Torn Loyalties and Broken Promises
The bright midday sun beat down on the dusty Meridell colosseum, warming the faces of hundreds of spectators. Every loyal citizen, from the richest noble to the poorest farmer, had abandoned their plans for that day and came to celebrate. It was a new holiday - in an effort to solidify relations between the kingdoms of Brightvale and Meridell, the neighboring countries were hosting an annual tournament for all to showcase their skills. For days there had been Uni jousting, archery target-shooting and even juggling competitions. But it was today, the final day, that had excited murmurs racing throughout the packed crowd. Tensions ran high, for today was the biggest event of all - the hero's exhibition match.
"On the left, representing his Majesty the wise ruler of Brightvale, King Hagan, is the youngest champion our lands have ever seen! Let's hear it for the farming fighter, conqueror of the Werelupe King and the Darkest Faerie herself, Tormund the Strong!"
At the announcer's bellowing cry, the crowd went wild. A deafening cheer arose from the motley spectators as Tor entered the arena. He was a broad-shouldered Lupe, tall and muscular, shocks of sunshine-hued fur swept across his pale golden eyes. His golden armor was lacquered green with the Brightvale royal crest. He raised a mail-clad paw to acknowledge his adoring fans, a fierce grin stretching across his whiskered muzzle. This was what he'd dreamed of, back on the farm. He hoped Mama Patricia, Papa Hubert, and his little sister Lucy were out in the crowd somewhere, seeing that he had accomplished everything his heart desired. No more cabbages and carrots for him - Tormund the Strong was the King's Champion, an undefeatable warrior!
"On the right, representing his Majesty the honorable ruler of Meridell, King Skarl, is the famed hero of peasants and nobility alike! Raise your voices for the one-and-only hero from a different era, triumphant leader against the armies of Darigan and Kass, blessed by the Faeries and feared by invaders everywhere, Jeran the Brave!"
The afternoon sun gleamed on the silver and red armor of Jeran, the crowd favourite. The older Lupe stepped forth modestly, nodding politely to the legions of hoarsely screaming fans. Jeran was a full head shorter than Tor, and had a lither, wiry stature. His marine blue fur was shaggy and coarse, framing worried brown eyes and a faded white scar on his long face. His calloused paw rested easily on the hilt of his trusted sword, and he was gazing calmly and steadily at his opponent.
The two Lupes began to slowly circle each other, studying the other's movements, scoping out a weakness. Their colourful armor flashed and sparkled in the bright light, as the dusty arena echoed with shouted taunts and cheers.
Up in the spectator's balcony, Morris the Quiggle squealed with joy, clapping his hands together as he leapt up and down. His homemade Lupe costume had been patched up in honor of this momentous occasion - his idol Jeran would be seen in action again! His best friend, Count Boris the Blumaroo, had stationed himself behind the guardrail. He seemed to believe that the scant shadows cast by the pavilion would be sufficient to protect a creature of the night such as his role model, Count Von Roo - and as he himself claimed to be.
The Skeith monarchs were seated side by side, their thrones flanked by their most trusted advisors. To Hagan's left was a slim Acara, her jet-black hair coiled above her mage's robes of blue and silver. She was Hagan's niece, Roberta - Tor's partner in their epic crusade against the Darkest Faerie, and the most powerful magic-wielder in the Brightvale court. Her sharp blue eyes were locked on the dusty stadium, and the broad-shouldered figure of Tormund.
"Be strong, dear friend," she murmured, slender hands clasped together behind her back. The benevolent Hagan overheard her and smiled, clapping a gloved hand on the Acara's shoulder.
"Fear not, my precocious niece," he replied softly. He'd always had a soft spot for his Roberta. "You know better than anyone that Tormund will be fine."
Roberta met his indulgent gaze and smiled ruefully. "Yes... I'm sure you're right, Uncle."
Nearby, Skarl gnawed voraciously on his midafternoon snack, beady eyes glaring at his elder brother. At his side was a young Aisha, robed in the rich blue and gold silk tunic reserved for Meridell's Mage General. Her soft golden face was framed with red-rimmed spectacles. This was Lisha, Jeran's precious little sister, and one of the few to remember details of their origins - Jeran, Lisha, Kayla, Morris, and Boris had all been born in modern Neopia. She could remember being a top student, how her biggest concern was always studying for tests, and how her brother had mysteriously vanished after an ill-fated game of hide-and-seek... how she had finally enlisted her friends' aid in locating the elusive time rift.
