Matthias walked down the stone paths in the courtyard as he made his way through the nestle of buildings. As happened once every month, he made his way down to the Deaf Mule with no intention of challenging Copernicus to a game of pool -- he'd just about given up on ever beating the lizard at darts. This was also the sole occasion that he could be seen walking the grounds without his trusty chewing stick. It usually took him only a matter of a week to go through a stick, at which time he would need to abscond another one from a nearby tree. It was easier to do it that way than to go to the woodpile, which was completely out of his way from anywhere that he would go. However, if he saw a fallen branch that had yet to be cleaned up, he would take a few pieces to put into his store keep so that he'd be well stocked for a month or two. Of course, the reason they lasted so short of time was that the wood that he used was all very weak and tended to become brittle; if he ever got hold of a good solid wood, then he could have a long lasting chewtoy.
However, on this night he would not need to bring a stick with him, as such items would be plentiful at the bar. He wondered just what they would gather this month -- he fondly remembered last month's meeting in which he'd successfully managed to bite through that petrified hunk of wood that Phil had slipped him as a gag. Phil had sat open-mouthed for the rest of the evening, much to Matthias's delight. They were of course good friends, having worked closely together over the years, but the expression on his face was priceless and he could not help but chuckle mildly at the recollection of it.
There was one advantage to being a four-foot tall rat; he did not bump into people unexpectedly. So it was when he ran into Michael. It had only been about a week since he'd seen the boy last, and he did not look that much more changed. Matthias grimaced, he'd been a rat within a month of coming to Metamor Keep, while Michael here had been here a fortnight already and had not changed much more than a sprinkling of fur on his body with a thick patch on his back. It was still too early to tell quite what he was going to become, but it was possible to tell what he wouldn't become.
"Oh, hello Michael, what are you doing here?"
Michael was sitting on a small bench along side the stone path. He looked slightly pensive, and did not notice Matthias until he had walked up. "Oh hi, Charles. I didn't see you coming."
"I noticed. What are you doing?"
"I guess I'm just sitting here. I'm not really thinking about anything in particular I guess. Maybe about this place and this," he pulled at the fur that was draping over his neck.
Matthias nodded. "I know what it is like. Many of the people here were part of the spell when it hit. Others of us came later. Those first people cannot really identify with those of us who came later, at least not completely. I mean, they already lived here; now you and I have no choice, our former lives basically dead."
"Well for some of us that didn't take much," Michael mused, thoughts of the plague that had struck down his family returning.
Matthias grimaced, realizing that he'd struck a chord that he shouldn't have. "I apologize, I spoke without knowing."
"That's all right. I guess I'm coming to grips with it." Michael then looked at the rat, seeing his rather nice dress and lack of stick. "Where's your chewing stick?"
"I don't need it tonight. The monthly meeting of the Gnawer's Support Group is tonight at the Deaf Mule. That's when all of us whose front teeth keep growing go to enjoy the fellowship of our own kind." Matthias pointed to his two large front teeth as his nose and whiskers twitched at the nearness of his own paw.
"How many are there? I mean, I think I've seen only one or two rats aside from you," Michael pointed out.
"Actually, there are more than just rats. The reason you don't see the others that much is because many of them are not completely adjusted to their forms as I am. One of them was once a knight who is now too ashamed of his form to come out of the dark cellars except on this night. I have been working on him for two years now, and I think I'm finally making some progress."
"That's terrible! What does he do down there?"
"Pretends he's still a knight." Matthias shrugged. "I make sure to visit him once a day, otherwise he'll grow melancholy. There are a few others like him, but his case is the worst. All together, there are twenty-one of us, eight rats, four mice, one rabbit, and two 'pines, three guinea pigs, one capyberran, a squirrel, and then - well you've met Pascal. There have been more in the past, but most have died from disease or by the Lutins. Phil is only one of two rabbits that have ever been at Metamor. The other was a nice little bunny who got killed a few years back when the Lutins launched an attack on the wall she happened to be circling."
Michael, knowing how rats were, as he had killed many of the little creatures in his own home, was unable to resist from asking a question that he probably shouldn't have, "Are there any baby rats, I mean you know how they breed."
Matthias chortled slightly, his whiskers twitching slightly, "Well, not yet. We simply have never had a female rat around, and neither I nor any of my kind would ever stoop to sleeping with the mice." he said the last a bit haughtily, yet Michael knew that it was meant in jest.
