Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part Four
The candle flickered in its golden stand, struggling to cling to the dying wick buried beneath the molten wax. Basking in its failing glow, Lord Quai sat in silence, enjoying the brief peace the morning hours could dare to give. For the first time since his arrival in Meridell, the rain had fallen quiet, the hammering against the shuttered window conspicuous in his absence as it woke him. Still the darkness had lain heavy over his chambers through the pre-dawn morning, but unable to sleep any longer he had returned briefly to his unfinished report from the night before by the light of the rekindled candle stump. The words were as hollow and empty in the crisp bite of morning as in the hazy stupor of the evening.
Finally the gasping flame fell still, replaced by the slim hint of dawn reaching through the shutters. Resigned to the day ahead, the Draik rose and opened to the world, staring out through the window and into the ominous overcast of a still turbulent sky. Beneath sat the high turrets of the rising Meridell Castle, the encroaching dawn calling forth the second wave of servants hastening to their tasks before their masters rose. Already Quai could smell the kitchens that never slept, preparations fully underway for the feast this evening. For once, Skarl's breakfast was forgotten.
In the back of his mind he could picture the same scene over the Darigan Citadel, lost in the distance beyond the all-encompassing clouds. There would be no smell of roasting meat filling those draughty corridors, no servants rushing about to prepare their masters for the trivialities of the day; it had been a long time since any pet had time for trivial affairs. Instead would come the cold dawn and the same cycle of repair and preparation, every lord cast in with their servants as they set about the gruelling task of survival. Meridell was a land of luxury and extravagance compared against the struggles of the Darigan populace, and yet to the rest of the world it was the pets of Darigan who were shunned and reviled for merely trying to stop their own demise, facilitated by Skarl's theft.
Quai permitted himself a cold laugh at the thought. Still Skarl denied any involvement in that theft, claiming he recovered the orb from smugglers on his shores. Every time he mentioned it Quai felt the impending war was closer to bringing justice to Skarl, but as soon as he left the Skeith's company he saw the folly in such a claim.
His thoughts were interrupted by the punctual rapping on his door that preceded Serra's arrival bearing his breakfast. He continued to gaze out over the castle as she busied herself behind him to make room for the unappetising meal – whatever was rising from the kitchens had obviously not played a role in his breakfast.
'Lord Quai, your breakfast is ready,' her voice declared in a careful monotone.
'How wonderful,' he replied in kind, turning away from the dreary view and sinking into his chair once more. A bowl rested atop the tray on his desk, indistinct objects floating in its grimy broth. Of its own accord he could feel his snout recoil from the unpleasant substance, and as he gingerly prodded the surface with the accompanying spoon felt that handful of berries he dared eat the night before rise from the pit of his stomach. At least he now knew what happened to those Mortogs that exploded after being kissed.
He looked up at his Cybunny steward in disbelief, and met her cautious stare. They were being watched.
'Pleased as I am to have this opportunity to sample Meridellian cuisine, I must say I look forward to returning to those meals we manage to scrounge in the Citadel,' he said casually, pushing aside the bowl. 'One grows somewhat accustomed to the simplicity during life on a floating rock. Even at the academy we never ate such rich foods as these. Between you and me, Serra, if I should die without ever sampling Meridellian delicacies again I shall consider the remainder of my life well spent.'
Dutifully she laughed at his remark. 'With all due respect, my lord, such is the price of nobility in a foreign land,' she replied in her careful tones. 'As a servant I find that no matter the land, the food remains much the same: small in quantity, simple in quality, and indiscriminate to taste.'
'Perhaps I should consider a lifestyle change,' the Draik responded lightly, casting a weary eye over the questionable breakfast broth again. 'Until then, I suppose I must save face. Do tell me, what news from about the castle?' He dared risk a quick glance at her impassive face, waiting for her to take his invitation to report.
She paused before answering, holding her tongue as would any pet trying in vain to hold back juicy gossip. Quai marvelled at the facade, feeling a rising pride for his young steward again. It would take only a little to make her a worthwhile servant for his cause.
