This is a furry tale, featuring two anthro rabbits, just so you know.
It's not a sex story, but a fantasy adventure with gay romance in it.
Content is (c) Winter, 2012, no re-posting without permission.
Your thoughts and comments are most welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moonbunny and Sunrabbit
The fox dashed from tree to tree, from bush to bush, closing in on her prey. She had been tracking the rabbits for a while now, and the scent was getting really strong. Just a little closer, and she would be able to bring home plenty of eats to her den. She had a big litter this year, and a plump rabbit would keep them well fed.
Suddenly she stopped, sitting back on her haunches, unable to believe her eyes. The rabbits were in sight now, but they were... wrong. They were not what rabbits ought to be; small, soft and tasty. Instead these were huge, larger than any rabbits the fox had ever seen. Almost as tall as the furless hunters that she and her kin saw taking prey from time to time, and feared. And as if all that weren't enough...
One of them even walked like men do! Straight legs and back, head high above the ground and face pointing straight ahead. Nothing like what real rabbits should be. And on top of everything else, they were travelling with impossible company.
Beside the walking rabbit strolled a large wolf, fur black as night and eyes white as stars. It carried one of the rabbits on its back, the fox noticed with the tiny part of her mind that was still resisting flight. It was not. Could not be. Nothing like this, she felt sure, had ever been seen before. Then the wolf glanced her way, and she fled with a yelp of fear.
* * * * * *
"Just some wild animal," Sun whispered, touching his mate's shoulder. "No need to worry."
Moon, of course, didn't answer. As they had for longer than Sun cared to think of, the dark-furred rabbit's amber eyes stared straight ahead, focusing on nothing. At least, Sun thought, on nothing in this world. Moon was having one of his bad days, when he barely even moved without prodding. His mouth opened slightly at the touch, but no sound escaped his lips. Sun knew what the gesture meant, though, and opened his water bottle.
"Thirsty, dearest?" he asked. "Me too."
He took a sip of water an let it run down his dry throat, then one more to share. The touch of lips was sensual even in its necessity, as the worst of Moon's thirst was slaked. The two rabbits shared one more sip of water, then Sun put the bottle away.
"We'll have to save the rest. Just a little while longer, then we'll be at the inn. Won't be long now. And it's a fur-friendly inn, too, you'll see."
Night began to give way for day, and it was time to stop for a rest. The first rays of the new sun had reached the treetops, and set off the birds' joyous serenades. Sun looked around until he found a spot that would do; a place where close-growing trees, almost embracing one another in the way their trunks touched and intertwined, shaded a bed of soft green moss. He helped Moon down from Shadowdark's back, then scratched the wolf's twitching ears.
"You'll be alright on your own, then?" His question was met with a snort. "What am I saying? Of course you will! Off, now. Hunt. Eat. Drink. Then come back and help me when the sun's high."
No sooner had he said this, than the wolf was gone. Sighing to himself, Sun led Moon over to the shade and sat him down on the moss. The dark rabbit opened his mouth again, and Sun helped him to another drink of water. Seemingly satisfied, Moon lay down on the moss and Sun joined him. For a while they just lay there, then Sun moved a little closer, wrapping his arms around the other. As always, he marvelled at the difference of their fur. One dark greys and blacks, like a misty twilight, the other brightly golden and fair as a summer morning.
Moon and Sun.
It wasn't always like this. While Moon yawned and closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep safely snuggled into Sun's embrace, the fair rabbit's mind drifted back to other days, other times. To a world that had been so bright with promises of a forever future and love with no end. A time when he had been the one cared for and Moon had been the one who was strong. The one who stood fast against all things dark and scary. That had been so long ago. Years and years and years.
Back then they had been so young and so happy. Sun still considered himself fairly happy, but he was beginning to feel old. There wasn't the same skip in his step anymore, and sleeping rough made his back ache in the morning. Travelling was not something he really wanted to do anymore, but he had been left with no choice.
He fought back a sense of despair as he thought back to the healers, how they prodded and poked at his sweet Moon, how they tried potions and concoctions, prayers and dances, herbs and medicines. All to no avail. What had started long ago was now accelerating, and nobody knew how to stop it. There was nothing left, nothing but a too-long life alone. Unthinkable! Refusing fate, Sun had travelled from town to town, from county to county. Always with the same bleak result; a lowered gaze and a silent head-shake.
All while Moon grew ever more distant.
* * * * * *
Eventually, Sun must have fallen asleep, because suddenly he woke up with a start. The dream that had awakened him was already fading from his mind, but the emotions it left behind were still raw and painful. Moon stirred in his lap, and when he leaned down to kiss the dark rabbit's floppy ear, the left one today, he had to fight back tears. It wouldn't do to start crying again. He had already wept his fair share over their whole ordeal, and so far it hadn't helped one bit.
Shadowdark lay underneath a nearby tree, licking his lips occasionally while gnawing on what looked like a bone. Sun decided that he really didn't want to know what kind of creature had relinquished its life to satisfy the wolf's hunger, and he looked away. He was feeling hungry himself, and searched through his bags until he found the last of their bread. All the cheese was gone, so it was a dry midday meal that failed to make him feel much better. After he had eaten, he fed Moon some vegetables, and was happy to see that his mate at least hadn't lost his appetite.
"We'd better reach the inn soon," he said to nobody in particular. "Food's almost gone, and what's left is getting soggy."
Sun almost yelled out when he heard a reply. A soft voice whispered in his ear, words that he could barely hear that were in some language he didn't know. His head whipped around, but there was nobody there. More whispers could be heard now, and he was getting a little scared. There wasn't much wind, surely not enough to rustle the leaves in such a way. Even Moon reacted; the dark rabbit blinked and shook his head, then reached out with a hand as if to catch the thin air.
Suddenly, Sun knew. This was a place that had once known magic. Real magic, not parlour conjurers' tricks or fireworks displays. But the voices did not sound dangerous, they sounded sad. They seemed to speak of lovers and loss, of young hearts that now slept together forever, cradled against the world in each other's arms.
Sun's heart bled for them, and part of him wanted to stay there, to lie down next to his beloved Moon and close his eyes and sleep until the end of time.
A fleeting touch broke him out of his daze, and it took Sun a little while to realise what had awakened him. Moon's hand still lingered on his face, fingers gently rubbing his cheek fur. Taking a deep breath, Sun stood up, pulling his lover with him. The dark rabbit's eyes were distant again, but for one brief moment they had stared deep into Sun's heart.
The spell of the old magic was broken now, and even though they were still whispering of their love and their loss, the voices no longer insisted for the rabbits to join them. Not really knowing why he did it, Sun reached out with the hand that was not holding Moon, and touched the intertwined trees.
"Thank you for letting us go," he said, his voice low. "Some day I will rest with my beloved, too. But not yet. Our time hasn't come."
With a few final words that sounded like a farewell, the voices fell silent. Sun leaned against the trees, half wishing that they would return. Then, shattering the last remnants of the spell, there came a loud, impatient bark from somewhere behind him. Turning around, Sun smiled at the large black wolf.
"I thought only dogs barked," he told the animal as he led Moon over and helped him mount up. "Wolves are supposed to howl, aren't they?"
Shadowdark did not respond in any way, but simply waited until Moon was seated properly and had a good grip on his jet black fur. Sun sighed to himself, and started walking. They were heading slightly north of east, and it took Sun only a brief glance at his namesake to determine their course. If the last traveller they had met was right, they should reach the inn late that night, or maybe early next morning.
* * * * * *
The Common Inn, or Come On Inn as it was known by word of mouth, was literally the last stop for the two rabbits. It lay at the borders of the Hidden World, beyond which Sun and Moon and any of their kind would cease to be real, and become myths and fairy tales. In the world of godlore and technology that the humans had made for themselves, other creatures had no place except in dreams or ancient stories. Still, the humans who lived near the borders knew of the inn, and accepted that it sometimes housed the hidden ones.
Exactly what he would do at the inn, Sun didn't know. The last healer they had seen had talked about rumours of a dragon man who sometimes visited the Common, and who might be able to help. 'Rumours', 'sometimes', 'might'. Those were weak words, and if Sun were to be honest he didn't hold much hope. Still, giving up would be worse than trying and failing. They could always try again, somewhere else with someone else. His thoughts were interrupted by a happy giggle.
"Having fun, love?"
Moon laughed again, then turned to meet Sun's eyes. For a second, the spark was there, then it went out as Moon's gaze shifted to stare off into the infinite. But the happy sound stayed with Sun, strengthened him, made him once more vow to do anything and everything for his Moon. He increased his pace, even though he knew he would pay for it next morning with sore legs and an aching back. Shadowdark trotted along, seemingly without effort, and not for the first time, Sun shot him an envious glance.
"It's easy for you, pup," he muttered. "Wait 'til you're old and your bones creak at night."
He hadn't expected an answer, and wasn't surprised when he got none.
* * * * * *
That night, Sun slept better than he had in who knew how long. The Common Inn was less than half-filled, and a nice room had been quite affordable. To sleep in a real bed, with a soft mattress and clean cotton bedclothes! And the two of them were clean, too. The innkeeper, a human named McCollen, had let them have a tub and hot water for just a few extra pounds. The man had looked to be a bit sullen at first, but Sun had soon found out that the rough, bearded farmer exterior hid a friendly heart and a generous mind.
Moon hadn't liked taking a bath at first, but as soon as he was seated in the steaming tub and Sun got to work soaping him up, the dark rabbit's mood brightened. They even had a splash fight, before Moon lost his focus again.
In the morning, Sun woke up to find his beloved sitting up in bed, looking out the window. He followed Moon's gaze and saw, to his surprise, a large bird swoop past. Moon laughed at the sight of it, then fell silent while he waited for it to come by again. The bird seemed to be putting on a show, because it kept passing the window, making Moon squeal with joy each time. Soon Sun joined in, though his own laughter had very little to do with the bird.
After a quick breakfast, which was more like a feast after days and days of diminishing traveller's rations, Sun set about asking for the dragon man. The innkeeper knew him well enough, but hadn't seen him for a while. Most of the other patrons had only heard the rumours, about someone who was skilled in the old arts and who could walk in both worlds without being recognised for what he was. The last person Sun spoke to was an elderly fox lady. She was well past both him and Moon in years, and her face was all but hidden by the hood of a footside, dark purple robe. She turned out to be a trader, selling and buying goods around towns and countryside, along and even across the borders.
"Aye," she said after Sun had introduced himself and Moon, and had explained his business. "I ken him. Name's prob'ly not Stone, but that's what he goes by."
"Do you know where we can find him? My mate... I wouldn't ask if..."
"No smarts, lad. Can't say I blames ya." She nodded towards Moon, who was glancing out the window, probably hoping to see his bird again. "I had onna him, I'd wanne best for 'im, too. You bein'?"
"Being?" Sun asked, frowning. Her dialect wasn't easy to follow, but he managed to recall a friend of Moon's father, who had come from way up north. "Oh, staying! Yes. Yes, we're staying here."
"Then come 'gain after'morn. I'll see what I canne."
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"No smarts, no smarts." Just then the bird flew by again, making Moon burst into giggles. The old trader grinned toothlessly at Sun. "Thass mine, that'ne. Great bloody thing it be, too."
"Can we see it? Moon would love to..."
"After'morn, after'morn. If an' he says yes."
* * * * * *
Despite his still aching body, Sun spent the afternoon until sundown walking the inn's surroundings, accompanied by Moon riding on Shadowdark's back. It had taken some negotiating to get the wolf accepted by the inn folks as their mount, but McCollen had drawn the line at letting him near the stables. Just as well, Sun thought, guessing that their four-legged companion would be best off fending for himself.
The Common Inn stood at the edge of the forest Sun and Moon had just left, overlooking a vast moor that stretched all the way to the first border. Or the last, Sun mused, depending on which way you were going. There had been a couple of humans at the inn, and even though they seemed to have no problem with walking and talking rabbits, Sun couldn't help but feel wary. Most of the stories he had heard were not very flattering to the furless ones.
Still, they had turned out to be quite nice, and later on McCollen had explained that the human world was beginning to change. Acceptance and tolerance were slowly replacing prejudice and godlore. At least in some places, the innkeeper had said with a contemptuous snort. Apparently, the old ways were still strong, even though new minds kept finding the Hidden World each day.
They stopped at a low stone wall, which Sun guessed marked the edge of the inn's property, and he helped Moon down from his mount's back. Maybe the Common had been a farm once upon a time, and the wall had been for keeping the sheep in. Certainly not to keep your kind out, he thought as Shadowdark hopped up onto the wall and curled up, his nose twitching as he inhaled the gentle breeze.
Mrs McCollen had given them a picnic basket, and Sun rummaged through it to find all kinds of treats. Bread and cheese, wine, fruits and berries, and even some sweets. He sat leaning against the wall, with Moon in his lap, and they ate their evening meal in a comfortable silence. Out here, the wind was just a constant whistle, no rustling leaves or whispering voices. No forest sounds of living things grazing or hunting or dying, just the rabbits' own slow and steady breathing and their hearts beating inside their chests.
"Beating for you, love," Sun whispered, sharing the thought. "Just for you."
The wine, which Moon refused in favour of water, soon went to Sun's head, and he felt giddy and giggly like a school boy. He laughed long and hard while Moon sucked on a honey drop from the sweets bag, which the dark rabbit had examined eagerly. Every now and then Moon would close his eyes and sigh happily. Then he would forget what he was doing and drop the sweet, which Sun helped him find again. It was fun, yet sad at the same time, and even though Sun laughed a lot that evening, sometimes he did so with tears running down his cheeks.
* * * * * *
The next day was rainy. The innkeeper told Sun, as the fair rabbit came downstairs to pick up their breakfast, that the weather often shifted out here on the moor, and that they could probably expect a clear sky again the next day. It was just as well, Sun thought while he helped Moon drink some hot, sweet tea, back up in their room. The trader lady had said to come and see her after'morn, which he felt sure meant the day after tomorrow. Which by now meant tomorrow. Just as well.
Moon was having a fitful day, and was more restless than usual. Maybe it was the rain, or maybe he missed his bird, which Sun hadn't seen since midday yesterday. Whatever the cause, the dark rabbit didn't lose his focus at all that day, but neither did he really regain it. He seemed worried, and not even a left-over honey drop cheered him up. Maybe he knows something is up, Sun thought while he lay in bed, cuddling his mate and listening to the sound of raindrops tapping the window. Maybe he could sense that, for better or worse, their journey was drawing to a close.
