I wish we could stay here, just a few moments longer... it’s so peaceful.
“Rose, we must not stay still.”
Siyana, the sun of Neopia, walked queenly across the sky toward the western horizon, where she would settle herself in her bed of color just beyond the treetops. The young Kyriiess, Rose, stood at the edge of a grassy knoll and wished to herself that she could catch one last glimpse of the light faerie.
Reluctantly, she turned her face away and walked to her companion, who waited for her at the bottom of the little hill. There would be other days, other sunsets. Tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, she could watch Siyana fall asleep.
Her companion watched her actions, the way her eyelashes rested against her cheek in sad compliance when he had bid her to leave, the gentle way she held herself as she stepped, with bare paws, over pebbles and twigs.
The Lady Rose would always retain her Royal appearance, in spite of hardships, in spite of filth and hunger, as they traveled across the Brightvale plains to the Haunted Woods. The Darigan Gelert’s face betrayed none of his thoughts as the Kyriiess walked slowly past him.
Rose Laenapolis ash-Belfaire. It was just like the Meridell nobility to come up with absurdly flamboyant names, and the names only became longer and the more flamboyant as the generations wore on. Thankfully, for his memory’s sake, Lady Rose was only the third generation of the Belfaire lineage.
Was it really just a few days ago that Tanner had been within the walls of Sir Joseph’s castle? And to think, only three years earlier, he had been forbidden to step foot within a Meridell castle ever again.
He should have known better. The nobility never keep their word. The Gelert supposed they thought of him less highly than he thought of them. But in times of great peril, the past is forgotten in lieu of the here and now. Perhaps not completely forgotten, but overlooked... Still, who could trust a traitor?
Those very words had been spat at him as he was entering the castle’s council room.
“...Trust him with our daughter, Joseph? Have you gone mad?”
But Sir Joseph was convinced there was no other option. Meridell was at war with Brightvale. His castle was under siege, and if he waited any longer, his daughter would face far worse dangers here than under the care of the Darigan Gelert who stood in front of him.
“Take her,” Joseph had said. “Take her into the Haunted Woods and keep her safe. You are the last one left who can still navigate them – take her, save her. You still have time to redeem yourself, Tanner.”
And so Tanner had agreed to it. He, under the guise of a soldier, carried a blindfolded Rose out of the castle and headed into the vast plainlands of Meridell.
“She must not return here until after the war, no matter what should happen to us.” Joseph’s voice had wavered but he remained firm.
“Protect her with your life – may you never live to see another dawn if my daughter does not!” The Lady Belfaire was a force to be reckoned with, and while her eyes were bleary, they shone with an ever tempestuous fire. Her curse would never cease their ringing in Tanner’s ears. If he should relinquish his one chance at regaining his honor, her curse would cause him to never forget it.
It was Rose who waited for him, now. The Kyrii-girl never said a word – she simply stood there, watching Tanner relive his memories, despite his earlier utterance for haste.
“Come, Rose, you have a long journey to safety yet. We are nearly past the Brightvale border.”
It wasn’t until the third day of their journey that Tanner came to understand why Rose never spoke a word to him. They had been walking through a particular rocky part of the Meridell plains – Tanner leading the way and Rose following not far behind.
“Be careful – mind your step, milady,” Tanner had warned her. His words had not kept her from slipping. She had not cried out, and had Tanner not heard the rocks tumble, he would not have turned and seen the sharp pebble embedded in her footpaw.
The Darigan Gelert could not help but notice, as he removed the stone and bound her paw, that Rose would only sniffle and gasp in her pain, and, though a tear or two would escape from her eyes, she was completely silent. He could feel her paw tremble at his touch.
“You’ve not made a sound since I’ve met you, Rose.” Tanner spoke carefully. “I mean you no harm – don’t be afraid to speak.” He folded his wings behind him in an effort to look less intimidating.
