Traitors And Warriors: Part Seven
“This is preposterous,” I said as Satkena finished telling her lies. I looked straight up at Fyora. “Your Highness, this story is fabricated. I understand that there is a great deal of evidence against me. But I am innocent. You were threatened by a faerie who was identical to me in every way - but it was not me. Satkena,” I said, looking straight at the treacherous fire faerie, “used a potion to make herself resemble me. She set me up out of jealousy.”
Satkena laughed. “That’s ridiculous. No such potion is in existence.”
I could see the jury nodding uncertainly. Fyora said, “I have studied spells and potions for many years but not even I have come across any device which could transform two individuals into each other. However,” she added, as everyone fixed accusing glares in my direction, “that is not to say that such a potion does not exist. For all I know, a faerie may have managed to create it without my knowing.”
“But Your Majesty,” Satkena said quickly, with a warm smile, “I only make my potions in the little laboratory you set aside for me. Yesterday morning you came to visit me there - do you remember? I had no new potions.”
“Yes, that is true,” Fyora said, “although if you had created a body-switching potion for malicious intentions, I doubt you would have brazenly put it on display.”
“Naturally, Your Majesty,” Satkena said, in a voice sweeter than honey. “But surely you know me well enough to trust me better than that? I am loyal to you alone, my queen. I have served you my entire life, and Preluna has served you for a matter of months. At least, we thought she was serving you.”
The jury nodded, agreeing with her. Fyora still looked doubtful but said nothing more. Before I could speak (since I felt that I could remain silent no longer), Numenna suddenly said, “Does anyone believe Preluna? Is anyone in this room willing to defend her against the charge of treason?”
There was a dreadful silence. My face fell. And then suddenly, a chair scraped on the floor and someone stood up. Everyone turned to see who it was. To my amazement, I recognised Maruna, my shy maid. She was blushing with embarrassment at having drawn so much attention to herself; she was scarlet to the tips of her ears.
“Do you have something to say?” Fyora asked gently, seeing how uncomfortable the air faerie was.
Maruna nodded and opened her mouth to speak, making a frightened spluttering noise. A few of the younger faeries giggled and Numenna banged her hand down on her desk, roaring, “Silence!” The giggling faeries fell silent. Maruna gulped and then took a deep breath, clearly determined to overcome her shyness. Eventually, she stammered: “Your - Your Majesty, I - I was shocked to hear that an attempt was made on your life. But my shock was nothing compared to my disbelief when I heard that my Lady Preluna was accused of organising the assault.”
“And why is this?” Fyora asked.
“She is loyal and honest, your Majesty,” Maruna replied. “I trust her completely. I - I just wanted to say that. I know I’m just a humble servant, and I don’t claim to be very clever, but I know that Lady Preluna is innocent of these crimes. I don’t have proof, but I know it in my heart. And if any of you had any decency,” she added, sounding bolder by the second, “you’d know it too.”
“And you had no reason,” Numenna said, “to believe that your mistress was plotting to seize the throne?”
“None whatsoever, Lady Numenna,” Maruna said. “And as far as I know, the guards who ransacked her rooms last night found no evidence either.”
“There was no ransacking of any sort,” one of the guards suddenly cut in. “This maid is mistaken. We merely carried out a search.”
“A search!” Maruna suddenly exclaimed, and I was startled at her boldness. “You turned the place upside-down! If my mistress is pronounced innocent and released, she’ll be returning to a ruin.”
“That’s enough, Maruna,” Fyora said with sudden sternness. “If you have nothing relevant to add, please sit down.”
Defeated, Maruna slumped into her chair. She looked at me and our gaze met. I mustered a faint smile of gratitude, silently thanking her for her loyalty. She gave me an apologetic look and then turned away.
“The air faerie’s maid says handsome words of praise,” Satkena said, “but before anyone in the jury becomes convinced of Maruna’s sincerity, I really must add that she had no evidence whatsoever of Preluna’s innocence. Therefore her statements are invalid.”
