For the most part, he was sore. For the past few days, Charles had been in the saddle every afternoon training for the tourney that would start in less than a week. Saulius was no easy task-master and he expected everything that Charles could give. The only problem was, the tasks of a squire required more accuracy than they did force, which was Matthias's strong point. So, he struggled to keep the lance aimed just right to snatch the rings from the posts. He was getting better in the short time that he had, but he was also running low on energy.
Thus, Charles was quite delighted to spend his morning tucked away at the Writer's Guild, secure in his office where nothing strenuous could happen. At least for his body that is. His mind would be taxed of course by the amount of work he still had to catch up with. Habakkuk was a good worker, and spent almost all of his days now cloistered up in his room reading and editing older stories. Still, Charles had a significant workload to catch up on, and if he didn't do it now, he'd never get it done.
There was a knocking on his door sometime that morning, shortly after he had eaten breakfast. Charles looked up, set down his quill pen, and with a resigned sigh called out, "Come in!" It seemed that these days, he could never get his own work done anymore. He was always being needed by somebody. Garigan had learned not to pester him in his office very quickly, as Charles tended to find the most loathsome tasks for his young charge. However, with Misha's offer still in his mind, and with the way the Duke and Phil were involving him in their plans, it seemed like his passion for writing had once again to take backstage.
However, the figure that walked through the door was the last person he would have ever expected. It was a human being, a tall one, broad of shoulder with crisp auburn hair hanging about his shoulders. He had a hawk-like nose and narrow eyes, with a small goatee. He was dressed in a black frock, the only markings upon it a single symbol. It was of a red shield, with a palm in the center, and in the palm was a white sword.
Charles blinked impassively, hiding his terror inside. "Yes?" he asked. "How may I help you?"
The man whom Charles recognized instantly let out a small bitter laugh, shutting the door behind him. "Don't pretend you don't know who I am, Charles. I know who you are. It took me seven years to track you down, but I have finally found you." He sat down on the stool before the desk, and placed his hands upon it, leaning forward slightly. "Now, why don't you admit you know exaclty what I am talking about."
The rat sighed visibly heaving his chest. "Fine, I know who you are. It's been seven years since I last saw you. I never wanted to see you or any of the others again, Jerome. Why do you think I left?"
Jerome leaned back a bit, stroking his beard between his thumb and a finger. "Don't worry, Brothus died last year."
Charles tapped the table with his claw. "Good. Who is the new white?"
Jerome shook his head. "You aren't going to like this."
"That idiot? He's practically useless!"
The man laughed slightly, but then sighed. "Things are different since you left, Charles. The Sondeckis have fallen into disarray. Brothus was one of our worst mistakes. He never should have been made white. But he held us together, except for a few of us who left, like yourself. I must say though, you look good as a rat."
"Thank you," Charles muttered, his body still tense.
"At any rate, things fell into chaos after his death, and the only black among us with any support left was Yoenel. He isn't corrupt at least, and we are trying to regain our stature, but it is moving slowly. The other clans have made moves against us, and we've lost a good number of the higher Sondeckis." He leaned in closer, his face tinged with sadness. "Charles, Ladero is dead."
Charles gasped slowly, his body twitching at the news. Ladero had been one of three Sondeckis who had risen to the black that Charles could remember from his earliest days in the order. The second had been Jerome, and the third...
"How is Krenek? Is he still kicking?" Charles asked.
"Actually, I have no idea how Zagrosek is doing." Jerome shrugged. "He has been missing for the last three years. He left when things were really bad for us under Brothus. Nobody's heard from him since. I'm sure it will be another three years before we find him.
"Finding you was hard enough. You did a very good job of covering your tracks, Charles. Very good. I have spent the last seven years of my life going from Sondeshara and every corner of this globe, hunting down those false trails you left. I spent two years alone roaming aimlessly through Åelfwood. The locals of course would have nothing to do with a human. How did you ever manage to get them to cover for you?"
Charles had been gnawing on his chewstick while his friend from of old was rambling, but put it down and grinned, his whiskers twitching in delight. "I bested the tribe elder in a game of wits. Being as old as he was, and me being as young as I was, he agreed to grant me any wish."
Jerome leaned closer. "Can you tell me how you did it?"
Matthias shook his head. "Luck was on my side that day, my friend." Charles then dropped his grin and began to glare at the man sitting across from him. "I am not going back there. I have a new life here. I am not going to leave it. You'll have to kill me if you want to get me to leave Metamor."
Jerome nodded. "I thought you might say that. You and your lady friend look very happy together. I never figured you for a husband, Charles."
"How do you know--" Charles stopped in mid-sentence, his face going blank. He then leaned back in his chair, tapping his claws against the chewstick. "So, how long have you been watching me?"
"Three days," the man said, rubbing his goatee with his thumb. "Long enough to get the feel for the place. I needed to know the best time to confront you. I would never have thought you for a knight in training either. You aren't too bad really."
Charles narrowed his eyes, his ears moving back angrily. "So, what are you going to do now that you've found me? I assume, since you've had seven more years of training that you could force me to come back if you really wanted to."
"Actually, I've been on the road those seven years, as I've told you. I haven't had time to train much."
Charles snapped the stick in half against the table. "Damn it, Jerome! Are you going to try to take me back or what?" Jerome blinked a few times, and then sullenly shook his head. The rat leaned back, sighing deeply. "Why not?"
"I've known you since we were kids. Watching you these last three days, I've never seen you more happy in my entire life. After Ladero died, and Krenek disappeared, my search for you was the only thing that kept me going. Now that I've found you, it would hurt me worse to take you away from these people and your home. That is why."
