Riders of Neopia: Part One
They travel with their homes within their hearts, to places where no friends await them. They bring exotic goods and fear into the eyes of the unknowing. Their wild campfires and enchanting songs will entice you, if you don’t watch out. They are outlaws, free spirits, elusive. They follow the wind with their carriages, wherever it may blow. They are the Riders of Neopia.
Call me Thoran. This is my story. A story of a world unknown to many. A story of how I met the gypsies.
For many, many years I’ve kept quiet. I gave my word to them, you see. Now, I can feel the spirit of life starting to ebb away from my body. My joints aren’t what they used to be, and after walking for five minutes, an intense pain starts crawling down from the tip of my ears to the end of my tail. That nasty cough I used to have in the past few winters has now decided to appear as an event for all seasons. I have long known that I am no longer the young, athletic Fire Lupe I once was. My time has come, so now I can finally tell my story.
Nothing ever happened in the small village I grew up in. Nothing, except for the obvious. People lived by their daily routine. Every day, except for midsummer’s night. Oh, how I loved those nights; the bonfire, the lavish feasts, the fireworks, the music and the dancing. As a young Lupe I would look forward to midsummer’s night for weeks, and so would everybody else. My mother, Eleonora, a White Lupess with long, curly black hair and the gentlest eyes my own had ever seen, would spend days in her small kitchen, preparing the most delicious meals I’ve ever tasted. My dad Randall, a tall Orange Lupe who was usually quiet and reserved, would help the other men in the village to set everything into place on the village square.
It was no different on the day before the midsummer’s night it would all happen, in the year of my fifteenth birthday.
“Thoran, where are you hiding?” I could hear my mother’s voice coming through the kitchen window of our little house. I knew that she wouldn’t be able to see me, if she looked through it. My favorite hiding spot was on one of the thick branches, high up in the oak tree rising from our backyard, under its heavy green cloak to escape my daily chores.
“Thoran! I know you’re around here somewhere. I need your help.” I sighed as I let myself slide down the tree trunk, cursing the weak spot I have for my mom.
“At your orders, ma’am!” I shouted cheerfully as I jumped through the backdoor, saluting my mother.
“Ah, there you are.” My mother smiled. It showed the tiny wrinkles she had around her eyes. “Could you get some kindling for me in the forest?”
“But, Mom!” I tried to put on my most pitiable face. “I’m meeting up with Caroline and David this afternoon. We’re hoping that old Mister Jackson, that blue Skeith, has some cool fireworks for midsummer’s night.” My mother put her paws on her hips and gave me that look. The look that made me feel like I was still six years old and refusing to take a bath. I knew I had no choice but to go.
The air in the forest was a bit chilly for that time of the year, I could feel it tickling my lungs. I left the sandy path, heading for the place where I usually went for firewood. Even though I would much rather be at Mister Jackson’s place with Caroline and David, I enjoyed my little stroll. It was so nice and quiet there, with nobody else around. Not that I didn’t like being amongst other people, but with the midsummer’s night festival coming up it could get a little too hectic in our little village. I soon discovered another disadvantage that was customary for the festival: a lack of kindling.
“So, where did all your friends go?” I asked the only piece of kindling I could find as I picked it up. Then, I heard giggling. It was a sweet, twinkly giggle, light as the air about me.
I turned around to look for who had produced that sound. From the corner of my eye I could see a figure, disappearing amongst the trees.
“Hey! Wait!” I shouted, while I started to run after her. She was fast. So fast I could barely keep up. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of her. Wavy blue hair, a colorful dress and shiny gold jewelry that jingled with every step she took. As I was running, I noticed that the density of the trees was decreasing. More light found its way to the ground, illuminating sparser underbrush as the obstacles in my path disappeared.
I soon arrived at what was once an empty, open space near the edge of the forest. I remembered the spot. I used to go there a lot to play with my friends when I was younger, even though my mom hated it, because it was close to the swamp. Now, the place was packed. There were carriages, decorated with exotic items and colorful curtains, strange looking musical instruments, cooking utensils and oh, so many people. They all seemed very busy. Some of them were walking around with goods; some were knitting things, making music or dancing. Others were entertaining the younger ones or chatting and laughing in small groups. They were all wearing very colorful clothing and lots of jewelry.
