Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part VII

Sitting down on the floor of the Deaf Mule Inn, Charles Matthias looked about the assembled faces of his friends, and those whom he had not seen in quite sometime. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, but he could not find it in himself to be truly the happy individual that he knew he should be. Tomorrow he would be leaving once more to destroy an object of great power in Nasoj's possession. That was not a task that he took lightly. Also, he would have to travel by sea. The last time he had done so had been nearly six years ago. It was not his happiest memory.

Lady Kimberly was there, and she was all smiles and radiance. Her beautiful amber gown sparkled in the golden ambiance of the lanterns. Matthias knew that his key to happiness was to let himself be wrapped up in her joy. His release the night before had been sudden and quite unexpected, though relieving. He hoped that Lord Loriod did not see it in the wrong light.

The thought of that evil whoreson bastard darkened his mood quite quickly. Something had to be done about him and all of his machinations. However, all that he could do had already been done. If only Phil had picked up on the runes he'd been tracing. That would not be much, but it would be enough to start events in motion that might bring about the end to his fears.

"Oh, this cheese is absolutely wonderful. You must have a taste!" Lady Kimberly insisted shoving a nice wedge with a single bite mark towards his muzzle. Charles inclined his head, nibbling a bit at the side. Indeed, it was quite delicious! How lucky he was to have somebody as special as she to call his love!

"That is excellent! Where did you find it?"

She pointed with her little delicate paws at the bar where Donny stood filling mazers of ale for the gerbils. Charles smiled as he watched the gerbils turn the massive decanters over their muzzles and guzzle down the drink. "It won't last long next to those guys," He murmured.

Kimberly nodded as she took another bite of the cheese, sitting down, her tail curled up behind her. Charles leaned over and stroked the side of her face with one paw. Her whiskers twitched as he gently caressed her fur. It was so nice to have somebody in this world such as her; somebody sweet who could love him. Perhaps he should tell her who he had once been. If he could tell Phil, why couldn't he tell her?

Phil himself was sitting over chatting away with Michael and Pascal, both of whom had shown up for their first Gnawer's Meeting. Charles had already given them his greeting, it seemed they were both a bit more friendly than he would have expected. It was pleasant to see Michael as a rodent, he couldn't help but feel some sort of pride in that. Pascal, well she had always been a bit strange, but it was good to see her as well.

In fact, this was the only Support Group that he had ever attended (and he had attended them all) that featured every rodent that lived in the Keep. Sir Saulius was drinking quite heavily from mug and singing some ballad of honor-bound knights rescuing fair maidens - Charles had never known that the knight could sing so well and so humorously. Hector was making sculptures out of his cheese and bread, mostly of felines, and then biting their heads off in jest. Tallis and Elliot were applauding Saulius's vocal demonstrations. Julian was sitting in a corner by himself sipping at some ale and nibbling on a piece of Gregor's bread. Goldmark was off somewhere; he had been watching Saulius, but had as usual become a pure rat and disappeared.

The rest of the rodents were conducting their own business, and Charles saw a few familiar faces. Bernadette, one of the mice, was giving Lady Kimberly these looks that he couldn't quite read. Charles felt like he was missing a whole conversation that had everything to do with him. Michael was showing Phil his woodsman's axe and telling him one of his tales serving on the timber crews. Charles could hear a bit of the story, but was not really paying attention.

One thing that surprised him was the fact that nobody asked him anything about his recent time spent in the dungeons. For that he was grateful. That had been a miserable experience. It was wonderful to have slept in his own bed this last night. Still, the memory of the very moment that had caused him to be locked up was still in his mind. He could still see Duke Thomas's exasperated face as his sentence was cast down upon him. Perhaps he should apologize to Jon as well, since he had been in the throne room at the time.

Charles found his eyes straying to Phil as his thoughts turned over and over. The prophecies of Mad Felix were circling about; the fateful words that had forced him into making a decision that he had been loathe to do were resonating throughout the vaults of his mind. Was he indeed the 'Rat of Might'? If so, was Phil this 'Hare of White'? And therefore Duke Thomas made the 'Horse King'? It seemed all so fantastical. It also meant that he was going to be privy to some of the darker intrigue that was conducted about the palace. Before last night he would not have been sure that he would have liked that prospect. Now, it was his duty to do so, for the lamp must be kept well lit.

