The cobblestone steps were chilly to the touch, but the small rat scampered across them effortlessly, barely grazing them with his paws. Nestled against the crook of the long hallway wall, Charles did his best to remain unnoticed, searching for any opening or fissure that might lead him to a less public place. Though, he had used this innocuous form for sneaking about the Keep's many corridors and passages - usually to follow those he suspected of legerdemain - it never ceased to amaze him how gigantic this timeless fortress really was. Of course, this simply meant that as a pure rat, it would take him numerous hours to navigate his way even the shortest of paths.
Still, on this particular summer morning, this was desirable. As was his new found custom, Matthias had gone to see Misha shortly after meeting with his fellow rats in the cellars. The fox had proposed a game of sorts, whose rules had been very open-ended. Of course, the rat had dragged the explanation from the fox, and found the proposal quite to his liking. Predator and prey they would be, Misha stalking Charles through the halls of the Keep. The only stipulations were that at no time would either of them take their morph forms, or would they leave the many and various halls and rooms of the Keep itself.
"So, when do we begin?" Matthias had asked while nibbling on his chewstick as he sat in Misha's workroom.
The fox had flashed him one of those mischievous grins, and then turned te crank on one of his timepieces. A sudden ticking then echoed throughout the musty hall, full of oil and grease and the scent of the bread and cheese that they had shared only moments before. "We begin right now. Once this clock winds down, I will start following your trail. I suggest you return to your room and change out of your clothes."
And so Matthias had done a little over an hour ago. So far he had seen nothing of his vulpine teacher, but he was not going to take any chance in resting till he was sure he was in a place that the fox could not find, or simply could not reach. The Keep was an ancient edifice, and so one would expect that it would be cris-crossed by imperfections and decay, but such was not the case. There were cracks here and there, places through which a rat could squeeze through, but they were few and far between. The variable geometry of the Keep was hard to predict, though most places generally stayed in the same area. This only made his task more difficult.
Slipping behind a large maroon tapestry - probably purchased from Kelewair before Nasoj's malignant touch had forever cursed the Keep - Charles gingerly began scaling the reverse side, clutching at loose threads and seams, drawing himself upwards. The cool of the masonry behind him sent a shiver down his spine, his long tail twitching beneath him as he clawed at the fabric. Finally though, he emerged back into the light once again, staring down at the hallway far below.
The dizzying height made him grip the iron rod that held the tapestry in place with the force of his Sondeck. Charles sniffed at the air once, his eyes glancing down at the faces of the Keepers as he sat at his lofty perch for a moment to regain his composure. He recognized the darting blur that was Kee one of the court messengers, as well as a few of Wessex's apprentices muttering beneath their breaths to each other as they passed, concerned looks etched across their faces and muzzles. Even Rupert, Phil's assistant, came strolling past, his long, hairy, gorilla arms nearly dragging across the floor.
Taking a moment to peer backwards along the hallway, he felt his heart skip a beat. To Matthias's stunned surprise, there was Misha, trotting along, his nose in the crook of the wall that he had been scampering along only moments before. The rat sucked in his breath, trying not to make any noise, but scanned the walls and the rest of the hallway, trying to see where he could go. He certainly had no chance of outrunning the fox, not when he was this small. He'd barely been able to keep up with him while they were in scouting in Glen Avery, and then he'd been at least twice his current size.
Along the wall in either direction were a series of the Kelewairic tapestries, each depicting some tale or legend, usually involving the small little-traveled forest to the north of that midland town. Ahead of the rat were three more, each separated about a foot, and then there was a sculpted ridge that ran along the remainder of the hall before it curved to the right and out of sight. It was possible that he could reach the ledge without anyone noticing, but he doubted it. At the very least, Misha could not reach him there. But it still left him with nowhere to go. However, if he remained where he was, then surely the fox would find him in another moment.
Wishing that he had his chewstick to gnaw upon, Matthias gnashed his teeth furiously, and then made his way towards the end of the long iron pole. Since none of the Keepers were looking up, no one noticed him at first. Taking a deep breath, he tensed his muscles, and assured himself that he would crash to the floor in small heap of fur and blood. Springing from the bulb, he held out his fore-paws, and clutched at the fabric of the next tapestry for dear life, and quickly pulled himself up to that pole.
Misha had not noticed him yet, the fox was still padding along the cobblestoned hallway, his nose tight against the corner of the wall and floor. Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and made his way to the end of this tapestry. Once again he jumped, the air flashing by his fur, and the open space so large about him. It was like he was suddenly a thousand feet off the ground, with only the monuments of gods to straddle. The allusion was slightly unsettling, but he put that out of his mind as he scrambled up the top of the next iron pole, his paws clutching furtively at the slippery bulb.
This time however, something went wrong. The bulb itself must have been loose, because it spun off the end of the pole as Charles finally managed to gain his balance again. It toppled to the ground, bouncing with a loud clank, and spinning across the floor, till it finally came to rest a good ten feet behind the rat. Everyone noticed the clatter, including Misha, who loped up to the tapestry, his golden eyes peering up the breadth of the chartreuse tapestry to the little brown rat who was scurrying madly to the other end.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the fox half jumping in excitement, his ears pointed and his face full of the excitement of the catch, yet also crossed by frustration that his quarry was well out of reach. Misha quickly realized what Charles was doing, and got between the rat and the last tapestry, his long red tongue licking his black nose in anticipation. Matthias had two more leaps before he was safely ensconced on the far ledge, and so far, he had only barely made each jump.
Tensing himself, Charles pushed off the edge, using his Sondeck to aid him slightly. He gripped the fabric in his paws, nearly tearing a whole in it, his hold was so tight. Still he managed to scramble up to the iron pole, and run down its length quickly enough. Misha padded over to the ledge itself, his paws against the wall, yipping and whining in frustration at the rat's elusiveness. Matthias tried not to look down at the Long Scout, but instead focused his eyes on the finely wrought entablature that ran down the length of the hall.
He jumped before he realized that he had. The split second that he was hanging in the air, Matthias was sure his heart would stop. Abruptly, the moment passed, and the rat collided violently with the masonry, his claws scrabbling at the nooks and crannies in the rock, trying to gain some purchase against the downward slide into the paws of the waiting and expectant Misha. Finally, he rear paw caught hold of a crease, and he gripped the top of the ledge, and dragged himself up, his tail dangling temptingly at the fox below for only a moment more.
