The Dethronement Cabal: Part One
"Concentrate... concentrate... nothing exists but for you and your target...."
"But you exist, sir," I pointed out.
"No, I do not!" Sir Korinesta replied sternly. "I am merely a voice in the back of your mind. I am your conscience. Concentrate!"
I took a deep breath. The more someone said to concentrate, the harder it was to do. But I did it anyway. I emptied my mind. Nothing existed but for me, the apple sitting atop the training dummy's head, and the nagging "voice in the back of my mind" egging me to concentrate.
I closed one eye, Ruki antennae twitching... took careful aim... and released the bowstring with a sharp twang. The arrow streaked toward its target... grazed the apple.. and sank into the wooden safety barrier behind the dummy.
I slumped over, ashamed and disappointed. I had lost count of how many times I had aimed and missed that day.
"You must concentrate!" Sir Korinesta scolded. His voice softened as he went on, "but that was the nearest shot you got today. You have made considerable progress, Mikaruni. And you must be tired after working so hard. Go get some rest."
"Thank you, sir," I said, relieved. Bowing, I added, "However, I respectfully request permission to take a walk."
"A good idea," the Brightvale knight remarked without demur. "A peaceful stroll through the village does wonders to relax the mind. As a matter of fact... I obtained a book recently, a very rare edition, a wonderful read, but it's in a ghastly condition. I was hoping to take it to Brightvale Books, see if I could have it repaired--why don't you drop it by there for me?"
It was a polite order, but I knew it was in order. In any case, I spoke the truth when I replied, "I would be happy to, sir."
The Krawk's eyes twinkled with sudden amusement. "And try not to spend all night admiring the new robes at the armoury this time."
I flushed. "Er--yes, sir."
"Off with you then, squire."
I left the training yard and fetched Sir Korinesta's worn tome before exiting Brightvale Castle. The village appeared before my eyes in all its splendor. I admired the elegant architecture and the gentle, winding dirt lanes, among the natural beauty of the flowers, trees, and wandering Petpets.
I sashayed down the street, Woodland Archer Dress rustling in the breeze. Skewer, my beloved Pyon, stood upon my wing case, feet forming a neat square, waving her tail threateningly at passersby she considered dangerous to me. She was adorable to me, and my giggles were as numerous as the apologies I propounded to everyone she frightened. I tried to discourage her, to assure her I was completely safe, but she never has believed me yet, and I doubt she ever will.
As I passed the tavern by the Royal Potionery, I observed a young Kacheek approaching the establishment.
"Good evening, Squire Nimrev," I called to the Blue Kacheek. He gave a start. "Lovely day, is it not?"
"O-oh," he stuttered, turning to me. "H-hello, miss--er, Squire--Mikaruni! Yes--q-quite, quite. Fine day. I-if you'll excuse me, I'm m-meeting someone--"
"Well, don't let me hold you up," I responded, waving. "See you during our training session tomorrow!"
Nimrev disappeared into the tavern and I walked on, smiling in amusement. Kacheeks, I thought, so timid! Especially Nimrev.
In fact, I worried about his chances for becoming a knight. In battle he was more likely to flee than to fight, and though King Hagan is just and understanding, I doubted even he could disregard Nimrev's shortcomings.
I pushed the thought aside. It was too nice a night to be spent fretting over a deficient squire. I let the wind play across, blowing away my concerns as I admired the setting sun and the lovely orange sky strewn with pink clouds.
In the gathering crepuscule I down to Brightvale Books, where Sir Korinesta's volume was eagerly received.
"It would be a pleasure to repair this book, my dear," remarked the Ixi eagerly. "Just leave it in my hands, and by the time I am through with it, it will look good as new!"
Thus assured, I left the tome in the shopkeeper's capable hooves. As I left the bookstore my eyes turned inevitably to the southwest; to Brightvale Armoury. Books are nice and all, but at that moment I was drawn to my true interest: fashion.
