Wagging Tongues Will - Part VII

Charles considered the wall before him. It was much like the walls on every other side of him, dark, streaked with a bit of grime, and very cold to the touch. It also had the uncanny ability to annul the Sondeck, or at least suppress his ability to channel that force through his flesh. He’d discovered that unsettling property the last time he’d been kept within these walls, and that for his reckless loss of temper. For that he felt terrible shame and knew he belonged within these walls. This time they were a true prison, one that he knew in his heart was not meant for him.

Even though the magical enchantments placed within this dungeon would sap his Sondeck should he touch them, he knew that he could destroy them by simply throwing his force. After all, as soon as it left his body, it became simply a burgeoning wind that could knock down small trees. Yes Charles had given Thomas his word that he would cooperate, and so the thought continued to float in his mind, but nothing more. But that did not mean he liked his confinement. In fact, as he stood there he felt as if the walls were slowly pressing inwards, growing closer with each passing minute. He half-feared that in another hour they would be crushing the very life from him as they moved to meet each other.

Yet, even at his most paranoid, he knew this to be untrue. He had paced the room several times, and it was always an even six paces across. In fact, as he considered it, he walked back to one wall, and then crossed the room again. Smirking unhappily, he noted that it was still six paces. He did not touch the wall, but returned to the centre of the cell. The touch of the wall filled him with revulsion. Not only were they covered with some mould and mildew that he had no wish to identify, but the feeling of his Sondeck fleeing him made his flesh cringe.

Aside from the filthy walls, the only other adornment to the cell that he dwelled within was the customary pile of hay in one corner. It was clean hay, something Matthias found at least somewhat mollifying. Grumbling a few foul obscenities to himself, the rat stepped onto the pile of soft hay and laid down upon it. It was hardly comfortable, but he’d slept in far worse positions, sometimes even with a rock for a pillow, and leaves for a blanket.

Yet he had no desire for sleep. His eyes kept straying to the few slits in the hard iron door, through which flickered the febrile light of a guttering torch. The last time he’d been placed in the dungeons he’d had several visitors, not a constant stream, but three or four each day at least. He’d long lost count of the hours he’d been held here so far – it was so hard to keep track of such things in the perpetual gloom of prison – but it had to be nightfall, or very nearly dusk by now. Perhaps Phil had forbidden any to see him? It would be like the rabbit, he mused unpleasantly.

Rolling over on the hay, some of the strands clinging to his tunic and breaches, he kept the light to his back, and let his eyes fall upon the barely illuminated far wall. It was like the rest covered with patches of grime and mildew. He doubted that this place was cleaned with any regularity. However, the light still reflected off a particularly glossy patch of fungus, and its wavering ambiance kept his eyes focussed, and his body awake.

After laying there for several minutes, Charles finally turned onto his back, his tail threading between his legs, though not nearly as comfortably as would have been done upon his normal bed. The ceiling was almost completely dark, though it was free of the mildew that crept along the walls. Charles tried to lose himself in its blackness, but his mind continued to replay the scenes he had witnessed earlier that day over and over again. It had started out as such a fine day too, out to help some Keepers with the rebuilding, and then taking James to the Inn to help him out. He wondered idly how the donkey was faring, and if he would indeed stay there at the Inn until Charles met with him again.

And then he’d had to confess what he’d hoped could have remained a secret. He knew in his heart that something was wrong with this entire situation. Zagrosek could not be the man they described, not the man he had known for almost his entire life, or at least all that he cared to dwell upon. His time before joining the Sondeckis as a child was sketchy at best, only brief images that would flash into his mind, and then quickly vanish. There were a few things he recalled more clearly, a little about his parents, but not enough to seriously consider. As far as Matthias was concerned, his life truly began the day he arrived at Sondeshara.

