The Horse master finally managed to teach Nudge the basic commands of riding. He insisted on doing it himself. Wolf believed the man didn't trust him to get it right, and he had to admit he didn't have the knowledgeable about the ways of horses. It took the horse master a week of work to have the colt ready to ride. Wolf knew he he would somehow have to return the favor.
Wolf's second ride on the colt was a more controlled affair then his first wild ride. The horse master rode on one side of Nudge and Red a top Mary on the other side. The horse could start, stop, turn left or right, and walk backwards on command. It required a delicate hand on the reins; Nudge seemed over eager to please. It also required a firm hand to make sure he went the way Wolf wanted him to go, and not stray, Nudge being easily distracted by the other people and horses.
Wolf felt like learning to ride all over again. Nudge developed some quirks like having to be given a command twice before he would turn. The horse master observed this and berated Wolf, giving him a crop with strict instructions to use it to keep Nudge in line. Nudge had to be ride-able by anybody because he would be earning his keep by working, just like Mary.
All of a sudden Wolf had the major responsibility of training Nudge. He gave up his claim to riding time with Pinto Bean, the little horse with a big heart who had taught him to ride. There were three other pages taking care of Pinto Bean, so he didn't feel bad. Wolf still had the responsibility for mucking out Mary's stall; it was a perpetual responsibility because Red had given Nudge to him.
Wolf did have to stay close to the palace because Nudge could not go on long trips with the other horses. He spent every afternoon working with the colt and attending every riding class he could. When it came time for the Thanksgiving break, Wolf declined Mrs. Cunningham's invitation to join them for the weekend, so he wouldn't interrupt his time with Nudge.
When the Wolverine got word of what Wolf had done, she ordered him to her office for a talk. "What do you mean by turning down an invitation of hospitality?"
"It's Nudge, I don't want to break his training; he will forget everything."
The knight pointed a finger at Wolf, "When someone freely offers you hospitality you don't turn it down without very good cause. I doubt Nudge will forget much of anything. And if he does it will be easy enough to re-educate him. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am." squeaked a shaken Wolf.
"Now go make arrangements to have him taken care of. He could probably use a break from you."
Wolf ran to do as told.
The limousine arrived and everyone entered the car. The Wolverine sat up front with the driver. Wart, Wolf, Red, and Grace piled into the back along with Shadow and Lady. A chill had settled between Grace and Wolf since she become a squire. Wolf and Wart sat in the very back of the car while Red and Grace sat towards the front where they could talk privately. Wolf just sat silently not really looking at anything. Wart tried to engage him in conversation but got nowhere.
Wolf's dark mood had not gone unnoticed by the Wolverine, who seemed at a loss as to what to do about it. By the time they had arrived at the Cunningham's she had formulated a plan to find out what was going on.
They were greeted by Mrs. Cunningham and the rest of the family at the front of the house. She gave each one of them a hug and led them around the house to the pavilion in the garden, where they found lunch ready.
The Wolverine sat next to Mrs. Cunningham, who sat across from them, all the boys sat on the left and the girls sat on the right. Shadow and Lady had bowls of raw meat on the ground just outside the pavilion.
The Wolverine leaned over to whisper into Mrs. Cunningham's ear, "I'm worried about Wolf; he is in angry about something."
"We'll find out why. Just keep an eye on Wolf." Mrs. Cunningham addressed Red, "Red; how long will it be until you try for knighthood?"
"I don't know Ma'am; I haven't been told yet. I don't think they give you much warning."
"I hope it happens soon; I know you've been waiting a long time."
"It seems like all my life," sighed Red
"I'd like to be there when it happens."
"I'll let you know when I find out."
"Thank you; I look forward to it." Mrs. Cunningham faced Grace, "Grace; I heard that you were just recently made a squire."
"That was pretty quick. I imagine that you were surprised."
"Yes Ma'am; I didn't know it would happen so soon. I expected to be a page for a lot longer. The Bear, my knight master, said it was because I exceeded all the requirements in record time. He's been drilling me on the basics for endless hours every day. He said it is because of my age, but I'll be a squire for a lot longer. It's very hard work but I want it so bad."
"I'm sure you will succeed." Mrs. Cunningham turned her attention to Wolf, "Wolf, you should be a squire pretty soon."