And yet the shadows were deepening, and the afterglow of the sun was fading. Still, I argued silently, a short visit wouldn't hurt. But I knew that it would be impossible for me to stay only a few minutes. As soon as I entered the shop I would get engrossed in examining robes, gowns, etc., and before I knew it hours would pass. Last time that had happened, I had gotten so little sleep that I had fallen asleep during training. Sir Korinesta was a kind, amiable knight--most Brightvalians were--but he had been most displeased. I definitely did not want that to recur.
I turned my back decidedly and continued back up the path toward the regal, majestic castle, its elegant green-topped towers touching the sky, projecting a feeling of safety and awe across the kingdom.
As I was passing the tavern, Skewer pounced suddenly off my elytra and skittered off into the darkness. I called her name and followed. When I found her, she was standing, feet placed tetragonally and tail waving, hissing at a pile of boxes along the side of the building. A frightened Miamouse squeaked and fled, and I seized Skewer before she could pursue it, admonishing her gently for upsetting the poor creature.
The Pyon now cradled in my arms, I wheeled about to return to the road when I heard hushed voices drifting out of the tavern via a nearby window.
Now, I may be something of a gossip, but I would never intentionally eavesdrop. Aww, who am I kidding? I am a snoopy busybody, and each of my siblings would tell you the same. I know a lady should turn a deaf ear to rumor--but honestly, how often do we? But I digress.
My natural curiosity, coupled with an intuition of mischief in motion intensified by the low and solemn voices, prompted me to crouch down beside the window and listen. Two voices floated to my ears; the one was deep and strong, the other high-pitched and timid. I recognized immediately that the latter belonged to Squire Nimrev.
"A-are you sure it will work?" he stuttered.
"Of course it will! Hagan has no reason to doubt you," responded the other voice. "And even if he did, this is a story he would believe even if I strode into the castle and told it to him myself."
"Then why don't you, and leave me out of it?" Nimrev moaned.
"Don't be a fool; I was exaggerating. Besides, I thought this was what you wanted."
"Don't tell me you're backing out now?"
"I--I--well...." Nimrev sighed. "No."
"Good. Just follow the plan and everything will be fine."
They were silent a few moments. In their silence I flattened my antennae and risked a surreptitious peek over the windowsill; it was Nimrev, sure enough, sitting opposite a far larger, cloaked figure. A candle atop their table illuminated his face enough for me to discern a Purple Skeith, mouth curved in a sinister grin that revealed several yellowed, filthy teeth.
"When do we act?" Nimrev queried tentatively, breaking the silence.
"As soon as I finish my meal. My thugs are ready and eager."
Nimrev groaned. "So soon? I d-don't think I can do it! I'm--I can't--I'm too nervous!"
"Nothing less would be expected of a fainthearted Kacheek in the face of an attack," said the Skeith. "In fact, you should feign a faint, make it more convincing."
Nimrev groaned again. "I don't think I'll have to feign it."
The Skeith laughed loudly. Then he lowered his voice once more and whispered gravely: "Just remember: Tell the King that Meridell is attacking the farmlands. He's always prepared to believe that Skarl is up to no good, and he has no reason not to trust you; he will believe your story in a heartbeat. He's bound to send his knights out to defend the kingdom, and that's when we will strike. We can overpower whatever guards he leaves behind. It's foolproof. Just play your small, simple part, and leave the rest to me. You will soon be Sir Nimrev, Captain of the Brightvale Knights; and I will be King Kaherdin, rightful ruler of Brightvale."
I gasped sharply; realizing my mistake I ducked away into the shadows behind a box. The Skeith's head poked out of the window, eyes roving the immediate area; fortunately, the moonless night and my Colour helped to hide me from his vision, and he backed once more into the tavern. A chair creaked as Kaherdin sat down and grunted, "Just the wind."
There was a brief pause, the screech of a fork against a plate. Then the Skeith stood, toppling his chair, and whispered, so faintly that I hardly heard his words, "Ten minutes. Then run up to the castle and tell the King. I'll be ready, Captain Nimrev."
