Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part I
t was late afternoon when Lady Kimberly threw herself sobbing into my fur.
The day had been typical of many since I had accepted that destiny intended to use me as a wild card. Morning I had spent penning and editing stories, an activity that did much to keep me sane while living in a white rabbit's body. Then, at noon I had dined with Lord Thomas, spending a couple hours assessing the intentions of our Enemy and trying to come up with some confounding devilry of our own to return past favors. And finally, as the shadows lengthened again my focus had been set on the affairs of distant Whales, reading a dispatch from my adopted father and composing a reply. The news had not been good, nor my response simple. The two letters had been laying side-by-side for my study when the door suddenly burst open and Matthias's beloved fell weeping into my arms.
Rupert leapt instantly into action of course, but I stopped him with an uplifted forepaw before anything untoward happened. I hated having a bodyguard again after all the happy carefree years at Metamor, but had to acknowledge that Tenomides had chosen well for me. Rupe was an accomplished scribe, valet, and even had gotten the knack of rabbit-grooming. He was also accomplished in more deadly arts. Originally an old family retainer of many years service, my new companion had contracted a deadly sickness. The King asked if he would be willing to risk Metamor in the hope that transformation would bring about a cure as it sometimes did, and Rupert had agreed eagerly. The results were good, and the upshot was that I now had my own private 600 pound gorilla to help me through life's little challenges. A most loyal and skilled gorilla, in fact.
We got along well. Strangely enough, there seems to be a certain chemistry between lapines and anthropoids. One of life's little mysteries, I guess.
Anyway, Rupert withdrew and I simply hugged Kimberly, absorbing her tears with a deep sense of foreboding. Matthias had been out on a patrol, and there was only one reason I could imagine for his beloved Lady to be so upset...
But thank the heavens it turned out I was wrong. Matthias had indeed returned safely, had even distinguished himself in combat, much to my surprise. But something had snapped in him. Eventually, the story spilled out of the sobbing rodent-woman. Broken spears, magic spells waved aside, an assault on Thomas himself! What madness was this?
It was then I noticed Kimberly's torn dress. Had the guards mishandled her, I asked? The answer left me cold.
I held her a little longer, letting her find what comfort she could. When the sobbing had given way to silent hugging, I vowed quietly to find out what was going on and to see what I could do. A glance was adequate instruction for intelligent Rupert- we had been together long enough for me to know that he would see Kimberly back to her room and find a friend to be with her. Which would give me all the time alone I needed to make a little point to my equine friend...
The throne room was not far from my apartment. Hurriedly, once Rupert was gone I took the chain my father had sent me with the Seal Rings of the Master of Fire and Crown Prince of the Island of Whales dangling from it and threw it over my neck. The gaudy hardware jangled annoyingly as I hopped willy-nilly on all fours down the narrow corridors, once knocking a steward off his feet in my impolite haste. Then, heart and lungs working rapidly, I skidded to a halt just around the corner from the main door, and awaited my chance.
Luck was with me- I heard the door open almost immediately. Timing things carefully so as to let the spearmen take their ceremonial steps back from the portal I waited two beats, then hopped for my life.
Right between the guards...
Few creatures sprint like a warmed-up bunny, and my enlarged size only made me fleeter still. With each hop I dug my hindclaws into the rich carpeting, silently accelerating all the way up the main aisle to my friend's throne. No one, not even the Prime Minister had time to react before a final leap put me right in Thomas's lap. Where I sat, staring grimly into his shocked face.
The moment stretched out, so I dug in deeper. "I could send for Rupert, you know. He might not be as much fun for the guards to brutalize as Lady Kimberly was, but who knows? They might enjoy a challenge."
Meanwhile said guards were clustering around the throne in confusion, spears upraised. The silence continued, so I offered one last taunt. "Going to send me out on patrol too? Or just dungeon your chief ally's top admiral and adopted son?"
Finally, Thomas could stand it no more. As I had hoped, he burst out laughing and started scratching my ears, waving the spearmen away. "Phil!" he finally got out. "I have never..."
Then he laughed some more.
