“Come now, you two. Time for bed,” said Al-Suyá, attempting to wrangle the pair of young mice who seemed to be playing at a haphazard game of tag around the kitchen table. “Vespers was an hour ago already.”
“But we’re not tiiiiiired!” came the singsong reply from young Mazo, as he nimbly dodged a clumsy swipe from his sister around one corner of the wooden square.
“Yeah, we’re not tiiiiired,” echoed the voice of Eiara, giggling as she waggled an outstretched hand in a vain attempt to tag her brother as he darted just out of reach.
Al-Suyá smiled inwardly at the carefree joy that his children were feeling, here, safe in their happy home in Bluemoat Keep. Nonetheless, he mustered up his toughest, sternest dad face and voice, nabbing each of the two little mice with one hand in a fluid motion that hinted at a hidden wellspring of the agility and grace that comes with years of study of martial artistry. “I said,” he growled, as gruffly as he could manage, “it’s bedtime!”
In an instant, the young mice’s faces changed register to shocked surprise. Al-Suyá let it linger for just a moment before breaking into a wide smile as he chuckled aloud, “Besides, I’ve managed to tag you both, so now you’re out. And mice who are tagged out have to GO… TO…. BED!” With those last three words, he mussed the hair on their heads playfully.
Mazo licked a paw and smoothed his hair instinctually, stopping between trips to protest, “Thats… not how… tag works… dad.”
Eiara seemed nonplussed by her messy coif, and took the opportunity of being caught to snuggle closer to her father’s chest in a heartwarming display of affection that almost distracted Al-Suyá from responding to his son. “Mazo, when the fire is that low,” he said, gesturing with his chin to the banked coals that were glowing a soft orange among mostly grey ash, “it’s how tag has to work. There’s a whole day ahead of you two tomorrow to do whatever you want. And on top of all that, you know your mother isn’t well. We need to show respect and let her get her much-needed rest to regain her strength.”
At the mention of his mother, Mazo’s attitude changed notably. A hint of sadness entered his eyes, along with the sense of growing understanding of responsibility that Al-Suyá had proudly noticed beginning to develop in his son.
“Okay, dad. You’re right. Maybe mom will feel better enough tomorrow for us to spend some time with her.”
“I hope so, Mazo,” said Al-Suyá, “come now, let’s get you two tucked in, and, if you’re quick enough, maybe there will be time for a story while you chew your toothtwigs.”
At the mention of a story, both pairs of young mouse eyes lit up, and Eiara let out a barely audible, tiny gasp. Almost as swiftly as they had been cavorting around the table minutes before, they hurried off to their shared room to get changed and ready for sleep.
Al-Suyá used one hand to set the candle gently on the desk that shared the wall with the doorway into his children’s bedroom, and, producing the other from behind his back, revealed a pair of toothtwigs. “Ta daaa,” he sang softly, handing them to the children, “one of willow for my breezy little girl, and one of aspen for my bright young man. Now munch on those well, and always remember how important it is for us to take care of our teeth. They are our kind’s greatest natural tool, and can be a last resort to defending ourselves in the worst of situations. A toothtwig a day…”
“Keeps the dentist away, we know, dad,” said Mazo, rolling his eyes at what he perceived as being treated like a baby. For Eiara’s part, only the satisfied sound of gnawing could be heard.
“That’s right, that’s right,” said Al-Suyá, “and I know that you know. It’s just my duty as your father to make sure that you learn to take care of yourselves. Because one day, though not too soon, I’d hope, you may find yourselves taking part in a great adventure, somewhere far from this place, far from any place you know. And just as I did when I found myself in such a situation, you may discover that something as simple as a toothtwig before bedtime makes you feel much less alone, and much less frightened, and much more ready to face whatever challenges you will meet.”
Eiara looked up from her willow twig and stopped chewing long enough to mumble out of a mouthful, “You felt alone and frightened, Daddy? But you’re so brave and strong, and you have so many friends here at Bluemoat, I can’t imagine that.”