'It appears the Lady Lisha will not be able to attend the feast tonight!' she blurted out as the dramatic moment passed. 'The word about the castle is that she was struck ill overnight, and is somewhat confined to her chambers with... embarrassing problems.'
'Ah, such a pity,' Quai replied sadly, 'I had wanted to speak with her about the latest magical advancements in Meridell. Lord Darigan had been keen on advancing our own affairs in that area before the incident, but it appears that once again fate stands in our path. It shall have to wait for another time I suppose. I do hope it is not a serious problem for her ladyship?'
'The rumours do not say specifically, my lord, but it sounds like a passing illness. She may be incapacitated for a few days, but it will not be life threatening.'
'That is good news. Do be sure and pass on the best wishes of both myself and all the people of the Citadel when next the opportunity presents itself.'
Serra bobbed a quick curtsey in response before turning to leave. 'Serra,' Quai called sharply, 'a moment. I would like you to accompany me on a visit to the courtyard this morning. Sir Jeran has extended us an invite to observe his recruits in training so we may appreciate the lessons learned from the war. It is probably an attempt by His Majesty to showcase the prowess of the Meridellian force and deter us from any thoughts of starting a second war, but there may be some good to come of it. I would like you to be there.'
Their eyes met for an instant before she nodded and turned away again, slipping silently from the room.
Quai cast another look at the unappetising breakfast, leaning closer and inhaling the potent fumes again for a fleeting moment. Shuddering in disgust, he tossed a cloth over it and pushed the vile substitute for breakfast away. Instead he reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and removed a bundle carefully wrapped in an elaborate cloth emblazoned with the Meridell insignia. Ignoring it, he placed the bundle upon the desk and opened it tenderly, his quick claws grasping the half-loaf of bread as it sought to bound away. He returned it to place next to the cold meat taken from Skarl's table last night. In a land that had once been destitute, the ability to pilfer additional items from a host's table was considered a necessary skill, even for the son of a lord.
The familiar sound of rainfall began to echo through the corridors of the castle as the Draik finally put down the remnants of his stolen breakfast, feeling elated at having finally escaped the vulgarities Skarl insisted on feeding him. The old joy of the rain rushed back to fill him, gazing longingly through the open window, and with it the trials of the past few days seemed but a distant memory.
Heaving a deep sigh he closed the shutters and allowed the memory to return to the present. He still had a job to do, and one last task to perform before he could do it.
Slipping into his elegant black suit, carefully trimmed with Darigan purple in contrast to Kass' ongoing fascination with gold, he waited for the inevitable sound of Serra's return. He did not have to wait long before the sharp rhythm of her knock echoed around the chamber, and the Darigan Cybunny slipped back into the room fully attired in her immaculate uniform. Kakurain appeared silently at her shoulder, his surcoat bearing a single flash of colour over dark chainmail. It was the first time he had worn it since their arrival at the castle, but Quai had been insistent; if the Meridellians wished to showcase their proclaimed superiority, he was not going to allow Darigan to appear too meek and subservient. The armoured Aisha would portray precisely the image he desired.
'My Lord, Sir Jeran has informed me his men are ready for your inspection in the bailey,' Serra declared with a curtsy, her voice once again frozen in a careful tone. 'He would be honoured by your presence, at your earliest convenience.'
'It would be most unbecoming to leave such an esteemed knight waiting,' Quai replied. 'Let us proceed.'
The passages were abuzz with activity as the trio made their way toward the bailey. At every turn they were accosted by servants on the brink of insanity hurrying about with the urgent preparations for the festival, dogged at every step by their irate masters. Each master shared a look of exasperation with Quai as they passed, but he found the meaning lost upon him; such treatment of servants was alien to the Citadel, and any who proved trying were simply dismissed. Yet it seemed the Meridellians placed much regard on their retainers, and as another disgruntled noble swept past dragging his servant behind him, Quai felt a sudden tug toward Kakurain. He could see the Aisha following a step behind to his left if he turned his head only a little, and realised how difficult it would be to put the Aisha out of his service should he perform less than admirably.
