Evening Stroll

by Charles Matthias

Matthias studied the lay of the balls carefully, judging the distance perfectly. He was four balls behind Copernicus, as usual, but he had a shot here that if he judged it exactly right, and applied the proper amount of force he could manage to tie the game. Copernicus, the lizard that dwarfed him by over two hundred pounds and nearly three feet stood at the opposite end of the pool table holding his cue absently, admiring the rough green lace of the cloth on the table. His scaly fingers and claws traced over the contours of the finely crafted pine that had been used to construct the table.

Matthias paced back and forth, his tail swinging back and forth and curling up about his legs as he moved. Over the years he had grown accustomed to the way his legs and tail worked and almost never stepped upon it anymore. At first he had found that he was sitting on his tail, and stomping upon it nearly ever minute. It had been a painful time of adjusting, but it happened to nearly everybody at the keep. He passed the pole back and forth between his front paws, letting his thin hands feel the roughness of the wood, avoiding splinters and cracks if there were any. He wanted to win this game, wanted to win it badly. He also needed to win it fast -- or lose it fast, a possibility that seemed more likely -- as he had plans for the evening.

Copernicus was no slouch at pool. In fact, he had never lost. This fact irritated Matthias who was usually very good at these sorts of physical games. Others credited him with an ability to judge force and direction with the accuracy of a master. Copernicus was by all accounts very prone to lucky situations, but he also had a very acute sense of the game, as if he had played it all his life. It was almost a weekly ritual for them to play a few games together at the Deaf Mule, and play they did. Copernicus always won though. Sometimes by the slimmest of margins, but he always won.

Charles was planning to stop that this time. His drive to win was not so much born from a desire to win for the sake of winning, but it was grown from his urge to just dethrone that intimidating lizard. He imagined that Copernicus's instincts told him that Matthias might make a tasty snack; Charles knew that a few of the feline residents had similar urges when they got really hungry. Being a food item was not something that he necessarily liked, but it did seem to fit, in an almost ironic sort of sense.

Charles checked to make sure that nobody was about to interfere with his shot. The tavern was, as usual, brimming with patrons. There was a lot of idle chatter passing forth from one booth to the next, and there was merry laughter form many of the tables. The bar could probably hold a tenth of the inhabitants at any one time, but tonight it probably held less, though it was pretty full. The crackling fire in the hearth was inundated by sudden explosions as unwanted mead was tossed into the flames sending jets of bright yellows up through the chimney briefly, and dozens of sparks falling to the stone floor before the foot of the miniature conflagration. The bawdy singing from a few patrons who had already consumed too much ale was clearly audible over the general chorus of voices. The frenetic activity of Donny and the other servers in the bar to keep the customers stocked with food and beverage was so deft that one was amazed at the quality of their service.

Charles shut out all of those distractions, as he pushed his stepping stool over to the place where he would shoot from. Being only four feet tall at his largest form, he was only at eye level with the table, and could not effectively make his shots. The foot high stool, which he kept beneath the table, helped him with that. He stood up, leaning over the table, and hefting the pole in his right paw. He put it through his fingers, feeling the control come over him. He knew exactly how to strike the cue ball, he knew exactly how much force was needed, and he could not miss it. He pulled back, and sent out his arm, restrained only insofar as the height of the pole was concerned. He heard a resounding crack as pole struck cue ball, sending it sailing into one of the cushioned sides of the table. It then smashed into one of the striped balls, sending it sailing in to the corner pocket next to Copernicus. The cue ball kept going though, hitting the eight ball, which connected in just the right way with two other striped balls, sending both into pockets on his side of the board. It then came to rest just before his last ball, the only one left before the eight ball.

Copernicus nodded in approval at the shot, "Very good, Charles, that was a most impressive shot. I can see why it took you nearly ten minutes to make it!"

Charles shrugged, "I just wanted to make sure I was exactly right about it."

