Wagging Tongues Will - Part VIII

The Sondeckis Shrine had not seen the touch of the Lutin armies that had put the Keep under that terrible siege only two weeks before. Garigan had not even given it any thought when he’d demanded that Charles allow him to return to Glen Avery to help with the fighting there. Yet the ferret who was draped warmly in his green robes was quite delighted every time he brought to mind the fact that this inner sanctum was unharmed. There was a metallic quality to the air whenever he dwelt upon it, as if the altar in the centre had wished for the invaders to draw near!

Garigan considered the long stone altar for a moment, and the kneeling angel set before it, palms upturned. Though it had been here at the Keep for less than six months, or at least, he’d been aware of these chambers for less than six months, he felt as if they had always been with him. There was an eternal aspect to the Sondeck that exuded from every grain of rock and clay within the room. Even as he glanced out the single window, he almost half expected to see endless expanses of sand, even though he’d never seen the like in his entire life.

But what he really saw was Metamor. Blinking, he ran his tongue across the scar where his two front teeth had been. He still had a bit of trouble talking, and every now and then would whistle as he spoke. The pain had long since left him, except on occasion while he was eating something particularly hot. Yet it was the chill from the night outside that caught his attention. Stepping to the window, he pulled the frame shut at last. Whenever he practised, he liked to keep the window open, except when it was snowing. The cool air felt good against his fur, but the winter chill was far more than he wished for now.

Scanning the room he saw that there was nothing to be put away, and only four torches to be extinguished. Grabbing the brass pole with a bell-shaped cone on one end, he walked around the room, placing the cone over the top of each torch in turn, snuffing them out. Finally, the room was cast into a deep darkness, that only the light from the stairwell leading down to his joint quarters with Charles penetrated.

Satisfied, Garigan set the brass pole down, and began to descend those stairs. Charles would be delighted to see him again; he idly wondered if his master had already eaten his dinner meal. Garigan certainly intended to spend the next hour or so simply talking with his rodent master, relieving the hours of boredom he must surely have been suffering. Though he had only known the rat for about eight months, he knew that Charles was the kind of person that had to keep busy. Being cooped up in his bed while his ribs healed was only making him irritable and disagreeable, two things Garigan did not want his master to be.

Yet when he finally reached the bottom of the stairs and entered their joint quarters, he saw that the bed was empty. It was also unmade, though not horribly so. Garigan scanned the room, but it was clear that Charles was not present. Stepping tentatively inwards, the ferret reached for one of the candles the rat kept along his mantle. Lighting the candle in the lantern held over the doorway to the staircase, he checked within his own room, but it was just as he’d left it this morning. He then walked back to Charles’s room, but found no note or missive to suggest where his master might have gotten to.

Grimacing, Garigan returned to the centre of the room, casting a curious glance at the fire pit. The ashes behind the sluice were cold and dark. It was clear that there had been no fire within that hearth all throughout the day. Mentally kicking himself, Garigan wished he’d come by earlier. It looked as if the rat had been gone for quite some time, and there appeared to be no way to know where he’d gone.

Blowing the candle out, he set it back upon the mantle. He climbed the stairs once more, and then walked though the dark Sondeckis Shrine from memory. The door to the Long House was light around the edges, and as he stepped into that massive Hall, he had to blink a few times at the brightness of the illumination. Although they would be extinguished in a few hours, the lamps were still all lit about the large room, on both the lower and upper levels. However, when he glanced about, he did not see anyone immediately.

Of course once Misha and the rest of the Longs returned from their foray up North, this place would be brimming with activity again. Garigan had grown accustomed to the sounds and sights of his fellow Keepers practising, and drilling each other, as well as the more casual greetings and games that were played within these strange walls. The emptiness that existed now was rather unnerving, a constant reminder of what had occurred only those two weeks ago. Despite that, Garigan felt heartened that his own home had been spared this time. There had been a few who’d been killed, including his friend Shelley, but their lives had not been destroyed as they had during the first invasion.

Garigan sighed as he thought about his quiet friend who’d gone from female to male at age thirteen, even as he had grown fur and fangs. They’d been close companions, often patrolling together after they’d become scouts. When Garigan had left for Metamor Keep, he’d made sure to say goodbye to Shelley last, hugging him once and promising that he would return soon. But he’d done so too late. After the fighting had ended, he’d returned to his quarters here with Charles, any thought of returning to Glen Avery pushed far from his mind. As he thought about it, he realized he did not want to go back there now, but he could not discern the reason. No reason he came up with seemed quite right.

The ferret finally did manage to bring his thoughts back to the present. Charles was missing, and he did indeed need to discover where the rat had gone to. He kicked himself mentally, he should have gone to see Kimberly first, for she would probably know where he was. But he was here at the Long House now, and so there was no reason he should not ask the other Longs who’d had to stay behind.

He knew that both Meredith and Kershaw were far too injured during the fighting to be up and about yet. It was possible that Charles could have gone to visit them himself, but the ferret decided that it would be best if he did not disturb their rest for they needed it. Instead, he set out towards the quarters of Lisa and her family. She had lost her right hand during the fighting, but was still doing her best to watch over her own children.

It did not take him long to cross the wide expanse that was the Long House and knock on the door he knew led to their quarters. Even so, as he walked beneath those high arches, and glanced at the darkened stained glass in the clerestory, he felt as if silent eyes were observing him. His fur bristled slightly as his imagination got the better of him, and he developed a bit of a skip to his step so that he might reach his destination faster. Yet he reached the door unmolested, and a bright but firm voice rang from beyond, “Eric, would you please see who it is.”

Garigan stood with his paws behind his back, grimacing as he realized in his haste he had not bothered to remove his Sondeckis robes. Bending forward, he lifted the green thick wool from his body, and bundled it into a thick heap. After making sure the Sondeckis symbol was folded tightly and no longer visible, he stood upright once more just in time to see the large oaken door open slightly, and a young boy’s face peek out. In the boy’s arm was a wooden sword, the tip pointing at Garigan’s middle.

“What do you want?” the boy asked in a piping soprano, with an urgency that took the ferret back.

“I’m looking for your mother,” Garigan said, remember a time when he had been just as defensive as this young lad was. “Is she in? I promise I am no enemy that needs slaying.”

