The day before the Summer Solstice festival was to begin was filled with much merry-making, and wild expectations. The tents an pavilions stood gaily in the Metamor fields as did the various booths and stands. One large section had been cleared away for the contests, as well as a long run for the jousting tournament. Due to the new shapes the Keepers wore, the joust was divided into three categories based entirely on size. There were not a lot of entries, there never were in jousts, but they were a welcome sight at Metamor, where they had long been absent.
Charles had been practicing for a week to be Sir Saulius's squire. The duties were rigorous, and they had taken quite a toll on the rat. So the knight had let his charge have this one afternoon off to rest and relax. He had wanted to get caught up on the Writer's Guild business, but Duke Thomas had sent him a summons, and so Charles found himself sitting across from their equine lord in one of his private chambers.
"So, where is the Hare of White? I thought he would be here?" Charles asked as he took a sip of the wine that his liege had generously offered.
"Lorland. Macaban sent him a request suddenly this morning; he had to leave unexpectedly," the Horse King replied as he ate an apple from a weave basket. "Apparently, Metamor river is starting to flood, early this year as expected, and so far, several of the lowland farmer's crops have been washed out. Loriod's legacy has not yet run its course, and Phil is doing everything he can to ensure that it does as soon as possible.
"The matters we need to discuss are inconsequential anyway. Our lapine friend left his intelligence report with me, so I thought I'd run them by you to see what you thought."
"I take it all is quiet to the North?" Charles asked hopefully. Lady Kimberly's duties ended in an hour or so, and he really wanted to spend the evening with her. This last week and Sir Saulius had bereft him of all such opportunities.
"Not completely quiet," Duke Thomas nickered softly. "Your friend, Baron Calephas is supposed to be back in Arabarb. Amazingly enough, from all that we can tell, Nasoj is not at all disappointed with how things turned out for him back at Avery's Glen. However, we haven't been able to get any information back from Arabarb recently, so we don't know what he is planning next."
"Great," Charles muttered. "That man is becoming a nuisance."
"Had it been possible to do so unobtrusively, we would have ordered you to kill him."
The rat grunted noncommitally. He the shifted about in the plush upholstered chair, his tail curling behind him. "So anything happening in the Giantdowns?"
"It seems that Nasoj is regrouping after his last failed outing," Thomas unrolled a map and set his mazer down on one end. Charles placed his on the other and leaned over. "Several regiments of Lutin troops have pulled back from the northern borders, they seem to be massing in the mountains here. Further to the East, a few of the Lutin bands have started squabbling with each other, throwing that front into disarray. Which is what we have been trying for; Phil and Misha have been organizing this for months now."
"Too bad we can't get around the mountains to strike him from the east," Charles mused. "He's always been weakest on that side."
"We'd still have to assault his fortress in the Death Mountains," Thomas pointed out, tapping the black spot where their enemy made his demesnes. "If we tried that, the Lutin forces in the west would sweep through the barren wastelands and trap us between the Citadel and themselves. We'd be routed so quickly and thoroughly that it would be pure luck if any of us were to survive.
"No, this will remain a war of attrition for some time longer." Thomas ate another apple, and took another drink, wiping his muzzle with a fetlock. "That is all that Phil let for me to inform you, have you heard any information that could be important?"
Charles leaned back in the chair, the memory of his conversation with Jerome only a few days ago fresh in his mind. There were many things he could warn his liege of, but would he be betraying his honor in doing so? Though he was rogue, he was still a Sondecki. Sucking in his breath he nodded slowly. "There are rumors I've heard that give me a bit of pause."
"Rumors? What sort of rumors? And who have you heard them from?" Thomas asked his voice keenly interested.
The rat had no desire to deceive his liege with half-truths and misleading statements. The very notion of it was unconscionable. Yet, there were some thing that he had to hide for now. "I cannot tell you who told me this. Even if I did it would mean nothing to you. Rest assured though, he is an old and very trustworthy friend. But there is one thing that should be addressed. While I doubt any of what I heard could ever possibly effect us, it is best not to take chances.
"So, my question to you, my Lord, is have you ever heard of a Shrieker?"
