Wandering the Keep

by Charles Matthias

Vinsah hated his dreams, though, for reasons he could not quite put his finger on, he was always slightly disappointed in the morning if he had not seen her in his sleep. He was often disappointed in fact, for she only appeared once every four or five nights, and rarely for more than a few minutes to whisper half-remembered words into his ear, and then to leave him as he was, a raccoon, forever masked by the Keep's curse.

Struggling in the morning darkness, the chill air of the first of December seeping through the spaces along the window pane, he tried to call back to his dreams, to a fleeting image that became even more tenuous as he grasped for it. It was the same routine he practised every morning when she visited him. He no longer thought of her as simply a person in his dreams, but as a guest in his dreams. Yet, in the two months that he had known her now, he had never once told him her name. That thought caused a grimace to ripple across his narrow snout.

And that motion caused his eyes to trail down to the long protrusion occupying the centre of his vision. It was still night, and no candles were lit in the room, yet still he could see it; the dark grey muzzle darkening even further to the black of his nose, and even the long, narrow tongue if he should poke it out far enough. Pulling himself into a sitting position, the thick tail trapped between his legs for the moment, he brought out his hands, now paws. That same grey pelt lined the back of his hand, while the palm had darkened and thickened, the callouses tougher, though still sensitive. His thumb had grown forward slightly, bot not enough to make grasping things difficult. Short black claws tipped each digit, all of them sharp as he'd discovered after shredding one of his garments in panic a few weeks back.

Closing his green eyes, Vinsah lay back against the pillows, trying to will all of it away. It was no use, as he could still feel the bed-sheets rubbing against his fur and his tail, disorganizing the thick winter pelt. It would take him nearly half an hour to comb it all back into place. With a sigh, he turned his thoughts once more to clasping that last dream visage, but with little success. It had not been like any of the others he'd had, that much he knew, but he was not sure what made this one different from the rest.

Vinsah pushed himself up onto his knees, throwing the covers off and back across the mattress. The fabric was covered in grey and black fur, but he ignored it. His tail lazily flicked across the back of his foot paws, a feeling that made his toe claws twitch slightly. Glancing back at it once, he shuddered. He, the Bishop of Abaef, had a tail! And his former master Akabaieth had wished this upon him.

He cringed at the memory of their conversation in the carriage the day he'd been cruelly murdered. This woman in his dreams had come to the Patriarch and asked him to leave Vinsah in her care. Why did she want him though? That was something that the Bishop did not know, nor even knew how to find out, since she would never say. But the coup de grâce was that the Patriarch felt that life as a Metamorian would be good for him! How could being condemned to spend the rest of his life as an animal trapped here in this one valley be good for him? There was no answer to his question.

Vinsah sighed as he peered out the dark window onto Metamor. The homes were quiet and sombre, and the streets lined with fresh snow. Piles were already building up at the corner of each home, and from where children had arranged figures out of them. It did lift his spirits somewhat as he gazed, for it never snowed in Abaef. In fact, until he had come to Metamor itself, he'd never even glimpsed snow, the white chilly powder having been relegated to one of Eli's mysteries that he would never know.

Of course, now that he had an abundance of it, he wondered how any human was able to stand it, for despite his fur, every time he opened his window to smell the air, he was set to shivering like a leaf. Now he knew why almost every room in Metamor appeared to have a hearth somewhere, as it was the only way to keep from freezing. However, the room that Coe had allowed him to use did not have one, and so his only recourse was to bundle tightly in his quilts and pray that Eli would not let the cold seep through his window. However, it inevitably did.

Even as he thought about it, he could feel the cool air run across the fur on the back of his fingers, making his whole body shake of a sudden. Vinsah climbed back down from the window, refusing to let the sigh escape his muzzle, and snuggled back under the quilts, wrapping them tightly about his frame. He laid his face across the pillow, one ear buried deep, the black folds coming together smoothly. His other ear turned to listen about the room, noting that the other raccoon was also stirring in his bed a few rooms away.

