Brother Muskrat watched the wagon roll up the track to the yard.
His real name was Gerevin, but weeks could go by between uses of that name. Day to day, his name was Muskrat. And his real role at Rockway House was Master of the Scriptorium, but on as pleasant a day as it was today, he awarded himself a day off and was strolling outside the house, enjoying the air and the view. So he happened to be the first to see the wagoners arrive.
He could see — and wave to — Bretin and Olink long before any shouting would’ve communicated anything, so he contented himself with a gesture and then waited for them to pull up. They were arriving later in the day than they usually did, but Brother Muskrat was unconcerned. This was firstly because he was not disposed to worry much about exactly how much time had passed and how much remained. And secondly, he was not worried because he was not going to be the one finding himself still driving the return trip when the sun went down.
So he waited contentedly as the wagon rattled up and Bretin shouted his greetings and Olink yelled at the horses and the dust flew up and then began to settle. And when the bustle of arriving seemed ready to clear itself away, then did Brother Muskrat deign to begin the ceremonies of negotiation:
“Greetings, Bretin!” he called to the scrawnier man. “Greetings, Olink,” he added to the one who was still preoccupied with directing the horses. “A good day to you both. I trust you had a pleasant –”
Olink, however, had some other matter on his mind besides a smooth flow of economic interchange.
“We found a doll,” he cried, with a good deal more excitement than a remark like that seemed to merit.
“A *magic* doll,” Bretin amended. This correction did a lot to justify Olink’s excitement. It also gave Brother Muskrat some concern.
“A magic doll?” he repeated. “How do you know?”
“It’s breathing, isn’t it?” Olink said. He reached over the buckboard of the wagon and carefully lifted up Bretin’s folded up jacket. He stepped a few paces away from the wagon, placed the garment on the ground and then gently unwrapped it. Albeit shallowly, the doll was definitely breathing.
Maybe three hands high, it looked like a young woman or girl, wearing a simple beige peasant’s dress and little else. The bare feet were exquisitely well formed and the hair — brown, straight, and tied in a ponytail — was very realistic. Her eyes were closed and her lips were just slightly apart — as if she were asleep. Exactly as if the doll were asleep.
“What d’you think?” Bretin said proudly. “We found her — it — I don’t know –”
“How do you know it’s a doll?” Muskrat asked, before Bretin could finish articulating the gender issue.
“‘Course it’s a doll,” Olink exclaimed. “Ain’t never seen a person that small, anyway.”
“I thought I’d heard stories,” Muskrat said thoughtfully. “Some years past, a girl named M-something. Melissa?”
“Oh sure,” Olink declared. “There’s always stories. You can find stories about anything. Dragons and skeletons and witches and little people and fey princesses. But you don’t find no fey or little people lying beside the road in the middle of the day. They dance — and they do their dancing at night –”
“Olink knows the stories very well,” Bretin explained.
“This here ain’t no fey,” Olink declared authoritatively. “It’s a magic doll.”
“The word of an expert,” Bretin said proudly.
“It’s rather unusual for a doll to have closed eyes,” Brother Muskrat suggested cautiously.
“Not magic dolls,” Olink assured him. “See, they keep their most powerful magicks in their eyes, so they got to shield them a lot of the time. Why, might be the only reason Bretin and I are alive right now is because this magic doll’s kept its eyes closed.”
“Damn! Really?” Bretin breathed.
“Wow!” Suddenly, Bretin frowned. “Olink! You son of a bitch! That’s the last time I’m letting you stop and make us pick up a doll by the side of the road. Why, it could’ve leveled us and three stands –”
“All right,” Muskrat interrupted. “Suppose it’s a magic doll –”
“A *powerful* magic doll,” Bretin amended.
“That too.” Muskrat sighed, knowing the answer to his next question and knowing it involved money. “Why are you showing it to me?”
“Well,” Olink said. “We were sitting there in the road, staring at that powerful magic doll –”
“So powerful, it glows in the dark,” Bretin added. “We checked.”
