Lineaments of Coming Night

Part III

Ah, Thalberg,” Thomas said as he and Alberta reached the rear of the tourney field. The area had been closed off and was kept under close guard. Thomas and Alberta had made their way underneath the suffusive heat of a series of tents stretched together in a line from the edge of the Killing Field to the stands erected about the jousting line. At the end of the line of tents had been a wooden staircase leading up to a mezzanine, and from there up to his booth.

Thalberg was waiting at the mezzanine with his arms crossed. When he saw Alberta, his jaw opened slightly, yellow eyes widening. His arms fell to his sides, and his green claws gripped at his red robe a bit more tightly. “Ah, your grace,” he said, looking from Thomas to Alberta. “And milady. I have prepared your seats as you requested.” For a moment he looked as if he wanted to say more, but decided against it.

Thomas was very glad that he did. In the month since Alberta had changed into an Assingh, Thalberg had become even more withdrawn. And the word amongst the pages was that he was even surlier than usual. This was upsetting to Thomas, but he felt sure that in time his friend and Steward would overcome his unhappiness. And he hoped in time that he would love and respect Alberta in a way that was becoming of a servant.

“Thank you, Thalberg,” Thomas said, nodding once more. “Alberta, would you be so kind as to wait here. I need to speak with Thalberg privately for a moment.”

She nodded, ears perked as she glanced bout the mezzanine. “I shalt wait for thee.” There was a frightened look in her eyes, but it mellowed when she met his gaze.

The alligator had a resigned look in his eyes as he and Thomas walked a short distance off. There was a curtained off section that led to underneath where many had already gathered. The sounds off boots, paws and hooves came from over their heads. The only light was faint and diffuse full of twisted shadows and silhouettes.

“Thalberg, you are my friend,” Thomas said, keeping his voice amicable. “But I have been hearing things of late that bother me. What is bothering you?”

“Your grace, you know I am uncomfortable about the idea of you courting the very one who nearly made you into a horse,” Thalberg replied bluntly. He kept his voice low, though it was biting.

“And you know that there is no more trace of the evil magic upon her. There is no duplicity in her, Thalberg. Can’t you see that?”

The alligator turned his head away, and although Thomas could not see it, he felt sure that his Steward was tightly clutching his robe, and very nearly tying it into knots. “Thomas, please. I had to visit you every day while you were held in that horse form to check on you. I saw my liege grazing blithely and contentedly as an animal. I even saw you... you... defecate like an animal. While I was standing there no less. Thomas, she did that to you. Even if that magic is gone that made her do it, it is so very hard for me to let that go. That memory... I cannot look at her and not see you as a beast.”

Thomas took a long deep breath. He knew that he should have expected this. And a part of him had. And it infuriated him also that he would still hold that against her, when she had been as much a victim as he was. But still, Thalberg was a good man, and more importantly, a friend. That mattered to him too.

“Thalberg, I know that it hurts you. But I love her. She became equine. If there is no greater sign from the heavens, than I cannot imagine it would be. Please do not fight me on this. Do not see me on all fours when you see her. That is not what will be. No, not ever.”

The alligator’s words were almost chocked. “I try, my liege. I can see that you love her, and that she loves you. I... I am sorry, your grace. I have shamed you.”

“No, Thalberg, you have served me well. I would be a horse in mind and body if not for you. Now be my stalwart advisor once again. See us both to our seats. And then join us. Sit next to Alberta in fact.”

Thalberg stood still for a moment, and then slowly nodded his long head. “Aye, your grace, I shall.” He stammered unintelligently for a second, shuffling his feet on the ground. “How shall I announce her to the others?”

“As the Lady Alberta Artelanoth.” Thomas allowed himself a smile. “That is who she is after all.”

“Of course.” Thalberg let out a long sigh. “I will spend more time seeing to her needs if that is your wish, Thomas.”

“I would like that. She has a good soul, Thalberg. When you know that, then you will know that there could be no better woman for me than her.” Thomas licked his lips. “Now come, she is waiting for me.”

The two men stood quietly for a moment more, before they both returned to the mezzanine. There were no other thoughts that they needed to share, because they both already knew them.

