin paused to allow it to die down, it occurred to him how undignified that sounded. Truly, they needed to come up with an actual name for this community, since they were no longer in Thorn Valley. How long, after all, could they continue to call it simply “the colony” or “this rock of ours”? It hadn’t been much of an issue before, largely because they were, essentially, alone in the world; but now that they were no longer hiding and intending to become a true part of this world, they couldn’t remain nameless.

He laid the thought aside and continued: “Now we can more easily receive and welcome visitors, and conduct trading of goods and the cultural exchanges which, as we’d discussed almost as soon as we’d settled here, are essential if we truly intend to make our homes here.”

He looked toward Pinphila and Dornphinsal at the forefront of the crowd, nodding. In recent discussion with them, they’d already become excited at the prospect of being unofficial ambassadors, maybe even shuttling future visitors to and from the colony. Their third Rusay visitor, Gwinthrayle, who had arrived just before they began the Wall Project, looked on with approval, impressed by their ingenious use of the Stone. Its second major use for the day, for which he was expected to play a part, may prove just as original.

A couple of “tour groups” were formed, one led by Justin and the other by Johnathan and Arthur, showing everyone who wished to come along the results of today’s efforts. There was unanimous approval of the ground-level observation posts which afforded a beautiful view of the surrounding plain, and of the top-level area—which some were already calling the “Rooftop”—from which the view was as spectacular as hoped. The Rooftop ran continuously around the entire circumference, around twelve feet wide at all points with an inner and outer guardrail for safety—since it was an almost-sheer drop on both sides—and going around the peak on the colony side. Already it was being envisioned as a popular spot for any number of future celebrations or special occasions, and already some were planning on meeting up here later for a walk around the entire perimeter. Others were picturing ways it could be fixed up, since at present the surface was only bare rock. Space could be reserved for garden areas, it was already suggested, with soil and vegetation brought up. Further below, the new north and south entrances with their accompanying ramps were given a thorough evaluation as well. Suggestions for improvement for them were being put out as well, including ones from the Rusay visitors.

After everyone returned “upstairs,” Johnathan, Arthur and Gwinthrayle covered the main points of the next major task of the day. This task, which they expected to be at least mostly completed today, had already been discussed just after Gwinthrayle’s arrival, so most of the details were already down firm even as they began work on the Wall Project. It was indeed proving to be a busy day, but neither task could be delayed much longer; and Johnathan was actually looking forward to seeing this through to its conclusion.

Johnathan had been Gwinthrayle’s houseguest for the better part of a year—his “exile” period, he still called it—before his wife and friends found him via use of the Stone and brought him home. Gwinthrayle was of much more advanced age than anyone in the colony—the Rusay lifespan being comparable to that of humans—but he still possessed plenty of youthful spring and vitality. This wasn’t the first visit to the colony by Johnathan’s sorcerer friend—in fact it was his second, he having dropped by on the day of the colony’s arrival. Arthur had only known him since that first visit, but both were now finding that their respective talents of engineering and sorcery were surprisingly proving to be complimentary for the task ahead.

In this morning’s planning, it had become clear how the Stone could be employed for this task—dubbed Project Replenish—in much the same manner in which the new Wall was just created. It was necessitated by another problem that stemmed directly from the fact that this was a piece of land not native to Lahaikshe. But if they wanted their water supply to be maintained properly, steps would need to be taken, and soon, to keep it in the state they’d all grown accustomed to. As planned, this proposed method would also keep Lake Nicodemus in the state they’d all come to love. This plan was conditional upon one particular factor yet to be confirmed. Gwinthrayle had the means at hand, which in fact was a method far less mystical or arcane than many he’d been known to utilize.

They agreed to meet at the north end of the lake after lunch to put Project Replenish into action. They invited Gwinthrayle along to the dining hall, and he looked forward to his first experience with Earth food.

* * *

Arthur and Johnathan looked on curiously as their Rusay friend held the divining rods in his hands. It was a method which, Gwinthrayle had said, was routinely practiced when there was a need to locate a supply of groundwater, and that it didn’t even require one of his talents to pull it off. He’d told them that he already had good reason to believe that there could be a sizable aquifer in this area, lying far beneath their feet; and as the tips of both rods seemed to point toward each other, seemingly of their own accord, he declared that he was right.

“Impressive,” said Johnathan, rubbing his whiskers. “Humans use the same method, but they’ve never been able to definitively state how it works.”

“And yet, work it does,” added Arthur. “So, Gwinthrayle…a couple more locations, just to get an idea of how large a body we’re sitting on here…”

Gwinthrayle nodded. “As we agreed.” With that, Johnathan had the Stone carry them from this spot on the plain at the colony’s perimeter to one about one-third of the way around. The procedure was repeated and it was again successful. Another one-third of the way around, with positive results again; and then the trio returned upstairs, to Lake Nicodemus’s south end, the site designated as the one where they would put Project Replenish into action. With this confirmation that there was a sizable aquifer located far underground, they continued discussing what further steps would need to be immediately taken.

Brutus soon met them there with a small Guard contingent, and they began spreading the word that a secure area was being set up here just along the shore. Justin and most of the council, and many other spectators, quickly converged on the area. Outside the council, only a few yet knew the precise details of what this was about, though all were aware that it concerned “saving” the lake and their supply of running water within the community. Nearby, instructors and students alike from swim class joined the crowd; though class wasn’t officially suspended, instructors were warned of possible disturbances on the lake’s surface before the procedure was completed.

Without further ceremony, Johnathan concentrated on the Stone, the familiar red glow enveloped him and spread outward; and as those closest to “ground zero” looked on amazed, the earth literally opened up beneath him. He appeared to drop down into the pit, about two feet in diameter, that he’d created. Those the most familiar with the Stone’s capabilities were already aware of many details of the procedure, and had made themselves comfortable, anticipating the show to come. Arthur, Gwinthrayle and others circulated among the spectators, explaining the procedure to those less familiar.

As the minutes dragged on, many began to wonder how much longer it would take; though none, including Johnathan, could have given even a rough estimate. All of the Brisby family but Teresa was there; and Madeline, who in past years might have been the most worried, ably projected her own confidence in Johnathan’s ability to carry this procedure out safely, even as she was acutely aware that he’d never done anything quite like this before. Carrying out the Wall Project this morning was arguably less critical, since all operations were aboveground; but this was deep beneath the ground, with no illumination except that which the Stone provided, and surrounded by tons of rock and earth. She caught herself; she’d promised herself she wouldn’t dwell on the specifics.

“Is there anything that stone can’t do?” This was an oft-stated query by nearly everyone witnessing its power for the first time, and it had become something of a cliché; but it was getting a lot of mileage this day, especially among the newest mouse residents. Timothy began regaling his new friends Lucy, Ellis and Bertie with one past experience in which the Stone was heavily involved, earning him a captive audience. Some spectators strained for a better look at the site, and many boosted their children to their shoulders. The “first couple,” Justin and Isabella, accompanied by their own children, moved among the crowd, concentrating largely on the Davis clan, who continued to be impressed with how friendly and approachable their leader was to everyone.

As Timothy’s tale continued, one among his audience was visibly distracted, glancing back and forth between him and the area where Johnathan had sent himself plunging into the earth. Granted, many others were doing the same; but Bertie, though he was genuinely interested in Tim’s story, was starting to get ideas of his own.

Lucy was the first to pick up on this, noticing his all-too-familiar expression. “Whatever you’re planning, Bertie, you might as well spill it now.”

“What? I was just wondering when Johnathan was gonna come back up.”

“Just like the rest of us, right?” Lucy replied skeptically. “Sure, whatever.”

“What could he do?” asked Timothy reasonably. “Especially with all the guards around?”

“Maybe nothing,” Lucy admitted, “but if you knew him like we do, you’d know when he’s sitting on something.” Ellis murmured his agreement.

“Well, I’m just sitting on grass right now,” said Bertie. “How about you?”

Lucy just made a dismissive sound as Timothy resumed his story. She didn’t want to admit outright that she might have misjudged her brother’s intentions, or that he may not have any.

As more minutes ticked by, Timothy brought his story to a conclusion, further conversation ensued, and still there was no discernible change to the site surrounding the pit. Bertie showed no obvious signs that he may be plotting anything, at least to Lucy’s point of view…until suddenly, without warning, he shot to his feet and took off on all fours toward the perimeter of the secure area, in between two of the Guard whose backs were turned just then.

Bertie had dashed no further than a foot within the perimeter when, before he knew what was happening, someone had tackled him, landing right on top of him and stopping him instantly, pinning him to the ground without injuring him. It was Alicia, one of the Guard Rats.

“Hey, c’mon, let me up! I was just kidding around! I would’a turned around!”

“Maybe so, but apparently some of us still need to learn that when a secure area is set up, no one gets through.” Alicia stood, gripping Bertie’s shoulder. “And we mean no one. Now will you come along quietly or should I carry you?”

Bertie sighed, looking sheepishly at her fellow guard Jerome, who was ready to take action in case he made another try. He’d seriously underestimated how fast these rats could be. Knowing there was no point in pursuing the matter, he assured the guards he wouldn’t try any “funny stuff” again. He walked back to his sibs and friends, who looked at him in disbelief, some shaking heads. He noticed, with some dismay, his parents approaching, though he’d known full well they might have witnessed the incident.

Clearly, though, neither wished to make a scene. Kimball just asked quietly what he was trying to do, and a chastened Bertie just said he wanted a closer look at the hole where Johnathan had gone under, and couldn’t see what the big deal was, especially since it had been nearly twenty minutes and nothing seemed to be happening yet. Madeline approached them, and she quietly reminded Bertie that, though use of the Stone’s power meant no one would be injured, due to its fail-safe characteristic, it was still best to keep a safe distance away; especially since it is a deep hole, and he could have simply fallen in; and he might not have been able to fend off really serious injury as Darwin did when he had a similar mishap yesterday. Bertie held great respect for her and Johnathan as the unofficial heads of the ever-growing Mouse community, as much as all the newer mouse residents; and so he apologized to Madeline and everyone else present, promising he’d just sit quietly for the rest of the procedure.

It was only four minutes later that the rumbling started: quiet at first, but enough to halt all conversation and rivet everyone’s eyes on the deep hole inside the safety perimeter. It grew steadily louder, accompanied by enough vibration to make those standing brace themselves. The guards again cautioned everyone to keep back, though they knew not precisely what would happen next. Many got a sense of something—not just Johnathan—ready to suddenly burst forth to the surface. Some thought it might be water, until they were reminded that it wasn’t simply a matter of digging a hole in the ground; and if water were to gush forth from the hole as it is now, it would run all over the place. But only about a minute into the rumbling, any further discussion became moot.

Johnathan Brisby rose from the pit, floating up and onto solid ground, surrounded by the red glow from the Stone. “Make sure everyone keeps back,” he shouted, perhaps unnecessarily, to the guards. He himself fell back a ways; the glow continued issuing from the amulet, pouring into—or out of—the pit; and seconds later, everyone was witness to a sight that was actually familiar to those who had witnessed the construction of the new colony wall this morning, or the ongoing work on the new Mouse quarters.

What looked to some to resemble soft clay began pouring upward from the pit, flowing toward the lake’s edge, an astounding, even mind-boggling sight to many, especially the newest residents. The flow made its way to the water, and some expected a rush of steam in reaction; but the rock-shaping capability of the Stone kept it cool to the touch. Many had to be reminded that it was actually stone they were watching here. It flowed a short ways into the lake, and then stopped. Johnathan came closer to the new structure, continuing to alter and refine its shape until its ultimate purpose became more obvious to the eye. It now resembled the opening of a concrete fountain, about two feet high, with a chute with curved sides leading down into the lake. He told the guards it was safe to approach more closely, adding that the job wasn’t finished yet.

Others approached, including Justin, Arthur, Gwinthrayle, Madeline, all looking on with approval at the results so far. Johnathan embraced and kissed his wife, who had maintained a cool, unruffled appearance but couldn’t conceal her relief now.

“I know you were well protected, darling, but you were down there an awfully long time.”

“And you’ve never done an underground operation to this extent before,” added Justin. “Glad to see you made it back in one piece, old friend.”

“Well, it was touch-and-go a couple of times. I had to concentrate on keeping a protective shield and a bubble of air around me, and direct all the reshaping. But, lest we forget…” Johnathan turned to the new stone construct. “We still need to make sure this baby is good to go. So, some more finishing touches…” He climbed to its top and willed the Stone in some further reshaping, creating a cupola above the opening and narrowing the aperture where the water would come out. This was for safety purposes, he explained, to make it more difficult for someone to accidentally fall in. He then climbed up the structure, perching on the side of the chute and placing one ear to the aperture, listening.

“Is it on its way, Johnathan?” asked Arthur.

He smiled, nodding. “Definitely.” The distinctive sonic shift, indicating water swiftly rising up the narrow channel, was a welcome sound to his ears.

“If it is, dear,” said Madeline, “then perhaps you should—”

In the following second, her concern proved to be well founded: mainly, that her husband was lingering just a bit too long. The initial burst of water spewed so swiftly from the opening that it knocked Johnathan off-balance, sending him sliding down the chute and into Lake Nicodemus. Those nearby were initially startled, but many, even Madeline, couldn’t help but find it humorous, unable to completely resist laughing. Sure enough, in a few more seconds, Johnathan surfaced and, still bearing the Stone, climbed onto the bank, a little sheepish but laughing himself as good-natured applause and whistles met his ears—though most of it was for the obvious success of the project. Ever the good sport, he gave a bow to the crowd as Madeline, still giggling, approached with a towel.

“As usual, Maddie, you think of everything.” Johnathan tilted his head, trying to drain a stubborn bit of water from his left ear as he accepted the towel. As he dried himself, the group looked over the finished product and agreed on one more adjustment; and so Johnathan had the Stone narrow the aperture a bit more to decrease the flow. Should any further adjustment be deemed necessary, they agreed, it could be easily done. Justin announced it was safe for everyone to approach and examine the Stone’s handiwork up close—though Johnathan was quick to credit Arthur and Gwinthrayle with the lion’s share of its architecture and design.

The three described for everyone the basics of what had been done here: a stone pipeline was now in place, one which tapped an enormous aquifer that lay beneath the red plain upon which the colony now stood and would now provide a steady stream of fresh water for the lake; and, following further expansion, it would restore the community’s system of running water to its former glory. The basic part would be done today, in the form of a pipeline that would branch off from the one just created and would lead directly into the community, with further modification to follow in the days ahead. Gwinthrayle confirmed that the biological isolation spell he’d placed upon the colony on its first day on Lahaikshe was still in effect and would continue to hold indefinitely. As before, no microorganisms brought from Earth and present in Lake Nicodemus would circulate with those native to Lahaikshe and present in the aquifer, even with this closer connection to the planet’s biosphere.

Chapter 7 - The naming

More and more these days, spontaneous celebrations, large or small, would break out, often with no special occasion necessary other than the ever-increasing sense of freedom all were experiencing. Many were being held in the evening, under the twilight and even after dark, since none need fear a nighttime predator attack. This night, a major one was held by the lakeside, and it very specifically commemorated the most noteworthy events of this day. It had the feel of a music festival, with Kevin and Lol organizing the program; though much of it would prove to be very loose and spontaneous, with their band and many other musicians, playing and singing solo or in other ensembles, providing the bulk of the entertainment. It was an even larger celebration than Martin and Karen’s wedding party, and would go on to be remembered fondly for a long time to come.

Human observers to these proceedings would likely find it strange that these creatures could celebrate so heartily and joyfully largely without the dubious benefit of alcoholic beverages. Back in Thorn Valley they had experimented with fermentation, utilizing both native-growing foods such as grapes and some of their food crops like corn and wheat; but those who had become the test subjects for the resulting products reported that, though the effects of ingesting them were initially pleasant, it didn’t take much of them to reach the point where they would lose control of their words and actions. It was quickly agreed that this was not a very attractive state to be in, and in fact what amounted to a cultural bias against intoxication had since developed. Fermented drinks would still be produced, though not in great quantities, because there was not a great demand for them. They would be imbibed minimally, on special occasions and often mixed with other liquids, simply because there was a genuine desire on the part of everyone to avoid becoming drunk—though achieving a mild “buzz” wasn’t frowned upon.

Subsequently, those observers would see a people that didn’t require intoxication to have a good time and maintain a celebratory mood and atmosphere. Everywhere couples, families and friends conversed, laughed, ate, played spontaneous games and matches, danced up a storm to the music or just sat listening quietly. Some went for a swim or sat cooling off in the shallows while the music played.

One such couple in the latter category earned looks of both admiration and surprise. Kimball and Patricia Davis sat chest-deep in the water, nestled close together, silently swaying to the music, looking for all the world like a couple in love for the first time rather than one that had been together over eight years and had raised thirteen children. It was all the more remarkable, many noted, for the fact that they’d been a mated pair longer than anyone else in the community, over a year longer than the longest-married Rat couples.

Friendships, and possibly more, that the newcomer mice had already made were being furthered tonight. Bertie, Ellis and Lucy had been welcomed into Timothy’s circle of friends, as had Michael with Cynthia’s. Some speculated that the latter two were becoming more than “just friends,” but thus far their public behavior suggested the two were only that and no more. Granted, they’d only known each other for a few days, but all agreed the two made a great couple. It had been natural for all the Davis children to gravitate toward the Mice already in the community, but they were quickly finding occupations and making friends among the Rats as well.

As always during these celebrations, conversations about affairs regarding work and matters of state—such as they were—were kept to a minimum. One point that did come up during the proceedings and which spread quickly throughout nearly the entire populace regarded a matter which had crossed Justin’s mind only this morning, in the midst of the Wall Project’s completion: picking an official, legitimate, honest-to-goodness name for their community. Many approached Justin and other councilmembers to pass along their own suggestions. Before the night was over, it was decided there would be a council meeting tomorrow to discuss this and related matters.

* * *

In late morning the council meeting convened and the point of naming their community was initially brought up; but it quickly became superseded by a matter that, in the minds of a minority, had never been completely settled: could there still be a possibility that they might want to move the colony back to Earth? The point was argued that, even though they have a more permanent place now with the creation of the new Wall and connecting Lake Nicodemus to the local aquifer, should they consider themselves a true part of Lahaikshe? It hadn’t been put to a formal popular vote, but the prevailing attitude since the Migration was that, in taking into account the previous experience of Johnathan and others on this world, there was little reason for them not to stay on permanently. It was simply a case of the pros greatly outweighing the cons; many expressed disbelief that anyone was even suggesting not staying on. By meeting’s end it was agreed to leave the greater part of discussion of this subject for later, after they’d lived here a few more weeks.

This brought them back to the subject of picking a name. A few suggestions were brought forth; and in the end it was decided that, at the next general meeting, the best choices would be compiled and the final choice would be voted upon.

* * *

That general meeting was held in the early evening, and there was indeed no shortage of suggestions. Rather than put it to a more formal vote with ballots, anyone with what he or she believed to be a valid idea for a name could just bring it up to Tallus, who had volunteered to compile the list. Some were fairly generic—Newtown, New Valley—while others were species-specific, like Ratville or Rodenttown. Some were in favor of Nicodemus, especially since they’d already given the name to their lake, while others preferred Rosebush, in honor of their first home. Along similar lines, someone suggested Fitzgibbons, in honor of the family who actually owned the rosebush and unknowingly sheltered and provided for them. Some more fittingly honored their more recent home, like New Thorn Valley or Little Thorn Valley. Other more naturalistic entries, which honored the local vegetation, were Oak Valley, Burr Oak Valley or simply Burr Oak. Inevitably there were a few that weren’t entirely serious, such as Thorn Valley Junior or Son of Thorn Valley. There were those that honored the bringing together of worlds which had taken place here, like Lah-Earth; but there were some which Tallus himself found more in line with what he would prefer, and when he showed them to Justin and other councilmembers, they agreed.

But they also agreed to carry out their original plan, which called for the entire list of names, compiled over about a half-hour’s time, to be then read out loud, with audience response to each name being the main measuring tool for which were most favored. It didn’t take long to narrow down the list to only three, all of which were ones that were in line with the ones Tallus and Justin preferred. New Thorn Valley was one of the finalists, as was Freedomtown, which was the first one that had really caught Tallus’s eye; but ultimately, there was one that received the heartiest and most vocal response.

Justin stood at the dais, calling for quiet. “Well, everyone,” he began with a laugh, “it seems that the people have spoken. Some of us up here, including Tallus and myself, had a good feeling about this one as soon as we saw it. We think this is the one that best epitomizes the spirit of this community, and best conveys where we are now combined with where we’ve been. And so, my friends…as of this day, we are all citizens of this community called…Freethorn!”

Once again the hall filled with resounding cheers and applause which quickly evolved into a chant: “Freethorn! Freethorn!” When Justin was able to return the chamber to relative quiet, he brought up a related matter, namely whether to keep the Thorn Valley name for the school. Overwhelmingly, the informal vote was in favor of keeping it as is, for the reasons already stated of honoring the place in which they were able to grow and thrive. There were updates given on other community matters, especially regarding growth of the Mouse community, and various announcements were made before the meeting was adjourned. There was some minor grumbling from those whose favored choices for names were passed over, but even they had to agree that Freethorn was probably the most appropriate choice.

* * *

Three days after their arrival, the Rusay visitors made ready to leave. Arrangements had been made for the first true cultural exchange, and as a result the pair weren’t leaving alone: a Rat family had been selected to accompany the visitors to Timphon, where they would become the visitors. It was decided this first party should include someone with prior experience “out there”; and so accordingly, it was Melvin and his family who became the lucky ones. Pinphila and Dornphinsal were already making plans for conducting a regular shuttle service for future exchanges, so that, unless there was a drastic change in their lives, they would likely be bringing the next set of visitors here as well as returning Melvin and family.

Overall the pair were coming away greatly impressed with all they’d seen and experienced here, and their enthusiasm had largely inspired their decision to become regular shuttle operators. As a large group gathered to see them off at the entrance to the new south ramp, they admitted feeling a little skeptical at the beginning that people so different in appearance could have very much in common with the Rusay, and finding out differently within their first few hours as guests. Their love of life, generosity and compassion were all a perfect match for their own people’s, and Pinphila went so far as to say that they belonged here on this world just as much, as if both their peoples were native to Lahaikshe.

They made their way down the ramp accompanied by Melvin and Judith; their six children Spencer, Mia, Cecilia, Kyle, Ford and Hollis; and some of the other community leaders, including Justin, Johnathan and Arthur. At plain level the Rusay brought up an idea they’d had: that a space could be created there for storing carriages: a “garage,” which all agreed would be easier than leaving their means of transportation some walking distance away—as Pinphila and Dornphinsal did on their way here—or leaving it out in the open at the base of the ramp. Having seen the Stone’s power in “action” for themselves, they knew it would be a simple matter. Their hosts agreed to take their suggestion under consideration, and that upon their return, they could expect to bring their carriage all the way to Freethorn’s doorstep, since they should have their garage by then.

The group made their final goodbyes and began setting out over the Great Red Plain toward the forest trail which had led the two Rusay here. From there it would be a hike of some two hours on foot, proceeding at a non-tiring pace and taking at least two breaks, before they would reach their carriage and haisk’ve, which would bring them the remaining distance to Timphon. Earlier, Johnathan had half-seriously offered to employ the Stone to take them at least part of the distance, but they quickly agreed that that would be defeating the purpose somewhat of the experience. Melvin greatly looked forward to showing his family so much of what he’d only been able to describe to them before: the indigenous plant and animal life, the sometimes bizarre rock formations and other sights. He and Judith were at first concerned that the hike might prove too much for the children, especially the younger ones; but all six were thrilled and greatly looking forward to what was to come, even after they’d been told all about the hiking part. The youngest two, Ford and Hollis, would spend about half of the time riding on their parents’ and the two Rusay’s shoulders, but it was no great burden, since everyone was traveling light to begin with.

Almost as soon as the party had departed, it was decided to try out the garage suggestion on the spot, since Johnathan already had the Stone with him. In short order a space was hollowed out, in the same fashion as the observation posts above. It was wide enough to accommodate two carriages, with the floor raised slightly above the level of the plain. It likely wouldn’t be the last improvement or alteration made to their new-yet-old home, Justin suggested; but he and Johnathan looked forward to whatever this new situation of theirs held in store. Both admitted some envy over Melvin and family’s trip, but they knew there’d be plenty of time for reacquainting themselves with the world outside, and their first duty was to get Freethorn up and running again. Already it seemed quite natural to be using the name, as if it had already been in longtime use.

Chapter 8 - Return to Orland

It was a morning like many others, here in this creekside wooded glade like many others; and it would have remained so if not for the sudden entrance, the second in as many weeks, of some small visitors. A flash of light heralded the arrival of three mice, one of whom, though a visitor to these parts, was no stranger. They looked around the new surroundings, still shrouded in early-morning mist.

“So, Johnathan,” said one who began moving about on his three legs, “this is where you lived for a few summers.”

“That’s right, Kimball.” Johnathan sighed, feeling a bit wistful and nostalgic, but also wanting to get right to business. “Well…it’s right this way.” He led his companions down closer to the bank, toward one certain oak, the very one that had once provided shelter for his family before they’d vacated it permanently to settle in Thorn Valley over two years before.

“I do hope he’s home,” said Patricia as they approached a den entrance under a large root. Upon reaching it, she called out: “Orland! It’s me, your mother, and Johnathan Brisby. Your father’s with us this time.”

Just then she recognized his scent, as a reply came. In seconds he emerged, squinting and shading his eyes as if he’d been spending a long time in the dark. “Mom…Dad! And…and Johnathan, right? It’s really been two weeks, hasn’t it?”

“Not for me, son,” replied Kimball, helped upright so he could embrace his son. Though it was a happy reunion, all three noticed that no one seemed to be here besides Orland; though his visitors were curious, they thought it best that he be the one to volunteer any information on his current situation. There was a noticeable amount of melancholy in his manner, much more than was the norm for him, for all he tried to hide it. It seemed unrelated to Kimball’s condition; he’d been told already of the extent of his father’s injuries, and though seeing him like this was something of a shock, Orland was visibly relieved that he’d recovered as well as he did. He asked his visitors how things were going at the colony, but seemed to pay less than full attention to the answer. Finally he hung his head silently, and his parents urged him to share what was on his mind.

“I don’t know…why it…I thought she wanted to…to…” Orland looked up. “I’m…not making much sense, am I? Guess I’d better start from the beginning.” He invited everyone inside, and all four sat down in the front room. Johnathan took a moment to gaze all about the room; this was the first time he’d set foot inside the old Brisby home since their “Last Moving Day.”

Orland continued: “Well…since the last time I saw you, I started calling on Lana a lot. You remember my mentioning her, don’t you? What am I saying, of course you do; she’s the reason I didn’t go with you last time. Well…I did all I knew how to win her over, I did all kinds of things for her, complimented her every chance I got, especially when I found out I had a rival. I meant it, too, every word I said, I’m sure more than…” He paused, sighing. “Just bear with me, I know I’m rambling. Anyway, I tried even harder, and…I didn’t get into any fights or anything with this guy, though I did see him a couple of times; but I really thought she’d… Anyway, I told Lana—about three days ago—all about what you told me about this colony of yours, how there are mice and rats that are different, how there’s all different surroundings…I didn’t understand all that myself before, but…she told me she’d give it some thought. That was three…no, four days ago.” Orland paused again. “I didn’t see her again until just yesterday. She was with Nicko; her back was turned, but I knew it was her. I almost called out to her, but…what could I say? She’d chosen him, I…I just didn’t understand. I thought she understood me. She knew from the beginning that I was different. So why all of a sudden would she…just dump…” Orland placed head in hand, unable to continue. His parents silently consoled him.

After a minute Johnathan said, “Orland…I don’t know if this is any consolation, but…maybe Lana just decided, through no fault of your own, that what you described was just too far out of her league, just too strange for her. All of us have known other mice that have found our ways and manners strange, or avoid us altogether when they see we’re not like them…”

“Like normal mice, you mean?” Orland shouted suddenly. “Like Nicko? He can give her a normal life, but me? I can only pledge myself to her for the rest of our lives, while he’ll mate with her a few times, then split! Yeah, that’s normal! That’s…” He closed his eyes, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you’re probably right. I probably laid it on too thick, and scared her off. It’s just that I was so sure…” He paused, breathing in deep, shaking his head. “Well, I guess I’m ready to go back with you anytime. There’s nothing left for me here.”

“Well,” said Johnathan, standing, “if you’re sure, then…”

“On second thought, there is one thing. It could wait, I guess, but…”

“I think I can guess, dear,” said Patricia. “It’s…about Desmond, isn’t it?” Well she remembered how, in their last meeting, he said he’d want to know, by this time, how his litter-mate and erstwhile traveling companion had died.

“Yeah, it is. I know you’re probably not ready yet, but…”

“No, that’s all right, Orland. I guess both of us are as ready as we’ll ever be.” Kimball nodded in agreement.

“Okay. I figure, I’m already miserable, so we might as well do this now.”

Johnathan began concentrating on the amulet, and the others arranged themselves for a clear view. He instructed Orland to lay hands upon it and concentrate on the point in time with which he wished to begin. Soon images formed, quickly becoming sharply delineated.

Orland stared silently for a moment, fascinated at seeing these images. “Wow, that’s really him and me. Just like I remember it! Boy, Johnathan, it’s amazing how you can do that!” He continued to provide “play-by-play” narration. “There’s the deer I was telling you about last time. We’re trying to get his attention here… He’s ignoring us… You know how they are, thinking they’re above us. Well, actually, they are, but… Okay, now I’m yelling ‘Hey, Rackhead!’… He’s still ignoring us… This is great, watch this.” They saw Desmond leaping onto the buck’s leg, just above the hoof, yank at some hairs, jump off and away horizontally, and scurry away. “Now he’s snorting, stamping his feet; boy, we were cutting it close, he almost made compost out of us. Now we’re asking him, now that we’ve got his attention, if he’d mind giving us a lift east a ways. Now he’s agreeing; even though it’s close to rutting season, and he’d be roaming all over the place anyway, I think our persistence got his curiosity up. He’s telling us to go ahead and climb up to his back, but to hang on tight, ’cause he doesn’t intend to turn back if either of us fall off. We figured that was fair enough, though kind o’ jerky of him. There we go, shinnying up his leg to his back… Now we’re choosing a place to hang on… There, off we go. What really bugs me is that, look at how we’re positioned, with Des in back of me. We should have been side by side, that way I would have seen when he… Well, anyway, as you can see, it was okay for a while… Uh, Johnathan, can you make it sort of skip ahead a bit, to where Des fell off?”

Johnathan concentrated again, and then announced, “Now it’ll only show key events, starting with that.”

“Okay. Well, here we are, going over some pretty rough terrain, and we hung on even more ti—there he goes! Des fell off, and I didn’t even notice right away. Man, that really bugs me. Well, here he is, picking himself up; at least the fall didn’t hurt him too bad, it looks like. He’s trying to catch up, but…it’s no use. Poor Des, he probably thought I abandoned him. When I found out he was gone, I… Well, first…after Rackhead and I got onto smoother ground, I said to Des, ‘This is some wild ride, huh?’ but I got no reply. I turned, and he wasn’t there. I hollered, ‘Hey, turn around! My brother fell off, we gotta find him!’ even though I remembered what Rackhead said before about not turning around. Well, he remembered it too, and repeated that he wasn’t stopping for anything.”

As Orland related this, Johnathan willed the amulet to pause in its imaging of Desmond until he was through with this part.

“I wanted to clobber him if I could, and for a minute I didn’t know what to do; then, since the ground looked soft enough in that area, I just jumped off myself, hardly thinking about it; there really wasn’t any other choice. I curled up into a ball and rolled around a few times after I hit the ground. I picked myself up just in time to see Rackhead disappear from view completely. The big arrogant jerk didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder. Well, there was nothing I could do except try to retrace the path, and run across Des if I could. But I’d been concentrating so much on keeping my grip, and I don’t exactly have a photographic memory, so it was nearly impossible. There was nothing I could recognize, no particular landmarks or anything, and it was unfamiliar territory to begin with. I wandered more or less aimlessly for the rest of the day and part of the next, calling his name, but I never got any answer.

