Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Five
For an unknown amount of time, everything seemed obscured. Muffled voices could be heard around him. They faded in and out. After a while, the room fell to silence.
He found himself in a room with peeling paint and flickering candles. Various Neopians, mostly children, paced in front of him. One even walked through him, causing the Eyrie to jump back with a start. No one in the room reacted.
A dream, he thought, staring at his see-through paw, but why now? Where am I, anyway?
Chipped building blocks littered the ground. One Neopian, a golden Pteri with fraying wings and a jet black mane yawned as two of the youngsters pulled at her wings, begging for food. She broke away, but they continued to cling. Those not playing with the meager supplies seemed to be creating games of their own.
"Let's play Citadels and Castles," asserted a burly Korbat, a head taller than the rest, as he kicked aside a block. Slivers of wood burst from the impact. "Of course, I'll play Lord Darigan."
Lord Darigan? But he's been long since dead.
"I want to play, too," added a mousey voice belonging to a gaunt, white-furred Eyrie. Threadbare clothes barely covered his body. "May I?"
Setarian froze. The child padded closer to them, ghostly blue eyes begging for acceptance.
The Korbat shoved him to the ground. "No freaks allowed."
"Freak?" his voice squeaked as tears filled his eyes.
Setarian wiped a paw against his eye automatically, but felt nothing.
"Look at the baby cry," mocked his accomplice, a short and scrawny Grarrl with a sinister grin. "No one's ever gonna want to adopt someone like you, Setarian. Face it. You're just the citadel's trash waiting to be thrown away."
Their paws curled into fists at the same moment, the former general and the child.
"No, I'm not," the child called Setarian shouted, "and you'll see. One day, I'll be in the army. Then we'll see who's trash."
The nameless Korbat cracked his knuckles as two of his other cronies snuck from behind and held him down. "Oh, we shall see indeed..."
Just as Setarian held out his hand to protest, the room's lights dimmed. Before his eyes, the two bullies began to morph into the figures of two Meridell guards, a Skeith and a Draik. They towered above him, flexing their claws. The child shouted, but no one lifted a finger to stop the pain.
Setarian woke up with a start, gasping as light scattered across his pupils.
"Hey! I think he is finally waking up!"
Setarian tried to move, to escape from the threats, but his body felt like lead engulfed in molasses. An incomprehensible mutter escaped from the Eyrie's mouth.
Leave me be!
After no pain followed his struggle, he began to calm down. The ground no longer felt earthy, but instead soft and springy. He cautiously turned his aching neck towards a blue Lupe who sat alongside him in a wooden chair. Dark circles lined the stranger's eyes. He wore a simple blue and red tunic with knee-length blue trousers. A long sword was fastened to his belt.
"I trust you will be able to tend to him?"
He turned towards a red Zafara wearing a pointed hat, yawning broadly. Yellow star and moon shapes dotted her floor-length cloak.
"Of course! My potions can cure almost anything." She drummed a finger against her chin. "Well, okay, maybe not the common cold, but nothing cures that. Oh, wait a second, are you going somewhere?"
He rose from the wooden chair, cricked his neck and stretched out his arms. "I think it best to tell Lisha that he's woken up. She's been really worried about the little guy since we brought him to the castle three days ago. It's a wonder that she can study under such conditions." The Lupe glided to the door and, from the sounds of it, pulled open a metal latch. "Thank you again and sorry for the formalities. It's just a force of habit." The door stuck, but it eventually closed.
Lisha? The name seemed so familiar, like a storybook character or something. Perhaps she is one of the other children from that dream?
Weight fell upon his forehead. It felt damp and cool. Something else wrapped around his arm, but it was warm and furry, making the Eyrie flinch. It did not feel painful; instead, the touch seemed akin to how he imagined the embrace of a mother around her kin to be like.
"I'm going to need you to open up your mouth so you can take your medicine," the sweet, mousey voice chimed with just a twinge of childlike bounciness. "It will make you feel a whole lot better and make all of the owies go away. It even tastes like grape—an added bonus! And don't worry," she added, grasping his paw even tighter, "no one is going to hurt you ever again."
'No one will ever adopt you, Setarian,' a chilling voice chimed in his head, storming over hers. 'No one wants a freak like you.'
Before his head could shake in retaliation, her other paw reached out and pulled on his lower beak. Thick, sweet-tasting liquid slithered down his throat. Apparently, the potion was strong, because the moment it hit his stomach, everything went dark yet again.
