Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part One
This series is the direct sequel to my previous story, Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem. It might be helpful to read that story before you read this one!
A cloaked, hooded figure poked its head out of the doorway. Seeming satisfied with what it saw, the figure emerged out into the empty, rain soaked street. A taller, similarly cloaked person followed behind him. Both of them set off down the street at a run, sending the several inches of water standing in the street upwards to soak their unprotected breeches. Though both wore boots, the splashing sent water over the brims and allowed it in to soak and chill their feet as thoroughly as if they hadn't bothered.
At last the two reached their destination. With no small amount of relief the taller of the two opened the door of the building to admit his companion before hurriedly entering himself.
A red Scorchio looked up from the shovel blade he was polishing, a ghost of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Hullo there, strangers. Ye must be with them soldiers the prince brought up; I ain't never seen a local of Abyssal Acres run from a little wet."
The shorter of the two pulled back the hood of his oiled raincloak, revealing himself to be a blue Draik. He offered the Scorchio an apologetic smile. "I suppose we must seem very childish to those who live in these conditions all the time, but it can't really be helped. My squire and I are accustomed to much drier climes."
The "squire" pulled down his own hood, showing himself to be a Bori with soft, sky blue fur. He was much paler than blue Boris normally appeared, and a moment later it became apparent why- when he removed his cloak and hung it on the rack by the Scorchio's door, a pair of thin gossamer wings were revealed to be sprouting from his back. The building proprietor whistled appreciatively.
"Tain't too often we see faerie pets in this neck of the woods. Well then, what can I do for ye strangers? I take it ye didn't come barging into the forge just to say hello."
The Bori looked down at his feet in embarrassment and coughed. "Well sirrah, it's actually that whole faerie thing. See it's kinda new."
"He needs wing slits worked into his chain mail shirts," the Draik said. "He only recently turned into a faerie, so none of his personal garments are suited to a Neopian with wings. We left most of his civilian clothing with the tailor, but of course his armor needs attending too. I loaned him one of my shirts for the time being, but... well he's quite a bit bigger than I am, so it's a snug fit."
The Bori could feel his face burning with humiliation under his fur. "Sorry about all this, m'lord Valrigard."
"Don't be ridiculous," the Draik said, flapping his hand. "It is the responsibility of a knight master to see to the outfitting of his squire. I'm actually undertaking less expense than I would normally. The man-at-arms back at the palace has already done most of your equipping."
A tentative smile curled at the corners of the Bori's mouth. At seventeen Garrett Diamonte was three years into his squiredom, but had only just acquired a proper night master a week ago. His commoner background had made it quite difficult for him to find a knight willing to take on the expense of outfitting and training a squire. Most squires of common background were taken on by the knight who originally sponsored them to become a page, but Gary's had not. The Bori doubted his old sponsor even remembered he'd ever put a child up for pagehood- even if the knight did, he was certainly unlikely to recognize Gary now that his color had changed.
But Gary had finally been taken on- by none other than the duke of Pyrfell Bay, one of the kingdom's most brilliant military strategists. The squire found himself wound tighter than a bowstring with nerves. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin everything now by seeming to be more trouble than he was worth.
"Though I hate to lose on any good custom, I'm afraid I can't really help you none," the smith said with a wince. "I don't know how to work on mail shirts. I doubt if you'll find anyone in Abyssal Acres who can."
Valrigard turned back to the Scorchio with a frown. "Why?"
"On account of the law that was placed on this holding generations gone by the king's ancestor," the smith replied. "Abyssal Acres can't have a standing army, and none of its people can own anything more dangerous than a sickle to harvest crops. No blacksmith in these lands has a reason to learn to forge things for warriors- if we were caught doing so, we'd be arrested on the spot."
Gary's ears flattened, and he frowned. This law was why he and the rest of the knights had come to Abyssal Acres in the first place. Bandits had been besieging the holdings, and with no local warriors to protect it there was no alternative but for knights to be dispatched from the capital to handle the problem. But nothing about the law made any sense, and no one seemed to be able to explain why it existed in the first place.
"Ah," Valrigard said. "Forgive me, I should have realized. I suppose the adjustments to your chain mail will have to wait until we return to the capital, Squire Garrett."
"Seems like," Gary agreed. He glanced back at the smith, who had returned to polishing the shovel blade with a weary sort of resignation. He needed the money from their custom- everyone in Abyssal Acres needed it. Quips about not being afraid of the rain aside, the flooding in the streets was symptomatic of a much larger storm system that had been doggedly plaguing the holdings for decades. The land was dying a slow death, and dragging it's people down into bitter poverty.
The Bori sighed, pulling on his rain cloak and following his master out into the storm. There was nothing he could do about it. He was a squire, not a magician.
But he wished there was.
* * * * *
Lady Ayame, stewardess of the Brightvale holdings of Abyssal Acres, was up to her elbows in paperwork. Not that this was anything new. Being the proxy who managed a royal holding on behalf of the king meant doing the work of an accountant, a property manager, a head constable, and playing arbitrator of every conflict the local judge couldn't handle. The Halloween Kougra practically lived behind a desk.
