Attacking Cossack

by Charles Matthias

Staring out the window, she felt her heart would burst with joy. Matthias and the rest of the party would be returning to the Keep at last. The news had spread about the keep that Copernicus and his group were coming back, they had been sighted moving along the old road between the Keep and the Northlands. The April month loomed before them, and she had been hoping they would return before it came upon thme unawares. The weather had taken a sudden turn for the wrose in the last few days, being quite hot beyond the expectations of most. Kimberly however was not worried about that as she stood perched at her window over looking the far gate that led back into the town. Down the main road through the town itself a procession was getting underway as all came out to see the victors in battle.

"Oh, they're coming," she said, her body bubbling with the excitement. It would be so wonderful to see him again. After such a fearsome time as that, certainly he would be jubillant to see her as well. She could see it now, Charles, gallant and noble, coming to see her as she waited demurely for him at the castle entrance. He would grab her about the waist, and hoist her up into the air crying out with joy at the two of them being together again. He would then carry her back to his little hole in the wall where they would in the privacy behind closed doors let each other know in different ways howe much they had missed each other.

"Well, shouldn't you be getting dressed then?" Bernadette's little voice called out from behind her. Berandette was one of the mice, and thus, was a bit shorter than Kimberly. They both worked in the serving staff at the castle, and had quickly become confidants, despite the fact that Bernadette was at least twenty years her senior. Bernadette's easy manner and very supportive nature made her pleasant company, and Kimberly could not remember all the hours that she had sat with the mouse telling her of all the sweet things that Charles had done for her, and all the wonderful things that they had seen together at the festival only last week.

Kimberly nodded, turning back away from the window. Her eyes kept straying tro the distant figures so far off in the distance. They were coming through the main entrance, there really wasn't any other way into the Keep. She wished that she could watch them the whole time, but it really wouldn't do for her to be waiting for Charles in only her undergarments. She giggled at the thought of his face upon seeing her so clad, but decided against it.

Walking over to the dresser where her clothes were arranged, she nodded at the even shorter mouse. "Well, what do you think I should wear. There is so much, and he'll be here soon."

Bernadette rubber her chin with one paw, "Well, what colours does he like best?"

Kimberly with one hand sifted through the thick layers of the dresses that Charles had bought for her over the past month and a half. "I know he likes green. His best outfit is green."

Bernadette peered over the rim of the drawer. "Then you should definitely avoid red. Let's take a look at these outfits. Here, let me help you sort them out." She reache din and pulled a bundle full of the clothes and gently set them down on Kimberly's bed. Bernadette then pawed through them one by one, setting each one out, letting the frills hang over the side of the bed with the trellises resting just barely above the floor. She peered over them, and then back at Kimberly, who stood poised, head held a bit low with her tail circling back around the front of her feet.

"This blue dress would look ravishing on you." Bernadette held some of the cloth up in front of Kimberly's arm. Kimberly saw the way the rich azure of the fabric seemed to shine out over the tan of her fur. It even seemed to outstrip the pleasant creamy colour of Bernadette's thick matting.

Kimberly regarded it for a while, holding the dress up in front of her, looking down at the way it rested on her flesh. Bernadette smoothed it out with both her paws, regarding it calmly. "How does it look?" Kimberly asked, wishing now that she did have a mirror in her room.

Bernadette shook her head, "No, something's not right about it. That seems too festive. How about this blue? It is not quite so bright." She held out another dress to Kimberly, and took the first in her arms, and set it back down on the bed.

Kimberly held the second one out at arm's length studying it. It happened to be the very first that Charles had given to her. Of course, it had bveen made frmo one of her old dresses as a human, he'd just had it resized to fit her new shape. Still she wished she were not a rat, however, it made her feel good to know that Charles wanted her about, he made her feel special and important. He was so sweet that she just felt like the sun shone brighter whenever he was about.

"I'll wear this one." Kimberly pronounced.

"Are you sure, it looks a little thick for this weather."

"Absolutely, this is the first dress he gave me."

Bernadette's whiskers twitched at the news, "Oh, that's wonderful. I hope he recognizes it. You know how dull men can be sometimes."

"Not Charles." Kimberly shook her head, still gazing at the dress. "Charles remembers."

Bernadette took the dress in her hands, feeling the fabric beneath her fingers. "You're very lucky to have somebody like him."