“Oh Eric, stop sticking that sword in his face!” He heard Lisa’s voice call from somewhere deeper in the quarters. The young boy, he couldn’t be older than ten, appeared abashed, his blonde hair falling in front of his face in tight curls. He stepped back, lowered the sword, and opened the door wider.

“I’m sorry, master,” the boy said, his voice low, though still excitable.

Garigan laughed a bit, and patted the boy on the head, ruffling those curls. “It is all right. You’re just doing your job and protecting your family. That’s a good lad.”

Eric brightened at that, and waved his wooden sword about in the air. “Did you hear that, Mom?” Eric asked, turning to face Lisa, who was placing a few pieces of wood in the hearth that occupied the far wall. “Master Garigan said I was a good lad!”

Lisa smiled to her son then, her own body only a few years older than the boy’s. She gave Garigan a curt smile and then said, “Please don’t encourage him, he’s a terror enough as it is.” Her face softened then, glanced once at the green robe piled in the ferret’s arms, and then returned her attention to the hearth, from which warm flames licked up into the chimney. Garigan could feel the heat warming him already. “Pardon me just one moment, and then I’ll be with you. I’m not as quick about this as I used to be.” And the ferret could see why, for the right sleeve of her tunic had been sealed shut at the wrist, so she could only move one log at a time, and with her off hand as well.

Garigan nodded, and closed the door behind him. It was clear that Charles was not here at the moment, but Lisa may have seen him earlier. He was content though to wait for Lisa to finish what she was doing. After all, Charles had taught him several techniques that he could continually practice whenever he had a few moments with nothing else to do. And so in his mind he recited some of the formulas, and also, some of the images associated with each technique. And then there was the constant seeking of his Calm, that place within himself free of all tension and worry, when he was completely in touch with the ancient power of the Sondeck within him. As he stood perched upon that tree that rose into forever, staring out across a limitless range of forests and mountains, he found that he had trouble hearing Lisa’s voice as it called to him.

“So, what may I do for you, Garigan?” Lisa repeated, when the ferret snapped his eyes to her small form. She was wiping her hand upon her breeches, while the fire crackled in renewed vigour behind the sluice.

“Who is it, dear?” a definitely masculine voice called from further within the quarters. Garigan let his eyes be drawn towards the occluded stairs set back behind the wall separating the meeting room they were in and the small kitchen off to the side. The stairs were lit by one lantern set upon a metallic stanchion, but he could not tell where they led. Probably to their sleeping chambers, though he had no wish to pry.

“Garigan, Matthias’s student,” Lisa cried back, turning her head. She favoured him with an impish stare. “He has not yet announced his intentions though.”

Garigan had met Lisa’s husband on only one previous occasion, and then only briefly. The schnauzer was only slightly taller than his wife, though his frame was far more wiry and loose. Peppered fur spread across his face and body, though he wore a soft brown tunic and breeches, only the snub of a tail poking from their backside as he glided down the stairs, claws clicking upon the masonry. “Ah, well met again, young Garigan. What can we do for you?”

Garigan inclined his head respectfully to Lisa’s husband, “Master Alec. I was just about to ask your wife if you have seen Charles today. He is not in his room, and I doubt he has been there since this morning.”

Alec cast his dark eyes to Lisa, who stepped around the wide couch that was set in the centre of the room. “He has not come here. I have not seen him since when I visited with him for a short time yesterday. He was quite anxious to get out of bed as you know. Could he be with Kimberly?”

The ferret offered a shrug at that, keeping a firm grip on the robe under his arm. “I haven’t gone to see her yet. I do not know how long she was expected to be working in the Kitchens. I was nearby and so I thought I might ask if you had seen him first.”

Lisa frowned slightly. “How was he when you saw him this morning?”

Alec came fully into the room, and rested one paw upon her shoulder. Eric looked at them with curious eyes, still holding the wooden sword in his hands. However, the schnauzer waved him off. “Go help your sister turn down the beds, Eric.” The boy tried to offer a word of protest, but his father’s ears went erect, and that was enough for the boy to run up the stairs, as instructed.

Garigan watched the boy leave for a moment before he spoke. “He was miserable, and complained loudly to me that he was well. I could only express my sympathies, and told him that I hoped Healer Coe would pronounce him fit to work again soon. He then gave me my instructions for the day, and waved me off. The last I saw of him he was curling beneath his quilts, grumbling at how unfair it all was.”

Lisa smiled just slightly at that, though it fell into a moue when she tried to reach up and grab her husband’s paw with a hand that was no longer there. “That does sound like Charles. I wonder where he went to?”

“I was hoping you’d know. I thought maybe he might have gone to visit you or some of the other Long Scouts left behind like he was. Do you know where the others are and if they are awake at the moment?”

Lisa glanced once to Alec. The schnauzer nodded, and slipped off into the kitchen, lighting a candle as he worked. Garigan glanced after him curiously. Lisa just smiled softly. “I have a few things to bring to Meredith and Kershaw, Alec is just retrieving them for me. Perhaps you would like to accompany me?”

Garigan nodded then, and favoured her with his toothless grin. “Yes, it would be good to see them as well. Allow me just a moment to put this away, and I shall be with you.” He hoisted the robe in his arms, and turned back towards the door.

“I’ll be waiting for you right here then,” Lisa said, her voice firm, the lines of concern clear in her tones. Yet it was comforting to hear her voice at least. Garigan gave her one more nod, and then opened the door back into the Long House. It was as empty as it had been before, the large stained glass windows dark, only the vaguest of hues visible in the flickering light that shined through the room. Strange ethereal wisps of light passed behind the windows, perhaps shadows of unseen stalkers revealing themselves. Or they could simply have been the play of the light as the waxing moon shone upon the land. Whatever they were, they made the ferret uneasy. Rumour spoke that the Long House itself was hiding some dark secret, some forgotten evil that was best left undisturbed.

Though he had been living at the Keep for nearly eight months, he still felt as if he were a stranger within its walls. The forests of Glen Avery were far more familiar, and their shifting lights and shadows a comfort. The empty walls and vaulted corridors were a mystery to him, one that taxed his imagination. He could not help but recall that ghastly monstrosity that Charles and he had fought along with his two friends shortly before they had discovered the Keep was under attack. Could some lesser cousin be lurking behind the clerestory windows, watching from a distance with an eyeless face?

