It was Friday, and normally Charles was slow to get out of bed in the morning. No slower than usual, but it felt like the week had been going on forever by the time Friday came about. Saturday was at least one day before Sunday when he would take the time to just rest. Friday however was still too much a part of the humdrum of the week for Charles to feel any compulsion to go on. Of course, he always dragged himself out of bed, and after a quick grooming, he would be fine and able to survive. A nice game of pool, hopefully against somebody he had a chance to defeat, at the end of the day as well as some delicious wine with his bread and cheese would make it all worthwhile. That was a Friday, at least a usual typical Friday.
This was not a typical Friday. This was Good Friday, the first day of the Equinox-Easter celebration. Charles was up and out of bed quickly, stretching his body in expectation of what awaited him today. It was always pleasant, the usual routine being totally subsumed in the spirit of the festival. He scratched at a few knots in his fur, pulling his comb off his dresser to straighten them out. He wanted to look nice for today, but tomorrow was going to be the really big night. He had to look his absolute best. As much as he dreaded the idea, he knew that he was going to have to take a bath. There were certain lotions that he could use to clean his fur and make it very handsome, but of course, he was going to settle for nothing less on a very big night.
He slipped on a tunic and some briefs, making sure that they were comfortably fitting. His minds turned over the events of the previous few days, the contest stories, the talking with the Steward, the unpleasant conversation he had endured with the librarian three nights previous, the hassle at the dressmakers, getting the music box repaired, and finally greeting Father Hough when he arrived at a very late hour in the evening. Father Hough had been doing this for many years, so he come to know some of the Keepers pretty well, and was on good terms with most of them, at least the Followers that is. Charles considered him a good friend, possibly the last human friend he had. He had wanted to spend some time talking with Father Hough, but he had apparently some meeting with Duke Thomas that needed to be taken care of immediately.
What little time they had to talk had mostly been spent wondering why he was a day late. Of course in treacherous countryside, almost anything could happen, and his carriage that he drove had broken a wheel that he had to stop and repair. He was one of the few people to make a regular habit of visiting the Keep, but he never stayed long enough for the magic to take hold. Charles had always wondered if the effects were cumulative, but Pascal had explained that to the best of her knowledge that the effects of the magic wore off unless they took hold. Since Father Hough had never expressed any change, and had never stayed for long, he remained perfectly human.
Of course Charles would love to see him stay, but that was not his choice, and Father Hough had made him understand that very clearly. Still, he could hardly blame the man. It was hard to lose ones physical form, especially voluntarily. His own choice to come here had been a difficult one, expiated by need. He never regretted that choice, and had found something here that he hadn't really had before; the desire to live right.
He picked up the gift that Phil had given him, and slipped that into his buckler. This was a special day, and so he would bring his special chewing stick. Making sure his whiskers were clean with one last look in the mirror, he slipped out the door into the hall. There were others about already, unusual for this time in the morning, but it was Equinox, many would be about, each wanting to partake of the festivities early. Of course some of them were necessary, themselves helping to organize the festival, running the booths and participating in the games. Some were just spectators. He could imagine Metamor Fields being filled to brimming with farmers and the others from beyond the walls of the Keep proper, as well as with those who lived on the inside. However, he had one place that he intended to go first.
Walking along the Ivy Causeway, so named because of the twisted and climbing vines that made their way along each of the pillars astride the walkway, he took the time to cherish the scent of the opening flowers. The lilies were beginning to peek out, their white petals opening towards the sun. He saw some pink and purple buds forming along the ivy, they would be opening in another few weeks as well. The air was filling with pollen as bees moved from one flower to another in their mad circling dance. Charles let the morning air fill him with its calmness and serenity. He watched as the dew resting upon the leaves and blades of grass spray in the sudden breeze. It was going to be a windy day; the weather had of late become increasingly breezy. There had been a small gale the previous night that had made the doors of the Deaf Mule bang open and shut once before Donny had it secured. Well, it was said about March that if it came in like a lamb it would go out like a lion.
