Ruth does not scrabble. Rowan, therefore, blinks, and heads that way.
Ursa Diner's kitchen is small and neat, filled with the yeasty odor of rising bread and the clean scent of very fresh fish. The ancient stove is chipped and cracked, but clean. Bottles and jars full of dried herbs and berries line the shelves over the old two-sided metal sink; more herbs dry over the stove, clothespinned to strings tacked to the cabinets. Baskets in and under the sink hold wild roots, greens, and fruits, mostly collected less than 24 hours ago. A small shelf holds notebooks full of Sashenka's hand-written recipes. Seashell wind chimes hang before the slightly open window, tinkling merrily in the breeze.
Rowan pushes open the heavy door and steps in.
Proportioned like a chunky five-year-old boy, this child is only the size of a three-year-old. He has brown hair cut very short so that it is nothing more than a velvet fur over his head. His very slightly pointed ears have little tufts of the same fur at the tips, and his lithe tail is similarly furred. His complexion is the perfect, even pale brown of an eggshell, from which his solid black eyes shine like negative stars.
He is clothed entirely in what seems to be a random collection of soft materials, predominantly white cotton fluff. Wound in amongst the fluff are snarls of thread, snippets of unravelling ribbons, scraps of a dark green fabric, wood shavings, downy feathers, and what might be a narrow strip torn from a black-and-white photograph.
The last time Rowan was in the kitchen - less than an hour ago, it was, to get some tea - the room was its usual tidy self. In that short time, a complete transformation has occurred. Cupboards hang open and food litters the floor. Flour is sprinkled around, bread and crackers are heaped in piles, along with dried beans and peas, cereals, roots, rice, barley, and wheat. A close inspection would reveal that little of the food was damaged beyond salvage, but the mess is startling, to say the least. In the middle of this chaos crouches a small child, clothed in a jumble of cotton, string, and other oddments. Both hands are full of dried corn kernels, and from the rounding of his cheeks, his mouth is full as well.
From afar, Rowan can't help it; this is Rowan. Does he smell of corrupter?
Long distance to Rowan: Mouse Boy grins. "Why no, no he doesn't."
Rowan stares at the boy, once he enters fully into the kitchen. There /are/ no boys like this in the area. Then his mouth snaps shut, and he crouches down. "Hey, kid," he says, softly.
The child's head whips around, and he squeaks with alarm. In a single hop, he is crouching on the edge of a counter, nearly twice his own height from the ground. He clutches at the edge to keep his balance, scattering corn kernels below him, and stares at Rowan with enormous, frightened black eyes.
Rowan's eyes follow this. Well. Ok. "Hey," he repeats softly, and doesn't move further.
The boy hastily crams the last of the corn in his hand into his mouth and chews a few times, the crunching surprisingly loud. His tail twitches and curls around him, and he gathers it into his hands, now that he has his balance. "Hey?" he repeats, turning his head slightly to one side.
Rowan seems unduly fixated on the tail. But he wrenches his attention from it to look at the boy's face. It's a moment before he can continue. Hi, even. You find all the good stuff? There's some cake in the back."
Mouse Boy's face opens up in wonder. "Cake?"
The smile Rowan grows at that is a remarkable thing. "Yeah. Out back. It's under a few barrels, though. Gotta hide it, y'know?"
Mouse Boy blinks rapidly and nods. He hops back down to the floor with barely a thud - he can't weigh much more than a large cat - and scurries toward the back. He stops in the doorway, one hand on the jam, and looks back at Rowan one more time, for permission or perhaps for company.
Rowan follows along behind him. /Very/ careful not to make sudden noises.
Mouse Boy grins widely at Rowan, and turns tail - literally - and bounds off to find the cake, small, eager hands scrabbling at barrels he cannot possibly lift.
Rowan helps him lift them. In fact, there is, indeed, cake there. Rowan doesn't even bother talking to the boy until he's eaten some of it.
Mouse Boy crouches down beside the cake, sniffing it and patting it with his hands, grabbing up fingerfuls and tucking them into his mouth as fast as he can. His tail whisks behind him with excitement.
Rowan's smile is soft. It's hard to dislike someone who so wholeheartedly enjoys something.
When at last he has had enough - how /can/ so much cake fit inside such a small body? - the child smiles radiantly at Rowan, and half crawls, half scrambles over to his side. "Thank you," he says, in a clear, child's voice. He curls up unselfconsciously against Rowan's leg and heaves avast, contented sigh. "You're nice," he says sleepily. "I'm glad I had such nice food, one last time."
The child's body is very warm, with the delicate yet pervasive scent of mouse.
Rowan reaches out a hand to rest on his ears. Then he stills, briefly, very briefly. "Last time?"
Mouse Boy nods, eyes drifting closed. "Before the horrible people drive us out," he says.
This, Rowan's good at. Echoing questions. "Horrible people?"
Mouse Boy nods again, opening his eyes and tilting his head back so that he can look at Rowan without moving away from him. "The nasty people who want to take our place, here. They want to drive us out. There's going to be a war, but we--we don't have very many people to fight for us, yet." The child looks briefly distressed, and huddles closer to Rowan's side, tail wrapping tightly around his body.
Rowan, it would seem, can hug. Gently, he asks, "What nasty people?"
Mouse Boy leans into the embrace. "The others. The ones who are like us, but..." He looks over his shoulder, then buries his face against Rowan, so that the rest of his speech comes out muffled. "/Not/ like us. They're mean and cruel. They hurt people for fun. They're /bad/. And they want to live here, instead of us."
Rowan sucks air through his teeth. "They hurt people for fun, huh?" There is a rather more intense tinge to this question.
Mouse Boy nods, and shrugs, little shoulder heaving gently against Rowan's side. "It's just how they are. We don't usually, they do. Sometimes, anyhow."
Rowan says, with a faint tinge of humor, "You don't /usually/?"
Mouse Boy shakes his head. "It's not how we're made, not like them. They hurt people, we don't. We have rules, they don't." He tips his head back again to gaze soulfully up at Rowan. "They think humans are like /toys/, and they're /mean/ to them. We kind of /like/ humans. And people like you." He smiles, perfect little white teeth showing for a moment. "You're nice," he says again.
That smile of Rowan's reappears. "Well. Thanks." After a moment, he adds, "This war. Tell me about it?"
Mouse Boy sighs deeply and lowers his head again. "They want us to leave the mountain so they can have it for themselves. But we like it here! We've been here for ages, and it's nice. So there's going to be a battle. And we need people to fight for us. They're going to have people fighting for them, too. I think..." he lowers his voice, and the little body quivers. "...I think they're asking some of the bad ones. The ones like you, but they live in hives like wasps." He tips his head back again to see Rowan's face.
Rowan tries very hard not to get tense, and almost succeeds. He does reflexively bare his teeth. "Really." He forces his face back into something resembling calm. "A big battle, then. I believe," he almost drawls, "I'd be somewhat interested in that."
Mouse Boy's whole body perks up. He draws away from Rowan so that he can turn to face him, his whole small person bright with surprise and pleasure. "Really?" he squeaks excitedly. "You'll fight in the battle?"
Rowan says, seriously, "I've spent my life fightin' against evil. I think this qualifies. Yes."