He smiled slightly despite himself as he recalled that day, the sand was white and it blew about their caravan, he along with several other boys who had been identified with the gift, some older than he by many years, others a year or two younger, but none any younger than that. He’d only been seven himself, and while he’d been a little nervous, his excitement at this strange city kept the tears of leaving his parents at bay. The sun had been hidden behind a fog of sand, but it cast an ember glow across the endless fields, and the vaulted tiers and domes of Sondeshara, with its tight alleys and clay houses, gleamed like polished brass.

And then, when they’d arrived, they had each been assigned quarters in a small room, barely bigger than the cell Charles now found himself in. Of course, they had to share the room with one other new Sondeckis, but it contained all that they would need or own. There had been a closet where they could hang their robes, and inside that closet had been two pairs of yellow robes, one for Charles, and the other for the child who shared the room with him. A small table held any personal items that they would gain, though he had not had anything at the time. And there had been pallets on either side of the room for them to sleep upon, with sufficient blankets to survive a desert night.

The rat had to stifle a morose laugh. Most of his life he’d lived in monastic poverty, it had only been since his arrival at Metamor had he grown accustomed to any luxuries such as a real bed or fine clothes. But even at his worst he had never had to live in conditions such as this cell. His nose wrinkled in distaste as he dwelt upon it. However, long it took Phil and Thomas to discover whatever information it was they sought, he hoped that it was short. He doubted that he could bear this again. Though they had not moved one inch, he still felt as if the walls were creeping closer to crush him. A shudder passed through him as his mind began to recall his mad race through the crack in the walls of the Keep. Sitting upright, he vanquished those memories as quickly as they had come.

And as if that had been some unseen signal, the light flickering through the cell slats was obscured by a body standing before the door. There was a banging knock that rang through the cell for several moments. Charles could not help but breathe a sigh of relief at the break in the monotony. Even if it was Phil come to interrogate him, or Rickkter to mock him in his plight, he would welcome them. “Who is it?” he called out, his voice showing no signs of strain.

“Kimberly to see you,” a guard’s voice announced. Roscoe of course still held the keys to the dungeon, though he had several others whose forms were not nearly so extreme to assist him.

Charles leapt to his feet at that declaration and quickly wiped some of the straw from his clothes. “I will gladly see her,” he called back. The key turned in the iron door then, and it swung inwards. The light spilled across the room, and Charles blinked and held his paw up before his face to shield himself. However, he soon found himself being held tightly about the middle by his sweet lady, who was trying not to sob, but failing.

When the door swung shut, returning him to that dim gloom that his rodent eyes had grown accustomed to, he wrapped his own arms about her as well, holding her tight and gently swaying with her as he tried to sooth her with his voice. “Hello my Lady. I am sorry for this.”

Kimberly however continued to sob as she held him, pressing her face into his chest, her whole body trembling with grief and anguish. Charles could not blame her, but could only find it within himself to hold her tight. No further words escaped his muzzle for several minutes as they stood locked together. He could smell the misery upon her – she had obviously been weeping for quite some time now. He wondered for how long she had known about this before she’d been allowed to come visit him. Although given the muskiness of the cell, he could not be certain from scent alone.

Finally, she slumped a bit in his grip, and he helped her to sit down upon the hay. Her tail curled around her legs as she sat, and her paws gripped the end of it, turning it over in them. She even momentarily lifted it to her muzzle as if it were her chewstick, but she quickly realized what she had done, and let it fall back to her lap once again. Charles had never seen her so distraught as this, even when he’d been placed in the dungeon the first time, she’d had more control over herself. Perhaps she had not loved him as deeply as she did now? It was all that he could think of.

“Are you all right?” He finally managed to ask, staring at her in the face.

She shivered slightly as she let her eyes trace across the dismal conditions she found her fiancè in. “I talked to Phil. He said some things–” her voice trailed off into nothingness, as her sobs began to come back.

Charles reached over and pulled her tight as they sat upon the hay. His tail rested along her own, and he felt them entwine naturally. Charles rested his muzzle upon her head, right between her soft ears. “I can only imagine what Phil told you. He told you of Zagrosek did he not?”

Kimberly shuddered beneath him. “Yes. You know him?”