He found the small door inset in the interior of the building just of to his right as he exited the causeway. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. He hoped she was awake at this hour of the morning. The sun had risen, but it was still casting long shadows everywhere. It would be another hour or two before the festival got underway in earnest. It would not end until sometime after the setting of the sun. Of course for those who celebrated the Equinox part of the celebration, they had been up all ready preparing for their own ceremonies. Raven's chapel would be busy for most of the day, and then almost unused the last two days. At least nothing beyond the ordinary that is.
He rapped his knuckles upon the door, sniffing at the ear, his ears cocked back, listening. He heard the tapping of her toes against the stone floor as she came to the door. The floor was usually cold, but his feet, as with the other rats and most of the others as well, were well insulated, so there was never a need to wear shoes. The door opened slowly, and he could see Lady Kimberly's face poking out. Her eyes lit up, and her nose twitched in delight as she saw him.
Charles inclined his head as she opened the door the whole way. She was dressed in a casual outfit, a loose fitting jerkin with a sash about her waist and a modest pair of pantaloons. She was pretty well cleaned up also, her tail being freed from grime and her claws trimmed down to a reasonable length. Her incisors had a bit of wood stuck between them, but Matthias probably had that happen to him on any number of occasions as well.
"Good morning to you, Lady Kimberly."
"Good morning, Charles." Kimberly smiled her little rat smile to him, which made his heart leap. He loved it when she smiled. Being a rat, they were incapable of a smile as once they knew it as humans, but there was a particular expression on the face, and a way the eye appeared to him that was obviously a smile.
"Are you going to the festival with anyone?" he asked, though he knew the answer already, he felt it proper to ask.
"Not yet." she gave him a slightly coy look.
"Would you care to go with me?"
She put her paw in his, and stepped out the door; "I'd love to."
Charles nodded, and gently closed her door for her, and then the two of them walked back down the Ivy Causeway feeling the glint of the sunshine as it rose over the distant buildings and tents. It was a warm feeling, almost as nice as the touch of her paw in his. He could feel her fingers entwining about his, her little claws nicking his own skin, disturbing the straggling hair on the back of his paws. He could feel her own calluses, the flesh rubbing against his own, the warmth there spreading to him as well. She did not hold it too tight, nor did she have such a loose grip the mildest of shaking could have separated them. Instead, it was a mutual grip that kept them together, holding on to each other. He let his tail touch hers as they walked, and to his delight her eyes twitched pleasantly as he did so.
As they walked, he noticed how she would point to the flowers, and stop every so often to walk to the side to examine the buds upon the ivy vines. Matthias gingerly caressed the petals of one of the lilies, putting his nose inside and inhaling deeply. He sighed; looking back up at Lady Kimberly as she accidentally disturbed a bee from its duties. She backed away, swatting at it with one hand, but Charles quickly pulled her back even further. The bee of course being a bee followed after her, buzzing angrily, and lopping in complex circles in front of her.
"Let's go back inside for a moment shall we?" Charles asked, pulling at her to come inside the door at the other end of the Causeway. Kimberly followed quickly and without any encouragement. Once they had shut the door back on the inside of the castle proper, they both looked at each other and laughed a bit. Matthias gave her hand a gentle squeeze, "You better watch those flowers, seems you disturbed him during something rather private."
"I don't like bees."
"I don't either, but as long as we stay out of their way, they'll leave us alone." Charles gave him a quick little hug about the shoulders, and she returned it, a little distracted by the thought of what had just happened.
"Ah well, shall we be on our way?" Charles was happy to see her nod enthusiastically, and so he led her out through the central archway towards the lawn proper and followed the cobblestone path down to the fields at the south end of the Keep. The brightly colored pinions and pavilions dotted the area, as well as oaken structures serving as booths for other minor entertainments. The main arena, set aside for the main show, usually physical combat or jugglers and small plays was at the moment empty. That would probably become pretty active by midday. He remembered last year's show in which members of the Writer's Guild had constructed a small play reenacting in short the battle between the evil Nasoj and the Keepers. It had been pretty humorous and quite exciting, especially watching some of the guild members portraying people who were in the audience watching. Seeing the older fox Nahum play Magus had not been too unexpected, but having Zhypar play Nasoj himself had been one of the most hilarious characterizations he had ever seen in any play before or after.