There are many strange things about Metamor Keep, and my friendship with Thomas has to be one of the strangest. He took me in as a mercenary long ago, not letting on in the slightest that he knew I was Master of Fire of the Island of Whales and had been offered the Throne of my homeland. When the great transformation caused me to go feral for years on end, he saw to it that I received proper care and informed my countrymen. Then, upon the return of my reason (or what had always passed for it, anyway) he helped me find honorable employment for my now-limited talents, discreetly seeking my counsel in such a way that I still never suspected that the secret of my past was nothing of the sort. He had behaved with honor and rare compassion towards me, in other words.
On my end, I had come to admire how Metamor was run. Thomas's dedication to the arts and the free exchange of knowledge had been a great revelation to me. We of Whales prided ourselves on our dedication to free trade and free oceans. In fairness, we had never suppressed anyone's viewpoints or creations. But why had we never actively fostered libraries and artist's workshops and laboratories like Thomas had done at Metamor?
The possibilities involved in bringing the two cultures closer together were mind-boggling. And we both knew it. With the riches of free trade and the riches of free learning working together, the world could be transformed out of it's current state of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. And who knew what future that could bring?
So it was that Thomas and I heeded each others views closely, and gave each other great trust. And so it was that instead of having me dungeoned like my friend Matthias had been, Thomas canceled the rest of his schedule for the day and joined me at my usual table in the "Mule" for dinner.
We exchanged pleasantries over weak beer at first, then got down to business when the main course arrived. I salivated heavily when the laden platter was delivered- as fellow herbivores Thomas and I usually just shared a plate. State dinners were all well and good, but both of us really had gotten sick of them over the years. And when you lose your taste for food that's been heated, even the pleasures of exotic dishes and gourmet cooking are removed from the tedium of formality. In my quiet little corner, with Rupert and Thomas's guard discreetly protecting our privacy we could talk and eat and be frank with one another.
Finally, I nosed some oats over to the side and sniffed delicately at them. "Nice, but just for a change" I observed.
He was working on a head of Romaine lettuce. "I might say much the same."
"Mph." I nibbled at the delicacy, swallowed. "We seem to have much in common, My Lord."
Lately, it was "My Lord" and "Your Highness" for business, "Thomas" and "Phil" for friendly talking. He took the hint.
"Including the acquaintance of a certain rat that's been behaving rather oddly lately," he replied.
Oats take a long time to chew. I considered my reply carefully. "My Lord, I know Matthias well. He is headstrong, perhaps. No, I'll take that back. He is headstrong, period. But he surely meant you no harm. And brutalizing his Lady Kimberly was unforgivable."
It was the Duke of Metamor's turn to chew on things. Eventually he gave his own considered response. "Your Highness, what would the penalty be for a seaman striking you at sea, aboard your own flagship?"
"Death, if the intent was mutiny. Something lesser, if not. And none at all, were the sailor mad."
"Mad, My Lord. As I suspect Matthias was this afternoon."
"Hmm." Thomas chewed more, long and loudly. He ate like a horse, an unfortunate side effect of the Battle of the Three Gates that made entertaining dignitaries far more of a burden for him than for me. "Your Highness, it may be that Matthias was a madman this afternoon. And perhaps I overreacted. But I swear that I never heard of the woman- what is her name?"
"Kimberly, then, being hurt. And I saw nothing, having been understandably somewhat distracted. Tell me what you know."
So I shared what I had heard of events from the rodent-woman's point of view, starting with her eager anticipation to greet her love, and ending with the nightmare in the throne room and a description of her tattered clothing in my chamber. Thomas was always a sucker for a romantic story, and by the time this one was finished he was in a state of great agitation.
"This... This..." he spluttered.
"My Lord, it seems your security does indeed need to be overhauled. Not only were you twice assailed in one day, but your guards overreacted as well to an innocent bystander."
The horse-morph nodded solemnly. "I will put my best men on it."
"Perhaps you should choose one of the operatives from my special section? Who better to know how to safeguard you?"
"Hmm. You know, Your Highness, while we are on the subject I worry about your safety sometimes as well, since you have publicly acknowledged your Royal position."
