The Broken Soul: Promises and War - Part Three
He shouldn’t have been able to sleep considering what lay in wait for him at the end of this journey, but the slow, rhythmic rocking of the carriage lulled him into a restless sleep. He dreamt of mountains that grew straight up into the clouds, obscured at their peak by a fleece of white in the sky. But these mountains were distant and almost indistinct, a blurred backdrop that he continued to move farther away from. In his heart, he felt he was venturing—as had been his purpose this morning—into the deeper, unknown realms of Neopia, but a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind continued to persist otherwise.
Cove jolted awake as something hit the side of his carriage just inches above where his head had been resting. Jerking away from the wall of the carriage, he saw the sharp, silver point of an arrow gleaming through the splintered wood.
A whistling noise filled the air, and then...
Two more arrows lodged into the side of the carriage, and the third must have narrowly missed the guards driving, because an indignant yelp came from outside before the carriage came to an abrupt halt. Cove waited, his senses at the alert, as it sounded like the guards were dismounting from the carriage and drawing swords. He wasn’t certain what to feel, or if he should be afraid. Robbers, perhaps. What else could they be?
Cove hazarded to move toward his carriage door. There was a small window there, though it was barred. Not feeling too entirely safe, he chanced a glance through the bars, saw the two guards facing the forest with the swords at the ready, but nothing else.
And then another arrow seemingly materialized from the depths of the trees and planted its head in the dirt before the Mynci guard’s feet. He leapt back in surprise.
“That’s it!” he growled. “Show yourself, vermin! Or are you a coward?”
This seemed to be the wrong thing to ask. All at once, the foliage around the guards came alive, and a dozen Neopians, all wearing green and bits and pieces of leaves and twigs for camouflage, stepped into view with bows and arrows in hand. Cove saw the two outnumbered guards look uncharacteristically uncertain at this and step back.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I believe we’ve give you the wrong impression.”
A few of the Neopians at the front of the group stepped aside, and a tall, slender Kougra emerged. Cove gasped as he saw her. Though she’d changed a little—her brown hair, which seemed tinted a beautiful orange, had grown, curling down to her waist—he recognized her immediately. Her dark, red eyes and grey fur were still very much the same, though now she did wear the green of a woodland archer. She looked quite regal in her dress, her chin tilted to the side, a dozen Neopians gathered behind her. She looked almost like a queen.
Cove had sensed that regality in her before, when they’d met several years ago. At that time, she’d done him a tremendous favor by ridding his territory of a bandit clan he’d been having difficulties with. She was a passionate creature, and, even despite his current predicament, he wondered how she had been fairing. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been on a desperate quest, chasing the things she’d lost in the past as he had been only a couple of years away from running away from his own.
Whether or not she had, her confidence still shown around her like a glimmering aura as she lifted her own bow, pulling the arrow back so that it strained against the string, and aimed it at the guards.
“Shall we try again?” she asked, her voice mockingly sweet.
It only took the guards a panicked moment of exchanged glances to weigh their chances and find them unpleasant. With the sound of clanking armor echoing after them, they turned and fled. Cove saw the corner of the Kougra’s mouth turn up into a bitter smile, and, with a gesture of her paw, she motioned for one of her comrades.
The yellow Usul stepped obligingly forward. Cove noticed that, instead of a bow and arrow, he carried a sword. The slightly creature seemed to have no trouble at all in hefting it either as he lifted it onto his shoulder. Realizing what was to come, Cove stepped back as the Usul swung his sword and broke the lock on the door.
“Thank you, Ren.”
The Kougra patted his shoulder as she stepped around him and opened the carriage door. When she spotted who was inside, she let out an involuntary shriek, alarming several of her comrades who attempted to run to her side.
“Hello again, Jezza,” Cove greeted her warmly.
Two ruby eyes stared at him in disbelief, but, despite her shock, she had the sense to wave her friends back. She didn’t know if anyone would recognize the king, but she didn’t want to chance it. This kind of information leaked could be dangerous. Too many Neopians were looking for him, and not all of them were good guys.
“Ren,” she snapped, “take the reins. This carriage is going back to camp.”
In control, though her mind still reeled from surprise, she stepped up into the carriage and shut the door behind her. When she took a seat, Cove obediently took the one across from her, and they both held the silence until Jezza’s men—confused and surprised as they were—got the carriage moving.
“I didn’t know that they had you,” Jezza admitted, her eyes grave and studying him.
Uncomfortable with her scrutiny, Cove looked away, though, wryly, he replied, “I didn’t think so.”
“I would have saved you anyway, even if I’d known. I didn’t mean it like that,” she rushed on.
He was the only Neopian that could make her feel uncertain of herself. He practically radiated power.
“I’d just thought that they were kidnapping more families to enslave. Ones from the Scarab Army. Mahyla enjoys making them work for her.”
Cove clenched his jaw at the mention of the new Queen’s name. A thousand unspoken truths rolled behind his teeth, but he refused to leak any of them. So that was what the guards were going to do with Elric, and that was why Elric had ratted him out. To save himself and his family. Some of his earlier irritation with the one he’d considered a friend faded slightly.
“Still saving families in danger then?” he asked her, not yet wanting to touch the most important subject. “Have you found yours?”
“Yes, I am,” she admitted, “and no, I have not.”
Something about the pain hidden, yet still plainly laced in this admittance brought Cove’s gaze back to her. She was holding her paw against her chest, clutching something possessively. He found, in surprise, that it was the necklace he’d given her the last time they’d met, when she’d saved an innocent family from a terrorizing bandit clan. It was a golden necklace with a Geb charm on the end. It had been the only piece of jewelry he’d been wearing the day she’d fought off bandits, and he’d given it as a token of appreciation.