Charles found his way to the food pavilion, where all day things would be served for free to eat. He looked for Gregor's particular side of it, choosing to pass up on the array of meats and vegetables that were cascading down about one side. He knew what they both wanted, what both of their stomachs needed most. Gregor was not there, but his new apprentice Brennar, the black-and-white tabby was standing behind rows of bread, fiddling with the arrangement every now and then, pacing back and forth most of the time.
Brennar looked up to see them approach, and smiled. The sharp teeth that protruded from beneath his lips made Kimberly jump slightly, but Charles have her paw a reassuring squeeze. Brennar saw it too, and quickly dropped the rather intimidating smile. "Hello Charles, good to see you this morning. Are you two going to be my first customers?"
"I guess so, where's Gregor?" Charles replied, giving him a nod in greeting.
"He's back at the bakery baking some more bread. He says he wants to have fresh bread every morning, because there are a lot of people here who like to eat bread. I just get to watch over and make sure nobody hogs it all." Brennar sighed wistfully. "I wish he would let me try my hand at the oven again, I have been studying the recipes, but he insists that he does all the cooking. He wants me to learn to thresh and prepare the wheat, but most of the time he just has me doing menial chores."
Charles nodded, "You probably wouldn't find it much different from many other trades here at the Keep. You have your master who takes on apprentices, most of the time the apprentice starts out doing jobs completely unrelated to the task at hand. I think he wants you to learn discipline, at least to his satisfaction. Of course, I don't really know what goes through Gregor's head either."
Brennar looked a bit ashamed of himself, "I really shouldn't be complaining in front of you two. Who's your friend, Charles?" He seemed to notice her nervousness and tried to make himself seemed quite calm, and not so tense as before.
"This is Lady Kimberly." Charles proudly announced. He gave her a reassuring nod, and a quick hug about the shoulders. He let his tail touch hers again, wrapping about it momentarily. She quivered at his touch, her eyes brightly content.
"It's nice to meet you." Kimberly inclined her head.
"Oh yeah, I'm Brennar." He introduced himself, looking a bit chagrin at forgetting to mention his own name.
"Well Brennar, what do we have here," Charles began peering at the bread. Brennar pointed out a few, trying his best to describe them and what they were made from. Charles would frequently turn to Kimberly, point out a particular brand, and she would nod or shake her head. After they had finally decided on a couple small loaves of bread, they wished Brennar well as a few more customers started to filter in to the pavilion. They quickly went and grabbed some cheese as well, no particular brand, just a nice, plump, triangular slice of yellow cheese.
Walking out of the pavilion, Charles smiled and found a nice place for them to sit down while they sorted out the food. Sitting down in the grass, he let his tail curl about his legs, and set the bread and cheese on his knees. She sat down next to him, biting in to her bread, "This is good. Almost as good as his bread was at the Support Meeting."
Charles nodded, biting into his own loaf, "I think this bread is a day or so old. Brennar said he wanted to have fresh bread every morning. I guess this was not the fresh stuff. Ah well."
Kimberly shrugged, biting into it some more, then nibbling her cheese as well. Charles looked out as the clouds rolled by and the wind blew at them, snapping the tent walls back and forth. It was a good day for the festival, which was a nice change. Usually there was one day of the festival that was down right murky and very unpleasant. He hoped that the prognosticators were correct that the weather would be fine this weekend. Saroth, the ubiquitous dragon, had said that it was clear in all directions, except for a little wind, they should be fine.
"So, what do you want to go see?" Charles finally asked her, finishing up his own bread. There were many people walking about now, the place was beginning to come alive. There were a few boisterous shouts from far off tents and booths, and the dull, general din of conversation was impacting their ears. Kimberly looked away from him at the people walking back and forth across the grass before them. She nibbled on the last of her bread, then wiped her teeth off on the sleeve of her shirt.
