Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part XII

It did not take too long for Charles to learn the ins and outs of a sailing ship. After the "Arrow" had left port with Brathas it had continued along the coast heading north. The weather stayed fair for most of the journey, though they did have to secure the rigging and furl the sails during one rather fierce storm that blew in from off the coast. Yet otherwise it was a pleasant and uneventful trip, letting the winds carry them along the coast till they reached the river Arabas, and then breaking out the oars to navigate the twisty but wide and deep river.

Charles had found that as in all things, there was a consistent routine when everything was well up on deck. Magnus kept almost regimented appointments within the Commander's rooms, and Charles learned to stay out of sight then. Ptomamus tended to be in his quarters only when sleeping, eating, or staring at the map laid out on the desk. He took all his meals in his quarters, and Charles would sit on the floor looking up at him expectantly. The Captain would then toss a bit of bread down, and if he had any, some cheese as well. It was rather humiliating to have to beg, but better than thievery.

And Matthais certainly had many opportunities for the latter! After leaving port with Brathas, he had commenced a full and complete exploration of the "Arrow". Slipping down from the Captain's room he realized that the inner structure was a great way to travel. He could reach almost every room on the two adjoining decks with no hassle. The galley was practically his backyard, though there was some competition. Other rats were on board the ship. They had already gnawed a hole into the galley, eating up some of the biscuit that had been left out carelessly. The cook did not make that mistake again.

Charles remembered scampering and slipping about between the cupboards, noting each of the spices and each of the supplies that the cook had possession of. They seemed fairly rudimentary - nowhere near the variety that Gregor the baker had available back home. Then again this was a sailing ship, and he wasn't really expecting a lot. Yet most of the food supplies were not in the galley anyway, but down in the hold, in heavy casks where they wouldn't spoil.

Of course, with rats on board, further protections would be needed. Everywhere Charles went he found mousetraps of all varieties. Some of them even had rats inside, their bodies broken and bent in fatal places. Though he knew they were just rats, without souls to them, he could not help but feel a sort of misery at the death of his fellow rodents. When he encountered a trap that was still baited, he made it his personal goal to spring the trap to prevent any of his kin from being harmed. One of the traps even sprang upon him when he slipped, but the thick wire that should have broken his back snapped when it struck his iron taut flesh. He remembered the sound of frustration in the coxswain's voice when reporting to a sneezing Captain on the rat situation. Charles loved it.

However, the traps were just a simple diversion, something to do while the days crept on by. There never was a silent moment; sailors shouting to one another, the sound of the ocean crashing against the side of the ship, the groaning and creaking of the wood, and most especially the snapping of the sails in the choppy wind were a continual backdrop. Every once in a while he would poke his head out of a small hole and stare out upon the deck. The bodies of thick blooded sailors would pass by as they climbed the rigging and hung perilously from the footropes along the masts. He was amazed at their agility, and at how well they worked together as a team.

Every time he went up on deck, staying well out of sight of course, he noted the gray leaden sky. It seemed always to be overcast. A sense of dreary oppression filled him each time he peered out at the twilight. Every once in a while they clouds would break, and the sun would shine through, but only briefly. It would soon be swallowed back up again in the thick soup.

Despite his attempts to prevent any of his rodential brethren from coming to harm, they did not really appreciate his efforts. In fact, all of his encounters with the other rats only sparked fights and scratches. Charles never got hurt himself, apart from the usual scuffles, but he did his best not to hurt the others. If he'd wanted, he could have easily with one swipe of his paw knocked their heads off, but that would have been murder. So instead of trying to be sociable, he avoided the other rats.

Charles found that despite all of the help the Commander was receiving, Ptomamus's sneezing only got worse and more frustrating. He couldn't open his mouth without spewing phlegm everywhere it seemed. The mage determined it was because there was too much rat hair on board the ship, and even in the Captain's own quarters. Magnus several times repeated his plea to put traps inside the cabin, but Ptomamus continued to ignore the coxswain's well intentioned pleas. His nose was completely red, as were his eyes, and he seemed miserable the whole time, yet his dedication to duty was astounding. Charles wished he could have let him know that traps did not bother him at all, but he had to stay a full rat.

It wasn't really so bad living in rat form. Being only six inches long did have it's advantages; one of which was stealth, which was the whole purpose behind this adventure in the first place. Still, it took some getting used to, even with his five years partial experience. Having been a rat morph had given him a notion, but there were significant differences. Many times he wished to shift back to his largest form, but each time he had to remind himself what was at stake. The lives of not everybody in Metamor, but everybody in the entire world were depending on him. Most especially the lives of those he loved.