“I’d say we’re just in time,” Lord Avery announced as he and James slipped into their seats. They were decently high up in the stands. They could see the field clearly enough, though it was inevitable that they were going to miss some details. The stands were erected once a year for the joust. The benches were not terribly comfortable, and if you shifted about too much you might get a few splinters, but they served their purpose. Keepers surrounded them on all sides, some noisier than others.

“Isn’t that the Steward?” James asked, pointing across the field at the massive booth that was draped with tapestries bearing the Ducal seal.

Brian Avery squinted as he stared. “Yes, that’s Thalberg. And the woman he’s leading... hmm... yes, I think that’s Lady Artelanoth. I remember hearing about her when I arrived.”

James nodded, seeing the female donkey morph as she sat down in the chair next to the ducal seat. She was rather lovely he thought, dressed so captivatingly in her green bodice. The tiara between her long ears was a pleasing touch.

“I hear that she and Duke Thomas have been seeing a lot of each other.”

“That isn’t the half of it,” a voice from behind them guffawed. “I hear that they have been seeing each other for months now!” James turned and saw a human man sitting behind them with legs crossed. “About time his grace got himself a lady.”

Lord Avery chuckled drily at that. “I suppose it is. We shall see though. Have you heard where she comes from? I have not been able to learn.”

The man grinned a bit and scratched at his two day old beard. “I hear that she’s from the Flatlands. Didn’t know that they had any nobles out that way though, but I guess there’s a first for everything.”

James frowned for a moment and then looked back at her. Before he could say anything else, the booming voice of the Steward cascaded across the tourney field. “All rise for his grace, Duke Thomas Hassan V!”

They all quickly rose to their feet, paws, or hooves. James was unsteady for a moment, but he’d long grown used to standing on hooves. He had a hard time remembering what it was like to have toes now. And a part of him wondered why he even missed them.

Thomas came forward and stood at the edge of the booth, and waved to all the crowd. A cheer went up, and James found his voice amongst the rest. Thomas smiled broadly and waved them all to their seats once more before taking his own. “Let the tourney begin!” he called out loudly, though his own voice did not carry quite as far as the alligator’s did. James noticed that his hand did not remain on the arm of his chair, but slipped over and rested atop the Lady Alteranoth’s own in her lap.

James smiled. Thomas looked to be very lucky just then.

“Here they come,” Lord Avery said in his ear. The donkey nodded and looked out onto the field, grinning as he spotted Charles riding out dressed in his squire’s uniform. He looked rather good that way.

Taking a deep breath, James let his excitement fill him. Ah, it was going to be a good day!

Charles carried Sir Saulius’s banner atop a pole in his right paw as he led Malicon out onto the tourney field. The field was red with dust, though the stands were bright and colourful, full of people and many different shapes. The banner he held was of a large rat clutching a bundle of grain in its paws. It had at one time been a dragon, but Saulius had changed it a year ago when he had first decided to participate in the joust. The change pleased Matthias to no end; seeing Erick share his joy and pride in being a rat was a sign to him and to all of the transformative power of the Keep.

Sir Saulius rode along behind him in full plate carrying his first lance. He sat perfectly straight upon Armivest, the chestnut stallion trotting with a stately gait. There was a definite air of nobility about the rat’s poise, one that Charles did his best to mimic. His nostrils drank in the air, the rich scent of sweat, both horse and otherwise, and of the excitement that filled the crowds who came to see the champions from a year past defending their prize. Cheers rose up as they rode out onto the field, and Charles could not help but feel their excitement fill him with secret pleasure.

He did not cast his gaze back to Sir Saulius. In fact, apart from a few words of encouragement, they had said nothing else to each other that morning. Charles did not like to dwell on what Intoran had said. It was clear that all the other knights and squires expected him to resign from the Longs and become Saulius’s squire full-time, and eventually a knight himself. And as he rode out onto that tourney field, the grass of the killing grounds stomped to dust over the course of the last few days, he felt a strange urge to do just that.