Vinsah did have to admit that it was nice to have such potent ears and such a strong sense of smell, yet to always look in the mirror and see that mask plastered across his eyes, his face once more youthful despite its bestial visage, was not a price he wished he had to pay. But, at this point, he had little choice. With resignation, he sighed again, gazing down his long snout once more to the door. He knew that it would be opening shortly, as the sound of the Healer's toe claws echoed through the wood.

Sure enough, a moment later, he could see a flickering light dance beneath the door frame, and then, with a slight creak from the hinges, it opened to reveal Coe's procyonid face illuminated by a small lantern. The black bands across the otherwise brown fur was a reflection of his own condition, narrow snout, and thick cheeks surmounted by triangular ears. "Vinsah, I heard you stirring, is something wrong?"

Whenever he had one of his dreams, he would toss about in his covers and make a bit of noise, usually well before dawn. Glancing out the window once more, he could see a slight brightening of the eastern horizon, and knew that dawn was indeed at least an hour away. He turned back to his keeper though and shook his head, even as he sat up a bit under the covers. "No, nothing really. I suppose I just wish this room had a hearth. It is colder than I'm used to here."

Coe nodded then, stepping fully into the room. He only wore a loose-fitting robe, pulled around his belly and tail, leaving only the extremities of his paws and feet showing. The hem of the robe cut a long V down the front of his chest, the dark fur there burgeoning out, beneath his muzzle. His nose twitched as he sniffed the room, trying to gauge just whether there was something else bothering the Bishop. Vinsah had to admit that the Healer was quite astute at registering mood based solely on scent, a skill that he still lacked despite his prodigious sense of smell.

"I'm sure you can find a place somewhere in the Keep with a hearth, Bishop," the Healer replied drily, setting the lantern down on the side-table. He took a small candle, and slipped it within the receptacle of the lantern, letting it catch flame as well. He then methodically lit the candles about the room, drawing them into dim, but sufficient illumination. "You are going to have to do that at some point as it is. I will not let you hide in here forever."

"I-" Vinsah started to say, then lowered his gaze back to his paws on the thick quilt. "I just need more time."

"You have had over a month since your chest healed," Coe pointed out, drawing the stool to the bed, and sitting upon it, his tail flitting behind him, disturbing the lay of the robe. "Yet here you are, still delaying, and asking me to lie to those who wish to know if you will ever recover."

Vinsah nodded then, though he hated the words. He wished nothing more than to curl up and disappear, so that none would ever know of his shame. "I just fear what the Ecclesia may do when they realize what I've become."

Coe crossed his paws then, but said nothing for a moment. His voice, when he did speak, was quiet, no more than a whisper. "You could always leave here with a new name and identity. You are barely twenty-five in physical appearance now, and your new form has rid you of your accent. You could easily pass yourself off as a traveller who came too close to the curse. Nobody would ever suspect who you once were. You'd just have to have a name that sounded regional. Vinsah is a bit of a give away."

He considered the raccoon's proposal for a moment, but found one name swirling right to the top of his list, one that was also an ever present reminder of his dreams. Elvmere. With a sudden shudder that encompassed his whole body, he barked out harshly, "No, I cannot do that." Hadn't he said the same thing before that evening, but instead to another man who had suggested he take up that name? A sudden flash from his dream came to him then, a glimpse of that other figure that had entered his nightscapes, that man who had come unbidden. He was completely unfamiliar to Vinsah, but his message had been much the same as the one that the woman brought to him.

"Why not? You would not be the first Keeper to abandon their old life for fear that somebody would recognize them. Nor would you be the last I wager. Metamor is a wonderful place to disappear, especially if you become an animal like us."

Vinsah shook his head. "I'm sorry, it is just not something I am willing to do. At least not right now." He turned away then, gazing back at the window pane, noting the flickering candle reflecting in the smooth glass. "And not tomorrow either."

Coe grumbled angrily, but kept his voice quiet and gentle. "Vinsah, I cannot keep you hidden here forever, you are going to have to either reveal yourself for who you are, or take a new name and a new life. Those are your only options." Seeing that the other raccoon did not stir, the Healer went on, his voice stern now. "And I would not think about killing yourself. If you do that, I will reveal to everybody just who you were, and make sure that the Ecclesia hears of it. I recall one of the Patildor telling me once that suicide was an unforgivable sin. If you think they will hurt you because of the way you are now, I am sure that they could do far worse posthumously."