"A Shrieker?" Thomas said, befuddled. "Why no, I don't believe I have. What is it?"
"A Shrieker is something out of the legends and myths of my homeland. I have never seen one myself, but I have heard them described enough to give me nightmares." Charles took a quick draught from his mazer, shivering slightly as he spoke. "They are roughly humanoid in shape and size, and their skin is utterly black. Supposedly, light is lost in their skin. Torches blow out in their presence, and even magical fires dim when they are near. They don't even really exist during the day, only at night. From everything I've heard, they especially like nights where there is no moon.
"But that is not the worst of it. They don't have faces at all. They have a head, it is just blank except for their mouth. No eyes or ears at all. Just a mouth. According to legend, when they kill you, they scream so loud that it shatters your very soul as it tries to leave your body. Of course, no one knows if that is true or not. Still, that shriek can be heard for miles in every direction. It is truly horrible."
Duke Thomas was staring wide-eyed at the description of the beast, holding his breath deep in his chest. "How do they kill you?"
"They are incredibly strong, and even their touch is supposed to burn your flesh off. What is worse is that they are incredibly hard to kill. Cutting its head off supposedly works, but to get that close to it is to risk being burned alive."
"So, you have heard that these Shriekers do exist? Is that what you are trying to tell me?" the Horse Lord asked, his voice quavering slightly.
Charles nodded. "My source tells me that one of them was spotted last year in the Southlands. The good news is that it was killed."
Thomas stood from his seat and walked over to a nearby window, holding his mazer in one hoof-like hand. He stared out across the whole of Metamor, tapping one hindhoof methodically on the stone floor. "What manner of creatures are these Shriekers? Could any come here?"
"I doubt it, and that is the best news of all. A Shrieker isn't from this world. They are born in the Underworld. Nobody knows how. They can only come to this world when somebody opens a gateway between the two. Wessex would know more about them, since his studies have always been towards the darker side of magic."
Thomas shook his head. "But this still means that somehow, one of them got lose in the Southlands. That means that somebody has opened one of these gateways. That means that we could be facing a very serious threat. If Nasoj were to discover the rituals necessary to do that, we could be dealing with an army of these Shriekers. He already has minions of darkness on his side. What is to stop him from trying to use these beings?"
Charles took a deep breath, those possibilities coming to light for the first time. If Nasoj could control them, then they were certain to be doomed. "Shriekers cannot think. Or at least, not the way that you and I do. They mindlessly kill anything that breathes."
"Father Hough has told me that a Follower priest can dispel demons that have come to this world. Is it possible that he could do the same for a Shrieker?"
Charles shrugged. "I don't know. None of the legends ever speak of it being attempted. The rite needed to be cast to dispell a demon can become very complex. I doubt one could get a Shrieker to stand still long enough to cast them."
Thomas nodded absently as he continued staring out the window. "We should summon Wessex then immediately, and see what he may--" The Horse Lord trailed off into nothing as he peered out upon the town.
"What is it?" Charles stood upon his footpaws and walked over to the window, trying to peer down into the courtyard, but it was too high for him to see.
"I don't know, it looks like a diplomatic envoy. I haven't seen one of those since before the Battle of Three Gates!" Thomas was clearly astounded by what he saw, though Charles could only take his word for it.
Suddenly, there was a knocking at the door, a large pounding that nearly made the rat jump as the tension in the room was broken. "Who is it?" Thomas called without turning his head.
The loud voice of the reptilian Steward could be heard from the other side. He was obviously a bit confused. "There is an ambassador here who requests an audience with you, my lord. Shall I take him to the main chambers?"
Thomas shook his head in delight. "This is a very pleasant turn of events," he told Charles, the seriousness of their previous discussion gone. "Yes, take him there right away, i shall be down shortly!"
"As you wish, my lord!" Thalberg cried back, and then he lumbered off again down the marble corridors.
Duke Thomas was nearly euphoric as he drank the last of his wine and set it down. He quickly began straightening out his collar and vest, and checking to make sure his mane was not unruly. It was only when Charles set his own glass down did he realize that the rat was still there.