"Hey!" Lady Kimberly tugged at his arm gently. "What's the matter?"

Charles turned to look into her face. It was obvious that he had been falling into a trance. He wrinkled his nose a bit, and put an arm about her shoulder, feeling the folds of the fabric beneath his skin. "Nothing, I was just thinking about a few things. That's all."

"What sort of things?" She asked, turning her head to the side a bit. Her eyes peered back at him, their luminous orbs sparkling in the lamplight.

He didn't want to lie to her, yet he also had to keep his involvement in the prophecy secret. "Fate really. I was thinking about fate. Fate brought me here to Metamor Keep, just as it brought you, and just as it brought us together. Perhaps it has some good purpose in mind for leading me out on the patrols." Of that he was not lying. It was his cover story, and he intended to stick by it. It had also been his punishment

For some reason, it did not seem so much a punishment anymore.

Charles took a sip of the wine, feeling his tail wrap about Kimberly's. It was going to be a long trip, and he would certainly miss her. He missed her already! He leaned over, and draped his arm about her shoulders. She leaned her head into the nook of his shoulder, her pink ears twitching against his rough jerkin. He spoke softly, wanting to express all that had to be said. He did not want her worrying about him, but he knew that she would.

"I love you, and I will always love you. I cannot think of anybody I would rather be with, or spend my life with. I wish I did not have to go, but I must. Nothing can stop me from coming back, not when you are here. Nothing can stop me." His words resonated up through his throat, and once said, he felt empty as if he had poured himself out, and now needed refilling.

Lady Kimberly looked up into his face, her expression stunned. Her nose sniffed at him as her teeth gnawed at the piece of wood in her paws. She blinked a few times, and then finally threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. "I love you too, Charles!"

Matthias wrapped his arms about her, not caring who was watching them. He drew his paw across her back, scratching in deep into her fur through her dress. He would be back, there was nothing that could ever keep him from her. And when he returned, he would have to tell her all. No secret could remain between them ever.

Peering out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Phil observing them cautiously. The rabbit was still enjoying his mendacious chat with Michael and the surprisingly mellow Pascal. He hoped that they had found happiness as well. Still, the 'Hare of White' occupied his attention. Phil would keep his promises. He had never betrayed him, an accusation that he was sorry he had made in his seething rage. Phil would make sure that Lady Kimberly was safe. There was no doubt about that.

Abruptly, a voice rang out over the crowd. It was Saulius's. He was obviously a bit tipsy, as his whiskers and nose looked quite giddy. He had a streak of ale through the fur on his face, and he swayed a bit as he stood on the bench, one hand leaning against the oaken table. He held aloft his mazer, which was spilling ale upon the floor as he waved it back and forth.

"Hark! If mine eyes do not deceivest me, I believeth that there art a rat who deserves thine appreciation! His senses hast recently returned I believeth, and," Saulius let out a long burp, wiped his muzzle with one hand, and continued, "he leaveth tomorrow on a great quest! Though he already hath a fair lady, I canst imagine what more needs to be questing for." He leaned over a bit, nearly falling from the bench. Matthias tried not to chuckle at the knight's drunken words. Saulius recovered, and let out a final bleary request raising his mug high. "To Matthias! Who art a damn fine rat!"

The other rodents in the room were all chortling at the knight, but each heartily gave out the cheer "To Matthias!" as well. Charles knew that if he could blush, his face would be quite scarlet. Kimberly poked him in the side, smiling, though she had no drink. "To Matthias," she whispered in a soft voice.

Saulius then announced, "I shall now endeavor to locate the elusive cheese! Who wilt assist me in my quest?"

Tallis and Elliot helped Saulius down from the bench, while most of the rest of the rodents chuckled at the knight's antics. Michael was laughing gaily as well. Even Phil's ears were rocking in merriment. Charles hated to have to leave them. How much he wished that Loriod could be stopped. This kind of camaraderie was too good to let die because of some pigheaded noble's whim.

