What Matthias really wanted was to have followed with Misha along with most of the rest of the Long Scouts up North. They had gone to wreak vengeance upon the last remnants of the Lutin force that had swept so horrifically down upon the Keep a scant two weeks previous. It was only a week after they’d been routed at great loss, but still, Matthias was told to get as much rest as he could so that his chest could heal. He felt fine however, and had told Coe and every other healer who had examined him that very forcefully. But to no avail, he lay there in his quarters, warmly snug beneath his quilts.
Charles felt as if he were wasting away under there. Yet what else could he do? The repairs to the Keep moved apace without him. Garigan was helping out of course, his own injuries minimal, though he did still whistle every now and again when he tried to speak. Misha and most of the other Longs were still up North making sure the Lutins would not forget the ferocity of the Keepers. Most of his friends from the Writer’s Guild were busy repairing the old barracks they used, those that had not been killed in the attack that is. He had to chuckle at the thought of Nahum coming through the fight with only a black eye, how like him, the rat thought drily. The other rats were helping to clean up the upper levels of the cellars along with the other Keepers that made those dark halls their home. Lady Kimberly was about the only one who came to see him, and even she could not stay for too long, helping sort through the food stores to see what was still good and what had spoiled.
Rubbing one paw down over his bare chest, he could feel the ribs beneath the short matting of fur. They felt fine to him of course, though he did wince slightly as he pressed firmly upon what had been the break. Ever since the day that Habakkuk had broken his arm in the Sondeckis Shrine, he felt as if he had been coddled by everyone about him. Misha had kept him cleaning and oiling armour until the eve of the attack after all. He was a Long Scout, why must he always be the one who stays behind? He wasn’t the only one left behind this time – Kershaw, Lisa, and a few others had also been too injured to travel, but his inactivity had lasted for nearly two months now.
Charles was not one given to crying, though he wished he would. It was strange, a year ago, the thought of going into battle would have made him violently ill, but now the thought of being left behind accomplished that. Slipping his legs out from under the quilts, he jumped from the bed. Naked as he was, he walked over to his closet, the door thankfully in good repair. Having left his room a mess before heading to the Glen with Garigan, Jerome, and Krenek, the Lutins had ignored it just as he’d hoped. He grabbed a tunic and some breeches, and quickly slipped them on. This day he would not remain abed, he needed to see his fellow Keepers once more.
He pulled on a thick vest and buttoned it up, the waistband a deep black. He snorted slightly at that, but otherwise paid it no mind. It was intriguing how all of Garigan’s wardrobe had suddenly bore a hint of green instead of yellow now, but he would not question the magic of the Keep. He had seen it move so powerfully, in the reshaping of that hallway so that they might fight the Shrieker. He shuddered at the memory, even the vaguest hint of that monster’s scream filling him with dread. Charles had informed Misha of its existence, but had promised him there was no immediate threat from it and would tell him more when he returned. So far, Duke Thomas was too busy with the repairs to see him, not that he’d made any effort to have an audience with his grace. The affair was simply too much a mess for any good to come of it, a fact that filled the rat with dismay.
Taking a moment to appraise himself in his mirror, he wiped his whiskers back with one paw, and then took a small comb and ran it through the fur upon his head and cheeks, working out a few tangles. Licking the smooth flesh of his palms, he rubbed the fur back so that it would stay in place. He was in need of a bath, Charles realized with a bit of amusement. Then again, given the hard work most were involved in at the moment, he doubted there was a single Keeper around who did not need a bath!
After selecting a pair of boots that would not cramp his footpaws too badly, he snatched a chewstick from the small bucket beside his bed. Nibbling momentarily upon the dry end, he studied himself once more in the mirror, and then stepped out the small oaken door into the interior of the Keep. The blood on the walls had long since been cleaned up, though the carpeting outside his door was still torn in patches. It likely would be for several more weeks as those sections of the carpet would need to be completely replaced. Charles did not see anyone else immediately about, though the echo of voices did carry from down the hall.
Closing the door behind him, the rat started on his way towards the stairwell down to the first level. When he’d come back from Glen Avery there had been somebody’s bookcase smashed at the bottom, with the pages of books torn free and sometimes soiled in ways quite unseemly. It had long since been cleaned up though, and aside from a splinter here and there, no evidence remained to show of the anger that had been vented such a short time ago.
