The Mouse Who Went to the Moon
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When times are bad for Peter and his father, the little mouse boy sees no other option than to seek a fabled treasure.
This year, an unusually cold winter gripped the northern regions, covering the lands with a chill so strong it froze even the rivers. Everything turned to stillness, and not many creatures moved about. Months would pass, now, before the sun regained its strength enough to break this deathhold, returning life and abundance to the world. In the meantime, awaiting spring's arrival, life would be hard for people and animals alike.
In a run-down shack, on the outskirts of the little village Trail's End, lived a young mouse boy. His name was Peter, and he was eight years old. Peter's mother had died before he was old enough to remember her, but his father, Erick, took good care of him. Erick was a hunter, and kept himself and his son with food and clothes. He would also sell meat and furs to the villagers, to provide them with money. This autumn, however, Erick fell during a hunt, and broke his leg. Weeks went by before he could hunt again, and what little money they had saved was soon gone.
Peter did his best, catching birds and rabbits with snares he made himself, but it was just barely enough. The two of them went to bed each night with hunger gnawing at their stomachs. Erick was not well enough to hunt before the first winter days had come, and covered the forest in a thick, crusty blanket of snow. Game was scarce, and harder to catch, now that the creaking snow warned the animals of a hunter approaching. Erick would leave before dawn, not returning until the sun set, but still he couldn't find enough game.
Meanwhile, Peter spent his days with his best friend, a rat boy called Thomas who was a year younger than Peter. The two of them had been friends for years, and they would play together whenever they could. Thomas, too, came from a poor family, and couldn't help his friend by giving him food, but he would often help Peter set up or empty his snares. As winter set in, though, there was very little to bring home. They dug for roots, but once there was ground frost, that source for food was cut off, as well.
One night, after finding nothing but empty snares, Peter said good bye to Thomas, and started to walk back home. The young rat had been very upset to see his friend so sad and hungry, and he had given Peter a warm hug before they parted, trying his best to comfort him. There were tears in Peter's eyes as he ran back to his father's house, and as soon as he was inside and had built a fire, he started crying. If only Thomas wasn't so good to him! Peter clenched his empty fists, and as warm tears burned their way down his cheeks his hunger was replaced by a knot of guilt in his stomach.
Next week was Thomas's birthday. The rat boy would be eight years old, and for a few months, they would be age-mates. Only, Peter could not afford to buy his friend a present. Last spring had been a good time, and the two families had for once had money to spend. Thomas had given Peter a beautiful pocket knife for his birthday, and now Peter wanted to give his friend something nice in return.
"If only I could snare enough rabbits to sell," he sighed to himself, as he warmed his hands in front of the fireplace. "I so wish I could buy him that almanac he liked."
It was in the town's bookstore, that Thomas had seen the almanac, a pretty thing that counted the days of the year, with a new picture for each month. This one had beautifully painted pictures of horses. Peter smiled to himself in spite of his tears, as he remembered how awed his friend had been, looking at those pictures. It cost only a quarter-marker, money that Peter could have earned by selling a half-dozen rabbits at the market. But the winter was merciless, and the rabbits had burrowed deep, refusing to walk into his snares. The few he did manage to catch went to feed himself and his father, their fur to patch up torn winter clothes.
True, there were times when Peter felt very tempted to take one of the sparse coins they kept in a glass jar by the fireplace, but he never did. 'Father will not starve because of me,' he thought. At the same time, another thought entered his mind. He could see for his inner eye how Thomas, on his birthday, would smile at him. How he would hug Peter, and kiss his twitching nose, saying that presents meant nothing, as long as they were the best of friends. Peter could feel his cheeks burn with shame, and he willed himself to stop crying. That was something a baby would do, not him!
"I only wish I knew what to do," he muttered. "Even if I did earn some money, I couldn't use it to buy a worthless almanac!"
Only, it wouldn't be worthless. To Thomas, it would be a treasure, just like Peter's pocket knife was to him. Peter felt that he would do just about anything to get to see the smile that would light up his friend's face. But until the game returned, and the winter moved on, there couldn't be any money to spare. He wiped his cheeks, laying his face fur straight before putting another log on the fire. There had to be something he could do.
That night, Erick returned empty-handed, with noting but a sad smile to give his son. Using another half-marker coin from the near-empty jar, they were able to get some bread and cheese, but it still left them hungry. With little else to do, they went to bed. This time of the year, the bedrooms were too cold to use, so father and son shared a couple of fur blankets in front of the fireplace, borrowing warmth and comfort from each other.
As Erick fell asleep, Peter lay awake, comfortable on his father's out-stretched arm. He kept on thinking until well after midnight, unsure of what to do, unable to make up his mind. One thing was certain, though. As he reached up with his hand to stroke his sleeping father's face, one thought shone brightly in his mind. 'You will not starve!' He knew that Erick tried to trick him by splitting their food in half, when his larger body really needed more than Peter's tiny one. Occasionally, he would protest, but his father wouldn't hear of it. What they had would be shared equally. As Peter lay there thinking, Erick moved in his sleep, cradling his son closer, as if he could feel his distress.
