It had not even been a week since returning from Whales before the hoopla died down. As a matter of fact, it was only a few days before the burdens of work and responsibility caught up with the rat. Most of it centered around catching up with the Writer's Guild business - reams and reams of manuscripts were waiting to be read, edited and then rewritten. His own stories, many largely forgotten in the wake of his month-long absence, remained untouched.
Yet Matthias was not too worried about it. These things happened, it was inevitable. So it was that bright Saturday morning that he devoted himself to finishing the last of his backlog. It would take most of the day, but it would certainly be worth it. Then Sunday afternoon he could spend his time with Lady Kimberly again. That thought alone gave the rat the determination he needed to start the work.
Normally his mornings were spent down in the cellars with his fellow rats, but he had told them in advance that he would be busy. Charles, after having dressed and groomed himself, took the first story from the pile that lay upon his work desk, and glanced over it. It was a work by Oren, a relative newcomer to the Guild. Already though he was beginning to make waves within the writer's circles both with his ideas and with his creativity.
He picked up his feather pen, and took out the ink bottle as his eyes scanned over the page. The sound of his stomach growling caught his attention though, and he looked over at the basket in which he'd started to store bread and cheeses on Misha's advice. Then he recalled that only the other day he'd thrown all of it out since it had spoiled while he was away.
Sighing, Charles set the pen down, and restoppered the ink bottle. He'd have to go and visit Gregor to get some food. Oren could wait a little while. Besides, he still had the whole day ahead of him.
Stepping out into the hallway, Charles breathed in the scents of his fellow Metamorians. He idly gnawed on his latest chewing stick as he made his way out through the archway and into the fields heading into town. The bright May morning brought with it the sounds of birds and other small creatures proclaiming thier existence. The gardens were in full blossom, bees and other insects flew from flower to flower, and the bright petals and blossoms and fragrances were a symphony for the eyes and the nose.
Matthias found that his reputation had been redeemed since he'd returned. Word of what really had happened had spread quickly, and the incident with him and the Duke was largely forgotten or at the very least ignored. Yet that did not stop most of the Keepers from treating him a bit differently. As he walked by many of the shops, noting each by their scent, the candlemaker by his wax, the smithy by the hot iron, and the carpenters by the rich cherry pine, several passerbys gave him a wide berth upon the road. Charles did his best to pretend that it had not happened.
Brennar the cat was standing at the porch of the Bakery, reclinging in the sun, and gingerly grooming himself. His ears stood up as the rat approached, the slit eyes following Charles's movements. Matthias waved to Gregor's apprentice, and the tabby was quick to come to his hindpaws.
"Charles! Good to see you again! It's been sometime sinec you last came by." Brennar called out in conversational tones.
Looking up at the feline, Matthias grinned. "It is good to see you again as well. How goes the apprenticeship?"
Brennar stood just a little bit taller. "Gregor says my bread is edible now. He has me baking everyday."
Charles found himself grinning. "That's wonderful. Does he still hve you sweeping and cleaning?"
"Of course. He says that is my job until he gains a new apprentice."
"Have you been letting your friends know of the wonders of baking?" Charles asked him whimsically.
Brennar laughed a bit. "Oh most of my friends are too busy eating the bread! Either that or they are heading south."
"How long have you been a cat?" Matthais asked on a whim. He had to admit that he did not know much of the teenager.
"Only five months, I changed during the winter." He then licked his nose. "It was nice to have a fur coat in winter. Now, it is getting hot."
Charles chuckled at the remark. "I know how you feel. Have you been shedding?"
"All the time!"
Charles patted him on the shoulder, and then smelled the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread coming from the door. "I must get some bread. I have a lot of work still to catch up on. I'll talk to you later."
"You have a good day then, Charles!"
"You too, Brennar." Charles the ducked inside the armotaic building, where Gregor was bustling about to get his wares in order. "Ho, Gregor!"
"Ah, Charles, what can I do for you?" the capybera asked turning on his paws.
"I'm just interested in picking up a few loaves of bread. I have to get back to my work. I'm far enough behind as it is."
Gregor nodded. "So, I take it you don't want to haggle today?"
Charles groaned. "No, I don't have the time. Name your price, you scoundrel!"