Unable to help himself, he found that more often than not he was dwelling on Lady Kimberly. He remembered the first time he had seen her, she had still been mostly human, but with the tail of a rat. How distraught she had been then, terrified of the fate that awaited the beautiful girl. Charles couldn't blame her either; becoming a rat was indeed a terrifying experience for almost anyone. Charles had at first himself been lukewarm to the idea, but he had wanted any change, anything that obscured his identity, and a rat was as good as any. Most of his brother rats however had been changed against their will into vermin. He missed them all.

Whether they liked it or not, all eight of them shared a bond as rats that they could not deny. They were without a doubt most comfortable around other rats. Even Tallis, who deliberately made friends with the other species, was always the most at ease at the Gnawer Meetings. Charles missed his morning ritual of visiting the other five in the dungeon. Many times he idly pondered what each were doing. Was Sir Saulius dressing in his armor and swinging his sword about in the cellar challenging others to combat to defend their honor? Was Hector gnawing away at a block of wood creating images of majestic beauty to later be sold up on the streets of the city? Would Elliot once again let himself be a test subject for more of Pascal's concoctions? Would Goldmark be scampering about the halls and tunnels as a full rat? Would Julian be sitting quietly in his room, crying tears of a loss more profound than Charles wanted to understand? What could any of them be doing?

Charles found such speculation reassuring. Despite all of his resolutions to maintain and keep the fire bright, there were always those voices of trepidation trying to second-guess his motives. But when he thought of his friends, and not just the rats, but also Phil, Habakkuk, Misha, and so many others whom he'd come to know, the doubts faded away. With their faces in mind, he would fight Nasoj himself if he thought it would do any good.

As the days passed and they neared Arabarb, Charles found himself more and more thinking of his friends as he sat upon the window sill or inside the woodwork out on deck watching the whitecaps spill over the sailor's feet as they crashed into the rail along either beam. This was the first real mission he'd been on in the past six years. His reflexes could never go dull, whether he practiced or not. Yet it was the principle of the thing. The last six years he had lived beneath that stifling vow. He lived in fear that his power would be unleashed and hurt another. Since nothing had happened for the longest time, he had thought he'd gained freedom from it, but it came back and destroyed the false sense of security that he had laid about himself. Now he had to make his own peace by serving the light

What other time he had was spent studying the map that Phil had provided him. Once they gained the river and the sails were furled and the oars shipped out, it was only a matter of a couple more days before Arabarb came into view. While the others were busy up on deck, heaving this way and that, straining their arms, Matthias was sitting on Ptomamus's table with his little paws on the map tracing out possible routes. When he looked up he would peer out at the river passing by. The ocean was quickly obscured by the dense forests that lay about the land, and the rolling hills that they were climbing into only further shielded them.

Only once was their position compromised along the trek to Arabarb, and that was amidst a very dense thickets of forest alongside cliffs through which the river passed. Giants suddenly appeared at the top of the cliffs and began hurling rocks down upon the tiny schooner. Ptomamus's voice could be heard to bark orders, shouting for the white flag and for full speed. They made it through the pass with only minor injuries and easily repaired structural damage. But only because the giants were terrible shots. The one rock that did strike the ship landed in the fo'castle, and destroyed several of the sailor's cots, but nothing else.

However the excitement was enough to remind each and every one of the men on board the ship that they were in the Giantdowns, a very dangerous place. Until the city of Arabarb was sighted, the men became quiet as they rowed. Gone were the raucous jokes, the companionship and the camaraderie that Matthias had grown used to. The crew was now deadly serious and went about it's task without a word except the occasional order from the Captain. Charles found the sudden cessation of human voices to be the most telling proof for their location. In the Giantdowns, no man spoke aloud, ever.

Soon they would be at Arabarb and there Matthias had a task to perform. The bauble shaped counter-spell with the creases along either side was safely tucked away beneath the bookcase. It was just a matter of time before he would have to deliver that package.

Two more days had passed, and Phil was not getting better despite his change of diet. Moreover, the pressing day-to-day business of the Keep was backing up. But stubbornly, Thomas remained camped out in Phil's room. If his ministers REALLY needed him, Thomas reasoned, they would run the gauntlet of busy mages and alchemists continually bustling about the room.

Apparently, Thalberg REALLY needed to see Thomas. After days of being sent away, he finally thrust himself through the bustling mages and sages into the Ducal presence.

"My Lord, I simply must see you. Now!" he demanded.

Thomas sighed. He had been putting off this moment, for somehow in his heart he equated a return to domestic affairs with giving up the fight for his friend's identity. But he had known that eventually he must attend to his other business, that eventually he had to accept that Phil might be gone forever. For even the slender hope that Pascal had offered was turning into a broken reed, and no one else had any ideas at all...

"Come, then." And with shoulders sagging the Duke of Metamor took his Steward aside into Rupert's bedroom, where they could speak privately.

"My Lord," Thalberg began, "Did you trust Phil entirely?"

What was this? His Steward dealt with domestic affairs only! "Yes, of course!" Thomas replied. "Like a brother!"