“By that same argument,” I said sharply, ready to strangle Satkena, “there is no evidence that you did not create a body-exchanging potion. I can hardly bear to listen to your poisonous lies - ”
“Preluna, control yourself,” Numenna snapped. “You are to remain silent. If you want this trial to continue, I suggest you do as you’re told.”
My fingers twitched, yearning for a sword. If only my hands were free... I wanted to jump up and teach all of them a lesson. I wanted to destroy Satkena, and Numenna too, and all the other faeries with their sceptical faces. Fyora saw my murderous gaze and flinched. I was not entirely sure whose side she was on now. She looked at me with a pained expression which seemed full of apology, but she still seemed to reluctant to believe anything I said. After a long pause, she said, “If no one else has anything to say, the jury should now be dismissed to reach the final verdict. Do you have any final words to say in your defence, Preluna?”
I suddenly felt very drained. I must have been paler than new paper. Too weary to argue any further, I said in a subdued voice, “I trust that the jury will be open-minded enough to reach their own conclusions as to my innocence.”
“Very well,” Numenna said. “Jury, you are dismissed for one hour. When you return, we will hear the verdict.”
The jury rose and filed out. The battle faeries closed in around the platform where I stood, surrounding me in a tight ring. I looked helplessly down at my bound hands. I was powerless and I knew it. The guards all had spears and, even though I could have fought my way to freedom unarmed under ordinary circumstances, my tied hands made escape impossible. I stared bleakly up at the windows, longing to fly away. I wanted to stretch out my wings and soar upwards and out through a window, just as I had done in the school library. Freedom had never tasted so sweet before or since.
At length the jury returned. The hour had passed slowly. I searched the faces of each faerie, desperate for some clue. But their expressions gave nothing away.
“Have you reached your decision?” Numenna asked.
“We have,” said a light faerie at the top end of the left desk.
“And what is your verdict?”
“Lady Preluna has been found guilty of treason, of plotting against Her Royal Majesty, Queen Fyora, of collaborating with named criminals, and of several serious incidences of assault,” the light faerie stated.
“Was she found guilty by an overwhelming majority?” Numenna asked.
“Yes,” Satkena said with relish. “Not one of us voted for Preluna’s innocence.”
I looked at the floor, downcast. The worst part of the trial had arrived.
“We shall now move to the sentencing,” Numenna loudly announced, unable to conceal the smugness in her voice. “Preluna, are you aware of the punishment for the crimes you have committed?”
I nodded with grim resolution. “I am.”
“Then I will allow Queen Fyora to do the honours,” Numenna said, bowing low as Fyora rose to her feet.
Fyora looked pale. In a cold voice she said, “Lady Preluna, you are hereby banished from Faerieland, under pain of death, to live out your days as a grey faerie. Your sentence will be carried out this evening at sunset. Guards,” she said, addressing the battle faeries, “escort Preluna back to her cell. Let her final hours as an air faerie be spent in peace.”
* * * * *
I returned to my prison cell with my head lowered. Everything felt like an awful dream. In my heart I had known, from the very moment my trial began, that I would be found guilty of the crimes I had not committed. And yet to hear it announced - officially announced in Fyora’s expressionless voice - was more than I could bear. To be exiled from Faerieland as a grey faerie, and to live whatever sorry life I had left in shame and remorse, was too much for me. And so I wept. My tears were bitter and they came quickly and effortlessly. The grief was genuine.
I was glad to be left alone now. None of the guards wanted to be near me, although one of them remained outside my cell as a precaution in case, by some miracle, I was able to escape. The hours ticked by agonisingly slowly and I wished that my final hours of a proper life could be spent somewhere else. I wanted to be in Alluvia’s courtyard, holding a sword and laughing in the crisp morning air. I wanted to be in the study where I had my afternoon lessons. Most of all, I wanted to feel the sun warming my wings again - the wings I would soon lose.
My tears and despair made me weary. Exhausted after a sleepless night, I lay down on my narrow bed and cried myself to sleep. I was woken suddenly a few hours later by a great commotion outside: I heard faeries call to each other, and the sound of footsteps rushing up and down the tower stairs. I dried my red eyes and propped myself up on my elbow, listening carefully. Then I called to the guard outside, asking her what was happening.