"Scoundrel am I?" Gregor's ears twitched in merriment. "Well, I just finished up a batch. Since you are a reliable customer after all, I guess you can have a loaf for five coppers."
"Extortionist!" Charles remarked playfully, fishing the coins from his moneypouch. "Doesn't the Duke pay you enough as it is?
"Of course he does! But I can't let that be common knowledge after all. It is bad for business."
"Sure it is." Charles took the loaves into his arms, savoring the rich flavor of each.
"See you tonight," Gregor called out as Charles turned to leave.
Matthias thought it odd, since he didn't remember making any plans to see Gregor again anytime soon. "Excuse me?"
Gregor leaned across the counter, tapping his paws together gently. "You are coming to the Gnawer's Meeting tonight aren't you?"
Charles felt quite silly for completley forgetting about it. It had been a month since the last one. "I forgot about it!"
"How could you forget about it? You organized it!"
Charles hook his head. "These last few days have been kind of crazy for me. Heck, the last month has been crazy for me."
"Anyway, if I want to get my work done on time, I have to get going now," Charles announced as he headed for the door.
"All right, good luck!" Gregor called after, but Charles was already heading out the door. Brennar was no longer on the steps, but Matthias did not wait aroudn for him to show up either. Instead, he began the trek back towards the Keep itself, trying his best not to get sidetracked again.
It was a beautiful day out. The sun was already inching its way up in the sky. The warmth about him was not so stringent as it had been the previous month, which was relieving. Looking towards the mountains on either side of the ridge, one could see the snow tops receding from their winter levels. Bright greens were beginning to show everywhere about them. Summer was not too far off, and everywhere one looked, one could see it.
Finally returning back to his room, Charles set the bread down, most of the loaves significantly cooler than when he'd left the Bakery. Taking one of them, and biting a bit off, he returned to his cahir, his tail curling bout the base, and looked back at Oren's story. His paw gripped the pen,and his eyes canned over the words of the opening paragraph.
And the there was the sound of a knocking at his door.
Charles sighed, and looked over att he oaken structure. "Who is it?" He called out.
A familiar voice called back, "It is me, Michael."
Charles dropped the feather, and walked to his door and opened it wide. He hadn't seen his friend who had become a beaver in a month, and would be glad to renew their friendship. However, what was standing outside the door was no the Michael he'd remembered. It was a beaver all right, but one that had been touched by Pascal's particular art. His fur was a patchwork of red and black, in regular squares all over his body. And the skin beneath it and on his paws was a nice creamy yellow.
Though he did not wish to do it, Charles gawked at the sight before him for a moment. "Michael?" he asked stupidly.
"Yes, it is me," Michael replied, his thick tail dragging about on the ground. "Can I come in?"
Charles stepped out of his fellow rodent's way. "Of course!"
Michael came inside, looking about a bit distractedly. Charles shut the door behind him, and took his seat again. "Please, sit down. Can I get you anything to drink, to eat?"
"Some bread would be nice." Michael dropped to his haunches on the floor, and seemed to get comfortable.
Charles gave Michael one of his loaves, and then chewed some more on his own. "So what happened?"
"You mean this?" Michael gestured to himself, pointing between the colors.
The rat nodded. "Well, I was hoping to talk to you about that actually. I've been going through some tough times, and I just wanted to talk to a friend."
"I've been kind of busy lately," Charles gave the stack of unread stories a brief glance, and then continued, "but I'll be happy to help you out anyway I can."
"Thanks." Michale took another bite from the bread, and then began to regale Charles with the tale of his coloring, and of his fight with the tree. It was an interesting sequence of events, and the beaver had only just become fit enough to get out of bed again. Yet despite everything that Pascal had done, and all the conflicting emotions he had, Michael still in some way wanted to be with the irrascible porcupine. So much could happen in a month!
It took Michael sometime to get through the entire tale. Charles asked questions every once in a while, and made the beaver backup and repeat himself on several occassions. But shortly before noon, Charles was sure that he had found everything he could from the beleagured rodent. Every once in a while he would turn to face the manuscripts. It was getting more and more certain that he would not get through them all today. As long as he could finish the remainder tomorrow morning that would be fine.
