Best Friend's Burden

by Charles Matthias

The kangaroo stared down the length of the pool table while the confidant lizard leaned against the side, tapping one thick claw against the wooden pole. Zhypar rolled his own about in his paw, noting the lay of the solid balls upon the finely crafted tabletop. The cue was in a peculiar position, resting serenely against one of the sides. His four solid balls seems to be clustered down at the far end near where Copernicus sat waiting. Tallis and Nahum sat watching from the table nearby, both drinking quietly as their friend prepared his shot.

Leaning over the table, his thick tail rising in the air, Habakkuk set the pole against the side of the cue, and struck it gently. It rolled slowly over the green tabletop, past the sole stripe left, and then struck the cluster with a resounding crack. The other four balls scattered about the end, one of them crashing into a pocket. The kangaroo breathed a sigh of relief, he wasnít out of the game yet.

Zhypar knew that he was nowhere near as good as Matthias, let alone Copernicus, but the lizard had challenged him to a game, and who was he to pass up a challenge? The champion pool player stepped back to let the neophyte make his next shot. Leaning over the table once again, he struck the cue, and sent it sailing softly into another one of the solids that was right in front of a corner pocket. Alas, it bounced off the side, and his turn was over.

"Your turn," Zhypar announced as if it were his doom, and it probably was. Copernicus looked at the situation for a few moments, then leaned over the table himself, his bright scaly hide glistening in the bright ambiance of the Deaf Mule, and lightly tapped the cue ball. It rolled gently, and barely seemed to touch the stripe. Yet the stripe then began rolling along the matting, the number "13" flashing over and over again as the ball gingerly made its way to the side pocket. With a clunk, the game was over.

"You win again!" Zhypar crowed in defeat.

"You make it sound like its inevitable," Copernicus remarked, clicking his teeth together.

"With you it probably is." Zhypar slid back into his chair, and took a quick drink of his mead.

Copernicus put the other balls away and laid the poles back in their slot, and then joined them at the table to share some drinks. Nahum pushed the large decanter in the lizards direction, and Cope caught it before it slid off the table. "So," he asked giving the fox and rat a glance, "what have you two scoundrels been up to?"

Nahum scratched the fur on his head for a moment. "The usual sorts of things. Writerís Guild business is getting a little hectic of late, but I guess thatís understandable."

"Well, I did see something interesting this morning. Jack tried to take Sir Saulius's armor away from him once again. It was quite amusing," Tallis added as his teeth grinded together.

"What happened?" Copernicus asked, his eyes alight with curiosity.

Tallis shrugged. "After wrestling for a bit, the other rats convinced Jack that there was no need to bother, they would watch Saulius and make sure he didnít do something damaging."

"What brought this on? I thought Jack had long since decided to let him keep his armor?"

Zhypar grumbled, "I think it has something to do with Saulius showing up at Michaelís room with his full armor on. He kind of accidentally hacked the door down."

Copernicus laughed. "How do you accidentally hack a door down?"

Tallis took another drink. "Saulius had his sword with him and he was swinging it about. He likes to do that I've noticed. Anyway, he wasnít watching what he was doing and so he wrecked Michaelís door."

The great lizard shook his head, trying to hold back his mirth. "When did all this happen?"

"Just this morning."

Zhypar watched his friends as he took another drink. He'd only heard about the incident late this afternoon. It was already getting dark outside, and the crisp Spring air felt good on his furry hide. Swiveling his ears a bit he could pick up bits and pieces of other conversations about the bar room. He could hear the clink of the bottles as Donny mixed and matched drinks behind the bar. His flesh warmed at the sound of the crackling embers in the fire pit as one of the servers stirred up the coals.

Habakkuk could even hear his own heart beating if he wanted to. It was steady and strong - a reassuring fact.

He looked up as Cope suddenly asked, "So, how is Michael doing?"

However, it was not the lizard that had prompted Zhypar. Instead it was the large burly figure that had waltzed into the Deaf Mule and had quickly made his way over towards their table. In a raucous exclamation, Lindsey the timbersman announced, "Michael is doing well, he should be back on his feet in a few days. Mind if I join you all for a drink or two?"

Zhypar felt better already, the worries and trials of this life seeming remote now. He invited Lindsey to join him them at the table, and then had Donny bring another round of meads for everybody. After taking a long quaff, Copernicus wiped the golden liquid from his lips, and then gave the human a quirky stare. "So, what have you been up to, Lindsey?"

"Chopping down trees mostly. I stopped by to see Michael before coming here. Is it just me, or has it been unusually warm these past few weeks?"

"It's not just you," Habakkuk remarked. Something would have to be done eventually about it.

There was a few moments of silence as they all just sat there before Nahum stood from the table and took one last swig of the ale. "Well, I need to get back to the Guild, Channing is going to need some help after all. Good to see you Lindsey."

Tallis got up as well, "I should go too. You coming, Habakkuk?"

"No, I want to finish my drink." Zhypar clutched the mazer closely, watching his friends depart. Soon it was just the three of them sitting there in silence. It must have been the general atmosphere about the Keep. Usually his times with Lindsey were pleasant ones, but tonight seemed somehow to beckon to things past.