"Ah, Lady Ayame?" spoke a voice from the doorway. She looked up to see the familiar form of a blue Skeith standing outside her office, and quickly rose to her feet. The Kougra walked around the desk, pulling out the skirt of her gown and lowering herself into a deep curtsy.
"Your highness," she intoned formally. The Skeith gestured for her to rise, and she stood up again. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Prince Skarl?"
The younger son of the Brightvale King crossed his arms. "I've come to let you know that we have completed our interrogations, and the last of the bandit horde that was besieging your lands has finally gone- left with an armed escort to the capital for their trial."
The Skeith grunted, his expression darkening. "Still, it troubles me. Their leader was lost in the battle last week, and none of the subordinates could tell me just how they managed to forge an alliance with the Werelupe King. If you and that young Bori hadn't brought Illusen to our aid when you did, I daresay we would have all been lost."
Ayame shuffled her wings, looking aside uncertainly. "It would seem I owe her a very great debt, my prince- and you as well. From what Lord Valrigard tells me, had you not taken our cause upon yourself, the King would have left us to the mercy of the brigands."
Now it was Skarl's turn to look uncomfortable. "My father and brother are very learned men," he said. "But being intelligent does not mean one has the proper disposition to rule a kingdom. It certainly helps, don't mistake me, but all the knowledge in the universe is worthless if you cannot apply it to the real world. They look at Abyssal Acres and all they see is a cursed land of eternal rain that sucks away resources and gives nothing back. Not worth saving, from a purely intellectual standpoint, but they forget that as the rulers of this land they have a responsibility to see to the defense of their people."
The Skeith sighed, "Every night I count my blessings that I was born second- father already had Hagan to turn into a miniature version of himself, and left me to my own devices for the most part. Not that I am without my own self indulgent habits," he added, patting his ample stomach with a chuckle.
Ayame could not bring herself to share in the prince's amusement. His admission of his own gluttony was a reminder of the problem that yet lingered for her people, even with the bandits that had been attacking Abyssal Acres defeated. Skarl seemed to realize this, because he cleared his throat and looked at the Kougra apologetically.
"I fully intend to appeal to my father for a relief effort on your behalf, Lady Ayame," he said firmly. "We were able to recover some of the food stores the bandits stole from you, but I know it isn't nearly enough."
The Kougra smiled sadly, "Even the crown's resources are not infinite, my prince. Every year I send letters appealing to the king on behalf of the people in my care, but my pleas fall upon deaf ears. It is easy to ignore a problem which one cannot see, after all."
"Then might I suggest something?" a new voice interrupted, and Skarl turned around in surprise to see that a blue Draik had come to stand behind him.
"Lord Valrigard. We have not seen you in some days," Skarl said, raising an eyebrow. The Draik bowed to his prince, an unapologetic twinkle in his eyes.
"I have been seeing to the outfitting of my new squire, Prince Skarl," he replied. "Seeing as the new set of wings Illusen gifted him mean none of his mail shirts will fit properly anymore. And of course I've had to put in orders with the tailors back in Brightvale city for tabards in my house colors to be made for him."
"Oh yes, you took on the Bori fellow didn't you?" the prince said. "Well since you seem to be done with him for now, do tell us what sort of plot you've managed to cook up."
The Draik shrugged. "It seems simple to me, my lord. Before today even my squire saw the plight of this land as a serious problem, but one that would no longer be his problem once we returned home. But it's obvious that simply walking among the folk here has tugged at his heart and wrought a new sympathy in him. If not being able to see the plight of Abyssal Acres directly makes it easy for his Majesty to disregard the fact that the people here are starving, then we bring the issue to him where it cannot be ignored. Lady Ayame must accompany us back to the capital."
The Kougra started, her fur bristling with surprise. "Me? Go to the capital?"
"Hm... I don't see why not," Skarl remarked. "Certainly the holdings can do without you for a week or two. Lords and Dukes make state visits to my father all the time. And it would certainly help our case."
"But I am one of the lowest ranked nobles in the kingdom," Ayame pointed out. "I barely qualify as nobility at all: not even a landholder, merely a steward for the crown. How can I convince his majesty to listen to me?"
"Come now dear, we're hardly going to leave you whistling in the wind," Valrigard admonished. "I am the lord of Pyrfell Bay, I know what it is to hold the responsibility for people's lives in your hand. These may not be the people of my holding, but we are all citizens of Brightvale and when I swore my oaths as a knight I swore them to all of our people."
"And though the title is mostly nominal, as the son of the king I trained and took oaths as a knight too," Skarl put in. "So did Hagan and my father, though they might forget."
Ayame felt a tremor of excitement. This... this could work. If the king's own son, and one of the most well respected knights in the kingdom were backing her. She might yet save the people of Abyssal Acres.
It was frightening, the idea of speaking face to face with the king of all of Brightvale. But if Valrigard's squire was willing to throw himself into the claws of Werelupes to save her people, the least she could do was speak to the king.
To be continued...