"However, there is one little rat who came here shortly before you did. She is quite young, but attractive, though not completely used to being a rat. I kind of like her." Matthias smirked a bit.
"Are you going to sleep with her?" Michael asked, a bit horrified, and ashamed of himself for bringing the topic up.
"Of course not!" Matthias snapped, "I'm a good Follower gentlerat, I would never do anything like that."
Michael nodded, "Sorry I asked."
"Don't worry yourself about it, you are young in the ways of Metamor Keep. And trust me, you'll always have a friend in us rats, unless you become a cat that is." Matthias winked at him then looked a bit startled. "Oh my goodness, I've completely lost track of time. I should be getting to the meeting, we'll be starting soon!"
Michael stood up as well, as if to follow. "Sorry, Michael, only us rats and mice and whatnot are allowed to come tonight. Perhaps if you become a rodent you may join us next time."
Michael grimaced, "I wish I knew what I was becoming. Cope says that I'm changing really slowly."
"That you are, my friend." Matthias smiled. "Here, let me have a look at the fur." Michael kneeled down, and pulled his shirt off. Matthias pored his paws over the fur, feeling its texture, sending exotic sensations through Michael's body as the paws rifled through the coat that was slowly inching its way along his spine and across his ribs. Matthias grunted, "I can't tell you much, but I will say this: you are not becoming equine. The hair is too long and soft for that. Can I see your teeth to check on something?"
Michael opened his mouth as wide as he could, and tried not to snap it shut as Charles pulled back his lip and gingerly felt his front teeth and back. Matthias quickly took his paw from the mouth. "You've got a nice set of teeth there, and it looks like your front teeth might be enlarging, but that could be a trick of the light. I didn't see any other changes though. As I said, you are not going to be an equine, but I can't tell anything else."
"Well at least I won't have to graze." Michael surmised.
"Don't be too quick on that one, I said equine, I'm sure that you are aware that you could still become a sheep or a cervid, or many other animals. Horses and Asses aren't the only ones that graze."
Michael nodded, feeling a bit stupid. "Yeah, I guess I should let you get to your meeting."
"I'll see you around Michael, perhaps I'll play you a game of pool one of these days."
"I'd first need to learn how!"
"We'll I'll take care of that too. You have a good night." Matthias then trudged off, leaving the still slightly sullen Michael behind him. He wished there was more he could do for the youth, but being in the situation he was in, Headmaster of the Writer's Guild as well as the top rat, gave him more responsibilities than he necessarily wanted. However, he enjoyed the tasks that he had set for himself, and there were many benefits that he could find in his situation. It was relatively stress-free, and he always had a place he could live in. There were many whom he was glad to call friends, and he could further develop his already considerable skills at writing. Plus, he no longer had to worry about the Sondeckis.
He shook that horrid memory from his mind, though it did not leave easily, and made his way around to the front entrance of the Deaf Mule. He was here to think happy thoughts, and enjoy the company of his fellow gnawers. He reached the main door, and stepped instead to the smaller side door which had been constructed after it became obvious that many of the inhabitants could no longer use the massive oaken structure that had stood there for decades. The atmosphere was at once fragrant with melted wax and the scents of his comrades -- most of whom had washed up to be presentable -- as well as with the scent of cheese and other foodstuffs that had been prepared for them. There was always the musty draft of smoke that overlaid the aroma of the mead, which he liked to drink from time to time when he had nothing important to do. The decor was still being remodeled to fit the specifications of the customers, many of whom where very heavy and quite large. Many of the original paintings had been replaced after the casting of Nasoj's spell, though a few still remained. The sole chandelier in the center of the room flickered brightly, only two of the candles in its beams had been snuffed. Most of the tables that were usually strewn about the center of the room had been moved aside by some of the larger residents and a large space in the center was cleared away. Most of the members of their group were already there chatting away, gnawing on a few pieces of wood or on the leg of one of the tables. Donny did not appreciate that, and the carpenter always had to repair at least half a dozen chairs and tables after every one of these little get togethers; however, Donny was being recompensed out of the Duke's pocket.
