Wanderer sighed sadly at the spectacle below him. From his vantage point on a grasy knoll, he could see Michael beginning the sparring practise with the sword dummy. With each clash of the blade against the dummy's shield arm, Michael sent the balanced log that was the dummy spinning, sending the club-shaped right "arm" crashing into the shield he bore. Overconfident, thought Wanderer to himself. Any moment ...
At last, it happened. Michael, growing overconfident, swung a heavy blow that snapped the dummy around with the speed of lightning.
Michael's shield, alas, was a good deal slower. Wanderer yelped under his breath as the boy was sent sprawling by the club's impact against the helm he wore. Few students lasted out Jack's first lessons in swordplay without learning the value of a good shield.
A rustle in the grass behind him set his ears swiveling until they came to rest oriented on the source of the sound.
"There you are", huffed Christopher as he sat down beside the reclining wolfman. "I expected you to be in the library. Not watching the newest addition to the keep nearly beat his own brains in".
Wanderer smiled briefly as he pictured the half-bear instructor carrying his shaggy bulk up and down the stairs of the keep. The ragged breathing, however, made it clear that that had been exactly what had happened. "My apologies, O affable ursine", he said as he glanced at his friend. "Merely honoring old memories".
His breathing beginning to slow, Christopher smiled at his friend. "He reminds you of yourself, does he?"
Wanderer nodded. It didn't seem so long ago ...
Charles, self-named "The Wanderer", winced for what seemed to be the thousandth time as the wagon he was riding in hit yet another rut in the road. Patience, he reminded himself, was important on such a long journey.
When the news had come to his own village, he had almost split his face with grinning. True, the loss of Lord Thomas' court poet in the battle against the wizard Nasoj was hardly cause for most people to celebrate. But for a young rhymer with dreams, it was a boon sent from the gods. Especially when the young rhymer had no further ties to hold him back.
His smile faded at that last. His father, bless and curse him, would never amount to anything but a cartwright. And despite the steady pay, Charles didn't want that.
He wanted to perform.
"Here", the cartsman said, "are you listening?"
"Pardon, goodman?", said the poet turned scrivener. "When you left off, you had just finished dictating that your wife had had another boy, your new horse was bucking the tether, and your crop had been better than expected".
"Aye", said the cartsman. "And ye'd better be writin' true, or I'll have Lord Thomas himself after ya".
Charles' eyes narrowed as his temper flared. "If I err", he said in a voice laced with steel, "I need no bindings or summonings. Inform me then, if you feel my services too expensive. Otherwise, kindly leave the writing and reading to those born to it".
"Ha!", laughed the cartman. "You, of noble birth? That's a fine one. Next ye'll be tellin' me you're a wizard, as well!"
Charles bore down sternly on his temper. The cartsman was his only transportation to Metamor Keep. Striking the man now would end the trip before it had been completed. He would not strike the man. He would not!
But his hand itched to send the man's head spinning until it landed firmly on the ground, the smile of derision erased and bloody upon the ...
He shook himself. No, he thought to himself. No. I am no beast. Poets are not wolves, to bite that which offends them. Court poets, especially. Concentrating hard, he stifled the temper that had earned him his other title, the one applied to him since his youth.
Lovell. The dreaded title that no sane man wanted. The name bestowed upon those that hit, and fought, and spat with the fever of youth. Lovell.
The young wolf.
Quietly, he swallowed his anger. "So, goodman", he continued, "what else would you say to your brother?"
The walk from the signpost was not tiring, but boring. Adjusting the strap that held his lute against his back, Charles shrugged his pack into place and trudged onward.
A sudden rustling made him spin about, facing the shaking leaves that quickly disgorged ...
He could not tell what it was, yet he knew it was something. Its reality he never doubted. Yet when it spoke ... !
"Who goes there?", said the figure before him in a hoarse voice. Fittingly enough, for it bore the gray fur and ears of the half-horse halfbreeds that the merchants of his home village had used to such advantage.