“One of your allies has been found,” she replied, moving close to the door so I could hear her voice clearly. “A dark faerie named Sharrabah.”
“Sharrabah?” I said in surprise.
“She was caught skulking about near the palace and has now been arrested. She’s being interrogated in a cell downstairs,” the guard explained. “It seems likely that she’ll go the same way as you.”
“What do you mean? Is she to become a grey faerie too?”
“I believe so.”
“Isn’t she even going to have a trial?”
“It doesn’t seem likely. You’re guilty, so there’s certainly no hope for her.”
I sank back onto my hard pillow. I felt a vague sense of satisfaction that Sharrabah would finally be brought to justice. But it did not make my own future any easier to bear.
The hours passed like weeks. The sunlight faded and my cell grew darker and colder. I got to my feet and paced around, fear clutching my heart like a fist. Eventually I heard the cell door open; I turned to see a pair of battle faerie guards. They wore black cloaks with the hoods drawn up; they looked like executioners, especially with the swords hanging from their belts. I let them bind my hands and followed them outside in silence.
We left the tower and flew up into the air. I felt the fading sun warm my wings, knowing with an aching sensation that I would never feel it again. We flew silently over Faerieland and then down, down to Neopia. We were joined by four other guards, closely surrounding a dark faerie - Sharrabah. Fyora followed behind, looking mournful in a black and purple gown. The round gemstone at the top of her staff was a dark and dim colour; there had been no rejoicing today. Numenna also joined the silent procession, a strange light glinting in her eyes. Thankfully, Satkena was not with us.
I saw the high turrets of Brightvale beneath me. The marble buildings shone with an ethereal light; I fell in love with that city in a moment. I was sorry to leave it behind as we flew west, down to the grassy plains which lay just outside Neopia Central. We landed without a word. I folded my wings at my back, and my heart almost broke when I thought that I would never be able to use them again.
The dimming light suddenly seemed heavy; the air seemed to choke me. From one horizon to another, we could see nothing but an ocean of wind-ruffled grass. The six guards surrounded Sharrabah and me, and I knew better than to try to escape. Even at that moment, my inner warrior was calculating the odds of escape. I could easily defeat six guards, even if they had swords; but my hands were tied and Fyora was skilled with magic. I sighed. It was better to accept my fate with dignity rather than make a botched attempt to flee. I would not betray my fear.
We had not seen each other for almost nine years, but Sharrabah looked no different. Her skin was a heavy shade of purple and her hair was wildly chopped into a spiked style which perfectly emphasised her rebellious nature. But now she looked very subdued. I think she had realised, as I had, that this was it for us. The final curtain was about to fall; the end was near. Within a few minutes, neither of us would exist any more. We would be grey faeries, the colour of dust, and with no more honour than dust either.
“All right then,” Numenna said. “Who will go first?”
Sharrabah and I looked at each other. Neither of us said a word. I bit my lip, trying to hold back my urge to struggle and scream: 'You can’t do this to me! Please! You can’t!' I forgot everything Alluvia had told me about honour, about staying defiant and strong even during the worst of adversities. Alluvia never had to endure this, I thought bitterly. I no longer wanted to be strong. I wanted to weep. I wondered if Sharrabah had wept too in her cell. It did not seem likely, since she suddenly turned to Numenna and said, “Get it over with. I want this scum to see exactly what’s in for her.”
By ‘scum’, she meant me. I hated her all the more for wanting to go first. By having to watch her own transformation, I would dread mine all the more. I felt a sick feeling rise in my stomach and travel up my throat as Fyora placed her hands on Sharrabah’s shoulders and said: “Sharrabah, you have been judged guilty of treason, as well as countless acts of theft, arson, bribery, corruption and disruption of the peace. I sincerely hope you will spend the remainder of your life trying to atone for your misdemeanours - ”
“Get on with it,” Sharrabah interrupted: and with a resigned look, Fyora fell silent and closed her eyes. For a moment, nothing happened. And then Fyora began chanting in a low voice, chanting words I neither knew nor understood. It appeared to be an ancient language, and there was something in it which filled my heart with dread. And as I watched, Sharrabah began to change.
