Stepping Up to Destiny

by Charles Matthias

By the time dawn arrived on the first day of Summer, the Keep was already locked in a state of anticipation. Keepers ran to and fro, the merchants hawking their wares from booths that lined the fields outside the castle, and combatants began to prepare themselves for the contests that awaited them over the course of the three days that comprised the Solstice celebration.

It was a beautiful day for it too. The chill twilight winds gave way to a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scents of aromatic flowers, and scrumptious breads and meats all prepared for and awaiting connoisseurs to delight in their consumption. The sky was a bright azure, with the morning sun hovering just over the eastern mountains, the normally snow-capped peaks darkened by the yonder star. Bright pinions flapped, snapping in the winds, and the dress of the merrymakers was as gaudy and as fine as ever. The various gardens were at full blossom, their bright reds, purples, and yellows outshone only by the Keepers themselves.

For Matthias and his beloved Lady Kimberly, it was a wonderful occasion full of beautiful sights and good cheer. With Gornul still perched atop the rat's shoulders, they wandered along the thoroughfares, stopping often to marvel at the crafts and tricks of many of their fellow Keepers. Gornul himself showed constant amazement at many of the fine sculptures and arts that were the staple of life at Metamor. The dragonette was still a bit embarrassed by the gift of a wooden bust of himself that Charles had commissioned for him from Hector.

Of course, Gornul could not carry it himself, so Matthias held it in one paw, while his others was holding Lady Kimberly's. They walked closely together, her head nestled against his shoulder, her eyes darting about at all the sights, and occasionally she would point at something she wished to see. Charles was always delighted to take her there. It was such a pleasant way to spend his days, it was almost enough for him to forget about his other problems, and the decisions that he had made just last night.

However, as he turned a corner and saw the booth that Misha had set up for himself, arrayed with clocks and gears of all shapes and sizes, and saw that man chatting with the fox, it all came back to him. Matthias quickly turned Kimberly and Gornul over to the elephantine glassblowers's booth, marveling at all the fine colors and shapes that had been produced. The two were completely enchanted by it, though Charles occasionally glanced over his shoulder at Misha, whom his life was becoming entwined with now, and the man who seemed to be everywhere he went now, the ambassador from Marzac, Yonson.

The tall flaxen-blonde man seemed to be pointing at various mechanisms, but the rat could not hear a word either he or Misha said. Suddenly, an image of a female rat and a dragon left all alone flashed through his mind, and Charles snapped back to his friends. Matthias patted the dragon on the head, and wrapped his arm about Kimberly's shoulder.

She gingerly picked up a small piece in her claws and showed it to her love. It was of two rats arm in arm. Charles gasped in pleasant surprise, and even Gornul hooted in merriment. Looking up at the elephant, he could see a smile beneath his trunk. "Do you like it?" the man asked.

"Like it?" Charles said in some surprise. "I love it! What inspired this work?" And indeed, the Rat of Might did love it. It was finely wrought, and the colors were filled in perfectly to make it appear as if the color of their fur was a light brown and a tan with even lighter underbellies, just like Matthias and Kimberly had.

The man's trunk seemed to gesture at the piece as he crossed his thick arms over his grey hide. "I had heard about two fellow Keepers falling in love, and thought it would be a fitting piece. It was a challenge just to get the right color, but I see now that it came out perfectly. I was hoping that you would like it. Perhaps even enough to buy it."

Lady Kimberly was gasping in pleasure as she gingerly held the delight in her paws. "Oh, Charles, please?" She asked eagerly.

Matthias smiled, hugging her tight, and he pulled out the money bag he kept at his side. "How much for that piece?"

The elephant trumpeted slightly at making a sale. "Only a single gold."

The rat fished the equal amount of silvers from the pouch, and the tied it back to his side. At the rate he was spending what little money he had, he soon would not have any left! Grimacing, and looking over his shoulder to see that Yonson was still bargaining with Misha, he realized that at least as a Long Scout he wouldn't have to pay taxes anymore.

"Do you want to take the Rat Lover's with you, or would you like me to hold onto it for now?" The elephant man asked as he swept the coins up into his thick hands.

Charles looked into the deep black orbs that were his love's eyes, and smiled, reading the expression in them. He then turned back to the shopkeeper and shook his head. "I think you should hold onto it till later today. I'd break it if I tried to keep it. I'm going to be in the joust after all, and glass wouldn't stand up to well against a charging opponent on horseback! Or me falling off and landing on my nose, which is what I expect will happen."

Kimberly gingerly pushed him in the side with one paw, a slight disapproving note in her voice. "You won't fall off, you will do very well!" Although Gornul did momentarily show Matthias a humorous image of a rat being thrown from a horses back and twirling about on the air till he landed unceremoniously on his head, he too seemed to think that his friend would perform quite capably.

"Doesn't the joust start in an hour?" the elephant man asked as he took back the two rat's entwined in glass and placed it beneath his counter for sake keeping.

Matthias nodded. "Yes, I am supposed to meet Sir Saulius there in a half-hour. I'm to be his squire you see."

"I think you two make a good team," Kimberly exulted, clutching her man tightly. Charles smiled at the praise, and returned the gentle hug. The blue dragonette gave the two rats a questioning thought, and Kimberly chuckled. "You can watch with me, little Gornul. I'd like the company."

Their small friend hooted in delight at that, and almost danced right off of Charles's head. They all laughed a moment, before the elephant nodded. "Well, best of luck to you in the joust. I shall be watching from afar. Excuse me, now, I have another customer." Then he turned to the woman who had approached, and the three were once again left to their own devices.

Charles took a short peek over at Misha, and saw that the Ambassador was still there examining various clocks. Glancing away quickly, the rat pointed to another booth just up the way, this one selling strange, bright-colored stones that had been unearthed in the mines to the south. He had already had one conversation with Yonson this morning; he did not wish to have another!

Business for Fadger at the festival was very good. The booth Misha and Will were running jointly was busy. Caroline's idea to have Madog at the booth as a crowd draw was a success. Many people would come over just to see and play with the automaton and wound up buying something. Rings, brooches, cameos, amulets and the other jewelry sold at a steady rate. The clocks sold well too, and before noon nine people had ordered clocks to be made for them. Even when told it would take up to a year, people weren't discouraged. It was a happy arrangement for everyone. Will and Misha made many sales and Madog seemed to thrive on all the attention.

A nobleman from Karthia along with his whole family had spent almost an hour at the booth. The adults had quickly tired of Madog but the children couldn't get enough of him. So while the two boys and two girls played with Madog their parents shopped at the booth. Finally amidst waves and promises to return and play some more later, the family moved on to eat their midday meal.

It happened in an instant. One moment Madog was sitting on the counter waving goodbye, the next he was gone. No noise, movement or explanation, just vanished.

"Madog?" Misha called looking around for his metal friend without success.

"Excuse me, Sir Fox," a voice said from behind him.

Misha turned around to find a stranger standing at the counter. Tall and blonde haired, his stance and mannerisms instantly told Misha that he was a man of power, either a wizard or a high nobleman. The staff and rather plain clothing marked him as a wizard. "Good afternoon, Sir. My name is Misha, how can I help you?" the fox said in greeting.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Misha. I am Yonson, the new ambassador from Chateau Marzac," he said as the two shook hands.

"AH! So you're the person everyone is gossiping about," the surprised fox replied.

Yonson laughed. "I hope they're saying only good things about me."

Misha shrugged. "I don't pay attention to gossip. I prefer to judge a person on my own."

"I only wish everyone did the same thing," Yonson commented.

The morph nodded I agreement. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"I'm interested in purchasing a clock. I've heard a lot about how good Fadger clocks are and I couldn't resist the chance to buy one," the ambassador complimented.

Misha laughed. "So our reputation has reached that far south." He motioned towards the table behind him on which were about a half dozen clocks. "As you can see we have many already built or you can order one to be made to your specifications."

After looking over a few more booths, Charles noticed that Yonson had finally left his fox friend alone. As soon as Kimberly lost her interest in the latest of Matthias's distractions, the rat pointed over towards Misha's booth. "Let's go say hello to him," the Rat of Might suggested.

Lady Kimberly grinned, and the three of them quickly found themselves staring at a whole array of clocks, of various shapes and sizes, as well as other mechanical trinkets. Misha quickly noticed there approach, and his whole face brightened up. His ears stood high, and his vermillion fur seemed to glisten in the sunlight. "Good morning, Charles, Kimberly."

"Good morning, Misha," Kimberly inclined her head respectfully.

"Good to see you," Charles put his paws on the counter top that was just barely at his chest. Sometimes being only four feet tall did have its disadvantages.

"HI!" Madog shouted as he suddenly appeared standing on the counter less than a hand span from Misha.

The fox let out a yelp and jumped in surprise. Both of the rats took a step back similarly startled. "Why did you leave so suddenly," Brightleaf asked the automaton.

Madog looked down at the counter and didn't answer. Misha put a finger under the metal chin and pushed the head up. "Why did you disappear like that," he asked again.

"Not like blonde man," Madog answered in a whisper.

"Why?" Charles asked, his whiskers twitching uncomfortably. Madog was so many centuries old, and possessed of magics that were beyond his understanding; what sort of things could the automaton have seen in Yonson?

The metal fox looked down at the counter and whispered, "People seen and unseen."

"What does that mean?" Matthias asked.

Misha shrugged. "Mentally Madog is still a child. He's trying to get across a concept that he himself doesn't understand. It probably means that Madog thinks there is more to him than we see. He is a powerful mage, that much I know just from talking with him. I did sell him a very nice timepiece. Did you meet him yesterday?" Misha asked.

The rat nodded. "I was there when he was officially welcomed to the Keep. It was quite a ceremony, you should have seen it."

Misha shook his head. "I don't like official ceremonies. They bore me."

"I was stuck down in the kitchens preparing and cleaning up for it all day!" Kimberly added without much enthusiasm.

Charles waggled his ears apologetically. "I know, but you make some of the best food I've ever tasted!"

"What did you have?" she asked, her voice sounding tired.

"The breads of course, and some of the stew," Charles replied.

She brightened up visibly at that, and so did everybody else. "Oh good! I made the stew. I'm glad you liked it."

Matthias wrapped his arms about her and gave her a soft squeeze. "I can tell your culinary arts anywhere!"

Misha just smiled, keeping his laugh to himself, while Gornul jumped from the rat's shoulders onto the counter to let them share that moment together. He hooted in merriment as he watched.

Lady Kimberly then laughed pleasantly, her whole body seeming to warm to Matthias's touch. She nuzzled him once and then turned back to face Misha, who could barely contain his mirth. "So, what did you think of the Ambassador?"

The fox shrugged absently. "He seems like a decent fellow. I only just met him, so I'm not sure what to think of him yet." Misha then pointed at an empty spot on his counter while his tail wagged uncontrollably. "He had good taste in clocks at least!"

After they all shared another laugh, Gornul projected an image of a rat slinking away from a man dressed in purple. Misha blinked a few times, patting the dragonette on the head. "How are you, Gornul? Been a while since I saw you last. What happened to your tail?" He pointed at the small poultice tied about the tapered end.

Charles quickly interjected. "A loose stone fell from a tower and landed on it. Coe says he'll be fine."

Misha nodded and then looked into the slit eyes of their small friend. "Now what was that other image you showed me?" Gornul transmitted the figure of the rat and the man again, to which the fox simply nodded curiously. "Not too keen on this Yonson fellow are you, Charles?"

"I don't trust him one bit," the rat said rather bluntly.

"I don't either," Misha admitted, his eyes watching the crowds move about the booth, noting the ones that stayed near, and the ones that paid them no heed. "He seemed to know a lot about Fadger and about me and Will in particular. I get nervous when someone knows more about me than I know about them."

"What's the matter?" Kimberly asked as she noticed her rat beginning to shake in nervous anticipation.

Matthias was about to say something, but he closed his mouth back again. Turning from one to the other he sighed solemnly. "I just think you both should stay away from him. He could be very dangerous. That goes for you too, Gornul."

The little blue dragonette broadcasted an image of himself and Yonson standing very far apart. Kimberly hugged Charles with one arm, and that was all the assurance he needed to know that she would avoid him whenever possible. Misha was a little bit disturbed though by what he heard. "There's something you aren't telling me about him, Charles. You have me very interested now. I'll have to look into it."

"Just be careful if you do so. I'd tell you what I think exactly, but this is not the time or place for such things."

"I understand, and I don't blame you," Misha assured him as his paws began to trace out the contours on a large-faced wooden clock. "There will be time enough for such things later. This is the Festival, we should be enjoying ourselves! And speaking of which, I hear that you are participating in the joust as Sir Saulius's squire!"

Charles nodded. "Yes, I should be heading over to the central grounds shortly. He is going to be expecting me there on time."

"My Charles will be the highlight of the show!" Kimberly declared proudly, which caused her rat to blush slightly.

The fox chuckled a moment and then continued to pet Gornul affectionately on the head. "Well, best of luck to the both of you."

"Thanks!" Matthias remarked, still a bit embarrassed by his love's words. "Are you going to be participating in any contests this time?"

"I haven't decided yet. I might try for the archery contest again, Caroline definitely will be, but I am still not sure yet. That is the nice thing about the other events at the tourney, you don't have to have everything prearranged weeks in advance like you do with jousting! Do you know when you will ride first?"

Charles shook his head. "No, they haven't announced that yet." Darkly: "Although, Thalberg, who organized it, kept chuckling to himself every time he looked at me yesterday."

His Lady rat wrapped her arms about his neck, and drew his eyes to hers. Her voice was soft, and the feel of her fur on his own was almost magical. "Don't you worry about a thing! I know you will do a wonderful job! You are my Rat of Might after all."

Matthias couldn't help but smile, even as Misha chuckled dryly across the counter, and Gornul pranced in merriment. "Okay, you've convinced me!" He then quickly kissed her, to which the fox laughed even louder, slapping his thighs with one paw at the look of surprise that Kimberly bore.

Brightleaf then glanced over at another Keeper who had come up to stand at the counter. "Well, I have another customer, so I'll see you at the tourney!"

"Fare thee well," Charles called out in the tongue of Saulius's kind. "The next time we meet, I shall not be able to walk straight."

Kimberly gently slapped the back of his head, trying to hold in her own laughter. Misha however did not contain his, and guffawed loudly, startling the small robin that had bobbed up to the counter, poking its needle-like beak over the edge. "Best of luck to you, Charles, and a good day to you Kimberly, Gornul." The small dragon hopped up onto her shoulder at the mention of his name, and waved with a single paw at the fox.

The three of them left the fox to his own business, and continued on towards the central pavilion at the heart of the fields. Charles had been there before that week to gain some idea of the turf he'd be competing on. The thought of having a pony between his legs called back all the soreness he'd felt for the last week. Just for three more days, he told himself, and then he'd be undergoing a whole new form of physical exertion.

Glancing back at the booth, Charles pondered just what lay in store for him with the Long Scouts. Surely he would learn more and more about the land in which he lived, especially to the north. How long would he have to leave his love behind? How many days and nights would Lady Kimberly be staying up by her bedside, wondering if she would ever see him again? Surely his absence from the Keep would be noticed by many. Rumors had a nasty habit of spreading when odd things occurred. Being the subject of much of the Keep gossip in the past two months, Matthias wondered just how wise his decision had been.

And then he thought of the flaxen-blonde man Yonson. Resolutely walking towards the tourney where Sir Saulius awaited him, he knew that it had been the right decision. Holding Kimberly tight, he thought about how much he would miss her while he was gone. The fact that she would be here waiting for his return was enough for him to know. Because of that, he would come back each time. Nothing could keep him from her arms forever. Leaning over, he kissed her on the cheek, his whiskers twitching as he did so. Her eyes smiled right back, filling him with the profoundest of joys.

Sir Saulius's family crest had once been of an arching dragon carrying a bundle of wheat tied together in his front claws. And the knight had adamantly displayed it for the many years since he had come to Metamor Keep. Yet that was not the banner that Charles saw flying from the pinion that he would carry for Saulius. Instead of the dragon was the figure of a large rat clutching the grain. It brought a bit of pride to swell up in his chest. Although seven years ago he would have considered it lunacy to be proud of being a rodent, now it seemed to him to be perfectly normal.

Staring across the space that separated him and the knight, he noted the way Saulius stood perfectly still in the saddle. It was as if his whole body were incomplete without the horse between his legs. His back was perfectly straight, safely ensconced in the bright, iron plate mail, with his tail almost regally laying across the flat of the ponies back. His small thin legs clutched against the beast's chest stiffly, yet smoothly. The buckler was held relaxed in his left arm, while in his right, the lance was gripped tightly, the tip pointing high into the air. His visor was up, and Charles could see Saulius holding his head high, as if he were sure that he was the only man, rodent or not, alive in Metamor worthy to participate in the joust.

Even as his eyes strayed down to the ponies they were sitting upon, he could tell that Saulius's was more poised, almost noble in bearing. The bright red and gold barding covered much of its flanks, and the headpiece was marked by almost rodent-like ear guards as well as a mouth guard that looked very much like two overly-long incisors. To see the knight embrace the rat so fully was a bit of a shock for Charles. Before this last week, he had only seen this man try to deny what the Keep had done to him, sometimes even slipping into a state of delusion about what had happened, and attacking his fellow rats in the cellars. For Matthias, Saulius's acceptance of such things was one of the most satisfying reliefs he had ever known.

However, sitting on this horse was not. He had been here for fifteen minutes at least, and so far, all that he had done was sit in the saddle holding the knight's banner aloft. Charles had once asked Saulius if he could dismount, but the curt look that the rat had given him, not to mention the vehemence with which he rebuked him, was enough to convince Matthias that a little bit of discomfort was in his best interest. Still, as he tried to stretch out his legs, his toe claws standing very poorly in the stirrups, he wondered just how anybody could stand this. The horse was a fine animal and all - he had several friends who were horses - but he'd much rather trust his feet than theirs to take him anywhere.

They and the other contestants were lined up in the paddock just outside the main pavilion and ring. Once the crowds were assembled, the doors would swing open and they would ride on in and stand in formation so that the Duke could offer up his ceremonial address to make official the beginning of the Summer Solstice Festival. And then Thalberg would act as the Herald in calling out the names of the knights who would joust. The rest of them would return behind the walls and watch from a special area till they were summoned. Of course, they were to stay on horseback the entire time till after they had jousted and were eliminated. There were only seven other challengers in Saulius's size category, so knowing the knight as he did, Charles would be in the saddle the rest of the festival.

Already, he was getting a cramp in his left thigh. Reaching down with one paw to massage it, he caught a nasty glint coming out of the corner of one of Saulius's eyes. Charles returned his paws to holding aloft the banner, sighing a moment. He was looking forward to the actual joust itself, it would be very exciting to charge straight at one's opponent, or to even watch his friend do that. It was just the wait that was going to kill him first!

As he tried to get the kinks out of his tail, a fly started to buzz around him. Horses and flies seemed to attract each other, which had been one of the reasons Charles tended to avoid riding. With Summer upon them, the insects had finally returned for their brief four to five month sojourn. This particular fly was moving about his head, brushing against his whiskers and teasing his sensitive nose. He wanted to swat it away with his paws, but Saulius had been rather adamant about maintaining formality throughout the tourney. The proper ceremony must be adhered to, at least until their liege had given them leave.

Charles casually glanced along the line of knights and their accompanying squires. The array of colors and outfits was startling to the rat, who had never before witnessed anything of this scale. He had seen individual jousts before, but never an entire tournament! Most of the knights in the smallest class size were animals, though there were two children taking to pony from what Charles could tell. Apparently, most of the contestants were in the large or middle size categories, but of course, they each came into the pavilion from a different entrance. From what Misha had told him last night, he knew that Andre was going to be participating, but other than that, he'd heard very little.

Of course, when he saw the gates opening wide, he knew that his curiosity would be sated. Finally, he thought with some relief. Taking a quick swat at the fly with one paw, he grabbed his horse's reins and followed after Saulius, trying to keep up at his side. In the week of practicing, he had learned all about many of the techniques for proper riding. Apparently there were names for them all, but of course, Charles had by now forgotten them. Still, he was able to guide Malicon - the name of his pony - right alongside Armivest - Saulius's steed - all the way into the grand central pavilion.

It was larger than the one erected for the Spring Equinox. There were two rows of seats, with the central portion of the Keep-facing side reserved for Duke Thomas and his guests. The arena was arranged in a elongated circle, with long straightaways arrayed next to each of the bleachers. The ends were large walls in which the three gates were built. It was a symbolic gesture that not a single Keeper missed. Across from Charles he could see the large contestants in the joust ride in on the largest horses that were available, while to his right the medium knights made their entrance. There was a rousing applause as the hoof-beats clopped in through the dirt. Charles quickly scanned the crowd, but was unable to find his Lady Kimberly amongst the sea of muzzles and faces. Sighing wistfully, he promised himself that he would take the time locate her when he could.

All three groups of knights and squires made their way to the central courtyard, and turned their mounts to face Duke Thomas's balcony. A rather diverse collection was seated with him in the shaded and lush set up. Thalberg of course, who sat behind the lectern, and then there was Ambassador Yonson who was dressed in his characteristic Weathermonger purple robes. Wanderer was there as well, dressed in his most garish outfit imaginable, his lupine features finely manicured. Blinking in surprise, Matthias recognized the fifth figure that was there. There was always a spot reserved for visiting nobility, and this time it was filled by Lord Brian Avery himself! The squirrel must have left home well before dawn to arrive by now. Charles scanned the rest of the crowd, wondering if his wife and kids were here as well.

However, he did not have time to find them as Thalberg stood before them at the lectern, his reptilian gaze grabbing their attention. Opening his long crocodilian snout, he bellowed in a voice that needed no magical amplification, "My fellow Metamorians, on behalf of his grace, Duke Thomas Hassan the V, I welcome you to the Summer Solstice Celebration!" Cheers rose up from the crowds assembled, a deafening roar that made Malicon toss his head and nervously stamp his hooves. Charles patted him on the side of the neck reassuringly, and he begrudgingly settled down again.

The green-skinned and red-cloaked Steward held up both of his hands, and the cheers subsided. "It is my personal honor and privilege to introduce you to the Keeper who will commemorate our festivities with his voice and words. Let us welcome the Poet of the Court, Wanderer!" There rose a huge cheer as the wolf stood from his seat and joined the theatrical alligator at the lectern.