The very thought of it was enough to make the ferret run as fast as possible the entire length of the Long House. Opening the door to the Sondeckis Shrine, he tossed the robe within those comforting walls. Even in that darkness, he felt the strength of the altar calling to him, giving him surcease and focus. Before he had even heard the robe land softly upon the clay floor, he had found his Calm and stood proudly upon that mighty tower of a tree. With renewed confidence, he closed the door to the Shrine and crossed the Long House once more, this time at a stately pace.

Lisa was just closing the door to her chambers, two sacks draped over her left shoulder, when he returned. “Here, let me take one of those,”Garigan offered, reaching instinctively for the nearest sack. However, the Long Scout turned away from him, her face set in a determined line.

“No, that is all right, I can manage these by myself.” It took her a moment to realize how curt she’d been. She smiled a bit in embarrassment. “Thank you for offering though.”

The ferret nodded, running his tongue along the front of his mouth, feeling the empty space where two teeth should have been. All that he had suffered throughout the fighting had been these missing teeth. His mentor Charles had broken a rib that had left him incapable of fighting, and Lisa here had lost a hand. How could his own injury compare to the burden they must face? Lisa would never be able to fight as a Long again. It was little wonder that she wished to do all of those chores by herself!

Garigan allowed her to lead the way. They quickly turned down a narrow hallway off the Long House, where the rest of the Long Scout’s apartments were. Some of the doors were marked, others were simply left unadorned. Lisa kneeled down before one, and slipped the sacks off her shoulders. She turned to him, and held up one finger before her lips. He nodded, breathing softly, flexing his paws slightly. She then pressed her ear to the door for a moment and waited, simply listening. Garigan was tempted to listen as well, his ears were certainly more sensitive than hers, but he had no desire to make her feel any more useless than she must already feel.

After a few moments, Lisa reached for the door knob, satisfied with whatever it was that she had heard. Turning the brass knob very slowly, she gently eased the massive oaken frame open, swinging inwards into a dark room. She left it open only slightly though, and reaching behind herself, she grabbed one of the sacks, and began to cautiously slip into the room, stepping on her tip-toes. Garigan peeked in after her, but did not follow her in. The room was dark, no lights were lit within it. Though from the powerful scent, he knew this to be Meredith’s quarters. The powerful aroma of the large bear was unmistakable.

“Hello Lisa,” he heard a rumbling voice call. “Don’t be so sneaky. I’m awake.” His breath was short though, and there was a weakness to it that spoke of the bear’s injuries.

“Oh, you!” Lisa cried out, stamping her foot indignantly. “Why don’t you leave a lantern lit so I wouldn’t be afraid of waking you. You are terribly grumpy when you first wake up, you know.”

There was a short rumbling laugh, but it was caught short by a racking spasm of coughs. Garigan winced, and then gently stepped into the door, pressing it further inwards, casting more light upon the quarters. “Garigan?” his voice called then, clearly surprised. “Why it is good to see you.”

Garigan smiled, though he doubted that he could see it. “And to see you, Meredith.” He blinked as Lisa pulled out a small stone from her pocket. It glowed with a soft green light, casting a pale ambiance about the room.

“There, could you be a dear and light a lantern for me, Garigan?” Lisa asked, casting one furtive glance back at the doorway, the light from the hall streaming in unbidden.

Caught unawares, and still staring at the stone, he nodded dumbly, and began to scan about for the flint. He found it set upon the hearth just as Matthias kept it. Meredith himself was lying in the sprawling bed that occupied the corner of the room. It was low lying, far lower than his own, though much wider and longer to accommodate his girth. He was seated, propped up by numerous feather pillows, while the wooden headboard creaked whenever he shifted.

The ferret finally managed to strike a flame into the glass-covered lantern, radiating a bit of warm light throughout the room. Lisa however set the glowing stone upon a large desk that was pressed against the far wall. The cold green light it emitted outlined another wide doorway that led into a second room, but he could not see within its darkness.

Meredith’s dark eyes slid from one to the other, and then down to the satchel that Lisa had deposited on the floor. “So, what have you brought me this time? I pray that there is some fresh fish amongst that parcel.”

Lisa smiled to her fellow Long Scout. “And indeed there is. Caught this morning in fact by one of the townsfolk. Quite a few of them have discovered a fondness for fishing through the ice.”

Meredith rumbled pleasantly, though there was still a bit of a wheeze to his breath. “Thank you, Lisa. I’m glad to hear that they have been able to catch fish despite everything.”

Lisa smiled again, and the retrieved the satchel. “Where are Elisha and your children? I would have thought they’d be with you now.”

The bear glanced at the open door. “They are at the Evening Service presently. It should not be much longer before they return. Elisha will probably stop in the market to buy something for her poor beleaguered husband though.”

Garigan finally began to truly see the room they were standing in. It was similar to the front room in Lisa’s quarters, though what the ferret had taken for a large bed was actually a stack of cushions arranged next to each other. The headboard was the back of a couch, whose cushions were among those the bear was laying upon. Through the second doorway he could vaguely glimpse another wide set of stairs, but no other details. Along the wall opposite the mantle in a macabre display hung a thick brown bear pelt. At its side were mounted several well-used weapons, though it appeared that Meredith had attempted to repair the nicks the blades had accumulated.

“Well, I’m sure she would enjoy sharing this gift with you then.” Lisa deposited the satchel on the side of the bed, in reach of the bear’s arms. Garigan could not help but come closer, carrying the lantern with him, casting that familiar light across the recumbent form of the bear. There was only a single sheet covering his body, but it was enough to hide the injuries he’d received in his fight with the ogre.

Meredith drew at the satchel, pulling the thick cloth open, and revealing a pair of fish wrapped in slightly damp linens, and a small bottle of Port. His large eyes grew even wider then and he nodded appreciatively. “This will do very well. I shall wait for their return before opening this.”

Lisa laughed warmly then, patting his knee with her single hand. “How are you feeling? You sound better than you did yesterday.”

The great bear nodded slowly at that, stretching his arms for emphasis. “I’m still short on breath.” He paused then, taking a moment to breathe deeply. There was still a bit of a wheeze to his nasal passage, but it did not sound threatening. “Elisha has told me that I will be allowed up in a few days too. I’ve been smoothing my sword and axe out during the day.” Meredith took them both in, breathing deeply again. “I cannot work for very long though before my arms become sore.”