"Hmm... " The crocodile appeared thoughtful for a minute, then continued. "I suppose you know that the Prince appears to have kidnapped some of Loriod's subjects."

"Yes, I am aware of this. Phil did not seek my permission because he wished me to appear blameless. Officially I still do not know, Steward. And neither do you! But I approve."

The crocodilian mused on the information a moment before going on. "Then from this I assume there are tensions now between you and Loriod, or rather between Phil and Loriod?"

"Yes, but that is secret as well. Tell me, Thalberg, where is all of this headed?"

"It is quite simple, My Lord. I recently visited Loriod in his castle, where he complained bitterly of Phil's action. By chance he found out about it. And His Great Bellyness became very nervous when it appeared to him that I was going to eat a carrot from his tray."

"A... carrot?" Thomas asked, taking in his Steward's obviously strictly carnivorous form.

"My Lord, forgive me for saying so, but no one has recently accused Loriod of brilliance."

Thomas smiled, his first such expression in days. "Thalberg, I am sorry to have shut you out. It is just..."

"I know my Lord," Thalberg replied, bowing his head. Then he continued, using the intimate mode of speech that the Duke of Metamor encouraged in private. "Thomas, my friend, I can manage the Keep without you for as long as necessary. I understand why you need to be here. Take care of your friend."

And Thomas, tears in his eyes, slapped his Steward and friend on the shoulder and smiled. Though the gesture was wordless, it communicated all that was needful.

The morning dawned earlier than the last; the fog lifted from the fields and hills, while the dew settled on the thick grass. Metamor Keep came alive with the sounds of buzzing insects, the songs of birds, and the strikes of hammers in the smithy. And in one of the outlying spires buttressing a tower of magnificent opulence, woke a wistful rat lady.

Lady Kimberly rose from her feather bed into the warm air of the Spring morning with a bit of aplomb. Though her dearest Matthias had been gone for two weeks, she knew that he would be back. The thought of seeing him again and of resting in his arms made her heart flutter like the wings of a butterfly. The sweet and pleasant dreams of slumber had carried her off to be with him as he bravely strode through the forests and mountains and valleys with other Keepers to fight and protect them all from the Lutins.

She smiled at the last of her ebbing dreamscapes. The most vivid had begun as a nightmare; she had been taken captive, but before anything bad could happen there came Charles, striking down foe after foe, risking his own life, all to save her. Yet not even these pleasant memories could keep the real world from once again intruding.

Despite the seeming calm and beatific peace about the Keep, the house of Hassan was in uproar. Being part of the kitchen staff - as well as her other duties of cleaning and maintenance - gossip wound its way about to her. Much of it was contradictory, but all of it was frightening. However, Kimberly had managed to get past all of the exaggerations to the core truths. Phil was sick, and Duke Thomas was not leaving the rabbit's side until he got better. Thalberg, who frequently came to the kitchens to insure that all was well, seemed particularly upset and concerned - neither of which were common expressions in the alligator's repertoire.

There was no mirror in her room, and she was in no hurry to procure one. It was hard, to have to look at herself. Sitting on her bedside Kimberly stared down at the claws and the paws and the fur and the tail. Only a few months ago she had not possessed any of them. Now they were hers for as long as she lived. By herself, she could not help but think of how ugly and verminous she must appear. Her assurance gone, she did not move from the bed, afraid to face anybody else as she was.

Charles said she was beautiful. Yet she was a rat! How could a rat be beautiful? With a bit of chagrin her thoughts turned to Matthias's countenance, and then she knew. Sighing wistfully, she stepped off of the bed, and walked across the cold stone to her dresser and pulled out a simple gown. It was one of several that she worked in. Having been a noble's servant, her father had been able to buy her many outfits; most were plain though. The seamstress had been able to reshape them to fit her new proportions. Glancing down at herself, now dressed in the simple smock, the lady rat knew that she was very beautiful.

And as expected the kitchens were quite the place for gossip and very busy this morning. Bernadette, an older mouse whom she had befriended, was already there and preparing the big black cookstoves and the pots and pans. Being even shorter than Kimberly, she had to carry a stool around with her everywhere she went so that she could reach the high places. Fortunately, in the six years since the curses had been laid, accommodations had been constructed to help all the Keepers function productively. There were fixtures and railings in the kitchen that assisted Bernadette, and sometimes Kimberly as well.

"Good morning to you, Lady Kimberly," Bernadette called out in her piping voice. She waved from over by the basins where the scullions would scrub out the pots and pans. Apparently, a few had been left neglected overnight. The mouse turned back her muzzle to the task, her tail gyrating as she scrubbed.

Lady Kimberly beamed at the appellation because Charles had given it to her. She worked her way through many of the other bustling servants to the side of her friend. Stepping up on the railing, she too put her paws in the dish soap and the pans. "Good morning to you, Bernadette. Have you been up long?"