The life of a scout was unheralded. Unsung and unwept, they were known more to their enemies than to their friends. Lutins feared the name of Misha Brightleaf, but amongst the people of Metamor, he was known more as a fierce warrior with a penchant for collecting ears and making clocks. But what of the other scouts? Who could describe Kershaw’s exploits? Not even Charles knew all that the red panda had done. Or perhaps Arla, how many truly knew where the hound dog she had adopted came from? How many guessed she had lured it away from a group of Lutins by appealing to it canine to canine?

But Charles Matthias. His name was known, and many of his battles recounted. But what of his efforts on behalf of the Longs? How many of them were known? He felt the taste of bitter recrimination creeping into his stomach then, and smiled as he rode out on the field. Here was another chapter in his own bizarre saga unfolding, a tale that perhaps bards would sing of later in life. Becoming a knight would add an interesting verse or too, he reckoned.

And it was not as if he did not like what he was doing. He felt the familiar weight of the chain mail he wore, the way Malicon spread his legs, the scent of that roan pony, and its familiar and comforting personality. He had been thrilled to be reunited with him only two months ago, and now, he did not wish to be parted from him. Slowly, bit by bit, that pony was becoming just as much a part of him as his own legs. He drew his legs tighter then, gently nudging Malicon’s sides in appreciation. He could be a knight, and he knew right then that he would enjoy it. And not just for the attention. But for the real tangible connection it brought between him and this simple creature.

Charles scanned the crowd as the cheering continued. He saw many familiar faces, but he resisted the urge to wave to them. It took him a moment, but he found Misha fairly close. The fox was staring directly at him with an amused grin on his muzzle. It had only been a few days ago that Charles had been assuring him that he was only being a squire for the joust. He felt a bit of shame creep over him. How dare he think of his own name being bandied about by bards when all of his friends had only just seen him again. Was he that absorbed in his self that he would abandon them who missed him most for a chance at more glory.

No, that he could not do. Some of his swagger began to fail him. He could feel the pole in his paw begin to slip. He snarled at himself for his foolishness, and gripped the pole tighter. He must hold that banner high. Though he may disappoint Saulius later, he would not disappoint him during the tourney, the most important day of the year to a knight such as his friend. He may not become a knight, Charles told himself, but he would account himself well enough this day that all would say it a shame that he wasn’t.

They were nearing the middle of the field now. He could see that Sir Egland and Intoran were already there waiting for them. Egland had a cloak of bright green about his shoulders, covering his armour. He bore a modified helmet that barely did him any good. He had to leave quite a bit of space open for his antlers, and his ears. It really amounted to a bit of plate covering the top of is head and down the bridge of his nose, and then around the sides of his cheeks. His round shield was still that of is time serving with the knights of Yesulam, green with a white bend sinister.

Intoran bore the knight’s banner as well, and this was something new. Egland had chosen his form to represent him, that of an issuant deer upon a field of green the same hue as his cloak. A bit of a breeze had picked up, and now the banners were snapping fiercely. The sky above, once completely clear of clouds, was now littered with clouds drifting in from the south. They were white and puffy like a warm bed of feathers, but there was a subtle grey to their curves that hinted at something fouler behind them.

Charles brought Malicon to a stop when he was abreast of Intoran. The oryx gave him a knowing smile, then returned his focus forward upon the Duke’s booth. Sir Saulus rode past him until he was next to the elk. He stopped then and waited with his head held high. Even so, they were dwarfed by the their companions on their left sides. Even with his long horns, Intoran was sitting a good two to three feet higher, and it was just as bad between Egland and Saulius.

In front of the booth the stands extended a few rows, and in one of them sat Sir Andre Maugnard. He smiled to them both, though there was a subtle pain in the wolverine’s expression. There was a railing around the tourney field, and in front of it had been draped a red banner. Andre sat behind that banner, obscuring the fact that he had lost one of his legs. Jenn was sitting nearby, her heavy clawed paw resting upon his shoulder comfortingly from time to time. The crutches he used were nowhere to be seen.