Yet, if he didn't leave and destroy that amulet, it might not matter anyway. Still, those were matters for the morrow. Tonight was one for celebration and happiness. He would be sure to enjoy it.

Charles took another drink of his mead, the hot taste washing down his throat. He drew Kimberly closer to him, her head resting against his chest a bit; her green gown sparkling in the light from the great chandelier. Yes, tonight was a night for joy.

The day was warm, a bit warmer than usual for this time of year. According to Habakkuk whom he'd had a brief chat with the previous day, it had been warmer than usual for the past week. Yet it only made matters worse that he was riding in the thick velvet pocket of another man. He had never before done so, and found the experience interesting. That was until Ptomamus saddled upon his horse and began cantering down the road towards the sea.

It was half a day's journey to where the ship was docked, and they had started out early in the morning. Charles had already been awake when Phil came by his door. The package was small, deliberately so, since he would have to carry it inconspicuously in his mouth as a full rat. Charles had slipped out of his clothes and changed forms, and Phil had carried him the rest of the way for simplicity's sake. Ptomamus had gingerly opened his pocket upon the side of his uniform, and Charles slipped in quietly. It was tight, but the velvety interior was comfortable to lie against. A bit of bread and cheese had been tucked in by Phil. The portions were quite big enough to satiate his hunger for the remainder of the day.

Ptomamus brought the horse to a trot, and then later to a walk as they began to travel further and further from the protection of the Keep. In the last months, Charles had gone further from his new home than he had in last five years. He expected to be going even further in time as his duty required him to. However for the moment his thoughts tended to settle on the fact that he was no longer bouncing about so madly in the Commander's pocket. He felt quite dizzy, so he stayed down at the bottom of his little home, trying to resist the temptation to sink his teeth into the cheese for fear he might make himself ill.

However, the only disadvantage to the entire affair was that lying inside the confining and hot pocket was boring! He thought about the previous night, sitting next to Lady Kimberly, feeding her exotic cheeses and breads. It made the time go faster, but did not make him any more comfortable than he already was.

The Captain seemed to have a serious problem controlling his nose. The sneezing started after a few hours, and didn't stop. Each one seemed worse than the last, a hacking and wheezing that threatened to propel Matthias from his pocket as the man's body shook violently. Charles might have chuckled at poor man's Ptomamus's situation had he not been riding in the man's pocket. From this vantage point he got a unique perspective of an allergic reaction.

The woods were quite noisy all around. He could hear the muffled sound of birds flying from tree to tree, calling out and singing their songs of Spring. The occasional bee buzzed past, causing him a momentary panic. Being so small he was certainly more vulnerable to so many other animals. That hawk that had attacked him only the previous month was still fresh in his mind. That had been one of those rare occasions when he had spent anytime as a full rat.

Taking another bite from the cheese, he reflected on the events that had brought him to this crossroads. The sudden and surprising order that he accompany Copernicus, Chris, and others to the northern borders to ambush a formation of Lutins had been the beginning of his unraveling. The battle itself had been almost academic in its bloodiness and mindlessness, but now he realized the necessity and worthiness of it. The trek back to the Keep had been done mostly in silence, with a no longer sentient Chris in tow - he'd since recovered, for which Charles was glad.

Then there was the attack on Duke Thomas. He had received that congratulatory note that had caused already strained nerves to snap. It was not a pleasant memory, but in that one instant as he stood there ready to strike palm upon his liege, everything came clear to him. He had become the man whom he once had been, ready to kill another good young ruler. Then his time in the cell, talking to the various people who had come to visit him. The two that were most important to him of course were Lady Kimberly and Phil. Not that his other friends were somehow less appreciated, but none of them did for him what those two had. Lady Kimberly had given him love and his life, and Phil had given him a purpose and duty.