The Bishop gave out a short laugh and waved his paw negligently. "I will not do that, you can rest assured of it. This is not an easy decision for me. Can you please allow me more time? Say until the new year?"

Stirring on the stool slightly, Coe appeared thoughtful, his brow creased slightly. His ears flicked to either side for a moment and then he nodded. "On one condition."

"What is that?"

"I want you to walk about the Keep today, as you are now. I know you've been sneaking about as a full raccoon these last two weeks, don't try to deny it."

Vinsah grimaced and nodded. "I've been watching others, yes. It is a useful form for that sort of thing."

Coe favoured him a brief grin, and then continued. "I want you to talk with people, and go about your day as if you were a visitor to the Keep from one of the outlying farmlands to the south. Nobody will question that. If you want, you may tell them that you are thinking of moving to the Keep. I'll give you some clothes and some silver so you can even purchase a room at the Inn for a night or two if you wish."

Vinsah shook his head, thoughts a swirl. "But won't people wonder if I am wearing your clothes?"

"They aren't my clothes, just some spare outfits that I keep around in case I have a patient in need of them. You aren't my size anyway. Your hips are wider than mine are for instance, you'd burst the seams in my breeches if you tried to put them on."

The Bishop gazed down at his waistline and grimaced. He'd gained a bit of size around his belt after his change, a proportional change that he liked even less than the rest of it. It made his gait slightly off balancing. "But, I'd have to use an alias or they'd know."

Coe grinned slightly. "I'm sure you can think of one."

Thinking of one name was not Vinsah's problem. What concerned the Bishop of Abaef was the fact that he could only think of one name! "Why do you want me to do this?"

The Healer spread wide his black palms. "Because, it will give you a chance to weigh your choices. If you decide you indeed want to abandon your old life, then you'll have a new one already established. If you change your mind, then you'll have another month to hide in here. By then, I'm sure most who have seen you will have forgotten about you, and you can reveal yourself without fear from Metamor."

Vinsah frowned, trying to spot a flaw in the Healer's logic, but his mind was still too intent on that name and the fragments of his dream. "But won't it appear odd to have a traveller leave the castle on the day he arrives?"

Coe stood up then. "Not if you leave before dawn. In fact, I think you should start now. By the time the sun rises, you can be anywhere in Metamor you want to be!"

Sighing, Vinsah slipped from underneath the covers, hoping that whatever clothes the raccoon was going to give him would be quite warm. How he longed for the deserts of Abaef, where the sun always shone warm upon them. Akabaieth was wrong, this place would freeze him solid before it helped!

It was cold, that much he was aware of. The faces swirling about him, tight, smiling faces that were blissfully unaware of his discomfort gave him no surcease, but instead only reminded him of how out of his element he was in this wintry clime. Clutching the think woolen jacket about the shirt and breeches Coe had lent him, Vinsah made his way through the peopled streets of Metamor, going from shop to shop, always stopping to talk to the proprietors.

Part of his motivation was an honest desire to get to know the people of Metamor a bit better before he made his decision. Brian Coe was right, he did need to come out of his shell in the infirmary. The thought of taking on another identity and a new name did solve a few problems, most specifically what the Ecclesia would do if they found out he'd become a raccoon. However, the fifty-three years of his life before Metamor had to mean something, he could not simply throw it away quite yet. Besides, there was only name that he could think to call himself, and he refused to accept it as his own.

The other part of Vinsah's reason for visiting the shops was because of the simple fact that the storekeepers would have a fireplace somewhere in their shop that he could warm his paws by for a minute before returning to the chill. Several times, he'd been tempted to bring up the subject of the weather with some of the Keepers, but each time he was afraid that they would laugh and shrug it off as a brisk day. This frightened him for two reasons. The first was that it would indicate he was a man of southern temperate. The second was because he feared that it was going to get even colder before the winter would break, a prospect he did not look forward to.