"Well, it's still your turn, think you can still beat me? I only have to hit the eight ball into the pocket." Copernicus warned him in his raspy tone, his yellow eyes glancing down at him mischievously.

Charles nodded, reaching over to the nearby table, where sat Michael who he and Copernicus were trying to instruct in the art of pool, to grab the glass of fruit juice that he had ordered. Usually he would have a bit of mead when he played Copernicus, but not tonight. He had plans that were too important to let a little drink spoil. Michael was giving him a nod of approval at the shot, obviously impressed. Unlike Copernicus, who tended to take out one ball at a time, Matthias was more inclined to try for killer shots, ones that knocked out several balls at once. He did not get many of them, as the setups never quite worked out, but when he did get them, they were always something that he was rather proud of. Now if he could just defeat Copernicus just this once!

Looking back at his new friend Michael he could see that the changes that were taking place in him, though slow, were progressing bit by bit. His face was so far untouched, though his ears were a bit pronounced. They were still rounded, but they did have a bit of fur on them, much like the fur that was proceeding its way down his back and from what Matthias could see, across his chest as well. Still, there was no other indication that he could see as to what Michael was going to become. He knew that he'd like to see him become a rat, but he wasn't sure if that was good for Michael, not considering some of the things that he had inferred from their conversations. He had to admit a sort of racial pride, but in the end, it might not be the best thing for him. Which was too bad too, because he knew Michael would make a great rat.

Stepping back up to the pool table, he moved the stool over to where he needed it to be. This shot was much less difficult to figure out. It was a straight shot, and then he could be in a very good position to strike at the eight ball, which was near the center of the bottom half of the pool table. Taking careful aim, he fired the cue into the last of the striped balls, and sent it calmly rolling into the corner pocket. Copernicus shook his head sadly, "Looks like you might get me this time, Charles."

Charles surveyed the field. It was not an easy shot, he would have to bounce the ball of the wall first, but he could hit the eight ball into the corner pocket just opposite the last shot he'd made if he aimed it carefully. He smiled to the huge lizard, feeling the specter of past losses to this incongruous individual shedding away in this one moment. "Well, I still have one last shot to make."

"You can get this one." Copernicus predicted. "It looks like an easy shot to me."

Matthias knew it was so. This was his game to lose. Staring at the board, he looked from one side of the cue to the eight ball, the only two balls left on the board. It was now or never. He moved the stool in position, just behind where Michael was sitting. He stepped up to the platform, looking over the scene carefully, the tension in his paws tight. He took a breath, calming his nerves. If he missed the shot, the game would be Copernicus'. It had been that scaled fiend so many times that he had lost count. While they were good friends, this rivalry was too one sided for Matthias's taste. He did not want to lose again.

He put his arm into position, setting the tip of the pole against the cue ball, his paws steady. He began to pull back, ready to release as soon as he felt the proper force in his arms. Behind him, he could hear one of the barmaids voices ring out, "Here's your ale, Michael."

Michael then replied, "Here, I'll get that."

Matthias did not see what had happened, but he knew it all too well. Michael stood up, the chair being pushed back as he did so. The back supports on the chair collided with the back of his pole, causing him to loose his grip. The tip of the pole crashed into the cue ball, and it careened about the pool table wildly, completely missing the eight ball. It finally came to stop in what to Matthias was the perfect place, in a direct path with the corner pocket with the eight ball in between! By a freak accident, Copernicus was going to win!

Michael seemed to have noticed the error as soon as he made it, turning to Matthias with a deeply apologetic look to him. "I'm so sorry, Charles, I didn't mean to do that!"

Charles, did not look at Michael just then, he was still staring at the eight ball, which had not moved once. What fates were against him in this game? Could he be given a game in which Copernicus still had all seven of the solids to strike down while he had only the cursed and elusive black ball and still would he loose? He watched as Copernicus leaned over the table and calmly placed the eight ball in the corner pocket to win the game.

