oldmark lead Charles down the dark corridors of the cellars, down flights of stairs that had been lost to antiquity, through cobwebbed passageways that had not seen the ember of light in centuries. They both bore lanterns in opposite hands, illuminating these long forgotten hallways as they explored further. Small prints marred the layers of dust before them, hinting at a recent passage. Matthias had to suppress a chuckle as he noted their familiar rat shape while gazing at the back of his companion.
"I can see that you've been down here before," he remarked to the rat in front of him.
Goldmark, who for once was in his morph form, flashed him back a grin, full of wiggling whiskers, two large incisors, and that mischievous glint innate to his eye. "Only last week in fact. There is a lot to the cellars after all. And with the Keep changing shape every so often, you never can tell what secret may open up before you."
"And aside from an endless supply of spiders, cobwebs, and mould, what have you discovered?" Charles asked playfully, nudging his friend with his free paw as he stepped over a few thin strands of webbing.
The other rat laughed a moment as he scanned the dark hallway ahead. "A few things. The Keep is pretty good about holding one shape down here, as so much of it is uninhabited. Even the cracks in the walls, which I find very useful for travel, stay in the same place. One advantage to being a rat I suppose, makes it very easy to sneak about and get into places one isn't supposed to be."
Charles joined him in the mirth then as he took a step closer. "You sound like a thief, Goldmark. Thinking of a career change?"
Goldmark gave him a wry expression. "What! And give up the glamour of the life of a copyist? How could you suggest such a thing!"
The two rats laughed a moment, though Matthias's was not as vibrant as his friends. He'd found the joke a bit too bitter, having left an awful taste in his mouth. Running his tongue along the back of his incisors, he reached for his chewstick a moment as they continued down the hallway. It felt good to just gnaw for a moment. He found it quite good at relieving a bit of tension, and found himself suggesting it as a technique to even the non-rodents at the Keep on occasion.
Finally though, they found themselves before a solid oak door, with a rusted lock at the handle. The dust at the base of the door had been scooped away, and the cobwebs cleared off the walls. "I can see you paid close attention here. But that lock looks like it would have to be broken off at this point."
Goldmark ran his claws along it, scraping a bit of the chipped metal from its surface. "True enough. But being a rat, we have another entrance." He pointed to the clean section of the floor. "You can put your clothes there while we change. I don't think you want them covered in dust."
Matthias let himself laugh, eve as he set his lantern down, and began to struggle out of his tunic. "I knew that if you had found it, I'd need to shift at some point."
Goldmark already had his shirt off, and chuckled softly, his tongue clicking against his teeth. "This is well worth it trust me. Don't worry about the lamps, there is some tinder on the other side of the door. I doubt they'll go out while we're inside."
Charles nodded as he folded his tunic over his paws, and began to loosen his breeches. "And even if they do, we are rats, and we can see fairly well in the dark anyway."
"Exactly!" his friend agreed as he deposited his clothes on the cold masonry. His form became fluid, melting before Charles's eyes, shrinking, until all that was left was a six inch long bark brown rat. Charles smiled softly, even as he discarded the last remnants of his clothes, and joined his friend in animalhood.
Goldmark waved with one pink paw towards the crack beneath the door. Running along side of it, he found the perfect spot, and squeezed beneath the aperture. Charles followed along after him, his nose tracing along the scent of his friend on the floor, watching his tail flick from side to side as he slipped under the frame. It was rather tight, but being as small as he was, Matthias had little difficulty in joining his friend in the room beyond.
It was dark, but he could make out vague outlines of the walls about him. Yet, his nose brought to him the dull scent of wax, and of old wood, as well as something else that he could not discern. He did not shift immediately, but instead scanned with eyes and nose for Goldmark, who had disappeared further into the darkness. The floor was free of dust, for which he was very grateful, as dust tended to irritate his sensitive nose.
A sudden striated spark announced the presence of his friend from one side of the room. Scurrying forward slightly, Charles peered up at the massive form of Goldmark, silhouetted by the tinder he was striking before a half-melted candle. It only took him a moment to get a small flame burning on the ancient wick, the soft orange glow reflecting in his dark eyes.
Charles willed himself to return to his morph form. Given that their clothes were on the other side of the massive door, they would both be naked, and so neither would have to be embarrassed. Goldmark used that candle to light others about the room, casting their environs in a pale illumination. Looking from side to side, the vague outlines he had seen stood in dim contrast to what he'd imagined. Lining each wall were racks of wine bottles, neatly arranged, and looking no worse the wear from centuries of neglect.
