The bright orange sun began its slow descent towards the horizon as Charles and Lady Kimberly made their way back towards the main pavilion in the center of Metamor Fields. The festivities were far from winding down, it would be some time before most of the farmers returned to their homes. The people who lived within the walls of the Keep itself would be up even longer. Still, there was an air of the coming season about them all. The apprehension that their days of rest were at an end, and the hard work would begin anew as it always did was quite evident to all. Matthias found that he could see it in the eyes of those drinking as they left the Deaf Mule and walked through the streets past shops and homes, tents and booths. The very walls of the Keep itself exuded that feel of the last gasping of merriment before the storing up for the next winter began.
It always seemed like they were storing up for winter. The winter months were cold and often times bitter. There was simply no place to grow anything; no food could be grown. Hay had to be stockpiled, as well as straw and other wheats and oats; they were not just for the beasts of burden anymore either. There were always hunting parties out collecting food for the carnivores, mostly done by carnivores themselves. However, the Lutins tended to be bolder during the winter as well, making such hunting even more dangerous. Even so, it was something that had to be done. The winter was a month in which much could not be done to make food; most of the time they were just trying to keep warm and defended. Charles did not envy the soldiers who had to stand out in the cold, often times with bare feet because shoes no longer fit.
Still, those months were coming to an end, and so they would begin preparing for the next winter. He enjoyed the winter months, when there was a lot of people at the Keep, and not so many of them out working in the fields. Still, the spring and summer would be a nice change, and the warmth would be welcome. Charles looked into Lady Kimberly's eyes and he could see that she too was looking forward to the warmer weather. He felt glad to have her on his arm; to have her locked in step with him was wonderful. Too see her point delightedly at things as they passed, birds flying in the air, squirrels climbing up trees, and all other sorts of living things was a joy he could not describe. She looked up into his face, and laid her head upon his shoulder, her paw stroking his arm as they walked. He felt alive!
Of course, he did have some small part in the last acts of the evening of the festival. The final story must be performed, and he had spent his nights memorizing it word for word, action for action. It was in his head, there was no question of losing it. Still, the thought of performing the work in front of a large gathering of Keepers made him nervous. He had feared this moment all day, though he had for the most part managed to convince himself that it would go well. Still, he was nervous. It only got worse when they reached the pavilion and he saw them bringing on the platform which he would stand upon. There would be a projection spell cast upon the platform, and hopefully it would work. At last year's performance, something had gone wrong when Dr. Channing had tried to give his performance and nobody could hear his voice. So far, both Phil and the Reverend had been quite well projected. He hoped that the magic had not faded.
He quickly saw the infamous trio of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Tallis sitting towards the middle of the bleachers. They had all left the Deaf Mule shortly after the toast to Father Hough. Michael had slunk off after them, but Charles did not see him anywhere about. Copernicus had still been there when they had left though he looked to have been almost finished. Regardless, Charles knew what he should do. He walked up to the three, Lady Kimberly following right beside him. They all turned to see him and waved. "Charles, aren't you supposed to be performing soon?" Habakkuk asked him as he drew near.
"Yes, but I just wanted to find a place where Lady Kimberly could sit." He turned to her and gave her a wink, "You don't mind sitting with these ruffians do you, my dear?"
Lady Kimberly looked over at them, winking back at Charles as well, "Oh, I think I can endure it."
"We promise to be upstanding gentlewhatevers," Tallis offered, taking a bow.
"I don't," Nahum replied, winking as well.
Habakkuk chuckled slightly, "We would be honored to have such a one as beautiful as you in our presence."
Lady Kimberly looked a bit shocked, but smiled nonetheless. "You do have good friends, don't you Charles."
Charles laughed, "This will be over before you know it."
Lady Kimberly sat down in between Tallis and Habakkuk as they made space for her. Charles gave the two of them quick amiable glares. They both did their best to look innocent. Charles stifled another laugh. He had nothing to worry about, they were very good people and ones that he knew would not do or say anything to hurt her. That was all that really mattered. Plus they were good seats, and she would be able to see him quite clearly the whole time. Charles walked back down towards the side of the pavilion, coming around behind a tent. He peered inside and saw Coe the raccoon working on the wounds of a small pony. The pony seemed to have gashes along its legs. He winced at what he saw, but kept on moving till he was around the backside, facing towards the podium, but out of view of the Keepers. Magus was back there waiting for him, watching the crews move the podium into place.
