Awake

by Charles Matthias

Of course it stank. Dungeons always smelled of mildew and rotting uneaten food. Michael found the dungeon beneath the Keep to be no exception. In all honesty, he would have preferred not to come at all, yet once the news had reached his ears of what Matthias had done he could not help but come. Of course, he'd had to wait a day, as Chief Tathom was taking them out a bit further up into the mountains so that they could take advantage of the snow; it was much easier to cart logs through snow than mud. Lindsey had told him all the news that he had heard from Habakkuk, and that evening Habakkuk had confirmed most of it himself. There seemed to be some discrepancies in the stories however, as to the number of guards present, and just what exactly happened. The castle was abuzz with the rumors; most of them from shock that the Headmaster of the Writer's Guild would -- and in some cases it was could -- do such a thing.

However, it was a Tuesday now, and he was free to speak with Charles. He had been planning on spending some time with Pascal, apparently she had something special prepared for him -- or at least nearly prepared, he hadn't been able to figure out which -- but this had to come first. Not out of duty or friendship, but out of curiosity. Matthias was a friend; of that there was no question. However, it was his curiosity that prompted him to walk down the dark moldy steps in the basalt blackness of the Metamor Keep dungeons. The guards were instructed to let all through, as Matthias couldn't escape anyway; Magus had magically bound him to the cell. Michael peered into the waiting darkness below, noting the chasm like yawning of the entranceway before him. The faint flicker of torches spaced twenty cubits apart provided insufficient illumination to see into the cells. The doors were constructed of iron, and made a doom-laden clang when they shut.

Michael watched, blinking repeatedly, trying to focus on the world about him. His eyesight wasn't very good anymore, but usually only for things at great distances. Here in the dark, it was as if everything was at a distance, very little past his hands -- he was still not yet comfortable thinking of them as paws -- was clear. Still, his nose and ears more than made up for deficiency in sight. Even if the female guard wasn't leading him to the door, he would have been able to find his fellow rodent. According to Tallis, Charles would be getting out the morning of the next Gnawer's Support Group meeting. He'd hate for Charles to miss that.

The dank odour of crusty earth and uncleaned urine made him snuffle repeatedly, driving his stomach to nausea. He did not like this place already, yet he had committed himself. He put one hand over his stomach, and was glad to see the guard stop at the door he knew Charles to be in. The door was opened wide, and the light from an overhanging torch streamed into the room. The floor of the room was a cold grey stone, bare of any recoopriments aside from a small pile of old hay in one corner. Shadows danced about the room, threatening to swallow Michael up in their choking embrace. He swallowed as he stepped into the blackness, his eyes peering into the dark, making out vague outlines against the far wall.

Michael jumped as the door shut behind him, sealing him in with the prisoner. The dull booming of the metal and the retreating footsteps of the guard left him alone with the object of his curiosity, and now dismay. This was a terrible place and Matthias had only been here two days so far. He still had the rest of the week to go if what he heard had been true.

In a timid voice, Michael called out, "Matthias? Charles, are you in here?" His eye probed the blackness that was broken only by the shaft of faint light coming in through the inset bars on the door at about eye level. Of course that was for humans, and Michael had to stand on the tops of his toes to peer through, a very uncomfortable position he imagined.

There was a sudden shuffling towards the back in the deepest of the shadows. Michael took a tentative step forward, feeling his thick tail caress his legs gently. In the week since he had become a beaver, he was still not sure he was completely used to it. The voice that came from the end of the room was empty, cold, and strangely detached. "Who are you? What do you want?"

Michael stared a bit confused. It took him a few moments to realize that Matthias had not seen him since the Festival. Of course he would not recognize him! Michael tried to chuckle, but it came out flat. "It's me, Michael."

There was silence from the other end of the cell. Michael was getting quite uncomfortable standing there on the cold stonework; he imagined he'd be a lot colder sitting on the ground too, but at least he had fur there.

"Well, I guess I should be happy you are what you are. Those teeth are kind of a dead give away." Matthias's voice was somewhat lighter. Perhaps seeing him as a rodent had brought some measure of joy into his heart.