"I always liked seeing the craftsmen build things right there. At least that's what I always wanted to watch at these festivals." Kimberly turned back to him, as he gingerly fingered the stick at his side. He noticed that she had brought her own, and that gave him a bit of hope. While he knew that she liked him, he wanted her to like herself. It was hard to like being a rat, but he so wanted her to enjoy what she was for herself. He wanted her to enjoy being a rat, and not think of it as a disgusting creature, which she had at first seemed to do.
She also kept him sane, which was an added bonus. He hadn't broken any of his furniture in the last two weeks, nor had he felt a need to vent his frustrations on them at all. It was pleasant knowing that he did not have to live completely by himself, but that he could share with another and let his heart be fulfilled. It gave him such joy at seeing her happy that it erased the angers and petulancies of the rest of his days.
"All right, I know where some of those are. They are on the other side of that pavilion over there. I'm hoping Hector did as I suggested and set up a booth."
"You remember Hector, one of the other rats." Charles pointed out.
"Oh, yes, now I remember him, he's the one that was always angry wasn't he?"
"Well, of late he's been quite serene actually."
"Well, I hope you'll see why." Matthias nodded to her, putting his paw on top of hers, and leaning a bit closer in. She finished off the last of her bread, and then brushed the crumbs off her pantaloons as well. That was one thing he noticed about her, she did not wear dresses often, he wondered about that, since that had been all she wore as a human. She had several dresses resized to fit her now, but she almost never wore them. He wondered if she thought she was not worthy to wear them. He certainly didn't think so, and it was obvious that she had enjoyed the sizing yesterday, having giggled at several points and being completely indecisive about what color to choose and what frills to add on to it. It had been a long day, and at times Charles wanted to just tell her to hurry up, but he knew that this was special for her, so said nothing.
He stood to his feet, and helped her up as well, and then, paw in paw, they began to walk towards the other pavilions, moving between the tent spikes as the rope buckled under the wind which was slowly beginning to pick up. He hoped that Phil would get the story memorized quickly enough, as it was a public performance, not a public reading. He had Tallis's story to memorize in the next few days as well. He would work at night on it, after everybody had gone to bed. It would not be difficult, but it was something that he needed to take time doing.
There were a few shops already in operation. To their left an elephantine man whom Charles had only seen on rare occasions was showing off his glassworks, though he was not doing any blowing today. Most of them were for sale, and Kimberly peered down at a rather intricate a beautifully colored glass sculpture of the Keep itself. The morning sun passed through it bringing many different scintillating colours to light. Kimberly traced her finger over the arches and promenades, causing the elephant to become quite nervous. He finally had to warn her that the Keep was not for sale and that it was still a work in progress. Kimberly left it alone, and began to move away from the wooden booth.
Charles looked about, and saw a few other interesting places, including one where blocks of wood were arrayed along the front in differing sizes. Hector stood behind it, his clothes neatly done, and his face well trimmed and cleaned up. In fact it was the best-looking Charles had seen Hector since the support group meeting. Hector saw him and nodded to him rather extravagantly, and Charles was forced to lead Kimberly over to his booth. Kimberly came, seeing the other rat, and recognizing him.
"Good morning, Hector."
"Morning, Charles, Kimberly."
"Hello, Hector." Kimberly wrinkled her nose at the pleasing smell of the wood before them. He had arrayed some cedar, and a particularly pungent aspen in blocks before him, and his paws with their very short stubby fingers and long claws lightly rested upon them.
"So you figured out how to carve wood again I take it?" Matthias asked him, feeling quite at ease and somehow overjoyed that they were all rats and joined together in conversation. He did not know what to make of it, but he always felt the most comfortable when he was around his fellow rodents.
"Yes, and I feel like an idiot that it didn't occur to me earlier. I may not have my hands, but I have something else that is just as good." Hector seemed rather proud of himself.
"My teeth." Hector opened his mouth wide, letting the large incisors hang freely. He picked up a block of wood and began chiseling away at it with his teeth. He then put it back down. He looked at his clothes for a moment and then got a really embarrassed look on his face. "Seems I forgot something. Every time I do this, I have to get smaller and smaller until I finish it as a true rat. I'll be getting naked for everybody who wants me to do a sculpture of them."