"What do you think?" Goldmark asked as he looked at those same walls.
Charles stumbled over to the shelves, and drew out and old bottle, scanning the paper wrapping it. It was still readable, though barely so. "My goodness, this is two hundred years old."
Goldmark stepped over and shone the light closer, "There are others down here with a vintage of four hundred years."
"This is astounding! Donny would love to see this I'm sure. Most of the other wine cellars I've seen at the Keep only have bottles up to a hundred years old. Where did this come from?" He could not help but let his excitement slip over into his voice, giving it an even more high pitched quality than usual.
Goldmark favoured him with a wide grin, setting the candle upon a small table, and pulling out his own chewstick. "It's been here, I think. Been here quite a long time. I think that it was just forgotten many years ago. When I found it, the floor was choked with dust, I was hacking for several minutes after I came in here. I've swept the dust into one corner, and made measurements on the candles. I've already asked the chandler for some more of the same size. We can roll them under the doorway without difficulty."
"Why do that?" Charles asked, his paws still clutching the bottle.
Goldmark shifted a bit, gnawing on the wood for a moment before continuing. "Well, I thought that we might convince the others to come here one evening so we could share some of the wine. There are only a few bottles missing from the shelves here, so I doubt we'd have any difficulty having enough for several years."
Charles ran his claws over the paper, accidentally tearing it slightly in one place. "You mean, Elliot, Julian, Hector, and Saulius?"
"Of course! It could be our little secret, a place for us rats to get together in the evenings and enjoy some exquisite wine. A good idea, yes?"
The scout sighed, and slid the bottle back into the shelf rather reluctantly. "I'm not sure that is a good idea."
"Why not?" Goldmark looked injured.
"Well, you know how Julian gets when he drinks."
The expression turned from one of pain to one of anger. "Yes, I do. He is happy, something he rarely is anytime else. Come on, Charles, you know he'd like this too, to have a supply of wine all to ourselves."
"It is tempting," Matthias murmured quietly as he ran his fingers along the cork.
"Tempting? Irresistible is more like it! I can't believe you'd tell us we shouldn't have it."
Charles's brow creased with concern. He'd never heard his friend speak as harshly as that before. "What's wrong, Goldmark?"
"What's wrong? Oh, there is plenty wrong. Our only so-called friend here appears to be a tepid philanthropist, more interested in easing his conscience than giving some bit of real happiness. You have a purpose in life, Charles. We don't. Sure, Tallis has his writing, Hector his sculptures, and Saulius his knighthood, but what of the rest of us? We stay down here all day, copying out parchments for the library and the writers, living off the meagre income that provides. We hardly see anybody else aside from you as it is!
"Do you know what it is like to spend your days where nobody can see you, half afraid that they would cry out in horror when they saw you, and half-afraid that they wouldn't, making your isolation a horrid joke? You have always had it good, many friends, a purpose in life, and somebody to cherish. Sometimes I am so jealous of you that I want to do something, anything to hurt you and your Lady Kimberly, because she choose you, and none of us. Here I am, showing you something that could give a little measure of happiness to the rest of us, and you tell me it is a bad idea. Of course, you already have your happiness, why should it matter to you what we feel. You'll just go back to your lady and laugh about the rest of us when all is said and done."
Charles grimaced at first in shame, and then in anger. "That is not true, Goldmark! Don't you dare speak about Lady Kimberly that way. She didn't choose you because you never took the time to care for her like I did. I've tried very, very hard to bring you and the rest out of these cellars, because I think you'd enjoy your lives a lot more if you did. Don't lecture me on your life. You chose it, not me."
Goldmark blinked once, and then lowered his head, his ears laying flat against his head. "I'm sorry, Charles. I don't know what came over me, I should never have said those things about your Lady."
Matthias put his paw on Goldmark's shoulder and gripped the fur tightly for a moment. "And I didn't know how much this meant to you. I think it would be a wonderful idea to have the others come here one evening. I just worry–"
"You just worry what?"
"I just worry that this is yet another excuse to stay hidden. You don't have to do that."
"It is not an excuse, I can assure you of that. I want to get some use from our forms. Nobody else is going to slip beneath that door after all."
Matthias appeared confused. "I thought you got quite a bit of use out of your form."
