by Charles Matthias

"And now I pronounce you husband and wife," the voice of Duke Thomas Hassan V roared out over the assembled throng of Keepers and Lorlanders. The two rabbits standing paw in paw before the Horse Lord, bedecked in fine gold brocade and satin turned to each other and pressed their noses together in a tight embrace. The assembled friends of Prince Phil included many of the dignitaries of the Valley, including the newt shaped Lord Barnhardt from whose manor came Clover, as well as a diplomatic functionary from Whales who was here in King Tenomides's stead. There were also his assorted companions gathered on the lawns just outside the wall of Loriod's old castle, which included Wessex, who'd acted as the rabbit's best man, most of the cavalcade of writer's with whom he'd worked over the years, and a slew of guards and scouts who'd taken his orders and lived to tell of it.

Charles was wearing a bright green tunic, the Long Scout heraldry - the dark fox with bow and axe - proudly marked upon his vest. Ever since his elevation to that sterling position a week back, he'd found life quite a bit more interesting. Already, he'd gone on one small mission with Finbar -- thankfully after the pink dye had been washed from his fur - but it had proved to be a quiet trip. Yet Charles had expressly told Misha that he would have no part of any mission during Phil's wedding, the fox had laughed and assured him he would be there.

Digging the butt of the spear he clutched between two paws into the grassy earth, he felt slightly chagrined to realize that Misha had not intended him to be a guest, but one of the guards. A good number of his fellow Longs were also serving in that capacity, but only he and Misha were so visible about it. The reynard had Whisper in one of his paws, and was nonchalantly twirling it from side to side as he stood there across the aisle. The rest were hidden in the woods, ensuring that no raiding party would take them unawares. It would hardly matter if they did, for there were enough of Thomas's own guards surrounding the field that it would take a sizable army to break through to the watching dignitaries.

Looking down just a short distance away he saw Lady Kimberly brightening the field in her new violet dress. It was the first time she'd worn it since the Patriarch's death, and the sight of it gave him some hope. There had been too much black these days in the Halls of Metamor. As Phil had been the one responsible for seeing that the Patriarch's body had been disposed of in the manner he wished, so too had the rabbit's wedding brought the Kingdom out of its shell of mourning and back into joy.

Gazing further up the row of Keepers standing to either side he saw the one knight to survive the slaughter that had clutched Akabaieth's caravan. Sir Yacoub Egland, resplendent in a bright blue doublet and hose, snow white frills ranging each corner, stood upon the crutches he needed for his weak legs. It was probably not good for him to rely so heavily upon those wooden implements, for in time, he would need to accustom himself to walking upon his hooves. The large set of antlers probably was not helping him either. Jon, the only other deer morph the rat knew even tolerably well, had often remarked he'd found it difficult standing up straight for the first few months after the change. How could it be for a man now stag both of whose legs had been broken?

And what of Vinsah and Kashin? The Bishop had not come out of his coma once, or at least, Healer Coe would not say if he had or not. And Kashin had not been seen since he'd brought the two of them along with the Patriarch's body back to the Keep those few weeks ago. Charles found himself staring into the ground, pondering those portentous events. Word had still not returned from Yesulam about anything that had happened, or who the new Patriarch would be. Sighing, the rat tried to put such worries from his mind, and return his thoughts to the joy that was this wedding day.

The two rabbits were hopping down arm in arm, as best as Phil was able, much to the delight of the Keepers. Cheers rose form all sides, and even the rat found his smile again, turning to the side, holding his spear as upright as he could as Phil passed him by. He caught a delighted rocking of ears from the rabbit, and almost burst out laughing at the gesture. The crowds moved in to gather behind them, when Clover turned on her paws and threw the bouquet of flowers high into the air. Charles did not see who caught it though.

The cheers were so exuberant, that the rat could not even hear what Phil was saying. But it only elicited a greater delight from the crowd, who eagerly followed him to the long table of food and gifts all arrayed before them. Misha flashed his friend a glance, and Matthias returned it, chuckling. "If it were not for us, Nasoj could start attacking this crowd, and they wouldn't notice!" Misha said after pushing his way to the rat's side.

Charles scanned to see where Kimberly had disappeared to, and then found her at his back, his paws in his side, trying to tickle him once more. "Ack! Kimberly!" He chided, turning about and wrapping his arms around her back, the spear still held tightly within his paws. "You sneaky little love of my life!"

She giggled then, snuggling close to his chest, oblivious to Misha who had turned about and walked off with the rest of the crowd towards the tables. "What is it, my sweet Rat of Might?"

Matthias blushed furiously, his whiskers twitching helplessly as he nuzzled her again. "Oh, just thinking that despite everything, we can still find the time for happiness."