Charles sighed, he was never going to defeat this big lizard, and that was that. He looked at Michael whose ears were twitching in anguish at what he'd done. "It's okay Michael. There will be other games."

"Charles, good game." Copernicus congratulated him. "I really thought you had me there at the end."

Matthias inclined his head at his friend. He reached for his chew stick, not the one that Phil had given him at the last meeting, but instead something that he had absconded from the kindling depository. There had been no downed trees, so he had to find something to chew on. He then turned to Copernicus again, tacking a bite out of his stick to calm his nibbling incisors. "Well, it seems you got lucky this time, as usual."

Copernicus smiled to Michael, "I've got a secret agent here, that's how."

Michael looked a bit offended at that, still horrified by what he had caused, "I did not do that on purpose!"

Copernicus gave him that big reptilian grin and put a claw on his shoulder, "Nobody's saying you did! This is just me and Charles way of getting ready for our next game, right Charles?"

Matthias drank the remainder of his fruit juice. "Not tonight my friend, I have plans."

Copernicus looked shocked. "What do you have in mind?"

Matthias's whiskers twitched in anticipation, "I am just going to let you find that out for yourself. I really should be leaving. Michael, why don't you let Copernicus teach you some more pool. Who knows, you might even beat him."

Michael nodded, "Have a good time Charles."

Copernicus winked, "Yes, say hello to the Lady Kimberly for me."

Matthias winced quite visibly. He gnawed at his stick pensively for a moment, his feet tapping the ground and his tail twitching agitatedly. "How did you know?"

Copernicus smiled, "You didn't think we would? Charles, you know that no secret is going to remain one around here. Everybody's seen the way you get when she's in the room. Dr. Channing told me you were writing love poems the other day at the Writer's Guild." Copernicus then leaned over the table, getting on an eye to eye level with Matthias. He snickered, his nostrils flaring for a moment, "I think you two look good together."

Matthias cringed, did everybody know about it! And how had Channing seen those poems, he'd leaned over them so that nobody would notice! Oh well, there wasn't much he could do about it, and besides, why should he let the whole Keep knowing about it ruin his plans? As long as they didn't follow them around, then there was no harm done was there?

Michael was smiling gaily of course, and Copernicus seemed rather smug about it all, and Matthias finally had to sigh and gnash his teeth together in contentment. He chewed a bit on the stick as he did so before finally taking his leave of them. "Well, I better get going then. You two have a good evening."

Copernicus and Michael wished him well as he made his way through the crowd of patrons and towards the smaller door to the side of the main doorway. As he left, he relished the smell of the early evening spring air. Before long, they would no longer need the fires to keep warm, the summer sun would provide enough heat. The stockpiling for the next winter would continue though. He sort of missed the snow on the ground. In wintertime the Keep was surrounded by a pristine land, carpeted in white as far as the eye could see, and very quiet. Of course, he did not go with the sentries. The Lutins were not anymore active in the winter than they were in other months; it only seemed that way. The snow stained red would linger for weeks before it was buried in another snowfall or eaten by errant predators. It was a miserable way to die, alone, in the cold, as the blood spilled from your wounds, and the icy embrace made you numb to everything about you. If you were lucky, the sentries found you from the sound of your moaning. If not.... Matthias shook that thought from his mind, he'd seed too much death as it was.

Despite the seeming greater danger in winter, and the grotesque remains that were often left by the Lutin attacks on travelers, Matthias found it to be one of his favorite seasons. Those were the days when most people came to the Tavern, or to the Writers Guild to hear the stories, or to just gather up by the fire and to be a large family. In the summer there was too much work to be accomplish to get any serious socializing done, but during the winter, that was when the residents drew closer together. The fields had been tilled, the crops were in, and the meats were preserved down in the storage room in the basement. Even some of the other rats came above ground during those chilly months, as the cellar was not known for its great heating.