This was, after all, most likely their last hope. There was nowhere else to go, no other places to visit, unless they were to brave the human world where they would be little more than shadows of ghosts. Flickers of imagination, memories of old folk tales and fireside stories. Sun couldn't help but wonder what he would do if this dragon man, Stone, turned out to be yet another dead end.
One thing was for sure; it would mean a gradual descent towards death for Moon. Two years, the healers had said. Two years left of such a long and mostly happy life together. That was many years ago, now, and Sun wasn't sure if the dark rabbit's persistence was to thank for the extra time given them, or if all the attempted cures and treatments had at least had some effect.
"Well," Sun said, gently rubbing his mate's back where he lay spooning him. "When that happens, one thing is for sure. It will be way's end for us both. I cannot go on alone."
To his surprise, Moon turned around to face him at those words. Sun had been sure that he was asleep, yet now their eyes made contact in a way they hadn't for months, maybe even years. Moon reached up and touched his cheek, and his mouth kept opening and closing as if he were trying to say something. In the end he gave up, and instead he kissed Sun on the lips. The touch was all it took to open the dam. Sun squeezed Moon to his chest and cried, and he could feel that the dark rabbit was sobbing as well. When finally their tears ebbed out, what felt to Sun like hours later, they took the rain with them. By the time the two rabbits fell asleep for the night, the last rays of the dying day's sun were shining in through the window from a near cloudless sky.
* * * * * *
They both went downstairs for breakfast the next morning. Sun was feeling invigorated, as if the emotions of last night had been a cleansing, leaving his head clear and his heart strong. The old fox woman was nowhere to be seen, but the innkeeper greeted them with a warm smile.
"Good mornin' to you, gents."
"Same to you, Mr McCollen," Sun replied, bowing. "You were right, the day looks to be a lovely one."
"Any plans for th' day?"
"We hope to meet the old trader again, then we'll see. Most likely, we'll check out today or tomorrow."
The two rabbits sat down at a table, while the innkeeper brought them plates of porridge, fried tomatoes and a spicy vegetable stew that Sun had taken a liking to. The fair rabbit helped himself to a mouthful, then fed Moon some porridge that he had seasoned with cinnamon and honey. Moon smacked his lips happily, then opened his mouth for more. Out of the corner of his eye, Sun could see that the innkeeper was watching them. When they were just about done with their meals, he brought them each a chilled glass, red wine for Sun and water for Moon. After a moment's hesitation, he sat down next to them.
"I hope you can forgive me for inquiring..." he began, then fell silent as if changing his mind. "I mean, I don' mean to intrude..."
"Not at all, my friend," Sun said with a smile. He helped Moon take a sip of water from the glass, then held his lover's hand. "You are wondering about Moon?"
"Well, yes. I mean, sometimes he does seem a little... out of it."
"So he does." Sun gave the hand in his a gentle squeeze, and got a smile in return. "I don't know exactly what is wrong with him, but the healers think it's something in his brain. Not like a stroke or a growth, just that somehow it doesn't always work very well."
"That's why you are lookin' for Mr Stone?" Sun nodded. "I've heard that he can work healings. Like in the old times. Real magic."
"Yes. He's probably our last hope. Moon has been drifting away for a long time, but it's been getting worse lately. If he can't help..."
"I sure hope he can." The innkeeper reached over and took their joined hands in both of his. Sun was mildly surprise to see a tear trickle down the man's cheek. "I sure hope so. A bond such as yours, we don' see that often enough. Keep that love, and it'll see you through."
"Thank you, Mr McCollen. That's... that's very kind of you to say. I do love Moon, with all my heart. I have, ever since we were little."
"Got us through, it did. Years ago, when the missus fell ill. We all thought she would perish, but love saw us through."
"That's wonderful." Sun touched the man's cheek with his free hand. "You are a kind man, with a huge heart, Mr..."
"Hugh. I'm Hugh. The missus's Angela."
"I only go by Sun. Us fur folk rarely have second names."
"I know that, Sun. Get your kind here now an' then, we do. I always find you... I don' know, easier to deal with. No second-guessing, no hidden motives. Always in the clear."
"Oh, we have our share of rogues and bandits as well, Hugh." They both laughed. "Though they usually stay away from the respectable places."
Just then, the bird they had seen earlier flew in through the open front door, circled their table much to Moon's delight, then left again. A few seconds later, Sun recognised the purple robe in the doorway. He excused himself to the innkeeper, then took Moon's arm and led him over to where the old fox lady sat down. She waved her hand for them to sit, then stared blankly at Sun while Moon kept looking around for the bird. Minutes ticked by, and Sun was growing more and more impatient. Still, he decided to wait for her to speak.
"No' an easy'n to spook, are ye?" she finally said with a cackle of a laugh. "Fine. I likes that. Young'uns nowadays, allas so quick an' fast."
"Good things are worth a little patience."
"Well spoke. I likes ya, rabbit man. An' yer quiet bunny frien' s'well."
"As do I."
"Stone's far away. You sure yer up for a travel?"
"Anything!" Sun said, even though his heart sank at her words. More travels? "Where is he?"
"'Cross the sea, he is. Island called Keeper's Cove. Don' rack yer brains, rabbit man, you ain't heard of it. Few have."
"Across... the sea?" Tears of frustration welled up in Sun's eyes, but he managed to fight them back with the help of Moon's happy giggles. The bird had started swooping by the window again. "How do we get there?"
"Damned if I knows. Find a boat, maybe? Thing is, gotta go through there." She pointed a gnarled finger towards the back of the house, and Sun closed his eyes, trying to swallow the lump that formed in his throat. He didn't have to look to know that she pointed towards the first border. "Still up fer it?"
"Anything!" He turned to look at his laughing lover. "To death, if need be."
"Good on ya!" she laughed. "Need that kinda resolve, ya do."
"What do you mean?"
"Easy t'get lost, 'yond those borders. Easy ta just melt into the myth an' vanish forever. Takes a special bravery to survive."
"I am brave," Sun said, though he could feel his voice quiver a little. "And I have the best resolve in the world."
"That you do. An' him," she said as she nodded towards Moon, "He's got his own focus, ain't he? No matter what it is, should do th' trick."
The old woman suddenly stood up and walked towards the door. Sun took Moon's hand, and the two rabbits followed. Outside, she whistled loudly, and to Moon's great delight the large bird came swooping down to land on her outstretched arm. It rubbed its head against the side of her hooded head, cooing in a kind of tender way that Sun had never seen a bird of prey do before. Minutes passed, while she spoke to it in a whispering murmur, then it let out a loud screech and took flight again. Moon reached out for it, but it avoided his hand with ease.
"He'll be yer guide, he will. Follow 'im, and you'll reach the island."
"That sounds easy enough."
"It ain't, son. It ain't." Just then, the innkeeper came out with two fully packed saddlebags. "Young Hugh here's got ya packed an' ready, ain't he?"
"As you asked, ma'am." He bowed to the old woman, then turned to Sun. "Got all your stuff ready in the stables, this is food an' drinks to get you good an' started."
"Thank you," Sun said flatly. His heart had begun to thump faster, as he realised that their journey was about to continue right away. "How much will that cost us?"
"When you come back, my friend. Pay me when you come back, and your friend is all himself again."
"But we might not come back."
"Then, see it as a gift."
"Thank you, Hugh." Sun gave the innkeeper a brief hug, then turned to look around. "Now, where's Shadowdark?"
"Can't take that'n," the old woman said. "Just a puppy, he is, couldn't help hisself from gettin' lost out there. He'd be gone afore ya knew it."
"Like I told ya, myths an' fables an' legends don't fare none too well out there among science an' logic. Him a giant feral wolf, an' not able to think or focus, poor thing'd be dead afore midday."
"Giant?" Sun asked with a frown. "He's just a wolf. Clever and kind, but..."
"A puppy, I said!" the old woman hissed. "No more'n a few years. When he grows up he'll be bigger'n a work horse. An' he's just as much one a the hidden as we are, you an' me."
"Got these for you," Hugh said, just as Angela led two riding horses, one well-packed and the other saddled, out from the barn. "They're both bred and raised back in our world, so they can go anywhere safely."
"Thank you, again." Sun hugged the innkeeper's wife, as well, and blushed when she kissed his cheek. "You've done so much for us."
"Hugh told me your story, and that he told you ours." Angela repeated the hug and kiss with Moon, who was too busy looking for the bird to even notice. "You've sure touched our hearts, and we'd be cruel not to help."
"Still, you have my thanks. Our thanks. If it's at all possible, I will make sure to repay your kindness."
"Off you go, now," the old fox woman said. She sounded impatient, but as Sun turned to lead Moon to the horses, he thought he saw the morning sunlight catch a glimmer underneath the hood. Maybe, just maybe, that had been a tear on her cheek. "You follow th' bird now, ya hear? Name's Aquila. Means eagle, which he happens ta be."
"A-quila," Sun tried the name a couple of times while he helped Moon sit up. "Will he be all right on his own, I mean, while we rest or sleep?"
"'Course he will! A good'n, he is."
Just then, Aquila let hear another screech, and flew towards the first border. Sun hurried to get up into the saddle behind his lover, then waved a quick goodbye to the old fox woman, and to Hugh and Angela. Something told him that he would never see either of them again, but he quenched such a dark thought. He would need to stay focused from now on. With a gentle nudge of his heels and a pull on the reins, he turned his horse towards the border, and set off.
* * * * * *
Shortly before midday, they reached the first border. Or, Sun thought as he slowed his horse down to a walk, the closest thing to a physical barrier they would ever encounter. He wished that he had paid more attention to Grandfather's tales about his years in the Border Patrol, and his few and brief journeys into what humans liked to call 'the real world'. To little Sun, the hunts and the battles had been fun, but the rest had blurred into daydreams about playing outside or going swimming down by the pond.
He briefly regretted not asking more questions before setting out, then shook his head and stared into the mist that lay just ahead. It was no use hesitating. Focus and determination were more necessary now than ever before.
The border, or what Sun thought was the border, was a rough, uneven line on the ground, about a hand wide and stretching to both sides for as long as he could see. Nothing grew on it, not even moss. He took a deep breath and held it as the horses' hooves crossed the line, but nothing happened. After a little while he nudged the horses into a trot, following Aquila towards the second border.
They were still, Sun thought as he tried to recall Grandfather's words, quite deep inside the Hidden World. That explained the mist; this was the place where dreams and myths touched thought and mind. Where the hidden were still very much real. Aquila flew lower now, as the mist grew more dense. Moon stared at the bird and laughed from time to time, but he did not seem to like the mist. Every now and then he would look to one side or the other, then shudder even though the day was still quite warm. Sun followed his lover's gaze, and sometimes he felt sure that he could see distant figures moving behind the mist, like flickering shadows cast by the embers of a dying fire.
"I see them too, love," he whispered into Moon's ear. "I wonder who they are. Maybe travellers like us, on their way somewhere, just as we are."
Or maybe they are betweeners, he thought as he shared one of Moon's shudders, but he did not say the word out loud. That had been a part of Grandfather's stories that Sun had enjoyed listening to. Back then they had felt exciting, scary in the good way that little boys love to hear. Now the thought of them was scary in a completely different way, even though Sun knew that betweeners were supposedly rare and not often seen. That thought brought a little comfort, but not much.
Sensing their new masters' agitation, the horses sped up. Sun didn't mind. The quicker they left this place, the happier he would be. Spending the night in this milky landscape, with unknowns moving about just at the edge of sight, was something he wished to avoid at any cost. Especially after a groaning cry of some hoarse voice made him jump and Moon whimper. Whatever it was, it sounded too close, too loud. He didn't hear it again, though, and the horses didn't seem too spooked by it. Still, it was a huge relief to Sun when they crossed the second border.
The passing was so abrupt that it made both rabbits gasp. One second they were riding through a thick mist, the next they found themselves looking up at a nightsky of stars. Sun stared into the heavens while his eyes got used to the darkness that now surrounded them, and he soon realised that he knew none of the constellations here. They truly were going to another world. The magnitude of it all struck him almost like a physical blow.
This place lay in the middle of between the worlds, he knew. Not a fantasy, neither truly real. A realm of eternal dark where only the stars ever shone. And the poor, feeble lights of passers-by, Sun thought as he held back to ride alongside the pack horse. Moon shivered with the sudden cold, and Sun hurried to find warm cloaks for them both. The dark rabbit, almost invisible now in this perpetual night, sighed happily as he was wrapped in the thick garment, then giggled as Sun kissed him.
A couple of minutes later, Sun had lit an oil lantern and hooked it to a thin rod that he attached to the saddle. It didn't do much to dispel the darkness, but at least they and the horses could see the ground beneath them. Not that there was much to see. Few things grew without sunlight, just thin patches of lustreless grass here and there, and greyish-green mosses and lichen that crept across stretches of bare ground. At least they were now mostly safe from the threat of betweeners, Sun thought. According to Grandfather's tales, those ghosts of dreams forgotten and tales lost almost never left the mist.
After what felt like many hours had passed, Aquila suddenly let hear a screech, then flew towards a place where some thin trees grew. Sun barely needed to touch the reins; it was as if the horses knew that they were supposed to follow the eagle. As they came near the tiny grove, he understood better. There was a small wellspring there, and the horses must have smelled the water. He held them back, and sat off. It wasn't easy to keep them from drinking, but Sun managed a quick inspection. No funny smells, no funny flavours. At least nothing that he could detect. And the horses seemed happy to slake their thirst there.
Moon, too, drank from the cool water once Sun had helped him down. The dark rabbit seemed to be in a good mood now that they were out of the mist, and Sun left him there, splashing happily. It took him a little while to gather a pile of wood, but he soon had a fire going. The two rabbits ate their evening meal after Sun had dried Moon's hands and arms, and helped him put on a dry shirt. After that, they settled down to sleep, wrapped in blankets and their cloaks. Sun heard a rustle from the branches of the nearest tree, and saw that it was Aquila, back from hunting whatever edible creatures might live in these bleak lands.
While the fire was slowly burning down, Sun lay still and let his mind wander. Fragments of thoughts drifted around inside his head. He caught himself remembering his youngest years, though this time it was not Grandfather's tales from the Border Patrol. Instead he thought of the mansion where he grew up, and the long and carefree days he spent there playing or exploring. It was kind of like now, he mused. Journeys into the unknown and the exciting. Then suddenly he thought about Moon, and the first night they had made love. They had been so young, so happy. So much in love. A love that had never died, nor even waned.