"I'm working on the timber crews. It's pretty tough work, but I think I am well suited to it as a beaver."

"Yes, you are." Charles's voice seemed to be lightening, but still he did not venture to move from the darkness. Michael was pretty sure that those faint lines that were slowly coming into focus were Matthias. He wished that the writer would come out so that he could see him. Why did the first time in over a week that they see each other did Matthias have to hide? Well, the last time they had been alone together, Michael had hid beneath the surface of the water in the Baths. The irony of the turnabout was not really that humourous.

Michael finally leaned back against the wall, finding a patch of fungus along one part. He quick slid over to a cleaner patch and slid to his rump, pulling his massive tail beneath his legs and letting it hang out between them. It was not the most comfortable way to sit, but it was really the only way to sit against a wall. Glancing back into the darkness, he took a deep breath, and then let it drain from his lungs again. What could he say? Certainly others had come this way before, and not one of them had cheered Matthias up any. From what Habakkuk had told him, Kimberly was spending a good portion of her time down here, at least as much as she could spare. How could he compete with her? Why would he want to?

Finally, not able to think of anything better to say, he asked, "Is it really true that you slaughtered thirty of the Duke's guards before you reached the throne?"

There was a contemptuous laugh from the far wall, one that Michael did not like at all. "It's up to thirty now is it? Last I heard it was only fifteen."

"I'm sorry?"

"There were only six guards. Six!" Matthias replied in an irritated manner. Obviously, the rumors and news had gotten a bit out of hand. "And I didn't kill any of them. I bruised one, and that is it."

"What of Posti's spells. I understand that he threw a tornado at you and you just sliced through it." Now that he knew the first was a rumor, somehow, the later seemed all the more unreal as well. It was amazing that in the space of two days that his exploits could have become so horrifyingly monstrous.

"He cast one spell, and it was a weak one."

"How weak?"

"It was just a wall of dense air."

"But you still got through it though, didn't you? How did you do it?" Michael probed his desire to know just who his friend really was, overcoming his sensibilities.

"If Posti cast almost any other spell at me, I would have been trapped by it. Air is nothing but what we move through, and from which we sustain our lives. Anybody who knew what they were doing could have gotten through that spell." Matthias seemed quite uncomfortable to talk about it. Michael felt bad that he was pushing so hard. Perhaps he should lay off a bit?

"So, what are you going to do now?" Michael asked, wishing that he could just once see his friend. It was so hard to stay focused in this blackness that sought to engulf him. How much terror and fear was racing through his mind? How abject had it made Matthias? What sort of nightmares must be plaguing his mind even now? What possible comfort could he offer to one who seemed to be hurting himself more than any punishment possibly could?

"Me? I think I'll be spending the next five days in contemplation. Then I will go and do some more killing. It seems to be the only thing that I was meant to do." Michael felt as if a part of Matthias's soul were opening up to him; a part that had been shut up in darkness like this cell.

"You are a wonderful writer, and Kimberly loves you. I've never seen you kill before, and as you said, you didn't really hurt anybody when you did what you did." He did not want to use the words 'Attacked the Duke' for some reason.

Matthias snorted derisively. "We'll have our lives. Fate is that inevitable force that drives them apart."

Michael really did not understand what Matthias was talking about. It seemed the rat only wanted to talk in riddles and word games and not make any attempt at sense. It was quite frustrating, and made Michael wonder why he had really come. It seemed more a waste of his time than anything else. Matthias was being obstinate as usual, and except for that brief glimpse, his soul and mind were sealed off and well guarded. It was probably easier for Matthias to reach the Duke than it was for Michael to reach Matthias. Yet he so wanted to help his friend, in any way that he could. He wished that he knew what to say. He wished that he knew of a way to get him over his melancholia, but nothing came to mind. Besides, there were so many things that he could be doing. He could be eating at the Deaf Mule, and having a merry time with his friends. He could get drunk with Lindsey again, that was always fun. Or, even better, he could go spend time with Pascal, and hope that the overbearing tiger didn't show up to ruin things as usual. Just why was he wasting his time with this recalcitrant rat?