"So, what should I do?" Michael finally asked after finishing off the last of the bread that Charles had purchased.
Charles grimaced slightly, his whiskers wiggling in agitation. "I'm not sure really. You say you still care for Pascal, right?"
"Yes. It sounds crazy, but I still do care for her. She made me plaid, and I want to throttle her, but I want to hug her too."
"Then I think you should at least talk it out with her. Maybe something can be done."
Michael shook his head. "She said that she didn't know how to change my fur back."
Charles sucked in his breath, feeling the back of his incisors with his tongue. "Well, that doesn't mean she won't someday find a way."
"What do I do until then? I look like a freak!"
Charles laughed slightly at that, though he didn't mean to. "We are all freaks, Michael."
"True." Michael remarked glumly. "Well, thank you for your help, and your bread. I'll leave you to your work."
The rat's eyes strayed to the unread manuscripts once more, his paws eager to tackle them. "Well, I'm glad you came to talk to me about it. I really hope you can get things straightened out."
Michael's whiskers twitched a bit, and he got up from the floor, his thick tail slapping against the back of his paws. "Thanks, Charles."
"Will you be coming to the Gnawer's Meeting tonight?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I guess we'll find out." Michael then sighed, and left Charles alone once more in his room. Charles stared at the blank door for a few minutes. The last time he'd seen the beaver had been while he was imprisoned. At the time his friend had apparently been adjusting to life at the Keep. Now, Charles wasn't so sure.
However, that was a matter for another time. Now he was free once more to read and critique stories. Moving back over to his desk, he picked up the feather, and began to read Oren's story.
Not a minute later and somebody else was knocking at his door. Taking a deep breath, Charles called out, "Who is it?"
"It is I, Kee! Message for you from Channing," called out the court messenger.
Charles set his pen down, and returned to the door. The coyote waiting outside handed him a small piece of paper. The rat then had a thought and grineed. "Could you wait a moment, I have a message for you to send."
"Of course." Kee nodded and stood still, his tail wagging back and forth.
Charles grabbed a blank piece of parchment, dipped his pen in the ink bottle, an quickly scribbled out:
I'm sorry I won't be able to see you until tonight. But by tomorrow, I hope to have caught back up with my work. I want to take you out on a picnic. I'll tell you more at the Gnawer's Meeting tonight.
The rat quickly folded the note, and handed it to the messenger. "Take this to Lady Kimberly please."
The coyote grinned. "I will, and you have a good day!"
Charles shut the door after Kee left, and quickly opened up the note from Channing. It took him only a moment to realize that the goose wanted to see him as soon as possible at the Guild. He let his paws fall to his side and he gazed longingly at the pile of unread stories. Sighing, he remarked to himself, "It looks like you all will have to wait a little bit longer for me." And with that, he left to see what his fellow headmaster needed him for.
It did not take long to reach the refurbisheed barracks that served as the house for the Writer's Guild. Walking in through the back, he stopped at the door with the starburst symbol, and knocked. It was in itself a remarkable occurence. Channing was rarely in his office atthe Writer's Guild, which implied that whetever the goose wanted, it had to be important.
Much like his tower, the Reverend's office was cluttered with stacks of papers and parchemnts. Nor was Channing sitting quietly behind his desk working. He was pacing about on his long thin legs, picking up papers here and there and then setting them down once he was finished with them. When Charles entereed the room, the goose immediately bade him sit but did not say anything else as he intently concentrated on a single sheet.
"Ah, Charles! Good! I need your opinion on this." He handed the rat the piece of parchment he'd been holding. Charles glanced over it quickly, and then read it a second time. He was quite impressed! That was a remarkable bit of poetry.
"Was that for the poetry contest last month?" Charles asked handing the sheet back to the goose.
"No, this is something else entirely. What does it seem like to you? What form is it written in?"
"I'm not really sure. I suspect it was a sonnet."
"No, what does the poetry mean?"
"I don't know." Charles shrugged, wondering if this was all that Channing had dragged him over here for.
"Are you sure? Read it again. Try to think about what just happened about the Keep."