Something stirred next to him, and he looked down from years past to see his lover's eyes, meeting his with a clarity that hadn't been there for years. Sun almost choked with emotion, and for a few minutes the two rabbits just stared at each other. Then, as if to catch the moment before it fluttered away, Sun leaned down and planted a kiss on Moon's lips. There it grew, nurtured by touching tongues and nourished with passion, until they were both moaning with delight.
By the time the fire died, the cold and the dark were all but forgotten, and underneath the blankets fur met only fur, and skin met sensitive skin. The songs and melodies of love, so rare in this dreary realm, echoed from unseen hillsides back to unhearing rabbits' ears, while the hours passed.
* * * * * *
When he woke up, Sun was happier than he had been in a long time. It felt like morning, although in this place it was impossible to tell time in a sensible manner. The fire took a bit of work to bring back to life, but soon he had it going and could start making breakfast. There were some leftovers from their dinner, which he heated along with a few strips of bacon that he found among the food that Hugh had packed for them. The smell of food soon roused Moon.
The dark rabbit was out of his lucid spell by now, and while Sun fed him he mostly kept staring at the stars. After they had both had their fill, Sun packed their belongings, doused the fire and then helped Moon mount up. Once they were both in the saddle and the lantern was lit, they set off again. Aquila had returned just as they were ready to go. Truly a very special bird, Sun mused while he slipped an arm around Moon's waist and gave his cheek a brief kiss. Moon sighed happily, then returned to watching the stars.
During the ride, Sun caught himself more and more often following his lover's gaze, staring up at the unfamiliar canopy. It took some time be certain, but after a while he realised with a shiver that the constellations had not changed since he first saw them. The stars were not moving. Was that why there was no morning, no day? The world here had fallen still, unmoving and trapped in eternal darkness. It was kind of a sad thought.
Then something passed overhead, something large enough to block out plenty of stars, and Sun found a better reason to shiver. Whatever it was, the thing made no sound, and did not seem interested in two rabbits and their horses. It passed the sky in a straight line back towards the second border, and Sun felt relieved that he never had to find out what it was.
As they had no way of telling time, Sun waited to stop for their midday meal until he heard Moon's stomach growl. Wrapped in their warm cloaks, the two rabbits hurried to eat some cold vegetables and share a bottle of water between themselves and the horses. If Sun remembered correctly, the third border should not be far away. Grandfather had said it took less than two days, and Sun hoped that two days would soon have passed. He longed to see his namesake, to feel its warm rays. To be able to take off the heavy cloak.
Moon, meanwhile, had made it a game to spot the circling form of Aquila against the starry sky, and exclaimed happily every time he caught a glimpse of the bird. Sun joined in, and soon they were taking turns pointing and laughing. Then, in the middle of their game and as suddenly as it had begun, the eternal night came to an end.
* * * * * *
Sun blinked blindly in the sudden burst of daylight, and hurried to shield his stinging eyes with his hand. He could hear Moon whimper, and let go of the reins to lay his free arm gently over his lover's face, pulling him back against his chest. They stayed that way while the dancing spots of colour faded from Sun's eyes, and he could slowly open them. The horses had stopped, probably to wait while their own eyes grew accustomed.
Overhead, Sun found a clear blue sky, with warm sunlight coming from somewhere to his left. He made Moon turn around halfway in the saddle so that he could wipe tears from the dark bunny's cheeks.
"Feeling better, love? Try to look at me. Look at me, Moon. There, that's better."
He was rewarded by a smile, then they both started looking around. Again, they were in a completely different place, this time on a sunlit moor, but not the same one they had left behind at the first border. It was warmer here, and the grass was greener, seemed more lush. The horses grazed it hungrily, and Sun decided that it was as good a place as any to rest for a while. He dismounted and helped Moon down, then packed away their cloaks and the lantern.
Moon peered over his shoulder, and poked at one of the food sacks. Guessing at what his lover wanted, Sun opened a small bag of honey drops and fished one out. A happy squeal told him that he was right. Moon opened his mouth, but instead Sun popped the sweet onto his own tongue. After staring at him with a bewildered look on his face, Moon opened his mouth again. This time, Sun did the same, showing the honey drop that lay on his tongue. Moon leaned over, and their lips touched. After a brief kiss-battle, Sun let his lover win and steal away with the treat.
He led his happily munching Moon over to a birch tree, and sat down leaning against it. Moon seemed to be in a cuddly mood, because he didn't need prompting to slip into Sun's lap and curl up against his chest. They sat like that, enjoying the warm sun and each other's company, for a long while. To what Sun assumed was the south, he could see a glimmer of blue, and his heart picked up pace. They had made it to the ocean! Before he could get too excited, though, he remembered that they still had one more border to pass. Maybe this wasn't even the right sea.
He closed his eyes and tried to recall the times when the Border Patrol had crossed over into the human world, but there hadn't been many such occasions. And Grandfather had never said much about what lay between the third and the fourth, and last, border. Hopefully, Sun thought, because it was an uninteresting and uneventful place.
To all sides of them, the moor stretched out as far as he could see. Even behind them, where logic told him that he ought to see darkness and unmoving stars. It was chilling, and he felt thankful that Hugh and the old trader hadn't told him more about what it was like to cross the borders. He was afraid that his courage might not have been enough to carry them through. Then again, he thought as he hugged the now snoozing Moon to his chest, I have all the courage I'll ever need right here.
"Anything for you, my love," he whispered while he rubbed his nose in his lover's hair. "Anything and everything."
When the sun started to sink, he shook Moon awake and helped him mount up. Sun had no desire to spend the night that close to the border, and thought that they might ride an hour or so before settling down for the night. He steered his horse to the south, thinking that they would continue they way they had entered this realm, but Aquila let hear an impatient screech. Moon clapped his hands, and waved at the bird as it flew off towards the west. Shrugging, Sun followed.
It wasn't long before he could hear the sound of rushing water. The horses must have heard it, too, because they were getting restless. Ignoring the eagle for now, Sun steered them towards the water, and soon found a place where a small stream came down a hill, creating a beautiful waterfall. He sat off and helped Moon down, leaving the horses free to drink. The water was surprisingly warm, and had a sweet taste to it that he really liked. Moon loved it, and took deep gulps. An idea took form in Sun's head, and after they had drunk their fill, he led his lover towards the waterfall.
There was a shallow pool just underneath it, with a gentle, grassy slope leading down to the water. Moon smiled when Sun started undressing him, and before long they were playing like little boys in the warm water, splashing and chasing each other and tumbling all over one another. By the time their frolics and laughter had finally worn them out, it was almost completely dark.
* * * * * *
Early the next morning, they bathed in the pool underneath the waterfall again, this time not so much to play as to clean up. Sun stood with water to his waist, rubbing fur soap onto Moon's back, while the dark rabbit swayed gently left and right as if listening to some inner music. He seemed to be enjoying the attention, though he didn't really like having his face washed. Once all the soap suds had been carried away by the stream, the two of them lay in the sunlight to dry their fur.
"I wonder if this will be our last day in the Hidden World." Sun hadn't meant to say it out loud, and was almost startled by the sound of his own voice. "Tomorrow we might break fast among humans."
The thought made him laugh and shiver at the same time. While it was true that they had just spent a few days at the Common Inn, this was not the same thing. Hugh and Angela, as well as all humans who lived in the Hidden World or sought trade in it, were different from their real world kinsmen. At least, that was what Sun had been taught. Grandfather had been oddly reluctant to talk much about the furless ones.
As soon as they were dry, Sun got the two of them dressed and helped Moon to mount up. Just then, a screech followed by a giggle told him that Aquila was ready for the new day. With the morning sun warming their backs, they crossed the stream and set off for a distant forest.
It turned out to be a very different forest from the one that had led them to the inn. Instead of a blend of birches, firs and pines, here grew only one kind of trees. Sun had never seen their like, and had no name for them. At first glance they looked like tall pines, but instead of needles they had thick, dark green leaves that grew on branches high above and formed an almost unbroken canopy. What little sunlight seeped through was not enough for more than moss to grow on the ground, interspersed here and there with patches of grass or mushrooms. The thought struck Sun that it looked very much like the dark world.
Riding here was easy, and they made good time towards wherever Aquila was leading them. Without sunlight or even shadows there was no real way to tell time, but Sun still felt as if midday had passed. He was just about to stop for a break when he saw a speck of bright green flash by, just a few feet to his left. At first he thought it had been a bird, but another glance made him smile. Then Moon let out a terrified scream, and Sun saw their guiding eagle dive towards the tiny creature.
Sun's yell was enough, and the eagle aborted his attack at the last second, almost touching his intended prey with sharp claws. Screeching indignantly, Aquila retreated to a high branch and settled down. The little green creature, meanwhile, had fallen to the ground and was lying there, motionless and all but invisible against the moss. Sun hopped off the horse and ran over to it, picking it up gently. No, he hadn't been mistaken. Moon joined him, peering curiously as the thing stirred and blinked open its eyes. In Sun's hand lay what looked like a tiny naked human boy, with skin and hair and fine gossamer wings all coloured a bright green.
"Birdie?" The voice was high-pitched, like that of a small child. "Gone?"
"Yes," Sun replied. "The birdie is gone. Are you okay?"
"No need to be. He won't hurt you now."
Just then, Moon reached in and poked the little thing with a gentle finger. Both of them giggled happily, and Sun couldn't help but smile warmly. Seeing a fairy was a rare thing, and actually talking to one was considered an omen of very good fortune. He couldn't help but wonder what the tiny creature was doing this far from the Hidden World, but he knew better than to ask. Though fairies could talk, Sun knew that they were not always very good at conversations, or at conveying information. There was one question he might get answered, however.
"Little winged friend, have you seen the last border to the human world?"
"Border?" The fairy had left his hand and was circling Moon, both of them squealing happily. At the sound of Sun's voice, he fluttered over to the fair rabbit and hovered in front of his face. "The border to home?"
"No, the border for going away. Do you know it?"
"Back there." He pointed in the direction the rabbits had been travelling. "Not far. No nice place."
"Well, we need to go there. Thanks for pointing the way, little winged friend."
"You want to go back to the Hidden World?" The fairy nodded. He landed in Moon's hair, and immediately started squirming and laughing as the dark rabbit gently tickled him. "Go back the way we came, about as far as a horse can ride in a day. Then turn north."
"North, okay. Eeh!"
"Then go straight ahead, through the night and the mist and over the moor, until you find the Common Inn."
"Eeh! Thank you, bunny." With a final scream of laughter, the fairy took flight, and started circling above them. "Come with me?"
"We can't. We need to find someone in the real world. A magician."
"That's right, magic. Moon, my friend here, is very ill. We need magic to help him."
"I know magic."
"You do? Healing magic?"
"Uhm... no." The fairy landed in the horse's mane, with a solemn look on his face. "Only sparklies."
He snapped his fingers, and Moon clapped with delight as red, yellow and blue lights popped and burst around them. Sun applauded as well, then went to the saddlebags to find them something to eat. A wrapped package he hadn't seen before turned out to contain smoked sausages, and he cut a few slices to go with bread and cheese. The fairy joined the rabbits in their meal, and ate more than Sun would have thought him capable of. After they had finished eating, they rested for a while against a tree trunk.
"Bunnies come home?" the fairy asked when Sun started getting ready to continue. "With me?"
"We can't," Sun replied, shaking his head sadly. "We have to push on."
"Scary to go alone."
"What were you doing out here all alone in the first place?"
"Finding trinkets. I need trinkets for my lovely."
"Yes." The fairy nodded and smiled happily. "Wants human trinkets, for our love celebration. We been together for one years soon, so we gonna give trinkets."
"Did you find any?"
"No. Human place is scary. You going there?"
"As I told you, we have to. Moon needs help."
"I can go with? Then back home?"
"Please? Oh, pleasies! I can maybe help, or find trinkets."
"What do you think?" Sun asked Moon. The dark rabbit smiled, then turned to watch Aquila who had just returned from hunting. "I guess he says we should bring our little winged friend."
"Yay! I promise to be good!"
"What is your name? I'm Sun, and my mate is called Moon."
"Is Jani. My lovely's name is Akki. We been together for almost one whole years."
Jani reached out with a tiny hand to touch Sun's, then he settled down on the saddle horn. Sun helped Moon mount up and seated himself behind him. Aquila took off from his high tree branch and started flying westwards again, and Sun steered the horses to follow him. The little fairy kept looking around, then he reached over and touched the horse's mane.
"Hope horsie can carry all three."
* * * * * *
It took them the remainder of the day to reach the final border. The ride through the forest turned out to be uneventful on the side of boring, and by the time Sun held in the reins both Moon and little Jani were asleep in the saddle, or in the fairy's case safely tangled in the horse's mane. The stop woke them up, and the sudden tension in Sun's face kept them hushed. Sun closed his eyes and took a deep breath, holding it for as long as he could.
"This is it," he sighed as he exhaled. "Last chance to turn back, little winged friend."
"Still wanna come."
"Then let's go."
Sun nudged the horse gently, and they followed Aquila into another world. The border itself looked pretty much like the first one had, a straight line on the forest floor, where nothing grew. As they crossed it, Sun felt a chill pass through him, almost as if he were standing naked in a snowstorm. He shuddered, but the feeling left him as he watched the human world come into being.
That was how it seemed to him; as if the forest around them faded away, to be slowly replaced with something else.
They were back on the moor, or at least, Sun thought, a moor. While it looked pretty much like the landscape around the Common Inn, this place had a different feeling about it. Everything seemed more solid, more tangible than the world as Sun had known it all his life. He could feel the weight of the Earth beneath him in a way that was totally alien. The laws of reality, he thought, again remembering Grandfather's tales.
Here, invisible forces of physics, strands and waves of magnetism and gravity and electricity, governed the happenings of life, rather than the magic and the imagination that ruled the Hidden World. It seemed an unlikely place to find a dragon sorcerer. Moon shivered, but calmed down when Sun put his arms around him and gave him a reassuring hug.
Aquila flew towards the setting sun, and Sun steered the horses to follow. They rode in a hushed silence for a couple of hours, until it was almost completely dark. After a quick supper, Sun lay underneath a blanket with the sleeping Moon in his arms, but he was unable to join his mate in the land of dreams.