Kimberly felt her whiskers twitching uncontrollably, and her nose sniffing. Her ears lowered a bit, as her smile broadened. "Thank you, now help me get this dress on, he'll be here any minute."

Bernadette took the dress and with the hands of long experience assembled it about Kimberly. She felt the small hands upon her as she became beautiful for Charles. She hoped that he liked it, and hoped that he would be looking for her. She could not wait until he arrived. Stealing a quick glance out the window, she saw that the group was at the town square. They were almost distinct, but still, they were just a mass. Runners were going back and forth from the group to the castle. Certainly people were being alerted, and the news was spreading to all of them in quick fashion. Matthias would be among that mass somewhere, triumphant over those vile beasts of the North. How one could even think about leaving the protective safety of the Keep to go out there to fight those monsters, possibly even be killed was beyond her. Timidity was something that she did not lack, and it was simply beyond her understanding how Charles could find it in himself to overcome that. What Charles had said to her the day before he left had been quite revealing. His fear was there, but it seemed not a fear of dying, but of something else, though he had never quite sufficiently expalined that.

"There." Bernadette hugged her about the waist, her head barely reaching Kimberly's chest. "If Charles doesn't tell you how beautiful you are, it will be a scandal!" She pronouced primly, admiring Kimberly's figure. The gentle folds of the deep blue dress caressed about her legs and tail. The V-shaped collar about her neck let a small ruffle of her white underbelly fur show clearly. The silverly-lined sleeves covered all but her hairless paws. She twirled about, letting the skirt fly about as she twisted. This really was a nice dress.

"You should wear a necklace as well. That collar is begging for some decoration." Bernadette reached into the jewelry box standing astride the dresser and pull forth a silver brocade necklace. Kimberly lowered her head as the mouse's arms reach up and over, the thin chain feeling cold against her soft fur. Her small companion thne stepped forward and examined her once more. "There, now you are presentable. Charles won't miss you now."

"Thank you , Bernadette!" Kimberly cooed as she felt the necklace on her chest. It was smooth to the touch, a relic from her days as a human, the chain having been shortened. It was something her mother had given her when she had become a woman. The memory did not seem to pain her as much as she thought it would. That world was gonef rom her, and it was gone without any regrets. If she could go back there, her father would insist that she marry that strutting pig Harthan.

Taking anoth erlook out the window, she could see that the large group of figures where approaching the main gate into the castel courtyard. They would be at the palace steps any minute now, she had to get down there quickly if she wanted to catch them! "I have to go. Can you clean this up for me?"

Bernadette glanced over the room astrewn with dresses and other assortments, "Of course, Lady Kimberly. Go see your Charles." Kimberly brightened at the appelation. Even though it wa snot rightfully hers, it was always nice to hear it from Charles. He thought her noble, and with the mouse using it to, she could only feel the coming elation rise in her breast all the more.

With her paws holding up the skirt, she ran down the hallway, towards the main hall in one of the other outer spires. The way was cluttered by the usual assortment of servants and her fellow Keepers. Her eyes watched the way, being careful not to trip upon the carpet. She pulled each foot up, knowing that her claws could very well get caught in the rich red velvety knitting beneath her toes. The main entrance was being propped open, and as she stood off to one side, watching the party finally return to the palace. She spotted that coyote Kee running off with a message over towards the temple on the farside of the castle. Peering gingerly out the door she spotted the huge lizard Copernicus as well as what appeared to be a large cobra trailing along after him. Behind them was a bear, with some strange black object attachted to its shoulder. There were harnesses about the bear as they led it onwards. That was odd, but She could not figure out why. Matthias was in the back with another face she did not recognize, following along the rear of the group, with his eyes on the bear in front of him.

Copernicus saw her, and nodded, smiling, glancing back at Matthias expectantly. He then whispered as he past by, "You should be proud of him."

Kimberly smiled, and then waited for Charles to approach. At the last moment, his head turns towards her. He looked quite confussed and dirty. His fur was messed in several places, and there was a patch of mud caked into his pants along one side. His tail was grimy and his teeth were quite yellowed and a bit uneven. It was obviosu that he had not bothered to take good care of himself while he was away. She wondered if he had even thought about it. What was slightly more distressing was how lost he appeared. His eyes were sketching over her quickly, barely stopping anywhere. "Oh, Lady Kimberly. I'm sorry, I can't talk right now. Meet me at my little hole in the wall in an hour or so." Much to her dismay, his voice was down, and he looked anytihng but excited to see her. It was almost as if he was surprised that she would be here waiting for him. Kimberly's mouth hung open, unsure of what she could say to him at a time like this.