“It was frustrating as hell; but finally I just figured, okay, we’re both seeking out Thorn Valley, so each of us should be able to make our way there separately as good as together; we’re both pretty resourceful, and careful. I hoped he figured the same thing; so I headed out east again. I never stopped believing that we would see each other again. At least, until a couple weeks ago, when you guys found me. Uh, Johnathan, could you go ahead and get the pictures started again?”

“Of course, Orland.” Soon the image of Desmond returned. At first they again saw him fruitlessly attempting to catch up, but soon grudgingly resign himself to the situation—looking just as frustrated as had Orland—and take a slower and more careful pace. Johnathan again willed the Stone to show only key scenes of Desmond’s last days, and so this image faded to be followed by one of Desmond being caught in a sudden downpour and looking quite disgruntled, probably about being forced to find shelter instead of keeping on the move.

Next he was seen finding shelter in a burrow already occupied by a mother mouse and her three children. It appeared to take a bit of cajoling before they let him stay the night, but he appeared very gracious, even charming to his would-be hostess; both she and her children took to him readily.

“He always was…the little sweet-talker,” said Patricia with a smile, pausing to swallow a lump in her throat. It was quite the bittersweet moment for Desmond’s parents and brother; but with it was some frustration over not being able to see anything more than these small, flat images, with no accompanying sound; and therefore having to infer from them what “seemed” or “appeared” to have happened. There was also the uneasy anticipation from knowing that the next “key scene” could be the last.

Next they saw him making ready to leave, presumably the next morning, and his hosts were reluctant to see him go, especially one of the children, a little girl, who ran up to him and clung to him. Desmond appeared equally reluctant to leave, but soon he succeeded in convincing her that she couldn’t accompany him, and so he bid them all farewell. Next they saw him pause in his travels for a moment, growing still so he could listen for something. He very carefully moved to a tussock of long grass, and suddenly he pounced on something in a little recess behind it. It was the young girl-mouse, having slipped away from her family and followed him all that time.

“Well,” said Johnathan lightly, “he really was the charmer.”

“Looks like she had a major crush on him, all right,” added Kimball with a touch of sadness. They observed Desmond sitting with her, doing his best to explain—again—why she couldn’t come along, then starting off with her in the opposite direction, obviously to see her home.

Again the scene shifted: here were Desmond and his young admirer continuing on their way when suddenly something occurred that instantly riveted everyone’s attention. Something they couldn’t see immediately prompted Desmond to rush himself and the girl toward a narrow recess in a rotted stump. It was a weasel pursuing them, and the events of the next few seconds went by so fast the observers’ eyes could barely follow the action. The weasel immediately began working his head into the gap, bringing it out quickly with one of them in its grip. It was the larger of the two; it had to be Desmond, his family, helpless to do naught but observe, realized. The weasel flung him upward; Desmond lighted right squarely on the weasel’s head; and after some fast, not-clearly-seen motions, Desmond dropped to the ground; and the weasel, to everyone’s astonishment, fled the scene, shaking his head rapidly.

“What happened there?” Patricia asked urgently. “Johnathan, can you make it show it more clearly?”

“I think so.” Johnathan concentrated, and now the Stone showed everyone a still, photograph-like scene of the weasel dragging Desmond out from the stump, one of his hind legs in its teeth. A further series of still scenes followed, as if frames frozen on videotape. His family observed, with dry mouths and wringing hands, Desmond being flung upward, with a good portion of that same leg missing; landing on the very top of the weasel’s head, bringing himself upright, gripping one of the weasel’s ears, and—to everyone’s renewed astonishment—biting the weasel’s ear and scratching at its eye with his remaining hind foot. It appeared to be a purely reflexive action; yet, everyone would realize later, despite how quickly it happened, it may have actually been a planned defense.

Again Desmond was seen dropping to the ground, the weasel departing; and as the Stone resumed showing “live action,” they saw Desmond laying still for a moment as if in shock, then noticing his severed leg for the first time. The girl-mouse peered from the gap, obviously very frightened but wanting to help. Desmond looked very distressed as he realized the full extent of his injuries. But the girl overcame her fear and emerged from the stump, helping him to a better place of safety.

“Oh, Lord, poor Desmond,” said Patricia with tear-filled eyes. “He—he saved the girl, but…” She could say no more, but everyone knew what question would follow: how much more time did he have? Kimball, having gone through a similar but fortunately non-fatal ordeal, felt a twinge in his hip, a sympathy pain.

Desmond was next seen sending the girl back out, and she soon returned with a wide blade of grass with which she helped him bind his wound. The scene shifted to the two of them making their way along again, Desmond on his three good limbs, the makeshift tourniquet around what remained of the bad one; then to their reaching the girl’s family’s home again. Her mother immediately helped Desmond inside as her daughter told of their encounter with the weasel. A bed was made up for him, where he was tended to by the grateful family. Obviously he was still very much in shock over the incident and still needed time to recover before moving on. Yet, all realized with trepidation, that would almost surely not come to pass.

That realization was sadly borne out as Desmond was observed growing steadily weaker and probably less aware of his surroundings, though his hosts did all they could. The little girl he saved seemed to remain at his side constantly; and finally, she looked extremely panicked and agitated, calling for her mother.

“It…it’s happened, hasn’t it?” asked Orland, looking up from the amulet’s face. There was no doubt of the truth, as they saw the entire family weeping and comforting each other around Desmond’s still form.

Those who now observed the tragic scene did the same as one last scene played out. Desmond’s body was being covered with pebbles and leaves in a secluded-looking place, and the four mice, who’d surely become almost as much family to him as his real family, even in that short time, gathered before the tiny burial mound to mourn further. Then this image faded, to be replaced only by the deep red stillness of the amulet.

After about a minute Patricia said, “I think…maybe it was a mistake to wait this long…to-to find out what happened.” She continued dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief.

“I think…I know what you mean, love,” said Kimball. “He was so brave, risking his life for that little girl whom he hardly knew…”

Johnathan found he couldn’t help thinking about his first meeting with Madeline, when he’d taken perhaps greater risks in saving her life, and he hadn’t known her at all.

“That poor dear. I wish we could do something for her and her family. What do you think, Johnathan?”

“Well, Patricia, if it were up to me, I’d do nothing, at least for now. But you’re the only ones who can really decide.”

“Yes, I know, Johnathan,” said Kimball, “and perhaps that choice is best. But it occurs to me that, if Desmond had never been injured, he might have stayed with them after all, touched their lives even more deeply…and there’s a good chance we’d be bringing them all back with us.”

“That may be.” Johnathan replaced the amulet around his neck, got to his feet and stretched. “Well, I guess there’s not much more we can do here.” He looked all around the room, in this house that used to be his; and the nostalgic feeling in him, so strong upon their arrival, was all but forgotten now.

Orland stood, nodding. “Yeah…nothing at all left for us here,” he said distantly, scratching his ear.

Patricia came up to him, taking his arm. “What are you feeling, Orland? Please tell us.”

“I’m all right, Mom. Really I am. It’s just…well, I guess if Des had to die some way, at least it’s better if it was in helping someone, and…all the more if he saved someone’s life. It doesn’t really make me feel better about him dying at all, or about Lana…but somehow, I don’t feel as miserable as I thought I would.”

“Well, we already have a proper monument for him now,” said Kimball, to some surprise from Orland.

“We’ve all honored him, and I know he’d want you to do the same,” said Johnathan. He and Kimball explained to Orland how they’d already held a service for Desmond at their memorial garden.

They decided to go outside before beginning the jump back to Lahaikshe and Freethorn; and so, after Johnathan took another look around, knowing this may well be the last time he’d lay eyes on the old family homestead, the four mice joined hands along the creek bank. Soon the amulet radiated a glow which quickly spread outward, enveloping them and climaxing with a flash which, to any observer, seemed to erase them from existence.

“Wait a second! Bring us back!”

The command came, in effect, between worlds; and Johnathan obeyed it without question, though he knew not the reason for it. Now, they again stood on the exact same spot on the creek bank, where they quickly re-oriented themselves. “Okay, Orland,” said Johnathan, what’s this about? Why’d we need to come back?”

“I saw her, Johnathan! A second before we left, I saw her!”

“Her?” asked Patricia. “Do you mean—”

But Orland quickly broke from the others, already calling out. “Lana? Where’d you go? It’s all right, honey, it’s me, Orland. Come on out.” He noticed the door to the den entrance under the oak was ajar, and so he went up to it. “Lana? Are you in there?”

“Y-yes, I’m here, Orland. Was that…was that lightning?” She poked her head out, and the others could see the obvious delight on Orland’s face.

“No, it wasn’t. But it’s all right, nothing will hurt you. But I think you owe me an explanation.”

Lana ventured all the way out. “Oh, you mean why I came to you now. I guess I…” She noticed the others, who approached carefully. “Oh! Who are they?”

“Just my parents, and an old friend of theirs.” Orland introduced them to her, but it was the “old friend” that she seemed the most interested in.

“Mr. Brisby? It is you, isn’t it?”

“Hello, Lana. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? You’ve grown into a lovely young lady.”

“Wait a minute,” said Orland, hand on forehead. “You know each other?”

“Well, we couldn’t be sure until I saw her, but…yes, when my family lived here, Lana’s family were our neighbors.” Addressing Lana, Johnathan added, “We were getting ready to take Orland to our new home, but…it looks like you and him have some things to talk over.”

“Thanks, Johnathan.” Orland invited Lana to sit with him on a nearby flat stone. “So…why did you come back? I thought that you wanted to stay with Nicko.”

“Oh, Orland, I just didn’t know what to think, I…didn’t understand. I’m still not sure I really do, but…when you told me all about this…place where you wanted to take me, I just…well, sort of panicked. I had to get away. I still wanted to be with you. I…think I really do love you.”

“Oh, Lana, sweetheart…” Orland shook his head incredulously, gently pulling her close. “Why couldn’t you tell me before? I…well, I guess I didn’t exactly come out and say it either…”

Lana laughed. “It’s all right, you didn’t have to. All those nice things you did and said were enough.”

“But…not enough to make you stay?”

Lana sighed, uncertain of how to answer for a moment. “I guess…I just needed to think about it more. I know I should have said so, but at the time I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

“When I saw you with Nicko, I thought it was over completely between us. These past few days have been terrible for me.”

“I’m so sorry, Orland. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I guess I just wanted to be with Nicko because he was easier to understand, in some ways. But he’s not like you, not at all. You told me that, but I didn’t really understand in what way. But I think I do now. I think that he just wants to take love. But that’s not your way. You want to give as well as take. I think he loves me, in his way, or he thinks he does; but…I know you do too, and your love means so much more, it touches me in ways I never thought possible.”

“Oh, Lana, I…just don’t know what else to say, except that I do love you.” He paused to embrace her, trying in vain to hold back tears completely. “I’m so relieved that you decided to come back.” He looked at her and kissed her lightly. “Well, if you’re sure about this, then we should all discuss it. There’s a lot that you’ll need to know about where we’re going.”

Johnathan, Kimball and Patricia had sat waiting patiently nearby, having been allowed to listen in, and now they offered their congratulations and began telling Lana more about Freethorn and what she and Orland could expect there on this other world, especially the time difference.

As happy as they all were for this rather abrupt turnaround, Johnathan couldn’t shake a nagging feeling, as if he’d overlooked some important detail about…something, some factor that could complicate the new couple’s happiness in their new home. He was again reminded of when he and Madeline first met, and it took a whole day before a possible stumbling block to their happiness occurred to him.

Then, all at once, it came to him. He took Orland aside and explained to him about how his daughter Teresa’s mate, Eric, found just being there on Lahaikshe intolerable, apparently from being separated from his native world; and how, in the case of Madeline and Alma and others, being mated for a longer period of time to “advanced” mice like himself and Ages was theorized to help the condition.

“So…what you’re saying is, that could happen to Lana, unless she and I…are together for a while here first?”

“Exactly, Orland. I know how much you want to come with us now, but I felt you should know. Admittedly, it’s just a theory; maybe it’s unique to Eric, but there is that chance, after all…”

“Yeah, I see what you mean. But you know, Johnathan, it’s…okay. I’m glad you told me. I do like it here, and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind staying here a bit longer too. I can see why you guys liked it so much. But the main thing is, we’re together. Oh, man…I still can’t believe how fast it all turned around.” He turned to where his parents were telling Lana about their other children; but then something else caught his eye—or rather someone, who quickly made everyone aware of his entrance.

“Lana! Who are these people?”

Everyone turned to see another mouse approach. Lana stood, not looking terribly surprised, and then approached him. “Nicko…I said I wasn’t coming back.”

“Come on, Lana, that’s silly talk. You actually want to be with him instead of me?” Nicko motioned towards Orland.

“Yeah, maybe she would rather be with him,” said Orland. “And…newsflash, Einstein, I’m right here.” He pointed to his chest. It was an effort for him to resist sarcasm when confronted with Nicko’s brand of boorishness.

Nicko just looked at him with a dismissive expression. “Boy, you’re just as weird as ever.”

“You must be the famous Nicko,” said Johnathan casually. “Is there a problem?”

Nicko paused, looking at Johnathan as if he’d sprouted an extra head. It was an expression Johnathan was all too familiar with, having seen it on many a mouse before Nicko, who returned attentions to Lana. “They’re all just as weird as Orland. You can’t possibly want to go with them.”

“You can’t say that,” said Lana defiantly. “And you can’t tell me what to think or do.”

Orland’s heart swelled with pride at hearing this. “I think she said it best.” He took Lana’s arm, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. “Looks to me like she’s made her choice.” Nearby, Kimball and Patricia had been observing the scene silently, opting to stay out unless they felt they were truly needed, and they beamed at how well both of them stood up to Orland’s hoped-to-be ex-rival.

Before Nicko could say another word, Johnathan came up to him and began explaining to him all about where they were from and how they got there; but after only a minute or so, Nicko interrupted him, saying, “I was right. You’re all too weird for me. Go ahead and go with them, Lana, with my compliments. There’s plenty of other girls out there. I don’t need you.” He turned on his heel and walked away.

“Oh, believe me, pal, the feeling’s mutual. Don’t slam the door on your tail,” Orland called after him, to no response, though he’d almost hoped Nicko would reply “What door?” He and Lana looked at each other and embraced delightedly.

Kimball and Patricia were pleased at this outcome though a bit perplexed, and looked at Johnathan questioningly. He motioned for everyone to stay quiet until he was sure Nicko was gone.

“Johnathan, I get the impression you knew Nicko would give up that easily,” said Kimball.

“It was that look he gave us, wasn’t it?” asked Patricia. “We’d seen it ourselves so often. You knew that if you laid on the ‘weird’ stuff, he’d likely be scared off!”

“Well, it was a bit of a gamble, but you’re right. It was in his eyes, plain as day.”

“I guess you’d know,” said Orland, “but what if he liked what you told him and decided he wanted to come along?”

Johnathan chuckled. “Well, I’ll admit that possibility hadn’t crossed my mind. But anyway, before we were interrupted, there’s something else we were about to discuss.”

“Oh, yeah…” Orland looked very serious at Lana. “Lana…honey…I think, if it’s all right with you, that we should stay here a bit longer.”

“Oh…well, all right, I guess so. But we will go there with them someday, won’t we?”

“That’s a promise.” Orland turned to his parents, who again looked baffled. He and Johnathan quickly explained the reasoning behind this decision.

Both were clearly disappointed but, being well aware of Teresa and Eric’s situation, they understood; and so they made ready to take their leave of the young lovers, wishing them both the best of luck and happiness. Nicko might still be a concern for them, they suggested, but Johnathan felt certain he wouldn’t be back. Lana reinforced the point, being aware that there were other young females in the area that might be interested in him, as Nicko himself contended.

“Well, they can have him,” Orland said with a laugh. He was sure that even if Nicko came around again looking to try taking Lana back, he’d be able to handle him with little problem, especially if Lana continued to be adamant about her choice.

Johnathan suggested a two-week “trial” period before bringing Orland and Lana to Lahaikshe. The young couple agreed; then Orland held Lana very closely, un-self-consciously, and told her, “Lana, I’d only begun to show you before how much I care.”

“Oh?” Lana smiled sweetly. “How do you mean?”

“When we have more privacy…I’ll show you.” With that, his visitors made their final (for now) goodbyes, congratulating the happy couple again. Orland then brought his re-found lady-love to the door of his—or rather their—current home, waving goodbye to his parents and Johnathan before going inside.

“I know they’ll probably be all right,” said Patricia, “since he’s been on his own so long already. But after learning about Desmond, well…”

“I know, love,” said Kimball. “We just have to trust they’ll both be careful. Well, Johnathan, we’re ready when you are.”

“Actually, there is one more detail I was reminded of.” After explaining it, Johnathan held the Stone in front of him, allowing the others to look on, willing it to look in on one particular location, and two particular individuals. The image of two mice taking a leisurely morning stroll appeared on its face. Johnathan ended the “program,” satisfied for now at seeing that Teresa and Eric were safe and happy together, though he wished there were some way of telling definitively how much longer Eric would have to stay on Earth before he and Teresa could return to Lahaikshe permanently.

The three prepared explanations, upon their return, for everyone else about why no one else accompanied them. Soon they departed with a flash.

Back in Freethorn, they reappeared just outside the Brisby courtyard, where they were met first by Madeline, to whom they explained about Orland and Lana’s absence. She then brought up a related matter Johnathan had overlooked: though he’d confirmed that Lana was the Lana they knew, he’d forgotten to ask her about the current whereabouts of her parents Janice and Kory and other family members. They agreed to save that for next time.

Chapter 9 - More visits to Earth

Three weeks had passed since the Great Migration and Teresa and Eric’s unwilling return to Thorn Valley; and now Johnathan and Madeline made their first visit to the couple in their new-yet-old home. They brought with them fresh bedding, extra blankets and some of their favorite and easily-storable foods, mostly nuts and dried fruit. The young lovers both admitted to some homesickness, in spite of the familiar surroundings, but otherwise they were both very upbeat. Overall things seemed to going well enough for them that there were considerably fewer worries about their safety. They all well knew, though, that Thorn Valley would come to be a much different place to live, with the absence of the colony; not only for that in itself, but for the possibility of predators again making inroads. The colony had practically insured their absence before, but there’d be little to stop them now. The presence of the human scientists might provide a measure of deterrence, but even so the old safety margin couldn’t be taken for granted anymore. Teresa reminded them that they did expect their living here to be temporary, after all.

Her parents updated the couple on all the latest developments in the colony, including the construction of the new wall and pipeline from the aquifer, the quarters for the newest residents, restoration of the fields and the land overall, and how the new name for the community, Freethorn, was chosen. Teresa and Eric regretted being absent for the voting but agreed at the appropriateness of the name. More personally, the parents passed on the best wishes and miss-yous from friends and family. They also regretted missing Martin and Karen’s wedding, and being able to meet the other Davis children as they arrived; but they looked forward all the more to seeing everyone again, both familiar faces and unfamiliar. They were told of how the one holdout, Orland, was currently staying with his lady Lana at the old Brisby creekside home. They were still on Earth as a precaution in case she would develop an aversion similar to Eric’s. In another week they would put that to the test, which all hoped would yield positive results.

Though they were encouraged by this, Teresa and Eric agreed that, at this time, they didn’t yet feel he’d be ready to adjust to life in the colony’s new location. So it was with some reluctance that Johnathan and Madeline took their leave of the young couple, agreeing to pay another visit in about two weeks. As they were leaving, Madeline suggested having a look at the pit left by the exit of the colony, but both admitted little enthusiasm for the idea, though Madeline noted Johnathan seemed more reluctant than she did. Both were disappointed that Teresa and Eric couldn’t rejoin them right then, but they’d already agreed to leave the decision up to them whether or not Eric would be ready.

* * *

As promised, it was a week later when Johnathan revisited Orland and Lana in the old Brisby creekside home. This time he was accompanied by both Madeline and Patricia. Madeline’s interest in making this visit was mostly due to having the chance to see the old homestead again, but also for Lana’s relation to the Brisbys’ old friends and neighbors. It had been two weeks since they’d seen each other, and it had proven to be a very happy fortnight for the young couple, who were willing and eager to continue their life together in Lahaikshe.

They sat and talked for a while, and Lana told them that her parents, Janice and Kory, had moved further away—as far as she knew, further to the west, following the creek. Her siblings had also gone their separate ways and she hadn’t heard from most of them since the previous spring, though her brother Lincoln still lived close by.

There was a brief debate over whether they should try to locate any of Lana’s family, given their past connections, though the Brisbys weren’t as close to them as the friends they’d made among the Rats. But in leaving the question to Lana, she seemed perfectly willing to accompany Orland back to the colony, which of course all hoped would be for a permanent stay. She agreed that it would be nice to see them again sometime and that they could possibly track them down later.

The Brisbys were somewhat surprised by Lana’s low-key response, until they realized it was much like aspects of their own first meeting; especially how Madeline had related to Johnathan the recent loss of her parents in a fashion that seemed to him to be surprisingly unemotional—something that changed after she’d become mated to him. Time would tell, of course, if it would be the same with Orland and Lana, or whether she’d develop an aversion like Eric, but for now they would make the trip to Lahaikshe and welcome the happy couple as their newest citizens.

There was another the young couple hadn’t heard from recently as well, much more fortunately: Orland’s former rival Nicko, who, true to their expectations, avoided him and Lana these two weeks past, apparently out of his estimate that they were too “weird” for him. Though they were thankful for this, it underscored the fact that they were all different from their fellow mice; and though there were many exceptions—otherwise Lana wouldn’t have fallen in love with Orland—it provided that much more impetus for their making a new home with others like him.

While they packed, the Brisbys allowed a moment of nostalgia, to regard this home that was their own for three years, knowing that after this there’d likely be no further reason to return here. They were also reminded of their next mission to Earth, scheduled a week hence: a return to Thorn Valley, the hoped-for result being to welcome home another couple, one nearer and dearer to their hearts.

* * *

“Well? Are you kids ready?”

“Yeah, I’m good, Johnathan.”

“Ready as we’ll ever be, Dad.”

“Then let’s all join hands.” Johnathan, Teresa and Eric all did so and immediately fell to concentrating on again seeing the familiar environs of the colony formerly of the land they presently stood in. With them were all of the young couple’s belongings, however little, since they fully expected and hoped that they’d be staying on, and that returning here would not become necessary.

And so, with a flash they were gone from this place which on one hand they would miss, as the place which they’d truly made their home, even in this brief time; but also not at all regretting leaving it behind. And in the space in which the thought occurred, they found themselves, with only a small feeling of disorientation, in completely different but familiar surroundings.

They stood just outside the courtyard of the Brisby home. Teresa noticed there seemed to be no one there to greet them, until they entered the courtyard; then, the whole area seemed to spring to life. Madeline, Cynthia and Timothy emerged from the front entrance, all with arms spread, ready to greet the pair warmly. Others quickly followed, seemingly coming out of the woodwork: Martin and Karen; her youngest siblings, who clambered all over the couple; many of Teresa’s Rat friends including Hermione, Ophelia, Lambert, Bertha; Mr. Ages and his family (though Teresa was well aware that he was there largely on Eric’s behalf, in case he showed the same symptoms as before); and many more of the Davis clan, most of whom were meeting the couple for the first time—including Orland and Lana, the newest mouse residents. The fact that Lana was doing just fine here on Lahaikshe for an entire week now after having been mated to Orland was offered up as proof that Eric could do just as well.

The whole area bubbled with conversation, punctuated with glad cries of welcome. So far, Eric showed no outward signs of anything untoward, genuinely delighted at seeing all these familiar faces again, with all these welcoming gestures that were as much for him as for Teresa, a bit surprising for him.

“Well,” said Madeline, “let’s all go inside, and we can catch up, tell each other about what we’ve been doing here; or if you like, we can show you around the place…”

“That’d be nice, Mother. I’d really like to see it. It’s like a whole new colony now, isn’t it?” She looked over past the left side of the courtyard, where an outer entrance had been constructed for the new set of apartments.

“Well, it’s the start of one.” She turned to Eric. “It’s so nice to have you back, Eric. You’re looking really well.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Brisby. I…feel fine so far; maybe still a little woozy from the trip. But…” He shrugged, smiling. “So far, so good.”

“It’ll pass, dear. And please, call me Madeline. Oh, just look at you! You’ve taken such good care of each other.”

“We really have, Mother,” said Teresa, leaning over to kiss Eric’s cheek. “Things have been a little rough for us, sometimes, but nothing we haven’t been able to handle.”

“We knew you both had it in you,” said Johnathan, arms around both their shoulders. “Now, if you like, we can show you to the apartment we had in mind for you. Of course, you won’t be obligated to that one, but we really think you’ll like it.”

The group moved on to the new cluster of apartments, where Johnathan, with no small amount of pride, pointed out what had been accomplished so far, showing them the unit they’d built for Kimball, Patricia and the youngest three Davis children. It included a studio for Patricia, designed to let in a generous amount of daylight for working on her art. Nearby were Martin and Karen’s new home and several units that housed the older Davis children who had their own growing families: Norman, Jessica, Marie, Louann, Michelle, Myrna. Michael’s was presently a self-described “bachelor pad”; for the time being, he was quick to add, somewhat cryptically.

Teresa had noticed with some interest the looks that seemed to pass between Michael and Cynthia; though they weren’t sticking close to each other, it was obvious that it was very much as her parents had described: that the two were very likely more interested in each other than they were letting on. Teresa vowed inwardly to get together with her sister later to discuss the matter, certain she could worm further details from her. Though she’d only met him today, it was evident that Michael was quite a catch; and knowing something of his story, she took pleasure in the possibility that he and Cynthia could be happy together.

Martin and Karen, of course, were a different story: Teresa could see for herself how deeply in love they were, and actually felt her heart swell with pride; having disbelieved, not all that long ago, that he was capable of expressing emotion so openly. She was genuinely happy for them, especially knowing all that they’d gone through lately.

It was when Johnathan led them to the entrance to the quarters they’d first selected for the new couple that the unexpected struck.

“Well, Teresa, Eric…we really think you’ll like…” Johnathan was interrupted by a sudden moan in back of him, almost of agony. He turned to see Eric crouched low, his hand on his forehead. Teresa was at his side instantly, asking him what was wrong.

“It…it’s just like…like before,” Eric managed to say. “The same feeling. It feels like it did, but…I think…it’s even worse this time.”

“Oh, Lord, Eric…” Teresa wrapped her arms around him. She’d been afraid of this very possibility: that he’d seem all right at first, but it would be only temporary. Now it seemed that the effect that just being here on Lahaikshe had on him before—whatever its precise source or nature—had come roaring back with a vengeance. She had hoped so fervently—both of them had—that all the time they’d spent together by now, during which they’d gotten to know each other as thoroughly as any pair mated to each other, had proven to be enough. But apparently—at least for the time being—it was not to be.

Mr. Ages gently coaxed them both into going outside in the open air. He spoke quietly to Eric, having him breathe in deep and try to relax and compose himself, Teresa at his side all the while. Everyone else had also come outside but hung back, reactions ranging from confusion to dismay.

“We were so sure this time,” said Madeline, leaning on Johnathan’s shoulder, dabbing at her eyes. “It had to have been long enough. Oh, why is this still happening?”

“And why just him?” asked Alma as they watched her husband place a stethoscope to Eric’s chest. “We’re in much the same boat, he and I. But I’m not affected that way, not at all.”

Johnathan sighed in frustration, at a complete loss for what to say, though not for what to do; clearly, only one course of action was open to them. They’d known it was possible, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise; but both believed that, after five weeks, they surely should have been able to stay at this point…

Ages looked up at them, his expression reflecting his own frustration. Teresa continued holding Eric close, speaking quietly, comfortingly; but though it was clear that he was struggling, trying to resist, the same undefinable feeling would not leave him by such simple means.

Johnathan crouched in front of the young couple, hands on their shoulders. “Eric…Teresa…when you’re ready, we’ll…head back to Thorn Valley.” They both looked at him, their own expressions a mixture of acceptance and frustration. Nearby, Cynthia and Timothy looked at each other with dismay; then, they left to get Teresa and Eric’s packs where they’d left them in the courtyard.

Presently Justin and Isabella dropped by, ostensibly to offer their own welcome-homes; but, seeing the looks on everyone, understood the reason for the pall that had fallen on the scene, having been apprised of the choice of outcomes following the couple’s return: put most simply, either he was ready or he wasn’t. All they or anyone could do was offer to help in any way they could.

Everyone took turns offering their own best wishes and hopes that Eric would get better, though some had to be reminded to keep them brief. When they were ready, Johnathan paused to remind the couple and everyone else nearby that this wasn’t the end of it, that Eric would overcome this aversion for as long as it took, and he and Teresa would come to take their places in this community again.

After some often-emotional goodbyes, the three mice, once more laden with their packs and some extra blankets and other necessities, all joined hands. With another flash they were gone. The crowd slowly dispersed as everyone returned to their daily tasks, many speculating on whether Eric really would overcome his troubles.

* * *

Back in Thorn Valley, Johnathan helped his daughter and son-in-law get resettled. Once again, Eric reported feeling completely normal within three minutes of their return. All were trying to put the best face on the situation: all were thankful that Eric was feeling better, but they were no closer to understanding the nature of his aversion, nor of why only he was thus affected. Johnathan promised them that they’d continue to do their best to uncover the reason, though with Eric here instead of there, it wouldn’t be easy. After further discussion, it was decided that they would try again in about another month. Johnathan admitted being uneasy over such a long interval, but they all agreed it would probably be the best way to ensure better results next time.

After Johnathan again left for Lahaikshe, the young couple spent much time just quietly discussing the day’s events and where they’d go from here, giving emphasis to what they’d do when they’d be able to go back for good; and ultimately succeeding in lifting each other’s spirits considerably.

Chapter 10 - Vincent's living legacy

Johnathan had spent most of the morning busying himself with various tasks, lending assistance and dispensing advice. He knew that keeping his mind occupied like this was all an effort to assuage his disappointment from yesterday’s not-entirely-unexpected reversal; and though he knew there was nothing he could have done to prevent Eric’s strange aversion from returning, he still couldn’t help feeling responsible, in some small way. Yet, there was nothing for it now but to concentrate on the many necessary tasks at hand, and hope that the month-long wait until their next try would prove to be sufficient time and that Teresa and Eric would stay safe until then. At least, he mused, they had each other.

Now he was walking up a first-level corridor heading for the library, where Madeline had already spent most of the morning. Since they’d joined the Rats in Thorn Valley, she’d spent as much time as possible there: “Making up for lost time” was how she’d put it at the beginning. During periods when they had new babies to care for, her time there lessened somewhat, but she made the most of it, either indulging her thirst for knowledge, or assisting Tallus with one project or another.

Johnathan had expected to meet her there, but he was still some ways from the library entrance when he was greeted by the always-welcome sight of his wife, dressed in her favorite (and Johnathan’s) pale green minidress. Her expression brightened upon seeing him, her arms outstretched.

“Hi, Maddie,” Johnathan said casually before the two embraced and kissed. Others who passed in the corridor smiled and nodded at the sight, familiar to everyone since the pair was reunited two years before. They would unfailingly greet each other this way even if it had been less than an hour since they’d been apart, and it had definitely proven to be an inspiration to many other couples, old and new.

“I thought it might take a little longer to find you,” she said as she took his arm. “I’m glad you saved me the trouble.”

“Always glad to help. So what’s going on?”

“Well, both of us needed some good news, and I knew you’d want to see this right away. We think—Tallus and I—that even if it doesn’t prove to be especially good, it could have some really important implications.”

“Okay, so you’ve piqued my curiosity. Lead on.” They walked together to the library mostly in silence, Johnathan holding off on further questioning, though he already had a good idea about what this piece of good news might involve. Yesterday’s lack of success in keeping Eric and Teresa here was quite dispiriting for their family and many others, casting quite a pall; so Johnathan was more than ready to have his spirits lifted.

By the time they reached the library, though, he found he needed to know one basic fact about his wife’s “surprise.” But before he could ask, she confirmed his suspicions. “As you know, it’s taken a while for any of us to get into Vincent’s notes to a great degree. But we came across something this morning that we think will really change things.”