"It'll be better, my son," he murmured, still asleep. "It'll all be better soon."
"I love you, father," Peter said, fighting back new tears. "I love you so much."
"...love you, too..."
Then and there, Peter made his decision. He gently eased his way out of his father's embrace, kissing the elder mouse's cheek before he put on his clothes. Peter took on his winter jacket, a pair of thick leather breeches, and his warmest boots. After pulling on a cap, he stuck his hands into a pair of soft gloves, then he felt ready. He opened the front door and hurried out, closing it before too much heat escaped, then he turned away from the house and started walking.
It was a clear night. Stars bathed the forest in a cold, bluish light, making it easy to see where he was going even though the moon wasn't up yet. Peter took a roundabout path, that made him pass right by Thomas's house. He sneaked up to a window, and could see his friend lying in the middle of a heap of fur; his parents, brothers and sisters, all snuggled up to each other for warmth. Taking a good look at Thomas's grey-brown fur, his lean face and his short, dark brown hair, Peter waved to the sleeping boy, then turned to leave.
As he reached the main country road, he turned north, not really knowing how he would get where he was going. The old stories were with him, all telling the same thing; of a treasure that was there for the taking, that was freely shared with everyone who could find it. Peter felt as if there was a song in his heart, an ageless, wordless tune that urged him on, told him what he needed to do. At the same time, the song gave him comfort, filled his chest with warmth and reassurance. To the east, he saw the full moon rise slowly, a yellow orb promising both hope and fear. It really did shine like the gold it was supposed to be. A part of his mind told Peter that he should go towards the moon, to greet it, but the song inside him somehow let him know that he had to keep on going north.
Mile after mile passed by his feet as he walked, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the rising moon. As it reached its highest point, Peter stopped to rest. He was tired, but not sleepy, so he sat down beneath a snow-covered fir tree, listening to the humming melody in his heart. 'I know what you are,' he thought. 'You are magic. The old powers from the past, the magic the stories tell us about.' Peter remembered what he had learned in school, about how magic had once run like blood through every living thing on Haven, from the highest king to the tiniest flower. He thought he could sense some of this now, as if it had come back to life, to help him in his need.
The tune changed in pitch, and Peter knew this was a sign, telling him that he was right. Strengthened by this knowledge, he got to his feet again, and started walking faster than before. If those old stories were true, then maybe the stories about the golden moon were true, as well. Slowly, the night reached its end, making way for a new dawn. Peter felt a surge of fear passing through him. The moon stood at the western horizon, ready to set as the sun would soon rise in the east. Where would he go when the moon wasn't shining? How could he search for a way there, then? But the song changed again, gently telling him to keep going, not to lose his hope. Before dawn turned into morning, Peter crept into an abandoned barn he found, just beside the road. There, he slept for a couple of hours, protected from the cold. When he woke up, the sun had risen, and when he got out of the barn he welcomed its warming rays.
All day he walked, only stopping for the briefest of rests. Hunger gnawed at him, but he refused to think about it. His mind was filled only with the encouraging song, as well as images of his father and of Thomas. By now, they would be worried about him, he knew. Maybe they would even think that he was dead, and grieve for him. The thought brought tears to his eyes, but he blinked them away before they could fall.
"It will be worth it," he said to himself. "When I come back, everything will be all right again."
After midday, Peter left the forest behind him, reaching a landscape of vast moors, here and there interrupted by small patches of forest. The land was bestrewn with rocks, boulders of all sizes, from those the size of Peter's head to others looking half like mountains. Peter had never seen this part of Haven before, being too young to have gone on longer journeys, and he stood in awe as the road reached the top of a hill. His mouth agape, he took in the sight. He could see for miles; the boulders he had seen in dozens could now be counted in thousands. It was as if a mountain had shattered here, and no one had bothered to pick up the pieces.
Nobody lived here; as Peter walked on, he could see a house every now and then, but they all seemed empty, abandoned and left to fall apart with age. Suddenly, walking felt slow. It took him hours to reach the edge of the landscape he had seen from the hilltop, and the horizon always seemed impossibly distant. Time started to lose its importance to Peter. First, it seemed as if the sun was ever so slow as it worked its way across the sky, then all of a sudden it began setting, and before Peter knew it darkness had fallen, and the moon was rising once more. Just when the moon, the goal for his quest, parted with the horizon and started its sky-dance, Peter reached a crossroads. The road forked into two, one going west heading for the coastal village of Waterfront, the other going southeast, eventually reaching Westtown, one of the largest towns on Haven. Unable to decide where to go, knowing that the song asked him to keep going north, Peter sat down beneath the roadsign. He still didn't feel tired, but once he felt comfortable, he fell asleep.