“Well,” Lisa said, rubbing her hand across the end of her right arm, and the folds of her shirt that had been fastened shut to hide her stump, “it is good to hear that you are doing better. I wish I could stay and wait for your wife and children to return, it would be good to see them again, but I’m helping Garigan here with something important. Has Matthias been by here today? We cannot seem to find him, and he is not where he should be – in bed.”

Meredith shook his head, brow furrowing, which coming from a bear made him look terribly grumpy. “No, I have not seen Matthias in several days. Have you tried the rooms of his Lady?”

Lisa shook her head. “Not yet. I wanted to bring this to you first, so I thought to ask. We will stop by her quarters though before too much longer methinks.”

Garigan nodded then and smiled his toothless grin down to the bear. “I hope your wife will allow you to move about again soon. Charles has been bitterly complaining about his confinement. I cannot imagine how you must feel.”

Meredith shrugged slightly at that, “This will not be the first time, or the last time, that I will be abed such as this. It is tiring, but sometimes unavoidable.”

The great bear then glanced to the door, and offered them a brief smile. “But you both have things you must be doing. Go find your master, young Garigan. Give him my best when you see him.”

Lisa patted him on the knee once again. “And you give Elisha and your children my best when they return.”

Garigan smiled as best he could, “I will let him know you wished him well.” Backing up, he set the lantern back upon the mantle, glancing at it curiously, wondering whether he should extinguish it or not. Lisa had already slipped the glowing stone into her pocket, silencing what feeble illumination it had provided.

“You may leave the lantern lit,” Meredith rumbled, seeing his uncertainty. “It will save Elisha the effort when she returns.”

The ferret nodded and stepped back from the mantle towards the open doorway. Lisa was already standing beside it, waving with her only hand back to her friend. Meredith returned the gesture as best he could, though it was only a single motion before his ponderous arm sunk back to the bedsheet. Stepping quickly to her side, Garigan left the bear’s quarters, and was once more in the well-lit hallway.

Lisa shut the door quietly, while Garigan stood waiting. The second satchel was still where she had left it by the doorframe. Just as silently, Lisa lifted it back over her shoulder and continued on down the hallway. The ferret followed after her, his voice caught within his chest. Perhaps if he’d spent more time with Charles instead of in the Shrine practising his master would not have wandered off like he had. Meredith had his family to keep him company, but who would be there for the rat? Even his Kimberly had no choice but to work hard in the kitchens.

But his thoughts could not proceed very far before they came before another door, this one on the other side of the hall. Lisa once more pressed her ear firmly against the frame for several moments. She then knocked firmly against the stout oak, and a draggled voice called out, “Come in,”

Lisa pressed open the door, several lanterns still lit about the room. It was far smaller than Meredith’s quarters had been, and it appeared to be all on one level. Against the far corner stood the bed in which the broken red panda lay. Kershaw favoured them with only one eye, his other still swollen shut. “Lisa, good to see you. Are the others back yet?” He coughed slightly then, a racking sound that spoke just how near death the Long Scout had come.

She stepped fully into the room, carrying the satchel over her shoulder. Garigan followed her in, letting the door close behind him. There was a fire in the hearth, though the flames were low, almost embers. Lisa pointed with her stump to the stack of kindling and wood nestled against the masonry. “Would you restock his fire, Garigan?”

The ferret nodded and did as instructed, lifting the iron sluice, feeling the flames lick at his nose and paws. It was not much, but the warmth was pleasing. He arrayed several narrow sticks upon the glowing coals, watching as they were slowly consumed. He then took a few of the heavier logs and placed them in flanking positions around the flame, boxing it in. The bark was still on the wood, and it was scorched black as the conflagration grew once more to warming life.

Satisfied, he set the sluice back in place, and wiped the soot from his paws upon his tawny breeches. His green tunic he would not sully -- it seemed wrong somehow to mar the colour of his rank. Turning about, he saw Lisa help the red panda rise to a sitting position in his bed. Thick quilts covered his battered form, and several bandages still crisscrossed his head and chest. Kershaw tried to offer her a smile, his eye so far having ignored the ferret, but it was one marred by a scar running the length of his muzzle.

“I’m afraid the others haven’t returned yet. But they should be returning soon. I spoke with George earlier and he said that he’d heard they’d be back within a day or two.” Lisa sat on the edge of the bed, and set the satchel at his side. “I brought you something to cheer you up.”

Kershaw blinked his good eye for a moment, staring first at the satchel, then up to Lisa, and then back down again. He sniffed only once, short muzzle trying to take in the contents before he’d seen them. “What is it?” he finally asked, wheezing slightly after he’d spoken.

Garigan approached then, the satisfying crack and pop of the fire filling the room as Lisa began to unfasten the knot holding the satchel together. Garigan was fairly certain that it was not another set of fish, though there could be another bottle of Port amongst whatever goodies the Long had gathered together. Thinking about the Port made Garigan realize that he had not had anything to drink since the end of the fighting. Lord Avery had insisted they celebrate the night of their victory, and the ferret had shared in that, although most of the Glenners would return home the following day.

And when Lisa finally undid the cloth, he saw that he was correct about the Port, for the small bottle of the sweet wine was nestled in a basket between several rich looking pastries. Their scent was upon him in a moment, and he found his stomach growling in protest as these delectables were meant for another. Kershaw’s eye grew wider, both in delight and surprise. “Oh, this looks wonderful,” he managed to say, reaching out a paw to touch one the creamy frosting on one of the pastries. Scooping a bit onto his claw, he lifted it to his muzzle and licked that claw clean.

Finally, he nodded his approval, doing his best to smile up to his fellow Long. “Thank you, Lisa.”

“I’m glad you approve. Gregor managed to convince some of the cooks in the Keep to allow him the use of their ovens for the time being while his home is being rebuilt. He’s charging twice his usual rate though, the rascal!” Lisa laughed slightly at that, and even Garigan had to smile some, thinking of the pudgy capybara. Kershaw of course simply nodded his head, stifling whatever laugh may have existed within his chest.

He finally seemed to take note of Garigan though, his eye growing curious. “Hello, Garigan. What brings you here?” Though he could not quite tell why, he felt as if he were fresh from his home being addressed by a cultivated urbanite.

