Stepping up to Destiny - Part VI

By: Charles Matthias & Christian O'Kane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, ‘twas yours!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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