It was a little chilly on the lower level. The main doors beneath the ivy archway as Matthias likened it were left standing partially open as so many destroyed furnishings were still being carted out. As the rat turned a corner on his way, out, he could see several thickly clad Keepers trying to move the lower half of what had once been a stone statue. Charles walked a bit faster, knowing that Coe would likely have a conniption if the raccoon knew just what he was going to do.
“Do you need help with that?” Charles asked a young man, though one that had obviously been female at birth. There were two others at his sides helping him lift the stone monolith, a polar bear he recognized as Cassius from Hough’s services, and a weasel who was also familiar, but whose name escaped him at that moment.
“By all means,” the man cried out, gesturing for Matthias to grab the jagged end where the arms and head has once been attached. The statue obviously dated from before the Battle of Three Gates, as it was completely human. Having lived the last six years of his life here at Metamor, he felt chagrined that he could not name who it had been.
Grabbing the end, Charles let his claws find purchase with the stone, and lifted, drawing on his Sondeckis to aid him. The three of them had not exactly been struggling with the masonry, but once Charles joined in, it was clear that they felt much relieved, as their faces relaxed, and the rat could no more hear the grinding of teeth. However, as Charles was at the front of their troop, he had to walk backwards. He lifted his tail high so as not to accidentally step upon it, and glanced over his shoulder. The steps down from the ivy archway had been scrapped free of ice already, and so he felt comfortable in starting down to the snow-pocked cobblestone courtyard.
“Where are we taking this?” Charles asked after the four of them were all outside.
“To the stonecutters of course. Hopefully they can make some use of this,” Cassius said in a deep rumble. There was a slight scar across his face, though Charles did not need to ask where that had come from. He could only consider himself fortunate that the worst he received was a broken rib.
The weather was warmer than it had been when Baerle and he had ridden here from the Glen. The thought of the coquettish opossum made his heart stir in regret. In a strange way, he missed her company; he’d had no idea the extent of feeling she’d had for him. He wished he could apologize to her, and several times resolved to travel to Glen Avery to do just that. But in the end he knew better than to seek her out like that. No good could come of such an offer, she might become interested again. Or worse yet, would she become jealous of his Lady Kimberly? That would hurt him far worse than any disappointment could. Yet, he still wished–
His thoughts were struck silent when he nearly slipped on a slick patch of the terrazzo. Gripping the statue more firmly in his paws, he returned his focus to walking. The stonecutters were of course in the town, and had been ransacked just like every other place. But given the amount of business they were likely receiving, Charles doubted that they would be without a roof over their heads for long.
“How long have you been at this?” Charles asked as he began a familiar trek. However, so much of the scenery was different. There were some sections of the city that had been spared, the raging blizzard damping the fires before they spread too far, but the rat did not see nearly as many in such pristine condition as he would have liked. Where many homes had once stood were piles of ash with solitary timbers rising up as if in protest. A few homes were not so badly burnt, the walls only partially charred or caved in. Some even still had a roof, or part of one. And as Charles glanced from side to side, many Keepers were busy repairing those homes that could be saved, pounding in new boards to cover up holes, rubbing them over with clay to keep the heat in. All about him he saw the people of Metamor working to rebuild their city. How he yearned to be at their side helping.
At the thought of his medically advised confinement, he felt the dull pain in his chest echo through him once more. He grimaced and shifted the weight from one paw to the other a bit as he walked along. He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he almost did not hear the answer to his question. “Most of the morning actually,” the man grunted as he moved one foot before the other, gripping the statue about its legs. “We’ve been moving all the pieces from this statue to the stonecutters. This is the last one.”
“Couldn’t you use a wagon to move it through the city?” Charles asked as he sent a glance to see how the repairs of Gregor’s Bakery were coming. The single wall the Lutins had left standing had been reinforced and joined by a second already. He saw both Gregor and Brennar working with a few other Keepers on setting the foundations again for the next wall, but they did not see him.
“Well, most of the wagons are being reserved for moving supplies up from the surrounding regions to Metamor. Those of us here have to make do with our backs,” Cassius added, flexing one arm slightly as his ursine paunch bobbed up and down.