Rose had only shaken her head as more tears rolled down her cheeks. She began to sob, but they were more like deep heaves – no sound escaped her.
So she can hear but not speak, Tanner suddenly realized. The girl is a mute!
From then on, Tanner kept Rose a great deal closer to his side. If she was not able to call out for help, he needed to have his eye on her at all times.
“All will be fine, Rose. I will protect you.”
Darkness fell on the fifth day of their travels. Above the plains of Brightvale floated a sky of bright eyes, looking down from the heavens. Rose slept soundly beside him, but Tanner could not sleep. He was gazing warily at the stars, as if any one of them could tell the enemy where to find them. The enemy was not his enemy, Meridell, but Rose’s – Brightvale and those who sought to harm her.
Silently, he hoped for clouds to come and cover their tracks.
It was a night like this one, only three years ago, when he had chosen to fight against his homeland. He was younger, believing that Lord Darigan was the rightful owner of the lustrous orb over which countless lives had been lost. The stars weren’t any kinder then. He distinctly remembered the horror on the faces of his parents when he had returned from his first battle, fully transformed from the simple red Gelert he had been into the Darigan Gelert who stood before them.
“Leave this place,” his father had commanded in a voice firm yet slightly wavering. “No son of mine is a Darigan!”
His mother had let out a sob as he flew off to the floating citadel. He had been sure it was more that his wings had knocked over her favorite vase on his way out than that he was leaving, never to return.
Tanner and Rose crossed through the final Brightvale plain to the edge of the Haunted Woods. The clear night sky above them made the hairs on Tanner’s neck bristle. They had traveled across Meridell and Brightvale, the two warring kingdoms, yet the greatest peril was still to come. Even so, Tanner welcomed the dense forest canopy above them.
The Haunted Woods were dark and silent. Tanner knew these woods well – during his youth, he had come here often to play and hide. The place was friendlier then, but remnants from wars had sought refuge here and corrupted the forest.
The Darigan Gelert was surprised to feel a small, soft paw take hold of his. Rose clung closely to him. While anything was more trustworthy than what lurked in these woods, the fact that Rose put any trust in him seemed to warm a part of him that had been cold for a very long time.
Even his own Darigan allies had resented his presence. He remembered their whispers and sneers...
“How can we trust you? You turned on your own kingdom...”
“...Your own family...”
“...You, farmer’s boy – You can clean out the Spyder cages tonight!”
It seemed the Spyders had been his only friends, or rather, the only company that wouldn’t shirk rom his presence. When they had been sent out to fight, however, Tanner was left with no one at all. He spread a single wing around the little Royal Kyriiess. He wouldn’t lose this chance to change things.
Rose stopped in her tracks, startling Tanner from his memories. Her paw gripped his tightly, and he looked up to see the cause of her fear.
Above them loomed a giant Spyder, bigger than the ones that had been used during the wars. Clearly this one had survived and fed off of the forest, growing to gigantic proportions. It clicked menacingly, and struck.
Tanner threw Rose off to the side, himself caught in the Spyder’s pincers.
“All will be fine, Rose. I will protect you.” Tanner’s promise echoed in his mind, intermingled with Lady Belfaire’s curse. “May you never live to see another day...!” Despair bubbled in his throat as he desperately clawed at the Spyder, enraged with himself that he had been taken by surprise.
“Rose, RUN!” Tanner barked, looking long enough to see the fear in Rose’s eyes. The Royal Kyriiess fled, her dress snagging on low-lying branches, her paws tripping over raised tree roots.
Tanner returned his attention to the Spyder, who now had his leg held tightly in its pincers. It raised Tanner up off the ground, shaking him and throwing him against a tree. Dazed, Tanner could not keep the Spyder from picking him up again and spinning threads of silk tightly around him.
Tanner’s vision was growing dark. He struggled against the threads... it seemed like just yesterday he was pinned down the same way, though by someone more familiar.