"Charles, are you all right?"

Charles looked back at the bear, and then shook his head, "I'll tell you when I'm finished."

Kimberly wtched him turn and leave to follow the others down the hallway. Kimberly put a hand to her chest, feelingt he smooth cloth beneath. He hadn't even noticed the dress! What was wrong with him? She had never before seen him like this. She quietly headed back, chewing on her claws, having forgotten her chewstick once again.

She didn't cry once while she waited for him by his door. It was locked as usual, and so she waited, straightening out the folds of her dress as she sat upon the floor. The world passed by one by one, each new face a disappointment because it wasn't Matthias. It was hard to keep her thoughts straight. Had somebody died out there in the battle because of his negligence? Had he been injured? It looked like he was well physically, if a little dirty. Was it something about her that had made him so distant? Had he been horrified to see her dressed so? Was there something about her that had displeased him? She hoped not, because he had said that she was the most beautiful and special lady in all the Keep. He had said he loved her. How could he hurt her like that? How could soembody so sweet make her care for him if he would not return it? But that couldn't be it. Matthias did love her, he really did because she had never seen him treat her any other way.

Kimberly breathed deeply, watching and listening and sniffing the air. The toeclaws that sounded were so familiar now that she knew it was him even before she could smell him or see him coming. She quickly came to her feet, straightening the dres out with her paws and getting the necklace centered in her chest. She kept her hands at her sides, watching the corridor until she saw him, bedraggled and disheveled returning to his room. Her whickers perked up, and she could barely contain her bubbling excitement. He walked up to her, his eyes hurt, his smile weak. "Hello, Lady Kimberly." His voice was not quite so bad as before, but still there was a subtle pain in it that she could detect.

"Charles, I'm so glad to see you." She threw her arms about his neck, and he wrapped hisa bout her chest as well, patting her back lightly.

"I missed you."

"I missed you too!" She found herself, despite her intentions, crying a bit into his shoulder. She wiped her nose with the back of one paw, so glad to see him back safely.

"Shall we go in?" Charles nodded to the door, holding her back a little, his whiskers tickling her ear.

"Yes!" She said breathlessly.

Charles opened the door, and motioned for her to enter and take a seat on the bed. Charles closed the door after her, and smiled as she settled herself down. He peered over at the mirror, and grunted, "I must be a mess."

"You are pretty filthy," Kimberly affirmed. "How did you get so dirty?"

Charles shrugged. "There was a fight, and well, those things happen."

Kimberly nodded, watching as Charles crossed the room to sit at his desk, leaning his head forward and staring absently at the floor. She scooted a bit closer to him, peering down at his dark face. "Charles, what's wrong?"

Hanging his head even lower, he began tugging at a small knot of reddish mud caught in front of his ear. "I've done something I promised myself I would never do again."

"What is it?"

Charles looked up, and quickly grabbed one of her paws in both of his, and gently caressed them. "Lady Kimberly, do you promise not to hate me for anything I tell you? Well you should though."

"Charles, I could never hate you." Kimberly felt her heart fluttering at this talk. What was hurting him so?

He nodded, his teeth scraping aginst each other in thought. "I've killed again. Killed thinking beings. Ended life. And it was so easy. I just thought of you, and I killed so many."

Kimberly blinked, not sure what she could say about this. "You did what you had to do. This is a dangerous world."

Charles stood up form his seat, turning his back to her. "There were many others that could have gone out in my place and done just as I had done. There was no need for me to go."

Kimberly got up, and put her paws on his shoulders, and tried to pull him back down to a sitting position. He shruged her ars off, and kept his back to her. "Charles, why do you hate it so much?"