"Oh, I shift quite a bit, yes," Goldmark said as he nodded. "But to what end?" He waited a moment as Charles stood silently in the dark. "I use to be an explorer myself, before I came to the Keep. I wasn't a very good one, but I always enjoyed travelling and seeing the world, especially the places that men had not ventured, or at least had only ventured infrequently. That's how I ended up at Metamor five years ago. I was trying to find way through the mountains to the east, when I ran into a small group of Lutins. I ran as best as I could, and ended up falling down the mountainside. The rest you know.
"But I still have the heart of an explorer in me. I'm trapped here at Metamor, like the rest of you, but I still have to find new things. That's why I spend so much time as a normal rat, so I can explore the Keep. It is much bigger like that, and takes longer to traverse. If I have any purpose in life anymore, I suppose that is it. Julian and Elliot have even less. Elliot lost all of his friends during the Battle of Three Gates as you know, and Julian told me once that he was the sixth son of some minor noble. Did you know he'd come here to Metamor hoping that he'd have a better chance here, instead of as the unloved son in his father's lands? Fate played him for a fool, much like the rest of us."
Charles sighed softly. "I did not know that about him. He says so little of himself, that I never knew."
"Don't tell him I told you either."
"I won't," Charles assured him, even as he drew out the bottle of wine again. "You know, if you wish to explore, you could become a scout. We are always in need of more recruits."
Goldmark shook his head and pointed at his thin frame. "I'm not built for it anymore, and I don't have any magic on my side to make up for my weakness."
"Why must you think of yourself as a rat and not a man? I may be a rat yes, but I am still a man. Why can't any of you remember that?"
The other rat shook his head, tail curling about his legs. "I'm not really sure, Charles. I wish I knew, and I wish I could be as confidant as you."
Charles thought a moment, and then brought his friend in to his chest for a brief hug, setting the wine bottle aside. "I have another hour or so before I have to meet with the patrol master. Would you like me to give you something new to explore?"
Goldmark's eyes brightened slightly. "Certainly, what is it?"
Matthias grinned then, glad to see that sparkle in his friend's black eyes. "I think I will show you how to become a rat-taur. I know you will love it." Even before he finished speaking, a bright smile creased Goldmark's muzzle, his long teeth in full display. "Now close your eyes, and we'll begin." Charles rubbed his thighs, grinning at the thought of being a taur again, even if only for a little while. There was little doubt in his mind, if Goldmark could take this form, in a week, he'd be more familiar with it than Misha himself!
"Now, imagine your body," he said, watching his friend's fur tingle. There was no question in his mind that this was going to work.
Matthias was still thinking about what Goldmark had told him when he arrived at the Long House. He'd never suspected such feelings to be buried in his friend's chest like that, as he had always appeared to be doing well. Now that he knew however, he could try to find some way to help.
At the very least, he'd given his friend something new to occupy his time. Though it had taken quite a bit more effort for him to employ, Goldmark had finally managed to shift into taur form. Charles wondered idly if certain species were more susceptible to such a change than others, after all, only a very few had been able to do it, once Misha showed them the way.
As it was the fox he was going to see at the Long House, he decided that he would pose that question before he was sent on whatever new scouting mission Misha would have in mind for him. After the tragedy nearly two weeks ago with the Patriarch, almost every able-bodied scout was spending at least part of each day scouring the hills for any trace of their phantom assassin. But aside from what they'd discovered that first day, nothing more had been found.
When he arrived though, he saw that there was a red panda dressed smartly in a brown tunic pacing before the door. It was Kershaw, whose long striped tail twirled at the sight of him, his narrow snout breaking open in a commanding grin. "Charles, good, I was expecting you."
Matthias nodded, not quite sure why the Long had been waiting for him though. "Misha asked me to be here by noon."
"I know," Kershaw said as he rubbed his paws together. "He grew tired of being cooped up in the office, so went for a stroll about the yards. Asked me to wait for you to bring you to him."
"Ah, I see. Won't I need to retrieve some equipment?" He pointed at the closed door to the Long House.
Kershaw placed a paw on the door thoughtfully for a moment. "Not yet, you don't know what Misha wants. I don't know what he wants either, he did not tell me."
Matthias pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth for a moment, and then nodded. "All right then, lead the way."
The red panda set off at a brisk trot down the hallway, the rat by his side. Neither said anything at first, letting only the sound of their toe claws as they walked across the masonry fill the air. And then, Kershaw let out a sullen grunt and spoke softly, "So, what were you before you came to Metamor?"
Matthias raised an eyelid. "Does it matter?"
"I don't know," Kershaw remarked sarcastically. "It may, depends on what you were before you came here."
"Why are you so interested in knowing, Kershaw?" Charles asked, sticking his thumbs underneath his belt as he walked.
