As Charles made his way towards the Deaf Mule near the end of the day, with the clouds high in the sky, the sun sinking against the orange sky, he marveled at the perparations already being made for the Equinox-Easter celebration. Like many independent traditions at the Keep, they were combined into what appeared to be one large mass. Just as their bodies were the mixtures of two different creatures, their holdiays descended from many sources. While each had their own religious connotations, and still did in some way, for most of the Keepers it was another festival before the season of sowing and planting began in earnest. Many of the farmers had been tilling their fields for weeks, but after the three day long celebration ended, there would be much work to attend to.
He passed by an array of tents and podiums that were being set up on one of the lawns outside the Keep. He knew that the Duke's own best dining room was going to be arranged and most of the higher guests were going to be invited. Charles himself had been invited on the second night to feast at the table with the Duke. Of course he was one among any number of guests. He knew that the Deaf Mule would be doing very well those three days as many of the farmers on the distant fields would come into the Keep itself for a good time. It was a time of celebration, and Charles knew that it was going to be intense, as usual. He'd prepared a few things himself for the festival, but nothing that would be remembered for very long. He had once tried to steal the show at one of the festivals, and had been soundly walloped by the poeticism of Wanderer. Charles was an amatuer poet at best, and matching wits with Wanderer had proved too much for him.
They were still friends, and he knew Wanderer was going to recite something absolutely garish or outlandish or simply breathtaking. Occassionally he went in for wholesale witicisms, but he always kept it clean, which was more than he could say from some of the other events. He'd heard that jousting had been popular at one time, but now that many of the practitioners could no longer fit on a horse, or were horses themselves, it was abandoned in favor of varying contests that would not put any contestant at an unfair advantage. He hoped that Sir Saulius would decide to participate in the swordsmanship contest, since he was absolutely amazing, even though he was only just over four feet in height. Of course, that all depended on his ribs healing. He hated what he had done, but it was in the past, and nothing more could be said about it.
Entering the bar, he saw that it was about half full. The single chandalier was brightly burning, the old candles having been replaced only that morning with fresh new ones from the candlemakers shop. He could smell the fresh scent of the fine ales and meads which he was fond of. The scent of labor and fur came unto him quickly. Many of the people in here had retired from the field to get a good meal before they went back to their homes and their families. He went up to the bar, ordered a simple mead, paid Donny, and then started looking for a place to sit.
He saw a few familiar faces, and then a whole table full of them. He gingerly walked up to them, and put his hand on an empty high chair, "Mind if I sit down?"
Michael, who seemed to be rather uncomfortable in his chair nodded to him, "Yeah, we were just talking about our days and all. How was yours?"
Matthias shrugged as he sat down in the high seat, "About normal really. I had a minor crisis with the my fellow rats this morning. Hector was determined to be miserable, but I think I helped show him how to get through that." Matthias pulled his chewing stick which had seen quite a lot of use out from his belt and set it on the table, bringing it up to his mouth to nibble at it between sentences. "I read three different manuscripts for stories in my office today." Matthias then gave the kangaroo that was sitting next to Michael a penetrating but friendly stare, "I'm still waiting for you to finish up that story of yours, Zhypar."
The kangaroo held out his paws as he took another drink of the ale. It was obvious he was already a little tipsy. "Hey, I told you I'd get it done one of these days! Besides, I was gettings more research from the library today, and Fox showed me a few more scrolls on the subject I hadn't yet read."
"Oh? How is the librarian, I haven't seen him in a little while."
Zhypar Habakkuk shrugged, his thick tail shifting slightly to give him better support. "He's the usual old staring off into space self. I've never been able to figure him out."
"That's always bugged me." Another voice around the table commented. Matthias sniffed the air and could tell that Nahum had had a rough day. His reddish fur was streaked with a bit of oil, and his pointed muzzle was quite dirty. It looked like Nahum had gotten into a scuffle at some point. Whatever had happened to the fox, it was certain that he had already told people about it. Word would get back to him, but he was not going to make Nahum repeat himself.