Wanderer's head turned form side to side as he collected his voice. He had done this many times before in the past. In fact, it was almost a tradition to have him wax eloquent at the start of each festival. Every head bowed over their seats in expectation of his brilliant words.

Suddenly, he held up one paw, bringing confusion on everyone. "Before I begin, I would like to say that I have for you not one, but two poems. As a favor to one of the Keepers upon this field, who did pen such blessed lines as these, I have agreed to recite a work that he wrote not too long ago. And then, you shall hear my own, a fitting tribute to an occasion such as this."

And then the crowd was breathless once more as the wizard of words began his incantations in a voice sublime, yet charged with passionate enthusiasm.

Whence the grip of cold retreats,
And the songs of birds dost sound,
The sun the Keepers entreat
To cheerful sport all around.

Put away the plow and hoe,
To Metamor Keep, get thee;
Do not take the time to sow,
But join in frivolity.

The sun, the sky, the fresh air,
The paeans of joy and bliss,
All this and more we do share
At this our Summer Solstice!

So come to the Festival,
Let it now begin for all;
Each face here so beautiful,
Be they furred , fair, short, or tall!

Charles grinned at that. The words were his own, written in a fit of jocularity one afternoon while trying to spur his muses on another work. He had liked the result so much, that he had specifically requested its performance. To hear them delivered with such power brought a wiggle to his whiskers. And then, Wanderer took a moment to breath, and began his own concoction.

We gather at tourney,
O Keepers united,
For contest of brav'ry,
Of strength and of skill.
To sharpen and strengthen
Our battle skills withal,
And keep Nasoj outfac'd
A hundred years still.

But tourney's for more than
The art of the battle,
Tho' practice of puissance
Is no cause to brood.
Comes laughter and merriment,
Joy without ceasing,
The tricks of the jongleurs, and
Glorious food.

So under raised glove of
Duke Thomas, his lordship,
Eat, drink and make merry
In revelous din.
But now, as you've tired
Of poesy and prating,
The rhyming is ended,
Let tourney begin!

As usual, Charles and all the rest of the Keepers, were impressed by Wanderer's masterful turn of the phrase. As the lupine stepped back from the lectern, humbly avoiding the adulation and applause for his fine words, the alligator came forward again. Holding his arms high, the Steward recaptured the attention of the crowds with the sound of his own voice, "Now let the tourney begin!"

The crowd, silent only for a moment, erupted into cheers once again. Matthias could see another fly buzzing about his head, and his eyes trailed it, noting its movements, the way it drew inexorably closer. He yearned to reach out and snatch it from the very air, but he dreaded the look Sir Saulius would give him if he did so.

Calming down the enthusiastic Keepers, Thalberg held out his poise impassively. "The first joust shall be between Sir Breyden and Sir Saulius! To your horses and to your sides!"

Matthias blinked in some surprise. He had not expected to have to perform so soon! At the very least that meant that it was unlikely he'd be jousting anymore today, or for the rest of the festival if they should lose to Sir Breyden. The name was unfamiliar to him, but at the very least he knew that this fellow was in the small category as well.

Most of the knights and squires left the pavilion through the gates they had entered. Sir Saulius started his horse off at a gentle trot towards the opposite end of the pavilion, and Charles was quick to follow him, the fly being left behind once again. His head faced forward, but his eyes strayed to the bleachers, trying to pick individual faces from the crowds. While he did not find Lady Kimberly, he saw many others that he knew. She was probably sitting on the opposite end of the pavilion then.

When they finally reached the end of the run, Sir Saulius lowered his lance into the bin which held two more spares. There were many more kept elsewhere, for surely they would break during the joust. Charles slipped the banner into a small stand, letting the wind keep the flag upright. He rubbed his paws together, even as he used his knees to turn Malicon about to face forward.

He finally got a chance to see who Sir Breyden was. From such a great distance, his eyes were very poor, with his opponent having removed his helmet, he could see that there was no muzzle upon that face. Breyden must be a child. His squire looked to be one as well. They were dressed in a diamond pattern, alternating between a light blue and a sullen gray.

Sir Saulius removed his own helmet, letting his whiskers twitch unimpeded in the late morning air. Sitting proudly in the saddle, he surveyed the field before him, and then coaxed his pony into a gentle trot towards midfield. Breyden did the same, while both Charles and the other squire remained at the far ends.

Duke Thomas remained in his seat, but called out in his exuberant voice, one that barely contained his excitement, "What are your intentions, oh knights of the realm?"

Breyden began first, his impish voice and declamatory manner giving a very bizarre imbalance. "Your highness, I have no recourse but to strike down my foe with honor and strength. I shall not let him disgrace this beautiful city with his presence any longer. From vermin he was born, and to vermin he shall return."

The slandering was traditional, and of course, given in good humor. Everyone knew that when all was said and done, these two same knights would lock arms in brotherly love and honor. Also, it was part of the contest. The more eloquent and elaborate the invectives, the more points they gained to determining the victor.

Saulius cleared his throat indignantly. "If it pleases thee, my noble liege, I wilst rid this most blessed of kingdoms of that scurrilous knave. Though I may appearest to be a vermin to thine eyes, thou knowest my heart is true, my spirit prizes honor, and that I remain unsullied, which is more than thou canst say of my opponent's wardrobe!"

The last elicited a round of laughter from the crowd. Charles tried to see what Breyden's face looked like, but he was too far away. The child however was quick to retort, "Venomous words indeed, from one who hides himself from others. Noble lord, let me dispatch this foul creature now, for nothing ever so indecent has taken to horse!"

Saulius was not daunted, for it was soon obvious who was going to win this first part of the contest. "My liege, if thou wishes it, it would be my greatest joy to fight this babe. It should not be difficult, for mine eyes have ne'er witnessed a horse older than the knight who rides her!"

"Nor I a rider who has a tail longer than the horse!" Breyden shot back.

"Nay, a horse whose mouth is smaller!"

It was obvious Breyden had not expected Saulius to reply so quickly, and for a moment he sat open-mouthed before stuttering, "Or a rider with bigger teeth." However, the damage was done. Even though Saulius's retort had not been the most devastatingly humorous, it had stumped the child, and so Duke Thomas interrupted before another word could be said.

"Stay your words, good knights! For you both speak but I want to see if your deeds are as good as your talk. To your sides, and prove yourselves knights of Metamor!"

Both Breyden and Saulius set their ponies into a trot, and Charles took a quick breath, realizing that now was his moment to compete. Pulling one of the stout lances from the box, he nudged Malicon over into the far right lane. Breyden's unnamed squire did the same at the far end.

Trying to focus his gaze on the long stretch before him, he could clearly see the first overhanging post with the metal rings dangling beneath. The Keep's engineers had devised the stands so that they could be resized for the various Keepers. There were three poles, at equal intervals along run. On each pole was a set of three rings of different sizes, with the largest one at the extreme edge of the pole. The trick was to snare more rings upon his lance than did the child.

Saulius had made him practice this for hours, after he had remembered how to properly ride a horse without falling off. Two days ago he'd been able to snare all nine rings one time. Wishing for something to gnaw upon, he hoped that he could duplicate such a feat.

Dan D'Alimonte had been asked to officiate the jousts, and Charles saw the three-armed grasshopper walk to the middle of the field, carrying bright green flags in two of his arms. The rat could feel the muscles of the pony beneath him tense as his own legs gripped the animal's sides. Watching Dan with one eye, the other focusing on the largest of the rings , he pulled the lance in close to his side, his claws digging into the wooden frame. He idly wondered for a moment what they had been fashioned from.

And then the flags fell, and Charles kicked Malicon's flanks with his heels. The pony lurched forward at full gallop, almost unbalancing the rat, but he remembered his practice, and righted himself before he could tumble to the ground. One paw wrapped tightly about the reins, the other about the lance, he charged, his eyes never leaving the ring. It grew closer with each moment, larger and clearer, looming ahead of him like some bright star.

And then he was past it, the metal post swinging around, and the ring decorating his lance. But his eyes were not on that, already focusing on the second post. Charles was upon it in the span of a few seconds, holding the lance just so, and it too spun madly away. The third was a mere trifle, and seemed almost as an afterthought. Yanking back on the reins, he turned Malicon about, and proudly displayed the three large rings upon his lance.

Staring at the far end, he could just make out Breyden's squire also holding his lance aloft. Taking a moment to peer at Breyden who stood perched in the saddle only ten yards away, he noted the youngster's grin. Had the other captured all three rings as well?

"Excellent work!" Duke Thomas called out from his box. "You both are quite talented. But can you capture three rings of smaller size?"

Matthias reached up with his left arm and wiped a bit of dust from his muzzle. Taking up the reins again, he breathed deeply, ignoring the soreness in his legs. The poles had swung back into place already, and his eyes turned to the second set of rings. From the looks of them, they were about four inches wide. The true position of squire was of a knight in training. The lance had to strike the opponent in just the right places. A mistake, and somebody could wind up impaled or worse. He had witnessed Saulius effortlessly remove these rings only a week before. Charles hoped that his friend did not think that their arrangement at present was an invitation to try to make a knight of him!

His eyes watching the grasshopper, he saw the signal flags fall again. Kicking Malicon's thighs once more, he thundered down the course, holding the lance at his side, aimed at the poles. It was a bit trickier on the return trip because he had to point the lance across his chest, which was not the safest course of action. If he was not careful, he could easily dislocate his shoulder or snap the bones in his arms.

Yet, the first ring glided onto his lance with ease, and he breathed a sigh of relief. The pony jostled beneath him, his whole body finally slipping into the rhythm of hoof beats. He snuffled at the dirt that was kicked up into his face, blinking against the noise, and trying to ignore the cheers of the crowd about him.

He gripped the lance tightly as the second pole came into sight, the ring dangling before him invitingly. He aimed for it, bouncing slightly in the saddle. The tip clinked the edge of the ring, and then slid off, missing it by a measure no larger than the tip of his claws.

Grimacing, Charles kept onwards, trying to ignore the fact he had missed one, and aimed for the last of the second three rings. His right arm was getting tired keeping the lance aloft, and so he let a little Sondeck seep in to steady it. His grip became one of stone, and the tapered point did not flutter as it easily pierced the very center of the last ring, tearing it from the pole, sending it snapping backwards with a loud crack. Pulling back on the reins, he stood next to Sir Saulius, and saw that he now had five rings adorning the lance at his side.

The crowds cheered even louder as Breyden's squire held aloft his lance, waving the bright blue shaft as high as his small arms would allow. Duke Thomas spoke in an awed voice. "Ah! So Sir Breyden, your squire seems to have one more ring than does Sir Saulius's. Perhaps he can even the score on this last and most difficult of challenges. Let us see who is the better!"

Sir Saulius gave him a reassuring glance and whispered, "Ne'er let it bother thee. Thy effort is commendable."

Matthias nodded breathlessly as he held the lance in the crook of his shoulder. Reaching up with one claw, he tapped the five rings, noting the bell-like tones that sounded. He wondered if there was a song somewhere within them, but quickly returned his attention to the quartermaster who stood in the center of the pavilion, his flags ready.

And then, just like before, Charles kicked the thighs of his steed Malicon, and charged down the course. The point of his lance glided right off the first ring, an object only two inches wide, and completely missed the second. Fighting back his frustration, he poured even more of his Sondeck into his right arm, nearly standing in the stirrups to gain better balance to capture the final of the nine rings.

It drew closer, each second divided into what seemed thousands of individual moments to adjust and readjust his stance, posture, and aim. The cheers and catcalls from the crowds diminished into an unrecognizable hum at the back of his mind. Even the powerful scent of his pony dwindled into irrelevance as Matthias focused all of his mind on this last ring, noting the way the sun reflected from its brassy surface, the way it gently swayed from the overhanging pole, and how to hold his lance to keep the tip right in the center of that hole.

And then those moments were past, the pole swung backwards with a pleasing crash, and the last of the three rings decorated his lance. Charles held it high, though he took no pleasure in his partial victory. Staring up at the box, he saw Duke Thomas begin another customary oration. "It seems that Sir Breyden's squire has captured all nine rings! What a magnificent feat! Surely knighthood awaits him."

Matthias kicked Malicon into a gentle trot towards the center of the field, where Dan waited to take the rings from each of them. If Sir Saulius did not handily defeated Breyden in the joust itself, then they would be eliminated from further competition. While his sore legs certainly would not mind, in his heart, Charles wanted to win the tourney.

As he passed the youngster, he stared at the childish face, noting the short brown hair and the chubby face. It was not anyone that he recognized. That meant he either lived in the town itself, or in one of the outlying regions in the valley. The stretch of the curse was for about half a day's ride in any direction, which meant that almost every region in the valley was affected. In all his time here, the rat had only seen the area about the Keep itself, and just recently, Glen Avery. Someday, he would have to visit all the other towns and fiefdoms under Thomas's rule.

"Sorry I did not do so well," Charles muttered as his pony came to stand next to Saulius's steed.

"It is of no consequence," Saulius replied mildly, lifting his own lance from the casing. He laid it in the crook of his stirrup next to Armivest's barding. Charles recognized it as the very lance that the knight had carried with him when he'd come to Metamor many years ago. According to Saulius, it had been in his family's house for several generations, passed on from father to son on the day that they received their knighthood. "Sir Breyden and young Henry hath practiced for well nigh a year. Thou didst make a valiant effort, an honorable defeat."

Though he did not take much solace in the words, it was good to know that he had not lost face with the knight. Malicon trotted back towards the rear of the field, where Charles could watch at a decent angle. Armivest pawed the ground impatiently, obviously excited by the murmuring chants from the crowds and by the way Saulius spoke to him. Matthias watched the rat and horse commune, the way his control over the beast was flawless. It had taken a lifetime in the saddle to give the man such effortless mastery over his steed. It was a skill that the writer could never hope to match in a thousand lifetimes.

Dan stood to one side, and dropped both flags, scuttling quickly off the field as the two armored men charged forward on pounding hooves. Dirt flew up, obscuring the rat's view of the two knights for a moment. Their visors were down, their shields held tightly in their left arms, and their lances were held at just the right height to be totally devastating if they struck. Matthias held his breath as they neared, running right alongside the jousting line.

And then, the unbelievable happened. Breyden's lance splintered in three places as it struck Saulius's shield off center, and the child himself was launched from the back of his horse, sailing through the air, to land a good ten yards backwards in a large metal heap. Saulius sat perched upon Armivest totally unharmed.

The lance that the rat had used must have not been made of the same material as had Breyden's. While the child's had broken into three pieces, Saulius's had bent slightly as it met the child's shield, and then snapped back into place. Charles had never seen the rat joust before, so had no idea that it would happen. The crowd was apparently stunned as well, for there was a brief moment of total silence, before it erupted into cheers and applause, with many chanting "Saulius! Saulius!"

Duke Thomas finally waved everyone quiet as he stood in his box. "That was some feat, Sir Saulius! You have unhorsed poor Sir Breyden in one strike! I declare you the winner of this match! Quartermaster D'Alimonte, will Breyden be able to walk?"

The grasshopper was crouched over the shaken form of the child, helping him slowly get to his feet. "I believe so, my liege."

"Get thee to Healer Coe then, Sir Breyden; you have fought valiantly, and you deserve the rest." Thomas declared even as Thalberg was preparing himself to announce the next contenders. He seemed a bit unsettled, but hid it well behind his reptilian mask.

Saulius approached Breyden on horseback, dismounting, leaving his lance in the holster. He removed one of his gauntlets, and held out his paw to the child. "An honorable match," was all he said, before the other knight removed his own gauntlet and shook hands. The crowd erupted into cheers again, before Charles and Henry escorted the two knights from the field.

The other teams waiting outside the gates were quick to congratulate Charles and Saulius on their efforts, but Matthias did not feel that he deserved any of the credit, though he did not say so. Only a few moments later though, even before the writer pretending to be a knight's squire was able to dismount, the Steward tracked Saulius down, his face very ugly.

"What is the meaning of using a lance that does not break?" Thalberg demanded in a hot voice. "If it were not for the Duke declaring you the winner, I would have you disqualified from the tourney!"

Saulius calmly appraised the alligator, while the other knights gave them both a wide berth, turning their heads away to talk amongst themselves. The rat then turned to Charles. "Do not concern thyself with this, but instead harken unto thy lady. I shall not have need of thee till the evening."

Matthias inclined his head as he dismounted, patting Malicon on the neck with one hand. "All right. I shall see you in the evening." He rubbed the horse's flanks with one paw, and then walked away from the stables and towards the bleachers. The Steward and Saulius would be busy for some time discussing this mysterious lance. He hoped that the rat would win the argument, but he had seen Thalberg angry before, and knew that it was not something easy to quell.

Trying not to worry about it, Charles set off in search of Lady Kimberly, eager to see her bright face once again.

Climbing to the mezzanine, Charles scanned the crowd for a familiar rodent face. When his eyes failed to spot Lady Kimberly in the bleachers, he idly wondered if she had decided to sit on the opposite end of the field. Before he could chance to scan the other side, he spotted a strange sight indeed. There was Chris, Fox Cutter's assistant in the library, sitting in a bizarre contraption with that girl who he'd come to watch after. It had been sometime since he'd seen the ursine outside of his room, and so he could not pass up this occasion to greet his friend.

Ignoring the remarks the two knights paid each other on the field, Charles stepped from the mezzanine to the bleachers proper, and angled past the enthusiastic Keepers who were laughing and slapping their knees with paws or hands. Chris saw him approaching, and raised his monocle to his right eye. "Ah, Charles! T' what do we owe the pleasure?"

Charles extended his paw, which Chris reached out and shook. Lurene smiled pleasantly as she stood upon slender legs brushing back a white-blonde curl over one shoulder with her smooth hand. She seemed used to being a woman now, after only two months. The bear was reclining in a chair with large wheels wrought from iron and padded with wood sidings. His feet rested in an almost boot-like apparatus, keeping them from scraping the ground. The bear's legs were noticeably thinner than when Charles had last seen him.

"Just happy to see you out of the Keep again. How are your legs?" Matthias gestured to the unmoving appendages with one claw. He twitched his whiskers hopefully, but from the look on Lurene's expressive face, he knew that it was not a false one.

Chris shook his head, his shoulders rolling in a half-shrug. "Coe's done what he can, but he doubts that I'll e'er walk again."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Matthias intoned, not sure what else could be said.

"'Tis all right," Chris held up a paw. "Lurene has helped me adjust. Bryan designed this moving device for me. He calls it a wheelchair."

"He was very helpful. I would like to know how he did it though," Lurene mused quietly.

Charles nodded. "I'll say! But, that cobra is quite inventive. A wheelchair, that sounds appropriate." His eyes narrowed as he peered at the mechanical contraption. "What magic powers this device?"

"Naught but my own strength," Chris replied, placing his paws on the rims of either wheel, and pushing forward and back slightly, the chair moving forward and back as he did so. "Pascal found means to give the soft woods of the region the strength of oak, but aside from that, 'tis purely mechanical."

"What a remarkable device!" Matthias crowed. "Remarkable indeed!"

The crowd about them erupted into cheers, and the rat turned about to see the two squires holding the prize of three rings each upon their lances. Chuckling drily, he turned back to the bear, and asked, "So, what are you going to do now that you can move about again?"

Chris watched the competition for a moment before sighing, as if the question were one he did not wish to hear. "Back to my studies an' instruction, as much as possible. The chair won't fit between the shelves in the library."

"You'll think of something," Lurene assured him, her crisp smile appearing once again.

"Ye're too kind," the bear replied, patting her hand on his shoulder with one paw.

Matthias laughed slightly, and then put one paw on the pommel of his sword hilt. Leaning slightly over, so that the chape at the end of his scabbard dug into the woodwork, Charles then said, "Are you enjoying the Festival?"

They both nodded. "If e'er I were going t' leave our room, I decided now would be the best time, with everyone bright and cheerful," Chris gestured with one paw at the excited masses. "I must say, ye did a fine job in yer bout."

The rat's whiskers drooped a moment in embarrassment. "Sir Saulius has been training me for over a week. I hope I will do better in the next event."

Changing to a slightly more serious tone, Chris inclined his head slightly, just enough so that the fur upon his cheeks would rub against the back of Lurene's hands crossed over one shoulder. "I've heard little since I took t' bed. Lurene has told me what she has heard, but mayhap somebody who has participated in some of these great happenings like ye could tell me more."

Matthias coughed slightly, as his eyes wandered across the field to the balcony in which sat the Duke and his guests. "Well, you may have noticed Thomas's peculiar new company."

"The man in dark robes and train?"

The rat nodded, feeling the back of his incisors with his tongue. "He's the new ambassador from Marzac. Yonson is his name. He just arrived yesterday."

"Marzac?" Chris looked to Lurene questioningly. "I've no knowledge of it. Have ye, Lurene?"

She shook her head. "My father," she said with some spite, "had dealings with many lands, but I've never heard of this one from him or from any of his friends."

"Well, I have heard of it in passing," Matthias remarked, not sure how much he should tell the bear. He knew that Chris had been reading up on the Southlands before Loriod had burned all of the books that the library had available. Apparently, a certain kangaroo was magically producing those tomes again and freely distributing them to anyone who would ask. Either Habakkuk brought them with him when he'd come to the Keep, or there was more to the kangaroo than even Charles suspected.

He continued before the bear could interrupt, "Apparently it is an independent land, south of the Pyralian Kingdom. I know very little else for sure."

"Interesting that we would attract visitors from so far away, especially ambassadors!" Chris mused thoughtfully.

"Is he planning to stay here despite the curse?"

"Yes, I was there when he made his intentions known. He's a mage as well and wants to study the curse itself."

"Does he think that he can accomplish what our mages could not?"

"I have no idea!" Charles spread his palms wide, wishing that he really knew what this man from Marzac intended.

"I suppose it would be wise to know as much about his land."

Matthias took one last look at the distant Yonson and then turned to face the bear again. "If I discover anything that I can be sure of, I shall inform you of it."

Suddenly, Charles felt a familiar weight land upon his shoulders. Turning his head to one side, he saw the bright blue dragonette peering back at him, an innocent expression of delight fixed on his face. "Oh! Hello there!"

Neither Chris nor Lurene seemed surprised by the sudden intrusion. In fact, the girl laughed slightly as the dragon balanced itself by extending its wings outwards, clipping the rat's ear a few times. He was a welcome sight, lightening the mood considerably. As usual, an image invaded Matthias's mind, this one of Lady Kimberly sitting by herself.