“So you finally caught up with me. Impressive!” said a pleasant female voice right behind me. She was so close I could almost feel her breath on my earlobe. I turned around and there she was again. I examined the red Wocky girl for a bit. Her almond eyes had a little twinkle in them, and her face was split open by a playful grin. From top to bottom, her ears were full with golden earrings, reflecting the sunlight. She was wearing an old dress, by the look of all the patches that were stitched onto it. She had decorated her willful blue hair with braids and beads. It was a pretty sight.
“So what’s your name, young boy?” She giggled, twisting a lock of curly hair around her paw.
“It’s Thoran, and I don’t think you have the right to call me young boy, young lady,” I replied, feeling a little annoyed.
“Gindara told me a young boy would come to visit us.” She twirled around on the tip of her toes. “I’m Adria, nice to meet you.” I thought about what she said.
“Who’s Gindara?” I asked suspiciously.
“She’s my sister. She sees things. Come on, I’ll take you to her.” She grabbed my paw and pulled me along to one of the carriages, standing at the edge of the camp. It wasn’t as colorfully decorated as the others. In fact it had a slightly grim look, deepened by the shadow a large pine tree cast over it.
Adria gently pushed me up the three wooden steps leading to the entrance. It was dark inside. Once my eyes adjusted to the absence of daylight, I could distinguish a large collection of alien objects, stalled on shelves. There were pots with strangely colored liquids, bits of fur lying around, frames with dried herbs and small wooden boxes with eccentric shapes carved into them. I sensed a strange smell that I couldn’t describe. In a corner of the carriage, there was the shape of an Usul, covered in shadows. She started speaking. Her voice made even the tiniest hairs of my fur stand up straight.
“Thoran. Welcome to my humble home.” She laughed, but it sounded more like an evil cackle. “As you might know by now, I’ve been expecting you.”
“Uhm, I heard–”
She held up a paw. “Shush, young Lupe, I will do the talking here. I have something important to tell you, so listen carefully.” I noticed that Adria had left the carriage and felt even more uncomfortable about the whole situation. I wondered why I had followed her in the first place. Gindara was now bending over a red orb placed on a stand that was shaped in the form of a large claw. In the light it spread, I finally saw her face.
She was a bit chubby. Her blue fur was pale, which made her look ill. She wore jewelry with gems that had the same color as her orb, embedded in gold. Like Adria, she had blue hair, but hers was straight and greasy, as if she hadn’t washed it for many years. Her eyes had something creepy over them, I felt her stare on every inch of my body. An evil grin curled up the corners of her mouth. She spoke again after an awkward silence, while moving her hands around the glowing red orb.
“Light in the darkness. People dancing... a celebration. I see your mother, Eleonora. Yes, I see her. She is still happy there.” I felt goose bumps rising everywhere. “Immense danger is on its way,” Gindara continued. “Nowhere to escape to, nowhere to hide. It will happen. The only way you can help her is if you come here again on midsummer’s night. Yes, it’s the only way.” The light of the red orb extinguished, and Gindara leaned back into the shadows of her carriage again. “Leave now, young Lupe, and we will meet again... if you are wise enough.”
I stepped back into the bright sunlight, but the goose bumps wouldn’t go away. Nobody at the camp seemed to pay any attention to me as I hurried back into the safety of the forest.
“Thoran! Wait up!” I heard my father’s voice as I scurried across the village square.
“Oh, uhm... hi, Dad.” As I slowed down, I noticed that all the men working there were staring at me.
“Why the hurry and the frightened look? What happened?” my father asked.
“I don’t know, Randall, but your boy looks like he has just seen a ghost!” All the men started laughing, except for my dad, who gave me an investigating look.
“It’s nothing, Dad, I just promised Mom I would be back in an hour, and I’m already late,” I said, forcing out a smile.