“Of course I know him. He has been my friend for as long as I can remember. Phil told you things that he thinks Zagrosek did as well. Did he not?”

She trembled visibly. “He said he killed the Patriarch.”

Charles grimaced. He wondered just how much Phil had told his beloved. “Phil certainly thinks that Zagrosek did that. But the Zagrosek I knew would never do such a thing. I assure you of that firmly. No man that has been my dearest friend for that many years could ever have committed such a dastardly deed. I saw what had happened to the Patriarch’s camp. While a man of my powers, or Zagrosek’s for that matter could have done what happened there, no one of our temperament could have done such a thing.”

Kimberly could only nod softly as she continued to bury her head in Charles’s chest. He cradled her there, his paws running over the back of her ears, claws gently tracing over that smooth, soft skin. She did not stir though, but continued to let her tears dry in his tunic. The dull ache of his rib came to him then as she kept pressing herself so closely, but he said nothing of it, preferring to let her stay close.

Finally, though, she began to push herself back up, her face not quite dry, but no longer streaming with tears. “They showed me a picture. It was awful. I... I don’t know what to think.”

Charles sucked in his breath. How had they come by a picture, and just what did it look like? “A picture?”

“A drawing. It was just of a face. But it was awful!” Her eyes held a wild terror within them, and the rat could almost fancy that she could see the image even now. “It glared at me. I don’t know how to say.”

“It glared at you?”

“I don’t know.” Kimberly wailed slightly, almost angry at her inability to describe it. “The face was real somehow. It was the real face, not a drawing.”

Charles blinked several times at that. “Who drew that? Where did Phil come by it?”

“I don’t know. He did not tell me.”

Charles nodded and gently pulled her close again. “I suppose that was who he said was Zagrosek?”

“Yes. He said that you’d been protecting him.”

The rat glowered into the darkness, but said nothing more for a minute as he ran his paws along his beloved’s back. He could feel her flesh tremble beneath his touch, the sobs reasserting themselves intermittently, but not permanently. Charles breathed heavily, watching idly as the fur on top of her head would rise at each of his exhalations, before settling back down again. Finally, she pushed herself back away from him, her composure once more regained.

“What did the picture look like?” Charles asked, his voice firm, but comforting.

Kimberly shuddered and held out her paws, as if trying to sculpt the image. “He was lean, with dark hair. He had on a black robe. His nose was narrow, eyes fairly close together. High cheek bones. I think he had his arms crossed. He was clean shaven.” She paused a moment there, face scrunching together as she tried to think. “I don’t know how to describe anymore.”

Charles nodded and let her come back to his chest, resting one ear against his tunic. “Don’t think about it. It sounds similar to my friend. But it cannot truly be him. As I said, the Zagrosek I knew would never do those things. I have told Phil that it must be somebody masquerading as my friend so as to drive us all apart, and I assure you, in this I know I am correct.”

She nodded quietly, resting her ear against his chest still, not leaning back any further than that. Her arms were wrapped about his middle, holding on tight as if she were afraid that he’d disappear if she did not keep him close. Charles gently let his arms rest around her own back, the claws slowly running back and forth across the smooth fabric of her work frock. Sadly, he could not tell what meal she had been preparing before coming here, the scents were all too muted by her sorrow and fear.

“I suppose I should tell you who Zagrosek is though. I’ve told you he has been my closest friend throughout almost all of my life, but I have told you so little of my life, I suppose it does not mean much. You know of my life since I came to the Keep six years ago this last autumn. I very quickly established the Writer’s Guild, being a travelling storyteller it was natural for me. This brought an order to the various scribes that had beforehand simply had the Duke as a patron, and it gave beginning writers a place to hone their skills. And now I am a Long Scout, and in that I have returned partially to my roots.”