The rat nodded, chewing for a moment on his broekn stick. Ever since he'd made his home here, he'd dreaded the day when the Sondeckis would find him. For hours he would ponder what he would say to them when they did arrive. He'd crafted many repsonses, many things to convince them that his life was now here. Now, not of that mattered, and he had no more reason to fear this man who'd once been one of his closest friends.
"So what else have you seen of my lovely home?" Charles asked ina cordial fashion.
Jerome shrugged. "I saw some interesting things. I noticed you are training a ferret to be a Sondecki. Did you just take him on?"
"Yes, only last week actually. He shows enormous promise. He might even be a green by this winter."
"And what about that Kankoran? He has a Sondeshike you know," Jerome added, his voice curiously unreadable.
Charles grimaced. "How close did you get to him to find that out?"
"I didn't need to get very close. Why haven't you killed him yet?"
Charles shrugged. "I tried. Almost succeeded too."
"So what happened?"
"I got distracted," the rat admitted nonchalantly. "We've talked since then, and decided that the best course of action is for the both of us to just stay out of each other's way, and not interfere with each other's work. Besides, he's a rogue, and you know how honorable Kankorans are."
"Would you like me to kill him for you?" Jerome offered placidly.
"No, do not touch him."
"But he carries a Sondeshike! We cannot allow one of their kind to bear our most holy of weapons, even one disgraced as he!" Jerome objected strenuously, his eyes flashing disgust at the notion of his mortal enemy bearing one of his own relics.
Charles gnawed on his chewstick a moment, and then set it back down again in his lap. Taking a deep breath, he calmly replied, "I don't like it either. Yet, now is not the time for such things. Perhaps later. No, there will be a later. There will come a time when he will give me that staff wilingly, I am sure of it."
Jerome slowly nodded and then looked over his friend. "Did I tell you that you make a fine rat?"
"Yes, you did."
"Well, in a strange sort of way, it suits you," Jermoe commented.
Charles shrugged again. "I am use to it; I have worn it for almost seven years now. If you do not want to be something similar, I suggest you leave tonight."
"I am planning on it. My business here is done."
"You aren't going to tell the others I am here are you?"
"I am not going back," Jerome admitted. "If I were to go back, I would be honor-bound to reveal what happened to you to the others. Instead, I will be traveling about, ostensibly continuing my search for you. With luck, that will give us both the time we need."
"Need to do what?"
Jerome sighed, shifting about uncomfortably in his chair. "Strange things are going on in the Southlands, Charles. Brothus may be dead but there are still factions among the blacks that want to continue his legacy and rule the kingdoms. With the death of Duke Karachek last winter, there is a lot of unrest among the western kingdoms. Plus, there's one other bit of disturbing news that I know you aren't going to like hearing."
"You seem to be full of bad news, Jerome. What is it?"
The man took a deep breath and then in his quietest voice possible said, "Three years ago, travelers started seeing lights inside the Chateau Marzac."
"What?" Charles barked in a harsh whisper.
"At first, I didn't believe it myself, but apparently it is true. Some minor noble has taken up residence there."
"Nobody lives at the Chateau!" Charels declared. "It's suicide!"
"I know, but somehow, this man seems to have done it. Those of us that still believe the old myths think that he has somehow tapped the power source there." Jerome looked to both sides, and then leaned over even closer. "Last year, I and several other blacks killed a Shrieker in the desert outside Sondeshara. It has been over a hundred years since any of them have ever been seen in the Southlands."
"Have there been any other sightings?" Charles asked, his heart trembling.
"No, which makes me very curious. According to the reports I've heard, this man, the Marquis du Tournemire, had a powerful exorcism cast upon the Chateau. But still, why would a Shrieker have escaped if such had been done? Our white Yoenel has said that it must have escaped before the exorcism was performed, but I find that hard to believe."
The rat nodded after a moment, sitll chewing on his stick. "Perhaps that is what happened? After all, the Chateau has lain in ruins for hundreds of years. Perhaps its power could have waned?"
"Perhaps," Jermoe muttered. "Perhaps not. Keep you ears open about this. It is not something I want to have to face alone if it is real."
"How can I contact you in case I do hear something. How will I find you?"
Jerome stood up from his seat, and smiled. "I found you."
Charles glared playfully at him. "No seriously, how will I find you?"
"I wish I knew, " Jerome admitted. "I will be traveling through the Midlands, maybe even all the way to Elderwood. No matter what though, I will be near."
"Good, and you know where to find me if this threat is real."
"There are many threats out there now, Charles. One day, I think I will need you to help stabilize our own brethren. This is a dark time for the Sondeckis. Even with Brothus gone, his cronies remain. And unless we find Zagrosek, you are the only one I can trust now." Jerome gently stroked his goatee with one finger and then added, "We will see each other again, I promise."
Charles stood from his seat, and walked around the table. Jerome was at least two feet taller than him now. Still, the rat grasped him in a quick brotherly embrace before saying, his heart in his voice, "Thank you for not trying to take me away from my home. You will always be my friend, Jerome."
"And you mine!" The Sondecki declared, his face alight with a friendship of long ago. They then stood apart, and Jerome listened at the door for a moment. Hearing nothing, he opened it wide, and stood upon the threshold. "Good luck to you, Charles. I hope that the next time we see each other we both won't be seven years older."
Charles nodded. "I agree. Good luck to you as well. Sondlathoros!" The traditional farewell of his kind had long since been absent on his lips. To say it now nearly brought forth tears from his dark eyes.
"Sondlathoros!" Jerome called back, and then the door was shut behind him. Charles walked up to the door, opened it, and peered out into the hallway. It was completely empty. Closing it shut, and trying not to think about what he had heard, his eyes trailed back to the desk, upon which still sat a stack of stories to be edited. Sighing, he sat back down, picked up his quill pen, and returned to his work.