Kaherdin lumbered away, and I turned over what I had just heard in my mind. I could hardly believe my own ears. Kaherdin, former knight of Brightvale, had been stripped of his rank and imprisoned for attempting to depose the King; somehow, it seems, he had escaped, and now he had returned to try again to steal the throne, and this time he had the help of a Symol: Squire Nimrev!
I shook my head. It was all most improbable--impossible--incredible--yet I had heard it with my own ears! There was no avoiding the truth: someone was planning to overthrow the King, and this time the weight of this knowledge rested not on the shoulders of Sir Tormund and Lady Roberta, two of Neopia's greatest heroes, but on those of my weak, inexperienced self.
I felt rather like Squire Nimrev, ready to faint, but I knew I had a duty to perform. All I had to do was get to the castle and warn the King, and Kaherdin's plan would be quickly foiled, just as last time.
I realized with a jolt that I had approximately only seven minutes left before Squire Nimrev would depart on his errand of iniquity. Skewer held tight in my arms, I set out for the palace at a brisk run. I reached the drawbridge presently, nodding to the guards as I whisked past them and entered the castle.
As I burst into the entrance hall, panting, a Green Krawk hailed me warmly. "There you are!" he greeted smilingly. "Lost track of time at the armoury, did you?"
"Sir Korinesta!" I cried, relieved to see him. I felt more comfortable explaining the situation to my mentor than to the King himself. "I have urgent news! I have uncovered a plot to overthrow the King! Kaherdin is back and endeavouring again to seize the throne! King Hagan must be warned!"
"Sir Kaherdin?" Korinesta blinked at me, incredulous. "But that is impossible!"
"But it's true!" I urged. "And Squire Nimrev is in league with him!"
"Now, calm yourself, Mikaruni, calm yourself," said the knight. "These are serious accusations. You must be mistaken. Kaherdin has been in the dungeon for years, and Nimrev could not hurt a Mozito."
"But you must believe me, sir!" I pleaded. "Kaherdin has escaped, somehow!"
Korinesta regarded me for what felt like hours. "Very well," said he at last, "if I convince you that Kaherdin is safely locked away, will you calm yourself and retire for the night?"
I shook my head. "He is not! But if you must see it yourself to believe it, then let us go see the empty cell."
Together we made our way to the Brightvale Castle dungeon and descended into its depths, a guard leading the way with a flaming torch. The Green Draik led us past cells containing various prisoners, from a shifty Chia, to a screaming Kougra, to a handsome young Blue Ixi. Soon we came to Kaherdin's cell. At first glance, it seemed to be empty, but my heart fell when I perceived the large form of a Purple Skeith huddled in the corner, out of the reach of the flickering torchlight but still visible. He was muttering steadily to himself.
"Good evening, Kaherdin," said Korinesta.
The convict ignored us as he turned his face to the ceiling. "That fat fool... he will pay. He will pay for what his ancestors have done to mine, and for what he has done to me. He will pay!"
"You see?" said Korinesta, taking my gently by the arm and leading me back out of the dungeon. "Kaherdin is safely in his cell. There is no plot against the King. There is only fatigue and the night wind playing tricks on you, and the ramblings of a once great mind gone mad."
The guard followed behind us and locked the dungeon entrance as we left. I never responded to Korinesta's statement, stunned and confused as I was. I know what I had seen--I know what I had heard. Yet there, in the dungeon, was the very same Neopet I had seen in the tavern. It was impossible!
"Now go to the barracks, squire. Forget all about this imagined conspiracy and get some rest."
"Y-yes," I stammered, "I must have been mistaken. It must have been the wind. I apologize, Sir Korinesta. I'll go to the barracks now."
The Krawk smiled at me, but just as he opened his mouth to reply, the castle doors burst open and a Green Kacheek rushed in, screaming.