However, the ferret found his voice easily enough. “I’m actually looking for Charles. Has he been by to see you at all today?”

Kershaw shook his head slightly. “No, I have not seen him. I suppose he is not with his lady?”

He shrugged. “Actually, we haven’t checked with her yet. I was near here, so I thought I might see how you all were and ask if he’d stopped by.”

“He has not.” Kershaw paused a moment as if thinking. “Not when I have been awake at least.” He dipped his claw once more into the frosting, savouring that flavour for a few seconds. He then looked up at Lisa, who was still sitting on the side of his bed. “Can you stay for a bit?”

She shook her head, grin turned down into a moue. “No, I promised I would help Garigan find his missing master. But I will come back to see you when we’ve located that confounding rat.” Kershaw snorted slightly at that description of Matthias.

“Of course. I hope your search does not take you long. If he is not with his lady you might try one of the Inns in town. He is rather fond of drink after all.” Kerhsaw did his best to wink to Lisa, though with one eye swollen shut, the effect was barely noticeable.

Lisa however was able to capture the gesture. “Ah yes, I had not forgotten. We shall see though. I will return shortly. Rest well, Kershaw.”

The red panda nodded his head once, eye watching them as they turned about and headed back towards the door. Garigan caught a glimpse of him sampling the pastries that Lisa had brought for him. And then, he stood once more in the hall as the Long Scout shut the door behind them. Shifting from one paw to the other, the ferret glanced up and down either side of the hallway. Back the way they came stood the single door leading out into the Long Hall proper. At the other end was a darkened tympan window flanked by two green banners bearing the bow and the axe heraldry of the Long Scouts.

“Where to now?” Garigan asked, trying to bury the impatience that was beginning to come to him. Before his training he would have been morosely bristling at each and every stop, and may have even bitterly stormed off to search on his own. However, whenever such emotions began to surface within him now, he had multiple techniques to control those torrential feelings.

Lisa grimaced thoughtfully. “Well, I think it is fairly clear that Charles has not been back here today. We should probably head to Kimberly’s quarters. If you do not mind though, I would like to stop in and see how Arla is doing? It will not take long, I promise.”

Garigan nodded at that. “It is just as well. If my master is with his lady, I will gladly give him a few extra minutes.”

Lisa smiled slightly at that, a peculiar expression that hid far more than mere amusement. Garigan could not quite discern what it may have been though in the few scant moments she bore it. The child walked back the way they had come then, and stopped the very next door along the way. She did not take any time to listen at the door first though, but simply knocked a few smart raps upon the frame. Garigan heard the sound of some scuffling, claws upon masonry then, and finally a hearty call, “Come in!” Garigan blinked then as he realized the voice was far too masculine to be the collie’s.

Lisa appeared to know who it was though, as another sort of smile crossed her lips as she pressed the door inwards. The fire was crackling in the hearth, casting a rich orange glow upon the room. Set before that hearth was a single long couch, and before that was a simple oaken table set at about knee height. What looked to be a miniature bridge fashioned from simple sticks was displayed prominently at the table, although one of the trestles had fallen from its perch and lay beside the structure. And sitting on that couch were two canines, Arla the collie with her left arm still in a sling, and a male hound with long droopy ears.

“Hello, Lisa!” Arla piped up, though her voice was strained. Her dark eyes then slid across to the ferret standing behind the girl in the doorway. They appeared to widen as well when she recognized him. “And Garigan, this is a pleasant surprise.”

Lisa smiled favourably to them both. “Hello, Arla.” She then inclined her head respectfully to the hound. “Skylos, it is pleasant to see you again.”

Skylos licked his nose once, and almost appeared to blush. “It is good to see you as well, Lisa. I was just showing Arla here my plans to replace the bridge North of Glen Avery. We’ll be working on that before too much longer, but I’m already eager to get started.”

Garigan stepped closer then to peer at the structure. Unlike the previous bridge, the one that Charles had brought down, this one had two central supports, and what appeared to be a wider girth. The foundations were also stone all the way up, with a crisscrossing network of timbers to keep them from swaying in a strong wind. “That looks like it will be terribly hard work. I saw that bridge fall down.”

Skylos’s ears perked slightly at that, though they still hung ridiculously low at his shoulders. Garigan noticed that Arla’s eyes stayed mostly on the hound, her lips turning up slightly in a smile at his reaction, though only briefly. “You did? You aren’t that nasty fellow who knocked it down are you?”

Garigan shook his head at that, claws tapping at his breeches. “No, but I’m looking for the one who did. My master, Charles Matthias. Has he been here today?” This last was of course directed at Arla, whose long snout snapped towards him when she realized that he was addressing her.

“Oh, no, I haven’t seen him all day,” Arla admitted, glancing once from Lisa to Garigan, and then back again. “Is that why you came? To look for Matthias?”

Lisa nodded. “I’m helping Garigan look for him. Apparently he hasn’t been in his quarters all day.” She then eyed the sling over the collie’s left arm. “I also wanted to see how you were doing.”

Arla’s eyes stole a glance at Skylos, who was still staring at Garigan in some disbelief. Yet it was a brief motion, for soon her dark eyes returned to her fellow Long Scout. “I’m feeling pretty good. My chest hurts if I stand up too quickly, or try to lift anything heavy, but I’m fine enough to move about.”

Skylos turned back to her and wagged both his finger and his tail. Arla appeared to blush in her ears at that. “Now, now. You have to rest.”

Arla however appeared to be in well enough shape as she boxed one of the hound’s ears. Skylos gave out a yelp, taken completely by surprise. Her eyes narrowed, though there was little in the way of harshness within them. “I am going to help them find Charles. He’s my friend too.”

The hound admitted defeat then, and stepped out of the way, looking at his bridge, eyes a little downcast. Then they lit back up once more as if they’d never been snuffed. “Well then, I am coming too. I must meet the man who ruined that good bridge and gave us too much to do!” He then leaned over and gave Arla a lick on the nose, at which point the collie began to very visibly blush and snarl at her fellow canine.

Lisa tried not to laugh, though Garigan felt as if he were missing the joke. Unsure of what else to do, the ferret left Arla’s quarters, followed quickly by Lisa. Arla and Skylos were at their heels, with Skylos asking the collie, “Charles is the rat, right? So just how did he knock down that bridge?”