“Alright then, tell her I will be home in forty-five minutes.”
When I was certain they weren’t looking at me anymore, I quickly grabbed some kindling from the pile that had been collected for the bonfire and walked back home, pondering the events earlier that afternoon.
“Gindara can’t be right, can she?” I asked myself. “Now what did she say exactly? Light in the darkness... That must be the bonfire. A celebration, people... dancing... She was obviously talking about the midsummer night festival.” Frustrated, I kicked against a cobblestone lying around. I had absolutely no idea what to do. Should I believe her? Should I watch my mom extra carefully? Should I tell anyone about it?
My mom was already waiting at our garden gate when I turned the corner into our street. She waved.
“What took you so long? I almost thought you drowned in the swamp.” She grinned. With lead in my shoes, I walked up to her. When I was almost there, I dropped the kindling I was holding and ran the last few steps to hug her tightly.
“Aw, someone is glad to see me!” My mother smiled, gently stroking through the fur on the top of my head. “Did you see your father anywhere? I need him to move some tables to the square.”
“I can help you with that, Mom,” I quickly said as I started to walk towards our house.
“Hold on a minute, young man,” my mother said, grabbing me by the neck. “What did you do to the boy who‘s always hiding in the oak tree to skip his daily chores?” Feeling caught, I shrugged.
“Nothing. Don’t be silly, I always help you when you ask for it.” I couldn’t possibly tell her that I wanted to keep an eye on her, to make sure she was safe. For now, that was all I could do.
Finally, after weeks of preparations, the midsummer’s night festival began. A buzz of excitement rushed through the village; you could feel it everywhere. The bonfire was already sputtering gently. I could sense the intense smell of burning pine wood, floating through the beautiful night sky. Our little village square was covered in an enchanting glow from the full moon and shining stars, perfectly visible due to the absence of clouds. The air was filled with music, chatter and laughter. I felt like I was the only one who wasn’t in the mood for celebrating. My mom and dad were dancing around the bonfire. I could hear their laughter from where I was sitting, under a small apple tree at a short distance from the celebrating crowd.
Earlier that evening, Caroline and David had tried to convince me to eat something. I couldn’t. I felt like my throat was blocked by a huge lump of fear. The same fear that was spreading throughout my body like a forest fire after two months of drought, filling me up as midnight approached. Even the most tiniest noises made me jump up and look around in fear to see where it came from. When someone at my table dropped a plate, I got up so quickly I spilled a glass of water on David. It was then that I decided it would be best if I sat somewhere else. Somewhere I could keep an eye on things, things that could harm my mother.
I didn’t know what to expect. Danger could be lurking around every corner. The most horrible scenarios were working their way into my fearful heart. Groups of bandits attacking, flaming meteors falling from the sky, horrible spells, cast by dark faeries, tornadoes, floods, sandstorms..
“Hey, Thoran, why are you hanging out here?” I was so busy imagining my mother’s demise in hundreds of horrible ways, that I didn’t see Caroline walking up to me. The pretty Striped Blumaroo was all dressed up for this fine evening. David had already been joking that she did it just for me. I managed to break a smile.
“Hi there, Caroline, I just wanted to get away from all the excitement. I’m... a little tired.”
“Ah, come on! I want to dance with you. It isn’t midsummer’s night every night, after all. Pretty please?” Now how could I refuse? It might take my mind of things for a while.
Caroline was laughing cheerfully as she twirled around me. Her black hair reflected the glow from the bonfire. The blue silk scarf, draped around her shoulders, was flirting with the evening breeze. She was dancing barefoot, on the tip of her toes. The lilac dress she wore puffed up at every move. In a way, she reminded me of my mother, of how she looked when I was still a little toddler.
My mother! I let go of Caroline’s paw and stopped dancing. Where was she? I scanned the crowd in search for her and my dad.
“What’s the matter?” Caroline asked. At the same time, I heard a high pitched scream and started running like I had never ran before in the direction of the sound.
To be continued...