Magus nodded his head happily when he saw him. He did not have much time to see the court magician, but after last year's fiasco, Magus insisted to be the Master of Ceremonies for all of these occasions to insure that the magic was working properly. Magus's bright bushy tail wagged back and forth a few times, his eyes bright and exuberant. Obviously he was excited by what was coming next. Matthias grinned, "So, how much longer?"
"Not too long. Once they get the platform in place, I'll go out and introduce you. You know the rest of from there." Magus gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and then returned his attention to the platform being laid on the ground. It took only a few moments, and then Magus strode purposefully out onto the field. There were cheers and applause, and Matthias grimaced. They would be doing that for him in another few moments. He wished that he'd eaten a bit lighter. He'd also probably had one too many meads again. He should have known better. His breath was probably terrible, but then again, when you are drinking to another man, those sorts of sacrifices had to be made. Lady Kimberly did not seem to understand that as well as most. He had a feeling she was going to make it her goal to change his drinking habits. He grimaced, that was one of the last things he wanted, but it was probably inevitable anyway.
He listened as Magus gave the introduction, though he didn't hear the words. The only words that he could hear were the words that began Tallis's winning story. Those were the only words that concerned him anymore. He wanted to give a flawless performance, and that would require his total concentration. He was not the best performer, hardly, but he did his best to rank among them. In his estimate Dr. Channing was a bit better at the art of public performance than he, but that was only in his estimate. Still, he was the main headmaster of the Writer's Guild, and so this responsibility fell to him. He kept his eyes on Magus, who was being a bit longwinded as usual, though he couldn't really complain too much about that himself, and his chewing stick in his mouth, but he kept his mind and heart on the story. The story was everything for now. The only reaction that mattered to him was that of Tallis, and even then that only mattered during the first few seconds. After that, once he grew accustomed to the idea that he had written an award-winning story, then Charles would let his eyes wander over the entire crowd.
Magus stopped speaking, and turned to face him, and Charles knew exactly what to do. He slipped Phil's stick back into his buckler and began to proudly walk out onto the field. There were splatters of blood along the grass, though they were insignificant, and much of it was messed up and torn up from the fighting that had been going on about here for the last few days. The gardeners would restore it in no time of course; they were very good at what they did. He kept his eyes on Magus though, who was waiting for him atop the platform. The magic was obviously working, so he put that concern from his mind, and let it come to rest upon the story again. He blotted out the applause that was resounding through fields. He did not even take the time to see who else was there. He didn't want to know, at least not yet.
He stepped up upon the hardwood with the fox, and bowed his head once, and then turned towards the audience. Most of the seats were filled. Many probably had been sitting there for most of the day just enjoying watching the main shows. Charles did not let his eyes stray about the place. He noted the Duke's presence, his advisors flanking him up in the main box with the royal crests draped over the wood sidings. The wind was picking up slightly as he saw the flags snapping back and forth. He glanced out of one as Magus began to walk back off the field, moving quickly. Matthias waited until he was out of sight, and then opened his mouth, leaning over a bit conspiratorially, "I was there when the flagship of the Dralanian navy was destroyed. I watched it sink into the bubbling waters of the turbulent Marakata seas. I saw the survivors clutching to driftwood as they were tossed about, the dark sky threatening overhead. I even saw the crown prince of Drala himself among them as they frantically swam for the waiting shore, unaware of the Marakatese sharks following them in. I still have nightmares to this day of the screams of the men as the sharks picked them off one by one. Nor will I forget that one sight as the ballast finally gave way and the front of the ship split in half, and the cargo was ripped free from its purchase. There was a bright flash of light, and I saw something so beautiful that it took my breath away. It was a scepter of adamantium gold, with encrusted jewels, diamonds, rubies, chrysolite, all of them sparkling even though the sun did not shine. Then it was gone, beneath the waves.
