Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part X

Sitting alone in the darkness once again, Charles nibbled away at the bread that Ptomamus had shoved down the hole in the floor before the coxswain had managed to procure a loose piece of wood, a hammer, and some nails. The rocking of the ship back and forth, the shouting of men above and below, and the sound of creaking riggings and snapping sails gave proof to his predicament - he was a rat on a courier ship.

However it was his duty to ensure that the package, which was nestled gently against a strut where he could easily find it, was delivered in Arabarb, and so over the sea he must sail. Still, he was not planning on scrounging and foraging for most of his voyage. According to the Captain, who had been doing a lot of thinking aloud lately, they would reach Brathas in a few days, where they were making an impromptu stop of a night, and then a week to the mouth of the river Arabas.

Curling up next to the bread, his tail touching his nose momentarily, Charles closed his eyes. He did not know what time it was, but he felt awfully tired. It had been a long day, and he needed some rest. How likely he was to get very much what with all the shouting going on on deck he had no idea. The shuffle of feet and the sudden rocking of the ship as the spades were put out and manned when the wind suddenyl died jarred him further. Charles let out a rodential sigh, and curled back up again, hoping that at some point this evening, he would get some sleep.

My lapine nature had seemed unusually strong of late, and thus I awoke once again before dawn. This was really inconvenient, due to my unique sleeping arrangements. The latch on my cage had perforce to be one I couldn't undo myself for fear I would awaken as a true rabbit and let myself out. Therefore, I had to either awaken Rupert from his well-deserved rest, or content myself inside my barred bedchamber. This particular morning I once again had a pounding headache, so the choice was easy. Groaning a bit, I rolled over in my shavings and gazed out over foggy Metamor in the tranquil pre-dawn twilight, and began catching up on my gnawing.

Lapines are a lot like rodents, you see. Our teeth grow in length throughout life and need to be worn back all the time. Unlike Charles, the urge was not particularly strong in me until my incisors actually became uncomfortable. And then I usually just asked Rupert to file them back. But still, when something was very troubling or I felt a bit ill, there was nothing like rhythmic, simple chewing to settle me down.

In this case gnawing didn't ease my headache, but it made it tolerable while I considered things.

And I had much to ponder! Loriod's despicable behavior as a ruler deeply offended me, but frankly I had encountered worse in my travels. It was unfortunate that Thomas had to put up with it, though. I was certain he knew far more of what was going on in Loriod's fiefdom than he let on, and would change things if he could.

Hmm. That was an interesting thought. Maybe Thomas knew some things I did not. And perhaps it was time to share out what I knew with him. This situation was beginning to have overtones that I did not care for at all. Loriod was up to something bigger than just intimidating Matthias if he had burned property of considerable value to cover things up. And where had he gotten a pyrock, or learned the rune magic I was tentatively ascribing to him? What could the fool have gotten himself into?

But think as hard as I might, nothing new came to me. And my chewing felt good, so very good! Presently without even realizing it I was gnawing at the bountifruit wood mindlessly, lost in rabbity pleasures. It wasn't until I noticed Rupert standing over me with his brush that I came back to myself with a start. "Oh!" I said.

Rupert cocked his head inquiringly.

The sunlight was bright in the room now- I had lost several hours! This was getting worrisome, though at least my headache was now better. "I'm sorry, Rupert. You frightened me is all." He nodded, and let me out for my morning grooming. I let the brush strokes ease my too-rapidly beating heart, then decided to be open with my friend and protector.

"Rupert, when you walked up I was withdrawn. A rabbit in mind."

He stopped brushing, looked at me intently.

"I woke up normal. That means I can change while awake. That's never happened before. And, I've never withdrawn so soon after a previous episode again. It's only been a few days since the last time. You've seen me slip other ways, too, lately. Haven't you?"

The ape nodded solemnly, concern clear in his features.

"Well. If anyone needs to know it is you. I fear I am going lapine again. And that's that. There is nothing to be done about it, of course."

Sadly, Rupert shook his head and resumed his brushing. In all the world, no place was likely to offer better care for my affliction than Metamor, and we both knew it. Usually grooming is a pleasant and relaxing thing for me. But on that particular morning, it felt like a funeral rite.

At least my headache was gone.

I had gnawed mindlessly through breakfast time, so I asked Rupert to make arrangements for me to see Thomas while he was at his midmorning exercise. I needed to discuss both my increasing personal troubles and Loriod with him. He preferred to work out in full-morph form, running freely through the Ducal pastures as a stallion. Since I was one of few that could pace him easily (unless he ran too far- I am a sprinter while he is a distance runner) I took my own exercise as well, and then we grazed a bit together, companionably. When the Duke of Metamor had his fill of this, he shifted form once again, and we took our shelter under a large tree.

