Escalation

by Charles Matthias

It was a pleasant if breezy spring afternoon at the Keep. The golden rays of the sun fell across the swaying grasses, and beyond them the beds of irises and lilies, each beginning to open up to the warmer air of the blossoming season. It was no officially spring quite yet, but it was so close that they could all taste it. The last of the snow had melted off almost a month ago, and only on the highest of parapets and spires of the central castle of the Keep still showed signs of the frigid iciness. Along the crevices of Dr. Channing's tower were several rivulets of snow, though even that was melting, and on a day like this the streaks and drip drops of the water could be seen down along the side of the masonry just beneath the cracks in the gutter. A single bird's nest perched in one of the outstretched and uncleaned gutters, and the song of the hawk could be heard for miles as it reigned triumphant among its avian brethren. The cackling of its young were only slightly less distinct.

Yes, the hawk was supreme in its area, with the exception of the Keepers themselves. There was a certain wary tension between most animals and many of the predator species of the Keep. However, the occasional hawk or other fierce creature would make its home about the outer walls of the Keep itself. For Charles, it was a pleasant time of the year. Sitting out upon the lawn next to one of the flying buttresses alongside the Keep's inner buildings watching the tents being bivouacked for the Equinox-Easter celebration five days hence, he was having a pleasant picnic with the Lady Kimberly. She was no usually to be found out of doors during the daytime, but he had managed to convince her that it would be pleasant to sit upon the lawn as the tents were erected and the platforms built. It was always a joyous time, and the excitement was building among most of the Keepers.

The Lady Kimberly was enjoying herself as she took big bites out of the apple that he had passed to her. Apples were of considerable size to them, and were a very filling meal. He had brought along some bread that he had bought from Gregor the capyberran earlier in the day. He had supplied his winter quilt and spread it out across a small patch of grass. The sun was behind them, high in the sky, and the shadow of the Keep was inching p towards them as the day progressed. He brought along one of his manuscripts that he was working on, just to show her the sorts of things he wrote. He could tell she was enjoying his reading to her, she had her legs held close to her body, her arms about her legs, and her tail between the nook of her legs. Her whiskers had twitched in amusement as Charles read the comical adventures of one of his little heroes. She even chuckled a nice throaty chuckle a few times

However, the story did not take long for him to read, and soon it was set aside, under a small weave basket. Holding paws once again, she leaned into his shoulder as they just sat there enjoying the view of the tents being erected. He knew that Lady Kimberly needed constant support and attention. He felt terrible that he had so many responsibilities that he could not always meet her needs. It gave him a terrible feeling remembering how she had been only a few days ago. She had held him for what seemed an hour. It had almost been embarrassing, but he finally had managed to pull her into his room and talk with her.

He remembered one part of their conversation distinctly, "I just feel ugly!" she had wailed, her paws balling into fists as she sat on his bed, her tail hanging off the side. She had been trembling, and he had sat beside her, much like he did now. He wanted her to know that he was near.

"You are beautiful," He had said, putting his arm about her shoulders. "I think you are the prettiest lady in the Keep." He had meant those words too.

She had shaken then, her whiskers twitching, and her teeth grinding in delight as he had made her feel appreciated. "Thank you."

"I will always think you are beautiful."

"But others," she had protested. "The others just look at me and see a rat, and they laugh and it hurts!"

"Have very poor taste." He had told her. He then had pointed to his mirror, bringing her eyes in line with her reflection. She saw herself for one of the very few times, and looked away quickly. Charles had gently made her see herself, "You see that face in the mirror? That is the most beautiful and attractive face in all the Keep. I wouldn't trade it for any other."

He had then turned her head back to him, tears still standing in her eyes. "I wouldn't trade you for any other." He had given her that serious look of his, with his whiskers straight, his head sloped slightly, and his ears back. She knew it well, and had nodded, before collapsing back into his arms. He enjoyed holding her, hoping that the pain would be taken away. He hoped that in time she would grow to enjoy being a rat as well. He could not describe it himself; there was something about being a rat that gave him pride. Lady Kimberly did not yet know that; perhaps in time she would come to know it as he had done.

However, the afternoon was growing long, the day was nearly finished. It would be another hour or two till sunset, but still, there were other responsibilities that each had. Like most of the inhabitants who could not find other work, Lady Kimberly was given tasks that her new body could handle to give her a subsidiary living. They needed to eat, and the rooms that they lived in were given to them at Duke Thomas's pleasure. However, there was only a finite amount of space in the Keep. After a couple months each new inhabitant would have to begin paying his or her way to live at the Keep. Of course, nobody was ever turned out, because that was almost certainly going to be death.