Because this rat was his friend too. It was as simple as that. He was not going to turn his back on his friends. Friends were to be valued above all else. If it weren't for his friends, then he too would be in the darkest depths of misery. They had shown him the way to turn the curse into an opportunity, and he was now in a job that he enjoyed. The others on the timber crew were all large, but they each had good hearts as well. And, thankfully, none of his days were as bad as that first one had been with Chief Tathom. Like he had supposed, it had been a test, and apparently he had passed it since Tathom had nothing but kind words to say of him now. Despite what others thought, he was growing to like his situation. And then there was Pascal. Before the change, she had been a bizarre and unfathomable oddity, just like a little trinket at an antique shop that looks strange and has no real purpose; the one sitting in the front window that nobody buys. Now, she was a sweet sensitive person, and the only one at the Keep that was even close to being a beaver and could relate to him. He wasn't completely comfortable with her fascination with colouring the flesh and fur, but she was so pleasant to be around, that he just let that fall as well.

And that was the entire crux of the issue. It was something that he had not done at first, something that he had been afraid of doing. He had seen his predicament as a curse, and instead it had been turned into an opportunity. That was what Matthias needed. Tallis had told him that Matthias had once said to them to look at everything in life as an opportunity. Perhaps it was time that Matthias took a little of his own advice?

"Charles, when I changed into a beaver, I was destroyed. I thought I looked like a freak. I'm still not quite used to it, but at least I'm over the initial shock. Your friends, that trio, Tallis, Nahum, and Habakkuk; well they suggested I see this as an opportunity. I did, and now I have a job, have made up with Pascal, and have overcome a lot of problems that I was just letting drag me down before. Tallis said that they were your words. Why not listen to them?" He hoped that his voice conveyed the caring reason that he tried to put into it. He wished desperately that he could just reach into Charles and drag out the depression like he dragged the fallen logs through the snow to the lake.

Matthias was silent for a while. Michael wondered what thoughts must have been going through the rat's head now. It was a different sort of silence, and he could smell that Matthias was indeed surprised and shocked. There was a hint of chagrin in the air as well. "I just don't know what opportunities can be had." His voice was sad now, almost like a small boy who had lost his way and wanted desperately for his mother.

"Well, you are going on patrol. Think about all the beautiful things that you will see and that perhaps you can write about when you get back. Think about getting out of the Keep for once in your five years here. Think about taking a look at the life about you as you do. Imagine how much you would love to show Kimberly those moments where the mountain path turns along a break in the trees, and you can see the valley all laid out in its splendor below. Imagine the breathtaking sites that you can glimpse. I know I've seen a few already. I just wish that they were clearer, that way I could truly appreciate them.

"Also, think of this as an opportunity to release whatever tension you have. There is so much that you can do. I can't name them all." Michael spread his hands helplessly, his impassioned defense ending for lack of ideas. He didn't really know what else to say. And he most certainly did not want to confront Matthias about his as of yet undisclosed past. It seemed that no matter how hard anybody tried, Matthias cleverly diverted the conversation around so that the questioner did most of the talking.

Matthias finally crawled forward from the far wall. His fur was dirty, and his eyes were blinking in the faint torchlight. He held out his arm, and patted Michael on the leg. Michael had been expecting him to be all shrunken and skin and bones, with that lost expression on his face. However, that kind of deprivation took many moons to accomplish. "I will try to think of something. I would like to be alone now. Go enjoy your evening, my friend. You should not have to spend it in here."

Michael put his own hand on Matthias's, and gave it a firm pat as well. "I'm sure that you'll be feeling better soon."

"Thank you." Matthias smiled briefly as Michael got to his feet once more and moved to the door.

He nodded, and then pounded on the door to summon the guard so that he could leave Matthias to his thoughts. He had many of his own to sort out as well. Later though, perhaps sometime later. Pascal would certainly like to see him, and he would most definitely like to see her.

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"Awake", copyright Charles Matthias