Setarian's eyes snapped open. A quick scan around him showed a multitude of individuals, including a yellow Aisha girl sporting glasses with extra-large round frames, a Blumaroo wearing a cape, and both the Lupe and Zafara from before.
"You're awake!" squeaked the Aisha, leaping forward to hug him.
"Get away..." Setarian murmured in a daze, face twisting in pain as he thrashed about. "Get away from me..."
I am to be in Lord Kass' army. I will be your superior.
The Lupe sighed deeply at the girl's sudden quietness. "Lisha, I'm afraid he took quite a hit to the head. He should be alright in time, but it may take a while for him to understand his bearings..."
Lisha put a paw in front of her mouth, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Are you sure about that, Jeran?"
Setarian's mind was numb, but felt his gaze drifting to the Lupe.
Jeran. I know that name. Perhaps he is one of those wicked children?
"Who is Jeran?" questioned the General to no one in particular.
His mind started to drift, recalling snippets of recent memories. Like a Kougra baring sharp, jagged teeth, the Draik's sharp blade came closer and closer to his neck. Setarian began to quiver under the covers. "No!" he whispered, wetness lining his eyes. A lump formed in his throat making it hard to speak. "I yield..." Silence filled the room.
"Oh my gosh," Kayla whispered, tearing up. Her paws covered her mouth as her eyes widened to the size of saucers. "I... I think he's going to need a stronger potion."
Setarian might have remained within the same daydream if not for one look at Jeran's face. Deep lines spread from forehead to brow, making him appear much older. His slitted eyes wore battle-ready fierceness.
Why do you look so angry, Lupe? he thought in a daze. Are you jealous of how further I will go than you?
"So it's true what I heard earlier. One of my comrades encouraged a civilian—a child at that— to duel." There was a long pause as the lines on his face gradually faded. He scanned Setarian's shivering form and pounded his fist into the bed. "You're lucky to be alive. And here my men are to be honorable and chivalrous. This... this is unacceptable. King Skarl will hear of this."
"I sure hope so," Kayla replied, ears flopping down. "And soon, too."
"Wait, Jeran," cried Lisha, catching the attention of all in the room. She placed her head upon his side. "You want to make sure to present your case to King Skarl calmly. If you're too angry, he might think you're using your emotions rather than good judgment to catch these guys. Besides..." she waved Jeran closer and whispered something into his ear.
His eyebrows rose. "You still miss him, don't you?"
She nodded solemnly. Before long, Jeran was giving her a bear hug, followed by mussing her fur. The tension in the air seemed to vanish, if only a little.
"It's hard to believe you've only been together for such a short time," said Kayla, shaking her head. "Guess it goes to show how strong the bonds of siblings can be even after hundreds of years of separ—" she coughed suddenly. "Oh, oopsie, probably shouldn't talk about that in front of our guest. Anyway," she poked Jeran's shoulder. "I think you have duties to do. We'll take care of things here. I'll prepare another potion to soothe our little friend here and... we'll keep you updated with his condition."
"Indeed I have duties, unfortunate given the timing." Jeran nodded. "But thank you, Kayla. I can see why Lisha treasures your friendship."
Some time passed before the knight returned. Lisha waited with Setarian while the others were away. After a long period of silence during which Setarian curled up tightly under the covers, she climbed upon the bed and stared the Eyrie straight in the eyes.
"So, I have two questions for you." Setarian stared back in an emotionless daze. "First off: what is your name?"
It seemed like a simple enough question. For Lisha, at least. Setarian closed his eyes. A thousand different voices swirled about his head at once. All of them said the same word: Setarian.
They call me Setarian.
And each and every of them were Darigans. That is, except a handful of very frightened Meridellians. Images of a moderately tall, handsome Darigan Eyrie with bright blue eyes embedded in his brain from a faded mirror.
I am a Darigan, he asserted, one of Lord Kass' chosen people.
"Are you alright?" Lisha called, lightly shaking him.
Setarian shook his head as if leaving a trance. An Aisha girl just asked for his name. Not just any Aisha, the enemy's—Jeran's—sister.
And this is not where I belong.
"Serian," he blurted, quick to clamp his beak shut. He shrunk back from her face, which was just inches away and quickly scanned the room: a single bed, closets, bookshelves, a dusty wooden floor, and a very curious little Aisha.
Lisha tilted her head. "Serian, huh? Can't say I've heard that one before." Stroking one finger on her chin, she began to muse out loud. "Yeah... you'll fit in just fine here."