"Oh my, I'm sorry Matthias. I am just so excited. It has been years since we've had a diplomat come here! I must have Thalberg organize a welcoming party for him. It is about time that the Midlands have come to their senses and realized that we can only do them good!"
Charles grinned and pulled out his own chewstick. "Would it be too much to ask if I can accompany you? It would be my greatest joy to witness this momentous occasion."
Duke Thomas looked down at the reasonably dressed rat and grinned. "Of course you can! Do you think you can wear your green doublet and hose that King Tenomides gave you? I'll keep them waiting till you return. Thalberg knows what to do, there are several others who need to be invited as well, so don't rush!"
The rat wiggled his whiskers happily, the horrible image of the Shrieker gone from his mind. Bowing once, he quickly departed and made haste for his own quarters.
It was the first time since he had returned from Whales that Charles had donned the verdent doublet and hose that had been made as a gift by Phil's adopted father. Strutting proudly into the antechamber, he was met by the Steward who quickly ushered him into the throne room where quite a collection of dignitaries had been assembled. Wessex was there, standing along one side, next to a visiting noble, the name of which escaped Charles at the moment. The rat found himself standing next to Father Hough who was dressed in a clerical smock, and the Thomas's personal court scribe Sindia.
There were several others of course, but Thomas was not the sort to put on a show, and so for the most part, the chamber was filled with the standard compliment of soldiers. The only real absence was that of the late Prime minister, whose recent passing was a stain on this remarkable day. Posti would indeed be missed by many. There were already rumor swirling at the Deaf Mule that a certain pool-playing lizard would get the job, but Copernicus denied that they were true.
And then, when all was ready, the buzz of excitement about the room making everybody a bit dizzy, Thalberg called out in his booming voice, "Lords and Ladies, and our liege Duke Thomas Hassan V, let me introduce the Ambassador Yonson, who comes in the name of his lord, the Marquis du Tournemire of the Chateau Marzac!"
There was thunderous applause in that small chamber as Thalberg threw wide the double doors and in strode seven men. Two at the front carrying a broad banner displaying a road field of flowers by the sea in which grazed a single white unicorn. Four of the others were guards bearing that same symbol upon their shields. The man in the center of the four was cloaked in a purple robe, which had a lightning bolt inscribed on each sleeve. They walked forward along the hall and between the onlookers with the practiced step of seasoned courtiers.
It took the rat only a moment to realize what Thalberg had just said. For the barest of seconds, he paused, his whole body shivering like ice, before he regained his composure and continued applauding. He choked back the bile that had filled his throat, and tried to maintain a joyous façade.
Of course, he needn't have worried, since neither the diplomat, nor his guards turned to face him, but continued on until they stood before Duke Thomas. Yonson moved past his ceremonial guard, and bowed deeply to the Horse Lord, his face impassive. "It is an honor at least to meet you, Duke Hassan!"
Thomas inclined his head, "And for what purpose does the Marquis du Tournemire send you to Metamor?"
Yonson stood still, and the entire room was quiet as he spoke. "I am here on behalf of my liege to serve as a liaison between our two peoples."
The Duke nickered softly. "And you know what will happen to you if you stay?"
Yonson smiled then, glancing at the other Keepers assembled in the room. "I am rather looking forward to it actually. The chance to study such magics firsthand is tremendous."
"Are you a mage then?"
"Yes, I have been trained as a mage, but I am now in the service of the Marquis."
"Why don't you bear his heraldry?" Thomas pointed at his purple robes.
The flaxen blonde-haired man smiled. "I am waiting to see how this mighty fortress shall accept me first. Then I shall bear my kingdom's crest."
Duke Thomas whinied slightly as he smiled, his arms stretched wide. "Then come, I welcome you to Metamor Keep!"
It had been a long afternoon of introductions and as time wore on Charles realized just what he had gotten himself into. Thalberg had prepared a full banquet for them, which meant the kitchen staff was working longer hours than usual. His precious Lady Kimberly was going to be busy for quite some time, so it was quite likely he would not get to see her at all. That was not what was really on his mind though.
