The Sword of Brightvale: Part One
An old grey Wocky sat snoozing in his armchair near the fireplace when he awoke with a start at the sound of thunder . Which was promptly followed by the steady yet aggressive rhythm of the rain pouring down on the roof and tapping on the window.
Muttering under his breath, he reached for a blanket and threw it around his shoulders as he got up, grabbed his cane, and walked over to the window to peer at the rain through his thick horn-rimmed glasses. The streets of Meridell looked perfectly calm and desolate, save for the odd petpet hiding under a barrel or a doorstep to protect itself from the cold rain and wind. He sighed and looked at the sky, shaking his grey head at yet another storm.
Meridell had been plagued by them for weeks now and Archibald, for that was his name, longed for some sunshine and a good walk in the forest. This cold weather made him grumpy, had his old limbs aching all over, and to top it off, gave him a runny nose. Needless to say Archibald was in a very, very bad mood and doubted anything but sunshine could make him happy.
Suddenly he saw someone running down the dark street, followed by another one and then another one. No less than five children were running down his street, through the mud and the large pools of water. When the fifth ran underneath his window, his nostrils flared with indignation.
He hobbled to the door, down the stairs and onto the street. As one of the young Neopets ran past him, he whacked him on the head with his cane, yelling, “What do you think you’re doing, playing outside in this weather; do your parents know? It’s dangerous! Get in, and you too,” he yelled at the four other Neopets who looked defiantly at the grey Wocky with his cane, blanket and quilted slippers. But there was an imperial tone in his voice they could not neglect and they trooped in silently, getting the occasional whack if they left trails of mud on the hard wooden floor.
“Sit down,” he spat at them as he gestured towards the fire, “or you’ll catch a cold.” He disappeared in the kitchen and came back with a hot Meridellian drink. He particularly looked displeased with one of the young Neopets, a young brown Lupe who had mischief written on his forehead, for he was his nephew. He didn’t expect anything else than irrational behavior from the other children, but not from someone in his family. After all, he descended from a great and noble line, although it wasn’t a commonly known fact. He sighed and sat down. “What were you all doing outside in the rain?” he asked in his most gentle tone, which still sounded pretty harsh in the children’s opinion.
“Well...” His nephew hesitated. “Our parents won’t let us play inside the house. They say we’re too wild.” Archibald snorted rather loudly but tried to keep his face straight. “And we were bored, so we decided to run outside.”
“Right,” said Archibald. “You know, children, there are other ways to entertain yourselves besides rolling around in the mud and catching rare diseases. Pick up a book and read, or tell each other stories...”
“But we don’t know any stories,” a yellow Acara protested.
Archibald stared at him with his mouth open. After he recovered from the shock he scraped his throat, coughed a bit and sighed. “What if I tell you a story then? A story about my family, but from a very, very long time ago, when Meridell had another king and court. A story of intrigue, deception, knights, but also of wit and intelligence.” By the looks of their faces, Archibald could tell he had won his audience the minute he had pronounced the word “knight”. Thus the story begins...
The rain poured down on Meridell Castle, accompanied by a wind that invited itself inside through the boarded up windows. The sun had just begun to rise behind the storm-clouds and most occupants of the castle were still sleeping or preferring the warmth and safety of their bed to the chilling cold that haunted Meridell Castle.
In the highest room of the West Tower, the heavy purple curtains moved feebly in the draught and the fire fought bravely to keep alight while the wind whistled through the chimney. Opposite the chimney stood a large mahogany four-poster bed, with its deep-red curtains drawn shut. Normally, all the members of the royal family would have slept for many more hours, were it not that they were awoken by the sound of a trumpet and hooves. The trumpet rang so shrilly that there wasn’t one Neopet, Petpet or Petpetpet that hadn’t heard it in the castle.
In the room of the West Tower, the deep-red curtains were torn open as a brown Ixi leapt out in her white nightgown and ran towards the window. She carefully opened the hatch of the shutter and peered out. Her green eyes were promptly met by rain, wind and cold and she slammed the shutter back with a yelp, as she dried her face on the curtain.