The young Darigan Gelert marched through burning Meridell fields. The Darigan soldiers around him were as tired and battered as he – only he hadn’t traveled miles in a floating citadel to fight in an unknown land. Although it was aflame, the land around him seemed familiar... he looked up to see a burning barn and realized that it belonged to his family.
At the same moment, shouts and clanging metal filled the air. The tired Darigan troops were being ambushed by angry farmers who had intentionally set fire to their property so that the Darigans could not steal to survive. The Darigan Gelert soon found himself cornered, separated from his Darigan allies, by a yellow Gelert farmer.
He recognized the other Gelert as Leo, Meridell’s most successful berry farmer, and a close friend of his family. Leo, however, did not recognize the Darigan Gelert – the Tanner he knew was a young red Gelert. Leo bristled and brandished his pitchfork, his intentions hostile.
Tanner mourned, knowing that Leo had to set fire to his prized berry farm... but he couldn’t let his guard down, not while Leo was moving to impale him.
If even Leo could not recognize Tanner in his new form, Tanner was sure nothing he said or did could convince Leo otherwise. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to raise a claw at his old friend.
Tanner, tired and on the defensive, soon found himself flat on the ground, the pitchfork’s handle pressed hard against his neck. His vision blurred. Quickly, he used his wings to flip over – he grasped onto the pitchfork and flew up, lifting the terrified Leo high above the Meridell farmland.
It was as easy as letting go of the pitchfork. But seeing Leo, his old friend, dangling so helplessly... Tanner had set him down on a tree branch and flew away to join his retreating comrades.
Tanner’s eyes snapped open, his vision cleared. There was only one difference between the Spyder and Leo – “You were never my friend!” Tanner growled through gritted teeth.
In a rush of determination, Tanner spread his wings, snapping the silk that bound them, and darted up through the branches above the clearing. The Spyder thrashed madly below in an attempt to catch him. The Darigan Gelert pinned his wings to his side and shot down through the trees, dragging his claws across the Spyder’s eyes.
Tanner landed heavily on the ground, bracing himself for the Spyder’s retaliation... The Spyder hissed in its rage and trampled off through the underbrush, blinded in all but one eye. Tanner leaned against a tree, exhausted and relieved, until he realized that the Spyder had gone in the same direction as Rose had fled.
Tanner’s wings burst out, spread as wide as they could go, as his back arched and he let out a single, painful howl. Once again he flew up into the trees, this time above the canopy, hoping he would find Rose before the blinded and enraged Spyder did.
Tanner flew for an eternity, it seemed, and his heart pounded in his ears every second of it. He scanned the treetops, searching for the abrupt movement of the Darigan troops of the rampaging Spyder. Nothing could be seen, surely a horde of Darigans fighting a giant Spyder couldn’t be easy to miss. He shouldn’t have let himself be separated from his allies from Rose. The hollow sound of a gong reverberated through the woods. The Darigan Citadel was signalling for retreat- NO! It was Rose, calling for help!
Tanner barreled down through the trees, branches tearing at his face and wings. Rose, keep making that sound! he prayed.
Finally, he found the little Kyriiess, pounding away at a hollow log with a large stone. Tanner could hear the Spyder crashing through the woods toward her. Quickly, he scooped her up in his arms and flew into the clear skies above. Rose smiled.
One month later...
Tanner sat atop a grassy knoll facing the setting sun, his knees held loosely by his arms, his wings folded behind him.
Rose sat beside him, gazing intently at Siyana, who strode across the sky and settled into bed. She sighed happily, and turned to smile at Tanner. There was no fear in her eyes.
Tanner laid back and stretched out on the grass. His eyes spotted a few stray clouds in the otherwise clear blue sky...
The war was over. Rose was safe. Tanner had redeemed himself. Meridell welcomed him home.
It was good to know that no matter what form he had taken in the past, his heart could always change.
The Darigan Gelert closed his eyes and chased the clouds away.