She led him to an anteroom which had recently been designated “Vincent Central,” where Tallus and his daughter Alcina were seated at the central table, poring over notes while making their own. Several neat stacks took up much of the surface space. It was a sight Johnathan was familiar with, having already put in some hours at the same task himself. Lately, however, this was a project that had been put on the back-burner several times in the month since Vincent’s belongings—a great percentage of which, by sheer weight, were the notes before them now—were brought to their new home. Everyone who had committed him- or herself to this project, not the least of whom was Johnathan, had tasks requiring more immediate attention; and since these notes weren’t going anywhere, they took a lower priority. But in recent days they were finally being given their due.

The original mouse-sized table from Vincent’s lair had been brought in here along with his extensive writings. Some of his other furnishings, most notably his drawings, were also on view, giving the room almost the feel of a museum or shrine. After Tallus and Alcina welcomed the couple, repeating to Johnathan that they’d uncovered something significant, the two mice wasted no time. After seating themselves at the table, Madeline spread out the short stack of papers there, pointing out for her husband the passages they’d found which revealed a side to Vincent that they never would have suspected, given what they’d learned thus far.

Many of his writings were hard for even the most gifted among them, including Tallus, to make head or tail of, seeming to be flights of fancy that sprang full-blown from his imagination, many written in an abstract, free-form, stream-of-consciousness fashion. It had already been suggested that if he and Timothy were able to meet, they’d have much to talk about, though Tim’s own storytelling talents were more grounded in reality. But there were also writings of his that were very much like straightforward journal entries, many of them describing in detail the humans’ activities he observed in the NIMH facility, others which detailed his own. They, like all of his writings, seemed to be in no particular order as they were brought in—though Tallus suspected that Vincent may have had some personal system that made sense only to him—they were being summarized, catalogued and put in chronological order now, at least the ones that were dated, which were a majority. The ones that the Brisbys pored over now, which definitely fit in the journal category, had been specially set aside when their importance was realized.

Even as they looked over them, they were interrupted by Alcina, who handed them two more pages to add to the bunch. Before much longer, it became clear that this was too vital a matter to keep to themselves any longer; and after some brief discussion, all agreed that this newly-uncovered information about Vincent would need wider dissemination.

* * *

“And there you have it, my friends. I’m sure I needn’t spell out the implications, and what this could mean for our community.”

The Rats and Mice assembled in the meeting hall for this hastily-convened council meeting all looked at each other, nodding. Justin stood and joined Johnathan at the dais. “Well…to sum up, these writings show that Vincent didn’t spend all of his time inside NIMH after all.”

“Yes, and we thought those meetings he had in the woods with Kimball were the extent of his ‘outside’ activity.” Johnathan rubbed his whiskers, looking at Kimball and Patricia in the front row, both of them still silently absorbing the news.

“So if he did have an irrational fear of leaving what he considered home, as we suspected,” said Tallus, “then this would seem to indicate that he was making a concerted effort to overcome it.”

“It’s so sad, though,” said Patricia. “It shows, all the more, what a lonely existence he led there.”

“He needed to do something to…relieve his loneliness, I guess,” ventured Kimball, sighing. “If only for a short while.”

Johnathan looked down upon the lectern in front of him, at the notes he and Madeline had brought from Vincent Central, the ones that detailed the several surprisingly-lengthy excursions that took Vincent away from his home in the NIMH facility, in which he’d met with several female mice who became his temporary mates. In each case, it would be seemingly almost any one that was in estrus at the time. The journal entries described, often in detail that some might find embarrassing, how he’d spend at least a day with each, sometimes longer, and then—so far as the entries read thus far revealed—he’d have nothing further to do with them. There was no specific reason given as to why; in all of the notes read thus far, he didn’t detail his own feelings in any great detail, let alone profess to love any of these women. If he did, it went unexpressed. He would write, in near-clinical terms, that he’d have a mating urge that he needed to satisfy, and once he’d satisfied it he’d find it necessary to return home as soon as possible.

“Well, I must say,” said Colbert, “that it doesn’t present the most flattering portrait of the old boy.”

“I know it sounds judgmental,” said his wife Velma, “but it’s like…he only wanted to ‘love them and leave them,’ without even trying to…make any one of them his permanent mate.”

“We still don’t know everything about his situation,” said Simone. “If he really couldn’t bear to leave his home for very long, then he may have had very good reasons for not wanting to bring one of them back with him…even if he had genuine feelings for her. Considering how risky it had to be just living there, maybe he thought he was sparing them that hardship.”

“But if he truly was in love with any of them,” observed Madeline, “he never said so, as far as we know yet. It’s a shame he couldn’t overcome whatever was keeping him there, if that truly was what was keeping him from having a permanent mate.”

None could say a word to disagree. Mating for life and solid devotion to family were very solid and strong institutions for these rats and mice, so the kind of seemingly-casual flings Vincent had engaged in was near-alien to them.

“And yet it makes a certain amount of sense,” mused Tallus, “when you consider this seemingly-fanatical devotion of his, to his self-appointed mission.”

“The one that kept him from joining us,” added Kimball heavily. “I guess…if he were mated to anything or anyone, it was that; and in his mind, there wouldn’t have been room for another.”

“It’s a pity, all right,” agreed Johnathan, “and it was nine different females he met with, never the same one more than once, far as we know. But…be all that as it may, I’m sure you all know why we brought this matter up, in this way.” Everyone looked around at each other, nodding. None needed the point spelled out.

“We all wish he could have joined us,” said Ages, “but since he couldn’t, now it has to be up to us to pick up the pieces, so to speak. He surely had to have left something behind outside of all of those writings of his…or rather, someone.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Justin. “Some of these liaisons had to have resulted in children, possibly all of them. And, depending on how much Vincent informed these women and how much they were able to understand, those children have been growing up more slowly than their fellow mice and have deeper and greater understanding of many things, but probably without knowing why they’re different.”

“Well, we have the means at hand to find out more about them, and perhaps, reach out to them directly.” Simone looked straight at Johnathan, smiling as she said this, and he picked up on her meaning instantly.

“The Stone,” he confirmed, nodding. “Just as we used it to look into Vincent’s past, or…more specifically, his final moments.” He breathed heavily. “But yes, I should be able to track down these females, and through them their children; and we can make the offer to them to join us.”

“Just as you did with our children,” said Patricia enthusiastically. “Oh, I’m sure they’d all want to come here, once everything’s explained to them.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, love,” said Kimball. “We don’t yet know if Vincent actually sired children with these women; though if he had, it would be nice that he did leave something of himself, outside of his writings.”

Further discussion ensued about how the procedure would be carried out, though it was conditional upon the results of Johnathan’s search with the amulet. The meeting adjourned with renewed enthusiasm on the part of many, particularly on Johnathan, who was looking forward to commencing the search. Just before going to lunch, he and Madeline discussed further details, after which he felt adequately prepared for what needed to be done. His only misgiving was that a major portion of this investigation would feel like an invasion of privacy; since it would, after all, involve witnessing the most personal and intimate moments of Vincent’s meetings with these women, and then Johnathan would have to follow up to determine if each encounter resulted in pregnancy or not. There was nothing else for it, since Vincent wasn’t around to be asked. Of greater importance was determining, beyond any doubt, if he’d actually fathered any offspring and where they were now.

In the dining hall, all of the adult Mice were soon gathered together, mainly the Davis children, their mates, and the older Brisby children. Over lunch, Madeline, Johnathan and Tallus explained how the plan they were working up would call for the services of several of them—Mice, not Rats, the exact number yet to be determined—who would be called upon to introduce themselves to these mice and gently gain their trust and confidence, and ultimately ask if they’d want to join them in this “safe” place where others like them were the norm instead of the exception. Since these mice would likely know nothing of why they were different, a different approach would be called for than the way the Davis children were approached. There were many details yet to be firmed up; but by tomorrow morning, it was hoped, a more definite plan—which was already referred to as Project Vincentkin—would be in place.

Johnathan put to his task, accompanied by Kimball; since he’d known Vincent the best, it was his memories that the Stone would draw upon the most in investigating the past of the “strange one.” He’d probably been the most surprised—flabbergasted, as he put it—to find this out about Vincent, though he admitted that he always felt, in past meetings, that his mysterious friend was holding so much back from him. Johnathan also required a secretary to take down notes on important details that were bound to come to light during this extended session with the Stone, and Alcina eagerly volunteered. The three met at Vincent Central, where they were given privacy and quiet for the task; and in the end, it was completed sooner than they expected—in some three and a half hours—after which the same group of mice gathered in the meeting hall, all eager to hear the results. They were not disappointed.

In all, they found that Vincent had met his nine temporary mates over a period of some four years, and that all of these liaisons appeared to be entirely willing on the part of the females. The first of them was five years ago to the month. Apparently he had held out as long as he could before trying to find a mate for himself, an attempt that, unfortunately, yielded impermanent results—as did all of them, ultimately. Of the nine, two didn’t result in pregnancy, and one appeared to be carrying Vincent’s brood when she was killed by a predator. The remaining six liaisons definitely resulted in pregnancy, with Vincent all but confirmed to be the father in each. From these, thirteen offspring were born, five sets of twins and one of triplets. The youngest five still lived with their mothers. Tragically, two of the elder ones were found to have perished in encounters with predators; and though this was disheartening to learn, there were plenty still living, and everyone vowed to not let themselves be discouraged by the more negative results of the search.

When volunteers were asked for, the first to raise their hands were Cynthia, Timothy, Michael, and Norman. Jessica was reluctant to get too involved in anything that would take her away from her new job for very long, but said she might offer her services later after seeing how the first one or two of the assignments would go. At first the plan was to have all the volunteers approach their charges at the same time, but a more practical plan was quickly agreed upon. Since this was unfamiliar territory they would be getting into, with the ever-present possibility of danger, Johnathan decided that he and the Stone would provide backup service in each case, which would mean that each assignment would have to be carried out one at a time.

The notes Alcina took detailed the location of each of the mice they sought, what kind of environment it was in, the nearness of human habitation, and any other detail believed relevant. Unsurprisingly, all of them were found to be making their homes within a radius of a little over a mile from Vincent’s home in the NIMH facility in the town of Sampson. After further negotiation, it was Cynthia who got the first assignment, which would commence the following morning.

The details were passed on to everyone in the council, who voted in favor of allowing the basics of this project to be passed on to the general population.

It was a bit of a restless evening for Johnathan, anticipating the day to come; but it was perhaps more so for Cynthia, understandably nervous about how her assignment would go. But the time spent in the company of family and friends, all offering their encouragement and best wishes, boosted her confidence greatly, enabling her to relax enough to get a good night’s sleep.

Chapter 11 - Reuben and Lilia

In a thinly-wooded area about half a mile north of the town of Sampson, a sudden flash of light burst out of nowhere, witnessed only by a squirrel that put on a panic-fueled burst of speed up the tree trunk it already perched on.

Quickly adjusting to the sudden change of settings, Cynthia Brisby said, “Well, this is it, isn’t it, Daddy?”

“Yep. Our new friends should be just over that rise,” Johnathan replied, pointing.

“Okay.” She breathed in deep, he gave her a quick good-luck kiss, and off she went. She was a bit apprehensive, not knowing exactly what to expect from these two, though she was already certain she wouldn’t encounter any outright hostility from them. She reminded herself that her father wasn’t far away, staying “in the background” but keeping a watchful eye on her via the amulet, continually monitoring her progress with her charges. At the right time, once she’d gained their trust and confidence, Johnathan would step in to further confirm the information his daughter conveyed to the pair. They would then be allowed to make the choice: either to accompany them to Lahaikshe, or stay put, if they hadn’t decided already. And of course, Johnathan would be ready to step in anytime to offer protection with the Stone if danger threatened, whether it was from a predator or even the very mice they hoped to bring into the fold. They were strangers, after all, and there was always the possibility that they could react with hostility to her. She realized that some of her nervousness was due to this being the first assignment of Project Vincentkin, and so a lot was riding on the results. But she knew she had the confidence to carry this out to the best of her ability.

Once over the rise, Cynthia dropped down on all fours, climbing onto a nearby oak root. There she immediately spied the configuration of roots on the neighboring oak, the one whose appearance she’d committed to memory after Johnathan used the Stone to show it to her just before they’d left Lahaikshe. Upon closer approach she could see the just-large-enough gap on one root’s underside. She remembered how these two mice—a brother and sister, the eldest of Vincent’s children and close to herself in age—were determined to be largely nocturnal in their habits, from what they’d observed; and since it was midmorning, they might be asleep now. There was nothing for it now but to try to introduce herself to them, though they may not be too receptive to company right now, or possibly at any time.

She crept up slowly to the entrance to find that it wasn’t simply a hole: the tenants had fashioned a makeshift gate that was further secured by a large stone. There was a large enough gap to see the den within, and so Cynthia called out quietly: “Hello? Is anyone home?” Almost instantly she could hear movement; apparently she hadn’t awakened anybody. She didn’t have long to wait for a reply.

“Who is it? What do you want?” a male mouse’s voice came forth.

“My name is Cynthia. You don’t know me, but…I’d like to talk with you, if you please. I think you’ll be interested in what I have to say.”

“We don’t know you. You may be a mouse, but we can take care of ourselves. Go away.”

Cynthia was perplexed for a moment. Why would he say something like that, when all she wanted was to talk? Unless she’d awakened them…but he gave no indication of such. “Please…I don’t mean any harm. Just a few minutes of your time, that’s all I’m asking.”

“We don’t have anything you want, and you don’t—”

“Reuben? Who is that? Why won’t you let her in?” The female voice, though soft-spoken and barely audible, nevertheless gave Cynthia renewed hope that she’d be allowed inside.

“It’s all right, Lilia. I’m taking care of this.”

“But…she’s just a mouse. And she sounds nice. What harm can she do us? Please…I want to meet her.”

Cynthia could hear the male sibling moving further back into the den, where he and his sister continued discussing the point more quietly. Their would-be visitor repeated their names to herself: Reuben…Lilia… She felt even more strongly that this visit would have a successful outcome, in spite of Reuben’s initial and puzzling inflexibility. She felt just a little troubled at his apparent display of dominance, but already wondered if there weren’t more to the siblings’ relationship than what first met her ears. Well she remembered her father’s advice: that things aren’t always as they seem; and, he himself readily admitted, he was living proof.

Patiently she continued waiting; finally, after about three minutes of discussion, during which she could distinctly make out some grumbling from Reuben, she was again addressed directly, this time by Lilia: “Cynthia? Is that your name?”

“Yes, it is. And you’re Lilia and Reuben?”

“Yes. We’ll let you in now.”

Cynthia almost asked if they’d prefer to come outside but thought better of it. She could hear the twins pushing the rock aside and then opening the gate. It was interesting, she noted, how Reuben seemed more willing now, though it did take a while for Lilia to convince him to allow in their visitor.

She entered the den, which was dimly lit through a narrow “window.” As her eyes became accustomed to the dimness, she could see more clearly what earlier observations via the Stone had told them: that Lilia was an albino mouse, which did much to explain the siblings’ nocturnal habits. Reuben was more normally colored, grey-furred with darker spots, much like Johnathan.

They all sat on the floor. “Thank you both so much for letting me talk with you. It’s really great to meet you both,” Cynthia said cheerily, determined to ingratiate herself to them as much as possible, though being careful not to overdo it.

Reuben’s tone was unchanged, as businesslike as before. “Why are you here, Cynthia? We’ve never met you, but you talk like you were looking for us.”

Cynthia glanced at Lilia. Though less demonstrative than her brother, she smiled approvingly, seeming grateful just for the company. “Well,” their visitor began, “There’s a lot to tell, but…first let me say that I have been watching you, even if you weren’t aware of me. That probably sounds strange to you, but…it’s because…there are others like me, that are different from most other mice. And…I believe, we believe…that you two may also be like us.”

She paused, glancing back and forth, trying to read their reactions. Both were silent but were clearly interested. Well, I’ve definitely got their attention. Now let’s see…

Before she could say more, Lilia murmured quietly, “We…aren’t like…other mice, most other mice. Maybe…we are like you.”

“Yes, you’re right, Lilia. So would you—”

“These ‘others’…” interrupted Reuben, “where are they? Are they out there?”

“Only one of them is,” Cynthia answered reassuringly, a bit surprised at Reuben’s near-paranoid tone. “He’s my father, in fact, and—”

“You need to leave now,” Reuben said bluntly.

Cynthia tried to conceal her near-shock. She looked to Lilia, but she showed no outward signs of disagreement. “Please…we really mean no harm, none at all. We just—”

“You need to leave,” Reuben repeated, though his body language didn’t seem to indicate any hostile intent. Again Lilia kept silent, though Cynthia was sure she could detect some disappointment in her.

“All right, I’ll leave…but I’ll be right outside if you change your mind.” As she turned for the doorway, Cynthia couldn’t hide her own disappointment, but she didn’t yet believe that this was the end of it.

Outside, she met Johnathan where they’d parted. He could tell by her downcast expression that the initial meeting hadn’t gone well, and she confirmed it. Cynthia detailed her immediate impressions of the siblings’ relationship with each other and recounted their entire conversation. “I think, though, that the two of us together might be able to get through to them, even though it was after I mentioned you when Reuben kicked me out.” She sighed. “I thought I was making progress with them, I don’t know what happened.”

“He sounds excessively cautious, all right,” Johnathan said, “but you did great, sweetie.” He gave her a quick, reassuring hug. “I don’t know why he seems to be so paranoid, but we only know a little bit about their lives so far. Hopefully we can both win them over.”

“A little of the famous Johnathan Brisby charm, huh? That should do the trick.” They both laughed; there was more they wanted to discuss about this strange pair, but instead they got right to business, heading straight for the gate beneath the root, ready for another try, this time together.

Johnathan called out first, and almost immediately was rebuffed with a “Go away!” as Cynthia had been initially. Undaunted, he continued talking to them through the gate, past the stone which the siblings had replaced. He called them by name, speaking reassuringly and non-confrontationally, telling them the place where they’d come from would be so much better for them—“just as it’s been good for us,” he was quick to add. He added that if they were at all curious about their father and where he’d come from, he could provide that information too. He and Cynthia looked at each other, smiling and nodding, both certain that would be enough to win them over.

They waited silently for a moment, listening for any sign that the siblings were interested in hearing more. All the while Reuben hadn’t interrupted Johnathan, so he and Lilia had to have been interested; and now, more whispered discussion could be heard from within. A pleading tone was coming from Lilia, and Cynthia hoped she wouldn’t let her brother’s seeming intransigence discourage her. From what little she’d seen of them so far, Cynthia felt for her greatly, unable to resist feeling disturbed by Reuben’s seeming dominance of her. Whatever these two have been through, she doesn’t deserve this, she thought.

“Did I mention,” Johnathan called out, “that there are no predators there? Nothing that’s suddenly going to attack you without warning. It’s as safe as—”

Without a word, Reuben and Lilia came forward to move the stone away from the gate again, after which he told Johnathan and Cynthia, “Come in.” The offer was accepted, to their delight. They all sat down, and Reuben asked Johnathan, with little emotion but obvious curiosity, to tell them more. Lilia continued to be silent but was plainly just as interested as before.

And so, for close to an hour, father and daughter continued playing the role of salesmen, extolling the virtues of Freethorn and the advantages of living there. They briefly described how the NIMH experiments had made them what they are, and their father Vincent as well. The siblings listened attentively with no further interruption, and though it was hard to read what kind of impact all this had on Reuben, Lilia, though silent, actually reacted more demonstratively: smiling, sighing, gasping as she took in this information which had to be extraordinary for them both to hear. Clearly, neither had imagined anything like this was possible, let alone that they’d be a part of it.

“Well,” Johnathan said at length, “I think we’ve told you enough for now. We’ll leave you two alone for a while, and give you time to decide.” He and Cynthia got up and started to head outside, knowing they’d only scratched the surface and hoping they’d left them wanting more.

Reuben, however, called them back, telling them that since they’d told so much about who they were, that he should do the same. And so, with Reuben doing all of the talking, he described the basics of his and Lilia’s lives: how their mother, Nina, had taken good care of them up until her death of natural causes when they were still quite young, though she hadn’t taken another mate since her time with Vincent. She’d never mentioned their father by name, and if she spoke of him at all it was with a certain amount of bitterness. Since Nina’s death, the two had lived completely on their own. Reuben described matter-of-factly but with noticeable pride how he’d taken good care of them both; and Lilia, though still remaining silent, seemed to agree wholeheartedly, smiling and nodding.

“So…I guess you know all about us by now,” concluded Reuben. Lilia looked ready to add something; but though she remained silent—or at least non-verbal—she couldn’t have concealed her enthusiasm to save her life.

“Thank you for being so forthcoming, Reuben,” said Johnathan. “At first it looked like you didn’t trust us, and that’s all right; we were strangers, after all.”

“But we aren’t now,” added Cynthia, “or at least we’re less so. Anyway, we hope you’ll want to come back with us. We’d love to have you.”

“And believe us: you’ll have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. And if you want to just give it a try, to see if it suits you, that’s okay too. So…we’ll leave you again so you can talk it over.”

“Just let us know when you’re ready,” said Cynthia as she and Johnathan got to their feet.

Outside, they sat down a couple of feet from the gate, quietly discussing this meeting, sharing their initial impressions of the pair. Certainly they had some rough edges, and they might even prove to be something of a challenge, but it was understandable given their complete lack of knowledge about their own heritage. But their intelligence was just as clear, as was their curiosity about their prospective new home. Cynthia admitted being bothered a little by the most obvious aspect of their relationship, though: “She speaks so little, and I guess it’s because she’s naturally shy; but it’s also as if…he doesn’t let her speak for herself, at least most of the time.”

“Or maybe some of both,” agreed Johnathan. “Though it did sound like he’d conceded to her a time or two. Anyhow, once they’ve been among us a while, I’m sure they’ll—”

“We’re ready,” a voice announced to them, making them jump. They looked to see both Reuben and Lilia just outside their den, Lilia shielding her eyes from the direct daylight. “We decided we’ll go with you,” continued Reuben. “We’ve packed a few things, and we’re ready to go.” He still spoke with little obvious emotion, as seemed to be the norm for him.

Father and daughter looked at each other, surprised but pleasantly so, not expecting the siblings to decide this soon; and both, they would admit later, feeling a sense of accomplishment. “Well, then,” said Johnathan, much cheerier of mien, “Let us be the first to welcome you to our community. There’ll be many more of us who will be glad to see you and make you feel at home.” He shook both of their hands; and Lilia, though still mostly silent, showed her thanks more eloquently, hugging both Cynthia and Johnathan, murmuring thank-yous. Reuben didn’t stop her but still appeared to chafe at this behavior from her.

“I knew,” Lilia finally said to Cynthia, again barely above a whisper, “when I first heard your voice. There was…something about you, I knew we could trust you.”

“Thank you, Lilia. And you too, Reuben. We hope we’ll be worthy of your trust.”

They took a few minutes to brief the siblings on what they could expect most immediately, both the trip to Lahaikshe and what would happen when they got there, including the “dip” treatment, emphasizing that it may seem undignified but it was necessary for all new arrivals. They were agreeable to it, and by the time they were ready to make the jump, Johnathan wondered if Reuben agreed to this mostly for Lilia’s sake, since she was the one displaying any real enthusiasm. He figured that if this were Reuben’s normal demeanor, that it didn’t really matter, since both of them were coming along willingly.

A minute later, after the twins had brought out their small bundles, all four mice had joined hands; and seconds later, two more were on their way to becoming Freethorn’s newest residents.

* * *

“Hey, c'mon, Ellis! They’re back!”

“Who’s back, Luce?”

“Johnathan and Cynthia, silly! And they’re not alone, either!”

The young mouse got up out of his chair, but before he could say “Hey, wait up,” his sister had already dashed away. He’d been sitting in their mother’s studio, catching up on some quiet study-time, but was ready to drop whatever he was doing when they’d return. Now, hearing of the apparent success of this first mission fueled his enthusiasm all the more, at least as much as it did Lucy; they and many others greatly looked forward to meeting the children of Vincent, which, it was hoped, would want to become the newest residents of the community. So he headed out of the Davis family home inside the newly-minted Mouse colony, making for the prearranged location where they would arrive.

Sure enough, there was already a sizable and still-growing assemblage of curious onlookers in Oak Park, in the shade of the big burr oak. This had been agreed upon as one of the more suitable spots, mostly because it was a more naturalistic setting, with little obvious signs of the influence the inhabitants of this place have over it. It was the best way to ease the transition for the newcomers, to make it a less radical change for them, rather than showing them the Rat and Mouse colonies right away, which were certainly an extreme change from the dwelling places of natural rats and mice, as different as its inhabitants were from their natural counterparts.

The council had passed along word of this project to the general population, mainly that the first assignment was being carried out today and that this would be the spot where they’d be arriving. There was the condition, though, that crowd control would be strictly enforced; Ellis could already see Guard rats circulating among those who had already gathered, tactfully discouraging those already gathered from approaching too close until the okay was given. Conversation was kept quiet and low-key, but with plenty of speculation over what the newcomers would be like, given what was known so far about their father.

Through the crowd, Ellis wended his way for a closer look. The voice of Mr. Ages could be easily heard over the hubbub: “Now, stop crowding in so close! Give them room! Is this any way to welcome them?” Ellis grinned; though order was being kept very well, some in the crowd were still too close to suit Ages. The area closest to the trunk seemed to be the center of the action; and soon Ellis spotted his litter-mates Bertie and Lucy and some of his other siblings, and joined them where the view was unobstructed.

There was Johnathan Brisby, his second daughter Cynthia, and two other mice: one with grey and brown fur like Johnathan, who seemed inclined to stick close to the other, the sight of whom contributed in no small measure to the murmuring of the crowd. Her fur was white as snow, and where skin could be seen, it was pale pink. Ellis blinked, momentarily disbelieving his eyes; then he remembered what they’d all been taught about albinism, and how it was a fairly common mutation, though this was the first he’d seen an albino in the flesh. Or at least an albino mouse; he and Lucy and Bertie did see an albino squirrel once, during the period after they’d left their old home. The pair’s fur was still a bit damp, and they were being fanned dry by Bernadette and Jessica; Ellis smiled as he remembered how he and his siblings were all given the “dip” treatment upon their arrivals here.

The four had actually arrived at this spot some twenty minutes ago, where Ages, Bernadette and Jessica were already awaiting them, equipped with a batch of the Dip and warm rinse water. Bernadette was the first rat Reuben and Lilia had seen here, and both were initially uneasy around her, in spite of having been prepared; but they quickly adjusted, becoming polite and cooperative. After initial introductions, Bernadette echoed Johnathan’s earlier “apology” for the “undignified” welcome as the new arrivals’ treatment began. Lilia seemed to enjoy it more, laughing gently as Jessica poured and spread the solution over her. Reuben seemed to regard it more pragmatically, maintaining a stony silence as Bernadette treated him. All the while, Johnathan and Cynthia continued speaking encouragingly, filling them in on what they could look forward to in their new lives here. After some fifteen minutes both were rinsed thoroughly; and while they were being toweled and fanned dry, those others who’d begun to gather, curious and eager to meet the newcomers, were allowed to come closer, to Ages’s initial annoyance.

“So,” Johnathan now addressed the crowd, “for those who came in late…this is Reuben, and this is Lilia, and they’re our newest residents…provided, of course, that they choose to stay. I’d like all of you to do everything possible to make them feel at home, and ease their transition. This is a really big change for them, from their old life in the woods, and…”

“Er, Johnathan…”

“Oh! Go ahead, Reuben.”

“We’ll be all right here, really,” said Reuben loudly enough for most to hear. “Nobody has to put themselves out or anything. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

Lilia, all the while, hid her eyes almost completely—against the daylight, everyone guessed—and clung close to Reuben’s side. Those who saw these two upon arrival had gotten the initial impression of one who appeared shy and a bit apprehensive, perhaps out of her physical differences, but also curious about her new surroundings; and another who was more wary, and protective of his sister. Now, though Reuben seemed no less protective, Lilia was proving to be more than she had seemed just a few minutes ago. Though she still kept her eyes shaded, she didn’t seem especially fearful of her new surroundings or all these strangers. She was looking about with increasing fascination, even smiling, at the sky, the majestic oak and other vegetation, and finally at her new neighbors. She returned their greetings, smiling and waving and saying nearly inaudible hellos; while Reuben maintained a more serious and businesslike demeanor, barely smiling and giving no more than simple hellos.

“Well…er, Reuben, I guess we can start the grand tour anytime,” Johnathan now said, slightly taken aback by Reuben’s declaration. “I guess the first order of business will be to show you your new quarters.”

“Right this way,” instructed Cynthia. “Just go with Johnathan. I’ll catch up with you in a couple of minutes.” The three mice started off; others followed along at a respectful distance, to help out or out of curiosity.

They passed by where Ellis and some of his siblings were standing; and Lilia, still shading her eyes, suddenly locked eyes with him. She smiled, seeming as fascinated by him as he was with her, actually lowering her hand for a few seconds. “Hello,” she said quietly, blinking and squinting.

“Uh…hi, Lilia,” responded Ellis, a bit taken aback, not expecting her to be this forward. “I’m Ellis, and this is my sister Lucy, my brother Bertie. We’re litter-mates, we three…”

“There’ll be plenty of time to meet everyone, Lilia,” Reuben abruptly interjected. “Come along, you shouldn’t be this long in the daylight. Go ahead, Johnathan, lead the way.” He began pulling Lilia away, but she didn’t seem bothered by this apparent display of dominance; she seemed to take it in stride, and as they walked away, she turned her head, again locking eyes with Ellis, smiling and waving at him once more. Johnathan could only give them a feeble shrug as he led them away.

“Well, what do you know about that,” said Lucy, shaking her head. “Like she can’t make any decision on her own! Boy, what a jerk!”

“Really,” agreed Bertie. “Talk about overprotective. If I tried treating you like that…”

“You’d be roadkill. Right, Ellis?” Lucy looked to her right. “Ellis? Where’d you go?”

Not far away, on the other side of the oak, two others were catching up on each other’s company. They came out of their embrace to look at each other.

“It’s so great to have you back, Cynthia. It’s been a long time. I’ve missed you.”

Cynthia laughed. “It hasn’t been that long, silly. Just a few hours.” She sighed. “But I’ve missed you too, Michael.” They kissed gently. “And you’ll be starting your assignment pretty soon, too. I hope it goes as well as mine; Daddy says I carried it out like a pro. ’Course, it was really him and me…but it still went really well.”

“Well, we’ve seen the success of it, in spite of…well, Reuben being like he seems to be.”

“You mean how protective he is of Lilia?”

“There you are, Cynthia! I was looking for…” Ellis hesitated as he saw his older brother. “Oh, hi, Michael. Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” Ears reddening, he looked ready to turn tail.

“That’s okay, little brother,” said Michael good-naturedly. “We’re just catching up.”

“Hi, Ellis,” said Cynthia with equal cheerfulness. “Just a little private consultation. He’s got the next assignment tomorrow.” She paused, looking as if she and Michael were sharing a private joke. “So…what did you want to say?”

“Well, it’s…about those two, Reuben and Lilia. I was just curious; what is it with him? Why won’t he let her do anything? I mean, if that scene back there is any indication.” Ellis described the scene, from his point of view, to them. “She just wanted to say hello, and he yanks her away. Why would he treat her like that?”

“Well,” replied Cynthia, “he is very protective of her; I guess you could say overprotective. Apparently he’s been that way since their mother died, when they were still pretty small. He immediately took charge of the welfare of both of them, keeping them from danger, bringing food and everything. It’s really amazing. I can’t imagine any of us being able to handle a situation like that when we were that age.”

“Wow,” said Ellis, genuinely impressed. “Got to give him credit for that. So I guess it’s just a matter of his keeping up old habits, or instincts or whatever you’d call them.”

“What about Lilia, though?” asked Michael. “Is she really as shy as she seems, or does she just seem that way when she’s with Reuben?”