Already he could feel the strain, the pull of reality, wearing down his sense of self. It was as if his mind were at the top of a slide, and he had to focus hard to keep from going down. At the bottom of the slide, he knew, waited that dreaded point where he would no longer be able to hold himself together. Exactly what would happen if he lost the struggle, Sun didn't know. Maybe he would just cease to be, leaving poor Moon and Jani stranded in this strange world with nothing but the memory of him.
Or maybe what remained of his fragmented self would be unable to accept its fate, and tried in vain to return to the Hidden World. Stuck forever without life and without death, as a betweener.
He shuddered, even though the night was fairly mild, remembering that frightening groan he had heard back in the mist. Then he felt Moon move closer to him, pressing his warm back against Sun's chest. The gesture, whether unconscious or not, made him smile, and he kissed the dark rabbit's cheek. No more self pity, he chastised himself. Just focus and determination. There is no way we can possibly fail!
* * * * * *
The next morning Sun regretted his thoughts about the strangeness of the world. The dawn was unusually colourful, at least compared to any he had ever seen, and birds were singing whose voices he had never heard before. While he buttered bread rolls and cut some cheese, Moon stood leaning against a tree, letting Jani climb up and down his body. Occasionally he reached out and tickled the little fairy, and both of them laughed happily. Whatever gloom had befallen Sun the previous night, barely seemed to affect his companions.
During the day, Aquila steered them more and more towards south, and in the mid-afternoon Sun could feel an unfamiliar scent in the air. He wished they could have brought Shadowdark. The wolf would have warned them if there were any danger. Then again, he thought, Aquila wouldn't lead them into something perilous, would he?
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud roar, which was coming closer and closer at high speed. Sun pulled at the horse's reins, but only managed to make it rear up. He landed on his backside, with Moon on top of him. The roar reached a crescendo that was almost deafening to his large, sensitive rabbit's ears. He threw himself on top of the shivering Moon as something huge passed by, just a few feet away behind a patch of shrubbery. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone. The sudden silence was unnerving, but as his sanity returned Sun recalled the parts of the Border Patrol stories that he had found the most exciting as a child. He stood up, helped Moon to his feet, then cautiously walked up to the shrubbery and pushed a couple of boughs aside.
"Was that..." he said in a hushed tone. "Was that a machine?"
"Yes," Jani answered, landing on top of his head and peering out between his ears. "Noisy scary machine."
"I never thought I'd actually see one. They were never so frightening in Grandfather's tales." On the other side of the shrubbery, he saw a road of dark, smooth stone, stretching as far as he could see in both directions. There was an odd smell in the air, not entirely unpleasant but totally alien. "Are they dangerous?"
"Dunno. Don't hunt, I think, but they's big and noisy."
"We need to cross." Sun pointed towards Aquila, who had settled down in a tree on the other side of the road. "Hope it doesn't come back."
"Stupid birdie," Jani muttered. "First tries to eat me, then get us all killed."
Three more machines passed by while they waited for an opportunity. These were of various shapes and colours, but all were much smaller than the first one. To his astonishment, Sun could see people inside them. Humans, and once a small feral dog that stuck its head out an open window. These must be some kind of carts, he thought, machine carts that ran much faster than any horse could ever hope to pull them. For a second he nurtured a wild fantasy of stealing one, maybe reaching their destination in no time at all.
Then there was silence again, and Sun decided that waiting any longer would be pointless. He grabbed the reins of the horses and pulled them down a short but steep slope to the road. The surface of it felt strange to his feet, softer than stone but harder than earth. He didn't pause for a closer look, though, but crossed it as fast as the horses would go. Moon, who was mounted up, laughed at the swift ride, while little Jani trembled inside Sun's pocket, where he had taken refuge. Just as they reached the slope on the opposite side, the unmistakable roar of another large machine reached Sun's ears, growing rapidly louder. They had not yet reached the safety of the trees when it thundered by.
For a moment, Sun froze. Had they been seen? Would the thing, or its human masters, come after them? But no, the machine's rumbling voice faded, and soon all was quiet again. They kept on walking for a few minutes, then Sun stopped and tied the reins to a low tree branch. He helped Moon dismount, then sank to the ground. His entire body was trembling, and he badly needed the warm presence of his mate in his arms. Moon happily complied, and kissed Sun's cheek. Still shivering as well, Jani climbed out of Sun's pocket and flew up to sit on the pack horse's reins, using them as a swing.
"Hey, Sun!" he called as he swung back and forth, ignoring the occasional unhappy snort from the horse. "I gots a joke for you. Why did bunnies cross the road?"
"No idea," Sun replied, looking up from where he was nuzzling Moon's neck. "Why did they cross the road?"
"'Cause they're crazy!" the little fairy squeaked, bursting out with giggles. "Brave, but crazy."
As jokes went, Sun had heard better. But Moon joined in with Jani's laughter, and he soon found that it was irresistible. Before long, the forest around them was echoing with their joy and relief.
Much later, his cheeks still aching and tears of laughter still running down his face, Sun rummaged through their pack until he found some dried beef and bread. While they ate their meal, Moon leaning against his side and seeming to be more interested in cuddling than eating, Sun suddenly stiffened, his ears perked. There was another noise, different yet unmistakably that of another machine. He looked around, unable to locate it. As it grew louder, he became more and more nervous, and by his side Moon gave a shudder as well, sensing his mood. Then Sun looked up, and he saw it. Against the clear blue sky, a tiny silvery dot moved slowly towards zenith, leaving a trail of white, cloudy smoke behind.
"Is that a machine, too?"
"Yes," Jani nodded. "Flying machine."
"So high up..." Sun whispered, squinting to see better. "Its wings don't move. How come it doesn't fall?"
"Dunno. Humans got all kinds of crazy stuff. All noisy."
"How could they ever build such things?" Sun thought about the innkeeper at the Common, but no matter how he tried he could not imagine the timid man working to construct these wondrous machines. "It really is crazy. Grandfather never mentioned something like that."
The machine passed above them, and as it headed for the horizon Sun began to realise that it wasn't slow at all. To cover such a distance in just a few minutes, it must be way faster than the carts. And since they could still hear it from so far away, it must be terribly noisy up close. For a moment, he had a vision of boats that were also loud and speedy, and he crossed his fingers hoping that the humans had advanced far enough to discover sails.
Even though darkness was still hours away, Sun decided to stop for the day. Aquila made a couple of impatient circles overhead, to Moon's delight, then flew off. In search of food, Sun presumed while he rolled out their blankets. He was feeling tired, and as the afternoon grew into evening he found himself yawning more and more frequently. His eyelids had grown heavy, and he had a slight headache.
Moon seemed to sense his discomfort, for he made sure to stay cuddled up to his mate most of the time, often reaching up to caress Sun's face. Smiling warmly whenever this happened, Sun kissed the dark rabbit, enjoying the closeness. It was a cure that seemed to work well. The headache soon subsided, and by the time it was completely dark, Sun was feeling more like his own self again. He drowsed away with his arms around his mate, and with his thoughts returning to days long gone, to a place he hadn't thought of for many years.
* * * * * *
In his dreams that night, Sun walked through a forest much like the one where he had fallen asleep. This one was far, far away, though, both in time and space. He recognised the brook that trickled through it, and knew that he was back near Grandfather's mansion. This was where they had grown up, he and Moon, where they had met and from where they had embarked together on the journey through life.
He followed the brook upstreams, wondering how come Moon wasn't there with him. Then he realised as he heard boyish giggles from up ahead, that the dark rabbit was already with him. Up ahead, through the trees, he could see two young bunny kits, playing in a shallow pool formed where the brook made a turn, one fair as the summer sun, the other dark as dusk and with one floppy ear. Sun knew what day this was, and he clutched his hands to his chest while a bright smile spread across his lips. He remembered it so well; the day that changed it all.
The splashing youngsters soon seemed to tire of their games, and lay down on the tiny beach that edged the pool, to let their fur dry in the sun. They were talking in low voices, almost as if afraid of being overheard. While he couldn't make out what they were saying, Sun knew every word by heart. He moved closer, keeping as quiet as possible so he wouldn't disturb them, then he peered down onto the scene just in time to witness his first kiss.
It was tentative and searching, rather than loving and passionate as they would soon become, and it was over far too quickly for either boy's liking. The two looked into each other's eyes, then laughed, and his younger self fell into Moon's slender arms. Their next kiss was still uncertain and trembling, but they were both so eager to learn and to practice.
"The first step," adult Sun whispered to himself while the two on the beach were forgetting everything around them. "The very first step down the road that led to love."
The rich landowner's grandson and the gardener's adopted orphan boy. It had not been an easy time at first, and Sun had to gather plenty of courage before he finally, some years later, stood up to Grandfather's disapproving glare to hold his ground. Nothing, he declared in a voice not yet fully broken, nothing in all the world could keep him from his Moon, especially the stupid old ways of a stupid old rabbit. Many harsh words were exchanged that day, and they led to a rift between Sun and the old rabbit who had raised him.
Many years passed before the two spoke to each other in a civil tone again, and by then it was all but too late. Sun recalled, sadness aching inside his dream-self's heart, how he sat by the bed that Grandfather would not leave again in this life. They talked for hours, coming to terms with their differences and rekindling their friendship at last. When the old rabbit passed, he did so with a smile on his lips.
Dream-Sun's reminiscing ended there, as he heard the sound of more giggles coming from down at the beach. Seconds later, two naked young bunnies burst through the bushes just a couple of feet from where he was hiding. Chasing one another and laughing all the while, young Sun and young Moon dashed away through the forest and soon vanished from sight. Still hearing the occasional squeal when one caught the other, Sun stepped out onto the tiny beach and crouched down by the water's edge. He dipped one finger, and shuddered. It was as cold and crystal clear as he remembered it, and he wondered how the two kits could ever have enjoyed bathing in it.
And then he woke up.
* * * * * *
The transition was so swift and clean that it took Sun a while to realise where he was, and that the worried amber eyes that took hold of his own belonged to the present-day Moon. For a brief second, Sun had thought he was still dreaming, and that the eyes were those of his lover so long ago. The sight of Moon brought him back fully, though, their troubled expression dousing him as if he had fallen into that cold brook.
"What's wrong, love?" he whispered, suddenly finding it hard to speak. "Moon, what's...?"
The dark rabbit's only reply was to hold up Sun's hand for him to look at. With a gasp, he realised that he could almost see his own bones. Both fur and skin seemed to have turned translucent, almost as if...
As if he were fading.
With an effort of will that took all the mental energy he possessed, Sun pushed aside the last remnants of the dream, and instead he hugged Moon tightly, nuzzling his cheek then kissing the nape of his neck. Moon gasped, then purred happily as he began to enjoy the cuddle.
"Only you, my dearest," Sun mumbled as he ran his lips over Moon's collarbone. "There's only you and nothing else. The world is gone, all worlds are gone. Only you. My sweet, my one."
It took almost an hour before Sun was back to his normal self. His hand was still paler than the rest of him, but it had ceased to fade. Too close, he chastised himself, and he decided never to lose his focus again. So this was how it started, the rapid decline that was a danger to all the hidden who entered the human world. The decline that would end either in death, or in a betweener, a half-real creature existing only to plague others.
Dawn was near the horizon, and there was just enough light to see the saddlebags. Moon was still giddy after their long cuddle, and didn't seem interested in food. Instead, they settled for a drink of water before they took to the saddle. Neither Jani nor the horses were too happy with the early start, but Aquila started circling them impatiently. Following the eagle, Sun steered them to the west, with his namesake slowly rising behind them.
* * * * * *
Only a couple of hours had passed when they reached yet another road. This one wasn't stone, though, but gravel, and it was partly overgrown with grass. The crossing was easy, and Sun could neither see nor hear any signs of human life. What he did see was that the road curved, turning to face almost perfectly westwards. In disuse as it was, it was still a welcome change from riding through dense forest, and he chose to follow it. As a precaution, he pulled up the hood of his jacket, so that anyone seeing them from a distance would see only two riders. Moon struggled a bit against getting hooded up, but relented after a couple of kisses.
On the road, they could ride at a swift trot, and to Sun's delight Aquila seemed to catch on. At every crossroads, the eagle circled for a little while, then decided which way to turn. At such a pace, Sun hoped that they would reach the sea before long. Then all we need is to find a boat and cross it. That thought made him laugh, and his laughter in turn brought out giggles from underneath the hood in front of him.
Now and then, they could see farmhouses and fenced-in fields, with people working in the sun and cattle grazing peacefully. Countryside life seemed no different here than in the Hidden World, and Sun lost some of his fear of this realm. The humans he could see all looked friendly; some even waved as they rode by. Could these be the same kind of people who steered the noisy machine-carts? Sun shook his head. No more stray thoughts! He returned his focus to where it belonged, to the slim figure who sat in front of him in the saddle, back pressed against his chest. Dropping the reins with one hand, he placed it gently on Moon's stomach and left it there. The dark rabbit was too busy staring at their eagle guide to notice, but the touch still brought new energy to Sun's mind.
As day turned into evening, the little country road reached a larger, stone-paved one. Aquila turned to follow it, and after a moment's hesitation, Sun did likewise. There was no forest at all here, just fields on both sides with fences too high for the horses to jump. Sun felt decidedly uneasy, as if they were riding into some kind of trap. If any machines happened upon them, there would be nowhere to run.
Rather than worrying, he kept the horses at walking pace, as close to the side of the road as they would go. At first, everything seemed quiet, but before long there was the now-familiar hum of a distant cart. Sun steeled himself, let go of Moon and held the reins in tight. Jani, who had been fluttering beside them, hurriedly took shelter in Sun's pocket.
It was one of the small carts, and to Sun's immense relief the human inside steered well clear of them. Still, it was a scare that left the fair rabbit's heart hammering inside his chest. The horses barely reacted, though, and Sun realised that they must have seen this kind of machines before, born in the human world as they were. He decided to speed up, now that he knew there was no immediate danger.
And so it was at a steady trot that the rabbits, their winged little fairy friend, their two horses and the eagle, reached their first human town just before dark.
* * * * * *
Greendale was a quiet little village, surrounded by farms. It had a school, a rugby field, a couple of stores along the thoroughfare that mostly sold farming equipment, and a used car salesman just across from a petrol station. There were a couple of small parks, a miniature golf course where the children spent much of their time now that the summer holiday had arrived, and a lazy little river that snaked its way over the fields towards the sea.
