Stepping up to Destiny - Part V

By: Charles Matthias & Christian O'Kane

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

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

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

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

"What's going to happen here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That was fantastic!" Jenn said with excitement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He said that you act impulsively."

"Oh he does, does he?"

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

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

"I thought you two were friends?"

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

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

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

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

"What was it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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