"Where is she?" Charles asked, and was met by the point of an outstretched wing all the way across the field towards the other side. Matthias turned about and peered across, and finally found his beloved standing upon her hind paws waving towards him. Grinning, he turned back to the bear, who was busy focusing on the two knights who were even now preparing for their charge. "I must go now, but I do hope to see the both of you again. It has been a pleasure talking to you, and it is good to see you up and about again, Chris."

"Aye, thank ye," Chris grinned slightly, the brown fur of his muzzle lightening as the sun shone from behind a cloud. "It's been good to see ye as well. Take care, and best of luck in the rest of the tournament!"

"Best wishes for the both of you!" Charles said as he turned and tried to find his way through the crowd again, even as the two knights crashed into each other, splintering lances and causing a great uproar. Gornul put his paws on the rat's head again, and sent a questioning image of the bear in the wheeled contraption.

"Chris was paralyzed a while back. It is sad to see, but good that he is still living. I suppose that is all that is important." Gornul nodded, and kept the image of Kimberly in his mind as well. "Yes I know! I'm heading to her right now!" Charles stepped onto the mezzanine again, and climbed down the stairs so that he could cross outside the pavilion and get to the other bleachers. Taking a quick peek inside the knight's paddocks, he could still see the crocodilian Steward standing with Saulius, his arms crossed and his gaze set. Closing back the door, he continued on his way, hoping that his friend could sort things out soon.

Stretching his arms wide, Charles stared past the opposite set of bleachers, where the sun was beginning to dip behind the western mountains. It had been a long exciting day, and soon, much of the evening entertainment would commence. They had migrated from the central pavilion to all the smaller shops and other contests much of the day, but now, as declared his stomach, it was time to go get something to eat.

Wrapping an arm about Lady Kimberly's shoulder, Charles gazed into her eyes for a moment. The bright oranges and reds of the yonder sky reflected in the deepest black for a moment before she turned her head to meet his. "This has been a wonderful day!" she declared, and Gornul hooted his agreement.

"Yes, it has. Would you care for me to accompany you to the Mule where we might celebrate with food and drink?" Matthias indicated the castle in which they lived, and which housed the Deaf Mule, with one arm. The gentle breeze blew through his light brown fur, ruffling it slightly.

"I would love to!" Kimberly rose to her hind paws, while Gornul hopped onto Charles's shoulders once again. The rat tried to peer up at the blue dragonette who was reclining on top of his head, but of course couldn't quite see that way. His Lady saw them both, and giggled slightly, one paw held before her mouth to hide it.

It was a nice stroll to the Inn, and the three of them gazed up at the dark clouds, and the colored mountains to the east. The last embers of the sun's light painted the skyline like some vast mural or fresco, bathing it in oranges and reds, and towards the far distance, violets and deep blues. Already, the morning star could be seen blinking just overtop a nearby pinion. For the first evening of summer, it was turning out to be a beautiful one.

Just as they left the Festival grounds, and were out of the crowds - though they were much sparser than they had been in the afternoon - Charles spotted a pair of familiar figures chatting in one of the side gardens. Most of the flowers were in full bloom, with neatly trimmed rose bushes to one side, and daffodils and lilies lining the other. Standing amidst them, in close but friendly discussion, were Garigan and Lord Brian Avery.

"Lord Avery!" Charles exclaimed, happy to get the chance to see the squirrel face to face. He was dressed in much nicer clothes than he'd ever seen him wear at the Glen. His family crest was inscribed into the upper left breast of his teal coat, a tree standing between two mountains. The sleeves were lined with silver filigree so delicate that Charles was sure that they would break if he so much as dared to breath upon them. The patterns seemed to be of triangles and circles interwoven together.

"Charles!" Avery declared, crossing the distance between them with an almost agitated gait. "Good to see you again so soon! Garigan here has been telling me a lot about you."

Matthias held out his paw and Brian shook it happily. "It is good to see you again. Let me introduce you to Lady Kimberly." Charles motioned to her, and the squirrel grinned.

"Ah, she is a pretty one! My Lady." Avery bowed floridly, and kissed the back of her hand. Kimberly chuckled, covering her mouth again in delight.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Avery. Charles has been singing your praises and the praises of Glen Avery. It sounds like a lovely place; I would love to visit sometime."

Lord Avery's long grey tail twitched in delight. "We would love to have the both of you down sometime. I should probably have a guestroom made to entertain such noble visitors as yourselves." His eyes then turned to see the blue dragonette perched upon the rat's shoulders. "And, another hero of the Glen! How are you doing, Gornul?"

The image of a dancing and skipping dragon filled their thoughts for a moment, though one whose tail still was sore from the accident earlier in the day. Brian shook his head, trying to stifle a laugh. "You have to keep yourself from getting hurt. What am I supposed to think if every time I see you, you need a Healer?" The levity was clear, and the dragon ducked his head , his face telling all of his mock shame.

"So, why are you at Metamor?" Charles asked, after they had all shared a laugh.

Lord Avery glanced over the top of the rose bushes back towards the Festival. "Duke Thomas invited me this year. It has been a number of years since I've been here though." He cradled a colorful funnel-shaped blossom in one paw. The flower itself was nestled between the rose bushes in an almost deliberate fashion so that it would be noticed. It took Charles a moment to realize what it was since he had not seen one in over six years. "These flower gardens are absolutely gorgeous, whoever maintains them does a marvelous job."

"I'll tell D'Alimonte you said so," Charles murmured as he tried to conjure the name of the plant from the recesses of his mind. He hadn't seen that particular flora since before he'd come to the Keep.

"Pray tell, what is this flower?" Avery held up the pink blossom to his nose, sniffing gently. "I've never seen anything like it. It is beautiful."

Suddenly, he remembered. "Hyacinth. It's found mainly on the Southern border of the Pyralian Kingdoms, and also in the northern extremes of the Southlands. I wonder how Dan managed to get one to grow in this cold climate."

"He probably had it in the Greenhouse," Kimberly suggested, admiring the blossom as well. "Well, however he managed it, I am impressed." Avery let go of the blossom, and stared back to his friends. Garigan stood near him, his paws crossed over the yellow stripes on his tunic.

"So, are your kids here?" Kimberly asked. "Charles has told me a lot about them as well."

Matthias blushed visibly at the very subtle look she gave him, and then coughed uncomfortably. Lady Kimberly seemed to be able to do that a lot more, though he did genuinely enjoy it. Lord Avery did not fail to notice the surreptitious looks that passed between them, though he did not comment on them. "Ah, well, I am planning on heading back to the Glen tomorrow, and bring them back with me to enjoy the final day of Festivities."

"Why didn't you bring them with you this morning?"

"I wasn't sure if the Festival would be appropriate for them. But now I realize that they might never get the chance again, so I want them to enjoy at least one day of it. Besides, it will do them some good to get out of Glen Avery for a while. They've never seen a real city, and they ought to.

"One day, one of them will watch over the Glen in my place, and they will need to have a good perspective of the world around them. I might as well start their education sometime. And besides, who doesn't enjoy the Festival?"

"Not a soul that I can name!" Charles exclaimed.

"We were on our way to the Deaf Mule to eat, if you two would like to join us," Kimberly invited, her face one of warm welcome.

Lord Avery shook his head. "Duke Thomas has invited me to supper personally, he wants to discuss the state of Glen Avery with me. I would love to accompany you, but am afraid that I cannot. Although I do intend to visit this Mule sometime. The last time I set foot in that establishment was before the curse."

"You will find, I think, that it is much the same as before," Charles said, his whiskers and face once again turned up in a grin.

"I would not be in the least surprised. Lars's place is not very different from when my Father watched over our people." Matthias could not help but notice that Lord Avery had used the word "our" and not "my". That he was thought to be as much a part of Glen Avery as those born and bred there gave him a certain pride. The bright flame of burning pine filled his bones; indeed, every fiber of his self, even the Sondeck which was usually so guarded against other loyalties.

Charles felt his arm wrap protectively about Lady Kimberly's shoulders. "I hope to patronize his establishment on a regular basis."

"Well, considering how much you made him after Mount Nuln, I think Lars would be delighted to hear that," Avery winked mischievously. In that moment, the rat saw that indeed Christopher and Darien were cut from the same mold as their father.

Kimberly gave him an askance look, and gently nudged his side. "Oh? You never told me that!"

Garigan turned about, chuckling lightly. Charles coughed momentarily. "I was buying drinks for Misha, honest!"

"Does Caroline know?" For some reason, whenever Charles saw his beloved with Misha's otter, he knew that the fox and his futures were being planned secretly behind their backs. He saw them whispering, looking in their direction, and giggling softly every now and then. Just as Brightleaf and Matthias had become firm friends, so too had Caroline and Kimberly, though they seemed more like sisters. That look in their eye always made him uncomfortable, like they were trying to imagine him in any number of compromising situations. Of course, understanding the feminine mind was always an impossible task for any male, and Charles was no exception!

"Probably not," the rat admitted, then wished he hadn't. Certainly Caroline would know now, and Misha wouldn't hear the end of it, just as Charles was doomed to a fate of never-ending lectures on the incompatibility of men and ale. If Kimberly ever found out that he had joined in bawdy song at the Glen -- Matthias shuddered at the merest thought of it!

"Try Sassafras tea," Brian advised sagely. "That is how Angela keeps me honest."

"Hmm," she remarked thoughtfully, turning on her heels slightly. "I'll have to try that."

Matthias looked over to the ferret who was barely containing his mirth, one hand over his mouth, the other on his belly. "Garigan, help! They are conspiring against me!" Of course this only sent his pupil into gales of laughter, rolling about on the terrazzo walkway, his fist slapping the marble stonework.

Kimberly patted his paw with her own. "Don't worry, it won't hurt that much."

Staring back into her face, he finally let out his own laughter, and hugged her tightly about the shoulders. "I suppose we should head to the Mule before it gets too crowded. We can see Lord Avery again in a couple of days. You will eat at the Mule on the last day of the celebration?"

"Invariably. Although I suspect that Angela will insist that she make my drink for me."

"That is very good of her," Kimberly added in support.

"Do you women always do that to us innocent males?" Charles asked, a sporting glint in his eye.

"Innocent?" she chirred incredulously, an almost mocking tone to her voice, though, with Garigan still rolling about the gardens in fits of uncontrollable laughter, it was hard for her not to break out into a grin as well. "I hardly would call any of you innocent! Wait till I tell Caroline this one!"

"I think I can wait for that," Matthias winked, tickling one of her sides with his claws.

She batted away his hands, slipping out of his embrace for a moment in surprise. Giving an exasperated sigh, Lady Kimberly inclined her head to Lord Avery respectfully and said, "Well, it was good to meet you. I'm glad to see you haven't corrupted Charles too much! I would very much like to meet Angela, I hope to see her in a couple of days. Sassafras tea sounds like a wonderful idea!"

Brian waved with one paw, even as Garigan slowly got to his foot paws. "I'll be sure to tell her that. Good to meet you at last, and good to see you again Charles. Best of luck in your jousts tomorrow!"

"Thank you very much, my Lord. And safe journey to you and your family." Finally turning about and leaving the gardens, walking back towards the castle itself, he shook his head, and hugged his beloved tightly. "I do love you, but I wish you'd stop trying to get in the way of manly things!"

"Manly things?" She inquired with that same disbelieving tone. "I'll have to fix that." And Charles stood open-mouthed, wanting to reply, but not knowing how in the world he could argue with that statement of such finality! Indeed, Caroline and his sweet rat must have some hidden manuscript somewhere which detailed the remainder of their lives, and all the manly habits that Misha and he were to be broken of.

Before he could say anything else, Kimberly looked over her shoulder back towards the gardens which were positively glowing in the fading twilight. "Lord Avery sure seems to be a nice fellow."

Charles nodded, rejoicing inside that they had gotten off the subject of his vices. "Thomas and Phil have been telling me of their hopes to eliminate the nobility all together. If every noble was like Lord Avery, then there would not be a need as they say."

She snuggled her head against the nook of his shoulder as they walked towards the inviting establishment, heading for the smaller side door as usual. Somebody had placed wreaths of flowers and pine cones in the eaves, and the large weather vane in the shape of a prancing mule atop the tiled roof had been polished to a crisp brass. The main doors opened and closed as patrons went in and out, carrying the sweet aroma of candle-wax, scrumptious meats and breads, as well as the alluring and permeating odor of Donny's many fine ales and meads. He hoped that Kimberly did not choose today to start stripping him of his manly behaviors.

"Is it true that Lord Avery's children were born as squirrels?" Kimberly asked, her face one of simple curiosity.

"Why yes. I've never seen children with such energy as those two." Charles replied casually, not really thinking about it. His stomach was in control at the moment.

"That's wonderful," she smiled slowly, but it seemed that she smiled with her whole body, not just her face. Charles hugged her close, grinning back as they entered the warmth of the Deaf Mule for their evening meal.

Misha was exhausted. He had been up since dawn, and aside from manning the booth for an hour he had spent the whole day training the newest recruits to the Duke's army. Part of his obligations as a Long scout were to impart his knowledge to the rest of the soldiers. So he had spent the whole day teaching the finer points of using a longbow. The next two days would be spent in field craft, showing them how to move quietly in the forests and meadows, how to recognize a trap, and how to spot an ambush. The list was endless. He didn't expect them all to become experts over night, but if even a little knowledge rubbed off it might save their lives someday.

Having spent so much time as a soldier, Misha had learned to cherish the simple pleasures in life. He was particularly fond of being able to have a hot bath anytime he wanted. Misha usually used the public bath, but this solitary one was perfect when he wanted to just relax by himself. It was also a great place for a private meeting.

The room he was in was small but very finely appointed. Gold leaf covered the door and marble and fine tile adorned the walls and floor. Even the benches that lined the walls were of the finest granite and carved with countless figures. A marble tub big enough to fit the largest morph was sunken into the floor. A small copper boiler in the corner of the well-appointed room heated the water. Misha stoked the fire up and undressed as he waited for the water to get hot.

Misha took two baths. The first was to cleanse the body. The second was to cleanse the soul. After he had finished his first bath the water was filthy with dirt and grime. He pulled the plug and let the water drain away, eventually it would wind up in a cistern in the greenhouse. Nothing in the Keep was wasted if they could help it. As the tub filled up again he placed a bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese next to it. Misha slowly slid in to the tub and relaxed. He sipped the wine, unwrapped the cheese and broke off a small piece to nibble on and let the warm water relax him.

There had been so much to think about lately. Things at Metamor Keep were changing and he was having trouble keeping up with them. Finally he put all his troubles out of his mind. Misha closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep.

A quiet sound brought the fox awake with a start. Standing in the doorway was a white rabbit morph. "Hello Phil," Misha said. "How are you doing?"

Phil shifted nervously before answering, "Well enough. And you?"

Meetings with Phil were always interesting. He had acquired more than just the body of a rabbit from the curse. When the change had occurred during the battle of the Three Gates, Phil had been badly burned. His fire-projector had backfired and he took the full blast straight in the face. The memory of a burning man writhing on the ground and screaming in agony was something Misha found hard to forget.

The change had saved his life, but at a cost. Every morph had acquired the instincts of his form but Phil had more than others. He wasn't reduced to an animal, but it did make him act strangely at times. When he was faced with danger he would run away. He wasn't a coward but the instincts made him do it. Misha being a fox, a predator that ate rabbits, made meetings between them harder. Not impossible, just harder. Having something of a reputation as an axe wielding maniac who collected the ears of anybody he killed didn't help much. Still they got along well enough.

"Matthias gave me his answer about joining the Long Scouts. He said yes," Misha commented.

The rabbit nodded. "That's good. He'll be an excellent Long Scout."

Misha nodded his head, "He wasn't as excited as I thought he would be. Matthias had a lot of reservations. I know he had other motives for joining besides helping to protect the keep."

"I'm sure that won't affect his performance," Phil replied.

"I don't think so either. When he makes a choice, Charles tends to back it up completely. He does nothing by measures. Still I'd like to know what those other motives are."

"How will you train him?" the rabbit asked.

"He's in good physical shape but his abilities are unknown to me. So I'll test his skills first," Misha explained. "I'll start with weapons, short sword, short bow, dagger. After that I'll work on his tracking and stealth skills."

"Don't forget the obvious things," Phil suggested.

"Like?" Misha asked.

"Can he swim?" came the question from the rabbit morph.

Misha laughed and shook his head. "Good point. I'm laying in a tub of water and it never even occurred to me. I'll have to add swimming lessons to the list of things to do."

"How long before he's a full Long scout?" Phil asked.

The fox shrugged. "Hard to say. Three, maybe four months. It depends on how well he does in training."

"I see," the herbivore replied.

"Well I think I've soaked long enough," Misha said, and got out of the tub slowly. He had long ago learned not to do anything too suddenly for fear of startling Phil. Once during a meeting Phil had accidentally knocked a cup of hot tea over into Misha's lap. The fox had jumped up and howled in pain. Before either of them knew what had happened Phil was out the door and halfway down the hall. The instincts had kicked in. Misha walked over to the bench where he had left his stuff. He picked up the towel and started drying himself. "Have some wine and cheese Phil. They're really good."

Phil turned his nose up at the cheese but he did pick up the parsley garnish and nibbled it as they talked. "What do you know about Matthias's magic ability?" he asked.

Misha shrugged. "A little. It's definitely some form of force projection. At least that's part of it. He has other abilities that I'm not aware of yet. I've been in contact with my sister Elizabeth. She's turned up some interesting information. She confirms that the group Matthias belonged to is called the Sondecki. It seems to be some small, southern, magic faction. They might be a guild of assassins, but I think there's more to it than that."

The rabbit nodded his head. "I can't picture Matthias as an assassin. How accurate is your sisters information?"

"Elizabeth is a fourth circle Mage of the Order of the Star, the largest mages guild in the northern hemisphere," Misha answered dryly.

"Impressive credentials, Misha."

Misha laughed. "They are, aren't they? She can at least use them to get a good seat in a restaurant."

"Any solid information on southern factions is very hard to come by," the fox commented. "Liz recognized that sword emblem you gave me, the moment I showed it to her. That is definitely a Sondecki symbol. Also Matthias' known abilities closely match what little is known of the Sondecki."

"Where does Rickkter fit into this?" Phil asked.

Misha realized that Phil had subtly changed the subject, and he wondered what the rabbit was hiding. Pushing him wouldn't get Misha any answers. When the rabbit didn't want to talk about something nothing could. "I think the raccoon was a member of a rival faction. I don't have any dependable information on it yet," Misha answered. "My best guess is that they're very small, and very powerful. It's certain the two groups are bitter enemies and have been for centuries."

"A soldier in a shadow war that has been raging for centuries," muttered Phil.

"What did you say?" Misha asked.

"Rickkter told the Duke that one time," was the answer.

"Leave it to Rick to give a vague and confusing answer," the fox commented.

"What are the two groups fighting over?" the rabbit queried.

The Long scout shrugged. "Who knows. The order has been trying to figure out the southern factions for a long time, to no avail. Southern magic is a lot different from our magic. In the north most mages are generalists. Meaning that they don't specialize in any one aspect of magic. Specialists like earth masters or fire wizards are rare. In the south such specialists are the norm. Some of the brands of southern magic are very rare and seen no where else. Plus the southerners seem to delight in secret societies and hidden orders. Unfathomable southern magic and magic users."

"We know for sure that both Rick and Matt have fled their respective factions," Phil commented. "We don't know why, as of yet."

Misha put down the towel and started brushing his long tail. "At least those two have stopped trying to kill each other for the time being."

The rabbit nodded in agreement as he nibbled some parsley. "But they still hate each other. There is no telling when another round of fighting could break out. We need to keep an eye on Garigan too. That's a complication we could do without."

"Agreed," Misha replied.

"Do you think Matthias is trying to start a northern branch of the Sondecki?" Phil asked bluntly.

Misha thought for a moment before answering. "No. Matthias wasn't planning on taking a student. He just happened upon the ferret. It was blind chance that brought Garigan and Matthias together." The fox stopped brushing and looked at his friend. "Phil, what happens if the Sondecki find out about Matt and his student? One thing my sister emphasized is you don't just quit a group like that. When you join, it's for life. A group like the Sondecki could wreck havoc in Metamor. A lot of people would die before we managed to stop them."

"I know. For the moment we have to concentrate on keeping their abilities secret. We also have to keep digging for information on these two groups. With knowledge we can develop countermeasures," came the answer. "At least we can count on Rickkter and Matthias to keep each other's secrets. If one is revealed they both are."

"The image of those two fanatic groups fighting each other here at the Keep really scares me Phil. They could turn Metamor into a battleground," Misha said.

"All too true," Phil answered. "What have you learned about him?" he asked.

"I've learned he is proficient in fighting, tracking and stealth, with some knowledge of history, and alchemy. He uses magic to supplement them all. Rickkter seems to be most proficient in fighting. Mind you, he is a very powerful person. His mix of magic and fighting is rare, but can be deadly if it's done right. From what I've heard from people who've seen him fight, he does know how to use it correctly.

"Rickkter uses magic to supplement his fighting. He's strictly a close quarter fighter and prefers to use his sword. By the way, that katana is a potent magic weapon. He attacks his opponents with what ever they lack. Against fighters he uses magic, and against mages he employs physical force. He seems to excel at finding an opponents weakness and exploiting it."

Phil shifted nervously at the mention of violence and Misha quickly changed the subject. "I want to approach Rickkter during the fair about joining the Long Scouts. If he doesn't want to join the Longs directly, maybe I can talk him into being a detached scout. From what George and Andre have told me, he's happy where he is, doing small patrols, and the occasional strike. We could have him report to you, me or George directly. How does that sound?"

The rabbit stopped nibbling and looked at the fox. "I don't think that's a good idea. I don't trust him."

"I understand that we know nothing about him, that he's hiding some really deep, and dark secrets. And he's one of the most arrogant people I've ever met, but I know we can trust him," Misha answered.

"How do you know we can trust him?" the rabbit asked.

"I don't have any hard evidence. All I have is what my heart tells me. My heart, my soul, tells me we can trust him," came the explanation.

"I'm supposed to trust a complete stranger without any proof, just because your heart tells you they can be trusted?" Phil replied with cold logic.

"Why not?" Misha countered, waving his brush for emphasis. "It's always been enough before. Besides with Rickkter in the Longs I can keep a close eye on him at all times."

Phil didn't answer for a long time, but finally nodded. "You're to keep a very close watch on him at all times."

"Understood," came Misha's answer.

"I certainly hope your faith in Rickkter isn't misplaced. We're taking a very big risk," Phil commented.