Her skin paled, turning to the shade of smudged paper. Her wild hair suddenly thinned and became limp, falling around her face in grey wisps. Her spiked wings shrivelled like dead leaves. I could not help gasping in horror as they withered away until they were little more than limp rags at Sharrabah’s back. Her shoulders fell and she slumped with a sigh. She was unrecognisable now. Her gleaming eyes were shrunken and had a hopeless expression; her sneering smile was now a wavering line of sorrow. Her black and purple clothes, the clothes of a rebel, seemed to hang loose on her. She looked so pitiful and frail now, and I knew that this transformation was more than physical. Fyora had not just altered Sharrabah’s appearance - she had altered everything. Sharrabah had been reduced to a miserable, trembling wreck, a mere shadow of the cruel dark faerie she had once been. I suddenly felt unbearably sorry for her, but more than that I felt an uncontrollable tidal wave of panic building up inside me.
For this was what I would become.
Fyora removed her hands from the grey faerie’s shoulders and turned to two of the battle faerie guards, saying in a quiet and pained voice: “Please take her away. Leave her where she will be safe and then come straight back here. She will have to make her own way in the world now.”
The guards nodded, slinging Sharrabah’s arms around their necks and putting their own arms around her body. Then they flew upwards, lifting Sharrabah with them as if she weighed no more than a leaf. They melted away into the darkening sky.
My turn had come. Two of the battle guards stood behind Fyora, one at either side. The other two took me roughly by the arms and forced me forward. I held my head high. I would be strong. If the rest of my life had to be spent in disgrace, I would make these last few seconds count. I would not crumble. I would not become a coward.
A soft evening breeze ruffled Fyora’s robes. The guard who stood on her right had her hood drawn up and her face was in shadow, but the light wind caused her hood to slide back. I caught a glimpse of dark purple hair, a long white face and a thin curling smile. Instinctively I looked down, seeing the long distinctive sword in her hand.
It was Alluvia.
And as Fyora raised her hands to end my life as an air faerie, she struck.
A swift punch rendered the guard at her side unconscious. As Fyora turned in surprise, I took my chance. I spun around and gave a sharp scissor-kick, sending one of the guards flying back. The remaining guard brandished her sword; I spun around, catching her on the jaw with the crook of my elbow. She staggered back, but was not so easily defeated. I leapt up, kicking out once more with my feet. The guard fell back onto the ground; but her companion, the first guard, was now back on her feet. She swept her sword in a wide arc which would have beheaded me had I not ducked. Then I soared six feet up, my feet running in the air like the legs of a clockwork toy as my most powerful kick sent her down to the ground.
I spun around. Numenna was watching me with a look of amazement and horror. She liked me no more than I liked her, but she was no warrior and did not want to end up in the same state as the guards. Fyora was facing Alluvia, who had thrown off her black cloak and was smiling smugly. She suddenly seemed taller than ever.
“I couldn’t let you do this,” she said simply.
“She was found guilty,” Fyora said. “Cousin Alluvia, not even you can stop the course of justice.”
“Perhaps not,” Alluvia replied. “But I can stop you from doing something disastrous. Preluna is too good to be wasted as a grey faerie. You know that as well as I do, Fyora. She was destined for something greater.”
Fyora gave an abrupt laugh. “Even if I spare her the life of a grey faerie, I cannot let her return to Faerieland.”
“Then banish her,” Alluvia said calmly, as if she had nothing at stake. “Send her into exile. That way, she gets to keep her wings and her pretty golden hair. You and Numenna will know that justice has been done. And I will know that my student still has a future.” She smiled. “So we all get what we want.”
“You do realise,” Fyora said, “that I can’t let you go unpunished either? You’re responsible for an assault on my palace guards. You are trying to assist the escape of a convicted traitor. I could have you executed for this, Alluvia.”