Charles resolutely took his hand from his dagger ... though not too far. "I am he known as Wanderer", he said. "And you are?"
The strange creature snorted once, as horses do, and did not reply. "Your business?"
This rudeness sparking his anger once more, Charles stood straighter. Thinking quickly, he recited:
"I ask your name, you tell me not,
Am I but fitting for your sport?
You ask my bus'ness; have you got
As yet a poet of the court?"
The thing stared at him a moment. "Amazing ... ", he heard it whisper under its breath. Then its eyes narrowed. "Did you just make that up?"
Wanderer smiled, slipping into the rhythm that had won him a place by the fire many nights. His temper mollified by the creature's surprise, he recited:
"Perforce, I have my mother's wit,
The which I got, and at no charge.
My mother has no need of it,
And yet it would not roam at large.
And if you ask why she's no need,
She's pass'd beyond, the worms to feed."
He saddened at that. He'd never known his mother, since she died giving him life. If that blasted healer had only hurried ... !
The creature seemed sad, also. "I'm sorry", it said. It shook itself briskly, then extended a hard four-fingered hand. "I'm Jack DeMule, the castellan".
Charles' wildness ducked its imagined head at that. To have stricken the castellan would have meant at least a good time in the donjon, if not being executed for treason against Metamor itself. Carried on by momentum, he recited:
" 'Tis good, milord, that now you've spoken.
'Sooth, I thought I faced no more
Than but a guard. Else more than token
Would be kindness in what went before."
Jack grimaced. "You can stop now".
Wanderer cleared his throat. "My apologies. For reasons I have never understood, I fall too quickly into making rhymes. Some are fair, and others are quite good, but ... oh, blast it!" He bit his tongue to throttle the near-poem. Before him, the mulish castellan chuckled.
"Well, then", he said, "with such ready wit and rhyme, I should think that Thomas will give you the job". His mood darkened, though. "If you want it", he finished, then turned away. "Follow me".
Puzzled, Wanderer fell in behind him, as they trudged up the path to the keep.
"So you are called Wanderer", said Lord Thomas from atop his throne.
"Yes, Milord", said Wanderer softly.
Lord Thomas sighed. "Before I consider you for the post of court poet", he told the gentle man before him, "there are two things of which I must needs inform you".
Wanderer nodded, keeping his head low.
"First", said the Duke, "Know this. The magic employed by Nasoj in the battle that claimed our last poet has had lasting effect upon the keep itself. If you stay, you shall change. You may become a child, or perhaps a woman. You may even become an animal. But you shall most assuredly change. Do you accept this?"
Charles remained as he was. "As my lord wishes me to be, so shall I be", he intoned. "Whatever I may become, I shall serve my lord".
Thomas grunted in assent. A well-practised answer, such as one would expect from a loyal vassal. But did the man have no spirit? "Second", he said, more forcefully, "all must bear arms in defense of the keep. All. There is no longer any room for dalliance on the part of my court, no matter how their muses press them. Do you believe that you can bear arms against an invading army, or even Nasoj himself?"
Wanderer gave the traditional nod of assent. "I shall serve my lord as best I can", he replied. "And all that is in my power I shall do".
Suddenly, a scraping sound, growing louder, penetrated his consciousness. Then, a sheathed sword came to rest against his boot. He looked up, cautiously.
"Pick it up", said Jack.
Wanderer looked down at the sword, then back to the castellan.
"Pick it up, I said!"
Wanderer looked to Lord Thomas, who merely made a dismissive gesture.
Jack snorted in disgust. "That's what I thought. Pretty words, poet, but we need someone who can do more to an enemy than talk. That's not you". He glared at the lone figure before him. "Leave".
Wanderer's temper flared like dry pitch. Court manners be damned! Deliberately, he reached down and picked up the sword. With his right hand, he gripped the hilt, his left drawing off the sheath. "First", he replied to the glaring face of the castellan, "Try me. Then we can talk about your manners".