"I understand that point very clearly," was the reply. "Oh, did I mention I had an encounter with Oren this morning?" Misha asked, changing the subject.

"No," came the reply. "What happened?"

"Get this one Phil. He walked up to me in the dining room asked to join the Long Scouts," the fox said.

Phil stopped eating and looked at the fox. "Did you approach him about joining the Longs?"

"No, I didn't. And he knew that little patrol we sent him and Gornul on was a test," Misha commented, the surprise evident in his voice.

"Amazing. We need to keep a close eye on that otter. What did you tell him?" The rabbit asked.

"I told him that we needed time to decide, and I promised him an answer before the end of the fair."

The white rabbit nodded. "Have you decided whether to let him join?"

"No I haven't. He's still an unknown to me. At least I know Matthias personally and I understand how he thinks. Oren hasn't been here long enough for me to really judge him. It takes a certain mindset to be a Long," was the carnivore's answer. "Still, his anti-magic nature would be a great help, and he did very well on that patrol."

"I'll leave the decision to you Misha. I trust your judgement," the herbivore said.

Misha chuckled at that comment. "Thanks."

"Anything else to report?" Phil asked.

"No, I think we've covered everything," was the answer from the vulpine.

Phil patted Misha on the shoulder. "Thank you for the parsley and the wine."

"You're welcome." Misha said with a chuckle, and he waved playfully as Phil left the room.

He had not actually expected the Kankoran to arrive promptly, but he had thought that the raccoon would at least show up before he'd have to prepare himself for his second joust. He had not seen Saulius since leaving him standing in the stables being accosted by Thalberg, and so he had no idea when he would have to take to horse again.

However, he absolutely had to talk with Rickkter. Much as he loathed the idea of that thing disgracing his office with his presence, there was nothing that could be done about it. The raccoon was too loose with his tongue and too full of his own self-conceived invincibility to be trusted not to give vital information away unless he was warned.

But in the meantime, while the rat waited in his office, he finished up a bit of the story backlog that would be passed off to Tallis in a few days. He was planning to formally announce his resignation as Headmaster of the Writer's Guild the day after the festival. It would be effective immediately. Still, he loved the job, and if he could take this one last time to revel in it, he would.

Of course, when he heard the back door to the Guild burst open, and the sound of heavy breathing in the hallway, he knew that he had edited his last story. Setting down the quill pen, he stoppered the inkpot, and leaned back in his chair for the expected explosion.

Storming through his door, a very irate Rickkter held aloft the very same message that Charles had penned now one hour before. "Okay, what the hell is this?" The raccoon's voice was cranky, but behind it Matthias could hear the usual arrogance.

Although he knew he had to wait, he was rather irritated already at this disagreeable fellow. Not only had he made him wait, he'd also made him decline a summons from the Duke. Apparently, there had been more visitors to the Keep, though from their description, the rat had seen no use in attending. These matters were much more important. Thus, his voice was harsh when he snapped back, "Where the hell have you been? I've been waiting close to an hour for you to get here."

"I was rather busy." Rickkter crossed his arms before his chest, his eyes cold, but focused. "You wouldn't believe how long it takes to catalogue, index, and sort through seven years of material accumulated from places spanning the length and breadth of this continent." Sneering: "Besides, when I saw that the message Kee gave me was from you, I wasn't especially anxious for this meeting."

Gnashing his teeth slightly, Matthias put all of the anger he felt for this slayer of his brethren into his heart and left it there, sealing it beneath his own symbol, a sword inside a shield. When it had dawned on him last night at the Mule that he would have to confront Rickkter, he'd forgotten how violently angry the raccoon could make him. Yet, he could no longer afford to put it off any longer. "Nor I you, but this is too important. It concerns both of us."

It was clear that the Kankoran did not believe any of it. His voice dripped with sarcasm. "How so?" Charles could almost see the raccoon thinking beneath that black mask of his, "As if anything you had to say would concern me."

Glaring at the ancestral enemy of his clan, Charles tried to measure his words, and his tone. "When you came here I agreed to spare your life, and you to spare mine. We would not reveal the secrets of the pasts that we both keep." Watching the stiff muzzle and perturbed eyes, he could tell that Rick was indeed listening, albeit reluctantly. "Have you met the new ambassador?"

"I heard there was one. I try and stay out of politics as much as I can." Rickkter shrugged ever so slightly

Matthias tried not to grin, though he knew his next words would grab the raccoon's attention. "Well, I think you might want to pay attention to this one. Like us, he is a southern mage. More importantly, he's from the Chateau Marzac."

The reaction was not quite what Charles had expected, but he found it surprisingly pleasant just the same. Rickkter stood there for several seconds, totally silent, his mouth not even forming words. Suddenly, he found his voice again, his retorts lacking the earlier condescension. "You're lying. Either that, or you have the poorest sense of humor I've ever had the displeasure to see. No one goes to Marzac and comes out alive."

"Sondecki don't lie in such matters, as you well know. And this is not a joking matter."

"Yes, and that's the whole problem. You're certain he's from Marzac?" Rickkter placed an almost cataclysmic emphasis on "certain".

No longer able to take joy in the shock, Charles simply nodded. "That's what he says. He claims that it was exorcized."

Stepping to the desk in the merest moment, Charles could only see horror on his nemesis's face. "That's not possible. Mages and clerics have been trying that for ages. No one's succeeded, and few have ever returned to report the failure." Cocking his head to the side, the mage asked, "Did he say how it was done, by any chance? I've got to hear that."

"He said several priests cast an elaborate exorcism upon the Chateau."

"No Lightbringers?"

"No, only the Ecclesia was involved." Rickkter leaned on the rat's desk, rubbing his muzzle thoughtfully with one paw. Charles ignored the affront, though secretly hoped that the raccoon was sitting in an ink stain. "You don't believe in the power of Eli, Rickkter?"

"I know something of the Lightbringer power. And I know the history of the magic at Marzac. And, quite frankly, I don't believe that any exorcism could remove that taint."

"Then you wouldn't trust someone from Marzac?"

Rickkter shook his head. "Not even as far as I could throw them."

"Good. Because that's what I wanted to talk to you about. We both know that neither you nor I will betray the other because we each have so much to loose. Yet this Yonson is very different. He is a purple Weathermonger, and I have no clue as to his history or former allegiances."

"Marzac managed to get a purple as an ambassador?" Rickkter asked, frowning slightly, his whiskers drooping as he did so. "How did they manage to steal him away from his enclave for that?"

"I haven't the slightest clue. But I felt I had to warn you about him. And I want to ask you to stay away from him. If he finds out about either of us, things could go to hell very, very quickly around here." About that, Charles made no exaggerations. If the ancient evil of Marzac was alive in Yonson, then there was no telling what that man could do to either of them.

"Don't you think you're overestimating the seriousness of his finding us out?" Unable to believe the words he just heard, Matthias peered incredulously at Rickkter with his black eyes. "Perhaps you're right."

"Good," said Charles. "Now, if you'll please leave, I have to get ready for the jousting tournament. I've wasted enough time already."

"Well, there is one more thing we need to discuss."The contempt had returned to his face and voice, and Charles found the change disquieting. "What are you doing taking on a student?"

Rising from his seat, he glared up at the slightly taller figure. He could feel the power of the Sondeck coursing in his blood, filling his arms, yearning to be unleashed. "We agreed that we wouldn't interfere with what the other is doing."

"And you think that your taking on a student isn't going to tip off Yonson? Great Maker, you have that ferret running around in uniform! And around here, yellow stands out like a sore thumb. Assuming you have his attention, Yonson will no doubt find him very fascinating. He might not be sure what kind of mage you are, but since you aren't a normal one, it is going to perk his interest. Which, if I remember correctly, is precisely what you wanted to avoid."

He bit a chunk from his chewstick in frustration. The fact that he knew Rickkter was right felt like the sting of hundreds of jellyfish. "Garigan is my student, and my concern. And speaking of him, I want you to stay away from him. He is hot headed and temperamental, and I don't need you provoking him."

"Me?" Rickkter asked, the faked innocence clearly intended to insult.

"Yes, you," Matthias retorted, jabbing a claw at Rickkter. "You are not to interfere with my training of him in any way, is that clear? You are to stay away from him. And if you don't, then you'll face my wrath."

"Is that a threat?"

"It's a promise," Charles snapped, his control of his anger barely holding together. "And don't think you can stop me either. You know what a Sondecki is capable of." The last time they had talked, each had traded ultimatum's declaring that neither could be stopped. He hoped it would not become necessary for each of their meetings, for it would quickly grow tiresome. "Now, as I said, I have to get ready for the tournament. Will you please leave?"

The Kankoran bowed mockingly, spreading his arms wide, and keeping his gaze leveled at the rat till he backed out the door and was gone. Charles breathed a sigh of relief, returning to his chair, gnawing away at his chewstick therapeutically. Though they were both Keepers now, Rickkter would have to know that his warning was more for his benefit than the raccoon's. Still, he did feel better for both of their hides now. If Rickkter wished to pursue Yonson, there was nothing anymore the rat could do.

However, he did have other obligations to attend to. The tourney would recommence before much longer. Slipping into his dress tunic, the red's and gold's bright against his fur, he left his office for what could indeed be the penultimate time, and then the Writer's Guild itself. The air was crisp, and the sky was full of bright cauliflower clouds. The sun shone brightly over the eastern ridges, warming him as any summer should.

Of course, by this time already, most of the cobblestone streets were filled with Keepers flocking to the Festival grounds. Charles had little trouble slipping through towards the pavilion and the stables nearby. It was about half full, but then again, half of the competitors had been eliminated yesterday. He found Sir Saulius brushing down Armivest's legs with a small wool blanket. The ponies black fur shined in the morning sunlight, and the barding hanging from a rafter to one side glistened from a recent polishing.

The lance that leaned against the side of the stall was not the same one that the rat had used to defeat Sir Breyden yesterday, though it had been painted in the same red and gold cylindrical pattern. Charles pointed to it and asked, "Is that a new lance?"

Saulius nodded as he folded the cloth in his paws. "Aye. The master of our liege's noble manor insisted that all lances be fashioned from wood of the ash tree."

"So that it could break instead of bend?"

"Thy mind is quick to see, my good friend, Matthias," Saulius agreed as he began to fasten the barding onto the back of the restless pony. "Prepare thy horse."

Charles found Malicon grazing lazily, his creamy white head stuffed into a feed bag. He quickly saddled him, and draped him in the pinions and colors of his master. Petting the equine upon the neck with one paw, he whispered words of encouragement to him, noting the way the animal seemed to brighten up at the rat's touch and voice.

"I think he really likes me," Charles said aloud. "Do you think that I will be allowed to keep him after the Festival is over?"

Saulius shrugged, "Thy question needs be asked of another, for I cannot tell thee yea or nay."

Nodding, he returned his attentions to his friendly steed, and watched as the other knights and squires began to stream in for this day's jousts. Try as he might though, the previous conversation with Rickkter plagued the quiet portions of his mind. While he pondered over what to do about Garigan, the time quickly went past, and soon he was sitting in the saddle and riding out onto the field.

He watched Thalberg and Wanderer commence this mornings affairs, but his eyes really weren't on them. Yonson was sitting in the shade of the balcony alongside Duke Thomas. Father Hough was there as well, draped in a green cassock, with his feet dangling from the chair, waving back and forth in the air. It warmed his heart momentarily to see the child priest, but his eyes were drawn back to the ambassador from Marzac. The bright blonde curls framed his solid face, with the almost innocently eager blue eyes watching the field. That face would begin to change in less than a week, but the rat doubted that he could hate it worse.

Before Matthias realized what had happened, he was following after Saulius towards the other end of the field to join in his second joust. As they reached the end, Charles slipped the banner into the proper stand, and turned to face down the field. Though he had a hard time making them out, he could tell that his opponents were both musteline, probably ferrets or weasels. Leaning over towards the knight, he asked in a soft voice, "Who are they?"

"The knight is Sir Molvere, and his squire is Dorl. They both hail from Lorland," was the curt response.

"Lorland?" Charles asked in some surprise. "I didn't know they had any knights!"

"Aye, but even the repugnant Loriod knew that skilled knights are a mark of honor and prestige."

Matthias shifted about in the saddle, his inner thighs wishing that he did not have to be here. Saulius rode forward, to meet Sir Molvere before the Duke to trade the customary barbs. The rat scanned the crowd quickly, while eyes were off of him, and spotted his Lady Kimberly sitting in much the same place as before. She waved to him once, and then focused on the knights themselves. Charles could hear them speaking, but did not listen to the words. His mind was too full of the things Rickkter had said to focus on anything concretely.

Before he knew it, Saulius was riding back, a certain familiar twitch to his whiskers, and he knew that the rat had once again outwitted his opponent. Charles pulled the lance free from the stand, and got the feel of it in his arms. Letting it sag a bit towards the front, he kicked Malicon over towards the run, where the poles were once again set up.

Patting the friendly pony on the neck, Charles watched the grasshopper in the center of the field, and then once the flags were down, he spurred his horse into action, running down the length of the field. Unfortunately, try as he might, he could not keep focused on what he was doing, that raccoon's face and Yonson's face floating throughout his mind. There were so many questions, and no answers for any of them.

Once again, the contest was over before Matthias could realize it. Upon his lance were five rings, two large, two medium, and one small. He flinched at his poor performance, and rode sullenly back towards his knight mentor. Glancing across midfield, he saw Dorl hefting seven rings upon his lance. He took no consolation in the fact that his loss was not as bad as the first.

Sir Saulius's face was impassive as he sat astride Armivest. The pony pawed restlessly at the ground, his breath coming in huffs, and his head and tail tossing slightly whenever the rat took his hand away from the beast's neck. Yet despite the obvious restlessness of his mount, Charles could tell that his friend was in total control, and when the time came, his steed would do as instructed.

Shame faced, Charles shunted the images to that back of his mind, staring down the length of his muzzle, past his nose and whiskers, he focused on the joust itself instead. The murmurings of the crowd were soft, apart from the isolated cheers as the two riders faced off , their lances held in the stirrup. A bit of sunlight glint of the chape at the end of Saulius's scabbard as his body tensed.

And then, the crowds held their breath as the two riders plunged forward, dust churning up from the sodden field. Charles tightened his grip on the pommel of his saddle, watching as the musteline and rat stood ever so slightly in their stirrups, their shields before them, and their lances sharp and held straight out. With a sudden cracking, both lances broke away, Saulius quickly discarding the remains of his, as Armivest rushed past Sir Molvere's steed.

The two combatants turned about, rushing back almost stately to the bins to retrieve a spare lance. Charles took a moment to briefly glance up at the balcony, and saw Thalberg's reptilian grin grow wider. Apparently, the Steward had received what he'd wanted.

The crowd tensed as the two knights charged again, the earth thundering beneath the ponies's hooves. Charles could see the ferret – or at least what appeared to be a ferret – running in the same fashion as before, but noticed something amiss in Saulius's stance. The rat was holding his shield slightly askew, almost pointing inwards. With a start, Matthias realized that he was intending to draw his opponent's lance inwards towards his very own chest!

It would be undue to raise a cry, so silently he sat upon Malicon, his knees nervously buckling inwards until the ploy that Saulius had so cleverly planted came to fruition. Molvere had seen the oddly turned shield, and had compensated, holding his lance farther out. At the last moment, Saulius reversed the direction of his shield so that it once more pointed away from him, but of course, by then Molvere was forced to swing the heavy weight back into place.

The motion unbalanced the ferret, and gave Saulius the opening he needed. Tilting his lance upwards, he unhorsed the musteline, and continued rushing past, even as the other knight crashed to the ground in a clatter. Rising unsteadily to his paws, Molvere tried to draw his sword, but fell to his knees, and the dropped his head between his fore paws, and just lay there breathing heavily, even as his own steed cantered back, nuzzling him gently in the shoulder.

Saulius dismounted and walked Armivest over to the fence line. D'Alimonte was rushing on to the field as well, even as Duke Thomas once again gave accolade to the rat knight. Charles gazed across the crowds at the applause and cheers. Unsteadily, he felt a prickling sensation rush over his back, and he turned towards one side on a whim. Staring at him, and clapping his paws together was Habakkuk. The kangaroo seemed to glance away, but Matthias knew that his fellow writer had been watching him the entire time.

Nudging Malicon's thighs, Charles urged the pony onward, joining the others at a trot, and carrying the banner of Sir Saulius overtop his shoulder. The final joust would be tonight. Unless they scored enough points in their rounds to participate in the joust of the third day, or The Joust of the Keeper. At least that is what it was being called. The two best knights from any category would compete. The rat had a vague sense of premonition that he'd be upon horseback that day.

Taking one last look at the crowds, he rode alongside Sir Saulius towards the stables outside the pavilion. Already, the faces of Yonson and Rickkter were invading his mind, and clouding his thoughts. They were joined by a third face, that of Zhypar's. Not a combination he liked in the least.

"Have you seen Charles, good sir?" Garigan asked a random stranger as he maneuvered threw the tightly packed crowds lining the corridors between booths and shops. "You know Charles, the rat, head of the Writer's Guild?" The ferret had only been living in the Keep for just over a week now. He would never grow accustomed to how many people lived here! So many faces, so many names - he could never learn them all!

The woman pointed over towards the large pavilion that was at the center of the fields. She rested a hand on his shoulder, and leaned in close, her cheek almost brushing against his whiskers. "I think he's competing right now in a joust. If you go to the far side of the bleachers and stand just outside the stables there, I think you can catch him after the fight is over."

Garigan growled loudly, his frustration with trying to navigate through the crowded streets and only getting turned about each time showing clearly. "But how do I get there? I try to walk straight towards it, but I just get lost and find myself back at the Keep!"

The lady chuckled, a small laugh that seemed vaguely humorous. "You aren't from around here, are you?"

"No, this is the first time I've ever been here," he confessed between clenched teeth. It felt like he was going to be crushed by the press of bodies. How he longed for towers made from wood, not these facsimiles of stone!

Her face brightened visibly. "Well, it is really quite easy." She licked her lips once, her finger tracing out the streets ahead. "Do you see the jewelers sign?" He nodded, and she continued, "take a left turn there, and keep going. Just follow the street and you will eventually come out on the archery fields. The pavilion entrance is right there."

"That doesn't sound too bad," Garigan confessed.

The woman stood back from him then, and smiled winsomely, her hands cupped behind her back. "Best of luck to you then!" Before Garigan could offer her his thanks, she had disappeared into the crowd.

He let his arms drop to his sides, sighing heavily. However, his left paw landed on a tassel of loose string. Looking down, he saw that it was the laces with which he had tied his money bag to his side. They had been cleanly cut with a knife. The moneybag was gone. Jerking his muzzle back up to peer into the crowd he shouted, "Hey! Thief!" However, it was no good. A few Keepers looked aghast, but of course, he could not remember her face, and so they returned to their own business.

Balling his paws into fists, he momentarily contemplated chasing her through the crowd. He could feel the anger of old building inside him, his whole body tense, the rage burning so hotly that it could have scorched his garments. Then, the ferret noticed the yellow stripes down both sides of his tunic, and the words that his master had taught him. Closing his eyes, he focused on the image of his heart again, with his marked paw clutched around it. Breathing deeply, he pulled himself inside again. When his eyelids came open, his whole demeanor had softened to a preternatural calm.

Sighing wistfully, he turned about on his pads and hoped that the directions the footpad had provided were worth the price she had exacted from him.

The Jeweler's shop was easy to locate, though each passing step the ferret wished he was back in his lovely Glen Avery. When he had first come to the Keep, things had been mostly calm, though the growing anticipation for the Festival had been the constant background hum of the Metamorian gossip. Still, he had been caught up in that wild anticipation, never realizing that it would be as insufferable as this!

However, as he looked about the shop, he realized that there two left turns he could make. He stared at them open-mouthed for a minute or two before finally just deciding that he was better off just waiting for Charles back at his room. Surely he would come to bed at some point!

As he was turning about, Garigan heard a familiar voice calling to him from over by the Jeweler's booth. Staring threw the mesh of bodies, he spotted the reddish-tan fur of one of the strangest appearing of any of the Keepers. His tail was long and thick, and his feet were almost as long, with thick hips that made it almost impossible for him to walk normally. His long ears wobbled to one side or the other as his dark brown eyes motioned him over invitingly. Garigan blinked, realizing that he knew this was one of Charles's friends. At least he didn't have to worry about this fellow walking off with his trousers! "Habakkuk, right?" Garigan asked as he drew near, leaning against the wooden siding that marked the Jeweler's temporary booth.

The kangaroo nodded after a moment, his paws clutching a small stein that he took a gentle sip from. "You look like you needed some company."

"More like a guide actually," Garigan remarked sourly as he waved his paws at the crowd. "How can you stand living like this? I don't think I've ever seen this many people in my life!"

"Well, one gets used to it. I used to be a trader, so I grew up in and around big cities like this. Is this the first time you've ever left Glen Avery?"

"Yes," he nodded after a moment, his voice a bit forlorn. "I miss it terribly. Lord Avery was here for a bit yesterday, but I didn't get much chance to talk to him. Only a few minutes."

"It must be hard leaving your home," Habakkuk observed, his eyes straying to the Jeweler who was delicately working over a small bluish-green gem with a file.

"Very." Garigan patted his side. "I just got robbed, by one of you Keepers not fifteen minutes ago! Back at the Glen we shared everything we had with others. The only thing I remember ever being stolen was one of Mrs. Levins's pies, and that was by a bunch of mischievous children. Boy, did they regret that! Not a one of them sat down for a week."

Zhypar shrugged. "It doesn't happen much here, but the Festival times are bad about it. Especially to visitors." Garigan grunted sourly, while the kangaroo took a quick drink. "So, I hear that you are Charles's student."

The ferret stiffened a moment. "So?"

"Well, I was just wondering what he was teaching you," Habakkuk asked calmly. "After all, he's never done anything like this before."

The ferret actually laughed bitterly. "Why don't you ask him? All he ever has me do is clean up his room and other boring mindless chores."

Garigan could feel the kangaroo's eyes upon him. He shifted a bit uncomfortably under that scrutinizing gaze, turning his attention back to the stone that the badger was cutting. The slightly accented voice of his companion however was quick to unsettle him more. "I am curious, just how much do you know about your master?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, not taking his eyes off of the gemstone.

"Well, you live with him now, how much do you know about him?"

