They had left the sewers under the city and were now far out in the subterranean passages under the Commonlands. Ages ago, huge underground aqueducts served the city of Freeport. Now abandoned and largely forgotten, they provided secret highways for bringing goods and people into and out of the City unseen.
For a while now, they had been passing a section of wall with niches for statues. Most of the niches were empty or the statues vandalised, but occasionally an intact one would emerge from the gloom. Finally, the Xzott stopped at a niche that, to Dustpaw, looked just like all the others.
Looking ahead and behind and straining his ears, the Xzott decided they were probably unobserved. He stood in the niche, just where a small statue about three feet high would have once rested. Grunting in annoyance, he shifted his weight slightly from one foot to the other. Nothing happened... at first... but finally, with a reluctant click, a small panel of cunningly concealed stone gaped and yielded to a tentative push.
The opening was roughly square, barely a foot on a side. Far too small for anything bigger than a Ratonga to squeeze through. Seeing Dustpaw's querying eyebrow, the Xzott pointed to where he had been standing and softly chrred a single word... counterweight. If a Gnome or Halfling stood there, the weight would be wrong and the panel would remain locked. Only an adult Ratonga was the correct weight and size.
Poking his head through the entrance, the Xzott could not hear or smell anything, so he squeezed through.
“Kits first... thens you, Mrs Meerka. Dustpaw, keeps watch fors us, please.”
One after another, the children were passed through, then Meerka, then all their packs and belongings. Only once everything was safely secured again, did the Xzott allow Dustpaw to push his way through.
Glancing one last time into the main tunnel, the Xzott quietly closed the doorway with a faint click. Complicated locks and wards snapped into place, securing the space they were in from unwanted intruders.
Having left the sewers and passages of the Above World safely behind them, they were now in the tunnels of the Ratonga. Smoother. Straighter. Safer.
Pushing them forward again, the Xzott made them march for half an hour before allowing a rest.
With a smile and a twitch of his whiskers, he patted the kits one at a time on the head, also giving Dustpaw a congratulatory pat on the shoulder.
“You haves all dones very well. We haves travelled further than The Xzott expecteds by this time, so we cans relax now. Children... Dustpaw... Lovely Wife, The Xzott is proud ofs you. Well dones!”
As he finished, he gave Meerka a sweet kiss on the cheek before he resumed speaking.
From here on, he explained, the journey would be much safer. The children would be allowed to walk if they desired. They would be allowed to use a light, and there could be talking. These tunnels were close to Meerka's home. They might even meet a few other Ratonga they could talk to.
This was, in fact, the case. Tress was curled up in Meerka's arms asleep, but Zvek was walking with Dustpaw and Squirrley was making good progress herself, tail held by the Xzott's own, when they met their first Ratonga traveller.
Their pace slowed as Meerka met more and more people she recognised. They all insisted on being introduced to the children. Some, who had not met the Xzott received more formal introductions, and then invariably their eyes would turn towards Dustpaw. Not wanting to cause any concern, Meerka simply introduced him as a friend from Freeport who was coming to visit her family, with the promise of stories afterwards once everybody was settled at home.
Home. A bright, messy, cheerful home. It was filled with good scents, sleek furred mischievous kits in various stages of growth, food, and fresh wood.
Leaving the Xzott and Dustpaw outside with their packs for a moment, Meerka swept into the main room with the three children to find her mother. Shrieks of delight and childish giggles erupted as Meerka's younger brothers and sisters spied their new playmates. Soon, all the children were playing, rolling over and over in a bundle of fur, tails and whiskers.
Leaving Meerka to keep an eye on the tumult, Missus Sarrian, her mother emerged from the doorway to greet the Xzott and Dustpaw. Rubbing cheeks with the Xzott she exclaimed how well he looked and how delighted she was to see him again.
“A grandmother! I's a grandmother at last!”
Beaming with pride, she turned at last to Dustpaw who was fidgeting, busying himself with a strap.
“So – yus is Meerka and Mister Xzott's new friend? Dustpaw, yis? My daughter has spoken of yus several times, always with admiration. Be welcome to our home!”
With the quickest of glances at the Xzott, Dustpaw summoned his courage and stepped forwards. Offering his paws, he nodded...
“I's... I am Dustpaw, yes. Thank you for welcoming me to your beautiful home.”
Taking his paws for a moment, she returned the polite greeting, then, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, she swept him into a big hug which caused him to give a small squeak of surprise.