"Since dawn, my dear," Bernadette replied, tossing Kimberly a scrub brush.

Leaning down, Kimberly began to scrape away at the stains and the marks along the cauldron's black surface. "And how is Benedict?" Benedict was also a mouse, a rather timid sort, but friendly in his way.

"He's doing well. Spends most of his time in his garden these days. He already has some green beans sprouting, and it's only April. I think he's going to pull in a fine crop this year."

Kimberly smiled as she listened to her friend tell her all about Benedict's botanical achievements and mishaps. There were not many pots to scrub, and soon more of the regular kitchen staff began to arrive and assist them in the duty. Already the scent of meats being prepared and of breads being brought in from Gregor's bakery filled the air. From a distant table she could hear the sound of knives chopping and dicing lettuce and celery, as well as the abundant potatoes. There were so many in the castle that required special diets and meals that they were always busy with special orders. The Duke's breakfast was always prepared on a large silver platter that was kept sparklingly clean and brought to him first thing in the morning. Much to everybody's dismay, it seemed to be coming back with more and more food uneaten.

Lady Kimberly was never privy to take anything up to Phil's room, which had temporarily become the Duke's abode. However her heart went out to them, because she knew that Phil was a good friend of Matthias. Into his arms she had come for comfort after his imprisonment; the reason why now escaped her. But that moment of communion had forever after imparted to her a sense of love for the rabbit. It was not the same sort of love she shared with Charles - far from it - but it was a form of love just the same.

Still, it seemed that today was determined to remind her of Matthias's absence. There was a half-eaten piece of cheese lying on the cutting board that seemed smaller each time she peered at it; yet nobody ever seemed to be near it. The gossip about the kitchen was mostly about Phil and Matthias. And then when she received her cleaning assignments for the day, she noted that every location was either a place Matthias frequented, or a friend of Charles's frequented.

It was late afternoon when she finally finished cleaning the last of the steps to Channing's Tower. Having the tallest structure in the Keep, Channing was able to be close to the stars that he often spent his time contemplating. It also made 'Reverend duty' as the cleaning staff was apt to call it, one of the most time-consuming chores about the Keep.

Despite this, it was also one of the more rewarding tasks, because Channing, when in his tower, was always a wonderful host, inviting the servants into his quarters for a bite and some tea as well as a good pleasant conversation. So Kimberly was pleased to find herself sitting in a very ornate reading chair staring out a broad window which over looked the western mountains. The cloud cover was too thick for her to see all the way to the sea, which was possible from this point on a good day.

"So, how do you enjoy your work?" Channing asked as his beak dipped into the cup of hot lemon flavored tea.

Kimberly pulled her legs up underneath her as she sat in the large chair. It was embarrassing to have her paws dangle from the chair like a small child's. "It is very wonderful. I'm glad to be back serving again. There are many nice people working there too."

Channing nodded, his eyes bright and gentle. Although the stairs leading to this room where clean, Channing's apartment was anything but. Reams of papers were piled haphazardly along various desks and other furnishings. A small layer of dust overlaid much of the room - thankfully not the chairs they were sitting in though.

Most of what he said was small talk though. It was pleasant to spend the last parts of the afternoon with him, but they all had duties, and given Matthias's absence, and Phil's illness, the Writer's Guild business must have been weighing heavily on the goose's mind. So it was that the Reverend Channing had to ask her to leave shortly before the dinner hour.

The day had not finished reminding her of Matthias. As she was leaving, she noticed a particular piece of parchment sitting on a table. The writing was in Phil's own script, and the message seemed quite urgent. Taking a moment to peer at it she read the simple but confusing sentence. "Channing, Matthias is the Rat of Might!"

"What is this?" she asked pointing to the parchment.

Channing only needed a moment's glance. He shook his beak back and forth and then sadly peered into her face. What was going on? What was this 'Rat of Might'? "I'm sorry, but that is something only Charles can tell you."

"But why? What has this to do with him?" Kimberly prodded, intent on knowing what that cryptic phrase meant.

"Everything," Channing breathed as if his tongue would be silenced by doing so. Despite her further inquiries, he would not answer her, and rather quickly dismissed her. Kimberly sat outside his door for sometime, trying to ponder the significance of what she had just seen. Finally, as her stomach told her it was time for the dinner meal, she wandered back down to the kitchens to take her supper.

She wanted to ask so many questions, but kept her mouth shut. Bernadette could tell something was troubling her, but she would not even tell her friend the mouse. Charles was the only one who could tell her what it meant. Only Charles would she ask, then. How she missed him! His face and smile were all that was needed to brighten her day. She spent the remainder of the evening crying into Bernadette's arms. Two weeks before he could return. Two weeks more must she wait for her love.

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