"What did?" Michael asked, shifting about on his stool. Matthias stared at Michael absently, noting the way he moved his legs back and forth. Was he shifting more? His face had not distended at all, though it appeared a bit longer, and his ears were slowly rising along the side of his head, and he was begining to be colored in a grayish white fur. His hands had not chaged any, nor was there any fur on them though. Michael was setting a record for the longest shift of any single person at the keep. After three weeks, and he still looked mostly human, that was rare.
"Cutter always has bugged me, I can't quite put my finger on why. He's always so aloof, and he neve seems to have a reason for anything." Nahum continued, lapping at his beer every few moments. "Have you ever tried asking him about himself? It's like talking to a brick wall at times. I mean, he won't even tell me, a fellow fox!"
Matthias noticed that Chris was sitting at the bar not twenty yards from their table. Chris, being Fox's assistant, might take offense at such talk so tried to calm the situation down. "Hey guys, let's not bad mouth the librarian, I mean he's helped us out on any number occassions."
Habakkuk noticed that Charles had seen something, looked over himself, and then laughed a barking little laugh. "Watch yourself Nahum, that old bear over there might decide that he'd like to have a little fox stew."
Nahum gave Habakkuk a withering glance, but he did keep his voice down after that. "Have you heard some of the rumors though?"
Matthias knew that this was turning ugly. It seemed that Nahum was going to take out his frustrations by saying bad things about the librarian behind his back. That was not fitting behavior for a member of the Writer's Guild. It was odd that he did not notice it, but with the exception of Michael, all of them around the table where guild members. Of course, it was a small crowd of them, Habakkuk, Nahum, Tallis, Michael, and himself. However, the Writer's Guild was not that large to begin with, but there were enough to keep him busy reading and editing manuscripts.
Tallis, usually a quiet rat, with a curly patch of fur on top of his head, scooted about a bit, and leaned in conspiratorally towards the table, "I heard something interesting about him a few months back. Somebody said that he was a hired killer who had just had a bad contract. That's why we found his body out on the steps of the keep battered and broken, with absolutely nobody else around. I mean, how many people come to this place of their own volition without a convoy?"
"The baker, Gregor, did," Matthias remined his fellow rat who was just a bit gullible it seemed.
"True, but how much is Gregor getting paid?" Tallis pointed out.
"Who is Gregor?" Michael asked.
Matthias looked over at his still mostly human friend and cleared his throat, "Gregor is a capyberran now. About three years ago the old baker in the Keep died, and none of his staff was competent enough to take his place. Well, Gregor was the cook for a minor Lord in the midlands, but he was well known for his aiblity. Lord Thomas made an arrangement with him so that he would be the Keep's baker, but since Gregor knew what would happen to him when he came he insisted on getting paid quite handsomely. I don't think he's ever regretted his decision to come here."
"Still," Nahum protested, "Tallis has a good point, you are not going to find too many people who have come to the Keep of their own free will."
"A hired killer?" Matthias asked skeptically. "Get realistic, do you think Fox could actually hurt anybody?"
Habakkuk looked like he was still sitting on the fence, "I didn't think you could hurt anybody, and we all know what you did to that knight rat."
Matthias grimaced, biting hard into the stick, "That is not the issue here. You all are spreading erroneous rumors about a good man, and I find that distasteful."
Habakkuk leaned across Michael and gave Matthias a pat on the shoulder, "Hey, I'm not saying I believe it, I'm just saying that is what's possible." Zhypar then leaned back in his chair, scratching his thigh idly with one paw. "I heard that he was exiled here by some country in the midlands. I don't remember what for, but that is what I heard."
Tallis scoffed, "Why beat him up and drop him on our doorstep if you just wanted to exile him though? It seems much easier to just kick them out. How long ago was it that he showed up anyway?"
"Two years I think." Matthias replied.
"I think I just got here at that time as well." Nahum looked lost in thought, his vulpine ears perked up to their highest height.
"We were all here, but I don't think we were all really used to the place yet," Tallis pointed out.
"I wasn't here." Michael pointed out a bit indignantly at being left out.
"Well of course not you," Tallis conceded.
"I still like the hired-killer theory." Nahum had to admit.
"No way." Habakkuk protested. "Fox is not a killer."