“Yeah,” Olink glared at his partner. It was the sort of glare that indicated there was some disagreement as to who was in charge of this story. “Anyway, we’re looking at that doll –”
“Just radiating that serious magic.”
“Uh, yeah. So we’re considering our options –”
“I can understand now why it took you so long to get here today,” Brother Muskrat observed mildly.
“Will you guys just shut up and let me finish!?” Olink shouted.
“Mmph?” the doll squeaked.
“Hey, it didn’t do that before!” Olink exclaimed.
“You didn’t shout that loud before,” Bretin told him.
“What’s going on?” the doll asked. It also opened its eyes. With a cry of panic, Bretin dropped and rolled, not stopping until he’d come up on the far side of the wagon.
“Who’re you?” the doll asked Olink and Brother Muskrat. “And what’s the matter with him?” she added.
“I am Gerevin,” Brother Muskrat identified himself. It never stuck, but he did like to promote his proper name — at least with strangers. He, unlike Olink or Bretin, had the equanimity to deal calmly with dolls who opened their eyes and immediately started asking questions. “And this is Olink,” the brother identified the petrified wagoner. “He rescued you.”
“Oh,” the doll said, before considering this information thoughtfully. “Thank you,” she eventually decided, and then asked “From what?”
Muskrat looked at Olink. Olink looked around for Bretin, but Bretin was still unhelpfully on the far side of the wagon. So Olink looked instead at the doll. The doll looked patiently at Olink.
“Well,” Olink temporized. “You know,” he suggested. But this was the wrong audience to suggest that to. None of them seemed to know what they were supposed to know. A silence threatened to settle in. “Well,” Olink tried again. “From sleeping in the middle of the road.”
“Ah,” Brother Muskrat said. “Yes. A bad habit — and a dangerous one. Hazardous to one’s health, I’m sure. I can’t recommend it,” he told the doll. “I’m sure there are other, safer places to sleep. Do you sleep?” he inquired, just in case it should turn out that she didn’t. “And have you a name?”
“I’m Mouse,” the doll replied, choosing to answer the easiest question first. “And yes –”
“That’s good!” Olink exclaimed. “A Mouse and a Muskrat.”
There was an awkward pause.
“What muskrat?” the doll finally asked.
“Him,” Olink said, pointing at his host. “He’s Brother Muskrat.”
“But I thought you said your name was –”
“My *name* is Gerevin,” Brother Muskrat sighed. “But everyone calls me –”
“Brother Muskrat,” Olink finished cheerfully.
“Yes. I see,” the doll said doubtfully. She glanced about and asked quickly “Where are we?”
“Rockway House,” Brother Muskrat answered. “Welcome to Rockway House, Mouse.”
“Thank you,” Mouse said absently. She ran a hand through her hair. “And you saved me from sleeping in the middle of the road? What road?”
“The Dargon Road,” Olink said. “Not many other roads around here worth mentioning,” he added.
“It leads to Dargon, then?”
“Be pretty stupid to call it that if it didn’t,” Olink declared.
“Now Olink,” Bretin called from his safe vantage. “Don’t annoy her. You don’t know what she might do if she gets mad at you. She might wink at you or something.”
The doll frowned. “Are you sure he’s all right?” she asked Brother Muskrat. “Because, I don’t know why I’d wink at someone if I were mad at him.”
“They think you’re magical,” Brother Muskrat tried to explain.
“And winking is a very powerful thing to do if you’re magical.”
“Uh, huh?” Mouse repeated. Her doubt was quite obvious.
“Shilsara’s Bed, girl!” Olink exclaimed. “Everyone knows that!”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that phrase,” Brother Muskrat muttered.
Olink shrugged. “So are you going to pay us or aren’t you?” he asked Brother Muskrat.
“Pay him for what?” the doll demanded, as loudly as she had yet managed to shout. “For rescuing me from a nap? In the middle of the road? What’s going on here?”
