Notes edited 2-1-13

Note: Okay, here it is. NaNo '11. I've gone through and done minor typing edits and fixed just a couple things I decided to change in November, but it's pretty much untouched. I'd really appreciate feedback on the characters, plot, flow, anything you think is interesting and stuff that confuses you. You know, the big picture. I've tried to cut down on the rants, but this IS a first draft so I apologize if some parts are a bit dense or hard to follow; feel free to comment on that. ;) Thank you so much to anyone who checks this out and especially thanks to anyone who reviews. I'm looking forward to revising this in the near future but I'd love feedback on what worked and what didn't.

Please note: I am not looking for writing critique. I don't want long reviews of edits. I appreciate the effort, really I do, but it's not useful for me on this draft. I want comments on content, as I mentioned above. I will not be editing this draft; I'll use content reviews to better develop the story at a time when I'll actually pay attention to the writing. Please do not give me punctuation edits. I won't use them.

ALSO: I've never had a review return policy before, but I will happily review back anyone who reviews me in depth, excluding one-line reviews and reviews from the Review Game(since you'll already be getting a review through that). So, you know, added bonus. :) My life can be crazy sometimes, but expect a return within a week. If not, message me and I'll see what I can do.

2-1-13: My focus has shifted to Mountain Dawn and Nomad. I would much appreciate reviews on those stories instead of this one. However, feedback on any of my pieces will help me as a writer, so by all means stick with whichever story you prefer. :)

Chapter One: Ratter

Anke put Nolke to bed to the sound of dogs barking in the alley behind their home. Despite the numerous growls and yips, the toddler fell asleep quickly, under the watchful eyes of his mother and the bow-legged mutt, Ratter.

True to his name, Ratter normally spent his time stalking the house and storefront for all forms of rodentia. An adept at the task, the squeal of mice was more often their lullaby than dogs outside. But for the last few nights, he had lingered in her son's bedroom, eyes watchful and a growl at the ready should the strays outside grow too close.

When she was sure her son was asleep, Anke went downstairs and down the corridor to the shop, where Roldan stood at the counter, idly rolling a jar of molasses back and forth between his hands. Anke tipped her head in silent acknowledgment of her husband, and sidled up next to him. Sitting on the stool in the corner, she asked, "Have we had any more customers tonight? Is it time to close up?"

Roldan continued to roll the jar around but his look soured from boredom to weary annoyance. "I'm giving it more time. Just because we haven't had anyone in since sunset doesn't mean we won't have someone soon. There's still time yet."

"It's your choice, my dear," Anke said, and stood. "I've prepared dinner in the kitchen for you, whenever you're ready for it."

"Bring it out here," Roldan grunted without looking up.

Frowning, Anke did as she was told, returning promptly with a hot bowl of stew and large bread roll. She considered chiding him. After all, the meal had been all set up on the table, it'd be rude to eat in front of their non-existent but still potential customers, and they hadn't spent much time together in... But the words, as always, were stifled by the memory of a promise she'd once made.

He took it without a word and began tearing the bread apart, dipping it in the stew, and eating in silent disinterest in her and the food. Anke paused in the door on her way out, studying her husband of two years.

Roldan Vieth was a stout man, with sleek black hair and equally black eyes lined with age. He was eight years her senior, and had been deemed a good catch when he'd come to her father asking for her hand. She'd never met him before that day, though she later learned from him that she'd come into his shop on numerous occasions as a girl.

The shop was the main reason her father had entered into the agreement; Roldan was a hard worker, and always maintained the shop through illness and injury. His business was prosperous, through fair prices and his practiced manipulation of barterers. In the community, her husband was a respected man, and Anke a respected woman.

She sometimes wondered, however, what had driven Roldan to propose that day. Anke had asked him once before, before Nolke was born and he became even more distant, and he had simply said, "You looked the sort I should marry." What that meant was beyond her, and the question irritated her.

A deep bark, loud and close by, sounded outside the door and Roldan shooed her back into the house. Anke faded into the hallway as a customer, a tall gray-haired man in a long coat, strode in from the wind. The shop's guard dog, Picket, followed at his heels until Roldan whistled a dismissal.

Unlike Ratter, Picket was well-bred, a fawn-colored mastiff that sprawled on the cobblestone street outside the shop. He never came inside the main house, tasked instead with watching the stock. The hulking dog flicked his tail in calm obeisance and disappeared out the door, to resume his post to the right of the doorway, should he be needed to catch a thief.