“Oh, she’s shy, all right,” replied Cynthia. “More than almost anyone else I’ve seen. I can’t really say if Reuben is responsible; I guess he couldn’t be completely. From what I’ve seen, though, he hardly lets her do so much as lift a finger for herself, and she hardly ever left their den. He pretty much told us that himself. That, and the fact that she’s sensitive to daylight, and they’re mostly nocturnal…”

“Sounds like both of them need to loosen up and live a little,” said Ellis. “Now that they’re here, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I hope so. He sure doesn’t need to play the constant chaperone here, and if he lets go more, that should make it easier for Lilia to come out of her shell.”

Ellis just nodded in reply; then, he thanked Cynthia for the information, and turned and left her and Michael alone. He hardly left the matter behind, though. The image was still strong, of this beautiful and unique creature who, it still seemed, was being treated unjustly for just trying to be sociable. It was he whom she had specifically approached, before anyone else, as if she were as fascinated by him as he was of her. He now wondered why; what would she find special about him? One thing was clear; there was something mutual there. Well, there should be plenty of time to find out what it is, he figured. He broke into a run to catch up with the others involved in orienting the newcomers, perhaps spurred on by the sight of Michael and Cynthia together.

On the trail back to the Mouse community, that voice, like a warm, gentle breeze, came back to him; though it was only “Hello,” he knew even then it would remain burned into his memory.

Chapter 12 - "No-Name"

After seeing off her father and Michael Davis on phase two of Project Vincentkin, Cynthia Brisby kept busy with her usual duties in the medical department as well as helping Reuben and Lilia get settled. But she was greatly looking forward to hearing and seeing the results of Michael’s mission. Certainly she and many others were curious to see how it would compare to Cynthia’s assignment, though the jury was still out on whether Reuben and/or Lilia would ultimately want to stay. Thus far they’d seemed reluctant to do much mixing with their new neighbors. It was understandable, given their lives so far; so it was hoped that, given time, they would “loosen up and live a little.” For the time being at least, the two would share an apartment, one of the vacant units Johnathan had most recently completed.

Ellis, meanwhile, opted to try steering clear of the pair, following advice from Timothy. He, like the others on the scene at their arrival, had noticed Lilia’s apparent interest in Ellis but felt that it might be best if he waited a while longer, until the pair had become better accustomed to life here, before approaching her—without actually trying to avoid her, of course. That would be difficult, especially after they began attending classes regularly; they were already undergoing tests and interviews today to determine what grade level they should be placed in. They allowed the possibility that Lilia’s greeting to Ellis could have been just her displaying natural kindness; although, Ellis was quick to point out, Lilia didn’t seem interested in Bertie the same way, and he was right there at his side.

By midafternoon, there was again a team of volunteers, ready to begin orientation for the next newcomer to Freethorn, including the unceremonious “dip” treatment. This time Johnathan promised he would return with a progress report before he and Michael brought their newest charge here, to provide a heads-up for the team and prevent a too-lengthy wait for them. The group had assembled in Oak Park in anticipation of Johnathan’s report, some three hours after his and Michael’s departure; but after they’d been waiting over a half hour there was some concern expressed, since it was about that much time that Johnathan was overdue.

Presently Cynthia arrived, and her timing turned out to be near-impeccable: Jessica had barely begun updating her when a welcome flash of light heralded the arrival of…three? No, everyone noticed, it was only Johnathan and Michael. Cynthia greeted both of them, but they were quick to acknowledge the fact that they were one person short.

“Didn’t he want to come with you?” Cynthia asked; and almost at once she felt a bit foolish, recalling Reuben and Lilia’s initial rebuff of her yesterday.

“It’s…a bit complicated,” said Michael with noticeable disappointment. “It was hard to tell for sure, but…” He sighed. “I guess we should start from the beginning.” Johnathan nodded; and after greeting the others in the small group—which included Tallus, there to represent the council—they did so.

“Well,” Johnathan said, “when I first looked up our new friend two days ago, I could tell that he was…well, I’m still not sure how to put this, exactly. On one hand, he’d survived on his own for quite a while, in spite of his seeming to be…I don’t know, almost like he was in his own world. I don’t want to sound unkind, but…”

“…But that proved to be an accurate enough description,” Michael finished. “We should probably start with what you found out about his past, Johnathan.”

“You’re right.” He paused to look down at the amulet. “Well, what Kimball and I found was that he and his brother lived with their mother for around two years; and, like Reuben and Lilia’s mom, she didn’t seem to have another mate afterwards. But there were noticeable differences between the two brothers. One seemed more normal—that is, more like us—but it looked as if neither had the best relationship with their mother. One day she decided she couldn’t handle him anymore—the ‘unusual’ one—and kicked him out of the nest, left him to fend for himself. His brother seemed to take exception to this, and after a short time, he left on his own to join our friend. They settled together in a niche under the cement foundation of an abandoned farm outbuilding.

“Sometime after that, the more normal brother was…killed by a farmyard cat.” Johnathan paused, sighing, shaking his head. “After that, our friend seemed to survive well enough on his own, a bit surprising considering what we’d seen of him.”

“And,” continued Michael, “I guess this is where we came in, or me first anyway. When I first called on him, I asked him to invite me in, but I got no answer. I asked him again; same result, so I let myself in. I found him just sitting silently in the middle of his den, staring straight ahead, and he didn’t acknowledge my presence, not that I could see. I just sat down with him and started talking to him, plying him with all manner of questions. I complimented him on well he’d kept himself. I kept it up for nearly an hour, but it seemed to be to no avail. Not once did he directly acknowledge my presence, let alone tell me his name, even.

“All at once ‘No-Name’ abruptly interrupted his trance or whatever you’d call it, and got up and walked right past me to the door. I followed him outside and kept talking to him. He relieved himself, burying his scat afterwards. Then he started gathering some food—some berries, seeds, acorns—using a broad leaf as a carry-bag. He brought it inside and ate some of it, putting the rest with his other food stores. Then he sat down in the same spot as before and resumed his trancelike state. There was a look on his face of intense concentration, like he was in a silent debate with an opponent I couldn’t see. I noticed he seemed as physically fit as any of us—though he’s definitely a little thinner and leaner—with a body that didn’t appear as soft as this lack of activity would seem to suggest.

“I hadn’t yet told him anything about where I was from, but finally I said outright that there was a place that I and a friend could take him to that was much safer and warmer, where food was more plentiful. I even told him that he could learn more about his father if he wished. I was sure that would bring some kind of reaction out of him, even a small one. But still there was nothing; and I hate to admit it, but my patience was starting to wear thin.

“Eventually No-Name got up to go outside again, and I again followed. Again he gathered some food, and this time I helped him do it, to see how he’d react. It almost looked like he was ready to say something, give some indication that I was helping him, but I couldn’t be sure. But after about two minutes of this, it didn’t matter. We knew that the farmyard cat that killed No-Name’s brother was still around, and we were prepared for it just in case; and, well, it didn’t disappoint. Suddenly it appeared, and instantly I called out in alarm, dropped what I’d gathered and took off for No-Name’s den. But apparently he was aware of it before me, because he was scurrying just ahead of me. Just before I reached the entrance I glanced behind me just in time to see the cat strangely floating in the air away from us. I realized it had to be Johnathan and the Stone to the rescue.”

Cynthia was left almost breathless by this part of the story, and almost unconsciously reached over to place her hand on Michael’s. He continued: “I stopped just inside, catching my breath, and soon Johnathan joined us. No-Name, meanwhile, was just sitting again, though looking a little different than his previous trancelike state: a little more attentive to his surroundings, I guess. I was still a little agitated myself after that close call, and that state I was in before, with my patience running thin, was still in effect, I’m not proud to say.

“I went up to No-Name, taking hold of his shoulders, and said, ‘You were in your own world before, but you can run from danger just like that! And you still won’t even acknowledge me! Why?’ It was the first actual physical contact I had with him, and I almost shook him. Johnathan urged me to calm down, and…suddenly I felt ashamed of my outburst. We just sat and watched him put away the things he’d brought in, which he hadn’t dropped. Then he sat down again, in the same spot as before, and resumed looking like he concentrating intently.” Michael sighed, and Cynthia stroked his arm.

Johnathan resumed the story: “So… then I made my own attempt to get through to him, sitting beside him and talking to him quietly about where we’d come from and why he should return with us there. When I posed the question to him directly—if he wanted to come with us—it was quite a surprise for us both. He actually gave a verbal response for the first time. He said ‘No.’”

Michael sighed. “After all my attempts to communicate with him, all the while not being sure if I was even getting through, it came down to that…or seemed to, anyway. I wondered if it really was in response to Johnathan’s question, or if it was part of that…strange inner dialogue he seemed continuously involved in. We talked it over a little while longer, and then tried talking to him a little more, to see if he would clarify what he meant. But he wouldn’t say another word.”

“We finally had to conclude that there was nothing more we could do, at least not today,” said Johnathan. “We couldn’t and wouldn’t force him to come along, so we had no choice but to let that be his final answer. We did tell him that we’d return in about a month or so in case he’d reconsidered.”

“When we were going out his door, though…I looked back at him one last time, and he was still just sitting there. But now, I could have sworn his expression was different, like when we were outside just before the cat attacked. This time it almost looked like he was…sad, like there was more he wanted to say, but couldn’t. I’m positive there was something more he wanted to tell us, but he couldn’t make himself understood.”

“We’ll still make that follow-up visit, though,” promised Johnathan. “There’s got to be more to him than meets the eye, and I’m positive this story isn’t over.”

“He was a four-legged riddle, all right,” said Michael. His lightness of tone couldn’t hide his disappointment completely, though, and Cynthia stroked his shoulder consolingly. She’d found it hard to conceal her dismay over the details of the two brothers’ story, nor her apprehension when Michael had described his close call with the cat. She had found within herself a great sense of empathy with him, as much as she’d experienced with Timothy in the many times they’d confided in each other. She wanted to hold and comfort him all the more, but didn’t want to make too big a spectacle, something they’d mutually agreed upon.

Tallus had listened to the account silently, but now he said, “You know, this condition of No-Name’s…it reminds me of one that occurs among humans, called autism, in which it can be difficult to relate emotionally to or communicate one’s thoughts or feelings with others.”

“Aah…I think I’ve read about that,” said Cynthia.

“So have I,” said Johnathan. “But if it is, it would be a first among mice. Then again, all of us are ‘firsts’ among mice and rats.”

Michael laughed. “You can say that again.” He sighed, still unable to banish his disappointment completely.

“Michael, I hope you’re not blaming yourself,” said Cynthia. “You couldn’t have known what he would be like.”

“She’s right,” agreed Johnathan. “These are all strangers we’re dealing with, after all.”

“I know,” said Michael, “and I’m not…much. And we were strangers here not that long ago. Still…I definitely shouldn’t have been so short with him. It bugs me that my yelling at him like that may have been the reason, or at least part of it, why he refused to come with us.”

“Well, until we know for sure the nature of his condition, Michael,” said Tallus, “I’d reserve any further judgment…on yourself or him.”

“I know, Tallus…and thanks.”

“So…if you want the next assignment tomorrow, Michael, it’s yours,” said Johnathan. “But if you’d rather not, I’ll understand.”

“Well…this one may have been a failure, at least for now…but who knows, the rest of them may go a lot more smoothly. All the same, though, I think I’ll pass for now.”

“That’s fine. I know Tim’s been chomping at the bit, so he’ll be glad to get the next one.”

The team chatted a bit more about what lay ahead, both in Project Vincentkin and in general, before breaking up for the day, the same group agreeing to meet here tomorrow at an earlier hour, accounting for the Earth-Lahaikshe time difference. They’d known from the outset that they’d be adjusting the operating hours for these assignments from day to day, so that they’d be calling on their charges during daylight or early-evening hours.

Lunch was still being served, so most of them adjourned to the dining hall; two of the group, however, lingered a bit longer in the park.

“It’ll be all right, Michael,” consoled Cynthia. “I’ll bet that when you see No-Name again, we’ll have a better idea of what he wants and what his story is.” She took his hand. “Come on, let’s do a little climbing.” She pointed to a low-hanging limb on the big burr oak, then to its trunk.

“Uh, Cynthia,” said Michael curiously, “in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not exactly a squirrel here.” Still, he allowed her to lead him to the trunk, where they climbed it side by side. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve climbed trees to get a look around, and even a couple times to escape danger…”

“But never just for the fun of it? Sounds like someone else besides Reuben needs to live it up a bit.” She laughed, then said, “I guess that isn’t very fair…to him or you.”

“Actually, you’re probably right.” They reached the limb and ventured out a couple of feet, then sat with feet dangling. As they got comfortable, they noted the approaching grey clouds, a sure sign of rain; though neither was especially concerned about being caught in a downpour. Michael and his family had already experienced for themselves Lahaikshe-style precipitation, characterized by slow and steady rains, rarely enough to cause flooding, with individual raindrops that were as sized down as the native plant and animal life and many other things. Michael looked at Cynthia, smiling, placing an arm around her shoulders.

“Cynthia, remember our first long conversation after I arrived?”

“Sure, of course.”

“Well…I told you how I’d been looking forward to coming to Thorn Valley, even though I really had no idea what to expect; because all I had to go on was Dad’s…assumption, is really what it was, that the Rats were living there.”

“But it’s like he knew that they’d settle here, or rather there, eventually. He said it was really just logic, but…you really have to wonder if that’s his ‘special’ ability.”

“It can’t be just coincidence, that’s for sure. Actually…the main reason I brought it up was because…I had this great sense myself that it would be like coming home, that it was where I belonged, where all of us did. And I may not have any idea of what to realistically expect, but…since I’ve come here, everything is just…so right. I think that’s why I was so quick to volunteer for Project Vincentkin; with other mice like us out there, I wanted them to share in what we have here. And…when I say everything, I really mean everything and everyone.”

Michael drew a bit closer to Cynthia, drawing arms around her, and she reacted in kind. “Cynthia, I said that you were a big part of why I felt like I’d truly come home. And the more I’m with you…”

Suddenly neither saw the need for further words, as they both glanced about furtively; then, satisfied that no one seemed to be watching, they brought their lips together. It wasn’t the first kiss they’d shared, but this was the longest one so far…and the one, they’d believe later, that marked a turning point.

When they looked upon each other again, they could only gaze in each other’s eyes for a moment; then Cynthia said, “Oh, Michael…I never told you this, but…ever since your dad told Tim and me about you and your sibs, I…was fascinated with you, with his description of you. Even before we met, I was looking forward to meeting you. Of course I wanted to meet all of you, but…you most of all. I still can’t quite explain it, but…”

“…But it makes perfect sense now, doesn’t it?” He kissed her again. They held each other close for another minute silently, less concerned now over possible witnesses. He pulled away to gaze into her eyes and decided there was no time like the present. “I love you, Cynthia. You’ve been so good to me, good for me…and I know it’s only going to get better.”

“Michael…” Her voice was a near-breathless whisper. “I love you.” They kissed again, and as they embraced, they agreed that they’d both had enough of trying to conceal how fond they were of each other, especially now that they’d openly declared their feelings. Still…at this moment, they felt the need to be secretive just a little longer. And so, after making their way back to the ground, Cynthia led him to a more secluded spot where they could continue their discussion, and whatever it may lead them to.

Chapter 13 - Boris and Seelah

At the crack of dawn a small group gathered in the Brisby courtyard to see off Johnathan and Timothy. In this assignment, their charges were a mated pair, the male being Vincent’s child. There were originally two siblings, but one of them, a female, had been killed by a fox some months earlier; but since then another female mouse had become the surviving sibling’s mate. They’d been observed enough for their hoped-to-be benefactors to tell that they were likely to prove to be less of a challenge than their predecessors, appearing to be less reclusive and more approachable than Lilia, Reuben or No-Name.

Timothy was eager to get started in spite of the crack-of-dawn beginning, necessary due to the concurrent early-evening time back on Earth, since they didn’t want to call on their charges too late in the day. Johnathan recalled his and Kimball’s first look at the pair; the image appeared on the Stone’s face, and he willed the Stone to take them a short ways from their location. With a flash father and son were on their way.

Once they’d reached their destination, they took a moment to get the lay of the place and go over the basics of the plan, as well as adjust to the sudden cold and dark with the onset of night here. They were in a small wooded lot on the northern outskirts of the town of Sampson. It was only about two acres in size, with a creek running through it and the house near the street and well away from them. No humans were in sight, only a few birds and a squirrel. Already Timothy had a strong sense of success for this leg of the project, so he strode off eagerly. He was instantly reminded of their old summer home off the Fitzgibbons farm, the more so considering the couple’s home was near the creek bank.

He strolled right up to the entrance, familiarly placed under a root. Just inside was a cobbled-together but sturdy gate, much like Reuben and Lilia’s. He hesitated a moment, hoping that he wasn’t catching them at a bad time; then he called out: “Hello! Is anyone home?”

“Who is it?” a male voice sounded—almost, it seemed to Timothy, in expectancy.

“My name is Timothy Brisby. We’ve never met, but I’d like to meet you now, if you’ll let me.”

Surprisingly quickly, the gate opened, and Timothy stepped back to allow the one who spoke to step just outside. He had an unusual fur pattern: mostly black with irregular brown and white patches. For a moment he studied his visitor, and Timothy briefly wondered if he would turn him away like Reuben initially did with Cynthia; then he suddenly broke into a broad grin.

“It’s you! I knew you’d come! Oh, come in, please!” He grabbed Timothy’s hand, pulling his bemused but pleased guest all the way inside. Already it was clear to him that he would not only hit it off well with the pair, but that they had more in common than their origins.

His host and hostess immediately invited him to make himself comfortable, introducing themselves as Boris and Seelah. Timothy had to know right away how Boris seemed to recognize him.

“I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said that when I did, Timothy. I should have told you more about us right away.” His words were belied by his effusive manner; he was obviously eager to share his story with his guest. “It’s just that…well, I see things, I guess you could say. Not like dreams, ’cause I have them when I’m awake. And there was one I had, a few days ago, where I saw two mice approach me and beckon me to follow them. One of them looked like you. I was…filled with such a feeling of anticipation, of hope. I called for Seelah, and both of us followed them. And then it was like…the whole area changed, it became a…a place with high walls. But I didn’t feel trapped; instead I felt like I was…I was home.”

“He has these often,” confirmed Seelah. “He’ll just stop what he’s doing, and stare straight ahead without saying anything. And then he’ll be back to normal. It scared me a little at first, but now I look forward to hearing all about his…visions, he calls them.”

Timothy could only listen silently, absorbing it all: a mouse that resembled himself, the high walls, a feeling of coming home. For a moment he couldn’t say a word to save his life, but then it occurred to him: with the talents and abilities of his fellow NIMH-advanced mice and rats, of course Vincent’s children would have unique attributes of their own. These visions of Boris’s were likely just as much a part of him as his own intuitive ability and other talents. He almost asked Boris to describe the other mouse in his vision; then he had a better idea.

“So,” he finally said, “I guess you’re wondering how I found out about you. First, though, before we discuss anything…if you’re willing, I’d like to bring in a second guest.” Boris and Seelah agreed, their curiosity piqued; and so Timothy stepped outside and called out: “Dad! Johnathan Brisby! Come on in!” As his hosts watched from the doorway, another mouse approached.

Boris’s eyes quickly grew as wide as when he first saw Timothy. “It’s you! I saw you in my vision, along with Timothy here!”

Johnathan looked at his son quizzically. Timothy quickly introduced everyone, then all went inside. Johnathan gave the pair the basics of their common origins and where they were living now—though little yet about Boris’s father—and then urged Boris to share his background. His visitors were especially eager to hear all about those visions in which Boris had claimed to have, essentially, foreseen this very visit. Obviously he had to be something of a visionary, much like his father.

First, though, Boris took a moment to absorb all he’d been told; then he gave both Johnathan and Timothy a big hug, telling them how they’d made so clear aspects of his life that had been puzzling, not the least of which was why he and his sister were so different from other mice.

Boris told his visitors about how he and his sister Doris had been taken care of by their mother Daria until her death last year, after which they’d successfully fended for themselves like Reuben and Lilia. Even before then, they were aware of their differences with their contemporaries, making unusual observations and having unusual talents or insights. At an early age, Boris began having waking visions that would arrive without warning—visions which, whether by luck or design, always happened when he was in a safe place and not vulnerable to attack. Images would come to him, many sharply delineated and of very real-appearing places and things, and others harder to figure out, seeming to symbolize other things. Doris’s talent, as Boris described it, was strikingly similar to Timothy’s: it manifested itself more as intuitive feelings or hunches about how a situation would turn out, and like those of Timothy’s, they would almost always come true. She also shared Timothy’s storytelling prowess, often using Boris’s visions as a springboard for some wildly imaginative flights of fancy. Daria seemed to tolerate it all; though, as Boris described it, she never really understood much of what they said and did, but they never doubted that she loved them.

Johnathan and Timothy absorbed all this with great interest, already—Timothy especially—feeling some sorrow over Doris’s premature demise, the degree to which Boris missed her already evident as he spoke about her. But it was also evident that there was a greater degree of sophistication and knowledgeability in his narration, as if he’d had some prior education as the Davis children had.

Boris went on to describe how his visions eventually began to take a different turn: certain ones would recur, ones that left him with a feeling of seeking out…something, places beyond his and Doris’s fairly safe but rather dull lives. Even as still quite young children, both possessed a thirst for knowledge that on a couple of occasions prompted them to try setting off on their own, though not permanently.

“One day I had a vision of a building in the nearby town, a place where I knew, both of us knew, was someplace where we needed to go to learn more about the world outside of this little corner. Doris had a feeling just like I did about this place, even though we’d barely even seen any human buildings, or any humans either. We begged Mom to let us go to find this place, but she thought it was just nonsense, just our imaginations running away with us. So we stayed home, though we didn’t like it very much.” Boris gave a small chuckle. “It’s probably just as well; we were pretty young at the time, after all. But it wasn’t the last time that we’d make such an attempt. She had so much patience, Mom did. I suppose…we could have appreciated more how much she loved us and cared for our safety, or at least shown our appreciation more, before she died.”

“So you were having visions of things that you’d never seen or known about?”

“That’s right, Timothy. And another one I had several times was a very clear image of a large white building, and I knew it had to be important, like it had something to do with us, I don’t know what.”

Johnathan and Timothy looked at each other, impressed; neither had to suggest what this white building could be. They decided to hold off voicing it aloud for now; but Boris noticed their exchange and asked them if they knew something about it.

“We do have a pretty good idea,” said Johnathan, “but we’d really like to hear more of your story first.”

“All right.” Though he looked agreeable, he seemed initially reluctant; it wasn’t hard to guess why. “Well, it was a couple of years ago that…we lost our mother. She died in her sleep, and all we could do was just bury her, and mourn her. But we knew we had to move on. We were on our own now, and I never stopped having those visions I’d had of this…‘place of knowledge.’ We decided to leave and try to find this place, and it’s like I knew the way. It was further into the town, this place…a library, it was called. We made a new den not far from it, but we did little more than sleep there, because we ended up practically living in the library after hours, poring over the many books we could handle ourselves, learning all we could about the world.”

Again Boris and Seelah’s guests exchanged knowing looks. The siblings had to have spent some time at the same public library in Sampson that Kimball and Patricia brought their children to for their “learning excursions,” but apparently at a later time; otherwise their paths would surely have crossed.

“We’d had very few real friendships with other mice,” he continued, “because they’d always seem to sense that we were different after just a few words, and then back away. You guys probably had the same thing happen to you. But just this past summer, Doris met a girl who took to her right away. A little while later she introduced her to me, and we liked each other too.”

He paused to turn and smile at Seelah, who’d laid her hand on his. “Of course, Seelah was that girl. She practically moved in with us. We’d see each other every day, help each other gather food, just…be with each other. But then…only a few weeks later, after we’d met…Doris was killed by a fox. I…saw it happen myself, but I couldn’t prevent it.”

He paused, placing head in hand; obviously he’d been devastated by his sister’s death and would never be over it completely. Seelah embraced him as tears flowed from both of them; it was obvious that she missed Doris at least as much.

She spoke next. “It was so terrible. We both loved Doris, but at least Boris and I still had each other.”

Boris managed a smile. “We sure did. We comforted each other for the rest of that day, and that night as well. The next day she agreed to move in with me, just to keep me company; at least at first. But as our mutual sorrow eased, our own love for each other grew.” Boris smiled at Seelah, squeezing her hand. “When we realized just how much we were in love and wanted to stay together, I got to thinking: what if Doris had introduced Seelah to me because she had a feeling or hunch that she and I were right for each other? I even wondered if she possibly knew that…that she would die soon, and she didn’t want me to be alone. We’ll never know, of course, but…” He paused to wipe away tears. “Oh, I’ll always cherish her memory—both of us will—just for being such a good friend as well as a sister, but also for bringing us together.” The pair nuzzled each other lovingly.

Johnathan and Timothy couldn’t completely hold back their own tears, in spite of knowing beforehand that Boris’s story wouldn’t be free of tragedy. It resonated deeply with them, especially considering what they’d learned of his father. Vincent seemed to have had a premonition of his own demise, and if Doris had inherited some of his abilities, it made it seem all the more likely that she could have had a similar kind of hunch or premonition. If so, she’d certainly kept it hidden well. She may have believed so strongly in its inevitability and inalterability—by herself or anyone else—that she kept it from Boris to spare him any worry or anxiety over something neither could prevent.

“So,” Boris said abruptly, “that was about six weeks ago. Just last week, I had that vision I was telling you about at first, about the two of you. And now you come here, telling us all about where you come from, and where I come from…and now there’s one thing you’ve got to tell me. When you’re ready to go back there, can we…”

“Actually, Boris, Seelah…” began Johnathan, “we’ll be ready when you are.” Boris gaped in disbelief for a moment, then he broke into a broad grin.

Seelah drew in breath. “Boris, does he mean…can we go with them?”

“Absolutely,” replied Johnathan. “Whenever you two are ready.” Without another word the pair embraced their would-be benefactors, thanking them profusely. After they’d calmed a bit, they were told a few more pertinent details about Freethorn and Lahaikshe, though they made it clear that the one about no predators had sold them from the get-go.

And so, in just under five minutes Boris and Seelah had gathered what few belongings they needed, all the while running down a list to confirm what they still found almost too good to be true: “No foxes?” “No cats?” “No badgers?” “No hawks?” Johnathan and Timothy gladly and patiently answered negatively to each one. They explained the basics of how the Stone would take them to this other world, after which they gave the pair the choice of taking it outside, or doing the transference right here. They opted to give the area outside one last look; it had, after all, provided a happy home for them in this brief time.

A minute later they were ready and eager to embark on this new life where mice and rats such as they—or at least Boris—were the norm rather than the exception. Their only regret was that Doris couldn’t be there to share it with them. Boris was eager to learn more about his father, though that was still an ongoing process for everyone else as well. He admitted a little dismay over hearing that Vincent had so many mates without making any one of them permanent, since he couldn’t imagine regarding Seelah so casually, while allowing that he didn’t know much about his father yet.

Once more, and not for the last time, two flashes of light marked a major transition from one life to another: one for the old in one world, and the other for the new in the second.

* * *

It had been estimated that these latest arrivals would be more receptive and eager to be a part of the Freethorn community than Reuben and Lilia, and certainly No-Name; and in that, Boris and Seelah did not disappoint. The two mice were overflowing with questions even as they were subjected to the Dip treatment by Bernadette and Jessica, which they took in stride and in fact barely seemed to notice. They took quite readily to the fact that there were rats living alongside mice here. Justin and Isabella showed up for this occasion, helping to give the couple a warm welcome and answer their many questions, impressing them greatly with how friendly and approachable they were. Boris took a particular delight at seeing the high walls that surrounded Freethorn, almost exactly like those in his vision. Some of the younger Davis siblings were on hand as well, and it became obvious that they and the two newest residents would fit well within their growing circle of friends. Ellis especially was struck by the contrast with Reuben and Lilia.

Madeline, Kimball and Patricia, being the other elders of the Mouse community, made a special point to be here, to let the newcomers know they were willing and able to be surrogate parents for them whenever they felt the need, a role they were glad to fill for all of Vincent’s children.

Once finished with the Dip, Boris and Seelah were taken by Timothy and his friends to the new Mouse community to choose new quarters, after which they’d receive orientation in all the other necessary areas.

“I’m surprised Bertie didn’t show up for this,” Orland remarked to Ellis on the way. “I thought he was looking forward to it.”

“He was, but…I don’t think he’s quite over that little spat from this morning.”

“Really? Now there’s a shocker. Yeah, I know, he never gets over anything fast.”

They decided to shelve further discussion on the matter until after they’d helped Boris and Seelah get settled, after which they’d take them to lunch and give them the grand tour.

* * *

On the edge of Lake Nicodemus, a lone figure sat and sulked, seemingly oblivious to the sounds of splashing and laughter emanating from the cove a short ways away, where swim class was being conducted. Bertie Davis had come here hoping that sitting here in his favorite spot along the shore would assuage his feelings, return him to a better mood, and so far it hadn’t helped much. He thought back to the row he and Lucy had gotten into less than an hour ago. He could barely even remember how it started; though he well remembered how it had escalated when Lucy brought up the incident at the Replenishment, when he’d tried to get through the Guard perimeter. Even though it was a good month ago, she’d needled him about it off and on ever since, and this time it had proven to be the last straw for him. He yelled some choice words at her, Ellis tried to play peacemaker with little success, and Bertie stormed off to be alone, quickly settling at this spot.

Were one to get Bertie to share his feelings honestly, he’d likely admit that he doesn’t like being in moods like this and that he doesn’t derive any satisfaction from them. But, he would also likely maintain, Lucy shouldn’t have egged him on the way she did, especially when he was already in a less-than-cheerful mood.

After he’d been sitting there about twenty minutes, he felt scarcely improved, and was in no mood to discuss the matter with anyone. Nevertheless, there was one who took a particular notice of this lone mouse just sitting there. Tara, one of the Rat swim instructors, was on her way home after class was dismissed for the day. She recognized him by face, which was as far as she really knew him; and, taking notice of the mood he seemed to be in, decided to approach him and see if there was anything she could do to help.

“Um…Bertie Davis?” she said as she approached.

Bertie looked up, giving a small start and scowling at this interruption, his expression softening a little as he looked up at her. “Oh…Tara, right? What do you want?”

“Well…I was just wondering if there was anything you might want to talk about, if it’s okay. I noticed you sitting here, and…”

“Thanks, but no thanks. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I just might. I’m not always in the best mood all the time either, but I’m a pretty good listener. And things have been going so well for everyone since we moved to this world, so it can’t be that bad. Even I—”

“What do you know?” Bertie snapped. “Don’t patronize me. You couldn’t possibly know or understand my problems.”

Taken aback, and feeling her own ire rise, she made to give a sharp reply of her own, but then she thought better of it. “Okay, take it easy. I wasn’t trying to be patronizing. I just thought…” She sighed, still feeling stung but deciding not to pursue the matter further. “I guess I’ll be going now. Sorry to bother you.” She started off, passing directly in front of him.

Bertie, misunderstanding her intent, impulsively reached out with his foot, tripping her as she walked in front of him. She was right on the edge of the bank, and it was enough to make her lose her footing completely and send her plunging into the lake. He couldn’t resist laughing at his handiwork—or footwork.

Tara emerged sputtering and fuming as she climbed up onto the bank. “What was that?” she loudly demanded. “Why would you do such a thing? I never meant any harm to you!”

“Hey, I just figured that since you’d already spent all day in the water, a little more shouldn’t hurt you any,” he replied casually.

By way of reply, Tara just continued to fume; and for a moment Bertie felt a touch of apprehension, thinking that, just maybe, he’d pushed things a little too far. For about two seconds he thought she’d retaliate by whisking him off his feet and pitching him into the lake, sending him skipping like a stone; then she gave an indignant grumble and stalked off, still dripping and fuming.

Bertie watched her receding figure longer than he would have expected; then he caught himself. Aah, it served her right. She shouldn’t have been poking her nose in where she had no business. Certain that this was justification enough for his actions, he continued looking out over the lake.

