It was a mild June day along the cobblestoned pathways threading through the fields and gardens about Metamor Castle. High minarets and towers cast squat shadows to the north as the noon-day sun shown overhead in the cloudless sky. Upon the soft earth lay a bright matting of green grass still wet from the previous evening's gentle shower. The rain lent an almost burlesque quality to the air, as scents of every variety, from the sweet daffodils that were coming into bloom, to the somber richness of the aspen that clung to yonder mountain sides in the distance, filled Metamor.
Despite the dampness of the cluster of rocks, two rats still sat upon one, holding each other in their short arms. Together they watched as tents were built upon the distant fields. The Summer Solstice was approaching, only a week away, and already the excitement was beginning to fill the air. Rumors that the Writing contests had been cancelled were already spreading. Though many stories had been submitted, with one of the Headmaster's gone from the Keep, and his replacement still bedridden, the judging would have been too taxing on the other two, who had their own affiars to attend to. So it had been postponed till the Autumnal Equinox.
However, that was not the major news. Though it caused Charles much concern, the writing contest being cancelled was inconsequential to many of the Keepers. The real excitement was about the joust! It would be the first time in almost seven years that they had held a jousting tournament at Metamor. From all across the valley, people were going to be flocking to Metamor so that they might get a chance to see the event of the year! Even from as far away as Avery's Glen, they would come! Charles was glad of that, because it would give him and Lady Kimberly some free time. Garigan did not want to leave him alone for a minute now!
Charles opened his eyes, scanning about the path for the ferret, but saw no sign of him. Smiling to himself, he nuzzled his love at the neck as he held her. She responded in kind by leaning closer into him, her head resting against his shoulder. Charles wrapped his tail about hers, savoring the feeling of having her so close.
He then raised up his face and stared deply into her marble black eyes. His small nose twitched, as did hers as she stared back. Leaning forward, he felt his whole body shivering with joy at being so close to the one he loved. Lowering his muzzle, what lips he did have reached for her own.
"Charles!" A nauseatingly familiar voice rang out just a short distance away. Grating his teeth against each other, he could see his own disappointment clearly reflected in Kimberly's eyes. Her own seemed more amused than anything else. The rat turned to find his charge standing just down the cobblestone path, dressed in his yellow tunic and trousers. Garigan's whiskers twitched in irritation as his footpaw tapped the ground impatiently.
Charles let go of his love, slowly slipping from the damp rock, his own pantaloons soaked through to his fur. "What is it, Garigan?" he asked as he straightened out his tunic with a single black stripe along the laces.
"Your apartments are spotless, just like you asked. Now do you mind telling me why you are having me perform these mindless chores or are you going to actually teach me something?" Garigan asked raucously.
Charles looked back, and gave Kimberly a hand in getting down from the rock. Hugging her a moment he smiled into her soft brown face. "Do you mind waiting for me by the flower gardens? By the fountain?"
She nodded and smiled. "I'll be there for you, my Rat of Might!"
Charles grinned as she walked off, her tail swinging freely behind her. She turned back, and winked once before passing around a bend and behind some trees. Matthias gave his pupil a long stare and then grinned. "You are my student. I am your teacher in the ways of the Sondeck. I will decide when you are ready to know why. Have you been practicing the meditation techniques I taught you?"
"How could I?" Garigan blurted, crossing his arms and glowering down at the rat. "I was too busy cleaning your room. Do you realize how many wood shavings you have under your bed?"
Charles shook his head absently, and then crossed his own arms. "You are supposed to practice them while you were cleaning."
"And how is that possible?"
"Simple!" Charles declared, waving a finger in the air. "Just keep your thoughts focused on the images such as your marked heart and hand, while your body does the work. If you cannot master that, how can you expect to master anything? Now, what else can you do--"
Garigan rolled his eyes. "I'm tired of cleaning things up!"
"Well then, why don't we try something simpler then. Run around the Keep while you meditate. Don't stop for any reason. There is nobody else here but you, so ignore them all. Don't stop till you have it mastered."
The ferret spluttered uncontrollably. "But--"
"But what? When I was a yellow, my dear pupil, I had to run about in a desert. I think you'll find this a bit easier." Charles then turned on his hindpaws and walked down the path away from the stunned figure. He heard Garigan grumble something unintelligible, and then the sound of his claws clicking along the cobblestoens began to recede into the distance. That should keep him occupied for a while, Charles thought happily.