Suddenly, the large figure of Chris slammed both fists into the table between Nahum and Tallis, "Habakkuk is right. Fox is not a killer, and I'd aprpeciate it if you didn't spread such rumors about." He then lumbered back to his seat at the bar. Matthias took a nice long drink of his mead as he watched the bear leave. Tallis and Nahum were quite still, almost as if they were afraid to move. They looked at each other and then back across the table at the rest of them.
"Told you." Matthias said simply, wiping the mead from his muzzle and nose.
"I guess I'll be retiring for the night," Nahum said it slowly, getting up from his seat, finishing off the last of his drink as he did so.
"I'll be going to bed early too it seems," Tallis agreed, and followed after the retreating fox.
Habakkuk shook his head, "Gosh, rumors just seem to get out of control don't they?"
"That they do." Matthias agreed, taking another drink from his mead. He then looked across at Habakkuk, "So, just when are you going to finish this story of yours? It's been three years since you started you know."
The kangaroo twitched his ears a little evasively, "Well, you know how it is, what with my repsonsibilities towards helping others and with the festivities coming on and all that good stuff."
"I hear you." Matthias remarked sarcastically. It was going to be another long list of excuses. He was about ready to give up on ever seeing the end to Habakkuk's story, just like he was about ready to give up on ever being able to defeat Copernicus at pool. He continued to drink his mead as Michael and he listened to the roo's fantastical excuses.
Matthias left the Deaf Mule a few hours later, having consumed one too many meads, and having had to listen too much to idle speculation. It had set his mind a spinning as it tried to figure out what the truth of Fox's arrival really was. He knew only one way to come to a conclusion to that pressing question. He would have to ask the vulpine librarian those questions himself. If only to put his own mind at rest, or to reassure himself that not everybody had to have a cataclysmic reason to do something. His intent was mostly to prove the rumors wrong though, for they were terrible things to endure. He knew it well, he faced many himself, many of the same ones in fact.
Fox was to be found in the libary, he seemed never to actuly leave it unless called. He made his home there, sleeping as a normal fox under one of the tables at night. That partly was what added to his mystery, he kept so much to himself that speculation grew to fill in the voids of his history. That was why Tallis and Nahum had contriubted to the rumors, each one growing more fantastical than the last.
As Charles entered the libary though, Fox wasn't at his usual place in the front. He was farther back, standing high over the floor on a ladder, placing books on the top self, tweleve feet above the ground. He was singing too, not very loud, or well, but a very clear song, with a deep treble that rang in his ears. The language he was singing in was not one Charles had ever heard before.
He coughed loudly to gain the libarian's attenion. It was sucseefull as Fox looked over his shoulder, smiling when he saw Matthias. "Hello," he said, starting down the ladder, "what can I do for ya?"
Charles found himself slighly nervous at the sight of a preditor stariting down at him with a grin. "Nothing much, really. I was just wondering about something, and I was hoping that you might enlighten me."
Fox nodded, "Let me get down first." Fox quickly ambled down the later, still nearly towering over Matthias as he stood there stretching his legs, leaning back aginast the sturdy bookshelf. Matthias however was used to that, though as always it was slightly intimidating. "What were you wondering about?"
Charles did not look into his eyes. He felt guilty for asking this of the Fox, he of all people should know better than to poke his nose into other people's business, yet he wanted to know. It was probably those meads he had imbibed that had made him come here, but it was too late, he had already set out on this path, he would just have to see it to the end. "Well, I was eating dinner tonight and had a conversation with afew writer friends of mine. You know Talli, Nahum, Habakkuk."
Fox looked thoughtful, "Yes, I know them. Habakkuk bugs me for resource material on cranial operations on a regular basis. Never explains why though."
Charles wrinkled his whiskers, "Yes, he's asked me the same question. At any rate, those three got into a discussion that I found rather unsettling and I was hoping you could put some worries of mine to rest."
"Well, the central point of the conversation was you. There are very disturbing rumors about you circling the Keep, Fox; very disturbing. I don't think they are true, as I am pretty sure I know you better than that. Chris assured them that they were false as well."
"What sort of rumors?"