After the initial boring long-winded speeches had come and gone, the meal was underway in earnest. Father Hough was seated next to Charles, a fact that comforted him slightly. Thomas was talking animatedly with their visitor, and Yonson seemed quite happy to oblige his every question. Most were harmless, simple inquiries into the land that the Marquis owned and ruled. Charles watched them as he munched on the bread.
"You look a bit unsettled, Charles," Father Hough said in his piping boyish voice.
The rat snapped his attention to the youthful priest and then tried to smile. "A bit, yes."
"What is it? Is it this diplomat?"
Charles lowered his voice, peering sullenly at the blonde-haired man. He recognized the symbols on his robes, probably the only one in the room who did so. If Wessex did, he certainly wasn't saying. "What do you think of him?"
"Yonson seems like a genial fellow. I have no doubt that he means what he says. Why don't you like him?" Hough's gaze was as always penetrating, even though he was a child.
Charles chewed on his bread a moment, taking his time so he could think. Swallowing, he eyed the other guests - none of them seemed to be taking an interest in their conversation. "I've heard a lot of bad things about the place he comes from."
"Very bad. I don't know whether it is still true or not now, so I am going to withhold my judgement till later."
Hough nodded, biting a bit down into some bright colored taffy. "I hope those things you've heard are wrong too. He seems like a very nice fellow."
Charles nodded, and then heard a question from Thomas's lips that made him stop and listen intently. "Now, the Chateau Marzac, that names seems familiar to me. Oh yes, I remember now, we sent a diplomat of our own there, a Mr. van Sciver. If he went to you, why have you come to us?"
Yonson took a quick draw of his breath, and looked at the other guests a moment. He brushed aside his wavy hair with one hand and shook his head sadly. "I was hoping to wait till we were in a more private place, but this will have to do. We found the remnants of a Metamorian diplomatic caravan just outside our borders. We long have had trouble with raiders to our north. I'm afraid that whomever you sent was most likely killed well over a month ago."
There were cries of sudden anguish about the table. Mark had been one of their best men, one of the finest diplomats Metamor had possessed before and after the Battle. He could badger and berate most foreign dignitaries into making large concessions. His control over a situation was absolute. To have died from barbarians attacking in the wilderness was so unfitting for one of his capabilities.
Yonson continued, "That is why I am here actually, to continue the negotiations and to possibly solidfy an alliance between our two peoples. The Marquis recognizes your importance, and wants to support you in any way we can. Plus, he himself has an interest in preserving the arts, he is a modest painter himself. I wish that this news did not have to come to you like this, but there is nothing that we can do now. My sincerest condolences."
Thomas nodded. "We shall honor him and his men another night. Tonight, we are celebrating, so let us turn our thoughts to happier times, shall we?" The Horse King raised his mug, and the others at the table followed suit. Charles raised his own, but did not drink.
Seeing that there was an opening, as he was sitting rather close, Charles finally decided that he could no longer hold his tongue. "Good Ambassador, there has been a thought at the back of my mind for some time now, something that has been bothering me. I have just now remembered what it was. A bit of folklore that I picked up in the days of my youth."
Yonson turned about in his seat, his broad face and shoulders giving Charles all of their attention. "What is it, noble scribe? I am always interested in folklore."
Charles saw that he had everyone's attention so spoke with a great deal of decorum and respect. "You say that you have come from the Chateau Marzac. I have heard stories that Marzac was haunted, and has been for thousands of years."
Thomas looked back and forth between Charles and the Ambassador. Yonson kept on smiling, and in fact he started nodding. "It has been. Well, the Marquis did something that had not ever been tried before. He asked for the help of several priests and they cast an elaborate exorcism upon that ancient edifice. Now, it is as hospitable as your own mighty castle."
"Really?" Hough asked suddenly. "I have not heard of any such task. Usually word of such things would have reached my ears, even though I was the priest of the Holy See in Ellcaran."
Charles then noticed that the Lightbringer herself was not here. He mentally kicked himself, remembering that she was always tied up in preparations for her own rituals of the season during the Festivals. Looking back at the stocky diplomat he noticed a tinge of regret in his face. "If you wish to write to the Patriarch, I am sure he will confirm my story. I know you all do not get much news in these parts of events in the south. Hopefully my presence here will change that."