"Little did I know that it was just one more event in a great struggle that had been going on for thousands of years, and that soon I was going to be swept up into it. I, an old lady who lived by the sea! What could I do against the forces of darkness? What could any of us do? Who knew that the simple sinking of a ship and the magical sceptre that it carried would unleash so much horror upon the world?" Matthias waited for a brief moment, turning to the side, his face a glimmer with the mischievous intent that he felt the old woman in the story possessed. "I did." He said it with such exuberance that there were literally gasps of pleasure and horror from the audience. For an adventure, Charles had read few with such engaging beginnings and characters. And old woman who had read too much as a hero? Who would have thought of it? Tallis had, and Charles was simply delighted by what had come of it. The story in itself was not too long; it would take him over an hour, perhaps two, to relate it in full. It was one of the longer stories that they had received, but every word of it had been genius to Charles's eyes.
Charles took a quick glance at his friends. Tallis looked completely dumb, his mouth agape, the chewing stick held limply in his hands. His eyes nearly bulged from their sockets, and his whole body was shaking with shock. Habakkuk and Nahum were beside themselves as they looked back and forth from Tallis to Charles, noting the reactions of each. Lady Kimberly was intent upon him; her whole body wrapped up in the story. Charles glanced over the rest of the audience as he continued telling the tale. Most were completely absorbed by his performance. That was good, he had their full attention. That was always a good sign only this far into the story. He hoped that he could sustain it. He noted so many familiar faces in the crowd that he stopped bothering to count them, most of them people he did not eve see on a regular day to day basis. Every member of the Writer's Guild was there though; not a single one was missing. He even, much to his delight noted all of the rats there, even Sir Saulius. They were all clustered in an out of the way corner off to the side. Saulius was sitting very rigidly; his chest must still ache from where Charles had smashed it. Julian, Goldmark, and Eliot were all clustered about him, while Hector was holding one of his sculptures off to one side. Charles felt a bit of pride in seeing all of his fellow cheese-lovers there to witness this. Somehow, it felt like a great communion, and he could not help but smile as he continued on with Tallis's story.
Charles continued with the tale as best he could, picking up the inflections in the voices of each of the characters, though mostly he stayed hunkered down as the old woman who narrated the events. He watched as there were a few gasps of horror as the dark forces began gathering, racing to get that scepter. He pleasantly noted that even the most incontrovertible of the audience, such as Steward Thalberg, were taken aback by the course of events, watching the crown prince of Drala being tortured to death had been particularly horrifying. However, the young page who had served at his side managed to escape, and with the old woman's help they continued their struggles. Charles found himself caught up in the enchantment of the work as they fought against the hordes of the deep, making the pact with the water sprites to let them breathe the water, and of the price they would have to pay. It was remarkable from start to finish. The character, the events, all of it so shockingly real at times that Charles imagined some of the listeners declaring a quest to find this sceptre and keep it protected at the Keep itself.
Matthias noted the darkening sky as the sun began to dip beneath the horizon. The clouds now crimson made their way across the sky, a threatening storm building towards the south. It probably would just move on, at least he hoped it would. He did not recall hearing Saroth broadcast news of any oncoming storm. Still, he would hopefully be finished before the storm arrived. If not, then some magic might be in order. He cast a quick glance at Magus, and noticed that he too was fidgeting about the storm. Charles did not halt his recital, each moment taking them deeper into the story, building towards the climax. With a sudden precognition, he hoped that the storm would come their way. The effectiveness of the storm and the last scene in the story would be so provocative that he dared not imagine it. There was a storm scene as the old lady and the page fought against the force of darkness on a single small ship in the ocean not too far from where the flagship of the Dralanian Navy had sunk earlier. It would be perfect, as long as Magus could keep them from getting too wet.
However, as Charles continued his recitation, he knew that it was not to be, the storm just waiting to the south, not moving very fast. He decided that it might have been more flamboyant than he wished to be. He still wished he could have had that storm, it would have made it a performance that would never have been forgotten. Still, he doubted that this story would leave them soon. As the last rays of the darkness passed, and the old lady held the sceptre in her gnarled fist, the first day of many for joy and peace and those good of heart returned to the land. The story ended just as speculatively as it had begun, and when Charles finally lowered his head, and took that step off the podium, there was a thunderous sound of applause, and all who could stood on their feet, impressed beyond simple words. Charles bowed the customary bow, keeping his eyes on his own toe claws. That was something he found interesting, and irony that he could not fathom. Even though many of them were now animals, they still preferred to write stories about human beings. That was a strange twist. Oh there were some stories about men who became as they had, but for the most part that was not the case. He had to remember to watch his own stories for that in the future.
