Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Three
The squad of knights that was to be dispatched to Abyssal Acres was not as large as Sir Graham might have liked. As they were heading out to the field where their Unis would meet them, already tacked up, Gary could hear him heatedly arguing with Lord Valrigard. The shadow Grarrl was irate, and didn't seem likely to be placated by Valrigard's insistence that this was the best he could do. There were a good fifteen knights, plus three squires, and all of the Unis. From the way he talked, Valrigard might have been going into the bandit's den alone.
"Are there really that many of the blighters?" he asked rhetorically. To his surprise, he actually got an answer.
"There are. I ain't never seen so many villains in one place."
Gary turned to see that Rue had come up behind him. The shorter squire grinned sleepily. "Sir Graham told me that the King reckons he's exaggeratin'. Says that a lawless band o' thugs couldn't keep a group that size organized. Y'know how ol' Talren gets when he thinks he's knows something."
The Bori sighed. Oh, he knew all right, though he would never say anything about it out loud for fear of who might overhear and report it. King Talren was always right, everyone else was always wrong, and shoving the evidence of his wrongness directly in his face was not going to convince him otherwise. And usually he was right. Not always though. This time he was letting his pride in his own intelligence cloud his judgment.
"How long has this been going on?" Gary asked. Rue had spoken as if he had personally engaged the bandits, not just once but several times.
"Nearly a month," a cool female voice answered. The two squires turned to see Rue's Uni partner pacing towards them. The spotted Uni nodded politely. "Hello Gary. It's good to see you again."
"Heyla, Grace," Gary replied. "And... a month? Why didn't anybody send for help sooner?"
"Because they didn't realize how big the bandit group was," the Uni replied. "We only saw a few here, a few there. Little raiding parties. We didn't actually manage to pin down the campsite of the big group until about a week ago."
At that point the argument between Graham and Valrigard had escalated into a shouting match. The Grarrl and Draik were clearly getting ready to take off their gloves when a third, thunderous voice echoed overtop them.
"Enough!" bellowed the newcomer; a blue Skeith dressed in silks and sporting a gold circlet atop his head. As he walked through the assembled warriors, they fell to their knees respectfully with soft murmurs of "sire" and "your highness." Even the Unis lowered their heads so that their noses were almost touching the grass.
As Gary and Rue bowed, the Bori felt that odd squirming in his stomach that he always felt at the sight of the king's younger son. Prince Skarl was something of an odd duck in his family. Unlike the studious Talren and Hagan, he preferred to spend his time eating and making merry. He was well known and well liked at court, despite his reputation for being a bit dim witted.
Gary was never sure what he thought of the prince. On the one hand, he came off as a lazy slob a lot of the time and seldom engaged in the goings-on of the kingdom. On the other hand, when he did choose to take notice of something, he put every ounce of his energy and concentration into it. Neither Talren nor Hagan could claim as much, what with their habit of constantly reading books under the table during diplomatic talks.
It was clear from the way he was shouting that Skarl had chosen to take an interest in these bandits.
"For Fyora's sake, Graham, show some self restraint," he snarled. "You know very well that my dear, wise old father has made the decision to limit us to only knights presently off-duty. Shouting at Valrigard is utterly pointless. I can't countermand my father's decrees, so Val certainly can't!"
Graham seemed like he very much wanted to continue arguing, but talking back to the prince could be seen as tantamount to treason. His mouth snapped shut, and he nodded jerkily.
"He's takin' all this personal," Rue said quietly. "Like it's his fault the King won't listen."
"I can't say I'm surprised," a harsh voice said. Gary looked up to see that Ohu had finally joined them. "The lords of Drackon Ridge have always been touchy about upholding the code of chivalry."
Rue's eyes bugged out of his head at the sight of the massive Uni. "By Kreludor, are you Gary's partner? I'd say that tall as he already is, riding you his head'd be twenty feet off the ground!"
The Uni snorted. "Most Uni from Abyssal Acres are my size. They have to be, or they'd never be strong enough to wade through the mud."
"Mud?" Gary echoed.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Ohu replied. "No one does. You'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, it seems that we're getting ready to move out."
The yellow furred Neopian looked up to see that Ohu was correct. Having settled the argument between Valrigard and Graham, Skarl was getting ready to mount his Uni. Taking his cue from the king, Gary set about getting onto Ohu's back.
"Y'know, it's probably a good thing I'm so tall," he remarked. "Or I might not be able to climb up without askin' you to kneel for me."
"I'm sure that was a consideration in Valrigard's decision to let me come along," the Uni remarked. "The stirrups on a normal height Uni would be awkward for those mile long legs of yours. If they made the girth long enough not to have your knees squashed, the irons would be whacking the poor thing's legs."
Gary opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Skarl gave the order to the knights to form up. He felt Ohu's wings flare outwards, and the Uni's powerful muscles bunch under his legs. Unlike birds, Unis were large, heavy, and had to run a good distance to build up enough momentum to take off. Once they had done so, however, the winged quadrupeds took to the air as one. Gary had to suppress a whoop of glee. He was finally leaving the castle town, after seventeen long years of never seeing more than a mile out from the walls. The landscape of Brightvale stretched out beneath them, and the sky was brilliant, clear blue.