“Enough formalities. I's husband Mister Maliek, I's nest mate, is out working at the moment but will be home later.”
Turning back towards the main door to the dwelling, she called out in a clear voice.
“Dad – come and say hellos to everybody! We have Meerka and the Xzott with their children, and their friend, Mister Dustpaw too! Out! Come and be sociable!”
From one of the side rooms, an old grey-muzzled Ratonga named Cuthy came out slowly, bright eyed, taking in the chaotic scene. He looked at the young ones first, then Mister Dustpaw, nodding at Mister Xzott in passing.
“So, you're Meerka's deep dustpaw friend are you?”
Sharp eyes looked Dustpaw up and down and he sniffed.
“Yous don't look like any dustpaw I've ever seen, and I've set eyes on one or two. What yous do, rob a bank?”
For a moment, Dustpaw's ears flattened in alarm, but he rallied admirably.
“N-no, sir, I's... I didn't, but... I'm working on it!”
“Good! Good! That's what I like to hear.” chuckled Grandad with a twinkle in his eyes. Turning to the Xzott, he continued...
“So, Mister Xzott. I hear you have brought my great-grandchildren to see me, yes? I assume from the noise that they are indoors. Why don't yous come in too and us men can share a pot of tea while the ladies talk about children.”
Taking both the Xzott and Dustpaw by the shoulders, the old Ratonga led them inside to his favourite room.
Later on that evening, Meerka, her mother and the two eldest of the siblings set out a big feast. Since it was a special occasion, there were exotic ingredients from the Above Ground, plus a dish or two that Mister Xzott had prepared in advance and finished off in the kitchen.
Short-legged tables were dragged next to each other and covered with cloths. Everybody sat round on firm cushions since it was an informal gathering. The enormous piles of exotic food brought wide-eyed stares of delight from all the children (and even Mister Dustpaw). Once Meerka's father, Mister Maliek, had spoken a short dedication, the conversation flowed as freely as the food and drink. Her father, normally quiet, said few words, but proved a polite listener as Mister Xzott brought him up to date with surface affairs. He was also interested to hear that Dustpaw had adopted the trade of Woodworker, or Gnawer-of-Wood, as he called it, since this too was his chosen profession.
Little Zvek was proud to be on the Xzott's knee for the meal, and he used the opportunity to make the most of the treats on offer at the table. While Tress sat with Meerka, Squirrley was whispering things to Grandpa who would on occasion tell her in quiet whispers tales of his surface adventures, eliciting delighted giggles from the young ratling.
Dustpaw was attempting to entertain and feed Meerka's littlest brother who was proving quite a wriggler. At one point, Meerka's mother asked if he wanted to pass him over or put him down, but Dustpaw produced a small wooden toy from a pocket which instantly captured the youngster's attention.
Squirrley was humming away when she wasn’t stuffing her face, and a couple of the younger ones tried to keep tune with her. The results weren’t overly wonderful and eventually Missus Sarrian shush’d them all. It was a good meal, ending with fresh cheese.
One by one, the younger kits started yawning, and as they did so Meerka carried them into the sleeping rooms gently. The older kits stayed up, excited by the visitors and their stories and playing with various small gifts that Mister Xzott and Mister Dustpaw had brought.
Meerka's mother asked Dustpaw about his childhood and he haltingly spoke of it, and of the no-fur who had saved him. She clucked in dismay at the story, the outcast kits with no family and no support. She took in his now-shining fur, his obvious kindness and competence. When he had finished telling his story of his escape from the Underfoot and subsequent arrival in Freeport, she looked at her husband and caught his eye. He nodded silently. She then glanced over at Cuthy whose old eyes were shining brightly, laughing at her. He too gave a small nod.
Getting up from her cushions, she went over to Mister Dustpaw. Motioning for him to stand, she hugged him.
“Yus ordeal is overs now, Mister Dustpaw. Now yus have a family all of your owns.”
She kissed his cheeks and continued...
“Would yus likes to be part of our family?”
She held his eyes so that he would know the offer was sincere. Dustpaw looked over at Meerka and the Xzott, who were looking back at him with big beaming grins. He nodded eagerly and in a small, choked voice managed a single word...
Later, Mister Maliek brought pen and paper and wrote out the formal adoption certificate.
The next day, the adults went to the town council. It took some time to arrange, as Mister Dustpaw was, well, indeed a dustpaw, but Meerka’s family stood surety for him and the adoption went though.
Mister Dustpaw might have grown up alone, but he had a family now.