Charles stepped back up to the podium and proudly pointed to the section of the stands where Tallis sat beaming, "That was the work of my fellow writer, Tallis, the rat! It is him who should receive the praise for such a work, not I. Tallis, come forward and accept the award which you have earned!"
Magus quickly pulled out the quill pen dipped in gold that had been prepared for this special occasion. Magus brought it out to Matthias at the podium as Tallis made his way down the field. Matthias took the pen from Magus, holding it gently in both paws. Magus stayed of to one side, as Tallis approached exuberantly, his whole body beaming with elation in the torchlight. The flickering flames bounced off the pen, and the artificial brilliance that Magus and the other wizards had cast upon this field even into the night was only made it sparkle more. Tallis stood tall on the platform with him, his curly hair bouncing about as the two rats stood facing each other. Matthias looked on proudly, "I, Charles Matthias, Headmaster of the Writer's Guild, invested with the power bestowed upon me and this institution by His Highness, Duke Thomas of Metamor Keep, hereby declare you the winner of the writing contest for this Equinox-Easter festival. I give unto you this golden pen, a symbol for your excellence in this your given trade that we all admire and enjoy. May you continue to inspire us all by your efforts."
Charles placed the golden pen in Tallis's waiting paws. It was not as brittle as it looked; part of the magic that went into the forging of the prize. Of course, it could be used for writing, but why would anyone want to spoil such a beautiful gift. It was something to be cherished and honored. Not wasted like any common feather. Tallis bowed as he took the feather, falling to one knee. He rose quickly, and kneeled to the Duke who remained in his box at the top of the stands. He then rose to his hind paws and called out in a large voice, "Thank you all."
There was another thunderous roar of applause, and Matthias took a few steps back to let Tallis be embraced by the enthusiasm of the crowd. He was glad to see his fellow rat be so warmly accepted. He hoped that Lady Kimberly was watching, to know that they did not slight him because he was a rat. Charles peered back at the other rats, each was standing and applauding, except for Sir Saulius, but he was sure that was only because of his mending ribs, and nothing else. Matthias took a step off the platform, and raised his own paws in applause, giving Tallis the credit he was due for such a masterful work. It had been well worth all the effort that Charles had put into remembering it. He couldn't imagine how meticulous Tallis must have been in writing it.
The applause lasted for some time, but like all things, it too died back down. Ironically, Charles noted that the storm seemed headed there way now, quite quickly too. He kept one eye on it as he headed back over to his friends. Lady Kimberly led the group, with Habakkuk hopping along behind her and Nahum shaking his head in amazement. Kimberly almost threw herself into his waiting arms, hugging him tightly, "That was so good! I never knew you could do that so well!" He hugged tightly, watching the others pass by. Habakkuk and Nahum both gave him approving smiles, but continued on their way to give Tallis his due. Charles nodded after them, and then led Lady Kimberly off the field.
They could hear the first crackling of the thunder of the storm, the night sky getting ready to erupt in a downpour in a very short time. The first of the clouds began to pass overhead, and Charles looked about for some shelter. He figured that now was a good time to turn in, the rest of the festivities could happen without him. Of course, that was if Lady Kimberly did not want to see anymore. "Would you like to stay and see the rest? There is still some to go, but it's going to be raining soon, and it is probably best to be inside."
Lady Kimberly peered up at the clouds herself, noting the way they moved, and the way the air smelled. There was a distinct metallic edge to it. It was enough to convince Matthias, and it seemed enough to convince her too. "Yes, I think we should turn in. I think I've had a big enough day anyway."
Charles smiled, and they hooked their arms together again, and began the walk back towards the Keep proper. Normally Charles would have taken her to her own room, but this was not a normal occasion. Who knew what the morrow would bring, and Charles had only one last thing that he wanted to do for her this weekend. Stepping through the archway, noting the storm covers being placed upon the torches about the Keep by the diligent workers. Charles saw the first bright flash of lightning just as they entered, and the rain began soon after that. The downpour was quick in getting violent, and he noted how it washed over everything. There was a glowing nimbus about the central pavilion, which encompassed most of Metamor Fields. Magus was at work again, keeping the games dry from the rain. Charles took one last look at the tents and shops set up, for tomorrow they would disappear. It would not take long. Until the next festival time came upon them such restful days he would not have again.