Not a very exciting place to live, and not somewhere to really remember. To Sun, though, who had never seen a human settling before and only knew the quiet little villages of the Hidden World, it was crowded, noisy and exciting.
There were a few people out and about, some walking and some riding machine carts or smaller two-wheeled things that had to be pushed around with pedals. Many of them stared at the two hooded riders with puzzled looks on their faces. It took Sun a little while to realise just why that was, but as he glanced around he noticed that there were no other horses to be seen, at least not by the light of the many streetlamps. No livestock, either, just the occasional dog on a leash or wild-looking cat streaking away out of sight.
"We look pretty conspicuous," he whispered into Moon's ear. "Better just pass through as quickly as we can."
They made it to a place where two streets crossed and where glowing coloured lights shone, before anyone acknowledged their presence with more than just stares. Aquila turned right at the intersection, and Sun pulled on the reins to follow, when a voice spoke up from a fenced-in yard.
"Better be careful at the traffic lights, lads." The speaker was an old man with a round, friendly face and a plump body to match. He stood leaning against some kind of gardening tool, and he smiled as Sun turned towards him. "Don't know if it's allowed to ride 'gainst a red, but old Fred's quite picky with his lights. They're the only ones we got here. Fred's the local policeman, by the way. Won't lock you up or nothin', but he might write you a ticket."
"Ticket?" Sun asked, feeling sheepish. Obviously he and the man spoke the same language, but he had still not understood much of what was said. "If we broke the law, we're very, very sorry."
"No sweat. Ol' Fred's probably down at the pub by now, anyways. Inspectin' the premises, he calls it, but he's really there for a beer an' a game of darts." The man walked over to the fence and took a good look at the horses. "You ain't from around here, are ya?"
"No. We've come a long way."
"Nice setup." He pointed towards the saddlebags, then at the rabbits' cloaks. "That festival thing's over at Turner's Hill, though, and I thought it didn't start 'til July."
"We... we decided to get there early," Sun said, happy that the man couldn't see his face. He had never been a very good liar, and he was getting anxious to end the conversation. "Set up our things, you know."
"Oh, you're sellin' stuff. Or are you some kinda act?"
Just then, Aquila made an impatient swoop down in front of them, which set off a happy squeal from Moon. Sun's heart nearly stopped when the dark rabbit pulled his hood back and laughed at the bird. Immediately, the man froze, and a look of fear twisted his face into something that looked deadly and dangerous rather than kind and friendly. Only for a moment, though, then he burst out laughing.
"Well, guess that answers that. Amazing! What a mask! I can't even see the seams. And how does he get the lips to move?"
"Uhm... machines. Tiny little machines. But he wasn't supposed to show anyone until we get to the festival." He pulled Moon's hood up again. "Thank you for talking to us, kind sir, but we really need to move on."
"No prob. It's nice seeing new folks now and then. Still, that festival's weeks away."
"I know, but we might go on a little detour first. Could you tell, how far is the sea from here?"
"Sea? Oh, I don't know, haven't been there in years, not since the kids moved out. Maybe five, six hours by car. If you're gonna ride there, maybe a day or two."
"Like I said, no prob." He smiled, then waved as Sun steered the horses back onto the street. "Who knows, maybe I'll even pop over to Turner's Hill to watch your show. Haven't seen falconry since I was a lad."
* * * * * *
"He'll be disappointed when he doesn't find us," Sun mused as the little town fell behind them. He was feeling giddy, having lived through his first close encounter with a real world human. "I hope they have some falconry for him over at that hill place. Is it still called falconry if you have an eagle? Or is it eaglery?"
"Dunno," Jani said from Moon's shoulder, where he had been sitting ever since he dared to come out of Sun's pocket. "As long as the birdie don't eat me, I don't care."
"One more day." Sun reached out and touched Moon's cheek. The dark rabbit had been watching the little fairy, but now their eyes met, and they both smiled. "Can you feel it too, love? We're getting closer to the end."
"Still need to find trinkets. You think dragon man has trinkets?"
They kept riding in the moonlight for a couple of hours, until Moon started yawning. After a quick search, Sun found a small grove not far from the road, and they settled down for the night. There was a fireplace at the centre of the grove, a circle of stones where ashes and half-burned logs showed that other campers frequented this place. Sun gathered some dry wood, and soon he had a fire going.
The night was mild, but it still felt good to warm his hands against the dancing flames. Even better was to cook a hot meal, which even Moon ate with vigour. Afterwards, tucked into their blankets, the two rabbits moved as close to one another as they possibly could. Sun held his lover tightly, and Moon kept nuzzling him, seeking occasional kisses.
He does know that the end is coming, Sun thought once the dark rabbit had gone to sleep. For better or worse, this journey will soon be over. Then he thought about the sea that they still had to cross, and he almost laughed out loud. Over? No, not yet. Not by far.
* * * * * *
The next day, Aquila led them through a heavy rain. The sky was blocked by such dark clouds that Sun had no way of telling which direction they were going, though he assumed that they were still heading west. The downpour put him in a dour mood, and it was made worse by the fact that Moon seemed to hate the rain. The dark rabbit burst into tears from time to time, shivering from the cold even though Sun held him as close as he could, trying his best to keep him warm.
Shortly after midday, or at least what had been their midday meal, they left the paved road as the eagle called for attention from a large wheat field. Sun steered the unwilling horses through the tall, wet crops, drenching them all down to the skin. He wished he could talk to the bird like the old fox woman did, if only to ask for a slightly more dry detour.
On the other side of the field, though, he quickly forgot all his complaints. Among the smells of wet ground and wet fur, and that odd scent the machines left behind, he could detect a faint trace of salt. Could it really be the sea? They were back on a gravelled road now, and before long Sun felt certain of it. He could really smell salt water! Less than an hour later they passed the crest of a hill, and there it lay.
Sun had never really seen the sea before, and even though he knew it was supposed to he a large body of salty water he was in no way prepared for its immensity. The coastline stretched away to his left and right, disappearing into the horizon. In front lay only water, on the other side of another small town.
At first, Sun wanted to avoid the settlement, remembering the dangerous look that had flashed past the face of the man who had seen Moon without his hood on. He didn't enjoy lying to people, and wasn't entirely sure he could do it well enough to fool someone again. Then he spotted the docks and the boats that lay anchored there, and he knew they had to push on through.
It was a bit early for their evening meal, and he didn't much enjoy stopping to rest when everything was dripping wet, but there seemed to be little choice. Rather than running the risk of being seen, Sun wanted to wait for night to fall. They hid inside a small grove, where he used some of the lantern's oil to light a fire that crackled and hissed with moisture.
Moon was still in a bad mood from being wet, and didn't eat much, but Sun managed a full meal. Better, he reasoned to himself, to be alert and ready when the time comes, than to give in to sour thoughts.
* * * * * *
Sun's thoughts soon turned sour again, though, as darkness fell. The town below them lit up with streetlamps, and where there had been almost no people before, the streets were now crowded. Didn't humans sleep at night? Almost ready to give in to despair, Sun still managed to gather his wits enough to make an important decision. They would have to leave the horses here. He felt pretty certain that they wouldn't like the sea much, and besides, sneaking through town on foot would be easier. The walk would be a couple of miles, though, and he hoped that it wouldn't be too much for Moon.
"Do you want to stay with the horses, little winged friend, or do you want to help us find a boat?"
"Help," Jani answered with just a hint of a quiver in his voice. "Will help."
"Then hide in my pocket for now, and let's go."
Sun hurried to pack what he thought they might need in one of the saddle bags, then slung it over his shoulder and started leading Moon down the hill, towards the town. They walked slowly at first, with their hoods pulled over their faces so far that they could barely see what was in front of them. Sun had pleaded with his lover to not pull the hood back, and the dark rabbit seemed to have understood.
As if he knew well enough to stay hidden, Aquila soared quietly down towards the docks, not waiting this time to see if the rabbits followed. Sun sent the bird a thankful thought, as he didn't want anything to distract Moon just then.
They stayed to the less populated and less well-lit streets, and didn't answer on the few occasions when someone spoke to them. Luckily, the people seemed busy, and not many spared the hooded strangers a second glance. Sun tried to keep the general direction of the docks in mind, but he soon found that to have been unnecessary. The smell of salty sea water and of the fishing boats' catches of the day were enough to go by.
He had just spotted the docks between two rows of houses, and had begun to thank his luck, when things started to go wrong.
Suddenly, from behind came a loud whooping noise, and at the same time bright lights lit up the forms of the two rabbits. They turned around, and Sun saw that one of the machine carts had sneaked up on them while his thoughts were preoccupied. This one had coloured lights on its roof, and out of it stepped a surly-looking man.
"Do you boys mind taking those hoodies off?" he asked in a voice that sounded authoritative to Sun, almost reminding him of his Grandfather. "We've had a couple'a calls about strangers sneaking around town."
"We're not sneaking, sir," Sun said in as calm a tone as he could manage with his heart pounding in his chest. "We're just going to the docks, that's all."
"For what reason? And take off those darned hoodies!"
"Sir, we can't..."
Before Sun could finish the sentence, the man ran up to him and grabbed at his hood. Sun was quicker, and managed to dodge, but the man was tall and his longer reach made his second lunge strike home. With a firm grip, he pulled off Sun's entire coat, and the two found themselves frozen on the spot, human and rabbit, staring into each other's eyes.
The man found his wits first, and with a cry of fear he backed away, and started running towards his cart. A second later, Sun shook off his stupor and grabbed the arm of Moon, who had started crying when his mate was attacked. The two of them were just about to start running towards the docks, when the man came back, carrying some kind of metal cane.
He held it up, and there was a bright flash and a loud bang, which stunned the rabbits' sensitive ears. An acrid smell filled the air, and Sun thought for a moment that they had been attacked with some kind of gas. Then he realised that the nearest streetlight had gone out, and that bits of glass were raining down over them. The cane was a weapon!
Another bang followed, and something smashed into a wall just next to Sun, sending sharp, hot bits of stone into his face. Deafened, and with pain shooting through the left side of his muzzle, it was all Sun could do to stagger towards Moon, who was screaming now. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man raise his cane again, and he knew that everything would be over in a moment. They had come so far, only to die on the threshold to the sea. Just then, there was a flurry of movement right next to their attacker, and Sun saw something tiny and bright green flutter right up into the man's face.
"Don't hurt bunnies!" Jani shrieked, surprise causing the man to lose his balance and back away. The next bang caused a window across the street to smash, missing them all by a wide margin. "Don't hurt my friends!"
Sun watched as his tiny winged friend snapped his fingers, and immediately bright balls of colour burst all around the man, making him drop his cane and flee in panic. Grabbing the sobbing Moon's hand, Sun ran up to Jani and caught the little fairy just as he was about to give chase. Running as fast as the dark rabbit could manage, they made their way to the docks.
* * * * * *
There were many boats to choose from, tied to long wooden piers that stretched out into the water. Neither looked much like anything Sun had ever seen, much less sailed. Those that did have sails still looked complicated, and he had a sinking feeling in his stomach saying that the ones without sails would easily catch up with whatever he could possibly steer himself. They were bound to be machine-powered.
Before despair could sink in, though, he spotted Aquila, hovering at the very end of one pier, and he started leading Moon towards the bird just as it let hear a screech. Behind him, Sun could hear more whooping noises, like that of the cart that had stopped them, and he knew at once that they were coming for him, Moon and little Jani. Taking care to keep his footing on the rain-slippery pier, he made his way up to where Aquila circled.
The boat that the eagle had chosen for them had no sails, and there was something looked like a small house on its deck. It looked stocky and clumsy compared to the slim, fast-looking sail boats that lay tied to the other pier. A brief moment's pause made Sun feel a little guilty. After all, Aquila had led them thus far without err, so why should he mistrust the bird now? He tossed the saddle bag down onto the deck, then helped Moon climb in.
"So you're the ones we were waiting for."
The gruff voice made both rabbits jump, and Moon started whimpering with fear. Determined not to go out without a fight, Sun stepped in front of his mate with a grim expression on his face. A door in the house-thing opened, and an old man peered out at them. He raised his eyebrows, then shrugged.
"Strange folks," he muttered. "Well, I've had strange folks on board before. Guess your bird knows what he's doing, eh?"
"That one." The man pointed towards the top of the house, where Aquila had landed. "Kept me ready to leave, he did. Every time I tried to lock up and go home."
"We could surely use some help," Sun said, fighting to keep his voice steady. "Please, sir, there are people hunting us. They tried to kill us, I think."
"I can see that. You're bleeding, son. Or whatever I should call you." He let out a short, coarse laugh. "Kid, get us ready to cast off!"
The second voice, which surprised Sun every bit as much as the old man's had, belonged to a young boy, who dashed to the aft of the boat and disappeared down a hatch. Feeling tired, hurt, confused and resigned, Sun sank down onto the deck, where Moon joined him to sit in his lap. Whatever happened next, he decided with a deep sigh, anything was better than to stay in this mad town one more minute. After that, his thoughts began to blur and drift, and he lost consciousness.
* * * * * *
There were dreams, various and shifting sleep images that came and went without leaving any remnants of memories. Moon was there, sometimes as the youth he had once been, sometimes as the man he now was. His scent was ever present, helping Sun to keep his mind from floating out and away in the now too-familiar way of the real world. Then, after who knew how much time had passed, other things began to intrude. Sounds and vibrations and memories, as well as the aches and pangs of his body.
When he awoke, Sun sat up with a gasp, hurrying to check his hands to see if they had begun to fade again. He found his arms filled with his mate, and he also found that he was as solid as ever. Moon nuzzled him happily, and Sun realised that the dreams now all but forgotten had probably helped him keep that vital focus.
He looked around, and saw that it was morning. The sun had just parted with the eastern horizon and was making its way up a clear, blue, near endless sky. All around the boat, as far as he could see, Sun saw only the sea. They were lying pretty much where he had passed out the night before, on the boat's deck, but with a couple of soft blankets underneath them. When he touched his muzzle, he found it bandaged.
The old man who had talked to him last night stood on top of the house-structure that almost covered the foredeck, from railing to railing, and held on to a steering wheel. As Sun looked aft, he saw someone who must have been the boy he had heard; a lanky youth with sunburned skin, who was smiling happily as Jani danced around and around him. It was a peaceful sight, and it felt good to know that even deep into this world, humans and hidden ones could still be friends.