Kimberly nodded again, but otherwise did not move, her one ear pressed against his chest, listening to the solid thumping of his heart, while the other hung upon his words. “My roots,” Charles mused quietly then, gazing at the mildew stricken wall, and past it. “I was born in the Southlands. I do not know in which region of the Southlands, my parents were travelling merchants, and we scoured almost the entire lay of the land the seven years I stayed amongst them. It was while we were stopping in a small trading town just South of Glazebrook, along the Glaze River, that I was discovered by the Sondeckis.”

Charles smiled slightly then as he recalled that day. The meandering waters of the Glaze lapping at the fish-strewn wharves, while in the distance the mighty towers of Glazebrook could be seen. And beyond them stretched the southern reaches of the low-lying Amrigane mountains, only a few of whose peaks were topped with snow. He’d been helping his father carry some of the wares from their wagons into the shopkeeper’s huts, when a stranger dressed in purple robes approached. His robes bore a strange symbol upon them, but one that Charles had been taught to recognize, just like any other lad or lass in the Southern lands. It was of a red shield, with a palm inside, and in the palm was a white sword – the Sondeckis heraldry.

“There had been a Sondecki from Glazebrook who was travelling the countryside as we are often wont to do. He saw that I was far stronger than I should have been, and proceeded to ask my father many questions about me. My father was more distressed that this man was keeping him from peddling his wares than why a Sondecki might be interested in his son. I was rather nervous, and slightly angry that this man wouldn’t ask me anything directly, but I knew better than to upset a Sondecki. After all, the Sondeckis were powerful warriors who protected the just, and made sure that oppression did not exist far too rampantly. They were the good guys after all, according to most of the folks that bought wares from my father.

“In any event, the purple Sondecki was intrigued, and so he requested that my father allow him to ask me to do one thing for him. My father, hoping to get back to his business, said yes. And so the Sondecki took my hand and asked me to close my eyes and imagine my heart. He told me to put everything that I was into that heart, and then close it within a hand. He then told me to put a mark on the hand, but that I got to choose the mark. And then he told me to open the hand back up. He asked me if I was feeling calm, and I was. Amazingly enough, I felt completely calm, as if it had been a new experience for me.

“But of course, the part that marked me as a Sondeckis was the mark I chose. That was his next question, what did I mark the hand with? I had marked it with a sword, and thus, I was a Sondeckis, because all Sondeckis will either choose a sword or a shield to mark their hand with. That also determines other things about us, most specifically which areas of the Sondeckis arts we will likely be more proficient in. Because I chose the sword, I was destined to be a warrior amongst them.”

He paused a moment as he stroked her back, waiting for all of that to sink in. It had been so long since he had even dwelt on any of those events that he had a hard time remembering when last he had done so. Every Sondeckis had a story that was similar, aside from those precious few actually born in Sondeshara. Yet Kimberly simply lay there, resting against him, though clearly listening to him. She was calmer now than at any point since entering, and so Charles continued, hoping his story would soothe her.

“Well, the Sondecki was elated, and proudly announced to my father that I was of the Sondeckis as well. My father knew that I was never going to be a merchant, I think, and he sounded very pleased when he discovered that I was to be taken to Sondeshara to be trained. I was not given a choice in the matter, and even if I had, I know I would have gladly joined them at the time. I was told to wait one day’s time while the Sondecki arranged for my transport to Makor, the last stop before the crossing of the Darkündlicht Mountains, and the deserts around Sondeshara. My parents spent that day giving me all the clothing I would need for the journey, as well as a few parting words. I know my Mother had to have cried after I’d left the next day, but she’d been nothing but proud smiles until I was gone.

“I was placed in a carriage with the purple Sondeckis, and we rode together all the way up to Glazebrook. I had been in a large city such as that before, so I was not awestruck when we entered. However, the Sondeckis I was with – he never told me his name though, I always called him ‘Mern’, which in the Southlands tongue means ‘Sir’ – he told me to keep myself hidden while we travelled. Mern also kept the carriage doors closed that none might know who passed. When we finally did leave the carriage after half-a-day’s journey, and an hour after entering the city, it was into a darkened corridor, with doors closed on both ends. He then led me through a twisted series of passageways which led down to the aqueducts. Another carriage awaited me there, this one driven by a team of horses, with several armed men for protection. There was also another Sondecki waiting, and he accompanied me on the trip up to Sekio. I never saw Mern again.