“Yeah,” Bretin agreed, apparently deciding it was safe to come back over by the others. “Are you going to reward us proper or aren’t you?”
“What do you mean, reward?” Mouse asked. Both Olink and Bretin started to respond to her question and also explain to Brother Muskrat why a mouse was worth a king’s ransom. They both spoke loudly and quickly (and not very comprehensibly, even if only one of them had been speaking). As it was, they produced a lot of noise but scarcely advanced anyone’s understanding.
“Please be quiet,” Brother Muskrat said. He said it very softly, so no one heard him. After a pause, he repeated himself, but the shouting continued unabated. He waited and said his three words again, continuing to do the same thing until Bretin finally became curious to know what he was saying and walloped Olink so he could hear.
“Now,” Brother Muskrat said to Mouse, “Olink and Bretin are aware that Rockway House will provide remuneration in exchange for magical things that are brought here. They think you are a magical thing –”
“I am *not* a magical thing!” Mouse exclaimed.
“Yeah? Well, you’ll have to prove that to us,” Olink insisted. “We don’t often run into people that’s only a couple of hands high –”
“I am *three* hands high!” the mouse shouted.
“Two, three. You’re still too tiny to be a person,” Olink declared. “I say you’re magical and I say pay up.”
“I am a person,” the mouse screamed. “I’m not too tiny — I’m — me!” She broke into tears and collapsed on Bretin’s jacket.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Bretin glared at his partner.
“The pursuit of money can be a very cruel thing,” Brother Muskrat observed loftily.
“Look who’s talking!” Bretin turned his attention to him. “You and your rhubarb relish! Why, the price you charge for your ‘secret’ recipe is –”
“All right,” Brother Muskrat reached down and picked up the jacket and Mouse. “Let’s not go off on that argument. We have a little girl to cheer up.” He turned and walked into the kitchen.
“I still say she’s a doll,” Olink grumbled, following him.
“Yeah, she *is* cute,” Bretin agreed.
“That isn’t what I meant.”
A change of locale and an offering of watered mead as well as a fair amount of patience served after a while to calm down the Mouse. Still sniffling a little, she seated herself on a sunny part of a table in the refectory, curling up around the small glass that contained her drink.
“So,” Brother Muskrat said, swirling his own mug. “You’re a person, Mouse. Where are you from?”
“Kervale,” she replied.
Her statement was met by a silence that implied a complete lack of recognition.
“Well, that’s all right,” she said. “I’d never heard of Rockway House, either.”
“What’s Kervale near?” Bretin asked.
Mouse frowned. “Well, it’s not that far from Riverside,” she said. “It only took me a week or two to walk there from Sir Ongis’ house.”
“Sir Ongis?” Brother Muskrat asked. “Is that like in Ongis’ Fish?”
“What’s Ongis’ Fish?” the emphatically unmagical little girl asked.
“It was something that was promised but never appeared,” Olink explained.
“Some years ago, shortly before a Festival, this Sir Ongis wrote to the Duke and promised that he would be bringing to court a present that would astound the whole duchy,” Brother Muskrat said. “But when the man actually arrived, all he had was a lame story about some two-headed brook trout that got away.”
“Well, if it *is* the same Sir Ongis,” Mouse shrugged, “he makes a habit of doing stupid things.”
“I’ve never heard otherwise,” Bretin said. “Anyway, you say you’re from Kervale?”
“My family’s there,” Mouse agreed. “My brothers and sister, at least. I *think* they’re still there. I haven’t seen them for a few months. I had to leave because of Sir Ongis. He wanted me to be some sort of fairy princess.”
“But you’re not,” Brother Muskrat said.
“I am not,” Mouse agreed. “I’m a girl and my father was a farmer and my mother’s name was Sophie –” She stopped.
“Was,” Brother Muskrat repeated softly. “They’re dead?”
“The Red Plague, of course,” Olink said.
“Did they get sick?” Brother Muskrat asked.