"If you are going to be a Long, we will have to work together, won't we? I'd like to know I can trust you."
Matthias felt the sting of the accusation, but could hardly blame him for it. "Misha trusts me, shouldn't that be enough?"
Kerhsaw shook his head as they descended a set of stairs. It led them out underneath a portico, and into the open October air. It was a surprisingly warm day for so late in the season. There would be few like it left in the year, before the winter frost clutched the heart of the valley. Dead leaves littered the walkway, being blown about by the wind, even as the groundskeepers worked diligently to keep them clean.
Matthias followed after the red panda, holding his tongue as they followed the length of the castle wall towards a courtyard. Kershaw however, did not remain silent for long. "It is not enough for me."
The rat tightened his grip on his belt, the claws biting into the thick strap. "I told Misha of my past, and he believes it to be of no importance. Don't you trust your own commander? Don't you think that if Misha thought it important he would tell you of it?"
Kershaw opened his mouth to say something more, but then closed it again. He pointed around one bend of the castle wall. "He's just around the corner." Charles glanced up, and saw that the corner was still several ells away, and so the fox might not have heard their argument. Even so, he was already embarrassed at the very notion of discovery.
And so, in silence they continued the rest of the way, only glancing at each other meaningfully the moment before they turned that corner. Misha was standing in the middle of a broad avenue along the base of the castle wall. His back was to them as he ran his fingers along the masonry, studying the grooves and nicks. Whisper lay against one side, nearly steaming from practise.
"Ho, Misha," Kershaw called out, and Matthias was quick to echo the greeting.
"Ho Kerhsaw, Charles!" Misha cried out softly. The two of them approached, sharing smiles and warm expressions for a moment. "Sorry, I wasn't there in my office, Charles. The walls were beginning to close in on me anyway."
Matthias shook his head, whiskers twitching in delight. Already, the presence of the fox had brightened his mood. "It is all right, I understand. Besides, this will probably be the last day we can freely walk about without bundling up."
"One of the last anyway," Misha nodded in agreement. "Of course, we have fur, so we can stand the cold better than our still-human brethren. Lisa is already bundled up so tightly, you could push her onto her side and roll her down the town square!"
The three of them laughed at that, before Kershaw nodded once to the fox, and stepped several paces back, to allow the two of them a private conference.
"So, what is it that you need me for?" Charles asked softly, his eyes straying to peer at the red panda a moment before returning to Misha.
"Nothing too terribly important," Misha remarked, gazing up along the length of the wall. With one paw, he reached out and snatched Whisper, twirling it between his fingers. "We've not had a chance to talk much these last few days."
"I know, every one has been very busy."
"I think that things are going to calm down soon enough though. It has nearly been a fortnight since the incident with the Patriarch. His murderer is long gone by now, which is unfortunate."
Matthias nodded, trying not to let the sorrow they'd endured overwhelm him. "I wonder when Phil, Hough, and Muri will return from his burial."
"Sometime next week I expect. At least that knight is up and walking now."
"Egland, I think his name is," Charles remarked absently, his eyes watching the twirling axe blade.
"Yes, that is it. Apparently he's becoming a deer. Right in the middle of season for them too, he's going to have an interesting first few weeks I imagine."
It took the rat a moment to realize just what the fox had said. When he did so, a small smile crept over his features, a chuckle bubbling up from his throat. "Oh my, yes, he is in for a bit of a surprise then." He then brought his gaze resolutely into the fox's face. "Have you heard anything about Kashin? I never saw him again after that night."
Misha shook his head. "Nobody's heard from him apparently. He disappeared from Ellcaran shortly after the funeral service. You'd think it would be rather easy to keep track of a one-armed man, but he's most difficult to find."
"That's too bad. I rather liked him," Charles mused quietly.
"Well, Vinsah is still in his coma; Coe isn't letting anybody see him just yet. At least with Egland awake, Raven has her witness to ensure that Sathmore isn't blamed for this atrocity."
Matthias nodded. "Good, the last thing we need is a war to start because of this."
"Neither do I. But, just in case, Phil has asked that the Southern patrols be kept at increased levels through next summer. I'm going to want you to lead one of these patrols to the South. It won't be for a few days yet, but you will be making a full circle around the southern edge of the Valley, so you'll be gone for a few days."
"I hope it is as boring as can be."
"Why is that?"
Matthias chuckled, "I'd rather it be boring than exciting. Exciting means one is too scared and too crazy to do anything but keep going the way they think looks right."