After a few minutes, though, after realizing that this kind of activity—or lack thereof—was doing little or nothing to help him work out his earlier problems, he finally had to admit that not only did this little incident do exactly nothing to help him work out his problems, but that Tara did and said exactly nothing to deserve the treatment he’d subjected her to. What did I go and do that for? She seems like a nice kid. No one forced her to talk to me, she was just being kind. All she wanted to do was help. He knew that word of the incident would surely reach his parents before day’s end, the way such things did in this community.

It didn’t take much longer for him to conclude that there was only one realistic option; and so he resolved to do the mature thing and try to put things right with her. He stood, looking in the direction of the Rat community, wondering if he should try to look for her today; then he thought better of it. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s hopping mad the rest of the day. He decided to try to meet her here tomorrow.

He recalled Johnathan and Timothy’s mission to bring in the next children of Vincent today, aware that it was likely completed by now, and recalling that it was actually one of them and his mate. He decided to join his siblings, knowing they’d be helping to welcome them aboard if it was successful. He genuinely wanted to meet them; and as he moved off onto the trail back to the communities, he felt a strong resolve to square things with his entire family as best he could. He thought of Tara again, and unexpectedly felt much lighter of spirit than he would have believed only five minutes ago.

Bertie spent the rest of the day with his family, and helping to welcome Boris and Seelah to Freethorn. To his surprise, Lucy was ready to apologize almost right away, swearing that no one, including their parents, had put her up to it or done anything but offer quiet suggestions. When he first met the new arrivals, Boris and Seelah gave him such an enthusiastic greeting it made Bertie feel like he was the new arrival. A spontaneous wrestling match with Ellis further lifted his spirits; but the vow he’d made earlier was never very far back in his mind. He would meet with Tara tomorrow and apologize. He hoped she will have cooled off by then; but either way, he swore he wouldn’t back down.

Chapter 14 - Completing Project Vincentkin

The success of Boris and Seelah’s entrance into Freethorn brought renewed enthusiasm for continued success for the missions to follow. Three more sets of youngsters—the youngest of Vincent’s children—remained to be approached, along with the mothers of the youngest five.

Norman had the next assignment, which began the next day in midafternoon, so that he’d meet their charges in midmorning on Earth. His children were very interested to hear that his charges—a boy and a girl—were the same age as his two oldest, Martha and Carla, and their cousins Stuart and Shirley. They had been found to have lost their mother to natural causes only this past summer, within weeks of Doris’s untimely death. Since then, they appeared to have done quite well, fending for themselves as well as Reuben and Lilia had. They were also quite the peripatetic pair, having wandered quite a distance in the last few months, never staying in one place for long. By all appearances, they looked to be as approachable as Boris and Seelah. Due to all this, especially since they’d so recently lost their mother, Norman found himself taking an almost paternal interest in their welfare, looking forward all the more to meeting them.

When Johnathan used the Stone to pinpoint their current location, it was a bit surprising in its familiarity—one which was still very fresh in his memory, and that of Timothy, who was present to see them off. All the more curious to meet these two and hear their story, Johnathan and Norman set off.

* * *

After they made their appearance at the edge of the small patch of woodland, Johnathan looked all around, still shaking his head in disbelief. They both shivered in reaction to the sudden cold, something Johnathan was swiftly becoming accustomed to.

“So this is really it? The same place you and Tim found Boris and Seelah yesterday?” Norman looked towards the creek alongside which the pair’s erstwhile den lay.

“The very same. You know…both of us could probably approach them at once, especially if these kids are anything like those two. But we may as well stick to protocol.” There was little need for further debriefing, as Norman had considerable experience in dealing with strange mice.

So he lost no time, figuring that a direct approach was in order; especially as he drew closer to the tree beneath which lay the den so recently vacated by Boris and Seelah. There were the two youngsters, sitting against a root, conversing and munching on berries.

As he drew up behind them, they quickly became aware of his presence in a fashion that wasn’t necessarily surprising, given the way Boris welcomed Timothy and Johnathan with open arms, but it was startling enough for Norman. Both of them turned, instantly jumped to their feet as one, looked at him not only as if they’d been expecting him but as if he were a long-lost loved one, and rushed forward to greet him, looking up at him silently at first but almost worshipfully, then looking excitedly at each other.

“This is him, Hazel, I just know it! A mouse that’s like us!”

“Are you sure, Torrance? He does look a little…different, I guess…”

“But he is like us! And…” All at once the boy had an attack of self-awareness. “You know, we’re being kind of rude.” He looked up at Norman, ears reddening. “I’m sorry, that sounded pretty weird, didn’t it?”

“Well, unusual, maybe,” said Norman, smiling reassuringly. “So, how are you kids doing? My name is Norman, and you’re…Torrance and Hazel?” He bent to shake hands with them.

“That’s right,” said Hazel. “Did you know we were here?”

“I did. And it looks like you were expecting me. What do you say we have a seat and discuss this some more?”

After they did, the twins offered Norman one of their berries. As he ate, they opted to go first, telling him something of themselves: first, how their mother, Embree, had passed on a few months ago. Prior to that, she’d told them all she knew about their father, how he’d approached her out of nowhere one day, stayed with her a couple of days and then she never saw him again. Norman noted how, as the children described it, there seemed not to have been much bitterness or resentment in Embree over Vincent’s leaving her as abruptly as he’d come into her life; apparently, even though she’d allowed him to get as close as he did, there hadn’t been any real emotional bond formed either. It was in marked contrast to how Reuben and Lilia described their mother’s bitterness toward Vincent’s leaving her.

“She told us there was a lot about him that was different from any mouse she’d met before,” said Hazel.

“Yeah, and she also said that there were things about us that reminded her of him,” added Torrance.

“It got us really curious. And we told her we’d try to find him someday. She thought it was a good idea, but to wait until we were older.”

“It was just a little while after that…that she left us, she died.” Torrance paused, sighing. He and Hazel looked at each other and at Norman, squeezing each other’s hand. Obviously the loss was still very fresh.

“So,” said Hazel, wiping away a tear, “a couple of days after we buried her, we decided we’d go ahead and try to find our father. We know that’s what she wanted us to do.”

“Yeah,” said Torrance, expression brightening, “and it’s actually been great, seeing all these new places, meeting new people…but you’re the first one who…” He looked at Norman’s face with great intensity. “Hey…did you know our dad? If you’re like him, and us, then you could be…”

Hazel picked up her brother’s train of thought immediately. “Are you our dad?” Both looked ready to rush into his embrace at a moment’s notice.

Their earnestness, the longing looks they gave him made Norman wish he didn’t have to disappoint them. “No, I’m not. But I do have two girls and a niece and nephew your age, and they can’t wait to meet you both.”

This new information was obviously pleasing to them, and if there was any disappointment over Norman’s lack of familial relationship, it didn’t show. “Where did you come from, Norman?” asked Torrance. “We still don’t know how you know us.”

“Well, there is a lot to tell, and I have a friend waiting in the wings to help me.” He turned, putting a hand to his mouth. “Come on out, Johnathan.”

Johnathan did, and over the next fifteen minutes the two described their home, including the otherworldly aspect and lack of predators, which they could see was already enough to sell their young charges, well in advance of their asking if they’d want to return with them. Of course, they shared what information they could about the twins’ father Vincent; and though Torrance and Hazel were inevitably disappointed that they’d never be able to meet him, they were so energized by the adults’ account of their home that when they made the offer, they barely got the words out before the twins were literally begging to come along. Hugs of gratitude immediately followed.

Johnathan and Norman gave them the standard briefing, as well as passed on one more interesting detail: that their present location was, up until yesterday, home to their half-brother Boris and his mate. Coincidence? None could say precisely if it was, or if it was a hidden talent one or both had, possibly similar to Martin’s exceptional tracking ability; but further research into the matter would wait. This new information fueled their enthusiasm all the more, and they were thrilled to pieces at the prospect of meeting their older half-siblings and others like them. Even without family waiting for them, being among others like them would be reason enough to come.

There was really nothing they needed to pack; and so, only a half hour after Norman first introduced himself, a party of four made the interdimensional jump.

* * *

While undergoing the Dip treatment, Torrance and Hazel met the ones their benefactors told them of, and they weren’t disappointed. Norman’s and Jessica’s children took to them immediately, practically fighting over the privilege of showing them around. They and Boris and Seelah liked each other right away, and in fact they were torn for a short while between accepting the couple’s offer to put them up in their quarters or rooming with Norman or Jessica; for at least the time being, they opted to room with Jessica and her kids, since they’d taken an especial liking to Stuart and Shirley. Though they hadn’t made friends with any rats before, they took to the dual-species makeup of Freethorn as well as their predecessors. Justin and Isabella gave their own usual warm welcome. Overall, the newest arrivals, every bit as much as Boris and Seelah, were willing and eager to embrace this community as their own. It was hoped that the next assignment tomorrow would meet with the same kind of success, though the living situation of their next charges was already known to be quite different.

* * *

Jessica had been on the fence about participating in Project Vincentkin, but she’d been encouraged by the success of Timothy’s and Norman’s assignments; and this one may be one that she’d be particularly suited for. The children were the one set of triplets Vincent fathered, and they still lived with their mother, so it was believed that she’d be more receptive to talk of strange places where others like her children and their father lived, if the one telling her of them was another female. Since this was the first case where the mother still lived and cared for Vincent’s children, it may turn out something of a tossup as to whether she’d agree to come to Freethorn with them; it would have to be her decision in the end. The family lived in an area closer to human habitation than any of the others, and had apparently been relying quite heavily on them for food, raiding their garbage cans and vegetable garden. It was an existence fraught with danger and risk, all the more reason to hope they could be enticed into joining them. As with Torrance and Hazel, Freethorn’s mouse children—Jessica’s and others—were eagerly awaiting the results.

The latest trip to Earth again began in the Brisby courtyard, and as usual Madeline was there to see off Johnathan and Jessica and wish them luck.

* * *

They arrived at their destination: a small, fenced-in backyard in a neighborhood typified by many such small lots with yards to match. The house was a small bungalow, and a small freestanding garage and adjacent fenced-in dog pen took up much of the lot in back. The dog, whose presence here had been already confirmed, was thankfully nowhere in sight, presumably currently inside the house; Johnathan was reminded of where he and Patricia had first found Bertie, Ellis and Lucy and how they had to flee up a spruce to avoid a dog.

They were in a narrow space between the wall of the garage and the outer property fence, which was chain-link; and as they got their bearings, they went over the plan one more time. Jessica then moved to the back of the garage, where the entrance to the family’s burrow lay, leading to just under the concrete foundation. She found it easily, immediately catching a strong mouse-scent; and after venturing down a short ways, she called out a quiet hello. Encouragingly, she got a reply from the children’s mother that sounded receptive enough to company, and she was almost immediately invited down.

Right where the burrow leveled out, Jessica was met by the mother mouse; behind her, her children clustered, straining for a look at their visitor. Introductions were exchanged, and the mother gave her name as Zenia. The children’s names were Toyah, Avila and Ronjack, and they seemed to take to Jessica a little more readily than their mother, who was just a little wary, though she did allow their guest to come in all the way. Jessica took it in stride; she and Norman, during their past travels, had become accustomed to this type of reaction from naturals.

Wasting no time, Jessica told them that she had information about the children’s father that they might want to know. Zenia’s reaction was rather unexpected: she flatly told Jessica that she didn’t understand what she meant, exactly.

“You…do understand that your children have to have two parents, a father as well as a mother?” But it quickly became plain that Zenia was one of those who didn’t entirely grasp the cause-and-effect relationship between mating and reproducing. It was actually fairly common among naturals, Jessica having encountered the like before. So she patiently explained the basics to Zenia and the children, and that the mouse that she’d mated with over a year and a half ago was her children’s father, they being the direct result of that union.

Jessica then gave them the basics about Vincent: mainly, that he and her own parents were contemporaries and were captured by humans, ones like the big upright creatures that lived in the nearby houses and that they tried to avoid. These humans made them into different creatures; still mice, but much changed in their ways of thinking and doing things. “If you sensed something different about me,” she said, “it’s because I’m as different from most mice as my parents are.”

The explanation seemed to satisfy Zenia, and her children’s curiosity level was raised tenfold. Toyah asked her if there were others like her; but before Jessica could answer, Avila and Ronjack seemed determined to do it for her, the main point emerging as “Of course there would be others like her!” The three chattered away artlessly, talking over each other nearly constantly—rather an amusing display to Jessica, having been reminded of her own children, though she resisted the urge to laugh out loud.

Unexpectedly, Zenia, for her part, seemed to take it in stride. “They do this every day,” she told their guest. “I don’t know where they get it from.” She and Jessica managed to get them to quiet down, whereupon Jessica told them that yes, there were others like her, many others; not just mice, but rats as well. And Jessica reminded Zenia that since her children were the daughters and son of one of those unusual mice, he was “where they get it from.”

Further explanation was interrupted by some commotion outside that initially sounded quite serious, marked by loud barking. Zenia instantly ordered her children to stay put and not move, but Jessica told them she’d check it out, assuring them she’d be safe.

“Johnathan? Are you all right?” she called quietly, even as the barking continued unabated. She couldn’t help worrying just a little, though she knew him well enough by now to be assured of his safety. At least the barking wasn’t from directly outside, at least not yet.

Abruptly he appeared at the top of the burrow. “Yeah, I’m great,” he replied, catching his breath. “But damn, that mutt has sharp eyes!” As Jessica led him back down, he could already see four sets of curious eyes. “Well, where are my manners? Madam, I’m Johnathan Brisby, Jessica’s friend. May I come in?”

Zenia allowed him entrance, after which Jessica introduced him to the children. She then asked, “Zenia, is there a chance of the dog finding us here?”

“He’s come close before, but we’ve been safe here for quite a while,” she replied, unable to keep the fear from her voice entirely.

“Well, my good lady and children,” said Johnathan, “I can assure you that where we’re from, dogs are not a problem.” Avila had already noticed the Stone around his neck, and boldly approached him for a closer look.

“Pretty…shiny,” she observed, reaching out to touch it.

“Yes, it is, sweetie. And there’s a lot more to it, too.” He stroked her head and turned to Jessica, asking her how much she’d already conveyed to them.

“Mainly about how Vincent’s the children’s father, and the ‘facts of life,’” she said with a smile and a wink. “And how there many others that are as different as he was.”

“Did you hear that, Mom?” said Ronjack. “There’s no dogs there!”

“Can we go with them? Please?” asked Toyah, almost pleading.

“But we have a good life here, with plenty of food,” said Zenia. “We can always avoid the dog, just like we always have.”

Johnathan and Jessica glanced at each other. It wasn’t unexpected, but apparently it would take some further effort to convince her that bringing her children to Freethorn was in their best interests.

“Well, Zenia, if it’s food that’s the main issue, believe me, that’s not a problem. And I’m sure Jessica’s already told you how your children are very much like their father. And there’s a lot more we can tell you about him.”

“Maybe the dog hasn’t discovered your den yet,” said Jessica, trying to avoid a lecturing tone, “but all the same—”

The next words on her lips—“there’s a first time for everything”—died there. All conversation again halted as loud scratching and snuffling sounds met their ears. Zenia and the children instantly retreated to the furthermost corner of the den, followed by their visitors.

“The dog’s found us!” cried Toyah.

“W-w-what’ll we do?” stammered Ronjack. He and his sisters were all on the verge of tears.

“I think,” said Johnathan, “that there’s only one choice. We can take you out of here safely, but we’ll only take you to our home if you want to. You can take your chances here, in this neighborhood, where there’ll be dangers like the dog, or we can take you where we’ll guarantee you’ll be safe.”

“We don’t have much time, Zenia,” added Jessica urgently. Glancing over her shoulder, she grimaced upon seeing a large paw wreaking destruction upon the entrance hole alternating with an equally large snout. Already all could smell the dog’s exhaled breath and feel it warm upon their backs.

“Please take us to your home,” pleaded Avila. All three children were crying now.

Zenia looked over her shoulder, crying out herself at the sight of the entrance hole being widened so much that she could see daylight—at least where she couldn’t see dog. “All right!” she finally said desperately. “Just get us out of here!”

“Everybody hold onto the one next to you and close your eyes,” Johnathan instructed. They were already doing so, so he concentrated, the Stone glowed…and just as a loud growl filled their ears and then abruptly ceased, all could tell, even with their eyes still closed, that they were someplace noticeably warmer and quieter, with no dog-scent about.

“We’re safe now, everyone,” announced Johnathan, sighing with relief. All six mice opened their eyes and eased their grips on each other to find themselves in completely different surroundings. They quickly noticed some new faces, both mouse and rat, looking upon the scene with some surprise.

“What happened, Johnathan?” asked a female rat, noticing how anxious and breathless all six appeared.

“We ran into a spot of canine trouble, Bernie,” he replied as lightly as possible. “Got out by the skin of our teeth.” Cynthia and Ages came forward, both relieved at their safety. Jessica, herself a little breathless still, quickly told the others that they had little time to brief their charges before they literally had to flee for their lives.

“Wha…where are we?” asked a bewildered Zenia. “How did we get here?” She and the children still clung to each other, still feeling the minor effects of lightheadedness and disorientation from the transference; but the children seemed to accept their new surroundings more readily, heads bobbing every which way.

Johnathan came out of an embrace with his daughter to tell them that it was the amulet around his neck that accomplished the feat. “I told you there was more to it, but I didn’t have time to elaborate.”

Avila came up to him to again look upon the Stone in wonderment. She said nothing but ran fingers over it, even more fascinated by it now that she could see it in full daylight. Cynthia couldn’t help smiling, the little girl’s fascination of the Stone reminding her of their old crow friend Jeremy’s admiration of the “sparkly.” Avila then hugged Johnathan, telling him “thank you” quietly. Her siblings joined her, though their mother still hung back.

“You’re all welcome,” he said, gently loosening the trio from him, stroking their heads. “And this place is our home. We call it Freethorn, and we hope you’ll want to stay here.”

“We…we had to…” Zenia looked around, still bewildered; then she focused on Johnathan. “You…if the dog hadn’t seen you, he…might not have found our house. He attacked us…because he was looking for you.”

Johnathan sighed, knowing he couldn’t deny it outright. “It’s…probably true that, if the dog hadn’t spotted me, he wouldn’t have come to the back of the garage to look for me. But it probably would have happened sooner or later, even if Jessica and I had never come to you.”

Jessica stroked her arm and shoulder. “Zenia…I know how frightening it is, dear. Both of us have had close calls with predators before. But now…you and the children are here, where you’re safe. Nothing like that will ever happen to you, never again.”

The children clustered around her. “It’s okay, Mom,” said Ronjack. “We like it here, we want to stay.”

“It wasn’t Johnathan’s fault, Mommy,” added Avila.

“He saved us, Mom,” said Toyah. “The dog was after us, and he saved us.”

The family silently embraced, tears streaming from all their eyes. After a minute Zenia approached Johnathan, managing a smile. “I’m sorry, Johnathan. You really did save us. Thank you.” She embraced him, then Jessica.

With the four newcomers feeling increasingly relieved and relaxed, their hosts introduced them to Bernadette, Ages, Cynthia, and Jemial, who were on hand to help administer the Dip, the reasons for which was thoroughly explained to them. As they proceeded with it, the family received further debriefing, mainly about how the original Rats and Mice of NIMH were living on a completely different world now, a concept which they accepted if not thoroughly understood. They also told her of how Vincent had many other mates besides Zenia, and that they’d found others that he had fathered, with two more yet to go. Toyah, Avila and Ronjack were thrilled hearing that they had older siblings; half-siblings in actuality, but it was all the same to them.

Presently some of them dropped by: Boris, Seelah, Torrance and Hazel warmly welcomed them, and it was very much like a family reunion. Zenia was embraced as family and welcomed aboard every bit as much as her children were. As more mice and rats came by, she became increasingly aware of how much her children had in common with these people, and how much she differed from them; yet, throughout it all, everyone insisted that she was just as welcome as her children, and that she as well as they had a place here.

When the other elder mice arrived, the children took immediate notice of Kimball’s missing leg and inquired about it, to the dismay of some; but he’d already made it clear that he didn’t mind their open curiosity about it. Ronjack asked him outright, “Did a dog get you?” to which Kimball told him that no, it was a bobcat—an animal unknown to these mice—and part of a much longer story which he’d be glad to tell them about later.

As they were finishing with the Dip, Justin and Isabella arrived to welcome the young family, after which the tour began, the children especially chomping at the bit to see more. Along the way, Boris told them that their oldest siblings, Reuben and Lilia, were otherwise occupied right now but would meet them later.

The newcomers were satisfied with this, though it wasn’t the whole truth. Since their arrival, the eldest children of Vincent had been mainly visible when attending classes and at mealtimes, and had put in brief appearances when their siblings arrived. But by and large, they had continued to be as reclusive as initial impressions of them seemed to indicate. Granted, it had only been four days, and it was hoped they would open up more in time. Though the occasional need for quiet and solitude was always respected here, it was the most natural thing for these creatures to want to throw themselves into the company of their fellows; and there were many that wanted to get to know Reuben and Lilia better, some more than others.

Those who were the closest contemporaries to them in age and species were especially concerned. Cynthia, who had sponsored the pair, couldn’t help worrying some, especially over Lilia; from the beginning, she’d seen how warm and friendly she could be, and it appeared to her and others that Reuben was being too controlling. Ellis, who had felt a connection to Lilia from the moment they’d laid eyes on each other, had managed to share a few words with her since, usually in school; but any attempt to spend more than just a fleeting moment or two with her, even with both her and Reuben, was quickly discouraged by him. He always had one excuse or another handy, to which Lilia would never raise a word of protest or disagreement.

All agreed that she didn’t deserve being treated like this, but it was also agreed to give them the benefit of the doubt for now, and treat them with patience; though Ellis’s was clearly starting to wear thin. But Timothy, whose “positive intuition” had come to be relied on more and more—even if there wasn’t a true crisis, or the appearance of one—believed that an improvement on the situation was just a matter of time, though how much remained to be seen. It had only been four days, after all.

Since lunch was being served, Johnathan, Jessica and the rest of the “welcome wagon” made the dining hall their first stop in the Rat community. Zenia, Toyah, Avila and Ronjack were astounded, though hardly speechless, upon seeing all their hosts had accomplished, especially in regard to the variety and abundance of foodstuffs they were treated to, all of it fresher and tastier than the castoffs they’d largely subsisted on. It was all such an extreme change from the living conditions and lifestyle they’d left behind so abruptly, mostly due to their departure from Earth being what amounted to an emergency evacuation. There seemed to be little problem with culture shock thus far, though, especially with the children, perhaps because they were still so young (about 1½ years). Zenia, for her part, was determined to overcome any uneasiness she might have for her children’s sake; it was clear to her that they loved it here and wanted to stay, and that it would be patently unfair to return them to their previous way of life.

Before leaving the dining hall, they were able to meet Reuben and Lilia and chat with them briefly. Then, with their bellies full, the family was taken to one of the observation posts, where they had their first view of the world outside Freethorn; then they were taken to the Mouse community, where they were shown the vacant apartments available. They selected one that was the right size for a growing family; perhaps a bit too spacious, so it was suggested that they could share it with the next arrivals, known to be a mother with two younger children—provided they’d want to come here, of course. Madeline Brisby was reminded of her own reaction upon her and her children’s first visit to the Rats’ colony, specifically the guest quarters they’d stayed in. She assured Zenia that though it may seem like a bit much now—a far cry from the cramped space beneath a cement foundation that they’d just vacated—it needn’t become overwhelming, and that she and many others would be here to help her and the children adjust any way they could.

The family was shown more of the outside, spending much time by the lake, watching the fishing boats haul in their catches, the swim instructors teaching their young charges, and others just spending quiet moments along the shoreline. The children didn’t know how to swim but were promised slots in swim class, which could begin tomorrow along with their enrollment in school. Their mother had been taking in all of this mostly silently; but as the group prepared to leave the lakeside, she approached Johnathan.

“Johnathan, I…I just don’t have the words,” Zenia said haltingly. “You saved our lives, and…and brought us to this wonderful place, so full of peace and beauty. My children love it here, and I…” She looked at him, tears of joy and gratitude streaming down; then she almost threw herself at him, wrapping arms around him.

“You, my good lady, are very welcome. And I was happy to help you.” As he held her in turn, he was reminded of Madeline’s own display of gratitude to him on that fateful day over five years ago when their enduring and largely happy relationship began. Abruptly he was reminded of something more recent: that Madeline and two of their children were right there, observing this little scene. He glanced over to his wife, but she and Cynthia and Timothy just smiled, having witnessed many scenes like this recently.

Before he could react further, Zenia pulled away from him; and, recalling some of the displays of affection she’d witnessed—including one between Johnathan and Madeline—she planted her lips against his. Johnathan’s eyes darted back uneasily to Madeline’s, and he felt himself blush; though he knew well that she’d never been one given to undue jealousy or suspicion. Indeed, she and nearly everyone else present looked ready to burst out laughing. Zenia pulled away again, giving a heartfelt “Thank you, Johnathan.”

“You’re welcome, Zenia,” he replied, still blushing. “Ah…I don’t want to embarrass you, but…” Me embarrass you? he thought briefly. “…around here, we save that kind of thank-you for our mates, the ones we love most.” Madeline joined her husband in explaining quietly to Zenia the conventions of displaying affection in Freethorn. They emphasized that her gratitude was appreciated and that she needn’t be sorry for expressing it that way, and she promised to remember their advice.

As the group moved on, Timothy sidled up to his father. “All right, Dad!” he said quietly, grinning. “You still got it!”

“Give me a break, Tim,” Johnathan said patiently, smiling himself, knowing he’d be in for a little teasing. “You know she was just being grateful.”

“I know. Seriously, though, it shows how highly you’ve come to be regarded around here. All the new mice are looking to you almost as their leader.”

“Yes, I guess they are. But that’s mostly because I’m the one who commands the Stone and used it to bring them here. I’ll accept being, at best, a de facto leader, dispensing advice and such, and I’ll always have my place on the council. But as far as actual administration goes, there’s no reason for us to have a system separate from the Rats. For my part, I hope it stays that way indefinitely.”

“Me too. We may have a new community of mice here, but we’re all still one. I wouldn’t want it any other way, and I don’t know anyone who disagrees.”

They discussed what they could expect from tomorrow’s mission, the sixth and last one of Project Vincentkin; and presently Cynthia and Michael caught up with them. Johnathan told Michael that the slot was still open for tomorrow, and he eagerly volunteered.

* * *

As she made her way along the row of pines, moving along at a steady canter with her carry-bag firmly wedged in her teeth, Amelia thought mainly of her children awaiting her return from this latest food-gathering trip. She wondered, as she often did, why it was that her children were staying children so much longer than most other mice she’d known. She loved them dearly, of course, and would take care of them as long as she’d be able and they needed her; yet, she couldn’t help wondering just how long. Could it be that that strange and unique mouse who had come into her life earlier this year and then left just as abruptly, was the reason for her own children’s apparent uniqueness? Obviously he was their father, and they had to be taking after him.

She paused in her journey, looking around in all directions. If anyone were to ask, she’d say she was looking out for predators; but that was only partially the reason. Just thinking of her sons’ father invariably brought out such a feeling of longing, of hope that someday he’d return to her. Perhaps it was fruitless, even pointless of her to wish such a thing. And yet, didn’t he say he’d try to return? He sounded so sincere when he left her, and though he wasn’t definite about the reason he needed to leave so urgently, she’d been sure he genuinely, seriously regretted having to go. And he did love her; of that she was sure.

As her journey resumed, she forced her thoughts to the here and now, hopeful that they’d all make it through the coming winter. Food was still easy enough to find now, but from her experience of last year, she knew it could become difficult later on. For today at least, she and the boys would have enough to eat. They were just starting on solid food, and her milk likely wouldn’t hold out much longer.

The burrow entrance was just under the roots of one of the larger pines, mostly concealed by a carpet of fallen needles. Just as she drew within two feet of it, she stopped, sensing another was about; not yet certain it signaled danger, she set her bag down and reared up, looking all around, confirming the scent of another mouse nearby. “Hello? Who’s there?”

Then he stepped out from behind the tree: an older male mouse, one whose demeanor and stance struck an instantly familiar chord with Amelia. She gasped and found herself saying: “Vincent?”

The stranger’s eyes widened at this; but before he could react further, she rushed forward to him, throwing her arms around him as if he were a long-lost loved one; which, he realized, was what she must have seen in him.

Seconds later she drew back to look upon his face more closely, and it was clear to him that she’d realized her error. Though he was quite handsome, and larger than the average male mouse—as the father of her children was—it was clear that she’d spoken too soon. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought…you were…”

“Someone named Vincent,” he replied. “That’s all right. My name’s Michael. What’s yours?”

“I’m Amelia. I can see now that you’re not him. But…there’s something about you that reminds me of him…”

“I’m not surprised. I didn’t know the one you call Vincent, but there’s more I and a friend of mine can tell you about him, and where we’re from.”

Her expression brightened; she was obviously eager to hear more, and so she led him to her den entrance, pushing past the needle-cover. Inside, in the dimness, two little ones dashed to their mother, who temporarily ignored their guest as she hugged them in greeting and emptied the contents of her bag, an assortment of seeds. Michael thought about how she’d taken him for Vincent at first; obviously he’d come to mean something to her—and probably she to him—in the short time they’d shared, more than any of his other temporary mates. Michael dreaded having to break the bad news to her, though he knew it would have to be done sooner rather than later. He didn’t regret accepting this assignment, though; after the partial-at-best success of his last one, he was ready to take on another, and this one’s outcome was looking better and better.

Amelia introduced Michael to her twin sons, Thomas and Grey. While she prepared some of the food for them and herself, mainly biting through some outer shells, she urged their guest to tell her more about Vincent and the friend he mentioned. So Michael told her, as Jessica did with Zenia yesterday, of Vincent’s common origin with his parents and their friend Johnathan, as well as a group of rats. Shortly he decided it was high time to bring Johnathan in, so he stepped outside a short ways and gave the prearranged signal—a simple arm wave—and called his name. He was already just outside and so instantly responded.

After Johnathan had been introduced to Amelia and her children, he backed up Michael’s account of their origins and told them more of their home and the safety and security it held for its residents. Inevitably, though, it was time to disclose the truth about Vincent, after she asked them directly if he was living there in this sanctuary of theirs. It had become abundantly clear that she’d fallen in love with him and had been pining for his return since they’d parted; though if he’d felt the same for her, nothing had been revealed so far in his extensive journals. There was nothing for it but to give it to her straight: his other temporary mates, his reluctance to leave behind what he’d come to consider home which probably kept him from taking a permanent mate…and his untimely death, occurring just days before most in Freethorn were even aware he was still alive.

Of course, Amelia was devastated at the news; and, for a good two minutes, both Johnathan and Michael took turns letting her cry on their shoulders. Johnathan let her know that Vincent was his friend, though he’d known him so briefly, and he’d done all he could to bring him to their new home. He and Michael wondered if this revelation might lead her to choose to stay where she was. They told her that even though she wouldn’t be able to reunite with Vincent, it was still important for her and the children to return to Freethorn with them; if not for her sake, then for the sake of her children. When she could speak, she agreed surprisingly quickly; it was already obvious to her that Thomas and Grey weren’t like other mouse children, especially in how much more slowly they were growing. When her visitors told her that all of Vincent’s other children save one were already there, and were now fully aware of why they were different, she agreed that Freethorn was the best place for them.

Johnathan and Michael told them how much everyone back in Freethorn was looking forward to their arrival; and though the children were too young to fully understand, they were clearly happy hearing that they had sisters and brothers and that they’d be living someplace safer and more comfortable. As with Zenia, Amelia was assured that she’d have as much a place there as her children.

As the two men watched her make what little preparations she needed, Johnathan became lost in contemplation for a minute, reflecting that this was what it must have been like for Madeline when she thought she’d lost him forever, though the situations were quite different overall. Apparently Amelia was the only one of Vincent’s temporary mates that had developed such strong feelings for him; and though it would clearly be some time before she would be over him, the fact that she knew him for such a brief time might actually work in her favor.

* * *

The young family’s arrival went as smoothly as their predecessors’. As they underwent the Dip, Amelia, Thomas and Grey were introduced to new friends and neighbors, many of whom expressed their condolences after being informed that Amelia had been in love with Vincent. The newcomers were filled in on further details on where they would live and the opportunities available to them.