They walked back towards his place, the bright lights of the torches sputtering in the wind from the open doorways. Charles quickly opened his door and they both scuttled inside. Charles saw that his lamp had gone out in his absence and cursed himself for leaving the vent open like he had. A whole good supply of oil had just been wasted. Leaving his door opened, he pulled out a small candle and gave it to Kimberly to hold. He took the tinder, and quickly struck a spark on the wick. The candle came to life, and he shut the door behind him. He helped Kimberly over to his desk in the darkness, her holding the candle for him as the flame jumped and twirled about in the still air. Charles opened up his desk drawer and pulled out a small bottle of oil, and quickly poured it into his lantern. He then took the candle from Kimberly and pushed the end of the wick into the glass enclosure. The lantern came to life, filling the room with its meager luminescence. Charles then put the candle back in the holder on top of his dresser and smiled.
"I hope you've had a pleasant weekend, Lady Kimberly."
"Yes, it's been wonderful." She nodded, her eyes alight with wonder. "I really enjoyed your performance. How do you do it?"
"Lots of practice. There really wasn't any difficulty in choosing the story though. We all knew that one was simply the best from the moment we read it."
Kimberly nodded, sitting down on the feather bed, letting her tail rest over the side. She pulled one knee up to her chin, and idly nibbled at her fur. Charles walked around behind her, and placed the oil bottle back inside his desk. He then reached far back, where she couldn't see, and pulled a small intricately carved box out of the drawer. It was the music box that he had bought for her, and that Misha had repaired. Charles held the box in his hands, happily remembering being at his shop watching it being fixed. He had never had much respect for Misha before that day - like many other at the Keep he'd considered him an axe-wielding maniac from all the stories he'd heard of him fighting the Lutins - now he was happy to call him a friend.
Charles sat down next to her, letting his tail lay on top of hers, holding out the box to her in his paws. She looked at it was stunned amazement. The dark polished wood gleamed in the light from the lamp. He had spent a lot of money on that box, more than he probably should have, but he would have spent twice that much for her. She gingerly touched it with her paws, her claws gently tracing out the lines of the carvings in the wood. Her mouth was open in awe as she stared. Her eyes were lost in wonder as she touched and examined the present.
"What is this for?" she finally asked, her eyes not leaving the box for a moment.
"It is for you. My gift to you this Easter," Charles replied, hugging her about the shoulders with one arm. He watched as her hands wet for the bronze clasp at the bottom. Carefully she opened up the top, and the porcelain figures of the two dancers held in a tight embrace. Kimberly's eyes were wet with tears as she looked on. Charles's paw reached back to the small knob at the back of the pedestal. He winded it, the clicking nose from inside happily sounding. He twisted it a few times, and then let go. A tinkling melody came out as the two dancers began to turn on the base. Kimberly put a paw to her mouth, her eyes watering even more from the sight of it. Charles let the tintinabulating music carry his heart higher.
"This is beautiful," Kimberly voice was small, light, but almost overpowered with wonder. "Where did you find this?"
Charles leaned over, swaying in time to the music with her, "Does it matter? I got it for you."
Kimberly carefully se the music box down on his bed, and then threw herself into his arms again, "Oh thank you, Charles, that is the most beautiful gift that anybody has ever given me!"
Charles hugged back, holding her tight, gently nosing her pink ear, "It was my pleasure." Lady Kimberly smiled shyly at him. Charles rose from the bed, and stood looking into her eyes. He held one of her paws in his own, and he tried his best to sound debonair, "Care to dance, milady?"
Kimberly nodded, and was soon off the bed and right close to him, just as the dancers were. Charles was not the greatest of dancers in the world, but he did his best to lead her about his room in a slow rhythmic waltz. Charles dipped her, and almost spun her once, but there was not enough room. They moved back and forth, their bodies close together in the dim light. He watched the floor for any obstructions, having to kick one of his sticks beneath his bed with his foot before she stepped upon it. However, aside from that, there was very little in the way of disturbances. He lost himself in her eyes, staring deeply into those black orbs. He did not want to come back, having filled himself to the brim of the one that he loved, and then some. She meant something more to him than just a friend, as did everybody else. She was somebody whom he would like to spend the rest of his life with. He could think of no better candidate. She was simply a joy to be around. However, he did not want to rush things; that would be foolish.