“The trip to Sekio was uneventful. The new Sondecki I was with actually told me his name, Ernst. As we travelled, he kept my interest by telling me some of the history of the Sondeckis, and just what exactly it was that we do. For hours as we travelled throughout the day he would regale me with the noble exploits of my clan, tell me what it was I could expect to learn when I reached Sondeshara, and show me some of the things a Sondeckis could do when fully trained. I was captured on his every word, for he spoke to my heart in a way no other person ever had during my life.

“When we reached Sekio a fortnight later, I was again transferred to another carriage while underneath the city, and met a new Sondecki, this one a woman named Elsa. She was also of the purple, and it was she who explained to me that the purple Sondeckis were given the task of protecting the children who would come to train, and there was a huge network of them secretly spread across the continents. From Sekio we crossed the Rudin Canal, and then in another week arrived at Makor.”

Charles brought his chewstick up to his teeth then and paused a moment to gnaw. Although he could remember all of those names, he could not recall their faces very well, or much of the scenery, or any of the stories they had told him. It had been a continuous blur, but one filled with excitement and eager anticipation. Setting his chewstick back at his side, he took a quick breath before he continued. “When we reached Makor though, I met several other young lads who were to become Sondeckis as well. We waited a few days in the basement of a monastery, told to keep quiet, but well fed and given nice beds to rest upon. It was the last bit of luxury I can remember for years afterwards.

“After several days we finally set out in a caravan towards the Darkündlicht mountains. It only took another week before we reached the passes through, but they were treacherous, and after a days journey inwards, we had to leave the wagons behind, and proceed on foot, with several mules to carry our supplies. From this point onwards we were accompanied by a dozen Sondeckis of the purple, led by one of the black. They never marched us too far, but we were always eager to rest whenever they called a halt. It took another fortnight of walking through those mighty peaks before we were met by the desert wagons.

“Even after we met with them, it was another few days before we were out of the mountains all together and in the desert proper. We were told to eat salt at regular intervals during the journey, and while it tasted awful, we each did as instructed. Although the first time a few of us had to be told just why we needed to eat it, including myself.”

“Why did you need to eat salt?” Kimberly asked, her voice low, but the tremble was gone.

Charles felt his heart flutter a moment, and he stroked his paw firmly down her back at that, glad to hear her voice once more. “Well, it was so hot in the desert that if we did not eat any salt, we might die as the sun baked the water from our bodies before we reached the next well. A few of us also had to be told that we needed to wear as many robes as possible to keep from having our skin burnt. At the time I’d had sensitive skin, so knew this already. It was another fortnight’s journey through the ever shifting sands and rocks of that barren land before we reached Sondeshara.

“Along the way though, many of us children got to know one another very well, and we even became good friends. There were four of us that were tightly knit together. One of them was a burly lad from Cainos, which was a month’s journey due South of Makor, along the Southern Shores of that land. His name was Jerome Krabbe. Another was a tall, almost elegant boy from Eavey to the East who bore a crucifix about his neck. He was Ladero Alenez. And the third was a thin, dark-haired boy who hailed from the Southern reaches of the Kitch Steppe. And he was Krenek Zagrosek.”

Charles paused a moment as he tried to remember their faces as children. It had been so long ago, but he could see his playmates readily, and his heart thumped faster in nostalgia for those days when they bounced along in the wagons together on that journey, each of them brimming with hearty excitement. “When we finally arrived at Sondeshara, we were each assigned rooms, about as big as this cell actually, but much nicer. There were two pallets, one on either side, and a small table for any personal possessions we still had. I was to share a room with Krenek, while Jerome and Ladero were right across the hall. And from that day forward, we began our training.”