The song was there with him, in his dream. It was still voiceless, faceless, and it scared him a bit that he couldn't see who was singing. 'Don't be afraid', it seemed to say, even though he couldn't hear any words. 'Trust in yourself, and everything will be well'.
"Where are you?" Peter's dream-self asked. "Why are you helping me?"
"I am nothing," a soft voice said, startling Peter. It was the first time he had made out a single voice inside the song. "And I am everything."
"I don't understand."
"I have no body, no face. Yet, I am alive. Within everything, I live, but I am nothing."
"If you're nothing, then how can you talk to me?" Peter felt tears of frustration well up in his eyes. "Are you magic?"
"Yesssss!" The voice sounded happy, pleased with his question. "You do understand. It takes much strength to hear my voice. I am surprised someone as young as you can do it. Why do you seek the moon?"
"The stories say there is a palace on the moon. A place filled with treasures."
"Why do you seek the treasure?"
"So that my father and I won't have to starve." Peter was crying now, not caring if anybody could see him, or what they would think about him. "The winter is so harsh, and soon we'll have nothing more to eat."
"You have a kind heart, my boy," the voice said. "Of course, I have always known that."
"You have? How?" The voice didn't answer, so Peter thought for a while. "You live inside everything, that means me too."
"Yes. You do understand. Peter, you have trusted me this far, but you need to go further. I know where everything on Haven is, and the one whose help you need is further north. But you need to hurry, to see him."
"Is he going away?"
"Yes. In a way. I do not like it when they fade. I get more lonely then. New ones come, but I miss the old ones."
"Is he dying?"
"Yes. You do understand. It's time for you to wake up, Peter, your body is getting weak and cold. I don't want you to fade, as well."
"Wait!" Peter shouted as he began to wake up. "Did you know my mother?"
"What was she like?"
"She was kind, like you. Even though she never heard my voice, I grieved when she faded."
"Will I talk to you again?"
"Maybe. In your dreams, maybe."
With a start, Peter sat up. His heart was beating fast, and he was panting for air. The night was very cold, and his limbs seemed unwilling to move. 'The voice is right', he thought, remembering his dream. 'I have to move on, or I'll freeze to death'. Gritting his teeth, he set off, leaving the road behind him to plod through the snow. In the deep places, it nearly reached his waist, and walking was slow. Peter found himself wishing he had a riding horse, or a pair of skis. Anything, that would let him move faster. When he stopped to rest, he turned his eyes to the moon, squinting to see if he could make out the palace. All to no avail. He could see the seas and the fields that he knew, the ones his father had shown him and told him what they were. But no palace. 'Maybe it's too small', he thought. 'Like our house can't be seen from the foot of the mountains'. If the palace stood on the shore of one of the seas, he decided, it might be hard to spot. He wished he had brought his father's lens tube, so he could have taken a closer look. Shaking his head to clear his mind, Peter started walking again. The song within him was still there, even though it no longer spoke to him. But it brought him comfort as he grew more and more tired.
When the moon was at its highest, Peter reached a large patch of forest. Beneath the canopy of trees there was less snow, but it was also more difficult to see the Pole Star, the one star that stayed still, and around which the other stars would dance. The one star that always stood to the north, and towards which he knew he had to go. Several times, he nearly went astray, losing his way in the near-darkness among the trees. Where moonlight shone through to the ground, shadows played, and it seemed to Peter as if invisible figures moved about just out of sight. Sometimes, the sounds and voices of the night creatures would reach his ears, and soon he was shivering as much from fear as from the cold. Far away a wolf sang its eerie serenade to the full moon, and from all around him, answers came; a choir, beautiful and deadly. A promise of the indifferent violence of nature. Somewhere in front of him Peter saw, for a brief moment, how the filtered moonlight glimmered in a yellow eye, and caught its gleam in a white, pointy fang.
"I'm a hunter, like you," Peter whispered, repeating the words his father had taught him. "We are kin, you and I, so let me pass, unharmed. I'm a hunter, like you, so let me go."
A deep growl answered him, and he thought he saw a hint of grey fur pass by on his left side. Other voices joined in, as if they couldn't decide what to do with him. The words should keep him safe, or so he'd been taught. Then he realised what was wrong, and he found his voice again.
"I know the winter is hard on you, my brothers." Despite his fear, Peter managed to keep his voice from quavering. "But I'm very little, and not much to eat. And we are kin, hunters all of us. I must go on, or others will starve."
A huge grey wolf stepped out of the shadows, slowly walking towards Peter. At arm's length it stopped, sniffing him carefully. Peter knew that he wasn't to talk, and he mustered all his courage to keep from fleeing. Minutes passed, and he could feel the warm breath of the predator as its muzzle ran along his body. In the end, however, the wolf pulled away, turning back whence it had come. Peter knew that he had passed the test, and that he was allowed to continue on his journey.