“How big was this to begin with?”
“Oh,” Cassius added, grinning widely, showing off the large teeth he possessed. “We took the smaller pieces first. We saved this for last because it was the biggest. I’d say no taller than myself.”
“And no lighter either!” quipped the weasel as struggled to maintain his grip on the waist.
Cassius laughed at that for a moment, and then his eyes alighted on something in the distance, and his expression once more became sober. Charles glanced to see what the polar bear morph could possibly be looking at, but all he saw was more charred ruins amidst grey snow sometimes streaked red. Could one of them had some special meaning for him? Charles could only wonder. He did not know everyone at Metamor, but he did see a few places he had gone frequently that were nothing more than rumble now. Some still stood of course, but they were the exception.
The stonecutter’s home itself was relatively untouched, though there were holes in the roof here and there. Smoke trailed up out of one of those holes in fact, the one that was in the centre. A lupine keeper with heavyset arms was standing outside. He saw them coming and motioned them to come closer. Charles followed the wolf’s direction, until they were finally inside the stonecutters’ home. Several apprentices were already at work reshaping huge blocks that had been brought in. The rat saw that a pyre had been built in the centre of the floor from old broken tables and roof beams that had been destroyed in the assault. The warmth spread through him, and he hoped that he could stay at least briefly in this building.
“Set it down right there, we’ll take care of it,” the wolf said. Charles did not recognize him though, as he’d had little occasion to frequent this place. He was probably one of the journeyman overseeing the apprentices, while the master oversaw the more important affairs of repairing the damage done to the outer walls.
However, it was with glad relief that Charles lowered his end of the broken statue to the ground as the wolf instructed. The man and the weasel also appeared relieved, though Cassius looked disappointed in some strange sense. Wiping his paws against each other, Charles surveyed the apprentice tapping away with chisel at jagged pieces of stone. He then pulled his chewstick out and nibbled on the end, even as he took a tentative step closer to the fire, soaking up its lovely warmth. Amber flames licked at the air, the smoke billowing upwards lazily, before it fled through the hole in the ceiling.
Turning back around to follow the three he’d helped out the door, he saw that they’d already started to leave without him. Charles grimaced, but did not hurry to catch up with them. Instead he stepped out of the stonecutter’s home and stood on the city street for a moment, just scanning about. With his free paw, he rubbed at his chest. The pain had subsided again as it always did, but it nevertheless made him uneasy. He was not too keen of the idea that Coe and everyone else might be right about him. He hated being inactive!
But he really did need to be up and about. Setting one footpaw forward, Charles began to walk along the streets, stepping over where some rubble had spilled, staying out of the way of Keepers busy fixing up houses. The sky was clear overhead, and most of the snow, dirtied grey from soot, had been swept from the walks and the paths, though there were still piles of it here and there. Some of the snow was still red as well, a reminder of the horror they had just come through, as if the ruined homes were not enough. But there was hope in the air at least, and everywhere he looked, he could see the determined faces smiling despite their lost homes. Charles grimaced as he realized something; he’d been lucky. He lost almost nothing in the assault, and all he had to show for it was a broken rib that would be healed in another week or two.
As Charles walked amidst the debris, he idly began to wonder where his Lady Kimberly was at this very moment. He hoped she had not gone to his quarters only to discover him missing. With a reproachful kick, he wished he’d left a note for her just in case. But it was too late to go back and change that now. He was up and about, and he was going to stay that way for now. Kimberly was probably sorting through bags of onions or potatoes, checking to see if any were spoiled. Or perhaps she was helping in the kitchen again, cooking a meal for the Duke and all the rest that lived within the Keep’s walls. He decided to stop by there later, just to see. Hopefully she’d be understanding of his need to be up and about. Yet, even as his whiskers twitched in amusement, he knew that he was going to be getting a stern talking too as well.
Yet as he turned a corner, his ears caught a sound that made him stop. It sounded like somebody was sobbing softly down the way a bit. Charles turned about his head, and saw a narrow alley between two buildings. Or at least, it was between two walls as neither building was left standing except for those walls. Creeping along the snow swept lane, Charles could see deep hoofprints before him. His own boots made stepping through the snow bearable. He really ought to wear them more often, Charles mused drily.