Thankfully, none of the shopkeepers or the customers he'd had a chance to meet either brought up the weather themselves, or questioned his story. He'd thought over Coe's suggestions, and so selected a small town to the south of the Keep, a farming village that was sure to be populated by folks that were not in this part of the Valley. In fact, he rather enjoyed the role, it was a bit of a relief to just speak to the Keepers as another of their own kind, and not some visiting dignitary. The best part about it was that he'd so far managed to talk without ever revealing a name for them to remember.

It was unusual for him to be treated so casually, as his face was well known to all in Abaef. That community on the edge of the Deserts of Dreaming was so unlike Metamor, that he could scarcely catalogue the differences. The homes here were made from wood and stone, not from clay; he wondered if that would make them trickier to colour, as the clay in Abaef accepted dye quite easily. The clothes were all thick, covering folk from head to toe, and sometimes the tip of their tail too. In Abaef, they had been light, mostly to shield their faces from the bright sun. Remnants of vegetation lined every street, a testament to the greenery that surely must flourish in the summer months. Vinsah's old home had been a parched land, with few farms, all from the irrigation canals passing through Yesulam. He missed the familiar things, all the things of Abaef, even that face that was so recognized. Now, it hid behind the mask of the raccoon, a mask that no one at Metamor ever questioned or brought up.

Another thing that surprised him was that very few of the Keepers would even mention the late Patriarch Akabaieth. Not that he ever brought the subject up himself, he could never tell if the person he was speaking too was Follower or Lightbringer, nor would he ever ask. However, while in the bakery, a sweet smelling little shop with a crackling fire casting shimmering reflections on the parquetry, the tabby apprentice made mention of him after the baker himself grumbled and returned to his ovens.

"He's been like that since the Patriarch's death, don't take it personally," the feline remarked as he scrubbed an empty shelf with a bit of cloth. He then cast his eyes down, staring at his dark-furred paws, and the short claws that tipped them. "He doesn't mean anything by it."

Vinsah nodded and offered the cat a gentle smile, much like the one Akabaieth used to wear. Why was he suddenly so comfortable around the Keepers? "I understand, the news of it was a blow to us as well. Is he a-" Vinsah scanned his mind for the name the Lightbringers used for the Followers. "Is he a Patildor?"

Brennar shook his head then, pushing the crumbs into a small dust pan and then depositing it in a nearby wicker basket. "No, he's a devout Lothanasi. You never got a chance to see the Patriarch did you?"

Vinsah nearly bit his tongue then, forgetting just how sharp his procyonid teeth could be. "No, I was still in Jetta at the time."

Nodding the tabby set the dust pan down, and inspected the counter one last time, sniffing at it with his tan nose. "He was a great man, and the world is worse off without him. I don't think that there was a soul here at Metamor who did not love him by the time he died. And to think, many of us didn't want him here."

The raccoon shuffled a bit closer to the fire then, wishing that his feet could take boots, as the fur around his toes was sopping wet from the snow. "I wish he'd survived," he murmured quietly, meaning it in more ways than Brennar could ever understand.

The tabby sighed, scratching at his side with one paw. His long narrow tail flicked from side to side as he considered the empty counter. A small smile crept over his short muzzle then, "But, things are looking up for our lives here. Prince Phil has finally taken a wife, smiles abound everywhere you go, and-" suddenly a very mischievous smile spread across the apprentice's lips, "there will be snow on the ground for the next three to four months. I love this season. I use to live on a farm too, and I can remember how nice it was to just relax most days, with nothing to do other than to frolic, and take care of the animals. Don't you agree?"

Vinsah held out his paws to the fire, staring at the wet grey fur, grimacing. This was going to take forever to dry, and it wouldn't matter anyway, as he was just going to go back out into that mess before too much longer. "I suppose. I always preferred summers myself when it's pleasantly warm."

Brennar favoured him another grin, "I can tell, you've been hugging the hearth since you came in here."

Snorting, Vinsah realized that the cat was right, and so let out a small chuckle as well. "Well, it won't really do any good I suppose, I've many more errands to run today. Haven't decided whether I want to live here or not yet, but this shop alone makes a compelling argument for it. Perhaps I could buy something to warm my insides as well? I've used up enough of your fire I think."

Crossing over to the occupied side of the counter, Brennar nodded and flicked his tail in a self-satisfied feline grin. "You'll definitely find many things here to warm your belly. What would you like?"

