Shadow of the Past
They say you can't go home again after a war.
This is definitely true in some sense. When I returned to the Citadel after defeating Kass, the attitude of the people had undergone a radical change. It has taken years to repair relations with Meridell, and we are still working on the treaty. Though our landscape remains mostly unchanged, the world has changed around us; other wars have scoured the lands below. Battles were fought in the stars above. New lands were found, even to the very core of the land below—and sports took the major scene, entering international relations as well as the front of entertainment.
Yet throughout it all, Meridell seemed to change very little. Day after day I would watch as the fields below us were planted, cultivated, and harvested. On nights of celebrations I could still see the bonfires. And, of course, every so often we had to deal with Meridell spies. (Some things never change.)
My heart ached to visit those green fields again, and one in particular. When I finally decided I had waited too long, I made arrangements to go visit Meridell. I expected that nothing significant had changed.
I was very wrong.
I flew down to Meridell silently in the night, far from the main city. Clouds covered my descent onto the fields, and mist shielded my journey to the forests. There I spent the night, reminiscing on events that had happened years ago.
Many people are under the assumption that I hate Meridell and everything about it. That is not true. Granted, I do not like her ruler nor his policies, and I am not all that fond of knights. It should go without saying that these aspects do not define the land. This I learned years ago: the people of Meridell are often far removed from the castle and the power play that continues to take place there. Many of the people are hard working farmers or craftsmen, and the role of the crown plays very little influence in their day-to-day life. There is kindness in the simple families... kindness and bravery. One particular person had taught me all of that. And her name was Sally.
Sally had saved my life. When others hunted me in an effort to eliminate me once more, she hid me away. She gave me shelter and safety. Food and water. Companionship and comfort. Day after day she would come visit me, speaking cheerfully about what we would do together as friends when I was well. She also talked to me in great length about farming; she spoke of the work, the culture, the customs, the community. I learned much about how Meridell law affects the people, the stories unsung by either herald or scroll. I still cherish those conversations, and hold her dear to my heart. I always have her in mind when dealing with Meridell policy, and she has helped me to have a more realistic picture of what Meridell is like.
I last saw her on one of the final days of the second war. Their village was burning, and the sound of war was everywhere. I saved her from fiends of Kass, and she fled to her mother's arms as they both watched in horror and amazement. Since then I had not been back.
Almost ten years have passed. The war long over, Meridell has mostly recovered. (The Citadel has not, but that is another matter.) With that in mind, I finally felt it safe to visit her home. So when the sun rose again, I left the woods and began walking.
Sally's village was out in the far reaches of the country. I walked across seemingly endless fields before I spotted buildings off in the distance, and it took me the rest of the afternoon to get there. I was starting to wish I had flown when I was reminded why I had chosen not to.
"HALT! Don't move a step closer!"
Five archers emerged from the tall grasses, pointing their crossbows at me. I flattened my ears back, more than a little displeased.
"So he finally decided to strengthen defenses in the farming villages. Marvelous, though they could have used that years ago," I remarked flatly.
"You're one to talk, Darigan," came the reply. "Why don't you just fly right back where you came from?"
"That was out of line," snapped a rather disgruntled Kougra. He turned and glowered at me sulkily. "As for you. State your name and your business."
I flared my wings outward and looked him in the eye, a slight frown of warning crossing my features. "My name is Draconis Drakon. I am Lord Darigan of the Darigan Citadel. I am visiting an old friend here, and I would highly appreciate it if you let me pass."
Several of the soldiers stumbled back in disbelief. The shock was obvious, and several of them looked almost terrified.
"Illusen save us, we're being invaded!"
"Oh my stars. Oh my stars. I can't believe it."
"PULL YOURSELVES TOGETHER!"
The shock quickly faded as their aim returned to me. Several of them still had wide eyes, and the Captain that commanded them looked nervous. His fur was puffed up on end, and it took a great deal of self control not to show my amusement.
"You... you have no business here! Why would the Lord of the Citadel come to a village?! That's the worst lie I've heard in ages!"
I snorted. "You know, I thought that your people would at least know what I look like."
"Darigan wears a skull and has bony hands," one of them offered helpfully.
"No, he has a black mane, red eyes, and horns like a beast of evil!"
"You're both wrong, he has a skull for a face and his tail is bony."