Misha nodded, "True enough. I hope your patrol is boring as well." He then looked back at Kershaw who was idly smoothing out a small whorl in his arm fur. His eyes then strayed to the wall. Gripping Whisper tightly in his paw, he swung it in a smooth arc over the rat's head, and struck the masonry solidly. Sparks lanced away from the black edges of the blade, and bits of the stone clattered to the avenue.
"Just a little test for you, Charles," the fox winked mischievously. Matthias felt a bit of impending doom creep towards him as he looked into Misha's grey eyes. "Tell me which one of the marks is the one I just cut."
Matthias grimaced and walked over to the wall, running his paw across the slashes in the stonework, trying to feel which one was the warmest. He noticed Misha step backwards several paces, as did Kerhsaw. However, he did not pay them too much attention, as he ran his paws across the sharp mars, finding one that still held warmth within its creases. "This is the one," he said as he turned around.
"Now!" Misha shouted, his gaze peering resolutely up the wall.
Charles blinked in confusion, only to hear the sound of groaning metal far above him. Looking up, he saw a sudden bright red stream of fluid cascade out from the wall, plummeting relentlessly downward. He shuddered and closed his eyes, holding his arms over his head on instinct. The fluid was warm as it splashed about him, bathing him in its viscous touch. Yet, the sensation did not last long, and soon, Charles stood there dripping wet, and a rather bright shade of red.
He could hear Kershaw laughing to one side, and a chorus of familiar voices well overhead. Peering upwards, he could see many of the other Longs dangling their heads out the windows high above, waving and laughing as they gazed down at the rat. Charles turned on Misha, holding forth his arms, trying to wipe the clinging fluid from them. As he did so, he noted that they'd sunk into his fur, leaving it a bright pink.
"What in the world is this?" He asked, his voice a high-pitched squeal.
"Oh, just something that Pascal made." At the sudden intake of breath from the rat, Misha waved a paw, even as he did his best to suppress his own laughter. "Don't worry, it will wash out in a few days. You'd be a pretty useless Long Scout if you were bright pink all the time."
"A Long Scout?" Charles asked, a sudden grin springing to his face.
Misha beamed proudly. "That's right, Charles. You are now officially a Long Scout!" The laughter all about him turned to applause and cheers from the battlements above. Even Kershaw gave himself over to clapping, his paws striking together with a dusty rasp.
"That's, that's so wonderful! Thank you for judging me worthy to join your band!" Matthias beamed then, and then grimaced as he peered down at his pink fur. "But why did you have to choose pink?"
Misha grinned, gazing to one side of the courtyard. "Oh, I thought it would go well with your eyes." Charles followed his gaze though, and saw Arla and Meredith approaching with a large white sack. As soon as he saw the collie and bear, they ran forward, unfurling the cloth. "And now we want to show you off!"
"What?" Matthias cried out as he scrambled away. But the masonry beneath his feet was still slick with the dye, and so he fell to the ground, even as the other two Long's descended on him and wrapped him up in the sack. He tried to claw at the fabric, but again, the dye made his grip too slick to catch.
"Don't worry, Charles," Meredith said in his rather deep voice. "A little embarrassment is good for the soul."
"Help!" Charles cried out as Meredith pinned his arms behind his back with his massive paws and the sack. Arla drew the fabric closed, and tied the cinch off with a cord of rope. Then, the two Long's, all grins, lifted the struggling rat onto the bear's back. "Let me out!" Matthias cried as he felt himself hoisted into the air.
Misha came over and patted the sack with one paw. "Don't worry, we will, once we reach the town gates."
"But everybody will see me!" Matthias insisted, his voice a shrill cry.
"That's the point, Charles," Meredith assured him, a laugh thick in his ursine throat.
Arla snorted in amusement. "The way you drink, I'd think you'd be used to a little embarrassment."
The sound of the red panda's rich laughter filled the air, and was quickly joined by the others. Finally, Misha's voice broke through the hazy sights. Inside of the bag, Charles could make out vague silhouettes, but he could hardly concentrate on any of them, as he was wiping the pink dye from his face most of the time. That and trying to get it out of his nose, he'd not be able to smell anything for hours at this rate!
However, he could hear them all quite effectively, and with a sullen groan, he heard Misha say, "At least you now can say you have the distinction of being the first victim of the Long House's very own cauldron of boiling oil!"
The rest of the Long Scouts laughed once again, long and hard. Matthias grumbled as they carried him towards the town square, contemplating spending quite a bit of time with Goldmark in that wine cellar the next few days.
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