Curious to know which visitors had ventured to brave the storm, she quickly ran to her dressing table, splashed some clean water on her face and undid her long braid, to set free her long brown wavy hair. She then put on an emerald-green dress, embroidered with gold, and ran out of the room, down several flights of steps, almost knocking over servants on the way, who carefully reprimanded her: “Careful, Lady Briseis, you might hurt yourself.”
She halted abruptly in the corridor leading to the hall of the King, where the visitors would, no doubt, be brought. She silently crept closer, peered into the hall, and seeing there were only just a few servants hastily picking up the remnants of last night’s feast, she slid in and hid behind one of the many stone pillars, supporting the ceiling of the hall. Briseis sat down, with her hands around her knees, resting her head against the hard surface of the polished column. She didn’t have to wait long, because she soon heard the voice of her uncle booming through the halls complaining about the “nerve” and “impertinence” and other happy thoughts. The Ixi laughed quietly to herself; the visitors didn’t know what they were in for.
The King’s entrance door to the hall was thrown open with such might it hit the wall and almost shut itself again, were it not stopped by a large royal hand. The King, a shadow Skeith named Brom, entered majestically, draped in his burgundy robes, followed by a docile-looking black Ixi wearing a purple dress embroidered with gold. She wore pearl earrings, a gift from the late Queen.
The Ixi was King Brom’s daughter, Moira, and heiress to the throne of Meridell, while Briseis was the daughter of the King’s deceased brother. Briseis and Moira were only cousins, but anyone who saw them without knowing them would have sworn they were twins. Moira also wore her hair waist-length like Briseis, only it lay rather flat, less wild than her cousin’s. Moira quickly spotted her cousin and she gave her a sly smile before following her father to his throne.
King Brom sat down and his daughter stood upright at his left side. The throne on his right stood empty, for Queen Morganna had been ill for months and didn’t seem to get any better. Moira was deeply saddened by her mother’s illness whom she got along with so well, much more than her father, the King, who was more of a brutal nature, necessary to reign over such a rough kingdom.
Briseis snapped out of her sad thoughts when the main doors opened and the King’s chamberlain, a shadow Lenny, advanced with much poise, followed by some guards and two travelers covered in mud who were positively soaking wet. The candles flickered and several onlookers from the Court shivered in their sophisticated apparel, unfit to protect them from the cold. The doormen shut the heavy wooden entrance doors with a bang that echoed throughout the hall, reducing it to a morbid silence. The few candles only gave a feeble light and most of the hall was covered in a threatening darkness. The Lenny Chamberlain walked towards the king, bowed, stood aside and outstretched his hand towards the two visitors, while he cleared his throat.
“Milord,” he said, “I present to you, Sir Gavin and Lord Keir, son of Gawain.” The Lenny bowed once more as the three Neopets advanced. They bowed and took off their mudded hoods. Briseis tried to discern their faces, but she was standing too far away. Driven by curiosity, she crept closer, taking care to stay out of the candlelight.
Then the one named Keir began to speak: “King Brom, we honor you.” He bowed again and so did his companion. “We have travelled a great deal and have come here to seek your hospitality for the duration of the storm.”
The King eyed him suspiciously, shrugged, and nodded towards his chamberlain while waving a hand, suggesting to take them away promptly for he was still sleepy and somewhat angry about having been awoken. This one quickly jumped forward and lead the two visitors out of the hall, tailed closely by the ever so curious Briseis. The young Ixi needn’t make haste to keep up with them, for she could hear the chamberlain’s pompous voice all the way up the staircases and through the halls.
“Briseis,” whispered a voice, “what are you doing?” She turned and smiled warmly to Moira.
“I just want to know where they will be staying, I didn’t get to see them very well. Do you really think they were surprised by the storm? It has been like this for weeks now.”
“I agree,” said Moira, “there’s something strange about it. Either way, it will bring some now faces to the dinner table. That Lord Keir seems to be the son of an important nobleman, I’m sure he’ll bring interesting conversations into the castle.” She laughed, she knew how much her father hated new faces; he preferred living in a quiet routine.
“Will you come to the library with me?” she asked Briseis. During these bitterly cold weeks, there wasn’t much to do but play games and haunt the libraries of the castle, seeking a warm fire to try and not freeze.