Vinsah selected a thick pastry flavoured with brown sugar and apples, and then bid the tabby good day. He then reentered the cold midday air, setting his almost dry paws into the soft snow. Half-licking, half-chewing, he ate the pastry in short time, but it did temper the chill somewhat for those moments, and made his journey down the main thoroughfare more pleasant. The sky was clear now, and the sun warmed him slightly, but still, he pulled the coat close about his shoulders as he walked, long tail swinging behind him.

It was only a short while later that a voice called out behind him, "Excuse me?" Vinsah did not recognize the voice, and so continued on, thinking that it must have been meant for another, yet whoever it was, persisted, and stepped closer. "Excuse me," he said again, his toe claws rasping on the recently cleared cobblestones. In another few days, Vinsah was sure that it would be covered in another layer of snow.

Turning about, he saw a figure cloaked tightly in a black robe staring at him. The most singular feature about the Keeper was that he too was a raccoon. "Yes? Can I help you?"

The other raccoon chuckled lightly, and stepped closer. "Actually, I was just curious to see who you were. I've not seen any other raccoons here at the Keep aside from myself and Brian Coe. I know for a fact that there aren't any either, and so I had to solve the mystery."

Vinsah did his best not to grimace. Whoever this Keeper was, he was certain to be inquisitive, and the Bishop had no desire to answer lots of questions. "I don't actually live here at the Keep. I'm from Jetta to the south."

"Jetta-" the other remarked thoughtfully. "Isn't that a farming village just south of the Iron mines?"

"That's right," Vinsah said, nodding once. "I'm actually thinking of coming here to Metamor, and was looking around to get a feel for the place."

"I see, perhaps you would like a bit of a tour then? I have little I need to do at the moment."

Vinsah waved one paw to the figure. "No thank you, that won't be necessary. I prefer to make my own way about."

"Oh, come now. I could make your search go much smoother and quicker. Besides, you could see more of the town that way if you had a guide." There was an unreadable expression on his muzzle, but staring into those dark eyes, Vinsah felt a bit uncomfortable. There was an intensity of purpose in those orbs that would not be denied.

Sighing, he shifted about on his paws. "I suppose you are right."

"Of course I am." The other raccoon wore a self-satisfied smirk just then, his triangular ears flitting to one side at the sound of a door closing behind him. "My name is Rickkter, what be yours?"

Vinsah stumbled then, pretending to slip on the icy walkway. Rickkter did not immediately move to help him up, but after the newcomer unceremoniously crashed on his own tail, his fellow procyonid laughed, reached out a hand, and lifted the Bishop back to his paws. "Be careful there, it's a bit slippery."

"I noticed!" Vinsah said, his eyes wide, even as he gently reached one paw behind him to feel across his tail for bruises. He still had a bit of trouble accepting it as his own, despite the fact that it was with him even in his dreams. A sudden chill passed through him that had nothing whatsoever to do with the early December air at the thought of his dreams. What had he seen last night?

"So what is your name?" Rickkter asked again, still gripping his other arm beneath the shoulder.

Vinsah looked up at him, grasping for any name other than the one that yearned to be spoken. Yet there were none out there, none that would come; every time he tried to conjure another, that one from his dreams bubbled up like something rising from the sands, some night scorpion intent to plunge its stinger in his heart.

Eventually though, he had to say something, so he allowed it to pass over his tongue, and yet, it did not burn as much as he thought it might. "I'm called Elvmere."

Rickkter nodded then. "A Sathmoran name. Were your ancestors from that land to the west, Elvmere?"

Vinsah started at that, hoping his look of surprise was not obvious to the other raccoon. "I, I never asked, I always just thought of this Valley as our home. Perhaps many generations ago." How could that name be Sathmoran? That was a Lothanasi kingdom. Why would the spectre's in his dreams call him by a pagan name?

"You're a farmer, are you not?"

"Yes, well, I've served on a farm at least."

"You talk like an educated man," Rickkter added then, letting go of his arm, and looking down the street. "Where would you like to go?"