"Well... I overheard Jeran talking about the situation with your family and..." Lisha trailed off, twisting her feet back and forth over the bed. "That was what the second question is for, Serian."
Just then, Jeran burst through the door. Setarian jumped, slamming his back against the wall.
"He looks a lot livelier," Jeran blurted. "Good to see." He scrambled through the room and grabbed a red and blue uniform complete with a layer of polished mail. When his head stuck out of a sleeve, a chorus of giggles escaped from his little sister. "Both of you," he pointed to them while trying to straighten himself out, "come with me, if you are feeling up to it. If not, both of you should stay behind. Either way, I have a hearing with the king."
Setarian sprung up from the bed, sending sheets flying in all directions. His bandaged wing slammed the headboard, causing him to yelp. "The King?! King Skarl?"
Lisha ran over to steady him. When he seemed less shaky, she tilted her head and gave him a curious grin. Seeing her glasses had tilted along with her, she took to fiddling them. "Who else would it be? Were you expecting King Hagan?"
Thoughts from four days prior filled his mind. 'Eliminate King Skarl Lord' they chimed. 'Kass will have to accept you back...'
"Redemption..." muttered, Setarian.
"What's that, Serian?"
Nothing you need to know about.
When "Serian" remained silent, Jeran continued to move about. "That is quite," he fitted a leather belt and fashioned a silver sword with written symbols along his waist, "an interesting name. Was he born around here?" Lisha shrugged. A couple of pats flattened his fur, which had been standing on end. "Are you both ready?"
"Yes!" Lisha chimed. "Oh wait—" she scrambled towards a space behind Jeran's dresser and removed a block of thick brown cardboard adorned with a hand-drawn shield. In her hands was a glowing object. The first slipped over her head, and the second quietly hummed. An aurora of colors glowed around its edges. "You can never be too careful!"
Give me a break. Those trinkets would not protect you against anything!
Jeran chuckled between nervous glances towards the king's quarters, and ruffled her hair with his right paw. "You'd make a great knight, Lisha, but even they have to be punctual!"
She turned to Setarian, laughing nervously. "Come on, we don't want to be late!"
Setarian grumbled, hopping from the bed with a single jump. Before he could go any further, a yellow object dangled in front of his face. He looked up to see the expectant face of a very persistent Aisha.
"Let's walk together!" When the only response was an irritated sigh, her head dropped as her pointed ears and glasses flopped as well. "I see..." she murmured softly. "Sorry, Serian."
You should be. I don't wish to be babied.
The longer she stared at him, the worst he felt. His stomach knotted up when she would not move.
"Fine." The Eyrie turned away and felt heat rise in his cheeks. A gentle grip wrapped about his paw. It felt warm. And, although he was loath to admit it, the very manifestation of friendliness.
After some effort and wobbling about, he extended one arm out and managed, for the first time in a long while, somewhat firm footing on two legs. Such a feat would have been far more difficult—if not almost impossible—alone. "Might as well have some shred of dignity," he grumbled under his breath.
If such a thing even exists for me while in this form...
They both navigated long, winding hallways. What Lisha took as exploring was really Setarian soaking in a mental map of the enemy's territory. Jeran rushed ahead while the two of them puttered along. Even with support, the General still could not move very quickly. Casual glances were shot by passing guards, many of whom smiled as Lisha approached. A few of them even addressed her as "Lady Lisha," a title that seemed to elicit a chuckle from the girl. After some time, they approached large wooden doors guarded by two stern faced guards. Setarian felt a shiver jolt up his spine as Lisha dragged him into the throne room.
Large red and blue drapes covered the twenty or so windows that lined the room. Beams of sunlight reflected on the brick-laden ground. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, little blades of crystal shimmering from each. A plush red carpet stretched along the length of the room and paraded over three steps. This led up to a large Meridell shield with golden spears lining either side.
Upon a large wooden throne adorned in jewels and laden with layers of padded cushions sat the king, a portly blue Skeith framed by a red robe and thinning brown hair. A large golden crown sat snuggly on his head. Kneeling next to him was Jeran. Based on the volume of the host in the room, a meeting had just ended.
Setarian's paw curled into a fist. It had been often that Kass mentioned the evils of King Skarl, how he ordered Neopians like Jeran to steal an orb of shimmering gold—the citadel's treasure and source of well-being. So distracted was he by the preoccupation of finding a sharp weapon to destroy the king, that he almost did not hear Jeran's next words:
"Permission to dismiss the code breaking guards, my King?"