"Not much really, he can be a very nice fellow when he wants to be, but don't ever interrupt him while he's in his office." His gray fur shuddered at the memory of his faux pas. "I had no idea that a latrine could smell so bad!"

Habakkuk chuckled warmly then, taking another drink from his mazer. "Yes, he can be quite surly while he's working. But what I mean is, just how much of his past do you know?"

Garigan blinked for a moment, turning to look at the kangaroo square in the face. Those impassive brown orbs gazed back, while his ears stood erect, and his nostrils breathed slowly. The way he held the stein in one paw, and the way his whole body was angled, the ferret could tell that this was a man completely self-composed. There was nothing menacing in his demeanor, but Garigan still felt a bit put off.

"Not much really, I never asked and he has never told me." He found it surprisingly easy to lie about matters of the Sondeckis. For the truth be told, he knew a great deal of Charles's history, as the rat had told him many great tales of his order, and of their exploits, tales that had filled the ferret with wonder and excitement, and purpose.

Zhypar grinned knowingly. "He never does, unless you beat it out of him, or figure it out for yourself." He paused a moment and then chuckled. "Actually, come to think of it, I've never known any to beat anything out of him! He is a rather tight-lipped fellow, that rat."

"Why should his past matter?" Garigan asked brusquely. "After all, he is a Keeper now. The past is dead to him."

There was a brief period of silence as the kangaroo turned away, looking out towards the crowds. The turbulence waxed and waned as the moments trickled by. The stomping of paws, hooves, and boots could be heard, as well as the careful craft of the Jeweler behind them. Garigan considered the writer, noting the way he appeared to stare past all of that, the mountains, the Keep, and even the vague fog-filled horizon. The ferret fancied Habakkuk's world filled with nothing but himself and whatever it was he saw past the sky.

And then the moment was past, and Zhypar turned back to the table. "Before this year has seen its last day, somebody is going to die from a shadow without a shadow." The pronouncement came from nowhere, and seemed to lead there as well. The ferret blinked in surprise, his whole face scrutinizing the creature before him even harder. He had expected a jocular grin to accompany such a ridiculous remark, but only saw a calm seriousness that left him cold.

"Are you drunk?" Garigan asked testily.

The kangaroo chuckled mirthlessly then, sipping from his stein. "I wish I was." He then lowered his head, his face abashed. "I am sorry for saying such nonsense. I must look like a fool!"

Before the ferret had a chance to agree, Habakkuk spoke again, his voice once more inquisitive. "So, you doubt that his past matters? All of our pasts are important one way or another. The past determines the future, and the future charts the past. Who Matthias was is just as important as who he is and who he will be. More lives than just his own hang on that."

"What are you talking about?"

"All of our actions can come together to decide what we shall do next. I do not speak ill of him, just cautiously." He nodded towards the aquamarine gemstone that was nearly cut to perfection in the skilled hands of Will Hardy. "Very few of us ever have the power to shape diamonds for this world. To do so requires the greatest of dedication and skill. To know just where to cut and were to smooth is essential to the craftsman's art.

"Charles could crush those very same diamonds if he so wished."

"You are drunk!" Garigan concluded.

Habakkuk shrugged his small shoulders and took another drink. "Your master walks through this world leaving ruins in his wake, ruins that he cannot see. I ask you, what is better, to only have enough power to fashion the diamond, or to have enough to crush it?"

The ferret blinked, shrugging. "Well, what is the point of crushing a diamond?"

"Good question," the kangaroo agreed. "Very good question indeed. The world is not as simple and straight forward as it first appears. You have to observe carefully so that you know where to make the cut so that the diamond is perfect. Matthias still takes the path of least resistance and so he crushes the diamond."

"Charles is a good rat, he'd never do what you describe!"

The accusation did not seem to phase the writer, who just took another drink of the foaming yellow elixir. "I think you are right; I am drunk. Well, no sense in wasting it. You said you needed a guide?"

Garigan stepped back and shook his head, feeling very uncomfortable around this mad fellow. "No thank you. I shall find my own way." With that he turned on his paws and without another word, marched resolutely off into the crowds, trying not to think about the words that he had heard. Most were quickly forgotten, but one phrase lingered in his mind till he finally successfully made his way to the pavilion: "Before this year has seen its last day, somebody is going to die from a shadow without a shadow."

The crowd was thick, Andre and Jenn had to fight their way towards the rickety fence that defined the field. The people gave way to the two wolverines reluctantly. Jenn stepped close to the fence and examined the field. Earlier the one-on-one fights had taken place here. She could see the occasional patch of dried blood, amidst the flattened grass. In the center of the area, a small stone table had been placed. She couldn't tell what items were on the table, but she could see that there were many of them. Flanking the table were two poles, each as tall and as thick as she was.

Andre stood behind his wife and wrapped both arms around her. Jenn enjoyed the feeling of having her husband's strong arms about her, his fragrant musk filling her nostrils. She was enjoying every moment of this fine day. With Andre being an important officer at the Keep and a gate captain, having the whole day to spend together was a rare luxury for them.

Jenn turned around towards Andre. "I thought you said Misha would meet us here?"

Andre smiled revealing a mouth full of long sharp teeth. "He'll be along in a minute."

"What's going to happen here?"

"Didn't Misha tell you?" Andre asked in some surprise.

The female wolverine just shook her head. "No. All he told me was it would be a surprise."

Andre laughed. "Oh it'll be a surprise all right."

Jenn started to say something but the crowd let out a roar drowning everything out. Andre pointed toward the field. She looked in that direction and saw two figures walking to the center of the open area.

She recognized the two people instantly, they were Misha and Caroline. The fox was dressed in full chain mail armor with the hood pulled back to reveal his vulpine head to the crowd. Caroline was dressed in a long white dress that went all the way to the ground.

Misha was carrying his double bladed axe. It was fully five feet long and completely black in color. Jenn had heard tales about it, but had never really seen it being used.

Misha held up his hand and the crowd quieted down to a low murmur. "GOOD AFTERNOON EVERYBODY," he shouted. The vulpine held the axe over his head with both hands. "This fine weapon is called by many names but my favorite is the one the Lutins gave it; Whisper.

"Most of you know me as 'that axe-wielding, homicidal maniac' but few know how good I am at wielding this fine weapon," Misha said loudly to the crowd. "Well, I'm here to correct that oversight. The great axe is a vastly underrated weapon. People think it's a crude and brutal weapon, but in the hands of an expert it can be very graceful."

Caroline moved to the table, picked up a silk handkerchief and held it at arm's length, about shoulder height off the ground. Misha nodded, and the otter dropped the handkerchief. It got halfway to the ground before the fox moved. Suddenly he swung the axe in a figure eight pattern and then straight down. The handkerchief fluttered to the ground in six, separate, finely cut pieces. The crowd clapped and Misha took a long, graceful bow.

Without warning Caroline threw two things at the fox. Misha swept his weapon back and forth with lightening speed cutting both objects in half. Caroline picked up the pieces of one and held them up for all to see. It was an apple. "If Metamor is ever attacked by a fruit seller, we can depend on Misha to protect us," she commented dryly. The crowd roared with laughter.

Misha didn't say anything but just stared at the otter for a moment. "How about I try something a little bigger then," he said. With that he turned and stepped in front of one of the posts that flanked the table. The blade cut through the post without slowing down. Then, with a long swing he brought the axe down into the table. The blade cut through the stone with no resistance and the table collapsed into a heap. "Never let it be said that Whisper lacks power."

Caroline and Misha stepped away from the remains of the table. "For what I'm about to do, I ask for total silence," he told the crowd. "I call this the dance of one hundred cuts." He looked at Caroline who nodded in return. Suddenly the fox swung the axe in a fast cutting sweep that missed Caroline by the thinnest of margins. The otter didn't move, just stood stark still. Jenn flinched as the blade flashed horizontally past Carol's throat close enough to slice off the bow on the collar of her dress. The crowd was deathly silent now.

Misha launched into a graceful dance around Caroline swinging the axe in great loops and swirls. Each sweep of the great axe took it's sharp edges terrifyingly close the otter. Every few seconds the blade would come into contact with the cloth of her dress, cutting through it without the slightest problem. He moved slowly at first, but gradually moved faster and faster until the axe was just a blur. No one made a sound, frightened that it might cause a catastrophe. They all watched in silence as cut after cut appeared in the otter's dress. One slice cut the fabric covering her legs and Jenn saw the woman next to her faint. Another cut appeared in the fabric covering Caroline's stomach. Finally with one grand flourish he brought the axe to rest with the head on the ground. There was stunned silence for several moments. The otter walked around the area, showing everyone that although the dress was ripped in dozens of places, there was no blood. She hadn't been cut once, such was Misha's skill with the axe. The crowd let out a roar and broke out into wild applause and cheering. Jenn happily joined them.

Misha bowed several times to the crowd as he and Caroline walked over to the fence where the wolverines were standing. "Hello," he said as a greeting. "What did you think of my little demonstration?"

"That was fantastic!" Jenn said with excitement.

"I'm glad you liked it," he said, obviously pleased with himself.

"You owe me a new dress," Caroline said nonchalantly.

"Are you all right?" Jenn asked, concerned as they hugged in greeting.

"I'm fine," Caroline replied. "And Misha still owes me a new dress."

The fox let out a yip of indignation, "You said it was an old dress that you didn't mind losing."

The otter shook her head. "I don't remember saying anything like that," she said mockingly.

"Ok honey," the fox replied. "I guess you don't want to go to dinner tonight," he said.

Caroline puffed up in surprise and started to sputter a reply, but her lover quieted her with a lick on the muzzle. "I'll buy you the finest dress you've ever seen," he said in a warm tone.

Caroline tenderly caressed Misha on the side of the face. "That's what I love about you. You really know how to treat a woman."

The other knight fell lopsided from his saddle, tumbling to the ground in a heap as Sir Saulius rode past him in the fading hour of the evening. Charles watched with interest, though mostly he was gazing down at the eight rings he had managed to snatch on this his third try of the tournament. At a sudden exclamation from the crowd, his eyes returned to the combatants again, only to see that the child of thirteen had risen to his feet, and drawn his sword from the scabbard. Saulius dismounted to meet him on foot.

The ring of steel against steel filled his ears for a moment, before the opposing knight finally dropped his sword, clutching at his arm, and stifling a sudden cry of pain before it escaped his lips. Saulius sheathed his own blade, and lowered a paw to assist his foe to stand, even as D'Alimonte returned to the field, and Duke Thomas once again declaring that the rat knight was the winner of the joust. There would be two more jousts before sunset, but if they wanted to squeeze them in by twilight, Charles and the rest would need to get off of the field quickly.

Malicon cantered into the stables, while Saulius rode Armivest in proudly before him. Matthias leaned the banner against the stall, and wiped the bottom of his muzzle with one forearm. "Well, it seems that we've won our category."

"Thy observation is astute," Saulius remarked as he dismounted, cradling his feathered helm underneath one armpit. "And thy valor hast brought me honor as a knight. Wouldst thou consent to be my squire at the next tourney as well?"

Charles dismounted, at a loss for words. He straightened the kinks out of his legs, patting the agreeable pony on the neck with one paw. It nickered softly as the rat petted its fur. "If I am here and of good health, then I shalt surely be at thy side." For some reason, answering any question that his friend the knight asked must be done with careful attention to his choice of words and to the formality of his tone.

Saulius put his helmet aside, and took Charles into a sudden embrace! "Thy words lift my heart! I pray that our noble liege will honor us with a request to return once more to the field and joust one last time!"

Charles knew of what his friend spoke, and while his heart desired it, his legs were less than eager. Malicon nudged his shoulder plaintively and the rat broke free of the knight's arms and picked up the feedbag that had been hanging from the wall. Draping it over the pony's head, he returned his attention to Saulius. "Dost thou think we will be chosen?"

"Ne'er worry thyself over it. What will be, will be." The rat then returned his attention to Armivest, removing the thick barding from the horses's head, who seemed eager to return to the field, his hooves stomping, his breath snorting, and his flesh shivering in excitement. Saulius turned to face him again, his paw firmly gripping the braided quillon decorating the hilt of his blade. "Thy duties to me are ended for this eve. Go, and fulfill thy duty to thy love."

"Yes, my lord." Charles brightened at that, dropping the water bin into place for Malicon, patted him on the neck one last time, and then turned about on his rear paws and headed for the mezzanine once more. He did not need much urging from his lord knight to see his Lady. Climbing the steps, and listening to the shouts and laughter from the crowd as the next pair of combatants began the traditional test of wits, he scanned for signs of his love.

It took the rat only a moment to spot her tan fur, deep black eyes, soft pinkish ears, all draped in a lovely blue gown. Unlike the others, she was looking at the mezzanine, and when she saw him, her whole body seemed to glow, the last embers of sunlight matchless against her. Charles scrambled through the mass of bodies cheering and hooting for their favorite knight. Sitting beside his Lady was his pupil Garigan whose grey fur was slightly ruffled beneath his small collar.

"Lady Kimberly, Garigan!" Charles exclaimed as he came to sit between them. "What fortune dost smile upon me to greet me by two such as yourselves?"

Kimberly put her paw on his thigh, and leaned over to give him a quick kiss on the his thick-furred cheek. "Whatever fortune it is, I am thankful for bringing you to me safely."

"I never even fought, how could I get hurt?" Charles replied in exasperation.

"If I wasn't hear to watch after you, you'd manage to find a way!" She chided impishly. Matthias grinned at her playful eyes, wrapping one arm about her shoulder and smiling, his tail encircling her own. "You look very beautiful in that dress you know."

"Thank you," she grinned, her whiskers twitching at the compliments. Charles knew the reprieve could only last a moment though. "You are very handsome in that outfit; is Sir Saulius going to let you keep it?"

"I should hope so, I think I've earned it." Matthias stretched his legs meaningfully, still trying to get that slight cramp out from his thighs.

"What is it about you? Every time you turn around somebody's giving you a new set of clothes!" Garigan asked ruefully, his eyes glancing across the field in aggravation. It was obvious that he did not care for the press of so many Keepers at his shoulders and back.

The rat shrugged, patting the dirt stained red and gold tunic with one paw. "I am not sure, but I certainly hope that it is not a passing trend. I have not worn a simple tunic in days."

"You are not wearing black either," Garigan mentioned, his own paws tracing down the yellow stripes upon his breast. Charles nodded, and then unbuttoned the top two clasps of his shirt, and held open the breast to reveal the black lining. "Ah, forgive me for doubting you."

"There is nothing to forgive, you did not know," Matthias assured him as his claws adroitly reassembled his front.

"Would you like me to get this cleaned for tomorrow?" Kimberly asked though the last part of her questions was drowned out by the clash of the two knights in the center of the field. The crowd rose up on its feet to cheer as one of the riders was propelled backwards much in the same way that Sir Breyden had been the day before.

Matthias turned back to Kimberly, and smiled. "Thank you, that would be lovely, but I must decline. I can't let you be working at a time like this!"

She leaned over, resting her head on his shoulder. "It would be a labor of love, my knight."

The rat blinked even as his arm encircled her shoulders, holding her close. "Um..." was all he managed to say before he turned back to face his pupil. "So, have you been enjoying the festival?"

Garigan snorted contemptuously. "Hardly. There are too many people here. Somebody even stole my moneybag. And don't get me started about Habakkuk."

Charles's felt his ears perk up in interest, ignoring the change of knights upon the field. The last joust of the day would begin in moments. "Habakkuk? What about him?"

"Well he said some strange things. I think he was drunk."

"Zhypar talks too much," Matthias muttered unhappily, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his beloved, who sat back up and peered into his face. He had hoped to appear impassive, but from the look of concern in her deep black eyes, Charles knew that his demeanor had let slip the hint of animosity that was brewing between himself and the kangaroo.

"He said that you act impulsively."

"Oh he does, does he?"

Garigan grimaced slightly, his musteline features bunching up at the front of his muzzle. "Well, that is what it sounded like to me. Habakkuk is a strange fellow. I'm not sure what to make of him."

Charles nodded but his gaze still shone dark. "Stay away from him, he is dangerous. Don't believe what he says about me either." The rat tried to smile to his beloved, but she was still wary.

"I thought you two were friends?"

The rat squire blinked a moment, and then sighed. "We were. I wish that things could be the same between us as before."

"What happened between you two?" Garigan asked, his aggravation ebbing.

"I shall tell you later, but not now. It is not one thing that I refer to though, but several things combined."

"Oh, I ran into Rickkter today as well. He had a message for you," Garigan lithely announced, rubbing his grey paws together.

"What was it?"

"It was about our new ambassador," Garigan whispered quietly, his face recognizing the severity of the situation.

"In that case, I think we should retire to the privacy of my quarters. What I am about to tell you is not for just anyone to hear." Charles rose to his rear paws, and started back towards the mezzanine, with Garigan and Kimberly following closely behind. A sudden cry came from the crowd, and the rat took a moment to glance onto the field. One of the squires, that of Sir Andre's, had been yanked from his horse, and was clutching an obviously twisted hind leg in some agony.

Kimberly noticed as well, and her face fell at the sight. "Oh, poor fellow. I suppose Sir Andre will be out of the tournament now."

Charles glanced back to the face of the wolverine, but it was hidden behind the visor. Shaking the sudden thought from his mind, he continued towards the mezzanine, and descended the stairs towards the flagstone walkway back to the Keep itself.

Though most had jammed into the pavilion to see the last jousts of the day, the streets were still full of various Keepers and travelers from nearby fiefdoms. The Summer Solstice festival always attracted the largest crowd, because it was so easy to travel during this time of the year. The Winter Solstice was, likewise, the smallest gathering of folk. The snows would start sometime in late October, or during especially warm years November, and wouldn't leave till late February or early March. On the highest of peaks in the barrier range, the snow never left.

Still it did not take the three of them very long to make their way through the vibrant scents and odors of their fellow cursed humans to the Keep itself. In the last light of the sun, the marble shone purplish-red, the towers gleaming against the dark sky and clouds. There was a certain amber hue that clung to the top of each minaret, and it reflected faintly onto the terrazzo far below.

Passing beneath the arched entablature of one of the entrances, Charles took a moment to gaze at the ivy that clung to each side. Bright purple blossoms decorated both pillars, closing up slowly as nightfall approached. Like most fauna, it was naturally occurring in the valley, and something that until six years ago, he had never before seen.

Shaking those thoughts aside, the rat led his two friends to the small oaken door that led into his apartments. Inside it was dark, but Charles walked over to the mantle, and struck upon a block of tinder to spark a meager flame upon a single candlewick. Quietly, he crossed over the flagstone, carrying the waxy smell with him to light the lamp at his desk and bedside. Returning the candle to the top of his hearth, he waved for his friends to enter.

Lady Kimberly stepped inside first, and pulled herself up onto the bed, her tail draping across one side of it, and her small paws dangling freely over the other. Garigan pulled the single stool close to the mattress, and crossed his arms, his toe claws gingerly tapping the stonework. Charles closed the door quietly, and then peered and sniffed into the ferret's room, but found nobody in the darkness.

"So," Matthias began, his gaze crossing from one to the other, "what did Rickkter tell you?"

Garigan shifted about on the wooden stool, his short tail jittering in agitation. "Yonson defeated him in a magical contest."

"Defeated?" Matthias started, his claws biting at his palms.

The ferret nodded, "He didn't look too happy about it either, he was massaging one of his arms when I found him. Rickkter says that the ambassador should be paying more attention to him than he will be to you now."

The rat put his paw in his muzzle, scratching and tapping at his front teeth with one claw. "I don't know if that is good or bad. Aside from his arm, how injured was he?"

"Enough to need a wall to support him when I found him," Garigan grinned momentarily at the thought of the raccoon's humiliation, but at seeing the rather dour expression on the face of his master, his own cheer fell. "He did say something strange though. Yonson saw him use some artifact of his, he said you would know what."

Matthias blanched even further. Rickkter was indeed insane for showing the Weathermonger that Sondeshike. "I don't trust Rickkter, not one bit, and I want both of you to stay away from him. The same goes for Ambassador Yonson."

"What's wrong?" Kimberly asked suddenly, her face full of confusion.

"Almost everything I am afraid. This last week has altered the course of all of our lives. Especially mine. In two days time, I will no longer be a member of the Writer's Guild."

"What?" Kimberly exclaimed, totally taken aback at his words.

"Why in the world are you doing that?" Garigan asked, shifting a bit uncomfortably.

"Because of Yonson. He is from the Chateau Marzac, as I am sure you all know by now. Well, the myths and legends I have heard since my childhood about that place mark it as one of the, if not the most unholy spot upon this land. He claims that it was exorcized, but I cannot trust his word, and I cannot go near him lest he discover my secret."

"What's that?" Kimberly asked, scooting closer, patting the quilt with one paw. Although Charles had revealed much of his past to her, there were some things that he had not been able to say.

"That I am a mage from the Southlands as well. Rickkter has given himself away it seems, but I can hardly expect anything resembling common sense from the raccoon anyway. Still, he does recognize the potential danger, and if Yonson defeated him, then there is more going on than even I realize. So, I am doing what I have to do, getting away from Yonson and putting my abilities to use at the same time."

Kimberly indicated that Charles sit down next to her again, and he finally joined her on the bed, wrapping his tail over hers. "What are you going to do? Are you leaving the Keep?"

Matthias shook his head. "Had I known in advance that he would be coming, I probably would have made arrangements to move out to Glen Avery."

Garigan perked up at the mention of his home. "Well, why can't you do that now?"

"I would, but it would start more gossip than I can stomach, and that would get his interest."

"And quitting the Writer's Guild is not going to attract attention?"

Charles nodded once, though he had his doubts now that the question had been asked. "I'm going to go on sabbatical, claim I'm working on some large story myself, go out on patrols and all that. It will get some attention, but it is nothing new, others have done it before."

Kimberly put her paw on top of his and held it there. "So what are you really going to do?"

"You have heard of the Long Scouts?" Garigan shook his head in bewilderment, while Kimberly slowly nodded, her paw gripping his tighter then, as if to restrain him and keep him here.

"The Long Scouts are basically the elite patrol force at the Keep. They are the Duke's troubleshooters, making long treks into the Giantdowns and staying away from the Keep for months at a time if necessary. It's going to be hard, dangerous, but at least I will be with friends. A couple weeks ago I was asked to join. I've already said yes, and I will get started after the Festival ends.

"Since on occasion I will not be here for weeks at a time, I will leave instructions for the both of you. These secrets cannot be let out. I want you both to swear you shall not speak of this to anyone. Swear it!"