The booth itself was a shadowed balcony surmounted by pinions and the Duke’s own banner. Hanging from the front railings was the horsehead crest trimmed in gold and blue thread with royal purple tassels lining the ends. The tassels were caught on the wind, rising and falling gently against the lacquered hardwood beneath. To the left of the crest a lectern had been erected, and it was draped in ceremonial blue cloth as well. Behind the mahogany podium rose the massive alligator framed in familiar red robes. These bore the Hassan crest upon the left breast, though with the way the fabric folded over his chest, it was hard to tell.

Thalberg surveyed the crowd and held out his arms. The flambeaux on either end of the booth cast a bright gleam on his polished scales. When the cheers of the crowd had fallen into a frenetic silence, he opened his snout and boomed gallantly, “Lords, Ladies, and People of Metamor! We have witnessed our bravest heroes meet each other in honourable challenge, competing for your hearts, glory, and for their own victory. Before us stands the two knights whose accomplishments have far surpassed that of their brethren, and whose words and deeds have earned your favour. 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 Yacoub Egland has born much hardship, having come to this land with the ill fated Patriarch. He survived the ordeal, and now stands a loyal citizen of Metamor, and has shown great honour and valour in the many long months. He defended us when Nasoj struck again most foul, and he has worked tirelessly to increase the ranks of the invested. And now today he seeks to claim the Golden Lance, the highest honour that Metamor can bestow.”

Cheers of “Egland” rose up form the crowd. They were enthusiastic, but Charles had heard others that were more full-throated and boisterous.

Thalberg waited a moment before holding out his green-scaled hands again, gesturing all to subside. “The other knight is one we all know, and the very one who won the Golden Lance in last year’s tourney. He has fought his way to this day very hard, and stands before ready to defend his title. He has shown himself to be one of Metamor’s most loyal knights and fiercest warriors. I present to you, Sir Erick Saulius!”

This time, the crowd was absolutely ecstatic in its cheers and adulations. Charles sat a bit taller in his saddle then. It was very clear to all who the crowd’s favourite to win this joust was. Not that they would be able to have much say. And every knight knew that. It was the valour and skill of the knight that mattered most. And Charles had seen few knights he would claim were as skilled as Sir Saulius. He had not had time to watch any of the other bouts, but he knew Egland was very skilled. Saulius had spoken effusively about his abilities as a knight on several occasions.

Thalberg allowed the cheering to continue for nearly a minute before he held out his hands once more to bring the crowd back to quiet decorum. “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!”

At this, he threw up his arms and the crowd roared again their approval and eagerness for this final contest of the Solstice Festival. Last year had been the first of its kind in seven years. They had not realized how parched they had become without it until they’d had a taste once again. And now that they had a taste, they did not want to give it up. Charles took a deep breath, swelling a bit with pride that he could participate in it. But still, he reminded himself that he was allowing himself to be torn dangerously between all the commitments that he held dear. No matter how much fame it might bring, his devotion had to come first.

And why was he suddenly so worried about his fame anyway? He’d received so much of it, was he beginning to enjoy it more than was good for him? He put that thought away for the future. Right now he had a part to play to help his friend Saulius defend his title.

After Thalberg’s benediction, both rats rode down to the far end of the field, while Egland and Intoran rode to the opposite end. Saulius slid his own lance into the hay-filled canister at the end where his others resided. The lance he’d brought in had been his own, his one heirloom that he kept from his days before journeying to Metamor.

“Well, we made it here again,” Charles offered with a smile to the knight.

Sir Saulius grinned through the visor of his helm. “Aye. Though the day wilt come when thou art on the other side of the field.” His whiskers wiggled in merriment at the thought. Charles blushed and turned back to stare down the long line and the dust that had settled in their wake. He did not have the heart to tell him the roundabout direction his own thoughts and feelings had been going in just the last few minutes.

“You would beat me soundly if I dared,” he finally managed to reply, his smile wide, though much of it was feigned.

“As we doth say in the Steppe, ‘dost not call thy horse a mule’.” Saulius held his head high, and there was a look of fierce pride in his eyes as he surveyed Charles dressed as his squire. Charles sucked in his breath, let part of his smile fade, and blushed in his ears.