Charles savored the flavor of the fresh cheese for a moment before dropping it back to the bottom of the pocket and curling up at the other end. It felt very strange staying like a full rat for so long; he really was not use to it in the same way that Goldmark was. However, it was strangely comfortable, in a way he had never imagined. Closing his eyes, letting the darkness completely overtake him, he tried to get some sleep before the arrived on the ship.

Of course it was only a few moments later that the Captain decided to try to develop a means of communication. Charles poked his head up to the top of the pocket, his nose sniffing at the horse-scented air, while his tiny claws grasped the velvety interior. "I'm having a hard time with this, Charles. That is your name right?" A moments pause while Charles suddenly realized, and so to must have Ptomamus, that he could not reply. "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't know how you ever reply. I'm afraid I don't know much about rats except that I'm allergic to them."

Charles fell back to the bottom of the pocket as Ptomamus sneezed hard, the entire coat shaking. He landed on the cheese, getting some of the delightful substance smeared into his fur. He twisted and contorted about, trying to pick it free, when the captain spoke again. It was quite clear from the sound of his strained voice that he was completely stuffed up. "As you can tell, I've never done anything like this before. You can't change into that morphic form of your own will can you? I know you can't answer me. Perhaps we can find a way for you to reply yes or no. I don't know what though."

Charles listened intrigued as he continued to clean his fur. How could he communicate with this man? Phil's instructions to stay a full rat had been quite explicit. The crew would probably be quite perturbed by the sudden appearance of rats on their ship as it was anyway. A walking talking rat standing at four feet would certainly not help their morale!

However the Captain's suggestion continued to play through his mind. What could he do that might indicate a "yes" or a "no"? Certainly he could make squeaking noises if alarmed, and hiss in anger, but the Captain might prefer nonvocal communication to prevent Matthias from being given away.

Charles then struck upon an idea, and began to claw at the inner velvet of the jacket. Perhaps Ptomamus would feel that. And feel it he did. "What are you doing in there? Is that a 'yes', or a 'no'?"

Charles wanted to throttle the man for asking such an impossible question. He stopped scratching, and bounced back and forth in the pocket. He certainly had the man's attention now because he brought the horse to a stop, and pulled open the pocket to stare at him. The commander's nose was beet red and swollen, and his eyes looked a bit irritated too. Charles stopped his wild capering and blinked up at him, his nose twitching.

"Okay, what is 'yes'?" Charles reached over and scratched at the velvet. His claws were too small to do any real damage to the cloth, for which he knew the man would be very grateful. "And your 'no'?" Charles sat there for a minute thinking of what else he could possibly do that wouldn't attract attention. He then applied his teeth to the velvet, and began gnawing upon it.

"Ouch! I guess I'll try to ask questions where the answer has to be yes." Ptomamus remarked comically. He then dropped the flap on the pocket back down, shutting Matthias up in the darkness again, and started the horse into a trot once more.

Ptomamus was silent for a few moments before he again said, "As I said, I'm having a hard time of this. Do you like being a rat?"

The question was not really surprising. Many people had asked him if he liked looking like a rat throughout his stay there at Metamor Keep. However, this question was slightly different. It was made under the assumption that in every way except his mind he was a rat. It was the sort of question that bordered on the edge of what was permissible to say and what wasn't. However, he quickly clawed out his yes.

"I guess it takes some getting used to then?" Charles continued clawing. The Captain seemed either satisfied or disturbed by the response, and did not say anything for some time.

There was another muffled sound coming in the distance. It sounded almost like another beat of horse hooves. "Somebody's coming," Ptomamus said quietly. Charles stayed still at the bottom of the pocket. He sniffed at the cheese a moment, and quickly took another bite.

They rode on for a few more moments, the distant hoofbeats growing louder. He could tell that it was a carriage from the sound of wheels turning over the dirt. As they drew closer, both Ptomamus and the other driver reined in.

There was a vaguely familiar scent and an even more familiar voice that addressed the Captain. It was Father Hough! Charles climbed the side of the pocket, and poked his head out to peer at the priest. Father Hough was alone atop the one man carriage in his black smock with a bundle of his belongings tied to the rear. His face was austere and friendly as usual.