The figure before her was silent for a time. He did not move a muscle except to take nice long breaths. She tried to get beside him, but he kept his back to her, unable to even look at her. Kimberly wondered if she was only making things worse. Did he not want her around? Was she not good enough for him to tell? Did he not even trust her with his life at all? Did he think she would betray him? Her heart burned att he thought of how little trust and faith he had in her. She felt her whole emotional world begin to tip over, though she knew that it couldn't possibly be true. He did care, he just was having a terrible time with himself. It wasn't her, she had done nothing wrong.

Charles's voice was distant when he finally spoke. It was almost as if he was in another land, someplace far away and secluded from the Keep. It was then that she realized that he had actually never told her where he was from, or anything bout his time before coming to the Keep. Oh he told her lots of stories about his five years at the Keep, lots of great times and friends that he'd made, but nothing beyond that. Nothing that had occured before those five years. Perhaps now he would say something. "Because, everytime I kill somebody, all I can think about is whether that person had a family, and how terribly sad and crushed their families will be when they find out. What if the person I kill has a wife and children, or is himself the children of loving parents? I just can't deal with it. When I kill, I ignore it, but afterwards. Afterwards I feel so terrible, becuase I can remember every single faced that fell under my blade, and beneath my hands. I can see them all looking up at me, as I slash them to pieces, as the blood sprays onto me. I have their blood on me, monsters or not. I just cannot do it!"

Kimberly put her paws on his shoulders again, and this time he did not shrug them off. She gently massaged his muscles, feeling the tightness there, hoping that perhaps she could ease some of his pain. She did not understand it completely, but from the way he described it, she knew it to be terriblly painful. However, she also knew that he was not telling all of it. There was something more behind this, but she did not have any idea what. It hurt her to see him so depressed. her excitement at having him back was gone, and now all she could think to do would be to soothe his pain with her love. She knew better than that. He did what was necessary to protect the families here at Metamor Keep. That was important. "Charles, if you hadn't done what you did, then there might have been families here that would be crying from lost loved ones. Those Lutins are fearsome beasts and they kill indiscriminately."

Charles put one paw on hers and squeezed it tightly, still refusing to turn about and look at her. "It's not that. I know that I protected others. Most importantly, I protected you. Yet, I don't want to be one of those who has to do it. There are many others here who are just as capable as I. There are many here at the Keep who could have done this in my place. They chose me, an dit infuriates me that they forced me to kill. They made me do it, they did not give me a choice. As much as I'd like to hit Copernicus over the head with a pole cue, I know that it was not his fault, but the one who gave the orders. They made me break my promise." He finally turned about and stared into her face. There were tears standing in his eyes. She put a paw up and wiped it from his fur. "I don't like breaking my promises."

"Will you promise me then that you will forget this and just try to enjoy ourselves the rest of the day? It is too beautiful of a day to do this."

Matthias snorted, and then sighed, his tongue licking at his teeth. Kimberly looked up into his face, brushing out the mud from his fur with her claws. He had such a handsome face, even though he was a rat. For some reason, the fact that her own definitions of beauty were shifting did not seem to alarm her. Perhaps it was because her heart was filled for love of another, and that love made the object of the love seem all the more beautiful. Matthias shuffled about on his ffet as he stood there his eyes locked with hers, his mouth moving, but no sound comgin out.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Charles grimaced, and stepped out of their embrace. "Just a second." He opened the door, and staning there was Kee, the messenger with a small slip of paper, with a red wax seal on the one end of it. "What is it, Kee?"

"Message from the Duke." Kee handed it to the startled rat, and then sped off down the corridor, leaving Charles standing in the doorway by himself. Kimberly walked over to his back, and looked past his shoulder as he broke the seal with his claws and pulled open the script. He turned the paper to one side, so that she could not see, and then scanned it with his eyes. Suddenly his arms fell to his sides, and the his one paw began to curl intoa fist, the paper crumpling in his grasp. His eyes burned with a fierce anger that she had never seen in his face before. It was something otherworldly, and quite frightening.

She tugged at his rumpled shirt, "Charles, what's the matter?"

Charles ignored her, and pushed her paws off of his shirt, and began to walk at a quick pace towards the stairs leadig to the second rising. Kimberly closed the door after him, and followed behind calling after his quickly departing form, "Charles, what are you doing?' He did not answer her, btu continued on his way, face resolute, teeth closed so tight that they must have been aching. She raced up after him, trying to slow him down, but his whole body was so full of power that she could not seem to make him budge in any direction. There was something terribly wrong here, and he was beginning to frighten her worse than anything before in her life had frightened her. How was this sweet gentle rat capable of such malicious coldness and ruthlessness? How was he capable of any of that?