"Thank you, brother," he whispered, waving into the black. "Thank you so much."
Only a grim silence answered him, but he thought he could hear the soft sound of paws against the crust, as the wolfpack passed him by. For a moment, he stood there, wondering whether they had really spared a fellow hunter, or if he had just been too small to bother eating. Casting these thoughts aside, he set off again, pushing his tired body onwards.
As Peter grew ever more tired, the night slowly ended, giving way to a new dawn. The sun gently pushed the stars aside and took its place as ruler of the sky. Peter slept for a couple of hours, then started moving again. His legs ached, and his back was bent as if he were carrying something heavy. He could feel his strength leaving him, for every minute that passed. Soon, he would not be able to go on. Was he to die there? When spring came, would someone find a tiny mouse boy sleeping peacefully beneath the snow? He pushed such ominous thoughts aside, concentrating on moving his feet forward. Suddenly, the deep snow gave way to a road. It was little more than a path, but still it made for much easier walking. Peter was now way beyond any places he knew, and had no idea where this road came from, or where it led. He didn't care. It was all he could do to keep from leaping and dancing as he hurriedly made his way further north. Inside him, he could still hear the wordless music, urging him on.
The sun leapt across the sky, and soon it began to darken again. Already, it was deathly cold, and Peter knew without any doubt that the night would be the coldest since he set out, maybe the coldest of the entire winter. Afraid to stop, he kept looking in among the trees, searching for a place where he might take shelter. He had gone without food for two full days now, and he feared that he wouldn't survive another night in the open.
There was nothing.
Whatever landscape this was, there wasn't anyone living here. Every breath Peter took burned in his lungs, every exhale formed a smoky haze around his head, the moisture freezing the skin on his face. Just as he thought it could get no colder, he was out of the forest, another vast field stretching before him. It looked eerie in the moonlight. Every shadow seemed to have its own shadows, and every rock, every bush seemed to hide something foul within or behind it. Swallowing, Peter pushed back his fear and started walking again. The song still told him he was going in the right direction, and since the road was still relatively free from snow, he kept his pace up as much as he could. There was a wind blowing across the field. A chilly, almost arctic wind that blew straight through his clothes, making him shiver. Surely, this was as cold as it could ever get? A cold where even ice froze, where even the stars shuddered.
Still, Peter fought on, running and jumping occasionally to try and stay warm enough for his little heart to keep beating. Hours passed, with only the slow dance of the stars and the moon's march across the sky to tell him that time, at least, hadn't frozen. Behind him, he heard a wolf cry out, and he wondered if that was one from the pack that had spared him, or if he would have to face that danger again. But the cry was never repeated, and silence fell once more. Peter could hear his own breath, and his own heart beating inside his chest, but beyond that, nothing. There should be sounds there; the world was never quiet, not even during the darkest night. In the light of the full moon, hunters should be heard; wolves and foxes stalking their prey, racoons catching fish in the rivers and lakes, owl hunting for fieldmice and rats. But there was nothing. This scared Peter, and he hurried up his steps until, suddenly, the song inside his head stopped.
One second it was there, encouraging him, urging him on. The next, gone. Terrified, Peter looked around. He was in the middle of nowhere, and there was not a single living thing in sight. Had he taken a wrong turn? His thoughts were rushing, and a part of his mind told him to let go, to give it all up. To lie down and sleep, to find his peace. Then a hand landed on his shoulder, making him scream with fright. Trying to escape, he slipped on the snow, and fell. He turned around, only to stare into the dark eyes of a bear. Not a wild animal, Peter noticed, but a bear person. He was dressed in warm winter clothes, boots and a cap, and he smiled sadly as he looked at Peter.
"Little one, why are you out in this cold?" His voice was soft and friendly, and Peter managed to relax a little. "Shouldn't you be home by a nice, warm fire."
"I can't..." Peter's voice caught, and he had to cough before he could go on. "I can't. My father and I are starving, and I need to... to find something to eat."
"My boy, there is nothing. The land is dead, struck down by the harsh winter. You would do best to endure. If anything is certain, it is that spring will come." The bear reached out and helped Peter to stand up. "My name is Pran."
"I-I'm Peter. I was... I was looking for someone..."
"Well, you found me. I'm not much to look at, and I won't be around for much longer, but still, I'm here."
"I don't know..." Peter hesitated, not knowing how much he dared to tell this stranger. "I don't know who I'm looking for. There was... a voice..."
"Inside your head. The magic spoke to me, too. Told me that you would come."
"Then you are the one? The one the voice told me about? It said you were fading..."
"Yes, Peter. I'm old, and my time is up. I wanted to die out here, beneath the sky. It's a privilege, my boy, to choose how and when and where you go."