The thought sent an involuntary chuckle to his tongue, the sudden sound drawing him more undue attention. He simply continued to smile knowingly as he passed those left dumbstruck, allowing his arrogant superiority to wash over them and affix him into their thoughts. When he finally left this rotten kingdom behind he would leave all pondering the great mysteries of the Darigan lord... right up until the point when he returned with the army, and they would curse themselves for not realising it sooner.
Leaving. His smile grew wider at the idea. Almost time.
The rain felt refreshing against his scales as the Draik led the way into the castle courtyard, earning further odd glances from the nobles sheltering in the castle entrance. A little eccentricity was never a bad thing if one wanted to foster some air of mystery, and so it was Quai strode confidently across the muddy earth toward the assembled soldiers.
Jeran was waiting anxiously for their arrival, the honest knight quickly trying to hide his relief as he finally laid eyes upon them. He paused at the sight of Quai standing so openly amidst the rain, but remembering his attitude on the journey dismissed it with neither second thought nor scandalous glance. After the nobles it was a pleasant novelty.
'Lord Quai, it is an honour to have you here for inspection,' the Lupe declared with a bow. 'May I present to you the latest regiment of our recruits, training in readiness for the defence of the realm. They may not look like much now, my lord, but I have confidence in their ability. It is my hope that some of them may even be risen to knighthood before too long.'
You are more right than you think, Quai thought to himself as he cast a discerning eye over the recruits. The training regiment only contained two dozen pets in three lines of eight apiece, but each held themselves with a readiness that made him uneasy. He had watched the new recruits on the Citadel many a time and laughed at the eagerness many showed, the desire to show themselves not as soldiers but as the heroes of tales. On the journey from their desolate homeland he had seen it more than ever as the raw recruits harboured ambitions of being the one to recover the orb. Their dreams had fallen far when the war broke out and the horrific nature of combat was placed before them. He saw none of this in the Meridellian recruits before him now.
'If I might enquire, sir, how long have these been in training?' he asked carefully.
'The longest has been with us for nearly two months now, while the newest recruit has been in training for just a week,' Jeran answered with a touch of pride in his voice. He saw the reason behind the question.
Quai cursed inwardly. To hear anybody else speak of them, Meridell's soldiers were largely drafted recruits since the war had drawn to a close, bringing with them all the troubles of raw recruits. Yet if the rest were anything like these, the Darigan recruits would stand no chance; Jeran had enforced discipline with unprecedented efficiency, and any officer knew that to be the backbone of any force.
In silence Quai watched as Jeran led his recruits on their drills, wincing as he saw the unit move with the grace of a seasoned force. Every weakness he had heard Kass cry about was absent from their routine, working together as a whole rather than with the impetuosity of the would-be heroes that made up Darigan's latest waves of conscripts. He wanted to believe they were a select group put on for show, but something told him he was witnessing the reality of the recent war playing out before his eyes; Jeran was too honest to deceive him in such a way. Meridell had learned a lesson from their defeat in the last war, and despite claiming victory when the Spectre of Lord Darigan was vanquished, Sir Jeran at least was keen to take that lesson to heart.
'Sir Jeran, truly a splendid display,' Quai remarked politely as the recruits fell back into formation, awaiting further orders. 'The rumours of your regime were clearly understated about the castle. Yet perhaps there is a way I can be of assistance to your new recruits, as a token of the new friendship between our peoples?'
The unexpected request sent a flash of worry across the Lupe's face, and beneath his own controlled smile Quai could feel a mixture of amusement and pity for the poor pet. Yet he kept his own features perfectly frozen, and just watched on as Jeran could find no reason to refuse his polite request. With open reluctance the Lupe nodded consent and stepped aside.