A few faces lit up, ears going erect at his entrance, "Charles! Glad you could make it." Phil called out, already settled into his customary spot closest to the large hearth, which contained nothing but dry tinder on this sultry eve. Matthias smiled at the rest of them, noting that one particular face was missing, that of the knight Sir Saulius. However, Kimberly was there, sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, her tail stretched out behind her as her paws spread out the smooth fabric of her little dress that she wore. It was azure like the sky, and her sinewy form fit well into it. Matthias had asked the tailors to make it for her from her old clothes once she had finally settled into her rat form. He had given it to her as a present only a week ago in an unofficial ceremony welcoming her as the newest addition to their group; unofficial since he had given it to her in private. Somehow, he felt emboldened since she was wearing it.
He crossed the room to where she was sitting and twitched his whiskers in nervousness. "My, you look beautiful in that dress."
Kimberly looked up at him, her whiskers drooping at the comment, her paws clutching it reflexively. "Thank you," she whispered, her eyes unable to look him in the face.
"Mind if I sit here?" he asked, pointing to the empty space to her left. She shook her head quickly, and he leisurely sat next to her. He let his tail lay out behind him, as he leaned forward for comfort. He casually let it drape over hers. The motion did not go unnoticed, and she looked at him, the sides of her mouth turned upwards slightly. She then shyly looked away.
"Well, now that you're here, we're almost ready to start," Phil pointed out.
"Sorry I was late, I was talking with Michael for a time. Who are we still missing?"
"Saulius as usual." one of the 'pines replied, while chewing slowly on a leather armband that he had procured.
"Macey isn't going to make it tonight, he's feeling sick," one of the mice pointed out.
"Ah yes, I heard about that. It's not too bad, I hope?"
"Well Coe says that he'll probably live, but he is not leaving the cellar for at least a fortnight."
"That's too bad. I hope he's cured soon."
"Don't forget Pascal, she isn't here either," the same mouse, of the name Benedict, added with a whimsical twist of the whiskers.
Matthias laughed, "She never comes to our meetings! I think she'd rather stay in her room creating explosions or something."
"I can sympathize with her," one of the rats remarked sullenly.
Matthias grimaced; he was one of the few rats who liked being such. It was a hard form to like, as for most of them they had killed rats, as they were pests. Now they were the pests themselves; or vermin, some liked to call themselves vermin. The mice had a similar problem, but not quite to the same extent. The 'pines and capyberran seemed well adjusted, and of course Phil was happy the way he was. The guinea pigs, well he wasn't ever too sure about them; neither the squirrel. And Pascal, well, she was a story in her own right. He finally decided to bring matters back to the normal cheery self. "Well, are we going to wait for Saulius, or are we going to get started right away?" Matthias asked, looking about the room, and noting that aside from those two, everybody was there.
"I want some of that cheese now." Benedict, the most vocal and probably the happiest of the mice called out.
With that, the feasting quite soon began. Most of them were pretty civilized about it, making sure not to make too much of a mess of themselves. They may be rodents, but they were still human beings deep down. Matthias grabbed a hunk of the bread, and gave some to Kimberly. She took it in her hands, and held it up to her mouth and began nibbling at it. Suddenly her eyes went wide and stared at him with one of the most pleasantly surprised faces Charles had ever seen. "This is good!" she said between bites.
Charles nodded, "One of the baker's specialties. The butter is cooked into the bread to begin with, giving it that rich flavor you just noticed."
"Who made this?" she asked nibbling some more at the hard bread.
Charles shrugged, chewing on the other slice of bread. He savored the taste for a second. He then pointed at the capyberran who was idly gnawing on a piece of mahogany. "That fella over there is one of the best bakers in Metamor Keep. His name is Gregor, and he was hired by the cooking staff here a few years back."
Kimberly looked confused, "How did they get him to come here what with the curse?"
Charles smiled, "Let's just say that Gregor is the richest rodent here at the Keep."
She laughed at that, taking another bite of the bread. It took her only moments before she polished it off completely, her nose sniffing the air, probably for more. She looked over at the table where the guinea pigs were stuffing themselves. She sighed, "It looks like that is all I'll get tonight."
"I'll buy you some more later if you want some." Matthias offered.
"Thank you, that would be nice." She turned away from him, her whiskers drooping from her blush. Matthias really liked her, she was sweet, gentle, and as a rat, simply beautiful. Her proportions were perfect, nothing in excess, and her eyes an almost dainty black. Her ears poked out the side of her head, a soft pink, with her gray fur a bit longer on the top of her head, almost like hair. Her hands were perfectly shaped, well taken care of as well.