"The kind that states to the effect that you were a hired killer on the run," Matthias replie dismply, fingering his chew stick, though not putting it to his incisors. "That was the worst of them, but the others were in a similar vein."
Fox nodded solemnly, his once chipper attitude fled.
"What I want to know is, how did you come to be at the Keep?" Matthias brought the chew stick up out of his buckler and began gnawing at it.
Fox sighed, putting one paw on the ladder. "Charles, everyone has something they want to keep hidden. You of all people should know that." The retort cleary slaped as an insult, one to which Charles could find no repsonse. Fox had made it clear that he wasn't going to listen to one, already climbing back up the ladder.
Dejecticly, Charles turned to leave the libaray. What had he been thinking? Was he expecting to spill his guts because of a few rumors? It was that mead again, it was effecting his judgement.
"Wait," Fox called, comming back down the ladder. "I didn't mean that as such an insult."
Charles kept his back turned to the libarian. He sighed, then turned back around, staring into Fox's eyes, letting him know that he was not offended.
Fox sighed, "Listen. You want to know the truth about why I came here, I want to know what happened to in the celler with that knight."
Matthias sucked in his breath, gnawing furiously away at the stick. He did not take his eyes off of Fox for a moment Finally he puleld the stick away again, "All right, that sounds fair."
He though for a few seconds. "Then I'll start. I need to tell this story at least once in my life, before it becomes more of a weight then my soul can carry." He licked his lips and leaned aginst the shelfs.
"You must understand, when I first came to this land five years ago, I didn't know anything about it, the people, the culture, even the language. All of it was foreign to me.
"I had no place to go, I was alone, a true stranger. I leaned to survive though, in the back alleys of the towns and viliages. Living off the scraps people left, learning to fight, to defend myself, to hunt when I had to, and to steal when I must. Above all that though, I learned the language. I grew stronger, and I made friends with the other street rats, as well as with merchents, husselers, and the common folk.
"After a time I started taking jobs, my skills where a strong boon for me in this reguard. I was strong, I could fight, so I was given the job of watching things. People, property, anything of value. For a few months I lived and worked at a temple, stoping thieves that came once a month. It was there that I learned to read.
"It was almost two years since I had first come here when things started to change. I found myself at the center of a series of problems, accidents, and murders. No one ever accused me of them, outright, but they all thought it was me. I eventualy found the actual person, he was very well placed in the local comunity.
"I learned that he was an assassin, a master at his craft. He had wanted me, wanted my skills, wanted to train me. I jumped at the chance, this was my key to something close to a decent life for myself, and being evil was very easy for me."
Before he could continue Charles bit completely through his chew stick, his whole body quaking. Charles shudderedas the thought that evil was easy for him. That was a serious admission. "Evil?"
"Yes, I know it was wrong. I didn't care. I just wanted to set myself up with a nice life." Foxeris shrugged as if it was nothing.
Charles nodded weakly. He wasn't sure if the rumor were worse than the reality anymore. "Continue then."
Foxeris licked his lips as he began to speak again, "I learned well, and did my job well, striking out on my own, doing small targets. Maybe a dozen men killed by my hand. Then, a month before I came to the Keep, everything changed. I was offered a lot of money to kill a knight that would be in the area soon. He had done a fair count of atrocities in his day, which had been kept quite by those that followed him. One though finaly had enough and wanted him punished.
"He was the last person I ever killed. I... I knew what I was doing when I did it. I knew that publicly he was a hero, a great man. A man whos death had to be avenged. So I ran, as far away as I could go, I had to vanish, I could never been seen again.
"So I came here, the logical place for a person who wants to never go back to the world. I came at night, after watching the patrols around the keep, I knew their rounds. When they where close I took my knife and I stabed myself. Five. Times. In. The. Gut," each word was puctuated by Fox slaming his closed fist into his chest. Matthias shuddered at each pounding.
"I screamed, throwing the knife far away. I was found in dozen minutes, I was close enough to the Keep itself to be brought back quickly, to be healed. It was bad though, it took weeks for me to recover. Long enough to make sure I was staying here from the rest of my life."