Crossing over the Promenade into the central spire of the Metamor Castle, she noted that he seemed intent on heading to the center of power. Thr throne room itself. What was he planning to do? Nothing good it was obvious from the way his claws rended into the slip of paper that the coyote had brought. The two guards standing in front of the large oaken doors engraved with the crest of the Hassan family name watched them approach, and suddenly lowered their spears. Matthias did not stop or slow down, but continued forward. One of the two gaurds, both of which were much bigger than Charles, issued a warning for him to stand back, but Charles ignored it, walking straight into the points of both spears. He looked up at the faces of both of the guards and glared. "You will back off now!"

"If you do not leave, we will be forced to take you into custody and have you placed in the dungeon," the guard pointed out, prodding Charles with the spear.

"Charles, please!" Kimberly shouted from behind, being careful not to get too close.

Kimberly watched in stunned amazement as Charles brought his paws down into both spears, snapping them in half with a loud crack. The two soldiers dropped the broken weapons, and reached out to grab Charles, but he ducked beneath their legs, and sliced the back of their knees with his arms. The two gaurds buckled, grasping their thigs with both hands. This was madness, what was Charles doing? The doors opened at his push, and he walked through. Kimberly followed after, crying for him to stop. Thw two guards were slowly getting to their feet. The general alarm would be sounded in mere seconds.

At the far end of the throne room sat Duke Thomas upon the dias, with the Prime Minister to one side. There was a small table stacked with papers on the left, where Thalberg sat engrossed, shuffling thme back and forth. Before Thomas and the Prime Minister stood a large deer, and another fat man whom she recognized quite clearly. It was Lord Loriod, the unpleasant noble who had so offended Charles before. The deer, in a deep voice and Loriod where engrossed in what seemed an argument of attrition. There were six gaurds standing along the pillars. Their eyes were all on the Duke and those surrounding him. Even she knew from her time in the castle of her youth that such behavior was typical.

"I didn't steal anything! I found the sculpture in the forest," the deer pointed out, as if he had done so many times already.

"Quartermast Sleeper," Loriod said, managing to turn the appelation into a term of disrespect, "that forest was on my land, so anything you found there belonged to me." Loriod's tone was as arrogant and condescending as she remembered it.

Kimberly watched Charles move past the array of pillars, at which every third pair stood an armored soldier. It only took a moment before oneof the guards turned and saw him coming in through the doorway, eyes lit by fire. At first the guard just watched, but then his youthful blue eyes went wide and shouted out in alarm. Kimberly followed after Charles, crying out for him to stop and just come back to his home. He did not hear her, nor any of the shouts of alarm from the other guards who sprang from their positions to flank him. Matthias charged into a run, smashing the spears with his bare hands as he past, and tripping up others with his tail. One soldier grabbed him up by his shirt from behind, but Matthias kicked with his hind foot into the man's stomach, causing him to collapse on the ground in agony. Kimberly looked down at the man to see if he was all right, but she was grasped by her own arms by other soldiers, and held struggling against her will. Her eyes were fixed on Matthias as he advanced unscathed on the throne where Duke Thomas was now standing watching in stunned amazement.

As she watched, the figures at the front leaped into action. The deer, who had some strange pendant about his neck with a green glowing gem inset in the center, was wavering and coalescing before her very eyes. The miasmatic protusions and convolutions frightened her even more as the shaping continued, the antlers disappearing and the fur receding into his skin like the eyestalsk of snail pulling back when touched. Stags were powerful creatures, fierce if angered, but what she saw now was even more deadly and something that would surely skewer Charles. It was some great lizard, long of tail and proficient in claws and fangs. It was growing even larger, the change taking place seemingly so slowly, that she wondered whether there would be time enough for Charles to escape before that hideous creature made its move.