"Hector, don't worry, some of the people around here don't even wear clothes anymore," Charles reminded him with a bit of a chuckle.
Hector was still chagrined, but he nodded anyway. "Well, would either of you like for me to make sculptures of you?"
"Oh, could you do one of me?" Kimberly asked suddenly. Matthias was a bit surprised by that, he did not think she would want that sort of reminder of what she had become. However, if she did want one, he was certainly not going to stop her.
"Do you have any money? I can't really do this for free, at least not yet," Hector pointed out.
Kimberly looked distraught, and turned to him. Charles was at a loss for words; he was certainly not going to let her go without this, now that she had asked for it, but he had forgotten to bring any money with him at the moment. He knew what he had to do; he grabbed Hector by the arm and pulled him to one side. He leaned over and in a low voice whispered, "Just do this for her. I'll pay you back later. You know I will too."
Hector nodded, "Okay, Charles."
Charles smiled at Kimberly, and gave her a soft little hug, and she watched as Hector picked up the wood and began starring at it and then back at her. He reached over the temple and gingerly touched her face, which made her flinch back. "I just want to get the texture right, Kimberly, don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you."
Kimberly relaxed and let him feel her face, touching her teeth momentarily, and then poking her on the nose, at which her whiskers twitched in irritation and surprise. She glared at him, and Charles laughed a moment. Kimberly chuckled a bit herself then as Hector sat back down on his stool and began to get to work. He put the wood down and motioned for the two to sit down on the grass while they wait. They moved around to the side to watch him work all the better.
While Kimberly watched Hector wear the wood down, Charles let his eyes stray across all the figures moving about the festival. The level of activity was beginning to get pretty intense. He could just imagine the Deaf Mule this evening; they would have to get there early if they wanted to get any food whatsoever. Of course, they also needed to be at the evening service rather early as well. There was no proper ecclesia in the Keep, nor was there really any place that was perfect for Charles and the other Followers to worship, so they had to improvise in one of the larger halls in the castle itself. The makeshift altar would have already been prepared by now, certainly Father Hough would make sure that it would be ready for tonight. Certainly the most deathly serious of all the celebrations, the Death of Yahshua was honored tonight. Somehow the gay activities of the morning seemed somehow to belie what waited for them in the evening.
Charles himself examined Hector's mad shrinking scramble about the block of wood. After each level of refinement he would become more ratlike. Eventually his clothes fell off altogether, and he was barely a foot in height as the head of Lady Kimberly emerged from the block of wood. Lady Kimberly was rapt in wonder as her face quickly sprang out at her. He knew that she did not look in the mirror much at all if she could help it. However, now she had a permanent fixture of her visage, reminding her of her rodential stock. She did not seem displeased by it.
Finally, after Hector had become a full rat, the piece was finished, ad looked remarkably like the Kimberly's head in every detail. It was small, with her ears held behind her, and the orbs formed from the wood appeared almost smooth, nearly crying. The whiskers were nonexistent; the wood probably had not been strong enough to take that sort of molding. However, Charles found the simulacrum to be very wonderfully done. He helped Lady Kimberly to her feet and looked at the sculpture as the growing Hector got back into his clothes. Hector then handed the sculpture to Kimberly and she took it gingerly in her hands. It was small enough for her to carry easily, but it also looked to be very delicate, the head forming right out of the stand which had been untouched.
"Do you like it?" Hector asked apprehensively.
"This is beautiful." Kimberly touched it and was amazed at the detail he had managed with only his teeth. Hector beamed at the compliment, looking cockily to Matthias.
Charles pulled Phil's gift from his belt and began nibbling on it. He gave Hector a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and led Kimberly off to see the other things at the festival. Kimberly looked at Charles, her eyes content, and the bust held firmly in her paw. "I think perhaps we should put that somewhere safe," Charles pointed at it with his chew stick as they walked along.
Kimberly nodded, "Yes, let's put it in my room."
Charles happily led them back towards the castle proper. The celebration was with them, and already he was having a very good day. Still, no matter what happened, his mind was on Saturday night. He happily cupped his arm about her shoulder as they passed back through the Ivy Causeway, no bees to stir to anger about this time.