She nodded, pressing her side into his. "Phil and Clover looked absolutely beautiful in those costumes."

"That they did, it was quite a nice wedding."

"I think it was lovely," Kimberly affirmed, as if Charles had not been strong enough.

The rat chuckled lightly, as they moved to join the rest of the crowds gathered about Phil and Clover. "All right then, it was lovely."

"Much better," Kimberly murmured proudly as she made her way to the first table, trying to find someplace from which to watch the two rabbits open their wedding presents. Phil's paws gave him quite a good ability to tear through the wrappings, but of course, since he did not wish to damage what was inside, he let Clover open the gifts. The bright thin sheets of fabric wove together to close the gift were tied together at the top by a blue ribbon. Drawing the knot lose, the white hare revealed a mantle timepiece, with rich mahogany frame and ornate numbering, each hand of the clock shaped like a carrot. The lining was done in a dark hued metal that the rat found vaguely familiar.

Phil let out an exasperated chortle of delight, his ears rocking to and fro. "Misha Brightleaf, where are you, you devious fox! Did you make this wonderful device?"

The fox nodded, clutching Whisper to his chest, while Caroline came to stand at his side. "Considering your request to me several months back, I thought it would be fitting."

Phil gained a very excited expression, even though the meaning of his words were lost on most of the other Keepers present. Despite that fact, they each held their breaths. "Do you mean? Does this run on-" The rabbit was so excited he couldn't even finish his sentence.

Misha shook his head then. "Not entirely. I did use springs in a few places, but the mechanism is still based on earlier methods."

"Ah, well, it is a start, and a beautiful clock. Thank you very much, this will be treasured."

Misha bowed swiftly then, his grey eyes alight with joy. "It was a pleasure to make for both of you, Your highness, milady." He then stepped forward, Caroline brimming with the joy of the moment as she took Whisper from the fox's paws. Charles noticed the otter appeared to be much more content these days, and her ear always turned at the sound of a melody in the air. "If you would let me show you one other things about this clock that I made special for you."

Clover handed him the timepiece, and the fox studiously moved the hands, till the larger of the two was just to the left of the twelve. He then turned a small screw in the back, and set it on the table. The ticking commenced as soon as he did so, and only a few moments later, the door above the clock-face opened up, and a rabbit holding a carrot and bell stepped out, and rang three times.

Phil appeared astounded as he watched the figurine disappear back into the clock's body, his ears rocking in delight. "Oh, this is indeed a most wonderful gift!"

Misha bowed then, before stepping back to wrap his arm about Caroline. "As I said, it was my pleasure to build it for you."

Clover's ears stood taller then, grinning upon her lapine face. "Thank you, Misha," as her paws reached for the next present.

"That was an exquisite gift," Charles told his friend when the green-liveried fox walked back through the throng to stand at the rat's side. "How long have you been working on that?"

Misha flashed him a grin, as he took Whisper back from Caroline who could only smile as she looked into his face. "Ever since Clover arrived at the Keep some months back. And you?"

Matthias found Kimberly's paw and held tight. She returned the gesture. "Oh, you'll see shortly."

"A most marvellous invention!" A voice in their heads rang clear, as a large bear trundled over to their sides, accompanied by a lupine lady, walking stately at his side. The bear was dressed in nothing, as his form precluded such accoutrements, but Lurene sported a bright blue coat and gossamer dress. The four of them turned at the sight of them, grinning in delight. "One would think that we have a master craftsman in our midst. Ye art a fine hand, Misha Brightleaf."

"Thank you, I am not just a soldier you know. Everyone needs a past time. If it brings delight to others, all the better!"

"Aye," Chris thought to them. He then turned his massive ursine head to Matthias and Kimberly, inclining his snout respectfully towards the Lady and letting out a low chuff. "Tis a beautiful sight ye make, pleasuring these tired eyes with your presence, milady."

Kimberly smiled brightly then, her paws gripping the sides of her dress in a gentle curtsy, "Why thank you, Chris."

"And ye, Charles. It has been some time since I had last seen ye. Quite a lot has changed since then."

Charles examined the true ursine before him, catching hint of the wary glance Lurene passed over them both. She said nothing though, preferring to let her caretaker do the talking just now. "Yes, for both of us. I'm glad to see you out of the Keep though, it must have been an interesting journey."

"No more than your own, I wager. Why, I remember fighting at your side nearly half a year ago. Ye swore ta never harm another, and now here ye are, a scout!"

Charles shrugged slightly, has paw gently resting on the Long Scout heraldry. "My mission has not changed, only the means of it. Now, I seek to ensure that no harm befalls those I care about."