My ears rocked in an involuntary smile. "Perhaps you should use Rupert as your consultant."
"What do you mean?"
"Allow me SOME secrets, My Lord, even from you. Now, I have a proposal for you on how to handle this whole Matthias affair..."
He sat dry-eyed in the hay, staring into the empty blackness. The dim light coming through the hole in the door was barely enough for him to see any of the features of his cell. His paws and his nose were his only means of knowing what lay about him in the darkness. The small pile of tan-coloured hay in the one corner had obviously been changed since the last time a prisoner had been here; it was the only really clean thing in the cell. The place stank of some long gone droppings that had not been cleaned, from a small animal, probably musteline from the scent. There was a patch of fungus clinging to the slick stone walls with the crumbling mortar and rotting cement.
Of course, he deserved much worse than this for what he had done. His head should be decorating a pig pole in the Keep's killing grounds; his lifeblood should be drenching the spring grass and staining the earth red. The people of Metamor Keep should have had the pleasure of seeing a traitor such as himself beheaded. He could hear their cheers and hootings and snorts of derision as the great axe was raised and his body bound to the block. The block would have been scarred with the nicks of the axe, and with the dried and caked blood of the former miscreants.
Instead, his head was unrightfully upon his shoulders, and he was in this pathetic excuse for a dungeon.
Matthias was a writer- his imaginings tended to be quite dramatic and vivid.
Yet, they had given him a fate that he did not relish. To serve on the patrols for the rest of his life was truly a torture worse than any that he could have conjured up. He didn't dare let himself be killed to end the pain. He could never forgive himself for not doing his best to protect others. Yet at the same time, he would become the very thing he loathed to become - a killer. Well, it was the only thing he deserved to be! Look at what he nearly did to the Duke! Look at that! He had marched in there, attacked the troops, broke through that pathetic air spell, avoided Jon's battle form, and nearly assualted the Duke. What better thing for him to do than to kill people.
He was a killer, that was all he could ever be.
Charles put his head in his paws, trying to hold back the tears. It was better that he be in the dark where none could look upon his hideous countenance. The Sondeckis had come with him. Though he had escaped them almost six years ago, it was still a part of him. One could not just leave one's life behind. The past inevitably molds the future. All of the training, all of the conditioning, and all of the skills he had acquired were still there. He had hurt Sir Saulius with his skills about a month ago, and he had bit the petrified wood in two the month before that. Oh, he had confessed some of this torture to Fox Cutter, but could he ever possibly hand all of it over to anybody? How could Lady Kimberly look him in the face and say that she loved him ever again if she only knew what he really was? How could she?
The thought of her, the one whom his heart ached for, the one for whom he would trek through worse than this for if she only wished it, finally brought the tears to his face. His racking sobs echoed back to him, and down the dungeon hallways. The pain was only beginning.
Dungeons are always dark, and always cold. This is no accident- it is a sad fact that in the real world people have to be imprisoned and must be punished. And the timeless, seasonless atmosphere of a dungeon helps make sure that no one who is an unwilling guest will want to visit twice.
My intelligence-gathering activities at the Keep made me a fairly frequent visitor here. I had interrogated any number of near-mindless Lutins, and even fought wit-duels with Demon officers and the odd human or two that sought service with the Enemy. Humans in particular were eager to deal with us, as their inevitable transformations would make them unable to ever leave if we held them for any time. So it was that Roscoe, the Master of the Dungeon, was unsurprised to see me at any hour. "Phil!" he greeted me eagerly.
"Hi, Roscoe!" I replied as warmly as possible. In truth, I felt deep pity for this poor soul- the same spell that had made me look good in white had not been so kind to him. He had been made into a bizarre darkness-loving thing by having his body merged with that of some kind of cave-scorpion. Sunlight was intensely painful to him now, and his nightmare pale appearance alone had persuaded more of the Enemy to talk than I liked to think about. Roscoe was hideous, grotesque, an affront to all that was beautiful and natural...
...and a man just like me. Who had dignity, and always seemed starved for company. I tried to remember this whenever I visited. "How's tricks down here where the sun never shines?" I asked, rocking my ears.