Hough grimaced slightly. "I will write that request, I do not mean to doubt your word."
"Do not apologize," Yonson held out one hand. "I understand completely. It is a big thing. I am surprised myself that you have not heard of it. I am a stranger in your midst, you have every reason not to trust me."
Wessex then coughed slightly, gaining the attention of the others at the table. "You said that you were a mage. I am wondering just what type of mage you might be?"
"I am a Weathermonger. I have the power to quell storms, and, with lots of preparation, to even call them." Yonson looked at the young mage's face, his own quite placid. "I have no desire to stir up trouble."
Duke Thomas then interjected. "Will you consent to a routine magical scan from Wessex here?"
Yonson looked between the horse and child and then nodded. "Of course, the Marquis is very eager to do business with you, and anything that helps, I am happy to do."
Wessex brightened up a little. "We must at some point have a good long talk about magic. I am sure there is much we could learn from each other."
Yonson grinned widely, his slightly yellow teeth showing beneath his lips. "I would very much like to do that."
Duke Thomas tapped the table with his forehoof. "You said that you are going to be staying at the Keep. You do realize that you may never be able to leave again."
"I know. It was a difficult choice to make, but I couldn't pass the opportunity up. I have no idea what will happen to me, but I am prepared to accept and live with whatever the Keep decides."
"And your men?"
"They are willing to stay at my side, but I think I might order them to head beyond the range of the curse. I have not yet decided."
Thomas nodded and raised his goblet. "To an alliance!" The rest of the table joined him in that chant. Charles mouthed the words, but could not bring himself to say them. Once again, he did not drink, a very sick feeling permeating his stomach.
While Thalberg was showing Yonson to the diplomatic suites that had long been unoccupied, Charles met with Duke Thomas to express his concerns privately. The other guests to the celebration had left to return to their own affairs, though Wessex had tagged along after the ambassador. So it was that they had gone back to Thomas's private reading room where they had met earlier in the day to discuss business.
"So, what is it that you wanted to tell me, Charles?" Thomas asked, sitting down in his ornate hand-carved chair.
"When I said that Marzac was haunted, I meant it. Something happened there thousands of years ago that had made it uninhabitable. Occasionally, the myths say, that some powerful wizard would go there to try and control the forces at work there, but they always ended up being the one controlled. They may have had an exorcism performed, but I don't know if it would have worked or not."
Thomas grinned sarcastically. "That's a first, the ardent Follower Charles Matthias saying that his priests cannot do something in the name of Eli?"
Charles frowned at the irony of it, but pressed on. "The Chateau Marzac is one of the few places in the world where Shriekers have been known to originate. At least according to the legends."
The facetious laughter and smile were gone now from the Duke of Metamor's face. Instead his eyes bored into that of the Rat of Might, trying to determine how valid these statements were. "Go on. Tell me more."
"Thousands of years ago, or so the legends say, a wizard of enormous power cast a spell that has never been repeated. It was an unbelievably long ritual involving the sacrifice of many human lives, and it depended on an alignment of the planets and the stars. The conditions have never again been right for another casting of that spell.
"Anyway, I am not sure if something went wrong, or if this was what the wizard wanted, but he opened a rift between this world and the Underworld. It was a small one, and in the process the wizard and all who served him were destroyed. But that castle has ever since then been a source of some of the most malignant horrors ever to stalk the Southlands. Yes, I know that now it is geographically on the southern border of the Pyralian Kingdoms, and no longer part of the Southern continent, but the Seas have shifted in the years since the last time anyone dared set foot in that horrid place."
"When was that?" Thomas asked, his voice subdued.
"About five hundred years ago. The legends are not very clear, but another mage left his order and tried to open that rift wide. Apparently, he had been hearing voices of one sort or another, nobody can say exactly what. Anyway, in the wake of his actions, at least a hundred Shriekers escaped the rift, and many things far worse which I cannot even begin to describe. I think that was the one time in all the history of the Southlands that every single order of mages came together to destroy the evil. Many of the clans have goals far from pleasant or wholesome, but they all know that those things are too dangerous even for them."