He nuzzled the top of her head a moment, gently running his paws across her back as she held onto him. He found his voice had left him just then, but she did not seem to mind. Her own paws were now gently stroking along his tunic, rubbing at the fur beneath. He breathed of her fur then, drawing in her scent. She was calm, at peace finally as she held him, though there was a lingering sense of fear. Charles knew that was not something he could quell though.

“We spent the next seventeen years training together extensively. At the end of those seventeen years, all four of us ascended to the black upon the same day. The black is the highest rank any Sondeckis may ascend to, excepting the white. There is only one white at a time though, and he is the leader of the Sondeckis, upon whose shoulders many responsibilities ultimately lay. I had other friends of course at Sondeshara during my time, but those three were the most enduring, and it was with Zagrosek that I shared much of my life, as we lived within the same room together all of those years. And so I know him better than any other man alive possibly could.

“The Zagrosek that I know was an honourable man. He fought bravely and passionately for that which he believed in, justice. He was quiet as well, often moody, but never morose. Quite often he was serious, but he had a sense of humour that oftentimes made the rest of us cringe. And he would rarely laugh or smile while he said something humourous, instead he would say it in a flat tone of voice, and only after you had heard it would you realize what he had done. Whenever any of us needed help he was there, at our sides, but often times he would be quick to offer a reproach if he felt we were doing something we should not. And he was always the first to stand and volunteer to defend or avenge those he cared about.

“Why, I just now can remember one time when we were still both yellows. It was only a year after we’d arrived. Most of the Western Southlands is dominated by the Ecclesia, and so most Sondeckis were also members of the Ecclesia. There was no requirement stipulating that one attend weekly Service, though it was fairly understood that you were supposed to be there. Well, on my way to Service, I managed to capture a scorpion in a small box that I normally used for my prayer beads. Krenek saw me do it, and after looking at it himself, he told me I should let it go. I however wanted to see what would happen if I released it in the choir loft during Service.”

He felt Kimberly slightly stir before him, her head tilting back a bit so she could peer upwards at him, her eyes curious. Feeling a bit abashed, Charles winced. “I was only eight at the time. I have long since grown out of such silliness. But at the time it was just the sort of thing I would do. And so just before Service I snuck up to the Choir Loft and let the scorpion loose. Do you know what a scorpion is?” At Kimberly’s shake of the head, he went on to explain, “They are rather large spider-like creatures that live in the desert, sort of like Roscoe, but they have a nasty stinger like a wasp or a bee, only more dangerous. A bee sting will hurt, but most of the time will go away after a few days. A scorpion sting can give you fevers, and sometimes it can kill you.”

At that, Kimberly gave him a soft pinch in the back, and he nearly jumped. “I was never stung; I was careful, if stupid.” Laughing just a bit, he managed to forget the dingy cell walls all about him for a moment. “Anyway, I let it loose and then rejoined the others for the Service. Well, during the Gloria one of the choir members was stung in the ankle, and it raised quite a bit of commotion. The priest would have been content to wait until confessional for the culprit to confess what he’d done, but one of the blacks who was there at the Service as well demanded right then and there that the guilty party step forward. Krenek knew that it had to have been me, and he stepped forward, head hung low, and confessed to my crime.

“I couldn’t believe he’d done it, I was already feeling miserable enough at the poor tenor who was being rushed to one of the healers. But I winced at every sentence the black laid upon Krenek to atone for his misbehaviour. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore, broke down in tears, and confessed the entire thing to the black, I even went so far to describe how I’d done it. The black stood there quietly the whole time I spoke, just looking at me with his hard eyes. After I’d finished, and asked that Krenek be spared the punishment that I deserved, he just said, ‘You will receive the same as him. Never let another take the blame for what you have done.’

“He then turned to Krenek and addressed him, his voice just as hard. ‘It is good that you wish to spare your friend this punishment. But justice cannot be served if the wrong man suffers for the crimes of others.’ I will never forget what happened next though. Krenek just turned, pointed to the crucifix hanging above the altar and said, ‘Then explain that.’ The black blinked at that, the grim line of his face falling for a moment. But he regained his composure quickly enough and said, ‘That was redemption. This is justice. Before this day is out you will know well the difference.’”