Not really feeling like getting to his feet, Sun leaned back against the blankets and relaxed, while he returned Moon's cuddles. The dark rabbit seemed as happy and carefree as usual, and not much bothered by the events of yesterday. Sun hugged him tightly to his chest; his need to give comfort was still there, even though Moon didn't seem to need being comforted.
"Awake at last, are you, Mr Sun?"
"Yes sir," Sun answered, looking up at the old man. "Uhm, where are we?"
"Out at sea, lad." The old man laughed, and his grandson joined in with boyish giggles from the aft. "We're on our way, don't you worry. Your bird has been showing us the way, though I can't for the life of me figure out what it is you expect to find out here."
"Sir..." Sun began, but he had to think hard before he could go on. There were so many things he wanted to ask that he hardly knew where to begin. "Sir, how did you know to follow Aquila? The eagle, I mean. And how did you know my name?"
"I know more than that, son. I know you are Sun and Moon, that you've come from the Hidden World, and that you're looking for a dragon man on an island that don't appear to be on any sea charts I know of. And he's gonna help your man get well again." The man laughed again. "Don't look so stunned. Your butterfly boy told us everything while you slept."
"Fairy!" Jani protested. "Not butterfly."
"You look like a butterfly. At least to these old eyes that don't see too well up close. Point me a sail on the horizon, and I can tell you the size of her figurehead's tits, but little things? Not so good." Leaving the wheel, the old man nimbly jumped down onto the deck and extended his hand. Sun took it and felt a firm, calloused hand shake his own. "My name is Carter. Grandpapa Carter, if you must have a first name, but Carter will do. My son's youngest back there is Miguel, the only one of my family who loves the sea as much as his old Grandpapa does."
"Nice to meet you, Mr Sun," the boy said, also shaking the fair rabbit's hand. "I never heard about the Hidden World before."
"I guess not many have, this far from the borders," Sun said, getting to his feet and helping Moon up as well. "It's kind of hard to explain."
"Then don't bother. What's here and now is what we need to know." Carter held out a bottle to Sun, who accepted it, then he opened one for himself. "We all know there's hidden things in the world, but there's no need to dwell too much on them."
Sun carefully sniffed the bottle he had been given, then tried a sip. The dark liquid inside tasted slightly bitter, and it sparkled on his tongue in a way that he liked. It was clearly some kind of ale, and he hoped that it wouldn't go to his head. Moon rejected it when he offered him a sip, and instead Sun helped him to some fruit juice from the saddle bag. The two rabbits ate bread and cheese to break their fast, while both the humans and Jani preferred some kind of fish that smelled strongly of wood smoke. Once their meal was over, Sun accepted another bottle of ale, and he tapped it against Carter's, making the man grin broadly. Clearly this drinkers' greeting was as common in the real world as in the Hidden.
"I want to thank you for taking us on board, Grandpapa Carter. It's most kind of you, and I have no idea what we'd do without you."
"Be in all kinds of trouble, I'd say." The old man laughed. "It's all right, my friend, we had no business for the day, anyway. This kinda boat has seen its glory, we don't get hired near as much as we'd like."
"Well, you seem to be hired now."
Sun opened the saddle bag once more, and after giving Moon a honey drop, he held out a handful of unstamped gold coins to his host. Carter let the gold clink onto his open palm, and stared at it with wide eyes. From the aft, Miguel came over, and he gasped at the sight. Shaking his head, the old man tried to push the coins back to Sun, who merely shook his head.
"It's yours. I figure it should be worth about a thousand pounds, unless the rates have changed since my Grandfather's time."
"They have," Carter said in a slightly quivering voice. "This is... It's more than enough to buy the boat."
"Just let me rent it for a little while. You'll make good business, for a change."
"Aye, that's true." Carter turned to his grandson and handed him the money. "Here, Miguel, lock them away in the fake hold. They might come in handy one of these days."
"Yes." The old man stamped his foot on the deck. "Been through all kinds of things, this old lug. Including smuggling. The fake hold can hide a dozen barrels o' the strong stuff, and it can just as well hide two rabbits while the police search every boat in the docks."
"You hid us?"
"Well, me and the law, we ain't the best of friends, you see. So we kept you safe down there, then we set out just before dawn."
Just then, Aquila let out a screech, and Carter hopped up onto the roof to change their course, with just a little help from a grip on the railing. It was a very agile move for a man of years, and even though he was a rabbit, Sun wasn't sure he could have done it. It must have been out of place for the old man as well, because Miguel shook his head just as he emerged from below deck.
"This is good for Grandpapa," he said as he returned to his place in the aft. "I haven't seen him this happy in years."
"Do you mean the gold, or...?"
"The adventure! Right, Grandpapa?" All they could hear from up on the roof was a sound that could have been either an affirmative grunt or a gruff chuckle. "His life's been boring for a long while now, though you'll never hear him complain about it."
"That's good to hear. That we'll all gain from this, I mean." Sun smiled as Moon leaned against him, nuzzling him. "At least I hope we will. That I haven't just led you on a merry chase across the sea."
"If your island exists," Carter said, "we'll find it. Your bird seems very sure of himself."
"He tried to eat me," Jani piped up. "But I thinks he likes me now."
"Can he hunt?" Miguel asked. "I mean, out here? Like, fish?"
"I don't know." Sun shook his head. "Aquila has been very independent. He's not really our bird, just our guide. I'm not sure if anyone really owns him."
* * * * * *
The first clap of thunder made Sun curse his big mouth. After a lazy day at sea, he had let slip that the last leg of their journey seemed to be the easiest, and it wasn't long before clouds appeared on the horizon. At first, Carter had thought that the storm would miss them, but it seemed as if both Aquila and the heavy rainclouds were set for the same spot of the sea. By the time the sun went down, more than half the sky had turned grey, and just before the rabbits went to sleep they heard the first pitter-patter of raindrops.
Sitting up, Sun eased his way out of the sleeping Moon's cuddle, and peered out the windows of the little deck-house. Cabin, he corrected himself, remembering Miguel's lesson on the humans' sea-words. He had learned a lot, and he had even got to go down into the engine room, where he marvelled at his first close-up view of an actual machine. It was a noisy, dirty and smelly thing, and fascinatingly complex. How someone could have come up with the idea to build it went beyond Sun's understanding.
Rain was pouring down outside, and the sea looked rough around them. The boat felt quite steady, though, even as it slid up and down the crests and valleys of waves. Sun couldn't really tell if it were night or day, but he felt well rested and assumed that, somewhere above those dark clouds, the sun was up. He tucked Moon in with a blanket, then opened the cabin door and stepped out onto the rain-slippery deck. Miguel met him, wearing a slick-looking coat of some kind and grinning widely.
"Sea's being a bitch today," he shouted over the din of rain and thunder. "I haven't seen waves this big since I was a little kid."
"Is there trouble?" Sun yelled back, his worry not entirely eased by the boy's good mood. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No, just keep safe. The only danger is falling overboard. It might be tricky business to pick you up in this weather."
"Where's Jani? And Aquila?"
"The bird's up there," Miguel pointed to a slightly darker speck against the dark sky. "Must be easier to fly than to sit on the railing right now. And don't worry about the little one, he's been hiding inside my raincoat all morning."
"Not hiding," came the boyish voice from somewhere inside Miguel's clothing. "I don't like getting wet."
"Better go back inside, Mr Sun. Grandpapa knows what he's doing, he's sure to get us there in one piece. Besides, we've got no raincoats to spare, you'll get drenched out here."
Laughter met Sun when he stepped back inside the cabin and shook off some rainwater. Moon stood by a window, looking out over the roiling sea, and he giggled every time a wave lurched the Corazita, a name that Sun had been told meant Little Heart. At least he doesn't get seasick, Sun thought as he joined his mate. Just then, a flash of lightning lit up the ever-changing view, followed almost immediately by a loud clap of thunder. The dark rabbit whimpered and leaned back against Sun, who wrapped his arms around him.
"It's okay, my sweet," he cooed, stroking Moon's hair. "I know you don't care much for thunder, you never did. But it's gonna be fine. I'm sure we're out of the worst of it."
That turned out to be a lie. Over the next couple of hours, the storm intensified until the two rabbits had no choice but to cower in a corner, to keep from bouncing around inside the cabin. Each time they passed the peak of a wave, Sun's stomach lurched, and he came to think about the slide again. The slide of focus, at the bottom of which waited death. This was different, though, this was like riding an actual slide. A steep one, with bumps and turns that almost threw you off if you weren't ready for them.
Moon seemed to enjoy the waves, now that wind and rain drenched out the sound of thunder, and he sometimes squealed with laughter at the sudden shifts and rolls. Every now and then, Miguel came in to check on them, and to reassure them that everything was all right.
"Grandpapa says he hasn't seen worse weather since he ran the booze trade way back when. Though we're riding it like we're on a pond in sun and calm."
"Fairy's luck," Sun said with a smile, reaching up to touch Jani. The fairy boy had joined the rabbits inside the cabin, when even Miguel's rainwear soaked through. "They are good omens."
"We're the best!" Jani agreed, landing in Moon's hair. The dark rabbit reached for him at once. "Eeh! No more ticklies, nightbunny!"
Moon seemed to have understood, because he relented his assault after just a couple of giggles from their winged friend. Another wavecrest distracted him, and while he was busy with his own laughter, Jani settled down between his dark-furred ears. Today it was the right ear that flopped, Sun noticed with an affectionate smile.
* * * * * *
They left the storm behind just after nightfall. As impossible as it seemed to Sun, the sea that had been raging a mere hour ago was no almost completely calm. Only now and then did small waves reach them, barely even noticeable as they pushed up against the boat.
With the rainclouds gone, the nightsky was strewn with stars, and to his delight Sun found that these were the same stars he could see from home. For a long while, he stood leaning against the railing, with Moon in his arms, while he and Miguel compared constellations and shared the stories behind them. In this world, the Tower had become a huntsman, the River was a serpent, the Shield was a winged riding horse and according to Miguel, Mother and Son Mouse were here called dippers. They kept their stories up until Moon started yawning, then Sun led him into the cabin and tucked him in. Spooning his beloved, Sun lay awake for a few more minutes, before he fell asleep as well.
* * * * * *
Dawn at sea was a beautiful thing, Sun thought, as he watched the orange and red colours of the young day break and shatter in the water. All around them glittered the light of the rising sun, chasing away the night and turning the sky into a bright blue. Sun sat on the cabin roof, just behind Grandpapa Carter who was manning the wheel, and he let his feet dangle over the edge while he stared out across the sea.
It was a calm morning, with a mild and friendly breeze of a wind that stirred the surface just enough to scatter the dawn light. While he had never been at sea before, Sun could remember sailing across lakes with Moon, back when they were still young and travels and adventures were what they lived for. He had seen waves break the sunlight then, too, causing flickers and glimmers of light to appear and disappear all over the water, almost as if playful spirits danced just for them. This was the same, only on a far grander scale and even more beautiful.
There was a gentle tap-tap on the cabin window, so Sun hopped down to the deck and opened the door. Moon looked newly awakened and a bit worried, but the concern in his eyes turned into a smile as their eyes met. The dark rabbit nuzzled Sun's cheek as he hugged him, then looked around for their pack. Nodding to himself, Sun went back inside to fetch their pack, to see what he could find for them to eat.
After the storm, the calm day was soothing almost to the point of lulling them to sleep. If it hadn't been for Carter and Miguel going back and forth across the deck as they managed the boat, Sun found that he would soon have grown bored. Sailing was fun, but travelling by boat was just that. Travelling. Not much different from walking or riding.
Sun shook his head, clearing away those thoughts. He should be grateful for the help they had been given, and not complain when a day turned out to be uneventful. Luckily, he had little time for either feeling disgruntled or chastising himself, because Moon was in a playful mood this day. Every now and then, the dark rabbit would return from wherever it was his mind went when his eyes lost their focus, and he would push against Sun, laughing softly as he nuzzled him.
Maybe he can sense that we're getting closer, Sun thought. Closer to our goal, for real this time. Moon seemed more present than usual, and from time to time he picked things up to examine them. It was something he hadn't done in a long while, and it tugged at Sun's heart to see it. Something as simple as a loose tuft of rope became a thing that fascinated Moon, as he turned it over and watched it from every angle until he let it go and went looking for something else.
Jani, meanwhile, had found a true friend in Miguel, and usually followed the dark-skinned boy around the deck. After watching the two of them for a while, Sun thought that maybe it wasn't all just friendship. Ever so often, the fairy's eyes would dart to the necklace Miguel wore, or to the golden ring that adorned one of his ears. Trinkets for his lovely? Sun smiled, and decided to have a talk with his little winged friend. It would be better if they bought some trinkets, rather than stealing them.
Just as he finished with this thought, Moon came and sat down in his lap, smiling as he held up a metal tube of some kind. One end was set with a circular plate of glass, which lit up with a strong light whenever Moon pressed a button on the cylinder's side. The dark rabbit laughed as the light went on and off, and he wouldn't let go when Sun tried to take the tube from him.
"Better be careful, love. I'm sure it's highly valuable."
"Just an old flashlight," Carter said, grinning at the playing and laughing Moon. "Let him have it, we've got a couple of spare ones."
"Nothing to it. Hey!"
Startling them all, Aquila made a low sweep over the deck, coming so close that Sun could feel the tip of one wing touch his ear. He opened his mouth to ask the eagle what was wrong, even though the thought of talking to the bird seemed kind of foolish, but the words caught in his throat. Aquila let out a screech and flew out over the boat's right side. Starboard, Sun reminded himself, remembering Miguel's lessons. He stared after it, but wasn't sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
"So damn me," Carter said in a hushed voice. "There really is an island out here."
* * * * * *
Keeper's Cove was little more than a tall rock jutting out of the sea. Its northern side was a steep cliff, but to the south and west lay a smooth shore. Some grass and shrubs grew there, but not much else. The only feature they could see was the entrance to a cave, a black mouth leading into the cliff. In front of it stood a tall man, his dark eyes fixed on Sun as he helped Moon down a steep and rickety gangplank. Miguel waited at the end of it, helping the dark rabbit ashore.