"Attack!" Squire Nimrev gasped. "Attack--Meridell--the farmlands! Attack!"
As the squire rushed toward the throne room, several knights began appearing through doorways to follow. Korinesta bade me once more to get some rest before rushing after the Kacheek. But I had no intention of obeying.
I literally flew to the second floor, where I knew a balcony opened up upon the throne room. My mind, a minute before muddled and shocked, was now clear and acute. I could not possibly have imagined the plot if Nimrev was following a plan that should only have existed in my mind. Silently, I crept up to the banister and peered down into the throne room.
Nimrev was on the floor, unconscious; though whether he was faking or not I neither knew nor cared. His mission had been a success, for King Hagan was calmly issuing orders to his knights.
"I want every available knight on their way to the farmlands immediately," said the Green Skeith. "In case of a diversion I want guards posted at the top of every tower and every entrance. Now go! Ride forth to defend the kingdom!"
The knights bowed and exited the throne room, and I felt slightly relieved; at least King Hagan was taking precautions against an attack on the castle. But would it be enough?
I stood and paced the hall. What should I do? I wondered. Should I warn the King? No, I reminded myself bitterly, your own mentor did not believe you. What, then? Sit around and wait for Kaherdin to attack?
"Squire Mikaruni," called the King suddenly, "come down here please."
Surprised and ashamed, I leapt the banister and fluttered down into the throne room. "Y-yes, Your Majesty?"
"You did not think I observed you, eh?" The Skeith smiled. "Nothing escapes my notice, especially not in my own throne room. Now--take this poor creature and escort him to the barracks. Then you may get some rest yourself--or, if you are up to it, take to the ramparts and help guard the castle."
"Yes, Your Majesty," I acquiesced eagerly. Something to do! I turned to aid Nimrev, and hesitated; should I tell the King what was truly happening first? I turned to him. He was on his feet, pacing the elevated floor upon which his throne stood. He paused to regard me as I gazed at him, and I turned away once more. No. Kaherdin's in his cell, as far as anyone will believe.
I lifted the unconscious form of Nimrev across my wing case and strode awkwardly out of the throne room, feeling unbalanced by the unusual weight upon my hind legs. I struggled at a rapid pace to the squire's barracks and lay the traitorous squire down on his bed. There would be time to deal with him later, but at that moment, he was harmless.
At a rapid pace I made my way to the rampart above the drawbridge, bow drawn, knife hanging from my belt. When the bandits attacked, I, at least, would be ready for them. I had not long to wait.
I had been keeping careful watch on the village for some minutes, scanning the shadows for signs of movement; but in the calm darkness, I realized how tired and hungry I was. I had not eaten for hours, and though my walk had been restful at first it had ended in a heart-pounding discovery and a swift run back to the palace. The exertion of escorting the traitorous Nimrev to his bed had not helped me preserve energy either. My eyelids were beginning to droop, and my mind was dulling.
I perceived movement out in the city, but it did not register in my brain for nigh on a minute. Then the relevance of that observation hit me and I snapped to attention, eyeing the houses and businesses warily. Sure enough, something was moving; a figure darted from one shadow to the next, while nearby another crept slowly across a rooftop. As I watched, I realized that the shadows were teeming with activity on the edge of the city, preparing to charge the castle. It was like watching a swarm of Cooties about to attack a Mootix nest.
I opened my mouth to give the warning, but too late; as my cry rang through the night, two figures darted swiftly out of the shadows and clubbed the guards. They slumped to the ground, unconscious, as bandits leaped from the shadows and surged toward the castle. From every shadow, from behind every building, from under every tree figures joined the flow of countless renegades sweeping toward the castle. I sprayed arrows down into the swarming mass, but it was as useful as picking leaves off a tree, one by one, with the intention of removing them all.
As the force approached the castle entrance I discerned a Purple Skeith at the head: Kaherdin.
This was it. Brightvale Castle was under attack--and I was the only knight left to defend it!
To be continued...