All of Vincent’s other children, including Reuben and Lilia, turned out for the occasion, in celebration of the successful completion of Project Vincentkin—with the exception of No-Name, who, it was believed, could yet be convinced to join them. Boris led the way in declaring that, now that all of them had been brought here to live, they could consider themselves a real family. Reuben and Lilia’s appearance was surprising to some, but Boris had coaxed them into it after impressing upon them that this was a special occasion; and so they greeted the latest citizens of Freethorn politely, appearing genuinely glad to be there. Lilia was notably more demonstrative than before, greeting her baby half-brothers with big hugs.

Ellis didn’t pass up the opportunity, managing to make small talk with both Reuben and Lilia for only about five minutes, before Reuben made what had come to be his standard excuse: that Lilia shouldn’t spend too much time in direct sunlight. It was a surprisingly long period, though; all agreed later that it was a marked improvement.

Madeline and Patricia took charge of showing Amelia, Thomas and Grey around, starting with their new quarters. Zenia had already talked to Amelia about what they shared in common, and it was clear that the two were hitting it off quite well and would likely want to share a household, as had been proposed yesterday.

As the small group left, Justin said, “Well, Johnathan, you’ve done it again. You tracked down more of us—with no small help, of course—and now all of us are together, where we belong.” He patted his friend’s back. “Or at least, all are accounted for. At any rate…congratulations on successfully wrapping up Project Vincentkin.” The others still present in the park added their agreements.

“And hopefully,” added Ages with a small grumble, “this will be the last batch of the Dip we’ll need to make up for a while.” Bernadette couldn’t resist a chuckle as she and Jemial prepared to take away and empty the small tub of solution in a designated location where it would biodegrade naturally.

“It feels great, all right,” agreed Johnathan, watching the small group move up the trail to the communities. “But…there’s this feeling I get, though….and maybe it’s only wishful thinking, but…could there possibly be more of us out there?”

“More advanced mice? How could there be?” asked Ages reasonably. “Where would they come from?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess…we’ve found so many more of us already, these past few weeks, that it’s like we’re interrupting the momentum now. Oh, we’ve always wished that more of the Original Eleven mice had survived the airshafts. But at least we have more of an actual colony of advanced Mice as well as Rats.” He smiled to himself as he thought of Michael Davis and his own daughter Cynthia, both of whom had turned out to welcome Amelia and her boys, leaving the park together unobtrusively. The two were so obviously in love, though they hadn’t yet made any great announcements; but surely they would contribute to the growth of the Mouse community before long.

“That we do,” agreed Ages. “But in a few years we may be spread rather thin, genetically speaking. There are more like us now, but many, like some of the Davis children and some of the new arrivals like Boris are mated to naturals.”

“And we’ve just brought in two more—Zenia and Amelia—who have no relation to any of us other than being Vincent’s ‘widows,’” pointed out Justin.

“Let’s not forget, though,” said Johnathan, “that we all believed Maddie was a natural once, when I’d unknowingly made her one of us just by being mated to her.” The point brought another thought to mind, one that prompted him to suddenly stare off into space. Then he caught himself, and, looking around to the others, wondered if the same thought had occurred to them. In days to come, the point would be discussed aloud, not without some controversy, by some of these same participants. For now, though, everyone went on to resume the day’s normal activities.

Chapter 15 - Lula

After the Brisby family had taken its permanent place as members of the Thorn Valley community, there had been a sized-down table in the communal dining hall reserved for them and Cyril Ages, they being the only mice in the community. After Ages married Alma and both their and the Brisby family grew, a second mouse-sized table was added; and in recent months, a third, then a fourth. With the addition of more mouse residents, the number had grown to six. They were, however, not all grouped together; it had been widely agreed that to do so would be “segregating” the Mice in one area, making it harder for them to more easily mix and socialize with all of their friends and neighbors, Rat and Mouse alike. Accordingly, the tables were spread around the hall—so far, arranged in pairs.

This morning, most of the Brisby family— Johnathan, Madeline, Timothy, Shawna, Lyndon, Vanessa and Kirk—came bearing their trays while heading for their usual pair of tables, greeting many along the way. They took their seats, leaving a generous amount of room for fellow diners, when another small group approached, readying to join them, with no invitation necessary as usual.

“Maddie! Everyone! Look who’s joined us for breakfast!” announced Johnathan.

“Good morning, Patricia. Orland…Lana,” greeted Madeline. “How are all of you this morning?”

The three mice set down their trays and took their seats, mentioning that Lucy would be joining them soon, and so they saved her a place alongside Timothy. Lyndon whispered something to Shawna, to which they both responded with giggles; he couldn’t resist poking fun at Timothy and Lucy’s fondness for each other. Timothy in turn responded by playfully wrestling Lyndon to the floor.

Ensuing conversation was mostly casual. It had been six days now since the last of Vincent’s family had been brought to Freethorn, and everyone was impressed at how well most of them were adjusting to their new lives. Save for the two youngest children, all, including the two mothers, were enrolled in school and doing well and making new friends. There was still some concern about Reuben and Lilia’s seeming reclusiveness, since the siblings were still little seen outside of classes and mealtimes; but otherwise they weren’t outright unfriendly to anyone who wanted to chat with them, so no one was inordinately concerned for their well-being.

In the midst of the discussion Lucy arrived, taking her place between Timothy and Lyndon at the table, making no secret of her fondness for Timothy, and making sure Lyndon knew it too. They were well aware that, though he had yet to admit it out loud, Timothy’s little brother was inwardly beaming over the fact that the pair was increasingly looking like a loving couple, as much as Martin and Karen, and increasingly Cynthia and Michael as well.

By the time they were mostly finished eating, Patricia said that there was a specific point that she, Orland and Lana wanted to bring up, actually a request. “Johnathan,” she began, “do you remember when we found out…what happened to Desmond, and how he saved that little girl from that weasel?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, Orland and Lana came to me last night, and we found out that we’d been thinking very much about her lately, and we agreed that something should be done for her.”

“That’s it in a nutshell, really,” added Orland, “and since you’ve got the Stone, well…” He looked at the red amulet in its usual place, hanging from around Johnathan’s neck; he’d lately taken to wearing it almost full-time.

“What exactly did you have in mind?” asked Johnathan. “Maybe making sure she’s warm and fed—it is coming on winter there right now—and tell her all about Desmond, what he was like and everything…”

“Well, actually, Johnathan, we were thinking along those lines, but also, well…”

“…of bringing her here, if she likes,” finished Patricia. As the others expressed their surprise, she quickly added: “That’s only if she wants to, of course.”

“Of course,” said Johnathan. “Still…I know we don’t have any definite rules, etched in stone, about bringing in new people, but…I don’t know, she’s not really related to any of us, by marriage or otherwise.”

“Would she really need to be, Johnathan?” asked Orland. “After all, we took in Zenia and Amelia, and they were only Vincent’s temporary mates.” He furtively glanced around to make sure the two women weren’t within earshot, not wanting to possibly offend them. “Of course, their kids need them.”

“Yes, it’s true Vincent was in their lives all too briefly,” added Patricia, “and, yes, it’s true that that girl’s life was touched only briefly by Desmond. But look at how he did touch her. We all saw the images of how much she wanted to be with him, and how she stayed by his side while he was dying.”

“She’s right, Johnathan,” agreed Madeline. “We should pay a visit to her and her family, let them know that there are others who loved him and miss him, too.”

“Let’s at least look in on them with it,” suggested Patricia.

“I agree,” said Timothy. “It’s the least we can do for them.”

“No need to gang up, folks,” said Johnathan, chuckling. “That much we can do right now. I’ll admit I’ve wondered about them too, how they’re getting through the winter and so on.” He removed the amulet and invited anyone who wanted to look on to gather around. Of course, everyone in the group was curious; Johnathan made sure the four young ones had a good view, as they always got a thrill out of seeing the Stone in “action.”

With everyone prepared, Johnathan held the Stone in front of him, concentrated; and soon an image formed on its face: the base of a large tree trunk, with a light snow falling around it. An entrance hole lay further within, and as the view was brought down inside, they saw one mouse, a young female, sitting and eating. Though she seemed to have plenty of food, she hardly looked happy; cold, alone and miserable was the immediate impression everyone received of her.

“Well,” said Johnathan, “I guess her situation’s changed lately.”

“And not for the better,” added Lucy. “I’m shivering just looking at her.”

“But why is she all alone?” wondered Patricia. “I can tell that’s not the same den as before, but I thought she’d still be with her mother and siblings.”

“Maybe they are with her, but just out right now,” suggested Madeline.

“That’s a pretty small den, though,” observed Lucy. “There were supposed to be four of them, right? It looks pretty small for four…”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out for sure,” said Patricia.

“I guess just calling on her couldn’t hurt,” said Johnathan. “Perhaps after we meet her, we can discuss whether or not to bring her here.” He and Patricia then made the rounds of the dining hall, and informed some of the council, including Justin, of their plans and the possibility of their bringing in one more new resident. Johnathan didn’t need their express permission, since this was the kind of decision they normally entrusted to him, knowing that he always had the best interests of the community in mind. He and Patricia also went to the table where Kimball and more of the extended Davis family were seated; she’d discussed the matter with him last night, and now everyone there approved of the idea and wished them the best of luck. Lastly, Johnathan made sure the medical staff would be given a heads-up and prepare accordingly.

* * *

A brief flash of light heralded the arrival of three mice to this remote wilderness, one far from the nearest human habitation, an area where woodland met more open country and characterized by less mature trees and young saplings. A light snow was falling, adding to the thin layer that had already accumulated today. All three shivered against the sudden cold.

“Brrr! I know we’re all used to winter, but…” Patricia tucked her arms inside the shawl she’d brought along, drawing it around her more tightly.

“But not this abruptly, right, Mom?” Orland wrapped his own cloak around him a bit more.

“All the more reason to get this started right away.” Patricia looked to Johnathan.

“Must have had a cold front move in the last few days, all right.” He looked over to the tree closest to them.

“This is the one, isn’t it, Johnathan?”

“Sure is, Patricia. Go right ahead.”

Patricia approached the trunk, dropped to all fours and made her way into the narrow gap to the entrance hole. “Hello,” she announced. “Is anyone home?”

A few seconds later a familiar face appeared, expression alert and curious. “Oh! Hello. Who are you? What do you—” Suddenly the girl was looking past Patricia, expression frozen in disbelief as she gazed upon the one standing just behind her. She gasped, making her way all the way out for a better look. She had uniformly grey fur and looked slightly underfed but was otherwise quite pretty—and at present was gaping, breathless.

“Desmond!” she shouted, rushing past Patricia straight to Orland, throwing her arms around him. “Omigosh, you’re alive! I’m so happy!” She buried her face in his chest-fur.

Orland looked at Patricia and Johnathan helplessly, lost in knowing what to do or say for the moment. Johnathan couldn’t resist a small smile at Orland’s predicament, though he didn’t envy him by any means, and he knew how let down the girl would be in a moment.

With no other recourse, Orland said, “I…uh, really hate to disappoint you, but…I’m not Desmond. Really.” He looked down at her sympathetically.

The girl backed away abruptly, looking closely at his face for a moment. Then she turned away and ran back to her den, quickly disappearing all the way down the entrance-hole, moaning in distress or, thought Patricia, just embarrassment.

“I’ll talk to her again,” she said. “It’s all right, dear,” she called down. “We’re here to talk to you, and to help you if you like.”

After a few seconds the girl reemerged, looked at Patricia, then at the others. She hid her eyes, shaking her head. “Of…of course you’re not Desmond. I can see that now. How could I be so…so stupid?”

“No, you’re not stupid, dear. It was an honest mistake, and we all make them.” Patricia held out her arms to the girl, and for a moment she looked at the older mouse in apparent disbelief; then she accepted her embrace gratefully.

Soon she pulled away from the embrace to look at Patricia in both gratitude and confusion. “It’s been…so long since…since anyone talked to me like…” Her eyes again traveled around to all three visitors. “Who are you all? It’s like you know me, but…” Her eyes widened. “Did…did you know Desmond?”

“Oh, yes, dear, we certainly did. I’m his mother, Patricia Davis, and this is his brother and litter-mate, Orland. This is our friend, Johnathan Brisby.”

The girl looked at Orland. “Of course! His brother! I should have known.”

Orland approached her. “Well, like Mom said, it was an honest mistake. What’s your name?”

“Ah…Lula. My name’s Lula. Did you know what…what happened to Desmond?”

“Yes, we did,” replied Johnathan, “even though we weren’t actually there. We learned about it later.”

“Oh. I guess you also know that he’s…buried near here.”

“Yes, we know that too,” said Patricia. “But why are you here, away from your family, all alone like this?”

Lula suggested they all come inside, and when all four were inside her den, they sat down as Lula began her story. “My mother didn’t want me around anymore. She kicked me out.” The others looked at each other, stunned. “After we buried Desmond, we all pretty much went back to the way things were before. We all missed him, but…I couldn’t help it, I…couldn’t get him out of my mind. I kept wondering about…about him and me, how we might have been. I just couldn’t do anything else but eat and sleep, and sometimes not even that. Mom seemed to understand at first, but after a few days she said I wasn’t doing enough to help out around the house, and that…I should stop moping about and daydreaming so much. The rest of us have put it behind us, she said, so I should too. But she didn’t really understand. She didn’t seem to believe that I could be…that I loved him as much as I did…”

She began weeping, and Patricia again comforted her. “I don’t know why,” she continued haltingly. “There was just something in his eyes, the way he spoke; the touch of his hand, his scent…I—I knew, I just knew that he was meant for me, and I was meant for him. I loved him so much, even though I knew I was too young to really be his mate. But I would’ve been old enough before long. I would be right now, in fact. And he would have loved me just as much, I just know it.” She sighed.

“So,” ventured Orland, “your mother threw you out just because you missed Desmond?”

“I told her I couldn’t help it, but she…just wouldn’t take me seriously. And after a few days, she told me I had a few minutes to pack a few things and get out. I was so shocked I couldn’t do anything but…just do as she said. I had no idea where I’d go; I thought I could probably take care of myself, and I have, and I’ve had to think about a lot of other things, just to stay alive, but… Oh, why did she do that? I hate her! I didn’t do anything wrong, I just missed Desmond, and she says she doesn’t want me anymore…”

Again Lula broke down, burying her face in Patricia’s chest. Patricia drew part of her shawl around the girl, embracing her more tightly. She looked toward the others, her own face streaked with tears. Orland motioned for Johnathan to join him a short ways outside.

“For God’s sake, Johnathan, look at her. We can’t abandon her now, not just like that. She’s got no one else to depend on, nowhere else to go. How could her mother be so cruel? I know it was kind of like that with one of Vincent’s kids, the one you called No-Name, whose mother threw him out. But still…her only crime was just…missing Desmond. I can’t imagine such a thing. We have to bring her with us.”

Johnathan smiled, hearing much of himself in Orland’s compassionate plea. “Easy, Orland, you don’t have to convince me. I already agreed we’d help her in any way she needs. And I can understand how a situation like that would come up in natural mice. I’ve seen the like before. Still…without the direct connection to any of us, I’m not quite sure about bringing her to Freethorn.”

“Johnathan…this could just as easily have been Lana and me. What if I’d gotten killed after she’d chosen me? Would you have just left her, after I’d already touched her life? If Desmond had lived, there’s a good chance both would be with us now.”

“Point taken, Orland.” Johnathan sighed. “We’ve all said that we want to keep the population limited as much as possible to advanced mice and rats, but…I see no reason why we can’t make an exception with Lula. And you might remember how your dad said that if Desmond had lived, he may have touched her and her family’s lives more deeply, and we may have ended up bringing them all to Freethorn. So…providing Lula wants to, we’ll invite her to come back with us.”

“Great. Then let’s tell her all about Freethorn, and let her make her choice.”

“There is one other thing, though…” Johnathan detailed his idea as he and Orland went back down below, where Patricia had continued to comfort Lula, who responded more and more, saying little but showing her gratitude eloquently.

“It’s been so long since…I had someone to…just hold me, and tell me things will be all right.” Lula looked up at Patricia, who dried her tears with a handkerchief. “It’s almost like…my own family wasn’t really my own, and…”

“Uh…Lula? Sorry to interrupt, but Orland and I had an idea. If you’d like, we could take you to see your family again, and maybe…”

“No, Johnathan! I don’t ever want to see them again.”

“Not even your sibs?” asked Orland, taken aback by her sharpness of tone.

“I miss them, I guess, a little…but they didn’t seem to care either, whether I stayed or went. They sure didn’t try to stop it from happening. And my mother…I don’t know if I can ever forgive her.”

“Are you absolutely sure about this?” asked Patricia.

“Oh, Patricia, you’re my family now! All of you are. I know I haven’t known you long, only a few minutes, but…you proved that you care, much more than…than they did.” She snuggled herself closer to Patricia, whose maternal instincts had been stirred greatly by Lula’s plight. She said nothing but appeared to agree wholeheartedly, all but ready to adopt the girl as her own child.

Johnathan and Orland exchanged surprised glances. Though the possible result of this mission was to have Lula agreeing to accompany them, this was not exactly how they’d expected to arrive at that conclusion. Still, it was hardly unwelcome. “Looks like you’re gaining a little sister,” Johnathan said quietly to Orland with a chuckle and a nudge. Orland could only nod and smile approvingly.

“Well, Lula,” said Johnathan, crouching in front of her and Patricia, “since that’s decided, I guess we should tell you all about us now, and where we came from.” They told her of the different world their home existed in, and how there are rats as well as other mice like them there, how the weather was warm and balmy the whole year through. Though she was confused by some aspects of the description, she was excited about seeing it for herself.

Johnathan then explained how the Stone would take them there, and then Patricia and Orland brought up one last task they felt could and should be carried out while they were here. Johnathan agreed to it, and soon the four mice were making their way through the chilly, overcast early-evening.

“It’s just a little further, everyone. There’s the big briar patch, it’s right inside there.”

The small procession moved on through the shallow layer of snow until they reached the destination described by the child leading them. They all made their way in carefully through the narrow passage until they reached a small hollow, just large enough for the four of them and what already lay within. The dim light allowed them to see the small mound of earth with several large stones arranged neatly on top.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back here,” said Lula tentatively, “because it’s…so close to where my family lives, and I didn’t want to take the chance of seeing them again…though I wanted to be able to come back here whenever I wanted.”

Patricia felt dismayed upon hearing Lula’s continued bitterness toward her family, but it was overshadowed by the realization that this was Desmond’s final resting place. They all approached it silently, kneeling on either side, none saying a word, occasionally laying hands on the stones. Johnathan joined them out of as much respect for Desmond’s memory as his mother, brother, and would-be mate, though he hadn’t known Desmond at all.

Finally, all looked at each other silently, realizing it was time to move on; but as they got to their feet, Patricia said, “Johnathan…I was wondering if…it’s something that I’d thought of earlier, and wasn’t quite sure about, but…seeing Desmond’s grave like this, I’m sure of it now.”

“Sure of what?”

“I would like…” She turned toward the mound, gesturing. “…Desmond’s grave moved to Freethorn.”

The others looked at each other in surprise. “Why, that’s a great idea, Mom,” said Orland. “Johnathan, can it be done?”

“There’s no good reason why not. This amulet and I’ve had much bigger tasks, and this definitely will be a pleasure.”

“We already have his monument in the memorial garden,” said Patricia. “Now we can more properly honor him.” She paused to dab at a tear, and Orland took her arm and leaned on her shoulder.

Lula was confused by this talk, so Patricia explained how the Stone could not only move all of them, but Desmond’s grave as well, just as it moved the whole colony to this other world. There, they could visit it and honor his memory as often as they liked.

In another minute, it was decided. Johnathan would send Orland and Lula to Freethorn, where he would introduce her to her new home and neighbors and, essentially, new family; and Johnathan and Patricia would remain here to oversee the operation here. The amulet’s power would excavate and lift the entire grave, slicing through the frozen ground, without disturbing Desmond’s body or a single stone or grain of soil surrounding it; and then they and it would proceed to Freethorn, straight to the memorial garden, where it would be lowered into its new home where Desmond’s headstone was already installed.

* * *

The operation went as planned, with Johnathan, Patricia and the small mound of stone and earth appearing in the memorial garden, after they made sure no one was there to be startled by their abrupt appearance. Patricia watched wide-eyed as Johnathan used the Stone to scoop out a shallow excavation even as he maintained concentration to keep her son’s grave floating in midair. Later he would tell her that he did it this way to make sure he could still “multitask”—use the Stone to perform more than one task simultaneously—while admitting that he may have been showing off just a little.

In less than a minute the entire operation was done: there was now one more complete gravesite in the memorial garden, the actual grave with the deceased’s remains paired with the marker that had been placed in his memory. Patricia kneeled and laid hands on the stones, still cold from their old location, and looked up at the inscription carved onto the marker, reading it out loud: “Desmond Davis, the little charmer. Missed greatly by father, mother, brothers and sisters, and the one to whom he’d given his life to save.” She looked up to Johnathan with tear-filled eyes. “Thank you so much, Johnathan.”

“It was my pleasure, Patricia, to lay your son to rest where he belongs.” He kneeled beside her, and the two spent a minute in silent prayer.

Of course, since bringing both Desmond’s grave and Lula to Freethorn were unforeseen developments today, there would be some explanations to come; though they had informed Justin beforehand that bringing in Lula was a possibility, the change to Desmond’s grave was decidedly unplanned. Word of this development was already being spread, they knew, though Patricia felt close to having to apologize to the family for not preparing for the possibility sooner. Johnathan assured her that if there were any forgiving to come, it would come quick, and that bringing Desmond’s grave here should come as a pleasant surprise to everyone. And so, they left the memorial garden to join the party at the standard welcome-aboard spot in Oak Park.

Lula’s reaction to her new surroundings was much the same as other new arrivals: full of initial disbelief at the sudden and extreme change in climate and setting, quickly giving way to wonderment. As with Vincent’s kin, the appropriate medical personnel were on hand; and if Mr. Ages had any complaints over having to make up another batch of the Dip, he kept it to himself. He and Bernadette explained to Lula how the treatment, which she was quite amenable to, was necessary even with the onset of winter back where she’d been living, since it would not only kill any external parasites but any of their eggs which may still be nestling in her fur, waiting to hatch in the spring.

Lula was enormously grateful to her benefactors, so much so that it was almost embarrassing; though even Ages found himself charmed by her, later confessing to Alma that she reminded him of her when they first met. She found it hard to believe that everyone was going to so much trouble just for her, especially seeing how many were turning out to welcome her, including Justin and other leaders of the community.

“Everyone’s been so nice to me,” Lula said incredulously as Patricia toweled her off. “I never knew…it could be like this.”

“Well, that’s the way we are around here, Lula,” said Johnathan, hand on her shoulder. “A little thing called the Golden Rule, that’s what we live by. Just treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“I'll remember, Johnathan. Thank you. And you too, Patricia.” She turned to hug her. “I feel…almost like I should call you Mama, even though you’re not.”

“Well, I’m proud to think of you as my daughter and welcome you to our family.” Many of them had already arrived, including Jessica, who introduced Lula to her children. The oldest, Stuart and Shirley, took to her especially well and offered to help her with her schoolwork and any other way she needed. Kimball welcomed her as he would one of his own, which left Lula nearly speechless but grateful; she’d never known her father, but she instantly and happily accepted him as a father-figure.

She was clearly accepting more and more that she was a part of this community, this whole new world, but one thing still bothered her: “What should I call you?” she asked Patricia. “You’re not my mother, and you’re nothing like her, thank goodness…”

“Well, I am a mother, so…how about Mother Patricia?”

“I guess, but…”

“If it’s too long,” suggested Jessica, “then how about…Mother Pat?”

Lula looked at both of them, grinning and nodding. “I like it.” She hugged Patricia again. “You’re my Mother Pat!” she declared ebulliently.

“And I’ll be her as long as you want,” said Patricia, kissing Lula’s forehead. She was surprising herself at how quickly she was accepting a matronly role with her.

“And that means you’ve got some big brothers and sisters too,” said Jessica, “or the next best thing. It’s just too bad that…” She caught herself, remembering that the one that couldn’t be here, had he survived, likely would be more than a sibling to Lula.

Patricia picked up on this and offered to show Lula what they had done with Desmond’s grave at the memorial garden. And so a sizable party made their way there, viewing with admiration Johnathan and the Stone’s handiwork and thanking him profusely for letting this be his final resting place. Afterwards, Lula was given the standard tour as had other new arrivals, all of it astounding to her; she’d never conceived that any creatures could build something so elaborate and was undaunted by the presence of so many rats. She’d never met any rats before, so not only was her first experience with them a positive one, but she was already finding friends among them, seeing Johnathan’s talk of the Golden Rule in action.

Chapter 16 - Interlude in Thorn Valley

Teresa and Eric made their way home along the south edge of—though a safe distance from—the Pit, where the humans were still engaged in their tests, attempting to make sense of what force was responsible for its creation, their voices sometimes meeting the mice’s ears. Most of the human activity was limited to the Pit’s north side and at its bottom, some seventy feet down, reachable by extension ladders. Occasionally one would come around to the south side, laden with their equipment, most of which neither mouse could make head or tail of; and it had occurred to Teresa that they might possibly be interested in the other animal life in the area, to see if they may have been affected in some way by what happened here. So the mouse couple would always take extra care in staying indoors, well within the confines of their home, when a human was in the area, which so far was rarely.

“How long did you say it’s been now, Teresa?” asked Eric after hearing two of them shout at each other.

“Just about eight weeks, almost two whole months. I don’t know what they’re hoping to accomplish, after all this time. Near as I can tell, they’re no closer to finding out what happened.” Nearly every day since, they’d observed the near-daily routine of at least one helicopter, sometimes two, bringing in a team of scientists who would run their tests and usually leave before sundown, though on occasion some would camp overnight. Since winter had begun to set in, though, the overnight stays had ceased; and it appeared that the daily teams were lately smaller in number. So it was entirely possible that human activity might cease altogether before long, which of course would mean these two denizens of Thorn Valley might breathe a little easier. Yet, paradoxically, Teresa was aware that continuous human presence could actually make it safer for them, in discouraging predator activity. There was always a good chance, they’d known from the outset, that predators would start making inroads in Thorn Valley again. Before, the Rats had succeeded in all but chasing away animals dangerous to them; but with them gone, it was only a matter of time before life here could start to become more dangerous.

Every day, she would hope fervently, often with a prayer, that when she and Eric were brought back to Lahaikshe the next time, he’d be able to cope with the change in environment and function normally; which would mean leaving Thorn Valley behind for good. She’d pledged herself to him completely, swearing she’d always stand by him for as long as it would take for him to overcome this strange aversion—all because she loved him as he loved her. If her parents’ theory were correct, it was that love which would eventually make Eric’s “cure” possible. As much as she believed this, and as devoted as she was to him, she hoped it wouldn’t be too much longer. It had worked perfectly well with Orland and Lana; but it had been noted that they’d been together for less time than she’d been with Eric. Was it indeed possible that their situation was unique, and that the reasons for it were something yet undetermined? They’d pondered the matter many times, always concluding that time would have to provide the answer.

Though winters here were fairly mild, finding enough food and staying warm could be difficult; and though her parents and friends, on previous visits, had generously provided for them, dropping off foods they’d missed and extra bedding, she knew they’d still feel more safe and secure back in more familiar surroundings, with those they knew and loved best. In recent days, she’d felt this way more and more, with what was soon to happen.

Today had been cool, damp and mostly overcast, but the couple’s spirits had been far less gloomy. They’d been taking a leisurely stroll, as they’d done most every day since they’d arrived, gathering a few items for their household along the way. As they approached the thorny tangle, they paused a moment to rest and look around—a routine they’d taken for granted lately.

“Sweetie, I really think you should start staying in and let me take care of any gathering,” said Eric, who set his bundle down and stroked her shoulders. “Now that you’re this close, I think you should take it easy more.”

Teresa leaned forward to kiss his cheek. “I know, Eric. That’s sweet of you. It’s been a little safer around here lately; but you’re right, I probably should—”

Eric’s expression suddenly changed as he glanced up, and before Teresa could utter another word, he cried out: “Hawk! Let’s get out of here!”

Teresa reacted without another thought, dropping to all fours and heading for the tangle without looking back. She didn’t stop until she was all the way inside the grotto, where she immediately turned around, expecting Eric to be at her heels. But he wasn’t there. Simultaneously, she could hear a brief disturbance outside: a distinct thump.

She found herself unable to breathe, let alone cry out, as she continued to listen; and then she heard what may have been swishing sounds, like…the beat of wings? It’s going away after it missed its target, she thought. It must be. And yet, it was so quiet out there, almost…deathly silent? No, it can’t be. He must have escaped.

Catching her breath, she tentatively called out Eric’s name quietly. No reply. For a few long seconds more, she didn’t know what to do next. Then, realizing that by now the hawk—which, in fact, she hadn’t seen herself—had to be gone, she moved slowly back outside, advancing ever so quietly through the briars. She paused to call out again. Still nothing. A thought occurred: Maybe, just maybe, he’s playing with me, the way he likes to do… She thought back to the times when he’d tease her by waiting for her approach and then jumping out suddenly, invariably startling her. She wanted fervently to believe that this was what was happening now, and yet…would he do so under the pretense of approaching danger? No, that would be almost cruel. Of course he wouldn’t do that…would he? But the rationalization didn’t make what had just happened any clearer.

“Eric,” she called out as evenly as possible, “please don’t do this to me, this isn’t funny.” Still her plea was met with silence. She ventured out still further, continuing to call his name, and each time there was no sign that he was out there at all. A little further and she could make out a trace of his scent, filling her with renewed hope. Screwing up her courage, she moved out further still, enough to see out to the point where both of them had stood…where his last words were of concern for her, where she’d kissed him in response. But where was he? Dear God, where was he?

Finally she was completely out in the open again, enough to tell that Eric was nowhere in the immediate area. She looked up, scanning the skies from horizon to horizon. Another yell from one of the humans made her jump. Shut up, will you? I’m trying to listen. A large bird, perched in a tree off to the south, caught her eye. She shaded her eyes, straining to see it better, but the nearer treetops between her and it made it difficult; and she couldn’t be sure that it was a hawk, let alone if it had…

She screwed her eyes shut, forcing herself to think back to that moment. And by the time she opened them again, tears were beginning to form; because the only conclusion that made sense was creeping up on her slowly, inexorably. There must have actually been a hawk; there was no way Eric would make a joke about something like that. And what else could have made such a loud thumping sound? And if it was gone now… Again she looked toward that tree; still that bird was perched there, and as she watched it took off, swiftly sailing out of sight.

She could feel her face grow numb, her limbs grow weak. No, there was still a chance, there had to be! “Eric!” she called again. Couldn’t he have dashed off to safety in another direction, and be just waiting to make absolutely sure it was safe to come out? “Eric!” How could he be gone, just like that, when only minutes ago he was before her, looking upon her, touching her, talking to her with such love and concern? This was the man she loved! She repeated the call a few more times, her voice losing more and more volume and gaining an increasingly despairing tone.

For several more minutes she could only look back and forth silently, scanning the immediate area, desperate for some sign, any sign. Finally, scarcely able to think, she returned to the security of the grotto, where she sat down on the center stone. Suddenly it occurred to her: that other occasion, which she, her oldest siblings and her mother remembered all too well, when another loved one was suddenly taken from them. And inevitably, the thought followed: he returned to them, so Eric could too. Why couldn’t he? She looked toward the entrance. She would stay right there, she resolved, until he came home, where he belonged. She would not, could not believe that he wouldn’t.

For some time to come, she wouldn’t be able or willing to accept what she knew, deep down, to be the inescapable truth.

Chapter 17 - A final leavetaking

In this small corner of Thorn Valley, it was a day like many recently for some temporary residents; though, to one who observed their activity from atop a high pine branch, they might just as well be permanent residents. Johnathan Brisby watched the men and women moving about the compound set up alongside the Pit, as they called it—that highly noticeable geographical feature which, by all rights, shouldn’t be there. Some were down in it, taking soil and water samples; others, on ground level, were running other tests, though their precise nature held little concern for Johnathan. The sight of any humans in Thorn Valley, for any reason, was a disheartening one.