"That was fun!" Thomas said at length. "I never imagined that grazing with a friend could be so..."

"Fulfilling?" I offered. "I agree. It feels good down deep. Like we herbivores were meant to bond this way."

"Perhaps. Neither of our species likes to be alone all the time. Herd animals, both of us."

"Mob animals," I corrected him mildly. Then I continued. "That's one of the things I have to tell you today. I am having rabbit troubles again. Worse than ever. You and Rupert both need to know. And I will warn Tenomides as well. He needs to be thinking about a Regency to succeed him again."

The Duke was shocked. "That bad?"

I nodded ruefully. "I'm afraid so. The big thing is that this is progressing so quickly. I fear the worst, and we both know there is nothing to be done. From now on, I am regarding each day as a gift."

Thomas looked lost. "Phil, I just don't know what to say..."

"You think YOU don't know what to say!" I replied, irony heavy in my voice. Then, more gently I apologized. "Sorry, Thomas. It's just that this scares me so much... Promise me something, will you?"

"Anything, Phil."

"Will you still take me grazing sometimes, once I am gone? Mentally gone, I mean?" Vaguely my head had begun pounding again, and I was not thinking really clearly. Otherwise I would never have asked Thomas such a thing.

He just shook his head, angrily. "You shouldn't talk like this, Phil! It's not like you! And besides, it could just be a passing thing. Probably is."

But deep inside, I knew. "Thomas, it is NOT a passing thing. Something is very wrong."

"All right, then. I promise that if the worst happens I will contact Tenomides myself, and see that you get to take your exercise with me sometimes. But it will NOT happen- every effort will be made to prevent it if I have to turn the whole Keep upside down."

This comforted me some, and instinctively I snuggled up against the warm fur of my companion. It was only when he pulled away slightly that I knew I had slipped yet again. Disgusted, I shook my head to try and clear it, and Thomas, the worry clear in his deep brown eyes, reached over to stroke me. "Phil," he said, "We will lick this thing yet."

And I nodded and tried to look cheerful. "Sure, Thomas. We'll beat it." But the words had the taste of lies.

After some quiet time passed, I spoke again. "I had another reason for wanting to talk to you."

"And it was...." The Duke replied.

"One of your underlords is trying to take control of Matthias, My Lord." And I told the stallion-man all I had learned about the fire in Loriod's coach and the nature of it's contents, and how magical runes and items were appearing around Metamor seemingly wherever Loriod went.

"Hmm." Thomas replied. "You are quite certain of this?"

"Quite. Most of the legwork I did myself."

"And you say these runes are in the style of Nasoj?"

"Yes, clearly so."

"These are very serious charges."

"I do not make them lightly. But the proof, admittedly, is not yet all in."


"I tell you these things now, because I do not know how much longer I have. Normally I would wait until the case was airtight, as you know, but..."

"Of course. Tell me, where do you plan on taking this next?"

"To Wessex. He is an expert on runes, if you didn't know. I simply have not yet been able to make time."

Thomas smiled. "He seems to be an expert in all things sometimes. I will see to it that he comes by your quarters this afternoon. And after him will come many others."

"Many others? Who? I mean...."

"Phil, I am Duke of Metamor. And your are the not only my ally but my friend as well. Do you think you are not going to see every healer and mage in the Keep this very day? You have not been a Crown Prince very long yet, have you? This is MY land, and Rank Hath It's Privileges, my furry companion, to a far greater degree than you yet realize. I am going to use my rank and privilege to the hilt this very minute."

With that, Thomas gave voice to a loud whinnying shout, and guards closed in from all directions. Tersely he gave his orders while I sat openmouthed. And then, with a gesture, they withdrew to carry out his bidding.

"Good thing you've eaten well, Phil," Thomas explained with an evil grin. "Looks like you've got a long afternoon of being poked and prodded by scholars ahead of you."

Lord Loriod was sitting upon his divan, the draperies billowing in the wind that had picked up that morning, and eating one of the large eggs from the chicken house that he had kept managed out back. It was so large for a simple reason; one of the hens there was a Keeper. One of his better kept secrets actually; he doubted that he could have kept her there had others such as the Duke known.

Still, his mind was not on chickens but on priests. The handsome frame of Father Hough kept coming back into his mind. It had been some time since he'd displayed his sexual prowess; most couplings were with either animals or peasants - both disgusting. Of course there had been a few travelers that had met his eye before. However since his elevation to manhood he had not ever raped another man. Father Hough would be the first.