Still, it was now spring, and the trees were in blossom with the garden beds overflowing with bright colors every day. Though he did not do much gardening himself, he did know a few people and was able to get a few things every now and then. Of course he paid for them, as they were too precious to be cut on a whim. He walked back as the sun continued its steady march towards the western horizon. It would be dark soon, and he did not have that long.

He quickly made his way back to his little hole in the wall, and pulled his slightly stained jerkin off. He slipped the pantaloons from his legs and tail, and quickly looked over his naked body for anything that needed to be fixed. He grabbed one of the combs that was on his dresser and begin to brush out a few knots in his fur, making sure to get down to his very skin. He paid special attention to fur on his neck and face, making sure it was just so. He then reached over for the waterdish he kept at his bedside and wiped his palms free from the grime that had accumulated there. He then reached into his dresser and pulled out two small cloths. He dipped one in the bowl, twisted it to make sure that it was only damp, and then proceeded to wipe down his tail to make sure it was not dirty in anyway. He was always amazed at his body's dexterity that he could twist completely around so. But then again, it was almost necessary for being a rat.

After cleaning off his tail, he took the other hand cloth and dried it off. He tossed both towels into a hamper in the corner of his room next to the door. He picked up the rest of his clothes and tossed them in there too. He was going to have to take those out to be washed soon; they were getting a bit grimy. He reached into his dresser and pulled out his iridescent green hose and doublet, laying them carefully on his feather bed. He then stretched one last time, looking into his mirror and at the single red rose that was sitting in an earthenware bottle filled with water. He had gotten the rose just the other day, paid a few silver coins for the right to cut it too as the gardener was rather fond of it. It was still as majestic and full of the lush crimson petals that it had been when in the ground.

Slipping into the doublet and hose, he took another look at himself in the mirror. He looked quite dignified, the green of his outfit matching well with the light brown of his fur. He liked to wear verdant colors, and most agreed he looked very good in them. Of course, he was not so dashing as he might think, but still, for a rat, he was looking top notch tonight! He picked up the rose in its earthenware jar, and then reached down for his chew stick. He then stopped, and stared at its twisted and gnarled shape. It was very unrefined and quite ridiculous looking in comparison to his outfit and demeanor. He did not pick up that stick, instead he went over to his writing table and pulled out the stick that Phil have gave him at the Support Group meeting a few nights back. This was what it was intended for. This looked nice.

Slipping a few pieces of parchment into the pockets of his doublet and sliding Phil's stick through the buckler about his waist almost like a scabbard, he proceeded to leave his room. He walked down the halls, head held high, whiskers well trimmed, ears perked up, and his eyes bright with life. He strolled out the ivy-covered archway and down through a causeway leading to another section of the Keep. He stayed beneath the decorative overpass as he walked about, taking in the beautiful scents of the evening air. The fresh earth, the fragrance of the flowers as bees passed to and fro collecting pollen. It was a pleasant evening, the sky turning a deep scarlet towards the setting sun, with the gentle cauliflower-shaped clouds -- Dr. Channing called them cumulous clouds -- in the sky reflecting the red back.

Passing back into the stone walls of the Keep's personal quarters he found his way about the halls till he came to an inset room with a smaller than normal doorway. He could see the flickering light beneath the doorframe. Holding the rose behind his back, he proceeded to rap gently at her oaken door. He heard a scuffling of feet and the clicking of her toeclaws as she scampered over to the doorway. She opened it slightly, her eyes bemused at his elaborate dress. Her face moved first from surprise to a bit of nervousness for not being quite so nicely dressed to pleasure at seeing him at her doorway.

"Oh, Charles, what are you doing here?" she asked, her paw going to her incisors as they began to nibble reflexively. She was still unused to using a chew stick as much as he or the other rats were. She probably found it a bit demeaning, but it was one of the prices to pay for being a rat.