The Prime Minister waved his hoof-like hands at Charles, one eye on the thing once a deer. Charles took a step back suddenyl, his eye burning with the flame of passionate anger, and the he slashed with his arms downward in a V shape, and just kept on going. The Prime Minister's eyes opened wide, and he tried to cast another spell. The lizard the green glow having finally faded, with a sahrill scream lunged after Matthias, who ducked and rolled out of the way of the terrible claws. It lashed out with its tail, striking Charles firmly in the back, sending him sprawling to the feet of the throne. A simple mistake, but it stopped the creature from advancing any further, as Charles got to his feet, ignoring what was at his back, and leaping up to stand upon the arms of the throne before Duke Thomas himself. The Prime Ministers incantations fell flat, and the lizard crouched, ready to pounce, but did not move as long as the Duke was in the way. The guards stood about him, their arms at the ready; those undamaged at any rate. What was Matthias doing? Why?

Thomas pushed at Charles with his forelegs, triyng to dislodge him, but Charles would not move. Charles pushed the piece of paper in the Duke's face, as he growled, "You dare send me this! You dare congratulate me for what you had me do! Why me? Why did you do it? Do you know what it took for me to kill? Do you?"

Thomas stared back at Charles, as Kimberly struggled at the gaurds holding her back. Charles could quite possibly bring great harm to Thomas if he wanted to, and everybody in the room knew it. Everybody except Matthias it seemed. Kimberly saw his eyes suddenly drain of their fire as he looked at what he was about to do, as he realized that his palm was poised at the ready. His eyes were horrified, and his whole body became so lose that he fell from the chair, and collapsed on the ground, weeping. The lizard backed off letting the soldiers grab the rat by all of his limbs holding him to the ground, unbroken spear points all about his neck and body. "No! Please don't hurt him!" Kimberly cried out, as the two guards pulled on her arms, nearly ripping them from their sockets they were so far apart. She heard the fabric tear, and saw that the sleeves of her blue dress had been ruined.

The Prime Minister reacted before anybody else, "Take the two of them to the executioner's block! They will both die for what they tried to do!" The horses's voice was cold, and his eyes were silently chilling.

Thomas rose to his hooves again, and stared down at the form of Matthias who's head was being held up by his ears as the rest of his was kept pinned to the floor. Thomas turned on the Prime Minister and glared at him, "The sentence is mine to deliver! Not yours!" It was obvious that the Duke was quite distressed and shocked by the recent turn of events.

The other horse opened his mouth as if to argue, and then closed it again. Thalberg looked up from the pile of papers, and regarded the figures coolly, his yellow eyes playing over each face. The strnage lizard was staring at them, eyes fierce, but did not move. Loriod was wiping a bit of sweat from his brow as he observed, smiling down at the prone figure of the rodent. Duke Thomas's eyes were also cold, but not quite so much as his overly zealous counselor. "Did he strike me?" Thomas asked, to nobody in particular it seemed.

Thalberg looked over the scene. "No. He never touched you." The alligator's voice seemed quite detached for the bit of excitement that had just transpird in their midst.

Thomas nodded, glancing back at Bob for a moment, and then back to Matthias and Kimberly. "They will not be executed. If he had struck me, then he would have to die. He will spend one week in the dungeon. After that, he will report to the Patrol Master for duty. He is going to be out on patrol protecting the Keep for the rest of his life! If that is what he hates, then that will be his punishment!" Thomas's voice was brimming with outrage, but there was a sort of reasoned detachment that was there as well. Kimberly felt herself beginning to cry. Why were they doig this to him? Why had he done this? What was going on, and why did this day which should have been so happy have to be so sad? Why had he flipped out like this? Why?

She peered into Charles's face. She could see the anguish, the torment there in his eyes, not all of it from the pain of being struck by the lizard's tail. It was obvious that he had returned to his senses now and had realized what he had quite nearly had done. And it was equally obvious that he did indeed hate the idea of serving on patrol. Yet, the Duke's word was the law, and where else could Matthias run to? Kimberly felt her heart brewaking, for surely, she would see him only rarely, and even then, he would probably die out in the cold from some greivous wound in battle. Besides, how could she expect him to look her in the face knowing that he was a killer? She didn't want him to think like that, but if that was all he could do, what would her words mean to him then?

Thomas finally sat back down on his throne, glaring at the sick form of Matthias. "Toss him in the dungeon." Thomas turned away, no longer watching as the four guards carried the limp form of Matthias away and out the door. Kimberly watched him go, saw the pained expression on his face, the way his whiskers drooped, and the way his eyes peered into hers. There was no greater abject misery than his own or her own.