Thomas took a deep breath, as did Charles. Finally the Horse Lord spoke softly. "It doesn't make sense though. Why would they send an ambassador here? Wouldn't they just try to open the rift if they really were consumed by this evil menace?"
Charles shrugged. "That is why I don't know if this really is something to fear. But if it is true, then this man Yonson could represent one of the greatest dangers to us all." Charles stopped for a moment, and then added, "He also represents a danger to me personally. I was once a member of a mage clan in the Southlands. That is why I can do the things I do. That is why I am the Rat of Might. If he were to even touch me once, he would know exactly what I am. If he is indeed an enemy, my power must be kept secret, because it could be a very useful tool."
The Duke considered that for a moment and then nodded. "I think you are right. If what you say is true, then your abilities must be kept hidden from this man. I shall make sure that you two do not see each other often, fair enough?"
Charles grimaced, shaking his head. "That may work, but there is still a danger. I think I know how to minimize it, but I want to give it some more thought first."
"Of course, it is your decision."
The rat sighed heavily as he tried to sort out the conflicting emotions in his mind. "If we see a Shrieker, kill him, and all of his men. Don't hesitate to ask why, just do it."
The Horse Lord took a deep breath, staring out at the fading sun. The sky was turning a bright purple as the day came to a close. Charles clenched and unclenched his paws, his whole body quivering. "It will be done. What about the Shrieker?"
"It will kill many Keepers before it is slain. There is nothing else you can do."
There was a small knock on the door, and Thomas called out, "Come in!"
Wessex was there, his face a mix of curiosity and joy. "Well, I just conducted a magical scan of Yonson. I checked his thoughts. It was intensive, but I found nothing alarming at all. He seems to be motivated by an intense curiosity and dedication to his people. I even asked him some very deep questions. He never once lied. Apparently, everything he's told us has been true. I think you two can stop worrying."
Duke Thomas brightened visibly, and he grinned to Charles. "It looks like we got all worked up over nothing."
Charles stood from his seat. "Perhaps, I hope so."
Wessex looked between the two. "What is the matter?"
"An old tale. A nightmare made to frighten children. Marzac has had an interesting past, but if it is as you say, then it looks like the exorcism worked. You see Charles, even some heathens have more faith in your Ecclesia than you seem to!"
Charles laughed slightly at that. "I hope that you two are right then. But please, keep an eye on him. It could be a trick."
Wessex scratched his head. "I don't see how. I used every method I know of to probe him. I even studied his subconscious, there seems to be nothing there to be frightened of."
"Charles is right though," Thomas interjected, the serious tone once again in his voice. "We should keep a watch over the ambassador. Did you find out anything else about him?"
Wessex beamed brightly. "Actually, yes I did. Remember that wizard who was controlling Loriod? Zagrosek was his name."
"Yes, I recall that. What of it?" Thomas asked even as Charles felt his whiskers stand on end.
"Well, there was a symbol on that man's robe. Yonson told me what it was. It was the symbol of an order of mages known as the Sondeckis." Charles felt his heart nearly stop. "He couldn't tell me anymore though, he didn't know much about them. Charles, have you ever heard of them?"
The rat shook his head after a moment's pause. "No, I'm afraid not."
Wessex nodded and then shot Charles a brief menacing glare. He then became quite jovial again. "Well, that is all I have to report now. I'll get back to my research. This new evidence should greatly help me in my search."
The Duke of Metamor dismissed him with a wave of his hoof. "Go then, you have been invaluable to me today."
"I am proud to serve you, my liege." Wessex then bowed slightly, and stepped out of the room, quietly shutting the door behind him.
Charles took a deep breath, "I need time alone to think these things through. May I be excused, my lord?"
Thomas nodded once again, his ears swiveling to one side. "Yes, I think I need to think as well. This has been a momentous day, Charles. I shall see you tomorrow at the tourney."
"I shall look forward to seeing you there, my lord!" Charles bowed his head, and then quietly left the room and his liege. However, standing just outside the room was a small figure that Charles quickly recognized. It was Wessex, who was glaring poisonously at him.