Finally secure on the ridge, Charles scampered long its length, though he could hear his pursuer padding along underneath it, waiting for it to reach its end, for surely it must. The rat tried not to think about his likely fate, only of how he could avoid this particular predicament, or at the very least escape without the fox snapping at his tail. Misha would never hurt him, but he had no doubt the fox might scare him a little.
However, as he made his way around the turn, he felt a bit blessed by the Keep's strange benevolence. There was a small crack at the top of the ridge, going right into the wall. Charles nosed at it, smelling fresh air inside. It was just large enough for him to squeeze into, but not large enough for him to turn around. Still, it appeared to be safe, and there was little else he could do. So, praying to Eli that there was another opening somewhere, he scampered inside, the darkness closing about him like a black robe. He could hear the faint whimpers of Misha far behind him as the fox realized that he'd lost his quarry.
Jumping up and down at the far end of the hallway, Misha tried to see where Charles was hiding up on the rampart. One of the rules that he had not stressed - but in retrospect should have made abundantly clear - was that if he trapped Matthias, that the rat would reveal himself and give up. He did not want to have to wait here for the next few hours for his friend and trainee to try sneaking off again.
Even as he jumped and capered about, much to the amusement of the other Keepers, Misha felt a quixotic joy about being a fox. For many years, he had been trapped solely in his morph form. The liberating freedom of shifting was like a breath of fresh air after walking through a stagnant marsh. Of course, the fact that until the curse, he had been a human only, did not in anyway detract from his animalistic pleasure. If anybody asked about his odd behavior this day, he could easily and truthfully tell them that it was just about the two of them having a bit of fun. Many enjoyed such activities already, so it would not be seen as anything unusual.
Still, as he continued his frantic efforts to spot the rat on top of the ledge, he became slightly flustered. At least Charles was proving difficult to capture. He'd been slightly disappointed at seeing him so early on in the morning. Even so, the excitement of the catch was hard to still in his beating breast. However, the excitement left him in a rush, like a wave pulling back from the breakers on the shore, when he saw the fissure in the side of the wall. Sitting on his haunches, he tapped on paw against the cobblestones, his claws ringing a steady peal in agitation.
Finding his scent again would be nearly impossible, especially if he stayed in the wall. Misha shrugged off the disappointment, reminding himself that the longer the rat stayed free, the more finely tuned his stealth skills were. And besides, the fox was quite a good tracker. Matthias would not stay lost for long.
With that thought in mind, he gently trotted off down the hallway, his nose searching, his eyes wary, and his ears straining every sound that came to them. It would only be a matter of time before he was on the trail again.
It was a bit of a surprise to discover that the fissure led all the way through the entire Keep to the Deaf Mule Inn. Yet, for the rat, the trip seemed quite well timed, since the fissure wound its way through stonework cold and confining for what felt like an eternity or two. Occasionally, his coffin of marble and brick opened out into small porous caverns. Of course, the only way he could tell was that he felt nothing against his sides. Though his eyes were good in near darkness, there was absolutely no light here whatsoever.
As he continued on his way, he began to regret his decision to trust himself to the benevolence of a castle so old, that no historian could remember who laid the cornerstone, or where the cornerstone was! He quickly became apprehensive of the darkness about him, as well as the amount of stone surrounding him. Though never having suffered from claustrophobia before, it now gnawed at him like he chewed wood, slowly wearing him down, and filling his heart with icy fear. He hated those confining walls, those constricting snake-like passages that wound and wound down to nowhere but more blackness and cold. How his body ached to be in the open once more, to be able to grow in size, not to be trapped as a simple animal.
Yet as Charles continued his trip, scurrying faster and faster, finding the crack at times jagged, tearing at his fur, scratching at the skin beneath, he felt his fear only and terror only increasing. Was there an end to this passage? It felt to him that he was heading downwards, but he had taken so many turns that he was now completely disoriented. Where was he in the Keep? Or was he in the Keep at all anymore? Had he passed from this world into one of stone and ice, where light was a forgotten thing?
When the fear became too great, Charles would stop, breath slowly and as deeply as the confining walls would allow, and turn his thoughts upon the Sondeck. That peaceful glyph, a sign of honor and of service, filled his thoughts, and gave him the courage he needed to plunge further into the impenetrable blackness. Yet that bit of respite never lasted more than a few minutes. As time passed, more and more did his thoughts turn to abandoning himself to the animal instincts in him, and letting them lead him on, since all he could do was move forward. Matthias bitterly resisted that temptation though, reciting the Song of Sondeck inside as he groped along on all of his paws, squeezing through the narrow passages, some barely half-an-inch wide.
Despite how he hated the tight twisting and winding tunnels, he despised the open spaces even more. When he first emerged into a small opening, he felt as if his blood had turned into snow. Furiously, he scurried against the wall, rubbing its comforting and reassuring surface against his fur. The emptiness had been absolute, as if he were on a plane of nothing but blackness. The dry scent of the rock filling his mind with every breath. He took those open spaces slowly, each step a trial, for fear that there would be nothing beneath his paws, and he would plunge into an endless pit of obsidian night.
The Song of the Sondeck filled his thoughts as he continued into the abyss, dragging his way along the stone, smooth and jagged, up and down, and in every direction. Eventually, even the song became garbled, a thing of nonsense as his rodent instincts began to take hold, his intellect relenting to the pure animal need. Eventually, the song deteriorated into nothing but meaningless shapes, forgotten images in a world where light does not exist, and intangible scents and sounds. Only the scraping of his claws against the stone could be heard in these endless caverns that spiraled into nowhere.
Even when he first saw the faint glimmer, his mind was not wholly there. Charles scrambled to the edge of the opening, blinking furiously as the light filled his eyes, wondering what these noises, luscious scents, and terrific sights could possibly portend. He slunk backwards into the comforting darkness, the world that his mind could comprehend. For a time, he was compelled to continue his backwards progression into the night, where he likely would never have returned. It was only the familiar sounds and scents that gnawed at the base of his newfound insanity that prevented him from retreating further.