“No,” Mouse said shortly. “Anyway, I had to leave. And then I spent the summer at Riverside. That was very pleasant, though a bit lonely. But then this awful man grabbed me and took me away from there.”
“He grabbed you?” Bretin asked.
Mouse nodded. “I’d just been swimming and he — he grabbed me. I screamed,” she admitted.
“Very understandable,” Brother Muskrat said.
“But didn’t you — couldn’t you –?” Bretin fumbled for his question. Mouse stared at him, waiting to see if he could sort something out. “Couldn’t you punish him?” Bretin finally asked.
“No,” Mouse said levelly. “I’m not a fairy. I can’t ‘punish’ people. I’m Mouse, not Melisande –”
“Melisande! That was the name,” Brother Muskrat exclaimed.
There was a silence while everyone waited for him to explain. He said nothing more, however.
“I, uh, told that to Sir Ongis,” Mouse resumed. “That I wasn’t Melisande — though I don’t know if he believed me. I tried to fake being a fairy to Theris the Potter and failed. I don’t know what the man who grabbed me wanted, a Melisande or a Mouse. He stuffed me in a sack and made me stay in there pretty nearly all the time. He spoke to me only to give me a few commands and explain that if I cooperated, it would all go much better for me.”
“Where did he take you?” Brother Muskrat asked.
“To a chapel in the woods.”
“A chapel?” Bretin asked. “There’s a ruined chapel pretty close to where you were on the road. But that place’s haunted.”
“That’s probably it,” Mouse agreed. “The roof’s gone. So he put me (inside my sack) in a hole in the floor of the chapel and told me to wait. There was someone who was challenging him to a fight.
“A while later, someone else came along –”
“What happened to the bad man?” Olink asked. “Didn’t he come back?”
Mouse shook her head. “I guess that after a while of waiting, I fell asleep. I slept maybe quite a while. And then this other man came along. He opened up the hole in the floor and he took out some of the things that were there with me. But he left me alone; he might not even have seen that I was there. If he had, I think he would have taken me out of there; I think he was nice. But he didn’t see me and I was too tired to move or do anything. So he took the stuff he wanted and went away.”
There was a silence.
“Then how did you get from the chapel to the road?” Brother Muskrat asked.
There was another silence.
“I don’t know,” Mouse finally admitted.
“You’re sure you’re not magical?” Bretin asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” the tiny girl insisted.
“And you spent the summer in this town named Riverside?” Brother Muskrat asked.
“Almost in it. There was this nice tree very close to the town. It was very big and had a wonderful hollow. I lived there.” Mouse sighed. “Up until just a few weeks ago, I think.”
Brother Muskrat looked out at all the bright new growth in the kitchen garden. “Mouse,” he said, “it’s springtime now but you’re saying it was summer a few weeks ago.”
“Oh!” Mouse exclaimed. “Oh my! Winter’s over already? That was quick.”
“And you don’t remember anything last year about the Red Plague?”
The girl shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t get it in Riverside,” she suggested.
“And the bad man who grabbed you, while you were swimming, did he also collect your clothes for you?”
“He did not!” Mouse exclaimed with remembered indignation. “He just grabbed me and shoved me in that sack, all wet and cold and shivering. It was awful! Someone yelled at him just as he was grabbing me, so he was kind of in a hurry. And he never stopped to get me anything to wear. It was — it was very embarassing every time I did have to get out of that sack.”
“Then, Mouse, where did you get the clothes you’re wearing?” Brother Muskrat asked.
“Oh!” Mouse looked at her dress. “But this — this is what I usually wear,” she said, fingering it uncertainly. “I — I don’t know.”
“Are you sure you’re not magical?” Bretin asked again.
“Yes I’m sure!” Mouse screamed at him. “All my life, people’ve been telling me I’m magical and I. Know. They’re. Wrong!” She took a deep breath. “You want magical?” she demanded. “I’ll give you magical. The man who came to me while I was sleeping under the chapel. He didn’t take away all the magic stuff. There’s some still left there. You want magical? Go get that.”