It was not like he hadn't engaged in homosexual acts before. As Lady Loriod he'd been less under the public eye. Politics was a complicated game, and in the past he'd had to be very careful lest his position within the court deteriorate. However, now that he had the spirits and their powers on his side, he had a bit more room to work with. It was only a matter of time.

He bit the yolk in half, tasting the huge golden ball as he first noticed Macaban on his knees before him. The carpeting that he had purchased in the Midlands the previous year muffled the sound of his servant's clopping hooves. He did not say anything to Macaban, his dietary concerns came before some lowly peasant.

When Macaban finally broke the awkward silence, his voice trembled in fear. "My Lord, Barney, the otter who looks after your fish, has disappeared. His wife as well."

Loriod spat the yolk out in shock. It splattered against Macaban's forehead, the spittle dribbling down one of his equine cheeks. "What?"

"They've disappeared, my Lord. When Barney didn't appear this morning to care for your goldfish, I went to his cottage to investigate. I feared he might be ill. But his home was totally empty, and all of the family belongings were gone, my Lord." Macaban did not raise a hand to wipe away the egg, but let it gently slide down his muzzle, and fall from his nostrils. He caught it before it touched the carpet though, and held it tightly in his hands.

"How dare they!" Loriod crushed the rest of the egg in his hand. "Start a search party for them."

"Your guards have been searching all day, but I'm afraid the fugitives have left your lands completely, my lord."

Loriod was so incensed that he rose from his divan, hands fluttering with rage. He then kicked the kneeling Macaban in the chest, sending the donkey sprawling to the ground. He threw the remnants of the egg at the wall, and upended his table, screaming in rage. Macaban quickly got back to his knees, and kept his head bowed. Loriod stared down at the negligent servant, and brought his fine silver dinner tray down upon the donkey's head.

"How dare you let them run away? How could you let them get away?"

Macaban let out a small scream of pain as the silver platter sliced a gash along one of his floppy ears. Macaban cringed back further, trying to stay kneeled before his master. "One of the guards said that he saw His Highness Phil leaving on a carriage in the night, my lord. He said he thought he saw others with him."

Loriod's anger was suddenly vanquished with the mention of the rabbit's name. He dropped the platter to the ground and fell back upon the divan. He stared emptily at the wall for a few moments, trying to collate that last bit of information. Phil had come, had not announced himself, and the fish keeper and his worthless wife had disappeared. It was obvious. A child could have deduced the conclusion.

Loriod's immediate impulse was to head straight for Metamor and present his complaint to the Duke personally. The voices were quick to remind him of his need for caution. Grumbling, he dismissed that idea, but quickly struck upon another one. Looking down at the battered form of his servant Macaban he smiled as best he could in such a time of rage. "Macaban, send word to the Steward of the Keep, Thalberg, that I have need to see him."

Macaban stayed bowed. "Yes, my lord. Is there anything else you wish from your humble servant?"

"No, that will be all for now. Wait- clean up this mess." Loriod negligently waved in the general direction of the chaos he had caused while continuing to sit comfortably. This was an outrage that could not go unpunished!

Wessex arrived at my quarters first, as promised, and we had a full half hour together alone to discuss magical runes. He confirmed most of Pascal's information on the runes, except that he pointed out that the cancellation effect of our "X" was limited to the powers of the "S". But there was more.

"You see here the structure of the left upright in your "X"? It is a tracer modification."

This got my full attention. "A tracer modification?"

"Yes, of course. Otherwise these runes are very basic. The "S" is almost childish- I could teach this magic to a village idiot if I thought such would be careful with it. But the "X" is more subtle. I would guess that whoever laid this spell did not even know all that they had been taught. It's an old wizard's trick, teaching your students spells that somehow empower the Master. In the more evil realms, it is part of how the ancient mages hold fast to their positions of power."

"I... see. Then would it be fair to say that if this spell were cast on a room, someone somewhere would know the whereabouts of whoever was in there when it was drawn?"

"All that and more. They would also know the identities and locations of anyone who entered, forever after. This modification is serious magic, not just kitchen stuff like that "Silence" glyph.

Cold horror grew in my heart. "Wessex, my good friend, unless I am seriously mistaken this "X" may have been drawn all over Metamor."

The child's eyes narrowed. "By whom?"

He needed to know, I supposed. "Loriod. But that is very, very confidential."

"Loriod!" Wessex burst out. "Why, he is an incompetent buffoon! How could he..."

I interrupted. My head was hurting again, and time might be short. "A power-hungry buffoon, my friend. The kind of buffoon most easily manipulated of all."

And with that a light seemed to go on in the boy’s head. "Ah...."