“He had help,” Garigan called over his shoulder as he strode with long steps towards the door. Being a ferret his legs were rather short compared to a normal human’s, so his longest stride was easy enough for the rest to maintain. As they entered the Long Hall, those high ceilings and darkened windows casting the eerie gloom once more upon them, Garigan wished he could walk faster. Although the chill that had passed through him when he’d trod beneath those vaulted arches was not nearly as prevalent, he could still feel its icy touch, running along the tips of each strand of his fur.

“That must have been some help,” Skylos murmured quietly, his own voice lost amidst the echoes of Long House. And that was the last that was said while they remained in that empty chamber, a chamber that had been the hub of much of the defence of the Keep only two short weeks ago. Were the ghosts of the dead still lingering within those walls? It was a question the ferret knew the others must have been dwelling upon.

Yet those thoughts left them when they finally set foot into the more narrow corridors of the Keep. Lisa fell back beside her fellow Long Scout as they walked, Garigan leading the way towards Kimberly’s chambers. He could hear them sharing a few words, but the words themselves remained a mystery to him. His thoughts were far too occupied. Already he was asking himself where his master might be if he were not with his Lady. Kershaw’s suggestion that they search the Inns was not completely off the mark, for he knew the rat was fond of mead and ale, despite Kimberly’s attempts to wean him from the brew. So far, Charles was winning the battle, as he had spent many an evening amongst friends at the Deaf Mule before the Lutins had burned it to the ground, but he imagined after the two were married the story would be quite different.

When they reached Kimberly’s door, the wide set, but low oaken frame warm in the lamplight, Garigan had only added the cellars to visit the other rats to the places where Charles might be. He usually did that in the mornings though, but it was possible. There was a connection that their species gave them that was hard to break, and sometimes hard to truly understand. He did not feel any particular kinship with the other ferrets here at the Keep, though he knew of only a few.

Putting those thoughts aside, Garigan rapped his fist lightly upon the door, smiling to the others for a moment, seeing that they were all waiting quietly. Kimberly may have known Lisa and Arla a bit better than she did Garigan, but it was Garigan’s master that they searched for. The ferret imagined that when he opened the door he would see the two of them sitting together on the couch much like Skylos and Arla had been. Or perhaps Kimberly would be preparing a meal for her fiancè. Maybe Charles had brought a recently composed love poem to share?

All these things the ferret expected to see. He did not expect to see what actually happened though, the door pulling inwards into a darkened room, while Kimberly stood in grease smeared breeches and shirt. Her eyes were wet, though she had not been crying for sometime. Garigan opened his mouth as he looked down upon her, and then closed it, completely taken aback.

“What is it, Garigan?” she asked, her voice firm, but lacking in verve.

“I was looking for Charles,” Garigan finally managed to say, whistling slightly as he said it in his nervousness. Somehow, he knew that something was dreadfully wrong. He could not imagine what though, and that terrified him far more than any spectral inhabitants of the Long House.

Kimberly’s eyes faded slightly, and she turned back to the darkness of her room. Garigan could see that her prayer beads were laying upon the arm of the couch – they had come upon her while she had been praying one of the ritual prayers of the Ecclesia. On several occasions, the ferret had interrupted his master while he had been saying one of those same prayers, but the rat had never complained. Even so, Garigan had tried his best to allow his master the time to see to his own faith. Given Kimberly’s current state, he could not help but assume that she was praying for the benefit of her fiancè, and that thought made his heart tremble.

“Speak to Prince Phil,” Kimberly finally said, her hand on the door, moving to shut it. “He knows where Charles is.” Before Garigan had been able to ask anything further, the rat had closed the oaken door in his face. Garigan blinked several times, his jaw falling open and shutting once again. Finally, he turned and looked at the other three who had accompanied him. Both Lisa and Arla were standing very stiffly, their faces wrought with concern and fear. Even Skylos could tell that something was amiss, as his tail wagged in nervousness, and he slid closer to the collie without realizing it.

“This is not good,” Lisa managed to say. “I’ve never seen her like that before.”

Skylos’s voice was soft, almost subdued. “I saw her like that during the assault. She was in the chapel with me, and was very worried about her fiancè.”

“What could have happened to Charles?” Arla asked, her ears erect, as if the answer would come to her on the wind.

“Well, we ask Prince Phil,” Garigan finally said, turning resolutely down the hall. There was both a tremor in his footsteps, as well as a raw need. While he desperately needed to know what had become of his master, what the answer may be frightened him. Though he had known the rat less than a year, he was inextricably linked to his master in a way that could not be broken. Charles had helped him understand his powers, and saved him from the anger that had been enveloping his every thought and action. And he had brought him into something far greater than himself, given him a place in the world beyond the Glen.

He nearly stopped then as he realized where his train of thoughts was leading him. Charles could not possibly have died, that could not be what had happened! Yet he could think of no worse fate that could have befallen them all. The rat’s injuries were not that serious, though he could have foolishly tried to assist the other Keepers in rebuilding the city. Something could have fallen upon him, and cracked his ribs to the point beyond which not even the best healer in the Valley could have saved his life. Though the ferret did not wish to admit it, the rat was stubborn enough to have risked that.

Yet why was Kimberly only praying, and why was she not in desperate tears? And she had not been wearing black. That final thought set Garigan’s mind at ease, for Charles could not be dead then. What could it then be? The Sondeckis of the green had no idea, but knew that he would not like whatever it ended up being. And so he continued to walk down the ever twisting corridors of the Keep.

Prince Phil’s door arrived far sooner that the ferret would have guessed possible. But then again, he had no idea how long he’d been walking. None of them had said anything during their entire trek, and not one of them shared a word with another as the ferret stepped up to the large door and knocked, his first blow timid. Though each of his other blows was far stronger, echoing back from the walls to resound in his ears like a dull hammering.

It did not take long before Rupert, the great ape that served Phil as a retainer, body guard, and friend, opened the door wide to admit them. A piping voice from further inside called out, “Ah, Lord Avery?” the urgency in the tones though made both Arla and Lisa stiffen again, for it was an urgency that they were all too familiar with.

Garigan however did not know the rabbit well, and so stepped within the spacious but spartan quarters at Rupert’s nod. “No, but I also hail from Glen Avery.”