For a time after the Great Migration—the relocating of the colony to another dimension, the act of which had resulted in the selfsame pit which now so baffled these humans—Johnathan had felt a small amount of guilt over being partly responsible for such a momentous change in the lives of himself and everyone he knew. Intellectually he knew all along it was unfounded; after all, the humans were advancing ever closer on their colony and could very well have uncovered them soon, and Johnathan had the means and the will to prevent such a potential catastrophe from occurring. An overwhelming majority had approved of taking such action; but after the deed was done, Johnathan couldn’t shake the feeling—not overwhelming by any means, but enough to cause some occasional late-night soul-searching—that alternatives to such drastic action should have been better explored. Did it really have to come to this? Should he have come up with a better solution to their predicament? Could he have? He knew the illogic of placing so much responsibility upon his shoulders; but then, it was the Stone whose power he commanded that had done the deed.

In the two months since, he’d imagined, from time to time, how things would be here, knowing that the sudden disappearance of such a great piece of land would attract even greater attention from humankind. It all seemed like such a defilement, especially looking at it now: both the human intrusion and the great physical disruption in the land—the land that had come to mean so much more than just home. This was a matter that caused some dismay in others besides Johnathan—including his oldest son—and was the subject of many a discussion inside and outside of council meetings. Talking with others who felt the same did much to assuage these feelings in all of them; and they had since all but vanished, with the ongoing progress of the colony in its new location. Things had gone so well, in so many ways, that the overwhelming attitude now was one of looking to the future, forging boldly ahead, with thoughts of the results of past actions much less regretful.

Now, however, one of those results—easily the largest one—was right before Johnathan. He watched with some sadness the humans moving about in and around the Pit; but the feeling was tempered slightly by the knowledge that all the scientific tests in the world couldn’t tell them what had really happened here, and that their presence here, after two months, was an ongoing exercise in futility. He soon realized it was just as futile to continue watching them like this, perched up here; after all, this wasn’t the primary reason he’d come. That awaited him below, and he smiled in anticipation. A sudden cold gust reminded him further that it was time to come down.

He prepared to concentrate on the Stone, hanging from around his neck as usual—the same which was responsible for the great change in the landscape before him—to bring him down to the ground; but he stopped. Suddenly, he had no great desire to utilize its power right now, and so he began making his way down to the ground in a more conventional manner, though he was prepared to use it in case of emergency.

As he shinnied down the trunk, he thought about how foolish he’d been to have waited so long to pay Teresa and Eric another visit. The first one was three Earth-weeks after the Great Migration, but the second and last one—in which they were brought to Lahaikshe, only to find Eric’s previous aversion still in effect—was four Earth-weeks ago. They’d all agreed to this, believing they’d be giving Eric more time to overcome it. Since then, Johnathan had used the Stone to make brief, cursory checks to ensure they were still safe, but even the most recent of these, before today, had been almost two weeks ago. Certainly there were others who would agree he had good cause, and not just procrastinating, since there was so much to occupy his attention in the interim: further researching of Vincent’s writings, orchestrating Project Vincentkin to bring his children into the fold and spearheading efforts to integrate and orient them, making further physical changes to the colony. But he’d made another brief check just before setting out today, and saw Teresa out and about and looking well. She was accompanied by another mouse, though it wasn’t Eric. Johnathan, eager to get started, didn’t make much of it, figuring the stranger to just be a new friend they’d made.

On previous visits he and Madeline had done little more than meet Teresa and Eric at their home, without seeing any more than the immediate surroundings. He hadn’t come out and said it then, nor even admitted it to himself, but now he realized that he just couldn’t bring himself to see the handiwork of the amulet under his will, having still felt a small degree of guilt over it. He swore that he would confront the sight on his next visit; but though both of them had been genuinely busy, they’d recently agreed that they could have made time for another visit sooner, even if Teresa and Eric wouldn’t be returning with them. Johnathan conceded to Madeline that it was largely his fault, allowing this unfounded guilt to be largely responsible for this latest bout of procrastination—not unlike, he couldn’t deny, that matter that dated back to his earliest days with Madeline, the one that had caused him seemingly no end of frustration and anxiety.

Would he ever completely get over these tendencies, he asked himself with some humor as he approached ground level. He paused to watch a dozen turkeys as they foraged their way through the area, paying him no mind as his feet again contacted the thin layer of snow covering the ground.

It had taken some cajoling before Madeline agreed to let Johnathan begin this trip solo, but he promised he’d come back for her after he’d viewed the Stone’s handiwork for himself, something he felt very strongly about doing by himself. Now, feeling somewhat relieved after doing so, he made his way to the home of his eldest daughter and son-in-law, which was just a stone’s-throw from the base of the tree he’d just finished descending.

The den was nestled in a location known well to all of them since they’d first moved to Thorn Valley, having previously been home to Eric’s family. Below the confluence of three large boulders was a cozy, hidden grotto whose entrance was well hidden by a bramble patch and illuminated slightly from above by a just-small-enough gap. The actual den was further within. Johnathan approached the patch when a slight rustle, a short distance away, caused him to freeze. But he quickly recognized the footfalls of another mouse and so called out quietly: “Teresa? Is that you?”

But when the small figure stepped into view, she stopped in her tracks upon seeing him, and Johnathan was at least equally surprised, and slightly disappointed. Obviously she was the strange mouse he’d seen during his earlier amulet-check; but though he didn’t recognize her—at least at first—she stared back at him intently, then said, “Mr. Brisby?”

It took a few more seconds before the young female’s identity registered. “Sarah? It…it is you, isn’t it?” It had been some eight months since he’d seen her, but he easily recognized Eric’s sister, having known the two of them since before his family had settled in Thorn Valley, when they were still small children.

Before either could say more, another voice was heard, coming from the same direction as Sarah. “Who’s there, Sarah? Did I hear—” She came into full view, gasping as she saw who was waiting for her. “Oh! Dad, I wasn’t expecting…I mean…” Teresa came forward to embrace her father. “You startled me. But I really am glad to see you.”

“Oh, sweetheart, you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Johnathan drew back to look upon her, then kissed her cheek. As he held her, he got a sense that something wasn’t quite right with her. The manner of her greeting seemed more subdued than he’d expected, but he decided not to press her about it. “It’s so great to see you, you’re looking really well. Eric’s one lucky guy.” He looked toward her companion. “So, Sarah…it’s great to see you, too. I’m glad Teresa was able to find an old friend here.” Looking back at his daughter, he added, “So, it looks like we’re missing someone. Where’s…”

Suddenly he noticed Teresa’s downcast expression, as if she suddenly abandoned any pretense of contentment. “Teresa? What’s wrong?” She leaned forward, resting her head on his shoulder; and as she began to weep softly, Johnathan knew, regretfully, that he needn’t guess the reason.

“Oh, sweetheart…I’m so sorry.” He gently stroked the back of her head. He looked toward Sarah, her expression matching Teresa’s. “You too, Sarah, I…” He sighed, suddenly feeling a mix of awkwardness and sympathy. “Let’s…go inside, shall we?” Both women could only nod, and so the three of them dropped to all fours and entered single-file through the just-large-enough passage through the thorns.

Once in the grotto—which was not unlike the Brisby home’s front courtyard, except that it was indoors—they all sat down on the flat stone in the center of the chamber. Johnathan allowed Teresa to cry on his shoulder for another minute, Sarah gently stroking her arm and shoulder. When she seemed a bit more composed, he said gently, “Do you think…that you could tell me how it happened? If you’re not ready, that’s okay.”

As he said this, he caught a scent that was strange but not unfamiliar, apparently originating from within the den. Then he heard it: a tiny whimpering sound that definitely came from there. Before he could ask what it was, Teresa reacted by suddenly straightening, her expression and her whole demeanor abruptly changed. “Sounds like someone’s calling me. I’ll be right back, Dad.”

She got up and dashed for the den entrance, Sarah immediately following. They both slipped quickly through, leaving Johnathan quietly befuddled. Was Eric in there after all, crippled or infirm? But she said she’d be right back, so what could this mean?

Just before they reemerged, he again guessed the truth; and the two small, squirming bundles they carried confirmed it. Teresa’s face was aglow with maternal love as she and Sarah sat down on either side of him.

Johnathan was dumbfounded, disbelieving that this possibility hadn’t occurred to him sooner. If he hadn’t been concentrating so much on consoling the two women, he’d have caught the distinctive new-baby scent upon entering the grotto. “Oh, Teresa…sweetheart, they’re absolutely beautiful.”

“Dad…meet Tyler, and Eric Junior.” She carefully handed Tyler over to their grandfather, who still shook his head in disbelief.

“Grandchildren…already! I’m a grandfather, I can hardly believe it!” Sarah handed Eric Jr. to him, and for another minute Johnathan looked down at the tiny, helpless, barely-furred mouselings, his eyes glistening with tears as they became more and more lively in the cradle of his arms. “Oh, my gosh, just look at you two.” He looked at Teresa. “My little girl’s a mom. You weren’t even…I mean, we didn’t even know you were pregnant last time we saw you.”

“We…er, Eric and I knew at the time, but…we wanted to surprise you.” She again looked downcast. “I guess…we did, didn’t we, in more ways than one…”

Johnathan stroked her shoulder, then he looked over to Sarah. “Sarah, I’m…really glad that you’re here to help my daughter. Especially now. I’m so sorry you lost your brother.” He leaned over to kiss her cheek.

“Thank you, Mr. Brisby. There’s a lot to tell, but I’m glad I came back here too.”

“Please, call me Johnathan. We’re all adults here now.” He looked back at Teresa, whose expression brightened again at hearing familiar sounds of discontent issuing from her offspring. Johnathan smiled, recognizing their need, and kissed each of them before carefully transferring them to their mother.

“Hungry again, as usual,” she said with great affection as they nestled into the fur of her abdomen. Sarah gave a small, contented laugh at the sight. Each mouseling soon found his nipple and latched on, nursing contentedly, their mother’s cooing calming them further.

For a moment more, Johnathan was caught up in the warmth of this scene; then he remembered. He stood up. “I almost forgot…I promised your mother I’d bring her here later. I had…reasons for coming here alone at first, but…she should especially be here now. Don’t go anywhere, sweetheart, I’ll be right back.” He briefly explained to Sarah what to expect, but she reminded him that she had witnessed the Stone’s power in action before when still a child, over two years ago when she’d watched his wife and friends leaving to look for him in the “other world.” He laughed, thanking her for the reminder; then he concentrated and was gone in a flash.

In less than a minute he’d returned with Madeline, who was beside herself to see her oldest daughter again and meet her grandchildren, and pleased to see Sarah again as well. Back on Lahaikshe, when Johnathan had arrived so suddenly in their home’s courtyard where she’d been waiting for him, he hadn’t told her about the new babies or Sarah, wanting to surprise her; but he had prepared her for some bad news concerning Eric, the details of which he hadn’t learned himself yet.

But right now, Madeline’s attention was totally occupied by these two precious little bundles of joy. She was unable to resist stroking them, smelling them, cooing and fussing over them even as they continued nursing, seemingly oblivious to her. She and Teresa compared notes on all things maternal, discussing how well Teresa was lactating and how healthy and regular the boys’ appetites and bowel movements were. Not all males would be comfortable with such a line of discussion, but Johnathan took it all in stride, as concerned for the well-being of Tyler and Eric Jr. as his wife and daughter and just as eager to get to know and love them. Sarah, meanwhile, just took it all in, visibly pleased and content to witness this warm reunion.

But for all this, they all knew they were putting off the inevitable; so after a few minutes Madeline asked tentatively if Teresa was ready to talk about Eric.

“I guess…I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, Mother.” Teresa looked down at the still-nursing infants and sighed. “It was…about a week and a half ago; ten days, to be exact.” She went on to describe that day, indelibly etched upon her memory, in which a leisurely stroll suddenly became the stuff of nightmares, when she and Eric had to scurry for cover from a swiftly-descending hawk, the like of which hadn’t been seen in Thorn Valley, or at least the northern half, in years; and her subsequent realization that it had surely taken Eric away, even though she hadn’t witnessed it directly.

She had to pause partway through her narrative, unable to hold back the tears. Her babies seemed to respond to her distress and began whimpering. Teresa held them closer, nuzzling and caressing them, and her parents and Sarah comforted her in turn.

“Teresa, I’m so sorry,” said Johnathan. “If I hadn’t waited so long to visit again, maybe this wouldn’t have happened…”

Teresa looked up to him, her old look of determination showing through her tears. “No, Dad. I won’t let you blame yourself. We all knew it was risky coming here; and Eric…may still not have been able to adjust, considering how long it had already been. We had…two happy months together, and that’s what really counts.

“Anyway, going back to…that day…after I came all the way out, I looked all around and I saw a large bird in a tree some distance away. It may have been a hawk, or not—it was hard to tell—and I couldn’t tell if it had anything. I thought back to that awful moment,” she said, voice again growing more halting, “and I wondered…was it possible that Eric had run in another direction, maybe to lure the hawk away from me? I couldn’t see any of what really happened, of course, but…to think he could have done such a thing, all for me and our children…” She choked back tears. “Deep down, I realized then that…that he wasn’t coming back; but all I could do was go back inside and just sit. I was…just numb, waiting for…something, I don’t know what, any sign that he might come back.” She paused to dry her eyes again.

“For a while,” she continued, “a few hours maybe, I’d almost forgotten that I was carrying his children. But I could feel them stirring deep inside me, and I realized that I couldn’t just sit and wait passively; their needs had to come before mine. I had to be strong for them. They were…all I had left of him.” She looked down; they’d finished suckling and were resting quietly. She kissed each one lightly. “I realized that even more after I gave birth to them. They’re five days old today.”

For another moment they all sat silently; then Madeline said, “So, Sarah…how long have you been here, dear?”

“It was the day after…it happened. I guess you remember how…when my mother and I last saw you all, I was…a little uncertain about seeing you anymore, and I thought it was best at the time that she and I moved away, further south of here. I’m sorry about that now. I just thought that…you were hard to understand. It’s hard to explain.”

“That’s all right, Sarah,” Johnathan and Madeline said at once. They briefly looked at each other, smiling at this example of their emotional rapport at work. Johnathan especially was reminded of Lana’s initial uncertainty about staying with Orland. Madeline continued: “You just did what you thought was best, and there’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Br—er, Madeline. So…I decided to come back this way after Mother died, a few weeks ago.” She paused, choking back tears, and the Brisby parents expressed their condolences, both realizing that, as bad as Teresa’s loss was, it had to be doubly so for Sarah, who had lost both a mother and a brother within weeks of each other.

After thanking them, Sarah was able to continue. “Somehow, and I’m not even sure why…I thought it would be better if I came back up north after…I buried Mother. I had already heard rumors about…something strange that had happened here, and I was certainly curious to see what it was. So when I got here, and there was this…huge hole in the ground where all of you used to live, I didn’t know what to think. But then I found our old home, and there was Teresa living right here. I was so glad to see her, to see…anyone I knew. But then she told me…about Eric, and that she was having his babies. I can…hardly describe my feelings then. We hugged, we cried, we hugged some more, we cried some more…and I swore I’d stay right here, with her, and do all I could to help her, now and after she’d had her babies…Eric’s children.” She sighed, reaching over to stroke them. Teresa leaned over to stroke her shoulder.

“Would you believe,” Teresa told her parents, “that…Eric and I had considered trying to contact her, knowing that she and her mother had relocated further south last spring, but…we thought it would be safer to stay put. It actually would have been, probably, but…” She sighed, not wishing to dwell on the irony. “Of course, we had no idea she was coming here.” She again smiled at Sarah. “But I know…I’ll always love her and be grateful for her help. I thought I might have to deliver the boys alone, but I was so glad she was there to help me when it was time.”

Teresa leaned over to kiss Sarah’s cheek, and the two described further how the twins’ birth had proceeded fairly smoothly. Teresa’s parents expressed their own gratitude to Sarah for being such a solid and dependable friend to their daughter during her time of need, even while each had to deal with her own grief.

For two more minutes everyone was mostly silent again, hugging, squeezing hands, watching Tyler and Eric Jr. doze. Finally Johnathan said to Teresa, “Well, sweetheart…I guess there’s only one thing we can ask now. Would you want to—”

“Oh, please take us back with you! I hate this place!” Teresa paused and quickly added, “Well, I guess I don’t really hate it; I can’t really hate it, after all the good times we had here…the best time of our lives, really. But…it’s not the same here anymore, not with everything and everyone else I knew and loved there in Lahaikshe instead of here. There’s nothing else for me here. If Eric had lived, I’d gladly have stayed here with him for as long as it would take to overcome his aversion; or if he never did, and died naturally. But now…I just can’t stay here. I belong with all of you, back at the colony.”

A minute earlier, during their moment of silence, Johnathan had again felt a pang of guilt for his being the main instigator of these great changes in Thorn Valley, the absence of which would very likely have not led to Eric’s tragic fate. But now, seeing Teresa’s determination to carry on without Eric and devote herself totally to the children he’d left her, and knowing that she held him entirely blameless, Johnathan felt somewhat appeased. Perhaps it would be a while longer before he would completely allow himself the same honor; but with things going so well in the colony, and with the great majority agreeing that they’d done the right thing, perhaps that wouldn’t be long in coming.

He also realized that with what had recently happened here, it put his own troubles in perspective. This was a very direct, personal misfortune that had befallen Teresa, whereas he was placing an inordinate amount of blame on his shoulders for something that had hardly brought misfortune. There was, though, the sad irony which he and Madeline both realized, of how Teresa’s situation mirrored their own, some three years before, when they’d been unwillingly separated; but with major differences. Eric was very definitely not coming back; but Teresa would have the support of an entire community to help her with any difficult times to come.

And Sarah? Surely they couldn’t think of leaving her here on her own, not after all that had happened, especially with the inarguably greater degree of her personal losses. But they didn’t even need to pose the question; she and Teresa had already discussed the matter in anticipation of this day, and they’d agreed that with Teresa returning to Lahaikshe with her babies—there being no other realistic option—Sarah had little other choice either, especially considering the emotional reconnection she’d made with Teresa. She’d become very eager and full of anticipation since Teresa had told her all about what awaited them there, as much as the other mice who had been brought into the fold recently. So when Teresa said “Take us back with you,” it definitely included not just her and her new offspring, but Sarah as well. Johnathan and Madeline assured her that there would be a place for her there, and she would be as welcome there as all the other new arrivals.

They all agreed that there was no point in further delay. So while Johnathan, Madeline and Sarah gathered all of Teresa’s belongings, she took a moment, while cradling her sons, on the happy times she and Eric had shared here; but at the same time, she wasn’t at all regretful about leaving.

She looked down at her tiny brood, and a troubling thought occurred: could they possibly inherit their father’s aversion to being on Lahaikshe? Furthermore, could Sarah be affected the same way? She tried to force back such thoughts. After all, hadn’t she been through enough? Hadn’t they all been through enough? She couldn’t believe that, would not believe that, not after everything else. At any rate, there’d be only one way to find out, and she was determined to anticipate nothing but positive results.

Soon all were ready; and with Teresa holding Tyler and Madeline holding Eric Jr., they all left this place behind, perhaps for good.

Chapter 18 - Teresa’s homecoming

Four weeks before, when she and Eric had been brought here to test whether he could yet adjust to living here, Teresa Brisby had only the briefest acquaintances with the changes in the colony and its newest residents; but now, despite recent troubles, she looked forward to furthering those acquaintances.

As before, they arrived at the Brisby courtyard, though this time there was no welcoming party, at least not right away. Though it had been made public that there would be another attempt to bring both Teresa and Eric here today, it was decided that, in case it again proved unsuccessful, their homecoming would be made private and kept low-key at first. Now, Johnathan and Madeline initiated spreading the word that Teresa was back to stay, and that she was accompanied by Eric’s sister; but they made sure that everyone would know right away that Eric had died, though more specific details would be left for later. Teresa assured them that she could handle this, in fact insisting that she was more than ready and felt a great need to see all the familiar faces again. And so they left her with her boys and Sarah in the courtyard, where they all sat quietly for a few minutes. Teresa used the time to prepare Sarah a little better; she’d been around the Rats even less than Eric had, so Teresa wanted to make sure she knew she needn’t be intimidated by them. Sarah swore she was ready and willing to meet them, and in fact was more concerned with the sudden change in climate.

Soon a steadily-growing welcoming party was gathering in front of the Brisby home: Teresa’s entire family and all of her friends, all of whom had largely dropped whatever they were doing to come here. Her status as a new mother came as a complete surprise for many, less so for others; but all were delighted to meet the three newest members of the community. All of them gave Teresa their condolences at Eric’s untimely demise, and oohed and aahed at meeting her new babies. She was quick to emphasize how great a help Sarah was to her and how great a friend she had become, in addition to her being Eric’s sister. Accordingly—though there wasn’t much need for actual prompting—Sarah was roundly welcomed and offered condolences as well. She’d been visibly nervous at first, but quickly responded to everyone’s efforts to make her feel at home.

Timothy and Cynthia took turns giving their sister big welcoming hugs, Cynthia becoming especially emotional with the combined good and bad news. They roundly welcomed Sarah into the fold and cuddled their new nephews as the younger Brisby siblings clustered around Teresa. Of the four, Shawna was especially sad over the loss of Eric, and Teresa held and comforted her for a good two minutes. Martin gave her an unexpectedly emotional reaction, telling her with genuine sincerity how much he’d missed her and worried about her and how sorry he was about Eric, but also how happy he was for her at Tyler and Eric Jr.’s safe entrance into the world. Karen greeted her with just as high a degree of familial affection, and she and Martin took turns holding the babies as well.

Sarah greeted Martin unexpectedly warmly, embracing him almost as if she’d been more than just an old friend. He found himself feeling just a bit awkward in introducing her to Karen, though he knew there was no rational reason for it, especially since he’d told Karen so much about his life, including the time spent in Thorn Valley and the friends they’d made there among the naturals—including the fact that, for a time, Sarah had something of a crush on him, though he’d never reciprocated, and that the matter seemed to have been dropped on the part of both of them by the time Sarah moved further away. He had admitted to Karen, though, that he’d missed Sarah a little but never expected to see her again. Likewise, Karen would later admit to feeling a pang of jealousy, in spite of having no reason to doubt Martin’s love for her.

The Ages family was there, of course, welcoming her warmly even as Cyril made an appointment for Teresa, her sons and Sarah for a full medical examination, though all initial signs indicated that they were all the picture of health. Teresa’s friends and fellow staff from Thorn Valley School were there, of course; Simone told her she was welcome to return to her assistant teaching position anytime she was ready. Teresa had already discussed with Sarah about her possibly enrolling at the school, which she agreed to readily, and so Simone offered to arrange for the appropriate entrance tests for her.

Karen and her parents led the way in reintroducing Teresa to the rest of the sizable Davis clan, since she’d had the briefest of acquaintances with them on her last visit. Some, of course, she remembered better than others, in particular Michael, whom she could see was very much in love with Cynthia, as she’d suspected before. Each of them passed on his or her condolences for Eric, especially Orland and Lana, who had been made especially aware of her situation. She’d already noticed some mouse faces that were even less familiar, but it was a while before she had the chance to inquire about them; and she was pleasantly surprised to find out that all but four were Vincent’s offspring. All the mice who had become citizens of Freethorn were there, including the still-somewhat-reclusive Reuben and Lilia. She would hear all their stories later, but for now she was satisfied just to meet them. She was already well aware, even if she didn’t know all the specifics, that some of them—like Lula, who had become the ward of the Davises—had their own stories of loss.

Everyone, it seemed, was almost literally stumbling over each other in making offers to help her in any way she’d need in the days ahead, and many of them were from some of the newest residents whom she was only now getting to know. She was dazzled and more by the outpouring of good will, and so she couldn’t completely hold back the tears.

So caught up was Teresa in making all these new acquaintances that she realized: they had been here nearly an hour, much longer than she and Eric had been last time when his aversion returned to him, so of course she was pleased and relieved that neither her sons nor Sarah were showing any symptoms similar to their father’s. Tyler and Eric Jr. were gazing all about, flailing their limbs and cooing contentedly; while Sarah was largely over her initial nervousness and already looked to be making new friends here. Teresa silently prayed that things would remain thus.

The realization boosted her spirits enough that she wanted to hear some stories now. Sarah was equally game; and so, for a good hour or more, they were treated to tales Teresa had heard in a much more cursory fashion from her parents during their visits. They were often filled with adventure, but not entirely without tragedy themselves. There was Norman and Jessica’s journey to Thorn Valley, in which they were sidetracked by their finding mates and raising families, and which continued in earnest after their mates died naturally. There was Louann’s bittersweet tale, of a journey which brought her the closest to Thorn Valley of any of the Davis children, a journey cut short by a bad fall which rendered her unable to leave what would become her new home but bringing her happiness of a kind all the same. There was Marie’s extraordinary journey, which through circumstances both accidental and intentional led her and her new mate Newell to a domestic life on the other side of the world. There was the story of Michael, Michelle and Myrna, who’d left home during their parents’ period of great disagreement, and during whose two-year adventure-filled journey they’d separated for a short time when domesticity intervened on the girls’ part. There was Desmond and Orland’s partially motorized journey, which brought them very close to their goal; and their unfortunate separation, with Desmond later sustaining mortal injuries in saving another—who had since been brought here to live—and Orland making his way, coincidentally, to the location of the old Brisby summer home, where he met and eventually won over his lady Lana, daughter of the Brisbys’ old neighbors. There was the brief but adventure-filled experiences of Bertie, Ellis and Lucy, before they, along with all the rest of the Davis family, were brought here to live. And there was Lula’s sad story of love and abandonment, which had touched her new friends enough to bring her into the fold, in spite of her having no direct relation to anyone here. Teresa, already aware of the basics of Lula’s story, couldn’t help feeling a special bond with the girl.

By necessity these tales were all the condensed versions, so Teresa and Sarah looked forward to hearing them in greater detail later. Of course, there were the tales of Vincent’s children to be heard as well. Teresa was a bit taken aback upon hearing of Vincent’s temporary mates, though like most she understood better after hearing about his apparent difficulties in leaving home, the fact that that home was the NIMH lab likely having much to do with it. Reuben and Lilia were very brief with their story, with Reuben again doing all the talking; he especially appeared reluctant to be there at all, though he was clearly making an effort to be polite in deference to those who had taken him and Lilia in. After they left the “party” early—citing concerns, as he seemed to do more often than necessary, about Lilia being in daylight too long than what was good for her—Johnathan and Cynthia filled in some further details on the pair, though there was little more to tell; the pair still hadn’t been very social since their arrival here, or any more forthcoming about their past. Johnathan and Michael told all they knew of the one holdout, whom they still could only refer to as “No-Name,” and of their promise to look in on him again soon. In contrast to Reuben and Lilia, Boris and Seelah were only too pleased to share their story, even with its more tragic details, and told Teresa they looked forward to raising their own children here. She and Sarah met the next-youngest ones, Torrance and Hazel, who’d recently lost their mother at a tender age as Reuben and Lilia had. The youngest children—Toyah, Avila, Ronjack, Thomas, Grey—and their mothers Zenia and Amelia, had stories which, the mothers readily admitted, may not be nearly as interesting, but Teresa and Sarah were happy to hear them all the same.

So caught up was Teresa in all these stories that she had almost forgotten about a matter which, on her and Eric’s previous visit, was being attended to right away: where they would live. It pained her some to remember, since it would have been her and Eric’s home, but the pain was mitigated now by her new responsibilities to her babies and Sarah’s friendship. She and Sarah had already decided to share quarters here, at least temporarily.

“We’ve got something a little different in mind than the ones we’d already created last time,” Johnathan told her when asked about the matter. “We really think you’ll like it, both you and Sarah. We just have to put in finishing touches, and it should be ready in an hour or so.”

“Thank you, Dad. I’ll look forward to the surprise.” She looked all around the courtyard; the crowd had thinned a bit, but the great sense of welcome-home that had greeted her and Sarah upon their arrival was still intact. She looked down at the boys, kissing them both, then looked up at the sky and surrounding trees. She couldn’t completely keep tears from forming, but they were as much from the outpouring of love and support as from knowing that Eric wouldn’t be sharing any of this with her.

A new thought occurred, which she gave voice to: “How many mice do we actually have living here now, Dad?”

“Well, let’s see…you and Sarah and the boys make…65. We’re growing by leaps and bounds, all right, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

“Oh, yes…I noticed a couple of the Davis daughters were pregnant.” Michelle and Myrna, with their husbands Brummie and Stollie, were both nearby. They responded to her observation by waving and patting their abdomens; both were showing very obviously.

“And they’re not alone.” Johnathan looked over to Martin and Karen, winking; they all agreed silently that they’d waited long enough to share their good news.

Picking up this exchange, Teresa grew wide-eyed, gasping; though she’d known it was likely, given their two-month-old marriage, it was still delightful to hear. “Oh, this is wonderful! Congratulations, you guys!” She stood and hugged Martin, then Karen. “Wow, I’m so happy for you both!”

“Thanks, Sis. We’re looking forward to it.” Sarah came forward and offered her own congratulations, appearing equally happy about the news.

“Oh, I can’t wait to see them. Although…” Teresa allowed a slight sardonic tone as she said to her brother, “Are you really sure you’re ready for this?”

“What are you talking about? I’m great with kids, you’ve seen me with the little squirts,” he replied, referring to their younger siblings and the Ages children. He knew she was just teasing but was willing to play along. “Besides, Sis,” he added good-naturedly, “I could have asked the same thing of you not long ago.”

Teresa laughed, nodding. “I know. Touché.” She kissed his cheek and then Karen’s, and congratulated them again. They chatted a bit more before Martin left with Johnathan to help ready the new quarters, promising her that she would like the results.

“All of your things are in your new quarters,” Madeline told her, “including all your clothes. If you want, we could fetch one of your dresses to put on.” Teresa had opted to leave most of her clothing at home, at least her best outfits, when she and Eric moved back to Thorn Valley, believing she’d be less conspicuous; a decision made in haste, but sensible enough, even though no humans came near to their home.

“That’s all right, Mother,” she replied. “I’ll save that for later, when my quarters are ready.” Sarah opted to wait as well; though she, like Eric, had gone without clothing back in Thorn Valley, she had been prepared for this requirement before coming here, since she was made aware that she would be, much more than before, considered a genuine part of this community. Going without clothing in the Rats’ public corridors, while not expressly forbidden, was generally frowned upon; so Teresa had impressed upon Sarah the importance of looking nice when she was in class or visiting or otherwise doing business there. Sarah had long been curious of the clothing-wearing habit the Rats and Mice of the colony had adopted, since that day over two years ago when she and Eric had first met the Brisby children; and, wanting to fit in here, she now looked forward to taking on the practice herself.

Karen offered to show Teresa and Sarah around so they could see firsthand some of the changes in the colony, most of which Teresa hadn’t the chance to see last time. She gladly accepted, leaving the boys in the experienced hands of their grandmother, though she confessed to some reluctance to leave them for very long—a perfectly normal response, Madeline assured her.

“It’s almost overwhelming,” said Teresa after they’d started off. “All these changes and everything. I’d hardly had time to really absorb it all before. But now…we’re free, completely free, of the chance of human discovery, of being invaded by anyone.”

“Oh, I know,” agreed Karen. "Everyone feels like the future is absolutely wide open, that there’s nothing we can’t do now. And even though it’s a whole new world for most of us, that seems to make it that much more exciting and interesting. And the Rusay are certainly great neighbors. I’ve heard a lot about your family’s past experiences with them.”

“Oh, yes. And we have all these mice here, mice like us. A whole new colony. Before it was just us and the Ages family, but it’s so different now, so much better. Don’t get me wrong, I love the friends I’ve made here among the Rats. But you know how it is, having more of one’s own species around.”

“I sure do. I’ve made friends among the Rats, too; but now we’ve all found each other, in so many ways…”

“Mm-hm. Cynthia and Michael…they’ve been seeing a lot of each other, haven’t they?”

“Oh, yes. They haven’t yet come out with any great announcement, but anyone can see how much in love they are. And Tim and Lucy…I’d be willing to bet they’re not far behind.”