Fox sighed again. "I left it all behind, even the money, though I do remeber where I hid it." He addmited this with a slight smile, "I am not who I was then, that was the last time I ever killed a man, and as far as I hope, it will stay that way."
"Are you sorry for what you did?" Matthias finally asked.
Fox shrugged, "In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I would never do that again, even for money though. Not anymore." Fox looked distant, his head lost in his own thoughts. "I guess I've grown up more since then. I can kill, but I choose not to. I've found something that is much more satisfying in life."
He then peered down at Matthias, his eyes intense, "Now, you promised me your own story. What happened to that knight in the cellar?"
Matthias took the last hunk of his chew stick and slid it back into his belt at his left side. He leaned against the back of the book case, letting his tail curl up about his feet. Charles kept his eyes passing back and forth, never settling on any one spot for long. "I was, as you have probably heard, originally from a country far to the south. South of the Midlands even. There are many dangers between this place and where I was from. I remember the winter's there; only once in my entire life did we snow on the ground -- we saw it up on the mountain tops, but not where the people lived, not in the cities.
"At any rate, there are many different customs there, and even at times different forms of magic. I possess a form of magic myself." Matthias wondered just how much he should admit. There were some things that he could not say. To do so would mean death. Even though he had left the Sondeckis, he could not reveal their secrets. "Is that what happened down there? Magic?"
"Yes. My magic works not like Magus's or even Pascal's. It is a more rudimentary magic that is concentrated by my physical action. I can put more force behind a blow than my muscles alone are capable of. It's also the reason why I was able to bite striaght through petrified wood. You probably heard how I did that a month or so ago?"
Fox nodded, "Yes, I recall Phil mentioning that."
"Well, that is what happened down there in the cellar with Sir Saulius. I used just enough force to knock him back and to save my life. If I had used too much more I could have killed him. I almost did anyway. My palm is a deadly weapon, I can break bones with it if I want. I don't want to do that however. That is why I am a pacifist now, I know that if I get into a fight with any other, I will use my magic and kill them."
"Why not be a scout, that sort of pwer would be useful against the Lutins?" Fox pointed out.
"No, I don't want to do that." Matthias shook his head. "I don't want to have to take orders like that again. I am afraid what would happen." "What did happen?" Fox queried.
"I hurt Sir Saulius." Matthias replied, knowing full well what Fox wanted. He was not going to give it to him. It was too precious, too secret for even he to reveal, despite the meads he had drunk earlier. He muttered a silent prayer of thanks that he had not gotten himself drunk. Who knew then what he would have said!
"No, I mean, what happened that brought you here?"
"Fox, I hate to say this, but I never agreed to tell you that. I hope you can understand my concern to keep my own history secret. Do not fear, you never have worry of me spreading your own about the Keep."
"I told you because I needed to tell somebody. I trust you not to repeat it, Charles."
"I don't feel any such need." Matthias pointed out. "I hope you are not offended."
Fox shook his head, "No, not really. In a way I'm sort of glad. I don't need two histories burdening me."
"I probably didn't either." Matthias admitted. There was a very simple little thing he could do though. He was just not going to worry about it. As long as he said nothing of it, then things were still the same. This was not a reason to be concerned. Making sure that things went all right with the judging on the morrow, and his intent to get Lady Kimberly on the guest list for Saturday should be his prime concerns. He reoriented himself, that was what he needed to be thinking about, not this.
"Well, you asked."
Matthias nodded, "I guess that's about that though."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Fox turned to climb back up the ladder.
Matthias fingered his chew stick, and thne turned to leave. He looked back up at the scaling vulipne and then called out, "Shall I see you at the festival?"
"I don't like parties that much." Fox replied.
Matthias sighed, "Well, then I'll see you when I bring the winning stories to you on Monday."
"Monday then." Fox nodded, beginning to sort through the books again.
Matthias then turned back, and left the library for good that time. The cold air of the night wrapped about him, the cool wind whistling through his fur. He put his arms about his shoulders and chest. This was the last gasps of the cold winter season. The snow had all but completely melted from the higher hills, and the fields were ready to be sown. It was going to be a long summer once again.
Hopefully, it would be another summer in which neither Fox nor he killed another man.