“Yes, perhaps we should,” Brother Muskrat said.
“Dibs on the magic stuff!” Olink and Bretin shouted simultaneously.
It was now too late in the day to start back to the ruined chapel, not if the quartet wanted to look around the place under daylight — and Bretin and Olink most strenuously wanted to avoid the place after dark.
“It’s haunted,” Bretin reminded Brother Muskrat.
“Get your throat slit if you linger near it after the sun goes down,” Olink explained.
“J’mirg’s Bones, Olink!” Bretin exclaimed.
“Hold it!” Brother Muskrat shouted even louder. “Bretin! I’ve told you before. There are certain –”
“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Bretin said wearily. “Don’t mess with the nastier gods. Don’t even talk about them. Sorry Brother. But Olink takes us driving past that place and he’s never even told me I could’ve gotten my throat opened up.”
“Didn’t want to make you nervous.”
“I didn’t know that ghosts kept their knives sharp,” Mouse said.
“I didn’t know they even *had* knives,” Brother Muskrat added. “How do you know about this slashing ghost?” he asked Olink.
“Everybody knows about that,” Olink said vaguely.
“All right,” Brother Muskrat said. “We’ll go first thing tomorrow. You all can stay to supper tonight –”
“What about her?” Bretin asked.
“What about her?” Brother Muskrat responded.
“What about me?” Mouse echoed, understandably interested in the question.
“Are you going to pay us for her?” Bretin tried one last time.
Brother Muskrat shrugged. “She’s a person,” he said. “I don’t find anything particularly magical about her. It was good of you two to pick her up off the road and bring her here. I’m sure she appreciates your help –”
“Thank you,” Mouse said, responding to her cue.
“Yeah, sure. You’re welcome,” Bretin said without much enthusiasm.
“That, I think, is enough on that,” Brother Muskrat declared. “Now come along. We have a stew to help prepare.”
The group reached the chapel around midmorning the next day. They left the wagon (and a pair of horses who appreciated the respite in their journeying) a little ways off the road.
“Get your throat slit, huh?” Bretin asked on the short walk to the remains of the building.
“Only at night,” Olink told him. “And then only if you’re stupid enough to go where you’re not invited. Folks say that lots of nights there’s a horrible clanging and clashing around the chapel, as if some swordsmen were having some terrible fight. Well, one evening, someone traveling to Dargon — some idiot who couldn’t wait til he got to the city to have himself an adventure — had too much ale at the Whistling Pig and decided that he’d go tell the swordfighters to please try to practice a little less noisily. So he stumbled off into the night –”
“Oh, and he was the one who got his throat cut?” Bretin asked. Olink nodded. “Served him right, then.”
“Incidentally,” Brother Muskrat asked “was his purse missing also?”
Olink stared at the brother. “Don’t know about that,” he finally said.
“There’s the place,” Mouse announced from her vantage on Brother Muskrat’s shoulder. She had listened with half an ear to Olink’s story, but her eyes had remained focused on the forest ahead. She pointed at the gray stone wall that was scarcely visible under a green tapestry of vines and creepers. There were gaps (partially filled with more greenery) where windows had once been and a couple of fissures where the wall itself had parted. The top of the wall simply ended roughly with a crown of leaves and tiny flowers rather than any kind of roofline.
“Not much to look at,” Bretin admitted.
“Not if you wanted a building,” Brother Muskrat half-agreed. “Celine might approve of this place, though — as it is now.”
“Except for the haunting,” Olink said.
“She wouldn’t care for the ghosts,” Brother Muskrat nodded.
“The treasure’s inside,” Mouse prompted.
“Treasure?” Brother Muskrat raised an eyebrow.
“The magic stuff that was with me.”