At first those sounds were meaningless, but eventually they broke down the barrier Charles had erected for himself, and began to call forth things deep in the recess of his mind. Voices speaking in tongues he knew; the voices of friends and acquaintances. In the past, he had shared drinks with many of them. Finally, Matthias returned to himself once again, the Song of the Sondeck filling his mind once more as he purposefully left that cavernous embrace and scampered out onto the timbers and beneath the various tables of the Deaf Mule Inn.
Naturally, Charles was drawn to the pool table, near where some of his friends were sitting. As he gazed at the patrons, he noted that almost all of them had something to eat. Though it had seemed an eternity, his sojourn in the walls must have only lasted an hour or two at the most. Still, the scent of bread and cheese and meats filled his belly with an aching. Maybe he could find a few crumbs lying here and there? Or if he had to, he could wander over towards the kitchens. If Lady Kimberly was there, she'd definitely sneak him some morsel.
His usual table was quite full. Michael, Lindsey, and Lance, all tired looking, were sitting around one end, while Tallis, Nahum, Cope, and Habakkuk graced the other. They seemed oblivious to his crouching presence by one of the solid-oak legs. Feeling a bit winded from his run, Charles took the moment to relax a bit and listen in unobtrusively.
"That sounds like quite an adventure," Nahum was remarking as he bolted down a chunk of beef. "So you have been living on the river the last few days?"
Michael and the other timbersmen nodded. "We lashed all of the logs together, and built little tents on top of them, using the smaller pieces of wood and cloth. It's nice to eat something other than fish though."
"I thought a beaver would love a diet of fish!" Tallis mused thoughtfully as he munched on a slice of freshly-baked bread. The rich aroma made Charles gnaw at the table leg instinctively, his stomach growling petulantly.
Michael shook his broadening shoulders once and smiled, the two thick teeth showing clearly beneath his lip. "I do enjoy fish, but a little variety now and again is always good." The rat was startled to see how strong the beaver looked beneath his red and black fur. Chopping wood had definitely agreed with him.
"That is easy for you to say," Lance pointed out as he rubbed the velvety antlers growing from the sides of his head with one hoof-like hand. "I think Chief Tathom and I exhausted all the greeneries on that trip. I would have loved to have been able to eat some fish!"
The giant lizard rumbled a deep laughter, "Ah, it is times like these I love being a reptile, we can eat whatever we want!"
"And you do!" Nahum chortled as he took a sip of what smelled like fresh apple cider. Charles gripped the table leg tighter, refusing to let himself do anything but watch.
There was a round of laughter from the table, all the faces bright with smiles and good cheer. It had been so long since he had just sat down with his friends for a meal at the Mule, especially Michael. He would have to make it a point to spend some time with the plaid beaver when he had the chance.
"So," Habakkuk began as he stirred what must have been a plate full of noodles smeared in butter, "did you make your expectations on the flume?"
Lindsey nodded once as he shoved a small slice of beef into his mouth and washed it down with a sip from his mazer. "We've had more hands helping us this year than any before, we exceeded even Tathom's expectations this year. In another year I imagine we will have even more resources available to us than before Nasoj's attack."
Copernicus nodded, stretching out his green-scaled arms across the table to hold aloft his mazer. "Most definitely, a toast to rebuilding!"
"To rebuilding!" they all chimed and drank down the frothy alcohol. The toast was almost perfunctory, for as soon as it was over, they all returned to eating as if it had never occurred. Michael's blocky multi-colored head was bowed low over a plate of some roast chicken, while Lindsey at his side had turned to Habakkuk and was whispering something in the kangaroo's long ears. Zhypar glanced up in some amusement, reaching out with one paw to twirl the long red braided beard that Lindsey wore around one finger a moment before shaking his head and laughing silently.
Cope finally slammed down his drink and gazed across the startled faces at the table, and broke into a giant reptilian grin. "So, who wants to play some pool?"
Immediately there were groans from about the table, with Michael furiously shaking his head. "I'm still trying to recover from the last time we played!'
Nahum rubbed his forehead with one white paw. "Last time I played you, Cope, you bounced a ball off my forehead. I'd rather not think about where you'll aim this time!"
"But that was an accident!" Cope protested, though Charles could tell that the lizard was enjoying all the attention.
Habakkuk finally rose from the table. "I'll give it a shot. Not that I have any chance of winning, but it'll be fun. I've got way too much work to do at the Guild anyway."
Tallis groaned at that, putting down the loaf of bread he'd been chewing. "Why did you have to say that? I'd almost forgotten about that stack of papers in my office!"
Nahum leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms out wide. "Ah, it is nice just being a member!"
There was a bit of laughter at that, and then the two combatants walked over towards the pool table where Charles was hiding. He quickly scurried beneath their table, staring at the paws, boots, and hooves of the five still siting down. Lance was tapping his left hoof, as if in irritation. Lodged between the cleft was a small bit of dirt. The rat could only imagine how irritating that must be!
As the clank of the balls being placed on the table reached his ears, another sound came to him. It was of the doorway at the back of the Mule which led directly into the Keep was opened. It was not normally used, as it was traditional to always use the front entrance except in times of siege. Charles couldn't see who had come in though, as there were too many intervening tables and chairs. However, the soft velvety clicking of four clawed paws upon the timbers informed him of al he needed to know.
Immediately scanning the area, he tried to see if there was anyway he could escape Misha, who had somehow tracked him down. Whatever means the fox had used, Charles was not sure he wanted to know at the moment. His eyes did fall on the crack in the wall, but with a suddenly violent seizure, he dismissed the idea before it could even curse his thoughts with its presence. The front door was off-limits, and simply ridiculous. He'd never be able to push that door open anyway, even with the Sondeck. Could he make it to the Mule's kitchen, or one of the guest rooms? Misha was between him and staircase at the back, so the guestrooms were too dangerous, and they didn't lead anywhere in the first place. The kitchen was behind the counter, and while certainly the first choice of his stomach, probably took him too close to the reynard.