Feeling the attention of everyone in the bailey upon him, Quai cast a careful eye over the anxious recruits. For all their training and confidence faced with Jeran, they were still raw in battle and feared even an old enemy. Fear ripe for cultivation.
'Each of you here has proven adept at the tasks your master-at-arms has set you,' he said softly, his words carrying through the still silence, 'but these exercises are limited in their value. I have no doubt that you would all fight gallantly were you called to defend Meridell's borders, but I fear for the outcome of your gallantry. To face another in the training yard is quite a different experience from facing your enemy on the battlefield, in more ways than you can understand. Not only is he not your friend, possibly holding back, but he has been trained with different tactics and styles to your own, and maybe even given an understanding of yours. Every weakness in your combative style will be waiting to be exploited as you yourselves have been taught to do, with the difference being you know nothing of his.' He surveyed their nervous faces, discipline alone keeping them from sharing furtive glances. The seedlings were growing.
'Perhaps an illustration would serve my point,' he resumed slowly. 'Does anyone here dare face a soldier of Darigan?'
Discipline trembled, stolen glances darting between the worried recruits. One, a yellow Quiggle standing at the front, spoke out of turn for his comrades, 'Do you mean to face us, my lord?'
Quai's laughter rang out through the rainfall, drawing more attention from the watching windows above. 'I am not a soldier of Darigan, boy, I am an officer, a commander of the forces. Though I have some skill with the sword, it has been some time since I last honed it. No, I shall not face you myself. Kakurain!'
The Aisha stepped up beside him, red eyes scanning the recruits without emotion. At the back of the ranks Quai could see the pets take a nervous half-step back. The saplings were bearing fruit.
'Lord Quai, if I might interject?'
Lightning smote his flourishing saplings with a vicious bolt, a mocking roar of thunder applauding his fall. Careful to keep his face impassive, Quai turned to look at Jeran again, the Lupe already clutching his unsheathed sword.
'These recruits are not yet ready to face one such as your bodyguard,' Jeran explained smoothly, 'but I do agree with your idea. An illustration would be valuable to these pets. I will take up the challenge, and allow them to see the difference between facing friend and foe. Former foe.'
Quai fought to keep a straight face at the Lupe's last words. He had clearly failed to fully understand Skarl's favourite; understand, but not underestimate. If all went well, the fruits of fear would grow anew.
'An excellent suggestion Sir Jeran,' he replied politely. 'I confess, I have long wanted to see you fight in person, to better understand your inspired reputation. Naturally of course, this remains a training exercise, and should not result in true harm,' he added with a pointed look at Kakurain.
Quickly he slipped aside and took up station beside Serra once more, the Cybunny wearing a knowing smirk. It vanished under his glance, his own remaining well hidden behind true interest; understanding the enemy was the first step to defeating him.
Ignoring the rain cascading over them, the two combatants took their positions facing each other, each a perfect opposite of his opponent. Jeran stood firm in the slippery mud, his boots braced in a long practised stance, his weight pushing them deeper for purchase, his shield raised protectively before him. His other paw was closed tight about the hilt of his old sword, preventing the raindrops glistening on the polished metal from slickening his grip. Against his readied stance Kakurain appeared the rank amateur, standing almost lazily with his slender sword hanging loose in one clawed hand, its tip brushing against the trampled grass and mud underfoot. Only his eyes suggested alertness, cold and emotionless as they analysed the Lupe. To Quai's surprise, Jeran bore the same keen look, his sharp mind already strategising.
Fresh thunder sounded the start of combat. The steady pace of drills was abandoned to the haste of combat, both warriors stepping through the dance to the frenzied tempo of the storm. The air rang with the clash of steel-on-steel once more, and the uncomfortable squelching of the mud underfoot, but beneath it all sounded the unmistakeable cry of battle. New faces appeared in the overlooking windows to watch, pets stepping out from the dry haven of the entrance hall to gaze in awe as Lupe and Aisha danced in the rain to the oldest dirge of all.