Charles took the manuscript again, and read through it once more, noting each line and each word. He tried to see some meaning behind the words, but it eluded him till he reached two particular lines. "Let the arm remove its own outstretched hand/ And the beast will feast in the tyrant's land."
Charles set the page down and gazed thoughtfully back at it. He then handed it back to Channing again and tighted his grip on the chair with his tail. "I might be reading too much into that, but it sounds sort of like what just happened to Loriod."
The Reverend nodded, "That is what Phil and I think as well."
"I guess it was written to commemorate that man's fall."
"Can't be." Channing shook his head. "This was written two years ago."
"Really? By whom?" Charles was now very interested.
"By Habakkuk if you can believe it. I stumbled upon this piece of paper amongst the old poetry contest pieces."
Charles shrugged. "Interesting coincidence. I wonder what he was really talking about.'
Channing stared at the page in consternation, not entirely convinced. "Sorry to drag you away like that but I just had to know what you thought."
"That's all right. It is just after noon. There is still plenty of time left in the day for other matters." Charles stood from the chair, and walked to the door. "I shall see you later then. Good luck with your mystery."
Channing nodded and waved him off. Charles closed the door behind him and shook his head in disbelief. A poem. He'd walked all the way over here from his little hole in the wall for a poem that had been slightly prophetic. What a waste!
Charles made his way back, carefulyl avoiding anybody that might want to chat with him. If he wanted to have a picnic tomorrow, he was going to have to really work fast on those stories. He'd lost half the day already, and was still no closer to where he wanted to be. And his evening would be spent at the Gnawer's Support Group Meeting anyway! Much as he enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow rodents, right now he wished for all of life's distractions to go away, including that one!
But, for some reason, deep down he knew that he could not escape them. For some reason, the rat felt like the world had only begun to play with him. Therefore it came as no surprise, though he was rather frustrate by it, when someone came a knocking onh is door after only reading a few pages of Oren's story.
"Who is it?" he called out petulantly.
"It is me again, Kee," the messanger repliedin an all too happy voice. Grumbling, Charles walked over to the door and asked the coyote what he wanted. "Another message for you, Charles. This one is from the Duke."
"Wait a moment," Charles ordered as he broke the ducal seal and scanned the note. It took him only a moment to read, but int hat time, his anger completely left him. This was serious and much more important than his manuscripts of unread stories.
"It never ends does it?" Charles asked the coyote as he stepped out of his room.
"No, I don't think it ever does," Kee replied candidly. "Good day to you, Charles."
"And to you, Kee." Charles then headed to the Duke's private chambers. It was a quick walk across a promenade and up a few flights of steps. When he got there, he could see that not only was the Horse-King present, but the Hare of White, and the young made Wessex were also present.
"Ah, the Rat of Might is here!" Thomas called out jovialy as the doors were closed behind Charles. "Come in, sit, drink, we have things to discuss."
Charles took a seat opposite Phil, and nodded to his friend. "Let me guess, Nasoj is up to something again?"
"No, actually, everything seems quiet on that front for now," Phil announced, his face blank. "We just haven't had a chance to discuss what has happened in the last month yet. We've all been too busy with other things to meet. Things have finally freed up for us, so we decided to talk."
Charles nodded, thinking that things were never going to free up for him. "So what do we know?"
"Well," Thomas began, tapping his hooves thoughtfully on the table, "I was hoping that we each could tell our side of the story." Charles sighed.
Charles told his tale first, covering everything, not leaving the details out like he had done when he had spoken with King Tenomides last week. Of course there wasn't much to tell. He'd spent most of his time as a rat on board the Arrow. That did not lead one to much excitement. Phil then talked about his investigation into Loriod's affairs, and how he tracked down the runes that Charles had traced out. Thomas added his own side into destroying Loriod and restoring Phil's mind.
However, Charles didn't really pay much attention till Wessex began to tell his side of it. First he gave a report on the status of the search for any other runes placed about the Keep. "Well, there really weren't that many actually. There was one at the library, but other than that, they were all in insignificant places. And none of them seemed to do anything other than watch and collect information. Except for the last one we found. That one was big"
"Where was it?" Thomas asked
"It was on the outside of the Northern Wall actually. It wasn't a watcher spell, as you might guess. It was an anchor for another more significant spell. Once I dispelled the anchor, the other spell disipated. But that does explain why it was so hot for the last month," Wessex continued, his contralto voice pipping for emphasis.
