Meridell at War: Part One
Illusen softly stroked the wilted flower before her, allowing her magic to weave from her fingers into the fibres of the plant. She smiled as a green tinge returned to the browned stem, and the flower burst into a fresh array of purple hues. When she was content with her work, she leaned down and deposited the healed plant in the hole she had dug.
As she worked to restore the withered garden, a Beekadoodle flew down and settled in the branches of a nearby tree. It sang to the earth Faerie as she toiled in the beautiful afternoon sun of Lightwater Forest, and Illusen hummed along under her breath.
Illusen’s humming stopped abruptly, as did the Beekadoodle’s song. The pair seemed to be listening, as if something was disturbing them on the edge of their hearing. Illusen glanced upwards to the bird, which met her eyes for a moment before taking off into flight once more.
Illusen smiled as she watched the Petpet soar off into the cloudless sky. “If only we could all get away that easily.”
She finished planting the flower, and stood up, facing the undergrowth that led away from the small clearing. A moment later, the long grass was forced aside and trampled underfoot as a dozen or more Neopets in shining steel armour barged their way into the clearing. The emblem of Meridell blazed upon their chests.
A small blue Kyrii and a green Shoyru followed in their wake. They ran forward to Illusen.
“I’m so sorry, Lady Illusen!” the Kyrii cried. “They came to the glade, and I said you were busy in the forest but they wouldn’t listen! Oh, the damage they’ve caused getting here!”
Illusen smiled and patted the Kyrii gently on the shoulder. “It’s alright, Vadellen, we are all the King’s subjects. If he has need of us, we must answer the call.”
She straightened up and faced the Meridell soldiers.
“Well, good knights?” Illusen asked. “What business do you have in my forest? Does the King require my services?”
A Krawk at the head of the knights stepped forward and produced a scroll.
“Lady Illusen, of Lightwater Forest and the Glade there within,” the Krawk read aloud. “You are to be placed under arrest on the orders of King Skarl for charges of treason. You will accompany us to Meridell Castle and be imprisoned there until King Skarl sees fit to grant you a hearing, at which point sentencing for your crimes will be decided.”
“Arrested?” Vadellen, the Kyrii gasped.
“Treason?” the Shoyru by the other side of Illusen questioned. “What is this?”
“Lady Illusen is suspected of consorting with the enemy,” the Krawk replied. “King Skarl believes her to be colluding with Darigan forces to overthrow him.”
“The enemy?” the Shoyru protested. “We’re not at war with Darigan!”
“For now,” the Krawk told him.
Vadellen began to speak again, but Illusen held up her hand to silence him.
“If I refuse to accompany you to the castle?” she asked.
“We have been authorised to take you by force,” the Krawk informed her.
The Shoyru moved forward, drawing a blade. “Over my dead body.”
Illusen held up her hand again. “Please, I want no blood to be shed in this forest. I shall accompany you to the castle, I’m sure all of this can be sorted out with King Skarl quickly and peaceably.”
She turned to the Kyrii and added, “Vadellen, make sure the Glade is well maintained in my absence.”
The Kyrii nodded. “Yes, my Lady.”
Illusen held out her arms to the Krawk, who bound them in thick chains. With soldiers flanking her on all sides, Illusen was led away into the undergrowth.
The Kyrii and Shoyru were left alone, and around them the green glow of Lightwater Forest seemed to dim, ever so slightly.
The blue Lupe barged past the soldier on guard.
“King Skarl gave strict instructions that no one was to speak with the prisoner!” the soldier shouted.
“Those orders did not include me, I can assure you,” the Lupe replied, reaching the bars of the cell.
Lady Illusen sat within; the natural green glow that the Faerie emanated seemed to have been stifled by the dark and dank of the Meridell dungeons.
“Jeran.” She smiled as she saw him, a wave of relief spreading across her body.
“This must be a mistake, Lady Illusen,” Jeran told her. “The King would never order this.”
“I saw the warrant myself, Jeran,” Illusen replied calmly. “It bore the King’s mark. And... well, these bars did not install themselves.”
She moved her hand towards the iron bars, but withdrew it when they delivered a sharp electric shock.
Illusen smiled weakly as she rubbed her hand. “Enchanted to neutralise anything magical they come into contact with.”
“Even so, the idea that you are working against the King is laughable,” the knight protested. “I shall speak with His Majesty and get this entire affair sorted out. You will be free before you know it.”
“Jeran,” Illusen replied, her voice taking on a more serious tone, “my fate is not important; I can rot here in these cells for a good few years yet. There is something else going on here, something you must get to the bottom of. I fear that King Skarl may be--”
“There you are,” a new voice sneered from the corridor. “I might have known I would find you down here. Conspiring with traitors to the crown, are you now, Jeran?”
A shadow Draik emerged from the darkness.
“Marcel,” Jeran greeted him with some contempt. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“The King has summoned us,” the Draik replied. “We must go immediately.”