"Can you help me? The voice said you could."
"I don't know, Peter." Pran sat down, leaning his back against a small rock. "What is it that you want?"
"I want to... I mean, when I left home, I thought I'd..."
"Don't be afraid, my little one. Ask me. The worst thing that could happen is that I can't help you. I won't mock you, I promise."
"I wanted to go to the moon. The old stories tell of its treasures." Peter sat down, too, facing the old bear. Tears were running down his cheeks, freezing into his face fur. "All I want is enough to keep my father and me alive through the winter. He was hurt, and couldn't hunt, and all the time, we..."
"Ssch, don't cry, little mouse." Pran reached out to hug Peter to him, and the young boy melted into the warm embrace, crying softly. "The magic has led you right, Peter. I am one of the last of my kind. One of the last to wield the old powers."
"Haven was once a magical world. In everything was a... power, a strength beyond anything that exists today. But that was in our world's youth. These days, the magic is fading."
"Will Haven... die?"
"No, boy, not die. But stagnate. Cease to change. Haven will live on, like all the creatures on it. But the magic will fade. The wonders. All of that will fade into memory, into children's tales. And eventually, no one will ever know that magic existed here."
"That's so sad. Can't it be stopped?"
"No. What you seek is the Moon Palace. Maybe you will learn more there."
"So you can help me?"
"Yes, my boy. I will help you, because you have given me hope. A little hope before dying. Maybe the end of magic isn't here yet, if the world's young can still hear the call. Stand up, Peter."
Peter got to his feet, a bit shaky at the knees, then went to stand in the middle of the road, as Pran indicated. The old bear took off his cap and his coat, standing bare-chested before the young mouse. Peter shivered at the sight. How cold he must be.
"The magic will warm me up, little one. And after that, I won't need warmth."
"Will you really die, Pran? I wish you could've been my friend."
"I am your friend. You will remember me, and I thank you for that. Now, close your eyes and prepare your mind. The journey always hurts."
"Hush, now. Don't open your eyes or your mouth again until you feel rock beneath your feet. Tell the Guardian that I still think of him. Think of him most fondly."
Suddenly, Peter felt a warmth surround him. From beneath his squeezed-shut eyelids, he could make out a strong glow around him, a glow that grew stronger as he felt a strong wind against his face. Still, he didn't dare to try and look, but steeled himself to meet the pain that Pran spoke about. Then it was there. Like sharp blades piercing his skin, like the teeth of some predator breaking his bones. He would have cried out, but he remembered not to open his mouth. The heat was replaced by an utter cold, that seemed to freeze him throughout in a mere second. There was a roar in his ears, and his heart beat so fast he couldn't tell one beat from the next. Then, just as he thought the pain would kill him, it stopped. Everything went quiet, and Peter couldn't help but lose his balance and fall over. The ground was hard, and he quickly took off his glove. Beneath him, he felt rock! Slowly, shivering with fear, Peter opened his eyes.
He lay in a huge hallway, made from some bright sandstone. Here and there along the walls sat lit torches. Peter got to his feet and hurried over to one, warming his cold hands by the flame. As life and warmth returned to his body, he started walking down the hall. There were no doors, and he begun to feel restless. Was this the Moon Palace? Had he really made it? He kept on walking, straining his ears to see if he could hear anything. But there was nothing. It was as quiet as it had been out on the open field, where he had met Pran. Thinking about the old bear almost brought tears to Peter's eyes. Was he dead now? Resting quietly in the snow? The thought that Pran had been at ease with his approaching death gave Peter some comfort.
The hallway went on, seemingly forever, but after he had been walking for what seemed like hours Peter reached a place where the corridor widened. A bright light came from somewhere ahead of him, and he sped up his pace, almost running towards the light. Suddenly, he burst into a great chamber, a huge room, the ceiling high enough to house even the tallest trees in the forest back home. Spread around the chamber were chests and caskets, some locked, others open. In them, underneath them, between them and on top of them lay coins and jewels, and bars of silver and gold, almost carelessly strewn out. Peter's jaw dropped as he looked around, trying to comprehend the vastness of the treasure he had stumbled upon. Touching a gold bar, he found that he could barely even budge it. Next he wrapped his fingers around a beautiful pearl necklace, wondering how he would look wearing it. He giggled at the thought of hanging it around Thomas's neck. There was so much, so many precious stones he didn't even know what they were, so many coins, rings, bracelets and crowns made from gold and silver that Peter felt his head turn light, as if he were about to faint.
"Calm down, mouse-boy," he told himself, surprised to find that his voice did not make an echo. "Don't get greedy. All this belongs to someone."
Bending down, he picked up a handful of coins, letting them seep through his fingers. For a second, he had held money enough to keep himself and his father fed for life. Steeling himself against the temptation of the gold, he searched for, and found five large silver coins. Fifty markers worth. That would see them through to spring, even if it were late, and after that they could manage on their own.