"Permission granted." There was not even an inkling of hesitation in Skarl's voice. "But I thought you came with dire news? Do tell me, Jeran."
Let me guess, Setarian thought bitterly, a food shortage in your banquet hall? Oh wait, given how high your marrow taxes are, I'm sure you're more than well fed.
"Of course, my King. It seems that..."
Setarian might have completely ignored the knight and calculated an attack plan if not for Lisha's apparent worry. She stood just inside the throne's entryway, chewing at her paw and fiddling with her glasses. Well, that and Jeran's sudden use of his name—his real one.
"Setarian, you say?"
"Indeed. You see, an unarmed Darigan messenger had been brought to me while I was on rounds. He offered me—me, of all Neopians!—Neopoints if any of our men were to find their commander. They even invited some Meridell ambassadors to his public trial when he's found. Apparently they wish to try him for treason for his misgivings." He paused for a second, biting his lip. "You and I both know how Kass runs his trials."
Skarl's face remained relatively blank, though it almost appeared as if he cracked a slight grin. "With all that he has done, I would not disagree with such a notion, even if I may not agree with many of Kass' rulings. Jeran, I—what is going on?"
In the background, there was a string of low, mumbled cackles coming from a wild-eyed Eyrie. Words flowed from his beak, but they sounded like high-pitched squeaks interspersed with bouts of laughter.
"It's all for naught, then. Even if I did succeed, I'm still a traitor. Everything—absolutely everything—is for naught..."
I'll be destroyed either way...
Images of the farmer's tears bombarded Setarian's mind. The doll. The fruit. The bandages. The General imagined himself being tried by the Meridellians for his many crimes. The punishment would undoubtedly be quite similar. He tried to push the many faces of the Meridellian unknown out of his head—to forget the trash and move on, as Kass would have said—but their fear-struck faces had well embedded themselves within his sub-conscious. It was more than any Neopian could handle. Luckily, the best scapegoat of Darigankind happened to be in the room, and he had the distinct honor of talking to him.
"Who is this child, Lisha?" asked King Skarl in an even tone, drumming his fingers against the golden throne.
"He's the guest I mentioned, your Highness," interrupted Jeran, speeding up after each word.
"The one that the guards attacked. He may have suffered from a concussion."
Like something like that would affect me..., Setarian thought, grunting under his breath.
"What do you think of them?" Setarian said suddenly, his shaking voice cutting through the silence. All eyes turned to Jeran. "The villagers that I—that he—attacked. What of them?"
The king shot Jeran a glance that stung of both unquestionable anger and a twinge of disappointment.
"I see no reason to answer such a question," responded the King through a snarl. "Now remove this child from my court."
But Setarian would not stop, even with Lisha tugging on him. He broke from her grasp and walked down the carpet, blue eyes blazing. "What of the farmers? Why were there no troops there? Why did he so easily destroy your land?"
How am I the evil one here?
Jeran's mouth may as well have dropped to the floor. Skarl calmly responded as if musing. Guards managed to restrain the Eyrie in place while Lisha's glasses steadily flooded with a layer of fog.
"So, one of the farm children, are you? Or perhaps not. You remind me of Mariana, the traitorous foreigner who once danced in my courts, but perhaps that is just in the odd color of your icy blue eyes." The Eyrie's face soured as the king continued. "Well, if I must humor you with an answer, I will first ask you a question. Surely you realize that I must protect my people? Truly I wish I could protect everyone, but that is not possible. Sacrifices must be made for peace. I am aware that there are Darigans are heckling the villagers, but there is little I can do with my current resources at hand. Besides, it was their choice to live so far from the castle." Jeran noticeably grimaced by the king's speech, but remained quiet. "Now, guards," he motioned to the many that held onto the violently squirming general, "take him away. I'll figure out how best to punish the child later."
Just you try to lock me away in your filthy dungeons. I'll fight you to my dying breath.
"My King, if I may," Skarl turned towards Jeran just as the two guards started to drag Setarian back. The King stopped them in their tracks with a raised claw. "As your trusted adviser, I make one request." To an untrained eye, Jeran might have looked unshaken by the recent events. The king, however, focused on the knight's right hand, which fiddled with the hemmed corner of his tunic.
Skarl shifted within his throne. His clawed hand rested firmly against one meaty cheek. "What is this request?"