"No, Ma'am. I think Wart will be one before me. He is a lot smarter and a natural leader; besides he's been at the school longer."
"That is a very unusual observation. Don't you want to be a squire?"
Wolf looked down, "Yes, Ma'am ... but I always seem to be making bad decisions."
"You are still young; do you think you learn from your mistakes?"
Wolf was clearly uncomfortable talking, "I try to, but sometimes it just doesn't make sense. I mean, I still don't understand how I can keep out of trouble, short of doing nothing. I could just go to classes, do self defense, and study; but trouble will still find me."
Mrs. Cunningham considered what he had said for a minute then suggested, "If you had always stayed out of trouble where would you be?"
"I would still be in some middle school in a small town, getting beat up."
"If it's any consolation to you, I had a terrible reputation for trouble at the Knight Riding School, and I wasn't even trying to be a knight. I still managed to become a lady."
Wolf sighed, "I'll stick with it."
With lunch over everybody broke up into groups, and Mrs. Cunningham and the Wolverine went to a swing in the back of the yard.
"When did Wolf's face go dark?" Mrs. Cunningham asked.
"Twice: once when you mentioned Grace becoming a squire, the second time when he said he made bad decisions."
"How close is he to Grace?"
"Pretty close. I'm sure they share some really dark secrets."
"And now she hangs out with a different crowd."
The Wolverine grimaced, "He is afraid of being left behind?"
Mrs. Cunningham smiled, "Precisely."
"I will tell you this; he is actually doing pretty well. He does everything required without fail, and you know how impossible we make that, and he has studied other subjects on his own."
Mrs. Cunningham got more forceful with her former teacher, "Then why don't you tell him that?"
"Point taken," said a surprised Wolverine.
"Tell him often."
Hanna clung to Shadow; the two were inseparable, only to be interrupted by the presence of Lady, now almost a full sized if not fully mature wolf. Lady still had her youthful enthusiasm and ran circles around Hanna. They engaged in a three way wrestling match when Lady accidentally nipped Hanna on the leg. The girl gave out a loud yelp, and there was a small explosion of fury as Shadow jumped was all over Lady, chasing her away from Hanna. He took Lady down to the ground by grabbing the dogs muzzle in his jaws pinning her down. Lady whimpered and stopped moving. Shadow finally let go and walked back to Hanna who hugged her mother. He sat down besides them and kept a watchful eye on Lady.
Hanna's skin was not broken and Mrs. Cunningham didn't seem to be too worried. Grace took Lady and put her on a leash, the dog hung her head low; she knew Grace was angry at her. Grace put Lady through her obedience exercises after which she apologized to Mrs. Cunningham for Lady's behavior.
"Lady was just playing," Mrs. Cunningham said. "Hanna was in a rough game but no damage was done. It looks like Shadow has it all in line. I trust Shadow."
"Thank you Mrs. Cunningham. I'll try to make sure she behaves."
"Thank you; I know puppies can be difficult. I'll have to show you pictures of my dog. She died a long time ago, before Hanna came along. I've found out when one in my family adopts a pet, it usually ends up being mine. She was a German shepherd, very loyal."
"What happened to her?"
"We adopted her from the SPCA. She was pretty old and lived only four years. You would have thought we were the world to that dog. It was instant love. Do you understand what I mean?"
"I think I do, Ma'am."
"How we treat our pets is reflection of our humanity to our fellow man. How our pets treat us is a measure of that humanity."
The Wolverine found Wolf sulking in the pavilion. She quietly sat down next to the boy who ignored her. They sat in silence for a long time until Wolf couldn't stand the silence any longer, "Mother; why do I always get in trouble?"
The Wolverine paused before answering, "You do things; you are a person of action. When you do things you occasionally make mistakes. Most of the time you do the right thing, more often than you can imagine. Remember our adventure in the jungle?"
"When you saved page Sally from the cave in, you did the right thing in promising to marry her, if that is what it took to get her into that tunnel. What you did was way beyond brave. It was good decision making. The kind of decision making we want our knights to do."
"But I still kept getting in trouble there."
"Actually trouble found you and its name was Oúre. He picked you for the same reason we picked you. You are going to do important things. You only think you're in trouble. I'll let you in on a teaching secret; we make sure every page gets into trouble."
Wolf didn't seem to be surprised, "But why?"