It was a short walk through the gardens, amidst the bright reds, yellows, pinks, and purples that swayed back and forth in the breeze to reach the fountain that was at its center. It was made from marbel taken from the quarry to the south, and in the shape of four horses rearing along the outer circle. From their mouths spouted a continuous stream of clear refreshing water. The pool itself was the home to a few fish and many coins that Keepers had tossed in for luck.
The circular clearing in which the fountain sat was arrayed four marble benches on each direction of the compass. Sitting demurely on the southern bench was his love, Lady Kimberly. Charles strode over to her, his toeclaws rapping against the cobblestones. She smiled, her whiskers twitching expectantly at his approach, and her tail curling up beneath the bench.
"Now, where were we?" Charles asked as he sat down, the cold stone chilling his rear even more. He wrapped his arms about her, his tail quickly finding her own. "I think about here," he murmured as he leaned closer, doing his best to ignore the clicking approach of another Keeper.
"Hail, sir Matthias!" called out the familiar lilt of Sir Saulius. Charles glanced over at the armored rat, noting that the palm print had been smoothed out. "And good Lady Kimberly. Thou dost honor me by thy fair presence. Not a single rose in all this garden dost compare with thy unearthly beauty!"
Lady Kimberly seemed to blush slightly at the adulation. "Hello, Sir Saulius," she said. "How are you today?" Charles kept his arm wrapped about her the whole time, wishing he'd thought to say something like that.
"Tis an unblemished soil, this wondrous morn. And how dost thou farest?"
Kimberly gave Charles an amused look and then replied. "We're doing well. Charles is glad to see you too." She poked him gingerly in the side with one claw.
Matthias jumped slightly, but quickly grinned and nodded. "Oh, yes, very good to see you too, Sir Saulius. What brings you here at this hour in your armor?"
Saulius lifted the visor over his muzzle, his nose twitching at the nearly overwhelming fragrances of the Keep gardens. "Didst my intrusion interfere with thy intended consumation of the most blessed of unions?"
Charles visibly blushed, his whiskers drooping, his ears folding back, and his tail curling up around his legs. "Um, no, nothing, uh, like that!" he stuttered quickly, his tongue tripping over the words. "We were, um, just looking at the, uh, flowers."
Saulius walked a bit closer, the armor remarkably making very little noise. He winked knowingly at Charles and grinned. "Dost not be ashamed of thy love, Sir Matthias!"
"I'm not!" Charles said as he wrapped his arm about Kimberly again.
"I'm not either," Lady Kimberly said, leaning into the embrace.
Saulius grinned, his front two teeth shining in the sunlight. "Sir Matthias, wilt thou permit me to beg a favor of thee?"
"What is it?"
"Wilst thou be my squire in the upcoming tourney?"
Charles stared at the rat for a moment in shock at the question. Then before he could think of anyhting else to say, he blubbered out, "Yes! Of course! I'd be honored too!"
"Then thy shalt accompany me to train this very afternoon." Saulius said. It was more of a demand than a request.
"Can't we do this another time?"
"If thou wouldst be my squire, then thou shalt do as I instruct." He then turned to Kimberly, who was more amused by the whole affair than anything else. "Forgivest me fair Lady, for I am taking away thy love for a time. Fear not thou, for it is my will that he should returneth to you to entertain you this very evening as any good man shouldst!"
Charles stammered reflexively, "Saulius!"
Kimberly continued to laugh merrily as she got up from the bench. "I'll go see if Bernadette needs some help. You two boys have fun, and I'll see you later tonight, my rat of might."
Charles just looked from one to the other as he felt his whiskers stand on end. "Saulius!" he objected again.
"Come, lad, thy needst proper clothes if thou art to be my squire." Saulius then turned about on his heels, and began to head off in the opposite direction of his love. Charles got up from the park bench and meekly followed, wondering just what exactly he'd gotten himself into.
It had been years since Charles had ridden a horse. Since this was going to be a full-fledged tourney, his duties as a squire were more than just ceremonial. Saulius's opponent would also have a squire, and he and Charles would match off in a number of preliminary contests before the two knights would even come onto the field. Thus, the Rat of Might had to master an art he'd never tried before.
The years of neglect clearly showed on the rat, who walked bow-legged back to his little hole in the wall later that evening. Both of them were of course forced to use ponies, but still, life in the saddle was not his specialty. He had a lot to learn in a week's time, that was for certain.
After closing the door behind him, Charles headed straight for his bed. Saulius had brought him dinner, so he was not hungry, just tired. Turning on his footpaws, he collapsed on the quilts, and lay there, happy to finally rest. However, he could not keep his eyes closed, for they had seen the barest flicker of something off in the corner. Turning his head to one side, he saw somebody standing in the doroway to Garigan's room.
