GUEST

Warmth, comfort, evening.

It was odd not being the one running about at night. But, Noir mused, it was not so bad. Stretched out on the couch watching the eldest of Brisby's children do… something with a stick and a rock, he felt snug, lethargic, and only slightly curious.

"What are you doing child?" or perhaps more than just 'slightly'.

"I'm making a new sword," he said, scraping the rock at the end of the stick again, peeling the tiniest bit of shaving.

"You might want to try a different rock," Noir suggested. "This one doesn't seem well suited to the task."

"I had a real good one last time," Martin said, "but Timmy lost it."

The youngest, by about a minute as the three children were all from the same brood, was downstairs, along with his sister, Derrick and Cadence. Cadence was working on the brew for her ritual, which filled the place with the smell of mushrooms. Derrick was there to keep the children from getting in the way, and keep Cadence focused on her task instead of playing with the children.

"Why don't you just use your teeth?"

The small vermin looked at the bigger, "Huh?"

To the shock and horror of the bigger, "Oh goodness. Here." Taking the would-be sword Noir made several quick swipes then handed it back, "There."

"Whoa!" His sword now had a proper point, one sharp enough to puncture if the thrust was strong enough. "How'd you do that?"

"Practice," the black rat grinned. "You can do a lot of things with these if you know how."

"Wow!"

Noir could not resist a chuckle. He'd spent very little time around young ones before. They were surprisingly amusing.

Brisby did not seem to share his amusement, or more likely it was just that her child was anywhere near him. The look she was giving him was something between fear and loathing, a combination he was not unfamiliar with.

"Will it be ready soon?" she asked suddenly.

"What?"

"This… magic spell she's cooking."

"By who's definition of soon?" he asked, sensing she was forcing a conversation though for what reason he could only guess. "It will be done in time," he added, "you may rest assured of that."

She did not look convinced, but Noir suspected it had more to do with the source of the information than the information itself. "The others should return soon."

Barren and Salindra were retrieving their things, with Justinian's help. It had been against his better judgement letting the ginger go rather than doing it himself, but the big human made for a far superior pack mule, and that was really what was needed.

"I would not be overly concerned. This is not our first infiltration," he said, relaxing back onto the couch.

"Why do you do it?" she asked after a long, tense pause.

He looked at her lazily, "Do what?"

"Whatever it is you do?" she said testily.

"I do a great many things," said Noir, "all for different reasons. You'll need to be more specific."

A sharp retort was on the tip of her tongue but fell off clumsily when there was a knock at the door. It came again a moment later and Noir went rigid at the deep baritone that called out "Brisby!"

"Rennej!" he whispered in a hiss.

A million things passed through his mind simultaneously, then he noticed the female. The loathing was gone from her look, now only fear remained. Fear directed at the door. She looked at him and whispered harshly, "Hide!"

Warring with his instincts, he grabbed Martin who sat frozen on the floor, and crammed them both beneath the couch as Brisby went to answer the door.

"Ah, Brisby, there you are. I thought you were ignoring me," the big black rat man said, stepping into the room.

"Oh no," she said, "I was just cleaning up after dinner. I took a moment to finish is all."

The big rat sniffed the air, "Mushrooms?"

"Mushroom soup."

"Ah! Pity."

The two bantered back and forth and Noir watched with eagle eyes. It was a revealing watch. She was acting, acting very well, acting like she wasn't afraid, like she was just talking to an old friend come to visit and she had nothing to hide. It was a good act.

"So, what brings you around this evening Rennej?"

"Well, these are dangerous times," he said, "and you living out here all alone."

"I'm not alone, the children are here as well," she reminded, stepping around the table and collecting several dishes to bring to the kitchen.

"Yes, of course," he said with notably little enthusiasm. "Where are they right now?"

"Downstairs," she said, "getting ready for bed. We're all safe, there's nothing to worry about."

"I only wish that were true," he said, and Noir was surprised by the honesty in his voice. "Those foreigners are still around, I'm sure of it. And make no mistake, they are dangerous."

"Yes, so I've heard," said Brisby, feigning humor, "do you think they really sneak into your home at night and steal your teeth?"

"I wouldn't put it past them, though I think that should be the least of our concerns," he said. "It's not the humans I'm so worried about, it's the vermin that was with them."

"Oh! Right, I remember hearing something like that. But why should that be such a concern."

"Oh Brisby," he said with just a hint of condescension, "You must understand. You didn't see him like I did. You don't realize what he is."

"A vermin?" she asked innocently.

"A black."

It took all his restraint not to snort at the other black's theatrics. The pause, Noir thought, was really overdoing it.

"So, he's a black," said Brisby with convincing dismissal. "Why is that a problem?"

"Oh Brisby," the looming black said. "So naïve. We blacks, we're not like other vermin. You couldn't possibly understand."

"Yes, yes," she said with a dismissive wave. "Big, bad, blacks. So you've said."

It wasn't offense that molded his face, nor any kind of anger. It was too playful, but at the same time dangerous, suggestive. It sank like lead balls into his stomach when he realized what it was, and what it meant.

"Are you teasing me Brisby?"

A chill ran up the hiding black's spine at the tone of his voice. Reason warred with instinct and it took all his will not to scurry from under the couch.

"Of course not Rennej, I would never tease a fearsome black."

No, no, no, he screamed in his head. Don't provoke him, don't play along.