Things were not the wonderful fantasy she had imagined. Even though she had been reunited with dear Jeran, his knightly duties were constantly calling him to defend the kingdom of Meridell. Lisha worried endlessly about his safety. The scar that crossed Jeran's eye was a painful daily reminder of how close she'd been to losing him forever...
Lisha watched the impetuous Skarl squawk at a servant, ordering more food to glut his insatiable appetite. What a ruler... Is this what my brother risks his life to defend? The Aisha turned away, saddened, to seek out her friends' faces in the crowd.
Despite the time they'd spent here, Morris and Boris were still wrapped up in their childish fantasies. The wars had not affected them, it seemed. Lisha fought back a sudden urge to cry. Kayla, at least, had matured with her - but the tall Zafara was so wrapped up in her potions entrepreneurship that she simply hadn't the time to spend coming to a tournament. The apologetic note that Lisha received simply stated that Kayla "needed time to catch up on things", and would be sure to "make it up to her later".
The Aisha abruptly took off her glasses, polishing them furiously on the hem of her tunic to distract herself.
It doesn't matter how lonely I am, she scolded herself. What matters is that I support my big brother by showing I believe in him. My personal life has nothing to do with this tournament. The competition is a goodwill gesture to bring the kingdoms closer together, so it's important for everything to follow through. As Mage General, it is my sworn duty to ensure the kingdom's safety and prosperity, which will be reached most easily through relations with Brightvale...
I just wish it didn't have to involve Jeran.
Lisha glanced over at Hagan and Roberta, and found her eyes meeting the tall Acara's. Uncomfortable, Lisha turned away, but not before realizing that they both wore the same expression of worry...
Down in the arena, Tormund lunged forward, silver blade flashing in the sun. His strike bounced harmlessly off of Jeran's steel chest plate, parried by the older Lupe's swift down stroke. They circled each other warily; sweat trickling down beneath their hot metal armor.
Jeran struck suddenly, to the thunderous roar of the crowd's approval, bringing his sword crashing down onto Tor's shoulder pad. The force of his blow left a deep dent in the metal, but it didn't affect Tor himself, who proceeded to swat the blade to one side.
"You don't stand a chance," Tor barked confidently. "I'm way stronger than you, and I'm gonna prove it."
Jeran frowned, eyeing his tall opponent. "This is supposed to be a friendly match between allies," he said finally, concern on his worn face. "Why are you being so aggressive?"
Tormund's pale yellow gaze narrowed. "Why do you think? You're their favourite, Jeran. I saved all of Meridell too, from a way bigger threat than Kass ever was, and you still get more recognition than I do. I want that! I want to prove that I'm better than you! I swore fealty to King Hagan instead of Skarl because I wanted to become a champion on my own terms, and not live in your shadow. You don't seem to understand how much you mean to the people..."
Jeran sighed unhappily. "Is that what this is to you?" he asked softly, running his mail-clad paw across his face to wipe away the stinging sweat. "I didn't ask for this, Tor. Being a warrior isn't a game. I became a knight so that I could protect those dear to me. It has nothing to do with recognition or fame, believe me. As long as my sister's safe, I don't care what anyone else says about me -"
Tor snarled, bringing up his sword in an offensive stance. "How can you stand there and say that to me?! Just how conceited can you be, Champion of Meridell! If that were the truth, you'd forfeit!"
Roberta gripped the balcony railing, knuckles white with fear. "I can't hear what they're saying," the Acara said quickly to herself, "but Tor's losing his temper. If he doesn't calm down soon, he'll go berserker - we can't have that!"
King Hagan caught her by the shoulder and pulled her back. "Niece, where is your diplomacy? You can't barge into a friendly match and call it off because something personal concerns you. That would be a very unwise move, and would no doubt ruin all the work we've done so far in establishing firm rel-"
"Uncle!" Roberta cried, blue eyes wide with anger. "You don't know Tormund like I do! He needs me by his side - he loses his temper and makes rash decisions - he's taking this match too seriously! He has a grudge against Sir Jeran, but he swore to me he wouldn't let it influence him-"
Lisha rushed to the balcony's edge, torn from her reverie. The small Aisha bit her lip, gazing down at her precious brother. "He's being cornered," she whispered in frightened awe.