Phil was dressed in harried tunic and breeches, bunched up around his waist. He hopped over to them, his eyes firm, noting them in turn, though disappointed in a strange way. There was a fire within them that scrutinized them in an almost predatory fashion. Garigan had always seen the noble rabbit to be a man of good cheer and pleasant demeanour. This transformation was to the ferret far more horrible than the one that had left the grizzled sea captain a lapine in the first place.

“I am expecting Lord Avery in a few minutes, but it is just as well that you are here, Garigan. You were there as well. Come in and sit, and we shall wait for Brian to arrive.” Phil then hopped back towards his desk on the far side of the room. Several lamps were lit about the place, shining across the chaise lounge set in the centre of the room, as well as the desk at which the rabbit worked. The shutters were closed on the windows, and only two doors led off from the main room, one at the foyer that judging by its proportions was meant for Rupert, and another more secluded entranceway that must lead to Phil’s own sleeping chambers.

Lisa was quick to sit down, her legs dangling from the end of the lounge. Her face was ashen though, and her tongue held in check. Arla’s tail had crawled between her legs instinctively as she came to stand behind her fellow Long. Skylos appeared mostly confused, but he stayed at the collie’s side, eyes casting curiously about the room.

Garigan, though he felt the tension, had no intention of letting it silence him. He strode to just a short ways behind the rabbit, who had once again set to working at his desk. The ferret stopped though when he saw Phil cast quick furtive glances at an artist’s canvas that was leaning against the wall, whatever had been drawn upon it hidden from view. There was some malice in those looks that made the musteline’s heart tremble again. Where was the friendly companion that all at the Keep spoke of in this man?

The moment was quick though before Garigan found his voice. “We’ve just been to see Lady Kimberly.” Garigan knew that the title did not by right of birth belong to Charles’s fiancè, though he had never heard his master refer to her as anything but.

Phil’s ears lifted at that, and he slowly turned about into his seat. “And what did she say?” The voice was hard, almost as if it were testing him.

Garigan stood firmly, having no desire to be intimidated. “We asked her if she had seen Charles, we’re looking for him and are very concerned about his well-being. She told us to come speak to you, and that you knew where he was.”

The rabbit glanced over them impassively, either not aware of the bite in the ferret’s voice, or simply not concerned. His eyes scanned them one at a time before finally settling upon the hound. “I do not know you by sight. Who are you?”

Skylos appeared quite taken aback at being addressed by the crown Prince of Whales. However, he managed to summon his pride and declare, “I’m Skylos, of the Builders, your highness.”

“Out.” Phil said then, pointing with one paw at the door.

“But I–”

”OUT!!” Phil shouted, hopping up and down, his high-pitched voice carrying a feverish tremble. There was a rage boiling beneath the rabbit’s skin, one that made even Garigan take a step back in shock.

Before Skylos could react though, Arla had come around from behind the lounge and glared at the rabbit. “Don’t you dare shout at him! Why does he need to leave?” her voice was hot as she stood over the lapine. Though her left arm was still in a sling, from her posture, it was clear that she sorely wished to box the disrespectful rabbit’s ears in.

“This does not concern him, so he must get out,” Phil declared, his voice level, though still churning. His flesh trembled as if he were preparing to bolt, though his eyes appeared as ready to do battle as Arla’s.

“This does too concern him!” Arla said, stamping her foot, her lips curling back to show Phil the prodigious set of teeth the curse had given her.

“It does not!” Phil shot back, pointing at the door. “Now out with you!” The last outburst was once again directed towards Skylos, who appeared completely dazed by the events around him.

Arla grabbed one of the plush pillows resting upon the lounge and in her anger hurled it across the room at the far wall. It bounced harmlessly off of the mantle, though it did nearly knock over the exquisite clock that Misha had fashioned as a wedding gift for the lapine. “You do not give orders to him!”

“I give orders to those I must!” Phil countered, ignoring the thrown pillow.

Garigan then set one paw on Arla’s shoulder. He could feel her anger trembling beneath her flesh. “Arla, let it go for now, please.”

The collie shot the ferret a menacing glare, but it faded slowly, ebbing back into her usual calm. Glowering foully at the rabbit, she turned back to the lounge, paws flexing in and out slowly. Skylos looked between them all, confused still, his ears drooping even lower were it possible. When at last his gaze settled upon the rabbit, Phil spoke one final resolute word, “Out.”

Skylos blinked helplessly, looked to Arla as if to apologize, and then finally, with tail tucked between his legs, slipped back out into the hallway. Arla watched him go, her paws trembling. The ferret felt his own blood rushing through him, his temperature rising. Closing his eyes a moment, he breathed deeply, summoning his Calm unto himself. When he opened his eyes a moment later, his body was once more relaxed, though he was keenly aware of the tension in the air, as if it were a living being moving amongst them.

Phil looked to Rupert as if nothing untoward had occurred. “Tell me when Lord Avery arrives.” He then turned back to his desk

Garigan glanced over to Lisa and Arla, both were sitting with their mouths hanging open. In that moment it was clear to the ferret that they had never seen the rabbit this way, a fact that set him on edge. Something far more dangerous than he had expected was at work, and somehow, he knew that the canvas had a part to play. But what was Charles’s role in all this, or Lord Avery’s?

“So where is Charles?” Garigan finally managed to ask, turning once more upon the rabbit. Rupert was watching from the doorway, his large eyes almost sad as they surveyed the others in the room.

Phil leaned forward over his desk then, almost impatiently. His voice, when it came, was strained. “I have placed him in the dungeon.”

“What?” Lisa and Arla shouted as one, their faces aghast. Anger replaced their shock quickly, though it was Lisa who spoke then. “What in the world has possessed you, Phil? Charles has done nothing to deserve that.”

Phil turned on them, his face a mix of melancholy and rage. “Oh no? When Lord Avery arrives, I will tell you exactly what he has done.” The rage fled then in a moment. “Or what he may have done. Until I know more, I am not going to take any chances with him.”

Lisa then asked softly. “So why is it that you let us find out like this?” Her face then turned fully towards him, eyes betrayed. “Why keep it a secret?”