He bit back the words that he wished to say. Nothing would ruin Saulius’s concentration more than his squire confessing that he could not be a knight. Instead, Matthias looked down the long field. Sir Egland and Intoran were also waiting expectantly. Matthias gripped the banner more tightly in his paw, and readied himself for what he knew to be coming.

With a bright flourish, the trumpets unleashed their brilliant fanfare, and both he and Intoran started forth at a stately gallop, lifting their banners high. They rode along opposite sides of the jousting line, as the crowd began to cheer once more. Intoran flashed him a grin as they passed, and he returned the gesture. Unlike last year, he noticed, the dust was not rising quite as quickly in their passage. A few errant particles irritated his eyes, but mostly the orange clouds stayed lower around their steed’s legs.

Charles reached the end where Sir Egland watched him with a small grin. He nodded his head politely to the elk who sat in his saddle with hands folded over the pommel. Egland returned the gesture, though Charles was already by then beginning his return run down the other side of the jousting line.

Malicon was a little eager to run faster, but Charles kept a restraining grip on the reins. He could feel the tension in the pony through his legs and that tension filled him. No wonder it was said that a knight was only truly complete when he was mounted. Malicon responded to Charles’s gentle but firm handling, and kept to the stately pace the rest of the way back down the jousting line.

Taking a quick look, Charles scanned the face of the crowd, and he saw some familiar ones. Misha of course, who still had that wry grin on his face, but also Lord Avery and James. He felt his heart gladden. He had known that James had come to watch, even over his objections that he needed the donkey to tend to his wife and children in his absence, but he had not known that Lord Avery was here as well. He did not see any of his other friends from the Glen, but they had a festival of their own to celebrate, so he supposed it should not be too surprising.

When he reached Sir Saulius’s side again, he brought Malicon to a stop, and let the pole slide down into the canister. It thudded upon the hay, and the banner caught the wind blowing from the south. Charles felt it gripping his fur and brushing across his ears. It was a warm wind, though there was a vaguely familiar tang to it as well. Was a storm brewing? The clouds were certainly beginning to grow with each passing hour.

Charles patted Malicon on the neck and the pony whickered anxiously. He smiled. The animal’s exuberant personality pleased him. Malicon champed at the bit, eager for the run he knew was coming. The rat could not help but quietly chuckle.

Thalberg had already returned to the podium, and both Sir Saulius and Sir Egland had rode their steeds back before the Duke’s booth. Charles watched from their end of the field as the traditional test of wit was underway. But unlike last year, he could not keep his mind focussed upon the words. He smiled a bit as he caught snatches of what they said, but most of it simply made no sense whatsoever. The only thing he could judge from it was that Egland was accomplished at this too.

As he did not wish to think on his current problem, he turned his mind to the many calming practices of the Sondeckis. He sought that place within himself at which all tension and agony ceased, and there was only the blissful nothingness of peace. In his mind, the bright sands of Sondeshara filled his thoughts. There the starry sky turned over head, the bright luminous points twinkling in silent regard. His toe claws dug into the shifting sands, finding them comforting, and still warm from the day’s heat. The air was cool though, and it soothed him. Deep in that thought, he found a sense of peace, where his Sondeck was satiated and dormant like a bear sleeping in hibernation.

And then, he felt something wrong. The stars overhead, they were not as he expected them to be. It was as if a hand had reached up and slightly altered their place, shifting them back to some other arrangement. But this had not been of his own will, he knew that. There was a presence, something other, that had reached into his very thoughts and stirred them. Whatever peace he’d felt was gone. His Sondeck began to flare in his mind in rebellion to what he saw, and he fought to control it. His legs tightened suddenly, and he had to yank back his paws to keep Malicon from bolting forward.

And then it was all gone, and he was once more in Metamor. The fur along his back was straining at his mail. He shuddered visibly, his paws trembling. What in the world had just happened. Charles glanced up at the sky. The clouds overhead were tinged darkly he thought. But they still seemed to be just clouds. Was this just a part of the Solstice? Had he just imagined the stars shifting in his Calm?