"What is the road like up ahead?" Hough asked, not noticing him. Charles wanted to jump out of the pocket and say hello to his friend. Yet that would only reveal himself, and his presence. And in the end such an action would stand a good chance of jeopardizing the mission. However, he did suspect that after this little trip he would be spending quite a bit of time in confessional. Killing was not supposed to be enjoyable, or even desirable. The renunciation of his vow did not change that. All it did was allow him to do what was necessary to protect others. He would avoid it if possible, but he would not flinch from doing what was necessary.

And it was necessary that Father Hough not know he was there. Matthias dipped his head back into the pocket some, still peering out at his friend. Ptomamus and Hough chatted for a few moments, each telling the other of the conditions along the roads and the cities at the end of the roads. Then the horses once again began their rhythmic clopping and those of Father Hough receded into the distance.

Charles settled back down in the pocket, and nibbled a bit on the bread. Hough had come because of him, and now would have wasted his time. It was just as well. The other Catholics at the Keep would be delighted to see him so soon again.

Closing his eyes once again, Charles tried to get some sleep before they arrived at the ship. It was going to be a long journey.

Father Hough continued on his way. The military man had been most informative about the road's conditions, and his words were proving true. In the far distance, he could imagine the mighty towers of Metamor Keep rising up above the trees and the hills. He enjoyed his times there, though each visit was of necessity brief.

There were so many faces, each one unique in of themselves, that he could conjure up. Matthias was a good friend, though he was not the only one of the flock. There were so many, Copernicus, Zhypar, and many others too that he could not - to his chagrin - remember by name. Yet he was here because one of Charles's friends had asked him to come. Matthias was in trouble, and Hough's help might be just what he needed.

The road was dusty, and the forest seemed to shimmer with life. The Spring season was well upon them. Amazingly enough, it seemed to grow warmer the closer he came to Metamor Keep. They must be having a bit of a warm spell.

Suddenly, from the sides of the road came bursting out of the forest several masked figures. Hough was startled, and tried to whip the horses into a gallop, but one of them was upon him too fast, grabbing his hands in a vice-like grip. Staring at them he knew what they were immediately. They were Keepers. The ears and muzzles poking from their masks gave it away. A few humans were among them, but no children.

The first thing that came to his mind was wonder. Why would any Keepers assault him? The second thing that came to his mind was fear. He grappled with them, trying to break free, but their grip was too tight. Normally he would have let himself be taken, but this was Metamor land, and the curse was still in effect.

They finally managed to get a bag over his head, and his hands were bound behind him. He could hear his wagon being ransacked, and the horses killed. He tried to shout out, but the thick sackcloth dampened his voice. Suddenly, he felt a sharp smack on the back of his head, and everything became remotely distant as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

The smell of brine was nearly overpowering. Charles could hear the rocking of the spars and the groaning of the wood as their horse clopped along the docks. The voices of men called out gaily to their commander, and Ptomamus responded in kind. The ship was prepared to sail, all the provisions were aboard, and the talisman was removed. Everything was set.

Matthias sat quietly in the pocket, jostled around a bit as Ptomamus dismounted, and walked up the gangplank onto the deck. The groaning of the masts and the flapping of the furled sails from the strong sea breeze echoed throughout the air. Charles could already feel the shifting weight beneath him. He had not been seasick his last time afloat, but felt that if he had to spend all his time in this man's pocket, he certainly would be.

He listened idly as the Captain gave out his orders. The First Mate received his instructions, and then Ptomamus quickly walked along the ship, and into a room. Matthias could hear the door close shut behind them. It was most disconcerting to spend one's time inside a pocket, not knowing where they were going, or even where they were! Charles wanted out, but could not risk letting anybody else know he was here.

Another door was closed, and the sound of a straining wood came to his big ears. Charles looked at the top of the pocket expectantly. A hand reached in, and grabbed him gently. Charles found himself lifted up and out, and placed upon a hard wood surface. Matthias blinked at the sudden light, and peered about the room. The door was opposite the windows, which were small, and peered out to the coastline that was moving away from them; they must be just over the rudder in the stern of the brig. The woodwork was finely wrought, and tough, possibly oak or cedar. There was a bookshelf along one wall, as well as a small mirror and dresser. The bed was in perfect order, with at least two layers of blankets. There was a map of the coastline on the desk already, as well as feather pens and ink bottles.