Jeran glanced back to Illusen as he backed away from the bars. “We will get all this sorted out.”
Illusen replied with another weak smile and retreated to the makeshift bed she had in the shadows of her cell.
The Draik and Lupe walked together through the corridors back to the more respectable parts of Meridell Castle.
“I’m surprised to see you out in public, Marcel,” Jeran observed. “Things must be getting serious.”
Marcel was, in theory at least, a knight like Jeran, though no one had even once spotted him wearing a suit of armour. Marcel, or rather, Sir Marcel, dealt with the King’s more delicate matters.
Even in times of peace, King Skarl required some tasks handled with discretion, and Marcel was particularly adept at a certain type of discretion. He was the effective head of Meridell’s intelligence services, and beyond the castle, even whispers of his name were hard to come by.
“The King has had many tasks for me, these past few months,” Marcel responded.
“Yes, I can imagine,” Jeran remarked darkly. “I suppose that business with Lord Merchant’s castle falling to bits was your work?”
“My work is for the King’s ears alone,” Marcel told him.
“And Lady Illusen, you are behind her imprisonment, as well?” Jeran questioned.
“I only learned of Illusen’s imprisonment a few hours ago; it has nothing to do with me,” Marcel replied dismissively. “King’s orders are King’s orders, no matter how much you care for your precious Faeries.”
The two had reached the more modern parts of the castle, where roughly hewn rock gave way to the gleaming white walls.
“Listen, Marcel, something is going on here,” Jeran continued, lowering his voice. “You know it, just as well as I. The King is acting irrationally. The business with Lord Merchant, closing the borders to Brightvale...”
“You doubt the King?” Marcel asked. “That’s treason, you know?”
“You can’t tell me you don’t see it!” Jeran hissed. “You’re the head of intelligence, Marcel! Nothing comes through the castle without you knowing about it!”
“So, if you weren’t involved, how did the King come to know that Illusen is working with Lord Darigan?” Jeran asked. “Who’s giving the King information that even you don’t know about?”
Marcel hesitated, but then sighed deeply, “We swore to serve the King, Jeran. That King is Skarl, whether or not we agree with his choices.”
The two had reached the thick wooden doors of the throne room. A pair of Draik soldiers stood to attention, and allowed them access.
The sight inside was not a pleasant one, but one Jeran had become accustomed to in the previous few months. The great white marble hall Jeran remembered from the day he had first arrived in Meridell was now nothing more than a memory. Thick tapestries had been placed in front of all the windows, blocking out all natural light.
Instead, burning torches had been installed, and their erratic flames gave the darkened hall a dishevelled and haunted appearance.
But that was only the most minor of changes. The biggest sat upon the throne. King Skarl, the bumbling, emotional Skeith that had ruled over the kingdom for years, had been replaced with the most solemn of creatures.
Skarl’s eye’s were sunken through lack of sleep, and the firelight danced on his face, deepening the effect. From the state of his hair and clothes, it was clear he had neither changed nor washed in many days.
“My knights,” he croaked in a tired and broken voice as they approached.
“Sire.” Marcel and Jeran bowed low as one.
“The time is near,” Skarl continued, his speech slow and quiet, almost as if speaking was difficult for him. “Darigan forces will soon be marching across our lands. We must make preparations.”
Jeran was caught once more with a familiar sensation. Sometimes, when looking at the King, the shadows cast by the torches seemed to form three distinct figures standing behind them. The Lupe found that when he tried to look at them directly, they faded from view.
“Jeran, you will lead our glorious forces to victory when the war begins,” Skarl announced, bringing the Lupe back to reality. “You will remain at the castle for now, but make your preparations to leave at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, sire,” Jeran responded, sounding far more enthusiastic than he felt.
“Marcel,” Skarl added. “You have a different task. You will sabotage the forces of the Citadel before they can engage us in combat directly.”
A Draik guard came forward with a scroll.
“As always, the details of your mission are for your eyes only,” Skarl said, with a slight glance at Jeran. “You will leave immediately. Do not fail me.”
Marcel took the scroll. “I will not, sire.”
“You both have your orders,” Skarl said dismissively.
“If I may, sire?” Jeran asked. “Lady Illusen currently sits in the dungeons.”
“Ah yes,” Skarl said, a brief smile appearing on his face before being buried once more. “The Faerie is to be tried for crimes against the crown. Her trial must wait until hostilities with the Citadel have been brought to an end. In the meantime, no one must speak to her. She is devious, and will bewitch you to the enemy’s cause.”
“Sire, it is Lady Illusen!” Jeran protested.
“My word is final,” Skarl said, raising his voice with a great deal of effort. “You are both dismissed.”
Jeran knew he would not get Skarl to see sense. Both he and Marcel turned and left the throne room. Jeran headed toward his room, while Marcel took one look at the contents of the scroll and made his way towards the castle’s front gate.
To be continued...