Quai watched with mild interest as Kakurain lightly parried another blow on his slender sword before spinning past Jeran and slicing back, only to find Jeran's shield already waiting for him. What appeared erratic and frenzied to others watching was merely controlled to his eyes, the two moving through the steps with the same grace and finesse as when training new recruits, only with more haste and determination. He allowed his gaze to drift over to the astonished faces of the Meridellian recruits and permitted himself a small smile. There was no need to tell them Kakurain was a unique case even among those in Darigan; it was rumoured only a Kougra from Faerieland could match Kakurain's swordsmanship, and he had disappeared years ago.
Turning his attention back to the duel, he watched as Jeran stumbled back to avoid a sweeping blow, only to use his fall to bounce back into the fray, his shield pushing aside Kakurain's sword and hurling his full body weight against the Aisha. Gasps rose from their audience, but together the warriors slipped apart before they could fall, and once more came together in the dance to the cry of clashing swords.
'He is holding too much back,' Serra whispered by Quai's side. 'He appears to have underestimated Jeran's skill.'
'Patience, Serra,' the Draik replied calmly, watching Kakurain roll aside to avoid a heavy overhead blow. 'They are both holding back: it is a exhibition after all, not a true contest. Kakurain knows what he is doing.'
As though hearing their words, the Aisha suddenly flashed forward into attack. One boot rose and kicked aside Jeran's shield, his sword bouncing lightly off the Lupe's own as it was turned aside. Reeling back, Jeran pulled his shield across his chest hurriedly, one misstep in the ancient dance.
A pained gasp sounded into the air. Instantly it was picked up by shrieks from the onlookers, drowning out of the wail of the storm that had serenaded their battle. Jeran fell back to one knee, his shield falling to the ground with a damp thud by his side. Quai forced a look of concern to his face and joined the throng gathering around the defeated knight, risking a quick glance at his own bodyguard standing aside, casually sheathing his sword.
'I am fine,' Jeran said firmly, rising back onto his feet and sheathing his own sword. The shoulder plate of his armour was torn, sodden blue fur sticking through beneath his free paw as he gingerly checked the wound. 'I assure you, it is just a scratch,' he insisted again, raising his voice with the firm tone of authority and silencing those around him.
Quai seized his moment. 'Kakurain!' he snapped coldly to the Aisha. 'You have gone too far! My dear Sir Jeran, I cannot begin to express my shame at this turn of events,' he added to the knight, his voice descended into silken tones, 'and I dare not ask forgiveness for this, only you do not hold the actions of one foolish pet against those of us within the Citadel. If I had believed for a moment this may happen, I would never have suggested the exercise.'
'Lord Quai, please, there is no need. It is but a scratch. I have suffered far worse on this training ground during my years, such is the risk of our lifestyle. It was merely unexpected.' The Lupe beamed cheerfully from Quai to Kakurain, his smile faltering only slightly against the expressionless response from the Aisha. 'Perhaps next time we should use practice swords?' He received no response.
'Please, I must insist you at least allow Serra to dress the injury,' Quai persisted, allowing a touch of pleading to seep into his voice. 'If only for my peace of mind. I would not be able to bear it were there to be an infection caused by my people.'
At last Jeran relented. Serra appeared by his side and led him away through the still anxious crowd, the Lupe allowed pause only long enough to pick up his shield once more. Quai could not help but marvel at the Cybunny's feigned worry and awe for the great champion of Meridell, mirroring the looks shared by Jeran's recruits. His order to dismiss seemed to have passed them by. Everything was proceeding perfectly.
Quai gave a snap and motioned Kakurain to follow him away from the crowd, acutely aware of their stares turning to the Aisha now Jeran was out of sight in the castle. His face firmly set in a look of abhorrent disgust for his bodyguard, Quai waited until they were just out of earshot before openly grasping him by the collar and pulling him closer until the Draik's snout was almost pressed against Kakurain's stoic face.
'Good work,' he whispered.
To be continued...