It was then that his eyes saw straight between Cope's legs and past his sinuous tail to the inglenook. The fireplace was empty of course, the room was quite warm without one in the summer months, as the walls were not made entirely of stone like most of the castle. The chimney led out onto the roof, a possibility that Misha had not specifically forbidden to him that morning. Sucking in his breath, Charles scampered out beneath the table as fast as he could go, and dashed beneath the lizard's giant legs.
His motion did not go undetected though, as Misha suddenly bolted from the other side of the rom towards the pool table. There was quite a stir at the sudden attack, with Keeper's rising from their chairs to see what was going on. Copernicus turned around to have Misha run right into his knee, toppling the lizard along the floor, upending one of the round circular dining tables. Fortunately, nobody had been sitting there, but the commotion was enough to get everyone involved.
Charles took the time to run beneath as many chairs as he could, the fox struggling past Copernicus and the very surprised Habakkuk. That look of utter astonishment on the kangaroo's face was like the finest cheese for the rat. He'd savor that expression for days. Still, Matthias did not waste anytime in trying to make his way across to the far side of the Mule, with Misha trying to follow his path, upending chairs and evading the Keepers who were trying to grab him and restrain him. Donny was waving his arms over his head an pounding them against his horns at seeing his lovely Mule turned into a sea of chaos.
It was still a good ways to the inglenook, but Charles paused a moment to look back, but only a moment before he was once again scampering on a mostly straight direction. Suddenly, he felt a terrible weight slam down into his tail, and he squeaked in the sudden terror. The weight was quickly gone, and he saw a boot lifting up and away. Misha was snarling behind him, trying to struggle free from Lindsey, who had wrapped his arms about the fox's middle. Charles, nursing his bruised tail, continued on his way.
Still, he now took the time to deliberately avoid the other Keepers, so circled around several groups of them as he relentlessly scurried along the timbers towards the fire-pit, which loomed before him like some yawning charcoal mouth. Suddenly, the clatter of chairs and bodies recommenced behind him, and he knew that Misha was loose once more. Pushing the Sondeck into his legs, he tried to ignore the throbbing sensation from his tail. Faster and faster he made himself go, but still his escape appeared out of reach.
Suddenly, a darkness passed over him, and he reflexively crouched low, as a chair toppled over onto his back. Fortunately, the frame was built with a curve, so there was a small pocket that slammed around him, but did not hurt him. He could feel the wood against his back though, and for a brief moment he felt a flash of panic, before he was consoled by the light streaming in from all directions. However, he could hear the muffled whines of the fox right over head, pushing at the chair, trying to get at the trapped rat.
"Get him!" he heard somebody shout, and then the sounds of the struggle continued, Misha whining at being tackled by so many Keepers at once. Charles took the opportunity for what it was, wriggled free from under the chair, and quickly set his sights on the hearth. The distance did not seem so great, and in fact, was but a few moments stroll for him as a morph. Now, with the chaos reigning about him, it would take him a few seconds more.
"I got him," he heard somebody say, no longer sure amidst the uproar of voices, but it was quickly followed by, "Ah, he got away again!" Not hesitating to look back, Matthias pushed himself even harder, scurrying beneath the last table before the inglenook, and then out from the last chair and into the short open space where Misha was circling about to reach. Peering out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance just barely grab the fox's hind paw as he tumbled over another fallen Keeper. Misha ripped free a few moments later, delaying him only a second, maybe two.
But those few seconds were precious indeed, rare as diamonds, for they allowed Charles to reach the hearth and begin to scale the stonework, clambering over the mostly clean rocks. It was not an easy climb, but there were many rivulets and tiny paths that he could grip and ascend. Using his strength, he was ale to do what no normal rat would have been capable of. Bit by bit, and step by step, he scaled the chimney, quickly making his way out of reach of the fox once again.
Taking a moment once he was a good ten feet up to peer down, he saw Misha's red and black muzzle peering upwards disconsolately, and then a mass of paws and hands reached in and dragged the vulpine back out, despite its yips of protest. Wiggling his whiskers contentedly, he tried not to breath too deeply, for while the hearth itself may have been cleaned, these stones were covered in soot and ash. Gazing upwards at the pinprick of blue sky ahead, he wondered just how long this was going to take him.
It took three men to hold him down, Lance and Lindsey one end, and Donny on the third. The fox stopped struggling rather quickly though, and soon, it began shifting upwards. The three Keepers gave him room, and soon, before their surprised faces, was the naked form of Misha Brightleaf, looking quite disconsolate, but at the same time, very embarrassed. He waved with one paw at the onlookers, bystanders and others who fallen over each other to stop the fox, then grabbed a mazer from a still standing table and used it to cover his navel.
"Misha?" Lindsey asked in some surprise as he wiped a few bread crumbs from his bright red beard.
"Hello everyone! Sorry about the mess I made; I suppose I got a little carried away," Misha indicated the three overturned tables, and ten scattered chairs, two of which had been smashed when Keepers had fallen on them in their frenzy to stop him.
"A little," Nahum asked, swatting dust from his tan jerkin with both paws. "I've never seen anybody come in here and turn this place into a battlefield like you did!"
"Still, that was the most excitement I've seen in a while," Tallis added lithely. "I'd rather have been here than in my office! Thanks for the entertainment Misha."
Misha bowed then, his bushy tail flicking debonairly in the air. There were a few women in the bar he then realized, as they giggled as he had inadvertently taken the mazer from his navel when genuflecting. He was quick to replace it.
"Well, what are we going to do about this mess? I hope you intend to pay for my broken chairs?" Donny asked as he righted one of the tables, picking up a flagon that had fallen, soaking the timbers with the frothy mead.
"Well, I don't have any money on me right now," Misha admitted to more feminine giggling. "I can pay you back later if you wish."
The bovine split his lips in a rather sadistic grin just then. He tapped one horn with his hoof-like hand and then spoke in his somber voice. "I have a better idea. I'd like you to work it off in my kitchens."
Misha blanched slightly, his paws keeping that mazer well in place. "When?"
The others in the room were all grinning at the embarrassed fox, some of them even righting chairs and tables as they watched the proprietor pronounce his sentence! "Now actually."
"But, I have no clothes!"