And it was true. Tormund the Strong had unleashed a furious barrage of sword strokes on Jeran the Brave, smashing his blade down again and again. The discordant screech and clang of steel on steel echoed repeatedly throughout the stadium, as the harried Lupe was hard-pressed to defend himself. Jeran struggled to block each attack, strength draining rapidly in the dry afternoon heat. He faltered, losing ground, as the aggressive Tormund drove him backwards, step by step.
"Jeran," Lisha whimpered, wringing her small hands together. "Unh... we've got to do something... Call off the match! Please, sir, call it off!" the Aisha pleaded suddenly, turning to Skarl.
The obese Skeith flapped his hand in annoyance at her. "You're in my way; I can't see the fight anymore! Go sit down!"
Frantically, Lisha dashed over to Roberta. "We have to stop the match!" the two sorceresses exclaimed simultaneously. Their eyes lit up - they were not alone in their concerns.
"My brother's in danger," Lisha cried, drawing her trusty wand from a deep pocket in her formal tunic. "I'm going to intervene!"
"Be careful," the experienced Acara told her. "I have an idea - good luck with yours!" Then Roberta gathered her silvery robes and dashed off the pavilion, into the crowded stadium bleachers. She could hear Hagan's startled bellow, ordering her to "come back at once", but she paid him no heed. Tor had to snap out of his tantrum, or he could end up starting a war. If his petty grudge caused him to seriously injure Sir Jeran, or worse, the peasants would riot against him, effectively destroying any hope of an alliance between Meridell and Brightvale. Surely Uncle Hagan could understand that, if he'd give her a chance to explain her actions later... Roberta knew from experience that ignoring a direct order from King Hagan was a serious transgression in his eyes... The Acara shook her head, freeing her long tresses of raven-black hair. She could handle a little chastisement later, if it meant saving her partner's life.
Jeran's legs buckled under the force of a punishing blow, and he released his sword. It fell in a cloud of dust as he dropped to his knees, battered armor dented to an irreparable state. He panted in exhaustion, marine-blue fur slick with sweat, brown eyes dull as he looked upwards.
Tormund stood above him, triumph and pride shining in his golden eyes. A whiskery smile slowly spread across his face as he trapped Jeran's sword beneath his footpad.
The stunned crowd began to roar in excitement, chanting his name. "Tor!... Tor!... Tor!"
He raised his chain mail-clad paw, pumping a triumphant fist into the air. Jeran watched him motionlessly, unarmed and exhausted. "You get your wish," he murmured quietly, so that only Tormund could hear him. "Now you're their favourite... that's what you wanted, right?"
Tor's lip curled back in anger. "You conceited, stuck-up... You threw the match! You weren't trying to fight back! You let me win on purpose, didn't you!"
In a sudden fit of rage, Tormund the Strong raised his broadsword high above his head, muscular arms rippling with powerful energy - ready to bring it down on Jeran's unprotected head.
A desperate cry from the sidelines made Tormund pause. Lisha dashed across the stadium, blue tunic flapping behind her. The crowd was completely still, peasants and nobility alike stunned into silence. The yellow-furred Aisha finally reached the two Lupes, out-of-breath and disheveled. Without hesitation, she flung her arms protectively around Jeran's neck.
"Don't hurt my big brother," she whimpered, burying her soft face in Jeran's marine blue fur. Startled, Jeran's dull brown eyes slowly regained their former warmth.
"Lisha," he breathed in relief. "He could have killed you... please, don't scare me like that..."
"No, Brother, you were the one in danger! You're always the one who takes the brunt of everything, Jeran!" Lisha's tearstained face turned upwards, meeting Jeran's scarred gaze. "I don't want you to have to protect me - I just want to be able to spend time with you... like we used to... playing games together, telling stories... back when there were no responsibilities, no worries... no swords, no sorcery..."