Jack started with surprise. He hadn't expected this. With a snort of derision, he drew his sword and stepped forward. "Well enough, poet", he said with disdain. "I shall go easy enough on you for now".
Wanderer smiled, baring his teeth. "Fair enough, O thou eater of grass", he said mockingly. "I shall try not to trim your mane too close".
At that, Jack started forward ... and was stopped by Lord Thomas' upraised hand. Wanderer turned on him, glaring, until he remembered where he was. Then his eyes dropped ... yet his breathing still came short and hard, and his lips were thin with anger.
"Harsh words, O poet", said Lord Thomas with a smile. "Until you spoke them, I feared there was no spirit in you at all". He leaned forward on his throne. "I give you leave to speak freely. Tell me now. Do you accept that you shall change?"
Wanderer. his eyes still burning with anger, raised his head to look upon the Duke. "What is change?", he said. "As a performer of music and teller of tales, I have been spat upon and reviled. As a man with far more temper than is good for him", he said with a self-mocking smile, "I have been beaten and bloodied. I have, in my own short life, been warrior, rhymer, scrivener, student, and tutor. I have been praised and I have been locked away in gaol for nonexistent crimes. My Lord", he said with a sorrowful smile, "what is change to me? If I am a woman, I shall still be able to perform all the tasks that I do now. I shall merely have to squat for certain ones. If a child", he went on as Thomas and Jack smiled at his joke, "I shall merely have youth to excuse my foolishness".
"And if an animal?", asked Jack. "What then?"
Wanderer paused, and looked at them. A horse for a Duke and a mule for a castellan. Cocking his head to one side, he considered. "Hmm", he said. "Upon consideration, I cannot see that it would matter much. After all", he drawled with a cycnical smile, "certain townships would hold that a man who may read without moving his lips is not human to begin with".
Thomas smiled, but Jack stared. "Without ... ? Impossible!"
"No, Jack", said Lord Thomas. "I have seen it done before. It lays no claim to powers or magics. Merely practise and thought. Well, then, poet", he said with a grin, "we welcome you to Metamor Keep. Jack, where shall he stow his possessions?"
Jack made a show of considering. "Well", he said at last, "there are three choices. There's the storage closet in the root cellar ... "
"Too damp", said Thomas with a wave of his hand. "It would ruin his lute".
"Then there's that unused corner of the armory ... "
"No", said Thomas after consideration. "Too far from the court if I need a ballad written".
"Then, of course, there's the court poet's quarters just past the library ... "
"Perfect", said Thomas with a smile. "Have you any objections, Wanderer?"
"No, sir", said Charles dreamily. "I mean, no, milord".
"Good", said Thomas. "Then, as soon as you sheath that sword, you may go and get settled".
Wanderer looked down at the sword he had forgotten he was holding and began trying to remember which way the scabbard had bounced when he dropped it.
Chris chuckled growlingly at the thought. "I still can't believe they didn't tell you that you were the only applicant that didn't leave when they told him of the change".
"I know", said Wanderer with a smile. "If they'd wanted to see some spirit, they should have given me that piece of information. They'd have seen me spirited indeed".
Chris chuckled for a few more moments, then stopped. "I had the oddest thought just now", he said.
"That first day we met ... ?"
"I recall it, yes".
"What were you looking for in that library?"
Wanderer chuckled himself. "You are not going to believe this ...
Muttering curses beneath his breath, Wanderer grabbed another book from the shelf. Another book finished, and still no information on how to play an instrument with no thumb!