"I swear on that which we share, that I will say nothing," Garigan immediately replied, his hand over his heart, palm flat against the stripe of yellow on his tunic. And Charles knew, that Garigan would die first before uttering even a word of this. The Sondeck would not let him break his word. It had been hard enough for Matthias to overcome his ill-spoken vow these few months back. The only reason he could ever break it, would be to save lives.

"I swear on my love," Kimberly intoned quietly, her face full of sorrow. She then threw her arms about his neck and held him close. "Oh please be careful! I love you!"

Charles wrapped his arms about her, and held her close, chittering softly. "I love you too, I will be careful. I know that I can trust both of you with my life, with all of our lives."

"Will you still train me?" Garigan asked, as he fingered his color.

"Of course, I will never forget my obligations to either of you! How could I? As I said already, I will leave instructions for you. Don't practice out in the open though, you never know what eyes will be watching."

"I shall do as you say," Garigan bowed his head low, his ears twitching slightly. With one paw he smoothed out the nice grey fur atop his head. Grimacing after a moment he looked back at the door. "I suppose we should put in an appearance at the Mule for dinner?"

"Yes, that sounds like a very good idea," Charles helped Kimberly down from the bed and quickly straightened out his doublet and hose. "Care to challenge me to a game of pool?"

"If we can get to the thing! Copernicus has opponents lined up you know," Garigan laughed at that, the frustration gone from his countenance. Kimberly said nothing as they walked from his little hole in the wall through the castle, and towards their evening meal with the rest of their friends.

"So, you must be Lady Avery?" Kimberly asked in greeting, nodding her head slightly, her eyes quickly casting to the ground on reflex.

The squirrel giggled slightly in delight, her long tail twitching at different times than her husbands, almost as if the Averys' tails were having a conversation themselves. With one paw she gripped the two youngsters Darien and Christopher, who seemed very eager to rush off to every booth in sight. "And you are Lady Kimberly. It is a pleasure to finally meet you."

Brian and Charles looked at each other, and then at the familiar glint in their females' eyes, and then back to each other, visibly sighing. "Well, I suppose I should let you two get acquainted. I'll show these two rascals about. Matthias, would you like to help?"

"I'd love to," Charles grinned, disentangling himself from Kimberly's embrace, nuzzling her once before following after Lord Avery and his two boys.

Over his shoulder he could vaguely hear the two of them whispering to each other. "You must forgive Brian, he always does this when we're in mixed company." "Charles too, you think they were afraid of us or something." All of which was followed by female laughter, and then more whisperings. By this time though, they were out of earshot, and so both men let forth sullen groans.

"I suppose I should apologize to you for antagonizing you the other day in the gardens. I should have known what would happen when Angela came with me," The Lord of the Glen began, striding purposefully to the booth farthest from his wife without leaving the boulevard.

Darien looked up suddenly, a mischievous grin curling upon his muzzle. "Is this one of those topics we aren't supposed to know about?"

Both Matthias and the noble blinked at the perceptive remark, and then laughed slightly. "No, just something you get to look forward to when you grow up and find a woman." Brian turned to face Charles after the two youths had focused their eyes on some glass figurines. "Have you ever tried to put your foot down before in front of a woman? Angela just laughs at me and tells me everything will be all right, and that I'll get used to it. I'm supposed to be the ruler of my fiefdom, yet I don't even have control of my household!"

The rat shook his head, watching the elephant behind the counter show off some of his more gaudy works, surreptitiously moving all the more expensive items out of the two young squirrel's reach. "I grew up surrounded by men, so I'm only just discovering this little wonderful facet of married life. And I'm not even married yet!"

"It only gets better," Brian assured him with a pat on the back.

"I don't think I shall complain too strenuously," Matthias remarked as he glanced over his shoulder. Both Kimberly and Angela were watching them, grins upon their faces. While in some sense, it was good to see the love of his life enjoying herself, that particular smile did not sit well with his sense of maleness. Snapping his head back to the booth, he saw that the two boys were growing bored, and quickly hurried them along to the next booth

While Darien and Christopher gawked over the clay wares, Charles spoke in a soft voice, "They seem to be enjoying themselves."

Lord Avery nodded once, his face filling with pride. "Yes, they've never seen anything quite like this. Making them sit still for the trip over here last night was rather painful though. Every ten minutes it seemed I had to grab them and put them back in the center of the carriage. One time Darien climbed underneath the seat of all things!"

The rat blinked in surprise. "That's dangerous."

"Yes, I know. Angela gave him a stern reprimand at least. She is so much better at it than I am."

The two young squirrel's chittered gleefully as they watched the woman shape a slab of clay into a nice banister upon her potter's wheel. Matthias watched for another moment before saying, "How long has she been stuck in the Glen?"

Avery looked thoughtful for a moment, rubbing his chin with one paw. "I'm not sure exactly. The last time I was here excepting two days ago would be the Fall festival three years prior to this one. Darien and Christopher were still too young to travel then, and Angela stayed at home with them. I suppose she has not left the Glen since the curse took us! Oh my! Where has the time gone?"

Matthias shook his head. "Until a month before I came to the Glen, I'd never left the Keep since my arrival six years ago. Now, I want to take every opportunity I can get. I've not seen much of the world in my lifetime, I suppose now is as good a time as any to start."

"Before you have a family that is. I have to look after my people too. I envy you Charles. You have the freedom to go where you wish when you wish it. I do not. I will live out my life in the Glen, with brief visits to the Keep and other fiefdoms. I may never leave this valley.

"Even before the curse, my father never took us for many trips. Diplomatic functions never took us further south than the Iron Mines. Though he did once go to Starven, I was too young at the time to remember. I stayed behind with my mother; she was still alive at the time."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Charles grimaced, scraping his claws against the flagstone uncomfortably. "I just assumed that nobles could go and do as they please."

"Some do, those that do not care how their people fare. Whether they have food to eat on their plates or not. Whether they are protected from enemies or not. I care about these things! I cannot leave my people whenever I wish. I know that they will survive fine in my absence, but it is still my duty and I will not shirk it, not for whatever pleasures I may obtain."

"I suppose I'm used to nobles that, while not being terrible to their people, have always done as they will," Charles stammered slightly. Phil was absolutely right. Matthias's notion of the nobility was immature and ignorant.

"I do enjoy my life, I honestly do. But the nobility has its own chains."

Charles nodded again, and then grinned as the two young squirrels displayed bits of clay that the potter had given to them. They appeared to be simple bowls, though in a very delicate script, the initials "D.A." and "C.A." had been inscribed in the bottom.

"How much do those cost?" Avery asked them, looking up at the flaxen potter.

"Consider them gifts to two very sweet boys." She grinned once, and then returned her dark muddy hands to the wheel, drawing lines in the wet earth.

"Thank you, fair one," Lord Avery inclined his head respectfully. "This is a most generous offer."

She shook her head, smiling briefly, but turned back to her work. Christopher and Darien were busy trying to out shout the other in excitement while rushing towards the next booth. Brian and Charles followed after them both, laughing at their eagerness.

"Still, it cannot be too bad, with kids like those," Matthias remarked amicably.

The grey squirrel was quick to grin, flashing his two large teeth for a moment before glancing over at his wife and Lady Kimberly. Charles followed his gaze, and saw that they were booth standing over by the Fadger booth ogling some bit of jewelry that the badger was holding between his hands. He turned to face the rat, and Matthias snapped his eyes back as well. "They are a blessing beyond words. I think that come this next winter, we will try for more children. These two are growing up so fast!"

"That they are." Matthias stretched slightly. He was dressed in the red and gold tunic as he had every day of the tournament. It was getting dirty though. Horsehair clung to his thighs, despite his best efforts to rub it out. He'd spent a while in the bath this morning cleaning his fur, drawing out all the mud that had caked into it. It had been hot, and luxurious. All the cramps that had been worked into his muscles and bones over the past week slowly ebbed and drained from his body. Charles would bathe more often, if it didn't take forever for his fur to become manageable again.

"So, how did you fare yesterday?" Avery finally asked, chittering softly as his kids nearly knocked over a small portrait of the Duke that was sitting upon the edge of the counter-top.

Matthias stood a bit taller then. "Sir Saulius and I have been selected to participate in the final joust of the tournament. We have triumphed over all opposition. Only Sir Andre stands in our path to total victory and honor."

"Congratulations are in order then!" Avery patted the rat on the back with one paw a few times and then chuckled as he gazed back towards his wife again. "I should buy you a big drink so we can get drunk together!" He called out in a loud voice, but neither of the females could hear his mischief.

"Oh, can you buy some for us too!" Darien pleaded, and was quickly joined by Christopher. Charles laughed at their big brown-eyed faces that were always full of excitement.

Lord Avery leaned down a bit, his tail squirming in the street, nearly slapping a passerby in the chest. "Do you promise not to tell your Mom?"

Christopher wagged a claw finger in front of his Dad's nose, his face splitting into a grin. "Mom says that when you tell us not to tell her something, it is because it will get you into trouble."

"Your mother's very perceptive," Avery murmured, even as Charles was holding his belly in laughter.

"Wonderful blessings, aren't they?" Matthias asked between snorts of mirth.

Brian straightened up again, patting Christopher on the head with one paw. "Always, they always are!" Turning back to his kids, he winked playfully. "Well, just this once, do your Dad a favor."

"Can we be naughty too?" Darien asked, grinning from ear to ear.

"Not till your old enough!" Lord Avery remarked almost clinically as he gazed down at his children. He could not keep a straight face for long though, and soon he grinned and hugged the two close. "Oh, just be you, that's what I love most."

"We love you too, Dad," they both chimed happily before scampering off towards the next booth.

Charles took the time to pat his friend on the back, and then follow after them. "I am glad to see you all again so soon. I will see if it is possible for us to go to the Glen sometime soon."

"We'd be very happy to have you stay with us. Tell Misha that we'd love to have him visit as well, and to bring his lady friend too!"

"I shall not forget to pass that information along. I hope that you have the chance to give the invitation yourself, though. It doesn't look like he's at his booth, but I am sure you'll find him around somewhere."

Lord Avery glanced up at the clear sky, and at the angle of the sun. "Well, I do want to watch the last of the events today before enjoying a meal at the Mule. You will be there this evening, will you not?"

"Of course! You promised me a drink, remember?"

The squirrel chuckled for a moment and then grinned. "But as it is, it is nearly time for the festivities to get underway. I should head over to the box, Duke Thomas wants to meet my children as well after all. I doubt that they will be able to sit still throughout the whole thing though, so I may have to leave early."

"True, I should meet Sir Saulius at the stables presently. Shall we gather our ladies and head off?" Charles asked, waving one paw towards the large central pavilion.

A sudden unreadable expression crossed the squirrel's face. His whiskers twitched slightly, and his nose turned upwards in a bit of what Charles would have otherwise termed curiosity, but it did not appear to be that at all. "That would be best. Christopher, Darien, come now. It is time to go watch the joust."

"Do we really get to sit up with the Duke?" the two youngsters chorused.

"If you don't cause your Mother or I any trouble," Lord Avery warned, as he led them both off towards the two women. Charles held back his laughter as he slowly walked behind him, a slight bounce in his step, and a twitch to his tail.

Saulius was already placing the barding upon Armivest when Matthias arrived at the stables. Lady Kimberly had left to find a seat, and the Avery's had retired to Duke Thomas's personal balcony. The musty familiar scent of manure filled his nostrils, as did a bit of excitement and nervous tension. The rat's eyes strayed to the two other figures standing with them in the stables. One was the rather bulky wolverine that was Sir Andre, while dressed as the knights's squire was Misha Brightleaf.

"Misha?" Charles asked in some surprise even as he reached out a hand to Malicon, patting the pony's forehead gingerly. "What are you doing here?"

Misha flashed him a quick grin on his thin vulpine lips, and then jerked his head towards Andre. "Legier was injured in Andre's last joust, so he asked me to be his squire today." He leaned in a bit closer, his voice quiet. "Honestly, I have no idea why he asked me. My horsemanship is fair, but hardily worthy of being a squire."

"You shall perform quite capably I'm sure, Misha," Andre called out over the back of his larger horse. It was a light gray, snorting eagerly, and hooves scraping at the fresh hay beneath impatiently.

The fox chuckled lightly, looking a bit embarrassed that he'd been overheard. "I should get back to preparing my horse. This will be an interesting match."

"Indeed it shall!" Matthias agreed as he stroked one of Malicon's ears gently with his paw. Misha flashed him that grin again, and then turned back to the stall next to Andre's. A horse of similar stature to Andre's had its head shoved down a feedbag, almost blissfully ignoring the fox till he felt the halter slipped over his muzzle. At that point, the animal started to look a tad more serious about its business, gazing its milky chocolate eyes at the vulpine.

Charles returned to his own steed, taking curry and quickly brushing through the coarse white fur. Pausing a moment, he stared past the wood railings, the tacks and harnesses, and through the wall. Tomorrow, his own life would be wrapped up in Misha's irrevocably. Though he considered the fox a good friend, for some reason it brought a pang of loss to his mind. He would miss the companionship of his fellow writers. For so many years now, he enjoyed the life of a scribe, no matter how hard it was on his eyes and paws. Now, he would be returning to the life of the warrior once again, and quite possibly, that would be his vocation for the remainder of his life.

That thought only a month ago would have been too horrifying to consider. Now, it just seemed inevitable.

"Pray tell thee what disturbeth thy mind?"Saulius asked as he lowered his helmet into place, snapping the visor up with a metallic twang.

Charles snapped from his reverie, and finished putting the halter and saddle upon Malicon. "Oh, nothing important." Staring across the stables at Andre and Misha, he whispered softly, "Just how did Andre win his joust the other evening? I saw his squire break his leg."

Saulius dragged himself up into the saddle, his tan riding boots slipping into the stirrups. "Sir Andre hast skill beyond measure with the lance. It honors me to face him."

Matthias nodded reluctantly, picking up the banner in one paw, and slipping into his own saddle. He quickly adjusted his red and gold shirt, straightening out the front, and smoothing the crest out so that it shone clearly. "I believe I am ready."

"Then let us make haste to the paddock, and await our noble liege's call." Saulius flipped open the gate to his stall wit the tip of his saber, and lead Armivest out onto the wooden planks, hooves clopping in the thick air. Charles patted his own steed's neck one last time, before urging him on after the knight.

The dust had mostly settled on the field after two days of consistent kicking, strutting, charging, and other chaos from the various horses, ponies, and other competitors. The morning of the final day of the tournament had seen the dust raked and smoothed out. Charles idly gazed at the hoof-prints left behind by Armivest as he trailed along behind his knight's steed. The near constant breeze that blew through the Metamor Valley picked up bits of dirt and threw them into the rat's eyes every few seconds while he looked down. Taking a quick moment to rub them against his shirt sleeve, he turned his attention to the Duke's box.

The box itself was a shadowed balcony, with several small red-lace upholstered chairs. Peeking their heads over the central tapestry were the two Avery boys, resting their slender chins just above the horsehead crest trimmed in gold and blue thread, with royal purple tassels lining the ends, their strands gently swaying in the breeze, slapping up and down against the stained hardwood. Standing at the mahogany podium, was the Steward, shrouded in his Scarlet robes of State, a loose fitting cassock garnished by that same equine mark of allegiance upon the left breast, as well as across the back, the colors continuing down the long train behind him.

And then, the reptilian snout, sparkling from the lit flambeaux at either ends of the box, opened and called out in that familiar gallantry, "Lords, Ladies, and People of Metamor! We have witnessed our bravest heroes meet each other in honorable challenge, competing for both your hearts, and for their own victory. Before us stands the two knights whose accomplishments have far exceeded that of their brethren, and whose words and deed have earned your favor. Now they face each other to see who is truly the greatest knight in all of Metamor!

"Each has fought long and hard for the right to compete this day. Sir Andre Maugnard, and Sir Erick Saulius, both brave and noble knights of the land, are ready before you to compete for a prize that has not been seen in these lands in seven years. This accolade is the highest and most prestigious offer that can be bestowed upon any Metamorian. That of the Golden Lance!"

A sudden cheer rose up from the crowd; cries of "Saulius" and "Maugnard" could be heard as Thalberg held wide his crocodilian arms, the scaly palms upturned towards the clear, azure sky. Even the Avery kids were cheering, jumping up and down in the booth, though Lord and Lady Avery were quick to restore them to some decorum.

The Steward held his arms aloft for at least a minute. Charles shifted about in his saddle, feeling one of those cramps creeping up his leg muscles, curling beneath his fur and around his very bones. Saulius was standing high and proud in his stirrups, Armivest conveying an enormous amount of dignity for a horse as well. His brightly decorated ceremonial lance, the heirloom that he had arrived at the Keep with - in fact, it had been his only possession - was gripped between his paws and set into the holster at his side. Matthias wondered if Thalberg had noticed that bit of legerdemain.

Turning aside, his eyes found a very uncomfortable looking fox. Misha was constantly pulling at the light blue doublet with dark green lace work around the edges, trying to straighten out creases in the recalcitrant fabric. He also pulled his paws from the stirrups every few moments and stretched out his toes, the black claws tracing out circles in the dust-choked air. The reynard noticed Charles watching, and hazarded him a brief glance, his grey eyes full of humor. And then winced as the crowd erupted into even louder paean than before at the crocodilian minister's direction.

However, the moment was short-lived, and soon Thalberg lowered his arms, resting the palms on the mahogany. "And now, let us witness which one of these brave knights shall prove to all, that they are indeed, the knight-protector of all Metamor!"

Throwing up his arms, the crowds roared again their approval and eagerness for this final contest of the Festival. Seven long years they waited to see jousting at Metamor Keep again, and now they have it. Yet none of the matches up to this point had generated such enthusiasm as this. As Matthias scanned the assembled crowds, he could hardly find an empty seat in all the pavilion. Perhaps, there wasn't one!

Saulius turned Armivest to the side, kicking the great black beast's flanks with his heels, galloping across towards the far end of the field. Charles was quick to follow, the less formidable steed Malicon trotting eagerly along behind. The knight turned around when they reached the end of the fence, and set his honorary lance down into the hay-filled canister waiting with the two spares, including the one that he'd decorated himself in the fashion of his heirloom the previous day.

Matthias side-stepped Malicon over to the knight and leaned over in his saddle a bit, rolling the banner he held aloft in one paw. "How are you supposed to win against Sir Andre? He is twice your size!"

Saulius raised his visor, and stared up past the billowing pinions to the sky far over head. "Tis not a battle of strength, but of prowess and intellect. Verily, I say unto thee, thou knowest me to have both."

Charles nodded and turned back to the field. He could imagine Misha fumbling about at the other end under the watchful eye of the wolverine. The rat sympathized with him! Until last week, he was just the same way upon a horse, continuously sliding back and forth in the saddle, falling off several times, and constantly rubbing his inner thighs. This would certainly be a memorable story to share over supper some lazy evening.

The final joust had a few differences from the rest. Mostly it would be Charles and Misha fulfilling more ceremonial duties as squires. At the sound of the trumpets from the center of the fields, Charles held high the banner, and kicked Malicon into a nice steady gallop down the center of the field. The red and gold banner snapped in the wind, the symbol of rat and grain almost impossible to read.

The rat had hoped to wink at the fox as he passed, but they were moving too quickly, and the dust was rising too fast for him to see clearly. Whatever they had done to the field had only made it worse, Charles concluded a bit sourly as he blinked the stinging particles from his soft lenses. If this kept up, he wouldn't be able to stop himself from crying.

He reached the end of the field before he realized it, and saw Sir Andre sitting patiently, large furry paws with sharp black claws resting on the pommel. He'd removed his gauntlets, and had laid them on the top of the barding a moment. The visor was up on his massive suit of armor, and his grin revealed several long, thick teeth. The wide brown eyes though belied the fierceness of his form, instead cascading a bit of gentleness onto the wolverine.

The moment was as always quick, and soon Matthias turned back away, and charged down the field again, the banner held proudly overhead as he crossed the loose dirt grounds. The crowds were cheering again, as was their custom, though after three previous jousts, the rat found that he could easily put them out of his mind.

When he returned to Sir Saulius's side, he set the banner back into the post, and let it stand freely, the wind blowing from the north. It gave a slight chill to the air, but with the summer upon them, nobody hardly noticed. Before he had a moment to relax, the great crocodile was at the podium again. At Thalberg's beckoning call, the two knights strode forward regally upon their steeds, the clopping of hooves resonating back and forth from the walls of the pavilion.

Charles patted Malicon on the neck, and the pony whickered pleasantly, chuffing at the bit, his whole body excited by the run. The scent of the coming confrontation flared in his nostrils. The pony turned its head to the side to peer back at the rat who sat atop him, the glassy brown eyes communicating an eager question.

"Yes, we will ride soon again," Charles assured him softly. That seemed to please Malicon, and he tossed his head in delight.

The two knights had by now made their stately way to just shy of the balcony. Each removed their helms, shaking a bit of dust from their faces as they did so. Saulius ran a paw through the bright feathery plumes that topped his, while Andre set his on the pommel of his sword hilt, letting it dangle freely.

As before, Duke Thomas strode to the front of the balcony, garbed in a bright blue doublet with a snowy white frill. A large diadem hung in the middle of his chest. "What are your intentions, oh knights of the realm?" he called out in the traditional manner.

Sir Saulius kept his muzzle closed, and gave off the air of a man who knew exactly what he was doing, and was not concerned about anything else. Sir Andre saw that the rat was giving him the first go, so proceeded with a leisurely, off-handish manner. "My liege, this chore that you would have me do, dispatching that trifle making a mockery of a knighthood by riding a pony, shall be done with all expediency. I do not think it will take long."

Thomas and all of the audience turned their attention to the rat, who sat impassively waiting upon the steed that had been so cleverly denigrated by the wolverine. Rather negligently, and with an obvious display of boredom, Saulius raised one paw to his muzzle and yawned loudly. Taking a moment to work a crick out of his neck, he eyed his opponent whose horse was at least seven hands higher than his own, and then made his own voice heard. "Thou speakest without knowing. It hast been made known to me, that thy species is fierce, in battle and revels in combat. Such a beast as they hath thick bones. Pity it leave little room for a mind!"

Guffaws of laughter rose up from the bleachers, and Charles thought he detected a smirk on Andre's lips. However, the wolverine quickly replied, not to be out done, "You have secluded yourself in the cellars too long! It seems your memory has left you, for you do not seem to recognize the perfect balance in form that I am! Skulking in dark places is no way to knighthood."