Rue caught his eye, and the Aisha gave him a thumbs up. Gary grinned in reply, and soon both squires were laughing from the sheer exhilaration of the flight.
Beneath him Gary heard Ohu mutter, "Greenhorns..."
* * * * *
Thunder rolled in the distance, momentarily drowning out the ever present thrum of rain hitting dirt, flesh, and armor. The sky overhead was leaden and overcast. The occasional flash of lightening did nothing to illuminate the dreary skies. The scene below the cloud level wasn't exactly uplifting either. There was no greenery to be seen, no grass or leaves to soak up the life-giving precipitation.
The knights from the capital had been forced to land when they spotted the angry grey storm clouds boiling over Abyssal Acres. There was no way their Unis could possibly fly through it safely.
Ohu's thick, shaggy coat did a decent job of keeping him warm despite the rain, but the rest of the Unis hat set up a litany of complaints within a few moments of entering the cloud line. Not that their riders were entirely happy about this situation, but at least they had cloaks to keep warm.
"Welcome to Abyssal Acres," Ohu said sarcastically. "Are you ready for your first, glamorous outing as a warrior of Brightvale, boy?"
Gary looked down at his mount's ears dolefully. Rue had been called ahead to ride with Sir Graham, so the irritable Uni was the only company he had at the moment. Determined to make the best of the situation, he decided to take Ohu's remark as an invitation to start a conversation. "So you was born here, aye? Why didn't you retire here too?"
"Wasn't allowed," the Uni replied promptly. "This place can't have its own knights, and mustering-out knights aren't allowed to settle here. Warriors can only be within the territory if they are dealing with a direct threat. Once the threat is neutralized, they have to leave."
The Bori frowned. "Been meaning to ask about that. What's that law for anyway? Don't make much sense to me."
"I have no idea," Ohu replied irritably. "My best guess is that there was some sort of uprising there in the far back history. But trust me, if I could get my hooves on whichever king it was that put that law in place centuries ago, I'd give him a piece of my mind. Even if they were afraid of a repeat revolt, a law like that is really short-sighted."
"Aye," Gary agreed, his voice low to keep anyone else from hearing. "Abyssal Acres is right on our border. If it falls, then an enemy'd have the perfect staging ground for a full attack on Brightvale. 'Specially with the mines in Drackon Ridge right nearby."
Ohu glanced around at the squire on his back. "An astute observation. Our kings are known for their wisdom, but it is a remarkably limited kind of wisdom. Studying books and scrolls can only get you so far without real world experience. Talren seems to assume that because things have happened a certain way in some dusty history tome of his, they will always happen that way. Never mind the countless variables that could alter the situation. I would hazard a guess that whatever historical king put this law in place thought more or less the same way."
The Bori winced. This conversation was treading into uncomfortable waters. "Careful what you say."
"What, you're worried that I'll get in trouble for talking treason?" Ohu asked dryly. "That's touching and all, but please spare me. I've long since stopped caring what happens to me. I'll protect the people of this land because they've done nothing wrong, but if his highness wants my respect he'll have to earn it."
Gary said nothing. Ever since he had been brought to the castle ten years ago, he'd had the code of chivalry insistently drummed into his head. Always defend the defenseless, stand firm against injustice, show no fear even in the face of certain doom, never lie or go back on your word, and remember your duty to your land and your lord.
Chivalry was, at least according to his instructors, what made a knight a knight. Without it he was just a savage brute swinging a sword around. The final dictum required all knights to swear an oath of fealty to the king, and obey his commands as far as was possible within the constraints of the rest of the code. Gary didn't really know if Unis were required to swear the same oath, but it stood to reason they would be.
Then again there was also that bit about standing firm against injustice, and not allowing the citizens of Abyssal Acres to defend themselves probably qualified as injustice...
"There it is," Ohu said quietly, bringing Gary's mind back into the present. He squinted through the sheets of rain, and was just able to discern the outline of a castle. A moment later their train halted, to the irritation of the knights. They could now see their salvation from the cold and rain, and they wanted to get to it.
"What's the holdup?" The Bori asked softly. For answer Ohu pointed his horn to where Skarl and Sir Valrigard were, up at the front of the line. Looking towards them, Gary could see someone standing in front of them who hadn't come in with the knights. A Halloween Kougra, her head bowed politely as she spoke in hushed tones with the prince.
"Goodness, but she's grown," Ohu remarked of the Kougra. "Wasn't more than two last I saw her. That's Lady Ayame, stewardess of Abyssal Acres and our temporary hostess."
Gary nodded, though he knew that his mount wouldn't actually see the gesture. The stewardess seemed to have finished her conversation with the prince, because the train was moving again. It would be good to finally get out of the rain and dry off.
To be continued...