Donny started walking back towards the kitchen indicating with a finger that Misha should follow. "I'll give you an apron if you are so self-conscious. Now, let's see, what can I have the mighty warrior Misha Brightleaf do for me? Scrubbing pots sounds good!" The fox groaned, even as the others in the Mule laughed loudly at his fate. The kitchen door swung behind him, swatting in the tail as he went!
Copernicus then turned to Habakkuk, now that the commotion had died and Misha was off to the scullery. "I do believe we still have a game to play."
The kangaroo laughed drily, swatting the timbers with his tail. "I do believe you are right! If Misha can scrub pots, maybe I can defeat you?" And at that, they all laughed once again.
It took Charles a little bit of time to scale the inside of the chimney, but once he emerged from the top, covered black by the soot, and choking on the very air, he saw that his way was clear. Shaking himself free, and sneezing every other step, he climbed across the gambled roof of the Mule towards an overhanging promenade, a small balcony over looking the far wall. It took him another few minutes to climb over the large stones and scramble back inside the Keep proper, but he did manage it with little difficulty.
From there, it took his tired, bruised, and weary body only half an hour to find the kitchens. Staying flush with the wall, he avoided all the workers moving in and out, carrying trays, cleaning equipment, fresh produce, silverware, pots, pans, skillets, meats, spices, wines, eggs, and everything else that the rat could conceive belonging in a kitchen. It was hot of course, the ovens were almost always cooking something, and that something today seemed to be a roast. He wondered idly where Lady Kimberly would be in all this mess.
Taking a moment to examine his tail, he found that it would be fine, it had not been hurt nearly as much as he'd originally thought. Content with that, he continued scampering behind counters, stumbling upon crumbs of bread and cheese and meat, all of which he brushed off and then happily ate. His stomach was most appreciative, and told him so by settling quite nicely. However, his eyes wanted to find the visage of perfection, but apparently she was not here at the moment. From what he had heard coming up the chimney, he knew that he had a little bit of time before he'd have to start running again, so he decided to wait a little while to see if she would return. Climbing up behind the spice shelf, he found a little perch on top of the hutch from where he could safely watch the coming's and goings of the kitchen staff.
It was only a few minutes before the Steward came striding in, dressed casually in short red robe and jerkin. The many Keepers in the room immediately found something to busy themselves over. Thalberg went to one of the sinks, washed his hands and claws off, dried them, and then began to inspect the dishes that were being prepared on the main stove counter. Dipping his finger in a milky white sauce he brought it to his large crocodilian mouth, and licked it off.
Charles watched in fascination as he exuberantly waved one algae-green scaled hand. "The béchamel sauce needs more flour. Just a pinch mind you!" He then reached over and scooped a tiny bit of ground meat on another claw and tasted that as well. "Ah, the forcemeat is ready to be cooked. Stuff it in the roast in about an hour, and leave them simmering till supper." And then another dish, small dumplings of some sort that Charles had never seen before. "Excellent! The quenelles will be perfect, just add a touch more salt." And on it went.
It was then that Lady Kimberly made her entrance, carrying fresh bread, obviously from Gregor's bakery, and setting it down on the counter on the other end of the room. There was a peculiarly spicy odor about the loaf that Charles could not quite place. Thalberg strode to his beloved with imperial grace, and gently pulled a tiny morsel from the loaf, almost unnoticeable. He tasted it, and seemed contemplative for a moment, before breaking into a wide reptilian grin. "Perfect! Gregor has outdone himself yet again! Set this in an oven to keep warm, but do not let the oven get too hot."
Kimberly nodded emphatically, already moving to place the rather hefty loaf on a baking tray. "Yes, sir," she said, her voice rising above the clamor of the sizzling foods and crackling stoves to fill Matthias's ears with pure delight. He sighed, watching her body, its light tan fur glistening in the hot air.
Thalberg, then strode from the room, taking a moment to let out a pleased expression. "I love having state dinners again!" He then disappeared, while many of the kitchen staff chuckled quietly amongst themselves at the exasperating Steward.
Charles climbed back down from the hutch, and scurried along the walls once more, waiting, and hoping to avoid the watchful eye of the other staff. Once he was sure it was safe, he ran out into the open across the length of the room till he was sitting next to Kimberly. He squeaked once, catching her attention. She peered down in confusion at him, though kept her lips closed for a moment. She then bent down, and held out her paw, which Matthias gladly climbed into.
"Charles?' she asked in a very soft voice as she crouched behind the shelf out of sight of the others.
The rat nodded emphatically, putting one paw over his teeth, and throwing it out at her. She knew that he was blowing her a kiss, and her whole frame appeared to shiver with delight at the sight of it. "What are you doing here as a rat?" she asked in that same sweet voice. A choir of angels indeed!
Matthias simply shrugged, not sure how to answer that question, at least not while he was a rat, and as tempted as he was, he was not going to break the rules of the hunt by shifting. He then put one paw to his eye, and pointed at her. "You came to see me, is that it?" He nodded again, rather vigorously in fact. Her whiskers twitched in delight and she gently petted his back with her other paw. "Oh, I love you, Charles."
He leaned into the petting, finding it eerily pleasant. Then, happy to have seen her at least part of the day, he jumped from her paw to the ground, and waved back to her. She chuckled lightly, her own paw waving as she stood back up. Matthias then turned and scampered back to the wall and continued on his way. He was not sure where he would go to hide next, but he still had some time. Misha was probably still moping floors or something at the Mule!
Standing amidst the filigree of a marble crown that rested upon the measured and well-wrought face of one of the Keep's earlier rulers, Charles watched the comings and goings from the Ducal chambers. After seeing the catastrophe that Misha wreaked in the Mule, the rat decided that his best course of action was to surreptitiously stay close to the Keep guards. If Misha tried to snatch at him, then they would provide sufficient distraction for the fox to let Matthias make good his escape. Of course, the other reason was because it was always so fascinating to watch the political world slowly gestate before his eyes.
Unfortunately, there did not seem to be much activity at present. He could hear soft voices inside, but he could make out who they belonged to. With the Prime Minister dead, and now with ambassadors finally returning to the Keep, things had seemed quite hectic around Festival time, but as always, it had settled back into a preternatural calm. Rumors continued to swirl over who would be Posti's successor, but they were not as numerous as the gossiping about the new Ambassador. Even the guards were talking about him from time to time.