Suddenly, the Lady Kimberly leaned over into his lap, looking up into his face, her body stretched out on the quilt, the end of her tail twirling out in the grass. "You don't mind do you?" she asked.

"No, not at all." Charles replied, happy to see her enjoying herself.

She sighed, staring up into the bright blue sky. He ruffled her fur a bit on the top of her head, sighing. It had been a long day for him. The last of the entries for the writing contest had been submitted today. Now Dr. Channing, Phil, and he would have to go through them over the next couple of days and select the winners. They would be announced and read publicly by the three of them on consecutive days. Phil would read the third place on the first evening of the celebration. Dr. Channing the second night, and he would read the best story at the last night of the celebration. He hated judging, because the stories were all so good!

Fortunately, that wouldn't start until tomorrow. Today, he could relax with Lady Kimberly. Suddenly her finger pointed skyward, "Oh look, the hawk is circling!"

Matthias looked up to see it, and nodded, "Dr. Channing tells me that the hawk has some young up there. I thought it was the wrong season for that sort of thing, but I guess this one is an early bloomer."

"I'm surprised he lets it live there. Won't it disturb his work?"

"Well, he said that he's never had a problem before, so I guess he's willing to let it stay. Then again, I never know quite what's going through the Reverend's head," Matthias admitted, clicking his teeth at his own humour.

Lady Kimberly did not say anything more, but reached instead for a bit of the bread still in the basket. From her awkward position, Matthias watched, and then tried to help her. Both of their paws going for the basket at the same time knocked it over, and the exposed pages of parchment were caught almost immediately in the wind. The top page suddenly soared up into the air before Charles could react. A second page began to fly away, but he grabbed that quick enough, and put his paw on the rest. Kimberly rolled out of his lap, and helped him get the pages back in order, but the first page had gotten away.

After setting the basket back on the ream of parchment, Charles looked about in the air to see where the other page went. The wind was blowing up through the balustrades as it passed, and he was able to follow its course to the nearby flying buttress. The piece of parchment was still there; holding together caught on the underside of the buttress itself. He grimaced; it was too high for him to reach at all, at least twenty feet above their heads. He looked at the scrollwork done on the stone, and could see that there were plenty of handholds to grip onto. He was a fairly versatile climber. It should not prove too difficult.

"Sorry about that," Lady Kimberly apologized.

"Don't be sorry, it's not your fault. I'll just go get that parchment and we'll be fine." Charles began casually walking towards the base of the buttress itself. Kimberly grabbed him by the arm though and tugged him back. "Hey!" he called out, struggling against her grip. "What's the matter?"

"That is awfully high up," she pointed out. "You could get hurt."

"I'll be fine, I've climbed this sort of thing before." He dislodged her paw from his shoulder and gave her a quick wiggling of his whiskers to let her know that he was going to be okay. She stood there reluctantly watching as he began his ascent. She stayed nearly directly underneath him, her head inclined, peering up after him as he went. Getting his footing was not a problem. The stones were for the most part solidly placed and there were plenty of outcroppings and juts to hold onto. The wind was steady, holding the parchment in place and not tearing it up, as he was afraid it might. He hated writing things over again; it was always his worst nightmare. He should have known to have had the scribes make duplicates of his story before he read it to her. However, he had just been so eager to give her a pleasant afternoon that he had not spent anytime thinking about the possible consequences of his actions.

It was not a constant failing of his. Usually he was pretty responsible with his duties. He was quite capable of discharging them without fail. Still, there were those times when he would make a mistake, and it usually turned out to be a colossal blunder. He hated to think what would happen if he fell and hurt himself, she'd never let him live it down. His climbing days would be over after that!

Moving his way up, he let his tail curl about the massive framework as he advanced on his prize. It was an easy climb, but a tedious one, as Kimberly kept following him. One time he made the mistake of putting his foot down where he couldn't quite see, and had temporarily slipped. Her immediate reaction had been a small sound of shock followed by, "Are you okay? I don't think this is safe."

Matthias sighed as he regained his footing. "Lady Kimberly, it's okay. I've done this before. I'll have that parchment in another minute and then I'll be back done on the ground in another two. Don't worry." He winked at her then, giving her his little smile, and then continued onwards and upwards. It was not an easy climb, and some of the stones had become loose through moss and rot. The higher he got the worse it seemed for some reason. He carefully avoided a particularly corroded looking section of the red brick and made his way up to the bend in the buttress where his parchment rested. Reaching down, he began to slide over to the side and he deftly snatched the parchment up in one paw.

He heard a sudden gasp from below; she was probably stunned at his feat of balance. Of course, that little bit of pride could not go unpunished. As he got the parchment back in hand, the wind changed direction, sending it suddenly full into his face, blinding him. Reflexively, he released with his paws, and slipped to the bottom of the buttress, hanging by his legs and tail as he pulled the parchment from his muzzle, shaking his head back and forth, and snuffling repeatedly. He looked up at his leg hold, it was not good. He quickly rolled the parchment up, and placed it in his tunic where it would be safe.