Charles winced slightly, offering her a bemused grin. “And I assure you, we did indeed know the difference before the sun set that day.”

She smiled slightly then, but continued to rest her head against Charles’s chest, her arms still holding him closely. He stroked one paw across her ear, even as it instinctively twitched to get out of the way. “But he was willing to spare me the punishment. Of course, as we grew together, that bit of him matured, and he no longer took the brunt for others quite so frivolously. Only when it would serve the cause of justice. It was an inspiration to the rest of us, I know it most certainly was to me.

“I know it has been seven years since we lived together, but the twenty years we did share a room mean a great deal. I cannot believe he could have changed so much in seven years time that would lead him to kill the Patriarch, or the other things that Phil accuses him of. And he was here at the Keep during the assault, I will confess that freely. In fact, he helped me, fought at my side against the Lutin armies. Garigan can attest to it, as can all in Glen Avery. When I saw him again, he felt the same to me as he had all those years ago. The Zagrosek that I know could not have killed the Patriarch, and the Zagrosek that accompanied me just those two weeks ago did not kill the Patriarch. I know this in my heart, I have no doubt of it.”

Kimberly nodded then, nuzzling against his chest once more. Charles let the room fill with silence once again, noticing the mould as it climbed across the dark wall before him. The flickering torchlight gave scant illumination, but it was enough to highlight the dreariness of his current demesnes. Yet they could not penetrate the solemn cheer the rat had brought upon himself by dwelling on the times of old. So many other events replayed themselves before his mind’s eye as he held her close, so many encounters he would treasure even unto the afterlife. He knew the moments could not last, but he would hold onto them as long as it was possible.

However, they came abruptly to a sharp stop when Kimberly lifted her head from his chest and leaned back enough to gaze into his face. Her mass of whiskers twitched slightly as she surveyed him, her own dark orbs wandering in the darkness. Finally, she said softly, “I don’t know what to say.”

Charles did his best to offer her a reassuring smile then, his muzzle curling back into a rodent grin. “Trust me then. You know that I am telling you the truth. All will be well in the end. Phil and the others are frightened because they do not understand what is happening. But when they discover what I have told you to be true, they will release me and apologize for this. Everything will be as it was, so do not be afraid.”

She nodded slightly, but her eyes seemed to yearn for more. “You promise?”

“I promise to you that we shall be together very shortly again, and that none will separate us.” He stared straight into her eyes as he spoke those words, and he could see each one strike firmly into her heart. She smiled back at him then, and leaned forward to hug him once more, tightly.

“I love you, Charles.”

“And I love you, my Lady.” Charles then gently stood her up upon her feet, a few strands of hay sticking to her breeches. “You should probably leave now and get some rest. It must be terribly late by now.” She nodded and then looked at the door, as if afraid to go near it. “Just knock and the guard will let you out. Would you do me one favour for now?”

“Anything, my love.”

Charles could not help but smile. “Do not repeat any of the things I have told you to anyone else. At least not yet. This will all come out in due time I think, but this is not the time.”

She nodded then, her tail flitting behind her, even as she picked at a strand of hay at her side. “I won’t say anything.” She then, almost reluctantly, walked the few paces to the door, and knocked upon it gently three times.

The rat stared at her back and whispered, “I love you,” even as the bolt to the door was unhinged with a loud creaking. As the iron door was pulled outwards, the torchlight spilled across her frame, silhouetting it. She turned her head back once to look at him, and then was whisked from the aperture. With a loud clang, the door was sealed back shut, leaving him alone once more in the unkempt cell.

Charles listened for several more seconds before he heard her response carrying on the stale air, “I love you too.” He held those words to his heart for several moments before he finally let his legs buckle beneath him and he tried once more to sleep upon the hay. But his heart was far too heavy for that.

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