"Why did you lie to me in there, Charles?"
Charles blinked in surprise. "I don't know what you are talking about!"
"Stop lying to me! I can tell when somebody is trying to hide something. You have dodged around this whole issue of this evil mage ever since I mentioned his name. Why is that? Why did you lie to me about not knowing that symbol. Why did you say you never heard of the Sondeckis when you clearly have? Why?"
Charles looked at the young mage, and then turned on his footpaws and walked away. The boy raced after him, grabbing the rat by the paw to turn him around. Matthias spun about, yanking the kid up into the air, and a squeak escaped from deep within his throat. "Don't push me, Wessex!"
"Don't you dare threaten me, Charles!" Wessex cried back, his voice low and quiet. "You know who Zagrosek is, don't you? You know what the Sondeckis are don't you? Hell, as far as I know, you could be a Sondecki yourself!"
Charles dropped the child to the ground gently and kept on walking down the hallway. The young mage kept pace though and cried once again, "Charles, if you do not tell me what I want to know, I will go to the Duke with my suspicions."
The rat stopped in his tracks, and slowly turned about. If he could sweat, he would have done so. Instead Charles considered the boy for a moment and then in a very quiet and resigned voice asked, "What do you want to know?"
"Do you know Zagrosek?"
Charles meekly nodded. "If the man whom you described is who I think he is, then yes, I do know him. He was my closest friend for more years than I can recount."
Wessex pursed his lips, and then closed them again, his face one of disappointment.
The rat took that moment of silence to speak again. "You may not trust me, but I tell you, I would never stand against this place, it is my home. But now that I have claimed one who may indeed be an enemy as a friend, I have no choice but to do what I am about to do."
"Charles, no, don't leave," Wessex reached out with a single hand, his blue eyes starting to moisten. "Please, stay with us. I know you to be good in your heart."
Matthias stood silently for a moment, and then turned and kept on walking. Wessex did not pursue him this time.
He did not know where he was walking, but it did not really matter. Charles put one paw before the other, listening to the way his claws struck the stonework. Click click click. It was a pleasing sound, one that gave him some way to measure the passage of time and distance. It also kept him focused on something other than what had just happened. His goal was clear, but still, his mind was a wasteland of shifting ideas and confusing purposes.
It wasn't until he was nearly upon it did he realize that he had come to one of the courtyards between Thomas's palace and the Lower Keep. Standing in the center of the courtyard was a large tamarack that had once been a man like himself. Staring into the high leafy boughs and beyond, the rat decided to turn around and go some other way, but the sudden voice stopped him. "What is troubling you, Charles?"
Charles had talked with Laracin a few times, occasionally sharing many an afternoon in the summer in deep thought. Yet this last year, he had barely spoken to this stationary soul. Grimacing, he turned back around, and approached the ligneous Keeper. "I've just had a very unsettling day. I just don't know what to do now. Well, I do know what I have to do, I just wish it weren't so."
The man who was a tree was silent for a moment before asking in his strangely permeating voice, "Do you mourn the lack of choice, or the choice itself?"
"I--" Charles started to say, and then stopped. "I don't know. I would have to say it is the lack of choice."
"None in the Keep is more familiar with that then me, Charles." The tamarack seemed to sway closer, its branches shifting protectively. "I have lived in this very spot for the last seven years. I use to enjoy a good drink and chat at the Deaf Mule. Now I must wait for others to come to me. You are fortunate, you still have a choice, no matter what it may seem like."
Charles laughed humorlessly. "Yeah, but all the other choices are bad. I'm not sure I even like this one."
"We all face hard decisions in our time. Who we are is determined by the choices we make. You have to ask yourself, when you have no choices, is all that is left the right choice?" Charles blinked in confusion, shaking his head a moment. "Let me explain. When I became a tree, I could have slipped into self-pity. I choose to take joy in the circumstances of my life. It is not easy, and in fact, sometimes I find myself nearing that border of depression, but I know that it is worth it in the end.
"Perhaps you are at such a point in your life? The decision you make may be hard, but you know it to be the best one, the only one you can make. Am I right?"