"Could you trust anyone who has never made mistakes, someone who did not know how to judge the possible consequences of his actions?"
"No, I suppose not."
"But this is not what is really bothering you, is it?"
"No." Wolf sat silently awhile. "Ma'am, why did Grace make squire so fast?"
"Before you did."
"Yes, Ma'am," Wolf seemed to be somewhat shaken.
"The quick answer is age. Grace is much older than you. She deserves to be able to mingle with her peers without the stigma of still being a page. I know you have a special relationship with her. I suspect you always will. Don't lose that; your time is coming." The Wolverine stood and walked into the house leaving Wolf to ponder what she told him.
Mr. Cunningham, Wolf, Wart, and Wart's brothers drove to the paintball park for an afternoon of fun. It would be the big event for the boys, a whole day of just shooting each other. Wolf was excited about it, no swords, no arrows, and no staff fighting. He brightened up.
Mrs. Cunningham had her usual shopping trip planned the day before Thanksgiving to avoid the big crowd the day after. The squires and the Wolverine had remembered to bring their dresses. They and Mrs. Cunningham's three daughters shopped in style and visited the dress shop first. There the Wolverine bought Red and herself informal skirts and shirts.
Mrs. Cunningham bought Grace two dresses, one to replace the one ruined in her dance lesson. The formal dress was long bright red, sleeveless and very plain. Mrs. Cunningham told her the time to show off the woman she had become, which totally shocked Grace.
"This is going to look terrible on me. Everybody is going to call me Scarecrow again."
"Nonsense; you'll do it justice. Besides, Lady Jane is paying for it."
"Your mother wanted to give you a gift and arranged for me to pick it out."
"You'll have to ask her."
"I can't possibly take this dress; it is way too valuable."
"If you don't take it from her then you will take it from me. Now put it on; I want to see it on you."
"You better do it," Red said. "If she went to the Knight Riding School she will get her way."
Grace knew it to be the truth and went behind the screen to put the dress on. When she came out the other women gave out an audible gasp. "You're beautiful," The Wolverine said.
"Most elegant; I look forward to seeing you at the midwinter ball," Mrs. Cunningham added.
After the shopping ended Hanna insisted on going to the Tea Room for high tea, an excuse for another lesson in manners given by the little girl. At the end of tea Mrs. Cunningham asked, "Why don't we give the boys a lesson in paintball?"
The vote was unanimous. The women and girls drove home, changed into play clothes, and then went to the sports park. There Mrs. Cunningham rented paintball guns and they went in search of Mr. Cunningham and the four boys.
The boys, laying behind a log for protection, turned around. They were confronted by a midget in camouflage, a face mask and carrying a gun. It took the boys a second to realize that the curly hair spilling out from behind the mask belonged to Hanna. She raised her gun, pointed and fired at Wart. Suddenly the boys were hit by a mess of paint balls from the two women and five girls.
Having killed Wart and Wolf the girls moved on to find the rest of the Cunningham males. They were lead by Red who had the ability to track them stealthily, and soon Wolf and the Cunningham males were all dead. The next round of play saw the boys taking revenge on the girls, Red in particular. Wart and Wolf laid an obvious trail for her to follow but circled around to attack her from the rear. The rest of the girls were picked off during chance encounters. Even Hanna was shot despite her loud protestations that it wasn't fair.
Wolf eventually encountered Grace and they traded shots from behind the protection of trees. They darted from tree to tree until they caught each other out in the open. Wolf hit Grace, who simultaneously returned equally deadly fire. Soon they were standing just a few meters apart, methodically trading shots. Finally Grace ran out of paint balls. She threw her gun aside and spread her arms out, inviting him to shoot her again. He took aim but did not shoot. He finally dropped his gun and ripped his face mask off; he was crying. "I'm sorry; can you forgive me Grace."
"What ever for, you shot me fair and square."
"No, I was mad at you for becoming a squire before me."
"Forget it. We'll always be friends."
"It, it's just…"
Grace grabbed Wolf in a bear hug. "It isn't right, you should be a squire now. Let's go and get some hot dogs; I'm hungry."
As they were walking out of the forest Wolf realized Grace had never touched anyone before other than a handshake.
The Wolverine and Mrs. Cunningham were watching from a distance with smiles on their faces.