There was a choice of entries to the interior (loosely speaking) of the chapel. They decided to be choosy, though, and walked around the outside until they found a fairly large gap that was ill-defended by the briars. Within, the floor was covered with leaf litter and a few pioneering vines and seedlings, but the ancient altar was still quite obvious and as yet untouched by the vegetation. The trio walked over to it and Mouse pointed out for Bretin the catch that would open the hole in the floor.
“Now be careful,” she said, herself skipping back several feet from the altar. “When you release that catch, the altar itself will move some.”
“Yes,” Brother Muskrat said, observing where the leaf litter had been pushed around. “We can see that. Well, Bretin, you and Olink have ‘dibs’ on the magic stuff. Will you do the honors?”
Bretin did the honors. With a growling grinding that implied to Brother Muskrat that the thing might not be willing to perform this trick many more times, the altar shifted forward away from Bretin and toward the center of the room. Brother Muskrat walked around the shifted altar to look at the opening below. As he did, he heard a gasp from Olink.
“Something?” he said, peering with Bretin at the darkness below.
“Uh, yeah,” Olink said cautiously. “You know, I really think you were wrong and we were right.”
“About that mouse.”
“What about Mouse?” Brother Muskrat stood up and glared at Olink over the altar. “I thought we settled that yesterday.”
“Well, she just scuttled out of here through that hole in the wall over there.” Olink pointed at a small gap that was close to the ground. Not easily, perhaps, but Mouse could probably have gotten out through it.
Brother Muskrat glanced at the hole and then back at Olink. “So?” he asked.
“Well, before –”
“It’s junk!” Bretin exclaimed in disgust.
Brother Muskrat looked down at his feet. Bretin was dumping some small stones near his sandals. “All of it?” the brother asked.
“Some rotten cloth, these moldy stones and some more rotten cloth,” Bretin said. “If there was ever anything magical here, that other guy took it all.”
“Hmph.” Brother Muskrat felt disappointed. “And Mouse just ran off?” he asked Olink again.
“She did?” Bretin asked. “She was the one who suggested we come here for magic stuff. And then she goes — The wagon!” he shouted suddenly. “We left it!” He sprang to his feet and raced out of the chapel.
“That’s an awful lot of work to go to just to steal someone’s wagon,” Brother Muskrat said to the fleeing man. He did not follow. Neither, he noticed, did Olink. “You don’t think Mouse wanted to steal the wagon either?”
“No, no,” Olink laughed. “What would a mouse want with a wagon?”
“Well,” Brother Muskrat said reasonably, “to ride around in. Or to sell. She’d have needed an accomplice, though — if that was what was going on here.”
“But she’s a mouse,” Olink said. “What would a mouse want with a wagon?”
“What do you mean, she’s a mouse?”
“I mean she turned into a mouse and then ran away.”
“A mouse? You mean with paws and whiskers –”
“– and a tail, yeah. And fur. She turned into a mouse and ran off through a mousehole. She was magic.”
“But she was a person,” Brother Muskrat said. “She’d been places and done things and gotten kidnapped and brought here and –”
“Wagon’s still there,” Bretin announced, coming back into the chapel. “So are the horses. You know, Olink, I don’t think I pay enough attention to Chester or Marybelle. They gave me a very strange look when I came running up to them.”
“Mouse’s a mouse,” Olink told him.
Bretin stared at Olink. “You’re not much better than Chester,” he said. “Except that he manages to be enigmatic without moving his lips.”
“Hah! Mouse isn’t a mouse!” Brother Muskrat exclaimed. “The mouse wasn’t really Mouse.”
Bretin looked over the altar at Brother Muskrat. “You’re worse than he is,” he said.
“Look at this.” Brother Muskrat stood up from the hole in the floor. He held gently something wrapped in the last of the rotting cloth and, stepping around to the side of the altar, he unwrapped it slightly. Olink and Bretin looked.
“Another doll?” Bretin asked.
“No,” Brother Muskrat said, looking down at a tiny face that was identical to that of Mouse. The eyes were closed; she seemed to be asleep. “It’s slight, but she’s breathing.”
Olink sighed. “Here we go again,” he said.