This place looks familiar, but it certainly isn’t the place he went to sleep. Dingeye is not used to waking up in a different place from where he remembers falling asleep (except that one time when he and Thura got hold of a bottle of whiskey, but they don’t talk about that), and so he is understandably confused until he realises that this is, of course, a dream.
He recognises where he is now. That big room with the tapestry … what’d they call it? Oh yeah, the Great Hall. He’s standing in front of the tapestry, looking at the place where the picture of the mouse in armour was. Except now there’s just a blank space where the mouse was.
He turns, and the mouse is standing beside him.
Dingeye instinctively yelps and jumps back. Even as he does so, he feels a stab of shame. He’s a stoat, a carnivore, he shouldn’t be afraid of a mouse less than half his height … but he thinks even Ferahgo himself would think twice before crossing blades with this mouse. He can’t help but feel relieved when the mouse smiles and raises a paw.
“Peace, friend, I have no quarrel with you.”
The mouse’s lips do not move. The voice seems to come from everywhere. Dingeye relaxes.
“Well, that’s good ter know,” he mutters. “So … wot am I doin’ ‘ere? Wot are you doin’ ‘ere?”
The mouse (what was his name? Matthew? Marcus? No, Martin) rests his paws on the hilt of his sword (beautiful sword it is, too, the best Dingeye’s seen in his life, even better than Ferahgo’s blades) and his face becomes grave.
“I felt it was necessary to speak with you. When you crossed the threshold of my Abbey, bearing us no ill-will, you came under my protection. Even if you and your friend are … outsiders. You are not the first, and one of them at least ended well.”
At first Dingeye has no idea what the mouse is talking about, but then it clicks into place. Outsiders? Ha. He means vermin, even if he does dress it up with his fancy-pants talk. Dingeye is not particularly clever, as even he would have to admit, but he’s not completely stupid; he saw the way the mice looked at him and Thura, as if they half-expected them to attack any second, the way that fat old Friarmouse sniffed at them, what that old squirrel called them when he thought they weren’t listening – and Dingeye’s still amazed that a goody-goody squirrel of all creatures would say things like that in front of an Abbess! He’d spit in contempt, but this mouse gives him the impression of somebeast you don’t spit in front of. Ten seasons (or was it fifteen? He never was good at counting past five, and anyway they blurred after the first three) with the Corpsemakers teaches you to recognise authority.
Martin ignores him and continues talking.
“I cannot tell you every detail of your future, and I cannot give you direct instructions. All I can do is hint and hope you follow.”
“Fine, but is this goin’ anywhere or are yew jes’ gonna talk at me all night?”
The words are out before he can prevent them. The mouse gives him a death glare. Dingeye cowers. Dammit, why did he say that?
“… sorry,” he squeaks, half-expecting the sword to lash out any second. Just because he’s dreaming doesn’t mean it won’t be unpleasant. Besides, this is a disturbingly realistic dream … so much so that he isn’t even sure it is just a dream anymore.
“Work with me on this, please,” says Martin, his tone suggesting restrained annoyance.
“Sorry. Will do, sir.” Dingeye’s voice is still distinctly squeaky, as it always is when he becomes agitated. He nervously wrings the cloth of his ill-fitting, much-patched nightshirt.
“Do not panic. I told you, I have no quarrel with you; you are among friends at the Abbey.” The mouse begins to fade slightly, followed by the Great Hall, dissolving slowly into dark mist. “Just remember that. Do not betray those who care for you, nor the one who cares about you. Remember and trust my words, and farewell.” Martin is nearly gone by now, just a faint mouse-wraith, and his voice is no more than a whisper.
“Wait – look – wot’s the point of all this – ‘ey, wait!” Dingeye tries to move forwards and grab the mouse’s arm, but as so often happens in dreams, it’s like swimming in treacle. Martin is gone, and he is left alone in the swirling mists of a dying dream.
Not for long, though. He comes round, realises he’s being shaken and a voice is hissing in his ear.
“Ding? Dingeye! ‘Ey, mucker? You ‘wake?”
“I am now!” he growls, easing back to reality. It’s still dark in the room, but a shaft of moonlight from the window allows him to see Thura leaning over him. “Whaddya want?”
“I … I ‘ad a bad dream.” Thura looks shamefaced. Dingeye doesn’t know why. It’s not like this is the first time either of them have woken up shaking and sweating, memories of the horrors that come with being a Corpsemaker pushing to the surface of their minds, reminding them that they can desert but they’ll never totally escape. Dingeye sees that his friend’s eyes are reddened and swollen.
“Yew bin cryin’, mucker?”
“No! I got hayfever, alright?” Thura wipes his face on the sleeve of his borrowed nightshirt. Like Dingeye’s, it was made for a young otter, so it’s slightly too long and much too wide. The neckline has slid down one bony shoulder to his elbow, and the hem drags on the floorboards. He pulls at a loose thread and gulps nervously. “C’n I … c’n I sleep in yore bed?”
Dingeye blinks. Of course this isn’t new to him – they’ve slept curled up together before, many times. Often it was the only way they had of conserving warmth in bitter winters … and when you’re in constant fear for your life it’s a comfort to sleep in the paws of a friend. Not that he’d admit that, even under pain of torture. It’s just that neither of them ever bothered to ask before – they just wordlessly curled up together. They never needed to ask, because neither has ever pushed the other away. He sighs.
“Fine, so long’s yer don’t wet the bed.”
“I never did!” snaps Thura indignantly. Dingeye sniggers, but he pulls back the blanket to allow his friend access. Thura scrambles in and tries to get comfortable, ending up with his back pressed against the wall, his head resting on Dingeye’s shoulder and his tail brushing Dingeye’s footpaws. Dingeye squeaks and tickles Thura’s ribs in retaliation. Normally Thura wouldn’t miss the opportunity to fight back, but right now he’s too tired; he just giggles briefly and shifts his tail.
“G’night,” he murmurs, yawning once before starting to drift off.
“Night,” whispers Dingeye sleepily, leaving his paw resting on Thura’s body. He can feel the ribs under his paw, and a jutting hipbone pressing into him. Too thin – both of them are. Oh well, with luck they’ll start to put on some weight after a few days on decent food. These mice may not like stoats much, but he can live with the glares and nervous glances as long as they don’t stint on the grub.
He tucks the blanket back around them both and yawns. He needs sleep; preferably without any more weird dreams. Sure, that one was strange, but he’s not going to worry about it. Probably just brought on by that mouse-lady’s funny turns earlier; probably half the Abbey’s having dreams about this Martin fellow. Odd, yes, but he’s never taken his dreams seriously before and he’s not about to start now.
Now, two days later, with a stolen sword in his paw and his only friend lying dead on the road far behind him, Dingeye wonders if maybe he should have taken Martin’s warning a little more seriously.
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