Reaching a paw up as his back bent forward, he grabbed a slight extension and began to pull on it. He let go with his legs, gripping the extension firmly in both paws. As he hung there, he noticed that it was beginning to slip away from him. He was not going to fall down, not from this height! Gritting his teeth, he realized the best thing to do would to shift to the normal rat form and run down the length of the buttress's main column.

He looked back at Kimberly, "I'm going to change into a full rat, so catch my clothes when they fall please." He did not wait for a reply. He did not shift into the rat form often, it was usually inconvenient for his purposes, but when it came to this, he knew what was most intelligent to do. He quickly shrank, and felt his clothes falling away from him, as they became too large for him to wear. The tunic he would have to slip out one arm at a time. He quickly released his left paw, and let the shirt fall away on that side, and then grabbed the handhold again. He saw it slip a bit further, the grinding of stone against stone having rubbed it raw over the years. He then let his right arm release, and the shirt fell to the ground just as his pants had done.

He finished shrinking, and his new weight made it quite easy to climb back up onto the buttress. He stretched himself out, shaking his head and getting his footing. He peered down at the Lady Kimberly who was carefully folding his crumpled clothes in a pile where she sat. She then took them in her arms and looked back up at him. She was him staring down at her, and then shook her head, "I told you to be careful! Now you've embarrassed yourself in front of everybody."

Charles looked about and saw that there really wasn't anybody else in the garden where they were at the time. Most were either inside or at the Deaf Mule or helping out with the preparations for the festival. He did not notice any throng but the Lady Kimberly herself. However he was not going to disagree with her! Not now especially. He began to run down the length of the buttress, trying to avoid slipping on the moist surface or getting harried by the wind.

However, the on thing he did not expect, did happen. He would never have known it either had she not warned him by screaming in a shrill voice, "Charles! The hawk!"

He looked up briefly, to see the hawk diving toward him, its talons extended. It thought he was a meal! He did not let it distract him in the least, as he quickly jumped to the lower balustrade and ducked beneath it, holding on with two paws. The hawk slashed and grabbed for him, but missed by the barest of breath. His heart was pounding, fast, very fast. He looked down at the ground; it was still a good ten feet drop. The hawk would probably make another pass, as he did look like food. However, he didn't have to.

With calm realization, he let himself balloon back out to his four-foot tall size, and dropped from the ledge itself. He landed hard on his back, but was agile enough to get back up quickly and scramble out of the way. The hawk lost interest almost immediately.

The Lady Kimberly was shaking visibly. She held his clothes out to him, getting a chance to see him naked. She did not take it, choosing instead to stare after the fleeing hawk. He didn't mind, it gave him time to redress. Once he was back in his clothes, she gave him a fierce look, "I told you to be careful! You almost became food for that hawk's little ones!"

Matthias could see that she was shaking with fright. He grabbed her about the shoulder and gave her a tight hug, "If it wasn't for you that is. You saved my life, thank you so very much."

She pushed him back, "Don't ever do that to me again!" She scolded him in a very insistent voice. She turned around and sat with her back to him on the quilt. She was still shaking. Matthias himself was shaking a bit. He had nearly been eaten, and he did not know what he would have done had that hawk actually snatched him. He could have been dead before he knew the hawk had attacked. He walked over to hear, thumbing the parchment in his shirt. He picked up his chewstick from the blanket, and gingerly began nibbling at it. He saw that she was ferociously attacking hers, trying to get the nervous tension out of her body.

He leaned over the quilt, and put his paws on her shoulders, gently massaging her muscles, and gently applying pressure. At first she nearly shrugged him off, but then she leaned into it. He kept it up, until she finally was just enjoying the massage, no longer chewing on the stick that she had brought with her. Feeling emboldened, he tickled her ear with his whisker and said, "I'm sorry I made you worry. That was foolish of me. Do you forgive me?"

She turned her head aside to get his whiskers out of her ear, and then put one of her paws on his. "I forgive you, just promise you won't make me worry like that again."

He gave her a hug then, wrapping his arms about her, and squeezing gently for a brief moment before sitting back down beside her, "I promise." He then pulled the last slice of bread from the basket, and handed it to her. She took it and began nibbling at it. He leaned into her side, peering into her bright black eyes. She stared back, the worry seeping away as she saw that he was okay. "I promise you, Lady Kimberly. I will not frighten you with one of those stunts ever again."

She then sighed contentedly and finished eating the bread before giving him a little hug of her own.

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"Escalation", copyright Charles Matthias