The music finally stopped, and Lady Kimberly glared at the music box, "Oh, it stopped."
Charles laughed, "Would you like me to rewind it?"
Lady Kimberly turned back to him, draping her arms about his neck, "No, that's okay. I'm a little tired anyway."
"It has been a long day. Shall I take you back to your room?" Charles offered, putting one paw on the music box, closing the lid gently. The clasp fell into place by itself.
Lady Kimberly beamed, "Would you?"
"Of course I would," Charles said as he placed the music box in her paws again. "I would do anything for you, Lady Kimberly."
She beamed brightly at him, clutching the music box in her paws, careful not to nick the intricate carvings with her claws. Charles opened the door for her, and then they both walked outside. Charles quickly turned about and blew the candle on his dresser out, and turned the oil down on his lamp. The room dropped to a sullen ambiance, but it would be enough for him to see when he got back. He led her to the Ivy Causeway, which thankfully was only a bit wet when they arrived. Most of the rain fell outside, so they were able to stay dry, but the crack of the thunder did make her jump at one point. Charles gasped as he watched the music box nearly fly from her paws, but her grip was tight enough that it only shook a bit. He did not want to have to procure Misha's services again so soon!
They reentered the walls of the Keep on the other end of the causeway, and were relieved to be out of the biting chill. He could not imagine what those staying at the festival were feeling. He stood by her door as she opened it. She rushed inside and placed the music box carefully on the mantle right next to the bust Hector had made for her. She was then back at his feet in moments, standing before him, expectantly. Charles reached down and laid a gentle kiss on her nose, and then smiled, gently straightening her fur out with one paw on the side of her face. "You are so beautiful, did you know that?"
Kimberly looked away a moment, too embarrassed to admit it. "You're sweet."
"Sleep well, milady. I hope to see you on the morrow."
"So do I," Kimberly nodded emphatically.
Charles took a step away, wishing that he didn't have to, but like all things, this day too had to come to an end. "Good night, Lady Kimberly."
She stepped into the doorway, almost reluctantly, "Good night." And then her head was through the door, and it closed before him. Charles sighed, and then turned back towards his own room. He dashed unceremoniously through the Ivy Causeway and then back to his own door. Closing it behind him, he sighed again. This had been the perfect day, he could not think of any regrets that he had. He turned the lantern on a bit brighter, and brought it to his bedside. He did not usually go to sleep this early, but then again, tomorrow would be a busy day. He had many errands to take care of, and business as usual would commence once more. It would probably be some time before he could spend a whole day with Lady Kimberly again. He sighed at that thought. He really enjoyed nothing better than that now.
Charles began pulling his clothes off one by one, and folding them up on top of his stool. He sniffed them a bit; they were still clean enough to wear for tomorrow. He then threw the covers back on his bed and slipped inside the sheets and blankets and quilts. He felt their warmth pressing down on him. He rolled onto his side staring at the oil lamp for a bit. He rested his head against the pillow looking out with one eye and listening with one ear, as the others were pressed into the fabric. He could not remember a happier time in his life than these past three days. Almost everything had gone right for them. From the Eucharist, to the festival itself, and even to the dinner at the Duke's Table. Loriod may have made them feel small; they had beaten back by their love for each other. The word was out now, and almost everybody was thinking of them as a couple.
He sat up in bed for a moment, shifting about to get his tail out form underneath him. How far did he want to go with this, and how soon. There were still so many things that she didn't know about him. Could he tell her? Who else could he tell? Would she still love him if she had known what he had done to others in the past? He grabbed a nearby stick, and chewed at it for a bit, trying to calm his thoughts. This was not the time to worry about such matters. This was a time to remember the joy that he had felt being with her. Why wouldn't she accept him for who he was? He had changed his ways had he not? He did not go about killing things anymore. He was no longer a fighter, but a humble scribe. A humble scribe who loved her with all of his heart.
Charles lay back down in the covers, nestling in them. He put the stick back on his desk, and then quickly blew out the light in the lamp. The darkness swallowed him up, and he closed his eyes as the warmth of the sheets and quilts encased him. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day that was for sure. Still, there was no way that he could find any reason to despair. Not know, and he was sure not for a long time.