Then something else caught his eye, something that didn't shine like the rest of the treasure, and Peter's eyes immediately filled with tears. It was a quarter-marker; a matted, lustre-less copper coin that seemed so out of place among all the precious metals and jewels. To Peter, though, it was a wondrous find. His fingers trembled as he picked it up, then kissed it.
"Will... will you help me make a very special boy happy?" Peter whispered to the little coin, his tears now flowing freely down his cheeks. "It won't be in vain, I promise you."
He put the copper coin in his pocket with the silver ones, then he looked around the chamber, spotting a doorway directly opposite the one he'd come in through. Smiling happily to himself, despite his tears, Peter left the treasure chamber. Now all he had to do was find a way back home. And if he could, he wanted to bring Pran's greeting to the Moon Palace's Guardian.
The Palace seemed enormous. Every time Peter reached the end of a new chamber, thinking he had found the outer walls, all he could see was more corridors. Eventually, he got lost, and he wouldn't have found his way back to the treasure chamber had he wanted to. He licked his lips, hungry and thirsty, and slowly he began to get anxious. Had he got this far only to be trapped in the Palace forever? No, he decided, gritting his teeth, there had to be someone there. Someone who could help him get back home. Surely Pran wouldn't have sent him to his death?
Hours passed, and Peter's mood dropped steadily. He felt himself on the verge of tears, but he squeezed the coins in his pocket, smiling to himself as he walked down some new corridor. Then it dawned on him; he was being watched. Just as when he had met the wolves, he felt eyes upon him. Eyes that watched, that tried to figure him out. Still, no matter how carefully he scrutinised every corner of the corridor, he could see nobody. Was he going crazy? Maybe he was lying in a drift of snow somewhere, awaiting his death, and this was just a fever dream. The thought sent shudders down his spine, and he touched the coins again. They seemed so real. As his fear built, his feet led him into another chamber, but this one was different than the previous ones. Clearly, it was a dining hall, and Peter heard his stomach growl, his hands shivering with anticipation. Could there be something to eat? To his disappointment, however, all the tables were empty, but candles were lit upon them. Candles that hadn't burned far. Were they avoiding him? Putting his fears aside, he cleared his throat, then spoke.
"Is anybody there? Please, I'm not dangerous, I just want to go home. Can you help me?"
"Yes, I can help you, little one." The soft voice made Peter jump, and he felt his heart beating faster within his chest. "Don't be afraid, Peter Erickson, you are in no danger."
"D-do you... do you know me?"
"Yes." At the far end of the dining hall, a tall, thin figure had appeared, walking slowly towards Peter. "I know you. The magic told me about you."
"C-can you help me get home?"
"Maybe. I would like to talk to you, Peter. What you have done is brave, but not without consequences. Seeking the moon in these days is a quest for the noblest hearts."
"Where is everybody?" Peter asked. "It looks like the tables are set up for dinner."
"They are. If not for you, this room would be crowded, but they are... hesitant."
"Why? Surely they could see that I'm harmless?" Peter smiled weakly. "Even if I wanted to, I can't hurt anyone."
"You felt them watching you?" The figure had stopped a couple of metres away. He was wearing a footside yellow robe with a hood pulled over his head. Peter could see nothing of the man's face. "You are indeed sensitive, Peter. Come with me, and we'll talk. No reason to keep them from their meal."
"Who are they?"
"The Moon People." The man put his arm around Peter's thin shoulders, and led him out of the dining hall. "Descendants of the sorcerers who abandoned Haven long ago, to live here."
"Why are they afraid?"
"Millennia have passed, little mouse. They have... changed. They would probably scare you as much as you scare them. Time does that. Time and... seclusion."
"I don't understand."
"It matters little. Do you know me, Peter?"
"You are the Guardian." The man nodded. "Pran asked me to bring you his last greeting. He said... he said he thought of you fondly."
"Thank you." There was a quaver in the calm voice. "Pran was a very dear friend, and his death will have great implications on our lives here."
"What do you mean?"
"He was the last with enough power to send someone here. Haven is truly cut off from us now."
"Then...?" Peter could barely finish the question, as his heart was suddenly gripped by fear. "Then... what about me?"
"Don't worry, little one, I can still send you home. But nobody will come to see us again."
"Oh. Where are we going?"
The Observatory was a circle-shaped room, with a high domed ceiling. The Guardian led Peter to the centre of the room, then left him there while he walked over to the wall. There was a loud, groaning sound, and Peter gasped when the ceiling started to swing aside. His jaw dropped as he looked up at a night-black sky, lit only by a couple of bleak start and a huge, green-blue orb. It looked like the moon, only more than twice its size, and it shone so beautifully that Peter had to fight to regain his breath.