"And why is that?" Phil asked.
"It was a weather spell. It was designed to keep this place hotter than usual. You may have noticed that things have cooled down some." Wessex took a breath and then went on. "I talked with Saroth, and he agrees, we should see a bit of flooding this summer, but nowhere near the amount we would have seen if the anchor had remained. I think the reason Loriod cast this spell is clear, so that the only person with any food supplies left after the flooding would be him. We would have had no choice but to beg from him."
"But now that Phil oversees Lorland, we shouldn't have any problems there," Thomas finished for the child. "Now what about the wizard you said was controlling him?"
Wessex nodded, his face filled with a quiet rage. "His name is Zagrosek."
Charles suddenly started, sitting upright in his seat. "What did you say his name was?"
"Zagrosek. Do you recognize it?"
Charles sat for a moment, his tongue pressing agianst the back of his incisors. "It is a common southern name."
"Well, I haven't been able to find out anything more about him. He is powerful though. Phil, have you ever heard that name before? He seems like Nasoj's type."
Phil shook his head. "No, I've never heard it before. I'll keep my eyes open though. I'll tell my spies to start looking into it. Perhaps he is new to Nasoj's forces."
Charles then, still a bit shocked at hearing that name, asked, "Did he have any symbol on his clothes?"
Wessex turned back to the rat and blinked. "Actually, yes he did. It was a red shield with a palm facing outwards; inside the palm was a white sword."
Charles nodded, his whiskers twichting uncomfortably. "Do you know this symbol, Charles?" Thomas asked him, seeing the rat's agitation.
Charles nodded a moment. "I've seen it before, but not in a long time. I'm not exaclty sure what this portends though." It was as close to the truth as Matthias was willing to go.
"Can you tell us what you know about it?" Thomas pressed.
Charles shook his head after a moment's thought. "I'm afraid I can't tell you much of anything about it."
"Well, if you remember anything, be sure to let us know," The Duke advised.
"Now Wessex, is there anytihng else you need to tell us?"
The child shook his head. "No, that's all of it."
"Well then, we have things to uncover. If you find anything, let Phil or I know." Thomas stood from the table and tossed his mane about. "I have other matters to atend to, so I shall leave you all to your own devices."
Charles stood as well, "I really must get going, I'm already far enough behind on my work as it is."
Phil hopped from his chair, and said, "Charles, I was hoping you could hlep me get things set up for the Gnawer's Meeting tonight."
All thoughts of reading Oren's story before dusk wre washed from the rat's mind in that moment. "All right. Let's go. You have a good evening Wessex!" Charles called out as the rodent and lapine of prophecy left the Duke's chambers to head for the Deaf Mule.
As they left the Deaf Mule, Lady Kimberly leaned her head on Charles's shoulder. It was a bright night out, with the stars twinkling down from the heavens, and the moon shining over the mountains tops. The crickets and bullfrogs sang their nightly chorus, while torchbearers circled the Keep, lighting the lamps along their way.
"That was a lovely evening," Kimberly said finally as they neared her apartment. Charles nodded, but did not add anything. Try as he might, he could not get that conversation with Wessex out of his head.
"So, are we still up for the picnic tomorrow?" she asked.
"What? I'm afraid not. I was hoping to get some work done today, but I kept getting distracted."
"Oh," she muttered, her voice small and disappointed. "Will I see you at all?"
Charles smiled as they stepped through the archway, and towards her door. "I hope so. We'll just have to have that picnic next Sunday."
"I would like that." She smiled winsomely at him, her dark eyes glowing in the torchlight.
Charles brushed the fur on her forehead strait with his claws, and then watched her disappear into her room. "Good night, my Rat of Might," she whispered breathlessly.
"Good night and sleep well, my Lady," Charles repsonded in kind. Then the door was closed and he was alone again.
The rat sauntered back through the Ivy Causeway and to his room. Once inside, he took a look at the untouched stack of papers still on his desk, with Oren's story on top, and sighed. Tomorrow was going to be another long day.