Jeran swallowed a lump in his throat while his paw continued to pick at his side. "I would like to train this child. I think, with his raw potential, that he could make an excellent knight in time."
Me, a knight of Meridell? Are you kidding?
Setarian might as well have caught potatoes in his open mouth; at least a few would have fit perfectly. All of his muscles went limp as he stopped struggling against the guard's grip.
"Why do you care about a stranger you hardly know?" questioned the General in a soft, muted voice. His tail wrapped around a back leg and swished back and forth within a small space. A few times, bristles became stuck in the guard's armor.
"I was about to ask the same exact thing, child. Heh, at least we agree on something there. But I must admit I am curious, Jeran. How do you know he has potential, and why are you defending him so much?"
"I have two reasons. One, I believe everyone deserves a second chance at life no matter who they are or what they have done. This little Eyrie managed to spar well with the rogue guards that you dismissed." Setarian's shivered as a chill passed through his body. "And two?" Lisha was smiling weakly while gently rubbing her glasses against her tunic. "My sister tells me that she has always wanted a younger brother..."
Setarian's body melted like jelly through the soldier's hands. Only a few audible words escaped from Setarian's mouth. "Brother? Me?" He craned up his neck towards the guards, who took turns glancing downwards and towards the royal court. They looked just as confused as he did.
Lisha, noticing the sudden silence, turned towards the king and bowed. "Your highness, I plead for your mercy. Serian is just a little kid and..." she slowly placed her right paw which had since balled into a fist against the cardboard shield. In her left, the star-shaped rod continued to purr, pink waves of light pulsing through the air. "As a court's magical aid and scholar, I feel I should do my best to help others in need. I mean, fighting for the good of Meridell is why my friends and I came here in the first place, right? Please, King Skarl, let us have the opportunity to help him." She turned towards her brother who flashed a partial grin. From the king's angle, Jeran looked as stoic as ever, but Lisha and Setarian could easily see a single tooth gleaming in the sun light.
A lump formed in Setarian's throat. The sting he felt in his eyes only magnified as he turned his gaze towards a red and blue shield lining the wall. It glowed in the sun, radiant and mighty and yet terrifying all the same. Even Setarian had to admit it looked beautiful, but it still seemed foreign, unwelcoming. He still felt a Darigan inside even if his reflection said otherwise. If they ever found out who he truly was... their kindness, their warmth, it would all be gone in a flash. As it was, Setarian knew from the shocked faces of the other Meridell soldiers that they would not take well to having a troublemaker, especially one they believed lowborn, being trained by their commander and his sister.
Naive little Lisha, I'm the last one you would ever want as a brother...
King Skarl kneaded his forehead, bellowing his disgust through the room.
The Lupe jumped back. "Yes, my King?"
"I have decided to grant your request for now. But..." Lisha bounced in place, quite literally about to leap with joy, but the tension in the room froze her in place. Based on the King's furrowed brow, and Jeran's cutting motions, Skarl still had more to say. "If the youth causes any more issues, I will do far more than simply lock him in the dungeons. I have far too much else on my mind—the importance of a new marrow tax, for example—to let a rather vocal Eyrie cause me any further grief. Is that clear, Jeran? Lisha?"
"Yes, my King," they said with a bow.
"I am too kind a ruler," Skarl sighed, slinking against his throne, "but I will trust your guidance. Guards, unhand the Eyrie. He will serve under Jeran as a squire, so his presence will be a common one in our courts. This, of course, is assuming he proves himself worthy of the honor. And before long, unless he wishes to have a painful reminder of his former societal ranking, he will learn how to properly address me." He turned to Jeran. "And once the child is situated, there is still much to discuss."
"Of course, your highness."
Setarian felt himself lowered to the cold, hard ground. Quick footsteps made their way up to him followed by a tight hug.
"I'm so glad!" chirped Lisha. "Now you have a family!" Setarian felt his entire body knot up. He thought back to the troops who so bluntly said that none would mourn him and shivered. "First things first, let's see how quick you are to learn magic. I mean, you have to defend yourself somehow, right? Then we can go tour the castle and..."
She continued to chatter. All the while, both she and Jeran led him outside of the throne room. Once they had walked for a few minutes, Jeran abruptly turned around and rushed back towards the king's quarters. As the knight rounded a corner, he gave a thumbs up. So typically goody-goody.
Setarian sighed. I have a family now, huh? They'll come to regret that decision soon enough.
To be continued...