"That is Haven," the Guardian said, as he rejoined the boy. "She is pretty, isn't she?"
"Yes," Peter whispered, as if too loud a noise would drive the vision away. "Can you send me there?"
"Yes, but we have to talk about a few things before you go. The coins..."
"They are yours..." Peter reached into his pocket and pulled out the six coins he had taken. The Guardian looked at them, then
turned to face Peter. "I didn't mean to steal them. I thought no one lived here."
"I know you did, my friend, and I'm not accusing you. Don't be afraid." He pulled back his hood, revealing a face that, while young-looking, somehow seemed ancient to Peter. The Guardian was a horse, his brown-furred face friendly and wise. "But are these all you took?"
"Yes." Peter hung his head in shame. "I didn't mean to steal, I just... I just took what my father and I would need to survive."
"You truly do have a noble heart, my child." The Guardian was quiet for a while, and when Peter looked up, he saw tears on the other's cheeks. "So young, and so noble. What about the copper coin?"
"It's..." Peter hesitated, but decided to be honest. "It's for me. I wanted so badly to get my best friend a present for his birthday."
"So much true love, in such a young heart. It is your choice, my friend, to keep them or not. But know that all the coins, all the jewels, all the treasure in the chambers, are special to us. You see, even after we left Haven, to flee from the decline of magic, the people still wanted our help, our blessings. They gave sacrifice. Each of these coins is such a sacrifice. Look at that beautiful world above us." Peter turned his head to gaze at his homeworld, suddenly gripped by a desperate longing for his father and his friend. "The gold in itself means nothing to us, but the sacrifice does. You can take them if you want to, I won't stop you, but even the copper coin meant so much more than money to the one who gave it away."
"Gifts..." Peter looked at the tiny pile of metal in his hand. "I can't take them. Gifts can't be given away again. Even if you do offer me to take them, I can't."
"Are you certain?" The Guardian bent down to look Peter in the eyes. "Many who have come here have left with as much treasure as they could carry, thinking naught of those who made the sacrifice. You and your father could eat well for the remaining winter, and your friend could have a happy birthday."
"We'll manage." Peter's voice was thin. "And Thomas loves me, no matter what. I can't take it, Guardian, I just can't."
"Very well. You have a heart larger than your chest, Peter. It has been a pleasure to meet you. The magic did right to send you here." He held out his hand, and Peter placed the coins in it. The Guardian smiled. "Now we will see you safely home. What do you offer in return?"
"Yes. Like you saw in the treasure chamber, every wish requires a sacrifice."
"Then... then I could wish for food? For something to get us by?"
"Yes, you could. This copper coin was given to me by an old woman who wished, before she died, to see her only grandchild one more time. It was all she had to give, and I granted her wish."
"All I have is my pocket knife," Peter said, his eyes sad as he thought about Thomas. "It was a gift from my dearest ever friend."
"I thought you said gifts could not be given away again."
"It's all I have! Please!" Peter grabbed the Guardian's robe, looking up at him with pleading eyes. "Just so we'll survive until spring."
"I could help you, but then what would you give for your journey home?"
"My journey home? I don't understand."
"Every wish granted requires a sacrifice. If I take your knife and help your father's hunt to be successful, then what could you offer to get back home?"
"I would have nothing..." Peter felt tears sting his eyes. He felt so utterly defeated. "C-can I stay here?"
"No. The food and water here is not suitable for you. Within days, you would die. I'm sorry, my friend, but I cannot do more for you."
"I understand." He gave the knife to the Guardian, who accepted it. "Please, take me home."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes. We'll manage. Just tell me one thing."
"What is that, my friend?"
"Why did you leave Haven? Why live here, on the moon?"
"Like I said, to avoid the decline of magic. If we had stayed, we would have lost our powers, lost our magical heritage. Here, we are strong. Haven is no place for magic, and in time, even the tales of us will fade. Even while we still live on."
"I understand. Thank you for everything you've showed me, for telling me all this."
"It's been a pleasure. Unlike the others, I will miss your kind, Peter. You always surprise me, when I least expect it." He dropped to his knees and gave Peter a hug. "Now, close your eyes and get ready."
Peter obeyed, feeling the strong arms leave him. For a couple of seconds, the Observatory was completely quiet, then he started to glow again, feeling a wave of heat surround him. A stab of pain hit him, and he bit his lip to keep from screaming out. A dreadful cold replaced the heat, as the pain kept howling inside his mind. Then it all stopped, and Peter fell to the ground. He could feel the snow beneath him, and he knew he had to get up. But he couldn't. Too weak from days without food, he collapsed. He opened his eyes, seeing forest around him, lit by moonlight. In the distance, he could make out his own house, but he was too weak to call for help. He didn't even feel the cold as he laid his head down, and slept.