Charles looked about curiously, and then up to the Captain, who was wiping his nose. "Here we are. Your home for the next four weeks. I'll share some of my food with you, so you don't need to worry about scrounging with the other rats in the cable tier." He paused a moment, opening his dresser, and pulling out a cleaner and more appropriate military uniform. "We will definitely have to come up with new signals for 'yes' and 'no'. Something that doesn't involve biting."

Ptomamus pulled the leftover cheese and bread form the pocket, and tossed them on the table. Charles scampered over to the morsels, and began nibbling at the bread. He took it in his paws and held it before him as he ate, his whiskers alert, and his eyes watching the Captain. Ptomamus was watching him as well, his face bemused. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were just a rat. I guess that's why Phil picked you for this job."

Charles continued staring at him, not planning on giving anything away. Ptomamus knew better obviously, and did not mention the rabbit's name again. The Captain began undressing, but he kept unconsciously looking over at Matthias. Charles turned his back to the self-conscious man, and continued eating his bread.

He gazed out the window and at the small waves. It was a brisk day, and the waves rolled gently along. The clouds were high in the sky, and the sun was moving through them on its daily course. The noises of the ship carried through the sturdy walls, and he could hear the sounds of men's voices, barking laughter, and most especially the sounds of the ship itself. The table rocked slowly back and forth, but he did not mind so much. It would take a while to get used to, but he would manage.

Ptomamus dumped a few papers onto the table after getting dressed again. Charles recognized one of them as the map of the Giantdowns coastlines. Ptomamus spread out the map, pulled out his dividers, and began murmuring numbers to himself. Matthias watched him from the other end of the table, amazed at how big things seemed to him now that he was a regular sized rat. Certainly he was going to have to get off this table, he couldn't live up here. Perhaps behind the bookcase, or under the bed?

Ptomamus set his tools down once more, and strode towards the door. At the last moment he turned to face Charles. "Stay in here, and out of sight. I don't know where, but find something. The coxswain, Magnus, can enter at any time to tidy things up. He is a good man and my friend, and he is a very meticulous about keeping my quarters tidy. If he saw you, he would try to dispatch you. So please stay out of site.

After the Captain left the room, Charles took one last bite of the bread, and then scampered on his short legs towards one corner of the table. Poking his head over the side, he could see one of the table legs spiraling down. It was hardly ornate, but it did have rudimentary channels engraved upon it. Charles carefully placed his claws into the wood and began his descent, following the track of the channels downwards. He'd seen squirrels do this often enough.

Charles fell off at the last moment, his head banging into the wood planks. He rolled over onto his belly blinking a few times. It didn't really hurt much at all; more of a surprise really. Standing on his hind legs for a bit, he peered about the room. The colossal bookcase and dresser took up one side of the room. There was a small crack between each and the floor, probably too small for him to squeeze through, but it was worth a try.

Scampering quickly across the floorboards, Charles kept his eyes focused on his goal. The rest of the room would merit observation later. Certainly the Captain would not appreciate it if he chewed up any of his fine furnishings; though as a full rat he seemed a bit more driven to chew indiscriminately. The crack between dresser and floor was too narrow, but he could squeeze himself in beneath the bookcase.

It was rather cozy under the bookcase, though he obviously couldn't stand. Listening to the sounds under the floor, he began to be able to determine just how the boat was constructed. There was as always, an intermediate layer to give support to the entire ship and so that people wouldn't fall through the floor. It would be entirely safe to build himself a little nest here beneath the bookcase. As long as he kept it neat, the Captain never need know; hopefully the Cox'n wouldn't move the bookcase to sweep underneath it!

Charles began clawing at the wood, chewing at the floorboards flush with the wall. It would take some time, but at least it would give him more mobility, and a place to store the amulet if things got hectic at Arabarb. Plus, it made his teeth feel really good.

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