Aquila sat on the stranger's shoulder, Sun saw once he finally had solid ground beneath his feet. If there had been any doubts in his mind, they were gone now. This really was the right island, and the man who now walked towards them must really be him. Stone, the dragon man. Sun felt his knees weaken, and he had to lean slightly on Moon to keep from stumbling.
This was it. The end of their journey.
Sun took a deep breath and held it for a couple of seconds, and when he released it he let the feeling of being overwhelmed go with it. That was something Grandfather had taught him, long ago, a technique for quickly finding a calm and steady centre of mind.
To Sun's eyes, Stone looked like an ordinary human. He was tall and had a muscular built, a slightly weather-worn face adorned with a stubbly beard. His hair was dark and hung almost down to his shoulders, and when their eyes met Sun found himself caught by emerald-green intensity. If anything gave away a hint of his true nature, it was those eyes. His clothes looked more like the wool and leather that the two rabbits wore, than anything he had seen on humans.
"Welcome to Keeper's Cove." The voice was deep, but had a warmth to it that made Sun relax. Moon, who still leaned against him, smiled and shone at Stone with his flashlight. "Alecandra told me to expect guests, but there are more of you than I thought. Who comes seeking me?"
"That would be us," Sun said, squeezing Moon to his side. The dark rabbit sighed and nuzzled his cheek. "My mate... my lifemate... he's not well."
"Stay still." There was a sudden gleam in those green eyes, and Sun felt a shiver run down his spine. Stone stared right at Moon, and his lips curled into a snarl. "Fiendish creature!"
Sun could only cry out. He had no time to react, before Stone lunged at Moon, slashing out with an arm that suddenly looked longer, and had gleaming, sharp claws at the fingertips. For a second Sun thought that his heart would stop, that he would be forced to watch his beloved die right in front of his eyes, but Stone's attack struck the air above the dark rabbit's shoulder. There was a tearing noise, followed by a guttural groan that Sun knew all too well. The last time he had heard it...
The last time he had heard it was back in the mist between the first two borders!
Stone struck again and again, causing the air to glow around the two rabbits. Moon held on to Sun's arm, sobbing with fear and pain as the betweener clung to his back. More tearing and ripping could be heard, then the dark rabbit stumbled into Sun's arms, and together they fled from the thing that Stone was now holding.
The glow almost gave shape to the creature, a shimmering, shifting form that groaned again as the dragon man tore into it with claws that looked far too big for his human body. Sun watched in horror as glowing tendrils, the same that had just been attached to Moon, snaked their way from the shapeless creature and past the slashing claws, lashing and beating at the dragon man. A gash opened on Stone's forehead, and dark blood welled out, getting into his eyes.
Soon the betweener's struggle became erratic, though, and the glow began to fade. Once it was all gone, Stone touched the ground with hands that were now fully human again. He was panting heavily.
"Go in peace," he whispered, making a sign in the air with one hand. "Find your beyond."
* * * * * *
Moon's sobs finally abated, as Stone's hands made one more pass of his blood-streaked back. The wounds that had opened when the betweener was torn from him had now been closed, and the dark rabbit sighed happily as he curled up in Sun's lap and fell asleep.
"Thank you," Sun whispered. "You saved his life. But can you...?"
"Later," Stone interrupted. "Let him sleep for a while, and we'll have a look. First, I want to hear your story."
The dragon man cupped his hands on the ground between them, and even though there was no visible fuel, a warming fire soon burned there. While the sun passed midday and sank towards the west, the humans and Jani joined them to share food and drinks, while Moon slept peacefully and while Sun told them their tale. From friends turning lovers, through journeys and adventures in the Hidden World, to the disease that tore at the dark rabbit and distanced him from his lover. It was almost dark outside the ring of firelight when he was done telling, and they sat quietly for a long while, each occupied with his own thoughts. Finally, it was Miguel who broke the silence.
"So what was that thing? That kind of... glowy thing."
"A betweener," Sun told him. "Sometimes when a hidden one loses his way in the real world, his spirit gets stuck. Unable to live or die."
"That's terrible," Carter muttered. "Poor thing. But why did it hurt Moon?"
"They don't know what's happened to them." Stone's voice was sombre, and he repeated his hand sign in the air. "All they can do is wait for someone alive, someone they can latch on to. Feed off."
"It was..." Sun had to choke back a sob before he started over. "It was feeding on him?"
"His spirit. His life force. It must have found him while you rode through the mist. His heart, his emotions, must have shone like a beacon to it."
"You have a remarkable man, Sun. There is so much love between you, I have rarely seen the like. No wonder Alecandra wanted me to help you. It's probably what saved him, kept the betweener from draining him."
"I can't believe I didn't see... didn't feel it..." Tears welled up in Sun's eyes, and this time he didn't even try to hold them back. "He could have... died..."
"I'm sure not even Moon noticed it. That's the way it usually works."
"But is it gone now?" Carter asked. The old man appeared to be shaken by the day's events, and had been unusually quiet as the evening progressed. "Did you kill it?"
"I gave it a chance," Stone said, his voice slightly saddened. "An opportunity to die, to leave that wretched existence. If it did, I can't tell. But it is gone from here."
* * * * * *
Saying goodbye to the humans turned out to be more emotional than Sun would have guessed. He had no tears left after crying himself to sleep the night before, but Moon wept enough for the two of them as they watched Carter and Miguel get ready to cast off. The two of them had been good and loyal friends, and it saddened Sun to see them go. Yet, as Stone had told them, whatever happened next might be done in a second, or it might take weeks. Without enough provisions, there was no way for them to remain docked at Keeper's Cove.
Both humans hugged the rabbits tightly, wishing them all the best of luck, and Miguel even presented a delighted Jani with his earring. The little fairy bobbed up and down with joy, before he somehow magicked the trinket away and kissed Miguel's cheek. At that point, Sun knew that he didn't have to worry about his newest friends' return voyage. With such a blessing from a winged friend, their good luck would last years and years.
Hugging the still sobbing Moon, who kept shining his flashlight at the departing boat, Sun waited until they were well out to sea before he turned to follow Stone into the cave. Just then, Moon let hear a delighted shout, and Sun immediately saw why. Someone on the boat, probably young Miguel, was shining a light back at them. He and Moon kept exchanging flashlight signals until the horizon claimed the Corazita, leaving the sea sadly empty.
Moon was reluctant to enter the dark cave at first, but after Sun had shown him how to shine his way with the flashlight, and with Jani sitting between his ears, the dark rabbit gladly followed. He was more interested in lighting up the walls and ceiling, though, than the ground they walked on, but the cave floor was reassuringly smooth as it tunnelled gently downwards, making a turn back in underneath Keeper's Cove.
They passed a wellspring, situated in a niche in the tunnel wall. Fresh, deliciously cool water ran out of a hole in the rock wall and filled up a small stone basin that had carved images of dragons all around its rim, and a narrow metal pipe that led excess water into a stream which ran down the side of the tunnel. The two rabbits drank their fill, while Moon made sure to touch each of the dragon carvings, then they continued on down, now accompanied by the soft splashing of the stream.
After a few hundred metres, the tunnel widened and the stream disappeared underground. Before long, they reached a large, circular chamber, which was lit with torches along the walls. Not a bad home, Sun thought as he looked around. At least not for a dragon magician.
The walls were lined with bookshelves, cupboards and benches, with tapestries depicting dragons in flight covering the rough stone in between. The torches, he noticed, were set in silver holders shaped like dragon claws. He walked over to the nearest bench, and peered curiously at some kind of distiller, which let clear water drip through a filter to become a dark liquid inside a glass jar. The thing let off an earthy, slightly bitter smell, and he saw steam coming out of it as Moon shone his flashlight onto the jar.
"Coffee machine." Stone's voice startled Sun and made him jump. The dragon man was standing right behind him, but had made no sound getting there. "Best thing the humans ever invented. Would you like a cup?"
"Yes, please," Sun said, sniffing the glass jar again. "If it's safe for us."
"It is, though the flavour might be an acquired taste. Better try it with cream and some sugar first."
Stone showed the two rabbits to a low table next to a crackling fireplace, and they sank down on piles of soft cushions. Again, Sun noted the patterns of dragons sewn in here and there, as if to make it perfectly clear who lived there. Moon let out a delighted cry, and pointed up to where Aquila just landed on a metal ring hanging from the ceiling. The eagle rustled its feathers, but gave no other sign that it had noticed its companions' presence. After rummaging through a cupboard, the dragon man joined them, bringing a tray with two steaming mugs, a plate of biscuits, and a glass of fruit juice for Moon.
Sipping his mug, Sun was glad for the cream and sugar, because the coffee had a bitter aftertaste that would take some getting used to. Moon shone his flashlight on the biscuits, so Sun gave him and Jani one each, then held his hand underneath the dark rabbit's chin to catch the crumbs as he started munching. The four of them sat in silence for a long while, eating and drinking, and every now and then Sun could see out of the corner of his eye how Stone was watching them. He seemed to observe everything they did, whether it were when Sun helped Moon to drink more juice or when the dark rabbit shone his flashlight up at Aquila. He is studying us, Sun thought, but he decided not to care. If any observations could help Moon get well, it was a small price to pay to suffer the remnants of his ancestors' fear, as prey animals, to feel the gaze of a predator.
Once the biscuits were gone, Moon yawned widely. Sun watched with a warm smile on his lips as the dark rabbit's left ear slowly perked up, while the right one flopped down. Some things never change, he thought, remembering a dream he had had during their travels in the real world. A dream about the two of them as young kits. The floppy ear, whichever it was at the moment, had been the first thing about Moon that he had fallen in love with.
Yawning again, Moon shuffled over until he could lie down with his head in Sun's lap, then he promptly fell asleep. While Sun gently caressed his mate's peaceful face, Stone got to his feet and approached them. The dragon man placed one hand on Moon's shoulder, while the other one touched his forehead. A couple of minutes passed, and Sun could feel the vibrations of strong magic pass between the two. Some of it seemed to spill over onto him, and it was like being splashed with warm water. Soon, though, that feeling vanished, and Stone turned to face him.
"What do you know about brains, Sun?"
"Not much. You think with them." He reached down to take Moon's hand. "And sometimes they can get ill."
"That's true." The dragon man stood up, and walked over to one of the bookshelves. "The brain has something called synapses, nerve endings that transmit electrical charges to activate functions or memories. Like everything else in your body, they're made up of cells that live and die, and are replaced after they die."
"I'm afraid I don't understand much of that."
"It doesn't matter. I have a few books that you could read, if you want, but I don't think you'd get much wiser in the brief time we'll have together."
"Yes, brief." Stone returned to the table and laid down a bunch of scrolls, then he sank into a pile of pillows and started reading one. "This will be over before dawn, either way."
"Then... you can cure him?"
"Both yes and no."
"I don't understand."
"Sun, you need to understand this about your mate's disease. As I said, the cells in a brain are constantly replaced by new ones, an ongoing process all throughout a person's life. But his replacements, they don't always work right." Stone switched scrolls, holding the next one sideways as he read. "I've seen that he can still function somewhat, but that's fading, right?"
"Yes," Sun sighed, a sense of dread gripping his insides. "At first he was just forgetful, then he began to lose his speech. And now he couldn't survive without help. He wouldn't know where to go, or how to get food. Sometimes he'll just sit and stare ahead of him."
"Luckily he's had good help."
"I love him so much," Sun whispered. "I'd do anything for him."
"Does that include letting him go?"
"You mean letting him die? No! At least... not without following him."
"Calm down, Sun. I didn't mean death. Sorry if I scared you." Stone reached across the table and took Sun's trembling hand in his. He whispered a couple of words in some strange language, and Sun felt his muscles relax. "What I meant to say is that I can easily cure his disease. The question is, what comes after?"
"What do you mean?"
"Once his cellular regeneration is working again, he should get better. Maybe not completely as new, since he is getting on in years, but well enough to stand on his own two feet again."
"That's fantastic news!"
"Not entirely. What would you do if he stopped loving you?"
"What? But...?" Sun's enthusiasm died away as swiftly as it had arrived, and he sank back against his pillows. "What do you mean?"
"There is no way to tell if his memories have been affected, though I am pretty sure they have. He might not remember anything of his former life. Including you."
"Yes. In a sense, for him it will be like growing up again. He can walk and eat and drink, at least most of the time, from what you've told me. But he might have to learn how to talk again. As well as everything else he will need to know. All from the beginning."
"It doesn't matter." Sun let go of his mate's hand, and instead placed his arm around his shoulder. Moon began to stir, the opened his eyes and yawned. "I love him so much. I'll do whatever it takes, teaching him, looking after him, feeding him. Anything!"
"Even if it turns out that the new Moon is no longer your mate?"
"Yes. As I said, anything."
"Good. Then let's begin."
"What better time?" Stone stood up and extended his hand towards the dark rabbit. "Care to come with me, Moon?"
Moon stared at the outstretched hand, then turned to give Sun a questioning look. The fair rabbit nodded, and helped the two clutch hands. Together the three of them went over to a large bed in the far end of the chamber, with Jani fluttering along above them, and once again Sun noticed the dragons carved into the wooden headboard. Stone made Moon lie down, then motioned for Sun to join him.
"You'd better hold him. This could get a bit scary."
Sun did as he had been told, and by the time Stone had put away his scrolls he was starting to feel really comfortable. That all changed when the dragon man returned. Without a word of warning, he clapped his hands together with a loud bang that made Moon whimper and that made Jani flutter away to take refuge on top of a bookshelf. The lights in the chamber began to dim, and soon faded completely. Even the fire went out. Moon lit his flashlight, but Sun gently pried it from his hands, feeling that this was not the time to play.
Before long, a soft glow appeared around Stone's hands, then spread to engulf the rest of him. The two rabbits stared, unable to look away, as the glow grew to a bright light, almost hurting their eyes. The air in the chamber began to vibrate, almost humming with the dragon man's rising power. Out of the corner of his eye, Sun saw Aquila take flight and leave the cave, and he almost felt like joining the eagle.
Stone's eyes had changed, from emerald green to a fiery red, almost like the embers of a dying fire. As the energy built, Sun could see occasional glimpses of the real Stone; scaly green hide, powerful big muscles, pointed fangs, even leathery wings on his back flicked in and out of sight. He found himself wondering which was the real one, the man with a dragon inside him or the dragon with the form of a man.