She was clad in a nice green dress, and was covering her face with one paw to hide her chuckle. "Hello, my Rat of Might!"
"Lady Kimberly?" Charles said, befuddled. "How did you get in here?"
"Garigan let me in a little while ago. He's a really nice fellow you know."
Charles waved that aside as he pulled hismelf up into a sitting position. "Where is he now?"
"I don't know, he left shortly after letitng me in." Kimberly strode across the stone floor, till she was sitting next to him on the bed. "So, how was the practice?"
Charles let out a heavy sigh. "Exhausting! Sir Saulius wants me to be at the pracitce fields every afternoon till the festival."
Kimberly looped a claw through the bright brocade the Charles was wearing, with Sir Saulius's own crest upon the front. "I think you look good in this. Did he have it made for you?"
He nodded. "Aparently, he's been planing to ask me this for a while, had the Seamstress make it in advance in fact."
"That was nice of him," Kimberly said as she leaned her head against his shoulder. "I really enjoyed today, thank you."
Charles turned to look at her, a bit of surprise flashing across his face. "What do you mean? We barely got to spend any time together."
Her whiskers wiggled slightly, and she nuzzled him a moment beofre replying, "But the time we did was all the more special."
Charles kept staring at her for a few more moments before wrapping his arms about her in a tight embrace. "I love you, Lady Kimberly," was all he could say.
As if on cue, the door opened just then, and in walked Garigan, looking a bit tired himself. Both Charles and Kimberly looked up at the ferret, who did not seem to notice he'd disturbed them as he walked right past and into his own room. Charles chortled slightly and then looked back to Lady Kimberly, "I think you should probably go now."
She nodded. "Yes, I probably should. I love you, Charles." She then jumped from the bed, and and the two o fthem walked to the door, where they hugged one last time. Sadly, the rat closed the door behind him and then stared over at the new addition to his apartment.
Garigan was lying on the bed rubbing his legs down with a pair of towels. "Do you need any help?" Charles asked as he stood in the doorway.
"No, I'll be fine."
"How long were you running around the Keep?" Charles asked, his ears twitching slightly.
"I only did a few laps after your ladyfriend asked me to let her in."
Charles smiled slightly, pulling out his chewstick and gnawing a moment before replying. "So you've been running around the Keep since noon?"
Garigan nodded after a moment. "It was strange, but after a while, I didn't even notice it. It all went by so fast."
Charles bit off the end of his stick, and grabbed the doorframe with one paw. Very few could have done what Garigan just described, most did not have that sort of ability with the Sondeck. Charles kept on gnawing, trying not to show his eagerness or excitement. "Well, that is good then. It sounds like you finally figured out how to focus your mind."
"But I didn't know what I was doing!" Garigan protested hotly, feeling somehow slighted by the praise.
"I know, that was the point."
"You aren't making sense!"
"Magic isn't supposed to make sense," Charles decalred, "especially not the Sondeck! Do not worry, you are making good progress already. I'm sure you will understand these things in good time."
"It would help if you actually explained something for once," Garigan muttered beneath his breath as he tossed the towels in a corner.
"I will, someday." His voice was stern, but it was born from a love for his student. "Tonight I shall not. You need your sleep. Your legs will be sore tomorrow, if they aren't already now. I'll find something less strenuous for you to do tomorrow."
Garigan nodded as he massaged his thighs between his paws. "They became sore the moment I stopped running."
"I thought as much," Charles added. "I'll warm some blankets for you." The rat then decided to also warm a few for his own tired legs.
The ferret nodded as he leaned back on the bed pulling off the yellow tunic that he wore. Charles turned about and was quite surprised to see that the Keep had already anticipated him. In the middle of one wall of his room now stood a hearth with a load of wood already set by the side. The crackling and snapping as the flames licked upwards into the chimney could be clearly heard. Sitting in front of the hearth was a small brass rack from which hung several blankets. The sluice sheet covered the hearth, protecting the fabric from errant sparks.
Charles leaned over it, holding out his palms, the orange glow reflecting off his fur. He curled up his tail and sat upon his haunches before it, reveling in the warmth. now matte rhow little sense the Sondeck made to those untrained in it, it would always be a simple thing next to the magic of Metamor Keep!
As he carried in the warm blankets to his pupil, and saw the look of appreciation on hsi face, Charles had to smile too. He had enjoyed this day, just like Lady Kimberly had said. Those few special moments made everything else perfect.