Phil opened his mouth to speak when a pounding sounded from the door. Garigan turned to see who it was, and was surprised to see his liege Lord Avery standing on the other side of the door. He’d never known the squirrel to pound on anyone’s door before. Yet one look at Brian’s face told him that he’d been drinking rather heavily. Avery swayed uncertainly for a moment as he came into the room, his tail flitting erratically behind him.

“A’right, I’m here,” Avery called out, his voice slightly slurred. “Now whadis it?”

Phil nodded to Rupert, who silently slipped within his own chambers, and closed the door behind him. Avery continued into the room, nearly stumbling as his footpaw caught on the edge of the carpet beneath the lounge. Arla caught his elbow with her good arm though, and guided him down until he was sitting softly upon the cushions just beside Lisa. Garigan felt abashed that he had not been at his Lord’s side, but glad that somebody had been. Lady Angela would brain him if she saw him as inebriated as this.

Phil hopped down from his chair, and stepped over to the canvas. He was so preoccupied, he did not seem to notice that his guest was stone drunk. “I want you to tell me if you have ever seen this man.” Phil then spun the canvas about on one corner and showed them all a rather malevolently twisted face, drawn in charcoal, whose lines appeared almost to move in the flickering lamplight.

Both Lisa and Arla gasped as they beheld the picture, for what they saw there was clearly the most triumphantly evil visage they had ever before seen. Avery himself stood up from his seat, tail gone completely stiff, and his face slack in both recognition and horror. “No, it cannot be,” he cried out, the slur to his speech gone in that instant.

Yet Garigan felt as if he’d been punched in the gut by a battering ram. He blinked several times, staring at that face, twisted in a way that made it almost unrecognizable. But the familiar features were all there, lining up clearly in his mind. Though he did not know how that man’s face could have come to appear as it did on the canvas, there was no mistaking it. “Zagrosek,” he whispered beneath his breath. Why was his face of concern to Phil, and how had it come to be so riddled with malevolence?

Phil looked from each of their faces in turn, his own almost triumphant, though there was a broken misery in his expression as well. “You know this man, don’t you, Lord Avery. And you too, Garigan. You have seen this face. You know his name. What is it?”

“That proves nuthink!” Avery shouted, his slur slipping back in his speech. He averted his eyes from the picture though. Garigan himself felt distinctly uncomfortable meeting the gaze of that picture. Though it was just a picture, he could not help feel as if it could actually look back at him.

“His name is Krenek Zagrosek,” Garigan said, his voice even. “But I have never seen him appear as you have him drawn there.”

Phil snorted once, and spun the picture back around, hiding that awful face from view once again. “That picture was drawn by a man who has also seen this Zagrosek. And we know for a fact that he is the same man who is responsible for killing Patriarch Akabaieth, my kinsman.”

“No!” Garigan shouted then, his entire body trembling, partly from that awful visage, and from the memory of the Patriarch’s slaughter. “That’s not true! That’s impossible!”

“And why is it?” Phil demanded then, hopping forward, glaring up at the ferret. “Because Charles told you he was a good man? Because he helped you fight the Lutins? The best place for an enemy to hide is right under your nose because you will never see him there.”

“So why arrest Charles?” Lisa finally managed to ask, her hand gripping the end of her tunic and pulling it taut.

Phil took a deep breath. “Charles knew who this man was long before the Patriarch was killed. This Zagrosek was also responsible for the foul deeds of Loriod this last Spring. He knew the man was a danger then, yet he protected him. Charles contends that they are not the same man, but some magic legerdemain is being used to drive us apart. Until we can know for certain, Charles will stay in the dungeon.”

The rabbit paused and looked away from them all, staring into the floor as if he could bury himself there. “I too hope that Charles is innocent, but I simply do not see how that could be possible.”

“Charles a’ready told ya how,” Lord Avery snapped, his face quite unpleasant. “Ya did’n listen.”

Garigan however had already turned on his heels and was heading towards the door. Arla watched him with a peculiar glint in her eye. “Where are you going?”

The ferret stopped for a moment to give her a resolute stare. “I am going to go see my master and find out the truth of this.”

Phil coughed then, catching his attention. “I have ordered the guards to allow none to pass unless I authorize it. You may not speak to Charles without my permission.”

Turning around, the ferret crossed his arms, much like Zagrosek had been doing in the picture. “Then give me your permission. Give all of us your permission, for we are his friends, his closest companions. Surely you would not deny us the right to see the prisoner?”

Phil looked over their faces once, his own nearly blank, empty of any emotion. “No, you may not see him.”

Both Lisa and Arla started at that, objecting loudly. Avery just laughed a sick sort of drunken laugh. Garigan levelled his gaze firmly on the rabbit, the power of the Sondeck filling his arms. He fought to stave off his anger, yet it did not wish to go.

“I hope that I misheard you just now,” Garigan said, his voice cold.

Phil returned the gaze with equal animosity. “You did not. Until Misha returns, no one else may see Charles. And I will not change my mind.”

The ferret blinked once and breathed deeply. “Very well then.” He then turned on his paws, and stormed from the room, opening the door himself and slamming it shut behind him. Skylos was loitering in the hall, his tail wagging nervously as he waited. He jumped in the air at Garigan’s exit, blinking in surprise. He opened his muzzle to say something, but upon seeing the Sondecki’s face, he closed it once more. The ferret said nothing to him, only continued on his way through the Keep.

He never once looked back to see if any were following him. Instead, he walked straight to the Sondeckis Shrine, passing unmolested through the empty Long House, and picked up his green robe as he reentered his one sanctuary. Though it was completely dark within those clay walls, he knew every crevice and corner of the room well enough that he did not need to see. Standing before the altar, he pulled the robe over his shoulders, the thick fabric billowing out until it settled down at his paws. Then, he kneeled forward, and placed his paws within the angel’s upturned hands. Those ivory fingers curled around his fleshy digits as he tried to breathe.

The anger pounding through him that he’d held in check during his entire walk from Phil’s chambers began to coalesce into his paws then, merging themselves with the ivory of the angel. Though his eyes were closed, he could feel the heat building between them, residing within his chest, singing the fabric upon it. And then, summoning all of that anger that he could not placate by a journey to his Calm, he let loose with a scream from deep within his lungs. The sound reverberated off of the clay walls of the room, and was echoed by the angel herself. The shutters on the window exploded off their hinges and sailed upon the wind to land in one of the snow-laden courtyards far below.

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