The Aisha sniffled, hugging her brother tighter. "...I want the old Jeran back."
Tormund loomed above them, trembling paws gripping the hilt of his broadsword. He had almost committed the gravest sin of all, because his temper had gotten the better of him again. He let the sword drop unceremoniously behind him, as he felt a light hand touch his broad shoulder.
Roberta stood at his side, glossy ebony hair strewn about her relieved face. A little Lupe girl was in her arms, sunshine-yellow fur the same tone as Tormund's.
"Lucy?" the knight asked incredulously. The little girl turned around, bright eyes sparkling with happiness.
"Brother Tor, Brother Tor!" she squealed in excitement, squirming free from Roberta's grasp to dash to Tormund. "I missed you so much, Brother Tor! You promised me you'd come and visit once you got famous, but you never did! Nobody wants to play with me anymore, Brother Tor - can I come live with you at the castle?"
A bit dazed, Tor patted Lucy absentmindedly on the head. "I... I'm sorry that I never visited, Sis. I just... got so caught up in things, that I... I suppose I forgot... I'm so sorry, Lucy."
Roberta gave him a meaningful glance. Tor gulped. "Erm - s-sorry to you too, Bobbie," he stammered to the Acara. "I, uh... didn't mean to make you worry or anything..."
"Not good enough, Tor," Roberta grumbled. "Uncle Hagan's gonna bust my chops over this, I'll have you know. You promised you wouldn't let your ego take over! It was just an exhibition match, for Fyora's sake!" She shook her head, running a slim hand through her long black hair. "But all the same... I'm glad you're all right, partner. Now you and your sister have some catching up to do, so I'll see you back at the castle." Roberta winked at her knight companion, and waved at his spirited little sibling. Then she turned to Lisha and Jeran.
Jeran the Brave stood tall, having shed his battered armor. He had some minor scrapes and bruises, but wasn't seriously injured. Lisha clasped his rugged paw, wiping her tears onto the silk sleeve of her tunic. Jeran smiled sadly at his little sister, ruffling her hair. "You know I can't abandon my duties, Lish..." he murmured softly. "It's unfair of you to ask that of me, when the fates of so many rest upon my shoulders. But all I want is for you to be happy, and I know you feel so lonely right now..."
Lisha looked up at him, eyes welling with tears again. "I... understand," she squeaked, hugging his paw to her, before letting it drop. "Sorry to be such a burden," she added, and slowly walked towards the steps. Skarl would want an explanation of what had transpired - she could hear his indignant squawks from all the way down here, above the confused buzzing of the crowd. She had her duties, too, after all. That was what it meant to be mature... not to abandon responsibilities...
Jeran stared sadly after her. "I am sorry, Lish... This isn't what I wanted for you." Then he began to gather the discarded pieces of dented armor, dutifully cleaning up after himself. His loyalties ran far too deep for him to be able to change now... The old Jeran no longer existed.
"Wait a sec'," Roberta called after Lisha. "You're Meridell's Mage General, aren't you?"
The Aisha turned to look at her blankly, nodding.
"I'm the top sorceress in Brightvale, so that would make us equivalent strengths. What would you say to this proposal?" Roberta smiled at the disheartened Lisha. "What if we could train together? We need to stay strong to support our countries, and I'd love to see what kind of magic you can do. I'm a few years older than you, and I studied for most of my life to get to where I am now. You must be a prodigy, to have gained such prowess in such a short time!"
Lisha blinked at the taller Acara, eyes squinting behind her red spectacles. "What do you mean by 'such a short time'? ... You know about the time rift?"
Roberta grinned. "I studied up on it. I've been curious about that sort of dimensional warp ever since I saw how Jerdana had slowed the time in Altador. So... with us brilliant sorceresses studying together, combining our knowledge..."
Lisha excitedly finished her thought. "...we might be able to re-create it!" A bright smile lit up her round face. "Lady Roberta, this is a wonderful idea! I'd love to study with you!"
The Acara draped her slender arm across Lisha's small shoulders, steering her back towards their pavilion seats. It was the start of a wonderful, timeless friendship that would bring together the two neighboring countries of Brightvale and Meridell - as well as giving two sets of siblings that had drifted apart long ago a second chance.