Saulius did not wait for the laughter to stop before he shouted, "The sun hath addled what mind thou dost possess!"

The wolverine snorted contemptuously, though the grin that was spreading across his muzzle showed that the parlay was innocent. "You still struggle with incredulity don't you? How unfit you are to ride, the darkness has clouded your judgement beyond even my worst fears if you cannot recognize my knighthood."

"Mine eyes hath glimpsed surly roosters who showed more promise than thou dost!"

The crowd roared once more, but now the insults and jeers had descended into the one sentence witticisms. "Was that your father?"

"No, ‘twas yours!"

And just when Charles thought it would be impossible for Andre to salvage any sort of victory for this round, he returned fire, looking away from the rat to gesture to the crowd. "Surely, his mind has gone! For a doddering old rat cannot tell the difference between a cock and a man!"

"I am unaware of any such difference! Thou art ungainly; looking more like a pig being carted to slaughter than a knight seeking honor!"

And so it continued. Charles watched in rapt fascination, barely able to contain his laughter as the two knights matched wits so cleverly that most were left gasping in paroxysms of uncontrolled mirth. At first it seemed to last only a few minutes, and just as Matthias was sure one or the other had been stumped, they surprised him with a comeback that he could never have dreamed of if he lived to a hundred years.

It finally became clear to everybody that these two could keep this up for at least an hour if they were allowed to do so. Finally, Thomas rose from his seat again, and held up one hoof-like hand. "I beseech you good knights, stay your tongues for now. You both have proven your ability with words, let us see how well you perform with lance and sword!"

The two knights inclined their heads respectfully to the Duke, and then cast a quick grin between each other. They rode back in silence, donning their helms to the roar of the Metamorians. And with that, Charles knew that his own time to perform had come. Once Saulius had returned to the end of the field, D'Alimonte skittered into place, the large flags in two of his three arms. Matthias pulled one of the lances from the stand, wiping a few loose strands of hay from the ashen surface.

Malicon was eager to be off, stomping his fore hooves impatiently, snorting every few moments. Charles patted his steed upon the neck once with his left paw, and then shifted about once more in the saddle. Once he felt comfortable again, his legs holding the animal's chest in a tight embrace, he leaned the lance over, the tip nearly dragging in the dirt before him. The rat took one glance into the crowds, to see if he could spot his love, but her lovely countenance eluded him.

And then the flags were down. Charles kicked Malicon's flanks, and with a joyful leap, the pony sprinted forward, cantering towards the first pole and ring. The tip of the lance was held low for a few moments, before Matthias brought it up to aim. With a quick slice, the first ring easily slid down the shaft. A few moments later, so had the second, and the third. Reigning the excited animal about, he held aloft the shaft, displaying the three silver prizes upon the thick end of his lance. They clanged together with a pleasant metallic ring that sent shivers down the rat's spine.

But before he had time to catch his breath, Charles saw D'Alimonte lower the flags again. Racing forward, the middle rings gleaming in his eye, he focused on holding the lance aloft, and tried to shut out all other distractions. The hoof beats were a constant pulse that he attuned himself to, letting all the rest of the world be measured by the repetitive sound. With each step, the first ring grew larger and larger in his eye, till it was upon him, and then sliding up his lance, it snapped off from the pole with a stubborn tear, the overhanging pole quickly slamming back into place.

Charles blinked as the dust began to fill his face once more, Malicon even snorted derisively as he ran. The second ring seemed to jump up out of the blurry fog of air, but his lance was held steady, and Matthias had no difficulty in snatching it up. His heart beat faster as he did so though, for his record was unblemished this match, a feat he had never before performed.

He bit down hard, nearly crying in frustration as the stinging in his eyes turned his vision red and orange with pain. The last pole seemed to be a mishmash of shapes and convoluted circles, and it was next to impossible to tell which was the real ring. His grip on the reins tightened, the claws on his left paw biting through the leather into his palm. With concerted effort, the rat managed to hold back the temptation to rub clean his eyes with his free arm, instead, holding the lance crossways, the point focused on what he thought had to be the correct ring.

Then he was pulling Malicon to a stop next to Sir Saulius, whose impassive features gave no hint to his performance. The crowds let forth a cheer, but he hardly heard it over the frightened beating of his heart. Furiously wiping the dust from his eyes with the back of his shirt sleeve, he took the briefest of moments to catch his breath, and to calm down. It was not safe to ride while blinded, who knew what he could have been snaring back there on that last pole.

Glancing down at his lance however, he was quite delighted to see six rings adorning the gray shaft. He had never done so well in the tournament to date. Perhaps he would be able to decisively gain a win for his knight by picking up the last three! He wanted to see if Lady Kimberly was in the crowd, but after taking the moment to admire his accomplishment, the grasshopper had lowered the flags again.

It would be the very last run he made this Summer Solstice, and while his legs certainly were eager to get it over with, his mind was set on making sure that it was his best. The dust quickly began flying into his face as Malicon charged forward, but he blinked it away long enough to snag the first ring. Matthias would have breathed a sigh of relief, but there wasn't time. These last rings, barely two inches in width, were damnably hard to spear with his lance. He had to hold the shaft just so for there to be even a hope of being successful. His accuracy was his one weakness. As a Sondeck, accuracy was important, but often times, it was overlooked in favor of brute force. That could not help him here.

Charles realized with a bit of annoyance that his eyes were only being further irritated with each further foot he drove Malicon. Tears were actually standing on his cheeks as he tried to see past the glaze towards the next pole. Stars danced before him, and strange lights that blinded him even worse than before. Gritting his teeth once again, he put the lance back into position, gazing through the incandescence at multiple images of the ring. A circle of eight images, each barely distinguishable.

The tip of his lance was also split into eight images. Grimacing, Charles decided only to accept the left most image as real, and used that to aim for the leftmost ring. Keeping it steady, he blinked once more, watching it loom before him, and then, it slid easily onto the lance, and the pole snapped back with a twang. He'd managed to pick up every single ring so far in this contest. There was only the last to go.

Matthias felt his chest heaving with exertion, and his whole body yearning to throw down the lance, and to wipe away the stinging dust that was eating away at his eyes like some swarm of insects. Steeling his arm with the force of the Sondeckis, he made the shaft of ash unmoveable as Malicon thundered down the last portion of the field. The final pole stood before him, though nearly indistinguishable from everything else at this point. Trying the same trick he'd used on the last one, he saw the circle of rings drawing nearer and nearer.

And then with a metallic squeal, he passed by the last pole, and turned his steed about, being quick to wipe his eyes clean on the sleeve of his tunic once more. The cheers from the crowd were enormous, and Matthias stared up at the final pole. There were no rings hanging from it. In disbelief, he glance down at his lance, and counted nine rings nestled on the wooden shaft. Feeling his heart skip a beat, he held it up proudly for all to see. Misha was a blur at the far end, but even so, the rat knew that he had won this portion of the contest, and quite handily as well!

After the moment of elation was past, Charles rode Malicon back through the dust covered field to the side of his knight. Saulius still had his visor raised above his helmet, the soft pink nose at the end of his snout twitching in delight and pride as Matthias returned with a full complement of rings upon his lance. He did not say anything, but he hardly needed to. That admiring and satisfied gaze was enough to make the warrior-turned-scribe-turned-warrior-again feel as if they'd already won the match.

But of course, now was the time for the final joust, an event that seemed totally incomprehensible. How could a rat sitting astride a pony defeat a wolverine that was so large it looked to be weighing down the large Percheron stallion? Charles watched as they both strode into position, hefting lances and measuring their gaze across the central field.

To a sudden trumpet fanfare, D'Alimonte strode forward, holding the flags once more. It may have been the angle of the summer sun, or just possibly the irritation his eyes still felt from all the dust, but Saulius seemed to grow in the saddle, as if heaven itself would not deign to let this match be uneven. The blue and gold feathers seemed to wave of their own accord, and even Armivest appeared to be more than he was. A small black pony turned into a fierce, unstoppable stallion.

And then both of them were charging down the length of the fence-line, each with lance upraised. The grasshopper skittered quickly out of the way, as the two bodies approached. Charles found himself leaning forward in his saddle, straining to see the moment of impact. The larger form of Sir Andre seemed to shadow the smaller rat, but even that only emphasized the apparent titanic conflict. These were no ordinary men. They were lords of all creation with the sounds of armies following at every hoof-beat.

When they finally collided together at midfield, a loud metallic snapping could be heard, as remnants of a shattered lance flew into the air, raining down across the parched earth. Saulius rocked back in his saddle, leaning over backwards, his shield barely clutched in his one paw. He turned Armivest around, and rode back, shaking his head slightly.

Charles pulled out a second lance, being careful not to touch the heirloom that the rat had brought with him this day. "Are you all right?" Charles whispered quietly as Misha similarly rearmed the wolverine.

"Aye," Saulius nodded once, putting his left boot back into the stirrup. "Worry thyself naught, for this battle is my own."

Matthias gazed helplessly after his friend as he rode down the field again a second time, shaking up dirt and dust, the joints of his armor shuttering with every thunderous stride. The crowd held its breath, watching in hushed amazement as the two mismatched knights slammed into each other yet again. A startled murmur erupted from their tight lips though, as Andre had to pull himself back up by the pommel of his saddle afterwards.

Saulius rode back to Charles, but as his lance was undamaged, asked for no assistance from his rodent squire. That selfsame squire was amazed that he had been able to so effortlessly unhinge a creature that was easily larger than both of them combined! Not even a shudder passed over the knight rat's form, but he remained composed and stern. In fact, he almost appeared to be the perfect visage of the virtuous cavalier that was always talked about in stories. Indeed, in Sir Saulius, gallantry and chivalry were still quite alive.

After Andre had replaced his lance, the two charged yet again, each running in a different way. Their lances were bent further downward and not as far inwards as before. As they began to approach, each started to raise them slowly, as if waiting for the perfect moment. Just as he thought they could not possibly raise them in time, both of their right arms jerked upwards, the tapered ends of the ash each catching the other past their shields.

Charles was not sure just what happened, but it looked as if Andre's lance had slid right underneath the harness, ripping the saddle out from underneath Saulius. The rat tumbled over backwards, crashing to the ground solidly on his chest, his tail sticking straight up in the air. However, Andre also fell from his steed, spinning about in the air with the rat's lance curled about his waist, till he tumbled down to his knees, his breastplate marred by an oblong dent down the middle.

Their horses both rushed back to their sides as trained, but the two combatants were not finished. Charles found himself crying out alongside the crowd as they both struggled uncertainly back to their feet. With a sudden ring of steel, they drew their swords, gripping the hilts in both gauntlet-covered paws. Dust fell from their armor, the feathers atop the rat's helm an indistinguishable jumble of bright yellows and blues. Taking a moment to brush a bit of grime from his epaulet, Andre began to circle the rat, ducking under the fence-line, but never taking his eyes off of his opponent.

Then the wolverine made a sudden underhanded strike, swinging low with his blade. Saulius jumped back, slapping his own steel across it, and then stepped forward again with an overhand attack from the opposite direction. Andre just as effortlessly blocked it. And the two continued like for several minutes, trading blow for blow, steel for steel, parley for parley. Andre's large size and strength were offset by Saulius's nimbleness and speed. Charles had never seen the rat move like that, especially while in confining plate armor. It was remarkable, like watching two dancers weave between each other as if the other was not there.

And with equal suddenness and fluidity, they were standing apart once again, each breathing heavily, their sword tips tracing small circles in the air. The dust had risen up too thick to see below the rat's knee, and it caked the sides of their armor like barnacles upon a pier of a sunken ship's gunwale poking just above the waves. Andre made a sudden overhead lunge at the rat; there was a gasp from the crowd, for if such a blow had struck, it surely would have cleft Saulius's small head in twain. Yet the knight nimbly stepped to the side, striking his own sword down on top of that of his opponent, jamming it into the ground.

However, it was not enough to ensure his victory. Andre stepped back from the jammed blade, his hands dancing in the gray-choked air, the tips of his claws poking just through each gauntlet. Sharp, wicked, black streaked with an almost transparent white that made them seem ethereal and ghostly. Charles could well imagine that nothing was inside that suit of armor , but instead it had been animated by a sorcerer to protect him. Yet that illusion was shattered every time the wolverine turned his back to him and displayed his bushy tail.

The two combatants continued to circle each other, with the rat taking experimental swipes, testing Andre's reflexes almost. Each time it would come from a different side, but the knight adroitly stepped out of the way of each, moving inexorably closer to the rodent even as he did so. Saulius tried to keep the larger foe at bay, but he found himself stumbling backwards through the dust-littered field, swinging his saber about even more frantically than before. It was clear to all the audience, that Andre was using his sheer size to overpower him.

And then the unbelievable happened. Saulius tripped over the back edge of Andre's sword, falling backwards, his tail curling beneath him with a sickening crunch. Andre lunged once, his visor thrown back to reveal his snarling teeth, spittle flinging from his lips in a feral battle cry. The rat rolled to the side, pulling his sword beneath him for a moment, and then once back on his back, swinging it up into the exposed breastplate of his opponent. It did not have much force, but it was enough to catch the wolverine off guard, and send him stumbling backwards.

Charles saw his friend slowly rise from the ground, his unprotected tail having a strange bend to it in one place. Matthias winced as he saw Saulius reach back and gingerly touch the break with one gauntlet. Reaching back with his own paw, the squire felt his own tail, the few scraggly hairs poking up from its segmented surface. The flesh was gentle, warm, and it had been with him for so long now, that he could hardly imagine life without it! His tail was as much a part of his pride as was his mind and heart. To see Saulius's injured in such a fashion gave him quite a start!

However, knights normally did accrue multiple fractures and other injuries during a joust. It was readily apparent that Saulius was no stranger to pain, but seemed to welcome it, like a man would welcome a long lost friend into his home for an evening of celebration and reunion. After only a moment's recognition of that inconvenience, the rat made his advance on the shaken figure before him. Andre saw him coming, and tried once more to wrest his blade from the ground. Pulling it free, he sent clods of dirt flying through the air.

The two opponents took that moment to measure the other with their eyes, blades once more spinning in their iron paws. It felt like they would never break their gaze to Charles and the crowds, who whispered anxiously, for truly, no joust had yet been this exciting. And then, Saulius did something nobody would have expected. He turned his back on his opponent, and started to run away. Andre took up chase, as if on instinct without a pause.

At the very last moment, the rat jumped at the fence-line, grabbed it in one paw, and swung from it, lifting his feet from the ground, cutting a smooth arc in the field. It caught Andre off guard, who tried to stop himself before he got too close, skidding into the dirt with his boots. Their blades met suddenly with a brandishing of quick steel, and then a bright glimmer flew through the air to land several yards distant - Andre's sword that had been adroitly knocked free.

And in the last movement of that arc he had swung, Saulius easily slipped the tip of his blade below the breastplate of his opponent, and withdrew it again, the very tip of it a bright red, but only the very tip. With utter amazement, Charles realized that the two knights had each sought first blood, an honorable agreement of course. And when he had it, Saulius had been sure to only draw the merest pinprick.

Andre seemed shocked, as he removed one gauntlet and reached a black-furred paw beneath his breast plate to find that indeed, he had been stabbed. In that moment, with the crowd nearly standing in their seats, Sir Andre Maugnard kneeled to Sir Erick Saulius, and the joust was over. The crowds erupted into roars of applause, cheering the name of the knight rat over and over again! Charles grabbed the reins of Armivest in one hand, and nickering, led the two ponies up to the field of battle where already D'Alimonte had skittered, bringing a small cloth for the wound.

Misha had brought Andre's horse as well, his vulpine expression one of total concern. He slid from his stallion, and crouched over Andre, his voice betraying their firm friendship, "Are you all right? How far did the blade sink?"

"Nary an inch, my good warrior," Saulius intoned respectfully, his own face marked by a sudden fondness for the wolverine. His whiskers twitched as Charles slipped down form his own saddle to investigate.

"It is but a scratch, I have endured far worse. And your tail?" Andre pointed one claw at the irregular bend in the rat's tail.

"I hath suffered many a broken bone, be ne'er in my tail!" the rat cried out, a laugh upon his muzzle.

Duke Thomas was at the front of his booth, pushing past the two Avery boys. "D'Alimonte, will our noble knights be able to walk from this field of honorable combat?"

The grasshopper stood up, even as Misha helped Andre wrap the cloth about his middle. "My liege, they have suffered no injury of import!"

"Then, Sir Erick Saulius, stand before me." The rat returned to his feet, stepping away from the others, though with a quick flick of his wrist, he motioned Charles to stand to his left. "I award thee the highest honor in all of Metamor. You are the knight of this land, the knight who will bear the golden lance all this next year! Come forward to claim your victory."

Thalberg pushed open one of the doors of the booth, and quickly began clearing the rat a path from the other Metamorians who had crowded the bleachers there. Saulius strode forward, quickly rising to the mezzanine and then up those same fur-coated steps that the crocodile had just cleared. He then was standing inside the booth, next to Duke Thomas. The golden lance was actually a gold plated lance of half normal size. It was not intended to be used, just simply for display.

The rat kneeled, head bowed low as Duke Thomas remained still, his hooves never even scrapping the floor once. Charles watched, his heart in his throat, and his breath held tight. "Rise, my noble knight, and accept this, thy most honorable achievement!'

Saulius gazed up then and held out both of his paws. Thomas lowered the bright yellow shaft into them, and the crowd once again roared with applause. Charles felt a paw pat him on the back. Turning about, he saw Misha standing there grinning from ear to ear with that mischievous look in his grey eyes.

"Congratulations Charles," his friend nearly shouted to be heard over the roaring crowds. "You did well."

"Thank you, I did not imagine it possible!"

"Shall I see you at the Mule this evening? Surely this calls for some celebration!"

"Oh, you will, save me a seat, I have a feeling that there will not be many left! Lord Avery has already promised me a drink, and that I shall not miss!"

Misha gazed back up to the booth, and smiled once more. Andre was soon at their sides, his muzzle looking proudly upward. "Saulius is some knight. I could not have been defeated by a better man!"

"He could not have had a more honorable opponent," Charles replied, grinning as well, his whiskers twitching in delight.

Andre did not say anything else, just smiled, and inclined his head respectfully as the cheering continued unabated. Overhead, Saulius held the lance aloft in both paws, his face placid, but his whole body radiating such pride that Charles had never before seen in his fellow rodent. After so many years of cajoling and entreating, Mathias had finally succeeded in showing his friend a way to real happiness and purpose once again.

It was later that afternoon when Misha and Craig walked slowly down the lane past the numerous stalls and tents of the fair. Occasionally the prairie dog morph or the fox would stop and chat with a friend, or shop at one of the stalls. Their wanderings seemed to be random, just two friends enjoying the fair. That was a carefully maintained illusion. They didn't want anyone to know where they were headed. Finally they arrived at they're destination.

Oren's ale was a hit and the otter's booth was crowded with customers. The fox mumbled something to himself. "Now what do we do?" Craig asked as he watched the otter serve people. Misha motioned to the other side of the aisle and the two wandered over to a booth selling clothing.

After a long time, the stream of customers finally petered out and they found their chance. Misha and Craig walked over to the counter. The otter bounced up with a small blue dragon on his shoulder and asked, "What can I get you?"

"Two of your finest," Misha answered.

In a moment Oren produced two full tankards and passed them over the counter. Misha took a long drink from one. It had a deep, rich, earthy taste that he found delicious. From his pouch, Misha produced a coin. It wasn't a gold coin, but a Garrett, worth five times as much.

"Gornul, would you do me a favor?" he asked. "Two rows over is a booth with a bright red canvas over it. Would you go over and buy me some candy? You can buy Oren and yourself all you want too."

The dragon looked confused for a moment, but Oren scratched him on the head. "It's all right, be sure to bring back some sugared apples," he said. The dragon took the offered Garrett and flew off.

"Thanks Oren," Misha said. "How about you and me talk back by the tanks? Craig will watch the counter."

"I'll be a good counter boy," Craig expounded loudly.

Oren smiled and motioned towards the back of the booth. He didn't say anything until they were out of earshot of the counter. "Is this about the Long Scouts?" he asked.

"Yes," Misha answered.

"Well?" Oren asked. "Am I in?"

"After a lot of consideration we've decided to let you join the Long Scouts," the fox answered. "You have to realize that this won't be an easy job and you'll have to go through a lot of training."

"I realize that," Oren replied, "but you won't be sorry that you let me join. When will my training start?"

"Two days after the fair ends," came the reply.

"Sounds fair."

"It won't be easy," Misha warned. "You're looking at three or four months of long, hard work before you're a Long Scout."

"Nothing of value comes easily or cheaply," Oren commented.

Misha nodded. "True." He extended his hand to the otter who grasped it. "Welcome to the Long Scouts, Oren."

The gardens were quiet, and that is why Garigan enjoyed to sit at them in the evenings, away from the rest of the merry-makers, where he could find some peace like he used to know back at Avery's Glen. Though he had spent his first few days here at Metamor with his jaw on the ground, the novelty was beginning to wear thin. Charles was a good rat, and was quite kind to him in his own way, but the fortress lacked that warmth he felt in the trees or with his friends back home.

So when he looked up to see Lord and Lady Avery strolling along the terrazzo, he felt his heart lift. "Lord Avery," He called out breathlessly, glad to see a familiar face again.

"Ah, Garigan, good to see you," Brian cajoled pleasantly as he and his wife came to stand next to him at the fountain's edge.

Angela appeared to sense that something was bothering the ferret and so murmured quietly, "We miss you back home. Angus talks about you all the time you know. Even Shelley seems disconsolate every now and then. What about you?"

Garigan shook his head, throwing back his arms at the magnificence around him. "This place is amazing, I see something I'd never seen before every day. Yet it isn't home, and I don't want it to be home. I miss the trees, I miss my friends."

Lord Avery's eyes betrayed his deep concern and love for the fellow of the Glen. "Aren't you making new friends here? Charles and you seem to be very close now."

The ferret nodded once at that, and then shook his head agin, a confused expression crossing his grey muzzle. "I know, and I appreciate it. There are some nice people here. I try to stay near Charles and Misha, they are the only ones I really know here. Everyone else seems too preoccupied to care. Just the other day somebody stole my money, and then there was the kangaroo who delighted in mocking Charles and saying really creepy things to me."

The two squirrels glanced at each other furtively, but mostly watched Garigan. "Didn't Matthias say that you could leave soon? He told me that he needed you for a little bit, to help you with some problem you had, but he wouldn't say what."