When the rat finally turned around the next bend in the little alley, he saw a figure crouched on the ground between the walls, his long equine face buried in his hoof-like hands. Long ears dominated the top of his head, though they did not seem attentive to his approach. Charles leaned over, gently tapping the donkey on the shoulder, not sure what else he could do.
The donkey turned around at that and looked up at him, rubbing at his eyes with his two-fingered hands. “Yes? What do you want?” There was little life in the voice though. Charles bit his lip, his tail laying along the soot-stained snow behind him.
“I just wanted to see if you were all right. I heard somebody crying back here and was concerned.”
“I’m all right,” the donkey said, turning back away, not wanting to look at the rat. Charles blinked a few times, not sure what to do.
“Then why are you hiding back here crying?” A thought struck the rat then, and he felt terrible for being so rash. “Did you lose someone?”
The donkey shook his head a bit as he sat there, his pants damp from where they lay in the snow. “I lost everything.” He waved his hand at the burnt out building. “Everything I had is gone. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Charles got the impression that this poor fellow was not even talking to him, but was just saying those words aloud to tell himself what was wrong. It almost seemed like he was blaming himself for what had happened, though the rat was not certain. He was not very good about these things, but he couldn’t just leave this poor jack alone here in this alley. So instead, he crouched closer and offered his paw. “Well, you’ll figure something out. I’m Charles Matthias by the way.”
The donkey turned and glanced at the paw, and then at the rat, the dark brown eyes truly noticing him for the first time. They grew wider at that, ever so slightly, and the ears perked for the first time. Rubbing one hoof-like hand across the dark brown fur of his cheek, the Keeper asked, “The writer and warrior? The one who outran an army of Lutins?”
Matthias nodded at that, a bit embarrassed to know his exploits were so widely talked about. “The same. And you are?” He waved his hand a bit, trying to draw the donkey’s attention.
“I’m nobody. Why should you care about me?” The donkey turned back around, eyes forlorn. Their was thick melancholy in his voice. Charles had heard that same timbre before, in many young Sondeckis who felt they could advance no further, and hated themselves for it.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Charles countered, gently tapping the donkey on the shoulder again and held out his paw. “I’m Charles Matthias. Who are you?”
The donkey looked down at the extended paw, and then almost reluctantly held out his own hoof-like hand and took the paw. “I’m James. I used to work and live here until the Lutins destroyed the place.”
“Well met James,” Charles said, leaning against the wall for support. “And what did you do? I’m afraid I never came here, so I don’t know what this place is.”
“We sold meats and vegetables to people in the area. We never did very well, but we made enough,” James said. Once again his voice had that unpleasant empty quality. Charles had seen the same look of uselessness on many of his fellow rats before, and it was a look he combatted with every ounce of strength he had. Although he had wanted to go see Kimberly, he realized it would have to wait for now.
Standing up, he patted the donkey on the back. “Well, why don’t you come with me and we can talk about this over a warm meal and some ale?”
“What?” James asked, confused.
“Why don’t we go find something to eat, it will make you feel better. I’ll pay of course.” Charles scanned about. “Normally I’d suggest the Deaf Mule, but it is not standing anymore. I know there are some other places that are pretty good around here that we should have more luck at. So, would you care for a bite?”
James blinked a few times, though his face was still a mix of puzzled wonder. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Perhaps thank you?” Charles offered with a slight wink. James snorted a laugh at that, and rose to his hind hooves, long ropey tail swinging behind him. He easily stood a foot over the rat, but his presence was so slight, Charles felt as if he could have jumped and scared the wits out of this poor fellow.
Nodding, and trying to smile, though his confusion continued to dominate his face. “All right then. Thank you.”
Charles smiled to him, and led the way from the alley, keeping his tail high enough that James would not step on it accidentally. It would be nice to have some company that wasn’t going to tell him to go lie down every few minutes! Plus, James seemed like a nice enough fellow. Surely together they could think of something to help him out. He probably wasn’t the only one who had lost everything he’d ever owned in that assault. Charles might not have been able to help with the repairs quite yet, but this was something that he could do at least. And as he glanced back and saw that bemused half-grin on the donkey’s face, eyes still a little damp from the tear, he knew it was the right thing too.