"We are fearsome, Brisby," he said, slinking forward like liquid shadow.

"Rennej?" Too late she realized her mistake, but not to late to avoid his pounce. "Rennej!"

"Very fearsome Brisby," he crooned, stalking after her with a lustful glint in his eye.

For someone who clearly disdained blacks, she appeared woefully unprepared for what she'd unleashed. It was a short chase around the table before he caught her, pinning her with his superior size and strength.

"Rennej, please," she begged, struggling weakly.

"You can't know, Brisby, how long I've waited for this."

Strike! Maim! Kill! His instincts screamed at him for action. He'd been trained from nearly the day his first coat had grown in to serve his clan. This had taken him to strange places and stretched his personal definition of what clan meant.

Derrick and Cadence, Salindra and even Barren were, as far as he was concerned, part of his clan. But on this particular quest that had been, temporarily, stretched a bit farther to include Justinian, the children, and even the caustic, confrontational Brisby.

He knew what he wanted to do. The fact that it was Rennej just made him want to do it more. But he was under armed and badly positioned. If he missed, if he failed to kill the larger black with his first strike, it would be a fight, and the sword at his hip was doubtlessly well used.

In his thinking brain he knew the best thing he could do was let it happen. As heartless as it sounded, Brisby would survive it.

Her son did not understand this fact, nor did he likely understand what was happening. This of course, did not matter, because he understood his mother was being hurt and that was enough.

"Grah!" the black cried out as the tiny wooden sword punctured his leg.

Snarling he sought his attacker and upon finding him, backhanded the child across the room.

"Martin!" his mother cried. "Rennej, please. He's only a child."

A fact that did not seem to matter to the black, now almost totally lost to his instinct and held back only by the conflicting interest to kill his attacker or finish what he'd been doing with his mother.

A sudden wrapping at the door distracted him from both. His head snapped, a barely restrained snarl sneaking past his curled lips. Looking once more at the child, then the female, he stomped to the door and flung it wide.

Justinian, hand raised to knock, stared at the glaring black in utter shock.

"Justinian," he snarled.

"Rennej," the other said, composing himself quickly in the face of the angry black.

"What are you doing here?" the black said, quelling his anger into something slightly less inclined to inciting violence, but only slightly.

"I could ask you the same question, Rennej," Justinian replied. "Where's Brisby?"

The black and brown matched glares, hands inching towards their swords as the tension grew to an almost certain peak. Then, something scurried across the road, breaking their focus. It was too dark to see what it was, but with their heated glares averted, the tension had broken.

With a disdainful sniff, Rennej pushed past Justinian and strode down the road, disappearing into the night.

Justinian watched him go till he could no longer be seen before turning his gaze to the house, "Brisby!" The brown was inside, holding Martin who looked slightly dazed. "What happened?"

"We had a visitor," she said quietly.

"I showed him," Martin slurred.

His mother just shook her head, "It's lucky you knocked when you did. I'm—I'm afraid, what he might have done if you hadn't."

"But, I didn't knock," Justinian confessed. "I was about to…"

"But," Brisby started with a hint of shock, "if you didn't, then who?"

"Him," said Martin, pointing to the ceiling where Noir clung, his single blade held by his tail.

"Well spotted, Martin," the black rat said, releasing his grip and falling silently to the floor. "Yes, what you heard was the butt of my dagger wrapping against the door."

It had been a close thing though. Knocking from the inside while remaining unseen had required all his speed, thankfully available due to the tension that had wound him tight as a spring before Martin's attack.

Brisby stared like she couldn't comprehend what she was seeing. Justinian just shook his head.

"This night just gets better and better," he remarked, begging the question.

"Where are the others?"

"Waiting," he said, going to the door and checking the coast was clear before waving to something in the dark.

Something quickly became Barren and Salindra who trudged through the darkness under heavy load. The door was closed tight behind them so the sound of heavy packs hitting the floor never left the house.

"Damn those are heavy!" the ginger exclaimed.

"Wouldn't have been so heavy if you didn't have to go back for that damn axe," said Salindra caustically, suggesting they'd had some adventure of their own that evening.

And as the two started bickering, Noir noticed Martin's sword laying discarded on the floor. Retrieving the mock weapon, he saw the blood coating the tip, the gleam of red being enough to draw his friend's attention as well.

"What's that then?" said Barren.

"Did we miss something?" said Salindra.

"For the best I imagine," said Noir, taking a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the blood.

"My sword," said Martin.

Noir considered the child, pondered, "It is a fine weapon," he said. "Not something you can say of a weapon that has never been used."

He looked closely at the weapon, simple thing that it was. Simple, but effective. Had the first weapons wielded been any more sophisticated, or any less effective.

"Are you alright?" the black rat asked.

"I think so," oldest child replied. "Can I have my sword, please?"

"Does your nose still work?" Noir asked.

"I—I think so," the young one looked confused.

"Then there is something you must do," said Noir, holding the weapon out to him, tip first. "Smell this?"

"Smell it?"

Noir nodded, "Deeply. Let the scent fill your nostrils. Go on."

Looking up at the black, the child did as told. Breathing a deep breath through his nose which hovered just over the bloody tip.

"Did you smell it?"

"I think so. What was I smelling?"

"That," said Noir, "was the scent of your enemy. Remember it," he said, turning the weapon and handing it over, "never forget it."