Vinsah shrugged. "You know this place better than I, you pick." After a moment, and after his unwanted companion had started down the road, he said in a nonchalant voice, "I've read several books. My father always thought it important to know how to read and write." Which was true, and it had been the driving force that led him to join the Ecclesia as a priest in the first place over thirty years ago.

"Ah, very true. Your father was wise then. What sort of books did he have you read?"

"Histories mostly, at least to start with. Occasionally I'd read something purely for pleasure. I always liked reading the works of your Writer's Guild here." He'd seen a few, mostly those that Akabaieth had told him he ought to read. "I guess I was hoping to meet some of them, especially that Charles Matthias, the one who wrote that story about the father and son reconciling. Do you know him?"

Rickkter did not say anything immediately, rather he kept his head turned from Vinsah for several seconds. His tail flicked in irritation though, as if he'd been asked to do a particularly demeaning job. "I've met him a few times, yes. I'm sure if you decide to live here, you'll see him eventually." His voice was distant, as if he were rehashing an argument very far away.

"What do you do here at Metamor?" Vinsah asked all of a sudden, finding the sudden silence repugnant. He wondered just exactly what it had been he'd said to spark that bit of nervous tension.

Rickkter appeared to snap out of his funk almost instantly, turning once more to gaze questioningly at his procyonid companion. "I'm with the patrols, mostly as a field mage. We need as many of those as we can find." His eyes scanned Vinsah for a moment then, as if studying him for weaknesses. "You look to be rather strong. You might want to consider joining the patrols, at least on reserve. We could use all the able bodied fellows we can get."

"I don't think the life of a soldier is for me, but I'll think about it. I don't like hurting people."

Rickkter stared at him a moment, one eye wide. "Nobody should like hurting another. People either fight because they want to protect another, or because they are being paid to do it."

"And which are you?"

Rickkter, licked his muzzle a bit, his breath coming out in steam into the air as he thought for a moment. "Both, I am happy to say." He then pointed with one black claw towards a low set building with smoke rising from its brick chimney. "If you are looking for some thicker clothes, this would be a good place to visit. Do you realize you're teeth are chattering?"

Vinsah closed his mouth tight, abashed that he'd let himself display his discomfort so openly. His whiskers drooping, he chuckled softly. "I've never liked the cold weather I'm afraid, and I've never had enough money to buy myself thicker clothing. Even after I grew the fur, it only helped somewhat."

Rickkter chuckled then, patting him on the back slightly, indicating the solid oak timbers of the door. "You are not alone in that, Elvmere. I cannot abide the frigid weather either." He then took a few steps towards the storefront. "Well, then let us see if we can find you something. You have a lot more to see today I imagine, and it is only going to get colder." With a shudder, Vinsah followed his fellow raccoon into the shop, dreading what the next three months were going to be like!

The Deaf Mule Inn was a rather cozy place, Vinsah had to admit. Bundled in the thick wool that Rickkter had helped him select, he greedily ate the moist, warm stew. It was something that was slightly familiar to the lands of Abaef, but then it had been a delicacy, as potatoes were rare. The savoury meat was just tough enough to give his teeth a bit of work to do in chewing, so that his raccoon companion was obliged to do most of the talking. As far as the Bishop was concerned, he'd done quite a bit of that already today.

However, Rickkter did not content himself with simply discussing his own life, but instead, turned the questioning around at every opportunity, forcing Vinsah to reveal himself even more. With a pleasant grin upon his muzzle, he asked, before taking a sip of his mead, "So how do you like Metamor?"

Vinsah shrugged, chewing the last of a potato down. "It is certainly quite nice, and the people are just as friendly as I've heard. It is a bit overwhelming to take in all at once though."

"You could stay an extra day," Rickkter pointed out as he set his mazer down.

"I could, but I don't want to risk the weather. It could turn sour at any moment, and I wouldn't be able to safely return to Jetta then. I do have a few more things there that I would like to bring with me."

Rickkter leaned forward slightly, one eye ridge rising slowly. Behind him, the fire snapped as one of the servants tossed another log into the hearth. "So, you are planning on moving here?"

Vinsah nodded at that, even as he washed the potato down with his own mead. "It is quite likely. Depending on how fierce the winter is, I may move up in the next few weeks, or not at all until the Spring. I'm sure you know how bad winters can sometimes get in these parts."