I put a hand to my face as they argued. Wonderful, I thought to myself. Not only did I get held up in customs by the military, but their local branch is comprised of greenhorns and the artists never did fulfill my request for corrections on the various blatant inaccuracies in the variety of presentations of my appearance.
Finally they settled down after being barked orders to cease talking. By now it was clear that the Kougra was just as annoyed as I, and he spoke in a blunt tone.
"If you're really here to see an 'old friend', you could give us a name."
"Of course. Her name is Sally Brown."
To my pleasure, this was met with puzzlement and mild surprise. Clearly the name was familiar, but the answer was unexpected.
"...Sally Brown? Jim's daughter? How on Neopia do you know her?"
"She saved my life back in the last war. Please, I implore you to let me pass. I only wish to speak with her."
They thought this over, whispering among themselves.
"...Your story is just strange enough that it might be true. But we're going to have to escort you there," the Captain announced. He glanced at me in distrust as he continued. "If you're lying, you'll find yourself in the dungeons faster than you can wish you'd never come."
Most of the company put their weapons away. I noticed they put their hands to their sword hilts instead, but I chose not to comment.
The whispers among the knights as we walked the rest of the way was nothing compared to the chatter that arose when we entered the village. Some people came to stare, while others scurried inside their houses. I received just as many hostile looks as puzzled glances as we marched down the dusty road. The sun was low in the sky by the time we finally arrived.
One of the knights knocked on the door. Sally's father came to answer it.
"...What in the blazes? What's goin' on here?"
"James Brown, this man claims to know your daughter. Have you ever seen him before?"
He turned to look at me, his face becoming stern. His tail lashed slightly, clearly ready to defend his daughter if necessary. "And who are you?"
"Your daughter called me 'Mr. Scary'."
One of the knights snickered, and a couple of the others made snide remarks to one another.
"...You really are the worst liar I've ever see—"
"I always thought she were lyin' about that. Imagining things!"
Unfortunately, this recognition did not improve his mood. "You stay away from Sally, ya hear? I won't have ya near my house."
"James..." came a soft voice from behind him.
A weary-eyed Usul came and put a hand on the farmer's arm. She then turned to look at me. "...I can hardly believe my eyes. You're back again after all these years..." Before her husband could remark at that, she hurriedly continued. "I thought Kass's troops had killed you, after you flew away after saving us."
"...Saved you, madam?"
"Yes. This man saved our lives when the village was overrun by the enemy. I had never seen someone so scrawny fend off so many soldiers."
I couldn't help but smile at that. "It was the least I could do repay you."
"Now see here just a minute—"
"Oh, calm yourself down, James!" she scolded sharply. "There's no need to go growling off this visitor." She slipped out in front of him and looked up at me, unfazed. "Why have you returned?"
"I came to see your daughter again." A pause. "I know it has been many long years... I am somewhat surprised you remembered my face. I would have come sooner, but I was unable to come."
She looked over at her husband. He scowled. "Still ain't comin' in my house..." he grumbled, clearly displeased at having been put in his place.
"Fine then. SALLY!"
I was caught off guard by the sudden yell, but was soon distracted as someone came running from another room.
A beautiful young Usul in a green dress, holding a copy of the announcement of the annual Altador Cup. Simple earrings in her ears, and a plain ribbon tied on her tail. Much taller than I remembered, and with significantly longer hair.
"Yes, Mummy? What is it?"
The parents moved aside slightly, beckoning her to the doorway. She looked up at me in surprise, clearly not expecting me.
In the ensuing moment of silence as she stared, I slowly began to feel the pain of worry. The teenager before me was clearly far different from the girl I remembered. She had been only a child when she met me, and she only saw me twice. Would she remember the friend that everyone had believed to be nothing but a fantasy?
She gasped. "No... is it really?! Mr.... Mr. Scary!?"
I smiled softly at that. "It's been a long time, Sally."
She stepped forward and placed her hands on my arms, which were crossed within the sleeves of my robe. "I can't believe it... it's really you! I thought I had imagined you."
"I'm not surprised. You were only six. And a half."
That got a few smiles, and the knights seemed to relax.
"It's been years. Where were you?"
"I went home. I had work to do."
"But you never visited. Why didn't you come help fight?" She turned and gave a warning glare to her father. "I'm sure they would have appreciated the help, right, Father?"
"Don't you sass your father, now," the mother warned while the father sulked.
"...Sorry." Sally returned her look to me, but then looked at all the guards. "...What are they doing here?"