He grimaced as he smoothed out the folds his grasp had imprinted into the parchment. He truly didn't mind having a muzzle for a mouth, really he didn't. The tail was inconvenient, but his own limited tailoring skills had been equal to the task. (He grimaced at the pun and filed it away for future use.) Having fur had actually been pleasant for a change, though he had to take care that it didn't get caught in the ties of his trews. Even the family jewels had profited by the change, he thought as a smirk crossed his face. Or at least they certainly had a better cut. Before it had ended, the one problem with the change had been his dwindling eyesight, though a manuscript was still legible if it was close enough to his snout.
But his hands ... !
It had been hard enough to give up and procure specially-cut quills that had been fitted with straps (from the court alchemist, no less) when his handwriting had become two-handed and illegible. Having his dagger fitted with a similar strap had merely been common sense. But how was he to play a lute, or a lyre, or even a recorder, with no thumbs!
He growled under his breath. Straps, he had decided, were not enough of an answer. They'd serve for the lyre, rightly enough. But the lute used a thumb in fingering, the recorder needed one to hold it in place. And even the lyre, for certain notes, truly required a thumb.
He pounded his useless paw upon the table. Everything was there, he'd discovered, except the thumb's action. With five digits, he had the most handlike paws of any save the keep's healer, a raccoon. But the fifth digit was unusable as a thumb, moving strictly in unison with the other four.
He snarled as the book flipped closed again on his right paw. He slammed the board back in anger.
Suddenly, a gentle voice came from behind him. "Is there a problem?"
Biting back the snarl that arose in his throat, Wanderer turned, saying, "I'm sorry. I'm just having a few problems with ... "
He stopped. The person before him was not the fox who ordered the library and had instructed him to be gentle with the books. Before him stood a large and imposing figure of a bear, garbed in a scholar's robes. "With what?", asked the fur-covered apparition.
"I beg your pardon", said the wolf at last. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Wanderer, the new court poet".
"Chris", said the bear, shaking his outstretched paw. "Tutor to the keep. Now, what seems to be the problem?"
Wanderer grimaced. "I just completed my change a few days ago", he said by way of explanation, "and I've been having trouble adapting certain things for these paws of mine. Have you any suggestions?"
"Perhaps", said the bear. "Perhaps. You might start with ... "
"Hold", said Wanderer, squinting at the candle across the room. "What time do you make it by the candle?"
"Candle?", said Cristopher as he squinted in the same general direction. "What ... oh, that point of light. I can't see".
"I believe I can", said Wanderer, "and it would seem we are about to miss midday meal. Would you care to join me while we discuss this?"
"If you don't mind sharing one of the stone benches", replied the ursine instructor. "I'm afraid the wooden ones weren't made to hold someone of my size".
"Wanderer snorted in derision. "I don't like splinters in my seat anyway. Lead on, O ursine ally".
"Ursine ally?", queried the bear as they walked toward the door.
"Would you prefer, 'benison of bear'?"
"Ursine ally it is".
The two friends laughed at the old memories. "You never did tell me about that problem with the lute", said Christopher. "Why not?"
"Because", said Wanderer with a grimace, "Once I stopped beating my head against the books, I figured out the changed fingerings and new strap positions on my own. The which", he said with a gleeful smile, "are now in my own personally-written book in the library".
"Really?", said Chris. "What's the title?"
"Paws for Music".
Chris groaned at the terrible play on words. "A stirring tail indeed".
"Owitch!", said Wanderer. "What are you trying to do, get my job?"
"Hardly", replied his friend with a snicker. "I don't think I could stand the pressure".
"Speaking of pressure", said the wolf, "may I press you to find out why you were seeking me?"
"Oh, yes", said Chris as he clapped a paw to his forehead. "I almost forgot. It's time for the midday meal".
Wanderer chuckled. "Well, then, let us repair to our usual spot. By the by, did you know that that fool mystic was asking me if I'd seen a ring with a blue crystal?"
"A ring?", said Chris curiously.
"Yes", said Wanderer with certainty. "If he hadn't accidentally called me a dog, I'd've told him I couldn't see a ring if he was wearing it".
With a final shared chuckle, the two friends went inside to have their meal.