That day she had confessed the pains of her own past to him, of how she’d lost her family and continued to fight to find them. Along the way, she’d almost naturally picked up the profession of defending other families in trouble as she’d been unable to do with her own. He’d admired her for that.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he told her, softly.
For a moment, Jezza’s face was contorted with sadness, but she shook it away before she could fall back into that slyly awaiting cloud of depression. She lifted her gaze to his, and Cove knew that it was going to be straight business now.
“When we get to the camp, you’re free to go, you know. I won’t tell anyone I saw you. Not even the Scarab Army.”
She held up a paw to him, and he saw another flash of gold. On her index finger she wore a ring with a miniature Scarab carved into it. Cove felt dryly amused at this, staring at the symbol he’d made his own so long ago. She was a part of it too, then. She was one of the many that wished for his return.
“Sarevor recruited you as well?” he asked, some of his old affection for his friend leaking through into his voice.
He didn’t understand when Jezza flinched at the question, and answered, almost bitterly, with a single-syllable, “Yes.”
“Why do you say it like that?”
Jezza hedged around the question. “It’s just that I made a promise, but promises get broken all the time. I respect you, and so I respect your wishes if hiding is something you feel you must do, even if I don’t understand it.”
She could have said nothing else that would have cracked his heart worse. He expected the anger, the bitterness, but not acceptance. The fact that she was giving him her unwilling approval was almost more hurtful than the scorn he had expected. He cleared his throat.
“What’s happened? Why do you sound so bitter if you’re giving me your approval?”
She stared hard at him then, for several long, piercing seconds. It almost unnerved him, but then she sighed and looked down at her paws where she’d dropped and wrapped them together tightly on her lap.
“Sarevor has changed his allegiance.”
“WHAT?” Cove choked.
Suddenly, every illusion of detachment that he’d put between himself and his past shattered. As simple as that, the chord between himself and what he’d once been snapped taught and strong. All at the mention of his closest friend turned traitor.
“It’s true,” Jezza told him, sounding almost as heart-broken as he felt.
“It can’t be!”
Jezza sighed. “It is. Everyone knows. It’s no secret, but it’s broken the confidence and strength of the Scarab Army. A lot of our members have gotten scared and broken rank; some have even told our secrets. That’s why there are now guards like the ones that captured you. They’re rounding up the more persistent members and enslaving them.”
Feeling weak, Cove slouched back against his seat, barely feeling the stab of his pack, forgetting he’d even still had it on his back. He couldn’t believe it. He would never believe that of Sarevor. The Usul, though he might have felt betrayed and angry with him, would never sacrifice the well-being of the people. Never.
“Yes,” Jezza insisted. “It’s the perfect plan to bring down the last hope for your return. With no one on your side, they can either scare you into remaining gone forever, or they can capture you and throw you into the dungeons to contain you. Either way, Mahyla wins.”
It had never been so plain to him. The damage he had caused by fleeing, by giving up, was all but clearly spelled out before him now. Forsaking a lifetime of ideals and beliefs, he’d turned tail and ran at the first hint of scandal, and he’d left everyone in the merciless claws of a tyrant. At the time, there hadn’t seemed to have been any alternate choices, but surely he’d only overlooked them.
Wary, Cove lifted a hand to his eyes, rubbing them.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Such a weak excuse.
“But it did. Things do. Whether we mean for them to or not.”
Wordlessly, Cove appreciated Jezza’s lack of questioning or prying. She did not ask why he’d done it, as so many others would have. She let him keep his ghosts and memories to himself, and he was thankful. He wasn’t quite ready to let them out.
“We’ll be at our camp soon. You’re welcome to stay, or to go. No one will stop you either way.”
“Would you blame me?” he asked. He needed to know.
Silence. Too long of a silence, too many unspoken words. He could practically hear her answer as it rolled around on her tongue, but she didn’t speak it.
“That doesn’t matter. It’s your choice. We all have a choice in this.”
No. His choice had been taken and made for him, though he’d long since been trying to deny it. There wasn’t any more outrunning it. It would only continue to catch up to him.
He could practically hear her grind her teeth.
“Look, with all due respect, your highness—”
Cove smirked dryly at the title.
“—the opportune time has past. You have fewer followers than you did before. Making a move now could very well be more dangerous than it’s worth. Your chances are slim. Especially with Sarevor having...”
She let this last thought fade, unfinished, into silence. It was, perhaps, the most powerful element in her speech to him. Yes, the betrayal of Sarevor was a hard blow, and the damage it had done might be incapable of being repaired.
“I know,” he admitted, but, for the first time in months, he felt his own resolve returning.
“You can still run,” she offered him a last escape.
“No, I can’t. Not anymore. The guards have seen me. Their attempts to find me will only get worse; more people will be captured in my place.” The thought horrified him. “I have to talk to Sarevor.”
When the carriage came to a stop at Jezza’s camp, Cove left it under the secrecy of an emerald cloak she had lent him, with nothing else but his faithful pack on his back. Though his face had been hidden by the cloth hood, more than one Neopian in the camp had their guesses at his true identity.
And within weeks, word had spread that Cove Macduff had been spotted in a camp not far from Shenkuu, which promptly flamed the fire of a rumor and an almost painful hope that their long-lost king was on his way to returning to his throne.
At this news, a Speckled Draik became enraged and efforts were redoubled to find, capture, and imprison the ex-king.
To be continued...