"Yes, I can see that you understand. In the meantime, we have a major problem here. Roscoe can take you to a chamber in the dungeon where I believe this rune has certainly been cast. You must find it and cancel it, and put your apprentices to work searching Metamor for others like it."

"But that could take..."

"Furthermore, you need to assume that the Enemy knows where each and every one of us is at any given time, until you can prepare a counterspell. I presume you see the importance of this."

"Yes, of course! But Phil! I was ordered by the Duke himself to come to your aid. He says your personal curse is acting up again, worse than ever. And this rune-work will take so long! How can I help you when I am chasing glyphs all over Metamor?"

The meaning of his words was receding even as he spoke. I was withdrawing again, and quickly. "Tell the Duke.." I began, then broke off. My chew stick was right over there in my cage, and it looked SO appealing. And the cage SO safe..."Tell the Duke that I am lost, but that Metamor lives. There are other mages to help me, but only you know the runes so well, Wessex. Do whatever he says after that; I am no longer fit to judge these things." I wanted to say more, to try and send warning to Matthias that he was being trailed without his knowledge. But the pounding was overwhelming, so I hopped up into my cage and chewed. The child made more noises at me, but I ignored them. And presently, I was just a bunny again, without a care in the world.

And damnit, I really was happier that way. Though Rupert openly wept as he closed and latched the door behind me...

He'd slept horribly, but at least Charles had been able to doze off after about an hour of covering his ears with his paws. It was an awkward position, but sometimes it felt like it was necessary just to shut out the sudden bangs and shouts that were so common aboard a sailing ship. The motion of the floor against his body had not in the least bothered him- rats must be more seaworthy than men.

Still, he suspected that it was at least midmorning from the chill in the ship's beams - it was strangely colder in these parts than in Metamor - and from the sound of seagulls crying out overhead somewhere. Matthias sniffed at the air slowly, and picked up the distinctive scent of his package. Scampering across the floor boards, he felt it's cool surface with his tiny claws, and then he stood up to feel the boards above him. Finding the hole he'd made, he could feel the tenseness of the new wood that had been hammered into place.

Matthias moved a bit to the side, following the lay of the planks, and then began to gnaw. It would probably take all day, but he needed to have a way into the Captain's quarters. He'd hoped that Magnus did not prove to be so irritating again. It was going to be quite frustrating to have to gnaw a new way up every time the coxswain entered Ptomamus's room.

Still, what else could a rat do?

The little room was incredibly crowded when Thomas arrived to visit his lapine friend, and agitated mages and healers were arguing well down the length of the corridor in both directions from the room. The message Magus sent had been most disturbing, and all appointments were canceled in the Throne Room for the remainder of the day as a result. And they would be the day after, and the day after that, Thomas swore, until either his friend was recovered or, well...

Until hope had been given up entirely.

His clomping workhorse hoofbeat combined with his characteristically determined stride made Thomas's approach unmistakable to the crowd, and silence fell as he approached. All were staring at him, and he did not like the helpless look in their eyes. Not one bit.

"All right," Thomas said in a low but authoritative tone of voice. "Someone give me an update."

"It's the same old thing," Brian Coe began, when no one else stepped forward. "And..."

"And that's exactly what it is NOT!" Thomas snapped. "Phil knew something was wrong, that there was something different this time. He couldn't explain it, but somehow he knew."

The healers stared in shock. None had ever seen the Duke like this.

"It is your job to isolate it, find it, and cure it. Immediately! Phil's health is critical to all of Metamor. To all the civilized world! As critical as my own!" The war-horse glared at all about him, until each specialist dropped their eyes in submission.

Realizing he had perhaps pushed too hard, Thomas softened a bit. "I know many of you think that Phil is just having another episode, and that I am overreacting. But this is NOT the case! Is it, Rupert?" The ape shook his head violently and gibbered, supporting Thomas. "See?" The Duke continued. "I am not the only one who knew him well that was worried. So let's get on with, it shall we?"

"Where can we find you to report?" Raven the Lightbringer asked tentatively.

"Right here!" Thomas replied grimly, crossing his arms. "I am camping out on this very spot until I get results."

Raven's jaw dropped, followed immediately by a dozen or so others. Then, shaken by the importance assigned the task by their beloved leader, they got to work...

Hours passed, but Phil was barely aware of the passage of time. Sometimes he ate, and sometimes he slept, and all the time these annoying creatures were taking samples from his mouth and far ruder places. What did they want with his nasty droppings, anyway? Not that they couldn't have them...

And for dinner there was carrots! Phil's eye's widened with joy as Rupert carefully carried over the produce that, everyone seemed to have forgotten, originated on Loriod's lands...

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