Thalberg’s voice came crashing into his thoughts, and he looked back to the Duke’s booth. The knights were being dismissed, and from what the alligator said, it looked like the contest had been a tie once again. That was just as well. The real challenge would come in the joust itself.

Leaning over in the saddle, Charles snatched up his lance and gripped it firmly underneath his shoulder. Even as the two knights began their stately trots back to their own sides of the field, the grasshopper D’Alimonte was scuttling out into the dust with the signal flags in his upper set of arms.

Framing the edges of the runs were three poles. Hanging from the three poles were three rings, each a different size. The furthest out was the largest, with a centre a good three inches across. The middle set had a hole two inches wide, while the one nearest the supporting brace was only one inch wide at the centre. This part of the joust was the squire’s opportunity to shine. And so far in the tourney he had done so, missing only one or two rings in each bout, and none in his last.

Sir Saulius nodded proudly to him as the rat rode back. Charles offered him a quick smile and then set his eyes down the field. D’Alimonte had waited until both of them were holding their lances before lifting high the flags. His antennae wiggled apprehensively, just as Malicon snorted impatiently. And then the grasshopper yanked both flags downwards, jumping back a good ten feet in one leap a split second later.

But Charles had already kicked Malicon into motion, and the pony responded vigorously. He drew the lance taut, filling his arm with the Sondeckis to steady it. His eyes narrowed as the poles and rings grew larger moment by moment. With deft ease, he guided the point of his lance to the centre of each ring. They would slide up the haft of his lance, that is until Malicon and he thundered past. The pole followed them at first, until it had reached it’s limit, and the fabric holding the ring to the pole would snap. Thrice Charles felt the shuddering clang of the pole as it snapped back into place. When he pulled back on Malicon’s reins, his heart pounding fiercely in his chest, as fast as any battle, but lighter and more exultant than tense.

The elk was watching him and nodded his approval at the rat’s technique, but Egland’s eyes did not stay on him long. Nor did Charles linger in the elk’s company. After a brief glance at the three rings, he turned Malicon back around and set the pony toa charge once more. The roan stallion responded eagerly, hooves pounding the earth and sending up clouds of dust in their wake.

Charles could not help but offer a quick prayer of thanks that the dust was not so pervasive this year as it had been last. In the final contest last year, the dust had been billowing into his eyes so badly he’d barely been able to see the rings he was aiming for. By some miracle, he’d actually been able to claim all of them regardless. But he would still rather perform without the dust.

He could feel his own energies grow like a swelling brass chord as he raced down the field. His arm clutched the lance tightly, and he felt the Sondeck in him race along his fingers. His claws dug at the wood, and with every bit of his power, he held that lance steady before him. The point wobble din the air still, but resolutely he fixed it always at the centre of each ring as they rushed to meet. His shoulder jerked when the rings came free from their poles, and each time, he had to adjust himself slightly to aim for the next one.

Even though the dust was not stinging his eyes as before, it was beginning to irritate his whiskers. His soft nose twitched in irritation as some particle lodged itself on the sensitive flesh. He grit his teeth, grinding them together as he held tightly. Matthias would not be so easily deterred by a single grain of dust. The second and third rings, each of them , were skewered upon is lance only moments later. He felt his pride grow as he saw that his execution was flawless once again. When he slowed Malicon to a stop, he smiled assuredly to Sir Saulius. Yes, he could be a knight if he really wanted.

And then the irritation began in earnest. Charles rubbed at his snout with his free paw for a moment. The susurration from the crowd was building. Glancing at the other side of the line, he saw that Intoran had also so far managed to claim all six rings. Grimacing, he rubbed once more, and it seemed he finally managed to dislodge the offending mote. He smiled to himself, repositioned his lance until it fit comfortably under his shoulder, and then gave Malicon another kick to the sides.

The roan pony launch forward, and Charles clutched the equine tightly between his legs. They were one and the same. He always had to realize that. With subtle twitches of his knees, he guided Malicon in a bit closer to the poles. They came so fast, that he was almost not prepared for it. But the first ring slipped satisfyingly onto his lance. Charles steadied himself and held his breath as they raced to their next goal.