"We must again have a long talk someday." Chris mused thoughtfully, his eyes scanning the crowd as Phil let out another whoop of delight for some gift received. "Many things have been happening of late. Yet at least what happens today is good."

"Agreed" the five of them chorused together, bright smiles flashing all around.

Misha then leaned over and offered the otter at his side a quick kiss on the cheek. "Caroline, why don't you take Kimberly and Lurene and go sample some of the delicacies? We'll join you shortly."

Caroline nodded and with faces alight the three women disappeared into the thick crowd milling about the tables and Prince Phil and his new wife. Misha then turned back upon the bear, his face sterner than before. "Was there anything else you wish to add?"

Chris shook his massive head, resting on his posterior a moment, shifting the earth beneath his great weight. "Nay, good scout. With everything that has happened in these last few months, I was curious whether this sudden festivity was a sign of things to come."

Misha appeared to consider the bear's words for a moment before replying in a soft voice. Still, the fox need not worry, Charles thought, for surely nobody was even listening to their private conversation. "We are at our strongest militarily since before the Battle of Three Gates. Nasoj has made no moves since his last plan failed last summer. And we've seen little to indicate that he plans any major advances in the near future.

"Plus," here Misha's eyes wandered to the yonder table where the three ladies were chatting animatedly. "We have our soul mates with us again. After what we have been through recently, I've no doubt that things are improving."

Charles nodded his assent at that. "I have to agree. I think they are better than they even appear."

The bear appeared to blush, his brown eyes also staring at the women. "Then I will always remember to enjoy it."

Matthias looked back towards the two rabbit sitting happily and sharing in the gifts of others. With a bit of a grin, he saw that Clover had selected his gift from the pile. "Oh, we shall, no question of that, we shall!"

"They feel like old companions, don't they?" Charles asked as he stood on the parapet overlooking the gardens, his arm wrapped tightly about Lady Kimberly's shoulder. The twilight sky was noticeably fading to midnight blues of evening, while the lamps were being lit all across the Keep. Bright sparkling lights illumined the town and castle, while hearty laughter filled the halls of the Deaf Mule and throughout the corridors of that bespeckled gem of the north.

"Who?" Kimberly asked, gently brushing aside a strand of fur from her dark eyes. She was still wearing the violet dress from early in the day. The party still raged at Lorland, and probably would all night long, maybe even for several days yet. Still, though he had given Phil his word he would return the next day, he'd wanted to come back to Metamor when it would be relatively quiet this evening, and enjoy it with Lady Kimberly.

Gently pressing his tail against hers, and wrapping his arms tightly about the cloak she had draped over her shoulders and dress as the evening air seeped into their fur, he pointed with his other paw at the emerging pinpricks of light. "The stars! See how they shine. Every night they return, like a faithful friend returning from a journey. As if to remind us that no matter what may happen, they are watching over us, and will be there again when the sun sets."

She smiled slowly, her whiskers twitching with the thought. Her eyes trailed across the sky, watching as they continued to brighten. "Do you know any of the constellations? I remember hearing about them when I was a little girl."

"From the sailors?"

"Yes, there were quite a few of them in Brathas."

Charles nodded and pointed to a small cluster of stars just above the eastern mountains. "Do you see that bundle, the one that looks like an arrow point?" She nodded slowly then, squinting slightly. To their eyes, they were rather distorted, but not so much that they were indistinguishable. "That's the archer. Follow the arrow point back another star and you see the nock, and then up and down are his legs and arms."

"Is that really bright one his eye?"

Matthias grinned and nodded. "The Eye of the Hunter, as Channing used to call it." He turned to face her, to absorb her features, from her soft nose to the inquisitive ears, and to the gentle eyes, it was more beautiful to him than the stars, than anything else.

"I didn't know many constellations before I came here. I knew a few of them, but they circled the sky I knew as a youth. I still do not know a great deal of them, but I can hold my own. That stretch right there is the Dragon. See how he chases his own tail? It is said that when he finally catches his tail, the world will cease to be."

Kimberly appeared confused. "But the stars don't move."

"That is what I said, but apparently they do move, just very slowly. I remember Channing telling me that it will be more years than you or I could ever hope to count before the dragon eats his tail. Something like a thousand, thousand years, or maybe it was a thousand, thousand, thousand years. I do not remember. It was an impossibly large number, that is all that I recall."

She smiled and wrapped her arm about his own, snuggling close to his shoulder. "Are you cold?' Matthias asked them, running the back of his paw along her cheek.

"A little. I think I need another jacket, or more fur." She shivered slightly to emphasize the point, smiling as she did so.