“It’s wonderful, all right…” Teresa sighed.

“I hope…this talk isn’t bothering you, Teresa, so soon after…you know, after Eric…” Karen turned to Sarah, looking apologetic. “And you too, Sarah. I feel like I’ve been ignoring you.”

Both of them assured Karen that it was all right. “We’ll both miss Eric terribly,” Teresa added, “but really, I’m glad that everything’s going so well for everyone here; especially you and Martin. It’s so amazing. I never pictured him as the domestic type before, but now here’s this huge change in him. Then again, if I’d been through all that you and him and your mother had been through, I wouldn’t be the same either. But I guess…none of us are, really.”

“I know what you mean. Obviously, you’ve known him longer, but…I think, just since we’ve known each other, he’s changed. Or maybe not so much changed as having had all these experiences bring out the real Martin Brisby. He’s been nothing but sweet and kind and considerate. He’s almost too careful about hurting my feelings. Your mother has told me how much he reminds her of your dad, whenever she sees him and me together.” She chuckled. “She says he’s just like Johnathan when they were starting out; just a real romantic soul. And it’s been even more so since we found out we were pregnant; he hardly lets me so much as lift a finger for myself, especially at first. I’ve had to almost constantly remind him how well I can take care of myself, like back at our last home when I had to avoid the rat-gang.” Karen refrained from elaborating further on a major factor in Martin’s almost-too-careful treatment of her; they’d agreed to share those details with anyone other than their parents only if they mutually agreed to it.

“I think,” said Sarah, “that I knew he’d be that way.” She sighed, half in envy; or at least it seemed so to the others. She quickly added, “I’m sorry, Karen, if I’m making you uncomfortable. I really am happy for you both, and I don’t want to do anything to interfere with your own happiness.”

“Thank you, Sarah,” Karen said, giving her a quick hug. “And I’d bet you’ll find someone of your own before too long.” Teresa added her agreement.

Karen led Teresa and Sarah to the south end of Lake Nicodemus, showing them the successful and ongoing results of Project Replenish: the amulet-sculpted fountain which topped the direct pipeline to the aquifer which now provided a steady supply of fresh water—not only for the lake, but for the Rat and Mouse communities as well, via a series of pipelines branching from the main one. Karen left it to others to describe the operation in detail, but Teresa and Sarah greatly admired the results—both of this and the Wall Project, now that they were standing more toward the center of Freethorn and could see the New Wall all around.

While at the lake, they visited with many Freethorners—as they were increasingly referring to themselves collectively these days—who were there to relax, or who were attending or conducting swim class. Sarah was especially amazed at how the place had changed, having been here many times when she and Eric met their new friends for swimming and socializing. She admitted some confusion over how this could be the same place she’d known but not the same world; but for now she was content to reacquaint herself with old haunts, even opting for a dip in the cove, inspired by the change to warmer weather. Teresa and Karen soon joined her.

Sarah was a bit startled when she noticed, a little further down the beach, a small group of creatures with bare, pale blue skins splashing in the shallows and sitting along the shore; until Karen and Teresa reminded her that they were Rusay, the people native to Lahaikshe, and they were here as part of their exchange program. They were staying here for a week while a small group of Freethorners were guests of the Rusay in one of their nearby communities.

Presently Justin and Isabella met them, having been unable to get away until now; and both, having been filled in on recent events, both tragic and joyous, offered hugs and consolation to Teresa, and to Sarah after they were reintroduced; she had already met the rat couple over two years before when she and Eric were still children. They told her they’d already been introduced to Tyler and Eric Jr. and looked forward to seeing them grow. As the three mice air-dried after their swim, the Rats briefed them on other recent developments, many of which they would soon see firsthand.

The Rusay family came over to meet them, and Justin introduced them and the two “new” Mouse residents to each other. Sarah was astounded at seeing them up close, especially considering she was seeing them in the “altogether”: their bodies were almost entirely without hair, and when swimming or bathing they were casual about nudity, just as the Rats and Mice of Freethorn never bothered with swimsuits.

After the Rusay family returned to enjoying the lake, Karen decided to return home to take it easy for a while, and so the First Couple took over showing Teresa and Sarah around. Justin and Isabella showed them how the farm fields were almost fully restored, with many of the crops they’d tended in Thorn Valley—corn, oats, wheat, carrots, tomatoes, etc.—once more growing in profusion. With the mild year-round climate, they expected to have a year-round growing season; and with it, fewer worries about storage. They’d be able to take more of a use-as-you-go approach, harvesting enough for their immediate needs since there would be plenty for the days to come—providing the Lahaikshean insect life would be able to maintain pollination as they had done quite successfully so far. The biological isolation spell Gwinthrayle had put in place seemed to be holding as well, ensuring that the native plant and microbial life could not grow here, and likewise the analogous life-forms from Earth couldn’t survive outside Freethorn.

The cultural exchanges, as they’d seen firsthand, were going successfully, with the current Rusay family being the fourth group to make Freethorn their temporary home; and likewise, groups of Freethorners—mostly whole families, and so far all Rats—had traveled to Timphon and other area communities. For the immediate future, they would allow small-scale exchanges like this, but later on they anticipated not only visits by larger groups, but trade agreements and possible ambassadorial exchanges on at least an informal basis. So far it had all been as fruitful as expected, with each side learning much about the other’s history and culture—though, of course, the Freethorners had a history that was short and unorthodox, to say the least. In spite of this, the Rusay seemed to readily accept these people who didn’t have a culture or a real existence a decade ago. It was all a part of their makeup, which was all about judging others on the basis of their deeds and actions. Even in the first meeting with Pinphila and Dornphinsal, there was no sense of reluctance or fear, reaffirming what those who had already met some of the native people on previous visits to Lahaikshe had known for some time now: that the Rusay in general had little fear of strangers or of the unknown, were very accepting of the differences in appearance and customs of those unlike them and didn't feel threatened by them, as long as there was no visible or implied threat made. It all made them a very trusting people, a trait which could possibly be taken advantage of by anyone with devious or unscrupulous motives. But these Rats and Mice had nothing to hide, wanting only to let the people of this world know that they wanted to be good neighbors and friends.

By now it was widely agreed that Lahaikshe was their permanent home, especially since it was estimated that the colony could never be restored to its old location on Earth and have everything be as it was before, not in a Thorn Valley that would surely be observed and scrutinized more closely than ever by humankind from now on. It was discussed, after their encounter with the human Howard Travis, that representatives could possibly be sent to their people in charge, to try to convince them that these Rats and Mice were an intelligent, sentient race with as much right as they to live as they choose, and that they should be left to do so if they were to choose to return themselves and their colony to Thorn Valley. And yet, as enlightening and vital as that encounter with Howard had been, could humans in general be trusted that far, it was debated, even if such negotiations proved successful, or appeared to be? That argument had won out, even among such advocates for negotiation as Arthur and Tallus; and as everyone grew more comfortable and at home here, the whole matter was being brought up less and less. There was still speculation that in a few years’ time the heat would have died down about the missing chunk of land in Thorn Valley, leaving open the possibility that it and they could return then. But that might be any number of years from now; by then, it was argued, would any of them want to return?

Justin and Isabella went on to describe how there was still some talk of some of the Rats returning to Earth and starting a new colony in a location that would be even more remote than Thorn Valley, but it was being taken less seriously, even among some who had been the idea’s staunchest supporters before the Great Migration. It was essentially the same argument: when all they’d left on Earth was weighed against all they had here, it was agreed to be hardly a contest. On one side there was the ever-present possibility of human discovery and lack of acceptance by them no matter where they would settle, and the encroachment of their civilization and its inherent ills; and on the other was the feeling that they were welcome with open arms here, by both the natives and by the world itself. There was still some uncertainty over their future here, still a sense of taking things one day at a time; but with virtually no apprehension or reluctance, with things going so well thus far.

“Speaking of Howard,” brought up Teresa, “I’ve thought a lot about him since we all made that jump back there together. I’ve wondered how things have gone for him since then.”

“So have we,” replied Justin. “I guess your dad hasn’t told you yet about how he’s used the Stone to look in on Howard occasionally. We haven’t gotten a full picture of what’s been happening with him, but it looks as if he might have told at least some of what he learned about us, and naturally they didn’t believe him. Apparently they put him under hypnosis, and that seemed to confirm that what he’d told them was all true. It’s been unclear since then whether or not anything’s been done with that knowledge, and that’s been enough to give us pause; just a little.” He chuckled. “We’re sure none of them would know how to get here, even if they wanted to, but one can never be absolutely sure.”

“I’d thought of the same thing,” said Teresa. “But what’s happened to Howard since then?”

“It looks like he was told to keep quiet about his experiences if he was to keep his job; and since he and his wife have a new baby, I guess he was convinced pretty easily.”

“And she almost left him,” added Isabella. “She took the baby and was heading out their door, but he convinced her to stay, I guess.”

“Why was she leaving?” asked Teresa.

“I guess he was thinking so much about his experiences here, even obsessed, that he was neglecting her and the baby.”

“Yeah, the poor guy,” added Justin. “You know, when he was here and we were discussing what should be done with him, some suggested that Gwinthrayle put some kind of spell upon him, like one of forgetfulness or making him sleep until he could be sent back. Maybe that would have been the best choice, with all he’s been through since.”

“It is almost like we left him high and dry,” said Isabella. “We’ve talked of how we could make it up to him, but we’ve all agreed that coming to him in person isn’t a good idea. Same with sending him some kind of message, like a note of apology.”

Justin nodded. “It just wouldn’t do any good for either him or us, to insinuate ourselves in his life again.”

“He seems to be writing a book about it, though,” added Isabella. “Johnathan says he’s presenting it as fiction.”

Justin laughed. “I hope he doesn’t make me look too bad.”

Teresa chuckled. “He was really nice to…Eric and me when we got there. He wished us luck when we had to part company. I’ve thought about it, and I’m sure that there’s any number like him, who would be our friends and maybe even protect us from those who would harm us. Dad and Mother have always believed that, and I’m sure that Howard is living proof.”

“I agree,” said Justin. “A lot of us feel the same, and Nicodemus always believed that too. Of course, Howard had the benefit of Gwinthrayle’s spell that put his mind in rapport with Johnathan’s. Even without that, there would surely be some who would be our allies.”

“It does seem a little strange, though, even now,” added Isabella, “to hear us talking about any human with such sympathy, considering how fearful we were of being discovered by them—some of us more than others.” She looked at Justin, who looked on smiling, rubbing her shoulder.

“I guess it does,” said Teresa, “but they’ve never really been enemies, exactly, have they? Not all of them, I mean.”

“That’s very true,” agreed Justin, “but since we are so different from them and from other rodents, it’s likely that humankind in general would never fully accept us as we are. I guess it’s just their nature.”

Teresa nodded ruefully as the small group continued on towards the south entrance. Presently Justin said somewhat apologetically, “Sarah, I feel like we’ve been neglecting you since we started. We just want to remind you that if you have any question or any comment, feel free to speak your mind. That’s what we’re all about here, giving everyone a chance to have his or her say, with everyone having an equal voice.”

“Even though you’re new here,” added Isabella, “you’re just as much one of us, dear.”

“That’s right, and we’re not forgetting that your family lived in Thorn Valley before any of us.”

“Thank you, Justin…Isabella,” she said a bit shyly. “I guess I’ve heard so much from you so far, that I don’t need to ask questions. But I’ll probably have some later.”

Presently they drew up to the south entrance, and Teresa and Sarah could see up close the slight incline that led up to the tall, majestic archway. Their tour guides led them through it into the wide, tall covered landing where they could look out through a window to see the Great Red Plain stretching away into the distance, an impressive view for both mice. To the right they could see the covered ramp that led down to plain level, also lined with windows.

From there they were taken to one of the observation posts, essentially room-sized holes in the New Wall which afforded an even greater view of the red plain. If they liked, they were told, they could make the climb to the Rooftop—actually the New Wall’s top ridge—from which the view was the best in Freethorn. In picturing how the place must look from the outside, Teresa supposed that having this high wall around the place must give it the look of a fortress—though, of course, they weren’t expecting an attack from the outside. All very true, Justin admitted, though this New Wall wasn’t as high as the one surrounding Thorn Valley, and its main purpose was for reinforcement.

The other piece of new construction that was readily noticeable lay about midway between the Rat and Mouse communities. To Teresa’s eyes it first appeared to be a free-standing structure alongside the Wall, but upon closer examination she could see that it had been “grown” from the rock. It was two stories high with walls of solid stone, a flat roof and thick plate-glass windows. Justin confirmed that this was more of the handiwork of Johnathan and the Stone, though this was quite recognizable to Teresa by now. These were the new Rusay guest quarters, completed only six days ago. Justin explained how they were deemed necessary because some of their visitors admitted to feeling a bit uncomfortable with staying in quarters within the Rat colony, mainly because they were largely underground. So Johnathan and Arthur designed this new structure that was more out in the open and more closely resembled the Rusay’s own houses. There were two separate apartments, upstairs and down, to accommodate the larger exchange parties that were starting to become the norm. The current group was the first to be quartered here, and they gave it an immediate thumbs-up.

By now, Teresa and Sarah decided it was time they returned to the new Mouse community, since their new quarters were likely almost ready by now. They remarked on how late in the day it was becoming, which confused Sarah at first; it was midmorning when they left Thorn Valley, and it was late afternoon here. They reminded her of the time difference, which Teresa had briefed her on beforehand, and also that she could expect her internal clock—and Teresa’s—to take a while to adjust to the 29-hour days. In the past two months all in Freethorn had likewise adjusted very well, though it had taken longer for some than others.

On the way, they met Isabella’s twin brother Jordan and his wife Portia, riding herd over their own children as well as Justin and Isabella’s, while all were on their way to the lake. Ferdinand, Greta and Mina were thrilled to see “Miss Teresa” again, and their parents carefully explained to them why Eric wasn’t with her but his sister was. Jordan and Portia mentioned how they were high on the waiting list for the exchange program, with their turn scheduled for next week.

From there the First Couple continued escorting Teresa and Sarah to the Mouse community. Along the way they answered Sarah’s further questions, though Teresa was mostly silent, again thinking of how much she wanted to be able to share this new home with Eric. She couldn’t help speculating: would he have been able to make the adjustment to living here by this time, had he lived? Her friends took notice of the change in her mood, and she posed the question aloud to them.

“I know it’s useless to speculate,” she said haltingly as they paused, Sarah embracing her. “But we had such great plans, once we were back here, and…he was so looking forward to seeing his children, and now…” She finally broke down, and Isabella and Justin also took turns comforting her.

“It’ll be all right, Teresa,” said Justin as he held her in his arms. “As long as you remember Eric as he was, he’ll never be completely gone. It’s how a lot of us think of Nicodemus.”

“I…I know, Justin. Thank you.” She looked up at him, gratitude showing through her tears.

“And he’ll still live on through your children,” added Isabella. “Just remind yourself of how proud he’d be of them.”

Teresa managed a smile. She could imagine how, in the days and weeks to come, that every move Tyler and Eric Jr. would make, every laugh or cry, even the way they’d eat or sleep, would surely be enough to remind her time and again just how much Eric still lived on. She shared these thoughts, and Sarah agreed, both finding some comfort in the idea.

As they moved on, the thought again occurred: was it still possible that her children could possess at least some of their father’s inadaptability to living here? And again she forced herself to think: I will not believe that, especially since it’s been a good three hours now and they’ve shown no adverse effects. Put it out of your mind, girl. She glanced toward Oak Park, seeing the big burr oak towering above its neighbors; and recalled the day, during which their home lay under the threat of human discovery, when she and Eric declared their love beneath its boughs. It reinforced the idea that he would live on, in her dreams and memories as well as through their children.

Another thought occurred, one that her parents had already considered: how her situation contrasted with theirs three years ago, when they’d all believed Johnathan to be gone forever. They were all certain that Eric wouldn’t return to her as her father had; after all, there was no magic amulet to spirit him away to a place of safety. The thought brought more tears, but she tried to force them back. Maybe he wouldn’t ever come back to her, but what they’d shared for the time they had would never leave her, not as long as she had all her memories. And none of it was cause for regret: not their falling in love, not her accompanying him to Earth so they could be together, not her bearing his children. Given the chance, she’d do it all again.

The sound of voices greeting the group brought her out of her reverie. She was suddenly aware that they were approaching the courtyard in front of the Brisby home, where they were instantly met by her mother, who told her that her babies were napping now. Many of her friends and family who’d initially greeted her quickly followed.

“We’ve got it all ready, Sis,” Martin told her, taking her arm. “Wait’ll you see it.”

“Yeah, it looks just like—”

“A surprise,” finished Timothy, keeping his hand over Lyndon’s mouth for a moment more until sure their younger brother wouldn’t spoil it. “Right this way.” They steered her and Sarah toward the outer entrance of the Mouse community and invited Justin and Isabella to follow.

“What’s the big secret?” Teresa couldn’t imagine why such a fuss over simple preparation of her new quarters—unless it wasn’t so simple.

“You’ll see,” replied Martin. He and Timothy led her, one on either side, through the entrance, Sarah following closely, led by Lyndon and Shawna. Burning with curiosity, Teresa looked toward Justin and Isabella questioningly.

“I couldn’t tell you, Teresa,” said Justin, looking apologetic. “Whatever your dad’s cooking up, he kept it from us too.”

The group proceeded down the main ground-floor corridor, past the entrances of other apartments, most of which didn’t open directly to the outside. All this was impressive enough for Teresa, as she hadn’t the chance to see most of this last time; but, she was continually informed, the best was yet to come.

“This is it,” said Martin to both Teresa and Sarah as they drew up to one particular door. “Close your eyes.”

Teresa almost asked why, and Sarah did outright, but Teresa advised her to continue playing along. Her siblings led her and Sarah through the door, which opened out into a chamber which Teresa could immediately sense was quite spacious.

“Okay,” said Martin. “You can open ’em now.”

They did, and almost instantly their jaws grew slack, both feeling disoriented for a moment. “Teresa, where are we?” Sarah asked in genuine confusion.

For a moment more Teresa was equally unsure as they surveyed the chamber all around. All at once her bewilderment turned to joy. “Oh, it’s…beautiful, it’s exactly like it!”

Johnathan came forward. “So…I guess you ladies like it?”

“Oh, Dad, I love it, it’s perfect!” She rushed to hug him. “But how did you…”

“Well, I didn’t bring anything else back here besides you.” He indicated the Stone. “We just used what material we had,” he said casually.

Sarah’s own bewilderment finally lifted, herself looking just as pleased. “Mr. Br—er, Johnathan, I feel like we’re back in Thorn Valley! You really did this…with just the Stone?”

“That’s right, Sarah. We hope both of you enjoy it here.”

The chamber had been shaped into a replica of the grotto which had been the courtyard of Teresa and Eric’s home in Thorn Valley. Every curve and crevice in the rock had been meticulously reproduced, including the gap at the roof which provided a small stream of daylight, the flat stone in the center, and the entrance to the actual living quarters to one side, which had a short saloon-style door.

For a minute more the two women excitedly pointed out details to each other, marveling at the attention to detail; then Vanessa took Teresa’s hand and Lyndon took Sarah’s. “C’mon, you guys gotta see the rest!” he urged. Teresa already suspected that “the rest” was quite a bit different from the modest den that was home to Eric’s family before he and she made it their own; and once through the door, she saw she was right.

Just inside was another chamber, obviously the living room, as spacious as the one in the Brisby family home. They were met by Cynthia and Michael, who quietly informed them that Tyler and Eric Jr. were further inside napping. Sarah took Teresa’s arm as they looked around near-breathlessly at “the rest.” Their new home was spacious but cozy, with a downstairs bedroom and washroom, and a curved staircase that led up an upper-level balcony and two more upstairs bedrooms. In the downstairs bedroom her sons were snoozing in a cradle, one of several mouse-sized ones currently in use, assembled at the Rats’ furniture plant.

“So what do you think?” Johnathan asked.

“Dad, how can I not love it? Thank you so much.” She hugged him again and kissed his cheek.

“It was the least I could do, sweetheart.” By now any thought of his being responsible for events leading to his daughter’s return to Freethorn under these circumstances went unspoken, and for the most part unthought. He felt even more strongly that he was past all that now.

Sarah was still awestruck by all this, still disbelieving to some degree that this was her home as well. Johnathan continued to assure her that she had a place and a purpose here as well, as much as anyone else.

Cynthia showed Teresa the closet where all her clothes were now stored. She quickly selected her favorite outfit—a lightweight lavender minidress with spaghetti straps—and put it on right on the spot. Since she and Sarah were the same size, Teresa invited her to pick one out for herself; she selected one of the same style, pale blue in color. She found herself quite comfortable in it, even feeling a touch of vanity at seeing herself in the full-length mirror; and after they went back out to the courtyard, she received several compliments on how nice it looked on her, as did Teresa, who admitted how nice it felt to wear her best clothes again.

* * *

In the remaining hours until sundown, further celebration was, at Teresa’s request, kept low-key, as she mainly wanted to concentrate on settling into her new situation. Most of it was spent catching up with family and friends, most of the time bringing her sons with her, getting them acquainted with their new surroundings, which they seemed to be doing easily since they were still so young. At their own insistence, Martin and Karen looked after them for a good hour, wanting to improve their own parenting skills. Sarah spent most of that time accompanying Teresa, who showed her the kitchen, dining hall, library, the various manufacturing plants. At Thorn Valley School, Simone made the offer for her to enroll in classes tomorrow, and she accepted gladly. She was impressed and amazed by the experience, since she hadn’t seen any of the Rat community previously or really understood fully what they did there or why they were there.

Among the stops they made was one at the clothiers, where Teresa helped Sarah select a couple of new outfits for herself. By the time they were finished, dinner was just being served at the dining hall, so they joined family and friends there. They spent a good two hours there, even after dinnertime wrapped up, and Sarah was willing and eager for the chance for further socializing, impressed at how friendly and welcoming everyone was. There was one awkward moment when someone who hadn’t heard about Eric’s demise asked where he was, but his widow and sister accepted it gracefully.

As night began to fall, the Brisby family and many others gathered at Teresa and Sarah’s new home, during which time others dropped by to leave housewarming gifts. By the time everyone else had gone home, both of them found they weren’t quite ready for sleep, even after most of Freethorn had gone to bed. Both Teresa and Sarah were certainly feeling a bit tired from the day’s excitement, but because of the time difference, it had seemed like the day had been shortened by several hours. They’d been advised, as had everyone, to simply go to bed when they felt sleepy, and eventually new sleep patterns would establish themselves.

So they sat up for a while in their new home, Teresa giving her boys one more feeding as they talked for a good hour. Feeling one more walk might do her some good, Teresa invited Sarah to join her; but she opted to stay and look after her nephews, since she was feeling a bit more ready for sleep. She told Teresa to be careful, but Teresa reminded her of how safe it was for her out there, even in the middle of the night. She also again told Sarah how thankful she was to have her around. Knowing the boys were in good hands, Teresa ventured out into the night.

As she made her way along the familiar trails she’d known for over two years, though never under these skies, she thought of many things: readjusting to living here, her precious babies, what the future held for this land and her family and friends. Mostly, though, she thought of Eric. She looked at the night sky, so much like that of Earth yet so different, and wished the two of them could share this now, if only he’d been able…

If only. She’d couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been, had Eric been able, or even if she’d fallen in love with another who would have been. As she came close to Oak Park, she looked toward the big burr oak, and suddenly she was caught up in a wash of memories, mostly the happy times the two of them had spent beneath its boughs, and had hoped to spend again. She’d sometimes pictured the two of them coming out here together after dark for a romantic liaison…

She stopped in her tracks, looking up at the sky again, tears flowing freely. Why did this have to happen? They had such plans, the two of them, and now…

Abruptly she caught herself, and almost as quickly realized she was reacting to a caution that could be considered obsolete. Though this land was once of Earth and of Thorn Valley, it was no longer, and venturing out alone at night was safer than it had ever been back there, day or night. She sighed, looking towards the oak again. She resumed walking, suddenly intent upon seeing it up close again. Soon she was drawing near to it, pausing when she stood on the very spot where she and Eric declared their feelings for each other. This time, though there was still sorrow, there was determination as well. All that she’d vowed earlier, to keep Eric alive forever in her dreams and memories and through their children, and to not ever regret their falling in love, returned to her, stronger than ever. Life had to go on, after all, she knew; and the two most important reasons awaited her back there, in that strange but familiar place she now called home. And not just Tyler and Eric Jr., but Sarah as well, who had lost the same loved one. Teresa had already vowed to help her adjust to her new life here, in any way she needed; she owed her that much.

She gazed up at the stars and crescent moon, and pictured someday telling her sons about the times when this piece of land had drastically different surroundings, and when she and her parents and siblings flew with crows; and telling them what crows were, and birds in general. She pictured them playing with the cousins they would soon gain, and thought again of Martin and Karen, and the happiness they deserved after all they’d been through.

She looked up, feeling almost ready to return home, when something caught her eye, in her peripheral vision. She looked in that direction, towards the meadow on the far side of Lake Nicodemus, but couldn’t make out anything now. It seemed to be a pale figure moving about; but even after climbing a nearby rock, she couldn’t see anything. She dismissed it as a trick of the eye; and yet, she well knew there were strange, albeit harmless manifestations that crop up on this world. There’d never been anything like that in this location before, and yet…

Any further thoughts quickly fell away as she heard footfalls a short ways in back of her, along the trail she’d taken here. She was reminded of how Eric liked to try to startle her; but no, this one wasn’t trying to keep concealed. She turned, and instantly saw it was another mouse, as aware of her presence as she was of him.

“Hello! Who is it?” he called out.

“Teresa Brisby.” She climbed down from the rock. “Are you Michael?”

“No, I’m Norman. Remember when I was telling you about how I met Torrance and Hazel?”

“Of course, I’m sorry, Norman. I should’ve remembered.”

“That’s all right, it’s dark,” Norman said with a laugh as he drew close to her.

“Well, I still have a lot of names and faces to put together. It’s almost like when my family first arrived in Thorn Valley.”

“I’ll bet. We’ve all got a lot to get used to. I guess that’s why you’re here now, eh?”

“I guess so,” replied Teresa with a laugh, as both sat down on a flat stone. “With Lahaikshe’s longer days, and everything.”

“You’ll get used to it. We all have. Heh…so what’s my excuse, you might ask…”

“It did cross my mind…”

“Guess I’m something of a night owl. Always have been, and not just because natural mice are mostly nocturnal.” Norman paused to take in the night sky. “The stars are really beautiful here, aren’t they?”

“They certainly are. It’s hard to describe, even with all the times I’d been here before…”

“To me it’s almost like they’re speaking with each other. It’s in the way they twinkle; they look sharper, more clearly delineated than those in the Earth sky. Guess it’s all in the atmosphere.”

“That’s a lot like the way I’ve thought of them.” Teresa paused in her stargazing to look at Norman, who’d just done likewise. They both laughed, and wondered what else they had in common. She hesitated a moment as she realized there was one thing, but she had good reason to believe that he might not mind discussing it. “I hope I’m not out of line for asking, Norman, but…can you tell me more about your wife? Vera was her name?”

“Yes, and no, I don’t mind at all talking about her. She was quite a lady. Cautious, but very accepting of circumstances. Such a devoted mother, and wife…” He sighed. “It’s been over a year now, and I still wonder if I’ll ever get used to losing her. Ah…I’m sorry, Teresa, that’s probably the last thing you want to hear right now.”

“It’s all right, Norman, honestly. I know I’ll always miss Eric, what we had…but as I was just thinking a little while ago, life does go on. Please, tell me more about Vera.”

They continued conversing, feeling more and more at ease in each other’s company; until Teresa, ever mindful of her new responsibilities, felt the need to start heading back. She told Norman this, and he understood perfectly. Both were starting to yawn, agreeing that they felt more ready for sleep now, so he agreed to accompany her back to the Mouse community. As they started off, Teresa glanced over her shoulder.

“What is it?” Norman asked. “Did you leave something back there?”

“No, I just…oh, it’s probably nothing, but…when I first got here I thought I saw something, out of the corner of my eye, moving around in the meadow over that way, something that almost seemed to glow. I thought it was just a trick of the eye, but…you didn’t see anything like that, did you, Norman?”

“No, nothing at all.” They looked at each other and shrugged, smiling. They moved on along the trail, continuing to converse easily and quietly and admire the starry sky, until they drew near to the Mouse community’s main entrance.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Teresa. “To think that we can move about after dark like this, completely out in the open, without a care in the world.”

“Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s going to be so great for all of us, living here. Personally, I can’t wait to see what comes next. In fact…I almost forgot, my kids and I are on the shortlist for the cultural exchange. We’ll be in either the next party, or the one following.”

“That’s wonderful, Norman, congratulations! You’ll probably be on the same one as Jordan and Portia. You’ll have a great time, there’s so much to see and do out there, especially when it’s all new to you.” They both looked up again at the celestial canopy above, then at each other, smiling. They both laughed, unaccountably feeling some small nervousness.

“Don’t you just love awkward silences?” he said with a grin, making them both laugh again. “Seriously, Teresa, it’ll get better. Just like it will for all of us here, I just know it.”

“I’m sure it will, Norman. Thank you.” The two mice embraced.

“And any time you just need someone to talk to, get something off your chest, a shoulder to cry on…don’t hesitate, okay?”

“That’s sweet of you, Norman. I’ll remember.” Teresa kissed him on the cheek. They walked together back to the Mouse colony, after which they said their goodnights before going on to their respective quarters for the night.


There! This is it, home sweet home, he thought as he approached his destination. Having never approached it in quite this fashion before, he’d almost missed it. Now, though, as he paused ever so briefly before the entrance, his heart swelled at the thought of the one who awaited him there, who at the very least would have to be worried sick. With no further hesitation, he dropped to all fours and made for the tiny gap beneath the thorny thicket, calling out her name. He paused briefly, anticipating a reply. When it didn’t come, he continued on till he was all the way inside.

He stood up inside the spacious chamber, quietly calling out again. Still no reply. Perhaps she was napping, or maybe she was out gathering food or supplies. Quietly but quickly, he entered the den; but what he found, or didn’t find, made his heart sink. Not only was she nowhere to be found, but all her things were gone as well. It didn’t make sense, and he felt close to panic. What could have happened to her? Why would she just—

All at once, he arrived at an answer, and instantly it gave him a measure of peace and calm. Of course, it had to be him. He came here to take her back to their home. He was disappointed to a small degree, to be sure; given the choice, he would have preferred to have her at his side while he carried out this…mission, he’d have to call it. But at least he felt assured that she was in perhaps the safest possible place, back with her family and friends again. He’d already realized that, by now, she’d most likely believed him to be gone for good; still, despite knowing that she had to be perfectly safe and secure now, it was dismaying knowing that she had to be mourning him, just as her family had thought her father dead when he was gone for a time.

Still, there was nothing for it now but to proceed with the mission that this…impulse, this inner voice was telling him he must carry out. He’d have to content himself with knowing that the one he loved most was out of danger. He left the den and went all the way outside again, looking toward the edge of the Pit, watching his breath clouding in the frosty air, continuing to think about her. He imagined her smile, her scent, the warmth of her embrace. It further occurred to him: since she’s likely given birth by now, it was just as well she was there instead of here. Having infants to care for here and now would surely complicate things. He closed his eyes, sighing as he pictured her, holding their babies close to her as they nursed at her belly. He smiled to himself, feeling an even greater sense of peace. One way or another, he vowed to himself, he’d be seeing them all, hopefully sooner rather than later, once all this was over.

And yet…exactly what was “all this?” He had no idea what this was he felt compelled to do, what or who he needed to seek out. He again looked out toward the Pit; then, shrugging, he decided there was no way to find out but to simply get on with it. He looked back at the thorny patch one more time, unsure if he’d ever see it again; then he looked up at the overcast December sky, toward the north. He’d already felt certain that his next destination lay in that direction; and so, filled with resolve, he set out. He smiled, feeling great exhilaration as his feet left the ground. His thoughts again fell to his beloved. If only she and her family could see me now, he thought as he soared off to the north, higher and higher as if borne on the wind.