Charles suspected that she was not happy being a rat, and he could understand why. She had been a lady before her carriage had stranded her here. Not of noble birth, but she was proper and had been devastated when she started to grow that ratlike tail. Charles remembered talking with her once it became obvious what she was becoming. As the head rat, and rodent for that matter it seemed, he tried to make the transition as smooth for her as he could. He remembered that day very well.
He had been sitting in his office at the Writer's Guild, poring over his latest story, when he heard the knock. He sniffed the air, and knew immediately that this was somebody who desperately needed to see him. He had put his work away, and let her in. She saw him, and let out a surprised eek, jumping back a few feet. To those who had never seen him or any other morphic rats before, it was a bit of a surprise, he was sure. He was not offended, not especially when he saw her tail.
"Come in, please, I won't hurt you."
She did as he told her to do. The only thing about her that was ratlike at the time was her tail. She had been wearing an emerald dressing gown, but the tail clearly seemed out of place in all the finery. He brought his stool around from behind his desk, and set it down for her to sit upon. She looked at him, holding her hand, as if offering him to help her sit down. Then she saw his paws and decided not to; instead, she set herself down on the chair without assistance. She winced at first, obviously not used to having a tail. Matthias had smiled to himself, remembering how many times in his first month or so that he had squished his tail through carelessness.
Matthias stared at her, not sure quite what to say in this situation. He had men in his office before, facing the life of a rodent with trepidation, but never a woman. He had twitched his whiskers several times, trying to think of what he could say that would make her any happier. There really wasn't much. "I take it that you know what is happening to you, don't you?" he had asked her after a brief silence. She steadfastly refused to look him in the eyes; try as he might, he could not make eye contact with her.
"I don't want to be a rat!" she had wailed suddenly, the tears that she as a lady could not shed in public, came flowing freely to him now. Matthias had at the time crossed over to where she was, and had put a gentle paw on her back and another on her arm. He gently massaged her, holding her close to him. That might not have been the best thing to do in the world, as she flinched from his touch.
"I know. What is your name?" he had asked her, putting one of his claws beneath her chin, and gently lifting her head so that he could see her face. It had been a pretty face at that, soft, thin with a rather small chin. Her lips creased in worry at seeing him so close, but from everything she must have been seeing in the past few weeks, the shock must be getting old.
"My name?" she had asked.
"Yes, your name." Charles had already known it. In a Keep this size word traveled quite quickly. "My name is Charles Matthias. What is yours?"
She had turned away, unable to look into his rodential visage anymore. "Kimberly."
Matthias nodded, "That's a very nice name, Kimberly. Do you mind telling me where you are from?"
It took a bit of coaxing, but Kimberly had finally opened up to him her entire story. She had been born in a country to the west to parents who were servants to a local lord. She had grown up around nobility, and took on many of its pretenses as she grew older. Unlike her parents, she did not want to live in that land any longer and so started eastward for a better future. Also she was escaping from the man her parents wanted her to marry. Her carriage had been passing through this country and was attacked by Lutins. She was saved by a Metamor patrol, but at the time thought they were more monsters, and so had swooned. After she had woken up, and had been taken on a tour of the keep, she had decided to stay. She had hoped to become something pretty like a horse or a bird. Instead, she had grown a rat's tail.
He did his best to comfort her, and he told her that she could see him any time that she needed him, and he would help her in anyway he could. He remembered one of the things he had said that day very well, "Kimberly, there is beauty in all things, we just have to see it. I see it in you, not just your face, but your soul. You are a wonderful person, no matter what you may look like."
"You really think so?" she had asked, her eyes connecting with his for the first time that day.
"Absolutely." he then had smirked mischievously, "You do have a very nice looking tail."
For a moment he had regretted those words, as it seemed like she would cry again, but instead she laughed a bit. Obviously, the worst of it was over, but there was still a long way to go. He was brought back to the present by an insistent push from Kimberly, "Hey, are you going to get me some of that cheese or am I going to sit here starving!"
"Of course, my lady." Matthias bowed extravagantly, and went off to find some of the better cheese that was still left. It was usually one of the first things to go, as the good cheese was not readily available. However, Charles was in luck, a flawless chunk of the finest cheddar. The more expensive and exotic ones were already gone. He'd have to wait for the next get together on those. He began to walk back over to where Kimberly was sitting when Phil stopped him. Phil had a long package wrapped in parchment.