He clicked his pincers rapidly, his own substitute for a smile. "Oh, not so bad. Been pretty quiet here under the rock until your friend Matthias came to visit. I guess you know he isn't allowed visitors until tomorrow?"
I could smell meat rotting in the distance, but didn't comment on it. Something told me it might be the Keep Dungeonmaster's dinner. "Thomas has authorized it, Roscoe. Honest."
He scanned me a moment with cold faceted eyes, and the rotten scent grew stronger, making my stomach lurch. But I was too polite to allow it to show, and after a moment Roscoe skittered delicately about and led me into the gloom. "Guess it's alright," he declared. "After all, everyone knows you and the Duke are thick as thieves."
"Thanks, friend!" I said, rocking my ears again and putting what feeling I could into my voice. We headed down a low cell-lined corridor, then I waited while the cave creature fiddled with the bar on the entrance of the proper cell. Finally, with a low groan the heavy portal swung open and I nipped inside. The solid door shut behind me, leaving me in blackness. Roscoe would be right outside if I called, but still the atmosphere made me feel alone and a bit afraid. How must it be working on my fellow writer?
"Matt?" I asked into the darkness. I could smell him, thick and strong in the poor ventilation. Not surprisingly, the scent was heavy with anguish.
My friend's low voice answered me flatly, emotionlessly. "What?"
"I've come to see you."
"Has a day finally passed? When will Kimberly come?"
Sighing, I realized that I probably should have brought her, or at least arranged something. Nobody can think of everything, though. "It's not time yet, Matt. You've only been in here a few hours." The rat groaned at hearing this. "I got special permission from Thomas. And see, I've brought you something to chew."
At this I sensed him stirring on the straw pile I knew to be in the back of each cell. Taking it as an invitation, I sat beside him and offered him the exotic, aromatic wood that Tenomides had begun to ship me from my homeland, once he discovered it would please me. Politely, he broke it in half and quietly we gnawed together for a bit.
Then I realized something. "Matthias, this is seasoned bountifruit wood. We don't make ships out of it because it's too hard to work with- tough and springy. You can dull a steel saw on it. Yet you just broke it by hand!"
He sighed. "Once you open up a little, once you begin to talk about things you just can't hide anything anymore, can you?"
I was confused. "Matt?"
"Someday, I promise I'll share it all. When I feel better."
Quietly, I nodded. I had kept some secrets myself....
Finally, my friend spoke again. "How do you deal with it, Phil?"
"With what, Matt? Being a rabbit? A rat ought to come closer to knowing than most."
"No, not that. That's easy, for me. But how do you deal with being a murderer? With the blood on your hands?"
Some understanding of the whole affair began to dawn. "Matt, I have killed, yes. In numbers that I shudder to think about. And it's NEVER easy to live with. But I tell you that I am no murderer."
"Tell that to the dead!"
Sighing, I chewed for a bit and stretched out in the straw. Here at Metamor, straw was some of the most pleasant bedding around for many of us, but it was kept in the dungeon regardless. Tradition, I suppose. "It's not the dead I worry about, Matt, or what they think. It's the living."
"Would you like to hear a true story, my friend? We've shared many stories it seems, but too few true ones."
I took more silence as permission.
"I was just out of the Academy, a fresh-faced junior Fire projector on a tired old patrol ship. It was our job to watch out for pirates mostly."
"One day, we were patrolling off the port of Quaroom. You know it?"
I could hear him nod. Who had not heard of Quaroom, the city whose gold mines had no bottom and whose people knew no peace?
"One revolution after another happens there, you know. The average life expectancy between coups is only seven months, and that figure hasn't changed in a century. Yet there never seems a shortage of those who would be King.
"As happens so often, a revolt broke out. This one was nastier than most- not just a few simple poisonings and slit throats but rather a full-scale rebellion. The Captain decided to make port so that we could pull out the embassy staff and a few gold-traders and their families. Usually the citizens of the Island of Whales are not molested anywhere they may travel- after all, our arm is long and the Fire brooks no argument. But it looked like utter chaos had broken out this time, and chaos breeds, shall we say, unconsidered actions."