“But you won’t,” Alluvia said quietly. “You are my kin. Very few could kill someone of their own blood; and I know that you are not one of them.”
“I shall have to punish you nonetheless,” Fyora said.
“Oh, naturally. I’m quite happy to sit in prison for a few years. Goodness knows, I don’t have anything better to do,” Alluvia said with a wry smile. “Or, of course, you could put me under house arrest. That counts as imprisonment. I wouldn’t mind at all, Fyora. I hate leaving my cloud; you know that.”
Fyora smiled. Sharp-tongued Alluvia had outsmarted her.
“Very well,” the Faerie Queen finally said, resignation in her voice. “I will place you under house arrest for ten years.”
“Suits me,” Alluvia replied coolly. “And in return, Preluna is to be released.” She drew a dagger from her belt and swiftly cut the cords around my wrists.
“She will be banished under pain of death,” Fyora said, turning her level gaze to me. “If you ever return to Faerieland, I shall be forced to sign your death warrant.”
“I understand,” I said softly.
“Then go,” she said. “Your tutor has saved your life. But from now on, you are on your own.”
“I always seem to be on my own,” I said quietly. “It’s how I choose to live.”
Fyora nodded, wordless. For a moment there was silence; the only sound was that of the battle faeries scrambling to their feet and coughing self-consciously. Understandably, they were embarrassed at being knocked down by an air faerie with her hands tied.
Alluvia stepped forward. She had sheathed her bright sword in its black scabbard, and she held it out to me with two hands.
“Take this,” she said. “I no longer need it.”
“Alluvia - ” I began, too surprised for words. “I can’t take it,” I finished.
“It is my final gift to you. Take it, Preluna. You will need it, believe me.”
So I stretched out my hands, and Alluvia gave me her sword. My fingers tightened around the hilt and the blade.
“Where must I go now?” I asked her.
“Wherever your wings take you,” she said. “Your life will never be easy, but I hope it will be as memorable and eventful as mine. I will send messages to my friends in Neopia,” she added. “They are few and far-between, but I will tell them to remember your name and they will help you when hard times come.”
“Alluvia...” I said, my voice wavering.
“Thank you,” I said, clutching my new sword as if my life depended on it.
Alluvia shrugged nonchalantly. “I saved your life because you deserve a better end. That’s all there is to it.”
“I am not only grateful for that,” I said. “You gave me a home. You taught me so much. And now you are giving me this...” I raised the sword.
“It was made for your hands, not mine,” Alluvia said. “Isn’t that right, Fyora?”
The Faerie Queen nodded. “I always hoped that Alluvia would pass it onto her student. You are the best warrior in Faerieland, Preluna - you deserve it.”
“Your Highness,” said Numenna, speaking for the first time. “How can you let this happen? Preluna is a traitor...”
“Perhaps,” said Fyora. “Perhaps not.”
“Your Highness - ”
Fyora raised her hand. “Enough, Numenna. My decision is final. Now,” she said, looking at Alluvia, “I suppose we should formally arrest you and have you sentenced to house-imprisonment.”
“Be my guest,” Alluvia said coolly, and turned to me for the final time. “Take care of yourself.”
“I don’t suppose we’ll ever see each other again,” I said.
“No, probably not.” Alluvia gave her wicked little smile. “But that doesn’t mean we have to forget each other. Farewell.”
Like an arrow she soared up into the sky, her jet black cloak streaming out behind her. Numenna followed her at a wary distance, and the guards went too; and finally Fyora, with the gemstone glowing atop her staff, rose upwards. They ascended to Faerieland, the kingdom I was forbidden to see again.
* * * * *
I was alone, as alone as I had been when I came into the world.
I only had a name, a sword and an infamous past. But my life was just beginning.
I felt the rich green grass below my feet, and the world suddenly seemed to reach out from all directions, beckoning me towards the future. I gazed up at the darkening sky, with the stars only just beginning to appear. What did life hold for me?
There was only one way to discover the answer. With my sword in my hand and freedom in my heart, I spread my wings to the night sky.