Charles chuckled softly, and then turned back from the stars, and the two of them made their way into the Keep again. "We rats do not grow much more fur during the winter, as some of the animals here do. Oh, we have more to be sure, but nothing like the winter coat that Chris will be sporting."

She rested her head against his shoulder as they walked along the carpeted halls of the Keep, past brightly light flambeaux illuminating brilliant tapestries and decorations. Their was a hollow in his arm that felt as if it had been made for just this very purpose. "What are the winter's like? I saw the end of March, and it was nice, but what about the real winters?" Her voice was soft, yet curious. There was still a fullness of the wedding inside of it, the dreamy state after a delirious affair.

His voice was equally soft, as if he were discussing a sacred topic. "There is a serenity to the land that is only matched by the boisterousness of the summer months. When you rise in the morning and see the freshly-laden snow wrapping the hillsides in a white blanket, you will know peace. I like to think the mountains are putting on priestly vestments to honour that most sacred time of the year, when all the world awaits the new birth of Spring.

"It is also the time I feel closest to my fellow Keepers, as we are all trapped together here within these walls to share each other's company. In past winters, I and the Writer's Guild would often enjoy contests, seeing who could come up with the most words to rhyme with any other, or how many different animals they could name. It was always a wonderful time. The Deaf Mule is a refuge for many, and there is a warmth there in those cold months that surpasses even the hottest days of summer. I eagerly wish to share this winter with you, my Lady Kimberly."

She smiled and nuzzled slightly, closing her eyes as if in a dream, envisioning those wintry landscapes outside her window, and the good cheer of friends inside by her hearth. "I want to share it with you too."

Charles smiled as they reached his door, his paw patting her own as they entered. He rubbed his pocket for a moment, and then tucked the contents within his palm. They sat upon his bed, the soft quilts warm beneath their tails. With a single word, the candles came to life about them, giving them a subdued but pleasant illumination.

"How did you?" Kimberly started to say, but her joy at the sight silenced her own question.

"The chandler has been dabbling a bit in magical arts, and has made a few self-lighting candles. I thought you might enjoy them," Charles leaned a bit closer and nuzzled her cheek playfully. "Yet another spark in my life."

She giggled but did not push him away, her face brimming with pleasure. "They are very nice. Were they expensive?"

The rat nodded but again continued his nosing. "But you are worth it. I wanted to be with you tonight. The wedding was amazing, but since most are going to still be celebrating, I thought we might like to be together."

"You're very sweet," she said, nestling her head against his own.

Charles pulled back suddenly, his heart swelling in that moment. "And there is one more reason I wanted to be here. There... there is something else."

Lady Kimberly stared at him, her paw clasping his own, her eyes curious. "What is it?"

Matthias took a deep breath, the anxiety filling his bones, rattling them against each other like a rickety siege engine. "Well-" was all he could say before falling to his knees, eyes pleading from the utmost centre of his heart. And in a voice weary with the contained emotion, he spoke thus:

"Possessed in the beat of my heart,
A question I must now confess
Yearns the answer to the jagged parts
Of my lifelessness.

Without you I have nothing,
But a world that is featureless.
Yet into this a light will bring,
When you tell me yes.

I will see a land so varied,
Bright colours from East to West.
And not a moment is harried
With you to my chest.

Together, we will know joy;
No wrong will go without redress.
Upon our lips every song employ
When you tell me yes.

When you bring an end to this strife
No other moment will I bless.
Will you consent to be my wife?
If only you say yes.
Only when you say yes."

Kimberly sat open-mouthed when he had kneeled, but her whole posture brightened. Yet there was still a bit of uncertainty in her gaze as she watched her rat recite the poem. An excitement bubbled up inside of her, an impossible eagerness that would not be refused. Still, only when Charles open wide his paw on the last stanza to reveal a slender ring, with a small cluster of diamonds set in pavé.

Her whole face exploded into joy, her eyes wide, glistening in the reflected light from the sparkling stones, while her paws reached out needfully to take the ring from Charles's palm. As the last words of the poem faded from the rat's lips, she slipped the ring upon her left paw, gazing at it for a single moment before gripping Charles's paws tightly in her own.

"Yes," she said, softly, her whiskers stiff, holding back their need to wiggle in ecstasy. "I will be yours my Rat of Might!"

Charles rose from his knees and kissed her hand, the soft tender skin of his nose rubbing against her pink skin. "And I will be yours!" he declared, even as he rose further, bringing his muzzle to touch her own.

As they held the kiss, their tails entwined, and their legs pressed tightly against each other. His heart beat into her chest, to be joined in chorus with her own. Eyes open, each radiant in the candlelight, brighter than the very stars, they continued to kiss, neither having any plans to stop.