I shifted uncomfortably. Telling this was not easy, even all these years later. "We arrived too late. The heads of our countrymen, and those from many other lands as well, sat on poles around the harbor. They had been perceived as rich, and that was enough excuse for them to be killed. Even the children.
"Now, my friend Matt, I want you to think on something. I didn't know a soul that had been killed personally. Nor did I have any personal grudge against the people of Quaroom. Everyone knows they are oppressed and looted by one despot after another. But I wore a uniform, one that stood for the rule of law and civilized behavior. And one that was entrusted not just by my own nation but in effect by many others to enforce that law.
"We were only handful of men against the marauding thousands shaking their fists and taunting us from the shore and the docks. The only thing- the ONLY thing- keeping them from rowing out and overwhelming us by sheer numbers was the fact that we held the Fire. And similarly it was only through the Fire that we were able to strike back."
Beside me, Matt started, as I knew he would. "Come now, what would have happened had we left this unprovoked, criminal act go unavenged? I'll tell you- it would have happened again and again and again. My people work hard, and trade openly and fairly. We tend to prosper. This leads to jealousy and hatred among others, especially those who feel that they are entitled to prosperity without the fairness and openness and hard work. In the end, Matt, force is needed sometimes. None of us like it, or rather none of us who are decent human beings. But there is evil in the human soul as well as good. Sometimes, it must be purged.
"The crowd didn't understand what was happening at first, as we lowered sail and rigged the oars. In truth, the Fire is not used so often that the preparations are well known. I suppose they thought we were going to try and recover the victims' remains, so they armed themselves and massed for a hand-to-hand battle. And gently we rowed up and let fly the Fire into the crowd.
"Matt, I know you killed on your expedition. I haven't been able to read the report yet, but rumors are flying. On that day, however, I personally killed dozens as they fled in terror. And I was barely old enough to shave. You may have seen blood and death, but have you watched people burn, Matt? Have you watched a young girl no older than yourself dance grotesquely among the flames, until she falls still screaming into a burning pool? And smelled the stench of her charred corpse? Breathed the smoke that was once her attractive flesh?"
I paused at the memory. Matt might think it an exaggeration, but I knew it to be the literal truth.
"When it was over, there were still a few heads standing down at one end of the quay. We recovered them as evidence of the crime we had punished, and headed out to sea.
"One of the heads was that of a little girl, Matt. And they had put the head of her teddy bear on a post beside her as some kind of sick joke. From then until now whenever I see a girl with a stuffed toy I remember that moment. And I know that horrid as it was, my actions at that time are even today keeping her safe, because my actions showed that brutality will NOT be tolerated, that there are certain basic human laws that we will not accept or forgive the breaching of. And I know that the message was sent in a language that even the basest of mentalities can understand. In other words, it is those still alive who matter."
There was silence for a bit, then Matt spoke. "For my beloved one, for her safety I have killed."
"And for the safety of those I'll never know, I have killed. To prevent the outrages that would surely have happened had I not."
More silence. Then I spoke again. "Matt, I had qualms too, that first time. What got me through the long nights that followed was that I knew I had obeyed my Captain's orders, as I had sworn to do. I respected him a great deal- he was a very wise man. If it makes it any easier, I'll share a secret with you. Can you keep it?"
"I shan't tell all, because I have other obligations and oaths to uphold. But in essence you killed on my advice and at my orders. The raid was needful, and it was a success. It prevented much evil. I didn't choose you specifically to go- someone else did that. I do not like the rule that requires all who can to patrol, because there are many among us ill-suited to killing. But you may blame me for the deaths if you wish."
There was only silence after that. Then, my friend began to tremble and weep as if the world were ending. "Matt..." I said consolingly, offering my shoulder.
But the rodent-morph pushed me away, and turned his back, his muscles suddenly iron. "No!" he said, in a part whisper, part growl. "Not you, not now! Not if you were the one..."
His words pierced my soul. I respected Matt. Was I truly a murderer in his eyes? If so, was I kidding myself? His good opinion mattered to me, and the rejection hurt. Badly.