He could vaguely remember firm arms gripping him, lifting him off the ground. Peter slept. There was warmth all around him now, and a strong smell hit his nostrils. He slept. Everywhere, there were voices, some concerned, some comforting, some crying. Still, he slept. It felt like days passed, until he finally opened his eyes again. Something furry stirred beside him, and suddenly a pair of teary brown eyes met his. Yelping with joy, Thomas tossed himself around Peter's shoulders, sobbing and shouting at the same time.
"Uncle Erick! Uncle Erick, he's awake!"
That was as far as Peter got, before the two boys were swept off the bed, and into his fathers arms. Erick squeezed him so tightly Peter had trouble breathing, but he didn't care. He returned the hug as hard as he could, while tears started running down his cheeks. Tears of joy, but also tears of shame. After all, he had failed. All his efforts, and nothing to show for it.
"My son, I'm so happy to see you." Erick voice was hoarse. "I have been so... We all thought..."
"We thought you would never come back to us," Thomas whispered. "I'm so glad you did."
"What day is it?" Peter asked.
"Fourthday," Thomas said. "You've slept for two days."
"Fourthday? But then today's your..."
"Yes. But lie down now, Peter, you still need to rest. I'll go and heat you some broth."
"Dad..." Peter started, but new fits of sobs interrupted him. His father leaned back, catching his gaze. "Dad, I tried to get some... get some help. But I failed. I just couldn't..."
"Ssch, it's all right, my brave boy. I know what you did, and what happened."
"But how...?" Peter's mouth fell open. "The magic..."
"No magic, my son, but you talked in your sleep. You've had quite an adventure."
"Then you believe it all? Even when it happened, it seemed so unreal."
"I believe you, son. I know the magic is real, and stranger things have happened. I just wish you'd told me before you left. We've been so worried."
"I'm sorry, dad. But you wouldn't have let me go."
"Maybe not. Thomas has been by your side ever since we found you outside, in the snow. He's such a loyal friend."
"I love him so much." New tears started running down his cheeks. "I so wanted to get him a present..."
"You already did." The rat-boy sat down on the bed with a steaming mug of broth in his hands. He kissed Peter's twitching nose. "You silly mouse, you gave me something even better than gold, you gave me my dearest friend back. That's worth the world and the moon."
"Thank you, Thomas." He sat up, letting his friend spoon-feed him. "I knew you'd say that, but I still..."
"Hush, now. Just eat and get better, and everything will be fine. It's all right, you see."
"I felled two deer, Peter," Erick said, pride making his eyes glimmer. "We're set up for weeks. And besides, the cold seems to be wearing off."
"But the Guardian... He said he couldn't help..."
"He didn't. That was days before you came back to us. We'll manage on our own, Peter."
"Oh dad, I'm so sorry I doubted that!" Peter hugged his father. "Please forgive me for not trusting you!"
"Of course I do. I'm proud of you, son. You've been so brave, so unselfish."
"Yeah," Thomas giggled. "Wait until I tell my brothers and sisters I bought a knife that went to the moon."
"I had to leave it, Thomas, to get home."
"I know. You pretty much told us the whole story while you slept. It doesn't matter, Peter. When summer comes, I'll get you a new one."
"But if you lose that one, too, I'll spank you."
"Here, Peter," Erick said, reaching over to the bedside table. He handed his son a small leather pouch. "Take care of it."
"What is it?" Peter sniffed the pouch. "Smells like..."
"The moon. I gathered it up when I brushed off your clothes. It's moondust. If you ever think it was just a dream..."
"I won't. I know the Guardian is still up there. Maybe he will be in a thousand years, too. Long after he's forgotten."
"Drink your broth now," Thomas said, half scolding his friend. "I want you to grow strong again, so we can set up new snares."
"Yes, mother dear." They all laughed, then Erick left the two boys to go and prepare their dinner. Peter made Thomas put the mug down, then hugged him tightly. "Happy birthday my friend. My best, dearest ever friend."
"Thank you, Peter. Thank you so much. Say, I've got a new name for you. Peter Moonfarer. How's that?"
"Terrible, but I'll live. Now feed me, I'm hungry."
Thomas helped Peter finish the mug, and then they all had dinner together. Feeling full and warm, Peter went to bed that night, with Thomas by his side. The young rat quickly fell asleep, but Peter lay awake for a while, thinking as he watched the rising moon through the window. 'Did you really help us?' he wanted to ask the Guardian. 'Or did we really manage on our own? Is that why you wouldn't help us, so we'd realise we didn't need help? What was your plan?' Sighing, he realised that he would never know the answer to his question. Then a cloud passed the moon, covering it just for a couple of seconds. To Peter it looked like a wink. All he could do was laugh quietly, trying his best not to wake Thomas up. Waving to the moon, he snuggled up to his friend, putting his arm around Thomas's shoulder. Smiling to himself, his curiosity sated, Peter fell asleep.
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