Stepping up to Destiny - Part II

By: Charles Matthias & Christian O'Kane

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.

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