The brown Ixi nodded and added, “I’ll just get a shawl in my room first; I’m freezing.” Thus, Moira set off to the library and Briseis went back to her room. Unfortunately for her, she bumped into the King.
“What are you up to?” he said gruffly.
“Nothing, Uncle.” She smiled her sweetest smile, but it didn’t seem to convince him.
“Just be careful, Briseis, it’s not because you’re my niece that you can walk around like a princess in this castle.” He looked at her dress with a mean eye.
“Oh, b-but Moira gave this dress to me,” she stammered.
He grunted. “Just don’t take up all of her time. One day she will be Queen and she needs to prepare for it. Her servants say they can never find her, that she’s always hiding somewhere with you. It’s not proper, Briseis. You’re a bad influence on her. Stay away.” With that, he passed her and went back to the Royal Hall.
“That wasn’t very nice,” said an unknown voice. Briseis turned around and stood facing a red Gelert, dressed entirely in blue. “I’m Gavin,” he added as an explanation.
“Oh, one of the travelers.” She bowed lightly and he returned the favor.
“Yes, well, I’ll be off again, exploring the castle.” He gestured at the ceiling and smiled broadly. Briseis gave a little smile and darted past him, heading towards the library.
She pushed open the heavy library door and grabbed one of the candles that stood on a table near her, ready to explore the gigantic room filled with rows and rows of books. Novels, books of poetry, history, science, geography, art, etc. It was one of the best documented libraries there had ever been. Briseis steadily headed for the novel section, where she was sure to find Moira. And indeed she did see a black shape at the end of one row, that was crouching, flicking through a very old book. She tapped Moira on the shoulder, screamed, and dropped her candle.
Briseis stood nailed to the floor as she stared at the tall and broad shadow Lupe standing in front of her. She gasped when he lunged at her and she ran away as quickly as she could. The blood was throbbing in her ears and she could barely breathe, yet she was egged on by the sound of running behind her. He was going to catch her. She made a sudden left, then a right, then left again to disorient her pursuer but to no avail. He had far longer legs and ran with greater ease. “Milady, milady, please stop!” he shouted. Out of breath, Briseis stopped, backed into a very small and hidden library corridor, and tried to make no sound.
She could see the black Lupe stopping, pointing his ears in hope of catching a sound. She noticed he was holding the candle she had dropped in a fright.
“Milady?” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I am Lord Keir, a guest in the King’s castle...”
Briseis let out a breath of relief. Keir heard it and reached out in the darkness until his hand found her arm. He pulled her out of the corridor.
“I am Lord Keir,” he said, once again.
“Yes, I know that by now,” she snapped. “Do you think you could let go of my arm now? You’re hurting me,” she added in her most angry voice.
He narrowed his eyes and brought his face closer to hers. “I’m sorry I frightened you. In all honesty, you startled me too. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t be civil. I guess they don’t teach that to servants of the princess?”
“I am no servant!” she yelled, as she tried to free herself from his grip, but he wouldn’t let go. “I am niece to the King,” she said with vanity.
“My, my, niece to the King? What a great and brilliant future you must have then. Pray tell, what gives you the right to strut around like a princess then?”
Briseis opened her mouth, but no words came out. She was dumbfounded at the behavior of this so-called “lord”.
“What were you doing in the library?” she asked, trying to bring the conversation back to her own advantage.
“Reading, your majesty,” he said while adding a mock-bow to his words. “Is that forbidden?”
“Reading? In pure and utter darkness? You didn’t have a candle, milord; how could you have been reading?”
“I was merely picking a book to read in my quarters.”
“Hah! You would still need some kind of lighting to be able to read the title,” she said triumphantly.
“I like to pick books based on the way they feel underneath my fingers. Soft or ragged, new or old. I like to be surprised.” He let go of her arm and regarded her with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. “Now, if you would excuse me, I have some reading to do.” He thrust the candle in her hand and took off in the darkness.
A few moments later Moira appeared in the same corridor, holding a few books. “I’ve found some novels that look interesting; shall we go to my quarters?”
Briseis smiled weakly and nodded.
In Moira’s room, a warm roaring fire was waiting for them. Having regained her wits, Briseis recounted what happened in the library with Lord Keir.