So in the silence he sat, stretching across the marble, looking over the spiked rim of the crown, and pondering just who exactly he was reclining on. The hallway outside the Ducal chambers was lined with eleven statues, each being a ruler of the Keep sometime in the past. They were not the only rulers, just the ones who had been either prosperous or popular enough to merit a perpetual memorial. There had been a twelfth, until Madog had reduced it to rubble several months back. He'd heard some talk of having it repaired, but apparently, no one was in any rush to start work.
As if on some unseen signal, the guards hefted their guisarmes, holding them straight, the butt upon the terrazzo, tapping twice, resonating down the hall like a drumbeat. The doors then opened, almost regally, and Ambassador Yonson strode out, followed by two of his own retinue. It was the first time in nearly a week that Charles had seen the man from Marzac, and it was quite clear from just a cursory glance that the Keep had indeed claimed him. His eyes were a golden brown, flushed completely, and his formerly flaxen blonde hair had given way to a dun color, with traces of grey and black along the edges. He was walking oddly, as if his feet ached inside his boots, and there was a definite bulge at the seat of his hose.
Matthias did not quite know what to make of these changes. Perhaps something new that the Keep had not yet seen? At the very least, it appeared that Yonson was not becoming a rodent, for which the rat would be eternally grateful. The very notion of the ambassador joining them at the Gnawer's Meetings was simply too awkward. Muttering a silent prayer of thanks to Eli for sparing him that inconvenience, he continued to glower after the Weathermonger as he and his men strode from the hall, past the dead kings and dukes, and then around a corner and out of sight.
It was only after they were gone that Charles realized that Yonson had not been wearing the robes of his order. Instead, he'd worn a simple pearl gray doublet and hose, with a surcoat besmirched by the unicorn in a field, that was Marzac's heraldry. What that portended, the rat did not try to guess. Had the guards been similarly adorned? With a bit of chagrin, Matthias realized that he could not remember what Yonson's guards looked like at all! He couldn't even discern whether they had been human or not. He spent all of his time glaring hatefully at the Ambassador, so had not even seen the guards, only noticed that they were there.
Still, it was the last interesting thing to occur for quite sometime. The guards changed twice as he lay there, uncomfortable, getting hungry again, and quite tired of this cold marble! At the very least it meant that the fox was not chasing him, but he doubted that would last much longer. Glancing at the ridges along the walls, he knew that he could easily traverse them if need be. Still, if he found any more fissures, he was definitely not going to climb into them!!! A shudder passed up his spine at the very memory of it.
It was faint at first, but eventually it became more distinct. The clicking of an animals claws against the terrazzo. Tensing himself, he prepared for the jump to the ridge. He knew that Misha would find him soon enough, as there could be no mistaking the fox's footfalls. Idly, while he waited for the vulpine snout to poke around the corner, he wondered what time it was. Surely late afternoon by now, he reckoned. The growling in his stomach was the best indicator for that.
Of course, when Misha did finally appear, surly but eager, Charles had gone so far in his wanderings that he almost squeaked in alarm. Holding it inside, he watched the fox sniff along the base of each statue, following the trail that Matthias had taken precisely. He probably should have dunked himself in a basin of water to wash away the ash. Suddenly, the foxed peered right up at his location, and the bright red tongue snaked out to lick his nose once. Yipping slightly, he placed his paws on the statue, staring intently upwards.
The guards looked bemused, but said nothing. Charles grimaced, and decided that he had little choice but to run now, and hope that Misha caused a stir. Jumping from the top of the crown, hoping not to chip the filigree with his claws, he grasped the edge of the parapet and climbed up on the ledge. Misha saw him of course, and let out another yip, bounding over to the wall, running back and forth beneath its base.
Matthias scampered towards the Ducal chambers, running along the top of the ridge behind the two guards. The fox however did not take the bait as he had hoped, but instead sat on his haunches, staring up at him behind the marble entablature atop the gold-trimmed oaken doors. Misha waged his tail in agitation, but otherwise sat there, waiting.
"What do you suppose the fox wants?" one of the two guards murmured.
Though Charles could not see them, he supposed the second guard pointed up. "I saw a rat sitting on one of the statues jump to the ledge. They are probably playing some sort of game." Misha flashed the two of them a grin, his tongue lolling out of his narrow, angular snout.
Matthias peered about, wondering just where he could go from here. He was trapped and he only had two choices: left or right. Taking a deep breath, massaging the bruise on his tail with one paw, he started out towards the right. He had come from the left, and didn't think there was anything over there that would help him escape. Misha had assured him that before nightfall, he would be caught. Though Charles had hoped he could astonish the fox, at the moment it did not look likely.
It only took Misha a moment to spot the rat racing along the ridge, and he was quick to return to his paws, nearly dancing with the excitement of his catch. "It looks like the rat is going to make him work for it though," the first guard mused thoughtfully.
"That it does," the other replied. "Run little rat!"
"I'll wager two silvers the fox manages to catch him," the first guard remarked offhandedly.
"He'll never catch the rat, you're on!"
Charles did not really need the encouragement, but he appreciated it nonetheless, scampering along the ridge, past the eleven pairs of sightless, marble eyes, and then around the corner to the hallway proper. The thick red carpeting along the middle of the floor muffled Misha's footfalls. The fox must have been tracking him along the edge of the walls were the carpeting stopped. The ridge ran down the length of the hall, various placards and other ornamentation lining the masonry. Neither took the time to admire any of it.
However, like all things, the ledge did finally stop, just before an open doorway. Charles jumped at the door, grabbed the wood with his claws, and scratched and plummeted to the ground. Landing with a sudden squeak, he was quick to get back to his paws, and dart inside the room. Misha snapped at his tail as he ducked behind a shelf; a bit of spittle landed on the rat's back as he scurried into the dust-choked store room.
That they were not alone in the room was quickly made obvious by the startled grey-liveried servant, who poked his long narrow beak over a drab package filled with gossamer linens and table cloths. "What are you doing in here? Be careful, some of these boxes have glass!" Misha was darting his head between the cracks in the shelf, chuffing at the air, nearly sneezing when Charles grabbed some of the dust in his paws and threw it at the fox's nose. This of course, caused the vulpine to back into another precarious stack of odds and ends, causing it to sway dangerously. The servant cried out in horror, nearly jumped over a set of fine china as his arms tried to flap in the air before he reached the stack and placed his wings about the middle, steadying it.