The Captain stepped forward. "Ms. Brown, I do not think you are aware of the true identity of your... er... friend."
"Well no, he never told me his name..."
"I apologize. My mind was a bit muddled for a while."
"His name is Lord Darigan."
Silence. Sally looked up at me shocked, her face turning a little pale.
I sighed. "My name is Draconis Drakon. 'Lord Darigan' is the title," I explained with an edge of annoyance. I shifted my focus back to the frightened daughter. "I am sorry, Sally. I would have told you long ago, but I could not tally any longer. I arrived back at the Citadel only just in time to stop it from falling. After that, I became very busy with running the nation."
"You... you're really the king of the Citadel...!"
"Not the king," I corrected, "just the head of the Council. ...I hope you will forgive me, Sally.... I am sorry I could not have helped you more."
"I... I'm just a farm girl," she said nervously, taking a step back. "You... I didn't know you were..."
It hurt. It hurt a lot more than I could say. I couldn't put on a stoic face as she looked at me with such frightened eyes, curling her fingers around her father's shirt as she moved to stand by his place.
"...I think we're done here," James said quietly.
"No, it's alright, Mrs. Brown... I understand."
Everyone turned to look at Sally. She cautiously stepped forward again, though she kept a hand on her father's arm. "I... I'm sorry. You don't have to leave. I was just... j-just surprised, that's all."
I looked at the ground. "My apologies."
"I... I still don't understand. I guess I know why you were gone, now. But it's been so long. I'm surprised you remembered me... you must have lots of things to do and other important people to talk to. Did... did you really come back just to see me?"
I understood the part she had not said. In learning I was a national leader, she could not believe I would take the time to visit someone so lowly, so simple and poor. She feared I had come only because it was along the way. A realistic concern, and one that showed the intelligent lady she had become.
"I do not think Skarl knows I am here."
"His Highness King Skarl," the Captain corrected. (Naturally, I ignored him.)
"I am here because I wanted to see you again. I wanted to thank you for saving my life. I wanted to thank you for teaching me about your country. Your kindness and compassion has remained with me always. I have never forgotten you, and you have remained in my thoughts every time I have dealt with your nation."
Her expression slowly shifted from fear to wonder as I continued.
"Ages and ages, but I always wanted to come visit. For years I dealt with nothing but the aftermath of the war. Even now I struggle against your monarchy for a fair treaty, and occasionally it is only thoughts of you that keep me from dismissing diplomats out of my room and into the hall with a blast of air. You are far more important than you realize, Sally. Now that it is safe for me to travel abroad and I have finished the recent talks with Queen Fyora, I just had to see you."
"I... I don't know what to say. I... I really had no idea..."
A slight breeze graced the muggy twilight, stirring up dust and rustling her hair.
"There is much to talk about. As it has been said... it has been many long years. I could spend many days talking with you from dawn to dusk, and many more listening to you."
James shifted from one foot to the other before puffing out his chest and speaking firmly. "Lord or not, you'll not be talkin' to her for that long. Maybe you have it nice, being kind of a king and all, but this here is a farm. We have work to do, and Sally is no exception. I don't have sons, see. She has work just like any other. And I won't have you drivin' off her suitors—"
"Father! Micheal is just a friend!"
"—so you'll just have to go home. That's that, Sally, and that's final! The farm don't run itself, and you can't take that long off this time of year."
Sally's ears drooped and she looked at the floor. "...Yes, Father. I understand."
"Don't worry. I understand too." I turned to look at James. "You are right. The earth and time do not shift for the whims of her keepers. I am grateful for this chance you have given me."
"...I guess it's time to say goodbye..."
"I'm afraid so. ...It was nice to see you again."
She peered up at me woefully. "Am I ever going to see you again?"
Seasons would come and go, and each one would bring new work for the both of us. Time would march on, and it was almost certain she would eventually have a family of her own. I could not say for certain, though I dearly wished it to be otherwise.
"Time will tell, Sally. Time will tell...."
I sit here again, looking out my window to the clouds below. Meridell seemed just the same as before; the same simple, verdant land. The girl I once knew has grown and moved on, my time with her nothing more than a fading memory. Perhaps it would be best if I did not enter her life again, if I let her be.
Time would tell, indeed.
What's this, another NT story after so long? Why yes it is! Feel free to Neomail me! —Torkie