Thalberg's voice was like a calm break in a thunderous storm. "Your Highness, may I please speak frankly." Thomas turned on his Steward, and nodded sharply. "As you know I served under your father, then your mother before he left on his journey. Now, she had been a very good Duchess, fair to all her subjects, never punishing any excessively. I think you can be an even greater Duke than your father had been. However, I think that you have let yourself be angered beyond what is good for you. I'm sure you have seen the way a stallion reacts when startled. It is much the way you have reacted now. Are you going to be a man, or are you going to be an animal?"

Thomas stared at his Steward a bit stunned, and seemed even startled that he had been challenged. Suddenly, his face melted free from the contention, and he rubbed his massive forehead with one hand, his ears twisting about. "You are right, Thalberg. Let it be known that Charles Matthias must only serve on patrol for one month. That should be enough to get my point across."

"Thank you, your Highness." Thalberg bowed respectfully, and then glanced over at Kimberly, who was still being held tightly by the guards. She wondered at the sudden act of kindness. From what Charles had told her, Thalberg was never kind unless he had an ulterior motive. Thalberg then suddenly turned back to Thomas. "Also, I was wondering if this would be a good time to discuss my long standing argument that you need more protection. If a little rat can break through your guards, Bob's spells, and slip past your guests," he inclined his head to the other reptile, "then you really are quite vulnerable. With the only heir to the Duchy gone from the Keep, I think it wisest to take every precaution."

Thomas snorted, and then glared at the Prime Minister, "And just how did he get through your spells?"

The horse shrugged. "I don't know. I put up a wall of air, just as Magus showed me to do, and that should have stopped him long enough for Jon or the guards to restrain him. I didn't expect to hold forever, not against a manman, but it was like he'd just sliced through the wall with his arms."

"Where is Magus?" Thomas asked.

"He's with Saroth discussing the strange weather we've been having these past few days," Thalberg supplied.

Thomas nodded, and then looked at the two figures who were still silent. "Loriod, you've been to the Southlands if I recall. Have you seen anything like what Matthias did?"

Loriod shook his head, giving Kimberly an oily smile. "No, my liege. I have seen nothing of the sort."

"And you, Jon? I know you've travelled quite a bit. Also, thank you for jumping in there like that, you didn't have to do it."

The lizard shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it." The gem on his amulet turned red. Within a short time, the deer was once more standing in front of them all. "And I will always do what I can to protect my liege." The deer lowered onto bended knee, his head and rack of antlers head low, and then he stood again.

Thomas scanned the room again, and saw Kimberly. His eyes were calm now, though they were still anything but warm and welcoming. He grimaced at her, his large lips muttering something. "Why is she still here?"

One of the guards holding her replied, "Because you haven't told us what to do with her, your Highness."

Thomas grunted. "Take her back to her room. She didn't do anything. It looked like she was trying to stop him."

She could finally stand it no longer. Her heart was breaking, and everything about her was coming to ruin. This day was supposed to be a happy day, instead it had turned into a complete and total disaster. "Can I see him! Can I go and see him, please!" Kimberly begged, her heart in her throat.

Thomas shook his head. "No. Nobody is to see him today. Tomorrow, yes, but not today. Now, take her back to her room. We have important business to discuss."

"Yes, your highness." The two guards bowed towards him, their grips on her arms still quite firm. Suddenly, she was being carried between them back to her room. Her dress was being torn, and they didn't care. They walked her back, and when they arrived, tossed her to the floor and closed the door behind her. Kimberly looked about her empty room. Bernadette had long since finished cleaning it up, and straightening things out. Kimberly sat up on her knees, looking about, seeing the clouds rolling by in the window, and the sound of birds chirping in the air. Her paws reached up and felt at the necklace and the ruffles of her dress. There were tears all along the arms where the soldiers had pulled and yanked at her. What was worse, Charles had never even noticed it. Yet that paled in comparison to the fate that was going to befall him. He would be out there in the woods for a month, a time when she would not see him at all. A time when he would be at danger's door every moment of his life. He could die out there and she would never know.

She climbed up onto her bed, and tossed herself down upon it, weeping openly. This was supposed to be such a happy day. Curse them all for ruining it for her! "Oh Charles!" Her voice cried out in anguish and misery as her tears feel upon the sheets.