Charles took the opportunity to delve further into the cramped space, weaving in and out of the china. The ibis squawked in horror at the sight of it, pensively stomping his talons, Misha deftly snapped and yip, his muzzle dipping into the set of china, but never once touching it was a single strand of his right vermillion fur. "No, you'll ruin it! It's from Elvquelin; it costs more than I earn in ten years!"
But the rat had already scurried past the Elvquelin finery, and was moving between two stacks of boxes, the feel of the hard sides tight against his middle sending a shudder down his spine, but Misha could not follow him through that. The fox circled around to the other side, but already, Matthias was running beneath a large old, and broken grandfather clock, which was nestled against the far stone wall along with other trinkets that no longer worked, or were simply not in good taste. Most of them had been gifts to Metamor from other lands before the curse, others had been bought by less frugal nobles while visiting the southern Midlands. At any rate, with the two of them darting in and out of the gears and old wood, the ibis was dancing back and forth in agitation, its beak dipping low, cutting a wide swath through the musty air.
Finally, Charles climbed on top of one set of boxes, while Misha extricated himself from the clock's innards, having managed to twist himself around the pendulum. The avian servant was practically pulling out his feathers. "Not the winter decorations!" Looking across the open space, Charles saw the gossamer table cloths set just a few feet before him, and Misha between him and the other stack. Pushing against the boxes, he leaped onto the linens, landing softly, and bouncing up and over the china, to run through the ibis's startled legs, and out the door. At the same time, the stack he had jumped from, swung back into the wall, and then toppled over onto the very surprised fox. An anguished cry arose from deep within the bird's beak, as he rushed over once more, trying to salvage what he could from the mess.
Charles could hear an exultant peroration come from the room as he darted along the wall. "Ah, nothing's broken! Thank the gods!" However, he could also hear the scrambling of the fox from underneath his weight, and his claws against the stonework. Sucking in his breath, the rat dived beneath the thick maroon carpeting, trying not to dwell on the feel of the rough fabric against his fur on all sides.
However, he quickly popped out the other side, and was heading through another door, one marked by some heraldry that he did not recognize. It opened into a long hall, quite wide, with chandeliers hanging over head. It must have been a ballroom at one time, for it was about as large as the throne room, but without the superfluous columns and decorations. Still, it was finely wrought, with a high ceiling, and inglenooks on two ends, with fires burning amiably inside, as well as multiple doors leading off from either wall. The floor was covered in a rich chartreuse carpet, probably of Pyralian origin given the amount of swirls and whirligig designs sewed in. Even the ceiling was ornate, stained glass lined the upper balconies, casting strange colors upon the floor. Torches burned brightly in sconces about the entire room, set between the doors and other tapestries.
Of course, the rat took no time to appreciate this, instead he rushed as fast as he could towards one of the doors. He was not sure why he picked that one, there was just something about it that drew him onwards. He was almost there when Misha barreled into ballroom, charging at full speed after the elusive rat, the back of his fur stained with ancient dust and grime. Thankfully, the slender oaken frame was slightly ajar, and so he squeezed on past.
The room adjoining the ballroom was one that instantly made him feel completely at home. The broad expanse of yellowed clay, fashioned over countless years into a room so smooth, you could run your paws over every inch of it, and never once feel a bump or imperfection. One wall was lined by shuttered windows, the shutters splayed outside to let the hot crimson sun shine in and warm this abode. A hearth graced the far end of the narrow chamber, while a broad black banner hung overhead, with only a single symbol inscribed in the center. Along the wall opposite the windows was a broad granite altar, upon which an angel kneeled, her hands held aloft, empty. Cases of long wooden poles, daggers, and other inoffensive weapons was arrayed behind the altar.
Instinctively, the rat scurried in a direct line across the front of the altar, tapping the angel on the left ankle as he passed. Of course, to active the trap, he needed to use the Sondeck, but that was to be expected in this place. Misha popped into the room, narrowed his eyes as he saw the rat running towards the far end, and then took up chase himself. Only, as he passed the altar, something very peculiar happened. The angel herself spun about as if alive, and grabbed the fox in her arms, and rolled down the ground, pinning him beneath her pair of velvety wings.
Misha let out a sudden yelp as he was quite effortlessly and permanently restrained. Charles stopped running, scampered back over to the sight, and wiggled his whiskers contentedly. Slowly shifting back into his morph form, Charles spoke his first words since the morning. "Well, it appears that I've won the little hunt."
And then the enormity of where he was slammed into the rat. Turning, he ran to the windows, and peered out across the town of Metamor, surprised to see it there at all. He turned back around on his heels, a bemused expression crossing his face, as he gazed lovingly at the banner with the red shield inscribed by an upturned hand, with an alabaster sword nestled in the palm. His eyes then followed across every contour, the cases, the altar, the angel, and all the tiny secrets that were contained in these four walls. Though he lives his entire life here, he would never uncover all the mysteries.
Turning back to the sedate fox, who was whimpering slightly at being so sternly confined. "I could have sworn that I would see leagues of sand outside those windows. Nothing but an ocean of sand." Sighing wistfully as he gazed out at the yonder rolling forests and craggy mountain tops, he let the next thought in his mind go unsaid for the moment. "Do you agree I've won? Lick your nose if you do."
Misha breathed deeply once, and then gently licked his black nose, his grey eyes glaring in annoyance at the rat. Charles walked back over to the angel, and gently pushed the Sondeck into her right ankle. With equal fluidity, the statue shifted once again, released the fox, and returned to holding out her hands before the altar, wings folded gently against her back.
Misha then shifted as well, returning to the familiar axe-wielding maniac who also happened to be the rat's teacher. "How did you know about that?" he asked petulantly, pointing behind him to the angel.
"Oh, well, I grew up here," Matthias replied lamely, still searching for words to describe the utter amazement he was feeling. To find this room, here at Metamor, was an omen for sure.