That was when the particle of dust decided to slip back into his nose and make him wriggles his whiskers unexpectedly. An icy horror clenched his gut as the lance skidded along the edge of the second ring, and then slid around it. He cursed himself inwardly for missing it, and blew all his breath out his nose. The mote was borne away on the wind, and he found that he could concentrate once more.

All was not lost after all. There was still one ring. These were the ones only a single inch across. It was very difficult to scoop them up. Perhaps Intoran had missed one as well. There was always that hope. Charles did not dare look though. At least not until all was over. The last ring was still ahead.

His claws dug into the lance, and he could feel the wood splintering under his grip. His eyes saw the end of the lance, the tip so slender that it threatened to disappear altogether. The ring was only a short distance before it. Always the hole and the tip f his lance were aligned. Always they proceeded directly to meet each other. And like lovers who had not seen each other in countless years, they met and were swept off together, drawing free from the angry pole which clanked in protest.

Charles slowed Malicon then and held up his lance which held eight rings. Sir Egland nodded once more to him, clearly approving of his performance. But there was a satisfaction nevertheless in that gaze that made the icy chill grip his stomach once again. His tail twitched across the backside of his mount as he turned his head...

And beheld Intoran holding aloft a lance bearing nine rings. The oryx beamed in pride, his chest puffed out to remarkable proportions. Charles felt the cold seep throughout his body. He’d failed his friend and lost this part of the competition. Perhaps he couldn’t be a knight if he even wanted to.

He wanted to lower his head and trot back across the field in shame. No, he wanted to run away to the Deaf Mule and drink himself until he was singing songs that he’d never remember in the morning. He wanted to head straightaway back to Glen Avery and forget that this nonsense ever happened.

But he was a knight’s squire. And there was honour and protocol to follow. Keeping his chin up, Charles set Malicon to a stately trot and made his way back across the field He glared momentarily at the lone ring that still hung on his side. It was swinging in the breeze so that it seemed to be winking at him. Next time, Charles assured it with his eyes, next time it would not foil him.

Would there be a next time? Charles wondered about that question as he made his way back to Sir Saulius’s side. The rat knight was watching him with the same impassive gaze that he bore regardless of how well he performed. He certainly hoped that this was not the last time he would be in the tourney. Although he knew Misha would be upset, he had to admit that he greatly enjoyed the tourney. Even if only for a few weeks out of the year, he would be sir Saulius’s squire.

“Thou didst well,” Saulius said a Charles turned Malicon back around, stopping only a few feet behind the knight. His pink nose twitched a moment. “Not e’en the greatest knights couldst skewer every ring every time. A loose stone, a poor buckle. Any of these hath caused knights of legend to miss.”

Charles nodded at that. It had been a distraction at just the wrong time. Next time he would have better focus. Perhaps he would even sing the Song of the Sondeck to himself. That could work. He’d have to write the idea down though. It would probably be a long time before he practised again.

The trumpets let forth a paean once more, and D’Alimonte was back out onto the field. Andre Maugnard was rubbing his paw thoughtfully across his chin as he watched, eyes darting from Sir Egland to Sir Saulius and back again. Both knights had drawn forth their first lances. Visors were lowered, shields raised, and horses were digging their hooves into the ground. The grasshopper raised the flags into the air tentatively, his faceted eyes missing no details. Matthias was holding his breath.

And then the flags were down, the knights charged forward, the crowd let out breathless roars, and D’Alimonte was scrambling back out of the way. Down the field those two titanic forces moved. The sunlight glinted resplendently form their armour, magnifying their presence. These were not simply knights charging at each other, they were veritable titans of old, legends reborn for this one moment. Charles gaped in awe and jealousy as he watched them rush headlong into each other. A vicious snap was heard as their lances struck their shields, and both rat and elk bent backwards, splintered wood cascading around them like leaves.

Sucking in his breath, Charles felt on edge as he watched Saulius right himself and then ride backwards. There was a small dent in the front of his shield where the lance had struck it very nearly dead on. Sir Saulius did not appear to be in the least bit winded. He tossed aside the remnants of his lance, selected another from the bucket, and readied himself for another charge.

