Stepping up to Destiny - Part I

By: Charles Matthias & Christian O'Kane

This work comes between False Winds and Fingers in the Weave. Special thanks on this work goes to Wanderer and LoveBear for their contributions contained herein, and for Deranged Kitsune for his tireless betareading.

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 just inside its crenellated walls, 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.

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