"Is that another gag gift, Phil?" Charles asked sardonically.
Phil held up a paw. "On my word, this is not a gag gift."
Charles smiled, taking the package in his arms. "I'll open this shortly, I've got important business to take care of."
Phil smiled, looking over at Kimberly. "I imagine you do. I can wait." Phil then waved him off, looking for some of the remaining bread.
Matthias brought the cheddar back, and kneeled before Kimberly, "Your cheese, milady."
Kimberly put a paw to her breast and nodded in thanks. She took it in both hands, and began to nibble on it some. She looked at him happily, "This is delicious, thank you."
"My pleasure." Matthias sat back down next to her, letting his tail ensnare hers again. He really did care for her; she was the first person that he felt needed him. He liked that feeling, a lot in fact. Of course, he was still a bachelor at heart, if things worked out, that could change. He shoved such thoughts from his mind. He had known her a month, and already what was he thinking of such things, how silly of him.
"What's in the package?" she asked, pointing between bites.
Matthias let his whiskers stand out in suspicion. "I don't know. It's from Phil, so there has to be some catch."
"What's wrong with Phil?"
"Nothing, he just likes to give me really strange gifts. Did I tell you about what he slipped me last Gnawer’s meeting?"
"Probably. Wasn't he the one who gave you the petrified wood?"
Charles smiled, remembering how surprised Phil had been when he bit through the wood. "Yes, that was him."
"Well, aren't you going to open it?"
"Of course." Matthias picked up the package, and began to unwrap the parchment. It was something heavy he knew that, but it felt like it would fit his hand perfectly. He managed to pull the last of it off, and saw before him a fine carved stick of what appeared to be cedar. It was adroitly crafted, the perfect shape for carrying around in one's hand or paw. Charles had to admit that he was impressed, because this appeared to be an artwork instead of a chewing stick.
Phil was standing near him when he looked up. Phil's ears were cocked to one side in a whimsical fashion, "Thought you might like a new chew stick. I saw what you did to that last one of yours. I figured you'd like another so I fashioned that one for you."
"It looks almost too good to chew on!" Charles pointed out.
"That's sweet of you, Phil." Kimberly smiled.
"Just being a friend." Phil nodded, heading back to the tables.
Charles put the stick to his mouth, but then took it away jut as quickly. "I'll save that for later."
Kimberly locked her eyes with his, "You didn't get me anything."
Charles stammered for a second, caught completely off guard. He tried to say something, but found that he couldn't. He scratched his head a bit, looking very embarrassed, "Sorry about that, I didn't even think about it."
She shook her head, "That's okay. I'll forgive you this time." Yes, she was definitely a lady. A lady among rats!
Charles nodded, and put his paw on her hand. She pulled her own back reflexively, but then settled it back into place next to his. He wrapped his tail tighter about hers, and she did not flinch back this time. Charles noticed a few pointing, but most did not pay them attention. Charles leaned in a little closer, "Do you like the dress?"
"Yes, thank you, it's very pretty."
"Only because you are wearing it, Kimberly," he smiled, the light from the chandelier dancing off his front teeth.
She turned away then, her eyes a little wet. She put her other paw up to her mouth, and began nibbling reflexively. Matthias pulled her other hand down, placing it in her lap. "What's the matter?"
She sighed, "I'm still not used to this."
He nodded, "It's all right. Most of us here aren't used to it."
"But you like being a rat. You're happy that I'm a rat too!"
Matthias grimaced, "I have to admit that yes, I am happy that you are a rat. I wish that you liked it. I want you to realize that it is not as bad as most make it out to be. You've seen many of them here; we have a great time. I want you to be happy, that's important to me. I care about you a great deal. Not because you are a rat, but because you are you."
Kimberly bowed her head, smiling a bit, "Thank you, Charles. You are too kind."
Matthias grumbled, "Well, yes." He dislodged his paw from hers, and then straightened himself out. "Would you like some more cheese, or perhaps some more of Gregor's bread?"
Kimberly sighed, "How about some of both?"
"Both, why of course, milady." Charles was up to his feet again, his heart rejoicing. Even though Saulius had not shown up, the meeting was as far as he was concerned a success. He picked up the bread and cheese, careful not to disturb the guinea pigs, and returned with his nose held high in the air and his tail following proudly behind him.