Garigan chuckled lightly at that, though humorlessly. "He would never tell you, even were you to torture him a thousand years.

Lady Avery gently sat down next to him, and wrapped her arm about his shoulders. "It's alright, everyone does miss you, but that will only make your homecoming all the more special to us. And for you. Remember, your friend said that you only had to stay for a short while. I've almost never left the Glen in my whole life, and now it is too late. I wish I could have seen more of the world. You still have that chance here."

Brian lightly chortled and patted Garigan upon the shoulder. "And if nothing else, you can be the Ambassador from Glen Avery at Metamor. There seems to be a growing profusion of them here at the Keep anyway!"

That actually made the ferret laugh pleasantly, and he just shook his head in mirth. "Thank you both, I will do my best to stick up for the Glen. Now that you put it like that, it isn't so bad I guess."

"Nothing ever is," Brian agreed a smile etched across his small muzzle. "Charles and Misha have invited us to dinner at the Mule, would you care to join us?"

Garigan shook his head again, "No thank you, I'd like to just be here and watch the stars come out."

Angela Avery patted him on the cheek, stood from the bench, and returned to her husband's side. "Well, we shall leave you to the stars then. You will be there when we leave tomorrow, right?"

He nodded, "Of course!"

"Alright, we shall see you then at least," Lord Avery inclined his head respectfully before turning on his heels. "And remember, the Glen runs in your blood, we expect to see you back there soon! So whatever you are doing for Charles, do it quickly!"

Garigan stood from his seat to watch them go. "I will, that you can count on!" And then, quietly, more to himself than to anyone else, "I will master my anger, nothing will stop that."

That was the thing about the Deaf Mule; it never changed. Any time of year, a person could come there and see pretty much the same scenes; people laughing, drinking eating, playing games or just relaxing. It was just that during any kind of celebration, that atmosphere was amplified at least ten times over. People had crowded it to near capacity, and the servers were being run ragged trying to keep up with the demands.

Misha gawked in surprise when he saw the couple that had just entered. The one was definitely Rickkter. What surprised Misha was his companion. The female skunk on his arm was Kayla. He tapped Caroline on the shoulder and pointed to the couple. Together they made their way up to them.

"Hello Rick!" He said as they came up behind the raccoon.

The raccoon and the skunk turned and greeted the smiling pair. "Hello, my friends," said Rick. "I was hoping to see the two of you here."

"Yes, well so were we," said Misha as the foursome moved to the side of the flow of traffic. "I wanted to offer my congratulations on your narrow loss in the duels. An impressive victory, none the less. And I have to say, you're looking surprisingly good, considering what I saw towards the end there."

"Well, it's nothing a little soap, water, and a lot of magic couldn't fix." They all laughed at that, despite it being the obvious truth. It must have taken Rickkter close to half an hour to get all the blood out of his fur. The only evidence of what had happened was the damp look to several sections of his coat.

The fox turned his eyes to where Kayla shyly stood, trying not to look too uncomfortable. "I notice you found someone of your own to share the evening with. It's good to see you, Kayla."

Rick turned and gave the skunk a small smile. "I suppose you could say that. And while we're on the topic of competition this festival, how did you do in the joust?"

"About the same as you," said Misha with a shake of his head. "Sir Andre lost to Sir Saulius."

"A shame." The rest murmured agreement. Rick smiled. "Almost as big a shame as my missing your trying to ride a horse."

They all laughed. "Well, I don't think you'll be getting another opportunity for that any time soon," said Misha, as he rubbed his backside to accentuate the point.

"And how about you, Caroline?" asked Kayla. "Were you in anything?"

"Yes archery." The otter grimaced. "You'll be disappointed to know, Rick, that it wasn't a repeat of the Spring festival. Donna, took it from me. I knew she had been practicing, but she really surprised me this time."

Rick clapped his paws and gave them a vigorous rub. "Well, since it looks like we're all losers, how about we get something to eat and console each other over our different losses?"

The other three readily agreed. Misha shot Carol a quick glance. "Kayla, why don't we leave the boys and go ahead and scout out a table on our own," Caroline offered. Kayla quickly agreed and the two mustelids disappeared into the crowds. Misha grabbed hold of Rick's arm and took him to an out of the way section of the bar.

"So what made you bring her along?" he asked along the way.

Rick shrugged. "I don't know. Probably the same thing that happened between a healer and I almost thirteen years ago."

"Which was?"

The raccoon twitched his head to the side in an off-handed manner. "No idea. I don't even pretend to explain mutual attraction between people. Magic, alchemy, philosophy, advanced theory relating to the very nature of the universe itself; all of those I will cheerfully delve into. But such things as love?" He shook his head. "That is something that I'll leave to the philosophers, and the poets, and the dreamers; those who can best define it. For the rest of us, it's just something that must be experienced."

Misha's tail twitched merrily. It was good to see his friend finally back to his old self. "So what would this be, then?"

"Let's cut to the chase, what did you want to ask me?"

"What makes you think I wanted something?" asked Misha, feigning innocence.

"Because you wouldn't have dragged me over here just to ask about my love life."

Misha chucked and shook his head. "Okay, you got me." He became very somber. "What do you know about the Long Scouts, Rick?"

The mage shrugged. "Not a lot. An elite band of warriors." He smirked at his friend. "Also that you're their head and that you've been on a recruiting drive of sorts lately."

The fox chuckled. "You don't miss much of what goes on around here, do you?"

"I try not to."

"Well, you're right on all counts. In fact, Donna, the gender-morph who beat Caroline, is one of our better field operatives. The Long's are actually an elite band of scouts here at the Keep. Now, we've given this a lot of thought. Would you like to join?" Misha asked. "With your magic and combat skills you'd be a natural."

"I'll think about it," said Rick. He paused and gazed out at the bar. He looked for about a minute, what he sought Misha couldn't guess. "I've decided, Misha. The answer is no. Thanks for the offer."

"Our job is more than just killing and fighting," Misha countered. "You'd be doing a very dangerous and, and very, important jobs."

"I've had commands thrust under my nose," said Rick, pointing with his finger. "And I'm still here, alone. I really don't relish the idea of being an actual soldier again. Five years of travel is more than enough."

"You're sure?" Misha asked, pressing the matter.

"Very sure." The cold look that flashed in Rick's eyes ended that line of questions. He softened it by adding, "Remind me to tell you about them some other time, okay?"

Misha's gray eyes glinted with mirth. "Don't think I'll forget it either."

"I wouldn't expect it." He looked over the mulling crowds once more. "You would think that they can find a table for four in this mess?"

The fox flicked his tail in his own expression of a wince. "Well, it won't be just us there. I asked Carol to look for a table for eight. Lord Brian and his wife will also be joining us."

"That's only six. Who are the other two?"

"Charles Matthias, and Kimberly."

Rickkter only tuned away and shook his head. "Well, at least you told me before we were actually at the table together." He looked back at his friend. "It seems I won't be joining you after all."

"Why?" Misha asked. "Don't tell me you're going to let that stupid feud ruin a good evening?"

"Don't even pretend that you understand what is between the rat and I," growled Rick. "You know nothing."

"You're right Rick, I don't understand. And I never want to. This feud of yours is a senseless and idiotic waste of both time and energy."

"All the more reason for me to say no."

The fox just stared at his friend for a moment and then shook his head. "Do whatever you want."

Rickkter remained silent, looking away and growling softly to himself. By that time the two ladies had returned, chatting merrily between themselves. "Well, come on you two," said Carol. "We've already got a table, and the others are waiting for us."

Rickkter removed himself from Misha, standing next to the skunk and across from the others. "Um, sorry Carol but I don't think I'll be joining you tonight. It was good seeing you and Misha though, and I hope to do so again before long."

Misha sighed and put his arm around the slender otter next to him. "I hope so as well, Rick. I'm sorry to hear your decision. On both counts." They said goodbye once more before the two disappeared into the swirling crowd.

The drink Lord Avery had purchased for him was warm between his paws, and quite delicious down his throat. Despite worded protests, their feminine counterparts really did not seem to mind so much that the three men were enjoying themselves as they sat together around the circular table near where Copernicus was busy defeating a few challengers at pool. The center of the Deaf Mule had been cleared out so that a few performers might entertain the evening crowds. Currently a bright grey-furred coyote was capering about in a jester's costume, pulling coins out of children's ears and other novelties.

The high chandelier was brightly lit, a soft velvety perfume emanating from the incandescent wicks. Bright lanterns adorned each of the finely wrought walls, marked by hanging pictures and portraits and most especially the royal seal of arms that was always displayed this time of the year. The horsehead calligraphy seemed especially prophetic, a fact that was not lost on the Keepers.

"Could it be possible," Lord Avery mused, as Charles and Misha continued to watch Devon continue his bizarre antics, laughing as he began to strum a small lute that was very off key. The liege of Avery's Glen coughed and drew their attention finally. "Could it be possible that we are more jolly now that we are cursed than even before? What is there that the House of Hassan possessed that we do not still own? Can you not see the pride in each Keeper's face?"

Charles shrugged. "I was not here before the curse, I do not know. But when I look about me, I still see a lot of pain and loss. I think at these Festivals we see beneath the fur to the real people still there."

Misha nodded, taking a sip from his mug. "Yes, I think so as well. No matter what happens, we are still people, which is what Nasoj tried to destroy. In that, we defeat him every day."

The Lord of the Glen grinned, his long bushy tail twitching, nearly slapping the serving tray out of a passing stoat's paws. "That is a good way to think of it. Do you think that the curse will ever be lifted?"

The fox and rat glanced at each other, and sighed. Misha finally answered for them both. "I do not think so, not in our lifetimes at any rate. If it is ever lifted at all. Metamor is a place of strange and ancient magic; nobody knows when it was first made."

"According to Father Hough, Madog has some insights into that," Charles murmured softly, dipping his muzzle back into the fine wine. It was a brand he'd never tried before, and he could detect just the faintest hint of peaches as it flowed past his long tongue.

"Is that not your metal fox that you told me about?" Lord Avery asked, his grey fur bristling in excitement. "I had hoped to meet him."

Misha looked beneath the table, and then scanned the area nearby, but did not find the familiar chrome and gold plating that always seemed to be underfoot in the oddest of places. "He does not seem to be about right now; I wonder where he could have snuck off to?"

A sudden eruption of laughter from the ladies sitting at the other end of the table made them all turn back to face the court jester who had finally managed to get the lute in tune, and was strumming out short lyrics.

There once was a lass from Pallowtry
Lived to the age of one-hundred-three.
Fifteen years, kept her virginity.
A record indeed in Pallowtry!

The men all laughed at that one, while most of the women remained pensively silent through such a bawdy selection. Lady Avery, Caroline, and Kimberly were quick to turn in their seats to give their men a meaningful glance. Misha was the first to speak, the hint of mirth still fresh upon his lips, "It was a funny song! If you think that was bad, you should hear the rest of that ballad. I think our good Devon here only knows the first verse to each of them."

Their gazes shifted to the two rodents. Charles just laughed. "I think there's a version of The Lass from Pallowtry in almost all the world. I remember when I was young my father use to sing that to my mother when they thought I'd gone to sleep." With a sudden icy snap, Matthias shut his mouth and tried his best to smile.

However, nobody seemed to notice his very personal admission. "It was just a song!" Lord Avery grinned, taking another drink. "You laughed at all those ones with men going off to battle in their nightclothes!"

Lady Avery laughed then, and put one paw on her husband's arm. "It's all right, dear. We don't really mind."

"We're just keeping you boys honest!" Caroline crowed, her lutrine face bearing an expression of total confidence. The men all gave off dry chuckles, with the rat very happy the moment had passed. Devon finally bowed, and did a cartwheel towards one of the booths along the wall, tossed the lute in the air, flipped backwards, and then landed in the seat perfectly catching the fragile instrument in his paws at the same time, quickly strumming one last note. Their was a round of applause before the next entertainer came forward to amuse them all.

As the women began to watch the next act, Scratch juggling his knives and doing other tricks with them, Brightleaf turned to the grey squirrel once more and asked, "So, when are you all leaving?"

"Tomorrow morning. It is a good thing the Duke has lent me rooms in the Palace, for the Inn has nothing left!" He watched the juggler for a moment, amazed at the fact the tiger could deftly handle five, no wait, six knives with such ease. "Christopher and Darien would have loved to see this! I'm surprised they wanted to go run off with that priest friend of yours."

"Father Hough will take good care of them," Charles said as he took another drink. "He might even be able to keep up with them!"

"Is that possible?" Misha asked teasingly, his face breaking into a quick grin. Matthias suddenly had a flashback of his attempts to follow the two young squirrels through the trees and how sore he felt after only an hour of such exertion. The rat who had outrun an army of Lutins had been bested by two children!

"I don't suppose so!"

"I didn't think so," Brightleaf laughed again, finishing off the last of his wine. "Where is Sir Saulius, I thought he would have come to the Inn?"

"Yes, where is that noble knight? I was hoping to meet him too," Brian added.

"Well, after he saw Coe, and thankfully he only fractured a bone in his tail, it'll heal within a few weeks, Sir Andre invited him to dinner at his place. I think those two may become good friends."

Misha brightened visibly at hearing that. "I'm glad to hear it, from what you've told me, Saulius has been miserable for far too long."

"Yes, he has. I'm rather excited by this. Maybe summer holds great promise for us all?"

"If we step up to take it," Lord Avery indicated by wagging his mazer before them.

"Well, let us drink to that then!" Charles held aloft his stein as well. "Let our summer be one of promise!"

"I have no more wine!" Misha lamented, holding his empty.

"I would consider that a good thing," Caroline said, winking at him before turning back around to watch the tiger begin to juggle what appeared to be ten knives.

"Here, have some of mine." Lord Avery poured a bit into the fox's mazer, and soon they all held them aloft. "To the summer, harvest, promise, and good fortune!"

They all repeated the chant, quickly drank the last portions of wine, and wiped their muzzles free of the peachy flavor. Charles could feel a little lightheaded, but since tonight was the last night of the Festival, he felt justified in it. Tomorrow would come soon enough, and that would bring much real work. However, listening to the song and the fellowship of his Metamorians had stirred up something in him that would not settle down. A pride of his land, this land, and of the people that lived there.

"Scratch is almost done, shall we entertain our fellow Keepers afterwards?" Charles asked his friends.

"What did you have in mind?" Misha asked.

"We could sing, I'm sure we all know some of the more familiar tunes."

"That would certainly entertain them," Avery remarked sarcastically. "Really Charles, I do not think you want to inflict my bad singing upon these poor unsuspecting Keepers!"

Lady Avery and the other women had heard their discussion, and each was grinning mischievously, though Charles could tell that Lady Kimberly's was mixed with a bit of adoration that he could not quite isolate. "I think it is a wonderful idea. Why don't you sing The Knight in Nightclothes?"

"Or Three Sailors of Whales?" Caroline suggested impishly. The last was about three drunks who tried to sail their galleon by themselves and end up becoming lost at sea.

"Why not, The Lass from Pallowtry?" Matthias suggested with a cockeyed grin.

Lady Kimberly and the others quickly looked at each other and then the rat replied. "Definitely Three Sailors of Whales."

"Oh I agree," the other two concurred, gazing meaningfully at the three men. "Well, he's done, go on and sing!" Lady Avery waved her paws at them, her face split wide with an involuntary grin.

Misha leaned close into the two as they got up from their seats. "We sing The Lass from Pallowtry after."

Brian Avery gave him an unreadable look, but they could tell that he loved the idea nonetheless. "I do want to sleep with my wife this evening you understand."

The rat and fox both laughed as they all stood in the center, much to the bewilderment of the crowds, till they opened their mouths. At least the crowds didn't start laughing until after the first verse, Charles thought merrily!

As he walked into the Hall of the Writer's Guild that next morning, Charles still felt a bit woozy from the previous night's activities. They had sung more than two songs he remembered, but for the life of him, he could not identify which ones. They had not been able to make their way through all fifty verses of The Lass from Pallowtry, that much he did recall. Lady Kimberly would never let him forget it either!

Still, it had been a wonderful three days, but as the tents came down, and every one began the trek back to their own villages, even Lord and Lady Avery had already departed with their two children, the reality of it all came crashing back upon the rat. He had a duty to perform, one that though distasteful, was very much necessary. So he had sent his requests out the previous eve before retiring to his chambers, and had called the other members of the Guild into attendance.

Sitting down in his customary chair at the head of the long two pronged table, he felt the contours of the familiar cushion, long since imprinted by his tail and thighs. For six years he had directed the course of many promising young authors from this seat. Now another would take his place and he would head to the field of battle. Both to defend the Keep and to stay away from Yonson, a man that he could not touch lest he give away his powers and identity.

However, a second figure quickly joined him in that empty room, lit only by the braziers set into the stonework. Charles glanced back, and saw that the kangaroo Habakkuk was striding forward on his large ungainly feet. The other Headmaster sat next to him, turning the chair to the side. Once the goose had been there, but with his departure, Matthias had put this meddlesome marsupial in his place to keep him busy. So far, it had worked, or at least it seemed to have worked.

"Good morning, Zhypar," Charles breathed, trying to sound polite.

"What are you doing, Charles?" Habakkuk asked, his dark eyes conflicted by two powerful forces. The rat could almost imagine a battle taking place inside those eyes, a clash of two titanic armies that could only destroy each other in the end.

"What do you think I'm doing?" Matthias asked petulantly, already irritated by the kangaroo's paternalism.

"Making a mistake. Trying to crush a diamond as it were. Running away when you should be facing your fears."

Charles turned on him, his face hot and his paws biting back the Sondeck. "What do you know of my fears? What do you know about my decisions?"

"I know about the Chateau Marzac, and the legends that surround it. You forget, my specialty as a trader was in rare books." Habakkuk licked his nose for a moment, wiping some bit of dust from his cheeks. "I have read De'tagne Marguielle before. I used to have a copy written by Helvutien himself, before he took his own life by tearing out his eyes with a serving spoon. I know what you are running away from. I cannot entirely blame you either, I understand why you are about to do what you are about to do."

"What am I about to do?" Matthias asked hotly, slightly disturbed that such a copy of that book, The Taint of Marzac, would still exist.

But before the kangaroo even had a chance to answer him, another Keeper strode into the Hall and took his seat at the table. Charles remained quiet, silently brewing over these disturbing thoughts, trying not to let them alter the course of his actions. His mind was made up, and no matter what foreign lore this merchant had picked up in the course of his travels would change it in the least.

After Prince Phil had finally arrived, and most of the members had assembled, Charles decided that it was time to begin. He wanted to be out of this room now, and away from these unpleasant thoughts. "My fellow writers and guild members, I have called you today to make an announcement that can wait no longer. For some time now I have been falling behind in my duties to you, pursuing my own affairs and my own stories. I now realize that I am no longer helping you as you should be helped, guiding you as you should be guided.

"Thus, I am going to resign as Headmaster of the Writer's Guild." There were shouts of protest, and many assured him that he was doing a fine job. Charles stilled them by raising his paws. Neither Phil nor Habakkuk had moved or stirred any when he'd spoken. "I will be going on a sabbatical till such time as I can continue my duties to you anew. My decisions stands, it will not be changed. But I exercise my authority to name my successor, one who excels in the pedagogic arts even beyond my own abilities. I choose Zhypar Habakkuk to take my place as Head of the Writer's Guild."

The kangaroo did start at that, but only for a moment. "I also choose Tallis to take his place as assistant Headmaster. I've already cleared this with the Duke, so you may begin your duties. I have been planning this departure for some time now, but wanted to wait till after the Summer Solstice was over to let you all know."

He had actually sent Duke Thomas a notice this morning informing him of his decisions as well as suggesting that it would be prudent to act as if this was expected for some time. "I know that this has caught you all unawares, but I do not want this change to distract you from your own pursuits. Thus, I am going to take my leave of you now and let each of you return to your own work, and to your new Headmaster's."

Charles then, turned resolutely about on his paws, and walked towards the back door. The room was still in shocked silence for a moment before somebody called out, "Thank you, Matthias. You have been a friend to us all. We shall miss you here."

The rat bowed his head in silence. He was going to miss them as well. "I will not be gone forever from these halls, I give you my word on that."

Before he let himself be drawn into anymore goodbyes and farewells, he marched through the door, and out into the daylight. The oaken door swung shut behind him, with a resounding thud. It sent a shiver up his spine and down his tail. It could quite possibly be several years before he ever set foot in that building again. He would ask Tallis to bring him his things from his office later. There was not much there of value though.

There was a sullen atmosphere to the day, as the pavilion was slowly deconstructed, and the Keepers returned once more to their normal livelihoods. It reflected the rat's mood quite well. The Festival of his life was over. He had to get back to the reality of his situation. He was a warrior, and that was that.

Walking along the terrazzo pathways down from the Keep, onto the flagstone and cobblestone roads of the town itself, he slowly made his way past house after house, watching the Metamorians go about their morning chores. The sun was bright in the sky, sitting astride the western most portion of the Barrier Range. The warmth of the northern air was seeping through his fur and skin and settling pleasantly in his bones. On some days in August, it got hot enough to remind him of his old home Sondeshara, but he found this climate so much more appealing now, as if it were the only thing he ever knew.

Knocking on the door to Misha's workshop, Charles waited a moment, before he was greeted the fox's pleasant face. "Charles! Is it done?"

The rat nodded and quickly stepped inside, shuddering once. "Yes, I've left the Writer's Guild. It is official now. I suppose by this evening the whole Keep will know. I am ready to be a Long Scout now."

His friend nodded once more, crossing his arms across the pale blue tunic he wore. "I'm sure you think you are, but there is one thing you must do first."

"What is that?"

"You will have to train of course! To be a Long Scout is hard, and it requires many skills that can take quite some time to master. A few will even require years before they are ready to join. I have a feeling you will be prepared to be a Long sooner than that though."

Matthias took a deep breath, pulled out his chewstick, and began to gnaw absently. "So, when do I begin training?"

Misha Brightleaf gave him that mischievous grin that he had come to know over the course of the past few months. He had a suspicion he would know it even better by the time Fall came around. "I would like you to begin your training right now."

Charles laughed slightly, shaking his head and slipping his chew stick back into his belt. "Well, then, let's get started." One paw traced over his black stripe upon his breast. For that brief moment, his mind had returned to his apprentice days at Sondeshara when he too had worn the yellow. And then he was back in Misha's workshop, a yellow of the Long!