"No, I haven't been living here that long, I told you. But I have seen the likes of it before. This will be the first time I have some natural protection." He ran one of his paw across the fur of his other arm, drawing up the black and the grey underneath.

The Bishop nodded, and glanced up at the doors to the Inn as another group of Keepers strode in. The largest of the figures was the most comical, wrapped in several layers of cloth, bundling up every exposed part of his body. Thick mittens covered his hands, and a long scarf was wrapped twice about his thick tail bobbing along behind him. After passing into the Deaf Mule, he slowly began to unwrap himself from the coverings, revealing a set of bright green scales upon his frame. He strode across the Inn towards the fire, where he stood, exposing his chilled body to the licking flames.

"Ah, much better," he said aloud, tilting his head back, yellow eyes gazing backwards to his two companions who'd come in with him.

"I wonder how you survive here at all, Cope," the shortest of the three remarked as he unwrapped a shawl from his face, rodential muzzle clear for all to see. His right arm though, was nestled firmly in a sling tucked close to his jacket.

"I'm not completely cold-blooded!" Cope objected, his tail patting the floor much like any lizard might.

The rat nodded in mirth then, his eyes crossing the room, and then darkening as it fixed on another figure about the Inn, but only for a moment. Vinsah caught the gaze, and followed it to its destination, a solitary kangaroo sipping a bit of wine by the bar, whose own brown eyes were curiously taking in everything that happened.

However, Vinsah found himself drawn to that third figure at the sound of a familiar burr. Faces and images began to escalate through his thoughts, piling higher and higher, nearly revealing the contents of his dreams to his waking self. For the last of the three that had come into the Deaf Mule was none other than the skunk Murikeer Khannas, a spectral visage clad in black and white as always, except for the shirt and thick leggings he wore for the sake of modesty.

"Is something wrong?"

"It's... it's..." Vinsah started, before realizing that he'd just been asked a question by Rickkter himself. He couldn't very well reveal the contents of his dreams. "It's Charles Matthias isn't it?" he pointed at the rat at last, seizing upon the only thing he could think of to salvage his embarrassment.

Rickkter frowned then, though his eyes appeared to settle on the broken limb. "Yes, that is he. I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you went and said a few words to him. He enjoys having others fawn over him."

Despite his shock, Vinsah did catch the hint of sarcasm in the raccoon's voice. However, he did his best to pretend that he didn't. "I wouldn't know what to say."

"I'm sure you could come up with something. Go on, go say a few words to him. You better hurry before they make it to the pool table. You'll never distract them then." Rickkter waved at him with his paws, though the moment of disgust had long since passed from his features.

Reluctantly, Vinsah stood on his foot paws, his tail sliding up and out of the chair. Turning about, he noticed that the kangaroo appeared to be staring directly at him, an unreadable expression on his thick muzzle. Vinsah blinked at the sudden attention, but quickly realized that the figure was not looking at him, but past him to the other raccoon sitting at the table. With the quick sense of relief, he headed to intercept the trio as they made their way across the Inn towards the aforementioned pool table.

What most disturbed him was that the skunk's long tail kept flicking at him and before Charles. In all honesty, he did admire the rat's capability with words, but the fact that he was present here with one of the people inhabiting his dreams made him intensely nervous. Yet, he did his best to ignore Murikeer and instead interposed himself between the rat and the pool table. However, since it appeared he was only intending to watch as the skunk and the lizard played, it was not difficult.

Matthias grimaced curiously as he looked the raccoon over. It was obvious from his form that he'd been expecting somebody else, but knew that this was not the man. "Can I help you?" he asked then in a light voice.

Vinsah shook his head and bent a bit lower. "Oh, I simply wanted to offer my gratitude to you for all of your fine works. I've read quite a few of your stories, and wanted to say so while I was here at Metamor." His eyes ever strayed to Murikeer who was watching with a bit of delight on his own muzzle.

Charles could not help but grin and stand a little taller on his long toes. "Why thank you! Do tell me though which one was your favourite."