“Oh, thank you dearest,” replied Al-Suyá, “but I wasn’t always the mouse that you know today, surrounded by my friends and family in a wonderful and safe place.”
This time, it was Mazo who piped up. “Tell us that story, Dad! Tell us an adventure story about what happened before you came to Bluemoat!”
“Oh,” chuckled Al-Suyá, “I don’t know that telling you stories about a time when I felt scared is the best thing to do just before you go to sleep. We wouldn’t want you to have bad dreams, or wake up in the middle of the night, now would we?”
“Daaaaaad. We won’t! Right, Eiara?” asked Mazo, nudging his sister with an elbow.
She glanced at her brother’s contact with her ribs, then uncertainly at his expectant face with a noticeable gulp. “Um.. right?” said the younger sister, with more than a hint of trepidation.
“See, dad, Eiara’s fine. Besides, I won the game of tag, and so I should get to pick what kind of story we are going to listen to tonight.”
“Hoho,” said Al-Suyá, “I’m pretty sure your father won the game of tag tonight, getting both of the young mice in this house out in one fell swoop. But, if Eiara is willing, I could tell you some of the interesting things that happened when it fell to me to leave my parents’ home and venture into the jungles of the north. But ONLY if she is truly alright with it,” he finished, with an earnest and questioning look at his cherished daughter.
With a glance at her brother, who nodded as if to ask, “well, what are you waiting for,” then back at her beloved father, she set her jaw and tightened her lips in an act of determination. “Hmpf. Yes, daddy, I’m alright with it,” said Eiara, “just… not too many scary animals, okay?”
Mazo, never one to resist an opportunity to tease his little sister, chimed in, “Oh, no, dad, whatever you do, don’t mention your scary monkey witch doctor lady friend, who could gobble a little mouse girl up in JUST ONE BITE!” As he did, he reached over and playfully tickled at Eiara’s ribcage.
Eiara squealed, and then stuck out a pouty bottom lip before saying defiantly. “I’m not scared of HER.”
“You’re right not to be,” replied her father calmingly, “Waçu has some pretty powerful fangs, but she would never use them to eat a living creature. Her teeth, like ours, can be used for defense, and often to crack the shells of fruits and nuts that are the preferred foods of her tribe. But not all of the Saki are as wise and gentle as she is, and mice and opossums in the wildlands do well to steer clear of monkeys that they don’t know.” After a pause, he caught himself before continuing to enumerate a list of creatures that should be avoided, so as not to violate his daughter’s request for not too many scary animals. Besides, what Eiara didn’t know about the habits of her best friend Feti Furão’s greater grison cousins in the jungle wouldn’t hurt her, not for now anyway.
Taking advantage of the brief silence to chime in again, Mazo declared, “I’m not scared of Waçu, either. I think it’s cool how big she is, and how strong.”
“It is pretty cool,” said Al-Suyá, “but there are creatures far bigger and far stronger still than even our friend Waçu.”
This time it was Eiara who interrupted. “But none of them have such awesome jewelry as her! I loooooove her beautiful necklaces!”
At the mention of the bright tourmaline and emerald pendants that were the hallmark of the Saki shaman’s appearance, Al-Suyá’s paw instinctively went to the Greystone Bead that he wore threaded on a hemp thong around his neck at all times. He thought for a moment before he responded. “Hm, yes. Her necklaces are indeed something very special, my sweetling. But the story of those, even the story of my friendship with Waçu, comes far later in the tale of your father’s journey out from your grandmouses’ burrow on the edge of the Mato Grosso than where we will begin. Now, quiet both of you, and get to work on those toothtwigs. Especially you, Mazo.”
Brother and sister snuggled down into their comfortable bedding and dutifully started to chew on their bedtime twigs, as Al-Suyá began.
“The rains were heavier than usual in the year that I had finally come of age, and your grandparents begged me to stay on for one more season, citing the dangers of flooding, and mudslides. There was even increased activity of the venomous reptiles from the edge of the Zonas to the north. But I was young, and bored, and foolish, and I was having none of it…”