A Tale of Two Bori: Part Eight
Trealiy did not see much of Sir Jeran after their first meeting, although he was so exhausted from his training regimen that he would not have had the energy to be awed by his hero. There were other squires training with him – an assortment of younger Neopets, many of whom gossiped behind his back about his icy appearance. It was nothing new, but it did sting to continually be rejected by those around him. These were his classmates, but not his friends. Their daily schedule involved running laps around the castle courtyard, target practice with wooden swords and lances, and running errands in town for the knights. They were also schooled in courtly conduct, the history of Meridell, and how to treat a Uni steed as an equal partner and not simply a tool. It occupied so much of his time that he found himself too tired for the nightmares that used to plague his sleep. Now, at the end of the day, the Bori would clamber onto his straw mattress in the squire quarters and be asleep before they snuffed the candles out.
The intensive routine was vastly different from his quiet life in the mountains, languishing by himself and reading the same few books in solitude. Castle life was challenging and fast-paced; Treal found himself feeling more fit and capable as the days turned into months, gradually rising to meet the demands and even starting to picture himself as a true knight. Still, it was hard to shake the persistent feeling of loneliness. He had not forgotten Jeran's words – the source of courage was to protect someone else. He had more confidence in himself and his skills than ever before, but the thought of actually going to war still left him sick with dread. He had no loved ones to protect, and therefore no will to fight. His fellow squires often chattered about their eagerness to fight a real foe, but he remained silent during these bragging sessions, picturing instead the ghastly icy skeletons with their leering skull grins.
The seasons changed around Trealiy as he diligently trained and learned. It was midsummer when there was a break in their routine; the kingdom of Meridell was celebrating the anniversary of its founding, and King Skarl demanded a mighty feast as well as entertainers from all across the lands. The knights were planning a jousting exhibition, and the villagers were busily preparing gifts to impress their sovereign lord. Trealiy and the squires had been tasked out to the farmers, to help them harvest their summer crops and also fend off pests. It was sweltering during the day, the hot sun beating down on the dusty path and flat open fields. Treal was as far out of his element as he possibly could be, but he was at least relieved that the heat was not melting him away. He overheard several of his rival squires discussing this, and he struggled to ignore them. It wasn't easy, but he just focused dutifully on his work. At least he was no longer useless.
On one of these hot afternoons, mere days before the festival, one of the farmers – a disheveled orange Yurble, thick curly mane dark with sweat – came running up to Trealiy, leaning heavily on his shovel. "Slorgs! They be everywhere, eatin' everything in sight, a swarm of the slimy worms!" He gestured frantically, eyes wild. "I can't stop them, ye've got ta help me trap them!"
Treal nodded obediently, strapping on the heavy gloves he was handed. Snow Wurms looked like Slorgs, and he knew how ravenous those could be. While the farmers could be more coarse than the castle dwelling nobility, he still felt honor-bound to help everyone in this fairytale kingdom he found himself in. When he reached the Yurble's marrow patch, he saw that the farmer had not been exaggerating. Slorgs of all colors had oozed their way under the fence and were now cheerfully gnawing on the leaves, vegetables, everything in their path. He quickly set to work, grabbing them with his gloves and forcing them into the wooden crate the farmer held. Once the crate was full, it was nailed shut, and he started on the next one. It was a grueling afternoon of labor, since the Slorgs would struggle and bite and try to flee once they saw him draw closer. At last, though, the marrow patch was saved.
The Yurble was far too busy trying to salvage his damaged crops to give further instructions, so Trealiy hoisted the heavy crates onto his shoulders and began to carry them back towards the village. He remembered the petpet trader in town – she would probably appreciate a free donation of colored Slorgs, even if the farmers wouldn't want them. He had been working so diligently in the marrow patch that he hadn't realized the sun was setting, and the other squires had already left to return to the castle. He was exhausted, and hoped to be back to his own bed soon. Once the celebration was over, they would resume their regular training duties. He found himself looking forward to it – he had really adapted well to the life of a squire. He wondered what his life would be like as a knight.