Charles stared at the tree, his thoughts clearing finally. He patted the rough bark with one paw and nodded. "Yes, you are right. Thank you, I needed that. I promise that if I can, I will try and spend some afternoon with you again."
"No need, I know you will be back," Laracin spoke softly, his disembodied voice a comfort to the rat. "Now, do not delay, do what you think is best."
"I will. Good-bye, Laracin. I know not when I shall see you again." Charles then turned, and walked away from the tree, towards the town at the Lower end of the Keep. From behind, he could hear the faint rustle of leaves in the wind and he knew that the man who was a tree had waved at him.
It did not take him long to reach the familiar workshop of his good friend Misha Brightleaf. Knocking on the door, Charles stood in the cold night air waiting while the vulpine came to see who it was. "Charles?" Misha askd in some surprise. He was still dressed in his work clothes, and Charles could see a few stains here and there along his tunic.
"Hello, Misha. I have come to tell you something very important," Charles confessed, not sure how to phrase it exactly.
"Come on inside, let me get you something to drink." The rat stepped in, and Misha closed the door behind him. Soon they were both sitting down in the fox's workshop sharing a bit of wine. Charles could feel it warming him all the way down to his belly.
"So, what is it you have to say?" Misha asked, his ears cocked to one side.
"Well, are you alone?" Charles scanned the room, but saw no trace of any others, though he could smell an otter.
"Madog is wandering the Keep halls, and Caroline left a short while ago, if that is what you are asking."
"Good." Charles took another drink, and then sighed. "You remember that offer you made to me last week?"
"Yes, have you decided?" Misha grew very tense, his whole body hinging on the expected answer. Charles nodded and of course was met by the fox's plea. "Well, will you join the Long Scouts?"
Once again Charles nodded. "Yes, I think I would very much like to be a Long Scout."
Misha got up and hugged the rat in one arm, still holding his drink in the other. "I am so happy to hear it! You will not regret this decision, Charles. The others will love having you among us. What will you do about Lady Kimberly?"
Charles sat soberly for a moment and then took a sip of his mug. "While I am here, I will love her and be with her so that when I am not here, it will not be so bad. I don't know if there is more I can do."
Misha shook his head somberly. "I think you know what it means more than you realize." He took another drink and then asked, "And what will you do about Garigan?"
"I will leave him strict instructions. Probably ask George to assign him to a patrol while I am gone. However, my joining the Long Scouts does mean that I will have to step down as Head of the Writer's Guild. The way things are going right now, I simply don't have the time to be a Long Scout and continue there," Charles hated to have to do it, but he knew that it was the only way to keep away from Yonson.
"Oh my, I didn't mean for you to do that!" Misha admitted, his voice betraying a bit of guilt.
Charles waved him off. "It is all right. I will let Tallis or Nahum take my place. They are both better writers than me anyway, and have more time to devote to it as well. I have served it as capably as I could, in my six years here, but now, it is time to move on. Being a Long Scout is absolutely the right thing for me now. I will make the arrangements after the Summer Solstice festival, and then I will gladly join your band of scouts.
"After Glen Avery, I must admit that is who I really am. I was born for this kind of work. I love writing, and I will never stop, but this is where I belong now." Charles took another drink from the wine, finishing off his mug.
Misha nodded slowly. "We will be proud to have you, Charles. It is an honor to fight alongside one such as yourself."
"I always wanted to fight alongside an axe-wielding maniac," Charles remarked whimsically, chuckling a bit at his own joke. Misha however burst into a load laugh, patting the rat on the back several times. Yes, this had been the right choice, Matthias knew that now. Still, though he wished that it had not come on such a dark day as this. Thoughts of a place long lost to antiquity and of a menace that would give him nightmares the rest of his life danced at the back of his mind.
No matter what happened, if these nightmares came to life, he was not going to be afraid to face them. And he doubted that any of his friends would not stand at his side to fight with him on that day. Especially the one that he was sharing a drink with right now. Tipping his refilled goblet to his lips, he drank again, letting the merriment of his friend fill him with joy once more too.