Then all his thoughts ceased, as flames burst up in the bed. Their clothes and their fur caught fire, yet somehow they didn't burn. Moon shuddered with fear and turned towards Sun, who hugged him to his chest. Beyond the flames he could see Stone, as the dragon man weaved a pattern in the air, forming a lattice of light that he draped over them, like a blanket. Moon clutched his head, his face twisted with pain, and Sun was just about to ask the dragon man to stop it all, when he felt an excruciating pain stab him in the chest. It radiated outwards to every fibre of his being, and just as it was becoming unbearable, it increased.
Sun was unable to tell if he cried out or not, instead he welcomed the gathering darkness as it took him away from there.
* * * * * *
Shapes and forms swam inside his darkness, too lightless or colourless to recognise, but still undoubtedly there. Sun floated, there was no other word that could describe the sensation. He could feel nothing around him, nothing that held him up or that he could be lying on. The things that surrounded him kept crossing in and out of his consciousness, as if they were only really there whenever he thought about them. Could one be Moon?
How long he hovered there in the black, he could not tell, but eventually he began to see. It was as if a foam of light formed around him, but it was all confusing. The space around him was still empty, except for the things that darted to and fro, still as shapeless, still as unrecognisable. Am I becoming one of them? The thought made no sense at first, then it filled him with dread. Was he turning into a betweener?
His panic made the shapes around him take form, finally, and he could see one of them turn dark in colour, like a misty twilight. He recognised its floppy ear, and almost wept with relief. If Moon were there, then he had nothing, absolutely nothing to fear.
A second form took the shape of a face, and Sun smiled warmly as Stone grinned down at him. The dragon man, whose eyes were back to their usual green, winked at him and nodded.
"Yes." The voice sounded strange, as if he were listening to it underwater. "It's time for you to wake up, Sun."
And he did.
* * * * * *
His chest still felt a bit sore, as if he had just recovered from a bad cold, and the light from the torches stung his eyes at first. Sun groaned when he sat up, but he soon forgot his aches and pains as he heard happy giggles from the foot end of the bed. Jani was flying this way and that, trying to dodge the flashlight beam that Moon was aiming at him. Every time he got caught in the light, the little fairy set off a volley of sparks that made Moon giggle all the more. Sun sat in silence for a while, watching their game and smiling all the time.
After a few more showers of sparkles, he jumped slightly as Stone stuck a mug filled with coffee under his chin. Sun gratefully accepted it, and when Stone nodded towards the table, he got out of bed and followed him. They sat down, and the sight of bread and cheese made Sun's stomach grumble.
"Better help yourself to some. You've slept through most of the day."
"Has Moon eaten anything?"
"Some juice and biscuits. It took bit of prodding, because he kept shining his torch at you every time I tried to make him eat."
"So he can't manage on his own yet?" Sun asked, while he buttered a slice of bread and cut himself some cheese. "He will still need help?"
"Yes. As I said, it might take a while before what's left of his old self emerges. It sounds harsh, but it's the truth. Maybe he will learn to cope on his own, given time and care, but I can't tell for sure."
"I'll care for him for as long as it takes. And if it turns out that, at some point, he doesn't want me anymore, I'll let him go. 'Cause you know the old saying. If you love somebody, set him free."
"And if he comes back, your love was meant to be," Stone finished, smiling as he took a sip of his black, unsweetened coffee. "I don't think you need to worry, though. Before he started playing with your little winged friend, Moon stuck to your side as if he'd been glued there."
"Are you... are you really sure he'll be okay? That it won't get any worse?"
"I'm sure. I have healed his disease and helped boost his cells' regrowth. As I said, with time and care."
"Thank you. Thank you so much." Sun put down his bread and buried his face in his hands. Tears were falling into his palms, and he had to struggle in order to not break down completely. When he finally looked up again, Stone was still smiling at him. "If there's anything I can do in return, anything at..."
"I healed you, too, you know."
"Your heart had begun to weaken. Not much, but it would have deteriorated steadily. That's why you felt pain yesterday, sorry about that."
"I... my heart...?" Sun clasped his chest, feeling the steady thump-thump inside. "I didn't even know..."
"Well, now there's no reason you shouldn't have a long and healthy life. Both of you. And I feel quite certain that it will be together."
"Thank you. Now, to pay..."
"Don't bother. I owed Alecandra a favour, and it's about time she collected it. Besides, I enjoyed helping you two. Your love is... refreshing." Stone stood up, and took Sun's hands in his. "No more thanks. It's been a pleasure."
"How do we contact Carter for our ride back? Can we send Aquila?"
"Aquila has decided to stay with me for a little while. There's just enough small game on the island to keep him happy. And your human friends should have just about reached their home town by now. Let's not disturb them."
"It's getting late. Stay for the night, then tomorrow morning I will open a way home for you."
Just then, Moon came over to them and settled down in Sun's lap. He seemed more lucid than usual, but Sun wasn't sure if that were true or just his own wishful thinking. They cuddled for a while, and Sun fed his mate some cheese. It wasn't long before both rabbits began to yawn, and they fell asleep even as Sun was still talking to Stone.
* * * * * *
The next morning, they left the cave early, while the morning mist was still heavy over Keeper's Cove. Aquila sat on Stone's shoulder, while little Jani had taken refuge in Sun's pocket to avoid the moist chill. While Sun and Stone said their farewells, Moon kept shining his flashlight out into the mist, and he seemed fascinated with the way the light beam almost solidified against the white fog. Stone reached out and touched the dark rabbit's shoulder.
"May I borrow your torch for a second?" Moon frowned, but eventually handed it over. "You'll get it back, don't worry."
He held the flashlight in one hand, while the other drew a pattern over it. Then he opened it, to Moon's dismay, and took out the batteries. Once it was back together again, though, it shone as brightly as ever. Moon was happy to get it back, and kept shining it on both Stone and Sun.
"What did you do?" Sun asked. "Magic?"
"Of course. Those things are fragile, so I made it a bit sturdier. No matter how he plays with it, it won't break. Also, I figured batteries aren't too common in the Hidden World, so I made sure it will shine without them."
"A little bit of electricity trickery. I did the same with my TV, to make it work out here." He laughed. "Then I had to pull a bit on the satellites, of course, but it worked."
"Just pretend I understood that," Sun snickered. He glanced over at Moon, who stood still while swaying the flashlight back and forth, shining it out into the mist. "You made him happy."
"He's so much like a child, and all children need toys. So, shall we get you guys going?"
"Yes, please." Sun took one last look around the island, then he took Moon's hand and followed Stone down to the shore. "I will miss this place. And you. You've done so much for us."
"Who knows, maybe we'll meet again some day. I go back to the Hidden World sometimes. Now, just walk down to the water's edge."
"Bye-bye, Mr Dragon," Jani said, then climbed out of Sun's pocket, flew up to Stone's face and kissed his cheek. "I'll miss the birdie, even though he tried to eat me."
Aquila, screeched, then took flight and circled them, before settling down on Stone's shoulder again. Sun and Jani waved at them, and Moon shone at them one last time. Then they stepped down to the water, and onto the moor just outside the Common Inn. Sun looked around, confused, and shook his head. He had expected to cross all the borders again, in reversed order, but when he saw Hugh outside the inn, chopping firewood, he realised that he should have known better. For someone as powerful and skilled as the dragon man, a passage between worlds would be an easy feat.
Shadowdark bounced up to meet them as they got closer to the inn, almost bowling them over in his eagerness to greet. Moon giggled happily as he had his face licked, while Sun managed to subdue the wolf by scratching behind his ears. Next to greet them were Hugh and Angela, who both hugged and kissed the rabbits, and who marvelled at the sight of little Jani. Later, after they had settled into their old room, the fairy seemed to be in a good mood, and when Sun asked, he produced an ancient-looking gold coin.
"Nicked his trinket!"
"You stole it?" Sun asked, turning the coin over in his hand. "From Stone?"
"He's got lots. Won't miss this one."
"But what if he...?" Sun's voice died away when he saw the tails side of the coin, and he read the inscription out loud. "It says, 'To Jani and Akki, best wishes!'"
"It does?" The fairy leaned in and pressed the side of his head against the coin. "I can't hear."
"No," Sun laughed. "The writings say it. You have to read."
"I can't read."
"Well, anyway, looks like he wants you to have it."
"Nice Mr Dragon." Jani made the coin disappear again, to Moon's delighted applause. "Made nightbunny better, too."
"Yes, he's a nice man. I wonder if we'll ever see him again."
"Here, I have something for you as well."
"What? What is it? Is trinket?"
"Calm down, little winged friend," Sun laughed as he opened his pack and searched through it. The ring he took out was made of bronze, and embedded in it were several emeralds that were just a little darker than the fairy himself. It had belonged to Grandfather, and Sun had saved it mostly for sentimental reasons. "Yes, it's a trinket, but a really valuable one. You'd better take good care of it."
"Will give it to Akki, then we both look after it. We lives in big tree, with lots and lotsies of fairies. But nobody ever steals."
To more applause from the dark rabbit, the ring vanished, then Jani flew a lap around the room, before he kissed both rabbits' cheeks.
* * * * * *
The rabbits stayed at the Common for three days, resting and relaxing after their journey. The first night there was a feast, as Hugh announced free drinks for all patrons to celebrate that Moon had been cured. There weren't many guests that night, but those who were there sang and danced long into the night.
On the second day, Jani's lovely arrived. Akki looked pretty much like their fairy friend, except for being pink as a rose, rather than green. Sun was mildly surprised to find Akki to be a male, and he found the two of them to be am adorably cute couple as they hugged and kissed, greeting each other. They exchanged trinkets, both squealing happily over each gift. In return for the coin, the earring and Grandfather's ring, Jani got a silver ring, a silver coin and a sapphire almost as big as his head. The fairies stayed over supper, then bade the rabbits farewell and left. Neither Sun nor Moon could keep their eyes dry as they watched their little winged friends flutter side by side towards the forest.
The third and last day's morning came with a happy surprise. The horses that Sun had left behind near the harbour town were waiting outside when Hugh got up to start cooking breakfast. They seemed none the worse for wear, and happily took their place in the stable after a thorough grooming.
After having their morning meal at the inn, Sun shouldered the pack he had brought with them, and got ready to leave. Saying goodbye to Hugh and Angela was emotional, but at least the Common Inn was a place they could visit without having to go through the real world. Before they left, Angela gave Sun a bag filled with food that would last them all the way back home. Once more there were hugs and kisses, but this time Sun took it all without feeling embarrassed. The innkeeper and his wife refused to let them pay, again, but while nobody was watching, Sun managed to slip a handful of his remaining gold coins onto a shelf behind the bar. It might be a day or two before anyone found them, but he thought they would figure out who the money came from, anyway.
At last, with the sun already high in the sky, they set off. Moon was riding on Shadowdark's strong back, while Sun walked beside them. In a way, it felt to Sun as if nothing had changed since before they first came to the Common Inn, but it was also a whole new life taking its beginning.
Moon was cured, and hopefully he would soon start getting better. There was still a tiny bit of nagging doubt inside Sun's mind, that maybe the new Moon who would emerge then would be better off without him, but every time he looked at his mate that doubt was quenched. Moon was quietly rocking left and right, almost as if he were dancing, and every now and then he found something to light up with his magical flashlight.
Once inside the forest, Sun chose a path the led off to northwest, feeling sure that it would take them almost straight back to the mansion. Back home. They hadn't been home for several years, while travelling in search of help, and now he found himself looking forward to peace and quiet. At last their wandering, adventuring days would be over, and he saw before his mind's eye an image of the two of them, sitting next to each other by the goldfish pond, sipping on chilled glasses of wine as they enjoyed their golden years.
Then again, another nagging little sensation in the back of his head said, while they were crossing a wooden bridge over a creek, that maybe they would miss all this. Seeing new things and meeting new people, travelling and sleeping rough. Well, he mused, maybe not sleeping rough. Could they really sit around, doing nothing? Surely they would visit Hugh and Angela now and then? And would it be a bad thing to see the Diamond Falls again, even though it was a long and perilous journey?
Now that he thought about it, why even go home in the first place? The mansion had stood empty for years, it would surely be a dreary place to return to. He recalled one of their earliest journeys, and thought about the town of Eidin. If they turned north at the next intersection, it wouldn't be a long journey. There was a nice inn just outside town, and from there it wasn't far to...
The sudden voice made Sun jump, and he almost fell over as he spun around, trying to find the one who had spoken. To his surprise, there was nobody there. Shadowdark seemed unfazed, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Scratching his head, Sun returned to the wolf's side, to make sure that Moon was all right. The dark rabbit met his eyes with ones that were strained, and his forehead was furrowed. For a second, Sun feared that his mate was getting worse again, that the disease was back, that all their trouble would have been for nothing. Then Moon opened his mouth and spoke.
"Beloved!" Sun cried out, taking Moon's head between his hands. "You're talking! But what are you saying?"
"Ahn..." Moon repeated, reaching up with his hand to touch Sun's face. "Ahn."
"Ahn... you mean Sun? My name? Yes, dearest, that is my name. Sun."
"That's right! Sun." Sun returned the caress, stroking the dark rabbit's cheek. "And you're Moon. Can you say it? Moon?"
"That's wonderful, my love. Yes, that's right! Sun and Moon. Moon and Sun, always together."
Unable to speak any more, Sun helped his lover down from the wolf's back and hugged him tightly, kissing his cheeks. To his astonishment and joy, he felt Moon's lips move as well, and before long they were locked together in a passionate lover's kiss. For a long time, they stood there together, touching and hugging and kissing one another, while Sun both laughed and cried, and while Moon's cheek fur was also moistened with tears.
"You're coming back to me, love," Sun whispered, his voice unsteady. "You're really on your way back."
"Does that mean you still want me?"
"That's good enough for me, love." They kissed again. "Good enough for now, maybe even good enough forever."
Sun helped Moon sit back up on Shadowdark's back, but kept holding his hand as they travelled on. Before long they approached a crossroads, where one path turned west while the other veered off to the north. The closer they came, the more indecisive the fair rabbit got. Should they go safe or fun? The planned path or a new one? Racked with indecision, he turned to Moon and squeezed his mate's hand.
"What do you think, Moon? Left or right? Home or adventure?" The dark rabbit's only reply was to switch on his flashlight and shine it onto one of the paths ahead. Sun stood up on his toes and kissed his cheek, causing him to giggle. "I think you're right, love. It's good enough for me. For us. Good enough forever."