At first he didn't notice the figure following him. Shadows were long in the twilight hours, and it was easy for his weary eyes to play tricks on him. But he soon heard the footsteps, faster than his own. Treal swallowed, unsure of how to react. He would have to set down the crates if he wanted to defend himself, but he would leave himself vulnerable while he stooped over. If he ran, the heavy crates would slow him down, and this pursuer could easily close the distance. Indecision and fear coiled in his stomach, the unknown causing his teeth to chatter nervously. Before he could decide, an angry voice rang out.
"I knew it! Ye're the same thief what stole me berries last season! I'd recognize that accursed blue ice anywhere! Now ye came back with crates, eh, tryin' to rob me blind before the harvest?!"
It was the Gelert farmer he had encountered on his first day in Meridell, wielding the familiar pitchfork. Too stunned to come up with a response, Treal felt a resounding thud between his ears, as the wooden pole was smacked against him. Yelping in pained surprise, the Bori dropped the crates to clutch at his head. The heavy crates tumbled to the ground, smashing into splinters. The farmer wailed in horror as the contents were revealed. "Slorgs?! Ye've ruined me, ye filthy outsider! Me harvest is ruined! Ruined!"
Trealiy dropped to his knees, scrambling to try and stop the Slorgs from escaping, but it was far too late. They oozed off the path and under the picket fence, surging into the pick-your-own berry farm. The sun had already set, making it too dark to keep track of where the invertebrate petpets squirmed off to, but the sounds of crunching leaves and berries was unmistakeable. Horror quickly coalesced into rage in the Gelert's eyes, his teeth bared aggressively as he brandished the pitchfork. Treal's voice failed him, long ears clapped flat against his skull with fear. It was all just a terrible misunderstanding, he tried to articulate, but his dry mouth would not respond.
"Ye must've been sent by Darigan himself to ruin Meridell's harvest, boy! Git running and don't turn back, or this pitchfork will make ribbons out of ye!" He jabbed the tines belligerently to illustrate his point, advancing on the poor Bori. Trealiy was too confused and demoralized to defend himself, stumbling back several paces and tripping on the wreckage of the crates.
"I said get running!" the Gelert bellowed, narrowly missing Treal's tail with his strike. The Bori hastened to his feet, bolting down the path whilst choking back sobs of terror. He was only trying to help! How had it all gone wrong so quickly? If he had devastated the farmers' harvest, would be even be allowed to remain a squire? The realization that his life in Meridell could be over already was crushing.
The ice Bori ran deep into the night, stopping for nothing. It was only after he crested the cliffs and heard the crashing of waves did he realize that in the darkness he had not run towards the safety of the castle, but instead followed the path he had arrived on, bringing him to the same rocky outcropping where he had washed ashore on that chunk of ice. It felt like a lifetime ago that he had cast his fate to mercy of the ocean. Should he take that chance a second time? Frowning, he balled his paws into fists, glaring defiantly up at the night sky as he struggled to catch his breath. He was in much better physical shape than he had been on Terror Mountain; after all the conditioning he had undergone, he was just a little winded, nothing like the exhausted wreck he had been when he arrived.
"No, I don't want to run away this time," he said softly at last. Perhaps there was a way he could repair the farmer's fields and regain their trust, and then he could rejoin the squires and not have to sacrifice all of his efforts. Nodding resolutely, he took a step forward, intending to find a shelter here and spend the night by the beach.
He had not intended to trip. But in the darkness, the rocky bluff was treacherous, and Treal found himself suddenly off-balance from the uneven terrain. He waved his arms instinctively, but he could not keep himself from tipping over, stumbling off the edge of the cliff. Cold night air streamed past his face as he plummeted, gritting his teeth for the impending impact. With a loud crack, his head struck a jutting stone, knocking him unconscious as he splashed down into the dark water of the ocean.
To be continued...