The crowd was hushed this time, every one leaning forward in their seats to get a better look. Charles too was leaning forward in his saddle. He wished that he could watch this from the side, because he could not see much from behind Saulius. The rat and elk held their lances level as they charged. At the last moment, Saulius tilted his in slightly to the left, and as the tip struck the shield, it slid along the curve, and struck the elk solidly in the chest.

For a moment, Charles felt a cheer reach his throat. But it did not quite escape. As the lance struck Egland, the elk twisted his own lance to the side, and though he was sent sprawling from his steed, the momentum was enough to carry his lance forward just a few more feet and push Saulius back as well. The rat clutched for the reins, his blue and gold pinions snapping. But he could to quite reach, and after an agonizing second or two tottering on the back edge of his saddle, he slid back and over Armivest’s rump and tail to land in a heap behind the horse.

The horses ran back to their sides as they were trained to do. Both Egland and Saulius were disoriented at first, but both struggled to their feet. In Egland’s case, cloven hooves. Charles wondered how he could stand upon such slender legs wearing such heavy armour. He did seem to move slowly, as if the weight were agonizing – a millstone that threatened to crush him.

Saulius was only marginally better. His tail had thankfully been out behind him this time, so he did not break any bones unlike last year’s joust against Andre. Even so, his first few steps were staggering, and it took him a second to draw out his sword. When he did finally have it in both paws, his stance became certain. He held the sword before him defensively, crouched low, eyes shining brightly beneath his visor.

Sir Egland did not advance at first. His own sword was slender but the edge glistened a bright line of white, as if it had been cut out from the world around it instead of created naturally. He took a few tentative steps in a circle around Saulius, before he ducked beneath the jousting line. Andre had almost had to crouch to get under that, but Egland was not nearly as massive as the wolverine. Even so, he was bent into a crouch as he passed beneath it. His antlers only jus passed under with him.

Saulius took a step to the side, lifting the sword slightly. Th two knights faced each other across a gulf of barely six feet, or so Charles judged. He leaned forward further, wishing once again he could get a better look. Beyond them, he caught a glimpse of Intoran trying to see it more clearly as well.

He could not be sure what happened next, because one moment the two were staring each other down, and the next they were trading sword blows. The ring of steel on steel rang out through the stands, and there were cries from the audience as they watched in rapt fascination. Cheers would go up for Egland or Saulius when either seemed to have an advantage, but both knights were such consummate swordsman, that no advantage ever lasted.

Egland was still quite a bit taller than Saulius, and so their battle, while clearly intense, was also awkward. Where Andre had been large and lumbering, Egland was lithe and swift. Saulius had no advantage in speed here. His advantage and disadvantage was his size. And the rat seemed intent on using it as an advantage only, as he constantly ducked around swings, and tried to slip inside Egland’s guard constantly. But the elk was also fast, and danced back each time.

Charles could hear the beat of his heart, so heavily did it strike against his chest. His claws dug into the pommel of his saddle, and even Malicon began to snort unhappily as it watched the battle. Egland had begun to hammer away at Saulius, who was falling backwards with each thrust. Saulius turned then to his right, and backed towards the jousting line. Charles narrowed his eyes as he watched. With a couple quick steps, Saulius slid underneath and beyond. Egland narrowed his eyes, and then ducked his head to follow after.

It was then that Saulius lunged forward, thrusting upwards with his blade in a quick arc. Egland jumped back from instinct, but it was too late. His antlers had passed beneath the line, and when he leaped back, they became entangled. Egland fell forward, and tried to parry the blow, But Saulius’s blade sunk just to one side, slicing up along the opening in the elk’s armour.

“Hold!” Sir Egland called out, even a he stumbled past the rat. He put one hoof-like and on his side, and then held it up. It was covered in his own blood. “I yield to you, Sir Saulius.” Egland’s voice rang out loudly in the field. He kneeled then and held aloft his sword, the blood still oozing from his side. Charles felt like his chest was ready to explode, and his excitement completely overwhelm him. Saulius accepted the blade and held it aloft.

The audience erupted into thunderous cheers.

Above them, the sky subtly reciprocated.

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