"What do you mean you grew up here?" Misha asked. Charles only pointed at the banner, to which Misha stared for a moment, before his jaw fell open in shock. "What in the world?"
"I think this is an exact replica of the main training room that I learned in back in Sondeshara," Charles announced. "The Keep has struck once again. The only way I know that I am not back in the Southlands is because there is no sand outside those windows." He mused silently for a moment as the fox continued to gawk. "I should bring Garigan here, this is perfect. He can train here, and Yonson will never have to know."
Misha was reaching out to touch the simple granite altar, but the rat turned and shouted in horror. "Don't touch that!"
The fox held his paw only inches from the raised platform, but did hesitate a moment. "Why not?"
"Only Sondeckis can touch the altar. If you do not have the Sondeck in you, it will kill you." Misha yanked back his paw as if a snake had tried to bite it. "We've never had to worry about it before, since you are the first person to enter a room like this that has not been a Sondeckis for as long as I can remember. We usually place our holy artifacts upon it so that they cannot be stolen."
"Ah, I see," Misha whispered quietly. "Is this all there is to the training room? It does not seem much."
The rat shrugged. "There were many training rooms at Sondeshara, this just happens to be the one I was in most of the time. Well, an exact duplicate of the room I trained it anyway."
"Ah," Misha said, though it was clear that he only partially understood. Stretching, the fox's fur rippled. Both of them were naked of course, but neither said anything. "And I suppose that huge room we came through to get here was a training room as well?"
Charles shook his head, still in awe at the power he could feel vibrating from the very clay. "I just thought it was a ballroom of some kind."
"Have you ever seen a ballroom like that here at the Keep before?" Again the rat shook his head, while the fox turned about, one paw for modesty over his navel. "Well, shall we see where the other doors lead?"
The two of them spent the next hour going from door to door, and marveling at all that they had available to them in just this heretofore unknown space of the Keep. There were pantries, kitchens, as well as meat rooms kept cold by some unseen breeze; and all of them were fully stocked with produce, a wide variety of salted meats, vats of butter and flour, casks of milk, ale, and water, as well as an abundant supply of nuts and eggs. Behind another door lay an armory, with several rows of hauberks and plate mail as well as lighter gear and an assortment of weapons; halberds, mein gauche, sabers, scimitars, long bows, crossbows, they were all there in neatly arranged shelves. There was even a smithy with moderately sized forge - unlit of course - behind one of the doors. There were a couple of offices, as well as a small library, but mostly, the place seemed accustomed to war.
On the balconies, there was a doorway leading up behind the stained glass windows. Much to their surprise, they were not actually open to the air, but were inside another brick edifice. This possessed narrow slits built into the frame to magnify any light coming down, and to give the illusion that the sun was directly striking the many-hued panes. There were also separate slits, which obviously could be used by archers in the case of a siege. Charles expressed some surprise not to find a pitcher of boiling oil on the parapets, to which Misha laughed, and then pointed to a small alcove that the rat had missed. As they were walking down the steps again, their claws making a pleasant ricochet noise, they mused over this strange happenstance. "This is very strange, why would the Keep design this place? Almost all of this can be found elsewhere!"
Misha chuckled lightly. "Hey, at least they had something in our size." Too demonstrate, he patted the buckler that he had slipped on over his middle, covering his loins. Charles had found something similar to wear for the sake of modesty.
"True! But that is not quite what I meant."
Misha shrugged, and then a thoughtful expression passed over his muzzle. "Well, it is obvious that in some way this is for you, but perhaps it is also for me? Or for us?"
Charles stopped on the stairwell, tapping the oaken banister thoughtfully with one claw. "I checked the front door, you can lock it very securely from the inside. It is almost as if this place were designed as a last bastion against invaders."
The fox paused as he listened to the idea, and then a smile crept across his jowls. "You know what, Charles. I think you may be right!" The grin quickly turned mischievous, and he motioned for the rat to follow him towards one of the doors on the lower floor, near the far inglenook. The room inside was one of the offices that they had searched earlier. There was a desk, with an ink bottle and fresh, thin sheets of parchment, with a delicate quill pen laying on top, as if waiting for somebody to pick it up and put it to use. Along the back was a small placard, though nothing was posted inside, as well as a narrow green banner, emblazoned with an axe and longbow crossed over each other.
"And what is this supposed to be?" Charles asked as he looked around the now familiar room.
Misha grinned, and held out his arms wide, one of the poorly attached epaulets falling across his chest. "This is the new office of the Long Scouts! It is perfect, the emblem of axe and bow is just right or us. We've always had our meetings wherever we could. To have a place where we can always come to do Long business will be wonderful! It seems that we have found quite a bit more than we expected on this little hunt."
Matthias was too stunned to do anything but lean on the desk and shake his head in mirth. "Well, I should go track down Garigan. It'll be good to have a place to train him without fear of observation."
"We can train more than just Sondeckis in this little complex, Charles," Misha pointed out. "We can easily train you and any other Long Scout here for most everything. We've been given quite a gift. I say we make the most of it."
The rat grinned then, slapping the leather thongs on his side with one paw. "First, I think we should celebrate. Perhaps split a drink at the Mule?" He winked mischievously at the fox just laughed at that.
"I don't think Donny would be too happy to see me right now. I still owe him money for the damages. It took me an hour to slip out of there you know!" He then reached into a small cupboard in the desk, and pulled out a cask of Chardonnay. "I'd say we were expected."
On a whim, Charles opened another drawer in the desk, and found two mugs placed neatly side by side. Taking them out, and handing them over to the fox, he remarked, "This is very peculiar. When the Keep made the chapel, that was one thing. Garigan's bedroom and proper Sondeckis robes, that was almost trivial. This is so monumental! I'd be interested to know if anything of this scale has ever before occurred."
"That is something to think about," Misha pondered a moment, before with a loud pop he cranked out the cork, and was pouring the sweet vintage. He handed back one of the mugs to the rat, and then they clinked their cold iron sides together. "But that is something to think about another night. Tonight, let us toast Metamor Keep for this wonderful gift."
Charles broke out into a wide grin, and raised the mug high. "To Metamor Keep!" They both drank long and hard, their hearts full of purest thanksgiving.