"I came here to see you, Lady Kimberly." He then pulled the rose out and held it to her in one paw. He bowed down slightly, taking his eyes off of her face and looking at her feet. Like most rats, she went barefoot; it was easier on their toes. He then said in his most soothing voice possible, "And to give you this."

She stepped back slightly, obviously taken aback by the gesture. However, he felt the weight lifted from his hand, and he heard that little catch in her voice. He stood back up, his eyes alight. She was staring at the rose in wonder, her nose sniffing it and her whiskers shuddering as her voice cooed. She held it delicately, her paws tracing the bright red petals. Her eyes were at first enraptured by the gift, and then they softened as they returned to gaze at his rodential features, "Oh, Charles, thank you! You are so sweet."

She leaned over, and gave him a quick little hug, holding the rose off to one side so as not to stick him. He hugged her back, his heart jumping for joy, his emotions getting into gear. If only she would respond like this more often! Kimberly was then off into her room, taking the earthenware bottle with the rose safely inside. She placed it on the mantle above the fire pit, on the opposite side of the sputtering candelabra. At his request, she was placed in one of the rooms with access to a fireplace. His own room did not have one, and he was forced to wear very thick clothes during the winter months.

Charles did not step in the doorway, but watched as she meticulously placed the rose so that it was just perfect. He didn't mind waiting at all. Once she was finished, she returned to the doorway, her face all aglow. "Thank you so much, that is a very beautiful rose."

"I'm glad you like it." Charles inclined his head respectfully. He wasn't quite sure how to say what he wanted to, all the carefully prepared words had disappeared from his mind. However, he could not leave her standing in her doorway like this. "Would you care to go for a stroll, my lady? It is very beautiful out this time of the year and I'd like to show you my favorite spot to watch the sunset from."

She practically beamed at him, her jump back into the room to blow out the candles so quick that he knew she had already made up her mind. "Yes, I'd love to see the sunset."

Matthias held out his right arm to her, and she took it, and they locked elbows together. Matthias confidently strolled out towards the Keep grounds once more, Kimberly looking about at the scenery as if she was seeing it for the very first time. She would often point to a stray bird or an especially pretty flower as they walked by the garden beds. Matthias felt her tail brush up against his as they walked, and talked about nothing it seemed. However, each word meant more to him than anything he had ever written down on paper. He gingerly felt the pieces of parchment tucked inside his breast coat pocket. He had written those for her, and he wanted her to hear them. The were for her ears only, and people like Dr. Channing had better keep their nosy beaks out of them!

As they continued to walk about the inside walls of the Keep, Matthias continued to incline his head to the sky. The sun was setting already, and the eastern horizon was already darkening. Kimberly did not seem to notice so much that there were other people about, many of whom gave them inquisitive glances. From what Charles could tell, she felt that they were the only two people in the world at the moment. He knew that she was very much in need of company, very much in need of somebody who could like her despite her appearance. Matthias had to chuckle to himself, he thought she looked absolutely ravishing! She was a devastatingly beautiful rat, even if nobody else thought so. He wished she had thought so too, because she was so down on herself and her appearance.

Though Charles was dressed well, she was in a very comfortable looking set of trousers and a simple shirt. It covered her important areas, but it certainly was not her best. Perhaps next time he should let her know in advance. Of course, he did not really care if she wore rags; he still wanted her near, and happy. It was important to him, and it made him feel good to see her this free. He could not remember a single time since she had first come to the Keep that she had seemed this at ease with herself and him. It gave him a sense of hope.

That hope was enough to erase from his mind the tragic accident he'd had with Sir Saulius a couple days back. It had plagued his mind the entire day; he had nearly killed one of his fellow rats. True, it had been in self-defense, but it should never have happened in the first place. The shriving that Raven had given him at Chris's suggestion had proved quite helpful in aleving his spirit. It had surprised him; Raven had been quite willing to perform the shriving like any good Follower priest. For that, he had been grateful. He was still trying to think of some way to repay Chris for the kindness that the ursine librarian had shown him.