Down the hallway, and up the stairs to their home above the shopfront, she walked back to Nolke's small bedroom. A slight shift in the bed was all she heard as Ratter raised his head to watch her enter the room.

While Roldan had bought and trained Picket from a puppy with the express purpose of having canine muscle to guard his shop, Ratter had worked his way into the house through sheer terrier initiative. The scraggly little brown mutt wasn't much to look at, though his eyes were quite intelligent. Only half as high as her knee, he used his small frame to creep under tables and chairs on soft-padded feet to stalk his rodent prey. A year before, Anke had found him in the alley behind their house with an enormous rat still fighting in his jaws. As he'd made the kill, she praised him and the little mutt had lingered ever since. It hadn't taken her long to convince Roldan of the benefits of such a rat catcher in the shop and Ratter had since won her heart as well.

On the bed, Nolke slept soundly, curled tightly in the wool blankets with half his right hand in his mouth and dark hair spilling over his eyes. As she watched, his eyelids twitched with unknown dreams and he settled back to stillness with a soft sigh. Anke curled up beside him on the bed, stroked his wavy hair, and looked out the window into the dark night.

Outside, nearly everything was deep in shadow. The moon was at half, but waning, and the buildings around blocked most of its light. She could see the top third at this time of night, but in a few hours it would be blocked by the taller inn behind them. In the alley below, a man walked by with a lantern, shooing a couple stray dogs that still lingered, growling, on the edges. When one skinny mutt refused to budge, the man kicked it in the ribs until it scuttled off with a yip and its tail between its legs.

At the sound, Ratter's ears twitched to the alley and he climbed on her lap to inspect the situation. Anke took the motion as an invitation for stroking and set about scratching behind the terrier's half-drooped ears. "It's probably nothing you haven't seen and experienced a dozen times, boy," she assured him and the terrier acknowledged her statement with a cursory lick of her hand before returning to his vigil by the window.

They sat like that for an hour before she heard Roldan's footsteps on the stairs. Stretching her kinked muscles, Anke stood, Ratter bounding gracefully to the floor as his perch moved, and greeted her husband in the hallway.

"He is well?" Roldan asked, gesturing vaguely toward their son's sleeping form. She nodded and his interest turned instead to walking back to their somewhat larger bedroom and sitting to take off his shoes.

"Did you make any sales with that man who came in?" Anke asked politely, as she too readied for bed. He nodded his head. "That's good, then. I'm glad." She smiled at him, some strange compulsion in her heart telling her to do so, and she thought for a moment the lines around his eyes faded slightly.

But then he turned away from her and snuffed the candle on the windowsill, and Anke had to wonder at the memory.

As Roldan climbed into bed beside her, the dogs in the alley returned to their nervous clamoring. This time, however, the barking was louder and closer, as Picket joined in in the shop below. The mastiff's chest-deep baying rang through the house, and down the hall, Anke heard Nolke cry out in surprise. Jumping to his feet, Roldan stormed down the hall and into the shop with a large cudgel in his hands. Anke followed quickly at his heels, ducking into her son's room and wrapping the frightened toddler in a protective embrace.

She wasn't sure what was going on in the shop below or the alleyway beneath them. Ratter stood at the window, front paws on the sill and his hackles raised. A low growl rose from his throat as he stared into the shadows and then a rough howl. It lasted a long moment, and sent Nolke ducking his head into her shoulder for further comfort, but Anke looked out the window as the howl resolved into tense silence.

For a moment she saw nothing but darkness, and then the bright third of the moon peeked out from the top of the building across the way. It was only for a second, but she knew it had not been blocked out by a passing cloud.

Seemingly satisfied, Ratter sat back on his haunches before walking stiff-legged back to her. His eyes were as alert as ever but it seemed the danger, whatever it had been, had now passed. The scraggly mutt settled on the blanket beside her and allowed her to scratch behind his ears. Nolke settled back to sleep in her arms and she tucked him under the covers, hoping he would still sleep soundly tonight. The night was waning already, and dusk would soon be upon them, but she still glanced warily at the darkness visible through the pane glass.

Roldan soon stomped up the stairs to give the same assessment. The situation deemed safe again, Anke closed her son's door and slipped back under the covers in her bedroom a little while later.

As she stared out her window at the ever-dropping sliver of moonlight making its way across the sky, she imagined a dark something blotting out the moon again. And she couldn't help but wonder what had been lurking in the dark alley below.

As she dropped off again, the dogs returned to their growling and nervous prowling. But the howls didn't start up again that night.