“Oh, that’s it. There is definitely something strange about those two. On my way to the library, I was accosted by that Sir Gavin and he just kept going on and on about the castle, the grounds, trees, birds, the weather. I thought he would never, well, shut up,” Moira said. “Do you think they’re up to something?”
“I do, I actually really do think so,” Briseis said sadly, “but what can we do about it?”
“Well, we could follow them. Walk around the corridors and hope to catch them doing something dodgy.”
“Hm. Perhaps, although I think we’d better hide out in the library. He seemed to be looking for something, come to think of it.”
That evening, Briseis and Moira left the dinner table not to go and find their warm beds, but to hide out in the library. They knew the library like their inside pockets and so they had no trouble finding the secret hiding place behind a bookshelf on hinges that worked as a secret door. They had known that hide-out since they were children and in all these years they had made it a comfortable little place. Old tapestries hung on the wall to keep the warmth inside, carpet and cushions were on the floor and there was a low round table with plenty of candles and candelabras. There was nothing to do but sit and wait until someone entered the library, for the library door had the rather unpleasant habit of creaking quite loudly when opened. They sat next to each other on the cushions, leaning their heads against the wall by the candlelight. They didn’t feel like reading; instead they just sat there silently for ages, until Moira spoke.
“My father talked to me again about my duties as heiress to the throne. I’m so scared, Briseis; I don’t know how to reign, how to take care of everything and protect the people and the kingdom.” She sighed heavily, resting her head on her knees.
“Moira, I’ve said this a million times. You’re the most intelligent person I know. You're clever and wise; you were born for this. As for the people, you are way too lovely; how could they not like you? You, you have a future. I, however, I have nothing,” she said with some bitterness in her voice.
“That’s not true-”
“Yes, it is. I am of no use whatsoever to anyone. What am I supposed to do? If I were a man, I would become captain or general, no doubt. But I’m a girl. A stupid girl.”
“That is not true,” Moira hissed. “Briseis, you are the smartest person I know. You have such knowledge about certain things, about art and books and so much more, I’m really in awe of you-”
“I know stories, I read books, but I know nothing of things that really matter,” Briseis replied coldly. “I’m sorry,” she added. “Sometimes I wonder what’s ahead and it doesn’t look good for me.”
Moira put her arm around Briseis’s shoulders to comfort her and thought it best to stay quiet, until Keir or his companion showed up. It was well beyond midnight when Briseis was awoken by the familiar creaking of the library door. She nudged Moira awake and they both shuffled closer to the bookshelf-door of their hide-out to listen for footsteps. There are two, Moira mouthed. Sure enough, Briseis could hear footsteps of different nature.
“We need to follow them if we want to hear what they say,” she whispered in Moira’s ear. Moira nodded and both Ixi set off in the darkness of the library, listening intently to the strangers’ footsteps.
“You say this man knows where to find it?” asked Keir’s heavy voice.
“Yep, your lordship. He’s a cousin of mine, he is. Heard him speak of it and it came to his attention that your lordship might be here for it,” said another man.
“Very well. You will lead me to him. But first, I must fetch my companion.”
“Ah, you see, that complicates it. My cousin, you see, doesn’t like it when too many people come and see him. And it’s more difficult to smuggle two people out of the castle than one.”
“I don’t care,” hissed Keir. “Do it!”
“It will cost you double the Neopoints.”
“Oh, that’s fine, you greedy old bat.”
“Keep your manners now. I may just be a servant, but I could also choose to not take you to him.”
“You could,” he growled lowly, “but that wouldn’t be very wise, now would it?” Briseis imagined he was holding the servant the way he had immobilized her earlier. She shuddered against Moira’s arm, who frowned. The next thing the cousins heard were footsteps echoing loudly and the door creaking.
“Grabbing my arm,” the servant muttered. “I’ll have a word to my cousin about it.” Then she too left.
“We have to follow them,” Briseis said.
“Follow them! Outside the castle, are you mad?”
“But they’re up to something dodgy,” Briseis protested. “What if they mean to harm your father or are seeking for a weapon!”
“All right. All right. Let’s--let’s get some cloaks and follow them. I know which door the servants use to get out of the castle unseen. We’ll go ahead of them, hide behind the line of trees near the pathway and then follow them into the city.”
To be continued...