Thomas and I had worked out a way to try and do justice for my friend. The Horse-King had promised me that I could request Matthias's release at any time, and it would be granted and the incident forgotten. He trusted my judgment, and I did in fact know my friend well. But in his current emotional state, clearly this was the safest place for him to be. He was all sharp edges, broken inside. Maybe I could get Father Hough to talk some sense to my fellow author. I made a mental note to send the priest word of what had happened right away, before turning in for the night. Matt seemed to respect him a lot...
Quietly I called Roscoe, and returned to my chamber to toss and turn the darkness away. Sometimes, my memories are not the best of soporofics.
Matthias stared at the wall, unseeing blackness that it was. It was like a vortex that threatened to swallow him up. He wished that he could plunge headlong into it. The walls were sealed against him. Some magical ward that he could not break through was in place, he'd already tried. While he could touch the rocks, his power immediately vaporized the moment he did so. A simple spell surely, but an effective one nonetheless. Of course, it might mean that somebody in this place knew of his power, and knew it's exact nature. Then again, it could be a common spell used on mages to prevent them from escaping. He wished that it could take his power from him permanently, but there was nothing that could do that. It was a part of him more inextricably than his love of writing was. Nothing was closer to being his soul than the Sondeck. That baneful power had caused him to be who he was. It was by that that he had been made and lived. Everything else was just a delusion in his sick brain.
Phil thought he understood. All of his words had only infuriated him further. He got comfort out of knowing that he was following orders? What a pathetic excuse! That was his reason for leaving the Sondeckis. That day had been painful, but the choice had been clear and long since overdue. It had been the beginning of that nine month stretch on the road laying his trails, false one after false one. He didn't want them finding him, as he knew they would search. It had been almost six years since he left, and he'd never seen another with the Sondeck, and certainly nobody from his past. That wasn't completely true. He had seen Habakkuk before, but it was certainly true as well that the kangaroo did not remember seeing him. Still, he had thought he'd escaped the Sondeckis. Perhaps, but the Sondeck had been carried with him, and it had struck, and brought itself back out to laugh at him. Even now it must be giggling with delight at Charles's predicament. It had revealed itself, and made sure that his life would be a Hell. How could he properly love Lady Kimberly if his own hands were caked in the blood of innocents? How could he be the one to care for her when his hands had ended many a happy and productive marriage?
He would not take orders to kill again. Not from the likes of anybody who thought they knew what was better for the people than the people themselves! There they were sitting up in their stuffy palaces and amongst their jewel-drenching courts with flatteries affixed to their mouths and they felt that others had to do their killing for them to protect the good of everybody. Did they go out there in the snow and see the forest floor tainted red with the blood of the dead, did they attend the funeral ceremonies for the dead of even their own side? No! They were too busy playing some game with their counselors or laughing it up getting drunk on fine imported wine bought with the money taxed from the people. He could not help but think of the disgusting Lord Loriod, who seemed so perfectly to fit the description. If there was anyone who deserved dying in this court, it was him. He was a monster to the people.
Matthias crumpled to the ground, head in his paws again, his tail bunching up painfully beneath him. Was he so easily turned back to his old ways? Was he so willing to go out and kill others? Phil might be right about one thing, the safety of others was important. But at what cost? Just when did the line get drawn? Just when did everybody stop and realize that there had to be an end to the madness? The patrols killed Lutins, and anybody allied with Nasoj. Because of that, the people at the Keep were protected from the ravaging hordes that had come down six years ago. It seemed almost ironic that the time of his departure from the Sondeckis and the Battle of Three Gates were so close together.
Yet, here he was, never complaining or arguing about the need of the patrols, and he was quite willing to let them go and kill, but he didn't want to look at the battles himself. What kind of hypocrite was he? He was as bad as Loriod. It was only fitting that he be made to serve the people that he had leeched off of for the last five years in a position of protector and killer. After all, there was nothing else that he could do quite so well.
Charles leaned over the pile of straw and vomited, his body aching with the spasms of grief and confusion.
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