With a bit of relief, Vinsah saw that Cope and Murikeer quickly lost interest in their private conversation and turned to the pool table itself. With that skunk out of view, the Bishop found it quite easy to talk with the rat, who was gently cradling his arm. From just his scent, he knew that the rat had been working with oil and grease a lot lately, but was not sure why. Still, after a few moments, Charles appeared satisfied with what he'd heard, and Vinsah politely excused himself, claiming he had to hurry and finish his supper before it got cold.

When he slipped his tail back through the hole in his seat, Rickkter was still vaguely glaring at the rat who stood by the pool table watching his friends knock the balls about. Vinsah also caught the kangaroo glancing over most of the figures present, idly scrutinizing them while scratching at one of his long floppy ears. Vinsah could not help but feel he was standing in the middle of dry tinder while holding a match.

Quietly, he returned to sipping his mead, pretending not to take notice of the unspoken thoughts. Setting his mazer down, he gazed Rickkter full in the face then, his own mask set firm. "Thank you greatly for showing me about today, I would have been lost without you."

Rickkter turned back to face him, his smile returning. "Thank you for allowing me, Elvmere. However, I realized, that I have a few matters I must attend to before it becomes too cold out. I hope to see you here again soon. Good night to you." With that, the other raccoon stood up and left the table, a small piece of potato still sitting on his plate.

Sipping once more at his mead, Vinsah set his back to Murikeer, and finished his meal in silence.

Vinsah could not believe that he was spending the night at the Deaf Mule Inn. The room was warmed from below, the great hearth a roaring blaze tended into the night. Still, there was only the bed, a small table on which to set his things, and a closet in which he could hang his cloak. He'd not thought to bring his night clothes with him from Coe's place, and so was forced to sleep in the jerkin and breeches he purchased that day.

Though Rickkter had been kind enough, his sly questions had a way of drawing out more information than Vinsah had wanted to give. The worst of all was that he'd made him confess a name, and it had been that name. He'd had to keep from cringing when the warrior introduced him as Elvmere in all the stores they'd entered. One young girl in the tailor's shop had dared to ask him if she'd be seeing him in the Lothanasi temple for worship soon! Why did it have to be a Sathmoran name?

Of course, he doubted his dream figures would answer that question for him. What had that strange man said to him last night? It was so indistinct, he could barely capture snippets of it. He'd been a soothing presence, much like the woman, only on a different level. Yet, the memory of it was so distant, it might as well never have happened.

Closing his eyes, he snuggled the sheets tighter about himself. The bed was warm and comfortable, for which he was grateful. Yet, what was he going to do on the morrow? He certainly had no intention of remaining as Elvmere, though given how Rickkter had flung it about, it was sure to stick in their memories. In all reality, his only option was to return to Coe's early in the morning before others had arisen and go back into hiding. In a month's time, folks would likely have forgotten him, and he could assume any identity he wished afterwards.

Still, as his thoughts flowed backwards across the day, he had to admit to himself that he truly did enjoy it. Vinsah felt a bit abashed at that realization, considering the bestial faces that many of the Keepers, and now he himself, wore, as well as the prolificacy of magic and Lightbringers. Before he'd come here, all of them were things he'd avoided in his life. Now they were inescapable truths, ones that he had to brace. Perhaps that was why Akabaieth had felt it would be better for him to stay and live as they do.

Despite his reservations, Vinsah fondly remembered the apple pastry he'd taken from the bakery, the pleasant meal he'd had in the Mule that evening, and listening to the boisterous laughter of the other Keepers at the Inn as the fire crackled and warmed their fur. Perhaps he would enjoy life here at the Keep, he certainly wanted to be able to, as there was little choice left for him.

Rolling over, he peered at the closed window. Between the slits of the jalousie, he could see white flecks of snow gently descending to the ground. Perhaps even that was not as bad as he'd thought of it first. Reaching out his paw, he turned the small rod and sealed the jalousie tight, casting the room in total darkness. With a shudder, he brought his arm back beneath the covers, seeking the warmth once again.

Resting his head against the pillow, one ear pressed tight into the feathery embrace, he caught just a small flash of his dream the previous night before slumber took him in other directions. The man had told Vinsah to trust him. And it felt very good to do. Though he did not know it, his tail flitted from side to side in delight as he lay curled up in the quilts that night.