It was obvious that both Lindsey and Copernicus felt it as well. The entire bar seemed filled with the stifling memory of things as they once were. It was as if some great hand were reaching back from the distant past and strangling them with its countenance. It seemed that very little ever came from the future, only from the past anymore. It was as if they were coming to a break away point beyond which all things were wildly different. No institution could withstand the onslaught of its coming. When would it be? That was something he could not know. He could almost reach out to it, but it was perpetually beyond his grasp.

"I received a letter from my folks today," Lindsey muttered as he took another swill of the ale. His mouth was set in a grimace, his eyes lowered to the table.

"But aren't they up...." Copernicus began, but his voice trailed off as Lindsey nodded.

"In the Giantdowns, yes. They still call me their daughter."

"What did they have to say?"

"The letter must be months old, it takes sometime for stuff like that to be smuggled across the countless miles. They say they are living well enough. Nasoj and his ilk don't demand much other than taxes and civility from them. Most of the really bad stuff happens in the cities or further east past the mountains. My folks live up along the western border near the sea, past the mountains. Before Nasoj marched across the land, they were pretty much free of the giants and Lutins.

"It seems that hunting hasn't been as good these past few years. Many of the older folk have starved in winter, as well as some of the children. Andrig is doing well, he's nearly as tall as my Dad is now."

"Who is Andrig?" Copernicus interrupted.

"My younger brother. By more than ten years in fact. We were the only children out of seven to live past one. I was the first born, and he was the last. At any rate, he's strong and healthy, and very eager to get involved with the Resistance. Their home is finally fixed up. It got destroyed two years ago during a fire." Lindsey scratched at his long red beard with one hand, twirling the braids about his thick fingers. He stared at Zhypar a moment. "You remember what the house use to look like, don't you?"

Zhypar nodded. "It was very nice. Your father is quite the carpenter."

Copernicus looked back and forth between the two. "Wait a minute. Zhypar, I thought you only came here four years ago? How could you know what his house looks like?"

"We knew each other before the Battle of Three Gates. My father was a merchant, and so I traveled with him a lot. I took over for him about ten years ago when he lost an arm in a border skirmish that he got caught in the middle of. Trade between Sathmore and Pyridian is quite dangerous after all," Zhypar answered quickly, wishing that Lindsey had kept his big mouth shut.

Copernicus looked between the two friends once again, and then his green face brightened with a knowing smile. Lindsey noticed it as well and grimaced, taking another drink of his ale. He leaned over and waved a thick finger in the lizard's direction. "Don't you go spreading rumors about Keep now."

Copernicus held his claws up innocently. "I won't say anything. I just always wondered how you two had become friends." He then glanced in Zhypar's direction. "And why you came to the Keep the way you did."

Zhypar shifted about, his thick tail beating agaisnt the floor in aggravation. "Cope, we all have our burdens to bear. Sometimes it is best if they are just left alone."

Copernicus nodded absently, tracing a circle along the rim of his cup. He finished the last of it, wiped his muzzle on his sleeve, and then stood up from his chair. "Well, it is getting late, and I should really be going."

"Thanks for the game, Cope," Zhypar called out after the lizard. And then they were alone together at the table. There were many still left in the bar, and so they just sat quietly drinking for some time. It was a peculiar sort of silence, one that seemed to envolope them and cushion them against the rest of the world. The other regulars at the bar began to fade back into nonexistence as Zhypar's whole attention focused upon his friend sitting across from him.

The kangaroo found himself recollecting past events, watching as Lindsey's house came in to view. It was settled next against a hill and a small brook that winded through the hills and forest. A small water wheel was turning gently in the stream, and smoke was rising slowly from the chimney on the far side. Standing in the doorway was a big burly man with a beard as bright red as clay. A younger child, about the size of Matthias, was playing in the stream, spalshing water about and making a mess. There was a woman a bit shorter, but equally as strong as the man standing in one of the forward windows. The carcass of a slain deer hung from a meat hook just inside the window.

It was a pleasant place, Lindsey's home, but it was also gone now. He tried to imagine that sloping hillside at this time of the year, the snow still clinging to the hilltops, and the water chilling that young lad's bones. Of course Andrig was no longer quite so young, he'd be out there with Lindsey's father hunting to keep them fed. The others in the nearby village would help, but the Lutins were now in control. He hated the thought that any of those vile beasts would have set foot upon such an idyllic place.

Zhypar then set his mug down, and stared back across the empty spaces between him and his close friend Lindsey the timbersman. "Well, what do we do now?"

Lindsey shook his massive head, still staring down into his cup. "It's kind of late. The evening shift wil be going on duty soon."

Habakkuk leaned over the table a bit. "Tell your folks that I wish them well when you write your letter."

"I will."

"Care to arm wrestle, woman?" Habakkuk offered, holding out his furry paw.

Lindsey chuckled lightly. "I'm no woman, roo. And you will be the one singing tonight!"

Habakkuk felt much better, and chuckled at his friend as they leaned over and began to pit their strength against one another. It wasn't what they had wanted, but it was what they had, and that was the most important thing friends could share.

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"Best Friend's Burden", copyright Charles Matthias