However, it hadn't eased the pain in his heart much. Now, seeing Kimberly like this, to see her enjoying her life, and enjoying herself with him, that eased his heart. It even made him forget his unlucky loss to Copernicus! It also did something greater; for once he could actually see that there was hope for them all in this crazy place. They were not just animals or degenerates, but indeed they were often times greater than the human beings they once were. This place was the ultimate chance for a new beginning, the lives that they had once lived could be dead, and they could start anew, fresh, with nothing to hold them back. Sometimes things from the past may crop up, but they were things from a dead life; one that was no longer lived. That he and she were rats only filled him more with joy, because he could think of no other person he'd rather be with.

Finally they reached a rather idyllic place on the top of a small rise, giving them a good view over the outer walls of the Keep. Matthias pointed to a set of rocks amidst the clearing of trees, and helped her to sit down a top one of them. He climbed up after her, and sat beside her, his paw holding hers. Their feet dangled, their toes stretching as they watched the bright crimson of the sun slowly settling down beneath the rolling hills towards the distant sea. The gently rolling clouds refracted the last of the sun's rays as it began its final descent. As they sat there, tails entwined, teeth gently grinding, amidst the copse of apple trees, they saw the last of the day end before them in a mural of crimson and vermilion.

As the sun finally set, Kimberly leaned her head into his shoulder. He put his right arm about her, holding her close as his left paw found its way into her paws. He sighed deeply, just enjoying the moment, the silence as one by one the stars began to appear in the sky, bright and twinkling. They sat there for some time, until the sky began to grow darker, and the light bearers began to come through lighting torches along both the inner and outer walls of the Keep. The lightbearer, a sinuous ferret, noticed them, but did not interrupt their moment as he lit the torch on the post just on the opposite side of the copse.

Kimberly felt her paw up and down his doublet, admiring the way the guttering torch flames reflected in his iridescent fabric. She watched as the light played upon her fur, giving it an almost psychedelic cast. He saw her chittering teeth, and knew his own need the chew on something was growing strong. He took his paw from hers and pulled free Phil's stick, and offered it to her. She put a single finger on it, and pushed it gently away, "No, that is too special."

"I know, why not share it?" Charles offered it again, and this time she took it gingerly into her paws, and began to nibble at the end, being very careful to not mar the surface. Charles chuckled, "It's all right. It was meant to be chewed upon. It does me no good unless I use it."

Kimberly began to chew a bit harder then, letting her need to wear down her incisors take over. Matthias picked up the other end of the stick, raising it to his own mouth, and began to gnaw away at the other end. The flame from the torch danced in her eyes, and he was lost in their simple beauty. They both chewed from the same stick, their noses sniffing at the other, in joy. He could smell her delight, her simple feeling of wonder and specialness. Yes, he had made her feel special, and that delighted him. Well, she was special!

After a few moments, their need satisfied, she let go of the stick. Kimberly sighed, wiping her mouth clean, picking a little splinter out from between her teeth. Matthias slid Phil's stick back into his buckler, and then looked her in the face. She let her head droop a little, her ears twitching ever so slightly. She was waiting for him to do something, he could tell. He knew the perfect thing to make this the most pleasant of evening strolls. He reached into his breast coat pocket and pulled one of the poems he had written out.

"I wrote this yesterday while I was thinking about you." he explained as he shifted to get into the light better so he could read.

"Oh," her voice had that little catch in it again, "would you please read it to me?" She leaned forward on the rock, her tail curling behind her, and her eyelids batted at him a few times. He felt like his heart was going to burst. With every word from his mouth, every one that passed his lips, he knew that this was an evening they would never forget.

And the stars shined on them from above, and the clouds continued to make their way across the sky. And the moon, bright and full, began its ascent into the night sky, watching over them as he read to her his heart.